The only American network news correspondent to witness the fall of Saigon at the conclusion of the Vietnam War 46 years ago said Tuesday that events in Afghanistan over the past week are like “Vietnam, Cambodia at warp speed.”
“It is all collapsing much more quickly,” Jim Laurie told Fox News’ “America’s Newsroom” Tuesday. “We at least had, in Vietnam, 55 days to watch the unraveling of the South Vietnamese effort there. We had that frantic 24 hours at the very end, 29-30 of April 1975, when I was there, and that of course was tragic just in the same way tragedy has unfolded the last 48 hours in Kabul. The greatest tragedy, of course, [was] leaving so many good people behind, being forced to leave them behind.”
The Western-backed Afghan government and their security forces collapsed swiftly last week as the country’s four largest cities fell to the Taliban in the space of about 96 hours. The end came Sunday, when the militants entered Kabul with barely a shot being fired as desperate Afghans swarmed the tarmac at the capital’s international airport, hoping to catch a flight out of the country.
Among those in danger of being left behind are thousands of Americans (estimates vary between 5,000 and 15,000) stuck in Taliban-controlled territory, as well as thousands more Afghans who acted as interpreters for NATO forces during the two-decade-long conflict and face brutal vengeance from their country’s new rulers.
According to Laurie, who won a Peabody Award for his reporting from Saigon for NBC News, the South Vietnam evacuation was more of a success than the evacuation of Kabul has been so far.
“In Vietnam, we were able to get out all of our journalists who worked for us who wanted to get out,” he recalled. “The American embassy managed to get out more than 5,000 Vietnamese in 18 hours. They had got out another 35,000 Vietnamese in the previous three weeks. So, it was not a totally unmitigated disaster. The hope, of course, is that the United States can get more Afghans, deserving Afghans, out of Kabul in the days ahead.”
On Tuesday, a top Pentagon logistics official estimated that the “best effort” of authorities in charge of the evacuation could lead to between 5,000 and 9,000 people being flown out of Kabul’s airport per day.
However, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that thousands of Afghans who had worked for Western embassies and organizations remained hemmed in by a system of Taliban checkpoints, manned by fighters who assaulted anyone who tried to pass. As a result, the paper reported, some evacuation flights were leaving Hamid Karzai International Airport with barely any people on board; one plane with capacity for more than 100 passengers left carrying just seven.
The Biden administration has been haunted by assurances from recent weeks that the withdrawal of US combat forces from Afghanistan, due to be completed at the end of this month, would be nothing like the tragedy that marked the end of South Vietnam.
“The Taliban is not the South — the North Vietnamese army,” President Joe Biden told reporters July 8. “They’re not — 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 an embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
Over the weekend, the images of helicopters taking off from the embassy roof were replaced in the American consciousness by video of Afghans clinging to the sides of US military planes as they took off, some of them falling to their deaths as the planes rose in the sky.
“It’s never easy to lose a war, and in my time I’ve watched the US leave tragically from Cambodia, and then a few weeks later from Vietnam, and it has been heartbreaking for me to see all this occur again,” Laurie said Tuesday.
“The only thing we can do now is try to get people that we know out.”