Kabul Doomwatch: A Veteran TV Correspondent Recalls Escapes from Vietnam, Cambodia

WASHINGTON (spytalk): I am experiencing a bit of old reporter’s déjà vu anxiety.  What is happening in Kabul Afghanistan is heart-wrenching.

On the morning of April 12, 1975, I flew out of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s besieged capital, on a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter, landing on the USS Okinawa as the American embassy staged its evacuation.

A few weeks later on April 30 in Saigon—soon to become Ho Chi Minh City—I watched the last helicopters leave the roof of the U.S. embassy. I know what confusion and rising panic feel like. 

I was with the Russians, too, in January-February 1989, as they pulled out of Afghanistan. Looking back, the Soviets left the country in a far more orderly manner than the Americans this weekend. Of course, the man Moscow left behind in Kabul, President Mohammad Najibullah, was strung up and killed by the Taliban six and a half year later. President Ashraf Ghani risked no such fate on Sunday when he fled to Uzbekistan. (He may have moved on to Tajikistan, the New York Times reported.) The reconciliation leader Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s longtime rival, said that “God will hold him accountable” for abandoning the capital.

The saddest part of this quickly evolving humanitarian crisis of course are the deserving people, young men and women, left behind. For me the pain of 1975 is still lingers.

Helicopters left with extra capacity in Phnom Penh in 1975. Very few Cambodian soldiers deserted and joined the airlift. All the military and government leaders who remained were executed six days later. And of course the people of the capital city soon joined millions in the countryside to endure—if they lived—years of suffering in the infamous killing fields. I told part of the story of the fate of those millions of civilians in my book, The Last Helicopter: Two Lives in Indochina, published last year.

In Saigon in April 1975 about 45,000 Vietnamese fled with American help—5,595 flew out by helicopter in single day. But nearly 40,000 more Vietnamese and their families who had U.S. government or military connections were left to their own devices.  Escape by boat was a feature of Vietnamese life for the next 15 years.

Sentiments of betrayal in Kabul today are the same I heard in Phnom Penh and Saigon all those years ago.  American military missions are never just military missions—they evolve into nation building. They always involve close relations with the locals, but usually mostly with the urban elite. In maintaining trust, in the nation-building project in Afghanistan, America has once again failed.

Of course, Vietnam’s communist forces bear no resemblance to the forces of the Taliban. In their extreme radicalism, perhaps, it’s Cambodia’s savage Khmer Rouge and the Taliban who have more in common. Reports of executions in the countryside are surfacing in the capital.

There my comparisons should end.

In Kabul in 1989, there was much nervousness but little panic. Afghan soldiers waved goodbye to the Russians as they departed. Then again, so much in Afghan urban society has changed in the 20 years of American involvement. Can the Taliban turn back the clock so easily?

I returned to Afghanistan briefly in November 2001. There seemed so much hope with Taliban rule ousted in most areas. Refugees were returning home. What are the best hopes now?

We shall be watching with deep concern and no doubt distress, as thousands of desperate people flood Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, and with so many tragedies in the waiting for so many good Afghans left behind.