Afghans reflect on what it feels like to have their future determined by another nation’s elections, and Americans are wondering why the war there went so wrong.
The endless streams of analysis about why the Taliban are now in control of Kabul, after being kept out of power for twenty years by a US military presence, fail to engage with the main advantage the Taliban had over the Americans. They lived there, and the Americans did not.
The Americans could go back home, but the Afghan people could not. They were already home. And while the Afghans who were willing and able to participate in a civil society American money and effort helped create, they never earned the full rights and privileges of American citizens.
By the most basic terms of democracy, four American presidents and hundreds of lawmakers were never as responsible for Afghans in the same way they were for Americans. Afghans could not vote in American elections, but the results of American elections would ultimately decide their future. Afghanistan never had its own senators and congressional representatives.
The question these last few days should raise is whether the US can be an arsenal of democracy while still being a democracy itself, one where most people wanted US forces out of the country. Is it possible to make American voters be responsible both for their own fate and the fate of others under American protection?
TRT World spoke to several young Afghans whose entire lives had been reshaped by the presence of the US, and ultimately by the decisions of American voters. Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden all vowed to remove US forces. Trump began and Biden oversaw a farcical peace process that asked for no concessions from the Taliban that would protect the Afghans. It only forbade the Taliban from attacking American citizens, or harbouring those who would attack the US or its interests.
‘’The freedoms that Americans enjoy...We had a taste of it. And then it was taken away from us. The very people who gave 70 million votes to Biden, Democrat or Republican it doesn’t matter here. What matters here is that two men in the White House, Trump and Biden, surrendered our dreams and our hopes to a terrorist organisation,’’ said Edris, a 30-year-old journalist in Kabul.
Edris expressed regret that under Taliban rule, he would likely not be able to sit and chat with female friends again, at least not in public as he had a week ago. He described deleting his social media presence, for fear of running afoul of the Taliban for something that might offend them.
‘’Our identity is being taken away,’’ he added.
And while the Taliban have been on a media blitz since taking Kabul, one women’s rights advocate, Pashtana Durrani, told TRT World that the group’s promises of protecting the rights of women should not be believed absent concrete actions. She and other advocates want clear guarantees that girls would still be able to go to school and women would still be able to work the jobs they want. The Taliban prohibited Afghan women and girls from doing both when they ruled Kabul in the 1990s.
‘’They need to walk the talk,’’ Durrani said. At 23-years-old, she has never known an Afghanistan without Americans there. But they could always leave and go back home.
Americans and their choices
Most Afghans don’t have anywhere else to go. And they will have to rely on the Taliban’s word from now on, but the ability to maintain a state remains to be seen. It is likely that the Taliban government, rich with rare earth minerals, will rely heavily on allied countries with more sophisticated biometric surveillance services to maintain power and enforce their dictates on daily life. Freedom of association, speech and belief, and even movement, especially for women, could drop down a bottomless digital abyss.
They may have already been given a head start after capturing biometric scanners and potential trove of sensitive biometric data, tools and information used specifically to identify Afghans who worked for the US government. The equipment and data were reportedly just left behind, the Intercept reported. That’s in addition to rows of vehicles, rifles and other weapons the US left behind. If the Americans could not take care of their possessions in the departure, it seems absurd to expect them to take care of human beings.
Biden made it clear during the presidential campaign last year that he felt he had no responsibility for the fate of Afghan women. But the imperative for many voters at the time was not a close reading of foreign policy, aside from wanting to end the international embarrassment of having a foul-mouthed scam artist as president. Now, millions of those same Biden are shocked by the grim images from a country that rarely reached the evening news or the local newspaper’s front page.
Durrani said she understood why American voters, and women specifically, in 2020 made the choice they did.
‘’American women who voted for Biden, he was the only option that they had. Other than Trump and all those people. So for me, I wouldn’t say I expect them to understand our situation or anything like that, but I would expect the American women to stand by Afghan women. Instead of showing Afghan women as victims, we should be standing by Afghan women,’’ she said.
‘’We should be giving Afghan women the space to talk and give their narrative and letting them talk about the changes they need. The world should pressure the Taliban to accept their narrative and demands and needs.’’
Although just 27, Mujtaba Haris remembers flashes of life under the Taliban when he was a child. He says he recalls a time when the Taliban assaulted his mother for wearing the wrong shoes outside.
‘’My mom was wearing sandals. She was in a hurry and she forgot to wear normal shoes, as the Taliban required. She was wearing a burka. They still beat her with a stick,’’ Haris said. ‘’I was begging them not to hit my mom. I will never forget those memories.’’
For American voters who are Haris’ age, this is perhaps the first they are hearing about what the Taliban is and does. The news of the Taliban taking Kabul hit the American Internet like an information hurricane. It stunned the public as though they had never heard of a hurricane before, while its arrival had been forecasted for years.
