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Darts and Laurels On Afghanistan
Bulwark readers sound-off
This week, Bulwark readers sounded off on Afghanistan, Biden, and Trump. Not surprisingly, there was a remarkable diversity of reactions. Here are some highlights.
And, as usual, keep the rants, raves, laurels and darts coming to email@example.com.
We Got Mail
It sounds like you all are getting a lot of angry mail from liberals about your recent Biden criticism over Afghanistan. I'm a godless liberal myself, and I just wanted to encourage you all to keep doing what you're doing. It doesn't feel great to hear someone you voted for get criticized, but it also doesn't feel great to be abandoned by US troops and left to the whims of barbarians who pose a real threat of killing and/or raping you.
The scenes of Afghans clinging to and falling from flying planes have been devastating. I don't know how much blame Biden deserves for all of this, but it's at least some. I was shocked at how quick he was to blame the Afghans for not having the will to defend themselves. I don't know how this will play out in the long run — maybe pulling out of Afghanistan in this manner will prove to be a net good, eventually. I'm not optimistic about that. Whatever transpires, there's no denying the huge spike in human suffering that the Afghans are experiencing. It's a shameful situation that surely didn't have to be this bad. I feel like the very least we can do is recognize it for what it is.
No need to publish this, as I'd rather remain anonymous. I just wanted to let you know that all liberals aren't angry at you. I appreciate your content — even when it makes me uncomfortable — and wish you all continued success at the Bulwark.
Been a long-term member and will continue to be as I find the commentary level-headed and insightful. However, after reading your post this a.m., back-to-back with Judd Legum’s, it strikes me that the Biden pile-on is, at best, a knee-jerk reaction by the media and Charlie Sykes. I won’t defend Uncle Joe’s tin-ear defensiveness but I also think that Tom Friedman’s take about the entire issue is more nuanced and helpful….
If you or I had all of the intelligence (some or much of which was likely faulty), professional input and options that Biden was provided, we might have made the exact same decision. I doubt he did it in a hubristic vacuum.
Like you, I am rooting for Joe Biden as the leader of the pro-democracy party. I guess what disappoints me so badly about the Biden team's response to the Afghanistan debacle (other than the lack of commitment to protect our Afghan allies, which is unforgivable and so out of line with Biden's usual compassion and empathy) is the disingenuousness.
1. "Trump forced our hand": Really? Did Trump also force us to continue our withdrawal from the WHO? Did he force us to remain withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord? By all accounts, the Taliban weren't honoring the terms of the Trump-Pompeo agreement anyway.
2. "The American people wanted it": Of course the American people, who paid very little attention to Afghanistan, wanted it when the survey question was phrased as "Do you want to stay in a forever war that has cost thousands of American lives?" What if the survey question was phrased as "Do you want to support stability in the region, maintain the ability to keep a close eye on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and support the gains for girls and women, which would require a continued small military presence and probable very minimal loss of life (less than two dozen military deaths per year since 2015)"? For context: (a) there were more than 1,000 U.S. Covid deaths yesterday (b) we have a long term (and much larger) military presence in many other countries including South Korea, Japan, Germany, and Iraq. Larger point: even if the survey response didn't change, a leader's role is to lead -- not follow the polls.
3. "Nation building failed": Agreed. But the mission morphed as indicated above.
4. "Our only choices were complete withdrawal or a surge": No. We could have at least tried maintaining a small presence as indicated above. This option was on the table and supported by senior military leadership as reported by Politico.
5. "Biden has advocated for leaving Afghanistan for a decade": True. But as outlined by Matt Lewis on your podcast yesterday, Biden has changed his position on various military strategies a number of times over the years. (Not to mention changing his positions on other things, like the Hyde Amendment.) Which is fine. Just like with Covid: new facts, new responses.
To me this was such a pragmatic question -- given the current state of the facts on the ground, what were the likely costs and benefits of remaining, and what were the likely and very significant costs and risks of leaving. I am heartsick that we are where we are. But I am also very disappointed by the Biden team's self-serving and misrepresenting defense of their actions.
