Deep Afghan Divides
Terry H. Schwadron
Aug. 21, 2021
The non-stop unfolding of the Afghanistan mess leaves us with a few unavoidable conclusions that promise only to deepen divides:
· We’re never getting out all the thousands of Afghans who worked with the American and coalition military, those who worked with Western contractors, military or not, those that helped non-governmental organizations with humanitarian work or those aiding and educating women. Try as he may, whatever hampered emergency efforts Joe Biden can muster simply cannot overcome the logistical nightmare as the Taliban roams in hunt for collaborators with the enemy. Those left behind face certain grimness from public beatings to rape and deaths. Rather unbelievably, the escape flights halted yesterday because there was no other designated place to land once an air base in Qatar was filled — and the administration was scrambling for answers. Biden himself was insistent anew, despite evidence, that every American can get out through Taliban blockades.
· A widening number of political figures on both sides of the aisle are never going to forget what they see as avoidable disaster — despite the certainty that 20 years of Americans dying in Afghanistan did not create a new, reliable ally. Biden’s Republican enemies are declaring open season on him, the administration and promise a year of continuing attacks that openly question Biden’s judgment and overlook that he was carrying out the Donald Trump-negotiated withdrawal. Biden’s crime here is to have embarrassed Americans who unrealistically wanted full withdrawal to be some serene and easy process.
· Disturbing images of those left behind will play out for a long time among allies and adversaries, with future dangers already lurking for both international terrorists and domestic terrorists who see new advantage in the fissures created by not getting everyone out.
· At the same time, we’re seeing an ugly renewal of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee spirit in some quarters that already shows signs of playing out for U.S. immigration more broadly.
Indeed, we have a split only among those who see that this is a very bad thing that will pass or those who think it will dominate any sense of a Biden presidency. No one remembers what else Jimmy Carter achieved, only that American. hostages were held for months at the U.S. embassy in Iraq; no one has forgotten desperation in the departures from Saigon.
Biden, who argues forcefully that Americans, including the same Congress after him now, would not support more U.S. military deployment to an Afghanistan that would not fight for itself, will do whatever is possible in the next 10 days or more to get people out of a hostile Afghanistan. But the situation also threatens to overwhelm needed attentions in Washington a whole range of things from voter rights to Biden’s proposals for big spending to even more targeted concerns like getting to the bottom of the Jan. 6 insurrection attempts.
None of it helps as would-be truth-teller Biden has shaded his remarks on the perceived strengths of the Afghan military (he seems to have been way off in his estimates) or whether intelligence had forwarded warnings (maybe not 11 days, but sooner after withdrawal than six to nine months).
The miscalculation here was not only in Afghanistan or in U.S. intelligence reports, it has been on estimating America’s ability to look at a complicated withdrawal with realistic eyes. We want dramas to end in under an hour and with an agreed-upon justice resulting.
Biden’s Miscalculation: American Patience
Essentially, it’s that same miscalculation we see in other issues we are facing.
The unwillingness of Americans to shoulder complexity is at the heart of what we are experiencing with the refusal of the covid pandemic to simply dissipate, or anything resembling an intelligent approach to requiring masks and public health measures in schools and business.
The same refusal about realism permeates any discussions about immigration policy, climate, health access, income inequality or even the effects of demographic changes being underscored by the emergent Census.
Biden’s big mistake is that by simply laying out a problem, he thinks Americans will be willing to take on sacrifice or work harder in the name of communal concern. Americans can do anything they set their minds on achieving, Biden repeats endlessly, as if waiting for that moment to happen. By contrast, Trump’s much darker view consistently was that Americans only want to be served and obeyed for their immediate convenience and perceived status, and he has encouraged public anger when there is a threat to that perception, reality aside.
Americans want magic, not work or trouble. Food, housing, good-paying jobs, terrific health care and the rest should just appear. For years, it was enough to have political, business and cultural dominance by white men without question, statues honoring the Confederacy, school programs that did not question history, built-in inequalities for all but upwardly mobile young people who never get sick, a military and police presence that dictates to the world what is acceptable, women and people of color or difference in outlook who accept their place –as author Isabel Wilkerson describes in her book, Caste.
The Taliban should be shaking in their boots that Americans want out of their country, and offering to help usher those who worked with the outsiders for 20 years, not being the belligerent bullies they play in real life. Planes should be ferrying tens of thousands out of the country without interference, because that is what the militaristic Americans have demanded, and doing so damn quickly. These refugees should be housed somewhere other than in America, of course, and the Taliban should give back all the weapons confiscated in the Afghan army surrenders.
When does reality kick in here, you might ask.
Where Has Congress Been
After the fall of Saigon, Congress immediately passed a then $500 million bill to house Vietnamese refugees. Have you seen anything like that this week from this Congress that already is insisting on an endless set of Benghazi-like hearings on the failures to avoid the problem that has not yet ended? No, indeed, you see the opposite — a vocal opposition from Republicans to the notion that these same refugees should come to this country at all.
Did you see bills over 20 years from Congress to uphold more military presence in Afghanistan, or just those ever-present slogans either about “winning” or killing Osama bin Laden? What we all saw were myriad attempts to avoid dealing with Afghanistan or Iraq, just as we now are seeing studied attempts to avoid hunting down the domestic terrorists who are exploiting their angers about a changing world to seek the overthrow of our own government, shutting down democratic voting and insisting that Trump won an election that he lost by seven or eight million votes.
There was Republican silence this week, for example, when Sen. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said he fully understood white anger against “socialism” in the government as police were dealing with an apparent crazy person who said he had a truck of explosives outside the Capitol. This is facing reality? Fox News hosts interrupted their constant barrage of anti-Biden moves on Afghanistan only to question whether America should save, but not house refugees, despite actions by individuals to welcome them — this is solution-oriented?
No, we prefer conflict and slogans over solving problems.
We keep polling Americans who say overwhelmingly we should be out of Afghanistan, through four presidencies. There’s no doubt that the end should have been less chaotic, but with the present players in the drama, it is difficult to see exactly how that would be. The problems of withdrawal and balancing of all international, humanitarian and logistical problems are complex; the solutions we demand are simplistic.
Biden’s mistake: He apparently thinks the American psyche can handle complexity.