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.

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.

Duck and Cover

How to prepare for tonight’s presidential debate.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden square off in the first of three presidential debates tonight starting at 9 pm. And while I’d like to treat it like the fellow above, I’ve got to watch it so I can sound smart on the radio tomorrow. Because misery loves company, you should watch it too.

So what should we watch for? Well, the New York Times suggests this is Trump’s best chance to change the narrative of a race where he’s lagging far behind. So from Trump expect a lot of personal attacks on Biden and his family, and a loose relationship with facts and the truth. Biden has to avoid taking Trump’s bait and keep rein on his temper and emotions.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post points out that Trump hasn’t really prepared, believing his experience as president is preparation enough, and testing out attack lines on close aides and with rally audiences; moderator Chris Wallace doesn’t intend to act as a live fact checker; and any slips of Biden’s will likely pale besides those of his counterpart.

Over at Politico, the writers compile what they expect to be the “10 biggest whoppers” told on the stage tonight. Brace yourself for this, but they expect most of these — 7 out of 10 — will come from Trump.

John Dickerson at The Atlantic reminds us that debates are about more than facts. Rather they are a window into a candidate’s temperament, character, and style of leadership. As I suggested last week, I think we have that covered when it comes to Donald Trump. But we might see something interesting about Joe Biden tonight. Besides, the burden of fact checking really ought to be on us as viewers.

Finally, will tonight’s debate really matter? Well, according to the folks at fivethirtyeight.com, first debates tend to help the challenger more than the incumbent, though that may not play out this time around. There are frankly too few undecided voters left to be persuaded. And Biden may have the most to lose because he’s so far ahead.

So there you go. You can read all of that, or just take it like the guy in the photo. I know which one I’d choose if I could.

If you’re curious about that photo, it’s a still from the classic 1951 Civil Defense film “Duck and Cover,” starring Bert the Turtle. Watch it here.

The man he’s always been

The convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume for as long as they continue in office.

Henry Kissinger

Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.

Michelle Obama

I’m opening this post with these quotes because I’m spending a beautiful early fall afternoon depressing myself by reading over the last nearly five years of pieces I’ve written in this space about Donald Trump. I link to a bunch of them individually below, but if you want to suffer along with me, here’s a link where you can find all, or nearly all of them.

One thing is really clear to me. We have known all along who and what Donald Trump is, and we elected him anyway.

Take this example, from Dec. 7, 2015, my very first entry on him, right after Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States …”

And so Trump takes the fear and xenophobia already rampant in Republican ranks, already being stoked by his slightly less hysterical rivals, and ramps it to new, nauseating heights.

When he declared, most everyone, myself included, played the Trump candidacy as a diversion, an amusing little gag. Well the joke’s not funny any more. It’s really not.

As I wrote four years later, Trump’s pitch was not a bug but a feature:

Way back in 2015, Donald Trump began his run for the White House with a naked appeal to fear rooted in racism. And for the last four years, as he first campaigned and then as he has governed, his tune has remained the same.

In hindsight, the joke never was funny, no matter how many people fell for it then, and still fall for it now. Trump, ever the showman with the uncanny ability to manipulate the media while lying with the ease of one for whom it comes naturally, knew how to give the people what they wanted, and what they wanted was someone who appeals to their base instincts, angers, and resentments. And he knew then, and knows now, who his best friends are, European fascists and American racists and anti-semites.

Which squares perfectly with his fondness for and admiration of authoritarian strongmen, his lust for the adulation they can command, and his craving for the power they enjoy but our system (so far) has managed to deny him. His refusal to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose in November is no surprise given his refusal to commit to honoring the outcome in 2016 if Clinton won. That he has armed militia followers who might back that play in 2020 should not surprise either given the pro-Trump stance militias took four years ago.

So what are we to do now, with less that 40 days until the general election? My answer today is the same as what it was in March 2019, when Democrats were still entertaining the fantasy that Robert Mueller, or impeachment, or the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, or the 25th Amendment, or some other deus ex machina might rid the country of Trump.

We’ll have to beat him at the polls. By voting early and in person where allowed, by mailing in our absentee ballots as soon as possible to ensure our votes are counted, or by walking into our local polling place on Nov. 3 and filling out our ballots, which is what I am going to do.

Joe Biden wasn’t your first choice? Hey, mine either. But given the stakes, #ADWD.