No Black And White About Exit Strategy In Afghanistan

If you listen to the angry politicians who take to the airwaves and pontificate over Afghanistan a listener might be falsely led to believe that there are absolutes at play in the end to the nation’s 20-year war in that nation. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

Over the past weeks, I have very much limited my intake of the reactionary Republicans on Capitol Hill who consider a dialogue on par with a fourth grader to be the extent needed when conversing on this topic. Making only inflammatory remarks when an international crisis flares are not my definition of leadership.

In addition, it is not possible to have the sureness the Republicans are pushing without the context of how we arrived at this point in time. That of course does not stop them from talking, nor those who listen from gobbling up the pablum.

I have found the best path to facts and analysis about Afghanistan are the same sources I use continuously. The Economist, Foreign Affairs, The New Yorker, NPR, and BBC.

And of course, The New York Times.

I want a broad-based and intelligent perspective on what is taking place.

Sunday the NYT ran a superb news analysis article written by Peter Baker. If Baker writes it there is no way one should miss it. He is one of our essential reporters in America today.

Baker certainty questions the approach taken by President Biden, but also places the exit from Afghanistan in the larger arena of events.

Under the four-page deal signed in February 2020, Mr. Trump agreed to withdraw all American troops by May 1, 2021, lift sanctions and compel the release of 5,000 prisoners held by the Afghan government, which was cut out of the negotiations. The Taliban committed to not attacking American troops on the way out or letting terrorist groups use Afghanistan as a base to attack the United States.

While the Taliban agreed to talk with the Afghan government, nothing in the publicly released part of the deal prevented it from taking over the country by force as it ultimately did and reimposing its repressive regime of torture, murder and subjugation of women. It was such a one-sided bargain that even Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser H.R. McMaster called it a “surrender agreement.”

Following the deal, Mr. Trump reduced American forces in Afghanistan to 4,500 from 13,000. Eager to be the president to end the warhe signed a memo to the Pentagon instructing it to pull out all remaining forces by Jan. 15 before leaving office, but was talked out of it by advisers. Instead, he ordered the force drawn down to 2,500 troops in his final days, although about 3,500 actually remained.

For Mr. Biden, inheriting such a small force in Afghanistan meant that commanders were already left with too few troops to respond to a renewed Taliban offensive against American forces, which he deemed certain to come if he jettisoned Mr. Trump’s agreement, requiring him to send thousands more troops back in, officials said.

The Biden team considered other options, including keeping a small presence of troops for counterterrorism operations or to support Afghan security forces, but reasoned that was just “magical thinking” and would take more troops than was sustainable. They discussed whether to renegotiate the Trump agreement to extract more concessions but the Taliban made clear it would not return to the bargaining table and considered the Trump deal binding.

Mr. Biden’s advisers also considered extending the withdrawal deadline until the winter, after the traditional fighting season was over, to make the transition less dangerous for the Afghan government. The Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan congressionally chartered panel that was led by Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., a retired Joint Chiefs chairman and that included Ms. O’Sullivan, in February recommended extending the May 1 deadline and seeking better conditions before pulling out.

But Mr. Biden was warned by security specialists that the longer it took to withdraw after a decision was announced, the more dangerous it would become, aides said, so he extended it only until Aug. 31.

Particularly influential on Mr. Biden, aides said, were a series of intelligence assessments he requested about Afghanistan’s neighbors and near neighbors, which found that Russia and China wanted the United States to remain bogged down in Afghanistan.

“Biden basically faced the same issue that Trump faced,” said Vali Nasr, who was a senior adviser to Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, “and his answer was the same — we’re not going to go back in, we have to get out.”

Republican criticism now, he added, was brazenly hypocritical. “They’re the ones who released all these Taliban commanders, they’re the ones who signed this deal,” he said.

Mark T. Esper, a defense secretary under Mr. Trump, agreed that the deal was flawed and in fact argued against drawing down further in the final months of the last administration before being fired in November. In recent days, he said, “there were more options available to President Biden” than simply continuing Mr. Trump’s withdrawal.

“He could have tried to go back to the table with the Taliban and renegotiate,” Mr. Esper said on CNN. “He could have demanded, as I argued, that they agree to the conditions they established or they agreed to in the agreement and that we use military power to compel them to do that.”

