Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Big Countries, Small Cages

No TV series has garnered as much views as Kabul Airport. It would have been difficult for any masterful director to go so far in fantasy. It is unimaginable to have such a cruel ending to a story of this kind that began with the Sept. 11 attacks, which were committed by visitors whom the Taliban refused to hand over to justice.

For days, the world has been watching what is happening in and around Kabul Airport. It is as if the most powerful empire had suddenly fallen into an airport trap. It no longer has any ambitions or demands. It no longer thinks about the human and financial losses it spent there. It only thinks about leaving and getting away... about resigning from a long mission that began with self-defense and now ends with a scandal. It is not easy for the fate of the tumultuous Afghan flight to the United States to stall at the airport. We say the fate of America, and we mean specifically its prestige. Empires are prestigious above anything else.

There is no doubt that America’s image was quickly and deeply damaged from the moment President Ashraf Ghani chose to flee the country under the pretext of avoiding bloodshed. Suddenly, the institutions built by the successive US administrations collapsed. An entire American arsenal fell into the hands of the Taliban fighters. The world found it hard to believe.

Have Americans remained strangers to Afghan realities after two decades of living in this difficult country? Can the assessments of the US intelligence services be trusted after their volatile forecasts caused the country and the current administration to fall into a predicament embodied by the scenes at the airport?

The airport drama is strange and painful. The Soviet Red Army left Afghanistan, but not under such conditions. Its departure was not preceded by the collapse of the Afghan institutions it supported.

The empire is witnessing anxious days that are open to all kinds of surprises. What would happen if a group of Taliban fighters decided to kidnap a handful of Americans and take them to remote hideouts in this rugged country? What will the US military do? And what decisions can President Joe Biden make? What about the allied forces? What if ISIS targets a US convoy on its way to the airport? What if Iran decided to move its proxies to strike a farewell blow to the US forces and encourage them to hasten their departure from Iraq and Syria?

Do generals have the right to put their soldiers and citizens at the mercy of difficult or humiliating choices? Does the master of the White House have the right to put the generals and their soldiers in such a predicament?

The scenes at Kabul airport are strange and impressive. It is not only about the soldiers who are in a hurry to leave, but also about the Afghans and the fear in their eyes. The images of mothers trying to throw their children into the arms of the departing convoy will live on. Nothing compares to disappointment with America and its decisions other than betting on its openness about the diversity of colors, the chances of success it offers to immigrants and the brilliant universities that refine the capabilities of the inbound students.

We can talk, for example, about the largest and fastest air bridge in history that can only be carried out by the US army. This is true. But it is a bridge to leave a country that is back to where it was two decades ago. There is something called prestige. Better to be strong to an extent that no one dares to test it and violent to an extent to prevent the harasser from repeating his adventure.

The Kabul Airport series opens the prestige test wide open. What does Vladimir Putin conclude when he watches this series? Can the US army that pulled out of Afghanistan defend Ukraine? Putin paces in his spacious office. Caution is the greatest and most brilliant of generals. The right timing is half the battle. He did not intervene militarily in Syria until after Bashar al-Assad and Qassem Soleimani concluded that they had no choice but to turn to the Russian medicine to stop the “cosmic attack.” Putin’s delight at the sights at Kabul airport does not hide his feeling that the departing US troops threw the Afghan bomb into the hands of the neighbors of the “Afghan reactor”. He knows that Russia is concerned with the emissions of this reactor, whether with regard to its own security or the security of its allies residing on the edge of Afghanistan.

It is not surprising to see Xi Jinping watching the scenes at Kabul airport. The Americans leaving is good news. Afghan minerals are worth pushing the Belt and Road Initiative into the country of the Taliban. The “comrade” sitting on Mao’s throne is confident that the departed America will not return to defend Hong Kong’s way of life or even Taiwan’s sovereignty. He smiles. It has become difficult for the countries of the world to bet on a secure American pillow. Biden will pay the price for the decline of the US role.

The West is no longer capable of winning wars in regions that do not resemble it. Resolving wars requires a brutality that the West is no longer capable of. The censorship of the media, social media and civil society have tied the hands of the generals. The Russian and Chinese armies do not suffer the brunt of such censorship. Moreover, Western governments cannot ignore the fate of a single citizen of their own. The Western hostage crisis in Lebanon in the past decades is the best evidence.

Khomeini’s Iran, which held Americans hostage in their country’s embassy in Tehran to undermine the prestige of the “Great Satan”, later developed its methods. By detaining a handful of Western citizens, it succeeded, through misleading titles, in luring the major countries into “small cages.”

Do the scenes of Kabul airport tempt some countries or parties to return to harassing America? Will they encourage Iran to escalate its offensive to expel the US from Iraq and Syria? Will they inspire al-Qaeda and ISIS to resume attempts to drag large countries into small cages?