Comparing strategies and challenges of evacuating Afghanistan with Vietnam exit

For more on the evacuation operation in Kabul and the challenges the U.S. military faces in light of Thursday's attacks, Amna Nawaz turns to retired Col. Mark Cancian. He had a 38-year career in the Marine Corps and was involved in the evacuation of Saigon in the early 1970s. He's now a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    For more now on the evacuation operation in Kabul and the challenges the U.S. military faces in light of yesterday's attacks, we turn to retired Colonel Mark Cancian. He had a 38-year career in the Marine Corps and was involved in the evacuation of Saigon in the early 1970s. He is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. That is a Washington think tank.

    Colonel, welcome to the "NewsHour." And thank you for making the time.

    A lot of comparisons being made between the way the U.S. left the Vietnam War and the way they are leaving this one. As you have watch the events unfold in Kabul, do you see those same similarities?

  • Mark Cancian:


    There are a lot of parallels between the two evacuations, and a few differences. The parallels are that you have the rapid collapse of regimes that the United States had supported for many years with blood and treasure collapse after the United States withdrew its support.

    You have these panicked refugees fleeing the capital. You have an evacuation that's allowed by the opposition. And then you have the staging in third country — third country transit points before they reach their final destination.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So there is a more complex sort of system as well.

    But I wonder. It's a very different time, obviously. We have so much more visibility from firsthand accounts and social media videos and so on to what is unfolding on the ground. How does that change the evacuation?

  • Mark Cancian:

    One big difference is that they have been able to do a lot of the screening on the ground at the airport that couldn't be done in 1975 on the ships where I was.

    We just had the — we searched the refugees for weapons, but we couldn't decide whether they could come to the United States or what their final disposition would be. They went to transit camps for that. Technology allows us to do a lot of that on the ground. And that speeds up the process.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the technology gives us, as I mentioned, more insight into it as well.

    You heard, of course, the president say they are committed to evacuations through the 31st. After the attacks yesterday, walk us through some of the nitty-gritty. How does that work on the ground, especially when it seems like airport transit was the main challenge?

  • Mark Cancian:

    Well, ISIS-K doesn't have the ability to shut down the airport. The United States can continue its flights. ISIS-K doesn't have the numbers or the heavy weaponry to shut down the airport.

    But there's tremendous risk along the perimeter where the Afghans are congregating. There is a lot of talk about another possible attack. And that's a tremendous risk.

    This is a very different situation from the Taliban. The Taliban do have the ability to shut down the airport if they wanted to do that. And that is why the United States is paying close attention and coordinating closely with the Taliban.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Colonel, what did you think of the decision to try to evacuate more people?

    Presumably, the longer the U.S. stays, the more of a target they are in these last few days. Did you agree with that decision?

  • Mark Cancian:

    I think we have to get people out to the maximum extent we can. It looks like we will get almost all of the Americans out. There will probably be a few who, for one reason or another, decline to leave. Same thing happened in South Vietnam.

    We want to get as many people out who worked with us as we could. We saw in South Vietnam the terrible things that happened to those people who stayed. I think one of the things that the United States learned from the experience in South Vietnam and also in Iraq was the importance of getting started early on these special visas.

    And I think they have made progress there. I think we have made a commitment to these people. And we need to stay as long as we can to get them out.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You say as long you can.

    But just a few days ago, before that horrific attack, there was a growing chorus who said, we need to extend that deadline, even for just a few days. There were a number of veterans groups gathering lists and putting together names and saying, even if we had four or five more days, we could get out tens of thousands of more wartime allies.

    Do you think that there's any possibility that happens now?

  • Mark Cancian:

    I have tremendous sympathy for people who are waiting and are these groups that Americans are working with.

    I don't see any way we can go past August 31 without the Taliban agreeing to it. And they seem pretty clear they're not going to agree with it. They have captured an entire military's worth of equipment. They could stop us easily if we — if they wanted to.

    There had been talk earlier in the program about perhaps some ways of moving people out after the United States leaves with its military presence, maybe something working through the Turks, maybe some chartered airlines or aircraft something like that. That's possible.

    But there's no question we're going to see some of the terrible scenes that we saw in South Vietnam. That is refugees fleeing under terrible circumstances in Vietnam. Of course, these were the boat people. I think you're going to see the same thing with Afghans.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Colonel, finally, in the minute we have left, we know that the threat still exists on the ground, of course.

    Does another potential attack change the calculation the ground for the U.S.?

  • Mark Cancian:

    I don't think so.

    General McKenzie has been quite clear that the evacuation is going to go on. As I said, ISIS-K doesn't have the ability to stop the flights. I think another attack on the ground would be a terrible tragedy, but the necessity of getting people out is so great that the evacuation will continue.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is retired U.S. Marine Colonel Mark Cancian joining us tonight.

    Colonel, thank you so much for your time.

  • Mark Cancian:

    Thanks for having me on the show.

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