On September 11th, 2001, four planes were hijacked over the US, radically changing the world in which we live. Nearly 3,000 people died in what would quickly be dubbed 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in American history. The CBS coverage of the Twin Towers in flames is still ranked amongst the most iconic television news moments in history, demonstrating the immense power of visual storytelling – a picture really is worth a thousand words.
This week, Afghanistan has been left with similarly enduring images of planes, delivering a different kind of earth-shattering outrage. We watched, worldwide, as a US military aircraft slowly accelerated along the Kabul airport runway, crowds of people hoarding around its undercarriage in sheer despair as it prepared for takeoff. These people, these innocents, have been left stranded and petrified.
US officials have said that at least seven people died during the chaos. Airport staff fled as the bedlam began, leaving the citizens with no security. Some fell to their deaths after climbing the body of the airplane as it took to the sky. Harrowing footage of this scene has been all over our screens, causing viewers to question just how desperate one has to be to cling onto the wing of an airplane as it lifts off the ground.
What is transpiring right now in the beleaguered capital is a tragedy, as a country so familiar with oppression now sees the return to a regime that was toppled all those years ago. The withdrawal of US and NATO forces now leaves Afghanistan facing an uncertain future as the Taliban take control.
As Afghan forces laid down their arms, the fear spread fast. Over 600 evacuees crammed into an airforce plane with a capacity of 100. The crew have been hailed as heroes for deciding to depart with all of these extra passengers on board; the same cannot be said for the decision US President Joe Biden stands “squarely behind”. Many have lost respect for him, with his approval ratings dropping by 7% since his speech on Monday, where he defended the pull-out from Afghanistan.
Biden has admitted that the Taliban takeover occurred faster than was anticipated by the US government. The dramatic collapse of the Afghan government and the scramble of Americans to escape the country is perhaps the greatest humiliation for the US in decades.
The consequences of the choice to withdraw from Afghanistan (choice being the operative word) will be widespread. It is likely to result in a humanitarian crisis and lead to more resentment against the West.
Advocates for girls’ education and women’s equality, such as Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by a Taliban gunman in 2012 for attending school in Pakistan, have expressed their deep concern over the impact the Taliban takeover will have on the Afghanistan population.
“We watch in complete shock as Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates. Global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians.”Malala Yousafzai
Brig spoke to the Amnesty International society at the University of Stirling: “We are alarmed over the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan and President Biden’s administration’s failure to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable. It’s inevitable that we will see an increase in the amount of people being forced to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere. Therefore, we must act to form a humane migration policy which welcomes refugees and asylum seekers and supports them regardless of how they arrived.”
With the political pandemonium that had erupted following his predecessor’s campaign and presidency, some predicted Biden would simply become a placeholder; someone to fix the damage done by Trump, to usher the country through COVID-19, and set up a run for a more youthful and charismatic candidate in 2024.
Instead, he has sprung into action with an energy and drive that has brought the US back from the brink during the pandemic, whilst crucially reversing their departure from the Paris Climate Accords with almost immediate effect.
For all of his success, it is this withdrawal that will go on to define Biden’s presidency, something the former Delaware senator will be keenly aware of as he attempts to mitigate the damage done this week.
What should have been a coordinated and staged withdrawal, with the Afghan army predicted to last months, even a year, has instead deteriorated into an embarrassing rout for the US military, redolent of its failures in Iraq and Somalia.
In his speech on Monday, Biden maintained that the US had achieved its mission of hunting down Osama Bin Laden, largely neutralising the threat from Al Qaeda.
The President argued the US never went to Afghanistan to “nation-build” or “create a unified, centralised democracy”.
He laid out his belief that policy should be “more narrowly focused” on counter-terrorism and not counter-insurgency which is why, he explained, he opposed the troop surge in 2009.
What Biden neglected to acknowledge is his part in a vote back in 2001, in which 98 of the 100 members of the US Senate voted on “a joint resolution to authorise the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.”
This resolution was what was used to authorise airstrikes against Kabul, the funding of the Northern Alliance, and the eventual seizing of Afghanistan, all in the name of self-defence and capturing Osama Bin Laden.
Kabul’s new Taliban authorities have moved quickly to assure the Afghan people that life and property will be protected. They have promised no reprisals against Afghans who have opposed them, and said that they will ensure women’s rights in the country remain largely unchanged as long as they conform to Sharia law.
Doubts remain that the Taliban leadership and their rank-and-file can be trusted to stick to this: we have heard it all before. Today’s events in the city of Jalalabad have underlined these doubts, as Taliban fighters have opened fire on protestors bearing the Afghan national flag, leaving at least three people dead and over a dozen injured.
One point in Biden’s speech which caused many listeners to baulk is when he posed the question: “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war, when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives – American lives – is it worth?”
As blood spills on the streets of Jalalabad, what is the price on Afghanistan’s freedom and security? President Biden’s incredulous tone as he uttered, “We spent a trillion dollars,” makes the answer clear.
How many lives was the US vendetta against Bin Laden and the Taliban worth? The September 11 attacks claimed almost 3,000 lives. The war in Afghanistan has claimed almost a quarter of a million.
The spectacular failures on display will haunt the West for decades to come, with scenes in Kabul harking back to the disastrous end of the Vietnam War for the US.
Many veterans have been lamenting the loss of lives and limbs, questioning the point of it all, as world powers now communicate with the Taliban as de facto leaders of Afghanistan. With a country of nearly 40 million and a stockpile of captured American military hardware, the fallout in the region will be devastating.
As the death toll from the Western pull-out continues to tick upwards, Afghanistan must now count the cost from 20 years of empty promises, and wonder where all of it will end.
“We urge foreign governments to ensure safe passages and assist in the prompt evacuation of those targeted by the Taliban, as the Biden administration’s efforts to provide a viable pathway out of the country have been inadequate.”Amnesty International Society at the University of Stirling
You can follow the Amnesty International Society @stirlinguniamnesty
Featured image credit: Aljazeera