Afghanistan, or Just Because You Decide to Leave the Party Doesn’t Mean You Should Jump Out the Window
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
I- A Brief Meta-Aside
I recently read a post by Tanner Greer over at Scholar’s Stage where he talked about the golden age of blogging, and what was present then that’s missing now. His basic conclusion was that back then people used blogs to think, discuss and react. That it was a conversation where ideas were fleshed out. Additionally blogging was subversive, people frequently blogged under pseudonyms because they often felt like whistle blowers or the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.
Since then blogging has become professionalized—less thinking and more telling. People publish under their own name because credentials are important if you’re telling people something. Alongside declaiming something from on high they’re also designed as a way to flesh out the author’s CV, another aspect which works against having a discussion. Greer writes mostly in the national security space, and speaking of that space here’s how he describes it:
A junior officer who decided to take his views online in 2005 did so knowing that it might hurt his career; an M.A. student who decides to bring his views online in 2015 does in hopes it will help his career. Much of what is published in forums like War on the Rocks, The Diplomat, The National Interest, or Foreign Policy would never be written if its authors did not know it would directly boost their career goals and social profile. I don’t begrudge authors for this, but I cannot pretend it makes compelling reading. But this change in the media landscape also affects those writing for more disinterested reasons. Anyone who writes for a professional outlet knows that their writing must sound professional, or their professional reputation suffer[s]. They know that in the years to come they will be judged by these articles in [a] way they would not be judged for 200 word jottings published on Typepad or WordPress. The results are predictable: much of modern strategy writing is overly formal, easily slips into platitudes, and is far more likely to follow stale partisan prescriptions than was the case a decade ago. The decline of independent bloggery has stripped debates over strategy of their personality. [Emphasis his]
The whole post is titled “In Favor of Bad Takes”, and while I think its conclusions are less true in the rationality space (which might be the best description of where I’m located, though the relationship is definitely parasitic) it nevertheless rang true for me even so. And it inspired me to try to move my writing at least somewhat in that direction.
I’m always looking for ways to contribute more through writing, and this seemed like an approach that might work. So I’m going to experiment with splitting up my writing (the non-newsletter, book review stuff) between dialogue/conversational pieces and essays. In my imagination this will allow me to put out more polished (though probably fewer) “essays” while doing more shorter, immediate, thinking out loud pieces. Increasing both my total output and the benefit I provide to the larger world (which I know is slight, but every little bit helps right?)
Also the essay I promised to publish next about environmental chemicals is going slow. At the same time I’m fascinated by what’s happening in Afghanistan, and I’d like to put in my two cents before it’s old news.
II- What should we have done with Afghanistan in general?
I think there are a lot of ways to look at the Afghanistan situation and I’m going to try to hit as many as I can. But let’s start with how I think we should have handled things.
It should now be clear to everyone that it was not possible to externally midwife a stable, independent state in Afghanistan. That despite 20 years of working on it, nothing stuck. This is true in two ways. We clearly didn’t create a new military willing to fight, which is unsurprising since we didn’t create a new state either. But neither did we lessen the dedication of the Taliban by a single degree either. As you can see from the swift fall of the country after we left the Taliban’s power is just as great as always and I’m hearing some argue that it’s even greater. This makes a certain amount of sense. For the Taliban it was always a matter of intense personal honor, it is their country after all. While the US public only ever considered it a liability and a hassle, particularly after Bin Laden was killed.
Given that state-building was impossible, we should have never tried. If we needed to punish them, or capture Bin Laden, or prevent terrorist training camps we should have done that. (And I’m not even sure how much of that needed to be done.) But trying to reform the culture of the area was always going to be an ultimately pointless endeavor.
I understand that while it’s now clear to everyone that state building was impossible that wasn’t always the case, but it should have been. Certainly there were lots of people pointing it out. And in addition to those people there was the example of Soviet and British attempts to do something similar. It’s not as if the Afghani’s didn’t already have a reputation of being entirely intractable.
