The Afghan debacle

Taliban in the presidential palace, Kabul (AP photo)

I certainly didn’t think that this would be the topic that got me back to the blog, but here we are.

Let me caveat this by acknowledging that I’m no expert on Afghanistan, and looking back over the archives here, I see I’ve not written much about it, beyond noting some of the more recent absurdities, like dropping a $16 million “mother of all bombs” on a cave to target a few dozen ISIS-affiliated fighters, or mercenary Erik Prince’s proposal to privatize the war and pay for it by stealing Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Almost exactly three years ago, in August 2017, I noted that President Trump, with his first policy speech on Afghanistan, was taking ownership of a foreign policy failure that was at that point three presidencies in the making. A year later, his administration entered into peace negotiations with the Taliban (tellingly, the actual Afghan government was not included in the talks), which culminated in a Feb. 2020 agreement in which Trump pledged to remove all US troops by the end of May 2021. In return the Taliban agreed to play nice.

This April President Biden announced that the withdrawal would be carried out in full, but pushed the timeline to the end of this month. We know the rest of the story.

Unlike me, actual experts have had some smart things to say. For example, my friend and fellow academic Steve Saideman, who has written books about the NATO mission in Afghanistan and Canada’s experience there, has two new posts over at his blog where he looks at some of the big questions emerging from the Taliban’s victory.

Another academic blogger, Dan Drezner, is well worth reading on the international relations and US foreign policy implications of the fall of Afghanistan. His big takeaways, that the damage to the US here is not in terms of raising doubts about American resolve but rather policy competence, are ones that fully agree with.

I was on the radio less than a week ago repeating what was then the conventional wisdom, that the Afghan government would likely only be able to hold off the Taliban for 90 days or so once the US withdrawal was complete. Turns out it only took six days, with our withdrawal still in process.

What has perhaps been the most shocking to observers, pundits, and policymakers alike is the stunning collapse of the Afghan National Army, one we spent 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars training and equipping.

The explanation for the largely bloodless conquest of the country over the last several days may lie less in American or Western failures of training or equipping than in a collective failure to understand Afghan society. As Anatol Lieven writes in Politico, the pattern witnessed over the last several weeks, in which Afghan government security forces surrender to Taliban units, often without firing a shot, is one that has persisted since the Soviet occupation and the decades of civil war that followed:

I remembered this episode three years later, when the Communist state eventually fell to the mujahedeen; six years later, as the Taliban swept across much of Afghanistan; and again this week, as the country collapses in the face of another Taliban assault. Such “arrangements” — in which opposing factions agree not to fight, or even to trade soldiers in exchange for safe passage — are critical to understanding why the Afghan army today has collapsed so quickly (and, for the most part, without violence). The same was true when the Communist state collapsed in 1992, and the practice persisted in many places as the Taliban advanced later in the 1990s.

This dense web of relationships and negotiated arrangements between forces on opposite sides is often opaque to outsiders. Over the past 20 years, U.S. military and intelligence services have generally either not understood or chosen to ignore this dynamic as they sought to paint an optimistic picture of American efforts to build a strong, loyal Afghan army. Hence the Biden administration’s expectation that there would be what during the Vietnam War was called a “decent interval” between U.S. departure and the state’s collapse. 

While the coming months and years will reveal what the U.S. government did and didn’t know about the state of Afghan security forces prior to U.S. withdrawal, the speed of the collapse was predictable. That the U.S. government could not foresee — or, perhaps, refused to admit — that beleaguered Afghan forces would continue a long-standing practice of cutting deals with the Taliban illustrates precisely the same naivete with which America has prosecuted the Afghanistan war for years.

A lot of smart (and not so smart) people are now going to pivot to the “lessons learned” portion of the American adventure in Afghanistan. Lieven, I think, has the most important part figured out:

The point is that America’s commanders and officials either completely failed to understand these aspects of Afghan reality or failed to report them honestly to U.S. administrations, Congress and the general public.

We can draw a clear line between this lack of understanding and the horrible degree of surprise at the events of the past several days. America didn’t predict this sudden collapse, but it could have and should have — an unfortunately fitting coda to a war effort that has been undermined from the start by a failure to study Afghan realities.

Dr. Seuss racist redux

One of the racist images in Dr. Seuss’ If I Ran the Zoo.

A public reckoning with the racist imagery in much of Dr. Seuss’ work has actually been a long time coming. I’ll forgive you if you didn’t read my 2015 post on the topic.

In that piece I focused on the World War II propaganda cartoons he drew in support of the US war effort, and the dehumanized imagery he produced to depict our Japanese foes compared to his much more sympathetic portrayal of, namely, Adolf Hitler.

