May 24, 2022

An update on Afghanistan.

An update on Afghanistan.

Plus, a question about Vladimir Putin's health.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

An update on Afghanistan. Plus, a question about Vladimir Putin's health.

Afghan women in the traditional blue burqas that become ubiquitous under previous Taliban rule. Author: Arnesen

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Quick hits.

  1. Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas have statewide primary elections today. The race most people are keeping an eye on is in Georgia, where Trump-backed former Sen. David Perdue is running against incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. (The races)
  2. Five Republican candidates for governor in Michigan are facing disqualification after Michigan’s Bureau of Elections said the contenders filed thousands of fraudulent signatures to qualify for the primary race. (The controversy)
  3. A Russian diplomat working for the United Nations resigned from his post yesterday in protest over the war in Ukraine. (The protest) Separately, a Ukrainian court sentenced a 21-year-old soldier to life in prison for war crimes, including indiscriminately shooting a civilian. (The sentence)
  4. Former Vice President Mike Pence declined to rule out running against former President Donald Trump in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. (The run)
  5. A federal court upheld the suspension of a Florida law that restricted the ability for social media platforms to moderate political content. (The ruling)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Afghanistan. In August of 2021, the Biden administration pulled the last remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. In the final days of U.S. occupation there, leaders of the Afghan government fled, the Taliban took control of the capitol, and two suicide bombers killed over 60 Afghans and 13 members of the U.S. military. The U.S. government evacuated more than 123,000 people in the final six weeks of the war, including over 6,000 Americans. Another several thousand people were evacuated in the first few months after U.S. troops left. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently testified that 126 Americans remain in Afghanistan and 37 who are attempting to leave are being helped by the department. More than 600 Americans have left the country since the end of August.

It has now been over nine months since the U.S. left Afghanistan, so we thought it’d be a good time to do an update on what's happening there.

Early on in the Taliban's rule, they appeared to have moderated some of their notorious social restrictions, but that moderation has taken a harsh turn in the last few months. Girls are now banned from going to school after sixth grade, women are prohibited from most jobs and from boarding a plane without a male companion, and men and women can only visit parks on separate days. More recently, the Taliban ordered that all women in public wear head to toe clothing that leaves only their eyes visible, and prohibited women from leaving their homes unless necessary.

While the civil war has abated, and violence across the country is down, it has been besieged by a series of terrorist attacks. In a single week in April, 77 people — including children — were killed by terrorist attacks in northern Afghanistan and the capitol of Kabul. The attacks were likely committed by ISIS Khorasan (ISIS-K), an offshoot of the Islamic State terrorist organization ISIS that spread throughout Iraq and Syria and has become prominent in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda is also again growing in strength.

The Afghan economy has now shrunk by 40% since the U.S. withdrawal, and the poverty rate could hit 97% by the end of this year. The International Rescue Committee has put it near the top of its Emergency Watchlist, warning that a collapse of virtually all basic services is possible.

Below, we’ll share some opinions from the right, left and from two Afghan women about what has happened since the withdrawal.


What the right is saying.

  • Some on the right blame Biden for a chaotic withdrawal and criticize the Taliban for breaking its promises.
  • Others say the situation is tragic, but it is no longer America's problem.
  • Some say we need to act now to help Afghan women and girls in any way we can.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called the order for women to cover themselves in public a "tragedy" for Afghans and a "nightmare" for Americans still trapped there.

"The new burqa decree requires women to cover everything but their eyes outside the home," the board wrote. "If a woman’s face is seen in public, her male 'guardian' could face a fine and jail time. If an uncovered woman has relatives who work for the government, they could lose their jobs. Parks are now segregated by sex. Women can no longer go to school or travel on planes or taxis without a male companion. They face arrest and imprisonment for violations.

"Before the latest decree was announced, [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken said the situation for Afghan women was 'extremely mixed to negative.' But, he added, 'somewhat ironically, you might say, there is in the country at large greater stability and relative peace.' It’s true that the civil war effectively ended after President Biden’s surrender to the Taliban, but Mr. Blinken’s words are cold comfort to anyone still trapped in the country," the board wrote. "Islamic State, a Taliban rival, has carried out a series of terrorist attacks in recent weeks that risk spiraling into more violence. Oh, and the country’s meth industry aimed at foreign markets is booming... After its disgraceful withdrawal, the Biden Administration has a particular duty to help Americans and allies left behind. Keeping the world’s attention on Taliban abuses is an essential part of that duty."