All of this is to say that I disagree with the whole “You break it you bought it” philosophy. We should have tried to break as little as we could—as small a footprint as possible. And not “buy” anything. Terrorism is in any case a flashy, but low impact danger. I think this is another place where the pandemic is very illuminating when you compare the money spent preventing that with how many people died and the money spent on the war on terror with how many people die from terror attacks. And of course there’s the sad fact that more people died from combat just in Afghanistan (2,372 Military 1,720 Civilian contractors 4096 total) than died on 9/11. It gets even worse if you include Iraq.
III- Given the situation Biden inherited what should he have done?
Let me be clear, I agree that we couldn’t stay in Afghanistan forever. As illustrated above I would have never planned to “stay” in the first place. And while I don’t intend to talk a lot about Trump (such discussions have a tendency to become all about him) I think his instinct that it was past time to get out was a good one. That said everything that happened since then has been disastrous. The so-called negotiations with the Taliban were a joke, and he and his State Department were either idiots or so eager to get a deal that they decided to ignore the fact that the Taliban didn’t intend to follow through on anything.
Those people who think we could have stayed forever make the argument that we had the country entirely under control. That there hadn’t been a combat death since March of 2020, and this condition was maintained by only a few thousand troops. And as that was the case there was no reason not to keep this going indefinitely. That initially sounded like a compelling argument, but it seems now that it was a gross misinterpretation of the situation. Once it was clear that the long waiting game the Taliban had been playing was about to be over, then there was no reason for them to kill troops anymore, it became all about convincing the US to follow through on their promise to leave while they gathered their strength. Is it a coincidence that:
And that the last combat fatality was also in March of 2020?
There are some people, as I mentioned above, who were and perhaps still are under the impression that we could have stayed indefinitely. But basically everyone else agrees that we had to leave at some point and this was as good a point as any. As such the vast majority of the criticism is over the manner of that departure. Or as Mitt Romney said, “Contrary to [Biden’s] claims, our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever.”
If we add the assumption that the Taliban are awful, duplicitous monsters to the assumption that it’s time to get out, how does that change things? Well had we known that (and I believe we should have at least known it was possible). We should have prepared for all eventualities. It’s obvious that we didn’t. At a minimum Biden should have decided what was necessary to consider our withdrawal a success, and had the assets in place necessary to assure that. This does not appear to have happened, primarily because everyone appears to have severely underestimated the Taliban.
As part of the damage control over this debacle Biden seems to be floating the idea that he inherited some timetable he couldn’t mess with, which I don’t buy at all. But this idea also leads into the assertion that they underestimated the Taliban. Also while I’ve been talking about Biden, you should read that to include him and everyone under him. I think the State Department obviously dropped the ball, and the military leadership also has a lot to answer for. I have heard some things that lead me to believe they’ve made Biden’s job harder.
Those caveats aside, what would success look like?
IV- Getting people out of there
I feel bad reading things like this:
Politico granted an Afghan journalist anonymity to write a brief essay on his experience hiding in Kabul over the weekend. “We could never have imagined and believed that this would happen. We could never imagine we could be betrayed so badly by the U.S. The feeling of betrayal … I dedicated my life to the [American] values,” he wrote. “There was a lot of promise, a lot of assurance. A lot of talk about values, a lot of talk about progress, about rights, about women’s rights, about freedom, about democracy. That all turned out to be hollow. Had I known that this commitment was temporary, I wouldn’t have risked my life. … I don’t care if it’s the Trump administration or the Biden administration. I believed in the U.S. But that turned out to be such a big mistake.”
This gets back to my first point on what our initial goals should have been going in, but when Biden decided to follow through on Trump’s agreement to get out, he obviously knew that there were a bunch of people whose lives were going to be made a lot more dangerous. And of course he didn’t entirely ignore this, there was lots of talk about saving interpreters and other people who had worked with US forces. And I don’t know if the journalist quoted above was ever on the list, but at a minimum the US has a responsibility to ensure the safety of American citizens.
But now we’re hearing that Kabul fell so fast that they might not be able to get people out. I read this morning (in the Dispatch Newsletter) that:
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC's Good Morning America Monday. “We are working to do that—first, by securing the airport today. And then, in the days ahead, by taking people out one flight at a time, flight after flight. We fully intend to continue an evacuation process to bring out people who worked alongside of us in Afghanistan.”
