A coalition of U.S. news organizations is asking President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and the congressional leadership for "urgent" help evacuating Afghans.
"We urge the Biden Administration to support the creation of a visa program for Afghans who worked with the U.S. press and now seek safety in the United States," says a letter to Biden and Blinken from The New York Times and the other news organizations. "Without the assistance of the U.S. Government, many of these Afghans face grievous harm and death."
The loyalty to these local "journalists, interpreters, and support staff" is admirable.
I wish the news organizations success in helping their employees.
Even so, though, it’s hard to avoid noticing what is unsaid. "We do not have a reliable count at this time of the number of our Afghan colleagues who are in danger. But the number is undoubtedly modest — we estimate fewer than 1,000 people," says the letter, which is also signed by The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Dow Jones & Company, The New Yorker, and other print, online, and television news organizations.
What about the danger now faced by the tens of millions of Afghans who didn’t work for U.S. news organizations?
The letter makes the case that the Taliban "views the American press as a legitimate target."
Fair enough, but the Taliban also view as legitimate targets just about anyone who deviates from their extremist Islamist view.
Men who don’t wear beards (or whose beards are deemed too short), women who attend school or who don’t wear burkas, anyone who would like to watch movies or television or listen to music, anyone who backs other political or religious authorities — they are all targets.
What is to become of the tens of millions of non-New York Times, non-Boston Globe Afghans who won’t have a special visa program created to spirit them away to safety?
Those non-New York Times, non-Boston Globe Afghans will be out of luck, alas — in part because of precisely the policies advanced by those newspapers. "Trump Was Right: Get Out of Afghanistan," was the headline over a February 2021 Globe opinion article.
"At last, an end to the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan," celebrated an April 2021 Los Angeles Times staff editorial, expressing unwarranted optimism that "the departure of U.S. troops might compel the compromises necessary to achieve peace." "Why Biden Is Right to Leave Afghanistan," was one New York Times opinion headline. "Why President Biden Must Withdraw From Afghanistan" was another New York Times opinion headline.
A 2019 Times editorial had demanded, "End the War in Afghanistan," while conceding that an American withdrawal “could mean more deaths” and that “The plight of women and girls in Afghanistan has been perilous in wartime, and it could become far bleaker if the Taliban topple the current government and reimpose their barbaric pre-2001 regime.”
Perhaps if Biden had ignored all those headlines and kept American troops in Afghanistan rather than retreating, the newspapers wouldn’t be in the position of pleading with the president for the safety of their own personnel.
Perhaps, too, in some better alternative scenario, these individuals, instead of fleeing to America, would be building an independent press in Afghanistan, informed by the values of skepticism and fairness and accuracy to which their previous employers had aspired.
The episode reminded me of Dith Pran, The New York Times local hire in Cambodia whose story was the subject of the movie "The Killing Fields."
The U.S.-backed government in Phnom Penh fell to the Communists in 1975, another moment of American retreat. As the Times obituary of Dith Pran tells it, "Mr. Dith saw his country descend into a living hell as he scraped and scrambled to survive the barbarous revolutionary regime of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, when as many as two million Cambodians — a third of the population — were killed, experts estimate."
Dith Pran eventually did escape to America, where he became a Times photographer and an advocate against genocide.
A "last word" video that Pran recorded for the Times provides a useful summary of why tyrannical regimes everywhere fear independent thinkers: "They think that the smart people will destroy them."
One hopes that what follows the American exit from Afghanistan will not be like Cambodia’s killing fields. If the news organizations had much confidence in Afghanistan’s future, though, they’d be less urgent about evacuating their personnel.
Biden may figure that Donald Trump’s praise of the Afghanistan exit — "a wonderful and positive thing to do" — provides bipartisan political cover.
Biden may also figure that President Obama largely avoided paying a political price for the deterioration of the situation in Iraq and Syria after the American withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, though Trump’s victory in 2016 following the rise of ISIS calls that into question.
The smart people here understand what happened. As Leon Wieseltier writes in his essay "Where Are the Americans?" in the Spring 2021 issue of Liberties: "In the Obama era, no country, no ally, no democratic rebellion or dissident movement, no cleansed or genocidally attacked population, could count on America."
Will they someday say that about Biden, too, while those journalists who do manage to obtain visas visit American schools lecturing about how they narrowly escaped the Afghan genocide?
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of "JFK, Conservative." Read Ira Stoll's Reports — More Here.
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