Thursday, August 19, 2021


This week, the crisis is Afghanistan. Last week it was the Haitian earthquake. For a year and a half, it’s been Covid. Things are not going well on planet Earth, or in the US. 

I don’t mean to trivialize what’s going on in Afghanistan. It’s a mess, a tragedy, and it was inevitable. 

First, let’s be clear about one thing: The Taliban are the equivalent of the barbarians that were held at bay for centuries by the ancient Romans. 

There are in the world, always, advanced civilizations that expand their sphere of influence and bring progress (as well as exploitation) to outlying regions. And then there are tribal societies that are several hundred years behind in their historical and moral development. Their treatment of women alone puts the Taliban somewhere at the beginning of Europe’s Middle Ages. 

The 14th century Arab sociologist  Ibn Khaldun  described the relationship and inherent conflict between advanced urban civilizations and more primitive nomadic groups, and the cycle of rise and fall of the former at the hand of the latter. 
>Now don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that the Taliban is about to take over the White House (although a Taliban-sponsored group did “take over” the New York World Trade Center in 2001). 
What Biden just did is the equivalent of decisions made two thousand years ago by intelligent Roman leaders such as the emperor Hadrian: He abandoned his predecessors’ expansionist policies. Instead, he invested in “defensible borders and the unification of the empire’s disparate peoples. He built Hadrian’s Wall, which marked the northern limit of Britannia.” As Voltaire said, one must cultivate one’s own garden. 

America needs to do just that. Twenty years in Afghanistan is more than enough. Pouring more blood and treasure into a no-win situation year after year reminds me of the addicted gambler feeding more and more money into the slot machine hoping that his luck will turn and that he’ll recoup all his losses in one fell swoop. No one has ever won the Afghanistan gamble, not the British Empire in the 19th century, not the Soviet Union in the 1980s, not the US in the 21st century. 

The Monday morning quarterbacking and the blame game have begun. The Europeans are at it, as are the Republicans and the domestic media in general. See for example   European Criticism. Biden is accused of having failed to consult with our NATO allies, of not having prepared for the withdrawal properly, of not having tried to arrive at an agreement with the Taliban, and of not having foreseen that the Afghan army and government would collapse within a few days. 

Previous crises come to mind: The US embassy evacuation in 1975, when Saigon fell and Americans had to be flown out by helicopters from rooftops. Gerald Ford was president at the time. 

Or the Carter administration’s failure to rescue our embassy staff from Iran in 1980. 

Presidents pay dearly when things go badly, be it their fault or not. Both Ford and Carter became one-term presidents. Both were among our most decent and honest presidents, as is Biden. The three men also share in common the fact that a lot of shit happened under their watch. Let’s hope Biden will not join Ford and Carter and also become a one-term president. No one can seriously think that a Republican president would do a better job. 

Our current president has incredibly much on his plate, a lot of it inherited from his predecessor. He and the country are bedeviled by a pandemic which is again raging out of control. America has been terribly weakened. The public is divided and disoriented. Mask and vaccine recommendations are politicized and insufficiently complied with. After a brilliant head start a few months ago, our vaccination rate now lags behind many other countries. Because of the do-nothing Republicans, Biden is having difficulty advancing his agenda (infrastructure, etc.). 

And so, what about Afghanistan? I’m sorry but I have nothing refreshing to say. Like every other reasonable person, I hope that somehow all the people who need to escape from the Taliban will succeed in doing so, with our help, and that the transition will occur with a minimum of bloodshed. Then we must move on, as we did after the end of the Vietnam war. There was no viable alternative to getting out of Afghanistan. Monday morning quarterbacking is cheap and easy. 

© Tom Kando 2021;All Rights Reserved