Over the course of four days, violence in Kabul led to the deaths of at least 117 people. More than 500 were injured, most on May 31 when a sewage tanker packed with explosives detonated near the German embassy. Two days later, on June 2, as anger and frustration built, vigils morphed into protests. After using water cannons and tear gas to disburse crowds, shots rang out and between two and eight people were killed. The next day, June 3, prominent politicians, friends, and family gathered for the funeral of one of those killed on May 31, Salim Ezadyar, the son of Alam Ezadyar, first deputy of Afghanistan’s Senate, Meshrano Jirga. Three suicide bombers detonated amid the crowd, killing at least 20 and injuring more than 100.
This tragic string of violence was met in the West with sadness but did not draw the immediate reaction, outpouring of emotion, or policy discussions that attacks in Manchester (May 22) and London (June 3) did.
It’s worthwhile to discuss why horrific incidents like those mentioned above receive different responses depending on their location, but that conversation is much broader and deeper than my expertise and the space here provides. Instead, I want to look at the response of a single person (well, an institution): the president of the United States.
On Afghanistan — a country where more than 2,200 U.S. servicemembers have been killed since 2001 and where the administration’s advisers are reportedly recommending increasing troop numbers — Trump has had little to say. Even what seems to have been a violent robbery in Manila rather than a terrorist attack, got more attention from the president than a massive explosion in Afghan capital.
On May 31, media in Washington dickered over the secret meaning of a midnight typo in a presidential Tweet for a disquieting amount of time. Then the administration prolonged the circus: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held an off-camera gaggle rather than a press conference on May 31 and gave a cryptic reply to an inquiry about the typo. If Afghanistan was brought up in that brief discussion, it was entirely submerged by talk of the typo.
Trump did make a call to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, but the readout is a boilerplate condemnation of the attack and expression of condolences. On the president’s Twitter feeds — a window into Trump’s stream-of-consciousness, or at least a live-tweeting of Fox News programs — in the past week Afghanistan has not been mentioned once. The official POTUS handle didn’t even share the readout from the Ghani call, though the White House account did. Nothing was said of the protests or the funeral blasts.
On June 1, in the White House’s Rose Garden, Trump prefaced his announcement of his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement by making a statement about the incident in Manila. “I would like to begin by addressing the terrorist attack in Manila,” he said, going on to say that his administration was monitoring the events. He finished with this: “… but it is really very sad as to what’s going on throughout the world with terror.”
On June 2, when Spicer spoke in an on-camera press conference, he was joined by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and the focus was squarely on Trump’s announcement the day before. Afghanistan was not mentioned, nor was it asked about.
For comparison, as news of the attacks in London unfolded, the president’s public outlets, primarily Twitter, jumped into action. On the evening of June 3, three attackers drove a van into pedestrians and then began attacking people in Borough Market with knives. Seven were killed in the attack and nearly 50 injured.
The official POTUS account retweeted condolences from the vice president and messages from the U.S.embassy in London, along with instructions on what Americans in London should do and how to check in. On his personal account, the president launched into a rather bizarre string of tweets, beginning with a retweet of Drudge Report: “Fears of new terror attack after van ‘mows down 20 people’ on London Bridge…” An hour later, the president tweeted, “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” followed a few minutes later by a pledge that “Whatever the United States can do to help out in London and the U. K., we will be there – WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”
The president used the London attack as a springboard, launching a screed of tweets about the so-called “Travel Ban“ (which the administration previously had said was not a travel ban) and, of all things, gun control policy. It was pettiness at a presidential scale.
The various attacks and bombings mentioned above cannot quite be compared — the circumstances and scale are different — but the end results were the same: dead civilians in the streets of the capital cities of two American allies. It’s reasonable to expect the president of the United States to respond to devastating incidents both in London and Kabul, and act respectfully toward those countries’ leaders in their time of need. Instead, Afghanistan got the same silence it has come to expect from Washington and London received inappropriate scorn for its mayor and the co-option of the attacks to push a controversial policy in the United States.
What does all this tell us? It should come as no surprise that the president, especially this president, is obsessively focused on his domestic audience. All presidents cater to the American public that elects them, but most have been cognizant of the United States’ global power and position. Perhaps the difference with Trump is a dismissal of pleasantries and procedure (political correctness), the hallmarks of global diplomacy, and a diminishing of American leadership in the world.
“America First does not mean America alone,” H. R. McMaster, national security adviser, and Gary D. Cohn, national economics adviser, wrote in a May 30 Wall Street Journal op-ed. They argued that Trump “embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community,’” but instead it is:
…an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural, and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.
Apparently, in this arena basic courtesy to London’s leaders is not necessary, nor is politicization of another country’s tragedy inappropriate. Afghanistan is an octagon all its own, where the arsenal of America’s unmatched strength has been unable to engender peace or stability and where American leadership and media cannot even pause the circus to shed a tear.