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Rosenblum: Afghanistan — Why & what’s next?


PARIS — European newscasts have focused for weeks on a violent nation cursed by a pandemic, where armed fundamentalists hostile to Western values want one-party rule, a cowed press and kangaroo courts. And besides America, they also talk about Afghanistan.

In fact, Joe Biden is building back — often better — despite a deadlocked Congress and a predecessor intent on sabotage. But “United States” is a misnomer. Adversaries muscle in where its leadership falters; allies hedge bets on the future as it tears itself further apart.

A world facing climatic endgame and authoritarian takeover needs an America with a functioning democracy, run by enlightened leaders who rise above narrow interests to work together. Instead, Republican zealots wage an Afghan-style war at home.

H.R. McMaster, who as national security adviser failed to housebreak Donald Trump, foresees “an endless jihad that enemies of all civilized people are waging against us all.” If Americans don’t unite against that, he told an interviewer, “we are all at enormous risk.”

He says Trump’s clueless hubris produced hands-down surrender. “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020,” he said. “The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.” He expects tighter links to Al Qaeda and others, even ISIS-K, to export a twisted view of Islam helped by intelligence and sophisticated weaponry Americans left behind.

Generals can be dubious analysts, prone to seeing lights at the end of tunnels. But McMaster is a military scholar who saw in Vietnam how a swift turn of events sends panicked people scrambling toward the exits. After covering war since the 1960s, I think he’s right.

Yet when Americans badly need to close ranks, faithless politicians howl for impeachment. Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, with so much blood on their own hands, excoriate Biden. Others who want his job – with neither integrity nor sense of the real world – pile on.

A traditional Fourth Estate should be our safeguard. But it no longer works that way. Many in the “news media” tower of babble that Trump did so much to create choose to fault Biden for the inevitable finale of a needless war he has tried to end since 2009.

Biden’s failings will be clear when the war fog lifts. He infuriated NATO allies by not consulting before a sudden chaotic airlift. He says he had to act fast when President Ashraf Ghani fled in secret after pledging to negotiate a stable peace. The Taliban juggernaut caught most everyone by surprise.

Unsurprisingly, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal immediately editorialized that Biden was responsible for a debacle it called “one of the most shameful in history” and berated him for laying his guilt on Trump. And that was echoed widely in “news” reporting.

Margaret Sullivan wrote in the Washington Post: “The Afghan debacle lasted two decades. The media spent two hours deciding whom to blame…What we largely got over the past few days was the all-too-familiar genre of ‘winners and losers’ coverage. It’s coverage that tends to elevate and amplify punditry over news, and to assign long-lasting political ramifications to a still-developing situation.”

On MSNBC, Nicolle Wallace offered wry hyperbole rooted in truth after Biden addressed the nation: “Ninety-five percent of American people will agree with everything he just said, and 95 percent of the press covering this White House will disagree.”

Reporters hurled hostile questions about trapped Americans and endangered Afghans left behind. Few seemed aware that getting out of a war is far harder than getting in. Chaotic evacuations are the norm. Operational decisions had to be made quickly on the spot.

Overall, the New York Times did stellar work. But a new effort to deliver so much to so many with fewer editors to ride herd took a toll. One story with the lead byline of a young hire declared failure after the first day. It said Americans and vulnerable Afghans were being left behind citing a critic, who said “the administration was squarely to blame.” The headline opined that Biden should have acted months earlier.

In fact, Biden agreed with Ashraf Ghani that an early evacuation would trigger a chaotic collapse. When Ghani deserted, Afghan troops shed their uniforms overnight. Families that had made plans to leave in some orderly fashion thronged Kabul airport with what they could carry, their savings blocked in shuttered banks.

Biden rushed in 5,000 prepositioned troops. Twelve days later, 130,000 Americans and Afghans had been flown out under near-impossible conditions, and negotiations continue with the Taliban to evacuate others who could not make it to Kabul airport. Yet the narrative continued. To speed the flow, evacuees were screened on arrival. Why, some reporters demanded to know, did they have to wait hours for clearance at Dulles Airport?

