A stunned media


By Chanakya

President Joe Biden has been at the receiving end of a major media backlash, at home and abroad, following his unilateral decision to pull out hastily from Afghanistan, leaving that country’s hapless millions in the cruel hands of the Taliban. The complete disaster that has ensued has been castigated from newspapers such as The New York Times, which had staunchly supported him against Donald Trump and The Wall Street Journal, a conservative financial daily. Even a complete pro government (Democrat) news organisation, such as the CNN has become critical of the action.

The knives are out. The BBC had been crying wolf from the time Trump and Taliban signed the peace treaty in Doha – cutting out the incumbent government in Kabul – and now that Biden’s hurried and obtuse decision has resulted in a catastrophe, it is a no holds barred war from the newsroom.

Indian news media took a while reacting, what with the Independence Day celebrations happening on the same day and with the Olympic glory euphoria still glowing, but basically it has followed the same pattern. The cautious optimism was discarded, even in respectable journals, while the usual Pakistan baiting decibels grew in numbers from loudmouths. However, analysts rightly pointed out that even in a Taliban win in Afghanistan, Pakistan may have scored, politically, over India. The fact that Taliban has been trained and fed by Pakistan’s ISI, as well as the army, is not even news in India, though the West may raise eyebrows.

Pakistan barely figures in the western media, a small but critical error in news judgement, one would like to believe. But it was refreshing to note that there was unanimity among news organisations, even Al Jazeera from Doha, and there was bile against Biden. Taliban remains a pariah.

The biggest smear in Biden’s fledgling career has been the reappearance of pictures from Saigon, in 1975. As Chinook helicopters ferried American personnel from their offices inside Kabul to the airport, similarities were cited by newspapers and news anchors alike with the shameful Vietnam defeat. “The vanquished left by helicopter, as the victors came by trucks,” was the refrain. Iconic pictures of desperate Americans clambering up to rooftops from there they were rescued by US helicopters, as the Viet Cong raced to occupy American-held buildings, surfaced.

Biden’s attempt at passing the buck to his predecessor Trump for signing the peace treaty in Doha was thrown to the dustbin by the American media, which clearly said that when Biden has undone decision after decision taken by Trump, what stopped him from doing the same here?

The incessant media hammering has seen Biden’s popularity rating drop to a nadir, and even Trump has had the courage to call Biden “incompetent”. What a turnaround. As Commander in Chief of the massive US war machine, Biden is now left to defend a decision that might soon result in another massive humanitarian crisis, the likes of which – plus, of course Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden – initiated a US move to Afghanistan in the first place.

The Indian media has, finally, found a piece of news that is neither pro BJP nor pro Opposition. The usual bias-and-bile spewing channels, as well as those with policies more balanced and down the centre have invested time and energy in reporting and analysing a news item that can have huge implications for India, sooner than we think.
Let us take a look at what the media has said around the world:

Max Boot (he covers national security for the daily) wrote in his column, headlined: ‘Twenty years of Afghanistan mistakes, but this preventable disaster is on Biden’.“Pundits (including me) love to praise bipartisanship in public policy. The calamity in Afghanistan shows the dark side of bipartisanship: This was a disaster that was produced by four administrations, two Republican (George W. Bush, Donald Trump) and two Democratic (Barack Obama, Joe Biden).”

Boot has pulled no punches in his article, lambasting each President of the US who has been responsible for this disaster. They all “bumbled”, according to him. He writes:“President Bush bumbled, after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, in failing to focus on building a capable Afghan government and military — and instead, pivoting scarce resources to a war of choice in Iraq. President Obama bumbled in ordering a troop surge with a deadline that encouraged the Taliban to wait U.S. forces out. President Trump bumbled in negotiating a troop withdrawal deal that resulted in the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners despite a total lack of progress in peace talks. And now President Biden has bumbled in hewing to Trump’s deal even though the Taliban did not. (They never broke with al-Qaeda as they had vowed to do.)”.Strong as can be, Boot sums it up all in his introductory paragraphs.
It had a more cautious editorial, though bluntly calls Joe Biden’s decision “foolish”. This article was written days before Kabul fell to the Taliban and before the ignominious departure of Americans: The Taliban’s rapid advance is chilling but a united response can still avert catastrophe.

Wrote the daily:
“The fall of Afghanistan to fundamentalist Taliban forces is a disaster foretold. Although the capital, Kabul, remains in government hands (sic), the scale and speed of the insurgents’ advance has left no doubt who now holds the upper hand. This swift implosion is likened to the final days of the Vietnam war, when the Viet Cong overran Saigon in April 1975. If what the world is witnessing is the moral as well as the physical collapse of a nation, the fall of France in June 1940 may be the better analogy.
“The success… of the Taliban’s many-fronted offensive… was predictable once it became clear, in June, that residual US forces were rushing to leave. The foolish, unilateral American decision to quit at short notice effectively obliged Britain and other NATO allies to follow.”

