GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR
On August 31, the War in Afghanistan – a war that has been going on for nearly our entire adult lives – came to an end, at least officially. We discuss the ramifications of twenty years of war and how different political entities worldwide are exploiting the situation. We situate Afghanistan in the history of other quagmire wars – Vietnam, Iraq – and revising Eisenhower’s 1953 speech on the military-industrial complex, “A Chance for Peace”, a prescient warning which would today be reviled as radical.
This afternoon, President Joe Biden explained to the nation why he ended the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history. He reminded Americans that the purpose of the attack on Afghanistan in 2001 was to destroy the ability of the Taliban to protect al-Qaeda and to capture or kill the terrorists who had attacked America on September 11, 2001. American bombing immediately weakened the Taliban, and when U.S. troops killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, we met those goals.
And yet we stayed on in Afghanistan while the terrorist threat spread across the world. Biden wants the country to face that modern threat, rather than the threat of twenty years ago. “I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars a year in Afghanistan,” he said.
Researchers estimate that the war in Afghanistan has cost more than 171,000 lives. It has wounded more than 20,700 U.S. service members and taken the lives of 2461 more. It has cost more than $2 trillion, which adds up to about $300 million a day for twenty years.
“After 20 years of war in Afghanistan,” Biden said, “I refused to send another generation of America’s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago.”
The president made it clear he envisions a different kind of foreign policy than the U.S. has embraced since 2002, when the Bush Doctrine, developed by the neoconservatives under Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, committed the United States to launching preemptive military actions in order to change regimes in countries we perceived as potential sponsors of terrorism—the doctrine that led us into invading Iraq in 2003, which diverted our attention and resources from Afghanistan.
“[W]e must set missions with clear, achievable goals,” Biden said. “This decision… is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries…. Moving on from that mindset and those kind of large-scale troop deployments will make us stronger and more effective and safer at home.”
Biden has been very clear that he envisions a foreign policy based less in military personnel on the ground than in technology, the “over-the-horizon” weapons that the administration used to strike ISIS-K leaders the day after that group claimed responsibility for an attack at the gates of the Kabul airport that killed more than 160 Afghans and 13 Americans. “We will continue to support the Afghan people through diplomacy, international influence, and humanitarian aid,” Biden said. “We’ll continue to speak out for basic rights of the Afghan people, especially women and girls…. [H]uman rights will be the center of our foreign policy.”
Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have explained that they expect to use modern tools to combat terrorism. Today, Biden said that the way to protect human rights “is not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support.”
Biden’s new approach to foreign affairs includes finances. As soon as the Afghan government fell, the U.S. and other allies withheld aid to Afghanistan and froze the country’s assets held in western banks. The World Bank stopped funding the country, the International Monetary Fund froze $460 million in emergency reserves, and the U.S. froze about $7 billion of the $9.5 billion of Afghan central bank reserves held in U.S. banks. The European Union, which had promised $1 billion to the country over the next five years, has now said that money will depend on Afghanistan’s human rights record under its new government.
Russian lawmakers and state media have been gloating that the U.S. left Afghanistan. Now, though, they suddenly find their country with the U.S. gone and an unstable Afghanistan on their doorstep. Yesterday, they called on the U.S. and its allies to unfreeze money and to work to rebuild the country, even as they warned that it would never meet U.S. standards for human rights or democracy.
Biden’s emphasis includes working with allies to combat the crises facing the globe in the twenty-first century. Today, John Kerry, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, left for a four-day trip to Japan and China to advance discussions about the climate crisis, a crisis increasingly obvious in the U.S. as California wildfires have forced the evacuation of the resort town of South Lake Tahoe and the U.S. Forest Service closed all national forests in California until September 17.
More than 15,000 firefighters are combating dozens of fires in California, but the emergency personnel from Louisiana had to return to their home state to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which has knocked out electric power for hundreds of thousands.
Today, President Biden met with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and the heads of two of the largest utilities in the Gulf Coast to discuss restoring and maintaining the power grid in the face of the era’s new extreme weather events. The president also launched a 75-day comment period on how climate change is changing financial markets, focusing initially on insurers, who have $4.7 trillion worth of assets, much of which is invested. The administration is trying to understand how climate change could destabilize the economy.
Biden and Blinken have also made it clear they think nothing will strengthen America’s standing in the world more than strengthening democracy at home.
Today, the Texas legislature passed SB1, the sweeping voter suppression bill Democrats had tried to stop by walking out of the legislature to deny the Republicans a quorum. The new measure is a microcosm of voter suppression bills across the nation in Republican-dominated states.
