Choosing the Narrative

This was the sad Sunday:

President Biden on Sunday paid his respects to the 13 Americans killed in last week’s suicide bombing in Afghanistan as his military leaders tried to avert more carnage in the final days of a chaotic withdrawal from the country, carrying out a strike on a vehicle in Kabul that officials said posed a terrorist threat.

So it was Dover Air Force Base in Delaware:

Biden flew to an Air Force base here to receive the fallen service members, whose remains were returned to the United States on Sunday morning. He first met privately with their family members, including some who have expressed anger at him, and then watched quietly as flag-draped cases transporting the bodies were carried off a plane – a somber moment during the most volatile crisis of his presidency.

And it was Kabul:

Thousands of miles away, U.S. officials worked with urgency to prevent more American casualties, as they move to conclude their evacuation mission by Tuesday. Defense Department officials said the military carried out a drone strike on a vehicle in Kabul that posed an “imminent” threat to Hamid Karzai International Airport. The Thursday suicide bombing that killed 13 Americans and 170 civilians, for which the Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-K claimed responsibility, happened at an airport entrance.

“We are confident we successfully hit the target,” said Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. “Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.”

The Thursday suicide bombing won’t happen again. We have our sources. We have our drones with the newest Hellfire missiles. We have our nerds in air-conditioned rooms far from Afghanistan who will look at their screens and wiggle the joystick and deliver the package. That can be done from Colorado if needs be, but the other stuff is hard:

Biden’s painful family history has enabled him to offer consolation to grieving Americans in a more personal way than most politicians. It showed during his visit to South Florida in July, when he recalled the decades-old car crash during a visit as he sought to comfort people whose loved ones perished in a condominium collapse.

But this time, he was present for tragic circumstances he has accepted blame for setting into motion, and some family members of the dead service members remained angry with him, including the family of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, one of the 13 Americans who died last week.

One of McCollum’s sisters, Roice, said she and her sister and her father joined McCollum’s wife, Jiennah McCollum, on the trip. But when it came time to meet with the president, they left the room, because she said they did not want to speak with the man they held responsible for McCollum’s death.

McCollum’s sister, Roice, would go on to say that anyone and everyone who voted for Biden killed Rylee McCollum. Each and everyone of them is guilty of murder.

That’s one narrative. But what really happened? The Washington Post tries to tell the whole tale, with the team of Susannah George and Missy Ryan and Tyler Pager and Pamela Constable and John Hudson and Griff Witte, because it’s a long tale, opening with this:

On the day that Afghanistan’s capital fell to the Taliban, delivering the definitive verdict on a war that had lumbered on ambiguously for nearly 20 years, one of the city’s top security officials woke up preparing for battle.

The day before, government forces in the north’s largest city – Mazar-e Sharif, a notorious anti-Taliban stronghold – had surrendered with barely a fight. The same had happened overnight in Jalalabad, the traditional winter home of Afghanistan’s kings and the country’s main gateway to the east.

As dawn broke over the misty mountains that ring the city on Aug. 15, Kabul had suddenly become an island – the last bastion of a government that the United States had supported at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. But it was an island that some were still prepared to defend.

“Everyone was ready to fight against the Taliban,” said the Afghan security official, who had spent the previous evening distributing new uniforms to his officers. “All the security forces were ready.”

Or so he thought. When he prepared to reinforce one of the main checkpoints protecting the city that morning, his commander waved him off. “He told me, ‘Leave that for now,’” the official recalled. “‘You can do it in a few days.’”

But Kabul didn’t have days.

Yes, the unexpected happened:

Within hours, long-haired Taliban fighters had seized those checkpoints. The president had fled, not bothering to tell U.S. officials or even many of his own top lieutenants on his way out the palace door. And a country that has been whiplashed by multiple violent overthrows in its modern history was on course for a chaotic, destructive and humiliating end to the American era.

That outcome stunned top U.S. officials, several of whom had been on vacation when the weekend began, having expected the pro-Western government to hang on for weeks, if not months or even years longer. Afghans were no less astonished by the speed with which their government crumbled. Even the Taliban was surprised.

But this had to happen:

In both Washington and Kabul, the days and weeks leading up to Kabul’s fall were marked by complacency. The United States was withdrawing its forces. The Taliban was notching gains. But the prevailing view in both capitals was that there was still plenty of time before the insurgents might take over in a city of nearly 5 million that had long been the nerve center of America’s presence in the country.

