President Biden’s decision to withdraw US military forces from Afghanistan should bring back memories and lessons from previous withdrawals of American troops, and their aftermaths. In particular, there are traumatic lessons from US withdrawals out of conflicts in Southeast Asia.
Few if any people who served through those times in Vietnam or Laos remain in government; our institutional memory is poor. We’ve already seen the cost of lost institutional memory. Painful lessons learned by young American officers in the pacification program in Vietnam had to be painfully relearned by US provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance. General David Petraeus’s academic study of that era and the counterinsurgency manual whose drafting he oversaw helped bring those lessons forward, but there was a difficult period preceding his tenure in command in those wars.
I am strangely a human bridge to that era. While still in high school, I spent months with my father in Vietnam; I believe as the only American dependent in-country. My father, Charles Whitehouse, served there five years, in the field and in Saigon, ultimately as acting ambassador before the final disastrous months under Ambassador Graham Martin. For my father, our withdrawal from Vietnam and its aftermath were poignant. People he knew were lost in the maelstrom.
My father was then posted as ambassador to Laos. I spent a year with him there. When I left for college, I crossed the Mekong River in a pirogue to get on the night train from Nong Khai to Bangkok. Laos was a beautiful country, “The Land of a Thousand Elephants,” magically unique and isolated, seemingly gentle. It was my father’s unhappy task to manage the agreement between the Royal Lao Government and the tough, communist Pathet Lao as America withdrew, and then to witness its aftermath.
Both aftermaths were calamitous. After the US withdrawal from Vietnam came bloodbaths, purges, and assassinations; the nightmares experienced by “boat people” and other desperate refugees; harsh reeducation camps; and internal brutality. The misery was particularly grim for those who had worked for or helped America, who were left stranded and helpless in the disarray of our departure.
For the peaceable kingdom of Laos, the aftermath would transform it into North Korea Lite as the Pathet Lao forcibly drove out the government. The brutality was similar to Vietnam: purges, reeducation camps, economic collapse, the deaths in custody of the entire Royal Family. Hmong hill tribes who had been so loyal to our war effort were specific targets. As Laos collapsed, some Americans commandeered aircraft without orders to fly into the Long Tieng airfield to rescue what few they could of their Hmong comrades-in-arms. Many Hmong were killed; many starved; many fled into the hills or escaped to refugee camps in Thailand.
The aftermath in Laos seems particularly trenchant: A US-brokered peace agreement between a troubled national government and an implacable internal rival collapsed almost immediately, and the suffering ensued.
There is one factor that could make the Afghanistan aftermath gruesomely worse than Vietnam or Laos: the treatment of women and girls.
The Taliban are a murderous, maniacal, misogynistic sect that considers women and girls to be uneducable chattel. Women are whipped for showing their faces. Taliban extremism is so barbaric that its adherents have thrown acid in the faces of little girls for the simple offense of walking to school. Women who hold office in the Afghan government — ministers, judges, executive officials — will be particular targets. Women with professional degrees will be at risk. Women-owned businesses may be up for grabs, literally. Education and jobs for women could disappear entirely if the Taliban seize absolute power. It’s not improbable; they did it before.
With the decision now made to withdraw our troops, we must face the trauma of our previous aftermaths so they are not repeated. Will we deploy any pressure if the Taliban, like the Pathet Lao, violently seize power in defiance of their agreement? Will we arrange refuge for the Afghans who risked their lives to support and protect our forces there, who are certain to be targets of Taliban persecution? Will they get visas? Will we help their families? The likeliest exodus if large masses of the population flee the Taliban will be into Pakistan, where our relationship is already complicated. Will we help humanely manage that refugee exodus? What, as we withdraw, is our plan for the aftermath?
The experience of Vietnam and Laos teaches that in the aftermath of an American withdrawal, the unthinkable can happen. Nothing about the Taliban gives any confidence that they would shrink from the unthinkable. So the price for America of withdrawal from Afghanistan must now be to think about the unthinkable, plan for it, and act as a great power should.
US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat from Rhode Island.