Daniel DePetris said Afghanistan is now "someone else's problem."

"Afghanistan is in dire straits, just as it was hanging on by a thread when 140,000 U.S. and NATO forces were fighting counterinsurgency operations in the small, mud-brick villages of Helmand and Kandahar provinces," he wrote. "The big difference between now and then is that Afghanistan is no longer an albatross around America's neck. When U.S. troops were doing the fighting and dying, the world expected the U.S. to lead the Afghan file. Today, with U.S. forces no longer carrying Afghanistan on their shoulders, the responsibility is now thrusted onto Kabul's own neighbors, who have far more at stake in Afghanistan's stability than the U.S. ever did.

"For Pakistan, a duplicitous U.S. partner that allowed Washington to use its airspace and roads to funnel supplies into Afghanistan while its intelligence agencies supported the Taliban, a post-U.S. Afghanistan is turning out to be far more complicated than Islamabad thought," he said. "If Pakistan believed a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would be taking orders from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency, then it was a massive miscalculation. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is turning into quite a headache for the Pakistani security establishment, which looks at its next-door neighbor and sees a country not doing much to combat anti-Pakistan insurgents operating on Afghan soil... But one thing is for sure: whatever happens on the ground, the United States will be watching the region's local powers work out their own arrangements. This isn't a bad place to be, especially if the alternative was a third decade of war in Afghanistan."

Natalie Gonnella-Platts said we must act quickly to help Afghan women.

"Influencers everywhere must do a better job of lifting the voices of Afghan women far and wide," she wrote. "Afghan women and the organizations working on their behalf must have an equal seat at decision-making tables. Governments and international organizations must hold the Taliban to account for their continued violation of human rights. We have seen before what happens when Afghan women aren’t included in consistent and meaningful ways in dialogue and diplomacy. Let’s not repeat the same mistakes.

"Governments, the private sector and individual donors must increase support for those who continue to push forward on behalf of the most vulnerable," she added. "Likewise, community-led efforts continue to have tenacity and impact. Organizations like the Afghan Institute of Learning, Razia’s Ray of Hope, Code to Inspire and others remain innovative and agile, never losing sight of their focus on their country’s future... pathways to safety must be expanded for at-risk Afghans. Educators, prosecutors, policewomen, military members and so many other Afghan women remain at serious risk of reprisal because of their commitment to freedom, democracy and the inherent dignity of all – ideals we as Americans and much of the world hold in the highest regard."


What the left is saying.

  • Many call on America to take in more Afghan refugees.
  • Some criticize the Taliban for their latest efforts at repression.
  • Others say America's own policies are at fault.

The Washington Post editorial board said "don't forget the Afghan refugees who need America's support."

"For many of the 80,000 or so Afghans who made it to the United States after the fall of Kabul last year, the challenges they face in acclimating to a new country are mounting," the board wrote. "Thousands of others still in Afghanistan or nearby countries have been denied entry to the United States or wait in limbo. Congress could help but has not. Most Afghans who arrived here were airlifted from Kabul during last summer’s chaotic U.S. withdrawal, then housed in temporary quarters at military bases. They have since been resettled in communities across the country, but often without the financial and logistical support normally accorded refugees by the government.

"That’s because Afghans, including thousands who assisted our troops and risked their lives doing so over years, have not been granted refugee status — and because the Trump administration gutted the infrastructure for resettling refugees," they wrote. "Around the United States, scores of private groups staffed by volunteers have formed to help. They have provided Afghans with funds, as well as assistance in forming community attachments, navigating red tape to apply for asylum and accessing government aid. That help has been critical, but it is a poor substitute for systematic government assistance. Aid to some Afghan refugees has run dry, leaving them unable to pay rent or facing eviction."

The Guardian editorial board decried the Taliban for "turning the screws."

"The growing repression demolishes Taliban claims to have changed since they last ruled Afghanistan," the board said. "Even when they swept to power last August, some outsiders entertained the idea that this was a more moderate Taliban 2.0, given the promises to protect the rights of women and not seek retribution. The last-minute reversal of a promise to allow secondary education to resume for girls across the country highlighted internal divisions. Some clerics sympathetic to the militants have called for older girls to be allowed back to school, and in some areas they are already studying. But all the evidence is that the power of hardliners is becoming entrenched.

