The Morning Jolt

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Blinken’s Hollow Assurances on Afghanistan

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the release of the “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” at the State Department in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via Reuters)

On the menu today: The plight of Americans and Afghans still trapped in that country is rapidly disappearing from the news cycle, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken offers implausible answers on Capitol Hill; and the Biden administration’s cynical bet about the short attention span of the American public appears to be paying off.

A Blinken Warning Light about American Commitments

Yesterday’s edition of the Morning Jolt did not include the daily reminder that at least 100 American citizens, an unknown but considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

But that reminder was almost superfluous in light of yesterday afternoon’s interview with Jean Marie Thrower, discussing the ongoing efforts of her group, the Afghan Rescue Crew, and the horrifying stories of what the Taliban is doing to innocent Afghans in its brutal campaign of retribution. I urge you to read it, but recognize that it is not for the faint of heart.

ARC is one of several private groups attempting to get Americans, green-card holders, and Afghan allies out of the country; others include No One Left Behind, Digital Dunkirk, Allied Airlift 21, Hearts and Homes for Refugees, Samaritan’s Purse, the “Pineapple Express,” and more. If you want to do something in what seems like a hopeless situation, those groups welcome all the help they can get.

Unfortunately, the plight of Americans and Afghans still trapped in that country is rapidly disappearing from the news cycle. Public interest appears to be waning even as Congress is still trying to get answers to basic questions, such as how many Americans are left in the country, what is the administration’s plan to get them out — it appears there is none — and where all of the administration’s much-touted leverage over the Taliban is, now that we desperately need it.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified on Capitol Hill yesterday, and while no Biden administration official could effectively defend the decision-making of recent months, Blinken couldn’t have done much worse if he had shown up in a clown suit and mimed this testimony.

Blinken contended that the number of Americans in Afghanistan is hard to say because it keeps changing, and that it would be several weeks before the State Department could give specific numbers:

On the American citizens who wish to leave, the number’s about one hundred. It is hard to give a real time number at any given moment, because it is very fluid, by which I mean this: some people — and we are in direct contact with this group — some for a very understandable reason are changing their mind from day-to-day about whether or not they want to leave. Others continue, even now, to raise their hands and say, ‘I am an American citizen in Afghanistan,’ someone who would not identify themselves before.

This does not explain why Blinken could not say something along the lines of, “As of 6 a.m. this morning, the State Department was in contact with 113 American citizens trying to leave the country.” How much could the number be changing from day to day? Blinken and the administration’s steadfast refusal to give any figure beyond “about 100” is evasive and arouses suspicion that the number is higher than they’re willing to admit.

Blinken continued:

The SIV numbers, that we are tabulating right now, trying to account for everyone who has come in, some people remain in transit, other people are now in the United States. We are putting all of those numbers together to determine, but the overwhelming majority of Afghans who have come out of Afghanistan thanks to our evacuation efforts are, in one way or another, Afghans at risk. Some will be — SIV applicants and others will be P1 or P2 applicants — others will be in none of those categories. We are breaking down those numbers and we should have a breakdown in the next couple of weeks.

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said the numbers he had obtained suggested a colossal failure to get Special Immigrant Visa-holding Afghans out:

Here are the numbers that I have, the best that I have as the Ranking Member on the Homeland Security Committee, where we’ve pushed and pushed and pushed. 18,000 applicants for SIV. We got 705 out.” That would amount to an evacuation rate of less than 4 percent. Portman added, “the best numbers we have is that about three-quarters of the people who were evacuated were not green card holders, were not American citizens, were not SIV applicants, were not P1 or P2 visa holders.

The Afghans we evacuated may well have been at risk, as Blinken contended; lots of people, including all women in Afghanistan, are “at risk” right now. But they were not necessarily the Afghans that our government had promised to prioritize.

As Blinken offered hollow assurances about the security threats, other administration officials were admitting that the situation was rapidly getting worse:

Blinken said the administration would hold the Taliban, which hosted and protected Osama bin Laden and top members of his al-Qaida network as they plotted the 9/11 strikes, to their promises not to allow Afghanistan to be used again as a base for terrorist attacks.