Other Americans are willing to donate their own money for the rescue of Afghans who may be in danger of direct Taliban reprisals. An Instagram memepage run by an American started a crowdfunding campaign to put Afghans on planes out of the country. It raised more than four million dollars in less than 24 hours. The funds came from Americans, but also from people all around the world.
‘’Forgive us. Your lives matter,’’ one donor, Andrea Gomez, wrote on the GoFundMe page.
The other comments reflect a similar sentiment.
‘’Because every human deserves a chance to live without fear,’’ said Amy Avery.
‘’Being born in Afghanistan shouldn’t be a death sentence,’’ wrote Mary Bradford.
‘’It’s the least an American citizen can do,’’ said David K Rasmussen.
Inevitably, right-wing cable pundits have seized on the chaos of the departure as evidence that Biden is incapable of leading. There has also been a sneering contempt for the concept of accepting Afghan refugees. One of them claims it’s all a plot to bring “a couple hundred thousand more Ilhan Omars to come into America to change the body politic permanently,’’ referring to one of two Muslim congresswomen.
Even with the best of intentions, the donation campaign reflects the frustrating inability of Americans to make moral choices about their foreign policy with their votes, given the information their elected leaders and media sources provide. These can be misinformed, ignorant or bigoted themselves. Sustaining a war over generations is simply asking too much of voters.
The million-dollar question
Terrorist attacks both large and small seek to scramble the conscience of democratic societies by presenting an impossible moral dilemma. Some voters, or perhaps most, will want to take vengeance. But that can lead to a spiral of militarization and national disappointment that turns citizens against each other, blaming each other, and distrusting each other, breaking apart the fabric of civil society stitch by stitch, a sustained dose of radiation quietly dismantling its genetic code. The price of taking that vengeance could be the entire democracy itself.
By withdrawing from Afghanistan, Biden may be trying to save American democracy by removing a source of division. He discounted the idea that the political backlash would come from abandoning Afghan civilians, according to American diplomat and author Richard Holbrooke.
"We don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger got away with it," Biden said to Holbrooke, then special envoy to the United Nations, when discussing whether the US should leave Afghanistan in 2009.
Biden was referring specifically to Nixon’s decision to announce an eventual US departure during his first term. He won re-election in 1972, and insisted that the US would seek ‘’peace with honour’’ in Vietnam. But winning re-election is not the only metric of success in politics. To maintain the fiction of an honourable end to the war, Nixon had to lie to the American people. Put bluntly, Biden was supposed to be the president who restored honesty to the White House after Trump’s reign of bombastic falsehoods.
With all that in mind, it may be a while before anyone can know the full consequences of the last week of history, much less what it means for Biden’s chances of winning re-election 2024.
‘’That’s the million-dollar question,’’ Vasabjit Banerjee, an assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University told TRT World. ‘’There are three interrelated responses. It is too early to say, foreign policy rarely affects presidential elections, and thus it will depend on how long this crisis continues.’’
The White House may also be miscalculating the degree that leaving in the way the US is leaving will be a more durable political liability than it was for Nixon. Smartphones have long memories, and memes aghast at American defeat are digestible instantaneously across the world.
More than that, images of civilians suffering under Taliban rule or in further civil conflict will continue to appear, floating through our timelines and reminding us of hopelessness or giving courage to people prone to carrying out acts of violence in the name of politics or religion. The feeling of national defeat has in the past emboldened far-right movements into deadlier variants.
All that said, from a statistical perspective, Biden has done what America wanted. Majorities of voters in both parties preferred the US military to depart Afghanistan. To many, the war did not seem like it was capable of being won or lost, but only able to continue indefinitely or end abruptly.
Biden in his speech on Tuesday echoed this intuitive understanding of the war’s course.
‘’I’m now the fourth American president to preside over war in Afghanistan. Two Democrats and two Republicans. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president. I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference,’’ Biden said, in a stunning admission that other presidents, including Barack Obama with whom he served for eight years, had been misleading American voters.
By logical extension, that means that voters had never been deciding what their military should do based on valid, honest information. That’s a severe indictment of American foreign policy, but it fails to tell the entire story. Biden was offering his constituents a reason for why the war went the way it did, and it was that they had been lied to.
Amid this miasma of misinformation, American presidents could do little but keep pulling triggers, and the voters’ only role was to keep feeding them ammunition. The cumulative effect is the electorate’s numbness to even considering complex moral choices, and a resigned deference to the experts. But a democracy is not a democracy if it can’t tell its leaders when to stop shooting.
’Afghanistan is your fault’
One professional pundit, war history expert and pugilistic Twitter personality named Tom Nichols, still placed the blame on the American people. ‘’Afghanistan is Your Fault,’’ Nichols wrote in The Atlantic.
