Some Explaining

The last plane left. The last soldier left. This war is over. We tossed out the Taliban twenty years ago. But we couldn’t fix the place, so it’s theirs again. This time, however, they might have a bit more trouble with the locals. They’ve had a taste of modern secular life and there are smartphones everywhere connected to everything. The Taliban might have a harder time, this time, selling some sort of return to a seventh-century severe fundamentalist patriarchal Islam. The world changed and, with our help, Afghanistan changed, at least a little bit. There may be no going back.

That’s their problem. We’re out of there. And yes, we lost that war, if that’s what this was in the end. After twenty years, no one really knew what this was anymore. It was time to leave,

But we don’t walk away from anything. We’re winners. Someone had some explaining to do. The man who made the decision to leave, for real this time, had to explain. So he did. The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Anne Gearan covered the event:

President Biden declared Tuesday that “the war in Afghanistan is now over” in an address that was less a celebration of a mission accomplished than a somber eulogy for a 20-year endeavor that cost the country much but whose burden was borne by few.

From the White House, Biden gave a grim speech to mark the conclusion of a grim conflict, alternately offering explanation, defiance and justification as he reiterated that “it was time to end this war” and promising anyone who attacks Americans that “we will hunt you down.”

But that won’t be war. That will be Special Operations. The war is over. Special Operations isn’t.

But that didn’t make up for the mess, so Biden had to set things straight:

Biden recognized the criticis that accompanied the war’s chaotic ending, taking pains to reject the contention that in orchestrating a frenzied exit, he had abandoned Americans and vulnerable Afghans to the mercies of the Taliban.

Speaking in the midafternoon, rather than a prime-time slot that might have been expected to mark the end of a two-decade war, Biden argued that President Donald Trump, in signing the initial withdrawal deal with the Taliban, had left him only two options: honoring that deal or reneging and sending in thousands more troops.

“That was the choice, the real choice – between leaving and escalating,” Biden said. “I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.”

Some say that there were other options but that hardly matters now, so the tone of the speech, and its midafternoon delivery, were odd:

He lauded “the extraordinary success of this mission,” framing the evacuation effort as a historic accomplishment, but there was little in his address that was ebullient or exultant, either in substance or delivery.

He knew he had been getting hammered for this:

Biden has faced rebukes, even from allies, over the as many as 200 Americans still stranded in Afghanistan, as well as the turbulent execution of his exit strategy, and he devoted a good part of his remarks to pushing back on the narrative that he was leaving Americans behind in a treacherous battlefield.

“For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline,” Biden said. “We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out.”

But that just won’t be a military operation.:

Biden spoke of the thousands of people his administration helped to evacuate in the final days: the more than 5,500 Americans, the roughly 2,500 locally employed U.S. Embassy staffers and their families, the thousands of Afghan translators and interpreters who worked alongside Americans during the war.

“Most of those who remain are dual citizens, longtime residents who had earlier decided to stay because of their family roots in Afghanistan,” Biden said. The White House said 98 percent of Americans wishing to leave had been evacuated.

That other two precent? That’s tricky. But that can be done, and will be done. And some don’t believe any of that:

Republicans are divided over the wisdom of leaving Afghanistan, with some arguing for a long-term commitment and others saying the time has come to cut America’s losses. But they have coalesced around a message that Biden is shamefully abandoning Americans, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) demanded before the address, “What is the plan to get Americans out?”

McCarthy added, “Never in my lifetime would I ever believe America would have an administration knowingly make a decision to leave Americans behind, whereas just two weeks ago, the president promised this nation that he would not leave until every single American was out.”

He changed his mind. Getting those few dual-passport Americans out of harm’s way will be complicated by their current reluctance to leave. McCarthy knows that, and Biden considerers that beside the point:

Biden spoke emphatically at moments, almost shouting the first part of his speech, and in a whispery hush at others, lowering his voice to make a point. At times, he drummed his index finger on the lectern, as if to physically hammer home the arguments he’s been making since announcing the withdrawal this year.

While declaring, “I take responsibility for the decision,” the president also seemed eager to preempt and rebut his critics, at points doing so explicitly.

“Some say we shoud have started mass evacuations sooner, and, ‘Couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner.’ I respectfully disagree,” Biden said. “The bottom line is, there is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges and threats we faced. None.”

He continued: “To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask: What is the vital national interest? We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago. Then we stayed another decade.”

