Tuesday Reads: The Media’s Afghanistan FreakoutPosted: August 17, 2021
It looks like the media is going to focus on Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. They’ve spent the past 6 months searching for something they can attack Biden about, and now they’ve found it. Never mind that Trump is the one who negotiated with the Taliban and withdrew most of the troops. This is all Biden’s fault.
Never mind that Trump mismanaged and then ignored a deadly virus that has now killed more Americans than the Civil War. Never mind that Republican Governors in the South and people refusing vaccines based on conspiracy theories that are making the pandemic worse. That can’t be pinned on Biden, so the media will ignore the problem for now. They will also largely ignore the horrific earthquake in Haiti. The media loves covering wars.
I have to admit that I’m no expert on Afghanistan. I just know that after 20 years, it’s obvious that we aren’t going win a war against the Taliban. I lived through years of our government waging a war in Vietnam that killed nearly 60,000 U.S. soldiers and millions of Vietnamese army and civilians.
This war has gone on much longer than Vietnam, and it’s clear we’re not going to win it. The best thing we can do is get as many vulnerable Afghanis out and bring them to the U.S. or send them to other countries. Of course Republicans won’t like that, even though they are criticizing the pullout at the moment (They cheered Trump and Pompeo’s agreement with the Taliban that freed 5,000 fighters from prison. Now they are pretending that didn’t happen).
I’m not saying what’s happening in Afghanistan at the moment isn’t horrible. It is. I honestly don’t know if it could have been handled better. Maybe so. Wiser people than I will have plenty to say about that. But I’m willing to wait and see what happens.
A couple of pieces on the media reaction:
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo: DC Press Bigs Escalate to Peak Screech Over Biden Defiance.
If nothing else for media watchers there’s a fascinating dynamic developing over the last day or so in trying to define the US exit from Afghanistan. It’s not a new dynamic. In fact, it’s one I first saw a quarter century ago when DC’s establishment press got really, really upset that not only Bill Clinton but more importantly most of the country didn’t agree with their take on impeachment in 1998. Official DC was baffled when Democrats actually managed to pick up a few seats in the 1998 midterm that was entirely about impeachment. The specifics of the case are of course pretty radically different. But the dynamic of establishment DC press escalation is not. Politico’s morning newsletter this morning captures the dynamic. It starts quoting David Axelrod making clear that Biden messed up and has admit he messed up but then notes that Biden didn’t get the message and said it was the right decision. A sort of primal scream of “WTF, JOE BIDEN?!?!?!!?!” virtually bleeds through the copy.
After quoting Biden at length saying “I stand squarely behind my decision…” Politico jumps back in: “Of course, that’s not the issue. And Republicans — as well as many in the media — were quick to point that out …”
No, no, no, Joe Biden! that’s not right!
As I’ve made clear repeatedly, it’s not like this is a big win for Biden, at least in the near term. American public opinion is never going to like seeing the people we spent twenty years and a trillion dollars fighting getting comfy in the presidential palace after the US-backed President hopped the first plane out of Kabul. That stings no matter what the backstory. But there’s also little question that the very strong consensus among establishment DC press opinion-makers is not in line with the mood or opinion of most of the country.
At least half a dozen Politico articles in the last 36 hours have run with a snap Morning Consult poll showing that support for Biden’s withdrawal plan has fallen from 69% in May to 49% on Sunday, a whopping 20 point drop. This is hardly surprising: the concept of bringing everyone home is easier to support without pictures of the messy realities of the situation. The data point is listed in this morning’s Politico newsletter as well (“Here’s one bad sign for Biden:”). Not mentioned as far as I can tell in any of these write-ups is this: Even after a weekend of chaotic, ugly images and 48 hours of relentlessly negative news coverage, support and opposition to Biden’s withdrawal plan, according to this poll was 49% in favor and 37% opposed. The fact that the plan still has a net +12 approval even at such a bleak moment is surely a relevant part of the story.
