Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Afghanistan Briefly Returns to the Public Consciousness, and No One Knows Anything

by Neil H. Buchanan

Suddenly, everyone needs to talk about Afghanistan.  TV and print pundits who clearly know nothing about what is happening in that country -- including the supposedly sober-minded journalists who front straight news desks -- are all opining about what went wrong.  I am not saying that everyone is repeating the same stupid things, or even that everyone's take has been stupid, but there is certainly a lot of uninformed BS flying through the virtual air right now.

Here at Dorf on Law, Afghanistan has hardly been a focus of our concern over the years.  Although we published ten or twelve columns about that country in some of the years in the 2007 through 2011 period, we (like almost everyone else) have said next to nothing at all about Afghanistan since then, even as our country's longest war dragged into the third decade of this millennium.  Our only mention of Afghanistan thus far in 2021 was in a column that I wrote in April discussing bothsidesism, where one of my examples mentioned that Washington Post columnist Max Boot had criticized Joe Biden's Afghanistan policy.  Our one column to mention Afghanistan in all of 2020 and our lone such column in 2019 were not at all devoted to anything remotely resembling foreign policy analysis, simply name-checking Afghanistan in the course of making unrelated arguments.

And this is appropriate, given that our writings follow the public conversation (broadly speaking), which has similarly ignored Afghanistan -- and especially given that neither Professor Dorf nor I happen to have any directly relevant expertise.  Now that it has become all but required for everyone to have a reaction to what is happening, however, I am going to do my best to stay in my lane while calling out others who clearly know even less than I do about the Graveyard of Empires.  Once this kind of thing becomes a public pile-on, it is unsurprising that there is a lot of obviously wrong nonsense out there.
 
In no particular order:

1. Just to lay my cards on the table, I was one of the people who, more from a general familiarity with U.S. foreign policy failures than from any special expertise, opposed the Afghanistan invasion from the beginning.  I recall having an argument a few years later, in 2004, with a left-leaning friend, where we found ourselves disagreeing about whether Afghanistan was the "good war," in contrast with the Iraq catastrophe.  Afghanistan always made me queasy, mostly because it was obvious from the beginning that the U.S. had no reason to think that it could impose its will there any more successfully than previous world powers had done.  Everything that we have seen, even if we were wiling to credit some of the lying from the U.S. military and intelligence services, has suggested to me that this was going to end exactly as it has ended.  I am hardly alone in that assessment.

2. This is almost certainly not going to have any durable impact on U.S. politics.  The people who are claiming that this will be an "indelible stain" on Biden, or that the Administration's other plans are going to be derailed by this, are imagining things.  Despite the current drama and genuine human toll, Americans barely pay attention even to much more extreme foreign crises.  This is insider thumb-sucking to an even greater degree than usual.  (The same goes for the idea that "the world will never trust us after this.")

3. Republicans are being even more dishonest and opportunistic than usual.  Some of them are blaming this situation on wokeness, somehow, because that is now what they do in all situations.  House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who knows less about Afghanistan than he does about every other issue, which means that he knows less than nothing, is simply hoping that he and others in his party can score cheap points.  One of my senators has suggested that Biden should be removed from office because of this.

This is all the more ridiculous because those same Republicans were cheering when Donald Trump set the Afghanistan end-game in motion, a process that Biden actually stretched out by a few extra months.  Was this going to go better if it had started on May 1, especially if Trump had still been in office?  Given that Republicans (and Trump) are now busy deleting tweets and any other evidence they can find that implicates them in this, even they evidently do not believe so.
 
4. That said, some non-Republicans are saying that Biden should not have adhered to what Trump set up.  This, at least, is coherent.  "You're trying to change direction on the environment, taxes, race, and so much else.  Why stick with your predecessor on a policy that was doomed for failure?"  The problem is that, as Biden has pointed out, the policy was no more doomed for failure than its alternative.  Trump happened to get it right about ending an endless foreign engagement.  Biden has explained very cogently why it made no sense to say that what happened this month would not have happened a year, 5 years, or 20 years from now.  It is a situation in which we have been holding back the tide, but there was going to be no "winning."
 