Those images were completely in line with the race thinking that serves as a foundational element of American foreign policy ideology, how we understood the world and our place and role in it. Anglo-Saxonism is its core, placing America and Britain as a single people standing atop a racial hierarchy in which Germany was a racial close cousin, separated from us only because it had “lost its love of liberty.” Asians fell far down the ladder at whose absolute bottom stood Blacks. As I wrote six years ago:

The wartime cartoons of Dr. Seuss put these [issues] on vivid display. In the images reproduced here, Hitler is portrayed as essentially an aristocrat, his head held high in a posture of contempt of others, almost attractive and noble for all his arrogance. Not so the Japanese, shown here leering with a slant-eyed squint through thick glasses, with buck-toothed grins.  Or as inhuman monsters and insects with caricatures for faces.

The point I was making then, and which I want to reiterate now, is that Dr. Seuss was no outlier in the way that he thought about race compared to other Americans. The racism visible in his work was part and parcel with the systemic racism of his times which we still struggle to acknowledge and overcome.

What has changed is our willingness to continue to overlook it.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the foundation that oversees the artist’s legacy and publishes his works, announced yesterday that it will no longer publish six of his books, most notably And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo, from which the image at the top of this post is taken. Mulberry Street holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Seuss book I remember reading (or more likely remember being read to me). And I’ll acknowledge not being aware that, in the words of the announcement, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

But I can’t say that I’m surprised, and I can’t say that they’re wrong. While conservative culture warriors may race to the airwaves and Twitter to decry the decision as cancel culture run amok, reality isn’t so simple. Nor is Seuss’ legacy.

Because Seuss was on the right side of history on many of the issues of his day. He drew cartoons decrying Jim Crow laws and defending Black rights to equal employment. He drew cartoons lambasting Nazi policies and attacking the isolationism and anti-Semitism of Charles Lindbergh’s America First Movement.

And he drew a lot of things that were and are shockingly racist. We should be mature enough to acknowledge that even as we embrace the lessons of environmentalism in The Lorax and tolerance and acceptance in Horton Hears a Who!

Seuss’ liberalism, and his racism, are his legacy. And they’re our legacy too.

‘Heightened threat environment’

(Credit: New York Times)

If you were wondering whether the United States was going to finally take the threat of far-right anti-government domestic terrorism seriously, it looks like we have an answer.

Earlier today, the Department of Homeland Security issued a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, the first in more than a year. The bulletin was released “due to a heightened threat environment across the United States, which DHS believes will persist in the weeks following the successful Presidential Inauguration.”

If you want to know what a major shift this is in our acknowledgment of the real terrorist threats facing this country, just compare it to the DHS report released last September which, while acknowledging the threat posed by white-supremacist terrorists, buried it on p.27 of a 30-page report while falsely equating it with that from left-wing groups like antifa and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Or compare it to joint DHS/DOJ terrorism analysis released in January 2018, which claimed that three out of four people convicted of terrorist offenses are foreign born while intentionally omitting any mention of the threat of domestic terrorism posed by white supremacist and other right-wing groups.

That past blindness has been a refusal to acknowledge what is the ugly truth about terrorism in America, that the main threat comes from the racist and anti-government far-right wing of our country’s political spectrum. And this isn’t just true now, it is also the case historically, as I’ve written about in this space before.

In case the point needs emphasizing, just two days ago a federal appeals court upheld the conviction of three Kansas militia members who in 2016 plotted to set off simultaneous car bombs targeting a mosque and apartments housing Somali immigrants in Garden City. At their sentencing in 2018, one defendant’s lawyers argued for leniency on the grounds that his client had been radicalized by then-candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.

But back to the NTAS bulletin. DHS assess that “some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.” Here are the details:

Throughout 2020, Domestic Violent Extremists (DVEs) targeted individuals with opposing views engaged in First Amendment-protected, non-violent protest activity.  DVEs motivated by a range of issues, including anger over COVID-19 restrictions, the 2020 election results, and police use of force have plotted and on occasion carried out attacks against government facilities. 

Long-standing racial and ethnic tension—including opposition to immigration—has driven DVE attacks, including a 2019 shooting in El Paso, Texas that killed 23 people.

DHS is concerned these same drivers to violence will remain through early 2021 and some DVEs may be emboldened by the January 6, 2021 breach of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. to target elected officials and government facilities.

DHS remains concerned that Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVEs) inspired by foreign terrorist groups, who committed three attacks targeting government officials in 2020, remain a threat.

Threats of violence against critical infrastructure, including the electric, telecommunications and healthcare sectors, increased in 2020 with violent extremists citing misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 for their actions.  

DHS, as well as other Federal agencies and law enforcement partners will continue to take precautions to protect people and infrastructure across the United States.

DHS remains committed to preventing violence and threats meant to intimidate or coerce specific populations on the basis of their religion, race, ethnicity, identity or political views.

DHS encourages state, local, tribal, and territorial homeland security partners to continue prioritizing physical security measures, particularly around government facilities, to protect people and critical infrastructure.

Nothing succeeds like success

(Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At least in the eyes of the motley assortment of violent extremists and groups that participated in overrunning the US Capitol on Jan. 6. And that success is going to be seen as inspiration for more violence.

