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US pullout from Afghanistan evokes horrors of Cambodia

Will Washington's friends in Kabul suffer the fate of its allies in Phnom Penh?

A U.S. Marine shouts as he tries to protect an Afghan man and his child after Taliban fighters opened fire in the southern town of Marjah in February 2010   © Reuters

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- Twelve helicopters, bristling with guns and U.S. Marines, breached the morning horizon and began a daring descent toward Cambodia's besieged capital. Residents of Phnom Penh cheered the Americans they believed were rushing in to save them. But at the U.S. Embassy, in a bleeding city about to die, the ambassador wept.

Ambassador John Gunther Dean later described April 12, 1975, as the day the U.S. "abandoned Cambodia and handed it over to the butcher." Dean cried because he knew what was going to happen -- a reign of terror.

Nearly a half-century later, as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, even as the war escalates, some of my Indochina War colleagues -- former journalists, soldiers and diplomats -- are resurrecting the past and asking whether history will repeat itself after the last U.S. troops exit Afghanistan on Sept. 11.

After four assignments as a reporter in that country -- three embedded with U.S. troops and a cold Christmas in Kabul -- and having been evacuated with Dean on those last helicopters out of Phnom Penh, I too am haunted by a possible replay.

The Taliban, Afghanistan's Islamist zealots, may not prove as genocidal as the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, but the record during their five years in power (1996-2001) speaks for itself: systematic massacres of perceived opponents, destruction of traditional culture and education, brutal executions and suppression of women, including selling many into sex slavery.

Top: Photos of victims, including children, taken at Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng prison and who were later executed by the Khmer Rouge. Bottom: The author with Cambodian government troops fighting the Khmer Rouge near Phnom Penh  (Photos courtesy of the author) 

The Taliban's vicious pursuit of the war indicates that the movement will not change its murderous ways should it triumph -- and many believe it is headed for victory in the 20-year conflict. As soon as the U.S. pullout of some 2,500 remaining troops began on May 1, the Taliban launched multiple offensives across the country, capturing a district just 40 km south of Kabul. Since then scores of others have fallen. NATO's remaining troops are also leaving. Peace talks are going nowhere.

"Only an intern in the Pentagon would not know that the Taliban will be the government in control this year or next," says Bob Mulholland, a Vietnam War combat veteran and senior Democratic Party member. "We should have pulled out 20 years ago."

Another former colleague, Michael D. Eiland, offers a unique perspective. A U.S. Special Forces officer with four Vietnam War tours, he headed the Thailand-based program that sent thousands of Indochinese refugees to the U.S.

"Getting out now may be a strategic and political imperative. But I think there is a moral imperative to take care of those who have been with us,'' Eiland says. "It happens every time. We seduce and abandon. The people we coerce, rent or otherwise draw into our web have a choice, of course -- but they really don't. If it's a choice it's a cruel Hobson's choice."

The author talks with villagers while on patrol with U.S. troops in the mountains of Zabul Province. (Photo by Rafiq Maqbool)

"Seduced and abandoned," were also the words of Chhang Song, Cambodia's information minister, one night in 1975, not long before the Khmer Rouge swarmed into Phnom Penh to install a regime under which nearly 2 million died from executions, starvation and slave labor.

As pullout day approaches, I am still confounded by the cruel alternatives: Withdraw and leave Afghans to the mercy of the Islamists, or prolong what in the end may prove to be a legacy of bloodshed and little else.

So I look back on my own experiences in that tragic country for possible answers.

One assignment took me to the Zhari district of Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban, where I was embedded with a battalion of the elite U.S. 101st Airborne Division. Hunkered down in a camp astride Highway 1, we watched helicopter gunships rake Taliban positions a few hundred meters away. Roadside bombs riddled supply convoys on the vital highway. Patrols threaded their way through "green monsters" -- picturesque orchards seeded with explosives.

Top: U.S. troops on patrol in a remote area of Zabul Province, where warfare is pursued on foot. Bottom: Journalists embedded with U.S. forces at an isolated camp in Zabul pose for a group photograph. (Photos courtesy of the author)

The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Peter N. Benchoff, was one of several officers I encountered who were brutally honest about the course of the war. "Security sucks. Development? Nothing substantial. Information campaign? Nobody believes us. Governance? We've had one, hourlong visit by a government official in the last two-and-a-half months," he said. "Taliban is the home team here."

In May, 10 years after Benchoff's assessment, and 20 years since the Americans went into combat in Afghanistan, Kabul's forces were in engaged in intense fighting in Zhari -- minus the 101st Airborne. The Taliban remains the home team.