There’s a pretty palpable reflex to keep the storyline in check and Biden is not helping.
The media needs everyone to go along with their narrative, just as they did when they were cheering the buildup to the Iraq war and many of us ordinary American were terrified of another Vietnam.
This piece at The Hill is by Joe Ferullo, a journalist and former network news executive: Beltway reporting of Afghanistan withdrawal a disservice to Americans.
As Taliban forces pushed through Afghanistan this past week, most news outlets covered the swiftly shifting story by falling back to their usual position: reporting from inside the Beltway.
That kind of journalism — insular and hermetically-sealed — can read “out of touch” to most news consumers and only further cements skepticism about the media.
In Washington, the situation in Afghanistan was largely viewed as an event with disastrous consequences for President Biden. According to the headlines, the president now faced “political peril” as the end of the war entered “treacherous terrain.”
More than that, one report insisted, this represented a “grim reckoning” for Biden, who had “rebuffed Pentagon recommendations” to leave a contingent of U.S. troops in the country.
In case the point was somehow missed, a cable news chyron shouted: “Afghanistan’s Rapid Unravelling Threatens Biden’s Legacy.”
It’s undeniable that the circumstances in Afghanistan have deteriorated much more quickly than the administration anticipated — or, at least, that it wanted to discuss publicly. But two main questions were left under-examined as the political media rushed to do what it too-often does: Find a simple D.C.-centric story thread and race to repeat it.
The more important questions, according to Ferullo:
The most important issue: What do the American people want? Reports from outside the Beltway, looking for voter reaction, have been rare. But recent polling makes the answer clear. In one April survey, 73 percent of respondents approved of Biden’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan. As late as last month, polls showed 57 percent supported ending the war.
In other words, the people who have for the past 20 years been asked to do the fighting — or to send loved ones far away, tour-after-tour, as the conflict dragged on — have said “Enough is enough.” Their voices should count for something, yet their point of view was largely missing from reports out of Washington this past week.
Also largely left unconsidered: Why was the Taliban able to advance so quickly? The story line most often picked up blamed a hasty U.S. withdrawal. It was, according to one headline, “Joe Biden’s Fall of Saigon.”
That comparison actually rings true — but not for the reasons most journalists have settled on. With the passage of time, it became clear that, in large part, South Vietnam fell so quickly because its government simply did not have the support of its people. America’s military presence in Vietnam — over the course of nearly 20 years and 58,000 U.S. combat deaths — was unable to build a political infrastructure that citizens could trust.
The same is true in Afghanistan. We set up a government that the people didn’t like or trust. Read more at the link.
Biden’s Explanation of His Decisions
Biden made his case in a speech yesterday. Here’s a bit of it:
My national security team and I have been closely monitoring the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and moving quickly to execute the plans we had put in place to respond to every constituency, including — and contingency — including the rapid collapse we’re seeing now….
We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again.
We did that. We severely degraded al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and we got him. That was a decade ago.
Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy….
I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency or nation building. That’s why I opposed the surge when it was proposed in 2009 when I was Vice President.
And that’s why, as President, I am adamant that we focus on the threats we face today in 2021 — not yesterday’s threats.
Christopher Wilson We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence.
If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan. We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.
When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban. Under his agreement, U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 — just a little over three months after I took office.
U.S. forces had already drawn down during the Trump administration from roughly 15,500 American forces to 2,500 troops in country, and the Taliban was at its strongest militarily since 2001.
The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.
There would have been no ceasefire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1.
There was only the cold 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, lurching into the third decade of conflict.
There’s more at the link but here’s the bottom line.
I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces….
American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies.
We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force — something the Taliban doesn’t have. Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support….
And here’s what I believe to my core: It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not. If the political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people, unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down, they would never have done so while U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan bearing the brunt of the fighting for them.
Support for Biden’s Arguments
This is from right wing site Axios: Biden officials: Trump left bare cupboard on Afghanistan.
