At the Kabul fence line...
The airport debacle could destroy Biden's presidency
I spent much of yesterday in London, in a transnational communications loop with Afghans trying to flee via Kabul Airport. Some were beaten, some were crushed. None got into the airport - despite being in real-time comms with senior US officials and the military.
We all failed - and will fail again unless something changes. As a result, right now, the whole of geopolitics is balanced on the pinhead of Kabul.
As Joe Biden said yesterday: no country but the USA could project force with the precision that's being shown in the Kabul airlift. But it is still failing.
And while voters have not yet processed the West's strategic defeat in Afghanistan, they will very easily process the operational debacle in Kabul, and draw political conclusions from it.
They will do so not least because hundreds of journalists in Western capitals have friends, associates and colleagues struggling to get out. As commentators draw parallels with Saigon in 1975, veteran reporters are saying privately “it’s already worse”.
Many of the people crushed up against the concrete perimeter have exit visas issued by the USA. Many are on lists issued by the State Department. One I've seen says:
"these people are in extreme danger, please grant airport access to them immediately".
But no access has been granted.
The obvious solutions are:
to establish a military policing operation in an area beyond the airport wall, in order to process and protect the refugees;
to mount rescue patrols, as British troops have done into Kabul itself;
and to abandon the arbitrary deadline of 31 August, which the US has reportedly agreed with the Taliban.
These normally operational decisions have become, because of the chaotic collapse of the Afghan government, strategic issues.
Biden said last night that the perimeter could not be extended without "unforseen consequences". But the consequences of not doing so are all too easily forseen. They are not just humanitarian but political.
Tens of thousands of Afghans - not just interpreters and state officials, but NGO workers, lawyers, and civil society activists - hold visas promising their evacuation.
The world already knows the USA will cut and run from a 20-year geopolitical commitment without consultation with its allies. If those visas are not made good - for people designated “high priority” and in “extreme danger” - the world will learn that the USA does not even have the political will to achieve the evacuation of high priority individuals.
Contacts in both Washington and Whitehall are, to put it mildly, expressing shock and dismay at the level of paralysis shown by the Biden administration. It is leading to near-farcical communications between senior officials and individual refugees. They are experiencing a realtime disintegration of goodwill within NATO, which they know the West’s adversaries will exploit.
I understand that numerous senior figures in the administration, including the Secretary of State, have pushed Biden to relax the deployment rules so that US, Turkish and British soldiers can bring order and method to the processing of those suffering outside the perimeter. Yet Biden's decision cycle is said to be slow.
If the US military cannot open the gates, honour the exit visas and get tens of thousands of people moving through Kabul airport in the next 48 hours, the 31 August deadline will soon mandate that it has to stop evacuating Afghans and start evacuating soldiers.
There was no Twitter in Saigon, and no WhatsApp. This time around the world will witness what happens, and in real time.
The worst-case scenario is not just that it then leaves tens of thousands of Afghan civil society activists to the mercy of the Taliban.
The worst case scenario looks like Saigon, Benghazi, the Iran hostage crisis and Hurricane Katrina rolled into one. It could destroy the credibility of the Biden presidency.
This was an off-topic edition of the newsletter, but there are big implications for the far right, and indeed the future of the global order at stake in Afghanistan. With How To Stop Fascism set to publish soon, next week I’ll be exploring the incel phenomenon, which is heavily in focus in the UK following the Plymouth shooting. Thanks for reading - please share and subscribe.