President Ashraf Ghani exuded that belief, according to Afghan and U.S. officials who, like others for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

A technocratic and mercurial former professor, Ghani told aides that Afghan forces could hold off the Taliban in the wake of the American departure, and that the government just needed six months to turn the situation around, according to a former Afghan official. Even as Taliban attacks intensified in rural Afghanistan and provincial capitals, his confidence remained unshaken.

“We’re fighting there so we don’t have to fight here,” he would insist from his perch in the Arg, Kabul’s 19th-century presidential palace.

But reports from the field suggested that in some cases, Afghan government forces were not fighting at all.

And the rest is an almost book-length tick-tock of what followed, but Josh Marshall cuts to the chase:

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.

Ghani had heard that they would behead him, in public. He was misinformed but it didn’t matter. He got the hell out of there. And that screwed up everything:

The US government wasn’t the only one surprised by the rapid collapse of Ghani’s government. The Taliban was too. There was either an agreement in place or one being prepared for Ghani to turn over power to an interim government that would attempt to negotiate a new power sharing regime in the country. The Taliban had no immediate plans to enter the capital.

Ghani’s flight short-circuited that plan. With no government in control of the capital the Taliban contacted the US and said either the US could assume control of security in the capital or the Taliban would. The Washington Post quotes a US official quoting Abdul Ghani Baradar, the head of the Taliban’s political wing telling Gen. Frank McKenzie: “We have a problem. We have two options to deal with it: You [the United States military] take responsibility for securing Kabul or you have to allow us to do it.”

McKenzie said that evacuation was the only US mission and that the US would thus only hold on to the airport. In response the Taliban entered the city and took over.

Someone had to take charge of the city. Ghani was now long gone. We didn’t have the manpower. And we didn’t want to do that anyway:

There’s a wave of commentary suggesting this was the moment when the US sealed the country’s fate or that the entire rushed exit over the last two weeks could have been avoided by the US taking over Kabul with Taliban acceptance if not explicit agreement… It is worth noting that this account suggests a level of communication and coordination between the US and the Taliban that many have been slow to appreciate. But the bigger issue here is the continued inability of most commentators to grasp the inherent dynamism of all military situations and especially those of state collapse.

That was the issue here:

The idea that a few thousand US Marines or soldiers could take over security for a city of 5 million during a process of state collapse is frankly insane. The Post article portrays the decision as Biden remaining adamant about leaving no matter what. And that is clearly the underlying part of the equation. But if you think holding an airport in this situation is fraught, vulnerable and highly dangerous, try taking over security for a city of 5 million under the same circumstances.

Force protection alone would require vastly greater numbers. Multiply the number of IED attacks by splinter factions and rival extremist groups by tenfold and consider the civilian collateral damage as Marines try to assert control of a city of that size when everyone knows Taliban rule is just over the horizon.

This was clearly the only possible decision. Some who claim otherwise are simply being disingenuous. But what this mostly shows is the deep lack of understanding from the ‘there had to be a better way’ crowd of the inherently dynamic nature of all military deployments and especially any actions in the context of state collapse.

So that’s the narrative here. Make a down-payment on a full occupation later or cover a complete departure now:

The control exercised by an occupying military or a state is always an interplay between current force and force played out into and expected in the future. The US might be able to occupy a city like Kabul or even a country like Afghanistan with a few thousand troops if it is in the process of expanding the number of troops deployed and planning to stay for the indefinite future. If it is planning on turning over the territory to a hostile force in days or weeks, ten times the number likely wouldn’t be enough. There are no timeouts. Trying to do both at the same time, or apply the brakes a bit as the situation moves toward state collapse, is a recipe for bombing attacks on US troops and civilian ‘collateral damage’ as US troops try to defend themselves and establish order.

It’s like standing on a dock as the boat leaves. You stay on the dock or you leap into the boat. You can’t do both.

In short, we did the only thing left for us to do. No one is to blame, but of course someone always is:

Sen. Mitt Romney said Sunday morning that the current situation in Afghanistan is the direct result of decisions made by both the Trump and Biden administrations.

“If you focus on what we should do right now, recognize we’re in the position we’re in right now is because of terrible decisions made by two administrations,” the Utah Republican told CNN’s Jake Tapper on State of the Union.

“One, the Trump administration negotiating directly with the Taliban, getting ready to invite them to Camp David, opening up a prison of 5,000 Taliban and probably ISIS-K individuals and letting them free. We don’t know whether some of them were involved in the attack that occurred. These were the decisions that led to what you’re seeing and the danger that exists at the airport. This should not have happened.”

