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Home > 2023 > Afghans the West Betrayed | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 14, April 1, 2023

Afghans the West Betrayed | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 1 April 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



Escape from Kabul: The Inside Story
by Levison Wood and Geraint Jones

Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 340; Price: Rs 899
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1399718126
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1399718127

The Americans led a brutal war in Afghanistan for two long and bloody decades, vowing to usher in democracy despite the terrible failures in Vietnam and Iraq. And like earlier, the Americans one day decided that enough was enough. But the military pullout, which was long in the making, was hasty and chaotic, heaping as much misery as their occupation of Afghanistan did.

This wonderfully stitched book is a gripping account of those final weeks of American presence of Afghanistan. More important, it is a throwback to the thousands of Afghan men and women – who faithfully served the West, in part for money and in part because they believed that Afghanistan must indeed be different – who were left to fend for themselves vis-à-vis the Taliban. True, the Americans and British rescued thousands even as the Taliban overran Kabul. But for every Afghan flown out to begin a new life in the West, many more Afghans were not rescued. It was betrayal at its worst.

The escape of the civilians from Kabul in August 2021 was an unbridled tragedy although a heroic achievement against all odds, say authors Levison Wood and Geraint Jones, both Britons who did extensive research on what became known as “Digital Dunkirk”, a Herculean effort to extract as many Afghans as possible from the clutches of the Taliban. The Taliban wasted no time in going from house to house identifying those who had worked for the West; an estimated 300 were executed within days. According to one report, out of the 81,000 frantic applications made to the US seeking refuge, a whopping 78,000 could not be rescued.

Those left behind after the evacuation included a wide range of Afghans who had held positions such as interpreters, members of the Afghan special forces (who the Taliban hated the most), members and employees of the government, and even Western passport holders. After 20 years of Western presence in the country, such a rushed exit was sorrowful but shameful, a dark stain on the West’s commitment to its allies.

The book speaks of lessons from the Afghan fiasco, exposing in the process that no logical thinking ever went into the Western deployment in the country at the first place. It was naïve and rather condescending to think that all Afghans would drop centuries of tradition to embrace the Western idea of a participatory democracy. But this elementary logic never struck those who planned a military blitzkrieg at the first place.

The best – worst? – part of the Afghan story is that Afghans as a people had nothing to do with 9/11 – the trigger which ignited the conflict. A hunt for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda became a sweeping war on the country. The New York terror attack cost some 3,000 innocent lives. But a 2021 study showed that the total death toll for the Afghan war was a staggering 176,000, including a very large number of equally innocent civilians. “Excluding the enemy dead, this is the equivalent loss of life of two 9/11s a year, every year, for 20 years.” In other words, the Afghans paid in blood for a crime they never committed.

One key reason the West got embroiled in the messy withdrawal was because it never expected such a rapid Taliban military sweep leading to Kabul’s fall. Most commentators knew that Afghanistan’s fate was sealed once Barack Obama agreed in principle that the US had to abandon Afghanistan. Donald Trump signed the Doha accord with the Taliban, an enemy the US fought for two decades, totally undermining the Kabul regime. Once Joe Biden decided to uphold all that was agreed to, a withdrawal was a natural corollary. That it would be such a messy affair in the end was perhaps a logical outcome of the years of flawed military and political thinking.

British journalist Stuart Ramsay made a chilling remark: “A superpower supported by NATO countries … just lost to a bunch of guys on the back of pickups with AK-47s.” Very true. Biden had claimed that there would no one getting rescued from the American embassy roof in Kabul, a la Vietnam, but this is exactly what happened.

By the time news spread like wildfire that Afghanistan’s US-backed President Ashraf Ghani and his senior aides had flown out after promising never to do so, thousands of desperate and angry Afghans made a mad run to the only functional airport. Women and children suffered the most at the heavily fortified airport, at times dying, even as men made their way past them towards the entry points. There were many cases of dehydration and heat injuries. Many got trampled. It was a hellish experience. The desperation to flee was natural; most trying to get out knew a death sentence awaited them if they remained.

How poorly planned the withdrawal — accompanied by a dramatic Taliban offensive across the country – can be understood from the colossal amounts of arms and ammunition the Americans and their allies left behind for the Islamist group to capture.

Amid the systemic failure, however, many good souls cropped up. These included sections of American and NATO troops who did much more than their call of duty at the airport. There were others not based in Afghanistan who used their mobile phones, laptops and social media accounts to put in touch Westerners on the ground with Afghans who were in hiding fearing the Taliban. In the process, some individuals rescued dozens of Afghans.

But for all these heroic efforts, there were many who could not be taken out. One of them was an interpreter who had worked for the Americans for six years; even after such loyalty, he was dumped – a damning indictment of Washington. Exploiting the situation, some private companies charged $65,000 dollars per family to drop them in East Europe. Forget ushering in democracy, the Americans turned Afghanistan finally into a Wild West. All this after spending trillions of dollars and wasting tens of thousands of lives over two decades, not counting the years when the Americans militarized Afghanistan with Pakistani and Saudi help to teach the Soviets a lesson. This is a timely book.

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