Opinion

The right wants to betray the Afghan people 1 more time

Anti-refugee paranoia is little more than racism

If there is one thing President Biden should be criticized for regarding Afghanistan, it is refugee policy. The Washington Post reports that his administration has been dragging its feet for months on processing applications. (That said, after the chaos seen earlier this week, some flights have resumed at the Kabul airport, with the apparent toleration of the Taliban. It remains to be seen how many people will actually get out.)

Biden deserves blame for not moving quicker to get refugees out and accept them into the U.S., and for instead trying to shunt them off into other countries. But half the reason he is doing that is because of right-wing media, which is working hard to whip up a racist frenzy over the prospect of any refugees whatsoever.

"So first we invade, and then we are invaded. It is always the same," said Fox News' Tucker Carlson, the top-rated cable news host in the country, a few days ago. "Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan?" said Laura Ingraham on her Fox News shows. Biden is "doing to America what Angela Merkel did to Germany and Europe," wrote former Trump adviser Stephen Miller. It's truly despicable racism, even for conservative media.

Let me review some history. Back in the 1980s, the U.S. flooded Afghanistan with money and weapons, much of it going to extremist fanatics, solely to harm a geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union. That aim was indeed accomplished, but at the cost of an appallingly bloody war that killed something like 10 percent of the Afghan population. When the Soviets withdrew, Americans promptly forgot all about the place, and war continued for another bloody three years before the Soviet-backed regime fell to a group of extremists (though the Taliban were a largely separate group from the mujahideen the U.S. had armed previously).

The U.S. continued to ignore Afghanistan until 9/11. The response to that event, naturally, was more intervention — invading the country, toppling the Taliban, and setting up a U.S.-backed government. But instead of trying to defeat al Qaeda, come to a quick political settlement, and get out, Donald Rumsfeld refused to accept a Taliban surrender, dooming the occupation to be an indefinite Vietnam-style quagmire that could end in only one way: American defeat.

Something like a quarter-million people in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been killed in 20 years of grinding, pointless war. An entire generation of people have grown up without even the memory of peace. The Afghan economy has been warped beyond recognition by billions upon billions of "reconstruction" dollars, which mostly flowed into the pockets of corrupt warlords or equally-corrupt American contractors. The so-called "government" the U.S. stood up was so corrupt that it made the Taliban look like Switzerland — as The Economist noted back in 2019, a trucker driving from Herat to Kandahar would have to pay the Taliban to pass, but only once because they gave him a receipt. Government soldiers, by contrast, would stick him up 30 times.

In short, for 40 years Afghanistan has been the plaything of dimwitted, incompetent American imperialists, and the result has been physical, social, and economic carnage on a scale few Americans could imagine. And now that people are suggesting that the people who helped the occupation — people who trusted in the good faith of the United States, and who may now be killed as a result — should simply be allowed into America to live safely like anyone else, formerly warmongering conservatives (Carlson, Ingraham, and Miller all fervently supported the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq) are whipping up a nativist frenzy.

The argument from Carlson is explicit bigotry, arguing that Afghans coming in is bad solely because they are Afghans — raising groundless fears that they'll soon be contaminating your neighborhood. "If history is any guide, and it's always a guide, we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country in the coming months, probably in your neighborhood," he said.

Meanwhile, as Spencer Ackerman points out, Miller is straight-up inventing numbers about supposed incoming refugees in an attempt to keep America as white as possible: "not spouting his propaganda because he thinks it's true ... doing it so it can never become true." Ingraham's assertion about refugees being unvetted is also a lie; as James LaPorta notes, interpreters have been vetted far more thoroughly than many holders of Top Secret security clearances. 

As Jim Newell argues at Slate, the arguments are also cynically political. "Those pundits and politicians are in a squeeze here, trying to sneak into the best Joe Biden pile-on of the season when they don't have a ticket. They've decided their way in is to do what they do best: seed the next nativist culture war," he writes.

It's rather odd that so far conservatives have not bothered to make much of a fuss about terrorism. It might be because Islamist terror groups are very obviously not the biggest source of terror these days — it's Fox News-watching Trump supporters. While I was writing this piece, a terrorist in a giant pickup truck parked outside the Library of Congress, claiming he had a huge fertilizer bomb and was prepared to blow up several blocks of D.C. Every nearby building had to be evacuated.

It turns out he was a conservative Republican who voted for Trump last year. He was briefly livestreaming on Facebook — ranting about how President Biden should resign, how a "revolution" was coming, and so on. With some better production values and a slight increase in coherence, it could have been a primetime Fox News monologue. (Luckily, the man surrendered after a five-hour standoff.)

The United States has a long and deep tradition of incorporating immigrant communities into the national fabric. Afghans are no different in this respect. People like Carlson and his Fox News colleagues want to keep people riled up about imaginary threats so corporations can continue picking their pockets, and so people like him don't have to reckon with the consequences of the policies they supported. Don't listen to them.

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