A Taliban spokesman announced Thursday that the group is poring over the tens of thousands of classified military documents published by WikiLeaks this week, looking for the names of pro-American Afghans.
As in the past, those identified will likely be added to lists of people to be assassinated, or rounded up once the United States and its allies leave the country. We’re already seeing this in Iraq where, as American troops prepare to withdraw, there is a campaign by insurgents to kill members of the Awakening movement and others who have cooperated with the United States.
With the United States’ deadlines for leaving Afghanistan only a year away, we need to plan for what will happen to our allies once we’re gone. And we must certainly not allow a repetition of what happened in Indochina after the withdrawal in 1975 of our military forces, our diplomatic establishment and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Because the United States made virtually no provision for the security of its friends and collaborators, millions of people accused of being American sympathizers were killed, imprisoned or compelled to flee as the North Vietnamese took power in South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Pathet Lao in Laos.
In South Vietnam, only a small number of collaborators was evacuated by Marine helicopters to ships off the coast. Just weeks later, as the North Vietnamese seized full control of the South, Le Duan, the hard-line Marxist successor to Ho Chi Minh, instituted a purge of American allies, consigning as many as 400,000 people to prison camps.
More than a million others fled the country by boat over the next 15 years. Some were picked up at sea by the United States and resettled here. But American policymakers never seriously considered the fate of our South Vietnamese allies.
Conditions were even worse in Cambodia. Pol Pot, the genocidal leader of the Khmer Rouge, ordered the immediate execution of Cambodian soldiers and officials who served in the American-supported government of Lon Nol. Over the next four years, the United States stood by while an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died by execution, starvation and maltreatment as Pol Pot set about cleansing the country of “foreign influence.”
In Laos, the United States abandoned its most loyal allies, the Hmong hill people, who had been employed by the C.I.A. to battle the Communist-led Pathet Lao and disrupt North Vietnamese military traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which snaked through Laos on its way into South Vietnam. True, from 2000 to 2005 the United States gave asylum to 15,000 of the estimated 100,000 Hmong who had fled to Thailand. But it did nothing when, last December, Thailand deported more than 4,000 of the remaining refugees back to Communist-ruled Laos, where they could face retribution.
There are many parallels between the American experience in Indochina and the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. As the United States prepared to withdraw from Indochina, particularly Vietnam, it undertook a program of, in President Nixon’s words, “Vietnamization,” in which American forces trained and equipped allied armies to take over the fighting.
That we are doing the same in Afghanistan and Iraq should raise concerns. Vietnamization was predicated on the promise of continued American air support and other military aid. But as Congress became impatient with the ineptitude of the allied leaders and the war’s continued costs, that assistance was cut off, leaving our allies practically defenseless.
We can see similar tendencies in Congress today. Criticism of government leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as demands for reductions in military spending and accelerated withdrawal timetables, could be a harbinger of cuts to financial and military aid after we leave.
We must plan now to protect our allies in the future. We should consider leaving behind residual forces to ensure their security. We should refuse to negotiate political settlements with Taliban factions without iron-clad security guarantees for those who cooperated with the United States. We should seek international arrangements, possibly with United Nations support, to assure peaceful and humane political transitions.
And, if need be, we should offer asylum to anyone directly endangered for helping us. Having fought brutal wars in their countries to protect our interests, we owe them nothing less.
Seymour Topping, an emeritus journalism professor at Columbia, a former correspondent for The Times and the author of On the Front Lines of the Cold War: An American Correspondent’s Journal from the Chinese Civil War to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam.