President Biden’s comments about the Afghanistan military’s unwillingness to fight is a bit like telling your husband of twenty years, on the eve of presenting him with divorce papers, that you always thought he was a bit dumb. It is not a skillful use of words or thought. Biden’s comments about the Afghani fighting force was the equivalent. Biden has often stuck his foot in his mouth and chewed; this comment is another occasion of this.
A confession: I voted for Biden, and I do not regret it. Trump was a neo-fascist, and I was not up for that. But Biden’s legacy, to date, will be this: the images of Afghans desperately running through the streets to the airport, the 600 and something people crammed on a plane, the words of an intelligent and frightened woman, R, speaking to Lindsey Garrison of The Daily (a New York Times podcast). We hear the descent into chaos through recorded voice memos as she describes her attempt to flee Afghanistan with her family. The fall of Kabul is not a legacy Biden will live down quickly or maybe ever. Defending his decision will not help.
My liberal friends tell me that Trump would have done much worse. No doubt of this, but that does not improve on what has happened. As I see it, that fact will not bring back from death the 17-year-old who fell from the landing gear onto the tarmac. I would guess this very young man calculated in some part of his brain that death was a safer alternative than the Taliban. He may have been correct.
As I listened to R, I wondered what I would do if I were in her situation. Thank whatever stars I am not. I might have left at the negotiations with the Taliban under the Trump presidency over a year ago. Last November, with Mike Pompeo smiling, standing proudly next to a Taliban negotiator, I might have decided the next flight to anywhere would be a good alternative. Maybe she could not escape, did not have the money, or hoped for a different outcome. A week ago, I would have flown anywhere I could. A disclaimer here, I am a survivor of violence. I am wary. But perhaps this was not an option for R. What I would not do is trust that either the U.S. or Canada would have figured out how to save me. As several reporters have said: forget the paperwork, get people out. It is simple. As Spencer Ackerman (author of “Reign of Terror) said, “Every Afghan who is interested in doing so should be given asylum in the United States.” I agree. Save R and the many in her position, get them out.
But the war in Afghanistan was never about saving people. Not the women, not the children, no anyone. It was about power and sticking it to the Soviet Union. As Martha Shelley (a friend, researcher, and author) writes, “Brzezinski enthusiastically defended this decision, saying: “That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap. … We now [had] the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.” At an estimated cost of $2.4 billion, the American citizens supported this folly without their knowing it. This commitment of dollars was before the U.S.’s actual involvement publicly in Afghanistan on the premise of protecting the U.S. from terrorists. This decision to invade Afghanistan to protect “national security” was long before Sandy Hook and January 6th. Many would argue that the Afghan war does not make any statement that the public is safe in the United States or that the democracy is secure.
The speculations that the Taliban will be good boys is a fantasy. No more accurate than Trump’s comments about there being good people within the ranks of the Charlottesville white supremacists. In Afghanistan, under Taliban governance, thousands will die, girls of 13 will be married off, the women who have trained for years in engineering, medicine, law with be married off and certainly will not be allowed to exercise their professions. Just imagine what that might be like for a young woman who believed her future would include college and a husband of her choice or a wife. I can imagine only too clearly. In the days before the fall of Kabul, R’s voice changes on her communiques to the flat voice of exhaustion and emotional shutdown. The voice of the doomed. I hope she gets out, but I hear her preparing for the worst.
Hamid Karzai gave an interview with his three children, two girls, and a boy, in front of him, wiggling as young children do. He decided to stay. Whatever corruption is in his backstory, I wanted to be impressed. He knows what he and his country are in for. He either has courage or connections. I suspect both. Sarah Chayes, the former Senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program, stated, “We enormously helped the corruption (in Afghanistan),” evidently, when the U.S. started to probe high-level corruption, Hamid Karzai threw a fit. The U.S. backed off from any investigation or censure. So yes, Mr. Karzai is implicated, as are many others, taking the U.S. and international funds and not serving the people of Afghanistan.
Douglas Lute stated, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan. We didn’t know what we were doing. What were we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” It appears to be the same now. Although Vice President Cheney may have known, his company was near bankruptcy before the Afghanistan War and profited nicely from the war.
