The Weekend Jolt

National Security & Defense

Afghanistan’s Thin Blue Line Dissolves

Women with their children try to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 16, 2021. (Stringer/Reuters)

Dear Weekend Jolter,

This has been a week of searing images. The lone U.S. transport helicopter flying over Kabul during a chaotic evacuation. Desperate Afghans clinging to the side of a U.S. military jet as it takes off, several of them dying trying. This picture of a smiling little girl whose spirit in a single frame defies circumstance (posted by my former colleague Hollie McKay and photog Jacob Simkin). Crowds passing babies overhead, toward soldiers clustered at the airport walls.

When words can’t capture the ignominy of this moment, the pictures can.

One can’t help but wonder what ordinary Afghans think upon seeing the swarm on the Kabul airport tarmac, a scene that will long outlast the tortured explanations from the Biden administration in the world’s collective memory. One can’t help but wonder if America has just lost a generation of would-be supporters — their hearts and their minds.

This writer has never been an advocate of “endless wars” and opposed that in Iraq, but rarely do we realize so clearly, and immediately, the consequences of keeping no footprint at all. In a characteristically incisive appraisal, Senator Ben Sasse explained on these digital pages the false choice that was presented to the public in this regard:

The politicians and pundits who make excuses for this shameful retreat will dishonestly claim that it was this or fighting so-called “forever wars.” They pretend that our only choices were a massive occupation or an immediate withdrawal. . . .

Politicians don’t tell this truth: America didn’t have a nation-building occupation force in Afghanistan. The last time we had 100,000 troops in the country was a decade ago. We’re not waging “endless wars” in Afghanistan any more than we’re waging endless wars in South Korea, Germany, or Japan — or Kosovo, or Honduras, or any number of other nations where we have forward-deployed forces. A relatively small number of troops has successfully supported our Afghan allies by providing the backbone for intelligence and special-operations missions. Americans weren’t building empires or fighting unwinnable battles. We were defending airfields and decapitating terror organizations while keeping a light footprint.

Biden is not the only author of the Afghanistan catastrophe. As Andrew McCarthy recalls, Donald Trump’s Taliban agreement, forged by negotiations that sidelined the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, laid the groundwork. But the pullout was executed on Biden’s watch, and it’s hard to imagine it having gone worse. The president’s interview in which he chided George Stephanopoulos for bringing up the airport images because that was “five days ago” was the photo negative of presidential, and unsettling. His jaw-dropping address — in which he painted the bedlam as vindication, and articulated a four-word subtext: You’re On Your Own — is a speech that will live in American infamy.

As John McCormack and NR’s editorial note, Biden glossed over the immense impact the withdrawal of U.S. air support had on the Afghan military’s ability to function. The editors write:

Biden emphasized how much assistance we’ve given the Afghan army, including crucial air and logistical support. Once we pulled those away with no viable substitutes, though, it was going to be difficult for the Afghan army to continue to operate in the best of circumstances, let alone in the face of a sweeping Taliban offensive with the U.S. washing its hands of the conflict.

Biden, of course, never acknowledged that we had denied these things to the Afghan army and the role that played in its calamitous defeat.

If anything, this debacle has shown what a relatively small U.S. presence can accomplish. Much as rising violent crime in American cities has demonstrated why “defund the coppers” is a poor strategy for public safety, the tableau on the tarmac makes plain the perils of total withdrawal after such a deep military commitment.

My colleague Brian Allen (NR’s art critic, and a worldly follower of world affairs) dug up and shared this 2007 op-ed by Rory Stewart which contains some applicable passages. In it, the former U.K. MP and member of Theresa May’s administration, and author of a beautiful book about his own hike across Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago, argued that, at the time, surging troops into Afghanistan would repeat the mistakes of Iraq. He advocated a middle way.

Stewart wrote, “The intervention in Afghanistan has gone far better than that in Iraq largely because the American-led coalition has limited its ambitions and kept a light footprint, leaving the Afghans to run their own affairs,” and concluded that the “best hope” in that part of the world is to “continue to manage the country through a light civil and military presence.”

Could the U.S. have continued to maintain a light presence, indefinitely? This would have required unraveling Trump’s agreement. The political feasibility is questionable given rising isolationist tendencies on the left and right, largely a product of the aughts’ neocon free-for-all. And it’s possible more troops would be required anyway.

But here we have reductio ad absurdum in action. Not doing so has resulted in the betrayal of our allies, a likely humanitarian disaster, a logistical nightmare on the ground that has left many Americans stranded for now, the certain revival of a theocratic and extremist government with no qualms about harboring terror cells with international reach, and unspeakable damage to our nation’s image that will hurt intelligence-gathering and embolden the likes of Xi Jinping at a time when his international credibility is otherwise on the ebb.

Afghanistan is lost. The Taliban reign. Our foreign policy now is to keep our fingers crossed.

NAME. RANK. LINK.