5. The closest anyone has come to a logically coherent argument in response to Biden's decision to end the U.S. military operation goes like this: "Yes, we have no reason to think that a U.S. pullout would have gone been any better a year or more from now than in 2021, but why pull out at all?"  As Max Boot pointed out a few days ago, while blaming "this preventable disaster" on Biden:
U.S. forces are still present in far larger numbers in countries such as Germany, Japan and South Korea after more than 70 years. There was nothing foreordained about the withdrawal of 2,500 U.S. advisers in Afghanistan. Indeed, the United States is maintaining a similar-size mission in Iraq with almost no controversy.
But the U.S. is not maintaining troop presences in Germany, Japan, or South Korea in an effort to hold back a Taliban-like existential threat to those governments.  It might or might not be a good idea to continue with those deployments, but they can at least be justified within the context of overall U.S. geopolitical and military strategy.  And saying that 2500 "advisors" in Iraq justifies 2500 American troops in Afghanistan proves far too much.  Where else should we station 2500 Americans (who have families at home)?

Indeed, we could look at humanitarian disasters in any number of countries and say that we should intervene there as well.  Biden made the excellent point earlier this year that we should all be horrified by China's treatment of the Uighurs, but that does not mean that we should invade China.  I certainly believe in using power to do good things, but "we can leave 2500 American military personnel in this country, because we've been doing it all along" is not an argument.

6. There is no reason to think that the 2500 number would have been enough.  That was only the most recent drawn-down total, with more than 10,000 Americans stationed there as recently as December 2019.  If Biden had tried to reverse course and freeze in place with "only" 2500 American lives in the direct line of fire, contravening Trump's agreement with the Taliban, that would almost surely have resulted in an attack on the reduced American force.  And that would have resulted in either another troop surge in response, or the same outcome that we are seeing now.
 
7. There is always a way to conveniently invoke liberal talking points disingenuously.  As I noted earlier this year, for example, Lindsey Graham, the morally vacant Senator from South Carolina, once tried to argue against a loan forgiveness program for Black farmers by saying: "[I]f you're a white person, if you are a white woman, no forgiveness. That's reparations."  See?  Feminism!  Similarly, people are suddenly aware that there are women and girls in Afghanistan, saying that the Taliban's horribleness justifies keeping the U.S. militarily involved.

This is where actual expertise -- and even better, experience -- matters.  Unlike most of the issues that I am discussing here, where I am doing little more than pointing out the logical holes in the hot-take arguments that other people are tossing about, I do not see any way around asking what the people involved actually want. By way of comparison, I recall in the 1980's that Ronald Reagan led the Republican Party in opposing sanctions on South Africa, based on the convenient justification that such sanctions would hurt the very people whom well-meaning liberals thought they were helping. To which Archbishop Desmond Tutu said something to the effect of: "Since when did you start to care so much about us?"  He understood that sanctions would hurt his people, but he argued that it was a price worth paying.

There is no Desmond Tutu for Afghanistan, but it is at least worth noting the argument that "feminist groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan ... in 2001 made clear that the U.S. occupation would neither free them from fundamentalist violence, nor deliver democracy. They were right. If only we had believed them."
 
The point is that Afghanistan presents us with no good options.  "But what about the women and girls?" -- even when argued by non-hypocrites -- is at best a reason to stop and ask how much can be done to help them.  Again, there are a lot of people in the world in terrible situations.  We should feel for all of them.  But even beyond the possibility that local advocates might not want the military protection to continue, it is unclear what to do with free-floating appeals to help truly sympathetic groups.  That is not as harsh as it sounds, even though it does require being honest that not every wrong can be prevented.
 