Biden says that’s his point here:

Biden returned again to the core arguments he has deployed throughout the withdrawal debate – that the war had long since run its course; that American national security objectives were accomplished years ago, including the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden; that the Afghans need to govern and defend themselves; and that any extension of the war would only serve to put more Americans in harm’s way.

Biden in effect sought to turn the criticism on its head, saying his hasty withdrawal reflected a deep concern for the armed forces. He stressed the cost of the war for military families and said the departure would allow the United States to focus on its true adversaries, China and Russia.

So forget Afghanistan:

“When I hear that we could’ve, should’ve continued the so-called low-grade effort in Afghanistan, at low risk to our service members, at low cost, I don’t think enough people understand how much we have asked of the 1 percent of this country who put that uniform on, who are willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our nation,” Biden said.

The president spoke of the physical toll the war has taken, from lost limbs to traumatic brain injuries, and the emotional one, from divorces to missed birthdays. He cited the 18 veterans a day, on average, who die of suicide.

“There’s nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war,” he said. “It’s time to end the war in Afghanistan.”

So, don’t look back:

Biden reiterated his argument that America’s priorities now lie elsewhere and that 20 years on, the terrorist threat has “metastasized” in ways that make an ongoing military presence in Afghanistan unnecessary and counterproductive. The United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to strike back at the al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the assault.

But things have become unrecognizable in two decades, Biden said.

“The fundamental obligation of a president, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America – not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow,” Biden said.

And war may not be the answer now:

Biden said the United States will continue the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. “We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it,” he said.

The U.S. retaliatory strike against the Islamic State group that claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate is an example, Biden said.

Or not:

Not everyone was swayed. In a statement after the speech, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, slammed what he called “Biden’s unseemly victory lap” as “detached from reality.”\\

“His callous indifference to the Americans he abandoned behind enemy lines is shameful,” Sasse said. “He promised the Taliban that our troops would leave by his arbitrary August 31st deadline, and he promised the American people that our troops would stay until every American was out. He kept his promise to the Taliban and lied to the American people.”

That might take forever, and Kevin Drum adds this:

To the extent that this is partisan blather, I guess I can ignore it. But I assume that much of it is a sincere sentiment, despite the fact that we evacuated something close to 99% of all Americans in Afghanistan. And there’s still reason to hope that the remaining 1% will make it home too.

But if it’s sincere, I wonder what people expected? Putting aside the difference of opinion on whether we should have withdrawn at all, how is it that 99% evacuation can be spun as either inept or morally deficient? When do we return to reality in this country?

Who knows? But he also adds this:

It looks like the final evacuation numbers will be in the neighborhood of 20,000 Americans rescued and 100,000 Afghans – all in the space of two weeks. I wonder how many people understand just how extraordinary that is in historical context? Certainly the United States has never pulled off anything close to that size, and very few other countries have either.

And consider this too:

We were suffering almost no casualties, so why didn’t we just stay in Afghanistan? Because things were peaceful only due to the Taliban cease-fire. If we had stayed, the Taliban would have started fighting again and US casualties would have escalated.\

Why were weapons left behind? Because those weapons had been given to the Afghan army as part of the turnover.

Why was Bagram air base closed? Because we only needed one airport and the military decided that Kabul was a better choice.

Why was there so much chaos? It’s easy to see how it looked that way if you were caught in the middle of it, but there wasn’t, really. There were thousands of Afghans who wanted to flee the country and they all surrounded the airport hoping for evacuation. There’s nothing anyone could have done about that, and for the most part the crowds were handled well and processed as efficiently as anyone could have hoped for.

Why did it take so long to approve visas for Afghans who qualified for evacuation? It didn’t. We approved visas for 100,000 Afghans in two weeks! And to the extent that this was slower than it could have been, it’s because the Trump administration deliberately sabotaged the process before they left office.

Why didn’t we rescue everyone? As always, there are limits to American power. The Taliban controls Kabul, and rescuing literally everyone who wanted to get out was never remotely feasible.

And the two key questions:

Why didn’t we start evacuation earlier? Because we couldn’t. As long as the Afghan government was in power, we had to support them. Starting a mass evacuation would have been an obvious signal that we thought they were doomed.

Why didn’t we know that the Taliban would take over so quickly? That’s a very good question, and it was certainly a failure on our part. On the other hand, literally everyone made the same mistake. There wasn’t a single analyst or reporter on the ground who thought the Taliban would take control of Kabul in less than a month.

So, maybe everyone could cut Biden some slack:

Nothing is perfect. Obviously, there were security breakdowns on Monday the 16th. The suicide bombing on the 26th was an enormous tragedy. The future of Afghanistan under the Taliban is likely to be a violent and miserable one for a lot of people. There’s no need for defenders of the evacuation to pretend that literally no mistakes were made.

