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.
Today’s read: 11 minutes.
Today we’re covering the end of the war in Afghanistan, a question about democracy, and an important story about the J&J vaccine.
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- The police officer who shot Daunte Wright resigned yesterday, as did the Brooklyn Center Police Chief. Protests and clashes with the police continued through the night in Minnesota. (Associated Press)
- The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is expected to advance D.C. statehood today, sending it to the full House of Representatives, where it could be passed for the second time this year. D.C. statehood still remains highly unlikely to pass in the Senate. (The Washington Post, subscription)
- Bernie Madoff, the architect of the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, died in federal prison at the age of 82 today. (The New York Times, subscription)
- Democrats are grappling with how to handle Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, who is 82. Many want him to retire while President Biden has the Senate majority to replace him. (Politico)
- President Biden is moving to roll back the Trump-era ‘gag-rule’ that prohibited government funds from flowing to organizations that provide abortions. (Fox News)
The big story.
Afghanistan. President Biden announced that he will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, ending the longest war in United States history twenty years after it began.
Biden is going to make the announcement official on Wednesday. It comes less than two years after former President Donald Trump set a similar deadline to leave. That deadline, a provision in an agreement made with the Taliban, would have had the U.S. out of Afghanistan by May 1 of this year. With that date quickly approaching, foreign policy experts were unsure what Biden would do, but the extension and announcement have made the U.S. exit as close to official as possible. Officials believe all troops could be gone sometime this summer, before the September 11 deadline.
The date Biden chose, September 11, 2021, will mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that sparked the War on Terrorism and the invasion of Afghanistan a month later.
On the ground, there are concerns: the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan is still facing the threat of the Taliban and there are fears the country will fall into the hands of extremist groups. Somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 troops currently remain in Afghanistan. In 2010, at the war’s peak, there were 100,000. A few hundred troops are expected to remain at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump all set the objective of withdrawal from Afghanistan during their terms.
“We've long known that military force would not solve Afghanistan's internal political challenges, would not end Afghanistan's internal conflicts, and so we are ending our military operations while we focus our efforts on supporting diplomatically the ongoing peace process,” a senior official told NPR.
What the right is saying.
The right is split on the decision, with more traditional Republicans against it and many Trump supporters behind it.
“The target date 20 years to the day after the 9/11 attacks is meant to underscore that at long last the Afghan war will end,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote. “But of course it won’t. The country will see its civil war escalate, as the Taliban seek to retake Kabul and reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. If the country again becomes a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Islamic State, don’t be surprised if U.S. troops have to return as they did in Iraq after Barack Obama’s 2011 withdrawal led to the rise of ISIS.
“Mr. Biden inherited a bad situation as President Trump had negotiated a May 1 withdrawal date,” they added. “As the U.S. drew down its forces, the Taliban failed to cut ties with al Qaeda and have captured military bases around the country… A U.S. departure means NATO and other partner troops will leave too. The U.S. says it will stay diplomatically engaged, but the withdrawal almost surely means the peace talks between the Taliban and Kabul will fail. The Taliban will feel no pressure to make concessions, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has no reason to negotiate his own execution.”
In The American Conservative, Doug Bandow criticized Biden for pushing past the May 1 deadline.
“The seemingly eternal war in Afghanistan continues,” he wrote. “American forces have been on station for nearly 20 years, longer than the Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korean War combined. Some $2 trillion have been spent. More than 6,000 U.S. service members and contractors have died, along with roughly 1,100 allied soldiers. Many more have been wounded, some suffering crippling injuries. Absent a speedy exit, those numbers will continue upward.
“Most of those advocating America’s forever role in Afghanistan assume that relative peace would continue,” he wrote. “Thankfully, no American lives were lost over the last year, but that reflected the Taliban’s assumption that the U.S. was leaving. If the Pentagon keeps several thousand troops on station—about 3,500 are there now—the insurgents would have less reason to stick to the deal. Indeed, the Taliban issued a statement warning that it ‘will be compelled to defend its religion and homeland and continue its Jihad and armed struggle against foreign forces to liberate its country.’”