"At stake is not only women’s freedom, but also the survival of families amid economic collapse. While the Taliban increase their repression, they show little interest in or ability to tackle the immense humanitarian catastrophe. People are starving," the board said. "Other countries have limited scope for action, but must clearly and consistently reiterate their support for women’s rights as a necessity and priority for Afghan women themselves."

In The American Prospect, Emran Feroz pointed the finger at American policy for continued suffering in Afghanistan.

"Ordinary Afghans are starving, thanks mainly to sanctions and a currency crisis," Feroz wrote. "The country’s foreign currency reserves, worth billions of dollars, are still frozen. These sanctions exacerbate the suffering of millions of citizens—apparently for the sole purpose of undermining Taliban rule. It seems that for the Biden administration, the war against the Afghan people is far from being over. While bombs and rockets were used in the past, economic warfare is the present.

"Many Afghans blame both the U.S. and the Taliban for the current situation. The country’s new rulers, for their part, are busy with policies that often betray a poor sense of priorities and an even worse understanding of modern governance and the services modern citizens expect," Feroz said. "These zealots owe their position in large part to the American-led war on terror. Though American media portrayed them as an undifferentiated mass of fanatics, the Taliban in fact has factions, and the more practical and pragmatic Taliban leaders who were interested in dialogue were mostly killed during the occupation."


Views from Afghanistan...

In the Connecticut Mirror, Rohina Rahimi, whose business partner fled to Connecticut while she stayed in Afghanistan, said "please don't forget us."

"I tried to leave the country too, but unfortunately, there was no chance for me at that time. I had no choice but to close the business because we were working as a cohesive group and now we were not allowed to operate," she wrote. "It is so shameful that in the 21st century our girls do not have permission to go to schools, our people live in poverty and our children are struggling with malnutrition and hunger. And still, the world is watching the death of my compatriots in complete silence. Today I am a software engineer, a businesswoman, and a writer, but I cannot help my people. I cannot help those Afghan girls who cry for education behind the closed doors of schools and universities.

“The only thing that I have with me is the words that I share through social media platforms and to raise my voice against this injustice," she wrote. "Those who live in Afghanistan are suffering from severe poverty. They strive for their basic rights like education, work and freedom of expressions and choice. Those who have left Afghanistan face a different type of systematic discrimination and judgment and are forced to completely change their lifestyle and their future goals... The only thing that I can say for people all over the world: Please do not forget Afghanistan and the Afghan people, especially Afghan girls and women."

In The Washington Post, Shabana Basij-Rasikh wrote about the women protesting the Taliban's crackdown.

"Have you seen the faces of the women of Kabul? Have you seen them, these women who are my Afghan sisters, carrying signs through the streets, their voices raised for justice, their bodies vulnerable and unafraid? See them. Look now. Look before the blue tide rises and they disappear below," she wrote. "In the Taliban’s Afghanistan, women’s bodies, opportunities and futures are to be utterly controlled by men, and in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, this control must begin at home. It’s the last part of that sentence I hope you’ll pay attention to.

"During its first regime in the 1990s, the Taliban beat women in the street if their clothing was insufficiently 'modest.' This won’t happen during its second regime — not because it has changed its goals but because it has become more subtle about achieving them," she wrote. "Now, it says, women aren’t the ones who’ll be disciplined; it will be their 'guardians.' An Afghan woman’s guardians, in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, are the men of her house: fathers, brothers, husbands, even sons. The Taliban is using its power to institutionalize control of women at the family level. The message it is sending Afghan men is a simple one: Control your women, or we will punish you."


My take.

It's hard to find the words.

I supported Trump's intent to exit Afghanistan, and I supported Biden's follow through (though the nature of the withdrawal was in many ways disastrous). Reading what has happened over the last few weeks is the first time in the nine months since we left that I've doubted my position. It's both humbling and stomach-churning.

