The rapid collapse of Afghanistan, and the inevitably messy evacuation that’s resulted, have supplied us with such a rich tapestry of hysterical bullshit and fear mongering that it was impossible to know where to start. To begin with, it’s only my reflexive support for the imperilled mainstream media that keeps me from naming as co-winners various pundits at CNN, WaPo, the Wall Street Journal, and especially the New York Times, where Peter Baker, in particular, declared the whole affair to be a fiasco on a par with the fall of Saigon days ago, and is sticking to it, amid charges of the Biden Administration’s rank ineptitude. Look, everybody, me included, agrees that it was an intelligence/policy failure to expect the US-backed government in Kabul to last at least a few months, and it will probably come out at some point that there were Cassandras in the advisory and intelligence organs of the government whose dire warnings were brushed aside. A fuckup? Sure. You betcha. An unpardonable sin that undermines Biden’s entire presidency and reveals him to be little better than the pernicious moron he replaced? Calm the fuck down. A good deal of the initial chaos has abated, the evacuation is turning into a logistical masterclass, and they were never going to get everyone out. The die for all this was in any case cast last year by Trump, whose “surrender agreement” (in the words of H.R. McMaster) and subsequent drastic drawdown in troops dealt Biden a piss-poor, utterly unwinnable hand, the playing of which wasn’t helped by Donald’s gutting of the State Department and the violence knobby-headed hate goblin Stephen Miller visited upon the visa process. Yes, Joe’s team could have done it better – the failure to fix the visa system and the precipitous abandonment of Bagram air base last July stand out as blunders – but even Baker’s colleagues at the Times are beginning to admit that this was always going to be messy, and look awful, and that the reasonable alternatives to withdrawal, and all that comes with it, are awfully thin on the ground, even if Trump hadn’t pretty well tied Biden’s hands (I’ll copy in David Leonhardt’s balanced analysis at the bottom.)
Those of us old enough to remember helicopters being pushed off the decks of American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin have a better idea of what a real fiasco looks like. However, that’s just a bunch of journalists being typically ill-informed on military and geopolitical affairs, and probably doesn’t rate a Gomey, which is reserved for things far more imbecilic, and usually cruel, bigoted, and vile to boot.
So O.K., you want imbecilic, cruel, bigoted, and vile then? Well, friend, we got plenty! All of it spewing out of the rancid, bloviating pie holes connected (apparently by improvised neural networks made of paperclips) to the familiar assortment of Republican brainstems, so many that today’s inductees should be viewed as merely a representative sample, accepting their plaudits on behalf of a much larger cohort. Foremost, of course, is The Man himself, issuing press releases these days in lieu of the Tweets he’s no longer allowed to spew – geez, can you imagine what his Twitter feed would have looked like this past week? Yikes! – resurrecting the old “not sending their best people” schtick from 2015. Hey, it was a winner then, why not give it another whirl? Plus, Biden surrendered to the terrorists, see, not him and his pal Mike Pompeo; that Doha deal thing was about something else entirely. NO VETTING he then hollers, an outright lie (the poor hopeful bastards trying to extricate themselves and their families from the grip of the Taliban are vetted to within an inch of their lives, which is part of why the visa process is so slow and cumbersome), hoping you’ll believe that a bunch of rabid jihadists are coming to a neighbourhood near you, packing both suicide vests and wedding rings for your daughters (though why the key players in the GOP COVID death cult fear for their lives when it might be brown Muslim people, rather than a virus, extinguishing them, seems a fair question). I guaran-fucking-tee you that the thousands upon thousands of unvaccinated, hog-riding slobs who attended this year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Dumbass Delta Superspreader Extravaganza pose a greater threat to the lives of Americans than all of ISIS and Al Qaeda combined, let alone the sad, desperate folk struggling, even as I type this, to dodge the pitiless thugs and make it somehow through the gates of Hamid Karzai airport.
Then there’s that opportunistic prick J.D. Vance, who’s trying to leverage Hillbilly Elegy into some sort of political career. He used to sound somewhat reasonable, but now he’s quaffed several buckets of the Trumpist Kool Aid and gone full-bore MAGA. Get Americans out first. Yeah, J.D., you’re bang on, Biden and the boys in country aren’t lifting a finger to airlift good, red-blooded Americans, whose plaintive cries go unheeded in favour of rescuing dirty, undoubtedly smelly Afghan peasants, plus all the goats they can herd, none of whom your nation owes anything beyond the scorn they deserve for folding to the enemy, promises schmomises. Fuck ’em all. Especially the women and children. Terrorist scum.
Republican Ben Sasse has the right answer for this moron:
Finally there’s the fear-mongering party line, as exemplified by official GOP communiqués and the feverish utterances of the usual mendacious crew, among them manifestly unfit House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, that thousands of terrorists, impliedly freed from captivity because of Biden’s bungling abandonment of the field of battle (they were sprung from Afghan prisons as part of Trump’s and Pompeo’s inept “negotiations” with the Taliban last year) are now trying to infiltrate the homeland, likely through Mexico, so brace for it, build that wall will likely be making a comeback any minute now. Sure, sure, Kevin, you goddam lying sack of shit, the battle-hardened veterans of the Taliban, having been released by your Orange God King to witness their comrades’ glorious reconquest of the country, are now just cracking to come to America, rather than stick around to recreate the old Emirate in the realization of their most fervidly fascist theocratic fantasies.
These fucking guys.