How we arrived at this stage of the Afghanistan war must be viewed from the start of the mission. Republicans will not tell their constituents that , but Foreign Affairs presses the point continuously.

‘’In the aftermath of 9/11, intervention in Afghanistan took on enormous importance for the Bush administration, which was determined to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil. But the administration had no desire to garrison Afghanistan indefinitely, so it chose to help build a successor regime to the Taliban that could presumably govern the country on its own one day—and ensure that it didn’t again become a safe haven for terrorists. The invasion of Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban went surprisingly smoothly, producing a quick, low-cost victory. In the flush of this initial success, the Bush administration was led to believe that the follow-up nation-building mission could be similarly easy.

The Bush administration’s first mistake was a failure to fully appreciate the geographic obstacles in the way of an Afghan reconstruction effort. Afghanistan is on the other side of the world from the United States, and in addition to being landlocked and inaccessible, it is surrounded by several powerful and predatory neighbors, including Iran, Pakistan, and nearby Russia. The only way the United States could get most of its forces and their supplies into or out of Afghanistan was through or over Pakistan—a country that did not share American objectives there and actively sought to subvert them.

Moreover, the population of Afghanistan was considerably larger than that of any other country involved in a post–World War II U.S. intervention: in 2001, Afghanistan had almost twice as many people as wartime South Vietnam. Typically, the troop-to-population ratio is an important determinant of the success of a stabilization operation. Two years before the invasion of Afghanistan, in 1999, the United States and its NATO allies had deployed 50,000 troops to stabilize Kosovo, a country of 1.9 million. Afghanistan’s population in 2001 was 21.6 million—yet by the end of 2002, there were only around 8,000 U.S. troops in a country that was more than ten times Kosovo’s size and had no army or police force of its own. There simply weren’t enough U.S. boots on the ground to secure the country the United States had captured.

One reason for the relatively small deployment was that the Bush administration did not intend for U.S. forces to assume peacekeeping or public security responsibilities—rather, they focused exclusively on tracking down residual al Qaeda elements, at the expense of the foundational security required to build a functioning state. The Bush administration also neglected to commit the necessary financial resources to the Afghan stabilization effort. In Bosnia, the United States and other donors had provided economic assistance amounting to $1,600 per inhabitant per year for the first several years after that war. The comparable figure in Afghanistan amounted to $50 per person—a paltry sum.’’

All Can Relate Going Home Again, Even To Kabul

Without doubt the best story to come from the Sunday newspapers was written by Mujib Mashal, who was but a child when Kabul was freed from the Taliban in 2001. He now works at the New Delhi bureau of the New York Times. Hours before Kabul fell to the dreaded Taliban he again took to the streets that he called home.

It is a story that resonates with all who know the feeling of walking again the streets from whence we came. It is simly a remarkable read.

I found a window seat in the back of a bus headed downtown, passengers in front of me and the uncertainty of the city around us. Some held documents, others scrolled on their phones. An eighth grader clung to his geography book — it was the last of his summer exams.

In the second to last row of seats, a middle-aged man fidgeted with his old Nokia phone and constantly made calls. Refugees from other provinces, fleeing the last stretch of intense fighting, were still streaming into Kabul, and he was calling friends and relatives offering to host them.

“The two rooms upstairs are still empty,” he told one person, insisting the family stay with him, as two other friends already had. “Of course, of course — for you a thousand times, anything you need.”

Everyone on the bus seemed tense, and it didn’t take much for things to boil over: It was one young man in the back row, briefly lowering his surgical mask (lest we forget that Covid was still stalking us) to put a pinch of tobacco into his cheek.

The man on the phone looked at him and couldn’t help himself. “Is that even good for your health?” he said, gesturing at the tobacco.

The young man stared at him, said nothing, and lifted his mask. But the man next to him, a lawyer named Zabihullah, stepped in.

“The Taliban haven’t even come to Kabul and you are policing people’s behavior?” he told the middle-aged man.

Then it was all argument, wild and loud, about everything: corruption, democracy, failure, change.The older man said the Taliban could at least end the kleptocracy and what he called the “vulgarity” of society and bring order. The young lawyer lost it.

