Notations On Our World (Special Edition): An #OutsiderWall re #Afghanistan
We present a “snapshot” of the developments on #Afghanistan as the developments over the ensuing days:
Biden: ‘I stand squarely behind my decision’ on Afghanistan
President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan Monday amid the collapse of the country’s government.
Taliban victory clears way for al-Qaeda to regroup in Afghanistan
Militant group waits in wings amid fears country could again become magnet for foreign fighters
AUGUST 18, 2021 by Andrew England and Helen Warrell in London, Katrina Manson in Washington and Amy Kazmin in Delhi
Afghans brace for Taliban rule after militants take control of Kabul
Thousands scramble to flee country as US says all embassy staff have relocated to airport
AUGUST 16, 2021 by Amy Kazmin in New Delhi and Katrina Manson in Washington
Afghanistan is now part of the post-American world
The Taliban’s defeat of the US will be a boost to jihadis across the globe
AUGUST 16, 2021 by Gideon Rachman
Speaking of faster than expected downfalls, the Serious People who got us into Afghanistan for twenty years are now all wringing their hands about the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government to the Taliban. Kristen Rouse, a decorated Afghanistan Army veteran who started the NYC Veterans Alliance at Civic Hall, said it best: “It’s like watching the Titanic sink and only the crew survives.”
It’s also like watching the Titanic sink after successive captains and crew have told the passengers again and again that the ship was impregnable, that the money spent on it had bought only the best furnishings, and that it was on course on a safe journey. Are any of the people working on combating disinformation spending any time on fighting one of the biggest sources of fake news in America, the Pentagon? If so, I haven’t noticed.
A little less than two years ago, The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock published “ The Afghanistan Papers,” a highly revealing trove of government documents that showed how “senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
As early as 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the primary engineers of the war, was begging his subordinates for “help!” devising a strategy that would allow the US to leave Afghanistan with some semblance of stability. By 2003, he admitted that the military had “no visibility into who the bad guys are.” Bereft of any clear strategy, hawks on both sides of the aisle pushed more than $133 billion into the country, fueling massive corruption. By 2006, one top Army adviser had concluded that Hamid Karzai’s government had “self-organized into a kleptocracy.” (That means rule by theives.) Chester Crocker, a top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, said “Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption.”
And the corruption wasn’t just local Afghan warlords siphoning pallets of American dollars down their gullets. American warlords did very well thanks to Afghanistan, as Andrew Cockburn points out in The Spectator. “For them, the whole adventure has been a thumping success, as measured in the trillions of taxpayer dollars that have flowed through their budgets and profits over the two decades in which they successfully maintained the operation.” He points to the announcement in July that the Pentagon would be giving the Afghan air force 37 UH-60 helicopters, worth $450 million. Few of these helicopters fly for very long in Afghanistan because the local engineers are “entirely incapable of maintaining the complex machines,” he notes. But Lockheed-Martin, their maker, surely appreciated the appropriation.
A half billion worth of Italian transport planes, also paid for by US taxpayers, were abandoned as soon as they arrived in country because they were the wrong planes for the altitude and weather. They now sit at the edge of Kabul airport, “rusting, with trees growing through them.” No one was fired or disciplined for this screw-up, Cockburn notes. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, told him “I doubt that anyone missed a promotion, or even a bonus. Welcome to my world.”
Sixty years ago, outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower (a Republican!) warned us in his last speech as president. “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions…This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
As Michael Tomasky points out in a great column in The New Republic examining how his own thinking about America’s recent wars of choice has evolved, the $6 trillion that we’ve spent on failed adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq is the equivalent, in inflation adjusted numbers, of 35 Marshall Plans. We could have rebuilt Western Europe dozens of times over. Instead we enriched American arms-makers and watched as between 2008 and 2018 at least 380 high-ranking department officials and military officers became lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for defense contractors within two years of taking off their uniforms.
As Cockburn writes, “ James Mattis, to take one prominent example, retired as a four-star Marine general, ascended to the board of leading defense contractor General Dynamics where he served for three years, taking home $900,000 in compensation, then spent two years as Trump’s defense secretary, after which he returned to the General Dynamics board. Lloyd Austin, the current secretary of defense, garnered as much as $1.7 million worth of stock as a director of Raytheon, the nation’s second-largest defense contractor, in the four years between retiring from the army and assuming his current august post, along with other lucrative positions in the defense business.”