But as he spoke, U.S. intelligence officials said al-Qaida may be only 12 to 24 months from reconstituting itself in Afghanistan to pose a significant threat to the United States.

Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, who leads the Defense Intelligence Agency, gave that estimate while speaking at the Intelligence & National Security Summit. Meanwhile, David Cohen, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the U.S. already had detected “some of the indications of some potential movement of al-Qaida to Afghanistan.”

Biden insisted that the withdrawal from Afghanistan would make Americans safer, but so far we’ve seen 13 members of the U.S. armed services killed, all of those American citizens and green-card holders trapped and under threat of being captured and tortured to death, and al-Qaeda returning to Afghanistan. This should be an above-the-fold, page-one story from coast to coast.

But it’s easy for Afghanistan to be forgotten when there are other big events happening, such as the news that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pledged to warn his Chinese counterpart about any U.S. attackswait, which country signs his paycheck? — and California governor Gavin Newsom’s easily surviving his recall attempt. Even the death of Norm Macdonald is a shock, the kind of unexpected celebrity death that forces us to pause and think of all the times his outrageous deadpan triggered the giggles that overwhelmed us. And then there are the comparably silly stories, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dress at the Met Gala.

The Biden administration bet that no matter how badly the Afghanistan withdrawal went, the vast majority of Americans would move on and eventually forget about it. Day by day, that looks like a safer bet. Unless the problem is something on the scale of the pandemic, an event that impacts and alters the lives of just about everyone on a continuing basis, every great controversy fades from the news after a few days. The situation at the border turns into a disaster, but the news cycle moves on. Economic indicators of inflation drive Americans’ grocery bills much higher, but the news cycle moves on. Documents reveal that Dr. Anthony Fauci lied, or at minimum was highly misleading, in his testimony to Congress, but the news cycle moves on. The U.S. intelligence community offers a terse and vague two-page summary of a 90-day review into the origins of COVID-19, but the news cycle moves on.

Don Henley wrote the spectacularly cynical song, “In the Garden of Allah,” back in the 1990s, shaped by the O. J. Simpson trial. The song depicts the Devil arriving in Los Angeles and finding, to his frustration and sadness, he has no more work to do: “Because there are no facts, there is no truth, just data to be manipulated. I can get you any result you like; what’s it worth to ya? Because there is no wrong, there is no right. And I sleep very well at night. No shame, no solution, no remorse, no retribution.”

The only time since the end of August that Biden has discussed Afghanistan was with reporters at a firehouse in Shanksville, Pa., on 9/11:

After al Qaeda was wiped out there — can al Qaeda come back? Yeah. But guess what? It’s already back in other places. What’s the strategy? Every place where al Qaeda is we’re going to invade and have troops stay there? Come on. Anyway. So, I just think that — and, again, what people are — as I read it, I’m told, people — 70 percent of the American people think it was time to get out of Afghanistan — spending all of that money.

But the flip of it is, they didn’t like the way we got out. But it’s hard to explain to anybody how else could you get out. For example, if we were in Tajikistan and we pulled up with a C-130 and said, ‘We’re going to let, you know, anybody who was involved with being sympathetic to us to get on the plane,’ you’d have people hanging in the wheel well. Come on.

In his eyes, we’re all so unreasonable in our expectations. No shame, and no solution.

ADDENDUM: Michael Brendan Dougherty with a point that ought to be heeded far and wide, but won’t be: “A normal way of saying [Gavin] Newsom “controls the entire state machinery while being backed by corporate media and big tech” is to say that he has the power of incumbency, and the support of powerful interests. We shouldn’t conflate the reality of long unfavorable odds with ‘fixed games’ and a stolen election. I may not be able to convince partisans that our fellow citizens are owed the truth. And if I can’t, I’d still argue that partisans — for their own reasons — should not want to remain deluded and in denial about their position.”

It’s always easier to convince yourself that your opponent cheated than to accept that you lost.

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