Trump had planned to invite the Taliban leaders to Camp David two years ago, on the anniversary of 9/11 of all things. He seems to like those guys, and for the same reason he admires Putin and Kim. All of them are strong leaders. They take no crap from anyone. No one pushes them around. Just like him. But that meeting was cancelled when word got out. The outrage would be hard to handle this time. These guys were different.

Still, Romney blames Biden too:

Romney also cited President Joe Biden’s decision to close the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

“The reality is, the fact that we’re in this position is the result of bad decisions made by two administrations,” he said.

Romney added that the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is not the same thing as ending the war.

“You can’t, as one party, end a war. It takes two parties to end a war. The Taliban and the radical violent jihadists in the world haven’t stopped fighting. They’re going to continue to fight us. The war is not over.”

We should have stayed in Afghanistan. But maybe that doesn’t really matter. The bad guys are everywhere now, That’s his narrative, and here’s another:

Former Trump national security adviser H. R. McMaster said that “we all share responsibility” for the war in Afghanistan.

“It hasn’t been a 20-year war. It’s been a one-year war fought 20 times over with ineffective strategies based on flawed assumptions – flawed assumptions about the nature of the enemy, flawed assumptions about what was necessary to achieve a sustainable outcome there,” McMaster told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press.

“And of course, what’s sad about it is that this war ended in self-defeat, Chuck,” he added. “I mean, we had a sustainable effort in place several years ago, that if we had sustained it, we could have prevented what’s happening now. But instead, what we did, Chuck, is actually we surrendered to a jihadist organization and assumed there would be no consequences for that. And we’re seeing the consequences today.”

Perhaps so, but there’s this too:

Amid the ongoing efforts to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, “why we went there in the first place” has been lost, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday morning.

“We went there to prevent the Taliban from having a regime that would allow terrorists to reconstitute themselves and hit us here at home. It’s been a total success,” McConnell told host Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.

“With the continued deployment of 2,500 people, we were in effect keeping a lid on, keeping terrorists from reconstituting and having a light footprint in the country. The policy was working.”

Everything what just fine. What was the problem. That’s his narrative, but there are others. Michelle Goldberg notes this:

As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan in August, a Gen Z alt-right group ran a Twitter account devoted to celebrating their progress. Tweets in Pashto juxtaposed two laughing Taliban fighters with pictures meant to represent American effeminacy. Another said, the words auto-translated into English, “Liberalism did not fail in Afghanistan because it was Afghanistan, it failed because it was not true. It failed America, Europe and the world see it.”

The account, now suspended, was just one example of the open admiration for the Taliban that’s developed within parts of the American right.

And it’s not the fringes:

The Florida Republican Matt Gaetz may be a clown, but he’s also a congressman who was close to the previous president. On Twitter earlier this month, Gaetz described the Taliban, like Trump, as “more legitimate than the last government in Afghanistan or the current government here.”

And there’s this:

Fox’s Tucker Carlson, the most important nationalist voice in America, seemed to sympathize with the gender politics of Taliban-supporting Afghans. “They don’t hate their own masculinity,” he said shortly after the fall of Kabul. “They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque.”

Goldberg notes that by “neoliberalism” Carlson seems to mean social liberalism, not austerity economics, which doesn’t matter much. No one is precise about anything these days.

But there are better narratives. Kori Schake, the foreign policy guru with the National Security Council and the State Department in the George W. Bush administration, and now the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the severely conservative American Enterprise Institute, offers this assessment:

Believing you’re uniquely capable of bending things to your will is practically a requirement for becoming president of the United States. But too often, in pursuit of such influence over foreign policy, presidents overemphasize the importance of personal diplomacy. Relationships among leaders can build trust – or destroy it – but presidents often overrate their ability to steer both allies and adversaries.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had built such a solid relationship that during the Reykjavik summit most of Reagan’s administration worried he would agree to an unverifiable elimination of nuclear weapons. Bill Clinton believed his personal diplomacy could deliver Palestinian statehood and Russian acceptance of NATO expansion. George W. Bush believed he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw his soul, and Barack Obama believed he could persuade Mr. Putin it wasn’t in Russia’s interests to determine the outcome of the war in Syria.

But in both hubris and folly, none come close to matching Donald Trump. For someone who prided himself on his abilities as a deal maker and displayed an “I alone can fix it” arrogance, the agreement he made with the Taliban is one of the most disgraceful diplomatic bargains on record. Coupled with President Biden’s mistakes in continuing the policy and botching its execution, the deal has now led to tragic consequences for Americans and our allies in Kabul.

