How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Taliban
And finally some discussion of the infrastructure bill.
Is it actually true that we are coming to the end of August? Pretty soon September will be here, the days will get shorter, the nights will get colder, and Fall will give way to the dark abyss of winter in about five minutes. I hope you enjoy your last Summer cocktail this coming weekend, because Winter is basically here on September 1st. You undoubtedly have 1-2 friends who will insist that it’s OK for them to order a Pumpkin Spice Latte1 at midnight the second August is over, and then the world will collapse into the Fall and Winter holidays. The darkness comes for us all.
With that said, let’s talk about Afghanistan! It is obviously still the big story, but we are beginning to shift from the mistakes made in the initial withdrawal, to what we will do over the coming month (and beyond that). On Sunday night, this was a leading headline:
That sounds bad, but it is countered somewhat by other reports on the ground:
The primary goal for the Biden Administration right now is to make sure that everyone who wants to get out of Afghanistan (and is eligible), can actually do so. Over the weekend, it looks like we were able to expand the safe zone around the Kabul airport, which is a sign that things are improving, somewhat. Ultimately, these are the stories we are (hopefully) going to be reading going forward: The Biden Administration, after bungling the initial withdrawal, will regroup and lead an evacuation effort that gets every American and ally safely out of Afghanistan.
After the fall of Kabul, one of the more common refrains was, “I thought the ‘adults’ were back in charge?” It was an apt criticism last week, but we are now in the real test of the supposed “adults;” if they can safely get everyone out, that will tell us whether or not they really were the grown-ups we were clamoring for during the Trump Administration.
I really can’t emphasize this enough: The next few weeks in Afghanistan are going to be incredibly treacherous for the people on the ground in Kabul. If you are a praying person, you should be praying that our forces on the ground are able to get everyone out safely without major chaos erupting. Part of what makes this strategy so treacherous is that we are basically relying on the Taliban to be good boys while they are monitoring the evacuation. I know that sounds a little nutty, but the reason we are doing so revolves around the foreign policy concept that they are a “rational actor.”
This is a slight detour, but a rational actor in foreign policy terms basically means that the foreign entity you are dealing with fully understands the repercussions of their actions. In this context, we are hoping that the Taliban understands that if they decided to (for instance) close off the Kabul airport on August 24th, the response from the American government would be so severe that it would imperil the Taliban’s ability to take control of Afghanistan (their primary goal). It basically assumes that the Taliban can weigh the consequences of their actions, which is a big thing to ask of the guys who are preparing to take child brides.
Hence the title of the Substack; basically every Western government has resigned themselves to the fact that the Taliban will be in control of Afghanistan, and that maybe they won’t be as bad as they were the last time around. It also assumes that the Taliban won’t face any resistance from the (reportedly) growing resistance movement already emerging in Afghanistan. In a really great and informative piece from Hussein Ibish, he notes:
When US special forces and intelligence services joined the Northern Alliance (officially called the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan) after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Taliban rule collapsed remarkably quickly as well. The campaign began on October 7, 2001. On November 13, the Taliban fled Kabul. By the end of that month, virtually the whole country was in the hands of their enemies and most of the Taliban had fled to Pakistan, although remnants held out in Kandahar.
The incredibly simplistic version of this strategy is us hoping that the Taliban can eventually become the Saddam Hussein of Afghanistan, with hopefully better PR. As a reminder, the Taliban used to have an office in New York City, which raises a lot of questions (did they pay their receptionist minimum wage???), but it sort of highlights how they operate as a despotic regime. We are relying on them to allow us to leave and we are relying on them to hold together a country that seems to have all the ingredients for a civil war, which could potentially be a breeding ground for even more terrorism.2 Hoping for them to finally become a “responsible” collective of fascists seems like a tall ask, but it’s the position that we’ve put ourselves in, after 20 years at war.
One last thing on Afghanistan before we get into the infrastructure bill: There has been a lot of criticism from the Left that has basically said, “Media coverage of the Biden Administration on Afghanistan has been overly tough because they want to show that they weren’t too hard on Trump and can go after Biden too.” In summary, it is the scourge of “bothsidesism” fully realized, and I think there is some truth to the criticism.
