All of us make some of our decisions based upon lessons learned from our or others’ past experiences. Social and behavioral scientists define “cognitive schema” as an organizing framework for how people think. This is true of political and military leaders as well. 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.
With the debacle unfolding in Afghanistan, what is the schema that political leaders have in mind?
It is unclear what model is in President Joe Biden’s mind. He has seemed detached from reality, such as his silent retreat at Camp David in the first chaotic days of this crisis.
There is one scenario that haunts many of Biden’s circle, and it may explain the rush to abandon Afghanistan and the subsequent, unplanned dash out of the country. That nightmare is the Iran hostage crisis, the 444 days when Islamist revolutionaries in Tehran held US embassy personnel. That period—November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981—sunk the presidency of another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.
In contrast, government officials should be studying the lessons from the two previous influxes of refugees: that of the Vietnamese boat people and the Mariel (Cuban) crisis.
Accelerating in September of 1978, over 800,000 Vietnamese fled their country. In the aftermath of Saigon’s 1975 fall, many people bolted on tiny boats and rafts. In 1979 the government of Vietnam agreed to an “orderly departure program” that allowed tens of thousands to depart via ship or airplane. The US resettled over 400,000 of the refugees, with another 320,000 going to other countries. Sadly, the United Nations estimates that hundreds of thousands died while at sea due to storms, exposure, or pirates.
What many people do not realize is that the “orderly departure program” continued for more than a decade, and many were stuck for years in refugee camps in Southeast Asia.
In the Cuban case, by 1980 thousands of Cubans had tried to take refuge in foreign embassies to escape the authoritarian Castro regime. In April, the government announced, via public address speakers, that citizens were free to leave the country. The vast majority left from Mariel Harbor in a frantic scramble, lest Fidel Castro change his mind. Between April 15 and October 31, tens of thousands left by boat or chartered aircraft to Costa Rica and elsewhere. The US took in approximately 125,000 Cubans as well as some Haitian refugees during this time.
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?
Here are some points for reflection from these earlier crises.
First, Americans should be proud of their record in providing opportunities for so many Vietnamese and Cuban refugees. Many of us have friends from these communities, and they are grateful for the opportunity to live the American dream in their distinctive way.
Will we feel proud about how we behave toward our Afghan friends?
Second, although the vast majority who left wanted freedom from the Communist governments, there were pockets seeking religious asylum such as Cuban Jehovah’s Witnesses. Today, the US ought to prioritize those who are uniquely under threat in Afghanistan—notably, members of the small Christian minority should they want to exit the country. India has pledged to resettle all Hindus and Sikhs; the last Jew left in June of this year.
Will the Biden administration commit to protecting the most vulnerable?
Third, the United Kingdom dispersed its Vietnamese refugees in small groups across the country. Indeed, they were so dispersed as to lack a sense of cohesive community, causing one scholar to call it a “social failure.” Immigrants who had the best chance of success in the US or UK had enough fellow travelers to maintain a sense of cultural solidarity, and they were embraced and supported by civil society groups, including churches and service clubs. That twin foundation, of cultural support from one’s own community reinforced by acceptance and service by one’s neighbors, was critical to the long-term success of Cuban and Vietnamese refugees in places like Miami, Minneapolis, and Orange County, California.
Will the Biden administration actively engage civil society, especially the faith sector, to assist the refugees? Will Congress and the president enact sensible policies that allow for this?
In the Cuban and Vietnamese cases, the host government, however despicable, became a part of the solution. Havana stood by and let people depart. Saigon did the same. The Taliban’s leadership does not necessarily have the same control over its minions as Fidel Castro did. The Taliban has even less control over terrorist groups such as the local ISIS affiliate. Nevertheless, governments from Washington to the Gulf should make every effort to persuade the Taliban to allow exit to those who want to exit.
Does the Biden administration have the political will to coordinate with other governments and influence the Taliban to allow free exit to those who want to leave?
Unfortunately, with millions of Afghan refugees already bogged down in Pakistan’s semi-permanent camps, there is a reluctance among Afghanistan’s neighbors to take more refugees. Closed borders make more sense in Islamabad, Tashkent, Dushanbe, and Ashgabat if the choice is feeding more hungry mouths. However, energetic action by the US and its allies, and funding from Muslim-majority countries in the Gulf and elsewhere, could provide the vital resources needed for millions of refugees. It is in the long-term interest of not just the US but also Muslim-majority partner countries to meet the needs of this crisis. A coordinated approach, through a United Nations framework such as the Vietnam-era Comprehensive Plan for Action for Indochina (CPA), can meet many of the most significant needs of these people.
Is the Biden administration actively coordinating with other governments to diplomatically influence the Taliban and meet the needs of vulnerable people?
At present, the Biden administration is not generating confidence on the world stage. Time will tell if it will humbly and energetically rise to the occasion in a dire situation of its own making.