Setting the Record Straight on Afghanistan

From Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post:

Testimony from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A Milley before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday was enlightening in several respects. The two defense officials may not have persuaded those who wanted to continue an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, but they certainly put President Biden’s decision-making in context.

Much of the media’s attention focused on Milley, who at the beginning of the hearing shattered the notion that he had acted outside the chain of command or usurped civilian control in the waning days of the Trump administration. His conversations with the Chinese to de-escalate any conflict were cleared with civilian officials beforehand, he said, and he debriefed them afterward. Milley, who acted deftly within the bounds of the Constitution to avoid disaster, is not deserving of blame; rather, the ones who need to explain themselves are the former president’s cowardly enablers, who to this day pretend the former president is fit for office.

The bulk of the hearing, however, focused on Afghanistan. Austin effectively conceded in his testimony that three presidents never acknowledged (or at least never appreciated) that the mission of the war — to create a viable Afghan government and military — failed spectacularly. Austin explained:

We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of [President T____’s] Doha agreement, that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers, and that we failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight. We provided the Afghan military with equipment and aircraft and the skills to use them. Over the years, they often fought bravely. Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers died. But in the end, we couldn’t provide them with the will to win. At least not all of them.

That’s as devastating a critique of the war’s promoters as any defense official has delivered.

Biden’s critics will have a hard time explaining why a limited force left indefinitely in Afghanistan would have been a viable alternative. There has been no evidence to dispute the conclusion that the United States could have preserved the status quo. Miley acknowledged, “The Taliban [in 2020] strengthened its positions around several provincial capitals in anticipation of the departure of foreign forces and, over this time period, enemy-initiated attacks increased by over 50 percent and were above previous seasonal norms.” He added, “The Taliban controlled approximately 78 districts in February of 2021. This rose to over 100 in mid-June and surpassed 200 by mid-July, with fighting occurring on the outskirts of 15 provincial capitals.”

The notion that the Taliban would have halted its advance if the United States kept a few thousand troops in the country defies logic. Indeed, Milley conceded, “On the first of September, we were going to go to war again with the Taliban. Of that, there was no doubt.”

As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote in an op-ed earlier this month, “If Biden had reneged on this deal, there would be a ferocious response from the Taliban. Two thousand five hundred troops would have never been nearly enough to repel the reaction from a jilted Taliban.”

The idea that the administration did not prepare for the collapse of the Afghan government was false as well. Both Miley and Austin described the advance planning in detail, including the pre-positioning of troops and a noncombatant evacuation. Moreover, the Monday-morning quarterbacking that the administration should have retained Bagram air base appears to have been misplaced. Milley explained:

The U.S. military could not secure both Bagram airfield and Hamid Karzai International Airport [HKIA] with the troops available. All together securing Bagram would have required approximately 5-6,000 additional troops assuming no indigenous partner force was available. These forces are in addition to those that would be required to secure Kabul and HKIA in the event of a [noncombatant evacuation operation]. As Gen. [Austin S.] Miller has previously testified, HKIA would always be the center of gravity of any NEO due to the population that would need to be evacuated was mostly in Kabul.

Austin also explained, “[Retaining Bagram] would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned: to protect and defend our embassy some 30 miles away. That distance from Kabul also rendered Bagram of little value in the evacuation.”

Finally, the widespread declaration that the administration’s airlift was a “failure” was exaggerated and lacked context. Austin and Milley conceded there were a couple of days of chaos, but tens of thousands more Afghans were evacuated than thought possible. “We planned to evacuate between 70,000-80,000 people. They evacuated more than 124,000,” Austin said. He also noted, “At the height of this operation, an aircraft was taking off every 45 minutes. And not a single sortie was missed for maintenance, fuel, or logistical problems. It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history, and it was executed in just 17 days.”

Critics who said the United States would not be able to evacuate anyone after the military left were wrong. The military was able to evacuate 6,000 Americans and, with subsequent extractions, has removed the vast majority of Americans who wanted out. (After months of warnings, assistance and advice, it is hard to think what more the administration could have done.)