But reporting throughout the day and overnight suggests this will be a very difficult task. “As the situation on the ground in Afghanistan’s capital continues to deteriorate, thousands of U.S. citizens are trapped in and around Kabul with no ability to get to the airport, which is their only way out of the country,” reports Josh Rogin, a global affairs columnist at the Washington Post. “As Taliban soldiers go door to door, searching for Westerners, these U.S. citizens are now reaching out to anyone and everyone back in Washington for help.”
The US made Kabul the rallying point for people fleeing and wanting to escape the Taliban and as recently as Friday was saying “Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment”. But it turns out that they were wrong, and couldn’t promise that. If only there were someplace that could have acted as a rallying point, some place with an airport that the US could have guaranteed to defend...
I’ve looked into things and Bagram Air Base, which was so precipitously abandoned at the beginning of July, is only about an hour and a half drive from Kabul. Would it have not made sense to maintain that as a refugee camp, have everyone who qualified and really wanted to leave come there as soon as the Taliban started advancing and then they could have flown them out or flown in more troops at their leisure? Instead they waited until the last minute and now they’ve got a situation where they’re trying to hold a commercial airport in a city that’s already fallen, and having to send more troops. Precisely what Biden didn’t want to do.
I understand that staying in Bagram could devolve into getting dragged back in, and it might be hard to leave if you’re surrounded by the Taliban, etc. And it might be hard in the end to not take everyone who showed up. But how is that any worse than what’s already happening?
(And one thing you may not have heard by abandoning Bagram they also essentially turned over the 5000 prisoners held there to the Taliban as well.)
We can talk about the promises made to the journalist about freedom and democracy, but the promise to get people out of Afghanistan was a promise Biden made. Not something forced on him by Trump, and it’s one that now looks like it’s going to be very difficult to fulfill. Obviously this is once again related to being laughably overconfident, but my suggestion of keeping Bagram as a backup does not seem like it would have been particularly difficult to do, and given the vagaries of war and war in Afghanistan in particular, surely someone must have considered the need for a failsafe.
V- Enforcing some kind of standard
It’s my understanding that, inexplicably, the peace deal with the Taliban had no enforcement mechanisms. That’s obviously on Trump and his State Department, but despite what Biden says about his hands being tied, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that Biden couldn’t have delivered some ultimatums or threats. One hardly imagines that anyone would count it against him if he didn’t follow the letter of the agreement given that the other party is the Taliban. Nor was the Taliban particularly good at following their side of the agreement.
Again, I don’t have a problem with withdrawing, but it appears that both Presidents were so eager to get out that they took no thought for how to accomplish that in a fashion that didn’t end up as a debacle.
Biden is already taking flack from both sides of the aisle over the withdrawal. Whatever blame Trump deserves (and I’m sure it’s plenty) Biden is going to end up most closely associated with the debacle. Setting aside the people of Afghanistan, and whether he should have taken a firmer stance with the Taliban, one has to imagine that Biden could have made the withdrawal less politically costly. And that even if he doesn’t care about the Afghans that he does care about about keeping congress on his side. Here I am less inclined to offer suggestions for what he should have done, but clearly it’s hard to imagine it going much worse than it did. In particular I’ve read articles about members of Congress pressing him for a better plan to get people out as far back as June. Something that reflects my previous point and a refusal by Biden and his team to even listen to criticisms of the plan that were being raised by members of his own party.
Failing to heed the concerns being raised by congress is not the biggest mistake, but it is the most surprising. The biggest long term consequence of the debacle might be on the international stage, and that shows up at several different levels.
First with respect to the Taliban it’s hard to imagine how the US could look more ridiculous, and the Taliban could look better. And I assume that this effect will carry over to similar groups. For example, does what happened in Afghanistan make a group like Hamas more or less scared of the US? I assume less scared and more bold.
Second there are those countries in direct competition with us. Countries like China and Russia and to a lesser extent India and possibly even Pakistan. How does this play out with them? Does this make them more respectful of US power and its demands or less? Certainly there have been plenty of reports about China gloating about our withdrawal, with one headline talking about how the Taliban have “embarrassed” an “arrogant” America.
