The Taliban advance in Afghanistan.

Plus, a question about helping the Uyghur Muslims.
Isaac Saul Aug 9, 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.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

We’re talking about the Afghanistan withdrawal. Plus, a great update on the subscription/donation drive and a question about helping the Uyghur Muslims.

A U.S. Army Soldier patrols with Afghan soldiers to check on conditions in the village of Yawez in Wardak province, Afghanistan, Feb. 17, 2010. The partnership between U.S. and Afghan soldiers is proving to be a valuable tool in bringing security to the area. The U.S. Soldiers are assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Russell Gilchrest

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Quick hits.

  1. A new report released by the U.N. this morning painted a dire picture on climate change, warning of rapid and inevitable temperature increases globally. United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres declared a “code red.” (Read the story)
  2. The Biden administration extended a moratorium on federal student loan payments through January 2022. (Read the story)
  3. The U.S. is now averaging over 100,000 new Covid-19 cases a day, a milestone not seen since the winter surge. (Read the story)
  4. Senate Democrats unveiled a $3.5 trillion budget plan on Monday. (Read the story)
  5. Brittany Commisso came forward as “executive assistant #1” who accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of groping and harassing her. (Read the story)

What D.C. is talking about.

Afghanistan. A little more than a month ago, on July 8, we covered the announcement that Joe Biden was planning a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the weeks since, the Taliban has continued its advances into territories previously occupied by U.S. and Afghanistan government forces. Over the weekend, the Taliban captured five provincial capitals, including Taleqan and Kunduz, the latest to be taken over since they began a major military offensive in May. The Taliban now control four provincial capitals across Afghanistan.

Kunduz, which has a population of 375,000 people, is considered a major hub for economics and culture. And given that it’s 200 miles from Kabul, the Afghan capital city, it marks a significant victory for the Taliban.

Around 650 U.S. troops remain in the country, with September 11 looming as the date Biden has targeted to remove all U.S. troops. In 2011, at its peak, the U.S. had 98,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Afghan government has denied that the Taliban has taken over Kunduz, but acknowledges the chaos on the ground. On Saturday, the U.S. sent B-52 bombers from nearby Qatar and AC-130 gunships into Afghanistan in order to help push back the Taliban fighters.

The latest advances from the Taliban have set off a new spate of criticism — and debate — about plans for U.S. forces to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the impending destruction that might occur from the loss of their presence. Despite these advances, President Biden says he is not changing his plan for withdrawal.

Below, we’ll examine some of those arguments, then my take


What the right is saying.

The right is divided about the withdrawal, with some worried we’re destined to hand Afghanistan over to the Taliban and others insisting we stop wasting our time and money.

In The Wall Street Journal, Sadanand Dhume said we should have “no illusions” about what’s happening.

“Some hope that the hasty and haphazard U.S. withdrawal won’t lead to Taliban rule or that the jihadist group will govern more gently than before,” Dhume wrote. “That optimism is misplaced, and the disaster likely to come will have global consequences…Atrocities have accompanied the Taliban’s battlefield gains. A video last month purportedly showed the Taliban executing 22 Afghan government special forces after they surrendered. On Monday the U.S. and the U.K. accused the Taliban of murdering civilians in Spin Boldak… Last month the Taliban brutalized and murdered Danish Siddiqui, an Indian Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist with Reuters. They also murdered a folksy Afghan comedian known for poking fun at them.

“In some places, Taliban commanders have reportedly demanded lists of widows and unmarried women between 15 and 45 to be married off to their fighters,” he added. “They have murdered civil society leaders, closed girls’ schools, and forced women out of public roles… Should the jihadist group re-establish its emirate, Afghanistan would again become the global center of a dangerous ideology fundamentally at odds with modernity and closely linked to al Qaeda. Ordinary Afghans—especially women, educated professionals and religious minorities—will suffer most acutely. But the shock waves will reverberate around the world.”

In Newsweek, Dalibor Rohac asked whether “America is really back,” as Joe Biden likes to say.

“That is hardly the impression one gets in Afghanistan, where the American pullout has provided a new momentum to the Taliban's insurgency, punctured only with occasional, half-hearted U.S. airstrikes,” he wrote. “If the Taliban's ascent to power is indeed just a matter of time, Biden's presidency thus risks overseeing the most dramatic rollback of women's rights in the world in a generation as well as the re-emergence of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorist groups and as a place for regional power competition.

“Afghanistan might be a distant place, but the lesson of both 9/11 and of Europe's 2015 refugee crisis is that the West cannot insulate itself from consequences of instability and conflict elsewhere in the world,” Rohac wrote. “True, America cannot be everywhere. Yet, by default, America was in Afghanistan. As of late, U.S. presence, which provided a significant degree of stability, came at a reasonably low cost to American blood and treasure. The burden of proof should have been on the advocates of withdrawal to demonstrate in what ways the status quo was supposedly unsustainable and how giving up on Afghanistan was consistent with the broader agenda of America's international re-engagement.”

