Ignore the Bullshit Regarding Afghanistan

Politico describes how the Biden administration responded:

By the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 11, the Afghan government’s already brittle control of the war-torn country was quickly unraveling in the face of a swift Taliban offensive coinciding with the nearly complete withdrawal of U.S. troops that President JOE BIDEN ordered in April.

Most of America’s top diplomats and generals were still operating under the assumption that they had ample time to prepare for a Taliban takeover of the country — it might even be a couple of years until the group was in a position to regain power, many thought. Though some military officials and intelligence agencies had stepped up their warnings about the possibility of a government collapse, officials felt confident about the Afghan security forces’ strategy of consolidating in the cities to defend the urban population centers.

The president and his top aides still had one more meeting scheduled for Wednesday evening — a pre-planned session on a classified national security matter. As word of the deteriorating situation flowed into the Oval Office that morning, Biden ordered that the early evening meeting should focus on Afghanistan.

Sitting in the Situation Room were [the Vice President, Secretary of Defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the National Security Adviser; the Director of National Intelligence; the Deputy CIA Director and others. Other officials, including the Secretary of State, participated by phone].

Events were growing so dire that the president ordered [Sec. of Defense] Austin and [General] Milley to prepare a plan for deploying additional troops to the region, where they would reinforce those put on standby months earlier to evacuate American personnel.

Biden also directed the State Department to expand the evacuation of Afghan allies — those who had worked with the Americans and were now in mortal danger — to include the use of military aircraft, not just chartered civilian planes.

And he also asked his intelligence officials to prepare an up-to-date assessment on the situation in Afghanistan by the following morning. After the meeting broke up, a classified email was sent to pertinent staffers to convene at 7:30 a.m. the next day [August 12]. 

. . . The principals meeting kicked off with an intelligence briefing concluding that the situation was so “fluid” that the Afghan government’s seat of power in Kabul could fall “within weeks or days,” an official noted.

Austin recommended that Biden send in troops to evacuate the embassy and protect the main international airport in Kabul. [National Security Adviser] Jake Sullivan asked each Cabinet member in the meeting to weigh in. They unanimously agreed.

That was the “Oh, shit” moment, said a U.S. official. It was now officially a crisis.

Sullivan walked into the Oval Office just before 10 a.m. [on August 12] to report to the president. Biden picked up the phone and told Austin to send troops to Kabul’s airport.

Some background from The Hill:

History will mark Aug. 15, 2021, as the date that the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban retook control over this troubled and war-torn country. But the real date that the Taliban’s victory was assured is Feb. 29, 2020, the day the T____ administration signed what it characterized as a “peace” deal with the Taliban. Once this agreement was signed — the tragic collapse we witnessed this weekend was inevitable. 

Of course, the agreement was not, and could not possibly have been, a “peace” deal since one of the parties currently at war — the Afghan government — was not a signatory. Rather, this was a “withdrawal” agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban that set the terms for the complete departure of American troops from Afghanistan by May 2021.

What did the United States gain in exchange for this withdrawal, for which the Taliban had been fighting for 20 years? Nothing but vague, unenforceable promises that the Taliban would not engage in hostilities against the departing U.S. troops and would “send a clear message” to al Qaeda that it “had no place” in Afghanistan. So eager T____ was to withdraw, we did not even hold out for a clear, firm commitment that the Taliban would not provide aid, safe harbor or weaponry to al Qaeda and like-minded groups. The agreement contained no enforcement mechanisms and included no penalties on the Taliban for failing to comply with its terms.  

Once the agreement was signed, the fate of the Afghan government was signed, sealed and delivered — the Taliban had practically won the war. There was no way that the government could possibly survive. 

The fact that the United States entered into negotiations and then an agreement with the Taliban, without even inviting the Afghan government to the table, undercut the power and legitimacy of the government. The citizenry, including those in the national armed services and police, could plainly see that its own government was being ignored, a helpless bystander in critical discussions about the country’s future. After we had cut the legs out from under this government and rendered it a paper tiger, it is no wonder that when those serving in the Afghan army and police were asked to fight, most said, “No, thanks.”

The agreement also did absolutely nothing to attempt to bring about a peaceful settlement of the war between the Afghan government and the Taliban. A genuine peace deal would have made our withdrawal contingent on the progress of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But it did not. T____ agreed unconditionally to bring down U.S. troop levels to 8,600 by mid-July 2020 and totally withdraw by May 2021. 

The agreement anticipated there would be peace negotiations, but in August, T____ voluntarily cut troop levels down to 4,500, even more quickly than required by the agreement, even though negotiations had not even begun. This was a clear signal there would be no linkage between withdrawals and peace, contrary to what U.S. diplomats were telling the parties. This signal was received loud and clear by the Taliban. They balked at starting negotiations until December, and even then, had zero incentive to make any concessions since T____ had already announced that there would be only 2,500 troops in Afghanistan by the time he left office, the smallest U.S. force in 20 years. It was clear to the Taliban that the Americans were quickly headed for the exits. . . .

