Tuesday 31 August 2021

Leaving Afghanistan

The news weighed heavily on me yesterday. An end to a war as long as my adult life, messy, heartbreaking and complicated. 

Do these things ever really end? 

I started going to protests and getting involved with activism to prevent this conflict. 20 years ago, I was trying to dig my little heels in against a stupid president and his military escapades. I didn't believe George W. Bush would accomplish anything to make this country safer. 

In community college, I helped run teach-ins about what we were doing. It opened my eyes to the importance of foreign policy, the brutal history of US puppeteering in countries that had often been occupied and brutalized repeatedly, as Afghanistan has. I didn't have all the answers, not even close, but I was certain that lots of guns and bombs were not the solution. 

Moreover, it was clear that the Bush administration didn't have a solution either, nor even a plan, which was absolutely horrifying. 

Shortly after W was reelected, I went off to university in London, hopeful that I could help change the world. I spent the years of his second term having to answer for American stupidity and violence that I had tried to fight at the ballot box, in the streets, and in the written word. 

I was old enough to enter this war when it started, though I wasn't old enough to drink. Over time, I met more and more people who served in Afghanistan, both in the military and the diplomatic corps. I had tea with Pashtun friends and talked with them about their families back home, their children that were growing up half a world away in villages vulnerable to attack. The conflict dragged on and on under Obama, but there was also some sense of grim stability in it, never comfortable and never safe. 

Meanwhile, in the US, we taught our population to fear the Taliban, hooking their medieval violence and hideous misogyny to our homegrown Islamophobia. I don't find it shocking that Trump, that carrot-faced nightmare clown of white supremacy incarnate, had no qualms about negotiating surrender to the Taliban. I do find it shocking that Biden decided to keep going down that path. 

So we withdrew air support and intelligence, two major military advantages our alliance offered to the Afghan fighters, and those that fought by our side despite heavy casualties (much, much heavier than our own) and constant threats lost the last shreds of hope and fled. A government that existed with American protection and financial aid was not strong enough to stand without it. Almost instantly, 20 years worth of uneven progress toward women's freedom and opportunity was buried. 

I wasn't around for the war in Vietnam, and I know the draft made that different for my parents' generation. But this was my Vietnam. This was the war that chewed up a smaller number of my colleagues, but haunted us on the news and challenged us to find any possibility of progress. And now I have seen that country collapse in real time, and it feels like some part of my heart has imploded, too. 

I am not in the mood to discuss American lives. I don't value them more than Afghan lives. I am grateful that we managed to evacuate thousands in our bungled exit, but so many remain, and over 20 years of cooperation an estimated 250,000 people qualified for the types of visas that should have gotten them on planes out of Kabul with their families. Our evacuations in the last two weeks, while huge, have gotten at most half that number out of the country. Much like our entry, our exit from Afghanistan feels unplanned, and the toll of that rests heavily on the same Afghans that arrogant cowboy Americans command to stay and fight. 

The era of Team America World Police seems to be drawing to a close. The Taliban have reclaimed their country. The resistance in the Panjshir Valley is crying out for aid, and mostly finding themselves alone. Women now at the age that I was when I started my awakening to all of this are having their dreams snuffed out, hopes of university and agency stripped from them suddenly after a lifetime of growing up with Americans at their side. 

So many wrong choices have been made here. I feel sick with it all, and so small. The enormity of it all is so hard to hold.

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