Thinking about the Afghan Crisis: Vietnam, Cuba, or Iran?

August 27, 2021

In an article published today in Providence, Eric Patterson, RFI Executive Vice President, draws our attention to the ways past experiences inform how we see the world today. Political and military leaders grappling with the ongoing chaos in Afghanistan are not immune from this tendency.

Patterson writes:

The lieutenants of World War II, when they took over the White House in 1961, applied the lesson of Munich—never appease a bully—to the United States vs. Communism rivalry in Southeast Asia. Since 9/11, senior Western strategists have tried to decide between counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency tactics based on how they understand the Vietnam War.

He then turns to the “debacle unfolding in Afghanistan” and asks, “what is the schema that political leaders have in mind?” One possibility, Patterson argues, is the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, which “may explain the rush to abandon Afghanistan and the subsequent, unplanned dash out of the country.” This 444 day crisis when Islamists in Tehran held U.S. embassy staff left an indelible mark on American politics.

But Patterson wants to turn our attention elsewhere. Government officials, he contends, “should be studying the lessons from the two previous influxes of refugees: that of the Vietnamese boat people and the Mariel (Cuban) crisis.”

After recounting how the United States responded to the waves of refugees created by these crises, Patterson asks:

Does the Biden government have the institutional memory to deal with the crisis it set in motion in Afghanistan? A young diplomat in 1980 would be approaching age 70 today. Do we have the plans and procedures for handling this? Is there an intellectual schema that senior leaders can fall back on, or is our policy approach a blank slate?

Contained within America’s past are experiences that could provide critical insights for how the United States might lead the way in protecting vulnerable religious minorities and others in Afghanistan whose lives are imperiled by the Taliban resurgence.

Read the full article: Thinking about the Afghan Crisis: Vietnam, Cuba, or Iran?