Tuesday, 14 May, 2024

Can the US ever quit Afghanistan?

The major American military mission may end next Tuesday, but the relationship between civilians of both countries will continue far into the future

At least 170 Afghans are dead, as well as 11 US Marines, a sailor and a soldier, after a suicide bomb went off at Kabul’s airport on Thursday, August 27, just before a US-Taliban set deadline for US forces to leave on August 31. Hundreds more were injured in the blast.

Until the attack, the Taliban had kept its side of the withdrawal agreement not to attack US troops. The Taliban themselves know it’s in their own interest to appear trustworthy in this fashion, and provide the promise of security and order after years of warfare. Indeed, it means that the US and Afghanistan will remain entwined for many years to come, just in a different and more complex way than before.

‘’The recent ISKP attacks on HKIA shows the ability and danger of the group. It looks like the decision-makers in Washington and Brussels had wildly underestimated the events and its consequences after the withdrawal of US troops,’’ Afghan journalist and political analyst Bilal Sarwary tweeted. ‘’This is the beginning.’’

That likely means that US involvement in the region is not going to end. Biden knows that the Taliban do not inspire the same kind of fear as Daesh in headlines around the world. Indeed, their bloodthirsty and brazen attacks at the airport prove their hallmark understanding of capturing media attention, and inspiring as much terror, as possible.

It remains to be seen what kind of military response the US has to this most recent attack, but that’s only one part of the story about the future of US and Afghan relations. What that future looks like depends in part on the American people themselves, and how they respond to Afghan refugees in their communities.

One of these cities is Cleveland, Ohio. It’s one of about a dozen cities where Afghans who received Special Immigration Visas will first arrive in the US. These refugees had helped the US mission in Afghanistan. These are the kind of Afghans that Daesh was trying to kill in yesterday’s blast.

An Afghan woman tries to identify a dead body at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, a day after deadly attacks outside the airport.
An Afghan woman tries to identify a dead body at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, a day after deadly attacks outside the airport. (AP)

On Thursday, as news broke of the bombings, immigration specialist Liz Cusma was in Cleveland fielding zoom meetings with local refugee advocacy groups in the metropolitan area.

It’s a city that already has a population of Afghan Americans who arrived in the 1990s.

‘’We have a lot of Afghans who have been here for the last 25 years. This is bringing up a lot of fear and concern for people who are still there. Let’s say your family had to flee the Taliban in the 1990s, and you’re seeing it happen again. so that community trauma comes up. Some people are applying for 20 or 30 family members,’’ she told TRT World.

Cleveland’s time zone is eight hours away from Afghanistan, but people in both places are both on a deadline for the US to leave on August 31.

‘’That means that families don’t have time to apply for the full SIV visa, but have to do the expedited, and far more expensive, ‘parolee’ process. This can cost $575 per applicant. It also does not entitle the person to public benefits, including health insurance,’’ Cusma added.

Restoring universal values

The United States Customs and Immigration Service is funded by applicant fees. It’s a cost-cutting measure in the federal budget, but it does not help when people are fleeing for their lives from the same place at the same time. It makes the already precarious process more daunting financially for people living in a country where millions don’t make much more than $575 dollars in a year.

Only charities have been set up to finance both flights and visa fees for Afghans who want to come to the US. Cusma says that there has been an outpouring of interest from people in the community asking what they can do to help.

‘’A lot of people want to know if they can host a refugee at their house, or they say they have a spare house. One person said they were a hotel owner with rooms to spare. For now, we just have to tell these people to donate to charities helping refugees,’’ she added.

But the newest arrivals to the US are also arriving in a place reading headlines, memes and angry Facebook posts about the latest attack at the Kabul airport. From some of the same people who praised Trump’s promises of a fast withdrawal from Afghanistan, the massacre on Thursday was a reason to call for retribution against the innocent.

‘’For every American who is killed, an Afghan city should be wiped off the face of the Earth,’’ tweeted Fox News radio host Todd Starnes.

This kind of retribution was how the Nazi occupation enforced an order of fear and terror over occupied countries, striking civilians in vengeance for insurgent attacks. This ended disastrously for the Nazis, who still lost despite their cruelty.

Starnes deleted that grotesque tweet, but kept up his own reply, saying by way of explanation:

‘’If you do not threaten the Taliban with this sort of language, the killing will continue. Gotta play hardball with evil.’’

Correctly, another Twitter user commented that the Taliban doesn’t care about what Starne says at all. Middling conservative Twitter personalities are not the top priority of the Taliban leadership.

But the tweet that Starnes sent that matters more was another one, sounding a tone and reflecting a logic that a lack of will to kill more is what caused the attack.

