The scene is a familiar one. A line of people outside an airport. A father holding a child in his arms. Another man opening his backpack for a security guard. The guard rummaging through the bag. It could be occurring in any U.S. airport. But it’s not.
The scene is Kabul, the line of people is leaving the airport – not trying to enter – and the security guard is barefoot.
This photograph tells me all I need to know about the tragic, but inevitable, events taking place in Afghanistan, and that is this: All the modern weaponry in the world, all the massive military budgets, all sanctimonious politicians of all stripes, and all the beefed-up American soldiers clad as ultimate warriors are no match for a barefoot men with a rifle (or a RPG or an IED) who believes he will be liberated by the righteousness of his actions — whether they be motivated by religion, i.e., Taliban, or political, i.e., Viet Cong.
This is the lesson that seems to be lost in the maelstrom of media accusations, political recrimination, finger-pointing punditry, and in the justified chorus of lament for those likely to suffer the most under a resurgent Taliban rule – Afghans who sided with the U.S., either for self-enrichment or genuine desire to modernize their country, and Afghani women, who are headed back to the seventh century.
The United States – we – never belonged in Afghanistan. We went to punish the Taliban for harboring Al Qaeda. We did that, and a decade later we killed Osama bin Laden in his bedroom. That should have been the end of it.
But it wasn’t. It never is.
American arrogance is only matched by its ignorance and stupidity (see: Covid-19 vaccine). A core component of the American identity is the belief that everyone in the world wants to be like us, that they would all live according our values if only they could, that they believe as most Americans (but not all) do that each of us is entitled to our liberty and our pursuits.
Sounds good – but it’s not true.
There are large swaths of the planet, populated by hundreds of millions of people, who think this basic American credo is bunk. These folks are in favor of inequality, especially in regard to women and children. They do not believe in the precepts of civil society – family and tribe are first. They do not even believe in the imperfect laws of men; they adhere to the perfect rules of their chosen gods.
Their fundamentalism has nothing to do with liberty. It is directed toward preservation of self and propagation of the guiding belief. It crosses all religious boundaries. The fundamentalist form or every human faith has persecuted those it declares to be apostates or non-believers. More blood has been spilled over religion (combined with ethnicity) in the history of the world than all the wars for treasure combined.
Now Afghanistan is over for us – as it was always going to be. The internal clamor will continue, of course, because the beasts of media and politics must be fed. Wars never end well. Someone wins, someone loses, and the losers always suffer. Acknowledging this doesn’t lessen the suffering, I realize, but truth is better than subterfuge or self-delusion. I like seeing wars end, no matter how it’s done.
In this case, we were no match for a barefoot man with a rifle.
— Photograph by Wakil Kohsar / AFP / Getty Images