Over the past few weeks, the world watched the horrifying images coming out of Kabul airport—Afghans clinging on to departing US military cargo planes; people falling from planes to their deaths after take-off; chaotic scenes at the airport as people scrambled to leave the country; Afghan parents throwing their babies over barbed wire into the arms of Western troops hoping for better future for their kids in case they don’t make to the West themselves; people packed inside a US air force plane in Kabul airport; desperate people sitting in refugee camps as the nation is further plunged into humanitarian crisis, among other moving pictures capturing the larger unfolding national tragedy there.
On the other side, Afghanistan commentators and regional experts spent much of their time on the blow to US and Western power and prestige as manifested by the lightning Taliban advance into Kabul; Afghan army built by the US over 20 years to the tune of $83 billion melting away, routed by ununiformed ragtag militias in turbines; Western soldiers and diplomats sprinting for the exits; spectacular failure of US-funded state building and democratic advancement abroad; other US allies in the Islamic world—most of them autocrats propped by America—facing an uncertain future as they watch the Afghanistan debacle in horror. All these recent developments apparently rattled America’s self-esteem as a superpower.
But is the reputational toll on the failing nation less important and dramatic than the departing foreign power’s global standing? I think not. On the contrary, negative image of the unravelling nation is far more overwhelming, profound, and enduring. My argument is based on my personal experience of being a toddler when Somalia’s US-backed military regime fell, and the state collapsed in the early nineties. While there are fundamental geopolitical differences between these two troubled nations, their similarities are remarkably striking—both are two Muslim nations plunged into enduring anarchy and humanitarian crisis, were governed by US-funded weak states, and are now at the forefront of America’s ‘global war on terror’.
In today’s interconnected world, just like personal failures and flaws of politicians go public, so do state failures. When the whole world watches your country disintegrate and grotesque scenes of urban violence and famine ravaged bodies of children inundate TV screens of international media, the painful experience can only be comprehended by someone belonging to the unravelling nation. It is a like a business going bust, only that it is more seismic as it is not a few hundred or thousand employees rendered jobless, it is millions of people facing death, destruction, and an uncertain future; their nation reduced to beggars and migrants. Personal ambitions are thwarted; individual plans and dreams are shattered or deferred for those who luckily survive as they desperately try to rebuild their lives elsewhere. And as the death toll from the violence and ensuing mayhem rise, people’s lives gradually become worthless as the world media’s attention shifts to supposedly more interesting stories.
Coming from a troubled nation is frustrating feeling you carry around probably for the rest of life, dominating your daily existence. The bad name stays with you and cannot be easily undone by rising to the highest of professions or going to the most elitist colleges in the safest and most prosperous of nations. It is like a hard stain on a cloth that can’t be eliminated by the most potent detergent. Carrying the passport of a failed state makes airport security look at you with disdain, or with great suspicion at best. This personal rejection at airports and international borders shrinks your world and your lifetime opportunities. It makes you struggle to survive in the shadow of the modern world, where unhindered international travel has become a birth right for the Westerner. The wilful abandonment, or rather the indifference of the international community, leaves the people of the failed state nothing but to seek hope abroad.
As the Afghan civil war achieves greater infamy and notoriety over time, the global discussion on the low point of America’s reputation abroad shouldn’t overtake the plight of the Afghan people whose country has proven ungovernable; impervious to modern ideas of governance; a fragmented society which settled for tragic leaders and a legacy of economic ruin as the norm; forever contested between rival armed groups whose violence and brutality hardly reaching its crescendo and eventual end; where fighting and displacement have become a way of life; where Afghan faces become synonymous with poverty and refugee crisis; and where political commentators will use the country a cautionary tale for other nations teetering on chaos.
For the Biden administration, it is domestic politics and electoral calculation or simply worried by the optics of what unfolded at Kabul airport over the past few weeks. For the young Afghan men and women evacuated from Kabul airport, it is a mixed feeling of relief from being plucked from a raging civil war, but also of pain and the acute awareness of the bad image of their homeland abroad; a feeling that lingers even if they receive protection and refuge in the West. For those unable to leave, they feel trapped in the planet’s most hopeless of places. President Biden said last week that the US will maintain an ‘‘over the horizon’’ counterterrorism in Afghanistan. I think Afghans simply need to see hope in the horizon, not drones.