Dear Charlie Sykes
As a long-time fan of The Bulwark podcast I looked forward to listening to your latest episode with Tim Miller. Now perhaps I have been armed with 2 days of additional events, but the two of you completely missed with your analysis of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
Any analysis of the situation must start with the Trump administration's 2020 deal with the Taliban where the US would withdraw the bulk of their forces in 2020 in return for a bilateral cease-fire, with the promise that the US would completely withdraw by May 2021. The ramification of this deal was that the Taliban spent the last year building up their forces and strengthening their position unopposed.
By the time Biden took office in 2021, without the benefit of a normal transition period (not just the January 6th siege but also Trump refusing to let his people help with the transition) the question wasn't whether the status quo could be maintained, the question was whether the US could last till May.
Your argument that the US should have, or could have, maintained a small detachment of 2,500 soldiers is not based in reality. Consider how quickly the Taliban just took over the country, do you really think 2,500 US soldiers would make a difference? Do you really think keeping 2,500 soldiers in the country was tenable?
Biden had 2 options: renege on Trump's deal and send a surge of forces to Afghanistan, or leave. A surge would be far more than your idealized 2,500 especially as the Taliban had 12 months to rebuild their strength. Now you are welcome to make that argument that the US should have committed to a shooting war in Afghanistan, but please be realistic about the costs -- they would not be low.
As for leaving, you and Tim Miller were commenting on how Biden was getting a free ride in the press, and that had it been Trump, the situation would be different. Again, your analysis is faulty. Again you are neglecting that Biden inherited a mess, a situation where the US was getting run out of Afghanistan, a situation created by Trump's 2020 deal with the Taliban.
Biden did not create this situation. Now you can judge him for not sending tens of thousands of new troops to Afghanistan to prevent a rout. But to claim that he had any other option than to fold the terrible hand Trump left him shows a lack of understanding on your part.
I look forward to listening to your future episodes, but I could not let this past episode pass without commenting on your mistaken analysis.
We Got More Mail
Some thoughts on Afghanistan:
Claim: 20 years is too long and if we don’t withdraw now, when would we? Is 75 years too long for us to have troops in Europe and Japan? 60 years too long in South Korea? The need determines the duration – not vice versa.
Claim: Biden’s hands were tied by the Trump agreement. Assuming Biden had to honor whatever Trump agreed with the Taliban (unlike honoring anything else Trump did), the Taliban breached that agreement by not ending its ties with al Qaeda. Biden’s hands weren’t tied at all.
Claim: If we didn’t withdraw our forces we would be locked into a bigger commitment and bigger American losses because the Taliban would renew attacks on us. Actually, in the five years before the Trump agreement there were less than 20 American deaths per year. The Afghan forces were carrying the vast brunt of the fighting and dying.
Claim: Afghan forces didn’t have the “will to fight.” Tell that to the families of the 69,000 Afghans who died fighting with us. And compare that with the 3,500 coalition deaths. Yes, 20 times more Afghans gave their lives fighting with us than the lives lost by the U.S. and its coalition allies.
Afghan forces had the will to fight – and die. They lost that will after weabandoned them.
Claim: 20 years of American presence accomplished nothing. Really? How about no terrorist attack from there over the past 20 years? How about better lives for many Afghans, especially 20 million Afghan women? How about the strategic value of an American base in an unstable part of the world, close to China and Russia? How about the strategic value of America standing by its allies?
And what about our moral obligation to the hundreds of thousands of Afghans, and their families, who worked with and trusted us? And who we have now abandoned.
I am despondent. And that was before reading Robert Tracinski’s and Ben Parker’s pieces, among much excellent Bulwark commentary.