I’ll leave it to their fellow conservatives to lambaste them all further:
Now here’s your joint Gomey, you craven, malicious nitwits. If it was up to me I’d force you and all your xenophobic, lie-spewing, bigoted pals in the MAGA Butthead Brigade to host Afghan refugee families in your frickin’ guest bedrooms.
From this morning’s NYT newsletter:
Good morning. We explain why much of the Afghanistan commentary skips over a key issue.
‘An ugly pullout’
What might a more successful exit from Afghanistan have looked like?
I have spent some time talking with colleagues and experts about that question, and it is a difficult one to answer. President Biden’s exit certainly has not gone well. The “orderly” withdrawal he had promised did not happen, and the world has watched agonizing scenes of Afghans trying to escape.
But I’ve also noticed a naïveté about some of the commentary on Afghanistan. It presumes that there was a clean solution for the U.S., if only the Biden administration (and, to a lesser extent, the Trump administration) had executed it. The commentary never quite spells out what the solution was, though.
There is a reason for that: A clean solution probably did not exist.
The fundamental choice, as my colleague Helene Cooper told me, was between a permanent, low-level U.S. war in Afghanistan — a version of what John McCain once called a 100-year war — and a messy exit. “The pullout was never going to be a simple thing,” says Helene, who covers the Pentagon. “It was always going to be an ugly pullout.”
My goal with today’s newsletter is to explain what the true options in Afghanistan were, as well as some alternate decisions by the Biden administration that might have worked out better.
It’s important to start with this background: The biggest failure in Afghanistan almost certainly was not anything that happened this week or even in the past decade. It was a decision, early in the 2000s, to seek total victory in a faraway war of questionable relevance to U.S. national interests. As Adam Nossiter, who became The Times’s Kabul bureau chief last year, has written, “The American war, like other such neocolonialist adventures,” was “most likely doomed from the start.”
Why not sooner?
The most salient failure of the Biden pullout is the apparent abandonment of thousands of Afghans who worked closely with the U.S. and whom the Taliban may jail, abuse or kill.
These allies have fought against the Taliban for years, served as translators for Americans and helped run civil society in Afghanistan. Many are understandably panicked. Something like 100,000 Afghans probably fall into this disparate category, experts say.
In hindsight, the solution may seem obvious: The U.S. should have helped many more Afghans leave the country before the military withdrawal. In reality, there was no easy way to do so.
When Biden and Afghanistan’s then-president, Ashraf Ghani, met for the final time, in the Oval Office on June 25, one of Ghani’s main requests was that the U.S. do the opposite and limit evacuations. As The Times has reported: “He wanted the United States to be ‘conservative’ in granting exit visas to the interpreters and others, and ‘low key’ about their leaving the country so it would not look as if America lacked faith in his government.”
It was an understandable request. A mass evacuation would have amounted to a surrender to the Taliban (for which Biden would have been blamed). The only hope for Ghani’s government depended on avoiding a large, advance evacuation of the Afghans who were helping run the country.
In the end, of course, Afghanistan still fell to the Taliban in a few chaotic days this month.
The real alternatives
The fairest criticism of Biden acknowledges the implausibility of an enormous advance evacuation — and then grapples with the less-satisfying alternatives. They do exist.
Biden and his team appear to have based their strategy around the consensus view of U.S. intelligence that the Ghani government could hold off the Taliban for months, at least. Little of the White House’s pre-withdrawal planning was based on the possibility — as some diplomats and Afghan officials were warning — that the government could quickly collapse.
“When you’re talking about life and death, you can’t just rely on the consensus opinion,” Michael Crowley, who covers the State Department for The Times, told me. “You have to prepare for contingencies.”
In Afghanistan, contingency planning could have included a much more rapid acceleration of the State Department’s processing of refugee visas, still done quietly. The administration also could have been less definitive about the military’s August exit date: The more territory the Taliban seemed to gain, the more U.S. troops could have remained temporarily, to oversee evacuation.
Both Michael and Helene point out that these scenarios probably still would have been messy. A huge, quiet evacuation program is a contradiction in terms. And under almost any circumstance, more Afghans would have wanted to leave a Taliban-run country than the U.S. would have been willing to admit (especially with the current immigration skepticism in this country). “People were still going to run to Kabul airport,” Helene says.
Since the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, the Biden administration has been trying to accomplish the large evacuation program that it could not attempt earlier. So far, the U.S. has helped about 70,000 people leave, although it is unclear how many of them are Afghans. Ultimately, the evacuation has the potential to look fairly successful.
Yet that would not make Biden blameless. Put it this way: If he and his aides could do it all over again and be less dismissive of a rapid Taliban takeover, don’t you think they would?
A permanent war
One final alternative did exist: The U.S. military could have stayed in Afghanistan. There is no reason to think it would have succeeded in creating a stable Afghan government, after failing to do so for 20 years. But it probably could have prevented complete Taliban control.
The economic costs were manageable, in the short term. The U.S. mission has recently cost less than $20 billion a year, Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told me. That’s less than 0.5 percent of the federal budget. The continuing war was also killing a handful of American troops each year, and the bombing of Taliban targets was killing hundreds of Afghan civilians a year.
Some former U.S. officials have suggested that staying in Afghanistan indefinitely was worth these costs. On the other hand, these tend to be the same officials whose previous optimistic promises have repeatedly proven false. At some point, the conflict with the Taliban would likely have intensified again, requiring more U.S. troops, money and sacrifice. Already, polls showed that a large, bipartisan majority of Americans wanted the military to leave.
All of which suggests that a withdrawal may have been inevitable, sooner rather than later. It could have gone better than it has. But it was probably destined not to go well.