8. Biden was also right to say that the supposed "renewed threat" of terrorism is no reason for the U.S. to have maintained a military presence in Afghanistan.  There are plenty of places around the world in which terrorist activity is potentially brewing, and we run counter-terrorism operations without a troop presence in almost all of them.  That is not to say that people will not scream if there is a terrorist attack, but the politics for Biden will be terrible after such an attack no matter what.  If that terrible day happens, we will definitely find even some non-Republicans screaming: "See?  This is what his terrible handling of the Afghanistan collapse brought us!"  But if he had completely changed course before the hypothetical terrorist act, it would have been: "See?  This is what his terrible decision to continue the Afghanistan military operation brought us!"  Or, for that matter, the response need not even make a modicum of sense: "See?  This is what his fixation on COVID brought us!"  Post-terrrorist-attack politics can only be ugly.
 
9. Some people are saying that "Biden was probably/definitely right to end the military presence, but he handled it disastrously."  Maybe, but I have yet to see anyone explain how it should have been handled, specifically (other than "better").  Again, Biden provided a few extra months for the Afghan Army to prepare.  Seeing the chaos at Kabul's airport and panicked people trying to save their families' lives is heartbreaking, but there was always going to be a point at which the transition could go badly.  It is like when people who are holding up a wall finally pull back, nervously hoping that it will not collapse, but then it does.

I should add that I find this last argument at least to be the most plausible among those on offer.  I honestly find it surprising that I agree with Biden so completely about his moves re Afghanistan.  Frequent readers of my columns know that I am the opposite of a Biden apologist, so I am more than ready to hear a convincing criticism of all or part of the Administration's actions (in any policy arena).  At this point, Biden's people should certainly be doing all that they can to help the people who can be helped -- not only those who assisted the U.S. military, but anyone with a creditable claim to refugee status.
 
I am not saying, in other words, that there is nothing more to be done.  I am, however, saying, that even the people who are not pure partisans who are criticizing the collapse in Afghanistan are not making arguments that stand up to scrutiny.  The world is a terrible place, and the people who are unlucky enough to be in Afghanistan have suffered more than most.  "Bad things happened, and the President is to blame, because he obviously could have made it better" is the most mindless response to a crisis, and too many supposedly informed people are lapsing into magical thinking.

10. The title of today's column is: "Afghanistan Briefly Returns to the Public Consciousness, and No One Knows Anything."  I could have added, after the word "Anything": (Including Me).  Even though I do not know much about Afghanistan, however, I know illogical, incomplete, and unsupported arguments when I see them.  And they are currently plentiful.
 
As I noted above, however, this moment will pass.  We will soon be back to arguing about whether the tax laws should be enforced, why Joe Manchin so badly misunderstands politics, and how to increase COVID vaccination rates.  Yay?

7 comments:

Jason S. Marks said...

Excellent post Professor. You have said much of what has been rolling through my mind these last few days.

I think the one issue that really needs vetting is the matter of intelligence on the ground. Did the Pentagon and State Department both know how fast the Taliban would take over? I would have thought as a matter of common sense it would happen like dominos given the history of the region. If so, why did the exodus of Americans and Afghan allies like translators not occur much earlier and with more speed? Also, why the immigration hangups? If we have the identification of all the translators, they should have been issued asylum visas immediately. These types of administrative issues should be examined because they may have or could in the future lead to civilian casualties.

The coverage has been exhibit 1 in why talking heads on 24 hour cable news may be one of the worst developments in our civilization in the last hundred years.

Greg said...

In foreign policy (unlike with the voting rights act) path-dependence doesn't bother me. In my mind, once you choose to intervene in a humanitarian disaster, especially militarily, you create an implicit obligation to see it through until some reasonable form of stability can be created. When intervening and then leaving the power vacuum left over is often far worse than what was there when you started, and so cleaning up your own mess is one of the sources for this obligation.

As for holding back the tide, we've been holding back the tide in Korea for 70 years.

