The end of the war in Afghanistan.

What state did we leave it in?
Isaac Saul Aug 31, 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.”

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Today’s read: 11 minutes.

The war in Afghanistan comes to an end.

Image
The last American soldier,Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, leaving Afghanistan. Photo: Department of Defense Twitter

Clarification.

In the last few days, several news outlets — including this one — have referred to some $80 billion worth of American military equipment left to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Further reporting on this claim has clarified that the $83 billion is a sum from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) which includes money spent on rebuilding the government and training. The sum of the weaponry is still mind-boggling. But we gave the Afghan government something more like $24 billion in weaponry and equipment over 20 years, and it’s not clear how much of what has been left with the Taliban is still operational. So it’s not close to $83 billion worth.


Quick hits

  1. The Education Department said Monday it has launched investigations into five GOP-led states that banned mask mandates in schools. (The investigation)
  2. China announced a new restriction on young gamers, saying they could only play online video games for a maximum of three hours per week. (The ban)
  3. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) falsely claimed that elections in the U.S. are “rigged” and warned that there would be “bloodshed” if the electoral system wasn’t fixed. (The video)
  4. Trapped citizens in New Orleans have resorted to posting their addresses on social media and asking rescue teams to come help them. The death toll is now up to four, with more than 1 million people still without power. (The pleas)
  5. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) called on Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell to be replaced. (The demand)

What D.C. is talking about.

Afghanistan. Yesterday, the longest war in U.S. history — 7,267 days, or nearly 20 years — officially came to an end. The final U.S. military forces left Afghanistan with Taliban fighters firing their weapons into the air in celebration. Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division who was leading the evacuation, boarded a cargo plane that left Kabul at 3:29pm EST.

Approximately 66,000 Afghan military and police, 47,245 Afghan civilians and 51,191 Taliban fighters died in the war. 2,461 U.S. troops and 3,846 U.S. contractors were also killed, and 20,000 more were wounded. 13 Americans and dozens of Afghans died in the final days of the withdrawal when a pair of suicide bombings took place outside the airport being used for evacuations.

The war began after the September 11 attacks in 2001, which U.S. officials say were coordinated by al-Qaeda, who had been welcomed and protected by the Taliban in Afghanistan. When the Taliban leaders refused to turn over members of al-Qaeda, the U.S. invaded in an effort to kill Osama bin Laden and wipe out al-Qaeda, thus beginning the “war on terror.” The war in Afghanistan is estimated to have cost about $2 trillion.

In the final weeks of the war, as the Taliban re-took the country from the Afghan government and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, more than 123,000 people were evacuated, including about 6,000 Americans. But not everyone made it out: U.S. officials say between 100 and 200 Americans who want to leave remain in Afghanistan, as well as at least 100,000 Afghan allies who are attempting to flee the Taliban rule. But the threat of another attack on U.S. troops, a commitment to the August 31 deadline and concerns about inclement weather forced the final planes out.

For the fifth time since 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a new political order is rising in a country often called the “Graveyard of Empires.” Supporters of the war will point to many accomplishments: the death of Osama bin Laden, the spread of girls’ education, the weakening of the al-Qaeda and two (relatively) democratic elections. Detractors argue the war brought more violence, cost an exorbitant amount of taxpayer dollars, did not stop the proliferation of terrorism and has left the country just as corrupt and fractured as it was when we arrived.

Below, we’ll take a look at some reactions from the right and left to the war’s final days. Then my take.


What the right is saying.

The right’s opinions vary, with some focusing on Biden’s “failed withdrawal,” others concerned about U.S. standing globally, and some saying it’s just good the war is over.

The New York Post editorial board called it a “dishonorable end” to the war, and blamed President Biden.

“He decided early on that troops would be gone by Aug. 31 no matter what, even while claiming there’d be no ‘hasty rush to the exit.’ The withdrawal would happen ‘responsibly, deliberately and safely.’ It was ‘highly unlikely’ the Taliban would take over soon, and there was ‘no circumstance’ where helicopters would be needed to evacuate people from the US embassy,” the board wrote. “That was all fantasy, of course… It also explains why Biden was vacationing at Camp David and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Hamptons as Kabul fell. They actually believed their own PR.