In Spectator, Karen Kwiatkowski said base voters on the right and left are now in agreement about their opposition to imperialism.

“The reality on the ground is that your average citizen, whether left, right, or center, rejects the very idea of the American empire, opposes military adventurism, and fears the consequences of political trash talk that might lead to war,” she said. “Take the libertarian constitutional-purist Sen. Rand Paul and his otherwise philosophical polar opposite, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These seemingly strange bedfellows agree when it comes to a future of peace and an end to empire. So do the vast majority of Americans. Instructively, that’s even more true among veterans of recent wars.

“As President Dwight Eisenhower famously observed 60 years ago, those who profit from government funding for endless war, pugilistic policies, and the centralization of political power form a bipartisan minority, comprising a congressional-military-industrial complex,” she concluded. “These war racketeers have infiltrated both the Republican and Democratic parties. They consistently push for the permanent transfer of wealth from poor and working people — mortgaging their economic futures, roads, schools, hospitals, and bridges — to line the pockets of gun-running defense contractors and their political allies.”


What the left is saying.

The left is divided as well, with some arguing it’s time to move on from Afghanistan and others arguing that we cannot let the country fall into chaos.

The Guardian editors said the fears held by many Afghans have “not only been realized but surpassed.”

“Many anticipated steady gains by the Taliban, but the speed and scale of their escalating advance has stunned observers,” the editors wrote. “Record numbers of civilians have been killed and injured since 1 May, a United Nations report warned last week, and the toll could intensify as fighting spills from rural areas into towns and cities, which some hope can be better defended. Some had argued that a newer, less extreme Taliban might have evolved — placing faith in the statements of their representatives in Doha. But Human Rights Watch says that their forces are summarily executing detained soldiers, police and civilians suspected of ties to the Afghan government. In areas under Taliban control, girls are banned from school once more.

“The United States’ belief that it could transform Afghanistan was evidence of hubris, but its precipitate withdrawal is another failure with immense human cost,” the editors added. “Its inability to determine the country’s future does not absolve it of all responsibility. Though Washington claims it’s ‘not ready to throw in the towel’ on peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, in truth the UK appears to be investing more effort in diplomacy, including by exerting pressure upon Pakistan. The U.S. must step up… The most pressing moral case is to offer refuge to those at risk due to working with the west. There are grave concerns that Mr Biden’s withdrawal announcement left too little time to help them, and that the US will leave too many behind.”

In Salon, Chris Hedges said the debacle in Iraq was “the collapse of the American Empire.”

“The two decades of combat, the one trillion dollars we spent, the 100,000 troops deployed to subdue Afghanistan, the high-tech gadgets, artificial intelligence, cyber-warfare, Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs and the Global Hawk drones with high-resolution cameras, Special Operations Command composed of elite Rangers, SEALs and air commandos, black sites, torture, electronic surveillance, satellites, attack aircraft, mercenary armies, infusions of millions of dollars to buy off and bribe the local elites and train an Afghan army of 350,000 that has never exhibited the will to fight, failed to defeat a guerrilla army of 60,000 that funded itself through opium production and extortion in one of the poorest countries on earth,” he wrote.

“Like any empire in terminal decay, no one will be held accountable for the debacle or for the other debacles in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen or anywhere else,” he said. “Not the generals. Not the politicians. Not the CIA and intelligence agencies. Not the diplomats. Not the obsequious courtiers in the press who serve as cheerleaders for war. Not the compliant academics and area specialists. Not the defense industry… The human tragedy — at least 801,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Pakistan, and 37 million have been displaced in and from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya and Syria, according to the Watson Institute at Brown University — is reduced to a neglected footnote.”

In The New York Times, two Afghan envoys — Kai Eide and Tadamichi Yamamoto — wrote that we cannot stand by and let Afghanistan collapse.

“Since April, when President Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country, violence has escalated at a terrifying rate,” they wrote. “It doesn’t have to be this way: Peace is still a possibility. For too long, there was a belief that the conflict could be resolved militarily. Throughout that time, the United Nations was too hesitant to step in… Though last year’s agreement between the United States and the Taliban made possible the withdrawal of international forces, it sadly did not create conditions conducive to peace.

“Fortunately, in contrast to times in the past when disagreements among members hobbled effective responses to global crises, the U.N. is in a good position to act,” they added. “The United States, Russia and China — three of the five permanent members of the Security Council — all have a stake in Afghanistan’s stability. Along with Pakistan, they issued statements in recent months calling for a reduction in violence and a negotiated political settlement that protects the rights of women and minorities… Yet no single country involved in Afghanistan is well placed to help. For its part in the conflict, the United States is now viewed with suspicion… The U.N. is often criticized for failing to deliver on its original purpose: to maintain international peace and security. This is an opportunity to show its worth.”


My take.

It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. Is Afghanistan quickly descending into civil war because of a rushed, unplanned withdrawal? Or is it because of the utter failure of the last 20 years of policy and investment? Are soldiers fighting for the Afghan government fleeing cities because they have little fight left or because they are clearly outmatched and understand the importance of not wasting lives on areas they can’t hold?