In Zabul Province I slogged along with a 50-man unit on high-altitude patrols with a mission that remains crucial to the war's success: stopping infiltration from neighboring Pakistan, where powerful factions have provided military aid and safe havens for the Taliban.

A resupply helicopter departs an isolated U.S. Army post ringed by the desolate mountain terrain of Zabul Province. (Photo by Rafiq Maqbool)

It was hardly an easy task given that there was only a single soldier for every 6-sq.-km of the unit's area of responsibility, an isolated region peopled by destitute farmers, some of them probable Taliban sympathizers. Helicopters ferried in supplies for the soldiers, holed up in a fort built of dried mud, straw and wooden logs. One fruitless operation showed me just how difficult their job was.

Reacting to reports of Taliban fighters, a daylong hunt ensued, with snipers positioned along the probable infiltration route and a blocking force put into place. No enemy forces were sighted in the desolate, mountainous region, but the Taliban's presence was felt: An accompanying Afghan soldier was cut down by a trailside explosive.

Two decades after the war erupted, infiltration from Pakistan continues. The country's crucial lifeline, Highway 1, is still not secure. In May, a roadside bomb killed 11 bus passengers and wounded dozens on that highway in Zabul. Neither have the Americans been able to root out official corruption -- probably the deadliest weapon in the Taliban arsenal. Recently exposed was a "ghost school" in Zabul for which $879,000 was allocated but hardly a brick laid. "Corruption," Afghans say, "lies under every stone."

An improvised explosive device discovered by Afghan National Army soldiers in the village of Khaleqdad Khan, in Zabul Province, in May 2012.   © Reuters

History, of course, does not always repeat itself, so I have never used that well-worn argument about Afghanistan being "the graveyard of empires," a place that bloodied Alexander the Great, imperial Britain and the Russians. Until perhaps now.

Maybe my friend Flashy got it right. Brig. Gen. Sir Harry Paget Flashman, a highly decorated coward, charming scoundrel and serial seducer, is the 19th-century "hero" of a dozen novels by George MacDonald Fraser to which I had become addicted. In one novel, Flashman manages by deceit and dastardly deeds to survive the historic 1842 massacre of 16,000 British soldiers and civilians by the Afghans.

Amid the mean streets of Kabul, another fan had most improbably planted the Flashman-themed Gandamack Lodge, and I was a frequent guest.

In the lodge's cozy pub talk often turned to the contentious subject of whether the Americans would go the way of earlier intruders. Flashman usually had the last word: "Shrapnel and rapid fire don't count for much. Your average savage with a blowpipe or bow or jezzail (Afghan musket) behind a rock has a deuce of an advantage: it's his rock, you see."

The Gandamack Lodge in Kabul, where the author was a frequent guest.

Reluctantly, I have come to believe that withdrawal is the better option; that a few more bloody years would not fix what 20 years have not. I still harbor faint hopes for some ill-defined political solution. But I also remember Dean's frantic efforts at negotiations when the Khmer Rouge were already at the gates of Phnom Penh.

During my last tour, I visited the Afghan Youth Orchestra, an endeavor to revive both Western classical and Afghan music in a country where the Taliban government had made even listening a crime. The orchestra members were talented but poor youngsters, half of them former street kids, all taught for free.

Rehearsals were intensifying because the orchestra would soon be playing -- amazingly -- in one of America's most prestigious musical venues, New York's Carnegie Hall.

Members of the Afghan Youth Orchestra perform in Kabul in January 2013 ahead of a U.S. tour that included a show at New York's Carnegie Hall.   © AP

In one room, four girls were practicing scales on oboes beneath portraits of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, whose "Ode to Joy" theme emerged from a trumpeter down the hall.

"When I pick up my cello, the hard times, the bad feelings vanish -- I forget," said 15-year-old Fakira, who had roamed the streets of Kabul hawking magazines at 13 cents a copy to sustain her impoverished family.

I fear what would become of Fakir and her fellow musicians were the Taliban to enter Kabul. Like the empowerment of women and greater freedom of expression made possible under the American umbrella the school would surely be swept away. Already, targeted killings of standouts in civil society, the media and professions, particularly women, are rising.

In Cambodia, I left behind more than a dozen reporters and photographers -- about the bravest, may I say the finest, people I've ever known. Almost all would vanish in the "killing fields." One of them kept sending out new reports even as Khmer Rouge soldiers closed in.

Many of my colleagues lost equally unforgettable friends. So we are hoping that somewhere in the bowels of the American bureaucracy solid contingency plans are being forged to save loyal, honorable, vulnerable Afghans -- not patchwork, 11th-hour evacuations by helicopter.

"I failed," Dean told me not long before he died. "I tried so hard. I took as many people as I could, hundreds of them. I took them out, but I couldn't take the whole nation out."

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