“You think the only thing that came of the past 20 years was vulgarity?” he said. “I am also made in the past 20 years. You think I am vulgar?”

The older passenger tried to correct his statement, bring nuance, but the lawyer wouldn’t hold back.

“If you think the Taliban will practice true Islam, you are wrong. I can argue with you all night with proof to show you that what they practice is Talibanism and not true Islam,” he said.

The man with the phone turned back in his seat and muttered under his breath: “There is no point in arguing with you.”

When we hit traffic, the lawyer and I got off the bus and walked. He was trying to process documents for his final exam to become a judge. He was completing a two-year equivalent of a highly competitive master’s degree — something like 13,000 applicants had sought the 300 slots, he said. On the side, he was a masterful calligrapher, continuing a dying tradition of reed and ink calligraphy. He showed me samples of his work on his phone.

“Twenty years of effort, and all for nothing,” he said as we said goodbye.”

Flags In Dane County Underscore Weight Of National Pain

On my way outside of Middleton this afternoon I spotted an image that matched the mood of the nation. Three large American flags audibly flapped in the brisk breeze. Heavy, sad, and a most weighted feel matched the somber atmosphere across our nation.

There is no way to escape the enormity of the moment we are living in as the nation withdraws from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. The national angst was underscored with live coverage Sunday morning as 13 dead American soldiers returned in caskets to Dover Air Force Base.

The Taliban threatened us as we entered the war in 2001 and are seen now as victors upon our defeat. No matter how it is assessed the bulk of the war was a colossal failure.

Yes, we did gain an advantage over the ones who fueled the hatred and perpetrated the heinous crimes on 9/11. We sent the remains of Osama bin Laden to the bottom of the ocean.

We did open up the ability of a younger generation of Afghans to dream and see the world outside of a burqa and a tortured reading of the Koran. Therefore, we feel deep sadness about ‘turning off the lights’ on their education as the Taliban will again reject modernity when governing.

But the nation-building and processes for building a government, and have it in any way to be self-sustaining did not succeed. There was not enough time, or the willpower on the larger part of the Afghan populace. The urban areas grew, but the tribal foundations of the countryside did not have time to turn towards the 21st century.

Meanwhile, many people in America who by their own admission find history to be boring, have no real touchstones with the past so to weigh and balance what is now happening with the chaos and death in Afghanistan. One of my childhood heroes, astronaut John Glenn, after becoming an Ohio Senator spoke in 2009 about dead soldiers, also returning to Dover from Afghanistan.

As John Glenn said: “It’s easy to see the flags flying and the people go off to war, and the bands play and the flags fly. And it’s not quite so easy when the flag is draped over a coffin coming back through Dover, Delaware.

The gung-ho mentality that too often leads a nation to war is not able to define goals, strategy, or any exit policy. As Glenn said flags fly, and bands play.

And then soldiers die.

As a nation, we will most certainly be arguing how the Afghanistan evacuation policy was created and executed during the past months. There will be those expressing that our nation only needed to maintain a few thousand military personnel in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. A land, I need not remind my readers, which is termed the Graveyard of Empires.

Such arguments can be rebuffed with those pesky things called facts. After 19 years of our footprint all over Afghanistan, their government had seen its control seriously erode to 30% of the country’s 407 districts. Meanwhile, the depraved Taliban controlled 20% of the country, and it should be noted that was more than at any time since the U.S. started the war. As I said, 19 years previous!

We all are unpleased how this larger episode defines our nation on the international stage. After the past four years, we needed to start the restoration of our country’s image and undertake that mission by doing masterful deeds. While no defeat at the hands of the Taliban was ever going to look good the exceptional chaos and blunders (and worse) by the Defense Department, State Department, and White House–and there is plenty of blame to share–is beyond mind-boggling.

Just more reason to stand under a flag at half-staff and sadly ponder it all.

And so it goes.

Nation’s Newspapers: Front-Page Coverage Of Deadly Kabul Airport Depravity

The front pages of newspapers from around the nation showcase the anger and loss of life from yesterday’s bomb blasts at the Kabul Airport in Afghanistan.

British Newspapers Headline Depravity At Kabul Airport

The painful front pages of the morning newspapers from Britain.