Finally there are those countries who have a defensive alliance with the US, alliances analogous to the deal we had with the previous government of Afghanistan. I read a newsletter this morning from Matthew Yglesias, and while we agreed on many points he claimed that the Afghanistan situation will end up having a positive impact on these relationships. That it will encourage countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and all the NATO countries to finally begin spending an appropriate amount on their own defense. Yglesias goes on to recommend:
I think it would be excellent for Secretary of State Blinken to send a memo to Tokyo and Taipei and Seoul and Berlin and say “look you’re right, this Afghanistan thing shows there are limits — the United States can do a lot for an ally but if the ally seems really unimpressive and helpless, we can’t do everything.” Don’t be the next Afghanistan!
First off I feel relatively certain that if we wanted those countries to spend a greater percentage of their GDP on defense, that there are less costly, more direct ways than precipitously abandoning an ally and all the people who helped us out. Secondly, are you sure that’s the lesson all those countries are taking from the situation? That the US is still the best partner to have, they just need to step it up a little bit? Or are they taking the lesson that under the veneer of the alliance they’re essentially on their own. To put it in more concrete terms, do you think this makes it more likely or less likely that Japan will decide that it needs its own nukes?
VI- I’ve seen this movie before
The 70s were kind of awful for the US. There was the oil embargo. The Iran hostage crisis. Civil unrest and riots. All of this alongside hyperinflation, and of course, most relevant for our purposes, the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon.
I’ve often wondered how we managed to reverse all of these trends, regain our confidence and get out of this “funk”. I think Reagen deserves at least some of the credit. Perhaps more than the Democrats want to give him, but less than that required for the sainthood the Republicans want to bestow on him. I also think that some things just had a natural lifecycle which eventually reached its conclusion. You can’t embargo oil forever. And as much of the civil unrest was centered around the war, when the war ended, so did the unrest. I also think that at the end of the day our fundamentals were solid. We did eventually win the Cold War, vanquishing our main ideological competitor. We also went through several decades of tremendous innovation with computers, which started more or less in the 70s.
I expect that the debacle of Afghanistan along with the divisiveness of our politics, the increasing inequality, and the pandemic, among other things, will lead to a similar loss of confidence, and I’m not sure our fundamentals are still solid.
Of all the things I read about Afghanistan over the last few days, the one that really struck with me was a newsletter from Antonio García Martínez titled “We are no longer a serious people”. And I think I’ll end with a long excerpt from it:
This is the true privilege of being an American in 2021 (vs. 1981): Enjoying an imperium so broad and blinding, you’re never made to suffer the limits of your understanding or re-assess your assumptions about a world that, even now, contains regions and peoples and governments antithetical to everything you stand for. If you fight demons, they’re entirely demons of your own creation, whether Cambridge Analytica or QAnon or the ‘insurrection’ or supposed electoral fraud or any of a host of bogeymen, and you get to tweet #resist while not dangling from the side of an airplane or risking your life on a raft to escape. If you’re overwhelmed by what you see, even if you work at places called ‘the Institute for the Study of War’, you can just take some ‘me time’ and not tune into the disturbing images because reality is purely optional at this stage of the game.
It's a pleasant LARP, with self-reinforcing loops of hashtags, New York Times puff pieces and Psaki 'circling back', until one day the Taliban roll in and everyone is running for the helicopters. It's like US elites finally had the VR headset knocked from their faces and actually had a look around. And what they saw was a roomful of men with faces out of an illustrated bible looking like they’d just pillaged a Cabela’s—that’s how much top-shelf, modded-out AR hardware they captured—sitting down for a super-awkward Zoom meeting announcing a sudden change of plans for American foreign policy.
This might seem flip and 'too soon', but the irony highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.
In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.
If you like this sort of “hot take” consider donating. If, on the hand, you would prefer that I stayed away from the melee of current events, then consider making current events less like a melee. And if you don’t know how to do that then donate to me and I’ll at least look into it.