People were fixated on the horrific images. Young men desperately clinging to a US military plane as it takes off. Taliban- and CIA-backed Afghan intelligence forces shooting round after round into the air to disburse hundreds of frantic men, women, and children. Thousands of families squatting in squalor in dirt fields outside the gates of the airport for days at a time.
What they failed to see was that all these images were literal, physical embodiments of the failures of the past 20 years of foreign intervention in Afghanistan.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not according to the politicians and generals who beat the drums of war. “As we strike military targets, we will also drop food, medicine and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan,” George W. Bush said when he announced the launch of what the United States dared to call “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
But freedom did not endure in Afghanistan. At least not the way it was supposed to.
The past 20 years have been rife with allegations of electoral fraud, corruption, nepotism, human rights abuses, and targeted killings. The food, medicine, and supplies largely bypassed the most vulnerable members of Afghan society while kleptocrats and warlords filled their pockets and expanded their real estate portfolios.
The progress that we did make has quickly dissipated since the government managed to lose more than two dozen provinces in the span of 11 days and former President Ashraf Ghani and his cronies, mostly unqualified dual-passport holders, fled the country, allowing the Taliban to walk into Kabul. Veteran Afghan journalists, artists, and entrepreneurs are now in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. Shops and restaurants created by enterprising young Afghans have either been shuttered or are virtually empty.
In an odd turn, the Westerners and the elites, who spent almost their entire existence in very specific bubbles of Kabul, are now screaming online, “Won’t somebody please think of the provinces?” People who for years excused or ignored the night raids, air strikes, drone attacks, and unlawful detentions carried out by foreign and Afghan forces are suddenly incensed that no one is covering potential abuses in rural areas.
When the Afghan Air Force hit a madrassa in Kunduz in 2018, killing dozens of children, they reasoned it away, saying, “‘Collateral damage’ happens” or “Those children would have grown up to be Talibs anyway.”
When the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, also in Kunduz, was destroyed in 2015 by a US air strike, they said, “I heard Taliban were being treated in that hospital,” as if that were a justification for bombing a health facility.
When the Trump administration dropped the so-called Mother of All Bombs on a village in Nangarhar, no one protested or bothered to ask why the world’s largest non-nuclear weapon was being used in a remote corner of eastern Afghanistan.
But now the quality of life in Nangarhar and Kunduz matters to so many people on Twitter. Why? Because now those abuses are likely to be carried out by the Taliban, not by the people who were once signing the checks and divvying up the chairs in the Presidential Palace and various ministries. Not by the freedom-bringing forces of the US war machine.
But, as all of this was going on, millions of Afghans were watching—when they weren’t being blown up by IEDs and drones. They watched as people stuffed ballots and ran off to the countries they came from when they fell under suspicion of corruption or when the Taliban got too close to their armored cars and their houses hidden behind concrete blast walls. They watched as the Taliban staged a bloody, vicious offensive on the Afghan land under the guise of fighting an occupation. And, most recently, they watched as the Taliban traipsed into city after city—Herat and Kandahar, and then
Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad, and finally Kabul—and the people in power, who were supposed to defend and reassure them, kept quiet for 11 days. In all that time, none of Afghanistan’s “leaders” dared to utter the name of even one province that had fallen to the enemy the US had come to oust 20 years ago.
The people saw their country crumble as fat cats screaming “Country or coffin!” scrambled to get Covid-19 tests and book tickets to Istanbul, Dubai, and New Delhi. As their flights took off, the territories continued to fall, and now there is radio silence from those people, who had spent hours breathlessly espousing the greatness of their republic on social media.
That social media obsession had kept them from seeing the streets they whizzed passed in their armored cars on their way to their well-guarded homes or to the trashy parties with cheap alcohol, bad music, and shadily sourced drugs where they, the people running the country, hobnobbed, preferring to speak English and German in an effort to hide their marginal Pashto and Dari.
They danced while villages burned.
They drank while drought forced thousands from their homes.
Then came the Taliban, with their guns in hand, and who was left? The Afghan people. The ones who saw little of the financial and political spoils of 20 years of occupation. The ones whose roads are lined with Taliban-planted IEDs and whose skies are riddled with drones delivering death from above.
While the newly rich and fleetingly famous hightailed it out of Kabul, the poor were abandoned. Left to the Taliban. So they had little choice but to flock to the airport, clinging to any hope that they could make it out of the land where the elites and their American benefactors had managed to bring the Taliban back to the doorsteps of the people.
Two decades ago, George W. Bush set out to oust the Taliban, claiming to bring freedom and democracy in their overthrow. Now, almost exactly 20 years later, democracy has withered under the weight of fraud and corruption, and the US is packing up its bags as the Taliban set down theirs in the Presidential Palace.