And the daily was clear in apportioning blame: “…Joe Biden bears immediate responsibility for a preventable reversal that will have lasting, deeply negative consequences for the longsuffering Afghan people and for western security. But this failure is shared with previous US presidents who took their eye off the ball in the years after al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks – and especially with Donald Trump, whose unbelievably inept, self-serving “peace deal” with Taliban leaders in Doha last year paved the way for capitulation.”
There was sympathy for President Ashraf Ghani too. Ghani, who had become a US national, gave up his citizenship, sold his house and returned ‘home’ only to a stab in the back by people he had trusted. True, that his kind of leadership failed to inspire anybody and he came across as weak, but even that, probably, does not justify a knife in the back.

The daily writes: “An enormous humiliation has also been inflicted on Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president. His uninspiring, ineffective political leadership has been cruelly exposed. Yet it’s also true that he was seriously weakened when Trump excluded his government from the Doha talks. The inclusive democracy that many Afghans, western governments and NGOs strove so hard to establish is in mortal danger as a result. In fact, it’s dying before our eyes.”

The Editorial Board of the world’s most respected financial daily called this a “surrender”. In the article was headlined: Biden’s Afghanistan Surrender.It pulled no punches on Biden, saying: “The President tries to duck responsibility for a calamitous withdrawal”

The article said:
“President Biden’s statement on Saturday washing his hands of Afghanistan deserves to go down as one of the most shameful in history by a Commander in Chief at such a moment of American retreat. As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, Mr. Biden sent a confirmation of U.S. abandonment that absolved himself of responsibility, deflected blame to his predecessor, and more or less invited the Taliban to take over the country…
“Our goal all along has been to offer constructive advice to avoid this outcome… The President’s advisers offered an alternative, as did the Afghanistan Study Group. Mr. Biden, as always too assured of his own foreign-policy acumen, refused to listen… Mr. Biden’s… self-justification exemplifies his righteous dishonesty. ‘One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country…’

And Biden’s attempt to pass the buck back to Donald Trump did not cut any ice either. It said:”
“Worse is his attempt to blame his decisions on Mr. Trump: ‘When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor—which he invited the Taliban to discuss at Camp David on the eve of 9/11 of 2019—that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on U.S. forces. Shortly before he left office, he also drew U.S. forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500. Therefore, when I became President, I faced a choice—follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict.” That, the daily did not buy.

Fox News, always the Democrat baiter, had a field day (this is before the final fall ofKabul). Tucker Carlson said:
We must hold someone accountable for what is happening in Afghanistan.
He continued: “…What exactly is going on? There’s a pattern, if you look around for a moment, you may notice things that add up: gas lines, inflation, spiraling crime, collapsing cities. If you’re over 40, it could look familiar. It’s the 1970s, but without the free speech and Brezhnev running our government and, as if it could get more perfect, now we may have another fall of Saigon. Remember the fall of Saigon?

“If you were watching television in April of 1975, April 30th, you remember it well. It was the single most humiliating day in the history of the United States abroad. American officials fleeing in terror as a peasant army swept through the capital city, desperate civilians clinging to the struts of helicopters as they took off from the roof of the U.S. embassy. It was a complete disaster. It was a total ignominious defeat. We’d spent more than a decade in Vietnam and in the end, we lost. So no matter how you felt about that war, it was painful to see it happen and nobody wants to see it again. Last month, Joe Biden promised we never will see it again.”
Then he presented an actual interaction between a reporter and Biden, just before D-Day (Indians will be easily able to remember this day, because it coincides with our Independence Day).

“REPORTER: Some Vietnamese veterans see echoes of their experience in this withdrawal in Afghanistan. Do you see any parallels between this withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam with some people feeling went on whatsoever?

“JOE BIDEN: None Whatsoever. Zero. What you had is you had entire brigades breaking through the gates of our embassy. Six, if I’m not mistaken. The Taliban is not the South, the North Vietnamese army. They’re not and they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance for you to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
The taunting goes on. There is no holding them back now. The writer found an amusing piece as well in a missive from the US embassy in Kabul (this was just before the fall):
“Yet somehow the Biden administration is still pretending maybe they have a choice, that they’re in charge. The U.S. embassy in Kabul just sent out this tweet: ‘We’re hearing additional reports of Taliban executions, of surrendering Afghan troops, deeply disturbing and could constitute war crimes.’

