The Taliban’s rapid reconquest of Kabul has exposed a pair of American scandals. One implicates Joe Biden. The other incriminates proponents of a prolonged U.S. occupation of Afghanistan — and the many putatively neutral reporters who’ve abetted their cause.
The president’s scandal was born of tactical misjudgment and political cowardice. By its own admission, the White House failed to anticipate how fast the Afghan security forces would crumble once the United States withdrew its air support, intelligence, and military contractors. Biden was not alone in that failure. But his administration should have known that such a collapse was at least a significant possibility, especially since some of the president’s intelligence said as much weeks ago.
With such information available, the White House should have done more to protect American citizens and allies in Afghanistan. The administration could have better prepared for mass evacuations at Kabul’s airport. It could have expedited the processing of the 18,000 applications in the the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program’s backlog. It could have allowed Afghans who lacked visas, but could demonstrate a legitimate basis for fearing Taliban reprisals, to fly to Guam to await in safety the assessment of their eligibility for asylum. And the White House could have laid the groundwork for mass refugee admissions to the U.S. by setting a much higher annual cap than it did earlier this year (or even abolishing that cap entirely).
Current reporting suggests that such measures weren’t taken primarily because the president feared domestic political backlash. As one anonymous administration official told Politico this week, “It’s like they want the credit from liberals for ending the Trump cruelty to immigrants and refugees but they also don’t want the political backlash that comes from actual refugees arriving in America in any sort of large numbers.”
All this said, Biden’s failure of moral courage and contingency planning is this moment’s lesser scandal. The bigger one is the war that he is ending, which recent events have certified as an unmitigated disaster. Yet you might not know this from the many ostensibly objective news reports that have cast Biden’s troop withdrawal as the source of our nation’s “humiliation.”
The first 20 years of America’s occupation of Afghanistan cost, by one estimate, 241,000 lives (including 2,448 U.S. troops and 71,000 civilians) and more than $2 trillion. The Taliban’s swift triumph has made it clear just how little all those deaths and dollars bought. Anyone paying attention already knew that the U.S. had engineered a kleptocracy in Kabul. But Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee the country, even as his government was on the cusp of reaching a cease-fire agreement with the Taliban, made our client state’s depravity newly conspicuous.
Critical observers understood that the Afghan army was a paper tiger whose true ranks were far thinner than advertised and whose loyalty to the government was rooted less in patriotism than a mercenary’s interest in gainful employment. But the fact that America had invested $80 billion into training an army that was so incapable of independent action that it could not feed itself in the absence of U.S. air support — and so disenchanted with its own government that it would forfeit its capital with little fight — was not readily apparent until now.
Those who fought to extend America’s war in Afghanistan have every incentive to divert our attention from these revelations. They would like the public to miss the forest for the trees — by mistaking Biden’s tactical errors for strategic ones. The primary lesson of the past week could be that the U.S. war in Afghanistan was a catastrophe and that those who misled the public about the Afghan army’s strength deserve little input on future policy, no matter how many stars they have on their uniforms or diplomas they have on their walls. Alternatively, if news coverage focuses exhaustively on the shortcomings of Biden’s withdrawal, while largely ignoring what our client state’s abrupt collapse tells us about our two-decade-long occupation, then the lesson of Kabul’s fall could be quite favorable for Beltway hawks: Presidents shouldn’t end wars in defiance of the military brass unless they wish to become unpopular.
Unfortunately, we are currently hurtling toward that latter outcome. In recent days, much of the mainstream media has comported itself as the Pentagon’s Pravda. Reporters have indignantly asked the White House how it could say that America doesn’t have a vital national security interest in maintaining a military presence near Tajikistan. NBC’s Richard Engel has devoted his Twitter feed to scolding Biden for suggesting that America’s nation-building project in Afghanistan was always hopeless, and that the Kabul government was “basically a failed state.” CNN’s Jim Sciutto lamented on Twitter Wednesday, “Too many times, I’ve witnessed the US military attempt to dutifully carry out difficult & dangerous missions left to them by the miscalculations of civilian leaders.” This sentiment is disconcerting in the abstract, since it seems to suggest that civilian control of the military may be unwise. But it’s even stranger in context. As we learned just two years ago, American military leaders in Kabul systematically lied to the public about how well the war against the Taliban was going, so as to insulate their preferred foreign policy from democratic contestation.
Meanwhile, civilian proponents of endless war are casting the rapid collapse of the Afghan government as proof that the occupation should have never ended. As Democratic representative Jim Langevin writes for Foreign Policy:
Critics may say the past few months were an indictment of our ability to train the Afghan military. I would say instead: Look at what 2,500 U.S. soldiers, intelligence, and air support working with the Afghan military were able to hold back for so many years. The consequences of our decision to abandon Afghanistan are now on full display for the world to see. It didn’t have to be this way.
Langevin’s broader argument — that America could have indefinitely sustained the status quo in Afghanistan at scant cost — is not ludicrous on its face. And since this is the strongest case against withdrawal, it’s worth dissecting at some length. Between 2015 and 2021, the U.S. military had indeed managed to prop up the Afghan government while drawing down its deployment and suffering fewer than 30 casualties a year. If “a commitment of a few thousand troops” and a “few tens of billions of dollars a year” could secure the real gains that women have made in Afghan society and keep the Taliban out of the country’s major cities, as The Bulwark’s Robert Trancinski claims, then perhaps “forever war” would be justified.
But there is little reason to believe that this is the case. If Biden did not withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year, he would have violated the agreement that Donald Trump had struck with the Taliban in February 2020. There is every reason to believe that Trump’s deal deterred the Taliban from targeting U.S. troops; 2020 witnessed fewer U.S. casualties in Afghanistan than any previous year of the conflict. And there is little doubt that an abrogation of that agreement would have led the Taliban to ramp up attacks on U.S. forces, which would in turn have led the U.S. to deploy more troops, triggering a broader escalation in the war.
Such an escalation would have likely been inevitable, even in the absence of Trump’s agreement. In the years before that deal, the Taliban was steadily gaining territory and killing Afghan security forces in such large numbers the U.S. government started concealing battlefield death tolls. Keeping Ghani’s kleptocracy indefinitely aloft with a few thousand American soldiers and scant U.S. casualties was simply not an option.
More critically, U.S. casualties are not the only measure of the harms of prolonging a civil war that America lacked the will and wherewithal to win. Afghan soldiers’ lives matter. So do the lives of Afghan civilians, many of whom would prefer stability under the Taliban to perpetual insurgency under Ghani. For ordinary Afghans, the conflict has meant “elevated rates of disease due to lack of clean drinking water, malnutrition, and reduced access to health care,” according to the Watson Institute’s “Costs of War” project. The institute’s research concludes, “Nearly every factor associated with premature death — poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, environmental degradation — is exacerbated by the current war.” Between 2007 and 2017, the share of Afghan civilians living below the poverty line rose from 34 percent to 55 percent, even as the nation’s average income grew by 40 percent — a reality that testifies to the humanitarian costs of the war we waged, the profound corruption of the government whose name we waged it in, and the graft of the U.S. military contractors whose interests the war best served.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post suggested that Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was difficult to square with his “near-constant refrain that human rights” should be “at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” If one stipulates that few phenomena undermine human rights more reliably than wars, then squaring that circle becomes less difficult.
The mainstream media has an obligation to hold the Biden administration accountable for its errors. But we also have an obligation to contextualize the events of the day. As is, the news industry is helping hawks recast an indictment of martial adventurism into an object lesson in the hazards of military restraint.