The PEN Pod: Navigating the Debacle in Afghanistan with Ayad Akhtar and George Packer
This week, with the swift collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, PEN America called for the protection of writers, artists, journalists, and activists—especially women—who now face immense danger as the Taliban tightens control over the country. Even before this week’s takeover, Taliban militants murdered two members of PEN Afghanistan, underscoring that threat. Today on The PEN Pod, we’re joined by author, Pulitzer-winning playwright, and PEN America President Ayad Akhtar and journalist, novelist, and playwright George Packer, who has been reporting on the conflict in Afghanistan since its inception. Ayad and George discussed the events of the last few days, what this moment might mean for the U.S.’s role on the world stage moving forward, and threats to freedom of expression today.
AYAD AKHTAR: George, you warned of this kind of catastrophe as early as March of this year, interviewing a number of interpreters who worked with U.S. forces and feared for their lives. You called this week’s bungled withdrawal a betrayal. What happens now to all those who served U.S. interests in Afghanistan since 9/11?
GEORGE PACKER: It’s really a question from hour to hour right now. I spent a good deal of last night tracking one of the interpreters I’ve written about, who I call Khan, as he and his 34-week pregnant wife and three-year-old son tried to make their way through an enormous crowd at the airport, outside the airport, and were pushed back, beaten, and even shot at by Taliban fighters.
I have not been able to confirm exactly where he is, but I think he did get inside the airport finally. I don’t know how. Imagine the tens of thousands of others—both those who worked with U.S. government; those who work with American organizations, universities, civil society groups; human rights activists; women’s activists; journalists, as you mentioned; and writers—everyone who essentially used the opportunity of the last two decades to try to build a decent, better society for themselves and for Afghanistan are now under threat and have a target on their back. I don’t know how many of them can get out at this stage.
“Imagine the tens of thousands of others—both those who worked with U.S. government; those who work with American organizations, universities, civil society groups; human rights activists; women’s activists; journalists; and writers—everyone who essentially used the opportunity of the last two decades to try to build a decent, better society for themselves and for Afghanistan are now under threat and have a target on their back. I don’t know how many of them can get out at this stage.”
In a way, this is worse than Saigon ’75. The administration keeps saying this is not Saigon ’75. In a sense, they’re right because the evacuation in Saigon happened before the North Vietnamese were in the city. One hundred thirty-five thousand Vietnamese allies of the U.S. were evacuated in the weeks leading up to the fall of Saigon, whereas we are beginning this evacuation after the fall of Kabul, with the Taliban in control, which makes things a thousand times more dangerous. So it really depends on us—our willingness to stay there for a few weeks, to beef up the troop presence beyond the current several thousand, and to secure not just the airport itself but the streets around the airport, so people can get in without facing Taliban thugs and unruly mobs, and even begin efforts to get Afghans from other parts of the country who are not in Kabul and somehow airlift them, either out of those areas or get them to Kabul if they’re nearby. It’s a massive, dangerous, unprecedented undertaking. But we have put ourselves in this position of failing our Afghan friends, because we waited until it was too late.
Why did we wait that long? What’s the reason, if there is one, for this debacle? Governments always suffer from groupthink, from self-deception, from not thinking through the worst-case scenario, not planning for it, and that seems to have happened in this case. President Biden said they planned for every contingency. That’s blatantly false, and it’s belied by what’s happening right now in Kabul. But I think the final reason why they didn’t plan for the worst-case and begin evacuations as early as March or April or May—as many people, including me, were calling for—is because Biden didn’t want to. Biden didn’t want this responsibility. He didn’t think it was in our national interest. He was focused on the troop withdrawal, on ending the war. That was the thing that he cared about, and the fate of the Afghans was of secondary importance to him. And that message became policy. There are people in the administration I know of who were pushing hard for a more aggressive and forward-looking approach, but they couldn’t get it done if the man at the top was not willing to risk something for it. And I think that was the case.
Biden has a history of wanting, essentially, to wash his hands. At the end of the Vietnam War, he refused to say we should let in any Vietnamese refugees; in 2010, according to Richard Holbrooke’s diary, which I quote in my book, Our Man, he told Holbrooke, “We’re not in that war for women’s rights, and we can get out and get away with it. Nixon and Kissinger got away with it in Vietnam.” So I think that informs his thinking, and that’s why, regardless of the best intentions of people working for him, we have ended up in this terrible position.
“Countries don’t come back from 20 years of failure like that. I think the public is so skeptical now of anyone in power. And the world is so jaded and astonished at our self-destruction, including during the pandemic—let’s not forget that as a big failure—that I don’t think we will ever be the same. I mean, we’re big, we’re rich, we’re powerful, we have by far the biggest military. But if Biden wanted to bring America back as a leader of democracies, this is a disastrous start. This will have the opposite effect.”
AKHTAR: It’s interesting to hear you talk about Biden that way. I was so formed by my reading of The Unwinding when it came out, and of course a good part of The Unwinding is a kind of indirect portrait of Biden. There’s a fellow who’s working for Biden and is disillusioned by Biden. And I often find myself looking for the character in your book, in the president that we have today. There seems to be a clear throughline in this decision and the way that it’s unfolded.
PACKER: I gotta say, I have good feelings about Biden on many counts. In fact, just two days before I was accusing him of betraying Afghans, I published an essay that no one read because of what happened in Afghanistan, saying he is bringing us closer to being a truly egalitarian country, because his domestic policies, I think, are pretty visionary. But this is a real failure and maybe a character flaw in him. And he seems to be digging in, and that too may be a character flaw, instead of recognizing his error and trying to make up for it. There’s a grudging attitude. His speech on Monday to the country put all the blame on the Afghans and essentially said, “You’re on your own. We’ve tried. We’re out of here.”
