There was never an easy way out of Afghanistan

To help readers understand America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan, I’ve drawn up the following imaginary, yet too real, scenarios: 

You’re hosting a dinner party at your home, for six or eight of your closest friends. After the dessert course, you hear Attila and a gang of Huns banging insistently at the door. Your reaction would be:

a. Ignore Attila and pass around a bottle of your finest digestif;

b. Bring out the emergency evacuation plan you drew up several weeks ago and carefully discuss exit strategies with your guests; or

c. Grab your spouse, kids and dog, jump out the kitchen window and make a run for the airport.  

I offer that option (c) is the most realistic and understandable response by most Afghans caught in the pandemonium that is gripping Kabul right now. That is what’s playing out on our TV screens right now. 

But for all the extensive news coverage, I haven’t seen or heard much criticism of President Biden’s decision per se to end this 20-year, trillion-plus-dollar war. His decision in fact generally follows what presidents Obama and Trump said they had intended to do, but never accomplished—to actually get the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

Yet there has been plenty of morning-after criticism about the chaotic end of this tragic war, and the disordered evacuation of American and other foreigners, in addition to Afghans who had worked with NATO countries during the war. 

Videos of screaming babies being handed over the concertina wire surrounding the Kabul airport, or desperate adults clinging to huge U.S. Air Force cargo planes, begging for a place aboard, are the stuff of nightmares for anyone with a grain of empathy, whatever their politics might be. 

Chaotic flight out of Kabul: Vietnamese boatlift redux. 

This weekend, though, Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair posted a lengthy jeremiad on his website, slamming Biden’s obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’, as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even 10 years ago, or the chaotic end to that ‘forever war.’ “

Them are some serious charges, coming from someone who’s a proven expert in imbecilic policies. Blair, if you recall,  led Britain to embrace the disastrous American-led  invasion of Iraq, and supported President George W. Bush’s fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq so doggedly that commentators nicknamed him “Bush’s Poodle.” Many poodle fanciers in Britain took umbrage at the analogy. 

The tragedy now, though, is the spectacle of a chaotic disentanglement of the U.S. in Afghanistan and morning-after speculation about what could have been done differently, more calmly or neatly. I suspect the answer is a pessimistic “not much.”   

For that conclusion I draw on my own memories of being shipped out of Cuba, alone, at age 14 by my terrified parents who saw all the signposts of their modest but placid life—a small home and business, a circle of friends, a Catholic school that I attended—swept away by hordes of bearded rebels bent on establishing a communist paradise and worshipping Lenin, Marx and other idols they’d never heard of

Though I don’t have any children, I can only imagine the terror and desperation my parents must have felt when they decided to send their only child to that strange world called the United States. Or the anguish of thousands of Vietnamese fleeing the communist takeover of their country, by jumping in overloaded boats with the hope that someone on the high seas would rescue them. 

Or the bitter bit of reality it is for the U.S. and its NATO allies to admit that the 20 years of blood, treasure and prestige they invested in the Afghan conflict were for naught: To admit defeat. 

The Aug. 22 CBS Sunday Morning News show had a heartrending opinion piece by retired Staff Sgt. Travis Mills who lost both arms and legs to a land mine, during his third tour in Afghanistan. His refrain to fellow American and NATO soldiers who served in Afghanistan was a simple, “We did good.” He recounted all the schools, hospitals and reforms implemented during the past 20 years. Indeed, we did good, Sgt. Travis, and I salute you valor. But now it’s all over.  

(Cartoon borrowed from the Washington Post)

The most difficult part of this ordeal, apart from getting out of Afghanistan, is for the refugees to adapt to whatever country receives them. 

Despite America’s historic generosity toward immigrants from all corners of the world, Afghans’ insertion into American society may prove difficult on account of anti-Muslim prejudice fostered by the 9/11 terrorist attack, and subsequently manipulated by President Trump and his own xenophobic hordes. 

But inevitably these new immigrants will adapt, just like the Vietnamese settled in Little Saigons in Houston, Chicago and other large cities, and the Cubans in Little Havana in Miami. 

I’m sure they will succeed too. There’s a process of self-selection underlying these seemingly chaotic mass migrations, that attracts people with uncommon courage and motivation to succeed. This injection of immigrant talent will be a boon to America, and may even begin to salve the wounds suffered by all sides. 

At any rate, as a once penniless immigrant talking to another, I extend the Afghans who will arrive at our shores over the next several months a hearty welcome and best wishes. 

As-salaam alaikum: Peace be unto you. You deserve it. 

For another take on this topic, read this New York Times opinion column

For yet a third take on this topic, check out Ezra Klein’s column in today’s New York Times.


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