Other progressive voices weigh in on the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and respond to the mainstream media hysteria:
[Originally posted at John Stohr's Editorial Board substack. Subscribe here.]
The more I think about it, the more I think the Washington press corps is misrepresenting what happened over the weekend in Afghanistan. They report that it was a lightning-fast "takeover" by the Taliban. But it was more like the country was handed over to them. I don't mean by the United States. I mean by the Afghan government. It wasn't until its so-called "president" fled that the Kabul airport erupted in panic. (He and his family are now reportedly "safe" in the United Arab Emirates.)
To put a finer point on it, the press corps is balling up the planned exit by US armed forces with terrible video-recorded scenes from the Kabul airport during which desperate Afghans are seen clinging to the side of a US aircraft as it's taking off before falling to their deaths. The effect is a picture of America that botched its exit. Yeah, I guess so. If you completely ignore actions by the Afghan government. (Last night, Reuters reported that "order has been restored" at the Kabul airport.)
The mainstream press — motivated by a combination of infatuation with foreign policy hawks and a desire to prove they're equally "tough" on President Joe Biden as they were on Donald Trump — is absolutely certain they have a live one with the supposedly "humiliating" loss of the war on Afghanistan. Never mind that Biden didn't lose the war because it was lost long before he got to office. He was just the guy willing to take the media fallout by admitting it. Never mind that many of the people pointing fingers at Biden are doing so to avoid the fingers being pointed, correctly, at themselves. Never mind that the people who are outraged over this don't have the guts to they're calling for forever war because victory was never an option. Never mind that no one can counter Biden's basic argument: "One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference." The airwaves are filled with noise and outrage, and the headlines are dominated with 48 point fonts.
The Beltway press may be dead certain that this Afghanistan retreat is a huge political black eye for Biden — or that they can make it one, anyway — but there's starting to be telltale signs that right-wing media is not quite so sure. After all, if conservative pundits thought Biden had really stepped in it with this messy, depressing (but likely inevitable) end of the Afghan war, they'd surely be pressing their advantage with all their might. But, as it stands, there are indications that right-wing media would rather get back to their regularly scheduled calendar of race-baiting, concern trolling about "cancel culture" and general whining about "wokeness," all of which will be much more salient for their voters heading into the 2022 midterms.
At a U.S. Special Forces camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan, on December 5, 2001, the Taliban offered an unconditional surrender. Furthermore, they would disband and disarm: a military force would no longer exist.
George W. Bush ignored the offer and continued attacking the Taliban until the end of his term. If only in self-defense the Taliban fought back, eventually regaining the battlefield initiative. Barack Obama fought the Taliban for eight years more. Donald Trump did so for the next four.
Twenty years later, after the squandering of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, President Biden withdrew American troops from Afghanistan—and drew angry criticism for the chaotic exit that followed.
How perverse we have become. We chastise President Biden for a messy ending of the war in Afghanistan and fail to indict George Bush for its illegal beginning.
The 9/11 attack was a crime by a small group of criminals, not an act of war by a sovereign state.
But we responded to that crime with two war-based assaults, and we won both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in a matter of weeks, not years or decades.
Language matters, because it’s how we understand what’s real and what’s a scam or a lie. It’s how we share the metaphors, understandings, visions and values of our society. When it comes to crime, war, and occupations of other countries, language can mean life or death.
When George W. Bush decided to exploit the 9/11 attack in 2001 to make himself a “wartime president” and help ensure his re-election, he wanted us to think of it the way our nation understood and reacted to the Japanese attack on our Pearl Harbor naval base in the US Territory of Hawaii in 1941.
.....On 9/11 we weren’t attacked by a foreign country. The government of Afghanistan then didn’t even know 9/11 was being planned: that planning took place in Germany, Pakistan and Florida.
Bin Laden just wrote the check; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan was the guy who actually organized and planned 9/11, and we’ve been holding him in Gitmo since 2003. If this was really about 9/11, our mission ended that year.
The government of Afghanistan didn’t contribute time, money, people or even their military to the 9/11 attack. They literally had no idea. We were attacked by a small but well-funded band of men mostly not even in Afghanistan — and definitely not by a government. Most of the hijackers were Saudi‘s; none were from Afghanistan.
President Biden’s speech Wednesday about American withdrawal from Afghanistan was welcome news, in one sense. Our part of the war will finally be over. But it’s 20 years too late. And his claim that we achieved our goals is absurd. The Taliban never lost control over key parts of Afghanistan and today controls or contests more of it than at almost any point since 2001. If it wanted to run terrorist camps, it always could.
