The tantalizing comparison between the withdrawal of US forces from Kabul in 2021 and that from Saigon in 1975 has yielded fewer and fewer results in the past 12 days.
Some 7,000 people were evacuated from Vietnam (5,500 Vietnamese civilians and about 1,500 Americans). Instead, more than 95,000 people have fled Afghanistan on a historic airlift since Aug. 14, the day before the capital fell to the Taliban.
The departure from Saigon also did not face suicide bombers. The attack carried out by ISIS on Thursday in Kabul, which killed more than 100 people, including Afghan civilians and the US military, interrupted the evacuation process and turned a crisis into a catastrophe.
The blackest day of Joe Biden’s young presidency has left him without a good alternative. Now he must decide whether to shorten, maintain or extend his August 31 deadline for the total withdrawal of US forces.
If it withdraws now, it would, by most estimates, leave hundreds of American citizens and many thousands of Afghan allies trapped in hostile territory. But staying longer would be an invitation to new deadly attacks by the local branch of ISIS (ISIS-K) and, beyond Tuesday, the Taliban themselves against large crowds at the airport.
“Every day that we are on the ground is another day that we know that ISIS-K is trying to attack the airport and attack both US and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Biden said Tuesday.
A different panorama
Having disappointed international allies who yearned for a recovery of American leadership after Donald Trump, Biden also has to deal with a political landscape that has changed at home. Popular belief has been that relatively few Americans care about the situation in Afghanistan or other foreign policy issues, compared to the coronavirus pandemic and their day-to-day concerns.
But now, after the deadliest day for US troops in Afghanistan in more than a decade, death bags containing the bodies of soldiers will fly home, a wake-up call for the narrow-minded and the listless.
The country needs more than ever the most empathetic side of Biden, not the one he recounts Our Man, the biography of diplomat Richard Holbrooke, written by George Packer (Holbrooke was a US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Obama’s presidency).
According to the bio, in a 2010 private conversation with Holbrooke, Biden argued that the United States has no obligation to the Afghan population who trusted the country: “Fuck it, we don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, Nixon. and Kissinger got away with it “, referring to President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.
The Kabul tragedy, however, will fuel bitter polarization in the United States as well as political unrest. Some Republicans have already demanded the resignation of the president. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley said: “This is the result of Joe Biden’s catastrophic leadership failure. It is now painfully clear that he has neither the will nor the ability to lead. He has to resign.”
The future that lies ahead
Longer term, Thursday’s atrocity gives us a glimpse of the chaos looming in Afghanistan, and how Western-style democracy importation and nation-building efforts have failed. If the group known as ISIS-K wanted to draw the world’s attention and underscore the limits of America’s power, it surely has.
ISIS-K is a staunch enemy of the Taliban and even more ideologically extremist. Their ranks include members of the Taliban resentful of their leaders’ peace talks with the United States. The attack opens the door to the possibility of increased terrorist actions even though the Americans have left.
This is in addition to threats from the Taliban themselves to human rights, particularly those of women and girls, weak government institutions and a crumbling economy. “This is a full-blown humanitarian crisis,” said Bob Menéndez, chairman of the US Senate’s foreign relations committee.
In addition to the parallels with Vietnam, it has also been observed with frustration in recent days that 20 years of American blood and money in Afghanistan has changed nothing. On Thursday, while Pandora’s box was being opened, it was found that perhaps things have changed, but for the worse.
Mehdi Hasan, host of the MSNBC cable news network, tweeted: “We invaded Afghanistan to fight a terrorist group, Al Qaeda, who attacked us. When we leave, we are attacked by another terrorist group, ISIS, worse than Al Qaeda, and that did not exist when we invaded the country. I have said it before: the only thing that the war on terror has given us has been more war and more terror. ”
Translated by Emma Reverter