Two years ago, when the Afghanistan Papers came out, my then-Congressman Eliot Engel, who was the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, promised that he would hold hearings on their import, “to seek answers about what went wrong in Afghanistan and how to bring the war to an end.” He held one hearing and did nothing more.
When government leaders from both parties lie about the most important thing it can call Americans to do — fight and die in a war of choice — why should we think Americans will trust the government on other matters?
An uptick in calls for support have veteran and military family advocates worried about veterans’ mental health following the rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. The groups are putting more resources into providing veterans and their families the support they need.
If Boris Johnson is to play a convening role on the world stage, he must lead by example when it comes to both allies and refugees
AUGUST 18, 2021 by Robert Shrimsley
Four presidents fueled this war. Biden got caught holding the bag.
August 16–17, 2021
By Marc Cooper
US Air Force choppers plucking out Embassy staff from rooftops. Plumes of smoke coming from diplomatic burn bags and bonfires as rifle fire cracked in the background. Desperate civilians flooding into Kabul airport, hundreds running along the sides of stuffed C-17 transports. Some of them hanging on to the wheels as the plane lifts off and even some falling to their death from several hundred feet in the air.
These gruesome and staggering images have flooded into American homes these past few days, reminding millions of Americans that the U.S. was still fighting in a war in Afghanistan, even though American media has pretty much ignored the two-decade old conflict for years and in spite of more than 6000 US soldiers and contractors dying in the fighting, along with tens of thousands of wounded.
This is how America’s longest war ends. In a humiliating defeat that is, so unfortunately, so reminiscent of Vietnam.
The tsunami of images this past week has, in this America immersed in a TV culture, managed to determine the extremely narrow debate over this war and its conclusion. That’s also unfortunate. Given that the US continues to commit these sort of dead-ended imperial adventures, we should be looking at issues much more profound than whether Biden did or did not properly plan the extraction (clearly he did not).
The Afghan war has been the ultimate “bipartisan” war and is a handy if hard and bloody example of where that sort of unchallenged policy goes.
If we want to assign blame, and we do, it’s not very hard. Every American administration from Bush, to Obama, to Trump to Biden has been accomplice in producing this catastrophe. Party membership did not matter. Oh, yeah, let’s throw the Pentagon into the dock as well, along with some of the generals, like Petraeus, who wound up being no more than reincarnations of William Westmoreland.
George W. Bush got the war started after 9/11 claiming the mission was to disable and destroy Al Qaeda and hunt down Osama Bin Laden, That first objective was accomplished in a matter of weeks. OBL was captured by Obama in 2011 (long after Al Qaeda had been shattered). Almost nobody dissented against this initial invasion which was eagerly supported by both parties.
Only one congress member forcefully spoke out against the coming war in 2001 and wound up being the single vote cast against the military authorization bill (which until a few months ago was used to justify every US military incursion of the last 20 years). Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) was that brave soul. And twenty years ago, on the eve of the invasion, I interviewed her for the The Los Angeles Times.
She said of her lone vote:
“You never know you’re going to stand alone in any vote, so I did not know going into it that I’d be alone. I agonized over this vote. We’re all mourning. We’re angry and frustrated. I felt that [someone] in this environment of grief needed to say let’s show some restraint in our response. Let’s not do anything that could escalate this madness out of control. Let’s know the implications of our actions, and let’s make sure that our system of checks and balances is maintained. We need to figure out a way to stamp out international terrorism and bring these perpetrators to justice without creating more loss of life.”
Lee was prescient. Within a handful of months after the invasion, Bush and Cheney along with a chorus of neo-cons, began to loudly beat war drums over Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Capitalizing on the nationalist sentiment whipped up after 9/11, Bush diverted mountains of resources, money, troops and policymaker attention to his new invasion of Iraq. A totally unnecessary war, one that got in the way of rational policy in Afghanistan, and one supported by a broad bench of Democrats from Hillary Clinton to John Kerry to Joe Biden.