“And despite all the chaos and bloodshed since — and the dark days ahead — they’re still indulging their delusions: Asked by ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday what he’d tell Americans and Afghans about leaving the country after the airport closes, Blinken cited a ‘senior Taliban spokesman’ who’s ‘repeatedly reassured the Afghan people’ they’d be free to travel after Aug. 31,” the board wrote. “Oh, and ‘the international community intends to hold the Taliban’ to their commitments. Real-world translation: You’re on your own, folks. Good luck getting out!”

In The New York Times, Ross Douthat said the final days of the war made him even more cynical “about America’s capacities as a superpower, our mission in Afghanistan and the class of generals, officials, experts and politicos who sustained its generational extension.”

“First the withdrawal’s shambolic quality, culminating in yesterday’s acknowledgment that between 100 and 200 Americans had not made the final flights from Kabul, displayed an incompetence in departing a country that matched our impotence at pacifying it. There were aspects of the chaos that were probably inevitable, but the Biden White House was clearly caught flat-footed by the speed of the Taliban advance, with key personnel disappearing on vacation just before the Kabul government dissolved. And the president himself has appeared exhausted, aged, overmatched — making basic promises about getting every American safely home and then seeing them overtaken by events.

“At the same time, the circumstances under which the Biden withdrawal had to happen doubled as a devastating indictment of the policies pursued by his three predecessors, which together cost roughly $2,000,000,000,000 (it’s worth writing out all those zeros) and managed to build nothing in the political or military spheres that could survive for even a season without further American cash and military supervision,” Douthat said. “Before this summer, in other words, it was possible to read all the grim inspector general reports and document dumps on Afghanistan, count yourself a cynic about the war effort and still imagine that America got something for all that spending, no matter how much was spent on Potemkin installations or siphoned off by pederast warlords or recirculated to Northern Virginia contractors. Now, though, we know that in terms of actual staying power, all our nation-building efforts couldn’t even match what the Soviet Union managed in its dotage.”

In The Wall Street Journal, John Bolton argued that China and Russia were “eyeing” a retreating U.S.

“One major misjudgment underlying the ‘ending endless war’ mantra was that withdrawing affected only Afghanistan,” Bolton wrote. “To the contrary, the departure constitutes a major, and deeply regrettable, U.S. strategic realignment. China and Russia, our main global adversaries, are already seeking to reap advantages… In the near term, responding to both menaces and opportunities emanating from Afghanistan, China will seek to increase its already considerable influence in Pakistan; Russia will do the same in Central Asia’s former Soviet republics; and both will expand their Middle East initiatives, often along with Iran. There is little evidence that the White House is ready to respond to any of these threats.

“Over the longer term, Beijing and Moscow enjoy a natural division of labor in threatening America and its allies, in three distinct theaters: China on its periphery’s long arc from Japan across Southeast Asia out to India and Pakistan; Russia in Eastern and Central Europe; and the Russian-Iranian-Chinese entente cordiale in the Middle East,” Bolton said. “U.S. planning must contemplate many threats arising simultaneously across these and other theaters. This underscores how strained our defense capabilities are to protect our far-flung interests, especially given the unprecedented domestic spending demands President Biden is now making. Washington’s most important task, therefore, is somehow to secure significant increases in defense budgets across the full threat spectrum, from terrorism to cyberwar. Diplomacy alone is no substitute.”


What the left is saying.

The left’s opinions are also mixed, with some arguing the war is a reminder of wasted money, others saying America is not in retreat, and still others saying the situation on the ground is a disaster.

Katrina vanden Heuvel argued that we can afford Biden’s investments at home based on the money we spend on war.

“Here’s the price tag: $5.48 trillion. No, that’s not the cost of what President Biden is calling a ‘generational investment’ to rebuild America. That’s the price of the so-called War on Terror since 2001, as detailed by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs — the cost to U.S. taxpayers of sending forces to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries in a continuing war that, as Biden implied last week, has metastasized more than it has succeeded,” vanden Heuvel wrote. “Roughly half of that total — $2.3 trillion — went into Afghanistan. That total doesn’t include the priceless human cost of nearly 6,300 American lives lost, thousands more wounded, and the vast losses suffered by the Afghan people.