Senior national security officials presiding over a historic foreign policy collapse are privately expressing deep frustrations about the thin Afghanistan withdrawal plans left behind by Donald Trump.
Why it matters: Many experienced operatives in both parties are aghast that President Biden and his team didn’t ready better preparations over nearly seven months since taking office.
- But two Biden officials who spoke with Axios on Monday on condition of anonymity bristled at the criticism coming from former President Trump and his administration in the wake of the Taliban’s rapid sweep across Afghanistan and capture of Kabul.
What they’re saying: “There was no plan to evacuate our diplomats to the airport,” a senior national security official told Axios about the preparations they inherited from the previous administration. “None of this was on the shelf, so to speak.”
- “When we got in, on Jan. 20, we saw that the cupboard was bare,” the official said, echoing a complaint Team Biden also made about Trump’s vaccine distribution plan….
Biden officials said that Trump’s team during the transition, was slow to brief them on key details and context behind the 2020 peace agreement signed in Doha.
- That Trump-era deal between the U.S. and the Taliban called for a withdrawal of troops by May 2021.
- Separately, Trump, after losing the election, signed a secret memo to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan before Biden took office, as Axios’ Jonathan Swan and Zachary Basu reported. But after some Trump officials became aware of “an off-the-books operation by the commander in chief himself,” they eventually persuaded Trump to keep some 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
After all of that, the senior Biden officials said, Trump effectively didn’t have a plan to bring all Americans including troops, contractors and diplomats home safely. One said that created “headwinds” and “unnecessarily increased” the degree of difficulty for the new administration.
- “The entire policy process had atrophied,” one of the officials said. “It was really manifest here.
- “On the one hand, they set a May deadline for withdrawal,” the official said. “On the other hand, there was no interagency planning on how to execute a withdrawal.”
The bottom line: Biden officials aren’t directly blaming Trump for how events unfolded in Kabul.
But they do want to challenge what they see as bad-faith arguments from Trump officials making the case that they would have presided over a more orderly withdrawal.
David Rothkopf at The Daily Beast: Biden’s Right That It’s Time for Us to Leave Afghanistan.
Biden, keenly aware of the impact of the horrifying scenes of chaos in the Afghan capital of Kabul, looked straight into the camera and said, “I am the president of the United States and the buck stops with me.” He acknowledged the mayhem and the human toll it is taking and he expressed his clear anger at the failure of the Afghan government and military to mount a defense of their own country. He specifically noted that the government had urged the U.S. not to begin early evacuations of foreign nationals because of the message it might send.
After he spoke, the talking heads came out in force and argued he did not accept responsibility. But “the buck stops here” is the ultimate expression of a president owning his actions. They said he did not explain how we could be in the situation we are in. But what they really mean is that he did not give the explanation they wanted.
CNN’s Jake Tapper called Biden’s description of the swift collapse of the Afghan central government and military “finger pointing.” But it was indeed that collapse that accounted for the speed of the Taliban’s take-over: When the Afghan forces the U.S. has invested billions in should have stood up, they did not. Given that it was widely expected that the Taliban would ultimately seize control of the country — they were, after all, the parties with whom the last administration was negotiating — the key variable was whether the Taliban would meet any resistance.
Biden described the measures being taken to get thousands of embassy employees, US citizens, citizens of allied nations and Afghans who had aiding allied forces out. He reasserted the commitment of the U.S. to using international mechanisms to provide aid to the people of Afghanistan, and stressed that the U.S. would continue to place human rights at the center of our foreign policy priorities.
It would have been heartening to hear him use tougher language with regard to applying international pressure should the rights of women and girls be violated. He should have made a commitment to investigate fully where things went wrong with the exit plan. But he left no uncertainty about our willingness to use force in the event that violent extremists posing a threat to the U.S. again appear within Afghanistan’s borders.
So that’s a counterpoint to the media freakout. I’ll post some of the latest attacks on Biden along with some more reasoned articles in the comment thread. Let me know what you think, and remember this is an open thread.