‘’After the worst attack on U.S. soil, Americans had no real interest in adult conversation about the reality of anti-terrorist operations in so harsh an environment as Afghanistan (which might have entailed a presence there long beyond 20 years), nor did they want to think about whether “draining the swamp” and modernizing and developing Afghanistan (which would mean a lot more than a few elections) was worth the cost and effort,’’ Nichols wrote.
He also repeated a phrase from the early 2000s, attributed to a US officer in Iraq, that expressed the military’s frustration with the distracted electorate that had sent US soldiers there to do their killing and dying for them.
‘’We’re at war,’’ the saying goes, ‘’America is at the mall.’’
For the professional commentators now outraged and confused that Biden has decided to do what he was elected to do, it’s not only that they failed to understand Afghanistan, it’s also that they failed to understand the country that had gone to war there. The US is a different place than it was in 2001.
But rather than being at the mall, in the time before television screens in every pocket, distant nightmares and outrages seep into the subconscious of politics. The brain doesn’t know how to interpret such a flood of images and divide them into a clear picture of the world, or to decide what is an immediate threat.
"We’re at war, America is driving while looking at its phone.’’
Alex Ameter, a former US army officer who served in Afghanistan, working to train Afghan army officers during the middle of the 2010s, said the supporters of the war, including the military, did not grasp how much the US electorate had changed since the start of the war.
‘’They do not understand the American public,’’ Ameter told TRT World. ‘’It was very clear to everyone that Americans were never going to let us stay in Afghanistan for 40 years. Even in the 20 years, we were there, we weren’t doing what we needed to do.’’
Kelsey Atherton, a journalist covering national security and drone warfare policy, said that the world as well was not prepared for an interminable, meandering conflict that took nearly 50 thousand civilian lives.
‘’Using the latest technology to bomb weddings is horrific and makes it hard to claim responsible stewardship of global hegemony. I don't know if China or Russia or anyone else was, like, thrilled that the US had 20 straight years of live-testing modern comms and weapons, but I don't think they were in a rush to see us go.
Some editorials in the American press criticised Biden for failing to maintain the ‘’stalemate’’ between the US and the Taliban. But thinking there was a stalemate at all depends on bad information sent up from the ground to the Pentagon, Ameter said. It all relied on numbers that were not reflective of the ability of the Afghan soldiers to fight on their own.
‘’Washington cared about how many missions the Afghans carried out, and not whether they were able to do it on their own. That would have built confidence. You need confidence on the battlefield. If the Afghans had to plan and carry out their missions all on their own, it would mean fewer missions per month. But Washington didn’t want lower numbers, even though those reflected what the Afghan army was actually capable of,’’ he added.
With faulty figures flowing from the ground all the way to Washington, and then back into the ears and eyes of voters. But the task for them was ultimately too complex. The humanitarian consequences of the US departure were never clear, because the inflated statistics created the illusion of US forces being able to make a dignified retreat.
The lesson of Afghanistan may be that the bloody business of warfighting is not the best way to achieve that goal. A lost war is a lost bet. There is something inherently unfair with wagering the lives and futures of millions of people.
Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst doesn’t think it is possible for the US to be both an arsenal for democracy and a democracy in its own right.
‘’I do think it's possible for the U.S. to fulfil these roles simultaneously. The biggest question for me is what is in our arsenal, so to speak. The USA is a leading exporter of arms (including too many non-democratic regimes) but its investment in non-military tools lags,’’ Musgrave said.
‘’The House-proposed State and foreign operations budget, helmed by Rep. Barbara Lee, would expand the funding for non-military programs in public health, climate change, and (nonviolent) democracy promotion, but much more needs to be done there. Whether or not you think the 2020s will be a period of ‘great power competition,’ the more than ten to one ratio between America's investments in military and diplomacy is not in our interests.’’
This reflects Ameter’s view that the State Department mission in Afghanistan was not given the resources it needed to engage fully with the Afghan people.
‘’Why don’t we work to create quality alliances, do real public diplomacy,’’ Ameter recalls asking a top US embassy official when he was there.
‘’That’s what the Department of State is supposed to be good at,’’ he said. ‘’Her response was that it wasn’t just Afghanistan where State had trouble with that, but everywhere.’’
In the final analysis, what kind of lesson can American voters take from what happened in Afghanistan? The lesson is perhaps that it is not over yet. The ultimate practitioners of public diplomacy are Americans themselves. Now more than ever, they can display their personalities and moral character for the whole world online, for better or worse.
The next chapter in the US-Afghan relationship will be the divisive political issue of refugees. American voters will continue to make decisions about the fates of Afghans they’ve never met, whether to accept them or reject them. And whether or not American voters abandon their moral responsibility to their fellow human beings will determine how history judges them.