Our Best Stuff From a Bleak Week
The debacle that is our withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Hello, everyone. What a week. When I was composing my newsletter a week ago, I wrote about how the Biden administration’s original pledge to withdraw American troops by September 11 was, at best, odd and to many, downright offensive. I noted that he moved the withdrawal deadline to August 31. But I struggled with how to phrase my next thought, finally settling on, “Now, however, it seems like the anniversary of 9/11 could be even bleaker.” I cited military analysis that said Kabul could be “isolated” within a month of our departure and fall within 90 days, but the way that the Taliban had been steamrolling through provincial capitals, that seemed like wishful thinking. In the back of my mind, I wondered if the Taliban would try to take Kabul on September 11, as a final humiliating gesture. But that was just weeks away, and I’m not one for predictions, so I hedged my wording.
Late Sunday morning, I was drinking coffee and watching TV—not the news—when my husband looked up from his phone and asked, “Did Kabul fall?” “What?” I responded. “No way.” And then I reached for my phone. Minutes before, I’d gotten the news alert that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled the county. Well then.
As hard as that was to believe, much of what followed over the next few days was outright surreal. I saw a video from Kandahar with dozens of bodies laying in the streets, with people just driving by. There were heartbreaking scenes from the airport: people running alongside an American cargo plane as it cruised down a runway and desperate parents passing infants forward to U.S. soldiers, among others.
Once again, I’m going to keep this intro short because it’s a better use of your time to read our coverage of this debacle. We have excellent analysis from Tom Joscelyn, who’s been beating the drum on how our withdrawal is ill-advised since the Trump administration was negotiating with the Taliban; David, who served in Iraq and explains why the Afghan military couldn’t stand up to the Taliban; and contributor Paul Miller, who takes a look at the larger implications of this moment. And those are just a few of our pieces. Thanks for reading.
The scenes coming out of Afghanistan are heartbreaking and frustrating, not just because of the human suffering but because of what it shows about America’s willingness to stand up for freedom and democracy. Paul Miller, a veteran of the war who served as a National Security Council staffer in both the Bush and Obama administrations, argues that while the fall of Kabul is “not the most important geopolitical event of the 21st century,” it doesn’t have to be. It’s enough that it continues a trend toward authoritarianism and tyranny that threatens the liberal world order. It’s a bleak but important warning. “The same dynamic can take hold in international politics,” Miller writes. “If we are so demoralized that we do not defend the free world in the next contest—in Taiwan, say, or Latvia—then it will be vastly easier not to fight the one after that, and again after that. The rest of the world will quickly believe that the free world has lost its will.”
Biden faced a torrent of criticism for his comments Monday that “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future.” Few who critiqued that statement, though, are as well-suited to do so as David, who has witnessed firsthand how we train soldiers to defend their own countries. He explains that our support—air support, military intelligence, the ability to maintain and repair complicated equipment—gave those forces an advantage they lose when we suddenly withdraw. It also gave them hope. “Our allies went into the fight with a trump card in their back pocket,” he writes in French Press. “Remove the trump card, and you strip that hope. In fact, remove the trump card, and they can’t even truly fight the way they’ve been trained to fight. You tell the ordinary soldier in the field that if they call for the cavalry, no one will come to their aid.”
Thomas Joscelyn is not a Dispatch fact-checker, but he played that role on Friday, filing his Vital Interests newsletter right after Biden’s latest address on Afghanistan. At one point, Biden responded to a question by saying this: “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al-Qaeda gone?” Joscelyn debunks the claim swiftly, writing that through his work with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, he and a colleague have tracked AQ members in 18 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. He also points to jailbreaks by the Taliban to free imprisoned AQ fighters, and he reminds readers about the Haqqani Network, which has close ties not only to al-Qaeda but also the Taliban. “President Biden may not know it, but the defeat of the U.S.-backed government wasn’t just a win for the Taliban. It was a win for al-Qaeda.”
By now, you’ve probably seen photos of Afghans crowded into C-17 cargo planes, huddled on the floor and waiting to be taken to safety. The images inspire, for most of us, mixed feelings: sadness that they need to leave their homes and possessions and possibly family behind, and frustration that it came to this—but also hope that a brighter future awaits them. Not everyone feels that way, though. In Capitolism, Scott Linciome takes a break from writing on trade wars and antitrust to call out the partisan talking heads who took to the airwaves to complain about the prospect of Afghan refugees resettling in the United States. He lays out the case for a liberal refugee policy that goes beyond “it’s the right thing to do.” He debunks the ideas that refugees are a drag on the economy and a threat to our security, points out that refugees are typically younger than the general population, and argues that “opening our doors to people fleeing oppressive regimes also can weaken adversaries via ‘brain drain.’” He writes: “The U.S. government needs to rethink our approach to refugees in this country and to reverse the long-term deterioration of support for those fleeing oppression and violence around the world—in not only the middle east but also Cuba, Venezuela, China, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.”
As Thomas Joscyelyn noted, President Biden’s claim that Afghanistan is “gone” is absolutely not true. But that wasn’t the only whopper Biden told when taking questions after his address to the nation on Friday. He also claimed that the Taliban was not impeding efforts by Americans to get to Hamid Karzai Airport to be evacuated. Alec and Khaya were on the case.
The best of the rest:
The Afghanistan debacle has taken attention away from the Biden administration’s Iran policy, but it can’t be ignored. Behnam Ben Taleblu and Andrea Stricker call attention to the six fruitless rounds of talks to reestablish the Iran nuclear deal, and highlight that the rise to power of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi signals that the Islamic Republic has no real interest in returning to it.
Polling has shown for years that Americans would prefer we not be in Afghanistan. In The Sweep, Sarah writes about the many flaws of surveys on policy issues—the issues are complex, it’s hard to ask questions in a non-leading way, and people’s opinions don’t always fit into a tidy multiple choice format.
Is the best way to reduce carbon emissions a sweeping, top-down approach like the Green New Deal, or many, many smaller technological innovations? Todd Myers argues that history is on the side of innovations, and details a few examples that could add up to big changes.
Andrew and Charlotte wrote on the refugee situation, pointing out that fights over whether to evacuate Americans or Afghans first are fruitless, since it’s so difficult for anyone to get to the airport.
On the pods: Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake joins Jonah on The Remnant to discuss Afghanistan. For a little diversion, check out Sarah’s tale of a wildlife rescue mission with a happy ending on Advisory Opinions. And on The Dispatch Podcast, Steve, David, and Tom discuss—you guessed it—Afghanistan.