How America broke Afghanistan.
I want to highlight the publishing schedule that was laid out in a previous Jackal:
So, here I am, on August 17th, thinking this is relevant:
That said, let’s talk about Afghanistan. But before we get into the actual details, I have a little present: This is a great resource that collects a ton of writing on Afghanistan and it’s updated (literally) every five minutes. It’s a great bookmark if you still do that sort of thing.
About two weeks ago, I called Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal and our abandonment of interpreters a “disaster,” and one of the Administration’s “biggest mistakes to date.” That was before the total collapse of Kabul, and Afghan civilians scrambling to get onto planes that are leaving the country. So, “one of” is currently doing too much work in that sentence. And the reason people are comparing this moment to Saigon is, well:
Of course, this comparison presupposes that there were substantive arguments against us leaving Vietnam in 1975. That’s a lot different from the situation in Afghanistan, so let’s break it down.
To get the easy part of the way, I think there have been a lot of good criticisms of the Biden Administration’s strategy, tactics, and response to the situation in Afghanistan, and you can find all of that a little further below. However, not a lick of this criticism is coming from a Trump supporter or anyone involved with the Trump Administration. In fact, even the GOP deleted an old page from their website that praised Trump’s “preliminary peace agreement with the Taliban:”
Only two months ago, Trump was bragging about him hamstringing the Biden Administration with an almost impossible scenario in Afghanistan:
It is 100% true that Trump and his team hoisted an albatross around the neck of the Biden Administration and stopped worrying about it the second they left office. In 2019, Trump and Mike Pompeo - Trump’s Secretary of State - were organizing an American withdrawal from Afghanistan that involved the Taliban, and the actual, legitimate, Afghan government wasn’t even involved in these talks.
As the Trump Administration sought a deal with the Taliban, they released its co-founder - Mullah Abdal Ghani Baradar - from prison as an act of good will. He is now the incumbent President of Afghanistan.
Trump’s deal with the Taliban was initially praised by his supporters, who noted that two decades in Afghanistan was “too long,” and that it was time to end America’s “endless wars.” Pompeo wasted no time dunking on Biden after the fall of Kabul, even though he and Trump organized the release of 5,000 Taliban fighters who likely had a hand in re-taking Afghanistan’s biggest city:
In an interview on Fox News, Chris Wallace threw all of this back in Pompeo’s face, and even played an old clip of him bragging about his negotiations with the Taliban and saying that they would “join us” in the fight against terrorism. Pompeo just went ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Finally, here is this absolutely bonkers statement from Donald Trump on April 18, 2021, when he was still just a blogger in Florida:
Trump’s only problem with Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was that he didn’t do it soon enough. If a single person who even voted for Trump tries to lob a criticism at the Biden Administration for this debacle, treat them as if they were a small child trying to explain Minecraft to you; these are unserious criticisms from unserious people.
That said, this really sucks. A thing that I have been unable to get out of my brain is Biden’s reasoning for not increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. Earlier this year when he confirmed that our withdrawal would go past his predecessor’s May 1st deadline, Biden stated that since 2,500 troops (a level set by Trump) were not enough to maintain order on their own, he would not do a “surge” and increase our presence in Afghanistan. Given that reasoning, I need someone to help this make sense to me:
The obvious answer here is that (1) the Administration was completely unprepared for the Taliban’s seamless takeover of the country and (2) they could have prevented it had they done a little bit of Googling. And the lack of preparedness is a key issue; take a look at this statement issued by a Democratic Senator:
To make it a little more clear: Foreign policy decisions are handled by the President, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Military. So, Senator Warner is essentially saying that he wants to find out “why the Biden Administration wasn’t prepared” for the “worst-case scenario.” It’s a fair criticism.
Almost everyone involved in the Administration was wrong about the Afghan Army’s ability (or willingness) to fend off the Taliban:
Predictions that the Taliban will quickly overrun Afghan government forces and conquer Kabul once U.S. and coalition forces have fully withdrawn are unduly pessimistic, Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan said Tuesday.
“I personally believe that the statements that their forces will disintegrate and the Talibs will take over in short order are mistaken,” Zalmay Khalilzad told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, whose members expressed deep worry that President Joe Biden’s decision to fully withdraw by September will lead to chaos and intensified civil war.
That piece is from May of this year, and only two months later, long-time Afghanistan journalist Michael Ware was trying to warn the world that the Taliban was seizing more territory around the country and that even included “non-traditional” strongholds. The Biden Administration simply wasn’t listening. From Shay Khatiri at The Bulwark:
As reported by Axios, “the Taliban has toppled nine provincial capitals in six days and now controls an estimated 65% of the country.” It “is striking with impressive speed and coordination, a senior Biden official grudgingly acknowledged. Afghans and international security are scrambling to manage mayhem.”
As if to underscore the rout, Biden dispatched Zalmay Khalilzad—both Trump’s and Biden’s envoy for Afghan peace talks—to bribe the Taliban to spare the U.S. embassy in Kabul. He failed. And so, on Thursday, U.S. embassy staffers began evacuating.
A lot of Biden’s defenders (and in fact, Biden himself) are putting the blame on Afghanistan’s military, who ceded territory to the Taliban’s forces without even putting up a fight. But the speed of our withdrawal damaged our ability to coordinate with the Afghan military. Again, from the Bulwark:
Many Afghan soldiers died bravely. I’ve been fighting for over fifteen years. We did not all just give up and quit. Yes, some did. Once the Americans left, we weren’t ready to start doing all the logistics. The logistics, the maintenance, and corruption really hurt us.
I know people in the U.S. are upset that we didn’t fight longer. But we’ve been fighting for decades—and some of us, even longer. When the U.S. left, it really affected morale, especially how quickly it happened. We woke up one day, then Bagram was gone. Everyone got scared. It got out of control.
