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June 29 2022 4:10 PM ˚
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What Joe Biden and I saw in Afghanistan

Architect, urban activist, and landscaper Bilal Hammad (Photo: Handout from Bilal Hammad)
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I was not surprised that Joe Biden decided to finally pull the plug on the US presence in Afghanistan. Back in 2002, it was reasonable to hope that our invasion there to topple Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies could be extended to help make that country a more stable, tolerant, and decent place for its citizens — and less likely to host terrorist groups. But it was also reasonable to fear from the start that trying to graft a Western political culture onto such a deeply tribalized, male-dominated, and fundamentalist culture like Afghanistan’s was a fool’s errand, especially when you factored in how much neighboring Pakistan never wanted us to succeed because it could wrench Afghanistan from Pakistan’s cultural and geopolitical orbit.اضافة اعلان

Biden was torn between those hopes and fears from the very start. I know because I was with him on his first visit in early January 2002 to postwar Afghanistan. It was just weeks after the major fighting had subsided and the Taliban were evicted from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Biden, at the time the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had invited me to come along with him. I kept a diary in the months after 9/11, including of that trip, and published it in 2002, with a collection of columns from that time, in my book “Longitudes & Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11.”

They were my thoughts, not Biden’s, but we were seeing the same things and sharing many of the same first impressions, which, in many ways persist today.

The diary entry began:

“We flew to Islamabad and then grabbed a UN relief flight into Bagram Air Base, 80km from Kabul. Joe stayed at the newly reopened US embassy, with no flush toilets or running water, and I stayed at the house being rented by The New York Times, which had only slightly better plumbing but a friendly group of Afghan drivers and cooks who kept the fireplace roaring and the raisin pilaf and warm Afghan bread on the table. My first impression of Kabul? It was Ground Zero East.”

Back to the diary:

“One morning Biden and I went over to the old Soviet Embassy, where thousands of refugees were packed into a beehive of makeshift one-room apartments, heated only by wood stoves and sheltered from the wet cold by plastic sheets. Everyone seemed to be shuffling around in sandals, with blankets for overcoats. Open sewers and mud were their front yards; hollow cheeks and wide eyes marked their faces. … My heart told me to write that America must remain here, for however long it takes, with however many troops it takes, to repair this country, and provide a minimum level of security so it can get on its feet again. It was the least we owed the place, having already abandoned it once after the Soviet withdrawal. We didn’t have to make it Switzerland, just a little better, a little freer, and a little more stable than it was under the Taliban.

“But while my heart kept pulling me in one direction, my head, and my eyes, kept encountering things that were deeply troubling. It started when I went along with Biden to meet the Minister of the Interior for the Interim Government, Yunus Qanooni, who is a Tajik. Behind his desk, where a minister should be hanging the picture of his president (Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun), he had a picture of Ahmed Shah Massoud (an ethnic Tajik), the leader of the Northern Alliance who was assassinated just before September 11.

“Tom Friedman’s first rule of politics: Never trust a country where a new minister has the picture of his favorite dead militia leader, not the country’s (interim) president, over his desk. It seemed to me that the tribal warrior culture ran so deep in this place, it would be hard for any neutral central government to sink real roots. As I contemplated that militia leader’s picture, I wondered to myself: ‘When were the good old days for government in Afghanistan? Before Genghis Khan? Before gunpowder?’”

The diary: “The day Biden and his staff were supposed to fly out, with me tagging along, bad weather descended on Bagram Air Base, and the UN canceled its flight. This was a problem. The Delta Shuttle doesn’t serve Kabul. No UN flight, no exit. One of Biden’s security detail managed to get him and the rest of us seats on a US military transport that was supposed to come in late that evening and fly right out, first to Pakistan and then to Bahrain.”

“As we strapped into the back of the C-130, the crew shouted that someone was firing tracer bullets at the other end of the runway. … With this big cargo plane empty except for us, it felt like we took off straight up, like a rocket, which was fine with me, since Bagram is almost surrounded by tall mountains that had already claimed two US transports. Three hours later, we landed in Jacobabad, Pakistan, somewhere in the middle of the country, at a Pakistani base being used by the US Air Force. We had a few hours to kill before we hopped a C-17 to Bahrain.

“Talking to the US airmen at Jacobabad was an eye-opener. One of them told us, ‘We don’t have a flight to Afghanistan that doesn’t get shot at by small-arms fire from inside Pakistan somewhere near the border.’”

“But Pakistan is our ally in this war, we said. Tell that to the Pakistanis who live along the Afghan border, he shrugged. It was one of those moments when you realize as a journalist that there are a million stories going on in and around this larger war story that you have no clue about.

“It was one of those moments when you get an inkling that you are standing on a story with a false bottom. But when Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl tragically got his throat slit a few weeks later by anti-American Pakistani terrorists, I remembered that conversation at Jacobabad, and suddenly the senseless murder of an American in Pakistan didn’t seem so out of context anymore.” So that was Joe Biden’s and my introduction to Afghanistan. 

Our nation’s effort there was worth a try; our soldiers and diplomats were trying to make it better, but it was never clear that they knew how or had enough Afghan partners. Yes, maybe leaving will make it worse, but our staying wasn’t really helping. Our leaving may be a short-term disaster, and in the longer run, who knows; maybe Afghanistan will find balance on its own, like Vietnam. Or not. I don’t know. I am as humbled and ambivalent about it today as I was 20 years ago, and I am sure that Biden is too.

All I know for sure is that we need to offer asylum to every Afghan who worked closely with us and may now be in danger; Afghans are going to author their own future; and it is American democracy that is being eroded today by our own divisiveness, by our own hands, and unless we get that fixed, we can’t help anyone — including ourselves.

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