by Daniel Zabo
Image: Left (“North Vietnam”/ manhhai is licensed under CC BY 2.0) Center ( Viking Vehicles Open Fire on Taliban Positions in Afghanistan, by Defense Imagery) Right (“Imam Khomeini”/ kamshots is licensed under CC BY 2.0_
On April 23, 1975, United States President Gerald Ford announced that after twenty-one years, the war in Vietnam had come to an end. Days later on April 30, the last American soldiers left the city of Saigon, the capital of the Republic of Vietnam, in what would become the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Hours later, Saigon would become Ho Chi Minh City, falling to the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam. At the hands of the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam, hundreds of thousands were sent to reeducation camps. Over three million people fled Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as communism conquered the region, forced to flee by land, air, and sea.
On August 31, 2021, President Biden announced that after twenty years, the war in Afghanistan had come to an end. Hours later, the nation’s capital, Kabul, too would fall, following the mass exodus of all American soldiers and the Afghan interpreters they rode in on. Many perceived “traitors” to Afghanistan and to Islam have been captured and killed, but with the world watching, Taliban spokesmen assure the public that they have moderated since losing power in 2001. The fate of Afghanistan, as well as the full punishment doled out to those who have resisted the Taliban, remain to be seen.
This tale of two cities has spawned a deservedly great number of comparisons. Many Americans have now lived through both events, eyes glued first to early television sets showing grainy colored images of Huey helicopters abandoning a battered, panicking city on the other side of the globe – only to witness the same sight again some 46 years later. Two betrayals, trillions of dollars wasted, and millions of lives lost after decades of support.
Yet with some historical hindsight, and some inferences about the future, one might draw a stronger connection to another country, forged just four years after the surrender of Saigon.
While the United States was not at war in Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it did have a friendly relationship with its predecessor, the Imperial State of Iran. Iran’s king, or Shah, was first installed by the British, creating the Pahlavi Dynasty. His son, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was empowered by the British and the Americans to overthrow the country’s elected prime minister in a 1953 coup that transformed a constitutional monarchy into an absolute one. A Middle Eastern democracy taking steps to nationalize its oil industry had become a staunch Cold Warrior for the West.
For decades, the West propped up the Pahlavi Shah as he led Iran into a future draped in trappings of the past. He was a king overseeing a modern economy, while secret police tortured leftists and Islamists as their leader spoke publicly of individual liberty. Allegations of corruption were rampant. Many remained poor. Nonetheless, the Shah had attempted a Westernization of the country; people could dress as they wished, worship as they pleased, and Iran enjoyed a positive relationship with the Western world. His “White Revolution” did seem a genuine attempt to break apart the same feudal structure from which his own power stemmed by redistributing land to the poor, rebuilding the country’s cities, emphasizing education, and expanding rights for women. A middle class was slowly forming. Optimism was very much a viable viewpoint.
Sadly, such reforms were often skin-deep. Western-style bikinis on the beaches of Kish hid a silent majority of people who rejected the Shah and his imperialist backers, resenting the disrespect shown to their traditions, to their faith. An uprising was imminent.
Still, the Shah’s regime was protected by a modern military, backed by the United States and other Western allies. The only man who might lead them to victory was in exile, in France – a veritable Vladimir Lenin, ready for the enemy to bus him back home. For Lenin, it was the Germans. For Ruhollah Khomeini, future Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it was a surprising ally: the Americans. A desperate Shah had sought to placate his people, looking outside of the West for economic relationships. Now, the same distant guiding hand that had held up his royal house for the last twenty-six years was finally about to let him fall.
Foreseeing the fire about to engulf Iran, the Carter administration responded to Khomeini’s attempts at communication, facilitating his return to Iran and his takeover of the country in the hopes that a quick change of hands would calm everyone down. When the Iranian army stood ready to defend their king, the Americans told them to stand down. The Iranians, having formed a dependency on United States guidance – and seeing which way the winds were blowing, obeyed.
Khomeini wooed the United States with promises of peace, of trade, and of a partnership that would transcend ideological boundaries and benefit both parties. Of course a man of faith such as himself would prefer a religious country like the United States over those godless Russians. Of course he would want to see his country prosper and grow peacefully alongside its neighbors. Loyal, neutral, and looking to deal.
Once in power, Khomeini declared victory over the Shah, as well as the “Great Satan” who had backed him. He made it illegal for women to initiate divorce, forced all women to wear Islamic religious garb, made it legal for thirteen-year-old girls to get married, encouraged polygamy, and imposed a capital punishment for homosexuality. He vowed to export the values of his Islamic Revolution across the Muslim world. Many answered the call, including a group of gentlemen who calmly and peacefully entered the United States embassy in Tehran shortly after the revolution, taking fifty-two United States citizens hostage and holding them for over a year. The peaceful radical installed so as not to stir the pot had now cost Carter reelection. To this day, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains an adversary to the West, antagonizing the United States and engaging in proxy wars with their neighbors.
