Nothing is impossible for the person that doesn’t have to do it.
— With apologies to A. H. Weiler
There is plenty of blame to go around for the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. It took a lot of work by multiple U.S. administrations to get to the point that we are at today. President Biden is getting the blame today because, it is after all, his watch. He is responsible for what happens during his time as president. However, it is amazing how short the American memory is for politicians, journalists and pundits as they continue to heap scorn on the president for the current “fiasco” and “embarrassment.” Let’s get a few facts straight.
It is wrong to call this a defeat of the American military and that it shows that we are weak and incompetent. The Taliban did not defeat the American military. They defeated the Afghan military. As has happened throughout history, an army can be well trained, fully equipped with modern technology and it means nothing if there is no will to fight. In the end the Afghan military did not have the will to resist the Taliban. The reasons for that are many. Saying that they lost the will to fight in no way diminishes their numerous achievements on the battlefields of Afghanistan nor does it diminish the bravery of many Afghan soldiers and units during twenty years of war. In the end, they were betrayed by their own political and military leaders. The Taliban regaining control over the entire country was a political and policy defeat, not a military one, that had been years in the making.
I do not think it was a wasted war. American lives were lost in the cause of destroying terrorists that attacked our country. We did that and more. The U.S. military should be proud of the sacrifices that they made. It was worth it.
To begin a discussion, one has to decide whether or not we should have withdrawn from Afghanistan. Since 2011 and the killing of Osama bin Laden then Vice President, now President, Biden has been calling for the end of American involvement in Afghanistan. The original mission was to overthrow the Taliban, defeat al-Queda and to capture or kill Osama. In 2011 all of that was accomplished. Many argue it was essentially finished within a year of our invasion of Afghanistan and that it could have included Osama’s death if we had not let him get away in Tora Bora. Indeed, the Taliban offered to surrender in 2001 and the U.S. refused. As is often the case, the original mission morphed into a nation building exercise. Again. Again we learned that cultures with no history of democracy or loyalty to a central government will not adapt to American style democracy. President Biden’s decision to withdraw can be debated — I happen to think it was the right choice for reasons that I will explain below — but it is reasonable for others to argue that we should have stayed. Those people that so argue should also recognize that we would have had to return large numbers of American military personnel to the country. The 2,500 that were there when the Biden Administration took office would not have been sufficient to stop the Taliban’s increasing influence and control over the entire country. More troops would have been required. More troops in combat means more casualties. To argue that there had been no casualties for over a year ignores the reasons for that — the fact that the Trump Administration struck a deal with the Taliban. Had we not left as the previous administration agreed to do, undoubtedly there would have been renewed attacks on U.S. personnel.
Once the decision to leave is made — and it should have come as no surprise to anyone — then it is up to the Department of Defense, State Department and other government agencies to execute it to the best of their ability. I happen to think that they are doing a better than average job under very trying circumstances. To date, over 20,000 civilians have been evacuated from Kabul without a single American casualty. As the president said, however, it is a very volatile situation and there is no guarantee that it won’t fall apart at any moment. But despite the chaos of the first day, it has proceeded better than most could have hoped.
The real criticism of the Biden Administration — and a situation that needs a Congressional inquiry — is the total and complete miss on the intelligence estimates of how long the Afghan government and military could continue to function after the U.S. withdrew. Either there is a long litany of lies about conditions in Afghanistan or the Intelligence Community totally missed the boat. As is often the case, it is probably some combination of the two, but the fact remains that public statements did not in any form match the reality on the ground that the Taliban would take down the government controlled areas of the country in just over a week.
It should not have been a surprise. Twenty years on the ground with supposed experts making entire careers analyzing events in the country should have known what was going on. In the simplest terms, open source material indicates that following the 29 February 2020 Trump Peace Accord, known formally as “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” — just the name of the agreement tells us something — the Taliban began preparing for their take over. Note that the agreement was between the U.S. and the Taliban. The Afghan government had no say or role in the negotiations and got no results from the agreement. The following are the key parts of the agreement which are spelled out in detail in the Accord:
- The U.S. agreed immediately to begin to reduce the number of troops in the country and promised to withdraw all remaining forces within fourteen months (May 2021).
- The U.S. released 5,000 prisoners that were Taliban fighters.
- The Taliban promised to prevent terrorist groups, especially al-Queda, from using Afghanistan to attack the U.S. or its allies.
- The Taliban and the national government of Afghanistan will enter negotiations for a cease fire and a coalition government.
- The Taliban will no longer attack U.S. forces or bases while the U.S. withdraws.
Almost immediately the Taliban began to approach low-level officials, and then gradually more and more senior officials and leaders throughout the country to convince them, through persuasion, threats and especially bribes, to surrender their villages, cities and regions to the Taliban when the time came in return for protection for them and their families. When the leadership quietly slipped away in the night, the rank and file were not going to risk their lives for nothing. In much of Afghan culture their loyalties are to family, village, tribe and not the central government in Kabul. Graft and corruption are so rampant in the country that many of the police and soldiers had not been paid in months. When offered money, and knowing that the central government would not help them, they took it.
