The end of South Vietnam did not destroy the Ford presidency. Political observers of Afghanistan today should take note.
When the Biden administration decided to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, its greatest fear was that the Afghan state that Americans had propped up for two decades would collapse. The administration knew that the state it left behind would be tenuous. This weakness had been a major factor in the protracted nature of the conflict. Many pundits, political observers, and certainly members of the State Department thought the Afghan state would fall one day. Optimists among them believed there would be a transitional state or a power-sharing agreement between Afghan leaders and the Taliban. Practically all of them expected the Afghan government to fight for months or even years against the Taliban, giving the United States time to evacuate its personnel and make decisions about refugees.
The State Department did not, however, predict that the army they trained and equipped would not fight. That was exactly the outcome that played out last week. Tens of thousands of Afghan troops simply surrendered. They left their weapons behind for either guarantees of safety or cash bribes. As the world prepared for a siege of Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled. A city of six million people fell to an insurgent army with minimal casualties.
Numerous American commentators naturally blamed the Biden administration for this state of affairs. Their favorite historical parallel was the Fall of Saigon. “This is Joe Biden’s Saigon,” tweeted House Republican leader Elise Stefanik after the Taliban’s victory became clear. The obvious point of comparison was the scene of helicopters airlifting Americans out of the U.S. Embassy in the South Vietnamese capital in 1975. Some Republicans believe that repeating this parallel may help them score political points and shift attention away from the Delta variant.
The Fall of Saigon was a pivotal moment in the history of American empire. But the context now is completely different, and the popular story of the aftermath in Vietnam is inaccurate as well. Nearly fifty years of American history will ensure that the response to Afghanistan will not be the same as so many today claim the Saigon experience was.