Lessons from Afghanistan
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
On April 21, 1975, nine days before the fall of Saigon, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu surrendered his presidential title and jumped on a U.S. chopper to fly out of the country. His trunks were said to have been filled with gold bullion. Vice President Tran Van Huong, to whom governing authority was handed over, publicly lashed out at his boss calling him a disgrace to South Vietnam,. He also abandoned his country after pocketing $35,000 in cash a week later.
Everything old is new again. Kabul fell to the Taliban 46 years later and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was reported to have been among the first to flee out of the country with so many trunks full of cash that they couldn’t fit into his helicopter. Some had to be left on the tarmac.
History often repeats itself and that is due to humans’ refusal to learn from history. The fall of Kabul in 2021 is a repeat of Saigon’s fall in 1975. The swift crumbling of Kabul following the takeover by the Taliban as soon as the U.S. withdrew its troops after 20 years of occupation by young American soldiers and massive spending coupled with the chaotic scenes of evacuation and fleeing bear horrifyingly stark similarities with the final days of the submission of West-backed South Vietnam to the Communist North Vietnam.
The scenes bring back shivering memories to an older generation of the North Korean invasion in 1950. The overloaded evacuation carriers and armed soldiers searching houses to kill any resisting citizens took place 70 years ago in this country. A picture of Ghani’s brother pledging alliance to the Taliban made headline news. Whether he secretly had been supporting the Taliban or adjusted to the new environment fast or surrendered at gunpoint cannot be known. But Koreans too remember how brothers turned to enemies and pointed guns at one another overnight.
The Afghan crisis is another rude reminder that countries have no permanent friends or protectors. We may also learn that enemies are not forever if America, abandoning its role of global policeman bent on eradicating evil regimes in its fundamentalist belief that world peace will come if free democracy is planted just about anywhere, accepts the Taliban for practical reasons. Such a dramatic turning point may be coming soon. Some in the U.S. are arguing for an engagement policy to soften the Taliban through relief funding and economic aid.
It could be an overreaction for us to imagine ourselves in Kabul’s plight after U.S. troops leave South Korea. Ruling Democratic Party Chairman Song Young-gil snapped that it was an insult to compare Afghanistan to South Korea, which has the world’s sixth largest military and is the world’s 10th trade power. But a bigger fist does not always win a fight. The Taliban has finally pushed the U.S. out of the country after 20 years.
A nuclear-armed North Korea intends to create a situation where the U.S. will be forced to leave South Korea, whether America likes it or not. The Pyongyang regime steadfastly believes it can control the peninsula if not for America. The Afghan crisis is another eerie reminder that tragedy can land anywhere if history’s lessons are blindly ignored.