Let’s be clear. Bush-Cheney are the primary authors of the war in Afghanistan and the primary culprits of putting it on the worst track possible: an afterthought, second fiddle to Iraq,
When Obama came in in 2009, the Afghan war had been on autopilot with not much progress. Double ditto in Iraq. Obama, while promising to wind down and end the “bad” war in Iraq, characterized the Afghan war as The Good War and vowed to win. During the ’06 and ’08 campaigns, Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats were loudly demanding that American troops be withdrawn from Iraq and “redeployed” in Afghanistan. Remember?
After a review of policy, Obama was at a crossroads shortly after assuming office. VP Biden was less than enthusiastic about any build-up in Afghanistan, but Obama let himself get rolled by the Pentagon and agreed to a troop surge that, in retrospect, failed — just like ever other strategic “plan” for Afghanistan.
In comes Trump and after not doing much of anything for a couple of years in Afghanistan, he established direct talks with a Talban delegation in Doha. And in spring 2019, Trump reached a disastrous giveaway deal with them. He agreed to a total US withdrawal by May 2021, he ordered the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners, and showed no frustration over the peace talks going nowhere fast.
I think Biden made the right decision in withdrawing the troops, and finally ending this folly. He most obviously has done a terrible job in this final chapter. And there are tons of questions that will probably go forever unanswered about planning and preparation, bad intelligence, the collapse of the national police and army and so on. The bottom line is that the lightning fast and total takeover of the country by the Taliban ought to make it clear that Biden’s instincts were right, that we could stay another 20 years and would probably have a similar outcome, provided the US forces were not driven from the country before that. Like next month.
Biden’s mop up national speech on Monday was surprisingly sincere and confident, at least in part. “ I stand squarely by my decision,” he said while admitting he had misjudged the resistance that might have been put up by the Afghan forces that we spent $88b trying to train. His explanation of how we got here was fairly accurate and, again rather open for a president. He claimed the Taliban-Trump deal had limited his choices (not really) and he then proceeded to throw the Afghan security and military under a very big Humvee.
“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So, what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.
American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong. Incredibly well equipped. A force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force, something the Taliban doesn’t have. Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”
Let’s unpack some of this. We did spend over a trillion dollars.
The Ghani regime was horribly corrupt. Just as the earlier American backed regimes were. The US would now and then stamp its feet about corruption but always continued enabling the thieves.
The Afghan security forces did have top notch equipment and training. They did number 300,000 — on paper. But in reality, everybody knows, that a lot of those were ghost jobs.
The undermining of Afghan army morale owes to the confluence of myriad factors.
Corruption was so endemic, so deep, that Afghan military commanders were known to be selling ammo, food and uniforms. The army was riven with tribal and factional divisions and regional warlords, wearing new army uniforms, were raking in the dough. And that’s before we tally the profits from the world’s greatest opium fields, something the US merely winked at.
And as some former government officials now blithely admit, the Afghan forces emerged as totally dependent on US intelligence and air support that made it rather impossible for them to stand alone against the Taliban.
“We kept changing guys who were in charge of training the Afghan forces, and every time a new guy came in, he changed the way that they were being trained,” Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary during the Bush and Obama administrations, said in an oral-history interview with scholars at the University of Virginia. “The one thing they all had in common was they were all trying to train a Western army instead of figuring out the strengths of the Afghans as a fighting people and then building on that.”
Perhaps most relevant to this week’s collapse is how the Trump-Taliban deal impacted morale. Terribly, would be the one-word answer. Once it was clear a year and half ago that the Americans were leaving soon, rank and file soldiers searched hard for a reason to fight. They knew their air support and intel was leaving. And while many hated and feared the Taliban, they also held the national government in total contempt and saw little reason to die for the isolated kleptocracy in Kabul.
The Taliban who are in much more intimate contact with their people than US commanders, then spent these intervening 17 months since the Doha agreement, making deals with and buying off local and regional units, which helps clarify the way that the Afghan army melted down in just hours.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that the entire fraud and folly of the Afghan war was fully detailed in an exquisitely reported take out in the Washington Post two years ago.