Steve in Maryland
Dear Bulwark folks:
I have been listening to your podcasts re Afghanistan this week and had a mix of reactions. I finally decided to try and put my thoughts in a coherent (I hope) order:
It doesn’t seem much was learned from the Blackhawk Down Somalia intervention, way back in the 1990s. Somalia being the original ‘failed state’, it has been much analyzed. One point - when the UN and US chose to treat the ‘warlords’ as if they were government in the chaos of Mogadishu, Somali elders were horrified. These were the ones profiting from the chaos - Amanda Ripley would describe them as “conflict entrepreneurs”. In Somaliland, by contrast, the elders were key to bringing people together to create a peaceful state, and they serve in the Guurti, or Senate, charged with advising politicians on issues of peace and security as well as language and culture.
There was a different model to the US-UNITAF intervention. In Baidoa, the Australians worked with the elders and with NGOs who were feeding the people. They disarmed the population except for the security guards at the NGO premises, and they asked the elders what they wanted - law and order, the elders said. In return, the elders would often travel huge distances to warn the Australians of dangers like arms stockpiles.
The west was not the only intervener in Afghanistan. BRAC, which helped rebuild Bangladesh after its civil war, chose Afghanistan as its first area of work outside Bangladesh, starting in 2001, if I recall, and BRAC Afghanistan has done sterling community work there in areas like health and education and economic development. Yet people in the US don’t seem to know this at all.
Anyone who has ever worked on an intensive community-based development project in a post-conflict country knows that it requires ‘strategic patience’, and sustained ongoing effort, not six-month or one-year plans, and that the people engaged in it must live in and be a part of the community - not fly-ins when they feel like it. If you think about a thing as prosaic as ‘recycling’, for example, it takes a lot of time to get people engaged and learn how to recycle their waste and organize the systems to pick it up. Why on earth would we think any differently about ‘governance’?
I remain puzzled about the ‘planning’ for the ending of the US mission. In my work with military folks overseas, I have never doubted their ability to figure out the parameters of a mission and then how to carry it out most effectively, even if they sometimes seem a bit bewildered by CIMIC-style activities. I cannot understand how, with the undeniable military competence of US soldiers, this turned into such a rout, and I really don’t understand why they left in the night without an apparent organized handover at Bagram base. These are the specific questions that need to be asked of the military folks.
The most thoughtful, empathetic and informed analysis I have heard on Afghanistan came on this podcast - https://westminster-insider.simplecast.com/episodes. I could wish for you that your commentaries would be so thoughtful.
Hannah Yoest's depiction of the Taliban as religious extremists of the worst sort is on target, as all the world knows. There are slaves in West Africa, not to mention the Boko Haram, and pre-pubescent girls sold as house maid - prostitutes out of Nepal, and rhinoceros horns and tiger testicles lopped off to make old men stiff again, and the Amazon forest is making way for desperate farmers who will soon die in a climate change catastrophe. OTOH, we are looking at a huge infrastructure deal that will bring not just jobs but the internet and face book, plus we have checks going to families who can use them to do frivolous things like feed their kids and buy medicine.
Somewhere in there things in Afghanistan got fucked up - can you imagine? - and it is on Biden's watch so he takes the fall, as he should. BUT, could you persuade Yoest to trot out her plan for exiting a 20 year war in good order? I thought this was a conservative blog; she sounds like us leftie, whiny liberal types e.g. "sheer audacity - sheer, I tell you!", as in:
"Biden’s hypocrisy, the sheer audacity to say that human rights are at the center of his foreign policy while the Taliban instill fear and erase women from the public sphere, is a national embarrassment." If she means Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam are embarrassments to our vaunted power to spread democracy, she is again on target.
If she finds politicians hypocritical - thank god they are the only ones - then she is again on target. If she thinks we (who's 'we'?) can rescue the slaves, the trafficked, the animals (put gorillas at the top of the list), AND the forests, then again, show me the plan.
Here's mine: take all the money going to COVID relief for businesses and families and going to vaccinations and treatment, all that infrastructure money, and include money for the police (my friends to my left would like that).... put it all together and load up every Afghan that helped us or just doesn't want to live in a religious dictatorship and bring them............. uh, OK, here to Maricopa County where I live. I'll take a family.
Charlie, please read…just want to vent my frustration over all the naysayers to Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan.