I’m mad at many of the senior leaders who lined their pockets and simply vanished from the country. However, thousands of Afghan officers were not responsible for that. We were simply doing the best we could.
There are a lot of Afghans who trusted the United States. Not just translators. Not just civil society activists, but also Afghan soldiers. We loved fighting alongside Americans.
Please don’t leave us behind. Please. We will be great Americans.
This is what made Biden’s speech yesterday so bizarre: He foisted a lot of blame on the Afghan military, and on Trump, but then said in the same speech that, “the buck stops with me.” I acknowledged above that Biden had an albatross placed around his neck by the Trump Administration, but the President of the United States is clothed in immense power, and is more than capable of lifting off any albatross and shooting it into the sun.
I do want to acknowledge that I am an absolute shithouse crazy person when it comes to foreign policy; I 1000% would have stayed in Afghanistan, made it the 51st state, and installed Dwayne Johnson as its governor. As a nutcase who regularly debates the validity of invading North Korea (mostly with myself), I fully realize that I have a bias here that most “normal” people do not have. That said, if you do not think the Biden Administration deserves a substantial amount of criticism for this botched withdrawal, you are probably crazier than I am. The Post’s Editorial Board notes this, and highlights that our current situation was completely avoidable:
Worse, this was avoidable. Conventional military triumph was not in the cards in Afghanistan, as Mr. Biden forcefully insisted in a speech to the nation Monday, in which he blamed his predecessors and Afghanistan’s political leaders for failures that set the stage for today’s disaster. Contrary to his and others’ cliches about “endless war,” though, U.S. troops had not been in major ground operations, and had endured very modest casualties, since 2014. Mr. Biden statically measures the dollar costs of staying in Afghanistan. Yet there will be costs, potentially high ones, attached to a botched withdrawal, too. A small U.S. and allied military presence — capable of working with Afghan forces to deny power to the Taliban and its al-Qaeda terrorist allies, while diplomats and nongovernmental organizations nurtured a fledgling civil society — not only would have been affordable but also could have paid for itself in U.S. security and global credibility.
In a column from April of 2021, Max Boot highlighted just how predictable this outcome was:
President Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s elected leader, does not want to step down, and the Taliban is in no mood for making accommodations when final victory appears near. It plans to reestablish its fundamentalist emirate — not to be part of a pro-Western regime run by those it views as traitors to Islam. And it has no incentive to compromise with U.S. troops leaving. As a former Afghan security official told the New York Times a few weeks ago: “They think they have beaten the Americans, so they can beat the other Afghan forces as well, and get control over the country.”
The Biden Administration found itself in a position where they were ultimately trusting the word of the Taliban.
This is where the finger-pointing at the Trump Administration gets tiresome: Every person with more than two brain cells to rub together understood that Donald Trump was a psychotic madman who had no business being a school crossing guard, let alone President of the United States. When the Biden Administration highlights that they were only following through on Trump’s plan, that is not the super solid argument they think it is.
All of that said, I ultimately think that Biden will pay little, if any cost for his decision to withdraw. The scenes from Afghanistan will be horrific for the next 2-3 weeks, but COVID is still a primary issue (though there are some signs that we are tapering) and Americans will forget about it relatively quickly. Moreover, Biden has learned from Trump and doubled-down on his position, which will lead to Democrats and left-wing media now taking the steps to defend him. All in all, Americans support a withdrawal from Afghanistan and may eventually credit Biden as the President who ended our longest war. But those are political calculations, not moral ones; all of this is tragic, and none of it captures the generation of pain and hurt our indifference will inflict on Afghanistan and its children, who now have to grow up under the despotic fists of the Taliban.
To give you links to people who disagree with me: Daniel Silverberg, Damon Linker, and Charles Kupchan all ultimately say that Biden got it right.
Another side note I want to add (after the email went out, of course) is this video from CNN that is making the rounds on conservative Twitter.
Find someone who loves you like Benny Johnson loves getting fired for plagiarism and verbal abuse.
The CNN journalist who made the statement is Clarissa Ward, a long-time correspondent in Afghanistan. She said that the Taliban were chanting “death to America,” while also seeming friendly, and that it was “utterly bizarre.” The rest of her full report highlighted how the Taliban eventually cooled on being interviewed by her, because she was a woman. In short, you have a journalist in Kabul as it’s falling being mocked by keyboard warriors in the U.S. Erik Wemple has more.
Lastly, in a footnote below I highlighted how conservative media would be 100% in the tank for Trump if he was still in office. In contrast with the heavy criticism Biden got from Jake Tapper, for instance, you’d see Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Charlie Kirk all saying it was time to leave Afghanistan and Trump shouldn’t share the blame for a “failed state.” Case in point, Nick Fondacaro from Newsbusters:
In April, he wrote a piece criticizing CBS for not giving Trump enough credit for facilitating the Afghanistan withdrawal. It really writes itself:
So, to reenforce a point I made above: Biden deserves a lot of criticism for his decisions on Afghanistan, just don’t let these hacks convince you that they deserve to give it.
If you want to help Afghan families directly, go here.
I’ll be back to talk to you about infrastructure and how I got Cuomo’s resignation super wrong on Monday.
I regret to inform you that Mike Pompeo has lost a lot of weight and has been visiting Iowa and New Hampshire a lot recently.
Another small point: I do not think there is a serious argument that there would have been a media crucifixion of Trump if this had happened under his Presidency. Just look at some of the headlines at the NYT, WaPo, and WSJ. Biden is getting (rightly) criticized in mainstream, conservative, and even some left-wing media. The difference is that conservative media would have never written a single word criticizing Trump. In the aggregate, the media is being much tougher on Biden than they would have been on Trump.