The terrorist attack at Kabul airport on Thursday was so horrific as to summon the word ‘unprecedented’. But it was nothing of the sort. In fact, it was hard not to be struck by a numbing sense of déjà vu.
There was the nature of the attack: a suicide bombing, pioneered as a terrorist technique by the Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka but introduced to Americans by our Islamist foes. I remember reading for the first time about a suicide bomb back in 2001 and trying to comprehend the sheer fanaticism that could lead anyone to push that button. Fast-forward 20 years to the supposedly more enlightened Afghanistan we created, and that same evil is still ripping apart the innocent.
There was the ghoulish disregard for human life, a trademark of Islamic extremists. The killed were not just combat forces but evacuees, men and women trying to get out of Afghanistan. The initial bombing was, according to one account, followed by a shooting, as a gunman sprayed fire into the desperate crowd. The attack killed more Americans than any incident in Afghanistan since 2011.
There was the fatigues-clad military man, General McKenzie from CENTCOM, discussing death in the calm tones of a specialist and vowing to press on with the mission.
There was the media, throwing it to their correspondents in Doha or Amman — not Kabul, to be sure, but still run by Muslims, so close enough.
There were the credentialed foreign policy gurus wearily returning to the cameras to reopen their vast stocks of Delphic wisdom for public consumption. Some of these graybeards were on-air in 2001 too. Being wrong about everything has in no way set back their careers.
And there was the hastily cobbled together presidential address. Joe Biden’s royal bungling of the Afghanistan withdrawal has drawn comparisons to Saigon under Gerald Ford, but it’s actually par for the course in the War on Terror.
Afghanistan and Iraq have now managed to humiliate four presidents, foiling their attempts at nation-building, transitioning, surging, withdrawing, assassinating, arming, de-Baathifying, COINing and hearts-and-minds winning. Obama and Trump transcended this chaos to a degree, the former by focusing on his domestic agenda and the latter with his emphasis on personal drama. But that chaos was still there, even if it was raging half a world away.
Biden deserves credit for trying to correct the mistakes of his predecessors by calling Afghanistan a day. He appears to be sticking to the mission, even as he throws out his back on every banana peel from here to Jalalabad. But parts of his speech still sounded like they’d been mad-libbed by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz.
Addressing the terrorists, Biden pronounced, ‘We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.’ He added, ‘We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose and at the moment of our choosing.’ Always ‘at the moment of our choosing’, these things – only to discover it’s the local jihad chapter that’s got nothing but time.
If there is a difference between today and 2001, it’s that our present enemy is even more brutal and determined. Enter Isis-K, which is apparently what happens when Isis gets on the metric system. The Islamic State Khorasan is known both for its effectiveness and its inhumanity. Last year, it attacked a maternity ward in Kabul. Twenty-four people were killed, including mothers and infants. Isis-K is a copycat of our last enemy, Isis, which was masterminded by the remnants of a previous enemy, Saddam’s Baath party, which emerged out of an enemy before that, al Qaeda in Iraq, which was a franchise of our original enemy, al Qaeda.
But let’s not get to thinking the problem can be solved by identifying lineages and a common denominator. Our tunnel vision is now trained on Isis-K, even if their focus isn’t necessarily on us. As with the last Isis, this one prefers to concentrate on its near enemies, the Taliban, whose new regime in Afghanistan is yet another instance of déjà vu, and the Afghani Shias, whom it regards as apostates. Also in the mix is Iran, which is attempting to leverage Shiite fighters in Afghanistan (the Fatemiyoun), against the Sunni Taliban and Islamic State. Concerns abound that the Fatemiyoun could end up as a kind of Afghani Hezbollah, a permanent instrument of Iranian influence and instability.
Again, that discordant twang from memory’s depths: the Iranians were rattling sabers with the Taliban in 2001 too. We even informally worked with them for a while until Bush’s lunkheaded Axis of Evil speech cast a froideur on this nascent friendliness. The map of Afghanistan thus has more flags than we think. And that’s before we even get to Pakistan, the Gulf states, anti-Taliban holdouts in the Panjshir Valley and pro-democracy protests in Afghani cities.
It looks increasingly like a post-American Afghanistan will be one of foreign meddling and factional war. Same as an American Afghanistan and a pre-American Afghanistan. Same also as Iraq and Libya and Syria and Yemen.
And that’s assuming we leave at all. Because the final pinch of déjà vu may be the most recognizable: war hawks from both parties squawking for revenge and accusing dissenters of weakness. American foreign policy has spent the last two decades at a sprint, only to look around and realize that it hasn’t moved at all. Biden is only the latest president to become stuck on a hamster wheel of folly.
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