Behind the News about the Afghanistan Withdrawal

Reality vs. Public Opinion

It’s a hot topic now: During the past few months, President Biden’s job approval has taken a hit. People are upset about his handling of multiple situations, including the Afghanistan withdrawal. As Washington Post writers Dan Balz, Scott Clement, and Emily Guskin conclude,

The Afghanistan withdrawal has contributed to a drop in Biden’s overall approval rating, which for the first time in his presidency is net negative.

For a deeper dive, see the chart below showing data from a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.

We can see there is a lot of dissatisfaction, both about leaving Afghanistan and about how it was done. But as we shall explore, this is not about Biden’s actual performance but because the global news machine (mainstream and social, liberal and conservative) needs to create drama to keep getting likes, hearts, hits, and subscribers. So, let’s drill into it to see how the selected topics to report shaped public opinion.

OMG This is Horrible, Why Are We Leaving?

First, why would 17% of U.S. adults think we should have stayed in Afghanistan? Hmmm. Let’s take look at my Google News feed today:

Naturally, when you read these headlines, you want to do something to help out—like send over an aircraft carrier and bomb the crap out of those evil Talibaners.

Now, to be sure, the Taliban taking over Afghanistan is probably going to be a human rights disaster. But, what is missing here? Do you see any articles in the news feed about why staying in Afghanistan would be bad?

The news feed gives the impression things have gone haywire and need to be fixed. This is because the disseminators of news (especially free news) need your clicks to fund advertising and fuel retweets. These become the most popular stories, so you’re news feed tends to filter out more mundane topics, like everything going well.

So we should always be asking ourselves, “What is left out? What is the other side of the story?”

Withdrawing Was the Only Practical Decision

While the Taliban’s violent and abusive nature is to be abhorred, we still had no choice but to leave and let them take over, which we probably should have done long before Biden took office. Consider these points:

  • Building a modern, centralized democracy in Afghanistan has always been a losing proposition. The U.S. effort to build Afghanistan into a modern, centrally governed nation is only the last in a long string of failed attempts dating back to 1880. As Mohammad Qadam Shah writes in The Diplomat,

    Afghanistan’s history is filled with numerous efforts toward peace and stability. Yet, the outcome time and again has been failure such that some scholars have described Afghanistan’s experiences as “try again, fail again, and fail better.

    For the last 140-plus years, nation-building efforts in Afghanistan have been torpedoed by corruption and ethnic conflict. Further, Mr. Shah opines that it will be no different for the Taliban. As Brewster Murray of CBC News explains,

    Whatever victory celebration the Taliban might have in mind, it will surely be tempered by the reality that they have inherited a country they helped to utterly ruin and are now overlords to a fractious, recalcitrant people who do not bow easily, even when bloodied

  • The decision to withdraw was already made when Biden assumed office.  The Trump Administration had already negotiated a deal and set a date for an American withdrawal. So Biden could only be faulted for reversing course and continue to pursue an unwinnable war. Rather, as Mr. Biden said, “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.” For further insights, see this excellent timeline article.

  • The other 83% of Americans polled wanted to leave. This has been the case for years. In November 2020 it was 91%. Perhaps some Americans are having buyer’s remorse after seeing the unfolding tragedy being brought by the Taliban.

What really happened in Afghanistan was that we stayed way too long pursuing a hopeless situation. Probably some fault can be laid on Trump and Obama for dragging it out. But, if you really want to blame someone, there is George W. Bush, who I like to blame for, well, pretty much everything. 😉

The Optics of the Withdrawal

So the withdrawal was inevitable. But what are we to make of the mess that seemed to unfold on our TVs and social media feeds in early August? Writing for The Guardian, Jonathon Freedland comments;

The assumption is that those initial, chaotic scenes at Kabul airport, with desperate Afghans clinging to planes as they took off, the heartrending stories of faithful servants of the US left to the mercies of the Taliban, and the sight of Afghanistan’s new masters posing with abandoned US military hardware worth billions, will together add up to a humiliation that the American public will not forgive. The assumption is that defeat is unpalatable – and that those images looked like defeat

These kinds of images are probably what influenced 52% of Americans to disapprove of Biden’s handling of the withdrawal.

Again, optics are not reality.

The Afghan Security Forces Were a Mess

Despite extensive training and $83 billion dollars of equipment, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were far from being a modern fighting force. Although they were trained and equipped, a modern army requires extensive supply lines for such things as sophisticated parts, ammunition, medical supplies, and food. They also require strong, reliable political leadership.

Taimoor Shah and Jim Huylebroek, writing in The New York Times, said:

These shortfalls [of ANSF] can be traced to numerous issues that sprung from the West’s insistence on building a fully modern military with all the logistical and supply complexities one requires, and which has proved unsustainable without the United States and its NATO allies . . . And when the Taliban started building momentum after the United States’ announcement of withdrawal, it only increased the belief that fighting in the security forces — fighting for President Ashraf Ghani’s government — wasn’t worth dying for.

Former U.S. Army Colonel Mike Jason, who worked with Afghan forces in 2019, described the situation in The Atlantic.

We failed to establish the necessary infrastructure that dealt effectively with military education, training, pay systems, career progression, personnel, accountability—all the things that make a professional security force.

