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 — then “my take.” Today is a special Friday edition.
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Yesterday was a horrible day in Afghanistan.
Today probably will be, too.
In case you somehow haven’t heard by now, Thursday started with warnings from U.S., British and Australian intelligence that there was a “high threat” of a terrorist attack at Kabul airport. “Because of security threats outside the gates of Kabul airport, we are advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the airport,” the U.S. embassy said.
The details of what happened next are still becoming clear, but here’s what we think we know: a few hours later, one suicide bomber approached Abbey Gate on the outskirts of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Abbey Gate is the central entry point for U.S. soldiers and has been for years, as well as a secure entry point for visitors to Afghanistan. Early reporting suggests the bomber approached the gate’s security checkpoint for entry and then detonated, presumably as they were being searched, surrounded by U.S. Marines and other Afghan civilians trying to get into the airport.
A few blocks away, at The Baron Hotel, another suicide bomber made their way to the crowded area — this one a favorite of defense contractors, journalists, businessmen and other Westerners — and then set off another explosion. Shortly after the blasts, gunmen opened fire on troops and civilians. Words like “complex” and “sophisticated” were floated to describe the bombings. The reported number of dead still varies, but most are in the ballpark of 100 Afghans killed, along with 12 U.S. service members (11 Marines and a Navy medic). At least another 150 Afghans and Americans were injured. It was one of the deadliest days in the history of the war in Afghanistan — not just in the last few months or the last year, but in the last 20 years.
In an afternoon press briefing, General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters that he believes ISIS-K was responsible for the attack. If you just said to yourself, “ISIS who?” then you’re probably like most Americans. ISIS-Khorasan is an offshoot of the Islamic State terrorist organization ISIS that spread throughout Iraq and Syria and became infamous in the last few years — except their militants identify with “Khorasan,” an ancient historical region of Central Asia. Many of the fighters are in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you’re now asking yourself, “I thought we destroyed ISIS?” Well, welcome back to earth.
ISIS-K considers the Taliban — yes, the group who cuts off people’s hands for petty crimes and helped popularize suicide bombings — to have become insufficiently committed to Islamic law and far too understated in the way they do business. In May of this year a member of ISIS-K drove a bomb-laden vehicle into a girls’ school in Kabul, detonated it, then other militants detonated more bombs as the children fled. 68 people died and 165 were wounded — most were young girls. The Taliban and ISIS-K are, in regional terms, sometimes enemies, and have attacked each other several times in the last few years.
That might be why yesterday, during the same press briefing, Gen. McKenzie also told reporters that the Taliban is helping the U.S. secure Hamid Karzai International Airport, that the two were sharing intelligence with each other, and that he believed the Taliban had already helped thwart potential terrorist attacks in the area.
If that paragraph didn’t stop you in your tracks, let me re-frame that: the Taliban, who we were carpet bombing just a few years ago in hopes of wiping them off the face of the planet, are now so sufficiently in control of Afghanistan that our military is sharing intelligence with them to thwart a mutual enemy. It turns out we have “shared interests” now. According to a Politico report, the intelligence sharing went as far as U.S. officials providing the Taliban with a list of Americans and Afghan allies they wanted to be granted safe passage into the airport for evacuation, a decision that left my jaw on the floor and brought what I think were appropriately gobsmacked reactions from “anonymous defense officials.”
“Basically, they just put all those Afghans on a kill list,” one said to Politico. “It’s just appalling and shocking and makes you feel unclean.”
In the evening, around 5 p.m. Eastern time, President Biden addressed the media. He remained steadfast in his decision to withdraw troops, while simultaneously promising to “get” (I presume he means “kill”) whoever organized the attacks at the airport.
“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this. We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay. I will defend our interests and our people with every measure at my command,” Biden said.
To recap: at least 100 Afghans and 12 Americans are dead, we are now coordinating with the guys who were our enemies six months ago to fight back the other guys who are also our enemies but hate the guys who were our enemies too, we’re going to leave Afghanistan but we’re also going to stay to kill the new enemies, and we’re really hoping that in the midst of all this we can complete the mission we’ve set out to do — which is to extract another few hundred Americans and as many Afghans as we possibly can before they all get caught in the middle of the battle for Afghanistan that is about to ensue. Oh, also, ISIS-K is now another thing we have to worry about, we’re not even entirely sure if the Taliban is working with us to stop them, and we have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen in the power vacuum we leave behind.
This is what losing a war looks like. And it’s probably not over. According to Gen. McKenzie, again, the “threat streams” in Kabul are “live” and “extremely active.” McKenzie says the military expects ISIS-K will try more suicide bombings, will attempt to drive a car into the airport and detonate it, will try to shoot planes out of the sky with rockets, or will simply open fire in the crowded areas around the airport. They believe any and all of this is possible over the next few days as we continue our evacuations.
The Biden administration, of course, will do whatever it can to keep the focus on the fact they have helped airlift more than 100,000 people out of Afghanistan in the last couple of weeks (about 66,000 of those people were actually evacuated by the U.S., the others were brought out by our allies), and will regurgitate tired lines about how dangerous this mission was, how the messiness was unavoidable, how the Afghans didn’t fight, and how it’s at least partly Trump’s fault for the deal he struck with the Taliban in Doha. There will be grains of truth in all of it but it’ll mostly be spin that you should ignore (or at least scoff at).
