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Biden Awry

I give Joe Biden generally good marks for the early days of a presidency that faced multiple crises from the moment he took the oath of office. As Amy Walter put it, "For the first few months of Biden's tenure, the narrative was one of competence and temperance" (Cruel Summer). Not high praise but no small matter following the disastrous tenure of his twice-impeached predecessor. To competence and temperance can be added decency, another welcome contrast with the previous occupant of the Oval Office.

The fall of Afghanistan cast Biden and his team in a light that showed neither competence nor temperance. Decency deserted him with seeming indifference to the fate of Afghan girls and women in remarks at the beginning of the week, when he came off pigheaded, prickly, defensive. At week's end Washington Post columnist and PBS NewsHour Friday regular Jonathan Capeheart charitably dubbed his stance resolute.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken's inane statement, referring to chaotic scenes in Kabul, that this is not Saigon, invited a blunt rejoinder from Phil Caputo:

As a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam (1965-1966), a reporter who was among the last to be evacuated from Saigon by helicopter (1975) and a correspondent who covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from the Afghan side (1980), I can say with authority that I agree wholeheartedly with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement, "This is not Saigon."

The president's address on Friday was better. His tone was firm, his words measured, as he committed to getting out every American who wants out, along with Afghan allies and laid out in detail what has been and is being done, including communication with the Taliban to ensure access at Kabul airport. That performance was tarnished within less than a day by reports that some Americans have been harassed and beaten by the Taliban and a security alert advising US citizens against traveling to the airport because of possible security threats outside the gates (Politico Playbook: reality check). The situation is chaotic. We should not be surprised that it is going down this way. What is distressing is that Biden and crew appear to be blindsided by events time and again.

There is no shortage of experts who know exactly what should have been done up until now that would have averted catastrophe and what should be done going forward to mitigate it. Not a doubt in their military minds. The consensus is that execution of American withdrawal has been dismal. Not on offer is an alternative strategy with any prospect that it would produce a better outcome.

A popular prescription has it that a small contingent of US troops should have been kept in place to support a weak, ineffectual, corrupt government, protect Afghans, especially girls and women, from Taliban brutality, and muddle on as has been done for years. This scenario rests on the dubious presumption that it would have been possible to maintain the status quo ante indefinitely with minimal cost in US blood and treasure, minimal, that is, except for the comparatively few unfortunate individuals who would pay a price that for them and their families is infinite.

Politico published an interview with Saad Mohseni, chief executive of a media group that operates multiple TV channels and radio stations in Afghanistan, including the country's biggest independent journalism outlet. Mohseni discussed what the media landscape could look like going forward, whether young Afghans would accept Taliban rule in a country that has changed dramatically since the 1990s, and what might be expected from the Taliban in the coming weeks (Voigt, Afghan New Outlet's Early Encounters):

This is the new Afghanistan…Sixty-five percent of the population is under the age of 20, the median age is 18. The point I often try to stress is how the younger generation of Afghans have never lived under the Taliban rule and that they’re used to media, they’re used to being able to freely express themselves. They’re used to social media.

But this is also the case for the Taliban fighters. They, too, have grown up in—whether it’s in Pakistan or parts of Afghanistan—they’ve always had free media. They’ve always been able to watch programs. They’ve had WhatsApp and Facebook and Messenger and God knows what else. And they’ve watched women on TV, whether it’s in Pakistan or Afghanistan. So it’s not alien to them.

Mohseni sees three phases going forward, stipulating that this is speculation. The first phase is about consolidating Taliban rule, forging alliances, installing their people in high places, getting rid of opposition, and fostering international relationships to keep aid coming. This phase

may last a week. It may last a month, it may last a day. But I think they’re going to have a laissez-faire approach to media as long as we’re not pushing too hard. That’s one of the reasons we have to be a little careful because you’re dealing with individuals, you’re not dealing with institutions.

Phase two will be a transitional government, the nuts and bolts work of taking over the reins of power, forming a cabinet, putting ministers, governors, and police chiefs in place. This phase will bring more, perhaps many more, restrictions on the media. The third phase will be the Emirate of Afghanistan. And then?

we don’t know…who’s going to prevail? The Taliban have [their] political office or council, and then they also have a military council…Within these councils, you have different identities and wings, so to speak. So even with the Taliban, there will be a tug of war…So it remains to be seen as to who’s going to have the upper hand. And the next few weeks will be telling.

The last is a key point when considering whether the conciliatory tone struck by Taliban spokesmen in that initial press conference is genuine or PR fluff. Even if we accept the possibility that they spoke in good faith, a possibility rightly viewed with skepticism but one that I see no reason to reject out of hand, their commitments to respect human rights are vague and subject to interpretation. As he observed, we are dealing with individuals, not institutions. Various factions might have a range of interpretations as to what protecting the rights of girls and women in conformity with Islam entails in practice. Not all of them are apt to be palatable to those of us in the West, much less to the girls and women subject to them.

Reports of beatings, of people being dragged from home and cars, and of Taliban going door to door with lists of officials in the former government and collaborators with the Americans followed on the heels of the press conference. What we do not know as best I can tell is whether these actions reflect the will of senior Taliban leadership or if they are initiatives taken by local leaders and groups acting in accordance with their own understanding of Taliban policy, sharia law, and so on, which may not be what leadership desires.

