After the Taliban entered the palace of General Rashid Dostum in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif on August 14, a video emerged of ragtag fighters in salwar kameez gawking awkwardly at the gilded chandeliers, embossed cabinets and ornate carpets covering every inch of the warlord’s home.
A few commenters noted on social media how the décor would not have been out of place in Vladimir Putin’s secret mansion on the Black Sea, or at Trump Tower in New York – kleptocrats seemingly sharing the same gaudy taste in design and furniture regardless of provenance or location.
That depressing observation prompted another, even more upsetting one. With all the talk of whether and how much the US may have succeeded in advancing the rights of the Afghan people over the past twenty years, at least those living in urban cores – what with the college-educated women, internet cafes and burgeoning free media – we are perhaps forgetting to ask ourselves how much more, in some respects, the US actually became like Afghanistan.
Things are not well in America, no matter where you look.
Tribal politics, income inequality, deep-pocketed lobbies, whacky superstitions are all colliding with each other and accelerating the fraying of the social fabric. A vicious cycle has corrupted the country’s metropolitan elite, rendering it complacent and intellectually lazy, and turned many exurban and rural communities into hotbed of conspiracy theories, anti-scientific beliefs, and overwhelming fear of everything.
The results are there for all to see.
The world’s wealthiest and most powerful country, and one of its most educated, has consistently underperformed in the management of the novel coronavirus pandemic, racking up some of the highest numbers of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths among the OECD economies.
In the early months of the pandemic, Donald Trump’s haphazard approach to governing and generous spewing of populist bile intensified a deep distrust of federal institutions and hatred of “expertise” that had been brewing for years across many underserved pockets of the country. Those centrifugal forces coalesced around an otherwise inexplicable disdain for masks, social distancing, tests, and other basic public health measures to contain COVID-19 while vaccines were in development.
Now awash in shots, America is experiencing another massive, deadly wave of the pandemic because some of the same delusions are making tens of millions of people wary of getting their two doses of Pfizer or Moderna, or their one injection of Johnson&Johnson.
America in 2021 is a country that cannot agree whether the virus is a threat worth responding to, or even acknowledging.
As we weep for the fate of Afghan women under the Taliban, Texas lawmakers have meanwhile passed a near-ban on abortion, with the esteemed Supreme Court barely blinking an eye. But that should come as no surprise at this point. It’s been nearly fifty years since the landmark ruling in the Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion, and Congress has yet to legislate this right into law and give it a proper federal framework above and beyond the frail judicial decision that underpins its.
Attempts to restrict the voting rights of already disenfranchised minorities are underway in Texas, Georgia, Montana and at least a dozen other states.
Twenty-two years after Columbine, despite increasingly gory and frequent mass shootings, including against elementary school children, localities, states and the federal government are at a loss over even the simplest measures to curb gun violence. There is the lobbying prowess of the National Rifle Association (NRA), of course, though the group over the years became so corrupt that it is now in the throes of bankruptcy. There is the Republicans’ exploitation of the fears and prejudices of right-wing voters to win elections, much like they have done with abortion for more than four decades. And there is conservative radio, and increasingly TV and Internet, that spews hatred and lies relentlessly and around the clock.
To be sure, the American media landscape is balkanized: Fox News and MSBNC seem to broadcast from different universes, but one is increasingly hard-pressed to find serious reporting or rigorous analysis anywhere that does not have an explicit political bias or agenda. Social media, from Facebook on down, have turned into the perfect conduit for all manners of outlandish claims and fake news.
Increasingly, politics in the U.S. has taken on a sectarian feel, with “red” and “blue” bubbles that circle one another but never touch. Even the progressive left has managed to split itself down to a series of minuscule tribes based on obscure academic jargon on gender and race that nobody outside of a few selected cultural institutions understands or cares about.
But a line exists connecting all these dots, and, incredibly, the U.S. to Afghanistan: the apparent dysfunction enables the few to share the spoils of the winner-take-all system, while the many fight over leftover crumbles amid widespread, though diverging, perceptions of impending doom, be it climate change, the national debt, the rise of China, sharia law, you name it.
This country desperately needs to engage in a long series of difficult, expensive reforms to retain its appeal as the “exceptional” democratic experiment it purports to be: it needs to ensure access to health care for all citizens; break the link between housing prices and school funding so all children can receive quality education; transition to clean energy sources; drastically reduce the ability of wealthy individuals and corporations (forget foreign enemies!) to influence elections; streamline the bloated military apparatus; and somehow get rid of hundreds of thousands of automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines.
But these reforms threaten the power of the status-quo near and far: the Republican lawmakers from the provinces who need their evangelical Christians and white supremacists to get ahead; the military generals at the Pentagon; the liberal city-dwellers that plant “Black Lives Matter” signs in their yards but will not allow affordable housing to go up in their treelined neighborhoods; the corporate tycoon and their handsomely paid hangers-on.
The trillions of dollars that taxpayers spent on the “war on terror” in the two decades since 9/11, and especially on the unsuccessful invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily benefited a few arms manufacturers, military contractors, private security firms, and the lawyers, accountants, and variety of other white-collar professionals they employ. Them and the think-tank experts, TV pundits and NGO administrators that simply positioned themselves so that the shower of money would wet them a little too. In short, the upper middle class of Washington, D.C., a city that not coincidentally has experienced exceptional growth in the last twenty years.
So here too you now see Dostum-style mansions that cost millions of dollars and have you wonder how anybody working honestly in government or for government could ever afford.
But how do you walk such decadent, pleasure-addicted elite back from the brink? It is unclear. As Afghanistan and countless other failed or failing kleptocracies teach us, things typically just get worse, because it is in the interest of those who benefit from a slow erosion of democratic norms and mores, until they collapse. After all, Ashraf Ghani, the president who pledged to die for Afghanistan and then fled before the Taliban even entered Kabul, was a former World Bank employee who wrote the “expert” book on “Fixing Failed States“. Washington loved him.
The way President Joe Biden managed the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a far cry from successful, or even merely acceptable. It was an embarrassment. But there is a nugget of hope in his apparent attempt to refocus Americans on America, and get them busy with an enormous, historical in fact, expansion of the social safety net and an ambitious approach to other domestic priorities.
Yet he is part, and he is surrounded by, the same policymaking community that has rooted for and grown rich from two decades of botched efforts at promoting democracy overseas. This community, with plenty of ambassadors inside and outside the White House, is now gearing up for their greatest, maddest, and potentially most lucrative, endeavor yet: full-front confrontation with China. Can Biden rein them in?