As the American media continued its unrelenting coverage of the fifth day of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban, Floyd Ray Roseberry, a 49 years’ old North Carolinian, pulled up his muddy Dodge Ram on the sidewalk of the Library of Congress, live-streaming on social media with a detonator in hand and told authorities that in his pickup truck he was carrying a bomb. Roseberry, allegedly a Trump supporter, had driven from Grover, North Carolina. In his live streams which have now have been taken down, he can be seen ranting and spouting right-wing anti-government talking points. One complaint he mouthed was that he and his wife did not have healthcare but the Afghan immigrants being evacuated from Kabul would get a comprehensive health cover. After a 5-hour standoff, he surrendered and while his truck had potential bomb-making materials no bomb was found in it.
This episode and the US media’s insistence on punishing the Biden administration for a ‘premature and sloppy’ withdrawal from Afghanistan deserve your attention. Roseberry’s standoff because it very effectively epitomises the challenges America and its citizens face today. Existential angst among and radicalisation of its white population, crumbling infrastructure and social safety net, Trump supported conspiracy theories and growing xenophobia. Media’s priorities because at a time when an average American is having a hard time adjusting to the post-Covid, post-Trump world and needs media’s full attention, the media elites refuse to give up on a war that produces no immediate benefits for the country or its population. This existential angst amongst the white folk harvests a crop of radicalism that is ready for the picking by the white nationalists and other subversive groups.
Why would media and Washington elites react so brashly to a policy change whose time had come? Two reasons. One, because it is not a great situation on the ground in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan. Consider this. According to recent estimates, 45 per cent of Afghanistan’s population is 15 years’ old or below. In urban parts where this population growth has taken place, the Taliban were viewed as a violent bunch of incubi. So, the fear is bound to be immense. Two, it feels like a betrayal. But no country can indefinitely occupy another, run its business and become a permanent part of its civil war. The real betrayal was America’s overstay in Afghanistan. Betrayal of Afghans because they presumed that this could go on forever and of its own, because precious resources were diverted to what one SIGAR report after another and The Washington Post’s ‘Afghanistan Papers’ were constantly warning us had become a black hole of corruption. This could probably go on for a long time but the longer the stay, the bigger betrayal a withdrawal would have looked like. In twenty years more children were born who are now adults and have to contend with an alien world that has just descended upon them. I have a lot more to say about Afghanistan, the Taliban (you know I am not a fan), Afghan women (being a father of girls I have barely slept thinking of what girls there are going through) but I will wait until evacuations are complete and a new government is formed in Kabul.
Meanwhile, it is important to underscore how wars change us all. What if you were told that the global war on terror as it was fought and Trumpism had a direct connection. That in the way one leads to another there are countless lessons for every country that allows wars and conflicts to seduce it. For the past five years, many of us have held breath as the rhetoric against terrorism emanating from Muslim territories metastasised and metamorphosed into the invective against domestic dissent and minorities in America. But it was hard to connect the dots. Now thanks to a flurry of brilliantly researched and well-written books it is demonstrably easy to present this case.
The first in this long line of works is Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump by Spencer Ackerman. Meticulously tracing how each exception to America’s principles made to combat terrorism was later commandeered, weaponised and applied by the Trump administration against his fellow Americans. The most stunning proof of this pudding lies in the team Trump gathered around him. It is veritable who’s who of Bush-era battle-hardened individuals who rebelled against the Obama administration’s attempts to put a civil face to the war on terror. John Kelly, the handsome four-star marine general, a gold star parent and the adult in the Trump White House, was chosen for his pushback against the idea of shutting down Gitmo. Kelly who headed Guantanamo Bay detention camp and then the Southern Command wasn’t really a big believer in human rights perhaps because of his personal loss. Likewise, Gina Haspel was chosen to head the CIA but she had already made mark due to her association with a CIA black site called ‘Cat’s Eye’ in Thailand. In their defence, when many of these team members saw what Trump was ready to do to placate his base they pushed back as any true professional would. But by then the cat was out of the bag. And yet many like Pompeo and Stephen Miller would not change their spots.
The second book is by Talia Lavin titled Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. In this heartfelt and brave book, she takes us to the dark recesses of the internet where the sausage of hate is being manufactured. The book covers all negative elements from white nationalists to Incels (involuntary celibates) and Boogaloo Bois.
To comprehend the broader context, two more books help us a great deal. Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America by Kathleen Belew traces the evolution of the White Power movement since the end of the Vietnam war. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Anderson casts an even wider net and dives deep into American history to bring to our attention how various elements of American exceptionalism are negatively affecting the behaviour of an average American today.
This war in Afghanistan will be over with the evacuation of the last foreigner in the country. It will try to find its way. At home, American leadership will have to work hard to fix things. But the fact that so many intelligent individuals are busy taking stock of what went wrong tells you that all this talk of the damage to America’s prestige as a superpower is nothing but hyperbole.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2021.