In briefings, few asked about Afghanistan beyond the airport, where nearly 20 million people –half the population — face famine as food relief runs out and medical supplies dwindle. With national reserves and aid frozen, the Taliban has a pittance in ready cash. Rather than govern, it tracks down collaborators to imprison or kill.

Those first skewed reports were enough for the Republicans. At one rally early on, a smirking Trump called the airport tumult America’s “greatest foreign policy humiliation,” not mentioning that he was responsible for it. Later, he blamed Biden for the ISIS-K suicide bombing that no president could have prevented.

Trump said he would have brought Afghan loyalists out earlier, which his former aides say is horseshit. He had made no plans for that. Biden extended the withdrawal to September while Ghani and others talked to the Taliban. But the corrupt, fractious 300,000-man army that U.S. forces failed to train retreated in a rout. Ghani fled the country on Aug. 15.

With notable exceptions, coverage was disgraceful. TV networks might have shown the story unfold live, explained by seasoned reporters steeped in background. Instead, big names safe at home, far from ground truth, interviewed retired generals, academics and activists.

In America, the story centered on official briefings. Jen Psaki at the White House, a polished pro, and John Kirby at the Pentagon, a retired rear admiral, did their jobs well – a 180-degree change from Trump’s string of stooges. But no government spokesman dwells on failings. And these days, with cameras rolling, briefings are public performance art rather than the old sausage-making process aimed at nailing down detail.

Fox News averaged 3 million viewers a day, equal to MSNBC and CNN combined. When “news” is whatever anyone wants it to be, a Hannity or a Carlson can spout demented monstrosity. Laura Ingraham blasted Biden for not creating an effective Afghan army during the years Trump was president.

For journalists who were kids in 1975, Vietnam might as well have been the Peloponnesian War. With a new approach to newsgathering, that matters. Reporters stayed close to the action and held U.S. forces to account. After Vietnam, the Pentagon resolved to take action.

Generals corralled the press into pools, then “embeds.” Few media executives objected, happy enough with just the appearance of access — bang-bang footage and supervised interviews. Now military control in the new normal. journalists repeat jargon, such as “retrograde” and “dignified transfer,” as though they are part of the team.

In combat, reporters are as crucial as medics. War can’t be covered from a distance any more it can be won from the air. We saw at the outset that NATO troops were outmatched. One general assured that well-equipped U.S. troops would prevail in winter. Afghan fighters survive North-Pole conditions with a handful of tea, rice, a little mutton and woolly caps.

The Afghanistan collapse needed seasoned correspondents with trusted sources and a reality-based worldview. Fox sent Trey Yingst from Jerusalem for a brief stay. He boasted to The Wrap that he spent hours studying the background. NBC’s Richard Engel, among few others roamed Kabul, unhindered by Taliban checkpoints.

CNN could have owned the story. When Clarissa Ward left, it sent Sam Kiley, a masterful conflict reporter since the 1980s, who knew Afghanistan well. He spent six months with British troops under fire in Helmand Province. His book, “Desperate Glory,” is a classic. But CNN kept him at the airport and allowed him little time on camera. Then U.S. forces obliged reporters within their perimeter to evacuate.

CNN was excellent at times, but credibility demands consistency across the board, with journalists hired for gritty experience, not physical appearance. BBC was a universe ahead, without inaccurate chest-thumping boasts and “breaking news” hoopla.

BBC’s Yalda Hakim, who fled Afghanistan with her family during the Soviet war, worked old contacts: top politicians, Taliban leaders and friends across a large country. Secunder Kermani delved into Panjshir Valley resistance and corruption that eroded trust in the government. Military analyst Frank Gardner earned his chops the hard way, once shot six times by Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.

At the end, Lyse Doucet was there to see the Taliban move in, asking hard questions with a gentle touch as victors celebrated with rockets and gunfire into the air. I first met her in 1969 when she was a BBC stringer in Africa; my admiration has grown steadily ever since.

The facts are clear. Biden tried to stop Barack Obama from wading deeper into a quagmire. Trump wanted to leave Afghanistan but focused instead on North Korea for his Nobel Prize. In 2019, he saw ending the forever war as his path to glory. Heedless of the consequences, he wanted a showy extravaganza during his reelection campaign.