‘’Americans and our Afghan allies are being slaughtered because they were betrayed by Joe Biden and his progressive administration,” Starnes wrote.

Perhaps this is to be expected from a country that elected Donald Trump, who said, sitting next to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, that he could end the war in Afghanistan, but ‘’I don’t want to kill ten million people,’’ Trump said.

But is it also to be expected from a country that rejected Trump’s bid for re-election.

Why Trump leapt to mass murder as a solution for an insurgency speaks volumes about his character, and those around him. And those people still wield influence, and will for the foreseeable future. Although these same people praised Trump’s push to depart Afghanistan just a year ago, political convenience means they will clamour for the US to continue exacting vengeance there. In doing so, such people are letting the terrorists win.

Biden began his presidency by insisting that the US will pick up a message of confirming universal values, and give up the Trumpian practise of demanding thanks for refraining from an atrocity he says he could carry out if he wanted. In order to make good on Biden’s promise of restoring universal values that treat each life with equal worth, it will be incumbent upon the American people, not Biden, to make that happen.

The good news is that presidential elections are not necessarily reflective of national character, and the Afghan refugee crisis is a test of national character that Americans will look back on generations from now. At the moment, the operation to rescue Afghans looks like it is on the brink of further catastrophe. But this is the beginning of a long road that will last far longer than the war itself did.

So far, there is good news, and it comes from the global response to the crisis at Kabul’s airport. Charities have raised millionsin just a few days to secure flights for people. Veterans have made phone calls on behalf of their own translators and their families. Thousands of people, especially in the US in the case of SIV applicants, have volunteered to act as social workers for thousands of strangers to find a place for them to stay.

The spirit of openness

When the war began, the US government said it would help Afghans on behalf of the American citizens. Today, American citizens can do it themselves, thanks to the ability for information to pass instantaneously from Afghanistan to the US. That was not the case when the war began. It was also a technology that gave the Taliban an increasing advantage against coalition forces as the counterinsurgency progressed.

What Biden needs to do is encourage the better angels of American society. Thursday’s attack put him in a position of previous presidents, promising vengeance but also a determination to continue departing Afghanistan.

‘’To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay. I will defend our interests and our people with every measure at my command,’’ he said. ‘’We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation.’’

President Joe Biden pauses as he listens to a question about the bombings at the Kabul airport that killed at least 12 U.S. service members, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Washington.
President Joe Biden pauses as he listens to a question about the bombings at the Kabul airport that killed at least 12 U.S. service members, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Washington. (AP)

Those efforts will happen now in cooperation between US forces and the Taliban. It remains to be seen what form that vengeance takes, but the assumption is that it will not be pulled back into combat operations.

‘’As the President rightfully emphasized, we cannot and must not let the attackers achieve their utmost goal and capture the narrative of our exit nor can we allow them to remake our plans or undo the progress on the right path we have made to date,’’ columnist and international relations scholar David Rothkopf wrote in The Daily Beast.

Daesh wants to provoke the US to return to an unwinnable war, and cast their rivals the Taliban as being insufficiently hostile to all foreign presence in Afghanistan. It’s an obvious trap that Biden says he won’t fall for.

‘’They hope that those they attack respond in a way that further elevates them—by characterizing their threat as bigger than it is or by becoming bogged down in asymmetric conflicts that weaken them in terms of their public image and their resources,’’ he added.

And Rothkopf is right. Osama bin Laden understood the advantage of his geography on September 11, 2001. He set an effective trap for the US military, in a distant place that neither American voters nor elected officials could reliably find on a map. More than that, neither constituents nor public servants could ever fully define what ‘’winning’’ would mean there.

Biden decided, at a potentially significant political cost, to stop giving bin Laden what he wanted.

But keeping US forces out of Afghanistan, despite deadly provocations by Daesh, is the easy part. The hard part is in the hands of American citizens in the US itself. The soldiers in that fight carry no weapons, but are armed with a determination to help Afghans make a new, safe home in the US. That spirit of openness is something that’s mostly out of Biden’s control. Social media, and the loudness of American social media, has turned each American citizen into a member of the US diplomatic corps, whether they realise it or not.

Getting the US military trapped in a war it cannot win was only part of bin Laden’s plot. That was the obvious bait. His secondary and more sinister intention was to turn Americans against each other, and make them hate and fear their neighbours, whether for how they vote or how they pray or how their language sounds. In that aim, too, he was remarkably successful.

Trump owes his presidency to the paranoid, militant politics bin Laden wanted to provoke in Americans. But the villain was far from victorious. Neither he nor Trump could silence every voice of goodwill. Those voices are still out there, in the hearts and minds of civilians in places like Cleveland, Ohio. The louder they are, the safer the world will be.

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