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.

Yeah, I think they are at risk

(Credit: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Back in October, in response to questions from local journalists, I argued that the risks of reporters and other media figures being intentionally targeted by violent political actors (OK, OK, domestic terrorists) was relatively low.

My thinking has changed in the wake of the escalation of political violence that we saw on Jan. 6 and the continuing dangers of more and greater violence in the coming days and weeks.

A week ago we watched pro-Trump mobs storming the U.S. Capitol pause to assault members of the media, delivering the violence against journalists the president has been inciting literally for years.

To cut to the chase, after last Wednesday I don’t think media organizations can automatically assume that their reporters, photographers, and camera crews will be safe at any pro-Trump demonstration in the future, especially if his supporters show up armed. Members of the media should maintain maximum situational awareness and have a plan for how to get out of harm’s way if they need to.

In short, I think media organizations covering a pro-Trump demonstration need to treat it the same way they’d treat sending their staff into a war zone. The risks are that real.

When I thought about this four months ago, my feeling was that the main danger to journalists covering protests and counter-protests during the summer came largely, and unfortunately, from the police, who we saw intentionally targeting journalists with rubber bullets and chemical irritants both here in Detroit and across the United States. I also knew, and the data backs it up, that the most likely perpetrators of domestic terrorism in the United States were unlikely to intentionally target journalists.

These most-likely perpetrators — white supremacists and white nationalists, neo-Nazi groups, violent anti-abortion activists and groups, armed anti-government militias — have had different targets in their sights. In short, journalists have historically fallen outside their “legitimate target” set. But now that a number of these groups have rallied behind Trump, and that the president has explicitly and repeatedly described journalists as “enemies of the people,” I don’t think we can assume that will remain the case. 

I am not saying this because I have knowledge of any specific plot or threats against journalists. I say this because it would fit the pattern that we see in terrorism generally.

There is a connection between what terrorist groups and violent political actors — so-called lone wolf terrorists — believe and who and what they target for violence.* Their worldview or ideology shapes their identification of legitimate targets. In embracing Trump, his enemies become their enemies.

So that’s Democrats, Republicans who are insufficiently loyal to Trump, public officials who refused to back his attempt to steal the election. And journalists. There is precedent for this. In 2018 Cesar Sayoc, a pro-Trump extremist, mailed letter bombs to more than a dozen politicians, media companies, and prominent Trump critics. 

I don’t mean to be alarmist, but I do think it is important for media organizations to be aware of this changing landscape and to be as fully prepared as possible to keep their people safe.

*It occurs to me that I need to write a post that describes this dynamic. But not this evening.

A warning of ‘war’ unheeded

(Credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

The day before the deadly attack on the US Capitol carried out by pro-Trump extremists, the Norfolk, VA field office of the FBI sent this dire warning to the bureau’s Washington, D.C. field office:

As of 5 January 2021, FBI Norfolk received information indicating calls for violence in response to ‘unlawful lockdowns’ to begin on 6 January 2021 in Washington. D.C. … An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating ‘Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.

That warning, briefed at the time to officials in the D.C. office and revealed earlier today by The Washington Post, was apparently ignored. Security at the Capitol was woefully inadequate and Capitol Police seemingly unprepared when the building was assaulted by a pro-Trump mob that numbered in the thousands. People died, including a Capitol Police officer, beaten to death by enraged, fanatical followers of Donald Trump.

And there may be worse yet to come. The FBI is warning that armed groups are planning a series of actions at state capitals around the country and again in Washington. D.C. beginning this weekend and continuing through Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. And late Monday, the new leadership of the Capitol Police briefed House Democrats on three violent right-wing plots planned in coming days against the government of the United States. One of those plots describes an armed attack to encircle the Capitol, Supreme Court, and White House. According to lawmakers:

… Capitol Police and the National Guard were preparing for potentially tens of thousands of armed protesters coming to Washington and were establishing rules of engagement for warfare. In general, the military and police don’t plan to shoot anyone until one of the rioters fires, but there could be exceptions.

Lawmakers were told that the plot to encircle the Capitol also included plans to surround the White House ― so that no one could harm Trump ― and the Supreme Court, simply to shut down the courts. The plan to surround the Capitol includes assassinating Democrats as well as Republicans who didn’t support Trump’s effort to overturn the election ― and allowing other Republicans to enter the building and control government.

Before going any further, let’s be absolutely clear about what’s being described here. These are not “armed protests,” the way these plans are being characterized by most of the media and, unfortunately, law enforcement agencies. These are terrorist plots.

Let’s remind ourselves of the definition. As I’ve written before:

Terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear, through violence or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of political change.

By this criterion, the simplest and broadest definition that I teach my students and use in my own writing and research, the plans being made for armed actions by pro-Trump extremists in the next several days fit the label. And it fits what happened at the US Capitol last week as well.

My initial take on the attack on the Capitol didn’t go that far. In the moment I interpreted the events as a mob gone out of control, but not pre-planned and pre-meditated. The actions of many of those who breached the Capitol seemed to reinforce that impression, yahoos and clowns aimlessly wandering, taking selfies, and engaging in petty acts of juvenile vandalism.

But within that ludicrous mob were small teams of paramilitary extremists, kitted out in tactical gear, moving with purpose, carrying zip-tie handcuffs and apparently maps of the labyrinthine corridors and tunnels of the Capitol complex.

It is not a stretch to imagine that they had more in mind than spreading their feces in the halls of Congress.

It is not a stretch to imagine that we may have dodged a live-streamed massacre of lawmakers by mere moments.

Last October, my friend and fellow academic Vasabjit Banerjee wrote a piece at Just Security in which he suggested that based on the what we know about rebellion and insurgencies around the world, the dangers of armed insurgency in the United States are more real that most suspect. At the time I disagreed.

I’m starting to think that I was too quick to reach that conclusion. Just as I was too quick to deny the reality that Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was an act of domestic terrorism.

The warnings that preceded Jan. 6, like the warnings that preceded the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were unheeded. Will we make the same mistake over the next 10 days?

What we saw today

(Credit: Reuters)

A local TV news producer asked me what I wanted to emphasize about what we saw and heard today. (I’m doing an interview with them tomorrow.) Here’s what I said:

A couple of things:

  • This was a fire, lit by Trump, and fanned by cynical Republicans trying to advance their own political fortunes by playing to his most devoted followers. Once you unleash these forces no one should be surprised if they get burned. It will be interesting to see if the events of today lead any in Congress to walk back their efforts to challenge the Electoral College results.
  • The Republican Party as we have known it since the 1960s is dead. I do not know how the Mitt Romney wing and the Josh Hawley et al. faction will be able to coexist after today. The Trump cult of personality has become the base of the Republican Party. This is the culmination of forces that began with Nixon’s Southern Strategy and really coalesced with the Tea Party movement of the 2010s.
  • Biden will be president come Jan. 20.
  • Our democracy is far more fragile than most people, myself included, had been willing to acknowledge. 
  • America has not been this divided against itself since the 1860s. I don’t know what can be done to heal that.

But then again, maybe tomorrow will dawn and things will look brighter. But I’m not counting on it.