To stem the Taliban’s momentum on the ground this spring, the Biden administration would have had to not only abrogate the T____ withdrawal agreement but also deploy more troops and get them more deeply involved in the fighting. This would have breached Biden’s campaign commitment to end the war in Afghanistan and ran against the strong bipartisan public support for withdrawal. 

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post explains why discussion of these events in the media has been so distorted:

As we have watched the rapid dissolution of the Afghan government, the takeover of the country by the Taliban and the desperate effort of so many Afghans to flee, the U.S. media have asked themselves a question: What do the people who were wrong about Afghanistan all along have to say about all this?

That’s not literally what TV bookers and journalists have said, of course. But if you’ve been watching the debate, it almost seems that way.

The number of Afghanistan/Iraq hawks — the ones who brought us those twin disasters in the first place — who have been called on by major media organizations to offer their sage assessment of the current situation is truly remarkable.

Whether it’s retired generals who now earn money in the weapons industry, former officials from the Bush, Obama and T____ administrations who in many cases are directly responsible for the mistakes of the past two decades, or war enthusiast pundits with an unblemished record of wrongness, we’re now hearing from the same people who two decades ago told us how great these wars would be, then spent years telling us victory was right around the corner, and are now explaining how somebody else is to blame for Afghanistan.

One name you almost never hear in all the “Why this is President Biden’s greatest failure” talk is one George W. Bush, who took us to Afghanistan and whose delusion that we could spread democracy at the point of a gun got this whole mess started. You’ll have to look far and wide for an interview with someone who objected to the Afghanistan war when it began, but if you want to hear one former Bush official interview another former Bush official about what a mess Biden made, just turn on your TV.

This isn’t something new. In fact, it has characterized the debate over the entirety of this period.

Back in the early 2000s, the term “Very Serious People” was coined to refer to those who were wrong about Iraq but nevertheless were treated with great deference and respect because they were mouthing conventional wisdom and taking a position that the media and the broader Washington culture treated as hardheaded and rational.

In contrast, the people who were right about Iraq — who said there was no real evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or was in cahoots with al-Qaeda, or was about to attack the United States — were treated as silly, unserious and not worth listening to.

Then as now, the supposedly unserious people continued to be sidelined and ignored even after events proved them right.

It’s not just about who gets a platform in this debate. It’s also about what the limits of that debate are. As Matt Duss, a foreign policy expert and adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), told me, the debate is shaped by “a general hawkish interventionist framing you see in the media and the foreign policy establishment.” It presumes that the deployment of U.S. military power overseas is nearly always justified and likely to accomplish its goals.

In that framework, if things go wrong it must be because of some failure of planning or execution — and you can bet that if you bring a Bush, Obama or T____ official on your show, they’re going to say, “It wasn’t my fault — it must be Biden’s fault!”

What gets left out of that discussion? For starters, the fact that we spent 20 years trying to create and sustain the Afghan government, and it remained so plagued by corruption that it didn’t have legitimacy with the country’s population. . . .

But the problem went deeper. “Even focusing on the failures of the Afghan government lets us off the hook,” [Bernie Sanders adviser Matt Duss] told me. “When we’re talking about corruption, the biggest beneficiaries are U.S. multinationals.” Indeed, another recent government report found that between 2011 and 2019 we spent nearly $100 billion on private contractors in Afghanistan.

Do you think the corporations that have been feeding at that trough for 20 years were eager to have U.S. involvement end? And might we be skeptical of the opinions of people who serve on the boards of those companies?

Now there is a rush for accountability for the failures in Afghanistan — but only, it seems, the failures of the Biden administration. The urge is so powerful that three separate Senate committees led by Democrats are preparing to investigate the administration’s mistakes (though they might look as far back as last year, to the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban).

This comes after no one was prosecuted for the torture policy of the Bush administration, and no one was punished for the Iraq debacle. Instead, those most responsible for America’s worst moral and practical foreign policy failures are treated as though they are the possessors of great wisdom and insight to which we all should attend. . . .

Unquote.

There was never going to be a calm, orderly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Given everything we know about the former president, the withdrawal would have been even more painful if he was still in office. The good news is that competent, sensible people are in charge now and most of us who don’t appear on cable TV support Biden’s decision:

A poll — commissioned by the right-leaning, pro-restraint Concerned Veterans for America but conducted by YouGov — shows a combined 60 percent of respondents either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the pullout, while 22 percent either “somewhat oppose” or “strongly oppose” Biden’s decision.