It's a White Christmas in Afghanistan
The crush of refugees waiting to be rescued is tragic and predictable--because this is what surrender looks like
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A scene outside Hamid Karzai International Airport this week. Photo credit: Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons
The Taliban’s swift advance to the gates of and into Kabul surprised many people, but it didn’t surprise me.
On March 26, the New York Times reported that President Joe Biden would blow through Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban, negotiated in February 2020, that the United States would withdraw all troops by May 1, 2021. However, before they were voted out in November, the Trump administration dramatically reduced troop levels from 13,000 to 2,500 and released 5,000 Taliban fighters as part of the deal. These actions set the stage for a successful summer offensive that ended in the apparently swift collapse of the US-supported Afghan regime.
At the same time, as Afghan refugees have been pouring into Pakistan, Turkey, and other neighboring countries in the past 18 months, during 2020, the Trump administration reduced the number of refugees it would admit. According to the Pew Research Center, that reduction went from 30,000 to 18,000, prioritizing Christians over Muslims worldwide. In other words, at the same time Donald Trump handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban, it slammed the door shut on Afghans who did not support a Taliban regime and, absent a lengthy and obstructive bureaucratic process, might have had over a year to exit the country.
Why? The 2020 election, of course. Trump supporters hate immigrants—not just undocumented ones, all of them. Although 66% of Americans overall believe that immigrants strengthen the country, “Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents,” Pew researchers report, only “41% say immigrants strengthen the country, while 44% say they burden it.” Moreover, a significant “32% say that if America is too open to people from all over the world, the country risks losing its identity as a nation.”
In other words, Donald Trump planned both to withdraw from Afghanistan and leave the vast majority of Afghans who had been allied with the United States and women and girls to their fate under a Taliban government.
That was the plan all along, and the Biden administration could not turn it around, except by breaking the deal to withdraw, recommitting to propping up a corrupt, failed state, and starting the peace process all over again. Simultaneously, the administration would have had to launch a refugee resettlement program that signaled to allies and foes alike that the US was not actually committed to supporting the existing government and that the Taliban should attack vigorously.
Thus, the tragic and heart-rending scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport were entirely predictable, and I think, unavoidable. The only difference now is that the Biden administration is willing to help Afghan refugees on an emergency basis. In fact, almost twice as many Afghans have been evacuated in the last three days than were permitted to emigrate to the United States in 2019.
Despite all the brave words you have heard from Pentagon and State Department suits exhorting the Afghans to “fight for their own country,” intelligence officials and the Pentagon warned Biden the minute he took office that a full-scale collapse of the Afghan army was imminent. So when the New York Times announced this on March 26, I tweeted: “Are they playing White Christmas yet?”
On April 14, when Biden announced that he would withdraw all American troops by September 11, I tweeted: “They are playing White Christmas.” And on July 2, as I watched one provincial capital after another fall to the Taliban, I predicted: “They will play White Christmas in Kabul in weeks.”
I tried to warn you. You didn’t listen.
A person has to be of a certain age, of course, to catch the allusion. After the United States pulled out of Vietnam, North Vietnamese forces drove steadily towards Saigon, the capital city. Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops, supposedly trained to take over the war, clothed in American-made uniforms, and armed with American equipment, melted away in front of a battle-hardened, confident North Vietnamese army.
Throughout April, the United States gradually reduced personnel and equipment even further, sliding out the back door of a war that it had been losing for years. Americans remaining in Saigon knew it. They were armed with a code and warned not to share it with any Vietnamese outside of a small circle of collaborators. The signal was this: Armed Forces Radio would announce: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising,” followed up with Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.
That meant: grab your go-bag and head to the American embassy. It’s over. On April 28, 1975, the directive from President Gerald Ford came. They played “White Christmas,” and the final evacuation commenced. In less than a day, dozens of Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, known to American troops as Hueys, ferried 9,000 people from the embassy roof to troopships waiting offshore. A few hours after the last helicopter departed on April 30, leaving thousands of weeping Vietnamese behind, North Vietnamese tanks rammed the gates of the presidential palace. Twenty years of United States aggression in Vietnam was over.
Now, twenty years of American aggression in Afghanistan is over, barring (I hope) some last-minute aerial b*llsh*t to support insurgent troops to the north of Kabul. And what is astonishing to me is the vast number of political and journalism desk jockeys, mostly people who have mostly never even served in the military, much less strategized the withdrawal of potentially hundreds of thousands of people, who seem to think that this isn’t how imperial wars always end. If you don’t believe me, look at what happened to the 15-20% of British loyalists left behind at the end of the American Revolution—and the brutality that our precious forbears visited on them.
It’s what surrender looks like. And if you are one of the many thousands of civilians who helped the American invaders, you get out if you are lucky or connected—not because they ever had a plan to end an ugly war in a pretty way.
The problem with the optic in Afghanistan was the optics. At his Substack, Bad News, Intercept reporter Ryan Grim hits the nail on the head about why all the frantic criticism of Joe Biden misses the point. “In other words, to avoid the scenes we’re now seeing, the U.S. would have had to negotiate the terms of surrender to the Taliban. Nobody in the national security establishment was recommending any such thing, and if they weren’t, then they have no grounds to speak after the fact.” And why was so much US military equipment left behind for the Taliban? Because the Afghan Army was supposed to be using it. (August 17, 2021)
Don’t get sick in Alabama this week. Or if you do, don’t get really sick. As of yesterday, there were exactly two ICU beds in the entire state, and today they may be gone. This means ICU beds for not just Covid-19 but also people having strokes, heart attacks, victims of car accidents, and gunshot wounds. Two. As Eddie Burkhalter of the Alabama Political Reporter informs us, 88% of the Alabamians in those beds are unvaccinated. Eight months after the vaccine became available, the state is on track to surpass its peak infection count, set last January, in two days. (August 16, 2020)
Cancel your plans to visit Mississippi too. With only 36% of the population fully vaccinated, hospitalizations are exploding there too. As Will Stribling reported on Monday, “The University of Mississippi Medical Center will open a second field hospital in one of its parking garages, another attempt at propping up a hospital system on the verge of collapse due to a surge of COVID-19 patients.” In the week of August 9, the state broke its single-day case record three times. (August 15, 2021)