EDITORIALS

The tragic, demoralizing, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan did not have to be this way: Joe Biden’s Afghanistan Debacle

And the president’s address on this disaster did not help matters: Biden’s Shameful Afghanistan Speech

Accountability can, and should, start here: Milley and Austin Should Resign

In the meantime, it is imperative that we not only evacuate Americans but help those Afghans who risked their lives to help us: Yes, Bring the Afghans Who Helped Us

ARTICLES

Ben Sasse: Worse Than Saigon

Dan McLaughlin: No American Military Leader Should Ever Say What Lloyd Austin Said

Jim Geraghty: Democrats Finally Get Comfortable Saying Obama Is a Jerk

Jim Geraghty: Something Is Wrong with the President

Kathryn Jean Lopez: The Fall of Andrew Cuomo Is Not the End of the Problem

Charles C. W. Cooke: The Democratic Party Can’t Have It Both Ways on Afghanistan

Charles C. W. Cooke: Biden Took Ownership of the Disastrous Afghanistan Withdrawal Months Ago

Andrew Stuttaford: The Damage Won’t Be Contained to Afghanistan

Ken Buck: Reckless Spending Is Washington’s Bipartisan Sport

Rich Lowry: President Biden’s Man-Made Disasters

Andrew McCarthy: Remembering the Shameful Trump-Taliban ‘Peace’ Agreement

Don Bentley: Afghanistan — Was It Worth It? A Veteran’s Perspective

Alexandra DeSanctis: Loudoun County School Board Enacts Wide-Ranging ‘Gender Identity’ Policy

Caroline Downey: Socialist Editor Crushes Labor Organizing Effort at Leftist Magazine

John McCormack: Why Did the United States Abandon Bagram Airfield?

Brittany Bernstein: One of the First Troops to Enter Afghanistan after 9/11 Reflects on an ‘American Disaster’

Mario Loyola: Back to Square One in the War on Terror

CAPITAL MATTERS

Casey Mulligan argues that inflation largely is not Biden’s fault, even if his policies will impose harms elsewhere: Inflation Is Not Biden’s Fault

On that point, Eric Grover sees many factors including deficit spending at work — and he’s worried this is not a hiccup: Is Inflation Really Transitory?

With the status of the pandemic impossible to classify — over? almost over? coming back? over for some and not for others, indefinitely? — good luck guessing where the market’s going. From Sami J. Karam: The Market in Purgatory

LIGHTS. CAMERA. REVIEW.

Finn from the still-going Star Wars franchise has transitioned into social-justice movies, and Armond White is not amused: John Boyega’s Fallen Star

Kyle Smith takes us through the twists, turns, and apocryphal brushstrokes surrounding a painting that sold to Saudi’s MBS for $450 million: Hype, Fraud, and Leonardo da Vinci

Brian Allen starts at the beginning — the very beginning — with his review of a Mesopotamia show, for which the Getty collaborated with the Louvre. Have a look: Mesopotamia Show at the Getty Teaches History, with Style

AND NOW, YOUR ENTRÉE, THE EXCERPTS

Without further introduction, considering this newsletter has been mostly devoted to the issue anyway, here’s more from NR’s editorial on Afghanistan:

The Biden administration prides itself on its alleged professionalism, especially in contrast to its predecessor, but this was rank ineptitude that made the situation much worse for no reason.

Does the stunning rapidity of the collapse of the Afghan government and security forces mean, as some on the anti-interventionist right have argued, that this entire 20-year-long chapter was misbegotten? There’s no doubt that we were often ignorant and naïve about Afghanistan, and the tribal, balkanized nature of the country was a formidable obstacle to the development of coherent, self-sustaining national institutions. Still, with the U.S. in a support role, Afghan government forces were able to fight and hold off the Taliban for years.

The problem was that the Afghan army was built on a foundation of U.S. air support and maintenance, and when those were removed, its forces instantly became less capable. On top of this, the signal sent by Biden’s headlong retreat had a devastating effect on Afghan morale from the top on down. Factor in a politically maladroit Afghan government and endemic corruption, and once the Taliban began to roll up government surrenders in the provinces, their offensive took on a life of its own.

We went to Afghanistan in the first place only because the September 11 attacks emanated from there. Two decades later, the Taliban still have a relationship with al-Qaeda, and the country will certainly once again become a base for terrorist plotting against the U.S. and its interests. In 2001, the Taliban didn’t control the north of the country, but this time they have taken it all, with U.S. intelligence and our ability to undertake counterterrorism strikes both significantly degraded.

This is a debacle and, more than most acts of the U.S. government, it is the responsibility of one man — Joseph Robinette Biden.

Biden contends that chaos was unavoidable. But John McCormack asks whether at least some of this could have been mitigated by keeping control of Bagram:

“If you want to conduct an evacuation, you don’t do it from an airport that’s literally almost in the heart of the city,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tells National Review. “A military planner would know that as soon as things started going south in Kabul, and the Taliban was on the march, that that airport [Karzai International] would be flooded.”

“You can’t secure that airport properly,” he says.

That fact was made all too apparent to people around the world on Monday morning when they woke up to horrifying videos of Afghan civilians clinging to a departing U.S. military aircraft — and then falling several hundred feet from the aircraft to their deaths.