It bans mail ballot drop boxes and gets rid of drive-through voting and extended hours. It criminalizes the distribution of applications for mail-in ballots and permits partisan poll watchers to have “free movement” in polling places, enabling them to intimidate voters. Texas is just 40% white and has 3 million unregistered voters, the vast majority of whom are Black or Latino. The new measure is designed to cut young people of color, whose numbers are growing in Texas and who are overwhelmingly Democrats, out of elections. In debates on the measure, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan asked members not to use the word “racism.”
Meanwhile, today, House Republicans have been on a media blitz to insist that the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has no right to examine the phone records of fellow congresspeople. On Tucker Carlson’s show on the Fox News Channel, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) said, “These telecommunication companies, if they go along with this, they will be shut down. That’s a promise.”
There is no longer any daylight between the radical fringe like Greene and Republican leadership. Today House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who had at least one phone call with former president Trump on January 6, put out a statement warning that attempts to investigate the phone data of congresspeople from the January 6 insurrection would “put every American with a phone or a computer in the crosshairs of a surveillance state run by Democrat politicians.” If the companies comply with the committee’s request—which McCarthy mischaracterized as a “Democrat order”—he said, “a Republican majority will not forget.”
In response, representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) tweeted the legal code: 18 U.S. Code § 1505: “Whoever…by any threatening letter or communication…endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede…the due and proper exercise of the power of inquiry under which any…investigation is being had by either House…Shall be fined under this title, imprisoned…”
“I don’t think enough people understand how much we have asked of the 1 percent of this country who put that uniform on, who are willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our nation,” Biden said today. He called his listeners back to President Abraham Lincoln’s defense of democracy at Gettysburg when he said: “As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice, it’s time to look to the future, not the past—to a future that’s safer, to a future that’s more secure, to a future that honors those who served and all those who gave what President Lincoln called their ‘last full measure of devotion.’”
America is in a watershed moment. Since the 1980s, the country has focused on individualism: the idea that the expansion of the federal government after the Depression in the 1930s created a form of collectivism that we must destroy by cutting taxes and slashing regulation to leave individuals free to do as they wish.
Domestically, that ideology meant dismantling government regulation, social safety networks, and public infrastructure projects. Internationally, it meant a form of “cowboy diplomacy” in which the U.S. usually acted on its own to rebuild nations in our image.
Now, President Joe Biden appears to be trying to bring back a focus on the common good.
For all that Republicans today insist that individualism is the heart of Americanism, in fact the history of federal protection of the common good began in the 1860s with their own ancestors, led by Abraham Lincoln, who wrote: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”
The contrast between these two ideologies has been stark this week.
On the one hand are those who insist that the government cannot limit an individual’s rights by mandating either masks or vaccines, even in the face of the deadly Delta variant of the coronavirus that is, once again, taking more than 1000 American lives a day.
In New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has required teachers to be vaccinated, the city’s largest police union has said it will sue if a vaccine is mandated for its members.
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott on Wednesday issued an executive order prohibiting any government office or any private entity receiving government funds from requiring vaccines.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has also forbidden mask mandates, but today Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper ruled that DeSantis’s order is unconstitutional. Cooper pointed out that in 1914 and 1939, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that individual rights take a back seat to public safety: individuals can drink alcohol, for example, but not drive drunk. DeSantis was scathing of the opinion and has vowed to appeal. Meanwhile, NBC News reported this week that information about the coronavirus in Florida, as well as Georgia, is no longer easily available on government websites.
On the other hand, as predicted, the full approval of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration has prompted a flood of vaccine mandates.
The investigation into the events of January 6, when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, also showcases the tension between individualism and community.
Yesterday, after months in which Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, called for the release of the identity of the officer who shot Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt, Capitol Police officer Lieutenant Michael Byrd, the 28-year veteran of the force who shot Babbitt, gave an interview to Lester Holt of NBC News.
Right-wing activists have called Babbitt a martyr murdered by the government, but Byrd explained that he was responsible for protecting 60 to 80 members of the House and their staffers. As rioters smashed the glass doors leading into the House chamber, Byrd repeatedly called for them to get back. When Ashli Babbitt climbed through the broken door, he shot her in the shoulder. She later died from her injuries. Byrd said he was doing his job to protect our government. “I know that day I saved countless lives,” Byrd told Holt. “I know members of Congress, as well as my fellow officers and staff, were in jeopardy and in serious danger. And that’s my job.”
The conflict between individualism and society also became clear today as the House select committee looking into the attack asked social media giants to turn over “all reviews, studies, reports, data, analyses, and communications” they had gathered about disinformation distributed by both foreign and domestic actors, as well as information about “domestic violent extremists” who participated in the attack.
Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) immediately responded that “Congress has no general power to inquire into private affairs and to compel disclosure….” He urged telecommunications companies and Facebook not to hand over any materials, calling their effort an “authoritarian undertaking.” Banks told Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson that Republicans should punish every lawmaker investigating the January 6 insurrection if they retake control of Congress in 2022.
