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: 12 minutes.
We’re covering the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I chose this topic after polling some Twitter followers and asking what they wanted to see covered. I’m going to try to do this more often (in the newsletter) to give you all an opportunity to drive Tangle:
Given the format of Tangle, one of the most common questions I get in my inbox is: “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you think God exists?” Tomorrow, for the first time, I’m going to touch on this issue in a personal essay (and, of course, tie it to politics). But it’s a Friday edition for Tangle subscribers only (remember, Tangle is free Monday through Thursday, but subscribers get Friday editions). If you’d like to receive it, you can subscribe below:
- Former President Donald Trump has sued Facebook, Twitter and Google in an effort to have his social media accounts restored. (Wall Street Journal, subscription)
- Israel’s new prime minister Naftali Bennett has opened up a debate on his Iran policy he hopes to conclude before his first meeting with President Biden. (Axios)
- Japan declared a Covid-19 state of emergency until August 22, nearly two weeks after the Tokyo Olympics are set to conclude. (Reuters)
- Efforts at the Surfside condo collapse have shifted from rescue to recovery after officials say no more victims are thought to be alive. 54 people are confirmed dead and another 86 are still missing. (The Washington Post, subscription)
- Democrats are racing to push a bipartisan infrastructure bill through the Senate, with a goal to have it on the Senate floor by July 19. (Politico)
What D.C. is talking about.
Afghanistan. The U.S. military has nearly completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan after President Joe Biden set September 11 as the deadline to move out. On Friday, U.S. forces slipped out of Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield — which has served as the epicenter of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan — in the middle of the night. On Tuesday, the U.S. Central Command said the withdrawal was 90 percent complete.
A quick reminder: In the wake of September 11, the U.S. identified Osama Bin Laden as the man responsible for the attacks. Bin Laden was the head of the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda and thought to be hiding out in Afghanistan. He was also protected by the Taliban, another radical group that had control of Afghanistan at the time.
When the Taliban refused to turn over Bin Laden, the U.S. responded to the attacks by striking Afghanistan. When other nations joined the battle, the Taliban quickly lost control of the country, but nearly two decades later — even after Bin Laden was killed in 2011 — their power and influence are still significant.
Today, U.S. forces and their allies have been training with and fighting alongside Afghan soldiers to contain the Taliban and keep the government stable. They have struggled. For nearly 20 years, the number of forces has swelled and shrunk with that goal in mind, and earlier this year President Biden announced he was withdrawing all troops by September 11, 2021, keeping the goal that former President Donald Trump also set.
With U.S. forces on their way out, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces that have supported the efforts are following suit. Afghanistan’s national security chief said that the Taliban was making rapid territorial gains as U.S. allies left. Some experts estimate the Taliban has doubled the number of districts it controls in the last two months alone. Some Taliban insurgencies have happened so fast that Afghan soldiers have had to flee their posts, including some 1,600 who crossed the border into Tajikistan and are now being brought back.
In 2020, then President Trump signed a peace deal with Afghan forces and the Taliban to arrange a power-sharing agreement. But those talks have since stalled, and with U.S. forces leaving, the fighting is picking up, with territorial changes and clashes on the battlefield escalating.
Below, we’ll take a look at some reactions from the right and left.
What the left is saying.
The left is split on the withdrawal, with some saying it’s a huge mistake and others writing that it has to be done.
The Washington Post editorial board said when Biden announced the withdrawal, “we were among those who judged that the result would be a disaster for the country’s 38 million people — and in particular, its women.”
“Now, that tragedy appears to be unfolding more quickly than even many of the pessimists imagined,” it wrote. “The president ought to be reconsidering the swift withdrawal he ordered in light of the incipient crumbling of an Afghan government and army that the United States spent two decades helping to build. Instead, he has been cold to the country’s plight… As U.S. advisers and air support melt away, Afghan army units are being wiped out by the Taliban, or are surrendering without a fight.
“In desperation, the government has invited ethnic militias to remobilize, risking a return to the anarchic conflict and banditry that plagued the country in the 1990s,” they added. “A U.S. intelligence community assessment that surfaced last week said it could fall within six to 12 months of the U.S. departure. If that happens, not only Afghans will be at risk. According to the intelligence community and a study commissioned by Congress, al-Qaeda could reestablish bases in the country. Waves of refugees are likely to pour out, destabilizing neighbors such as Pakistan and massing at the borders of Europe. U.S. rivals such as Iran, China and Russia could draw the conclusion that Mr. Biden lacks the stomach to stand up for embattled U.S. allies such as Iraq, Taiwan and Ukraine.”
