Vietnamese veterans see echoes of 1975 as Afghanistan pulls out


WESTMINSTER, Calif .– After the longest period of war in U.S. history, the Americans have announced they are finally withdrawing. The troops boarded jets and left. The White House promised continued support to local allies, but his appetite for war had dried up, as had funding.

“We wanted to fight, but no supplies, no fuel, no rockets. And the Americans didn’t help like they said they would, ”said Uc Van Nguyen a recent morning as he recalled the slide to defeat. “I think in the end we felt betrayed.”

He spoke of the fall of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975. But Mr. Nguyen, who was a lieutenant colonel in command of a helicopter squadron in the South Vietnamese Air Force, now sees parallels with the conflict in Afghanistan.

Like tens of thousands of other South Vietnamese veterans, Mr. Nguyen fled after the country’s collapse. He now lives in the suburbs of Orange County, California, after moving to Westminster, where nearly half of the residents are Vietnamese. In the Little Saigon neighborhood, the yellow and red flag of the Republic of Vietnam still flies above local shops and homes, and each year the city officially marks the date of the republic’s defeat, which they call “Black April”.

In a shopping mall, war veterans and their children set up a small museum – display cases filled with medals and photos of a country that no longer exists. There, a few men, now gray with age, gathered recently to compare their experience with the news from Afghanistan.

All said they saw striking similarities between Vietnam 46 years ago and Afghanistan today: a rapid withdrawal, an enemy defying peace agreements, and an American-made army suddenly left with little support. They shook their heads in disappointment and warned that a similar collapse could be happening.

In both conflicts, the brunt of the fighting fell on local forces. An estimated 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died in action. In Afghanistan, the figures are close to 70,000.

To be sure, the defeat of the Afghan government by the Taliban is anything but certain. And the rapid collapse that swept through Saigon, with US helicopters beating desperate crowds from the roof of the US Embassy, ​​may never happen in the Afghan capital, Kabul. President Biden met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House in June and pledged to provide $ 3.3 billion in security assistance, saying, “We will stay with you, and we will do our best to see for this you have the tools you need.

Mr. Nguyen, wearing a cap from his former military unit, said the words sounded too much like the promises his country had made.

“We never thought that this could happen to us, never in your mind do you think of losing your country,” Nguyen said. “But it does happen and there is no way to reverse it.”

At the start of the Vietnam War, when Mr. Nguyen was a cadet fresh out of his country’s military academy, the United States brought him to Texas, where the United States military trained dozens of officers. Vietnamese to become pilots. For years, he flew American-supplied helicopters alongside American military advisers.

In 1973, as part of a peace deal between the United States and Communist forces in North Vietnam, President Richard Nixon announced the withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam. Much like in Afghanistan, the peace agreement left local government aside and allowed enemy forces to remain in place. As in Afghanistan, Nixon pledged to continue to financially support America’s ally. Congress, however, was in no mood. In 1974, it approved less than a third of the $ 1.6 billion requested by the Defense Ministry for South Vietnam.

By the time Communist forces entered Saigon, Mr. Nguyen had already cannibalized parts of several helicopters to keep a few in flight and had ammunition for a single short mission. In the end, he requisitioned a helicopter, took as many men as he could, and flew to safety in Thailand.

“I didn’t want to leave, but I had no choice,” he said, looking at his hands. “Our government and our friends have abandoned us. It was the worst chapter of my life. “

Ly Kai Binh was an artillery sergeant in the South Vietnamese Marine Corps who fought for years alongside the Americans. In the difficult situation of the Afghans, he remembers his own. In Vietnam, American advisers taught American tactics using American equipment, including expensive air support to cover fighters on the ground.

“They taught us to fight like rich men, even though we lived like poor men,” he said. “And after they left, we had to ration the balls. We couldn’t afford to fight like they taught us.

On the last day of the war, Mr. Binh was at an abandoned US base when he heard a radio report announcing the surrender.

“We cried, we cursed, it’s hard to describe the pain,” he said. He decided to keep fighting. He joined a guerrilla force in the countryside. He was eventually captured and taken to a concentration camp run by the new Communist government. After a year of forced labor, he fled and fled to the United States.

He hates the idea of ​​abandoning another ally, but also fears that committing to continue a war might be foolishness. He wondered aloud if the American-built government of Afghanistan could ever unite the country’s tribal culture in peace.

“I am an American citizen now,” he said. “I understand that we have to protect the interests of our country. We have been at war for so long. But we still have to keep our promises. This was not done in Vietnam. He sighed. “I don’t know if it can be done now.”

In Kabul this week, the streets slammed with a semblance of normalcy, but the country’s plight was the subject of discussion around every corner. And the queues at the city passport office had grown considerably. Afghanistan begins to suffer budget cuts that echo Vietnam.

The Afghan security forces are already sensing the American absence. With the decline in US air support, ground troops have lost their greatest tactical advantage and morale is weakening: hundreds of Afghan troops have surrendered to the Taliban in recent days.

There are important differences between South Vietnam and Afghanistan, said Richard L. Armitage, who flew three missions alongside Vietnamese commandos and then served as deputy secretary of state during the invasion of Afghanistan. . The North Vietnamese had tanks, artillery, an air force and a sophisticated supply line. The Taliban have little more than rocket launchers and a fleet of pickup trucks.

But Mr Armitage, who was present at the fall of Saigon and ended up leading a boat lift of more than 30,000 refugees, said there were also important similarities.

“Either way, you have a corrupt and inefficient government,” he said. “And the question is whether the military will be prepared to fight for it, or just take off their uniforms and disappear.”

He warned that Kabul could fall quickly and that there was still no workable plan in place to evacuate all the Afghans who helped the United States.

For a generation of American soldiers, watching hard-won stability dissolve has been heartbreaking. For Hugh Pham, who is the son of refugees from South Vietnam and deployed in 2012 as an intelligence officer working closely with the Afghans, the echo of the story is all the more painful.

The similarities between his relatives and Afghans struck him during a deployment when he ate watermelon with Afghan soldiers; they sprinkled him with salt, as did his Vietnamese uncles.

“I saw we were the same,” said Mr Pham, who is a captain in the army reserves and now lives in Germany. “At that point, I made it my mission to try to justify my family’s past – not to let things fall apart again.”

Instead, he has witnessed the same patterns, only now with the roles reversed. He was part of the American effort that expected local forces to do more with less and somehow establish peace in a place the United States never could.

In the end, Mr Pham resigned himself to saving those he could and worked to secure a visa for an interpreter he worked closely with.

“I just wish we could have done more,” he said. “I wish we had found the right path. “

Thomas Gibbons Neff contributed from Kabul.

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