For the first 24 hours after the fall of Kabul, the silence of the White House was deafening. Finally, against the backdrop of horrific scenes of desperation at the airport unfolding on our screens large and small, President Biden has announced his intention to address the nation.
It is perhaps understandable that even the President of the United States could only step back in mute horror as we all witnessed the tragedy unfolding, in real time, in Afghanistan. It is understandable that Joe Biden, like his predecessor and nemesis Donald Trump and a majority of Americans, has come to the conclusion that it is time to stop throwing good lives after bad ones in an attempt to impose the democracy to a place that clearly doesn’t buy. .
It is another thing to witness the real human consequences of this decision. The cries of help sent on social media and emails from those who believed and tried to help the western democratic experiment, the scenes of people desperately trying to cling to get off planes and fall back to earth. All echo like a strange coda the heartbreaking phone calls and free-falling bodies of the doomed occupants of New York’s Twin Towers almost exactly 20 years ago – the massacre that sparked this mishap.
Fall of Kabul, Fall of Saigon: Their horror was our horror. Anguished, we pray for a miracle
We cannot forget these scenes. The bad guys won. They believe in violence rather than negotiation, oppression rather than tolerance. They are undemocratic and misogynistic thugs.
Sloppy withdrawal plans
Once we face the immediate humanitarian crisis that our botched and clearly ill-informed withdrawal plans have created in Kabul, it’s important for us to have a longer conversation about what we’re going to do about it.
It is up to President Biden to seize it. It is his responsibility to help the nation cope with the consequences of a foreign policy entanglement he has opposed. As one of Biden’s heroes, President John Kennedy once said: “life is unfair.”
Over the past 24 hours, I have had the painful privilege of reading transcripts of interviews that one of our Missouri School of Journalism students, Sean Brynda, has done over the past few weeks with Missourians who have served in Afghanistan. In their clear, distinctively Middle American voices, you hear the agonizing mix of emotions that many of us are now feeling. They describe the frustrations of working with untrustworthy “allies” whose penchant for betrayal has left many American soldiers feeling that the next drive might be the last. For some of them, the trauma and PTSD changed their lives. And yet those same veterans have also expressed their horror at leaving behind other Afghans – those who have clung to America and its promise of freedom.
If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it’s an exact copy of the American experience after Vietnam, a foreign policy failure that was masterfully dissected in journalist Frances FitzGerald’s article. . “Fire in the lake”, a book that clearly not enough American policymakers have read.
Biden is a member of the Vietnamese generation. This disaster clearly shaped his decision to reduce US casualties in Afghanistan. No one is better equipped to help Americans finally begin to assimilate the lessons we did not learn after the fall of Saigon. Biden’s years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prepared him to lead the nation to shape – finally – a true post-war foreign policy, one that relies more on diplomatic and economic power than on political power. military power which, as Vietnam and now Afghanistan have shown, is ultimately ineffective.
Long relationship with the Mujahedin
When I traveled to the Afghanistan border over thirty years ago with Charlie Wilson, the Texas congressman whose swashbuckling efforts on behalf of the Afghan warlords fighting the Soviet Union later inspired the film, “Charlie Wilson’s War” it was clear that America was on the wrong side of history. Pakistan was the funnel of much of the not-so-secret funding Wilson was sending to the Mujahedin guerrilla fighters and the congressman was therefore treated on the red carpet.
One evening, we went to a dinner in honor of Charlie hosted by the then president of the country, Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. As we passed through the old Pakistani capital, Rawalpindi, our convoy passed through scenes that seemed centuries old: people riding carts pulled by water buffaloes. The women were wrapped in purdah from head to toe. Inside the house where the dinner was held, however, there were women who quickly stripped off their traditional outerwear to reveal elegant, fashionable, and expensive outfits. The conversation around the table was the ultra-mundane chatter of people accustomed to traveling the world and staying at the forefront of thought and fashion.
I couldn’t, and still haven’t shaken it, the strong suspicion that the money Charlie was so actively channeling through Pakistan was supporting the hypocritical way of life of a small class of pampered oligarchs at the expense of of their fellow citizens.
There must be a better way. And there’s no better time than now to start talking about it. We have tried to bring democracy to the Middle East. But we gave them chaos.
It is urgent that America and its allies begin to determine how we are going to manage an undemocratic movement that is global and growing. This is not a distant conflict in a place that is difficult to understand: As January 6 showed, not even the United States Capitol is immune from a siege.
Biden admitted it: from the start of his administration, he announced that we were in a fight between democracy and autocracy. He needs to seize this moment to start making plans for how we’re going to win.
The president must find the words for it. He must speak hard truths even if they cost him politically. In the long run, the freedom for the rest of us to say what we think may depend on it.
Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and a former Washington reporter for USA TODAY.