In The Chicago Tribune, Elizabeth Shackelford said “more time won’t change the outcome.”
“If U.S. troops left Afghanistan five years ago or five years from now, it was always going to end this way,” she wrote. “To use this as a reason for U.S. troops to stay would be like claiming the fall of Saigon as evidence that America should not have ended its campaign in Vietnam. U.S. troops could have maintained a violent status quo there too, but they couldn’t have changed the outcome — not with two more years or 20. The inevitability of the outcome does not make it any less tragic, but the tragedy does not make the decision to withdraw wrong,” she wrote. “Instead, the rapid decline is proof positive that we were not on track to establish a stable government in the country, nor were our efforts to train the Afghan military putting it on a path to self-sufficiency.
“As Biden has said, this was not a winnable war,” Shackelford added. “Twenty years has proved that, while the U.S. military can prop up a government and keep an enemy at bay, nothing it can do will create an effective and sustainable Afghan government or military. The threat environment has also changed dramatically in 20 years, and Afghanistan today is nowhere close to the top of the list. Staying now could only be justified if we had decided that permanently propping up a weak and corrupt Afghan government is in America’s national interest. It is not.”
In USA Today, Michael O’Hanlon said the U.S. should continue to financially support Afghan forces and encourage them to concede areas that are too difficult to defend while maintaining the largest swathes of the country.
“New ways to sustain several thousand Western contractors in or near Afghanistan are needed, so that these technical experts may help maintain the Afghan helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft crucial for moving Afghanistan’s small but excellent special forces around the battlefield quickly, and coming to the aid of ground troops under concerted Taliban attack,” O’Hanlon said. “Some remote parts of the country’s south and east, especially in those Pashtun tribal belts most friendly to the Taliban, should alas be effectively conceded to the adversary… Once NATO’s ground troops are gone, NATO airpower based in the broader region might be used to help Afghanistan’s own fledgling air force support its troops on the ground when under concerted attack.
“Ultimately, our hope must be that future Taliban leaders, as well as their Pakistani friends, realize that their dreams of a quick victory after NATO’s departure from Afghanistan were illusory,” O’Hanlon wrote. “At that point – but probably only at that point – a future peace process may have a chance. Until then, our main goal must be to help Afghan friends prevent a takeover from a Taliban leadership that shows few genuine signs of breaking off ties to extremists, moderating its behavior, or compromising with the current government in the pursuit of peace.
What the right is saying.
The right is similarly split on the withdrawal, with some criticizing it and others insisting it must be done.
In Politico, Rich Lowry wrote that Biden was “already fumbling” the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“Perhaps the Afghan government and its forces will prove more resilient than many expect, but if the country continues its slide toward chaos or, worse, the Taliban rapidly take Kabul, President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw a residual U.S. force will look like an amateurish, unforced error by a man who prides himself on his foreign policy experience and acumen,” Lowry said. “With his top military leadership opposed and credible warnings that Kabul could fall within months after a withdrawal, Biden went ahead with it anyway on the basis of what an aide has called ‘his gut.’
“The Afghan war has, of course, stretched on for two decades and become a holding action satisfying to no one,” Lowry wrote. “But the cost to the U.S. of sustaining 3,500 troops in the country without losing anyone in combat for more than a year hasn’t been high compared with the entirely plausible downside of Islamist extremists allied with al-Qaeda sweeping to power again in Afghanistan…One justification for leaving Afghanistan is that it will free up resources for us to concentrate on the growing threat from China… To the contrary, to the extent that striking al-Qaeda targets going forward has to be done from the Persian Gulf, involving longer, more taxing flights for U.S. aircraft, or requires keeping an aircraft carrier in the vicinity of Afghanistan, it will draw on the kind of resources we need to check China.”
In The National Review, Daniel DePetris said Biden should “stick to the Afghanistan withdrawal.”
“There is no doubt that the Afghan government is in dire straits at the moment,” DePetris wrote. “The question, though, has never been whether Afghan security forces would struggle to hold ground once U.S. forces packed up — even those who have advocated for a full U.S. withdrawal acknowledge the costs associated with the decision. The question is whether the U.S. has a better alternative.