Recall the optics of the Trump agreement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Doha Qatar to meet with the Taliban and proudly stood side by side for photo ops. Recall that the ex-president while in office wanted to bring the Taliban negotiators to Camp David on 11 September 2019. Trump adviser Stephen Miller — the virulently anti-immigration nut case — actively undermined the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) program for Afghanis that helped us as translators and in other ways because he did not want them in our country. And on and on. It is more than hypocritical of Republicans in Congress and the right-wing media to accuse President Biden of selling out the Afghan people and giving recognition to the Taliban. It was already done. President Biden could have refused to follow the Trump deal, but he made the decision to delay the withdrawal from May 2021 to August 2021 to allow more time for a better deal to be reached. It wasn’t. Neither the Taliban nor the Afghan national government were interested in any type of serious agreement with each other. I suspect that the Afghan government did not really expect the U.S. to leave completely, or else they already had their escape plans in place. None-the-less, the Biden Administration is in charge and it is their responsibility. But let’s not forget how we got to this point. These events set the stage for what we now see happening.
There were elite, well trained and disciplined Afghan special forces. They were ready to defend Kabul. When the president and most of the cabinet, along with other senior government officials, flew out of the country without warning, they melted away like all the others. They cannot fight to save the national government if there is no national government to defend.
It was, in essence, at the end, a nearly bloodless coup. Money talks and a lot of Afghanis walked. I think President Biden is correct to say that he will not send young American women and men to fight and die in a country where their own military will not defend themselves. It is over. The decision is made. It is time to make the best of a bad situation.
What makes it bad is that many American civilians remain in the country and it becomes a greater moral dilemma because we owe a debt to tens of thousands of Afghanis and their families who helped us over the course of twenty years believing that things would end differently. This is the mess. The timing comes under this administration, but this same circumstance would have ensued whenever the end came. Once people believe that all is lost, the stampede is on. As soon as the U.S. began withdrawing its embassy personnel, aid workers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and others, the Afghanis would know that it was over and panic would ensue. Could it have been timed out better? Yes. Could the chaos have been avoided? No. It is inevitable at some point.
The question now is what to do. The U.S. goal is to complete the evacuation by 31 August. Many critics believe that is too early, ignoring the president’s statements that the date is a goal, not a hard and fast requirement. Developments over the next few days will determine what happens. People are looking for hard and fast answers. That is reasonable but not realistic. The commanders on the ground are going to have to make some quick and difficult decisions. It is a very fluid situation. So far, for the most part the Taliban have stuck by their agreement to let the evacuation continue. There is no way to definitively say that this will last forever. I believe the Taliban leadership wants it to go smoothly and quickly because they want us gone. The sooner the better. They do not want to risk our return. That does not mean that some hothead on the front lines or a group of hotheads might not take matters into their own hands. The situation could blow up quickly with very little instigation. This is especially true if the U.S. begins going outside of the airport perimeter, or even outside of Kabul, to bring evacuees in.
There is a lot of blame to go around. Our collective amnesia of events in other administrations should not cloud our thinking about the current situation. In the end, the Biden Administration will demonstrate that they have the ability and know-how to pull off a Dunkirk style evacuation. Or not. Until then, the critics should hold their fire until the results are known.
When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
— Maya Angelou
For quite some time, I have been trying to figure out why nearly all of the elected officials in the Republican Party are okay with a budding autocrat, are okay with defiling their oath to the Constitution, are okay with an insurrection at the Capitol, and are okay with disenfranchising millions of Americans. I thought that surely there must be more than a handful of them that are true to their American roots, laws, institutions, and fundamental beliefs. I could not put all of the pieces together as to why they were undermining America — but I knew that it had to be about more than just politics, fear of being “primaryed” or some cult-like belief in an ex-president. It started to click with me this week due to a number of independent, but related analyses that I came upon.
This is my attempt to put it all together in a coherent way without getting too lost in the weeds. To me, it is critical that those of us that have not been privy to the real motivations behind the shenanigans of the last year understand it. Otherwise, I fear that we will lose our Republic and democracy.
I assert up front that the ex-president is not the be all, end all of the Republican Party that many think that he is. He finds the Republican Party to be a useful tool for his own aggrandizement and the Party finds him to be a useful tool to achieve their agenda and to reach their goal of “saving” the United States. (More on that in a moment.) It is a union of convenience that is mutually beneficial, but only as long as they both see that the means are moving them to the desired ends.
The picture became clearer to me after reading The Big Money Behind the Big Lie in The New Yorker Magazine by Jane Mayer. The well researched and documented article caught national attention because it details the sources of millions of dollars that are helping to keep the Big Lie alive and is being used by numerous right wing organizations to push state legislatures across the country to pass election laws that disenfranchise millions of non-white voters. Worse, many of those laws give partisan office holders or state legislatures the ability to override the will of the people if the vote doesn’t go the way that they want it.
