Elizabeth Becker’s books include At the end of the war: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge revolution Andyor Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote War History, which was released earlier this year. She was one of three Western journalists allowed to enter Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge took control of the country.
At first glance, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan was a reminder of another catastrophe: the end of the Vietnam War. The chaotic and desperate evacuation of the Afghans appeared to mimic the scene at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, which delayed the evacuation for so long that the airport was too damaged to support an airlift. Helicopters had to carry Americans and Vietnamese from rooftops to ships waiting offshore, hours before North Vietnamese tanks arrived. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese allies have been left behind.
But the similarities are superficial. The United States abandoned Saigon before the arrival of the North Vietnamese. The United States remained in Kabul after the Taliban took control and sent in troop reinforcements to handle a mass evacuation of more than 122,000 people, including Americans, Afghans and foreigners. It was the largest airlift in history.
A better comparison would be between Afghanistan and the Cambodian Vietnam War campaign – to see their final days as codas to a generation of disastrous US war politics. In both cases, US-backed governments have fallen like a castle of cards in the face of deadly forces that should have been repugnant to their people: the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Taliban in Afghanistan. But Cambodians and Afghans felt little loyalty to the corrupt and authoritarian regimes built on billions of dollars in American aid and protected by American power. The result in 1975 was a Khmer Rouge victory that led to four years of radical communism and genocide. The Taliban have returned to power in Kabul, presumably ready to impose some version of their harsh interpretation of Sharia law, reducing women to movable property, as they did when they were in power at the turn of this century.
The Khmer Rouge and the Taliban may be at opposite poles of the demonic specter, but their path to victory owes much to the United States underestimating them as motley forces and insignificant pawns in world wars. For Cambodia, it was the cold war against communism; for Afghanistan, it was the global war on terrorism. In both cases, the United States has argued that it is fighting to keep the world safe for democracy.
Cambodia was seen as an embarrassing obstacle to the American war in Vietnam. Under Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the country’s prime minister, Cambodia adopted a policy of neutrality out of realistic fear that the country would not survive another Indochina war. He tried to appease both sides, allowing Communist North Vietnam and US-backed South Vietnam to use Cambodia’s strategic border region to fight each other.
Washington has deplored Cambodia’s neutrality as a “policy of indifference” and mounted covert actions to push Cambodia into their camp and drive out Sihanouk. China took the opposite approach and agreed to give up supporting a revolution of the Khmer Rouge, the local Cambodian communists who wanted to overthrow Sihanouk. In return, the prince promised North Vietnam that he could use the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the Cambodia border region to supply their allies in South Vietnam.
With the failure of its efforts in Vietnam, the United States launched a secret and massive bombing campaign of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia in 1969, adding to the pressure to drag Cambodia into the Vietnam War. Increasingly erratic, Prince Sihanouk is losing the support of the Cambodian Democrats as well as the elite in favor of rapprochement with the United States. He was overthrown in 1970, and the new government immediately attacked North Vietnam.
Within weeks, the United States invaded the Cambodian border region to root out the North Vietnamese. It backfired on him. Instead, North Vietnamese troops spread across Cambodia, paving the way for young Khmer Rouge to fight for control of the country.
Instead of nurturing the democratic impulses of Phnom Penh’s new government, the United States has remained loyal to General Lon Nol, the new leader, no matter how corrupt, authoritarian, inept and brutal he has become. When he banned the elections by martial law, it made no difference. General Nol’s value was to keep Cambodia in the war while the United States figured out how to withdraw from Vietnam.
I covered this war as a novice reporter for the Washington Post and saw how corruption was increasing exponentially. US aid has landed in the foreign bank accounts of military and civilian officials. Military officers pocketed the money as angry Cambodian soldiers walked down Phnom Penh’s main boulevard because they had not been paid for months or fed for days. Food aid ended up on the black market as Cambodians starved to death.
The official American attitude was a toxic mixture of arrogance and willful ignorance. Evidence of the collapse of Cambodian society was everywhere. I have seen government soldiers at checkpoints shake up poor farming families seeking refuge in the city, demanding anything of value, bags of rice to a young girl to sell at a brothel. No matter how the Cambodian people were treated, the United States never demanded serious reforms, even though the government army experienced defeat after defeat at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and Saloth Sar, who became known as the name of Pol Pot.
We have all heard reports that the Khmer Rouge controlled their “liberation zones” with brutal discipline, including arbitrary executions. Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to President Richard Nixon, dismissed repeated calls by allies to negotiate a ceasefire. Washington launched a massive bombing campaign against the Khmer Rouge – 500,000 tons of bombs at the end of the war – to no avail. The Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 to see Cambodians waving white sheets welcoming them in peace. The nightmare began on that first day. Khmer Rouge in black pajamas ordered Cambodians to leave the cities, taking them to the countryside to live in rudimentary labor camps. In four years, the Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of the country’s population through murder, starvation and cruel neglect. An international tribunal later convicted its surviving senior leaders of genocide.
It was frightening to see the heart of American war policy in Cambodia resurface in Afghanistan. The United States has backed the new government in Kabul with billions of dollars in aid while turning a blind eye to corruption. The government in Kabul in turn corrupted the country’s institutions and society, showing indifference to the people when they did not go after them. The government’s main priority was to retain the power and wealth that came from aid, rather than defeating an enemy like few in his brutality and aversion to basic human rights. As in Cambodia.
The United States invaded Afghanistan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Within weeks, the United States and its allies had defeated the Taliban, scoring the first success of President George W. Bush. World War on Terrorism.
Except that the United States came away from this victory. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to accept the formal surrender of the Taliban, saying they were an exhausted force with no future, unworthy of amnesty. Instead, the Bush administration turned its attention away from Afghanistan to Iraq, a much bigger new target even though that country had nothing to do with 9/11.
Afghanistan has become an afterthought, as Cambodia had been. Without the US military tracking them down, the Taliban regrouped and recovered with significant help from neighboring Pakistan, where Bin Laden eventually went into hiding. They have regained control of parts of Afghanistan.
The United States continued to financially support the new government in Kabul, but without supervision. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, wrote in a recent report that corruption in the Afghan government “has metastasized and increased to an unprecedented level”, citing a State Department cable that “corruption is not just a problem for the governance system in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance. By the end of the 20 Years War, the United States had spent approximately US $ 2 trillion, or US $ 300 million per day, on the failed mission.
Throughout this war, the Afghan people were caught between radical fanatics and corrupt authoritarians, just as they had been in Cambodia. They never rejected democracy because they never had a democratic alternative to the Taliban.
President Joe Biden said this week that the United States won its war in Afghanistan by killing Mr. Bin Laden and undermining the Taliban’s ability to protect al Qaeda.
It was the equivalent of declaring victory after loss. The hope is that Cambodia in 1975 and Afghanistan in 2021 will be bookends to America’s eternal wars, which have caused unimaginable human suffering in Asia.
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