In The National Review, Kevin Williamson wrote about the “lessons of the Afghan war,” saying that “For many Americans — and, in particular, for many conservatives,” the end withdrawal can’t come soon enough.
“The United States does spend too much money on the military and on related security affairs, it does maintain too many bases in too many countries around the world, it does bring unneeded troubles on itself by its occasionally rash and headlong enthusiasms, it does fail to derive as much benefit from the multilateral institutions it supports as it might, and it does pay a high price (much more than an economic price) for acting as de facto ‘policeman of the world’” he wrote.
But he also conceded that “When the United States retreats from the world, it does not leave a vacuum; it only creates opportunities for other actors, China prominent among them, whose leaders have ambitions as audacious as [Woodrow] Wilson’s but would remake the world along decidedly illiberal and antidemocratic lines… What we have learned from Afghanistan — or what we could learn, if we are willing — is what failure looks like. What success is going to look like, we still don’t know. We have spent 20 years and more than 2,300 American lives trying to figure that out, and I am not sure that we have made any real progress.”
What the left is saying.
The left is similarly split on the news, with the progressive wing of the party celebrating while more establishment Democrats fear it’s a mistake.
The Washington Post editorial board said Joe Biden was “taking the easy way out,” even though he “faced a painful dilemma in Afghanistan when he took office.”
“Having committed the United States to removing all its troops from the country by May 1, then-President Donald Trump reduced the force to a bare minimum by January, even though Taliban insurgents had failed to fulfill their side of the withdrawal deal. Mr. Biden’s choice was to leave U.S. forces in place, risking renewed conflict with the Taliban, or go forward with the pullout — even though it could lead to the collapse of the Afghan army and government.
“After a brief and seemingly halfhearted effort at diplomacy, Mr. Biden has decided on unconditional withdrawal, a step that may spare the United States further costs and lives but will almost certainly be a disaster for the country’s 39 million people — and, in particular, its women,” the board wrote. “It could lead to the reverse of the political, economic and social progress for which the United States fought for two decades, at a cost of more than 2,000 American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. And, according to the U.S. intelligence community and a study commissioned by Congress, it could allow al-Qaeda to restore its base in Afghanistan, from which it launched the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”
In CNN, David Andelman said that Biden was “making a major mistake,” and that “the reasons we went in -- after the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan, gave shelter to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda as it carried out the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC -- have not been fully addressed in the last two decades.”
“Moreover, even a planned, or staged withdrawal as the administration has promised, will hardly eliminate that original threat of terrorism -- or the many other, often deadly, challenges that have emerged since America's arrival,” he wrote. “The Taliban are a group founded on a deep belief in Sunni Islam and adhere to an austere version of Sharia, or Islamic law. And Afghanistan is a nation that the Taliban has been lusting to govern for two decades -- one where, under their previous rule, accused adulterers were executed in public squares, where thieves had their hands amputated, where women were denied access to education and had to cover themselves from head to toe, and where television was banned along with music and cinema.”
In NBC News, Richard Hanania wrote that Biden’s decision to delay could both make the situation worse and help Trump.
“Staying beyond the May deadline risks escalation on the part of the Taliban that, in turn, could potentially draw the United States into more years of conflict,” he wrote. “There is, therefore, no guarantee that the 20th anniversary of the attack on the twin towers will actually be the end of America’s longest war…
“Biden wants to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan a little longer — but out of harm’s way — to head off the political headache that would come with a collapse of the Afghanistan government,” he wrote. “That outcome is likely after a May 1 withdrawal because the departure of U.S. troops is all but certain to strengthen the Taliban. Unfortunately for him, that doesn’t seem to be an option. The Taliban stopped attacking American forces under the terms of the Trump deal, resulting in more than a year without any U.S. deaths. But the insurgent group has signaled it will begin attacking coalition troops again if they stay past May 1. So the choice is likely between leaving Afghanistan peacefully next month or again putting American forces under fire — making a withdrawal much harder to accomplish.”