David Corn of Mother Jones synthesizes the blockbuster report this way:
“In 2019, the Washington Post obtained access to a trove of confidential US government documents about the Afghanistan war that were produced as part of an inspector general’s project that investigated the root failures of the war by conducting interviews with 400 insiders involved with the effort, including generals, White House officials, diplomats, and Afghan officials. The findings were damning. As the Post put it, “senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
That was a helluva secret to keep from the public. A sharp indictment came from Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who was the White House Afghan war czar for Bush and Obama. In 2015, he told the project’s interviewers, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan-we didn’t know what we were doing.” The guy in charge of Afghanistan remarkably added, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” Lute also observed, “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.” Yes, imagine if we did-though the vast corruption that undermined the massive US rebuilding endeavor was well reported repeatedly over the years. As were the continuous failures within the war itself. Yet Congress, the media, and the citizenry paid insufficient attention to this never-ending, going-nowhere conflict.
Several officials interviewed noted the US government-military HQ in Kabul and the White House-consistently hoodwinked the public to make it seem the US was winning in Afghanistan when it was not. Remember the steady stream of assurances the Afghan military was becoming more capable of beating back the Taliban? That was BS. A senior National Security Council official said there was pressure from the Obama White House and the Pentagon to concoct stats showing the American troop surge was succeeding: “It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory, and none of it painted an accurate picture. The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”
John Sopko, who headed the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which ran the project, bottom-lined this for the Post: “The American people have constantly been lied to.”
Some of that official fibbing continued right through this Monday afternoon when Biden promised the US would still get out the many thousands (maybe 90,000) of Afghans who worked side by side with American troops and who now might face mass reprisals. This is patently not feasible, unless the Taliban start running an Uber service to bring the interpreters and others from the boonies and the burbs to the Kabul Airport.
Minutes after Biden made this unkeepable promise, perhapsAmerica’s best TV correspondent, Richard Engel, was interviewed live from Kabul saying the vow was “total fantasy.”
Engel said that some days before the collapse he visited the Kabul office processing visa requests for these Afghans, and he found a completely dysfunctional bureaucratic black hole.
Biden will obviously survive this dark moment, but justifiably or not, he will be significantly weakened. I was out in the Washington state countryside last week and was struck by the number of City Hall buildings in small and medium towns still flying that black POW-MIA flag some 50 years after Vietnam. The interpreter issue is sure to follow in that tradition, perhaps somewhat scaled down.
Biden’s humiliation will give succor and oxygen to Republicans who will now batter him as weak and incompetent and who, simultaneously, will deny any of their own party’s primary responsibilities in the war.
The media has also been given a gift. Round the clock pandemic coverage can now be replaced with round the clock coverage of Who Lost Afghanistan and The Coming Terrorist Threat. Perfect adornments for the 9/11 anniversary three weeks from now. I cringe thinking about the patriotic pomp and special graphics that will now be rolled out for that date…along with dire warnings about the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan — whether true or not.
I suspect the Republicans will also take advantage of this moment to further complicate or sink the infrastructure deals that Biden has worked so hard to mold (even though he never needed the Republicans in the first place). Also, today’s newsletter was intended to be about voting rights and the ticking clock to fix them. I had to scrap it because of the current events. There’s a great danger now that the media and the political class will also allow themselves to be distracted from this core issue of American democracy.
I give credit to Biden for ending this intervention even in the completely botched way he did. Yes, women and a whole lot of others will suffer. Many of them already were as the Taliban, throughout the war, continued to dominate in great swaths of the country,
I get where right-wingers are at on this issue of intervention, the same place they have always been. But now we also have liberals lamenting that we should have stayed longer in Afghanistan and some even suggesting we re-invade in support of women and children, That’s a great position if you want American to be The Cops of the World and to continue to have troops deployed around the world with a trillion dollar a year military budget.
Some demand a “humanitarian intervention.”
I, for one, cannot find many US humanitarian interventions that worked out. Armies are trained to kill not to serve. They make pretty piss poor humanitarians. My view is that if, magically, authentic humanitarians could command the US Armed Forces, I would be all in favor of such interventions. But they are not.
Those in charge are not only the military contractors who make bundles from these conflicts and pay off our hallowed representatives to support them, but also an entire class of trained liars who show little promise of reform.
I think Barbara Lee got it right back in 2001. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, bi-partisan wars, have produced -primarily-dead people. ++