I think if we had all the money in the world and lived in a perfect country with no problems ourselves, and our closest neighbors to the south also had perfect countries and governments with no one trying to leave and come here, we could stay in Afghanistan indefinitely and build bases everywhere and financially support 100,000 troops. But we don’t have any of that.
What would these naysayers have Biden do? Honestly. I just wish that the Afghan citizens themselves would show as much passion and fight towards keeping the Taliban out as they do in trying to get us to take them in! Was there even one casualty during the Taliban takeover? Imagine that happening here in 1775. We’d still be under British rule!
Please know that I fully support the Afghan citizens and have great sympathy for them. But at some point people need to take hold of their country and do what is necessary so it can survive and thrive. America can’t be the answer or the savior of the world unfortunately. I wish it could…in a perfect world maybe.
Thanks for reading,
I have read the Bulwark from the beginning. I had also read Tom Nichols' article. I think his article is one of the best commentaries I have read regarding the US' defeat in Afghanistan.
I think it is too early to know the full impact, but I have some thoughts on why the defeat happened and what it means.
1) It is impossible for a democracy to wage a war when its own people are not committed to the war. I know, I know, polls are conflicted and appear nuanced. But Trump won in 2016 saying that he would bring the troops home, and he did. Biden won in 2020 saying the exact same thing and more people voted in 2020 than ever before. People voted for a lot of reasons and doubt "bringing the troops home" was in the top 10 for anyone. Still, when both major parties in the USA campaign on ending wars, it means the wars will be over, regardless of whether that is smart, strategic, or stupid. It's a feature of democracy.
2) The real problem is not being talked about that much. Our military is clearly outclassed, compromised, and almost obsolete. I do not know why the problems exist and I do not have recommendations to fix it, but if you look at the last few years, we have clear problems:
Our military appropriations process has created perverse incentives. We spend money without any strategic purpose. The US government buys the same equipment twice (first the DOD buys the equipment. The DOD then sells military surplus equipment to local police departments, who use grants from the Departments of Justice and of Homeland Security to pay for it). We have spent billions on the F-35, which does not work and we will keep investing in it. We do not even know what we have. The Department of Defense is the only agency that cannot pass an audit. They have not passed an audit in 20 years.
We have no military secrets now. The Russians hacked into the DOD last year and the hack was undetected for 9 months.
We were defeated in Afghanistan, fled from Turkish troops, and have been stalemated in Iraq and Yemen.
The DOD spent 20 years and billions of dollars to train a military that did not fight for one week on its own.
Their intelligence gathering missed the hack, the infiltration by the militia, and that the Afghan army was not able to fight.
There are lots of reports that militia groups have recruited from the US military.
We overuse and overextend our military and sometimes the missions are very open ended or not exactly military in nature. That is on us, the civilian population, to do better. The bullet points above, though, seem pretty important functions for a competent military to have.
President Biden owns the debacle of the last few days, but the US military did not do him or any of his predecessors any favors.
I'm deeply troubled by what's going on in Afghanistan. I winced out our abandonment of the Kurds. In '93 I was in Saigon visiting the "War Crimes" museum and on the way back to my guesthouse I happened upon the abandoned US Embassy and the images of the helicopters, the melee, all came flooding back. That was 4 years after reading Neil Sheehan's 'Bright Shining Lie', a book which interrupted my sleep for years. And a weird, powerful "patriotism" flooded my wobbly being. "They didn't ask us to leave, they DEMANDED it."
This is what the US has done just like every other major power since the beginning of time. This is what happens to the "bit players."
Seriously, 2500 troops in country were sufficient to keep things under control and upon their departure it all came apart ? 20 years wasn't enough ? It WAS NOT a nation-building exercise. Is it a tragedy that some, even many, will be sought out for revenge and that a return to the 13th century may be at hand ? OY ! Ghani's government (and that's more than a little unfair to him - THE Afghan govt is MASSIVELY corrupt.
The thing started with weak precepts (as Mr Kruse and you hypothesized) . . . Harmid Karzi . . . a friend of the Bush family ?