Going back to the spring, following Biden’s withdrawal announcement, Roggio says he’s made the case for holding and evacuating from Bagram in conversations with U.S. “military and intelligence officials whose voices should have been heard by upper-echelons of leadership.”

Biden owns the mess in Afghanistan, but Andy McCarthy explains how his predecessor is an accomplice:

The Trump–Taliban agreement is disgraceful.

To begin with, the Trump administration negotiated directly with the Taliban. The U.S.-backed Afghan regime may have been formally, physically ousted from power on Biden’s watch Sunday, but it was effectively nullified when the Trump administration, in the former president’s haste to pull out regardless of the security costs, cut the regime out of his negotiations with the Taliban. That is why the Trump administration had to squeeze the (now-departed) government in Kabul to release the 5,000 prisoners: The regime was not part of the agreement and was fighting for its survival against the Taliban that would be fortified by the jailbreak.

Sixteen times the February 29, 2020, agreement refers to the Taliban by the name they used to brand themselves as the country’s legitimate government: “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Clownishly, with each utterance of that phrase, the Trump State Department added a qualification, so it reads: “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban.” That includes the pact’s laughable title “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America.”

Can you imagine taking pains 16 times in a three-and-a-half-page document to indulge by its preferred name a terrorist negotiating partner that you claim not to recognize — while excluding the actual government you’re purporting to back? It is fraudulence raised to self-parody. And, indeed, the agreement is fraud through and through.

Dan McLaughlin gets right to the heart of why Defense Secretary Austin’s response to a question about rescuing Americans was so disheartening:

Worst of all, at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday, when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was asked about the U.S. military’s capability to get its citizens out of Afghanistan, his answer was jaw-dropping: “We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people.” You have to watch Austin deliver this line to grasp its full air of defeatism about a place where our military has moved about with some impunity for two decades, while General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a fellow Army lifer, stood by looking as if someone had just shot his dog.

The best Austin could offer was a promise to try, at least for a while: “We’re gonna get everyone that we can possibly evacuate evacuated, and I’ll do that as long as we possibly can, until the clock runs out, or we run out of capability. . . . I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul.”

This is unacceptable. This is un-American. This is not what our Army is about. Can you imagine, say, Norman Schwarzkopf — to say nothing of Dwight Eisenhower or Douglas MacArthur — giving that answer? What is wrong with these men? What have they been doing with the $700 billion we spend on national defense? What do they think that money is for, if not to protect Americans in danger, be they at home or abroad, civilians or military?

And most importantly, here’s a veteran’s perspective, from Don Bentley:

Was it worth it?

I don’t know anymore. I want to believe that our initial foray into Afghanistan was just. That destroying al-Qaeda and giving the Afghan people the chance to live free was noble and worthy of our highest ideals. But the shadow of the years that followed is impossible to ignore. Years of squandered blood and treasure. Those years drive doubt into the hearts of men.

Which brings us back to the fall of Kabul. While I don’t know if the two decades in Afghanistan were worth the terrible price, I do know this — those of us who answered our nation’s call deserved a better ending. We deserved a resolution without mass executions and bodies falling from planes to the backdrop of a beautiful blue sky. To my fellow veterans, to the quarter of a percent who willingly bore this crushing weight without fanfare or complaint, you are the very best of us. Your sacrifice will not be forgotten.

And another, from Brittany Bernstein’s interview with retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Don Bolduc:

“This is an American disaster,” Bolduc said in an interview with National Review. “But this was a decision by President Biden and he’s the one that’s going to have to assume responsibility for it.” . . .

While the retired general said he was an advocate of shifting the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan and acknowledged that it was “inevitable” for the U.S. to create a plan to transition security and governance responsibilities to the Afghans, the way Biden handled the withdrawal was “absolutely irresponsible” and “should not have been done this way.”

Shout-Outs

Hollie McKay, at The World of War, Crimes + Crises: Dispatches from Afghanistan: The future of women in a fallen nation

Josh Rogin, at the Washington Post: Biden must rescue thousands of U.S. citizens trapped in Afghanistan

Jonah Goldberg, at The Dispatch: How the U.S. Made the Afghan Collapse Inevitable

Adam Kredo, at the Washington Free Beacon: Biden State Dept Moved to Abolish Crisis Response Bureau Months Before Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan

CODA

This doesn’t seem like a fitting week for a song, but the inertia of routine demands it, and one can’t quarrel with that. So the song should fit the mood, at the very least. And the mood is dour.

Speaking of Radiohead . . .

The other day, a Slack conversation with Mr. Cooke about the band rekindled my appreciation for OK Computer, by any measure an enormously influential and remarkable album. And “Exit Music (for a Film)” is not only one of the most gripping pieces of music ever written, the title is somewhat apt for this occasion.

Okay, okay (computer), the song was actually written about Romeo and Juliet, for the 1996 film, not about a military withdrawal.

But listen:

Today, we escape, we escape.

Pack and get dressed,
Before your father hears us,

Before all hell breaks loose.

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