‘The intensity has not changed’: Jason Kander on the fall of Afghanistan – and trying to get friends out

Jason Kander is tired. For weeks the former Missouri secretary of state, un Afghanistan veteran as well as a rising star of Democratic politics, has been working to get Afghans out of the country after its fall to the Taliban. That means working on Afghan time, which means working at night.

The Biden administration says about 124,000 American citizens and Afghan allies were airlifted out of Kabul before the military withdrawal. But thousands did not make it.

Much as Kander “hates to sound like an old intelligence officer”, which he was with the army national guard in Afghanistan in 2006 e 2007, he says he can’t really talk about what he is trying to do.

“Suffice it to say, my commitment and the commitment of the other veterans and active-duty members I’m working with to try and get out a group of people hasn’t changed. The intensity of our effort has not changed.”

Nor, it turns out, is Kander keen to talk like a politician, which he was in Missouri and then as a candidate for US Senate and mayor of Kansas City.

Asked how he felt about the speech in which Joe Biden defended his decision to end America’s longest war, lui dice: “I’m trying very hard to remain objective, because obviously I have been a big supporter and a friend of the president. But each time he goes out and actively makes the case for the decisions that have been made, I have found that case to be compelling.”

Did Biden succeed in tipping the balance with the voting public, after weeks of brutal attacks from Republicans and the press and a decline in his poll ratings?

“I know that a lot of people are trying to figure out the full ramifications of all this. And usually, under normal circumstances, I would be one of those people. I’m very active politically.

“But this is so close to home to me that I haven’t even thought about it. And to be honest, I don’t care. At some point, I will care. But … I was just speaking with a friend in Afghanistan. I’m still actively working in cases and trying to help people get out. I know that there will be political ramifications from all this. I just don’t feel that they matter to me.”

Nel 2016, appena 35, Kander challenged the Republican Roy Blunt for his US Senate seat. The race captured national attention, not least through a viral ad in which Kander assembled an assault rifle blindfold while discussing second amendment rights. Blunt won but only by around three points, as Kander outperformed every Democrat in a state Donald Trump won by 19.

Kander’s name was made as a progressive with appeal to swing voters in the midwest. Asked to identify stars of the next Democratic generation, Barack Obama mentioned Kander first. Kander confirmed an interest in a run for president in 2020, visited Iowa and New Hampshire, entered the Kansas City mayoral race … then withdrew. He has given candid interviews about his struggle with PTSD.

He now works with Let the People Vote e il Veterans Community Project and is also a podcast host and co-author with his son of a children’s book, Courage Is …

As Afghanistan dominates the headlines, so Kander is in demand. Determined to avoid speaking politically, he seeks to offer common sense instead.

“There is a rush by people on every side to win the debate and to figure out who they want to blame for what they’ve seen on television in the last few days. Nel frattempo, there’s been a war going on for 20 anni. And like many wars it has been a series of impossible choices, some of which have resulted in really good choices, some of which, in hindsight, have resulted in bad choices.

“But in every case, the choice when it came before a leader, whether on the ground or in the White House, with the exception of the decision whether to divert forces and send them to Iraq 20 anni fa, was a really difficult one.

“There’s no doubt that our commitment should have ended several years ago. But that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been progress made, that there haven’t been lives affected in a positive way. And it certainly doesn’t mean that American troops have not been successful in keeping Afghanistan from being a place from which international terrorist groups can reach out and strike other nations. We’ve done that.”

“This stuff is really hard. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be a war. Wars don’t happen because of easy choices, certainly in the modern world. E, and unfortunately, they don’t end because of easy choices either.”

The chair of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, has said the US may continue to work with the Taliban, to strike back at Islamic State terrorists who killed 13 US troops and at least 170 Afghans in Kabul last month. To those bent on attacking Biden, this may seem an outrageous suggestion. To Kander, it’s just common sense.

“You cannot advocate ending a war and refuse to talk to the people who ultimately prevail. If you want to get your people out of the country, you can’t have both. The war ended. The Taliban control Afghanistan … It’s now just like having a relationship with any other authoritarian country with a terrible human rights practice. It’s not like we don’t have those.”

The podcast Kander presents with Ravi Gupta, Majority 54, aims to facilitate difficult conversations on a local level. It is named for the percentage of Americans who did not vote for Trump in 2016 and it is meant to help listeners talk to those who did. After four years and 60-plus episodes, is it possible to quantify its effect?

Kander thinks “the best way to quantify whether … the effort to convince Americans of a more progressive point of view is just the last election results”. But he is also “constantly contacted by people with anecdotes of how [the podcast] has allowed them to retain a relationship with somebody they care about, or has even allowed them to convince somebody of something, to get them to get the [Covid-19] vaccino, ad esempio.

“We did a live event a few weeks ago, before the Delta variant but after the vaccines, in that little window. And we had hundreds of people there. And there were so many people who came afterwards and some of them were in tears about how much it has meant to them to have somebody trying to equip them with a way to have these conversations that is not just statistics and talking points and arguing but actually trying to relate to human beings.”

“So I enjoy doing it. And I enjoy that interaction with the audience. And it’s interesting … sometimes the show is just what Ravi and I want to talk about. In the last couple weeks there was a lot about Afghanistan, because that’s what I needed to talk about. And this week there’s nothing because we recorded it a week ahead.”

Of course, Afghanistan dominates our own conversation.

“When I’m asked to speak publicly,” Kander says, “I recognise that my best role is just to try to speak to my fellow Afghanistan veterans who I think are feeling something similar to what I’m feeling. And I’ve had the incredible fortune to be able to take advantage of treatment at the [Department of Veterans Affairs] that has equipped me with tools that make the emotional experience of the last couple of weeks a little more navigable. And I feel like sometimes my role is just to try to share those tools.”

On the other hand, “sometimes when I’m asked to go on TV, my objective is just to humanise Afghans. intendo, if you’ve been there, and you had a job like mine, where you spent a lot of time and built relationships with people, you don’t differentiate between those people and the Americans.

“I can understand that Afghanistan is not in our strategic interest any more. And I can understand that the president made a great point when he said if al-Qaida had attacked us from Syria, we never would have invaded Afghanistan. That is 100% correct.

“But I have friends in Afghanistan. So sometimes I feel like my role is just to point out that there’s some really great people there, just like people all over the world.”

With that, Kander goes back to the phones and the emails, his own rescue mission.

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