You can travel back . . . 'Charlie Wilson's War' - the Pakistanis BEGGED us not to abandon our attention . . . but the collapse of the Soviet Union was TOO (understandably) enticing. And what careerist was gonna say "hey, give me Afghanistan . . . I don't need the big opportunities of the FSU".
Keep it up . . . we need you guys.
Even More Mail
Let me first say that I am angry.
I'll continue to listen to your podcast, even if your political views differ significantly from mine (though overlap on some core values) you and your colleagues and guests have provided very insightful commentary and appreciate the work.
The national spirit of Americans is one of cowardice. The situation in Afghanistan bored you and you didn't even pick up your ball as you left.
All that equipment left behind will now be used by the Taliban to oppress and inflict new horrors on those you've left behind. My hope is that as reports about the increasing number of deaths and revenge killings come out, that you'll keep in mind that may be done with American weapons. We also live in a modern world that allows for a much deeper degree of control through technological monitoring than what the situation two decades ago permitted. And they will use that too.
The Afghan army was never an independent entity that could stand on it own, we've seen how it folded without the intelligence and aerial support provided by America and its allies. Yet you were also the ones who trained this army and reorganized it as Biden acknowledge in his speech. These fatal weaknesses were of your design and making, yet your political leaders want to place blame on the Afghan army for collapsing in on itself.
While your soldiers and citizens come first, the expendable pawns on the ground did not even rate third or forth on your list of priorities. Think a White House talking-point crowed and peacocked about how 2 000 were saved like it was some kind of achievement, of course not mentioning the nearly 20 000 visa applicants and their additional 10s of 1000s family members you've left behind. They are now in mortal danger because of your cowardice, betrayal and inward-facing navel gazing. They aided you, and you Americans decided their lives did not matter enough to save but now expect them to come to you through hostile territory.
That does not even touch on the millions of men, women, and children who've now had their futures ripped away from them. We have plenty of examples of the kind of regressive religious values from across the world and history that will soon again begin to take hold in Afghanistan. From the banal to destroying the instruments of musicians to the utterly depraved like rape and murder clad in moral virtues.
I've seen some try to defend Biden's actions as only following the deal negotiated under Trump and treat it as some ironclad contract. Americans are good and breaking things, not keeping the word, and ignoring everyone else, but not that somehow. I'm sure that the Afghans 'allies' left behind will be relieved to hear it and take comfort in it.
This is not about American being the world police or forever wars, but you taking responsibility for your actions and your successive failures from Bush to Biden. You invaded Afghanistan. You hold responsibility for the country's state, no matter what your stated mission was supposed to be so long as it remains broken because of your actions.
Being bored is not an excuse. The number of years is not an excuse. The money you willfully wasted on corrupt politicians, military leaders, and warlords is not an excuse...
The American lives you've lost and would've lost is not an excuse.
Really disappointed that the Bulwark folks who now blame Biden for incompetence have not considered what Biden faced. And let me say that I have read a lot of war history.
So we had 2500 US troops asked (in an imaginary query) to protect a large airfare base, an airport in a different location, the US embassy and unspecified numbers of folks who need visas - in a process that apparently was slow walked in 2020.
Then we have an Afghan Army that was poorly led.
In the real world of war, there are sometimes surprises too.
So Biden judges that he did not want to go into a possible civil war - that if we really did start to ramp up troop (we need 10-15,000 to do much good - a division).
How about considering that given the risks, that Biden made the right decision.
And yes, folks will die. Thousands have and always do when there is a collapse. A long time ago my mother’s family came from Russia just before WWI. Those who stayed in Russia stayed in touch till they were swept up in the post WWI violence.
War is always a mess yet the talking heads always whine that we should do more. So they wanted the US to do more in Libya and more in Syria. And now - more in Afghanistan.
Ending is always a wreck for the US unless we win utterly. So after the Spanish American War, we had a decade of rebellion and unrest in the Philippines and years of unrest in Cuba. Post WWII in Asia, Southeast Asia was troubled - it took decades to stabilize.
So tired of the talking heads.