It’s remarkable to watch the responses to this news. The Washington Post editorial board, with whom I just agreed on Monday about reforming the Supreme Court, seems so absurdly out of touch to me. “Biden takes the easy way out,” they wrote. The easy way out? If it’s so easy, why hasn’t any other president done it?
What Biden is doing is damn near the hardest way out. The easiest option would be to find more excuses to stay and to continue to dump money and manpower into Afghanistan, all while the situation on the ground barely budges. No other president has had the foreign policy chops or the willingness to rip the band-aid off and end this. With no good options, I think Biden is taking the least bad one.
Few things qualify better as a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario than this one. The quagmire in Afghanistan is a true dilemma. A withdrawal risks millions of innocent civilians being left behind to face a rising extremist power by themselves. And Afghan women are likely to have many of the freedoms they’ve recently gained challenged in the coming months. It’s also true that, a year from now, the Taliban could be more powerful in Afghanistan than ever before.
But when is it going to be a good time to leave? More than a year ago, in March of 2020, I wrote this:
When it comes to U.S. foreign wars, I think it’s always worth starting by looking at them through the lens of the nation where the war is being fought. Afghanistan is in crisis right now… U.S. troop withdrawal almost certainly means the Taliban will fight to take back Kabul. As The Week’s editor Theunis Bates wrote, “The women the U.S. encouraged to leave their homes, attend schools and work will be forced back into the Middle Ages.” Many will feel betrayed that we’ve left, and they’re going to be left with a divided, broken, corrupt and unpopular government. And while the tragedy of 2,300 American troops dying and $2 trillion dollars being spent (or wasted) is at the center of much coverage, I feel it’s necessary to remind you that 143,000 people have died in this war. Almost all of them were Afghans. 43,000 were civilians. That’s to say nothing of the maimed, the psychologically injured, the public spaces and buildings and homes that have been annihilated.
All of this remains true. Yet we cannot stay forever — or at least we shouldn’t. Trump got well-deserved credit for his instincts on bringing our troops home. He ran on a promise to invest domestically as we do overseas, and that message was one of the few from Trumpworld that resonated strongly across party lines. I don’t think he succeeded, but I do think he created the momentum for this decision to be made.
Now Biden has a choice. Pulling troops out of Afghanistan doesn’t mean an end to our involvement or influence there. What it means is we’re going to stop risking American lives and spending money on a war that began before many of the soldiers there were born. There are limits to American military power, and the war in Afghanistan is Exhibit A.
The Afghan government and the Taliban each still have incentives to play nice. They need foreign aid for their economy to survive, and there are tens of thousands of non-U.S. troops who could remain. Every piece of writing contesting this decision predicts a worst-case scenario that doesn’t appear to me to be the most likely outcome. In fact, U.S. intelligence officials say they see only a limited risk of a terrorist resurgence, something they rarely say.
If anything, another four months of U.S. troops in Afghanistan just allows more time for violence to break out and military officials to find excuses to stay. If, on the other hand, a year or two from now, the situation remains relatively stable or perhaps even improved, the punditocracy that has been insisting on our need to remain should be viewed with appropriate scorn and skepticism on foreign intervention advice going forward. Perhaps this time, that scorn and skepticism will remain permanent.
For now, I’ll be celebrating a timeline, and a possible end, to one of the ugliest, most costly and least successful wars in U.S. history. And then we’ll have to see if President Biden fulfills his promise of a full troop removal by September.
Tangle has very few partners because we are very careful about who we work with. But one of them is Ground News, an exceptional app and website that tracks the political bias in news reporting. I feature parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what you were likely to miss based on your political leanings and the news feed bubble you’ve created for yourself.
If you’re on the left, you probably missed a story about Youtube censoring a roundtable COVID-19 discussion with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
If you’re on the right, you probably missed a story about the U.N. chief pushing for a tax on rich people who profited from the pandemic.
Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.
Your questions, answered.
Q: Responding to my write-up on claims of election fraud, a reader said, “I’m curious how this experience changed your view of democracy. An important assumption of democracy is that the people who vote are well-informed. If so many believed Powell’s claims of election fraud — even with your reporting, even people close to you — what does that say about voting as a way to make good decisions?”
— Grin, Boston, Massachusetts
Tangle: To me, the lesson of the election fraud claims is more a lesson about where our country is now: voters’ trust in institutions, politicians, and traditional media outlets is historically low. Along with it, there is a deeply inadequate media literacy across the country, leaving a lot of people susceptible to being emotionally manipulated and convinced by shoddy internet “news articles” creating outrage by making bold or misleading claims.
Does this mean we should reconsider democracy? No. I think it just means that sometimes the problems of a system (in this case, democracy) are due more to the people operating within it than to the system itself. In other words: it’s we who need to change, not democracy.
A lot of people were prepared for the flood of disinformation around the election, and even though a healthy dose of skepticism is always good, it spun out too easily into unproven conspiracies. Fixing that doesn’t require changing the system, it requires pushing for things like media literacy and reinforcing support for politicians who won’t try to muddy the waters in order to obscure the true results of an election.
Separately, I’m not at all sure that “people who vote are well-informed” is a critical assumption of democracy. I think the most important assumption is that people who vote are going to do their best to vote in their own self-interest or the interests of their country. If the populace is well-informed we’re more likely to get that outcome, but it’s not a prerequisite for democracy to function. Plenty of people are well-informed and attempt to vote for their best interests, but the candidates they put into office too often fail them. Sometimes ill-informed voters elect candidates who end up improving their lives substantially. The system isn’t perfect and the outcomes sometimes aren’t either, but democracy providing the choice for voters is the critical element.
A story that matters.
Yesterday, the FDA announced it was pausing the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine distribution after six reports of blood clotting among the more than seven million patients who have received it. The decision immediately set off a debate about whether the FDA just raised the level of vaccine hesitancy or increased trust by showing it was taking even statistically minor risks like this one seriously. Critics say the vaccine carries a lower risk of blood clots than common medications like birth control and far lower risks of blood clots than the actual coronavirus itself. Those supportive of the pause say the public needs to know the FDA is proceeding cautiously and continuing to ensure that the vaccine is safe. (Axios)
- 60%. Joe Biden’s overall job approval rating, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
- 41%. The percentage of voters who said they “somewhat” or “strongly” approve of the way Joe Biden is handling immigration.
- 46%. The percentage of voters who said they “somewhat” or “strongly” disapprove of the way Joe Biden is handling immigration.
- 4/28. That’s the date Joe Biden will address Congress in a socially-distanced State of the Union address.
- $1 trillion. The estimated amount of taxes that go uncollected each year because of errors, fraud and lack of IRS resources to enforce collections adequately.
- 34-25. The percentage of survey respondents who said they approved-disapproved of plans to withdraw from Afghanistan, according to a poll from 2020.
- 41%. The percentage of respondents in the same poll who declined to answer the question.
A note from a reader.
Last week, I asked Tangle readers to try writing up a pitch for why you should become a subscriber. Here is what one of them said:
The simple pitch I gave myself to finally subscribe after reading the free version for a while was: "Put your money where your mouth is. You say that you support neutral, quality political reporting and this is the best you've ever found, so do it. It's half of what you're going to spend on lunch today and it supports and helps create something that you really believe in."
Have a nice day.
Guy Fieri might be best known for his red convertible, flamboyant hairstyle and sunglasses, but the celebrity chef is also one of the most successful philanthropists in the game. Since the coronavirus pandemic has crushed restaurants, Fieri decided to do something for the restaurant workers most in need. So he joined the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, and then helped promote the fund as it collected 15,000 individual donations totaling more than $25 million. The fund has given out $500 grants to 43,000 restaurant workers in all 50 states. (CBS News)