“Contrast that sum — and those lives — with the $3.5 trillion that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) correctly dubs the ‘most consequential piece of legislation’ since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal,” vanden Heuvel added. “It would begin to address the existential threat posed by climate change, reduce childhood poverty by half, expand public education from pre-K to free community college, extend health care through Medicare while making drugs more affordable, support families with help for day care, paid family leave and a child allowance and more… Trillions of dollars for debacles abroad versus trillions of dollars for investments at home. Yet, appropriations for the former zip through the Congress while the Biden domestic investments must overcome a filibuster by a unified Republican opposition and posturing by a handful of centrist Democrats demanding cuts.”

In The New York Times, Dennis Ross said to “stop the doomsaying.”

“Vietnam, cited so often in recent days, was undoubtedly a debacle,” Ross wrote. “But it did not spell the end of American leadership on the world stage, nor did it lead others to believe they could not depend on the United States. And since then, there have been many other geopolitical challenges and top-level decisions (or lack thereof) that have cast doubt on American credibility. They did not, however, lead to a waning of American influence.

“Despite the messy exit from Kabul and the devastating bombings at the Kabul Airport, Afghanistan will be no different,” Ross added. “Partners and allies will publicly decry American decisions for some time, as they continue to rely on the U.S. economy and military. The reality will remain: America is the most powerful country in the world, and its allies will need its help to combat direct threats and an array of new, growing national security dangers, including cyberwar and climate change. That does not mean that the United States can dismiss the costs of its mistakes in Afghanistan. But it does show that America can recover.”

The Washington Post editorial board said it was a “disaster” that Americans were being left behind.

“Enormous as it is, the number of people evacuated by air from Kabul since the end of July — about 122,000 — is not large enough,” the board wrote. “Thankfully, many thousands of American citizens, third-country nationals and Afghans who worked directly for U.S. and allied military forces or embassies made it out. But many thousands of people did not, including former U.S. interpreters and their families, and Afghans classified by President Biden and his administration as ‘vulnerable’ — such as staff for U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations and women’s rights activists… This is a moral disaster, one attributable not to the actions of military and diplomatic personnel in Kabul — who have been courageous and professional, in the face of deadly dangers — but to mistakes, strategic and tactical, by Mr. Biden and his administration.

“Those left behind appear to include many local journalists who worked for U.S.-supported media such as the Afghan service of RFE/RL,” the board wrote. “Painfully emblematic, too, is the experience of the American University of Afghanistan, all but a few of whose roughly 4,000 students, faculty, alumni and employees remain in Kabul. AUAF was the signature U.S.-funded civilian institution in Kabul. The school symbolized not just the U.S.-Afghan relationship, but modernity itself. Therefore, it came under repeated and deadly attack from the Taliban, yet brave and determined women and men continued to teach and study there — until Kabul fell and the Taliban raised its flag over the campus. A last-ditch attempt to bus several hundred members of the university community to the airport ended in frustration Sunday, when it became clear that civilian rescue flights were ending. Now, university officials tell us, these — mostly young — Afghans are back in Kabul, feeling abandoned and afraid.”


My take.

The case the Biden administration can make to defend itself is dwindling. But if I were on their communications team this is what I’d say: the State Department issued warnings to Americans to leave the country as early as April. We could not force people to go. We did not expect the Afghan army to fall as quickly as it did, and we largely succeeded in retrieving more than 100,000 people in a matter of weeks. We had one mass casualty event, but one that was practically unavoidable unless we totally refused to search or welcome Afghans to the airport. All of this — the infrastructure present in Afghanistan, the state of the war, the state of the Afghan government, the presence of ISIS-K, the deal with the Taliban, was inherited from previous administrations.

That’s about the best defense you could mount.

And it’s not a very good one.