I am very rattled to see the mess. I do wish we can offer resettlement to any who can get here. But we are stuck with the shit we stepped in.
When Vietnam fell, a magazine did an interview with a North Vietnamese colonel named Bo Tin. He explained how his side won the war. He pointed out that it is an inherent flaw of democracies that they can never fight a prolonged war on the other side of the globe if the nation's existence didn't depend on it because people would grow tired of it. All they had to do was to wait us out. He was right.
We were right to go into Afghanistan. Let's get that straight off the bat. We could not avoid going after Osama bin Laden and denying the country to al Qaeda.
If Dubyah dropped the ball, it was in failing to recognize and articulate our real war aim the and now (at least until this week): keeping the terrorists from having their very own country, and keeping as many Afghan women unraped and not enslaved and as many gay Afghans as possible unstoned for as long as possible. "Kicking the can down the road" enabled a whole lot of people to have a marginally decent life for a generation. And if doing that meant fighting a "forever war," it's not as if the cost was unbearable. I remember Gen. Gavin's proposed "enclave strategy" in Vietnam. It wouldn't have established a South Vietnamese democracy, but it would have prevented the Viet Cong from taking over the country indefinitely. That was an alternative to the fall of Saigon, and leaving a small residual force operating in a support capacity indefinitely would likely have been a viable alternative to what happened in Kabul.
Second point: Sure, the optics of the withdrawal were terrible. But on one point, the President is right. This humanitarian disaster would have happened in pretty much the same way no matter how it had been handled. If we had left gradually over a period of years, we have the fall of Saigon to show us what would have happened. This was always going to be a disaster and how we did it might have affected the optics, but little else. The murders and Sharia executions and the rapes and the enslavement of Afghan women would still have happened.
That is what we were fighting to prevent, or at least to delay. The problem with the Biden approach was not bad timing. It's that he consented to this happening- as it inevitably would have, no matter when we left, or how.
There might have been less chaos. There might have been a way of handling the PR a little better. But it would have made little or no difference to the people of Afghanistan.
What the American people now seem ready to tolerate- a small, residual force left behind on a semi-permanent basis- is what we in fact have had for quite a while. Our troops are not engaged in combat operations. We have lost fewer than a hundred American lives in the last six years. We lost fewer American lives in the worst week of COVID than in the entire twenty years of this war!
As we watch most every elected politico as well as most pundits rain the most vicious condemnation on the Biden Presidency once again they act as though they have no responsibility in the matter. It is a true and sad statement that the draw down is horrific, I live next door to a former Afghan translator who was able to relocated a few years ago and they are watching too with high anxiety. It pains me to wonder how much precious time was lost working on this withdrawal because McConnell decided to appease the former guy’s advancement of The Big Lie. Transitions are needed for a reason. And that pompous ass Pompeo will not reveal just how badly the State department was gutted under his and the former guy’s watch.
Finally - our immigration laws and processes do not provide for anything less that years of red tape… that is in Congress’s back …good luck with that. Add to that the number of federal employees in senior positions that have retired, or are simply not fully working still because they could not stomach the stress and the internal hit squads of the former guy as well as the way he f$&ked up the response to Covid.
I am a former Republican congressional staffer, and an Army wife whose husband was in the Pentagon when a plane blew in very close proximity to his office. After six hours of waiting, my family learned my husband navigated his way out of the damage. Not all were as fortunate as we were.
As I watch this my thoughts go to the memory of a dear friend of mine who worked with me in the 4th District of Oklahoma back in the late 1990’s to get a National Veteran’s Cemetery located at Ft . Sill. His name was Max Beilke, he was photographed on the cover of Life magazine as the last America airlifted out of Saigon, sadly Max lost his life in the Pentagon on 9/11 when our false sense of security was blown apart.
The memory of Max Beilke deserves better, our country must do better, we can do better, but we continue to miscalculate the element of time, expertise, talent and judgment that it takes to run a country with competence. The last several years we have sadly celebrated random acts of competency as good enough. When America is wrong, we stand alone. God help us …someone has to.