Last month, an Islamic State sponsored attack on the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan killed dozens of people — among them, 13 American soldiers. As my immigrant mother watched the coverage in horror, she said it brought back painful memories of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, which she had witnessed first-hand.
U.S. Marines were deployed to Beirut in 1982 to facilitate the removal of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon. However, similar to the current crisis in Afghanistan, Lebanon was soon inundated by an endless stream of internal problems and a massive death toll. Following months of discontent among the occupied, a suicide bomber drove his explosive-filled car into the barracks, killing 241 Marines almost instantly. One of the survivors, Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty, later claimed that this event was the starting point of the “War on Terror.” Years later, Geraghty, connecting Beirut to the September 11 attacks and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, stated, “Who would have thought years later, here we are [fighting] essentially the same crowd?”
Almost four decades have passed since the bombing, and while much has changed in the Middle East, a fundamental characteristic of American foreign policy remains unaltered: The U.S. continues to react to terrorism retroactively rather than proactively. For years now, we have been fighting terror abroad without attempting to understand its origin.
When it comes to mapping motives, the details matter. According to Lance Corporal Eddie DiFranco, one of the most unsettling aspects of the barracks bombing was the expression on the perpetrator’s face. “He looked right at me… smiled, that’s it,” the soldier reported. “Soon as I saw the truck over here, I knew what was going to happen.” Later, intelligence discovered that the driver — eerily designated “Smiling Death” by survivors — was essentially a nobody, with no previous record of violence. This prompts the question: What drew this man, alongside the many terrorists before and after him, to feel such immense pleasure in the mindless suffering of others?
The answers: hopelessness, pessimism and alienation. By 1983, the civil war in Lebanon had been raging incessantly for eight years with no end in sight. Many people felt no confidence that a better future was coming and blamed the West for the destruction of their country. Those who resonate with this sentiment and similar ones have been the primary target for terrorist recruitment across the Middle East and surrounding countries. In fact, a recent study conducted by the American Enterprise Institute and published by the United Nations found that, in addition to “ideological appeal,” “real or perceived exclusion, grievance, or cultural threat” have attracted many to extremism.
Thus, the U.S. and global community would benefit from sponsoring hope in the region — inspiring the “American Dream” in people that are in desperate need of it. As Afghanistan and Lebanon spiral into a state of economic ruin several times worse than the Great Depression, the U.S. should be there to remind them of the light at the end of the tunnel. This would entail, of course, an expansion of the relief programs already in place. However, it must also entail business partnerships and reinvestment in the region. After all, if there is one lesson that the West should learn from the Arab Spring in 2011, it’s that the Arabs want to be seen as agents of their own fate — they wish to be treated as a partner of the West, not a subordinate to it.
As the U.S. struggles through a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran and Syria have rallied behind depression-stricken Lebanon. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah — leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terror group responsible for the Marine barracks bombing — announced that an Iranian fuel tanker will provide emergency relief to Lebanon. One would only imagine that the people of Lebanon, crippled by fuel and electricity shortages, are grateful for this assistance, despite its questionable source and driving motives. In a similar vein, Syria’s dictatorial regime began conducting high-level meetings with Lebanese officials in an attempt to bolster diplomatic ties between the two countries. If the U.S. does not offer similar humanitarian relief and diplomatic support to Lebanon, it risks forfeiting the hearts and minds of its people to adversarial forces in the region. Leaving those who are willing to engage with the U.S. and its liberal ideals to their own devices in this way will only worsen an already grim situation on the ground in Afghanistan and Lebanon.
In Afghanistan, President Joe Biden promised that, if there were any Americans or American allies left, “we’re gonna stay to get them all out.” This did not happen. Unfortunately, White House estimates suggest that, as of August 31, there remained as many as 200 Americans in Afghanistan who intended to leave but were unable to. When it comes to our allies, however, the numbers are even more dire. On August 25, The New York Times reported that at least 250,000 visa-eligible Afghans — men and women who had risked their lives in the pursuit of freedom — had not been able to evacuate the country. Worse, there are reports that the Taliban has launched a door-to-door manhunt in search of people who worked for NATO or the fallen Afghan government. Needless to say, these developments are contrary to American interests in the region and only serve to further alienate our current and former allies.
My parents are old enough to remember a time when Lebanon and Afghanistan were not in a state of perpetual internal turmoil. In fact, the Beirut of their childhood was a land of coexistence, wherein all communities — the Shiites, Sunnis, various Christian sects and Druse — could enjoy relative peace and young men and women dreamt of a future in their country. Today, with that hope in peril, the U.S. must do everything in its power to inspire the Lebanese and Afghans. The promise of immediate humanitarian relief and more long-term business partnerships that can provide a stable income for millions of people will restore hope for generations to come.