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Trapped - The Indochinese Boat People as an Indicator of the Population Flight in the Aftermath of the Taliban Victory

As in Afghanistan, the decision of the American military to leave South Vietnam in 1975 precipitated a collapse of the American supported national government and its military forces in the face of a Viet Cong assault backed by North Vietnam. In Afghanistan, the Taliban, backed more surreptitiously by Pakistan, pulled off the same feat just over 45 years later. In Vietnam, there had been a negotiated ceasefire agreement in 1973. This did not prevent North Vietnamese forces overrunning the South and reuniting the country just as it did not prevent the Taliban conquest when the American military closed up shop in Afghanistan on 30 August 2021.

The events were mimicked in Afghanistan in even a shorter period than in Vietnam. A comprehensive peace agreement between the Taliban and the United States on 29 February 2020 provided both for the orderly and secure withdrawal of all foreign forces and an intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations to form a new post-settlement Afghan Islamic unity government. The reality: the Taliban swept into power as the Americans were pulling out the last of their troops.

As in Vietnam, there was an immediate scramble to get out of Afghanistan by those who had worked with and supported the American and allied presence in their country. By sea and air, initially, 130,000 Vietnamese were taken to Guam and other American military bases and resettled, mostly in the U.S. A very few years later, this exodus was followed by a much larger one from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Of the three million that followed, up to one-third drowned at sea or were victimized by pirates. In Afghanistan as well, many had been left behind – supporters and interpreters who worked with the allies and NGOs as well as girls and women who fear the Taliban even though the latter have initially promised tolerance.

In Vietnam, what happened to the ones who did not initially escape and how did they fare? What lessons remain for handling the situation of those left behind and “trapped” in Afghanistan? Vietnam in the post North Vietnamese conquest offers an instructive template for the post-Taliban victory with respect to populations living behind in fear and trying to get out of the country.

There were almost 50 million people living in all of Vietnam in 1975. (There are now about 95 million.) Currently, there are approximately 40 million residents of Afghanistan. However, Afghan’s 665,000 square kilometers makes the country more than twice the size of Vietnam. Further, unlike Vietnam, which appears to outsiders as relatively linguistically and ethnically homogeneous, Afghanistan is a multilingual and multiethnic society. But so is and was Vietnam. In fact, Vietnam is even more diverse with 54 linguistic and ethnic groups. Afghanistan has less than a dozen. The difference is that the Kinh group in Vietnam constitute 85 percent of the population whereas in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns are perhaps 40 percent and at most 50 percent made up of 60 tribes and innumerable sub-tribes. Vietnam is now far more homogeneous than it was, for in 1975 it had a significantly sized minority ethnic Chinese population.

In addition to the outflow of American supporters from Vietnam in the immediate aftermath of the American withdrawal, three years later, a larger exodus began with the outflow of ethnic Chinese in the former South Vietnam and from North Vietnam as a result of clashes between two former close allies, Vietnam and China. Discrimination played a role in the effort to produce unity in the whole country, ethnic as well as ideological unity. Many of the ethnic Chinese who dominated the economy of South Vietnam were forced to flee.

However, in 1982, Vietnam reversed course. Ethnic autonomy, subject to political unity, was promoted. Further, Vietnam in 1982 introduced the beginnings of a new economic policy which expanded in 1986 to endorse economic reform along Western lines. This conceded in the next two years with the development of both an orderly departure program and a policy of encouraging return by no longer sending refugees to re-education camps. The result: the massive outflow of refugees wound down.

Can we expect some of these elements and patterns to be followed in Afghanistan, namely:

  • Continuing the surreptitious and non-legal departures currently underway
  • An even much larger exodus in two or three years as a result of a Taliban ideological crackdown
  • Persecution of ethnic minorities
  • In a few years, a reversal in pushing ideological conformity
  • Eventually, also a more liberal policy towards Afghani departures and returns?

The pattern is eerily similar in some respects, but very different in others. I expect that once the Taliban get their act together and can really exercise power instead of concentrating on political survival, there will be a burst of ideological puritanism and a crusade of conviction that will push many more to flee.

Further, the Taliban are purveyors of a religious rather than an economic ideology that has very little likelihood of abating or reversing. In that regard, Afghanistan will more likely follow the Iranian pattern and will become much more of a police state than Vietnam. Further, in Vietnam, the ethnic Chinese were both a politically weak minority in terms of numbers as well as an identifiable enemy in terms of their involvement in free enterprise economics. They were the predominant business class of Vietnam. The result: defined as enemies of the state, vast numbers who could afford to flee did. They were followed by hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese.

