The political fortunes of a newly-elected President rarely maintains an upward momentum after an initial boost in the first weeks of the swearing in. In the case of US President Joseph Biden, he was riding on a high note for seven months, thanks to the fashion he handled the coronavirus pandemic and a reviving economy. And then came Afghanistan and the Taliban; the fall of Kabul in a matter of hours; the expected but inglorious flight of President Ashraf Ghani and a small entourage first to Tajikistan and later to the United Arab Emirates. And finally the continuing heartrending video images of desperate Afghans at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, looking for a one-way passage and many dying falling off airborne planes or crushed to death in under carriages.
From a high approval rating of 55 or 56 per cent, President Biden has slipped seven points in just three days. He and his administration are being constantly hammered in the media, not just from the conservative platforms. Some are blaming the President personally for letting down American national and security interests and others are talking of a wholesale intelligence fiasco not seen in recent memory. America may have got into a comfort mode of wanting to see the boys back home, but few imagined of a clumsy pullout, leaving behind the United States in a far more dangerous position after two decades and two trillion dollars down the drain.
In all the celebrations after the then Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Washington slowly woke up to the realities of the implications of leaving sophisticated equipment and missiles behind in the hands of the Mujahideen. The scene is not any different now. The so-called “well disciplined” Afghan Army has surrendered almost everything to the Taliban that would include an assortment of top fighter jets, Black Hawk helicopters and weaponry. The irony is that the Taliban fighters are seen roaming the streets with M-16s and that too in American Army Uniform! To say that there are no personnel to pilot these planes and choppers is to forget the fact that the Taliban has a friend across the border who will be too willing to lend a helping hand. Moreover the international market is flooded with Soldiers of Fortune who will be eager to chip in for monetary considerations.
President Biden was supposed to be a foreign policy specialist after having been in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years, including as its chairman and somehow failed to see the writing on the wall. Even the amateurs would have seen the Afghan Army folding or President Ghani fleeing the country. Twenty five years ago, in 1996, when the Taliban re-grouped to challenge the leader installed by the then Soviet Union, those close to then President Mohammad Najibullah pleaded with him to leave the country; he refused believing that nothing will happen to him. The Taliban dragged him out of the United Nations compound, tortured and rifled his body with bullets before hanging him from a traffic light pole in front of the Presidential Palace. According to reports from Russia, President Ghani fled in an entourage of about five cars and a helicopter stashed with cash!
The Republicans and Democrats alike are not regretting America getting out of “forever wars”; only that President Biden has gone through with a process that has shamed the country. Conservatives are gleeful that Biden is being portrayed in the worst possible light in the media, some in the right wing and extremist organizations even questioning his mental state. The Democrats, on the other hand, are hopeful that this phase will soon pass and the country will get back to the domestic focus – the infrastructure bill, the larger child care and education package, fighting COVID and the revival of the economy. But Democrats, including allies of President Biden, are also aware that Afghanistan is a sideshow that could have been avoided as this could have an impact on supportive legislators to make a difference in the House of Representatives and Senate on crucial legislations especially when the margins are razor thin in both chambers.
President Biden has a bigger problem on his hands: reports speak of hundreds of Americans trapped in that hapless country, especially in Kabul, all of whom could become hostages or innocent pawns in a trade-off game with the United States. The Biden administration has ordered the freezing of Afghan assets in the country, funds that could be crucial for the economic survival of the Taliban. Biden has said that troops will ensure the safe passage of American citizens. But the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel should have in mind what happened at the time of the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 – 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days and President Jimmy Carter was straddled with the hostage crisis for a good part of his tenure, eventually losing the election to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Democrats are already apprehensively looking at 2022 mid-term elections even without Afghanistan; in fact Republicans have started taunting Democrats that some of them should seriously consider against running for their seats in the House of Representatives. Should the crisis in Afghanistan snowball into something more serious endangering the lives of Americans, Democrats not only face the prospect of a political Tsunami in 2022 but also a very big question marks in the Presidential election of 2024.
(A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai)
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