An Excellent Appraisal of the Afghanistan Situation

David Roberts produced a Twitter thread last night that’s one of the best analyses of the situation I’ve seen:

. . . I’m going to do a thread on Afghanistan, because something about the current discourse is baffling me. I’ll lay out the situation as I see it & then hopefully someone smart can answer my question. 

We’ve been in Afghanistan for 20 years. At first it was to diminish terrorist capacity, but that pretty quickly faded & the new mission was state-building: building a gov’t & a military that could prevent the Taliban from taking back over. 

Through all those 20 years, all the surges & drone strikes & wasted money & lost lives, we have failed utterly in that mission. The gov’t was weak & lacked support outside Kabul. The military was a [disaster] (often responsible for its own atrocities). 

We’ve known for a while that the state-building is futile (Biden told Obama when he was VP), but in US politics, sticking w/ a disastrous military intervention is less politically risky than ending one, so no one actually did it until Biden. 

More or less everyone knew that, when the US finally left, the Taliban would take back over. Worth repeating: EVERYONE KNEW THIS. No one knew or proposed any way of avoiding it, other than staying there forever. Some hawks would be fine w/ that, but the US people weren’t. 

Now, Biden — along with *everyone else*, including US intelligence agencies — believed that, while the gov’t & military were weak, they would, at least, fight off the Taliban for a few weeks or months. Everyone thought that Taliban takeover would take a while. 

It is obviously clear now that the Taliban was more prepared, and the gov’t & military even weaker, than anticipated. The takeover happened much faster than anyone (again: ANYONE) predicted. It made for some ugly imagery, though things have proceeded fairly well since. 

So, here are some possible criticisms of Biden:

1. He should have prevented the Taliban takeover. But the only way he could have done that is by staying forever. Unless you support that, you’re acknowledging that the harms of Taliban takeover were inevitable. 

2. He should have evacuated Americans & allies before announcing the withdrawal. But as Biden has said, doing so would have been waving a giant red flag — an unmistakable signal to everyone that the gov’t & military were going to collapse. He didn’t want to signal that.

Now in retrospect, given how rapid the takeover was, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. But again, no one knew it would be so fast. The admin wanted to give the gov’t & military a sporting chance. That made sense given the info they had at the time. 

3. Biden should have slowed down the Taliban takeover, to give more time for orderly withdrawal of Americans & allies. But the only way to do that would have been yet another “surge” of troops. As Biden asked, would you want your kid to be the last one to die in a futile war? 

4. Given how rapid the Taliban takeover turned out to be, Biden should have evacuated more … competently. But what does this mean? There have been comparatively few lost lives. People are getting out now. [note: 37,000 as of the last count] How, *specifically*, should Biden have evacuated differently? 

The characteristic feature of Afghanistan discourse among pundits & Very Serious People is that virtually no one grapples with these questions honestly. You’ve got pundits who haven’t said shit about a disastrous waste of money & lives for 20 years suddenly caring. 

You’ve got Republicans who wouldn’t piss on a refugee if they were on fire going on TV to weep crocodile tears about the Afghanis left behind. You’ve got people waving their hands around “competence” while refusing to say what could have been done differently. 

You’ve got people still putting “Biden’s catastrophe” in their headlines when, after one chaotic/ugly day, we’ve had five days of relatively orderly withdrawal, with very few casualties. You’ve got the Republican architects of this whole epic fuckup on TV backseat driving (?)! 

Here’s what happened: we got hit on 9/11, it activated all our worst impulses, we lunged into an endless war with no chance of success, we predictably failed, and now an elite class with a lifetime of American-exceptionalism delusions just can’t fucking deal with it. 

It is tragic what’s happening in Afghanistan. It’s tragic what’s *going* to happen, especially to women & girls, especially to Afghanis who put their lives on the line to help us. It’s absolutely awful. But after 20 years, we have to accept: there’s not much we can do about it. 

Turns out we’re not the world’s Superman, just a blundering, violent oaf, stepping on rakes. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially for a relatively insular US population that has had nationalist mythology blown up its ass for as long as it’s been alive. 

But it is dysfunctional & dishonest to take all that negative feeling, all that humiliation & impotence & rage, & channel it into bashing Joe Biden, the president who finally had the gonads to end this thing. Ending it was always going to be ugly. The choice was an ugly ending or staying there forever.

Just once, I’d like to see this country grow the fuck up & take responsibility for its mistakes & acknowledge the limits of its power, to see itself from the outside rather than from within a haze of self-serving mythologies. 

As it is, looking around at the way US elites have responded to this, I have no faith that we won’t do something equally stupid in response to another attack. We refuse to learn.


Mark Harris added:

The journalistic notion that we could lose a 20-year war in a country we don’t understand, blunder at every turn, and yet pull off a withdrawal/mass evacuation with clockwork precision needs elaboration. What did anyone imagine losing to the Taliban would look like?

I suppose people thought that getting thousands of people out of Afghanistan in a few days should be as easy as getting thousands into Afghanistan one day at a time for twenty years.

Unfortunately, that first day at the airport created the impression, magnified by overheated, often self-interested commentary, that it was the fall of Saigon all over again, or worse. It’s the power of photographs and video to define a moment without providing any context.