How Afghanistan is a lesson in humility
Captured 20 years apart, two viscerally shocking images from New York City and Kabul come together to tell one of the dominant stories of our interlinked and increasingly calamitous 21st century.
The first person to make that explicit connection was the Twitter user @qaummunist on August 16, just after hordes of desperate Afghans attempted to clamber onboard an already moving American C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft.
The pilots kept going, and as their plane angled into the sky, two men were seen plunging to their deaths (they had probably been clinging to the wheels).
@aummunist’s real name is Syed Aalim Akhtar. He’s a 25-year-old PhD candidate in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi (with roots in Amroha, in Uttar Pradesh).
Asked how he came to that brilliant insight in the veritable blink of an eye, Akhtar told me: “I have worked on 9/11 literature as part of my research, focussed particularly on the visuality associated with the World Trade Centre towers.” Thus, when he saw the footage from Kabul, “the connection was immediate.”
In the moment, Akhtar posted an image of the men plummeting from the American plane next to Richard Drew’s famous “Falling Man” photograph from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, explaining that “the two visuals [are] connected in history, violence, politics.”
Akhtar added further thoughts (I have retained his no-capitals syntax): “there is something very eerie in these two images in the way in which they connect through a ‘free fall.’ both were invisible to the naked eye, except as indistinguishable dots. they gained human recognition only when they crashed against the ground with a loud thud.”
Finally, “modernity’s obsession with speed attains its climax in new york and kabul. one feels like an endless repetition of another -- skies, heights, free falls, and indistinguishable dots of humanity. The modern maxim of one who gains speed gains territory is overturned.”
There’s another aspect to what happened. In 2011, the “Falling Man” images were widely understood as disrespectful. The hometown New York Times published one on September 12, and never again. The photographs became not exactly forbidden, but generally off-limits. No such compunctions will remain after Kabul.
Of course, that is not the only culture shift after the American haste to lift-off from Afghanistan, leaving billions of dollars in armaments, and 20,000 of their own citizens to the custody of the Taliban.
Also laid bare is the rotten core of Western adventurism in Afghanistan, from the pipelines of cash that built up the mujahideen who eventually became the Taliban, to the absurdly named Operation Enduring Freedom, launched 20 years ago.
Back then, a huge range of countries gathered to abet the American bombing campaign (it took much longer to put troops on the ground). Bangladesh rallied: No troops, but use of its ports and airports. India offered equipment (helicopters to the Northern Alliance), intelligence, and infrastructure.
At that time, George W Bush declared: “We are supported by the collective will of the world. We defend not only our precious freedoms, but also the freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free from fear. We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail.”
While that notably empty suit is often correctly derided as the worst American president, even below the boorishly incompetent Donald Trump, it was the prematurely sainted Joe Biden who dropped the other shoe this week.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building,” he said. “It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”
This is extraordinarily cynical doublespeak, coming from an administration that -- along with its predecessors -- propped up an obviously untenable and atrociously corrupt regime. Even its own president wouldn’t fight for it, as we now know, after Ashraf Ghani showed up in the UAE (allegedly toting $169 million in purloined state funds).
Here, it’s vital to pay attention to commentators like America’s own Howard French, the veteran foreign correspondent and author, whose August 18 analysis in World Politics Review is entitled “Afghanistan is a lesson in humility.”
French says: “The narrative about the Afghans being unwilling to fight is wrong. During their two decades of combat in cooperation with the United States, Afghan security forces lost 60,000 men, an order of magnitude greater than the death toll among allied Western forces.” Instead, this failure “was about the rottenness of Afghan elites, and their utter disconnectedness from the lives of ordinary people.”
With the experience of decades covering interventionist escapades, French notes: “This is a problem seen almost everywhere the West has sought to prop up regimes first and foremost --no matter what Western leaders declare publicly about human rights and other lofty virtues -- to shield the West itself from perceived dangers of one kind or another.”
In this way, “moral hazard accumulates as the job of those in government becomes more and more about maintaining their privilege, rank and opportunities for graft. The ordinary men and women who must put their lives on the line [eventually] ask themselves: ‘Why should I die for this lot of thieves?’”
“The end always comes quickly when moral hazard has been piled so high, and so it was in Afghanistan,” says French.
The final conclusion: “Old-fashioned imperialism, where faraway powers can prop up client states and help them gin up legitimacy through budgetary largesse and military training, has been in its death agonies for years. In the end, Afghanistan is going to have to be ruled by Afghans, and not according to the preferences of others … It almost certainly will not be pretty, and indeed may be painful, most of all perhaps for the women and girls of the country. But the old models don’t work anymore, if they ever did, and there is simply no avoiding this fact.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.