This morning The Washington Post published an illuminating new look at the fall of Kabul. What is most telling, however, is the commentary about the facts revealed in the article. First let’s look at the new details.
The flight of former President Ghani, which triggered the final collapse of the Afghan government, was driven at least in part by apparently false reports that Taliban fighters were in the palace searching for him. The more resonant claim is about the mechanics of the turnover of control in Kabul.
I wanted to flag to your attention this opinion piece for Robert Kagan in The Washington Post. It is an overarching look at the US mission in Afghanistan. Fundamentally it is an apologia, a defense. But Kagan is significantly more sophisticated and thoughtful than most of the more editorially kinetic defenders of the mission. So even while I think he’s mostly wrong and often disingenuous about recounting these events in which he played an important role you can nonetheless learn a lot about the last twenty years from reading his account. Be cautious, though, because the real essence is the many things left out.
One thing that Kagan is right about is this: Many retrospectives say the US went into Afghanistan with hubris and optimism and a mission to build a Western style democracy in Afghanistan. That’s not true. The US invaded Afghanistan because we were scared and angry. Kagan focuses on the “scared.” “Angry” was just as much it. But it was in the nature of that moment that the two were so fused that it was difficult to distinguish them.
I’ve been working on a piece about critiques of the American people’s lack of “strategic patience” as evidenced by our withdrawal from Afghanistan. Then I got this note from TPM Reader PT and thought, yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking.
I suspect that you, like me, have seen at least some commentators who argue that the Taliban “won” in Afghanistan by simply waiting us out, or that this demonstrates to other nations that consider an adversarial stance towards the US that we’re a paper tiger now that they know that even if we do take military action against them, all they have to do is wait for us to withdraw, which we inevitably will. I have a different perspective that I’d like to offer, starting with an analogy:
I want to discuss an issue I’ve been watching unfold through the process of the evacuation from Kabul which has now been on-going for some ten days. As we’ve discussed, the fate of American allies in the country has become both a humanitarian mission as well as a cudgel used to attack the US withdrawal – both by those who wanted the US to stay in Afghanistan permanently and those who’ve wanted to use the inevitable messiness and chaos of the US withdrawal as a way to cleanse their own dirty hands and complicity in the misbegotten mission. But a key part of both dimensions of this question is that the number in need of evacuation is a moving target.
A week and a half ago reports had numbers in the range of 70,000 to 80,000 Afghan nationals needing to be evacuated – mostly so-called SIVs and their families. A greater number of people have now been flown out of the country, though a small percentage of those are US citizens and some large percentage is third country nationals. Today however The New York Times reports new numbers based on analyses of Pentagon records by an advocacy group called the Association of Wartime Allies. They find that as many as one million Afghan could be eligible for expedited immigration status and that a minimum of 250,000 are yet to be evacuated.
We’ve noted a number of times that we are in a period of great uncertainty about the outlines of the COVID Pandemic. How vaccines are holding up over time and how well they protect against the Delta variant are both uncertain, with limited and contradictory data. Yesterday I noted new data out of Israel which appears to show a dramatic improvement in protection with a third shot. But that scale of improvement rests on other data out of Israel suggesting that effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine had dropped significantly since early this year, especially against infection.
Yesterday the CDC published a new report that is at least directionally in line with Israeli data on vaccine effectiveness against infection, albeit showing a less pronounced drop.
I wanted to revisit the question of COVID vaccine booster shots, or rather third doses of the vaccine which are now being administered in Israel and will be in the United States starting next month. (Those with compromised immune systems have already been approved for third doses in the United States.)
The short version is that initial data out of Israel appears to show dramatically increased protection both against infection and disease from a third dose. But there are at least some questions about the data and what they actually mean.
One thing I’ve been wanting to address over the last week is what remains the background premise for the Afghanistan mission: denying a safe haven to al Qaeda or other similar groups from which to mount attacks on the United States. I have already seen numerous analyses claiming that al Qaeda will soon be setting up shop again under Taliban protection. Sometimes it is necessary to grab hold of a bad argument by the root.
Let me address this at a few levels.
In retrospect – and perhaps at the time – the entire ‘safe haven’ argument was greatly overstated. Let’s take the actual 9/11 attacks as our example. As many note, most of the plotting was done by people who weren’t even in Afghanistan. They were mostly people from the Gulf living in Europe or the United States. At a basic level the whole premise was wrong from the beginning. But this critique misses a non-trivial part of the equation. There’s only so much time in the day. If you’re running an international terror group, time spent on the run is time not spent plotting attacks. Obviously terrorist and guerrilla groups have managed to do both throughout history. But it certainly makes sense and I think is borne out by history that if you have a base of operations which is basically protected and secure that’s an advantage. This is the premise on the strategy of ‘pressure’ wrapped up in aggressive surveillance, drone strikes, throttling access to the international banking system, special ops raids and more. Time spent running is time not spent plotting.
Here’s an update on the definitely failed evacuation and abandonment of everyone who ever worked for us in Afghanistan. According to the White House, 21,600 people were evacuated over the last 24 hours bringing the total number to 58,700. I know a tone of sarcasm is a bit jarring in what is a very serious and dangerous situation. But in addition to a story of great significance and human drama we’re coming off one of the biggest and most revealing press tantrums I’ve ever seen. Yesterday I said I thought we were only days away from pundit-bewailers shifting to taking credit for turning the greatest military debacle in history into a historically successful airlift. But I was wrong: it’s already happening.
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.
The bonfire of hyperboles in US press coverage seems limitless at the moment. And the consequences of the fall of the US-backed government in Kabul are likely to be very, very limited beyond Afghanistan itself. But I wanted to focus on something that seems to be getting very, very little above-the-fold coverage in the American press coverage: the key leaders of the US backed government over the last two decades are relaxedly meeting with the political leadership of the Taliban in Kabul about the formation of the new government.