How should the West respond to the crisis in Afghanistan?

Saqib Qureshi asks what if the Afghanistan war's awful conclusion didn't mean the decline of NATO or the eclipse of the West, but instead offered a way for the West to recover itself?

What if the end of a misguided exercise in nation-building marked the demise, or at least hastened the passing, of a terrible period of jingoism and prejudice, which had caused the free world to almost lose its way?

I understand the inclination to turn to narratives of pessimism and hopelessness in the face of undeniably painful images. But we in the West believe firmly that individuals choose their destinies. And societies are free to choose how they respond to events – to respond in the right way to the wrong decisions.

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his country would accept 20,000 Afghan refugees, I was deeply moved. While certainly Canada can accept even more refugees, this generosity was in marked contrast to the haphazard, if not entirely heartless, approach of the United States, Britain, and NATO to its Afghan allies thus far. While some of them were saved, many more have been left behind.

Of course, the United Kingdom was ultimately beholden to America's withdrawal schedule and strategy, but this does not take away the sting of betrayal and the embarrassment of abandonment. Considering that all of NATO invoked Article V and went to war against the Taliban, doesn't all of NATO have a responsibility here in terms of those who it worked with?

Tens of thousands of Afghans may be endangered by associations, direct or indirect, with the West. The West may not be able to entirely erase the shame of the collapse of the American-led war in Afghanistan, capped by the lightning fall of Kabul. But the West doesn't have to let that be the final chapter.

Like many the world over, the ultimate collapse of the Afghan government shocked me. While I was aware of the deep flaws and weaknesses of the US-backed central government, there is a marked difference between conceptually understanding a thing and seeing it starkly revealed in pictures and videos. Considering Prime Minister Trudeau's move to accept thousands of refugees, I was obviously not the only one to be moved. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now made a similar public pledge to accept some Afghan refugees.

My hope is that this humanisation of the Afghan people, which seemed to be missing over much of the last twenty years, is not a brief blip in a rapid media cycle, but a fundamental rethinking of how we view Muslims, how we view South and Central Asians, and how we think of our relationship with the world.

Accepting refugees is thus not only a moral responsibility in response to an immoral enormity. It is a chance for the West to recover itself altogether.

While we lament the failure of nation-building abroad, this does not discredit but indeed underscores the importance of nation-building at home. For too many years, we have overlooked, condoned, or minimized the influence of nativists and outright racists, who have turned our diversity into a flaw and rendered our history of immigration into a flaw to be forgotten, if not fought.

What if an embrace of Afghan refugees opens the door not only to those who are literally suffering, but to ideas of inclusion, pluralism, and mutual respect that were among the great casualties of the September 11th attacks?

In that regard, of course, while the events of the last twenty years leave us with much to be disappointed or even outraged by, there is a chance that we may strike a belated blow against the underlying logic of populism and political extremism.

President Biden's decision to defend America's hasty and ungainly withdrawal from Afghanistan evidenced spine, if not stubbornness. His address from the White House last Monday underscored the good reasons there were to leave the country and the poverty of arguments made for staying indefinitely.

What he did not say, and what he could and should have said, is that the nature of our departure, and our record in Afghanistan, creates moral obligations on us. These obligations, in turn, give us an opportunity to show the world that the West's reputation, although battered and bruised, is neither extinct nor beyond repair.

By offering Afghans the chance to make a life in the West, a path to citizenship (in particular for those who aided Western forces at great personal risk), and therefore to equal participation in their new societies, we are showing the world that we still possess a confidence and a boldness that none of our purported rivals do. We can still be beacons of hope and freedom. We can find paths back to decency even in great sadness.

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