This has best been highlighted by some of the “veterans” of the War on Terror coverage:
C.J. Chivers @cjchiversor maybe people who have worked with afghans, and been helped and protected and welcomed by them for years or even decades, happen to give a shit about them? if these are motivations for outcry that you can’t understand, that’s on you. https://t.co/j5KDv8veVp
Josh Marshall also has a great piece espousing mostly the same views:
Josh and Matt have pretty decent bona fides, since they were part of the “extremely online” crew when it was really hard to be “extremely” online in 2001. As a reminder to everyone as to how nutty the War on Terror punditry was during that era:
While I don’t think it’s wrong to hold this perspective in the back of your head, I do think it’s somewhat limited, and learns the lessons of the Iraq War too harshly. Obviously, Iraq and Afghanistan have been disasters, but, conversely, the U.S. was instrumental in preventing an absolute madman from becoming Hitler 2.0 in the Balkans. We also successfully stopped Saddam Hussein from annexing a sovereign nation only ten years before we began sending forces into Afghanistan. It is fundamentally wrong to say that every American foreign policy effort ends in disaster. And while I think there have been great essays from the Neocons (like Anne Applebaum) about how the U.S. could have “won” in Afghanistan, I think it’s also time to face reality that the war is over and everyone is coming home. All we can do is pray for their safety.
OK, so I am focused on the infrastructure bill because I really do think it is important and substantive. And lo/Joe and behold, we got movement on the infrastructure bill(s) earlier this month. I also have to say “bills” because the Senate passed one (the bipartisan, $1 trillion bill) and then moved forward in the process with the other, $3.5 trillion bill. The formal vote on the latter will come at some point in the Fall, but now the bipartisan bill goes to the House.
If you want a detailed analysis of the bipartisan bill’s contents, German Lopez over at Vox has a good overview. If you’re going to talk about the infrastructure bill, I think you have to highlight how the bill faces some obstacles in the House from the progressive Left. Here’s the thing: Democrats chose to do a “two-track” strategy to pass both infrastructure bills through Congress. The reasoning here is that the bigger, $3.5 trillion bill would harder to get through the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris has to break any ties on bills that face significant Republican opposition.
It’s acknowledged by a lot of D.C. Democrats that while the $1 trillion package is welcome, the $3.5 trillion bill is the real goal. There is a long debate about what exactly entails “infrastructure” these days, and to put it simply, Democrats have a much looser definition than Republicans (and arguably the general public). The bigger bill would fundamentally transform the American economy for the next decade, which is a pretty good example of Democrats learning from Mitch McConnell, who governs the same way my dog gets into trouble.
Doris loves to go through our bathroom garbage and tear up tissues. She gets punished for it every time and feels bad, but at almost four years old, she probably views the punishment as a low price to pay for the unbridled fun of destroying used tissues. She gets a time out, stays in there for a little, and then comes out acting apologetic and cute. McConnell does the same thing when he gets into power: He engages in the unbridled fun of passing hyper-conservative legislation, pays the cost because his positions are unpopular with most Americans, and suffers through his time out only to emerge from his crate and do it again.
Democrats are infamous for being more “process-focused” than Republicans; they want the bills they pass to have “public support” and be “politically defensible.” While I think you could write a book about how Joe Biden has learned from Donald Trump (especially on Afghanistan), you could write a pretty long piece on how the Democrats have learned from Mitch McConnell. In short, the infrastructure bills are coming and we are spending the $$$$.
Some “should-reads” before I disappear until the middle of September:
E.J. Dionne concedes that the withdrawal was poorly managed, but eyes on the prize: We are getting out of Afghanistan.
Adam Kinzinger fully places the blame on Trump for the Afghanistan withdrawal.
If you want a great thread on why the vaccinated are seeing issues in Israel, then this will hit your sweet spot:
The journalist I talked about last week, Michael Ware, has a documentary on the Iraq War that is available on YouTube.
A quick read on infrastructure bill negotiations.
Remember how we thought people were just collecting unemployment benefits and staying home? Womp womp.
Something fun: I got a craving for grilled cheese over the weekend and decided to do it up gourmet style by following this recipe.
Totally delicious, and our only change was that we omitted the avocado (because Elisabeth is allergic).
I won’t see any of you until September 13th, assuming everything is going well with Elisabeth’s pregnancy. I’m already working on having folks fill in the gaps while I’m gone, so sit tight and know that - much like a good, strong gorilla - nothing can stop a determined Jackal. Love you my babies.
If we are friends I will be one of them.