Afghanistan, for our 20 years there, was a far safer place for women and girls but a more dangerous place for the country as a whole, thanks to the never-ending civil wars. Our withdrawal has at least tamped down some of that violence, and — as Antony Blinken said — ushered in some kind of sick "stability" on the backs of harsh Taliban rulers. But that stability only exists in relation to the civil war. In place of that war is now a spike in poverty, hunger and terrorist attacks. And Afghan women are being sent back to the dark ages.

I'm in awe of those Afghan women who have braved the streets in protest, refusing to wear their full face coverings and succumb to the oppression of the Taliban. "Bravery" is the understatement of the century. It's heroic, and many will lose their freedom or lives as a result.

Yet the problem feels intractable. Even Basij-Rasikh, co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan, could not offer much in the way of a solution: "The global community responded to the Taliban’s edict with the usual words of concern," she wrote. "I suppose that’s something. I understand there’s only so much they can do to alter the policy trajectory of a regime that seems to be doing everything in its power to prevent itself from attaining international legitimacy."

The truth is I don't know what to think. I'm glad American soldiers have left and glad so many Americans now see plainly that you don't "spread democracy" with bombs and soldiers and nation building. The war in Afghanistan is now rightly viewed as a catastrophic failure by just about everyone, one so calamitous we now hesitate to engage in similar wars elsewhere.

Still, I'm left questioning my own support for the withdrawal. Is this really better? Is there a price for the innocent women, children and civilians whose lives are now being destroyed by the Taliban and a nation’s economic collapse? Was the meager troop presence really such a high cost for everything that has been lost? It feels heartless and absurd to make those arguments, even though I can't muster any rationale that staying there indefinitely was a much better option.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: What should we make of the rumors that Putin is suffering from late-stage cancer? Do you believe there is any substance to them? But more importantly, what happens if Putin dies or, as I've also seen "leaves the presidency" this year or next? Who takes power and what does that change in terms of Russia's current policy?

— James, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tangle: Proceed with caution. That's all I'd say. Getting reliable info from the Kremlin is difficult enough. Getting it about Putin's private health is damn near impossible. I could think of a million reasons why someone would want to leak the fact he was very sick, and another million why someone close to him would make such a rumor up out of thin air.

The most credible suggestion that he does indeed have cancer probably came from Oliver Stone, the Oscar-winning director who said Putin was fighting cancer when he had multiple interviews with him between 2015 and 2017. But Stone also said Putin had beaten the cancer. The other source for these rumors is Christopher Steele, the infamous source of the Steele Dossier. Let's just say his reputation has been... called into question.

Regardless, if Putin were to die or leave the presidency, I'm not sure anyone could guess what would happen. There were reports that Putin had some kind of mysterious surgery earlier this month, which a few news outlets attributed to cancer, but I couldn't find any reliable primary source on that. Those same outlets said he temporarily handed power over to Nikolai Patrushev, a hardliner and former police chief, while he was incapacitated. In terms of leadership potential, Patrushev is something close to a disaster.

So... I don't know. I'll concede he looks unwell in recent public appearances, but beyond that it is a pure guessing game.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

The White House is under increased pressure to take more drastic action to tamp down gas prices. CNN's Matt Egan scooped a report that the administration is considering tapping emergency diesel reserves to bring prices down. But experts say the move, which would draw from the Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve, may only bring down prices for a couple of weeks or maybe months. Biden is also considering suspending some environmental rules designed to reduce smog in order to allow a wider range of gasoline to be used this summer, Reuters reports.


Numbers.

  • 38.9 million. The population of Afghanistan.
  • 18.9 million. The number of women living in Afghanistan.
  • 124,000. A rough estimate of the total number of people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan by the U.S.
  • $37 million. The amount of money spent on evacuation flights.
  • 76,000. The number of Afghans brought to the U.S. so far, according to a February estimate.

Have a nice day.

While the Taliban has tried to restrict girls’ education, hundreds of girls and women have found a way to keep learning in "underground classrooms." Through encrypted online classes or hidden makeshift classrooms, Afghan women are continuing to enroll in the country's first all-female coding academy, which existed before the Taliban took over. Course content was uploaded online and laptops and internet packages were discreetly handed out during the Taliban takeover. "There are threats and dangers to girls like me. If the Taliban get to know ... they might punish me severely. They might even stone me to death," Zainab Muhammadi told Reuters. "But I have not lost hope or my aspirations. I'm determined to continue studying." Good Good Good has the story.


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