This is what Romney was hinting at:

Mr. Trump never believed Afghanistan was worth fighting for: As early as 2011, he advocated its abandonment. Once in office, his early infatuation with “my generals” gave the Pentagon latitude to dissuade the president from exactly the kind of rush to the exits we’re now seeing in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump wanted to abandon the war in Afghanistan, but he understood atavistically that it would damage him politically to have a terrorist attack or a Saigon comparison attached to his policy choices.

Thus the impetus for a negotiated settlement. The problem with Mr. Trump’s Taliban deal wasn’t that the administration turned to diplomacy. That was a sensible avenue out of the policy constraints. The problem was that the strongest state in the international order let itself be swindled by a terrorist organization. Because we so clearly wanted out of Afghanistan, we agreed to disreputable terms, and then proceeded to pretend that the Taliban were meeting even those.

Which was nonsense:

Mr. Trump agreed to withdraw all coalition forces from Afghanistan in 14 months, end all military and contractor support to Afghan security forces and cease “intervening in its domestic affairs.” He forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters and relax economic sanctions. He agreed that the Taliban could continue to commit violence against the government we were there to support, against innocent people and against those who’d assisted our efforts to keep Americans safe. All the Taliban had to do was say they would stop targeting U.S. or coalition forces, not permit Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to use Afghan territory to threaten U.S. security and subsequently hold negotiations with the Afghan government.

Not only did the agreement have no inspection or enforcement mechanisms, but despite Mr. Trump’s claim that “If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no one’s ever seen,” the administration made no attempt to enforce its terms. Trump’s own former national security adviser called it “a surrender agreement.”

Was that what happened? Max Boot, the foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign and then the Romney campaign, now sees this:

The last thing President Biden ever wanted to do was to preside over another ramp ceremony for more flag-draped caskets returning home from Afghanistan. Indeed, the entire rationale of his troop withdrawal was to avoid further casualties. Yet there he was on Sunday at Dover Air Force Base honoring the 13 service members killed in the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. Fate can be cruel that way.

No doubt the president was even more gutted than the rest of us, because he was the one who sent them into harm’s way.

But there’s this:

Their deaths were not in vain. They died so that more than 114,000 people could escape to freedom. Generations as yet unborn will remember these heroes for helping them to find a better life. And yet their sacrifice was also agonizing and unnecessary. Like so many service members throughout U.S. history, they died, in part, because of the blunders of their superiors.

If you ask me who is to blame, I would point not only to Biden but to former president Donald Trump – and to all of us, the people of America. By carrying out this pell-mell withdrawal from Afghanistan, our leaders, after all, were only giving us what we wanted…

That was when Trump, with bipartisan support, concluded a terrible troop-withdrawal deal that freed 5,000 Taliban terrorists and sapped the morale of our Afghan allies. Trump made scant provision to save Afghans who had fought with our troops. Olivia Troye, an aide to former vice president Mike Pence, has recounted how White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller hindered every effort to bring the holders of Special Immigrant Visas to the United States.

But there’s Biden too:

Biden should have done better, but he didn’t. In April, also with bipartisan support, he announced that all U.S. forces would rapidly withdraw, along with the 17,000 contractors who kept the Afghan air force flying and the Afghan army supplied. Denied the ability to support their forces, the Afghan military rapidly collapsed in the face of a Taliban offensive.

Yet even as Biden was bowing out, he was ignoring calls from veterans’ groups to evacuate translators and other Afghan allies. Lawmakers, many with military backgrounds, pleaded with the administration to begin a mass evacuation, but their entreaties were ignored.

But there was bipartisan support for all of it, and Boot sees this:

First, Biden was afraid of a xenophobic backlash from bringing so many Afghans to the United States. Second, he was concerned about sending a signal of no confidence in the Afghan government. And, third, he wagered that there was plenty of time to get people out later. But the Afghan government unraveled faster than anyone imagined, and desperate mobs of refugees swarmed the airport.

It was only then – with the Taliban already in control of Kabul – that Biden did what he should have done many months earlier: order a massive airlift of Afghans and U.S. citizens out of the country.

But we all wanted this:

Seventy percent of Americans wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, and 81 percent wanted to evacuate translators and other allies. Our leaders were simply giving the American people what they thought we wanted.

The truth is that most Americans paid little attention to Afghanistan until recently and they had conflicting desires. They wanted out, but they did not want to bear the consequences of withdrawal.

Those clashing impulses produced incoherent policymaking – and resulted in Sunday’s heartbreaking homecoming.

That’s why Biden was at Dover on a sad Sunday afternoon. Blame him. Blame Trump. Or blame all of us. Choose your narrative. Any will do now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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