Another good interview came courtesy of Willam Brangham at PBS NewsHour. Sarah Chayes covered the fall of the Taliban after 9/11 for NPR, started and ran NGOs in the country, and served as adviser to senior US military commanders in Afghanistan and to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (U.S. ignored corruption). Chayes places much blame for the government's collapse on corruption by local strongmen and high-ranking government officials and the American failure to address it. It took a while but by 2009–2010 the US began to catch on that this was a serious issue. As a test case US officials targeted a person close to President Hamid Karzai who was taking a bribe. "Well," says Chayes, "as soon as President Karzai threw a fit about the arrest from his henchman, warrants executed a U-turn, and the U.S. never took corruption seriously after that. That was in 2010."

Chayes also asserts that the Taliban did not arise in Afghanistan but was the creation of Pakistani military intelligence after the Soviets withdrew. She goes on to claim that it was Karzai, "basically operating on behalf of the Pakistani military intelligence agency," who in 1994 negotiated the entry of the Taliban into Kandahar. (Caveat from the editorial desk: I have not yet fact-checked this.)

And, today, we see him again emerging as the head of some coordinating committee. And so it makes me ask myself, has he not been conducting this type of negotiations, just like he did back in 1994, with the leaders of the northern cities, who all surrendered almost in unison, and all the other kind of local power brokers that we saw surrender in such quick succession?

That doesn't just happen by itself. That was prepared.

There are about as many competing narratives explaining what went wrong in Afghanistan as there are experts, and we are up to our eyeballs in experts. How then are we who are not experts, no matter how diligent our efforts to be reasonably well informed, to distinguish between narratives that are genuinely convincing and those that only reinforce our own predispositions and bias? My unsatisfactory answer is to try to be aware of preconceived notions and inclinations, read widely, expose myself to conflicting accounts, and entertain the possibility that I could be wrong.

Anne Applebaum is a hawk. She argues that Afghanistan was a fight for liberal democracy and that the consequences of abandoning that fight are dire (Liberal Democracy Is Worth a Fight).

Of all the empty, pointless statements that are periodically repeated by Western politicians, none is more empty and pointless than this one: "There can be no military solution to this conflict."…

The phrase sounds nice, but it’s not true. In many conflicts, probably Syria and certainly Afghanistan, there is a military solution: The war ends because one side wins.

Her conclusions:

The fall of Kabul should refocus Americans—in the administration, in Congress, in the leadership of both parties, but above all, ordinary Americans across the country—on the choices that are now coming thick and fast. Afghanistan provides a useful reminder that while we and our European allies might be tired of "forever wars, the Taliban are not tired of wars at all. The Pakistanis who helped them are not tired of wars, either. Nor are the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian regimes that hope to benefit from the change of power in Afghanistan; nor are al-Qaeda and the other groups who may make Afghanistan their home again in future. More to the point, even if we are not interested in any of these nations and their brutal politics, they are interested in us. They see the wealthy societies of America and Europe as obstacles to be cleared out of their way. To them, liberal democracy is not an abstraction; it is a potent, dangerous ideology that threatens their power and needs to be defeated wherever it exists, and they will deploy corruption, propaganda, and even violence to do so. They will do it in Syria and Ukraine, and they will do it within the borders of the U.S., the U.K., and the EU.

We might not want any of this to be true. We might prefer a different world, one where we can stay out of their way and they will stay out of ours. But that’s not the world that we live in. In the real world, the battle to defend liberal democracy is sometimes a real battle, a military battle, not merely an ideological battle. It cannot always be fought with language, arguments, conferences, or diplomacy, or by deploying human-rights organizations, UN declarations, and fierce EU statements of concern. Or rather, you can try to fight it that way, but you will lose.

I hold Anne Applebaum in high regard. Some points here are well-taken. She is right when she says that sometimes only guns can prevent violent extremists from taking power. She is also right to call out the cheap words with which some express solidarity with Afghan women "without a physical presence to back it up." She poses questions that should not be dismissed when she says "maybe it’s true that the country was too distant, too alien, to justify a continued presence, as Biden has so forcefully said. But which countries are close enough, or culturally similar enough, to be confident of long-term American support?" The countries of Western Europe? Poland? Estonia? South Korea? Japan? Taiwan?

She is silent on other thorny questions. In what sense could continuation of a US effort that got so much wrong for twenty years be said to serve the defense of liberal democracy? Is she justified in attributing defeat to lack of American will? Does she recognize no limit to American power? Is it true that Afghanistan represented "the contest between 'open' and 'closed' societies, between democracy and dictatorship, between freedom and autocracy"? One can accept her description of the Taliban as a "theocratic, misogynistic, militaristic organization" and take heart from elements of liberal society that "managed to take root" during two decades of American intervention while remaining wary of her association of terms like 'open' society, democracy, and freedom with the government of Ashraf Ghani and those that came before him.

Liberal internationalism in defense of liberal democracy, however well intended, has gone awry time and again. The hard truth is that it is not easy to know how to pursue and promote values that Applebaum champions, values I share, and values, it should be noted, that some in this country today cast aside as artifacts of "whiteness" and European imperialism. That too is a threat to liberal democracy. Ah, but I digress.

If we have a moral obligation to intervene in defense of liberal values, human rights, the rights of girls and women, we have an equal obligation to come up with more effective strategy and tactics across the board, military, diplomatic, and other, than were on display in Afghanistan.


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