Cut and run

Published in Dawn – photo by Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images
With thanks to Owais A. Zaheer

It’s not easy being Joe Biden.

He dozes off in press conferences. He’s been wrong about everything since segregation. He owes his presidency to a pandemic, and the fact that the ruling class in D.C. was terrified the White House would stay orange.

But then he did something right. He said no to the Blob: the crew of defence contractors, perma-bureaucrats, and client journalists that have spun mainstream opinion since 9/11. In sum, the Blob ensured the forever wars stayed forever.

And yet Sleepy Joe said no. He called their bluff. He pulled out.

On 31 August 2021, the U.S. Central Command took its own pulse, and pronounced Bush’s crusades dead. It took two trillion dollars, the lives of 47,000 Afghan civilians, and a hideous insurgency next door – for which Pakistan nearly gave its life.

Yes, Biden has bucked the consensus. But after cheering for its longest and dumbest war ever, the Free World has gone into spasms of rage that it’s over – all we’re hearing now is ‘why’ and ‘who’ and ‘goodness, we mustn’t leave’.

It’s a bit of a role reversal: in 2002, Orientalist thinker Bernard Lewis wrote that the Muslim world’s fall was marked by asking ‘who did this to us?’ instead of ‘what went wrong?’ That applies today to the same empire that used Lewis’s theories to bomb more Muslims.

But though this latest outcry is a bit much, it had to be. Mass media has changed. Psy-ops were simpler in the old days; Rumsfeld would bare his canines, Oprah would remove burqas from girls in Madison Square Garden, and we were all busy reading The Kite Runner, a lovely story about a contradiction in terms: Soviet brutality, Parchami brutality, Taliban brutality, and American heroism.

Fast-forward to Kabul surrendering in a week, and that heroism seems to have gone sideways. An invasion that started over an unrelated blood feud between Dick Cheney and Osama’s band of messianic psychopaths closes with a billion-dollar republic falling to militants armed with rifles and sticks.

To cope with this twist ending, the Afghan army has been replaced by an equally shallow pool of Afghanistan experts.

These have come in four waves: first the celebrities, lamenting the plight of the Afghan girl. In the same way the Soviets took up the cause of women’s liberation – even as their soldiers carried out mass rape – so the U.S. has honed in on girls’ education.

It’s an old trope: that Western wars liberate Muslim women. And yet the hundreds of thousands of war widows in Afghanistan say otherwise. The shocking number of boys molested by warlords and their CIA-backed militias says otherwise. The timing of this cry for help says otherwise.

The second wave are the think-tankers – McKinsey consultants and Ivy League bright sparks that wasted acres of paper in support of occupation. Their policy briefs are lining birdcages today.

The third wave are the Saur relics (and the most ironic fans of this forever war): ex-communist dinosaurs that sided with Comrade Brezhnev, and went on to collaborate with professional torturers like Najibullah long after the Russians had murdered their way out. Their ideas failed once, and are now in the act of failing twice.

Fourth and last are real-life war criminals: per Paul Wolfowitz in the Wall Street Journal, ‘…the long war against jihadists has become more daunting.’ Even the other Paul that should be tried at The Hague – L. Paul Bremer – added how Kabul’s fall contrasts ‘with generally favorable developments in Iraq.’

Since gents like these should be in padded cells instead of print, is it really so shocking that all this ended the way it did? The idea that Washington’s chickenhawks would fail at bombing their way to peace, set up a useless mercenary army, and then abandon a country to incoming militants while they cut and run, is being treated with more wonder than it should.

As if that hadn’t already happened in Phnom Penh. Or Tripoli. Or Saigon. Or Mosul.

Then again, these are lessons meant to be lost: like the ghastly Obama, Biden has already gone back to drone-bombing entire families in Kabul. Yet, now or never, the U.S. can scrap its global killing programme abroad, and focus on the refugees it’s morally indebted to take in at home.

As for Pakistan, retired generals and TV anchors gushing over the Taliban would be better-served praising the battered constitutional democracy that allows them to air such awful views, and to respect the fight against militancy that cost us thousands of lives. Until the TTP is finished, Pakistan has everything to lose.

Finally, the most tragic conclusion of this war is a 2020 statistic, per the UNHCR and Statista: 1,438,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and just 2,000 in America (meaning 0.1% of Pakistan’s refugee intake).

This is how the ballad of ‘do more’ ends: with one last abdication. Millions of Afghans and millions of Pakistanis could have had a different life, had empire done less.