AKHTAR: To quote another of your books, or to quote your writing in Our Man—which is about the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke—you write, “The best about us was inseparable from the worst. Our feeling that we could do anything gave us the Marshall Plan and Vietnam, the peace at Dayton and the endless Afghan War. Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness.” I wonder, with that in mind, what the future of America’s role on the world stage is, given what we’re seeing. Is this an important moment? Does it mark the end of a period, if you will?
PACKER: I think it does. I think it’s a crucial moment. It’s very hard to be sure, because we’re in the middle of it. The fall of Saigon set off a cascade of doom prophecies in 1975 and ’76—a sense that the United States was finished as a world power. And that turned out to be far from true. In fact, the zenith of our power still lay ahead, with the end of the Cold War.
I think of the Vietnam War more as a disastrous detour of the Cold War, rather than a final chapter, whereas Afghanistan is a kind of final chapter. I think it’s been coming for a long time, maybe since September 11, 2001, 20 years ago, with two unwinnable wars that cost us a great deal and cost those countries much more, the financial crisis, and the Great Recession, the disappointment among many Americans in the Obama presidency, and then the real horror of the Trump presidency. Countries don’t come back from 20 years of failure like that. I think the public is so skeptical now of anyone in power. And the world is so jaded and astonished at our self-destruction, including during the pandemic—let’s not forget that as a big failure—that I don’t think we will ever be the same. I mean, we’re big, we’re rich, we’re powerful, we have by far the biggest military. But if Biden wanted to bring America back as a leader of democracies, this is a disastrous start. This will have the opposite effect.
“I think PEN is more important than ever, as free expression and democracy itself are under threat at home and all around the world. And PEN does a unique and indispensable job in standing up for Afghan writers, for Burmese writers, for people around the world who are gonna be forgotten by the great powers and by the rush of daily events.”
AKHTAR: I just want to ask you a final question, which is pivoting away from what’s going on right now, and it’s a question for me as president of PEN America. I’m curious: At a time when freedom of expression as a core value of our national life has become increasingly politicized, what your thoughts about its importance?
PACKER: I think it’s more important than ever. I think PEN is more important than ever, as free expression and democracy itself are under threat at home and all around the world. And PEN does a unique and indispensable job in standing up for Afghan writers, for Burmese writers, for people around the world who are gonna be forgotten by the great powers and by the rush of daily events. I have some reservations about PEN’s willingness to stand up for free expression here in the United States, regardless of partisan advantage. I think PEN has focused rightly on threats to freedom under President Trump and from his most extreme followers and the right-wing media. But I think there’s many, many threats to freedom of expression on the left these days. It’s not coming so much from political power as it is from the culture, from media, from universities, from NGOs.
For example, many universities now, including public ones, have policies and practices on what they call DEI—diversity, equity, inclusion—which really can amount to ideological vetting of potential job candidates, and of professors who run afoul of some of their students. And those are threats to freedom of thought that are just as pervasive and serious as threats coming from the right. And PEN is not as vocal and visible in calling out and denouncing those threats as it is (and rightly) on, for example, state laws that ban the teaching of antiracist ideas, the history of slavery, etc. So I would like to see PEN call out these threats, no matter where they come from, and which side they appear to advantage or disadvantage, and under what name they come, even if that name is justice, because it will lose its authority if it’s not willing to look these threats in the eye, no matter where they come from.
“We’re going to ridicule each other. We’re going to denounce each other when we hear things that we don’t like, and that might threaten that atmosphere. But to try to shut it down by destroying each other, especially when it happens through a crowd, an instant crowd, is a really dangerous and in some ways new. . . threat to free expression. It isn’t the classic censorship or government threats to books and to speakers, but it is, in some ways, just as dangerous.”
AKHTAR: It strikes me, just as a brief response to what you just said, that in this environment that we’re in, there is a changing tenor and cast to the moral imagination. And I think that there’s increasingly a sense that perhaps freedom of expression—unfettered freedom of expression and freedom of thought—is less important than making sure that we’re having the right kinds of thoughts, to move the right kinds of conversations in the right kinds of policy. And so, in a way, I think one of the challenges for PEN ahead, and certainly under my tenure, is to figure out how we continue to make the argument that you’re espousing, but now in terms that meet this new preoccupation with a value that seems to be more important than freedom of thought.
PACKER: Right. I think the value you’re talking about may be inclusion—maybe another word for it. I don’t know if that’s exactly what you mean.
AKHTAR: Yeah, probably.
PACKER: An atmosphere in which people feel as if they have the freedom and the power to speak, and people who belong to groups or come from legacies that have historically not had that freedom, and not had that power. And that’s a huge movement right now in our culture and our society, and a really important one. But it must never become a way of restricting who can say what and get away with it, without having to suffer personal and professional consequences that are devastating. That’s sort of where I draw the line.
Of course we’re going to attack each other. We’re going to ridicule each other. We’re going to denounce each other when we hear things that we don’t like, and that might threaten that atmosphere. But to try to shut it down by destroying each other, especially when it happens through a crowd, an instant crowd, is a really dangerous and in some ways new—I guess it’s very old but also somehow new, with our social media platforms—threat to free expression. It isn’t the classic censorship or government threats to books and to speakers, but it is, in some ways, just as dangerous, because it’s got moral power, and it inspires more fear in people in this country than the government does, for most Americans, I would say. So in a way, the standard that we would apply to Uzbekistan, or Saudi Arabia—which is mainly about threats from state power—has to be enlarged, if we’re going to be truly advocates for freedom of expression.