Rotating teams through tours of six months to a year, we could not resolve the vexing problems facing Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s armies and police: endemic corruption, plummeting morale, rampant drug use, abysmal maintenance, and inept logistics.

This lack of supplies, plus lack of confidence in a corrupt leadership, left the ANSF ill-prepared and demoralized. Compounding this, the U.S. had been drawing down troops for years, not leaving an effective fighting force in its place but just leaving the field open for the Taliban.

Then, in February 2020, the Trump administration reached a deal with the Taliban that was roundly criticized for giving up far too much. Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute observed:

The fundamental flaw in this agreement is that the internationally recognized Afghan government, led by Ashraf Ghani, was not included in the negotiations. By accepting the Taliban demand to exclude the Afghan government, the Trump administration betrayed our ally and elevated the Taliban to our equal.

And John Allen of Brookings, added the following:

I have some specific misgivings: that the U.S. committed to a significant number of measurable commitments, but the Taliban did not; that the U.S. and Taliban committed to intra-Afghan talks, but that ongoing violence prevents these from occurring; that there’s very limited capacity for the Taliban to control violence themselves, even if they wanted to; that the current deal obligates the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters by March 10, but that in almost every instance, a mass release is immediately followed by an uptick in violence; and most importantly, that the U.S. failed to establish an internationally acceptable minimum standard for the rights of women.

Mr. Allen’s concerns did in fact come to fruition: The released prisoners not only created more violence, but some also became Taliban leaders. Furthermore, the Taliban did not comply with their end of the deal, which was probably no surprise to anyone but the Trump Administration. Did the Trump administration enforce the deal? No. As Eugene Kiely and Robert Farley writing for explain:

The Trump administration [reduced] U.S. troop levels from about 13,000 to 2,500, even though the Taliban continued to attack Afghan government forces and welcomed al-Qaeda terrorists into the Taliban leadership.

By November 2021, the Taliban had attained a strategic advantage over the ANSF in terms of their influence in the outlying areas and control over critical parts of the highway system. Writing in The New York Times Fahim and Zucchino explained the problem as follows::

Since the United States signed a troop withdrawal agreement in February with the Taliban, the militants have established new checkpoints along major highways, seizing control of long stretches of roadways, extorting millions of dollars a month from truckers and travelers and even displacing the police’s own efforts to extort bribes.

The Taliban takeover of sections of the country’s roadways is shifting the dynamic of the war, now in its nineteenth year, by making it more difficult for the government to resupply increasingly isolated garrisons and checkpoints. Truckers and local government officials say the militants now control more stretches of highway than at any time since the United States and NATO first began drawing down forces nearly a decade ago.

This all emboldened the Taliban and further demoralized the Afghan security forces, such that, by the time Biden took office, the Taliban was the strongest it had been since their original defeat by U.S. forces in 2001. In short, the Taliban were on the precipice of taking over, and Biden’s announcement that he would comply with the Trump deal just cleared their last concern they had that Biden might change course. Subsequently, the Afghan government, probably seeing the writing on the wall that they could not hold on without U.S. support, crumbled, and many top officials including the Afghan president fled the country.

David Zucchino in The New York Times recaps:

The result was a lopsided fight between an adaptable and highly mobile insurgent juggernaut, and a demoralized government force that had been abandoned by its leaders and cut off from help. Once the first provincial capital city surrendered this month, the big collapses came as fast as the Taliban could travel.

Biden had no choice in this. In theory, he could have surged American troops back into Afghanistan but this would have resulted in great loss of life and money for eventually the same result.

Adaptation is Key to Handling Unpredictability

As Biden notes in his speech, it was fundamentally a complex situation. To evacuate over 100, 000 people from a chaotic environment like Afghanistan is fraught with risk and uncertainty.

Biden admits his team was surprised by the speed of the Afghan National Security Forces collapse, but he says,

I take responsibility for the decision. Now, some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner. “Couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner?” I respectfully disagree. Imagine if we had begun evacuations in June or July, bringing in thousands of American troops and evacuating more than 120,000 people in the middle of a civil war. There still would have been a rush to the airport. A breakdown in confidence and control of the government. And it still would have been a very difficult and dangerous mission.”

Biden also claimed his team was prepared for the possibility of a rapid collapse, even if they did not think it was likely. History supports his claim because within a few days of chaotic images in the news, stability was restored and one of the biggest airlifts in history occurred relatively smoothly. Of course, once the airlift got up and running effectively, the reporting of it died down. In the end, as MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan put it,

He evacuated more than 100,000 non-Americans in barely two weeks. He ended US participation in a war that has killed, by conservative estimates, more than 40,000 non-American civilians. He stood up to generals and hawks and defence contractors.

Final Thoughts

The global news machine needs to find shiny baubles to attract our attention. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it all “fake news,” but certainly there is an element of slant and bias that we all need to be aware of regardless of the news source.

In the case of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s clear that misperceptions were created by images and stories about chaos in the evacuation and about Taliban-caused atrocities. The real story required a little digging and showed that America’s exit from Afghanistan was long overdue, despite the likely consequence of a brutal Taliban rule. We further saw that Biden was handed a trainwreck by President Trump, and while the Afghan forces collapsed quicker than hoped, the Biden administration made the hard choices and quickly pivoted and adjusted, which is all you can really expect from a leader in a complex situation with many variables.

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