Speed of Taliban advance stuns countries as US scrambles to airlift embassy staff
A little more than a month ago, US President Joe Biden was telling reporters there was “zero” chance of a parallel between the chaotic American withdrawal from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the drawdown in Kabul as part of a deal with the Taliban.
“The Taliban is not the...North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of [the US] embassy in...Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable,” Biden said during a media interaction on July 8.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Mark Milley, too had rejected comparisons to the exit from Saigon. Milley said he didn’t “see Saigon 1975 in Afghanistan”, and that the “Taliban just aren’t the North Vietnamese Army”.
But as video footage emerged on Saturday of US military helicopters flying sortie after sortie from the roof of the US embassy in Kabul, ferrying diplomats and officials to the city’s airport as the sound of sporadic gunfire reverberated across the capital, the images were eerily similar to the desperate flights by military helicopters that carried American officials and South Vietnamese citizens from the roof of the US mission in Saigon to naval vessels close to Vietnam’s shore.
Even more eerily, the same helicopter was involved in both airlifts – the Chinook, though the ones currently being used in Kabul are a more modern version. In 1975, the US embassy had become the last refuge for scores of South Vietnamese citizens who feared persecution at the hands of the victorious North Vietnamese forces. In Kabul, there was no such safe haven for thousands of Afghans who have worked with US forces as translators, guides and aides and now fear being targeted by the Taliban.
The Biden administration has already faced criticism from US lawmakers for the manner of its exit from Afghanistan, with some drawing parallels to the scenes witnessed in Saigon more than four decades ago after Washington announced it would deploy 3,000 troops to provide security for the withdrawal from Kabul.
“President Biden’s decisions have us hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975,” leading Republican Senator Mitch McConnell was quoted as saying by AFP.
Mike Rogers, the Republican ranking member of the US House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement on August 12 that the American people are “are watching President Biden’s Saigon moment unfold before us”. He added: “Our allies are watching as Afghanistan rapidly deteriorates and President Biden still claims he does not regret his unconditional withdrawal. Make no mistake, the consequences of President Biden’s haphazard withdrawal will be felt for decades.”
The speed of the Taliban advance – capturing close to 20 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals over the past week, many of them without a fight – and the march to the capital this weekend went against assessments by most countries. According to an Indian assessment made last month, the Taliban was expected to change its strategy only by the end of August, when all the US forces would have pulled out, and move towards key urban centres after taking over vast swathes of rural areas.
The Indian side has prepared for all contingencies and eventualities, and authorities in New Delhi were scrambling on Saturday to finalise plans for evacuating Indian diplomats and citizens from Kabul. The government had recently informed Parliament that there were 1,500 Indians in Afghanistan but officials said this figure had come down to a few hundreds as many people working on development projects had already been sent back or had returned on their own.