President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that the United States would remove all forces from Afghanistan by the end of August put at risk the lives of those Afghans who served with U.S. forces during two decades of conflict. Without American and NATO airpower, intelligence, and advisors, the Afghan National Security Forces are quickly losing ground to a surging Taliban. The Taliban contest around three-quarters of the country today, bringing large numbers of Afghans under their control. The fate of Afghan interpreters and others who worked for or served with U.S. and NATO forces is uncertain, but if history is any guide, they will not be treated kindly by their new masters.

After the United States exited the Vietnam War with the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the South Vietnamese government was only able to protect its territory for a couple of years before the North Vietnamese army launched a conventional assault and overran the country. The years leading up to the accords clearly showed that the South Vietnamese army could stand up to their northern brethren only as long as it was buttressed by U.S. airpower and logistics. American airpower was withdrawn from the conflict with the signing of the peace accords, and the provision of American logistical wherewithal declined from $2.2 billion in FY1973 to $1.1 billion in FY1974 to just $700 million in FY1975. Forsaken by its ally, South Vietnam succumbed to a better funded, better led, and more capable opponent.

The fate of South Vietnamese who had worked for the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was not a happy one. The photos of American helicopters lifting employees off the roof of the embassy as North Vietnamese tanks overran Saigon are among the most iconic images of the Vietnam War. Of the ninety thousand or so workers for the U.S. Embassy and their family members, only twenty-two thousand were evacuated to the United States. What happened to the others? A 1977 article in National Review alleged that the North Vietnamese, using documents seized in the vacated U.S. Embassy compound, killed thirty thousand South Vietnamese who had taken part in Operation Phoenix, and top-secret CIA operation to eliminate National Liberation Front leadership in South Vietnam. The fate of tens of thousands of others who collaborated with U.S. forces, the CIA, or other U.S. government agencies is uncertain. Many no doubt ended up among the three to five hundred thousand South Vietnamese jailed in “reeducation” camps.

The pressure is now on the Biden administration to ensure a similar fate does not befall the Afghans who served as interpreters or performed other roles for the U.S. military during the war in Afghanistan. An estimated thirty-five thousand Afghans, those who served with U.S. forces and their family members, are at risk of incarceration, torture, or death should the Taliban take over the country. The administration has plans to move most of the Afghans desiring relocation to the United States to third countries, such as Kuwait and Qatar, where their bona fides and visa applications can be reviewed.

The wait can be lengthy. Since 2008 the United States has accepted around forty-seven thousand Iraqi refugees, but more than a hundred thousand others await the processing of their applications. The U.S. government recently halted the resettlement program due to fraud in an estimated four thousand cases, which are being reviewed.

The fate of those who assist U.S. forces in a losing cause can indeed be uncertain.

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