But the Taliban is into terrorizing its own, not exporting it. It realized in 2001 that it had made a mistake, letting Osama in. It wants to run a second Saudi Arabia–a Wahhabi-hirsute theocracy as harsh and regressive as that of our friends the Saudis. It was doing so in 2001. Had it been left alone once Osama was chased off to his vacation rental in Pakistan (our ally), the Taliban would likely have been history by now, demolished by its own nihilism as surely as Saudi Arabia’s theocracy will self-destruct, once the oil runs out. But the American invasion gave the Taliban life. It turned tribal bandits deranged by religion into a nationalist force. Now it’ll walk on Kabul as surely as the North Vietnamese Army walked on Saigon in 1975. Put away those kites again, runners.
Let’s never forget that what we are watching happen right now in Afghanistan is the final act of George W. Bush‘s 2004 reelection strategy.
After 9/11 the Taliban offered to arrest Bin Laden, but Bush turned them down because he wanted to be a “wartime president” to have a “successful presidency.”
The Washington Post headline weeks after 9/11 put it succinctly: “Bush Rejects Taliban Offer On Bin Laden.” With that decision not to arrest and try Bin Laden for his crime but instead to go to war George W. Bush set the US and Afghanistan on a direct path to today.
Watching the swift fall of the Afghan government to the hands of the Taliban this weekend, my gut reaction is one I suspect may be true of most Americans watching this disaster unfold: If 20 years of occupation did diddly squat to set up Afghanistan for success, it's doubtful that another 20 years was going to do the trick.
"One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country," President Joe Biden, who unlike most Americans actually pays attention to the military and political details of the Afghanistan war, said in a statement released on Saturday. "I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth."
The mainstream media, needless to say, does not truck with Biden's.
The same media that embraces an often absurd allergy to the appearance of "bias" in domestic politics showed no similar modesty in letting enthusiasm for American imperialism fly over the weekend. Instead, the collapse of the Afghan government was portrayed as a massive political liability for Biden.
Jake Tapper of CNN described it as "a tragic foreign policy disaster unfold before our eyes" and described the White House as "flat-footed."
"Defiant and defensive, a president known for empathy takes a cold-eyed approach to Afghanistan debacle," blares Monday's front-page headline at the Washington Post. common-sense argument.
"'Clearly botched': Biden White House under assault on Afghanistan drawdown," reads a Politico headline.
"President Biden will go down in history, fairly or unfairly, as the president who presided over a humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan," reads a secondary headline at the New York Times.
"The debacle of the US defeat and chaotic retreat in Afghanistan is a political disaster for Joe Biden," declares the opening line of Monday's CNN analysis. A few paragraphs in, after most people have stopped reading, the analyst Stephen Collinson admits that the disaster actually "underscored [Biden's] core point" that "US visions of forging a functioning nation were illusory and that many more years of US involvement would not make any difference."
So, if Biden is right, why should we be so certain this is all a political disaster?
For those of us who remember well how the mainstream media enthusiasm for war helped fuel not just this ill-advised war in Afghanistan twenty years ago, but the even bigger debacle in Iraq, the current media narrative is both bewildering and exhausting.
To be clear, there are some errors Biden made in withdrawing. Critics focused on the Afghans trying to flee the country without help from Americans are 100% right, and every effort should be made to get refugees to safety. Still, this larger media outrage over the withdrawal is a dark reminder of the pro-war bias in the press that helped create this mess in the first place: luring the American public into thinking a war in Afghanistan could ever end in any other way.
For a time back in the bad old days of Donald Trump, it seemed as if the corporate “news” media had ever so slightly corrected their hard-wired rightward tilt. They were still awful when viewed from a progressive vantage point, and Fox News was going to Fox News no matter what, but as the daily grind of the Trump presidency grew into a roaring existential threat to the country, that media often said what needed saying, providing context, background, fact checks and experts by the score to warn against “normalizing” fascism.
Maybe it was only a sense of self-preservation that wrought the change — the news media are, of course, “the enemy of the people” according to Trump, and would have been a certain target of his wrath had he ever been able to fully slip the leash. Having the angry mob turn its eyes to you, knowing that they know your name, has a mystic way of concentrating the mind.
That appears to be over now as the world encompasses the sudden change of power in Afghanistan, and it’s ugly as hell.
The most striking thing about President Joe Biden's Tuesday speech about the sudden fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban was the underlying message to his Republican critics and their handmaidens in the Beltway press corp: Jesus Christ, start acting your age already.
"I want to remind everyone how we got here, and what America's interests are in Afghanistan," Biden said before he went on to level with viewers about how he "came to understand firsthand what was and was not possible in Afghanistan."
"Staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States" is no longer acceptable, Biden made clear.
It was sober-minded, realistic and frank. It's time now for the so-called adults to put away their G.I. Joes. Action movies are fun, but this is real life, and in real life, there are some problems that can't be fixed by rallying around the flag and punching the bad guys. It is time, in other words, to grow up.
Now contrast that with the infamous moment 16 months ago, when Donald Trump, faced with the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, declared that he had a "good you-know-what" while pointing at his head, and wondered out loud why doctors hadn't considered curing the disease by "cleaning" the lungs with an "injection" of bleach or other household disinfectants. (Reason: Those are poisons that would kill you.)
