Minute-to-minute developments around the Kabul airfield are impossible to predict, but what happens will have major consequences in the US and in much of the world.
There are no signs that Biden will oblige Republicans screaming for his head and step aside for a Kamala Harris presidency. Whether Biden will significantly modify his policy of leaving Afghanistan is a more realistic question, but not one easy to answer. The American public cannot stomach the unavenged murder of marines in a foreign land and may seem responsive to calls for adding to American forces in Kabul, but the sentiment against continuing America's longest-ever war remains strong.
Moreover, there seems to be support for the view that notwithstanding the explosive attacks at the airfield gates, airlifting about 120,000 Americans, allies and Afghans in 12+ days from a zone of extreme danger should be seen as an impressive feat. Such reactions are however at the mercy of events that may happen any minute, and more than once.
Longer-term questions are safer to address and, in some matters, to predict. We can be certain, for example, that films and books about the scale, adroitness, braveries and tragedies of the Kabul airlift will emerge before long. We should also expect that America's Afghan experience, inclusive of this latest chapter, will result in a much greater investment in technologies of remote fighting, with missiles, drones and post-missile and post-drone weapons eliminating boots on the ground. Humiliation abroad and an unwillingness to raise immense armies to fight overseas will push the US in this direction.
The thousands of Afghans already flown into the US, for the time being mostly housed in and around internal military bases, and additional thousands likely to arrive in the very near future, have already become a major political question. The drum of "danger from immigrants" has always been beaten by the Republicans and with especial fervour by Donald Trump. That "Afghans" and "terror" go together is an insinuation again being whispered. We should expect that dog-whistles will give way to direct attacks on the welcome that Biden has offered to Afghans who assisted Americans in their 20-year involvement in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, this anti-immigrant line is matched by a deep sentiment in many Americans, not just Democrats, against betraying the Afghans who not only risked death and danger to assist the American effort but were promised safety in the US. The US is thus likely to see a clash, including at the political level, between "the risk from immigrants" and "America's solemn word".
Warning America against being unfaithful to those who assisted and protected US troops is however not the same thing as giving an Afghan life the same value as an American life. An Indian watching America's united grief and anger at the killing of Americans performing the humanitarian task of airlifting trapped people of all races and religions is certainly impressed. But a question remains.
Does an Afghan life have a smaller value than an American life? Are the little children whose bodies were flung into a roadside drain by the terrorists' bomb not worthy of equal grief and equal anger? Does the annihilation of these Afghan children not demand profound reflection? Not by Americans alone, and not by Afghans alone.
It will be interesting to see what the tens of thousands of Afghans who will begin new lives in lands far from home will think and do in the coming months and years. It is unlikely that they will forget the home and the near ones they abruptly left behind. Perhaps, who knows, some among them will search out the truest reasons for their land's sad, sad fate, and seek a way out.
We may be sure of intense cogitation in Beijing. After the successive failures of Russia and America, will China now try to bring "order" and "progress" to Afghanistan? Some in China may wish to interpret the Kabul developments as an indication that Washington's power is declining while China's is growing, but the Chinese may prefer to be cautious. The possibility of joining the list of empires that found their graves in Afghanistan cannot be attractive.
Although America's retreat has been celebrated in China, there has been no sign that Beijing will absorb Afghanistan's huge deficits, including financial ones. According to China's official mouthpiece, Global Times, President Xi Jinping has "called for concerted efforts to encourage all factions in Afghanistan to build an open and inclusive political structure through consultation, implement moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies, thoroughly dissociate from all terrorist groups, and maintain friendly relations with the rest of the world, especially neighbouring countries."
It will be interesting to see what China actually does or refrains from doing.
One hopes there will be cogitation in India too, and that it won't be confined to whether it is India or Pakistan that gains from what's happening. The people of Afghanistan are our neighbours; thousands of them are at this moment studying in India. Their welfare has to be our concern.
(Rajmohan Gandhi is presently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
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