‘This is manifestly not Saigon’ said US secretary of state Antony Blinken yesterday, rejecting parallels between chaotic scenes in Kabul and the fall of Saigon in 1975. He’s right, this is not the same. This is worse. The fall of Kabul is more sudden, disorderly and humiliating. The tragic images of desperate Afghan men clinging to US Air Force plane and then three falling to their death as it soared away from the city are the stuff of nightmares. But this is a living political nightmare for the people of Afghanistan who now face the medieval strictures of a new Taliban government and acts of barbarism as mujahedeen move from house-to-house enacting revenge and re-imposing their regime of terror and ultra-conservatism chauvinism.


Kabul airport – 16th August 2021 (screengrab from video posted by India TV)


Saigon’s American Embassy – 29th April 1975 (image from history.com)

It is also a punch to the gut for the thousands of troops who served there traumatised by the experience of fighting an endless insurgency, who lived constant fear of stepping on a mine, who lost friends, limbs and their lives for nothing. At least it looks that way today.

What can we learn from this? It is probably too early to say, but the notion that you can sustain an occupation of Afghanistan must finally be laid to rest. Four failed occupations by British troops (1839-42, 1878-80, 1919, 2001-2014) one by Russians (1979-89) and now one by the world’s greatest superpower (2001-2021) at a cost of untold lives and billions of dollars should be proof that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. Human rights cannot be enforced with B52s, bunker-buster bombs and drone strikes. An occupation is an occupation and will be met with resistance by an enemy that melts away after every attack. Human rights abuses by occupying forces (British, Russian or American) contributed to the support the Taliban received in some areas, but ultimately this is not a story of good guys and bad guys. This is a story of the folly of war, the hubris of our leaders, and our inability to read or understand the lessons of history.

Biden’s insistence as late as July 8th that Americans would not see images reminiscent of the U.S. evacuation from Vietnam in 1975 will plague him at the next election – and if Trump, who began the pull out, runs again he will capitalise on them. Terrorist camps cannot be allowed to spring up again in Afghanistan and the threat of military strikes against such camps may make the current Taliban leadership pause before inviting every Jihadi around the world back to train in their country. But it may not, and we may see history repeat itself again within our lifetime.

How countries deal with the inevitable influx of refugees from Afghanistan will produce fresh political turmoil in the wake of today’s debacle. But we must know by now that building a peaceful future for Afghanistan cannot come at the end of the barrel of a gun. Finding new ways to protect human rights and the world from the scourge of terrorism must become an urgent focus for the international community.

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