What President Biden has continued to say that is honest and true and real is that it was time to go — and that the events of the last few weeks should only reaffirm that reality. Yesterday, he made part of this point, albeit in his own ham-handed and vaguely offensive way:
“I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan, a country that has never once in its entire history been a united country, and is made up — and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way — made up of different tribes that have never, ever, ever gotten along with each other.”
The other thing that Biden said that was true and honest and real is that the only reason Americans weren’t dying in the last year was that we made a deal with the Taliban. More specifically, because the Trump administration made a deal with the Taliban: we were going to leave on May 1, on the condition — among others — that the Taliban would stop attacking American troops. The Taliban broke pretty much every promise in that deal except for the one to lay off Americans. Troops aren’t dying now because we are withdrawing, they just weren’t dying before because we had promised to withdraw.
Take a step back and look at this from 40,000 feet: we went into Afghanistan 20 years ago. According to the people who led us into that war, we invaded to wipe out Osama bin Laden, prevent al-Qaeda from having a safe haven, prevent major terrorist attacks on our own soil and — whether we like it or not — to get revenge. September 11 didn’t just shatter the security so many Americans felt, the promise that these battles were in far away places, it also awoke something ugly and violent and visceral and primal in the people at the controls of the largest, most well-funded, most powerful military in the world. It woke up the desire to kill and conquer and protect and pay back the debt we felt was owed to us — the debt of lives.
20 years later, where are we? You could make the argument Afghanistan is a “better” country from a Western lens now (or was for the last 20 years) than it was in 2001. Al-Qaeda is seriously weakened. Osama bin Laden is dead. However, hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians, militants and Americans have also died. Afghanistan is seemingly just as fractured as it was before, and now back in the hands of the very group that gladly harbored and protected the terrorists we were out for in the first place. We also left the Taliban with $85 billion of American military equipment, according to Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), including 75,000 vehicles, 200 airplanes and helicopters, 600,000 small arms and light weapons, night vision goggles, body armor, and biometric devices with the fingerprints and eyescans of Afghan allies who helped us over the last 20 years.
Now, instead of al-Qaeda, we have ISIS and ISIS-K and frankly, I’m not sure any Americans or Afghan civilians give a damn what they’re called. They’ll strap bombs to their chests and walk into restaurants and press the button and it’s impossibly hard to fight a person who is excited to die.
Which, by the way, is another thing that seems to get lost in the narrative. It’s perfectly appropriate for the American press and American citizens more largely to be mourning the lives of the U.S. Marines who died yesterday — that’s the least we can do. But it’s also a bit infuriating to watch the wall-to-wall coverage of the last few days as if it’s somehow novel. It’s not as if this violence suddenly started because 12 Americans died. Take a look at this Wikipedia round-up of terrorist attacks in Kabul over the course of 2020:
Just because we haven’t been dying in attacks in Kabul doesn’t mean innocent Afghans haven’t been. The reality is just the opposite. This is the life Afghans have been living for years whether we had 2,500 or 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground who were there — ostensibly — to protect innocent Afghans and help install a democratic government. As Business Insider reporter John Haltiwanger said on Twitter last night, “It’s undeniably tragic that 13 US service members died but way too many headlines ignore the fact dozens of Afghans were killed. The hierarchy we consciously/unconsciously employ re: human lives based on nationality is largely why the US gets in these quagmires in the first place.”
So what choice is left? To me, the answer seems obvious. But to others, it apparently doesn’t. “We’re probably going to have to go back in” to Afghanistan to fight ISIS-K, former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta told CNN last night. He’s not alone: some Republican members of Congress have said the same, and there appears to be a full-court press from the familiar interventionist punditry in the media to push Biden back into Afghanistan and away from withdrawal.
Afghan allies and Americans have been at this for two decades. We spent 20 years training an Afghan army that folded in two weeks. We had some wins — women’s education, lower infant mortality rates, a population that generally began to embrace ideas like freedom and liberalism. But the violence never stopped. The Taliban never went away. We did not unite the country or bring stability or solve anything. We absolutely failed to end or reduce terrorism, even if we haven’t had “another 9/11” on American soil since. We’ve probably bred a whole new generation of extremists who will now be fighting us for decades to come.
Afghans died in unthinkable numbers when we were there and sometimes because we were there; sometimes at the hands of our own soldiers. Now that we’re leaving, the battle is ensuing, the suicide bombers are back and some of our guys are going down with them. The best way to prevent more American deaths in Afghanistan is not to send more American soldiers into Afghanistan — the idea itself is offensive and further intervention would render the loss of American lives during our withdrawal pointless.
It’s to do what we’re doing: get the Americans who are left in Afghanistan out, and bring as many of our allies as possible with them. And probably take as long as necessary to do it. To be frank, I have no idea how to prevent more Afghan deaths in Afghanistan. But if the past 20 years are any indication, having our soldiers there with guns and tanks and dropping bombs will not do much good in the way of reducing violence.
So for all the horrific news coming out of Afghanistan and the clear failures of the Biden administration to execute a competent withdrawal, there is an obvious next step here: and it’s to stay the course.
Then stay out.
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