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OP-ED: A tragedy in caricature

  • Published at 10:50 pm August 23rd, 2021
Kabul airport Afghanistan
A US Marine provides fresh water to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul on August 21, 2021 AFP

Beneath the images and memes lay only sorrow for what Afghanistan is experiencing

Take a moment to cast your gaze on the blue expanse above, and give thanks to that which you cherish and hold most dear for the blissful routine that passes for your life. For, dear reader, the events that unfold in our proximity should evoke gratitude in us based on an enormously good fortune that we may call a country of this subcontinent in which we live as our very own.

Barbarians at the gates! Rome has fallen! In the wake of the blitzkrieg conducted by the “scholars at war” that culminated in an entire country falling into their hands in a matter of weeks and the shocking capitulation of Kabul, social media is ablaze with images and memes of what the ignominious withdrawal of the United States of America portends for a people who continue to be unwitting victims of the unique position that they occupy on the crust of the earth.  Let us examine examples of some which may amuse but never fail to provoke, because under the surface they represent a tale of only the utmost sorrow.

Consider a set of sketches set in a gridiron of four squares, the first introducing the United States in 2001 as the fierce-eyed bald eagle, a symbol well chosen for itself by the most powerful of nations. 

Over the next two frames, the proud and arrogant predator loses sheen and form, becoming unkempt, straggly, and strangely elongated. By the fourth and final frame, the metamorphosis from the master of all it surveys to a large ostrich with head buried in the sand is complete, telling of the state of the national resolve of America in 2021.

A clever cartoon sums it up succinctly. The bald eagle again, sporting Uncle Sam’s star-spangled top-hat, is seen flying away clutching what appears to be an oversized pin in its talons. It is indeed a pin, to a massive grenade standing in the foreground, set to explode with devastating consequences. The grenade has since exploded, and we are witness to the devastation unfolding.

Uncle Sam in a doctor’s coat sprints from the intensive care unit which bears the words “Afghanistan Emergency.” Seconds later, an explosion rocks the surgery, accompanied by billowing smoke by a rivulet of blood. Uncle Sam yells: “Operation successful, patient dead.” Cynical, yes. True, most definitely.

Consider a black-and-white rendition of a placard, wreathed in the tell-tale smoke of battle, of which the piece in the middle is missing. The first piece has the letters “AF” emblazoned, and the third “STAN.” The middle piece, blasted out by war, has sprouted a pair of feet and is seen scampering away bearing the original words “GHANI” and now freshly topped with “ASHRAF” with the “S” riven with the parallel lines of the all-powerful dollar. 

It appears that President Ashraf Ghani, born aloft on the wings of the bald eagle, has fled his country, secure in the knowledge of asylum and a guaranteed bank account. The betrayal is complete.

What about the hilarious video of a fictitious American ambassador to a fictitious African country, where the leaders of the beleaguered nation beg for military aid as defense against destruction, rape, and pillage? 

His Excellency clucks sympathetically but, alas, armed intervention is not an option at present as American military power is stretched too thinly across the globe. Their entreaties falling on deaf ears, the supplicants exchange a knowing look before delivering their trump card. 

“But, Excellency, what we could use your help with really is protecting our vulnerable, plentiful, and newly discovered oil reserves.” The plenipotentiary stops short in his tracks and whirls upon them. “Oil? Excuse me one second.” 

A satellite phone appears as if by magic at his first-world ear. “Operation Golden Eagle is a go!” No sooner are the words out of his mouth than the roar of airborne machinery fills the air and the sky goes dark with endless lines of transport planes, helicopter gunships, and fighter planes. Mister Ambassador addresses our fellow third-worlders with a triumphant shake of the hand: “Welcome to democracy!”

Consider the screamers emanating from the government which celebrate administrative idiocy and its equivalent in news reporting. One priceless example stated that President Biden’s Secretary of State Blinken informs the Taliban that they can not enter the US embassy in Kabul unless they are fully vaccinated. 

In another, this time a freeze from a CNN broadcast, the headline declares the news network’s praise for the Taliban for wearing masks during the attack. One is rendered speechless.

A deluge of videos records shreds of the blanket of the fear that stifles Kabul. They are replete with choked streets and an airport and tarmac overrun with terrified citizens clustering pitifully around the shells of squatting aeroplanes.

“Never trust a friend who leaves you saying that he will be back.” The adage is attributed to the culture of ancient Vietnam. And who would know better? The image of a helicopter hovering over the US legation in the Saigon of 1975, chillingly replicated in the Kabul of 2021 is the unwanted déjà vu of history.

Afghanistan. Wild, untamed, treacherous, a repository of the confluence of civilization. In the past, secular political leadership has striven to build a just and equitable society, only to be successfully countered at each step by the reactionary feudalism of a nation built on personal loyalty to the family, clan, and tribe. 

Has nation-building been finally sacrificed for all times to the permanent allure of geopolitical one-upmanship and a conduit for mineral wealth? Time will tell.

On October 7, 2001, the US launched its offensive against the Taliban. After 20 gruelling years, thousands of deaths, trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money squandered, and a futile feet-on-the ground exercise which steeled rather than broke the back of Taliban resolve, the Americans will continue to hover in the wings, waiting to parley with the establishment once the dust settles in the hope of becoming once again relevant in a land which, for all its travails, has always been intensely Afghanistan first. 

Sumit Basu is a freelance contributor writing from India.

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