Biden’s new turn is especially obvious tonight in international affairs. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a country we entered almost 20 years ago with a clear mission that became muddied almost immediately, has sparked Republican criticism for what many describe as a U.S. defeat.
Since he took office, Biden has insisted on shifting American foreign policy away from U.S. troops alone on the ground toward multilateral pressure using finances and technology.
After yesterday’s bombing in Kabul took the lives of 160 Afghans and 13 American military personnel, Biden warned ISIS-K: “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Tonight, a new warning from the State Department warning Americans at the gates of the Kabul airport to “leave immediately” came just before a spokesman for CENTCOM, the United States Central Command in the Defense Department overseeing the Middle East, announced: “U.S. military forces conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner. The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan. Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”
Biden’s strike on ISIS-K demonstrated the nation’s over-the-horizon technologies that he hopes will replace troops. Even still, the administration continues to call for international cooperation. In a press conference today, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby responded to a question about U.S. control in Afghanistan by saying: “It’s not about U.S. control in the Indo-Pacific. It’s about protecting our country from threats and challenges that emanate from that part of the world. And it’s about revitalizing our network of alliances and partnerships to help our partners in the international community do the same.“
Meanwhile, this afternoon, news broke that the Taliban has asked the United States to keep a diplomatic presence in the country even after it ends its military mission. The Taliban continues to hope for international recognition, in part to claw back some of the aid that western countries—especially the U.S.—will no longer provide, as well as to try to get the country’s billions in assets unfrozen.
A continued diplomatic presence in Afghanistan would make it easier to continue to get allies and U.S. citizens out of the country, but State Department spokesman Ned Price said the idea is a nonstarter unless a future Afghan government protects the rights of its citizens, including its women, and refuses to harbor terrorists. Price also emphasized that the U.S. would not make this decision without consulting allies. “This is not just a discussion the United States will have to decide for itself.… We are coordinating with our international partners, again to share ideas, to ensure that we are sending the appropriate signals and messages to the Taliban,” he said.
Evacuations from Afghanistan continue. Since August 14, they have topped 110,000, with 12,500 people in the last 24 hours.
Perhaps the news story that best illustrates the tension today between individualism and using the government to help everyone is about a natural disaster. Hurricane Ida, which formed in the Caribbean yesterday, is barreling toward the U.S. Gulf Coast. When it hit western Cuba today, it was a Category 1 storm, but meteorologists expect it to pick up speed as it crosses the warm gulf, becoming a Category 4 storm by the time it hits the U.S. coastline. The area from Louisiana to Florida is in the storm’s path. New Orleans could see winds of up to 110 miles an hour and a storm surge of as much as 11 feet. Louisiana officials issued evacuation orders today.
The storm is expected to hit Sunday evening, exactly 16 years after Hurricane Katrina did. But this time, there is another compilation: this is the very part of the country suffering terribly right now from coronavirus. Standing firm on individual rights, only about 40% of Louisiana’s population has been vaccinated, and hospitals are already stretched thin.
Today, President Biden declared an emergency in Louisiana, ordering federal assistance from the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the region ahead of the storm, trying to head off a catastrophe. The federal government will also help to pay the costs of the emergency.
It is still early days, and the picture of what is happening in Afghanistan now that the Taliban has regained control of the country continues to develop.
Central to affairs there is money. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with about half its population requiring humanitarian aid this year and about 90% of its people living below the poverty line of making $2 a day.
The country depends on foreign aid. Under the U.S.-supported Afghan government, the United States and other nations funded about 80% of Afghanistan’s budget. In 2020, foreign aid made up about 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP (the GDP, or gross domestic product, is the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in a country), down from 100% of it in 2009.
This is a huge problem for the Taliban, because their takeover of the country means that the money the country so desperately needs has dried up. The U.S. has frozen billions of dollars of Afghan government money held here in the U.S. The European Union and Germany have also suspended their financial support for the country, and today the International Monetary Fund blocked Afghanistan’s access to $460 million in currency reserves.
Adam M. Smith, who served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, told Jeff Stein of the Washington Post that the financial squeeze is potentially “cataclysmic for Afghanistan.” It threatens to spark a humanitarian crisis that, in turn, will create a refugee crisis in central Asia. Already, the fighting in the last eight months has displaced more than half a million Afghans.
People fleeing from the Taliban threaten to destabilize the region more generally. While Russia was happy to support the Taliban in a war against the U.S., now that its fighters are in charge of the country, Russia needs to keep the Taliban’s extremism from spreading to other countries in the area. So it is tentatively saying supportive things about the Taliban, but it is also stepping up its protection of neighboring countries’ borders with Afghanistan. Other countries are also leery of refugees in the region: large numbers of refugees have, in the past, led countries to turn against immigrants, giving a leg up to right-wing governments.
