On the Sunday shows yesterday and across newspaper editorials you can see repeated claims of a military debacle for the US in Afghanistan, perhaps the worst in decades, perhaps the worst ever. Seriously, look at the quotes. And yet as far as I know not a single member of the US military has died or even been injured in this operation. In fact, it doesn’t appear that a shot has even been fired in anger against them. We don’t judge military victories or defeats by body counts or casualty lists. But surely this figures into the equation. The US withdrew its forces according to plan. It then reoccupied the civilian airport in Kabul. Since last weekend the US military operation at Hamid Karzai International Airport has overseen the evacuation of more than 40,000 people, and it continues at a rapid clip. So about 36 hours of confusion and then a fairly orderly and rapid airlift over the last week.
As I noted below, totally absent from the press coverage in the US is that the fact that the top leaders of the former US-backed government are holding what appear to be convivial discussions with the Taliban political leadership in Kabul about forming the next government. This must either mean that the situation on the ground is not quite as grave as we’re being led to believe or that we didn’t even have a clear understanding of who was on whose side. I suspect it’s a bit of both. Either is pretty important for understanding where we are or how we got here.
Over the weekend I’ve been in touch privately with a range of journalist friends and acquaintances. This isn’t meant to be a cross-section. In fact, far from it. In every case it’s people reaching out to me at least generally in agreement with what I’ve been writing here and on social media. So, self-selected and not at all the majority view within our community. I can only say that while I consider myself something of a student of elite press sociology I have been struggled to make sense of the depth of the identification with the US mission in Afghanistan and what I can only call the press furies that have been unleashed on a President who pulled the plug on the comfortable denial of years standing.
I tried to put some context to that identification here.
Now moving into week two we’re seeing more voices disagreeing with the whole disengagement, with any withdrawal at all. Ryan Crocker, the respected and long-serving diplomat across multiple administrations, says we simply failed the test of “strategic patience” and could have and should have maintained our presence in Afghanistan with no time limit at all. This is at least a clear and defensible position. It’s one I disagree with and I could explain in another post why that is. But the US is a big rich country and certainly could have afforded to go on like this for a decade or many decades more.
That at least is a position, albeit one that has only minority support stated as such. The loud voices are ones of evasion. The real charlatans are those staking out what amounts to a phony third option – getting out cleanly, without anything that felt bad, without anything messy or ugly, a mythical walking away that doesn’t have all the collateral damage that forces you to come to grips with what you lied to yourself and others about for years. Biden’s move broke the comfortable denial and it was retooled into weaponized denial. And here we are.
On the front of denial and evasion, let me leave you with one thought. It seems increasingly clear to me that to the extent the withdrawal was jagged it was tied to Biden’s decision-making and his experience of 2009. Biden had seen Barack Obama get rolled by the Pentagon in 2009. He’d seen the same happen to President Trump again and again. Biden wanted out and he knew that to do it he’d have to move with a heavy-hand. Every push to add some more finesse or fall back on an outcomes-based approach was likely a play for more time and not leaving or even expanding the operation. I even get the sense – and this really could use more reporting – that the Pentagon was playing a sort of game of chicken with the White House. Intentional or not I’m not sure they really got that he was serious and wasn’t going to break the glass until things really started to come apart. Like I said, we could really use more reporting on that.
Based on the coverage blaring over the last week you would have concluded that the fall of the US-backed government had been followed by the slaughter of interpreters and other employees of the US mission and countless Americans unable to escape Taliban rule. But nothing like that seems to have happened. There are countless Americans outside of government working to facilitate the evacuation of Afghans they worked with or knew during the US military mission: ex-military, journalists, NGO workers and more. The fear of revenge killings and all that can happen in this kind of tumult is real and merited. State collapse is like that. The worst may yet happen and some instance of it almost certainly will. But fear of these things happening and their actually happening are not the same thing. Glossing over the difference is a necessary component of the cataclysm storyline so many in the press are peddling. They underwrote the illusion with their elegant words and now they are cast the most blame.