With regard to the Afghans we failed to extract, the sad reality is that when a nation loses a war, it simply cannot get everyone whom it wants out. The expectation that we could have saved hundreds of thousands of Afghans from Taliban rule was never realistic. (Arguably, the president should have made that clear rather than make open-ended promises.)

President Biden’s critics are left exasperated. How could the United States not have done better? Certainly, Milley, Austin and other officials should have known that Afghan forces and the civilian government were hollow. But even had they foreseen an immediate collapse, a mass evacuation on any timeline would have likely had the same result (i.e., a rush to the exits). For those who wanted an indefinite war, it is time to admit there was no way to preserve the status quo without loss of more American lives. For those who wanted a “clean” and swift end, it is time to acknowledge wars do not end that way.

Moreover, the military officials’ emphasis on the disastrous Doha deal negotiated with the Taliban under President D____T____ was a proper corrective to the hypocritical blame Republicans heaped on Biden. My colleague Aaron Blake writes, “Both Austin and Milley cast the deal as largely a failure, particularly when the Afghan military — which the United States had tried to prop up for 20 years — quickly collapsed and allowed the Taliban to take control.”

In sum, the testimony went a long way toward confirming an uncomfortable truth: The 20-year war to create a viable Afghan state was a fruitless, misguided and arrogant undertaking. Biden finally decided not to sacrifice more troops and spend more money on an unwinnable venture. His error may have been in failing to prepare Americans for the ugly, heartbreaking reality of losing a war to no real effect. . . .

Identify This State

When we moved to the East Coast from California 30 years ago, I met someone who lived in New Jersey and told him that the state, from what I’d seen, was much nicer than I expected. He said “Yes, we like to keep that a secret”.

Of course, there are old cities and rundown neighborhoods, ugly factories and the challenging NJ Turnpike, but for such a small, densely-populated state (47th by size, 8th by population), there’s a lot of variety. We do have the most hazardous waste sites in the nation — a remnant of the state’s industrial past, when NJ also earned its nickname “The Garden State” because of the way NJ farms fed New York City and Philadelphia. New Jersey also has the 2nd highest income, 3rd highest percentage of college graduates and 3rd highest percentage of immigrants. Much of the Revolutionary War was fought here, Thomas Edison became “The Wizard of Menlo Park” here, researchers at Bell Labs developed radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the UNIX operating system and the C programming language here. Abbott met Costello here.

Much of the state away from New York City and Philadelphia is undeveloped. The coastline is beautiful. We’re in the top 10 in life expectancy. The public schools are highly rated. We get less back from Washington than any other state, compared to the federal taxes we pay (you’re welcome). And we avoid electing Republicans.

It was notable, therefore, that when 1,200 Americans were asked to choose America’s best states, New Jersey just barely beat Mississippi and Alabama, coming in 48th out of 50.

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Maybe that’s because, according to generations of comedians, New Jersey is funny. “I’m from Joisey! You from Joisey? Which exit?”

Property taxes are too high. There are those toxic waste sites scattered around. And who knows whose remains are hidden in the Meadowlands, which is more swamp than meadow (and where the “New York” Giants and Jets play football, but won’t admit it)?

Fortunately, however, New Jersey and its state government have a sense of humor:

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The state of New Jersey. A well-kept secret.

China On the Rise

The Atlantic has a typically long article about China’s construction of an enormous radio telescope:

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Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle [recently destroyed], the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

[It’s] the world’s most sensitive telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter”. After the dish is calibrated, it will start scanning large sections of the sky. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

If that isn’t enough, they’re planning to put a radio observatory on the dark side of the Moon, where there is even less interference from terrestrial radio waves.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Chinese have a “rail-linked urban megastructure” that required the country to pour “more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century” The country “has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea”. The author of the article marvels at “smooth, spaceship-white” trains “whooshing by . . . at almost 200 miles an hour”.

