Biden addresses the nation.

Afghanistan is officially in the Taliban's hands.
Isaac Saul Aug 17, 2021
️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.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

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The surreal image of the Taliban delivering a news conference. Screenshot: Al-Jazeera

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Quick hits.

  1. The Biden administration is planning to advise vaccine boosters for most Americans 8 months after vaccination. (Get the story)
  2. The first-ever water shortage was declared for the Colorado River, a source that serves 40 million people in the West. (The details)
  3. Evacuation flights from Kabul airport in Afghanistan resumed on Tuesday morning. (Link)
  4. The death toll in Haiti has risen to 1,419, with more than 6,000 injured, after Saturday’s earthquake. (Read more)
  5. A New York man pleaded guilty to threatening to kill Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) before and during the Jan 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. (The guilty plea)

What D.C. is talking about.

Afghanistan (still). Yesterday, President Joe Biden addressed the nation about the situation in Afghanistan. In case you missed it, we wrote up an Afghanistan explainer that you can read by clicking here. Shortly after the explainer went out, Biden delivered remarks at the White House about the situation on the ground. In a 20-minute address, he defended his decision to withdraw and laid the blame for the chaos in Kabul and across Afghanistan on decades of failed policies and a demoralized Afghan army.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” he said. “We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries. Provided for the maintenance of their airplanes… We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide was the will to fight for that future.”

However, Biden also conceded that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan happened much more quickly than he expected.

“I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you,” he said. “The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what's happened? Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”

The president also pointed to his predecessor, Donald Trump, whose administration brokered a 2020 deal with the Taliban to leave by May 1 of 2021, which he said left him with the choice to either escalate or get out quickly.

“After May 1st, there was no status quo of stability without American casualties,” Biden said. “After May 1st, there was only a core reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan.”

As Biden delivered his remarks, footage of desperate Afghans clinging to and climbing aboard military planes taking off from Kabul went viral online, including images of people falling from the sky. The Taliban has vowed not to partake in reprisal killings, with representatives doing television spots and sending messages out on social media attempting to give such assurances to the world. But their actions on the ground appear to tell a different story, with fighters spreading out across Kabul, visiting government officials at their homes, taking people’s possessions, closing girls’ schools and instructing women not to leave their homes without a male escort.

The Biden administration’s withdrawal, the chaos that has ensued, and his speech yesterday have drawn strong responses from across the political world. Below, we’ll take a look at some perspectives from the left, right, and from Afghanistan, and then my take.


Agreed.

Both the left and right have been critical of Biden’s speech (for different reasons) and harshly criticized him for the chaos unraveling in Afghanistan.


What the left is saying.

The left says Biden has unjustly shifted blame onto Afghans and bungled the withdrawal.

The Washington Post editorial board said this was the worst kind of debacle: an “avoidable” one.

“Conventional military triumph was not in the cards in Afghanistan, as Mr. Biden forcefully insisted in a speech to the nation Monday, in which he blamed his predecessors and Afghanistan’s political leaders for failures that set the stage for today’s disaster,” the board said. “Contrary to his and others’ cliches about ‘endless war,’ though, U.S. troops had not been in major ground operations, and had endured very modest casualties, since 2014. Mr. Biden statically measures the dollar costs of staying in Afghanistan. Yet there will be costs, potentially high ones, attached to a botched withdrawal, too. A small U.S. and allied military presence — capable of working with Afghan forces to deny power to the Taliban and its al-Qaeda terrorist allies, while diplomats and nongovernmental organizations nurtured a fledgling civil society — not only would have been affordable but also could have paid for itself in U.S. security and global credibility.”

In The New Republic, Walter Shapiro said Biden’s speech was missing “an honest explanation of the colossal intelligence failure that left the White House reeling from the speed of the Taliban’s triumph.”

“Then Biden indulged himself with a litany of well-justified complaints about the rush-for-the-exits Afghan government,” Shapiro said. “As Biden put it, ‘Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.’ All true, but insufficient. Amid all the thousands (maybe millions) of secret documents destroyed in the panicked last hours of the American embassy in Kabul were undoubtedly endless upbeat and nuanced assessments of the capabilities of Afghan fighting forces. In all likelihood, there were memos galore about which Afghan political figures would step forward as national heroes in a moment of crisis… But just as the CIA and all the other expensively intrusive U.S. spy agencies missed the collapse of the Soviet Union, so did America’s intelligence community blunder again over the pace of the fall of Kabul.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel said rather than focus on how we got out, we should focus on how we got in.

“Under President George W. Bush, the early mission — to defeat al-Qaeda and get Osama bin Laden in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — quickly turned to nation-building,” vanden Heuvel wrote. “The United States would seek to build a democratic state in an impoverished country with entrenched divisions and cultural, language and religious traditions of which U.S. national security managers and military officials remained utterly ignorant.