Madness At Kabul Airport

A person wounded in a bomb blast outside the Kabul airport in Afghanistan on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, arrives at a hospital in Kabul. The Pentagon confirmed at least two blasts outside the Kabul airport and said there were a number of casualties, after Western governments warned of a security threat there. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

It would be hard to argue, as a friend wrote to me today, that Afghanistan is not “the most troubled part of the world.” The blasts that rocked the Kabul Airport, caused by the depraved actions from Daesh are most despicable.

Before venturing further let me again state on this blog why it matters to use the term “Daesh” when referring to these terrorists and ones like them who bastardize the Koran. What they did today, and what they are noted for over the past years stand very much outside the boundaries of the Islamic religion they want the rest of us to think they hold so faithfully. We must not forget that. These people killing others today are not true followers of Islam.

Tonight I am not alone in stating the lack of assurance in what the next step needs to be when dealing with those who refuse to even allow one inch of modernity. When a most unreasonable and unmoored force, such as Daesh does not act in accordance with basic civility it then begs the question of how the rest of us should proceed.

I was opposed to the concept of leaving any troops behind In Afghanistan as a preventive force, as is the case, for example, in the Korean theater. My main reasoning on that score is in Korea we are in a controlled area, whereas Afghanistan is a rugged and complex tribal arena.

Twenty years of military action by the United States and our many partners was aimed at tamping down terrorism. That blueprint failed. After trillions of dollars, all we have achieved is the awareness that the elements we fought and rightfully hate have morphed and adapted to the new geo-political conditions.

When there is an ideology and tortured religious view that allows for up to 10,000 jihadi fighters from Asia, Russia, Pakistan, etc. to enter Afghan territory (since June) to further a bastardized version of the Koran I then am at a loss as to what is the best means to stop the larger problem. The 10,000, to be sure, are but the tip of the larger concerns.

What motivates them to be bottom dwellers is something the world community has tried to find some answers to for the past decades. Part of the issue is the tortured education systems that spawn new converts, economic conditions that deprive upward mobility, and a culture that is male-dominated and is too controlling against other segments of a society.

Tonight I am at a loss as to how to move forward against such depravity that we witnessed today.

And so it goes.

Give Me ‘Your Huddled Masses’, Afghan Refugees Deserve An American Welcome

America has a chance to shine. Wisconsin has a reason to feel an uplifting mood for providing a helping hand.

Yes, the international news from Afghanistan over the past 10 days has been trying, and at times dismaying to watch and read. There are clearly questions to be answered about the process that played out in the drawdown of U.S. military forces and government employees from the war-ravaged nation. There will be enough political rhetoric over the coming weeks and months to keep talk radio chirping 24/7.

But all that pales right now when it comes to the most vulnerable who have had to flee their country out of fear of deadly retaliation from the Taliban, who have secured power in Afghanistan. Men and women who have aided our nation during the past 20 years, assisted news organizations, and participated in various governmental operations now are threatened by the medieval madness of the Taliban.

The only option for the many thousands who have given of themselves, along with their families, is to leave via a flight from the Kabul airport.

And the only moral and ethical option for the United States is to open our arms, hearts, and minds to these new arrivals.

The most dreadful in our land, however, and that would start with the talk show hosts on Fox News, have already resorted to creating a narrative for the mouth-breathers who saddle up each evening to watch hour-upon-hour of bile.

“If history is any guide, and it’s always a guide, we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country, and over the next decade, that number may swell to the millions,” Carlson said. “So first we invade, and then we are invaded.”

I find that white nationalism and xenophobic babble to be nauseating and most un-American. Carlson spits on the foundations of this nation when he makes such racist and absurd statements.

The nation understands the war in Afghanistan was a long, brutal, bitter, and costly affair that involved four different presidents from each major political party. We understand that there is a reckoning that must be met to those we very much used and gained from as we undertook the mission there. The men and women we gained assistance from must be treated fairly.

I often write of our nation’s role in the world. I see it as an expansive one and do not agree with trimming our sails. While it was absolutely time to remove our presence in Afghanistan as modernity is not anywhere in the near-term a feasible goal, the international role we play as a superpower must never be tossed aside for those who would fail to grasp our national exceptionalism.

That power is again displayed with our concern for and acceptance of these Afghans.

