The Afghan moment

by Ambassador B. Romualdez

C-17 Globemaster at the Kabul International Airport, in Afghanistan | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It seemed so surreal seeing the images of Afghan citizens clinging on to a C-17 US Air Force aircraft as it was taxiing down the runway at Kabul airport. It was so reminiscent of what happened in Saigon in 1975 when the United States pulled out of Vietnam, signaling the end of the Vietnam War. Similarly, the 20-year war against the Taliban ended in what was described as a “major disaster for a war that could never have been won in the first place.”

While in Manila, where I attended the meeting between President Duterte and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that resulted in the reinstatement of the Visiting Forces Agreement, Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin instructed me to work on helping repatriate our overseas Filipino workers in Afghanistan. The unfolding situation in Afghanistan has become the “main event” that has caught global attention.

An estimated 93 Filipinos are still in Afghanistan, with several resourceful and resilient Filipinos finding their way out of Kabul on their own. A first batch has already been repatriated, but a number are still being located and assisted by our embassy in Islamabad.

“We have also been coordinating with our friends at the Pentagon, who are assisting us with the flight clearances for the repatriation effort.”

We have also been coordinating with our friends at the Pentagon, who are assisting us with the flight clearances for the repatriation effort. The US military has taken over air traffic control and ground handling in Kabul international airport, with a limited number of civilian aircraft allowed to land. The US Central Command is speeding up operations with military reinforcements to secure the airfield and the surrounding perimeter. There are at least 15 other countries that are waiting to repatriate their own citizens. The Pentagon assured us that they would assist us in the repatriation of the remaining Filipinos.

Everyone has seen the chaotic situation in Afghanistan with photos and videos showing people – men, women, and children – frantically fleeing the country, fearing for their lives. It was very disconcerting to watch the people clambering up on cargo planes and holding on to the wheels of the US aircraft in an obvious act of desperation to escape the country taken over by the Taliban.

The pathetic situation has been described as a “Saigon moment,” recalling the frenzied evacuation of US personnel from Vietnam in 1975 as captured in photos showing choppers flying in at the premises of the US embassy, including the rooftop. In fact, some Vietnam veterans say the situation in Afghanistan is much worse than what happened in Saigon.

Not surprisingly, the blame game has started in the US, with military officials angry and pointing the finger at the Biden national security team. According to sources, the military top brass was against the pullout. Still, when their advice went unheeded, they wanted to execute the pullout as early as May to ensure the US troops are protected, with everyone able to leave by the first week of July.

Some officials are reportedly exasperated at the State Department for the seemingly slow processing of paperwork needed to give special visas for Afghan translators and other personnel who worked for the US. In turn, the State Department says the US Congress should take the blame because the legislators made everything difficult by prescribing a 14-step process that they must complete before the special visas could be issued. Congress eventually passed legislation that simplified the procedure at the end of July – but by then, things were already unraveling rather quickly.

“Experts have also warned that Afghanistan could turn into a “narco state” under Taliban rule and that the country could become a terrorist haven again because of the vast military hardware such as attack aircraft, choppers plus modern weapons and gadgets provided by the US for the Afghan military which is now in the hands of the Taliban.”

Changes are already being seen and felt following the Taliban takeover, even in little things such as female reporters now wearing the burqa (a long garment covering the body from head to toe) and walking on the side to avoid incurring the ire of males, fearing for their safety.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime also expressed concern about the illegal drugs trade since Afghanistan reportedly accounts for 80 percent of the global supply of opium and heroin. The UNODC says the Taliban is involved in every aspect of the billion-dollar illegal drugs trade – from growing to production to distribution – because it is a huge funding source for their operations. Experts have also warned that Afghanistan could turn into a “narco state” under Taliban rule and that the country could become a terrorist haven again because of the vast military hardware such as attack aircraft, choppers plus modern weapons and gadgets provided by the US for the Afghan military which is now in the hands of the Taliban.

President Joe Biden has taken responsibility, saying “the buck stops with me,” but defends his decision, saying American troops should not be fighting and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. He made it clear that “it was not in the national interest” of the US to maintain troop presence in Afghanistan.

“While we have special allies like the US, we should not and cannot depend entirely on just that – more than ever; we have to strengthen our own security and defense capabilities because we will have to rely only at the end of the day on ourselves.”

“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country,” President Biden said.

As we have continuously said, foreign policy is not a zero-sum game. Each country has its own national interest to protect, making it imperative for the Philippines to maintain an independent foreign policy where we have the best possible relations with all countries. While we have special allies like the US, we should not and cannot depend entirely on just that – more than ever; we have to strengthen our own security and defense capabilities because we will have to rely only at the end of the day on ourselves.
Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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