The United States allowed the Shah to fall because they did not believe it was worth the effort to support his position, in the context of rising opposition due to trends over several decades. The same can be said of the Republic of Vietnam, and the same can be said for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Where Vietnam and Afghanistan will likely diverge – and where Iran and Afghanistan will likely converge – is in what comes next.
Forty-six years after the Vietnam War, Vietnam is among the United States’s largest trade partners. Within a decade of its victory over the United States, the communists abandoned their crackdown on business and their confiscation of private property. They turned attention to exports, to manufacturing, and to regaining the trust of the international community. While the country continues to engage in human rights abuses in certain areas, most prominently freedom of speech, less than 20% of the country now lives below the official poverty line – as opposed to 70% in the aftermath of the war – and many Vietnamese refugees have gone back home. Vietnam has not participated in a war in 30 years. The people of Vietnam are vastly optimistic about their economic future, and see far more reasons to stay than leave.
Forty-two years after the Iranian Islamic Revolution, Iran is still under the authoritarian religious control of a Supreme Leader. There are still 400-500 honor killings of women in the country every year; they have backed the Houthi rebellion in Yemen as a proxy war against Saudi Arabia for the last decade; and they continue to pursue a nuclear program in hopes of deterring an American invasion.
Most recently, Vietnam scored within the top 80 countries in the Global Happiness Report, out of over 150 countries. Iran scored an inspiring 118th place. Vietnam’s GDP per capita is now over $500 higher than that of Iran. After a millennia-spanning heritage as a progressive, wealthy and welcoming civilization at the forefront of cultural advancement and science, Iran is now a poorer, sadder place than it could have been if it had chosen to recommit itself to progress and to the betterment of human life, rather than the ancient ideals of a priestly class seeking to plunge their country back into the past. Afghanistan has been a hotbed for violence and terrorist activity for decades – its short foray into democracy is an aberration from the norm of local tribal self-rule, and has been met with indignation from large parts of the country. Despite broad support for some form of democracy and representation among the Afghan people, the corrupt facade of republicanism in Afghanistan has shown itself to be a failed experiment, garnering support in polls but not with arms. With the ascendance of the Taliban, it is the path of Iran, not Vietnam, which the warlords of Afghanistan are preparing to take.
When the Taliban first conquered most of Afghanistan in 1992, they captured and tortured president Mohammad Najibullah, dragged his limp, castrated body through the streets of Kabul, and hanged him from a light pole. More recently, the Taliban has avoided such public displays of disaffection, and yet one cannot help but fear the worst is yet to come. It is not so long ago that the Taliban banned football, chess, and music; that they committed cultural genocide on their own nation, destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas and looting the National Museum of Afghanistan; that they razed half of the schools in Afghanistan. Amidst these heartbreakingly recent memories, it can be hard not to remember the empty promises of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini as America cleared the way for his ascendence in order to avoid conflict – much like the Trump and Biden administrations have done for the Taliban as they gutted the same Afghan national security forces which fought side-by-side with them for decades, abandoning billions of dollars’ worth of equipment that was swiftly discovered by the Taliban. There can be no greater irony than the Taliban’s assurance of transparency on camera, as it detains those same journalists the next day; than their promise that they have “changed,” as they hunt down the “collaborators” they hold responsible for their two decades out of power.
All three countries display one thing in common: the unwillingness of global powers to commit to a long-term defense of their own values around the world, and their readiness to embrace the sweet lies of radicals if it means they can save face in their failure.
Since the Vietnam War, the United States and the rest of the Western World have been able to view their old enemy as a partner, a co-conspirator of sorts in the grand neoliberal game. The international community has not had a similar relationship with Iran, and it should not expect such a relationship with Afghanistan – regardless of the excitement of certain countries such as China and Russia to embrace the new administration. This is because Vietnam fundamentally lacks something which Iran and Afghanistan share: The dark, seductive magic of a deeply-rooted, ethno-religious tribal culture which the West cannot understand, and that these peoples will not abandon. With Vietnam, the world has shown that it can be forgiving; with Afghanistan, it must show that it will not forget. We cannot forget the past, and just as in Iran, we cannot embrace the radicals with a hug and a wet kiss and hope that things will go back to normal. This attitude has left a lineage of lies and broken promises and blood, and as all three countries – Vietnam, Iran, and Afghanistan – now show, great global powers such as the Americans must rest resigned to the fact that if they continue this game of global intervention to protect their own short-term perceived self-interest, they will, in the end, continuously find a way to lose.