That said, if you can look past partisanship; and neocon defensiveness; and individual stories of grief and hardship; and huge crowds on the ground that inevitably gave the impression of chaos – if you can look past all that to the bare facts on the ground, the evacuation of Kabul should go down as one of the shining moments of the US military.

That hardly compensates for 20 years of bungling, but taken on its own it was a magnificent effort. No other country was as dedicated as we were to rescuing our Afghan allies, and probably no country in history has ever done anything similar under pressure like this. The final reckoning will be about 120,000 civilians rescued in two weeks with very few casualties. Anyone who refuses to see this as anything but an enormous accomplishment is just refusing to look.

As for Biden himself, there’s no need to paint him as some kind of hero. However, I’m grateful that he kept his head while so many around him were panicking. Biden stuck to his guns and is finally getting us out of Afghanistan. Regardless of anything else, he has my thanks for that.

That’s nice, and now Republicans are confused. Paul Kane and Mike DeBonis explain that:

As the Biden administration pursued its rushed and deadly evacuation of Afghanistan, the top House Republican tried to explain how his party would handle the situation better and what that would mean for the United States’ future commitment to the war-torn nation.

First, on Friday, House Minority Leader (R-Calif.) said that “the only way we want troops to be there” in Afghanistan would be to “make sure Americans get back safely.”

Then, a few minutes later, McCarthy suggested he would have “checked and maintained the Bagram Air Force base,” north of Kabul, as a permanent outpost to “look over the horizon” to deter future terrorist activity, a move Pentagon officials said would have required thousands of new troops on the ground for protection.

Finally, on Tuesday, McCarthy said he would defer to whatever the Pentagon’s leadership suggested on having a long-term military presence in Afghanistan. “You’ve got to let the military make that decision,” he said in a brief interview.

He gave up. That was embarrassing, but the whole thing is confusing:

The “America First” vision of former president Donald Trump – who cut the deal with the Taliban for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of his pledge to end “forever wars” – remains strong in most corners of the party on Capitol Hill. But some influential voices continue to espouse a strong interventionist approach most closely associated with senior leaders in the George W. Bush administration and their “war on terror.”

Still others, especially a younger crop of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are struggling to forge a new identity that is both forceful against enemies yet maintains some Trump-like focus on not using U.S. troops abroad.

Into that divide stands McCarthy, who is poised to deliver an address Wednesday that will try to articulate a Republican national security vision for Afghanistan and the future.

That seems absurd:

The potential next House speaker, McCarthy entered office in 2007 as a strong supporter of Bush and maintained close ties with figures throughout Washington who touted the Bush interventionist vision of national security.

By the end of 2020, and throughout this year, McCarthy has become a Trump supplicant, seeking the former president’s political help in 2022 midterms, and has brought on a former Trump aide to serve as a top national security adviser. On Wednesday, at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, McCarthy will speak along with Robert C. O’Brien, who served as Trump’s national security adviser when he agreed to the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

He’s in trouble:

With little foreign policy background, McCarthy is an unlikely figure to try to thread the needle between the competing visions of Bush and Trump.

Across the Capitol, Senate Republicans skew a bit more toward the traditional hawk approach that was embodied by the late John McCain, the GOP’s chairman of the Armed Services Committee until his death three years ago.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) leaned heavily on McCain (R-Ariz.), who clashed with Trump on his nativist vision, and McConnell continues to call for a more forceful role in foreign affairs and has been deeply critical of both Trump and Biden’s handling of Afghanistan.

“The plight of innocent Afghans and the threats to our American homeland and American interests are going to grow and grow. We are less safe as a result of this self-inflicted wound. And this fight will not end just because our politicians want to wish it away,” he said Tuesday in a statement.

Mitch gets it. Kevin doesn’t:

Three times in the past week, McCarthy has surrounded himself with about two dozen Republicans who serve on committees related to national security or have served in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This war council has blasted Biden and his top advisers, often focusing on the decision to abandon the base in Bagram in early July without any warning to Afghan allies.

“We have to have a base in Afghanistan,” Rep. Mike D. Rogers (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday at McCarthy’s news conference.

“I’ve been saying that for multiple administrations,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a Green Beret whose served in Afghanistan. He later worked as an adviser to Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as defense secretary when the Afghan war started, and Vice President Richard B. Cheney during the Bush administration.