“That mission was an abject failure from the beginning,” she said. “Adjusted for inflation, the United States spent more money developing Afghan institutions than it had spent to help all of Western Europe after World War II. Yet as Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan concluded, the ‘single biggest project’ stemming from the flood of dollars ‘may have been the development of mass corruption.’ Decades and millions of dollars devoted to building up the Afghanistan military produced forces that U.S. military trainers described as incompetent and unmotivated… To sustain the fiasco, presidents, generals, civilians and uniformed military up and down the line reported ‘progress’ in a war that they knew was not being won.”


What the right is saying.

The right says Biden is destroying America’s credibility and refusing to be accountable for his actions.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Biden is “determined in retreat, defiant in surrender, and confident in the rightness of consigning the country to jihadist rule.”

“Mr. Biden refused to accept responsibility for the botched withdrawal while blaming others,” the board wrote. “He blamed Donald Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban and falsely claimed again that he was trapped. He blamed his three predecessors for not getting out of Afghanistan. He blamed the Afghans for not fighting hard enough, their leaders for fleeing, and even Afghans who helped us for not leaving sooner. The one group he conspicuously did not blame was the Taliban, who once harbored Osama bin Laden and may protect his terrorist successor.

“Instead of taking responsibility, Mr. Biden played to the sentiment of Americans who are tired of foreign military missions,” the board said. “It’s a powerful point to speak of sending a child to risk his life in a foreign country, and no doubt it will resonate with many Americans. It is a question that every President should ask. But the President was dishonest in framing the U.S. mission merely as fighting in another country’s ‘civil war.’ The U.S. didn’t remain in Afghanistan for 20 years to send women to school or to ‘nation build.’ The core mission was to prevent the country from again becoming a terrorist safe haven. The Taliban’s victory will now attract thousands of young jihadists from around the world, and they will have Americans and the U.S. homeland in their sights.”

In American Greatness, Bill Connor wrote about Biden’s “strategic incompetence.”

“First, the Taliban followed a seasonal pattern of fighting throughout the war in Afghanistan,” Connor wrote. “They primarily fought from late April with what we called the ‘Taliban Spring/Summer Offensive,’ to peak fighting by August and tapering until around late October. In a criminal lack of judgment, Joe Biden announced and began the unilateral American withdrawal at the start of the fighting season in April. Even worse, Biden planned for the complete pullout to take place during the height of the Taliban offensive in August. This meant that the most substantial change of the war, the removal of critical U.S. support, was made at the height of the Taliban surge.

“Another mistake was in not developing a conditions-based plan that relied on the threat of punishing the Taliban if they violated conditions set,” he said. “Such punishment would have included massive airstrikes against Taliban formations and the targeting of Taliban leadership. Instead, the Taliban are creating havoc in their advance, murdering surrendering commando troops, murdering pilots, murdering civilians associated with Americans.”

The Washington Examiner’s editorial board said Biden owns this debacle.

“Presidents have been proven wrong before, but never so vividly and so quickly as Biden has been proven wrong here,” they wrote. “This has nothing to do with the decision to leave Afghanistan — it has everything to do with the incompetence of his officials in administering this withdrawal… Whatever explanations or excuses he offers now, the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan is 100% Biden’s responsibility. Yes, President Donald Trump did sign a deal with the Taliban that required all American troops to leave by May 1, but in every other policy area, Biden has shown no hesitation in ripping up deals Trump made. Why should Afghanistan have been any different? Besides, Biden already blew past the May 1 deadline anyway. Why not take the additional three or six months necessary to do it right?”


A view from Afghanistan.

In The Washington Post, Nasrin Nawa said she made it out of Afghanistan, but her sister didn’t. “When she stopped by the bank to withdraw cash, there was none to be had. Then the crowd started running away, shouting ‘Taliban are here!’ She saw cars with riders holding the black and white flag. With her passport, she decided to rush to the airport; someone had promised to help her get out. But she never made it — a heavy traffic jam blocked her way. And the flight that she was supposed to board never took off, since the United States suspended all flights to evacuate U.S. staff first…. That’s how little we matter at this point. Afghans in Kabul are now drowning in a sea of chaos, fear and betrayal.”

Another view: Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistani writer, said it was “white feminists” who wanted to invade Afghanistan, but “groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a political organization that has denounced religious fundamentalism since its founding in 1977, opposed the US attacks and the US-backed government.”


My take.

I forget where I first heard the term “punditocracy” to describe the political chattering class, but it was in full force yesterday.

Across television, social media, opinion pages and everything else, there seemed to be an immediate coalescence around the idea that Biden’s speech was defensive, insensitive and out of touch. Folks on the left were accusing him of shamefully “victim-blaming” Afghans, and everyone on the right seemed to think he was displaying “American weakness” on the global stage. Many of them, as the punditocracy often does, were coming to the conclusion that the U.S. stepping away from Afghanistan was a cataclysmic mistake worthy of reversing.

