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Tell The Truth
President Biden's decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan might be the right one, but let's not sugarcoat the truth - it will be a disaster for the Afghan people.
A decade ago, when I was writing about the US war in Afghanistan, few things frustrated me more than the notion that American troops were fighting on behalf of the Afghan people. In reality, the Afghan people were collateral damage in the US war with jihadist terrorists.
As I wrote in 2013, “the US sees Afghanistan through the narrow prism of the war on terrorism – and eliminating a potential safe haven for future al-Qaida terrorists … as (President) Obama coldly noted in 2009 … he wasn't ‘interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan’ but rather for how it advanced US national security interests.”
The decision to send more than 100,000 troops to fight the war in Afghanistan was always first and foremost about US national security. To the extent that America sought to promote democracy or build civil society, it had everything to do with fighting terrorism. The idea being that the US was at war with the Taliban to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. If they benefited that was great, but their ultimate well-being isn’t the reason we were there. Claiming otherwise was a lie we told ourselves to justify our presence and the violence and death that we left in our wake.
Now, as President Biden has announced that American troops are finally leaving Afghanistan by next fall, those who are applauding his decision are telling similar lies.
In a column, published yesterday in the Washington Post, Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Ro Khanna called Biden’s decision to end the nearly 20-year US war in Afghanistan, “a courageous step.” They then engage in precisely the sort of concern trolling that war supporters did a decade ago.
“The United States must make it a top diplomatic priority to promote protection for women in Afghanistan. The best way to do that is to ensure they have a seat at the negotiating table, including in continued engagement with the Taliban. We should also use our leverage with other countries to channel their aid to Afghanistan in ways that involve women and young people in the peace process and promote protections for women and girls, as well as other human rights reforms.
Broad inclusion of civil society is essential to ending a conflict in which the most vulnerable civilians continue to be killed. The United States and its partners should coordinate closely with Afghan civil society to increase robust economic development and humanitarian assistance programs, and to help stamp out the corruption that feeds extremism. While our military intervention will end, we must strengthen our commitment to helping Afghans build a better future.”
This is, for lack of a better word, bullshit.
It’s fine that Sanders and Khanna now want to make it a top diplomatic priority to promote protection for women. But without US troops on the ground to help prevent a Taliban takeover of the country, it’s not going to matter. If a significant US military presence couldn’t promote “robust economic development” or “stamp out the corruption that feeds extremism” in Afghanistan it’s not going to happen after US troops have departed.
Both Sanders and Khanna have spent years beating the drum for “ending forever wars,” which means bringing US troops home from the Middle East. That’s what they care about - not building “a better future” for Afghanistan.
That isn’t necessarily a criticism. Those who have pushed for withdrawal from Afghanistan - and I generally put myself in that group - think the US should no longer be wasting blood and treasure in a mission that does little to advance American interests and is unlikely to succeed. That's a reasonable position to take. But it’s one that also demands honesty.
Leaving Afghanistan is helping consign the Afghan people to a terrible future - and we are, in effect, abandoning allies who relied on the United States to protect them from the Taliban.
For those who have long followed the US military mission in Afghanistan, this outcome is hardly surprising.
The fact is, the initial goal of US military involvement in Afghanistan - to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven there - was achieved long ago and was always of little strategic importance anyway. Jihadist terrorists can plan an attack on the US from anywhere, including the safe haven they had for many years in Pakistan.
Yet, over the years, America’s leaders convinced themselves that the US could only leave Afghanistan after creating a stable, self-sustaining democracy that protected women's rights and could resist a possible Taliban takeover. That was never a realistic goal for a country with no democratic tradition and almost completely reliant on foreign assistance (Fred Kaplan has a smart take on why the US mission in Afghanistan was always doomed to fail). The US wasted billions of dollars and thousands of American lives trying to achieve an unachievable mission. Staying longer will not make it happen.
The Taliban, a truly horrendous political group that regularly murders innocent civilians, including babies, currently has political and military momentum in the country’s civil war. While it’s impossible to say if they will capture Kabul and take over the country, they will almost certainly play an outsized role in Afghanistan's future. Women, who have achieved unprecedented freedoms over the past twenty years, will pay a terrible price. So too will the civilians who have been caught in the crossfire of the nation’s civil war. That’s simply a fact, and by leaving, the US is likely hastening the country’s further descent into calamity.