“Many Beltway foreign-policy professionals continue to believe that sustaining the Afghan government indefinitely with a few thousand troops and tens of billions of dollars a year is a ‘low-cost formula’ for keeping Kabul afloat,” he said. “Yet for the U.S. military personnel who would be asked to risk their lives on behalf of a corrupt, internally divided, and feckless government, it’s difficult to see how such a mission would actually enhance U.S. security in any meaningful way. What would be the purpose of such a deployment, other than maintaining a stalemate? How resource-intensive would it be? How long would it last? And above all, would it be worth it?
“Proponents of reversing the U.S. troop withdrawal never get around to answering (let alone asking) these critical questions — perhaps because they recognize that the answers would hardly be acceptable to the American public,” DePetris concluded.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “disaster looms” in Afghanistan.
“Some 8.5 million Afghans already live under Taliban control, the Long War Journal estimates, with more than 13 million in contested zones,” the board wrote. “The offensive has moved into northern Afghanistan, far beyond the Taliban’s traditional strongholds in the south. Brutal fights between militants and Afghan government forces have taken place in the northern Faryab, Balkh and Kunduz provinces. Some two dozen elite Afghan commandos died last week trying to retake a critical district in Faryab. Their calls for air support, which may have saved their lives, were in vain.
“Many government forces are simply letting territory fall to the Taliban,” they wrote. “The government calls these tactical retreats, but they’re leaving expensive weapons and vehicles. Though Afghan forces have had some limited success, they’re increasingly stretched thin without American airpower. The ‘end forever wars’ crowd—which has argued for years that the real problem is America’s presence—has been conspicuously silent about the slow-rolling disaster.”
My position here will likely not surprise anyone who has been reading this newsletter for a while. I share the view of many “Trump Republicans” and progressive liberals: the War in Afghanistan has been a cataclysmic failure, and it’s time to end it. As I wrote in November, when I supported Trump’s effort to withdraw troops, the financial costs alone would be enough. We’ve spent nearly $1.5 million a day in Afghanistan for almost 20 years — with more than $15 billion estimated to have been lost on waste, fraud and abuse from 2006 to 2017 alone. That’s to say nothing of the human cost. The 2,300 dead U.S. soldiers, the 20,000 wounded, the 45,000 dead Afghan soldiers, or the 100,000 Afghan civilians killed.
The losses of the war are difficult to calculate. The human and political costs of leaving are chilling to consider. But the reasons to stay are damn near indefensible. That the country could collapse in six months after 20 years of our presence and nearly a trillion dollars of taxpayer money spent is no reason to stay — it’s proof that we should never have gone, and that more money, more troops and more years will not build the nation our government wants there.
At various times, we’ve had more than 140,000 troops in Afghanistan to try to “win” the war. Even that, paired with the millions of dollars a day, has not been sufficient to achieve our goals. How is keeping 3,500 soldiers there going to help? How have we not yet learned that all the military might and technology in the world is not sufficient to overcome the simple reality that it must be the Afghans themselves who bring this war to an end? How have we not learned that, from a historical perspective, our odds of helping end another country’s civil war are slim to none?
As DePetris said, Afghans are “presently fighting one another in all four corners of their country. To ask a young American from New York, Arkansas, or Illinois to do it for them is blatantly unfair and is a fatal misreading of how little power the United States really has to push events there in a more constructive direction.”
There have been some upsides to the war there. Today, some 9.7 million children are estimated to be enrolled in schools there, of whom 42 percent are girls (under Taliban control, girls were banned from studying and women were stoned to death if they were accused of adultery). 18,000 active schools exist now, about five times the number that existed in 2001. 68 women serve in the Afghan parliament, and from 2003 to 2018, the infant mortality rate went from 53 per 1,000 live births down to 23 per 1,000 live births.
That kind of progress should serve as inspiration for us to leave honorably, ethically and smartly. That means we bring home any of the Afghans who helped the U.S. military and want to leave with it. That means we provide technical support and training until the very last day we’re there — and perhaps beyond, from afar. That means we work with the Afghan government to plan and adapt in the next chapter and to do everything possible to prevent the Taliban from taking over — hoping to cement the gains for women and girls. But it does not mean we have to stay — to extend a 20-year war for another five, 10 or 15 years under the absurd belief that more time, money, or troops will accomplish something that all the money and troops over the last 20 years have not.