These questions are important but they probably don’t change the fundamental outlines of how anyone is going to judge the next few months. On one side — with Republicans and Democrats — is an argument that after 20 years, hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars, if what we’ve built can’t last for three months without our boots on the ground then that’s all the more reason to throw in the towel now. On the other side is a group — also including Republicans and Democrats — arguing that the little troop presence we had remaining was worth it in order to prevent the evil we’re witnessing now; the rise of the Taliban and the horror stories that come with it.

And those stories are horrific. I’ve repeatedly advocated for withdrawal from Afghanistan in Tangle, but I’d be lying if I said the tales coming out of the country haven’t made me second guess myself.

But I don’t know if it changes my ultimate calculation. Our presence in the region has hardly prevented war, death, extremism or low quality of life. Is it possible things get much worse in the coming months? Yes. It’s also true that the U.N. could be doing far more and that the major power players in the area all have a mutual benefit from stability. That’s a good thing. The United States’ responsibility now is primarily to continue to help evacuate any Afghans who aided us and — from local air bases outside Afghanistan — to continue to provide support for the Afghan government in the coming weeks. There are ways to flex our diplomatic powers without continuing to keep our military on the ground.

All of this is true, but so also is the heartbreaking reality that our worst fears are being realized in front of us. If the Afghan government can get a hold on the territories it’s losing and find some stability, we may look back on this as a frightening but ultimately informative few months. If they can’t, and the Taliban takes control of much of the country in the coming months, we may be in for a protracted and nauseating spate of news from what will be a bloody civil war. Biden’s decision to withdraw, which former President Donald Trump also supported, is aligned with the will of much of America. Its greatest good may ultimately be a long-term change of attitude that turns America away from boots-on-the-ground nation-building. But none of that makes the tragedy unfolding in front of us any easier to witness.


Q: Your questions, answered.

Q: After reading the Friday edition covering the atrocities in China, I was left wondering how I can help. Do you have any suggestions for how normal people can help, or are we stuck relying on private companies and government to do something?

— Connor, Minnesota

Tangle: Truthfully, I’m not sure there are many ways to help. It’s also a little uncomfortable for me to be doing anything close to “activism” or advocacy in this newsletter, but this issue is black and white enough that I’ll share a couple thoughts. First, I think the lowest-hanging fruit is simply sharing the stories online and across social media. You could also sign petitions like this one urging the International Olympic Committee not to allow China to host the 2022 Olympics unless action is taken.

Since it’s basically impossible to get any money or aid to actual Uyghurs inside China, there are some good options for helping Uyghur refugees. Some have escaped to Turkey, and you can donate to them here, though I can’t vouch for the UHRP. There are also organizations like Save Uyghur that you can check out.

As several readers have also pointed out, one of the things missing from my story was a more fleshed out explanation of the role forced labor is playing in the Uyghur camps. Companies like Apple are currently lobbying against bills that would limit or eliminate forced labor, which many Uyghurs are being used for in these camps. If you’re American, and you believe there are policy options out there that you’d like to see enacted, you can call your representatives and let them know. You could also express support for bills like this. Plenty of people underestimate the impact this can have, but you never know what will get through and move a member of Congress.

If you want to ask a question to be answered in the newsletter, you can simply reply to this email and write in. It goes straight to my inbox. You can also fill out this form.


A story that matters

For the first time ever, average pay in restaurants and supermarkets has climbed above $15 an hour. Wages have been rising quickly as businesses struggle to hire enough workers with business reopenings happening across the country. Many of the biggest gains have gone to workers in the lowest-paying industries, which has helped the market hit a milestone many activists once thought would require the government to raise the federal minimum wage to achieve. Overall, nearly 80 percent of U.S. workers now make at least $15 an hour. Just seven years ago, in 2014, that number was only 60 percent. (The Washington Post, subscription)


Numbers.

  • 73%.The percentage of voters who support withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, according to an early July poll from Harris/The Hill.
  • 81%. The percentage of Democrats who said they supported removal in that poll.
  • 61%. The percentage of Republicans who said they supported removal in that poll.
  • 77%. The percentage of independents who said they supported removal in that poll.
  • $1.2 billion.The amount of money FEMA is making available for grants so communities can build more severe weather resilient infrastructure.

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Have a nice day.

An Irish baron named Randal Plunket has begun rewilding his nearly 1,600-acre estate in northern Ireland. Plunket’s decision drew some scorn from farmers who couldn’t believe he would let go of his cattle, sheep, and an estate known for agricultural innovation. But over time, he’s been vindicated. By allowing the land to return to its natural form, Plunket says he has seen more than 20 species of grass pop up, butterflies and birds return, and oak, ash, beech, Scots pine and black poplar trees come back to the estate. Now, Botanists from Trinity College Dublin have started visiting to study the transformation, which they hope can be part of a larger trend of private land rewilding. (The Guardian)

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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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