I find myself surprisingly torn over Biden’s decision to withdraw. I spent years railing against US involvement in Afghanistan, but now I wonder if the US military presence can forestall a Taliban takeover of the country, what is the harm in staying? It’s not as if US troops are dying in Afghanistan. It’s been more than a year since any lost their lives.
On the other hand, it’s highly unlikely that our relatively small presence in Afghanistan alone will prevent that outcome, and keeping American troops there indefinitely is merely postponing the inevitable. Ultimately, the United States cannot and should not fight Afghanistan’s war for it. After twenty years of US assistance, if the country cannot prevent a Taliban takeover, twenty more years will not do the trick.
But humility demands that recognizing the humanitarian cost for this decision. Sanders and Khanna, along with much of the “end forever wars” crowd, want to sugarcoat their advocacy for departure by suggesting that the US can still exercise its influence in Afghanistan. But the fact is, the country and its people face a bleak future. After we’re gone, there’s little we can do about it. That’s simply a fact and a choice that we are making as a nation. When it comes to US involvement in Afghanistan, haven’t there been enough lies already?
What’s Going On?
Last night there was yet another mass shooting at a Fed Ex facility in Indianapolis. Eight people were killed and seven others injured. This graphic from CNN is a tragic reminder of America’s other raging pandemic.
City officials in Chicago released a body cam video of the shooting of 13-year old Adam Toledo. Close analysis of the video shows that Toledo was holding a weapon, tossed it away, and then turned toward the officer with his hands raised. He was shot, nonetheless, and killed. A police officer was asked to make a life or death decision in a split second, and he chose wrongly. But unlike other police shootings - the presence of a gun in Toledo’s hand - makes it difficult (though certainly not impossible) to criticize this one.
These incidents are the direct result of America’s lax gun laws, which have left this country awash in firearms. The connection in the Fed Ex incident is obvious. The Adam Toledo shooting is a reminder that we ask officers to police a society where anyone can be carrying a gun, including 13-year olds. We train them to view every possible civilian interaction as life and death and tell them their number one responsibility is to go home safe at night. As long as we refuse to change our gun laws and allow near unfettered access to firearms, these types of incidents will continue to occur.
Great news on the vaccine front this week from the Wall Street Journal:
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified a small cohort of approximately 5,800 cases of COVID-19 infection among more than 66 million Americans who have completed a full course of vaccination.
These so-called breakthrough cases, which are defined as positive COVID-19 test results received at least two weeks after patients receive their final vaccine dose, represent 0.008% of the fully vaccinated population.
Less than 6,000 cases and 74 deaths are an indication that the vaccines are working as advertised. Indeed, this is a higher rate of effectiveness than most flu vaccines, which are about 60 percent effective.
Yet, here’s the next sentence in the WSJ piece:
Officials said such cases are in line with expectations because the approved vaccines in the U.S. are highly effective but not 100% foolproof. They are a reminder that even vaccinated people are at risk and should continue to take precautions such as masking and social distancing in many circumstances.
Wait what? If the threat of infection is practically minuscule, that would suggest that those who have been vaccinated are at a manageable or reasonable amount of risk.
I understand the impulse to tell people to keep their vigilance up, especially since it’s not conclusively known whether people who have had the vaccine can spread COVID -19. But a good part of the reason people are getting vaccinated is that they want their lives to return to normal. Telling people that they have to remain vigilant, post-vaccine, because of a 1 in 11,000 chance of getting sick is not going to work.
Telling people that they have to remain vigilant because of the risk of spreading COVID to non-vaccinated Americans when vaccines are largely available is also not going to work. The fact is, there are few activities in which there are zero risks. When we get in a car … it’s a risk. When we bike on the street … it’s a risk. When we swim in the ocean, go skiing, take a strenuous hike, there are potential dangers. Most people factor these into their decision-making. We’re going to need to do the same with COVID-19.
I’m going to write more on this soon, but in ten days, when I’ve hit the two-week point since my second vaccine shot, I’m going to stop wearing my mask outside. I will continue to wear masks inside and when I’m in close contact with people who have not been vaccinated, but we need to start returning our lives to normal.
Yesterday in History
Yesterday was the 109th anniversary of the Titanic hitting an iceberg and sinking in the North Atlantic. I came across this fascinating video that puts CGI graphics to eyewitness accounts of the mammoth ship slipping into the Atlantic.
This video does not disappoint.
I had never heard this before until today - Leadbelly performing “The Titanic”
This is perhaps the most famous Leadbelly recording (and for a good reason) - “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”