And few will play that game:

Barely half of the 20 lawmakers with McCarthy raised their hands when asked if they agree with Rogers and Waltz on a permanent force at Bagram, signaling that many Republicans, like Trump, are leery of permanent wars.

“If anything, our recent failures in Afghanistan demonstrate the systemic failures of nation building,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a Trump backer, said in an interview. “We could have stayed in Afghanistan another five days, five weeks, five months or five years, and it wouldn’t have changed the ultimate result.”

Gaetz said Republicans who suggest Trump wanted anything other than complete withdrawal were not listening to the former president’s clear wishes.

So now, no one on that side of things has any position at all:

Shortly after McCarthy addressed reporters, members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus made even more sweeping criticisms of Biden as well as far-reaching demands that included the impeachment of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the resignations of Biden, Vice President Harris and the administration’s top national security aides. They also called for the removal of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) – but only after she calls the chamber back into session to consider legislation on getting the remaining Americans out of Afghanistan.

The Freedom Caucus is composed of Trump’s most ardent House supporters, including some members who have been as critical of the nation’s foreign entanglements as the former president.

But on Tuesday, several of them adopted arguments that would fit comfortably into the Washington national security and foreign policy establishment view of the withdrawal.

“Around the world, Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, at this moment, imminently threaten our allies, and we need to be certain that something like Afghanistan doesn’t happen to one of our other allies,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who has co-authored a resolution calling for Blinken’s impeachment.

In short, look around:

Another member, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), said the nation’s “reputation worldwide has been savaged by the actions of our own executive” and spoke of allies’ “failed trust in America.”

A third member, Rep. Mary E. Miller (R-Ill.), said the Biden administration had betrayed not only the hundreds of Americans left in Afghanistan but “the allies we abandoned, the Christians that are going to be tortured and murdered, and the women and girls.” She added that she considered the Biden administration “just as guilty as the terrorists” for any harm visited upon them.

And then there’s Jennifer Rubin:

President Biden had a tricky task on Tuesday as he spoke to the nation about the end of the United States’ 20-year military operation in Afghanistan. Unlike the pundits, consultants, think tank gurus and paid military advisers who have sustained the fiction that the United States was building a stable Afghan government, Biden is accountable to the voters. He therefore had to reassert the case for ending the war and defend the way he handled the exit.

And so he did:

Those who have already decided they know better will call him “defiant” or “defensive.” Americans watching from home may see something different: An unvarnished and unsparing explanation of the last two weeks. A president from time to time must defend his decisions (though Biden also left no doubt that his choices were circumscribed by the deal negotiated by the previous administration that empowered the Taliban and let loose thousands of terrorists). The speech was one of the most forceful of his career, as much laying out the rationale for his own actions as an indictment of the mind-set that supports indefinite wars whose cost is borne by others. For a White House on defense for two weeks, this was as robust a defense as one could imagine.

His argument that the United States does not have a “vital national interest” in keeping a force in Afghanistan will resonate with many voters – provided he prevents attacks on the homeland and evacuates those who want out. Toward the end of the speech, he became more philosophical, stressing that interminable wars designed to remake countries are done. That is a theme that most Americans will agree with.

So let him go one explaining everything:

The good news for Biden is that a significant majority (54 percent in the most recent Pew Research poll) approve of the withdrawal. But opinion on Biden’s performance is decidedly more mixed. Pew reports: “about a quarter (26%) say the administration has done an excellent or good job; 29% say the administration has done an only fair job and 42% say it has done a poor job.”

Given the unremittingly negative and often hysterical coverage, that probably comes as a relief to the White House.

Kittens can do that:

Right-wing critics are already predicting another 9/11, the collapse of NATO and the wasting away of the United States’ international influence in their desperation to prove Biden wrong. But our allies show no sign they would prefer to navigate a dangerous world without us. A more accurate prediction for Afghanistan will likely be an unremitting civil war with outside backers, akin to the conflict in Yemen. The final verdict on Biden’s performance will likely come if his “over the horizon” counterterrorism policy prevents future attacks and rescues those who want out of Afghanistan.

Still, Biden would do well to examine his own administration’s performance. Who failed to anticipate and fully plan for the immediate demise of the Afghan government? Could the special immigrant visa process have been accelerated earlier?

More broadly, we need to understand how a war built on wishful thinking and cultural ignorance could grind on for two decades and why our intelligence community consistently gets really big issues wrong, from failing to anticipate the fall of the Soviet Union to the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But that can wait. This will be the conversation for the next two years or more. And, in the end, it won’t matter much. Something else will change everything.

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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