Republics fail, and then they fall. To be sure, sometimes they just fail and then stay on life support. And then, by the time they have fallen nobody remembers that they had been a republic in the first place. Most often this occurs through national suicide. The suicide of Venezuela is the most dramatic example. Who can recall that it was ever a republic – that is, that it was governed by the people? Closer to home, California is also committing suicide, a gangrenous limb that is now contaminating Arizona and Colorado and Nevada as people flee the effects of their bad ideas but retain the core malady to infect their new hosts.
But I digress. Republics fail. But to see a republic fall, that is something wild. One year ago Afghanistan fell. Afghanistan, which for a brief window of time, twenty glorious (if messy) years was a republic. The case can be made that it had been failing for a long time before the fall. Or that it was born failed and destined to fall. Those are arguments for parlors in places cold and clean. Because Afghanistan fell, and most people in the world have moved on.
There can be democracies within democracies; republics within republics which retain the semblance of liberty long after the national mood has changed. Sanctuaries where they still read the great books or listen to music long after the countryside has been laid waste by the vandals or the cities host only the macabre rituals of power. Afghanistan had that – that is the main takeaway from the twenty-year-long period of liberty. Liberty is always the gift of the few unto the many. As Walter Lipmann once said, most people will exchange liberty for security. But not even security, what I’ve come to learn recently is that people will exchange liberty for almost anything, as long as it seems to them exciting or important or morally superior. Liberty, true liberty, is safeguarded by a precious few from the terrible currents of totalitarianism that swirl around us. And then always at a cost which comes difficult to bear.
In Afghanistan, that liberty was held by groups like the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Children playing Mozart and Bach behind razor wire and high walls while around them the bombs fell and the bullets flew. That didn’t make their exercise in liberty less remarkable, it made it more so.
When Afghanistan fell, I found myself – as I often do, usually through no effort of my own – immersed in the thick of things. Specifically trying to rescue people from the grasping clutches of the Taliban. For three feverish weeks I worked, morning till night, trying to identify which gate was open, getting info to the guards on the walls, helping guide groups through the hurdles. ANIM was one of these groups. They were on three busses, guided by force protection with radios and Christmas lights so the soldiers could identify them. CENTCOM had a special file on the institute, and each morning I would call and try to figure out how to get them through. The attempted evacuation took place over the frantic weekend close to the pullout of the troops. It was ultimately unsuccessful, and at the end the girls were told to stand down and go home. There was an abortive attempt at a large charter on a dirt airfield south of Kabul, but it had become too dangerous. So we ramped up diplomatic pressure, with Qatar and the Taliban themselves – in those delicate days before they were fully in control and still subject to influence.
Those were the early days during which the Taliban (like the dog that caught the car) was still willing to give some travel documents (though that took months as well, and I spoke to a half dozen foreign embassies trying to get them to help with travel papers of their own, papers of refuge which were never forthcoming), in exchange for legitimacy which they subsequently have realized they no longer need. But who would take the orchestra, even if they had papers? Portugal, it turns out. Through some personal connections and some smart realpolitik Portugal now has one of the treasured gems of Afghanistan.
Portugal’s gain is Afghanistan’s loss. The republic within that messy republic, which had been protected by American soldiers and high walls, has now mostly fled or gone completely silent. But the orchestra will keep playing, reminding the world that the work of building a free Afghan society was only half done when we got bored and wandered off. That people can appreciate Beethoven even if they were born poor and in Afghanistan. And that a free society is held first and foremost in our heart of hearts, and it knows no passport.