That is just one of the conclusions reached in the Joint Intelligence Bulletin (JIB) released last week by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and National Counterterrorism Center. This bulletin sounded the alarms that led to a massive security presence at state houses around the country over the weekend and the transformation of the area around the Capitol and the White House into a fortified militarized zone ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration.

With as many as 25,000 troops providing security as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in as our next president and vice president, it is the biggest such security presence in US history, eclipsing Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. The Washington Post described that scene the other day. As Lincoln stood to address the throngs arrayed on the lawn outside the East Portico of the Capitol:

… below the platform the Army had deployed artillery. Snipers watched from rooftops and windows, and Lincoln had been guarded by infantry and cavalry on his carriage ride through the streets to the Capitol.

On March 4, 1861, while Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, the country was on the brink of civil war. When Biden delivers his, will we be in similar straits?

The January 13 Joint Intelligence Bulletin is one of the most detailed and specific that I can recall in laying out the imminent and ongoing risks of terrorism committed by what the agencies call DVEs, Domestic Violent Extremists. Before getting into the meat of the bulletin, I want to call attention to the terminological gymnastics that federal law enforcement goes to in order to avoid using the word “terrorist” to label these actors. Here’s a quote from the bulletin’s first footnote:

The FBI, DHS, and NCTC define a domestic violent extremist as an individual based and operating primarily within the United States or its territories without direction or inspiration from a foreign terrorist group or other foreign power who seeks to further political or social goals wholly or in part through unlawful acts of force or violence.

That sounds like the definition of a domestic terrorist to me. But the rest of the footnote adds an important caveat, which helps us understand why the “T” word isn’t in play here:

The mere advocacy of political or social positions, political activism, use of strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophic embrace of violent tactics may not constitute extremism, and may be constitutionally protected.

In principle I get this splitting of hairs. Terrorism is fundamentally an action, a form of political action. It is too easy to apply the label where and when it doesn’t belong, especially since doing so tends to have the intended effect of delegitimizing the ideas and grievances of political opponents branded with that word. But as you read through the JIB, it is very clear that the warnings here are about potential acts of terrorism, not constitutionally protected acts of speech or assembly.

So how does Jan. 6 figure into these warnings? First, as the JIB makes clear, some of these domestic terrorist groups present at the Capitol view the violent breaching of the building as a success to build upon. It united in common action violent extremists across the far-right ideological spectrum — anti-government armed militias, white supremacists and white nationalists, religious extremists, QAnon conspiracists, and pro-Trump extremists.

Second, the death of a QAnon conspiracist shot to death by Capitol Police as she tried to break into the Speaker’s Lobby, adds a new name to the ranks of martyrs venerated by the far right. As the JIB states in a footnote:

The perception that deaths of like-minded individuals at the hands of law enforcement were unjust has historically been a significant driver for DVEs. DVEs have seized on the deaths … at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992; US persons at the Branch Davidians compound in Waco, Texas in 1993; and … [in Maryland] in 2020 to justify threats against law enforcement and government officials.

What are the likely targets should these groups and individuals continue to escalate violence? According to the JIB the list is a familiar one, especially if you’ve read any of posts I’ve written on far-right domestic terrorism over the last five years:

  • Racial, ethnic or religious minorities and institutions
  • Members of law enforcement
  • Government officials and buildings
  • Members of the LGBTQ+ community
  • Members of the press due to perceived complicity in a system hostile to the extremists’s beliefs

But the perceived success of Jan. 6 is only one factor contributing to this heightened threat environment. According to the JIB, the shifting political landscape with Democrats taking control of both White House and Senate, coupled with the ongoing amplification of false claims of fraud surrounding the General Election and proliferation of conspiracy theories, will provide impetus for increased threats of violence. Specifically:

  • “The potential for shifts in various policies many DVEs may perceive to oppose or threaten their ideological goals or agendas, or feed into existing narratives or conspiracy theories many DVEs subscribe to regarding the US government’s exercise of power, influence and initiatives: possibly including gun control legislation, the easing of immigration restrictions, and new limits on the use of public land.”
  • “Ongoing false narratives by DVEs that the 2020 General Election was illegitimate, or fraudulent, and the subsequent belief its results should be contested or unrecognized.”
  • “Some DVEs’ discontent … with renewed measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the ordered dissemination of COVID-19 vaccinations, and the efficacy and/or safety of … vaccinations.”

The outlook, according to the intelligence bulletin, is pretty dark. DVEs continue to use social media to call for attacks on government infrastructure and officials. And there is this chilling statement:

The shared false narrative of a ‘stolen’ election and opposition to the change in control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government may lead some individuals to adopt the belief that there is no political solution to address their grievances and violent action is necessary.

And that conclusion, that violence is the only viable way forward to achieve desired political goals, is the textbook statement of how terrorists justify their actions.