His plan, against aides’ advice, was to bring Taliban and government leaders to Camp David for dealmaker magic. That fell apart when a Taliban attack killed an American soldier. He kept trying. In February, he agreed to surrender in exchange for, essentially, nothing.

Kori Schake, a top adviser to George W. Bush, laid out the deal in a New York Times op-ed:

“Mr. Trump agreed to withdraw all coalition forces in 14 months, end all military and contractor support to Afghan security forces and cease ‘intervening in its domestic affairs.’ He forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters and relax economic sanctions. He agreed that the Taliban could continue to commit violence against the government we were there to support, against innocent people and against those who’d assisted our efforts to keep Americans safe.”

The Taliban only had to say it would not target U.S. or coalition forces and not permit other terrorist organizations to use Afghan territory to threaten U.S. security. With no stipulated framework, the Taliban would negotiate a handover from the Afghan government.

There were no inspection or enforcement provisions. Trump made a familiar empty threat: “If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no one’s ever seen.” The Republican National Committee hailed that as an “historic peace agreement.”

In sum, Schake concluded, “Really, the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban deserves opprobrium even greater than what it heaped on the Iran nuclear deal struck by the Obama administration.”

With a shred of integrity, Trump would have awaited the election. If he lost, a new president could negotiate withdrawal terms, sparing America the cost of reneging on its word as it did when Trump exited the Paris climate agreement and the Iran accords.

The timing was Machiavellian. Trump wanted all troops out quickly so that he got full credit. If he lost in November, a successor would have to answer for a likely debacle. He could have quietly brought out American citizens but didn’t. Stephen Miller refused visas to endangered Afghans. Olivia Troye, who sat at Mike Pence’s elbow, says almost none were granted.

And now, many Republican ideologues still oppose granting refuge to Afghans who risked their lives because they believed in America. Ingraham, Fox’s junkyard dog, focused the argument: Why should Americans welcome potential terrorists in their midst?

When Biden took power, he extended the deadline but stuck to the decision to withdraw, as a majority of voters wanted.

Republican hypocrisy defies belief. As I write, Kevin McCarthy is telling some CNN anchor that Americans must put aside politics for the greater good.

Whatever happens next, how will we know? Afghanistan was already a black hole for most Americans. By one tally over a recent 12-month period, when journalists had wide access to a country of dazzling complexity, evening news coverage on the three U.S. broadcast networks added up to five minutes.

Cable news droned on with questions, not answers, until Hurricane Ida drowned out the story. Maybe the Taliban, after two decades of infidel occupation and “collateral damage,” will find its better inner self. Maybe a need for Western aid will outweigh zealotry. Maybe a shapeless movement of disparate factions will manage to run a government.

That is all hard to imagine. The $800 million U.S. embassy is shuttered, but China is there, eager to lavish funds with no annoying human-rights strings attached. So is Russia, back at the centuries-old Great Game in Central Asia. Now Iran is also at the table.

Pakistan remains a wild card, as it has since its Inter-Services Intelligence created the Taliban in the 1990s as part of its historic standoff with India. Other what-ifs run on at length, including the impact of humanitarian calamity as food and medical supplies dwindle fast.

Until 2017, America’s democratic example inspired Afghan human rights activists, journalists and so many others to resist harsh Taliban rule. These days, that much-touted City on a Hill is looking pretty dim. And in 2024, its lights could flicker out.

Mort Rosenblum is founding editor of the quarterly, Dispatches. From 1967 to 2004, Rosenblum was Associated Press bureau chief and special correspondent in Africa, Southeast Asia, Argentina and France, reporting from 200 countries. From 1979-1981, he was editor of the International Herald Tribune. Based in Paris and Provence, he returns each winter to the University of Arizona to teach global reporting. Among his 12 books are “Escaping Plato’s Cave: How America’s Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival,” “Who Stole the News?,” “Coups and Earthquakes,” “Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light” and the best-selling “Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit.” He can be reached through MortReport.org.

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