Canada and Britain are each taking an additional 20,000 Afghan women leaders, reporters, LGBTQ people, and human rights workers on top of those they have already volunteered to take, but Turkey—which is governed by strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan—is building a wall to block refugees, and French President Emmanuel Macron asked officials in Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey to prevent migrants reaching their countries from traveling any further. The European Union has asked its member states to take more Afghan refugees.
In the U.S., the question of Afghan refugees is splitting the Republican Party, with about 30% of it following the hard anti-immigrant line of former president Donald Trump. Others, though, especially those whose districts include military installations, are saying they welcome our Afghan allies.
The people fleeing the country also present a problem for those now in control of Afghanistan. The idea that people are terrified of their rule is a foreign relations nightmare, at the same time that those leaving are the ones most likely to have the skills necessary to help govern the country. But leaders can’t really stop the outward flow—at least immediately—because they do not want to antagonize the international community so thoroughly that it continues to withhold the financial aid the country so badly needs. So, while on the streets, Taliban fighters are harassing Afghans who are trying to get away, Taliban leaders are saying they will permit people to evacuate, that they will offer blanket amnesty to those who opposed them, and also that they will defend some rights for women and girls.
The Biden administration is sending more personnel to help evacuate those who want to leave. The president has promised to evacuate all Americans in the country—as many as 15,000 people—but said only that we would evacuate as many of the estimated 65,000 Afghans who want to leave as possible. The Taliban has put up checkpoints on the roads to the airport and are not permitting everyone to pass. U.S. military leaders say they will be able to evacuate between 5000 and 9000 people a day.
Today, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley tried to explain the frantic rush to evacuate people from Afghanistan to reporters by saying: “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.” Maybe. But military analyst Jason Dempsey condemned the whole U.S. military project in Afghanistan when he told NPR’s Don Gonyea that the collapse of the Afghan government showed that the U.S. had fundamentally misunderstood the people of Afghanistan and had tried to impose a military system that simply made no sense for a society based in patronage networks and family relationships.
Even with Dempsey’s likely accurate assessment, the statement that U.S. military intelligence missed that a 300,000 person army was going to melt away still seems to me astonishing. Still, foreign policy and national security policy analyst Dr. John Gans of the University of Pennsylvania speculated on Twitter that such a lapse might be more “normal”—his word and quotation marks—than it seems, reflecting the slips possible in government bureaucracy. He points out that the Department of Defense has largely controlled Afghanistan and the way the U.S. involvement there was handled in Washington. But with the end of the military mission, the Defense Department was eager to hand off responsibility to the State Department, which was badly weakened under the previous administration and has not yet rebuilt fully enough to handle what was clearly a complicated handoff. “There have not been many transitions between an American war & an American diplomatic relationship with a sovereign, friendly country,” Gans wrote. “Fewer still when the friendly regime disintegrates so quickly.” When things started to go wrong, they snowballed.
And yet, the media portrayal of our withdrawal as a catastrophe also seems to me surprising. To date, at least as far as I have seen, there have been no reports of such atrocities as the top American diplomat in Syria reported in the chaos when the U.S. pulled out of northern Syria in 2019. Violence against our Kurdish allies there was widely expected and it indeed occurred. In a memo made public in November of that year, Ambassador William V. Roebuck wrote that “Islamist groups” paid by Turkey were deliberately engaged in ethnic cleansing of Kurds, and were committing “widely publicized, fear-inducing atrocities” even while “our military forces and diplomats were on the ground.” The memo continued: “The Turkey operation damaged our regional and international credibility and has significantly destabilized northeastern Syria.”
Reports of that ethnic cleansing in the wake of our withdrawal seemed to get very little media attention in 2019, perhaps because the former president’s first impeachment inquiry took up all the oxygen. But it strikes me that the sensibility of Roebuck’s memo is now being read onto our withdrawal from Afghanistan although conditions there are not—yet—like that.
For now, it seems, the drive to keep the door open for foreign money is reining in Taliban extremism. That caution seems unlikely to last forever, but it might hold for long enough to complete an evacuation.
Much is still unclear and the situation is changing rapidly, but my guess is that keeping an eye on the money will be crucial for understanding how this plays out.
Meanwhile, the former president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has surfaced in the United Arab Emirates. He denies early reports that he fled the country with suitcases full of cash.
GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR
We break down myths about “the unvaccinated” vs the anti-vaxxer propagandists and discuss the institutional distrust that have made a diverse crowd of Americans hesitant about the vaccine. We go through twenty years of horrific policy decisions that enabled a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, wasted trillions of tax dollars, and led to war crimes and tens of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties. And we end with hopeful words from our December 2019 interview with Congresswoman Barbara Lee.