The Taliban are even more ruthless than the authoritarian rulers of Vietnam ever were. Inside the 25-foot high barbed-wire topped walls of Pul-e-Charkji prison, the Taliban continue their pattern of arbitrary torture of thousands of prisoners in spite of their new-found public relations campaign to present themselves to the world as governed by the rule of law.

The biggest difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam is that in the former, the Pashtun Taliban make up a much smaller proportion of the population. This makes them more insecure and, consequently, more ruthless. Further, tribal, clan and even ethnic identities were largely ignored as a result of decades of war, as America and its allies pursued a three goal program of security through “pacification,” the introduction of democratic and liberal political institutions to create good governance[1] and the strengthening of capitalism to ensure economic sustainability.

These well-meaning initiatives weakened the tribal society and the ethical backbone necessary to resist the Taliban and, thereby, created even greater insecurities for minorities, especially as the “warrior code” as the centerpiece of tribal identity was washed away in the face of the struggle to survive in a Sunni Pashtun dominated world. Identification as “victims” rather than warriors became the code for enlisting the assistance and protection of international agencies, further undermining any prospect of meaningful resistance, especially as the Taliban systematically murdered mullahs and khans, imams and arababs (the village head and arbiter of the Hazars, the Shiite minority most persecuted by the Pashtuns) who had served as the moral leaders and authorities for minorities. Tajiks, Uzbekhs, and especially Hazaris are deemed by the Taliban as too susceptible to foreign domination and control. Afghanistan also has large populations of Aimak, Turkmen and Balochis, There are also Sadats and Sayyids.

Since the Taliban took power on 15 August, thousands of Hazara families have been expelled from their homes and farms. In Daikundi province, the number of displaced ranged from 400 to 2,000 families from 15 villages. In Helmand Province, 260 families were ethnically cleansed. In Kandahar Province, 3,000 Hazari families were forced to flee. And that is just the very initial phase.

The perpetuation of the arababs had already been threatened by radical Iranian infiltrators and “conversion” agents. The consequence: a new, more open, war between the Sunni puritanical Taliban and the militant Iranian Shiites can be anticipated, a conflict in which the Taliban Pushtans will continue to have the advantage of home turf and the corrosive effects of low intensity warfare in very difficult terrain, but without the great distances separating the Western powers from Afghanistan.

Young men especially became susceptible to terrorist recruiters, which further pushed parents to flee to protect their children and seek a more secure place for their families as the self-governing structures of tribal societies disintegrated. This shift has been critical in a society where over a third of the population is under the age of 21. As one commentator opined, “Today’s Taliban fighter does not seek honor. He seeks cleanliness. And he uses blood as soul bleach.”

As thousands more refugees flee Afghanistan, their ability to flee will depend to a great extent on the receptivity of neighboring countries. In Vietnam, the surrounding countries agreed to provide temporary safe havens for the Boat People only when Western countries guaranteed to resettle them. Afghanistan borders Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to the north, Iran to the west, Pakistan to the east and south and has a short border with China to the northeast.

A route out of Afghanistan has already been established through Iran, Turkey and onto Europe. Iran already hosts three million Afghans, only three-quarters of a million of them registered. Turkey hosts 4 million refugees, 90 percent of them Syrians. Currently, the resistance to further flows promises to be much greater than at the time of the great wave of Boat People from Vietnam given that currently 1 of every hundred persons living on this planet has been forcibly displaced. Resistance to resettlement of refugees in the West is now higher than it has been for seven decades. We can now expect another humanitarian disaster of enormous proportions. Will we be prepared?

Not if the West bathes itself in a cover-up and ignores what is happening and is likely to happen. Following the full and seemingly chaotic withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden insisted that “We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago,”[2] degrade the terror group al-Qaeda. Refocus was the mantra. But not onto a huge wave of refugees. Instead, the signs point to our becoming blind to the prospect of an even greater outflow of refugees than the world experienced with the Boat People in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

However, as in the case of the Boat people, Canada was able to turn a large majority opposition to the intake of refugees into a majority support by enlisting Canadians in the pioneering private sponsorship of refugees – in 18 months, Canada admitted 60,000 refugees. Pressure is now growing for Biden to imitate the Canadian model with Afghan refugees. Perhaps that pressure will succeed and Biden will enlist the American public to become personally involved.

[1] Astri Suhrke, Democratizing a Dependent State: The Case of Afghanistan (CMI Working Paper, 2007).

[2] “Biden speech transcript: US Completes Afghanistan Withdrawal,” Aljazeera, 31 August 2021.

Howard Adelman
Howard Adelman

Howard Adelman retired as Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at York University in 2003 and went on to become a research professor for two years at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University until 2005 and then senior research fellow at the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia from 2005-2008.

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