I support President Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan. Like Ross Douthat, my big-picture takeaway from the last few weeks is more cynicism about our inability to nation-build, the colossal waste of money that could have been spent here at home, the disastrous mistakes made by the Bush administration, and the decades of lies from the U.S. government about what was actually taking place on the ground. Biden, too, recognized these things, and has consistently been critical of the war and promised to end it. He’s fulfilling that promise now, something neither Obama nor Trump could do, despite similar rhetoric.

But how can this be described as anything but a disaster? We were told the Taliban couldn’t take over for months or years, yet they’re already in control. We were told no Americans would be left behind, but at least one hundred who want to leave are still there. We were told none of our allies would be abandoned, but tens of thousands have been. The president we propped up fled. We had one of the deadliest attacks in the history of the entire war take place on our way out. Desperate Afghan teenagers fell from the wheel wells of American planes as they took off. Diplomatic systems to process and vet Afghans were overwhelmed. Nearly everything we built crumbled in weeks — we lost lives along the way and we ultimately stuck to an arbitrary deadline because we could not confidently control the threats on the ground.

When this started a few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine it going much worse.

The last few weeks are one of those formidable events that expose the partisan hacks on both sides: Trump loyalists who dutifully agreed with Trump that we should withdraw, supported an early deadline to leave, and spent about 12 hours being upset when we abandoned our Kurdish allies in Syria are now calling for Biden to resign or be impeached. Meanwhile, Biden loyalists continue to move the goalposts on withdrawal, first celebrating the promise nobody would be left behind, then the assurances no American lives had been lost, and then — when it became apparent those things weren’t going to happen — the last thing they’re standing on is that Biden stuck to a deadline we could have extended.

Biden, like Trump and Obama, inherited a disastrous war brought to you by the George W. Bush administration. Unlike Trump and Obama, he actually pulled the final troops out in the face of unwavering pressure from the interventionist punditry, members Congress, and some allies. Hopefully, it’s really over (reports of continuing CIA operations and potential forthcoming airstrikes are not encouraging). But the withdrawal seemed hasty, rushed, chaotic and unsafe, and the only assurances we’re getting now are that the Taliban will grant safe passage to Americans or our allies left behind, with some wishful thinking they won’t learn how to fly Blackhawk helicopters.

The last American soldier is gone and the longest war is finally over. But Biden’s name now joins the list of presidents forever marred by Afghanistan, and his administration’s competence — especially the arm dealing with foreign policy — will rightly be questioned for the remainder of his presidency.


A story that matters.

Vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. is showing its first signs of crumbling. Fewer adults than ever now say they won’t take the shot, and vaccine rates have been increasing steadily over the last month. Polls indicate there has also been a sharp increase in the percentage of parents who plan to get their kids vaccinated as soon as it’s allowed. While many expressed that full FDA approval would make them more likely to take the vaccine, it appears the single biggest driver has been vaccine mandates at work: 43% said their boss requiring vaccines would make them get one, up from 33% a month ago. Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • 800,000. The number of U.S. troops who rotated through Afghanistan at least once.
  • 30,000.The number of U.S. troops who saw at least five deployments.
  • 75,000. The estimated size of the current Taliban militant force.
  • 51%. The percentage of Americans who disapproved of how President Biden conducted the withdrawal in Afghanistan.
  • 38%. The percentage of Americans who approve of how President Biden conducted the withdrawal in Afghanistan.
  • 49%. The percentage of Americans who said that the U.S. military should stay in Afghanistan “until all American citizens and Afghan allies have been evacuated.”

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Have a nice day.

A team of workmen digging a well in Sri Lanka have unearthed a cluster of 2.5 million carats of star sapphires. The pale blue rocks could be worth as much as $140 million on the international market, pending inspections and certification. It’s believed to be the largest star sapphire cluster ever found, and the men who discovered it were, amazingly, digging the well in a gem trader’s backyard, the exact location of which remains a secret. Named the Serendipity Sapphire, the cluster weighs over 1,100 pounds. “I have never seen such a large specimen before. This was probably formed around 400 million years ago,” Dr Gamini Zoysa, a gemologist, told the BBC.

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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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