China built the world’s fastest supercomputer, has spent heavily on medical research and planted a “great green wall” of forests in its northwest as a last-ditch effort to halt the Gobi Desert’s spread. Now China is bringing its immense resources to bear on the fundamental sciences. The country plans to build an atom smasher that will conjure thousands of “god particles” out of the ether, in the same time it took CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to strain out a handful. It is also eyeing Mars. In the technopoetic idiom of the 21st century, nothing would symbolize China’s rise like a high-definition shot of a Chinese astronaut setting foot on the red planet. Nothing except, perhaps, first contact.

China’s gross domestic product is still only about 2/3 of America’s, but they’ll probably spend more on research and development than we do in the coming decade.

When we saw the Soviet Union as our competition in the 50s and 60s, we got busy. The Soviet Union no longer exists.

Today, there are more than 100 cities in China with populations over one million. China is making its presence known.

Shanghai-Skyline-Night-Big-Bus-Tours-01-2017

Small States and Minority Rule

Every four years we elect a president. Almost every four years, we discuss the Electoral College. From Jesse Wegman of The New York Times:

As the 538 members of the Electoral College gather on Monday to carry out their constitutional duty and officially elect Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president and Kamala Harris as his vice president, we are confronted again with the jarring reminder that it could easily have gone the other way. We came within a hairbreadth of re-electing a man who finished more than seven million votes behind his opponent — and we nearly repeated the shock of 2016, when Dxxxx Txxxx took office after coming in a distant second in the balloting.

No other election in the country is run like this. But why not? That question has been nagging at me for the past few years, particularly in the weeks since Election Day, as I’ve watched with morbid fascination the ludicrous effort by Mr. Txxxx and his allies to use the Electoral College to subvert the will of the majority of American voters and overturn an election that he lost.

The obvious answer is that, for the most part, we abide by the principle of majority rule. . . . 

In the last 20 years, Republicans have been gifted the White House while losing the popular vote twice, and it came distressingly close to happening for a third time this year. 

Since 2000, we’ve had six presidential elections. The candidate who got the most votes only won four of them. This year, shifting 44,000 votes to the loser in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin would have resulted in a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. That would have moved the election to the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation gets one vote, regardless of population. Since most states have Republican-majority representation in the House — even though the House has more Democrats — DDT would have presumably been re-elected, hard as that is to imagine. 

Among the comments the Times article received, one person said the Electoral College is fine, since we’re a collection of states, the United States of America, not a collection of citizens. He said it’s only fair that we pick a president based on which states the candidates win, not how many votes they get. Besides, he added, votes in the Electoral College are “roughly” assigned by population.

I don’t agree that because we’re called the United States, we should ignore majority rule when it coms to picking a president. After all, the states we live in are supposed to be “united”. But his statement about the Electoral College being “roughly” based on population made me wonder.

How would the 2020 election have turned out if votes in the Electoral College were “precisely” assigned by population, instead of “roughly”? Today, the largest state, California, gets 55 electoral votes and the smallest state, Wyoming, gets 3. But California’s population is 68 times Wyoming’s. So if the Electoral College were precisely allocated by population, California would get 204 electoral votes, not 55. Quite a difference. The next largest state, Texas, would get 150 instead of 38.

Would that have made the result in the Electoral College much different? It was surprising to see that it wouldn’t. If you do the same precise arithmetic for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Joe Biden receives 974 electoral votes instead of 306 and DDT gets 730 instead of 232. That looks like a big difference, but the percentages are about the same. Biden would get 57.2% of the electoral votes with the precise arithmetic and 56.9% with the rough arithmetic. It works out that way because some big states, like California and New York, went for Biden and some, like Texas and Florida, went for DDT. When you average it all out, the Electoral College result would be about the same either way.