The cold reality in Afghanistan is one that is familiar elsewhere. Bombing combatants usually just breeds more of them. Flooding nations with our weaponry often ends up supplying the “enemy.” Dropping armed foreigners into a country they don’t know or understand does not, unsurprisingly, magically produce peace. Calls from the generals, military contractors, war-hungry politicians and the corporate media to stay — all of which will reach a fever pitch in the next few months — are the same calls we’ve heard every year for 15 years. And every year they’ve been wrong.
It’s time to try something new. The road ahead may be tough in the short term, but the Afghan generals have expressed optimism about maintaining their strongholds. If we can help them do that from afar, and continue the stalemate that’s existed for two decades, peace talks may come anew without our presence — and the course of the country may actually change for the better. Now, all I can hope is that Biden has the stomach to stay the course.
Your questions, answered.
Q: What sources do you usually go to for your Left and Right sections? I see some recurring sources on there but just curious if you have a set list you go through to build those sections?
— Chris, Danbury, CT
Tangle: This is a great question! And the short answer is yes. I actually have a Google doc with all the sources for “right” and “left” listed that I come across. These are the first places I go, usually by searching each website for articles on the topic I’m covering and then devouring as many of them as I can before deciding on the best ones to feature. I know certain outlets — like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — tend to appear more than others, but that’s genuinely because I think they are publishing the strongest and most thought-provoking editorial arguments.
On the right: The National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The American Conservative, The New York Sun, The New York Post, Spectator USA, The Federalist, Quillette, Breitbart, Fox News, Powerline Blog, PJ Media, The Dispatch, City Journal, The Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, The Epoch Times, The Washington Times, Hoover Institution, The Spectator, Hot Air, American Affairs, The American Mind, Unherd, Townhall, Twitchy, RedState, Bearing Arms, The Daily Signal, Boston Herald and Climate News are some of my go-tos.
I also read newsletters from folks like Ryan Girdusky, Erick Erickson, Shant Mesrobian and listen to a slew of podcasts and radio — from Ben Shapiro to Sean Hannity.
On the left: Vox, The New York Times editorial board, The Washington Post editorial board, the CNN opinion page, the NBC News opinion page, USA Today editorial board, Slate, The New Republic, The Nation, The American Prospect, Jacobin Magazine, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The Independent, Huffpost, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe are some of my go-tos.
I also read newsletters from Glenn Greenwald (who hits both ways lately), Judd Legum, Heather Cox Richardson, Matthew Yglesias and listen to a ton of podcasts and radio — from WeTheFifth (more Libertarian than left) to Pod Save America.
On top of all these, I simply come across stuff by searching Google keywords, scouring Twitter, or opening reader emails. And there are loads of places — like Bloomberg News or Reason Magazine — where they may lean one direction, but publish a lot of opinion pieces from people across the spectrum.
Truthfully, the process is not a science. I just try to find the best arguments I can, identify that person or editorial group’s traditional political leanings, and then decide what to share.
A story that matters.
American financial regulators are signaling they want more control over a rapidly growing cryptocurrency market that has expanded into Wall Street activities without the usual investor and consumer services protections. “A lot more money is being put into it, there is a lot of trading and the uses seem to be expanding,” Dan Berkovitz, a commissioner on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said. “I see a concern about whether we have a shadow financial system developing, and that should be a question for all of the regulators.” The Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman told Congress that investor protections should apply to crypto exchanges, meaning they must have laws and rules to prevent fraud. Consumers reported losing nearly $82 million in crypto scams during the fourth quarter of 2021 alone. (Wall Street Journal, subscription)
- 100,000+. The peak numbers of U.S. personnel on the ground in Afghanistan, in 2011, according to Pentagon data.
- 395,800. The number of Afghan citizens who have been displaced in the last three years, according to the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation.
- $6.4 trillion. The total financial cost of the wars on terrorism in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, according to a study by Brown University.
- 7,000. The number of NATO troops who were in Afghanistan when President Biden announced plans to withdraw.
- Feb 8, 2020.The last time there was an American combat death in Afghanistan.
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Cancer death rates are falling for men, women, and all racial and ethnic groups in the United States, according to the Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer. “The report shows a decrease in death rates for 11 of the 19 most common cancers among men, and for 14 of the 20 most common cancers among women, over the most recent period (2014-2018).” While death rates for a few select cancers have gone up, the overall trend is reflecting better medical treatment, reduced smoking, better awareness and improved early identification. The increase in certain cancers is thought to be tied to increases in risk factors like obesity. (Eurekalert)