Twenty years ago, several of my close friends supported going into Afghanistan militarily. They were liberals but swayed by the U.S. propaganda and the trauma of 9/11. I saw the anti-Taliban rhetoric as a manipulation of the American public, a justification of the upcoming Patriot Act, and the beginning of American fascism. Others saw the same, but most did not. I knew and had known that the Taliban were brutal and profoundly anti-woman, but this had been going on since the ’90s and before. So why was the U.S. government suddenly interested in pursuing and limiting the Taliban? It was a misdirection of the American public’s attention away from the Saudis who Bush let fly free after 9/11. Remember, Bin Laden was Saudi, not Afghani. The brand of Islam that both Al Qaeda and the Taliban espoused was nothing I recognized from the Koran, with its prohibition on suicide and Muhammad’s support of women’s property rights. The Taliban, I believed, had been founded by orphans with PTSD and their brand of hate-filled Islam reflected this. But I and anyone informed had known for years that they existed and were not to be trusted. So why, all of a sudden did the western world wake up? Out of the U.S. War on Terrorism, the Patriot Act and the NSA were created and strengthened. The U.S. went to war in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. The Patriot Act was enacted on October 26, 2001. This sequence is no coincidence. The Saudis got away. The Patriot Act controls (by invasive surveillance) the population of the U.S. more than protects it. When the U.S. had the world’s sympathy after 9/11, why did we not choose a subtler course, a more skillful one? An approach that did not involve an expensive long-term war and massive surveillance of Americans. I don’t know that I have an answer still.
What I did not know in 2001 but suspected is that the U.S. had originally funded the nascent Taliban, the mujaheddin, to provide the Soviets with “their Viet Nam.” The U.S. succeeded. It became the Soviet Viet Nam. In 1987, I met a man in Moscow who had fought in the war in Afghanistan. He said, “No one will ever win against the Afghanis.” He was attempting to recover from his tours in Afghanistan. His PTSD was manifest. His hands shook as he talked with me about his nightmares, terror, distrust of people, and struggles with alcohol. This conversation was decades before the U.S. was involved publicly with Afghanistan.
In 2001, I only knew enough to know that public opinion in the United States was manipulated. Biden had to know about all of this. Biden, like both parties, knew the real history of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and the corruption in the Afghan government and that the U.S. lacked a ‘fundamental understanding of Afghanistan.’ My friend in Moscow knew this, and he was a foot soldier.
As accurate as the backstory of the U.S. involvement is, documented by many, Biden is the fall guy for this debacle. Trump set up the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Months before Biden came into office, talks with the Taliban were underway. “We inherited a deadline negotiated by the previous administration. That deadline was May 1st,” stated Secretary Anthony Blinken, looking like a tired deer in the headlights. What was negotiated was a unilateral withdrawal, not a conditions-based withdrawal. What Biden inherited was a mess, but he co-signed the mess. There was no apparent reason for him to have gone along with Trump’s program, but he did. Complicating this very disastrous decision was an evident lack of planning. As General Douglas E. Lute stated, “The puzzle for me is the absence of contingency planning: If everyone knew we were headed for the exits, why did we not have a plan over the past two years for making this work?” This question speaks to reality. How could the Biden administration or anyone else not see the obvious?
What may be less obvious is the effect this will have. The chaos at the Fall of Kabul gives the right, the Republicans, the White Supremacists, the people already flying the “Fuck Biden” flags a reason to vote for the next demagogue the Republicans nominate. Biden could have redefined the terms of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He could have executed the withdrawal skillfully. The American population wanted out of Afghanistan, that was clear, but an exit with few conditions, expecting the Taliban not to assume power rapidly, and expecting the ensuing panic not to happen was naïve. Imagining the Republicans will not parlay this situation into a political win in 2024 is also naïve. The Fall of Kabul will be an open door for the next authoritarian.
So, you file the divorce paperwork, wish your ex well, and tell them you have loved them, but it is just not working. You don’t hit your ex over the head with a brick, hoping it won’t kill them. This chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan is the brick on the side of the head. It will kill many Afghans and kill the Democrat’s chances in both 2022 and 2024. The next Republican fascist may be much smarter, and because of what was not skillful about the entire war and Biden’s willingness to go along with Trump’s agenda, we may not be able to stop who comes next.