There would be a big difference, however. Big states would be much more important in the Electoral College than small states. If California got 204 electoral votes instead of 55, it would make even less difference who won a bunch of little states like Wyoming, Vermont and Alaska. In fact, assuming precise arithmetic, the 25 largest states would get 1,423 electoral votes vs. 288 for the 25 smallest. 

What this shows is that the current Electoral College is significantly skewed to benefit smaller states. Voters in those states play a bigger role than they should, based on how few of them there are. Being precise about population wouldn’t necessarily change the winner every time, but a more accurate Electoral College would reflect where people actually live in these “united” states. It would also reflect the cultural divisions in this country, since smaller states tend to be more rural.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the Electoral College that is skewed toward smaller states. According to the Constitution, each state gets as many votes in the Electoral College as it has members of Congress. Wyoming gets three electoral votes because it has two people in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives. California gets 55 electoral votes because it has two senators and 53 representatives in the House. If seats in Congress were precisely allocated by population, California would still have two senators, but it would elect almost four times as many members of the House of Representatives as Wyoming. The ratio in the House would be California’s 202 to Wyoming’s one, not 53 to one.

If the makeup of the House of Representatives isn’t unfair enough, consider the US Senate. Each state, regardless of population, gets two senators. It was designed to give small states the same representation as big states, so each state, regardless of population, gets to elect two. Maybe that made sense when there were only 13 states and they were relatively close in population. Now we have 50 states with a very wide range of populations.

In 1790, for example, the largest state, Virginia, had 13 times as many people as the smallest, Delaware. Today, as noted above, California has 68 times more people than Wyoming. Furthermore, the 50 members of the Senate from the largest 25 states represent almost 275 million people. The 50 senators from the smallest 25 states represent 49 million.

The imbalance is made even worse by the fact that the Senate is responsible for approving nominations to the Executive Branch (including all the officials in the president’s cabinet) and the federal judiciary (including the Supreme Court), as well as approving treaties. Because of the way senators were to be chosen, the authors of the Constitution assumed that members of the Senate would be more responsible than the unruly members of the House of Representatives. That’s hardly the case today.

In addition, smaller states, which tend to more rural, tend to vote for Republicans. Of the 25 largest states, 15 voted for Biden and 10 for his opponent. Of the 25 smallest, 10 voted for Biden and 15 for the other guy. That’s why the Senate is where progressive legislation goes to die and liberal nominees fall into comas waiting to be approved.

Add this all up and it’s easy to see that a Constitution written in 1789 doesn’t work very well for a large, complicated country in 2020. The Senate is skewed to benefit smaller, more Republican states, while the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, which chooses the president, are skewed the same way, although less so. This unfairness explains why Hillary Clinton could beat her opponent by 3 million votes and lose, why Joe Biden could beat the same opponent by 7 million votes but not necessarily win, and why forward-looking legislation that would make the United States a much better place to live has so little chance of success. Maybe shifting demographics will eventually help, but in the short run, we have to assume the United States will be subject to minority rule from Washington in important ways and much too often. 

The American Project

You’ve probably heard of the “1619 Project”, even if you’ve never read it. I have a subscription to The New York Times but avoid the weekly magazine section. That’s where a series of articles was published last year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Black slaves being brought to Virginia in August 1619. The Project’s other purpose was to show the many ways slavery has affected this country up to the present day.

The 1619 Project has been celebrated and criticized and used by Republicans for their usual nefarious purposes. The Washington Post has an interesting article called “How the 1619 Project Took Over 2020”. The title is an exaggeration but the article nicely summarizes how a series in the Times Sunday magazine became a big deal.

Americans, being citizens of a forward-looking country, are relatively ignorant of our history, so any significant effort to inform us about our nation’s proud but checkered past, like the 1619 Project, is a positive development. 

What went wrong in this case is that the Times writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who initiated the project and won a Pulitzer Price for her efforts, wrote this:

One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” [at a time when] “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.

