Afghanistan: Lessons From Cambodia

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Afghanistan: Lessons From Cambodia

There have been many references to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam as an important historical analogy for today’s Afghanistan. A better analogy is Cambodia.

Afghanistan: Lessons From Cambodia

In this April 12, 1975 file photo, U.S. Marines provide cover during Operation Eagle Pull as Americans and Cambodians board Marine helicopters in Phnom Penh during the final U.S. pullout of Cambodia. Five days after Operation Eagle Pull, the dramatic evacuation of Americans, the U.S.-backed government fell as communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas stormed into Phnom Penh.

Credit: AP Photo/File

The resurgence of the Taliban and the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is an incredible tragedy that has provoked emotional memories of past wars and policy debates. There have been many references to the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam as an important historical analogy in assessing the implications of the situation in Afghanistan; however, a better analogy is Cambodia. The history of Cambodia offers not only important critical insights into the implications of the current situation in Afghanistan, but also important reminders that there is still hope for future U.S. foreign policy and the international community’s approach to the Afghan people.

We must be serious and forward thinking in our approach; the very future of Afghanistan hangs in the balance.

It is hard not to compare the images of the chaotic air lifting of American and Afghan peoples with images of the United States’ departure from Southeast Asia. Many popular news media have made this comparison, drawing from the images of the rooftop airlift to evacuate personnel by helicopter from Saigon, Vietnam. One cannot deny that the frenzied departure of Americans from the rooftops of hotels in Kabul appears remarkably similar to the images of the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Vietnam almost 50 years ago. But the similarities really end there, and Cambodia, for a number of reasons, is the better analogy.

When the Khmer Rouge seized power in April 1975, U.S. forces conducted a rushed departure from Cambodia — overseeing a chaotic evacuation of U.S. personnel, Cambodian government officials, and anyone who could secure refugee or other status. The evacuation was marked not only by chaos but also strong sentiments of abandonment by many Cambodian people, particularly civil servants that had worked closely with American officials.

The late former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia (then the Khmer Republic), John Gunther Dean, shared a note delivered to him a few hours before the United States evacuated Phnom Penh. Written by a political leader of the Khmer Republic, and a member of the Cambodian royal family, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, the note reads:

Dear Excellency and Friend:

I thank you sincerely for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot alas leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you and for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country find happiness under the sky. But mark it well, and if I shall die here in my country that I love, it is too bad. I have only committed this mistake—of believing in you, the Americans. Please accept Excellency, and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiment.

Signed, Sirik Matak.

Prince Sirik Matak was killed one week later.

Like Prince Sirik Matak, many Cambodians felt abandoned by the United States when they left the country to the Khmer Rouge — a communist movement that ultimately killed over 2 million people. No doubt the sense of abandonment, insecurity, and sheer terror that pervaded many Cambodian people in 1975 is shared by many Afghans as well, particularly those who dedicated their lives to a free Afghanistan.

This sense of abandonment, however, is not directed only at the United States. Washington led the campaign that overthrew the Taliban regime and attempted to rebuild the Afghan republic, but the United Nations and the international community bear an equal portion of the responsibility for the situation in Afghanistan – just as they bore some degree of responsibility for what occurred in Cambodia in the latter part of the 20th century. One insight to come out of this comparison between Cambodia and Afghanistan is that there is no substitute for U.S. leadership. U.S. leadership is still a critical, and arguably the essential, component to preventing, as much as resolving, most international security problems.

Another insight to glean from this comparison between Afghanistan and Cambodia is the revelation (or affirmation) that the pursuit of human development goals, such as the protection of human rights, the commitment to vulnerable populations, and the support for civil society, is qualified, conditional, and transitory. Skeptics, and historians in particular, would likely argue that this circumstance is hardly a revelation, but there is no doubt that the world community’s professed commitment to human development goals has lost credibility that will matter in future endeavors. The implications of this circumstance continue to evolve.

Despite public statements by the Taliban leadership, there should be little doubt that the pursuit of human development goals in Afghanistan has been handed over to a terrorist organization. The regime has already demonstrated a propensity for atrocities and a hostility toward civil society, and their recently established cabinet is not inclusive nor representative of their promises of reform. Recent suggestions that the contemporary Taliban might be different from their predecessors can be disputed by just the facts on the ground. Public beatings of innocent civilians, reprisal attacks on former supporters of the Afghan republic, and the change in women’s abilities to live and work free from repression show that the worst is yet to come.

The international community’s contemplation of working with the Taliban reminds me of a similar situation in Cambodia, when the international community allowed the Khmer Rouge to temporarily represent the people of Cambodia before the United Nations General Assembly. Attempts to rationalize working with a terrorist regime in the name of advancing limited objectives should be met with an equally serious assessment of how much human development goals will be sacrificed on the altar of political necessity or security. In other words, how many atrocities are we willing to accept in the name of practical or political necessity? And how much can the acceptance of a terrorist regime (or a regime built on terror) diminish our credibility and integrity as a world community dedicated to human rights and democracy?

But there is a hope that resonated in the wake of the disaster that beset Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and it is this hope that still rings clear even today in Afghanistan.

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge perpetrated unspeakable horrors. Khmer Rouge leaders oversaw a regime of terror in which genocide, war crimes, and other crimes against humanity were committed in the name of furthering an empty communist ideology that was built on a warped conception of a utopian society. Despite the horrors I witnessed, and losses I suffered, I did not harbor resentment or a sense of abandonment. As a child, I only had the knowledge that the United States was the land where dreams can occur, and it was this hope that kept me and many other survivors alive.

The resurgence of the Taliban and the collapse of the Afghan state necessarily compels an examination of American foreign policy and the international community’s commitment to human development goals, but it would be wrong to see these circumstances as foreclosing on the opportunity for the United States and the international community to influence a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Alongside images of helicopters on rooftops, chaos in the streets, and a suicide bombing that killed innocent Afghans and Americans, there were also many positive images of heroism, struggle, and hope.

The future of Afghanistan will not be defined by abandonment and resentment, but heroism, struggle, and hope. Like Cambodia, the future of Afghanistan resides in the hopes and dreams of its youth, and American foreign policy and the international community’s strategies in dealing with Afghanistan should include Afghan youth in its long-term planning.

Notably, Afghan youth are not as prominent in recent news coverage as their proportion of the population would dictate. The voices of Afghan youth are notably missing in most contemporary analyses on Afghanistan, which contrasts with their overwhelming percentage of the total population. It is estimated that almost 70 percent of Afghans are under the age of 25, and yet the vast majority of the voices one hears about Afghanistan are from former civil servants and adult refugees.

The Afghan adults are necessarily the population that bears studying to determine what happened, and what went wrong, in the American and international community’s departure from Afghanistan. But it is the Afghan youth who bear the utmost relevance in future answers to the question of what comes next. There is probably no population group more important to the future of Afghanistan than the youth, and there is no better time than now to begin thinking about how to engage this population.

The United States’ and international community’s history in Cambodia is not a roadmap or guide for Afghanistan, but it is a reference point that bears important insights and reminders that can inform future approaches and policies. Despite the tragedy of Afghanistan, there is still hope, and we must begin thinking about how to leverage this hope and build on the future of Afghanistan, not only for the Afghan people, but to honor our commitment to humanity and future global security.