The gulf between the two men is tremendous in many ways, but this may be the biggest: Biden, when faced with an ugly but unavoidable situation, not only has the steel to make the hard decision but expects Americans to be mature adults about why things are the way they are. Trump, on the other hand, when faced with a similarly tough set of circumstances, spins off into a puerile fantasy where one quick fix makes it all go away.
And now the press is having a tantrum of their own in the face of Biden's tough words about how Afghanistan was always going to fail.
All the cable anchors join in depicting the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan (which is to say, the defeat of the U.S. in the war) as a tragedy. Is it not heartbreaking that the U.S. spent $800 billion in military expenditures in Afghanistan during the war, and another $200,000 billion in Pakistan? And that it spent $ 5 billion a year on economic aid? And that it created a force (on paper) of 300,000 troops, and provided them with the most up-to-date weapons and training for 20 years, only to see them buckle under the advance of a rag-tap bunch of militants with Kalashinovs? And that it built schools for girls (like the Soviets did) only to see them burned down?
And that in achieving all this it lost 2372 soldiers, and its allies lost 1147 soldiers? Is it not a waste?
The situation in Afghanistan deteriorated quickly over the weekend. The Taliban took control of its capital city last night. That co-op of regional warlords now has effective control of the country. The swift developments provide partisans here in the states plenty of reasons for being partisan. The Republicans are acting like the fall of Kabul is the same — politically, strategically, morally — as the fall of Saigon at the end of another forever war that had no point but cost us blood and treasure. Naturally, this puts the Democrats on the defensive. I'm no expert on military history. I'm no expert on international affairs. I do know, however, that partisanship often makes people say silly things.
I think it took a degree of courage for Joe Biden to end "the forever war." Decisions like this don't come without cost in every sense of the word. The president surely knew what was going to happen, though he probably could not have known how or how quickly it would. Given that uncertainty, it took courage. But contrary to what some liberals are saying in Biden's defense, I don't think it took that much courage.
I think instead it was a sound political calculation, like everything else. No matter how much money we pour into it, Afghanistan is just not in the mood, and may never be in the mood, to behave like a democratic nation-state. There is no such thing as "the national interest" in that country. (Even calling it a "country" is overstating things). There is no such thing as a moral belief in the fundamental equality between and among members of a political community dedicated to that very same national interest. Not even in theory. And that's not something you can buy. That "the president of Afghanistan" fled the country should be of no surprise after you understand that he was president on paper.
Thousands of dead Americans, tens of thousands of dead Afghans, $2 trillion down the toilet, a Taliban victory that leaves America’s international reputation in shambles. This disaster didn’t happen by itself. Political and military leaders, aided and abetted by the news media, are responsible and should be held accountable. Voters let themselves be led by the nose—and they should take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror because what they did and didn’t do caused many people to die.
Antiwar heroes deserve recognition and respect for telling us not to go into Afghanistan and, after we did, to get out despite being marginalized and ridiculed. They were lonely. Despite widespread reports of casualties among Afghan civilians and the glaring fact that the Taliban had nothing to do with 9/11, 88% of Americans—Democrats and Republicans alike—supported George W. Bush’s war three weeks after U.S. bombs began raining down on Kabul.
Let’s celebrate the good guys.
During the fall of 2001 tens of thousands of demonstrators marched against the war in Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and other U.S. cities. The marchers were too few and too peaceful to move the needle. But the judgment of history is now final: the tiny minority who opposed invading Afghanistan were morally right and correctly skeptical about the outcome. If you know any of these true American heroes, thank them for their service and buy them a drink.
While nationalist nimrods drove around with their cars idiotically festooned by American flags, intelligent and ethical individuals spoke out for what was right. “Under the [U.N.] charter, a country can use armed force against another country only in self-defense or when the [U.N.] Security Council approves,” said Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild. “Neither of those conditions was met before the United States invaded Afghanistan. The Taliban did not attack us on 9/11. Nineteen men —15 from Saudi Arabia — did, and there was no imminent threat that Afghanistan would attack the U.S. or another U.N. member country. The council did not authorize the United States or any other country to use military force against Afghanistan. The U.S. war in Afghanistan is illegal.”
Tom Friedman knows a hell of a lot more about anything international than I do. He also doesn't claim to know it all, including how Biden's choice to leave Afghanistan now after two-decades of fruitless years will work out in the long run. General military, political, and media opinion seems to be that we should have hung on another twenty or more years, otherwise all the deaths and injuries incurred by us and our allies will have been in vain. How much longer should we have stayed, and what would have needed to change there before all the human carnage of the past, and from the war's continuance, would have finally been rewarded? And reward for whom? The dead will remain dead. Hundreds of additional American soldiers will join them in death. The mangled bodies of the injured will remain mangled with as many American soldier's lost and torn body parts replaced as medical science can manage.