I didn’t really see those things, though. In fact, I thought Biden’s message to the country was going to resonate pretty well with Americans across the political divide, and with a lot of international spectators exhausted by constant American meddling.

Biden essentially said he had two bad choices, and he took one. There was no way he was going to keep U.S. soldiers on the front lines of a war that many Afghans clearly don’t want to fight anymore themselves. Especially not after 20 years, trillions of dollars and all the mistakes that have been made up to this point. Politically, I think that message is going to resonate, and I think it was the right message to deliver to defend his decision and make it clear we were not about to reverse course. Plenty of people — including some of his harshest critics — saw it as one of the first times a president stood up to the media, military and political pressure and said “no more war.”

Of course, there are some serious problems with Biden’s framing.

For one, if you think about it for more than a second, it is a pretty despicable thing to point the finger back at Afghan soldiers for surrendering or Afghan leaders for fleeing right now. 66,000 Afghan fighters have died in this war; tens of thousands of civilians have, too. And it was a war the U.S. brought full force into Afghanistan to root out Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, a mission we repeatedly missed opportunities to complete in its first year. If you were certain your city was about to be overrun by the Taliban, would you hang around to see it out?

Biden was right to note that the deal struck by President Donald Trump in Doha last year was a major concession to the Taliban, one that included no representatives from the Afghan government, and that many Afghan soldiers viewed as assuring their defeat. But Biden’s framing of Trump’s Doha deal also dripped with misdirection. It was not some binding resolution — and it wasn’t as if the Taliban followed the agreement. If he wanted, Biden could have easily justified staying in Afghanistan, or scrapping the deal, based on the Taliban’s actions. To frame Trump as completely handcuffing him is highly misleading. He chose to withdraw because he has always wanted to. And, perhaps most importantly, the withdrawal itself is occurring on Biden’s watch.

Biden repeatedly said his office had prepared for every contingency, but it’s perfectly obvious they hadn’t. If they had, there wouldn’t be tens of thousands of Afghans stuck in Kabul right now, some of them falling from the sky after clinging to landing gear on military planes while desperately trying to avoid being beheaded by the Taliban. If they had, there wouldn’t be hundreds of Americans and journalists there, too, trying to figure out if they need to evacuate or how they are going to leave. If they had, diplomats wouldn’t be burning important documents and abandoning their posts. The Afghan president wouldn’t be fleeing the country. There wouldn’t be billions of dollars of functioning military equipment left behind. There wouldn’t be civilians eligible for immigration to the U.S. stuck in the quicksand of bureaucratic limbo while extremists with guns scour apartments in Kabul looking for them.

The cold, frightening, obvious truth is that the entire military apparatus seems to have failed. The failure isn’t just that 20 years after going into Afghanistan, and trillions of dollars later, with all the American and Afghan lives lost and soldiers maimed, the government we “built” couldn’t last for more than a few weeks without our full-fledged support. It’s that we didn’t even see that coming. It’s that nobody — not in the Biden administration, nor any of our very well funded intelligence groups or military apparatuses, or generals, or anyone else — thought the Taliban could manage to capture every major city and then enter Kabul in a brief summer offensive. Or that they’d hardly have to fire a shot to do it. Even the harshest critics of withdrawal were off by months.

On top of everything else, we have that embarrassment to live with, too. And as Biden said, the buck stops with him.


A story that matters.

The nutrition assistance program formerly known as food stamps will provide the largest increase in benefits in its history. The average benefits for recipients will increase by more than 25 percent, and all 42 million people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will receive additional aid when the changes go into effect in October. “Under the new rules, the average monthly benefit of $121 a person before the pandemic will rise by $36,” according to NBC News. “The Agriculture Department is making the changes through revisions to the Thrifty Food Plan, a list of food groups the government uses to estimate the cost of an economical and nutritious diet.”


Numbers.

  • 69%. The percentage of Americans who supported a withdrawal from Afghanistan in April, according to Morning Consult.
  • 49%. The percentage of Americans who supported a withdrawal from Afghanistan when polled this week, according to Morning Consult.
  • 25%. The percentage of Americans who said the withdrawal from Afghanistan is going well.
  • 69%. The percentage of Democrats who still support withdrawing from Afghanistan.
  • 31%. The percentage of Republicans who still support withdrawing from Afghanistan.

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Have a nice day.

A cat from the United Kingdom is going global after he led rescuers to his 83-year-old owner who had fallen into a ravine. The cat, Piran, was meowing down by the ravine as rescuers scoured the property looking for the woman in Cornwall after she’d gone missing. The woman had fallen into the ravine and come to a stop in the stream at the bottom. A neighbor heard the cat meowing, then called into the ravine and heard the woman’s cries for help coming back. “Without the cat waiting at the gate to that field, it could have been hours later that I or anyone else would have checked there,” the neighbor, Tamar Longmuir, said. (The story)

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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