I often write of values, even virtue, when it comes to those we elect. I grew up in a time when stories abounded of people returning from places far around the globe where two photos might exist in homes. A picture of the then Pope, and another of President John Kennedy. That tone might sound hokey and out-of-date for some readers, but those types of foundations about freedom and better days are how I still view the world.

In line with that thinking are the ways we honor and pay our debt on the world stage to those who stood alongside us and did their part for the mission at hand. Our moral center as a nation is as much in need of recognition as is the one that resides with each person.

It is then from that perspective that I am truly heartened that Afghan refugees have started to arrive at Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy for temporary housing. Being loyal is not only how we should act one to another, but also how nations must operate, too.

Over the past few days, the American brand name has been tarnished with leaders and commentators around the globe taking a kick at our process playing out in Afghanistan. Some of it is surely earned.

But we can now showcase the thing about our nation that has always loomed large. Folks from every land wishes to come to our shores and breathe the air of freedom. The people now who aspire to call this place home are most deserving of being accepted. They have earned it.

To the Afghan refugees, I say Welcome to America. Welcome to Wisconsin. Welcome to your new home.

And so it goes.

Why Most Americans Did Not Know Of Problems In Afghanistan

The assessment of what happened in Afghanistan over the past year, and how that translates into the chaos at the Kabul airport or the headlines being reported hourly is most worthy of our attention. There is no way to watch the bedlam and misery being unleashed following the Taliban takeover and not wonder what was missed leading up to the past weeks? Americans are asking how could the White House and Defense Department not have responded ‘more appropriately’?

The images from Afghanistan are gripping, the many questions have merit, and they absolutely require detailed responses. Some of those issues will start to be examined with Capitol Hill committee hearings this coming week.

But it also must be asked of the American public, “Where were you during the past 15 months when this removal process was being crafted by the Donald Trump Administration?” That is not a partisan jab, but rather a pointed reminder that the role of a citizen of this nation must include staying current with the affairs of the country.

While I understand the nation grew, rightly so, weary of a two-decade-long war it also needs stating the end of the American footprint in that war should have elicited more than a passing glance at how its conclusion was going to proceed.

The brunt of my question does not land solely on the average American sitting on their sofa, but in equal measure to the main television networks which did a most miserable job of reporting what the Trump White House was proposing for the military withdrawal. Additionally, the public needed to have been aware of the snail pacing of the application process so as to move certain Afghan citizens (and their families) out of that nation for their safety.

International publications such as The Economist were constant and probing with their reporting on Afghanistan, the BBC without doubt ‘on top’ of each development, and monthly offerings such as Foreign Policy examining in-depth the options and policy proposals in that nation. BUT the majority of the nation receives their news from network evening broadcasts.

The networks, however, proved to be simply embarrassing with their coverage of this international story.

Out of a combined 14,000-plus minutes of the national evening news broadcast on CBS, ABC, and NBC last year, a grand total of five minutes were devoted to Afghanistan, according to Andrew Tyndall, editor of the authoritative Tyndall Report, which has monitored and coded the networks’ nightly news each weekday since 1988. 

Those five minutes, which covered the February 2020 Doha agreement between the United States and the Taliban, marked a 19-year low for Afghanistan coverage on the three networks’ newscasts. They compared to a high of 940 minutes the networks devoted to Afghanistan in 2001, all of it following 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. intervention, as shown below.

While the pathetic amount of coverage of the conflict last year can be partially explained by the virtually total dominance of the news agenda by the COVID-19 pandemic, the three networks devoted a total of only 362 minutes to Afghanistan in the preceding five years, or just two hours of coverage per network, or an average of only 24 minutes per network per year.

My pointing out this lapse in reporting from the networks does not absolve the responsibility of a citizen to stay informed. PBS News Hour is a weeknight offering and is thoroughly substantive concerning events of the day. Not seeking such news reporting can only be placed upon the individual.

Many Americans now weighing into the ‘whys’ and ‘what-ifs’ regarding events in Afghanistan are doing so mostly blind. That will result in stilted hearings, with certain politicians playing to the under-informed base. That is not the way to make for a true and complete analysis of the events leading up to the headlines of the recent past.

This is just one more example as to why an informed citizenry is a must for a working, competent republic.

And so it goes.