FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

The official US narrative is that the war in Afghanistan is over. For the Afghan people, the torment of decades of violence has simply entered a new phase.

As the Americans complete their troop withdrawal from Afghanistan after a 20-year engagement, the Taliban has moved with surprising swiftness to fill the void. The Islamist movement now controls a majority of districts in the war-torn country. They have established control of all the border crossings between their country and Pakistan.

The US-supported Afghan National Army seems to lack the will to fight, having lost the effective air support the Americans once provided them. A large unit broke and fled to neighboring Tajikistan.

The withdrawal of US troops from Bagram air base, the largest air facility in the region, is illustrative of what is happening. American soldiers left under to cover of darkness, without even informing local authorities. Surrounding communities simply moved in to loot the abandoned facility.

Having drawn down their presence over the past few years, American withdrawal from Afghanistan is not quite as chaotic and confused as their abandonment of Saigon in the mid-seventies. But the toll on their allies and supporters will probably be as severe.

It turns out Washington had not planned for the evacuation of local hires, including thousands who worked as translators for US troops. The promised visas for the local hires and their families are not being issued. They are left to fend for themselves and face the legendary brutality of Taliban fighters.

When US forces abandoned Saigon just hours ahead of advancing North Vietnamese troops, they left thousands of supporters defenseless against the victorious communists. Civilian employees of the US-supported government of South Vietnam, soldiers of the US supported army, local officials and tens of thousands of mixed race Vietnamese children were abandoned. In the following months, many of them would become “boat people,” braving the perils of sea voyage in whatever vessels they could use.

The US invaded Afghanistan shortly after the Al-Qaeda attacks on New York in 2001. Their mission was to deny the Al-Qaeda a safe base from which to launch terrorist attacks worldwide. Al-Qaeda militants enjoyed the protection of the Taliban that brutally ruled the country since expelling the Soviet expeditionary force sent in to quell them.

Afghanistan has a long history of expelling invaders from the time of Alexander the Great. The rough terrain helped Afghan guerrillas wage long wars against invading armies. Add to this the incomparable brutality Taliban fighters were capable of inflicting on their own people to enforce their will. They routinely execute girls for the crime of attending schools.

There is little doubt the US-sponsored government in Kabul would crumble under intense Taliban pressure. The Islamist movement now controls the larger portion of the country. They have an undiminished will to fight. The same cannot be said of the US-sponsored government.

The US has not won a major war since Vietnam. Worse, it routinely abandoned allies when its convenience so dictated.

The inglorious retreat from Afghanistan not only exposes their local allies to extermination. It sends a chilling signal to everyone else around the world depending on alliances with the US for their security. This should include Filipinos who believe the Mutual Defense Treaty will protect us from bullying in the South China Sea.

Local transmission

The most disturbing news the past week concerns probable local transmission of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. This worrisome development has brought down stock markets around the globe and raised the specter of new surges of infection.

In the US, despite the success of its vaccination program, a surge in infection is happening in all states. In that pandemic-ravaged country, the Delta variant has become the predominant strain. As a testament to the efficacy of vaccines, over 99.5 percent of deaths involve people who chose not to be vaccinated – due mainly to the politicization of vaccination.

Indonesia has become the new epicenter of global infections. Surges are in progress in Malaysia and Thailand. A state of emergency has been declared in Japan, affecting the conduct of the Olympics that starts this week. The UK, which has two-thirds our population, tallies over 50,000 in daily new infections – even as the government of Boris Johnson decided to proceed with relaxation of restrictions. The variant has been detected in over 100 countries.

We tried enforcing strong border controls to keep the Delta variant out. But with so many Filipinos traveling to jobs overseas, this variant could not be kept out indefinitely. Now there are indications the variant is in our communities.

We are now racing against a new surge. The best weapon we have is vaccination. But the speed with which we could execute a broad vaccination program is constrained by the supply of doses available.

Last week, about 3 million doses were delivered, including single-dose J&J vaccines. We expect a steady flow at around this level in the following weeks and months. Even then, we will not have vaccinated enough to foreclose the possibility of a new surge.

Because of the threat posed by the Delta variant, responsible for the devastating surges in India and Indonesia, we could not possibly relax our public health protocols in any dramatic fashion. We will continue paying the economic costs of enforcing strict health protocols until at least the end of the year.

This pandemic is simply not winding down as quickly as we wished. That is the nature of the beast. We will have to learn how to coexist with it.

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