One thing I'll concede is that withdrawing from any bad situation always looks bad for the President that does it. Maybe leaving was the right thing to do, but it's not obvious, and always difficult to save face doing it. I wouldn't withdraw like this unless I was a 2nd term President.

egarber said...

I think the notion that we could ever invade our way to eradicating terrorism in that part of the world was always fantasy thinking. Jihadists to this day believe they are defending their lands and culture against Western occupation. In thinking they were coming after us just because of who we are, the Hawks were simply wrong, based on expertise from those who really understand the motivations of Al Qaeda and ISIS. With a proper understanding of the dynamics, the real effort should have been to lead the world off oil: our thirst for it generates the very funding streams that keep these terrorist groups afloat. We have to be pals with the Saudis because the global market needs its oil to be stable, yet the Saudis funnel those revenues to Sunni terrorist groups. It's pretty self defeating.

And all the while, we invaded Iraq and keep focusing on Iran, both Shia nations essentially at war against the Sunnis of Al Qaeda, etc. So much complex history in that part of the world. And I just can't help but think that the W team was basically like, "they're all just Arabs*- what's the difference?"

*Even that's not true, since Persians make up a huge part of Iran.

Having said that, I don't think we should disengage from international efforts to promote human rights over there. Though Bush was wrong thinking we could invade our way to such liberation, he was absolutely right (imo) in advocating that we need to defend the marginalized. If I'm Biden, I'm full offense on international pressure to protect women in Afghanistan, for example.

egarber said...

I also wonder if this generates a resurgence of Hawk-ish thinking in the Republican Party - which could become another wedge between traditional members and the Trump base. A lot of those former Hawks are still there (L Graham, et al) and have been presumably biting their tongues.

egarber said...

Note: Hawks should be lowercase above. I’m too lazy to delete and repost. :)

Michael A Livingston said...

Respond only to No. 2–I don’t agree at all. I think this hurts Biden quite seriously. He has never had any ideological appeal: the only argument for him was competence, political sophistication, a steady hand, etc Now that is revealed to be essentially nonsense. I think this is the beginning of the end of his credibility and opens the road to a large-scale Republican victory in 2022. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. But I would be surprised to see Biden serve more than four years.

kotodama said...

I'm not sure oil is much of a reason we (the U.S.) make nice with KSA, at least nowadays. Oil's sold on an international market. It's not like KSA can just refuse to sell it to us directly. I do realize they can adjust their output, but to some extent that's cutting off their own nose. You can't eat or drink oil (see, e.g., Three Kings) and it doesn't do much good just sitting in the ground either. (From an economic perspective; the environment is obviously a different story.) And it's not like KSA has such a diversified economy aside from resource extraction. The U.S. to my knowledge also has decent production domestically, not to mention the strategic reserves that I guess we'll never touch.

My understanding was the bigger reason for allying with KSA is as a counterweight to Iran. (I'm not saying that's necessarily wise policy of course, just reciting the facts.) That said, I can agree we need to kick the oil habit pronto because the money ends up in bad places. And the paramount reason of course being the climate crisis.

I can also agree with using other avenues of influence to promote human rights. But I'm not sure why you give W much credit there. The one positive thing I'd acknowledge is his efforts to fight AIDS in Africa. But even there it was self-defeating to some extent because of the various "faith-based" requirements. And that aside it's hard to stomach the guy who brought us Gitmo and torture as some champion of human rights.

Getting back on topic with the OP for the homestretch, I'll offer one prediction to bank on, unlike Prof. Livingston's. If Rs do manage to capture the House in the midterms, you can count on Afghanistan being a subject of endless investigations, just like BeNgHaZi!!11!. Although, it might be hard to make time for that with all the other frivolous investigations I'm sure they have planned already. Less certain in the R majority scenario, but I think fairly probable, is an article of impeachment for Afghanistan. But again, depending on how long the list is already, it might not make the initial cut.