The sources behind the money are scary enough, but what caught my eye was why they were doing it, and suddenly some of the pieces started to fall into place. It is complicated, and in my view, un-American, but that is not how they see it and they have the money, the ability, and most importantly, the will to shape our country to their view of the future if they are not stopped by a national elections law.
Ironically, today, 6 August is the anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 designed to reinforce and make real the provisions of the 15th Amendment. Thanks to current efforts in the wake of the Supreme Court severely crippling that Act in the 2013 case Shelby County v Holder, the historical bipartisan approach to voting rights is no more. The path to our current situation is long, but more direct than it may seem.
The supporters of the ex-president point to the 2000 Supreme Court decision in Bush v Gore, the case that in practice gave the 2000 election result in Florida to the Republican candidate resulting in President George W. Bush becoming our 43rd President. (The “hanging chads” election.) As I am neither a Constitutional nor legal scholar, my shorthand as interpreted by the ex-president’s supporters is that in his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Rehnquist, joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas, said that the state legislature can be the final arbiter of the rules governing an election. This is the first step in the Big Lie and the subsequent attempts to cancel Electoral College votes and thereby send the election results back to the state legislatures to resolve. Their approach is further aided by the murky Electoral Count Act of 1887 which was designed to clarify the mess created in the presidential election of 1876 where Rutherford B. Hayes is said to have stolen the presidency after a back room deal to end Reconstruction. Unfortunately it is full of exploitable provisions.
All that is to say that there are ways to challenge the results of a presidential election, there can be objections to particular Electoral College results, and state legislatures can get involved in the process. Fortunately, this time around, cooler heads and steadier hands prevailed and the 2020 election was not corrupted. But that is not the end of the story.
For many people, the Big Lie is true. To them, it is true in this sense. Their “America” is a white Christian nation. White Christians overwhelming voted for the 45th president. As Ms. Mayer points out in her article, anyone else is not American, therefore they should not be allowed to vote. Thus, the election was “rigged”, “stolen” or whatever else they want to believe. This argument is given a voice by Tucker Carlson of Fox News (and others) when he claims that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate of voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. That’s not democracy. It’s cheating.” (More on Mr. Carlson as the spokesperson for this way of thinking and pushing the movement in a moment.)
What could be the worst outcome for people with these beliefs? A black president. With his election, President Obama embodied the America that those pushing the Big Lie cannot abide. As he voiced support for policies celebrating diversity in every area of society (gay marriage, transgender rights, increasing numbers of minorities in positions of power, etc.) those that espouse the belief that there is only one America and it is white were apoplectic (try a google search of the filth directed at the Obamas). In their view, this can never happen again.
So. How to “fix” this problem? Create an autocracy. With a white male Christian as “president.” If not Trump, then someone like him. (See Florida and Texas for governors trying to out Trump, Trump.)
How to get there? Actually rig the elections. Stack the deck. Make it nearly impossible for anyone except the designated autocrat to win the election. Gerrymander districts, suppress the voters you don’t want to vote, give state legislatures the power to pick their own Electors, in other words, make it nearly impossible for anyone but a “true” American to win the presidency or to gain a majority in the Congress.
Sound far-fetched? Not in the United States? Take a look around. It was a very near thing this time. The tactics, techniques and procedures have been refined under fire. It will work better the next time, if given the chance.
Just like Trump tells us what he is going to do before it happens, so do his supporters across the land (they try, but fortunately don’t always succeed). It is happening in plain sight. As Maya Angelou said above, “believe them.”
One more data point for your consideration. Tucker Carlson, the Fox News “personality” is in Hungary this week, broadcasting from Budapest. This is another piece of the autocracy puzzle. Mr. Carlson is the leading cheerleader in the U.S. for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Those advocating for an autocratic America see Hungary as the model. They claim to be a democracy, but Mr. Orban has usurped all of the levers of power in the country, from the legislature, to the courts, to the press. Elections are held, but under the rules gradually implemented since he took power in 2010, it is impossible for any but his own party members to be elected.
Mr. Orban is also anti-immigration and anti-Muslim. He argues that he is the last bastion in the West for preserving the culture, language and traditions of the “original inhabitants.” Sound familiar? Mr. Carlson went so far in his broadcast last night as to opine that Hungarians are freer in their nation than Americans are in ours. It gets worse from there, but you get the idea.
Normally, I would not give Mr. Tucker the time of day. I think that he is a cancer on the American soul. But as the famous Sun Tzu saying goes, “Know thy enemies and know thyself: in a hundred battles you will never be defeated.” We need to know the hate that Mr. Carlson sells in order to understand where millions of Americans are coming from. Mr. Tucker is upfront as are many of the Big Lie supporters. They say it out loud. An autocracy that preserves American “values” is better than American democracy.
The advocates of election “reform” and disenfranchising Americans are moving ahead at full speed. Without immediate action on the Voting Rights Bills in the Congress, the game may be lost. It’s all there. The wannabe autocrats know what they are doing and are laser focused. The response needs to be equal to the challenge.