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Afghan Deja Vu?

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As the date of complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan nears, more and more often we hear comments in which this withdrawal is compared with (literally) the escape of US military forces from the South Vietnam in the seventies of the last century . Even more, as the Taliban, who were the main objective of NATO (and in fact the US) military intervention in Afghanistan are rapidly taking control of all major parts of the country, including the border crossings to several neighboring countries, for example Iran. Washington, as could have been expected, rejects such comparisons, although they are very founded and although it is almost certain that the Taliban will gain control over the whole country after the withdrawal is completed. Just as the communist forces from North Vietnam once took over the south, thus uniting the country in today’s Vietnam.

Both in Afghanistan, and in Vietnam the withdrawal of foreign troops was preceded by a yearlong war in which, according to some estimates, more than seventy thousand Afghans and Pakistani were killed, leading to a situation in which today almost 50% of the population of Afghanistan is just surviving below the poverty line. In Vietnam everyone in the south who have in any way cooperated with the Americans, suffered, if nothing else than being sent for a long-term “re-education” in special camps . In Afghanistan, those who have cooperated with NATO forces, if only as translators, openly fear for their lives in the country under the rule of the Taliban. In the south of Vietnam, hundreds of people floated for weeks on small boats along the coast, in the vain hope that they will be picked up by their American friends, whose warships will suddenly appear on the horizon. They didn’t come.

In Afghanistan, having in mind the example of South Vietnam, people who have worked with foreign forces have no illusions. Thus a wave of refugees towards neighboring already started, and there is no doubt that this wave will reach Europe as well. The war lasted for twenty years and, the longest war the US waged in its short history. And although President Joe Biden successfully avoids triumphant phrases a typical for George Bush junior, such as: “Mission accomplished,” even his milder variant: “Goals achieved” does not corresponds to the truth.

If the goal was to fight against terrorism and Al Qaeda, then the target was reached in liquidating Bin Laden and breaking up of this organization, meaning that the time for withdrawal from Afghanistan was during the Obama mandate, when Biden was vice president. If, however, the goal was to destroy the Taliban, then the war in Afghanistan, is a total US failure (it would be wrong to say that Americans are the losers, because the biggest loser the people of Afghanistan). And a failure it was. Not only because the eradication of the Taliban failed, but primarily because the Taliban are “American offsprings” (just like Bin Laden), summoned to life and supported both financially and militarily, only to hamper Soviet troops after their intervention in Afghanistan (1979), with the clear aspiration to turn Afghanistan in some sort of “Soviet Vietnam”. Yes, the Soviets did militarily intervene after they estimated that the government of the nonaligned Afghanistan could become close to the  West. After ten years of fighting they understood that this attempt has no perspective and retreated – organized with a commander-general who was the last to cross the bridge at the border at the rear of his troops (unlike the Americans who escaped by helicopters from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon and now left Bagram, their largest air base in Afghanistan under cover of night (although they claim to have informed the military forces of the Afghan government  which, given the situation on the ground, would be more correct to call the Kabul government, or the government in Kabul .

 It is also not true what President Biden claims when he says that the purpose of the American intervention in Afghanistan was not “nation building”. Because a profound reform of the Afghan society was something that was considered to be one of the key tasks of NATO forces, since the Taliban pushed the country back to the Middle Ages (which will probably do again now). At the same time, it is forgotten that Afghanistan until the overthrow of King Mohammed Zahir Shah was a relatively advanced Asian country, with this “advanced” referring primarily to the position of women in society and the education system. “The inclusion of women in social life, schooling of girls is emphasized as a major success of intervention by foreign forces, as if this never existed before in a country that gave a birth to the ‘Prince of Physicians’ Ibn Sina/Avicenna” – reminds us notable Afghan scholar, prof. Djawed Sangdel. And indeed, it seems as if those forces that have emerged under American greatcoats did not destroyed such Afghanistan. Today, the country is literally devastated by twenty years of war, and the only result of those twenty years, the only thing that has progressed, is the cultivation of poppies, that is, the smuggling of opium. This author remembers well the conversation of the then Croatian president, Stjepan Mesić with his Afghan counterpart Karzai in which Karzai complained that the Americans are putting him under pressure to destroy poppies farms, arguing that he neither can nor will do this, because in this case half of the country would starve, being stripped of this source of income.

 And one more question arises, when we try to analyze the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The intervention in this country which took place soon after the famous attacks on the New York “twins” was conceived as intervention of the Atlantic Pact. And nominally it was. But if one views things, as they really are, it must be admitted that NATO (in this case too) acted as an extended arm of US policy; just as now, as soon as the United States announced its decision to withdraw its troops, and NATO hastily brought the decision to withdraw troops from their member countries too. Pointing up this fact, and it is a fact, that cannot be blurred by any rhetorical figure, we want to say that the member states of NATO, should wisely think twice (at least now, if they have not done this so far), what is the purpose of NATO, precisely what is the purpose of NATO, if it is acting as Washington’s puppet on the string. 

We have also in mind the “enthusiastic” sending of troops to the border with Russia, in order to prepare Europe for defense against “Russian aggression”. To whom and what goal serves such a NATO, to whom and to what goal does serve the policy of violent overthrow and / or establishment of regimes in other countries, to whom and to what goal does serve the policy of imposing certain social (and economic) framework to countries that want to go their own way, to whom and to what goal does serve the continuation of the anti-Russian hysteria, especially after Biden – Putin summit, which was supposed to open, or at least ajar new chapter in relations between the two countries?

As for Afghanistan – to come back to the beginning of the story – Biden’s statement that it is “not necessarily inevitable” that Afghanistan will be conquered by the Taliban after the US (NATO) withdrawal, it is simply hypocritical. It won’t be long before reality denies it. But. The US are not giving up their efforts to be present in Afghanistan in the future too. Washington tries “to hire” some allies in the region to take a role in attempt to keep the government in Kabul alive. The term “proxy wars” is nothing new!

To summarize: in Afghanistan, the world will follow a kind of reprise of what happened in Vietnam in the past, so the phrase “already seen” (déjà vu) makes a lot of sense. And secondly, no less important, the United States loses its credibility with such moves, in other words, those who are American allies should consider the price of such a “partnership”, that is, how much it pays off. And if it pays off at all.

Americas

Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Americas

Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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Americas

As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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