World

The bell tolls for us in Kabul

30 August 2021

8:18 AM

30 August 2021

8:18 AM

Some events are like this.

They creep up like a stalking wolf.

Or, as Nietzsche put it, on doves’ feet.

We don’t hear them coming and need a third ear to make out, behind the ‘still, small voice’, the echo of the explosion.

It happened at Leuctra, in Boeotia, on that day in the 4th century BC when the sacred band of Thebes cut 400 Spartiate equals to pieces, tolling the end of Lacedaemonian hegemony, though no one knew it at the time.

Or at the battle of Chaeronea, 30 years later, which marked the start of the waning of Athenian power.

Or the seemingly minor battle of Pydna, in Thessaloniki, which set in motion the crumbling of Alexander’s dream and was the first real victory of the nascent Roman empire.

Or the battle of Adrianople, which began as a policing operation by a legion sent to rein in bands of Ostrogoth raiders; no one saw it, at the time, as Act I of the fall of Rome.

I described this mechanism in The Empire and the Five Kings (2019).

It was at work in the little known but decisive battle of Kirkuk, where Donald Trump abandoned America’s Kurdish allies in Iraq.

The same scenario is unfolding before our eyes as Joe Biden leaves Afghanistan high and dry.

Why is this not the right course?


Because a great power owes a debt to its allies.

Because, as far away as Afghanistan and its war may seem, the image of the crowds of women, children and men clutching at the wings of American planes leaving Afghanistan is devastating.

Because the wrong is even worse than the one committed in Saigon in 1975, which is recognized as a dark day in the history of American decline, but where Gerald Ford at least had the dignity to pull out not before — but after — he had organized an orderly departure of 135,000 Vietnamese civilians who had loyally served the United States.

Because there is, in Washington, the shameful spectacle of the commander in chief of what had been the world’s greatest power coming back from vacation to tick off on television, like a certified public accountant of disaster, the brilliant achievements of his botched and pathetic evacuation operation — and then the pathetic image of his disarray after the assassination of 13 brave US soldiers.

Because a shock wave surged from there to Taiwan and the Baltic nations, passing through the Arab world and sweeping away confidence in the solidity, reliability and honor of America’s word.

And because five other powers jump on the occasion and prepare now to fill the void created by this debacle.

There is Turkey, whose president recommended, in a telephone call with Putin, a ‘gradual’ approach with respect to the Taliban.

There is Putin, who, in a press conference with Angela Merkel where he permitted himself the luxury of offering the ‘irresponsible’ Americans a lesson in governance, praised the ‘positive signals’ sent by the Taliban, as well as their ‘civilized’ behavior.

There is the about-face of Iran, which, in July, despite its historical differences with Sunni peoples, had its minister of foreign affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, salute the ‘defeat’ of the ‘Great Satan’ in the presence of Taliban leader Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai.

There is China, whose minister of foreign affairs, Wang Yi, met on July 28 with Taliban strongman Abdul Ghani Baradar, now number two in the regime.

And, of course, there is the radical Islamic international which, following Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, knows that it now has available a full-fledged Islamist state, much better than what was available in Mosul or Raqqa, from which to prepare its ideological — and, God forbid, terrorist — attacks against the despised democracies.

Is ISIS so different from the Taliban? Should we really ally with ‘moderate Jihad’ against the radical one? This is a real, and terrible, misconception…

Current events, of course, are not yet history.

Human beings, who make history, are never barred from a sudden moment of lucidity that will foil what had seemed a certain and terrible fate.

In the Panjshir Valley, another Massoud, defying Marx’s remark that history repeats itself as farce, is at this very moment taking up the torch of his father, the hero assassinated on the eve of September 11, 2001.

And I believe that if the West comes to his aid, if we heed his call for assistance and grasp that it is through that valley of hope and freedom that the front line is drawn between the five revisionist powers and those who continue to seek to resist them, if we are bold enough to consider that the Taliban takeover is illegal and that the only Afghan legitimacy is, today, in Panjshir, then the outcome may be altogether different from what appears likely today.

But for the time being, after the evacuation of Afghanistan and the carnage at the Kabul airport, this is where we are.

The image of the liberal democracies, epitomized by the greatest among them, is tragically tarnished.

A new order of things is unfolding piece by piece in a region that everyone knows was the site of the greatest Great Game.

And in the fracas of rotors, the cacophony of calls for help and, now, the thunderstorm of human bombs, a paradigm is being replicated — but with a change of roles, influence and discredit.

If this holds true, and if the map of powers, influence and alliances gels in that pattern, Kabul will be our Pydna, our Chaeronea, our Kirkuk: Today our torment; soon enough, our regret; and then, quickly, our grave.

Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy 

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher and filmmaker, and the author of more than 30 books. His new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, will be published by Yale University Press in Fall 2021. 

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