American elites have gotten tellingly quiet about Afghanistan
Afghan civilians are starving, but that doesn't matter to U.S. imperial pride
Two months ago, the entire political media and a considerable fraction of the American public were in the grips of a hysterical meltdown over President Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan. One of the biggest reasons, supposedly, was worry about the Afghan people. "This war used to be called Operation Enduring Freedom, and it's turned out not to be enduring and they're not leaving behind a society that is free," complained NBC's Richard Engel.
Today, conditions in Afghanistan have only deteriorated, yet the country has virtually vanished from the central stage of the mainstream media as well as the social media feeds of American politicians. The speed of this shift is telling. It overwhelmingly suggests all the maudlin weeping about Afghan civilians was a sham. The American elite mourned wounded imperial pride, not the welfare of Afghan civilians.
This sharp decline isn't just my observation. Here's a chart of Google search trends in the United States to get a measure of popular interest in Afghanistan. After a giant spike in August, it has totally collapsed:
This is because the mainstream press has ceased giving Afghanistan top billing. Network news, cable news, and the front pages of big papers have largely moved on to other things (with a few exceptions). Afghanistan is now just another poor, foreign country, displaced from the headlines by obsession with America's own enormous problems.
Now, that's not to say mainstream reporters aren't covering Afghanistan at all. On the contrary, there are many diligent and courageous journalists who continue to report on conditions on the ground. But their stories are generally buried in the back pages.
For instance, Saeed Shah at The Wall Street Journal has written vital coverage about how the Taliban is struggling to govern — how they've had to lecture their hayseed fighters not to goof off doing tourist stuff in Kabul, how electricity is failing because the Taliban haven't managed to arrange payment for suppliers, how they're fighting with psychotic Islamic State extremists, and how soldiers are struggling to adapt to civilian rule. Yaroslav Trofimov, also at the Journal, writes about how in rural Afghanistan, families and schools are celebrating the first time without chronic warfare in decades.
It's fascinating stuff. A man named Mawlawi Zubair Mutmaeen, who used to run suicide bombing squads in Kabul, is today a police chief mediating petty squabbles between married couples. "Previously I was serving Islam, and now I'm also serving Islam. There is no difference," he told Shah.
The general thrust of these articles seems to show the Taliban trying to govern fairly, after their own fundamentalist fashion, at least, in a way the American-backed regime — which was sensationally corrupt from start to finish — never did. Most Afghans apparently think that, all else aside, Taliban police and judges are less corrupt and provide better security. That isn't saying much, but they did end the war.
Indeed, for all their repressive ideology, beating of journalists, total lack of democracy, and so on, the Taliban are far more accountable to the Afghan population than American occupiers ever could be. If they don't provide at least a modicum of peace, security, and halfway clean government, they'll face violent unrest or armed rebellion that could topple their rule — and, unlike U.S. forces, they wouldn't be able retreat to their real homeland 7,000 miles away. Losing power isn't some distant memory for the Taliban, either. Afghanistan has been wracked with civil war for the last 40 years straight. That's a powerful, albeit unreliable, incentive even for authoritarian rulers.
Still, today Afghanistan is in dire shape. The country is badly short of food — something like 95 percent of Afghans don't have enough to eat — and its economy is in ruins. The banking system isn't working, and the Taliban have very little experience with any kind of complex bureaucracy. And the harsh Afghan winter is coming. If ever there was a time saturation media coverage of the plight of suffering civilians might do some good, now is the time — yet we see nothing of the sort.
Neither did the American elite bother much about Afghan civilians when the U.S. occupation was ongoing. Anand Gopal wrote a piece for the The New Yorker about the experiences of many Afghan women in rural areas (where the large majority of the population lives) during the occupation, and it hardly paints us as welcomed liberators. U.S. forces formed alliances of convenience with brutally repressive warlords who were previously turfed out by the Taliban. One man, Amir Dado, was particularly infamous for constantly robbing and killing civilians. Gopal writes that another U.S.-backed commander, General Sami Sadat, deliberately massacred hundreds of civilians in retaliation for Taliban conquest.
That sort of story never got much play before Biden withdrew U.S. troops. The American media often refused to cover or even notice what was happening — that rule by the U.S. and our monstrous partners was for much of the country every bit as brutal as Taliban governance. That's what happens when a country is occupied by a foreign conqueror from halfway around the world with no understanding of or interest in the subject people, but it doesn't make for enjoyable infotainment on the imperial airwaves. Now that the sting of defeat has been forgotten, our media has reverted to that old status quo.
Luckily, it seems some in the Biden administration haven't forgotten entirely about this beleaguered country. They've arranged several humanitarian aid packages totaling $474 million — the largest portion of a sizable international package for Afghanistan — and are still working to help Afghan refugees.
This falls far short of any fair accounting of what we owe the Afghan people, but it's a good start. Let's hope it is just the start.