Take lessons from Vietnam in leaving Afghanistan

Take lessons from Vietnam in leaving Afghanistan
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After leaving Vietnam in 1973, we thought we were done. After we leave Afghanistan, we hope for the same. We weren’t, and we won’t be.

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saigon in 1975, some 125,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States as the result of the U.S.-sponsored evacuation. Then, from 1976 to 1977, the U.S. denied admission to Vietnamese individuals, except for family reunification. Those who sided with the American forces and what we believed in continued to suffer. Extracting ourselves from Southeast Asia was not going to be that simple.

In January 1979, “60 Minutes” correspondent Ed Bradley described to the world the plight of the “boat people” fleeing Vietnam in rickety ships packed with hundreds of children and families.


From the remote island of Pulau Bidong, off the coast of Malaysia, the segment opens with Bradley at the seashore, binoculars to his eyes. We see a ship filled with people, precarious among the rushing waves.

Soon, Vietnamese men, women and children are wading through the water, crying and struggling. Among the waves, Bradley takes the arm of an elderly woman. Puts a young boy in his arms.

As the group gathered quietly on the beach, an elderly man struggled to breathe. The next time we see him, a piece of cloth covers his motionless face. Two young children sit next to him, oblivious to the death.

It was a news report that shocked the United States into increasing the numbers of refugees we would resettle, led by Republican Gov. Robert Ray of Iowa.

It is the kind of news report that may be the only thing that saves Afghan refugees.

Twenty years after Taliban-sponsored attacks on American soil, President BidenJoe BidenVirginia GOP gubernatorial nominee acknowledges Biden was 'legitimately' elected BuzzFeed News finds Biden's private Venmo account Kid reporter who interviewed Obama dies at 23 MORE has decided to remove U.S. forces by Sept. 11. Over two decades of war, as Eliot Cohen wrote in The Atlantic, “Hundreds of thousands of Afghans, if not more—interpreters and helicopter pilots, schoolteachers and bureaucrats — have thrown in their lot with us. Americans owe them something.”


At this point, the only way for Afghans who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. can gain admission to the United States is the Special Immigrant Visa program. Last December, Congress allocated an additional 4,000 additional visas for Afghan principal applicants. 

This does not even begin to meet the need. It does not address the backlog of 17,000 Afghan applications. Nor does it help the families of Afghan interpreters killed by the Taliban while awaiting protection.

Meanwhile, the administration announced today that it is not increasing the refugee resettlement ceiling this year from its historic low of 15,000. An increase for the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, will be crucial.

There is no ocean upon which Afghan refugees can escape. The mountain passes to the south lead to Pakistan, already home to nearly 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees. The desert to the west leads to Iran, Turkey, into the Balkans and then against the hardened external borders of the European Union.

Approximately six months after Bradley’s report, in July 1979, Gov. Ray was with Vice President Walter Mondale at a special conference in Geneva on the Vietnamese refugee crisis. In his speech, Mondale pulled the room back 41 years earlier, almost to the week, when nations had gathered to discuss the situation faced by Jews in Germany and Austria.

He reminded the audience, “On the eve of [that] conference, Hitler flung the challenge in the world’s face. He said, ‘I can only hope that the other world, which as such deep sympathy for these criminals, will at least be generous enough to convert the sympathy into practical aid.’ We have each heard a similar argument about the plight of the refugees in Indochina.”

In 1938, the world failed to meet the challenge. In 1979, Mondale announced the U.S. would receive an additional 168,000 refugees in the coming year.

“Let us not be like the others,” the vice president said. “Let us renounce that legacy of shame. Let us reach beyond metaphor. Let us honor the moral principles we inherit. Let us do something meaningful — something profound — to stem this misery. We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution. History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.”

The Biden administration should heed these words.   

Ali Noorani is president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, author of “There Goes the Neighborhood” and host of the podcast “Only in America.”