“War crimes. Hilarious. So when will the tribunals start? Who’s going to run the tribunals? We may need to invade Afghanistan again. But instead, here’s another idea, let’s figure out how this happened. How did we spend 20 years, trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives to end up with absolutely nothing but more humiliation? Pashtun tribesmen shooting at us with our guns as we run away? That is the definition of disaster.”This UK mainline national daily stressed that ‘Biden overruled top generals’ advice to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan’

The daily quoted The Wall Street Journal, saying: “Joe Biden’s top military advisers and diplomats urged the president to maintain roughly 2,500 troops in Afghanistan while pursuing a peace agreement among warring Afghan groups, according to The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper reports that administration officials warned the president that security in the country was deteriorating against an inadequate Afghan military and a rapidly moving Taliban, and a withdrawal of US forces would leave Afghanistan vulnerable to capture and collapse.”
The Kolkata daily had its reporter at the New Delhi airport, as several Afghan nationals, 3 MPs among them, came in on an Air India flight.

It’s article, headlined: Everyone has failed us, says Afghan Intelligent official
Described a poignant incident.
“The 41-year-old officer took the last commercial flight from Kabul to Delhi on Sunday to escape ‘certain death’, leaving behind his ailing mother, wife and an eight-year-old son. “I had to run, else the Taliban would have killed me. Everything ends here. I could not bring my family along,” Afghan intelligence officer Asif said in broken Hindi as tears welled up in his eyes, hours after he landed in Delhi.
The 41-year-old officer took the last commercial flight from Kabul to Delhi on (that fateful) Sunday to escape “certain death”, leaving behind his ailing mother, wife and an eight-year-old son.”
The daily went on to describe how the top official’s pains multiplied.
“A compatriot helped Asif find a modest accommodation — a small room, attached bathroom and a marble slab with a sink that he called kitchen — in Lajpat Nagar for Rs 500 a day. “I will try if I can get a room for Rs 200-300, said the officer, who wanted to be identified as just Asif.”
The Doha news broadcaster also zeroed in on how senior Afghan leaders fled to India, a midnight operation by the Indian government and Air India. It also says how the Taliban fighters escorted the Indians safely to the airport.
The heading says it all: India’s midnight evacuation from Afghanistan, escorted by Taliban.
The descriptive is gripping. Here are shorts:
“Outside the main iron gate of the Indian embassy in Kabul, a group of Taliban fighters waited, armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Inside the compound were 150 Indian diplomats and nationals, growing increasingly nervous as they watched news of the Taliban tightening their grip on the capital, which they took a day earlier without a fight…”
Having established the backdrop, it brings in Pakistan India’s enemy and Taliban host (though Qatar has also been hosting Taliban): “Pakistan has long been the Taliban’s biggest supporter, using the country for so-called “strategic depth” in never-ending battles – real and diplomatic – with archrival India… India, in turn, strongly backed the government that took over when the Taliban was removed, earning them hatred and enmity from the hardline group.”

Having built the suspense, Al Jazeera breaks the ice:
“But the Taliban fighters outside the Indian embassy were not there to extact revenge but rather to escort them to Kabul airport, where a military aircraft was on standby to evacuate them after New Delhi decided to shut its mission.
“As the first of nearly two dozen vehicles drove out of the embassy late on Monday, some of the fighters waved and smiled at the passengers, an AFP news agency correspondent among them. One guided them towards the street leading out of the city’s green zone and on the main road to the airport… The embassy’s decision to ask the Taliban to shepherd the Indians out was made when the fighters closed access to the once heavily fortified neighbourhood after capturing Kabul the previous day.”
This highly respected Indian daily shed light on how there were people still stranded in Afghanistan, when the Taliban takeover had been a foregone conclusion for some time. Bits and pieces were taken from Afghans who landed in New Delhi.

In an article headlined: Afghans in India: “Everything changed suddenly, silently”
… The daily said: “People who arrived at the Embassy of Afghanistan on Tuesday for paperwork and other formalities, recounted how the situation in Kabul had taken a drastic turn for the worse over the last couple of days. With family members and relatives still in Kabul, some said the common citizen was paying the price for trusting a government that ultimately ‘fled’.

“For Mohammed, who reached the national capital from Kabul on August 8 with three of his family members, it had been a close shave. ‘When we left Kabul, the situation was not as bad and it started to deteriorate only a couple of days later. It just got worse by the day and people were scrambling to get visas. We do not know how all of it happened so suddenly and silently. For a long time, we thought maybe the Taliban won’t reach Kabul very soon,” said the 32-year-old.

“His sister is still in Kabul, Mr. Mohammed said. ‘She is a cancer patient and her husband is also out of town. She is now left with no access to money, as the banks have also closed. You cannot withdraw a single penny. We are worried about her and it is a horrific situation that people are going through.”

The media has mostly reacted. It will soon be time to look deeper, find the reason for a country crumbling so fast. Maybe the US left, but it is still not clear how the entire country, with all the equipment left by the Americans, simply surrendered.