A well-known Princeton historian, Sean Wilentz, strongly objected to this characterization. From the Washington Post article: 

This, Wilentz argues, is patently false: Other than a few lonely voices, England remained committed to the slave trade in 1776. The abolitionist movement didn’t take hold in London for more than a decade — and then it was inspired by anti-slavery opinions emerging from America.

Professor Wilentz and three other historians wrote a letter to the Times and the controversy took off from there, exacerbated as usual by right-wingers, including, of course, our Controversialist-In-Chief. The controversy could probably have been short-circuited early on except for the actions of an egotistical Times editor, who overreacted to the historians’ letter, viewing it as an attack on the entire project instead of acknowledging the error. (Egotism and refusal to admit error are defining characteristics of Times editors.)

The Times has a statement saying “the 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine . . . [that] aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of those consequences and contributions. I remember reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice in college and being shocked when he said the relationship between Black and White Americans was central to this country’s history. The more I’ve learned about America, the more I’ve agreed with him. (I wish I could find his exact words. Is it predictable that there is no Kindle edition of Soul On Ice?). 

Yet the language that upset the historians, including the statement that “we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not . . . believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue” remains. That’s odd for what the Times says is “an ongoing initiative” (see “egotism and refusal to admit error”).  Meanwhile, Republicans claim Democrats all believe the United States began in 1619, not 1776.

Reading about the 1619 Project today got me thinking about America’s founding. That led me to a site run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, “an educational agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia”. Although Spanish explorers founded our longest lasting city, St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, it’s generally agreed that the arrival of the English in Virginia’s Jamestown marked the beginning of what became the United States. Here’s some of the chronology from the Jamestown-Yorktown site:

1570-1  Spanish Jesuits set up a mission on the York River . . . Within six months, the Spaniards were killed by local Indians.

1585-7  Three separate voyages sent English explorers and settlers to the coast of what is now North Carolina, then known as Virginia. John White, who . . . had gone back to England for supplies, returned in 1590 and found no trace of the settlers.

1607  On May 13, nearly five months after departing from England, an expedition of 104 colonists arrived at a site on the James River selected for settlement. . . . The group named their settlement for King James I.

1608  Captain Christopher Newport, . . . who had sailed back to England, returned to Virginia in January with settlers and goods. It was the first of a series of regular arrivals in the colony.

1613  Pocahontas, a daughter of Powhatan, powerful leader of 30-some Indian tribes in coastal Virginia, was kidnapped by the English.

1619  The first representative legislative assembly in British America met at Jamestown on July 30. The first documented people of African origin in Virginia arrived in late summer aboard an English ship flying Dutch colors.

Wow. Notice that last sentence? The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is missing something, or maybe these “people of African origin” arrived in Virginia because they’d heard about the so-called “New World” and wanted to check it out for themselves.

Putting aside the racists in charge of the Jamestown chronology, or rather taking note of their attempt to whitewash history, I wondered how we should remember America’s founding. Although we tend to think it was an event, it was actually a process. In fact, we might say the process continues.

1607  An English expedition settled in Jamestown.

1619  The first African slaves were brought to America.

1620  The Plymouth colony was established in Massachusetts.

1763  The French and Indian War ended.

1776  The Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia.

1781  The British surrendered at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War 

1788  The Constitution was ratified, taking effect in 1789.

1791  The Bill of Rights was ratified.

1803  The United States and France agreed to the Louisiana Purchase.

1830  The Indian Removal Act became law (leading to, among other things, the Trail of Tears)

1865  The Civil War ended.

1868  The 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection under the law to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”, was adopted.

1869  The transcontinental railroad was completed.

1920 The 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote, was adopted.

1924  The Indian Citizenship Act was passed (because the 14th Amendment wasn’t enough).

1933-1939  The New Deal was enacted.

1964 The Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, became law.

1965 The Voting Rights Act was passed (although Republicans on the Supreme Court improperly declared it unnecessary in 2013)

2016 A Black American was elected president.

Other milestones along our path to becoming the United States of America are yet to occur. (It’s 19 days until the first Tuesday in November.)