Watching My Government Fail
I had several other posts in various stages of finishedness, but I just can’t. I can’t because I have trouble moving on from the one thing on my mind right now – the disaster in Afghanistan that is unfolding before our eyes in real time.
I have been quite successful at staying away from politics in this space for quite awhile now, and I intend to do my best on that score today. I am filled with a combination of sorrow, anxiety and anger. Yes, anger. Some of the reasons for these feelings are, in no particular order, noted below.
We in the US spend a lot of time discussing things that the Federal Government should (or should not) be doing. But when it comes down to it, isn’t there really only one job that is uniquely in the Federal Government’s zone of authority? Yes, that would be the defense of the citizenry. We have a military and we have people in top jobs who are dedicated to dealing with the things that military does. As is commonly said today, “You had one job . . . .”
I am not getting into why we went there, which Administrations took us there and kept us there, and which Administrations made decisions on leaving. What I am getting into is this one question: Who thought it was a good idea to spend the last six months closing down our military presence there while NOT getting American civilians out?
I have no idea how many civilians are in that country (but not on the grounds of the airport which is the single place the military now controls). Actually, I wonder if anybody knows – there are reports that it is in the five figures, but we cannot know if this is accurate. When the Titanic went down, it was reported that women and children were the first ones put on the lifeboats. Wouldn’t a modern analog lead to civilians being ushered out before the military leaves?
It is all a big swirl in my head from the last few days, but it is my understanding that it boils down to this: a) Americans are peppered all over Afghanistan, b) that they are being told to get themselves to the airport, c) the U.S. Government lacks the ability to get them there or to assure their safety along the way. Oh, and this last one is just fab: I am now aware of a report that citizens are being told that if they make it into the airport and onto a plane, that THEY ARE GOING TO HAVE TO SIGN A FOUR FIGURE PROMISSORY NOTE TO PAY FOR THEIR EVACUATION FLIGHT. Yes, I was indeed yelling. And I am not making this up – here is the link.
It is hard right now to imagine any outcomes that are not bad. They are a) Americans killed by the Taliban on the way to the airport, b) Americans being held hostage before being allowed to get to the airport; c) American hostages being assisted by Russian and Chinese governments at what are sure to be incredibly high extortion-level costs to the U.S., or d) You fill in the blank. Because I don’t think d) is going to be “every American in Afghanistan will land safely at a U.S. air base in the next ten days.
And remember the whole reason for this affair? That we are removing our last 2,500 troops from that country? We have not even accomplished that, now that forces are back up to a level of maybe three times that (although not, apparently, at a level that allows for extracting American citizens).
None of this is, apparently, the fault of anyone who has any responsibility for anything. Is it an intelligence failure? A military planning failure? A civilian authority failure? Guess what boys and girls – It. Doesn’t. Matter. Who among the readers of this blog would not be unceremoniously fired for misleading superiors or for either being so dense as to not understand your job or for lying about what is really happening.
When my children were young and when unpleasant things happened to them, they would often complain about those things. I tried to get them into the habit of asking themselves a question: “Was there anything I could have done that might have made things work out differently?” In all the briefings of all the officials and all the spokespeople, I have not heard any evidence whatsoever that anyone involved in this entire debacle has asked him (or her) self that question, or one even remotely like it. This has probably been the single thing that tweaks me the most. Nobody has been willing to stand up, look us in the eye, and say “I/we messed up, and here’s how we will try to fix it.” Nope. This is evidently (from what we are being told) a minor problem that was surely inevitable. I am not buying.
Yes, this has been a rant. No, I do not expect it to accomplish anything. And, sadly, I do not feel one whit better. I can be pretty tolerant of poorly executed government functions. In fact, isn’t that an oxymoron? But when the execution of CRITICAL FIRST TIER government functions gets Americans killed, I lose all patience. We are not to that point yet. I hope we don’t get there and I can come back and offer a “Good Save” to Team Helpless – I really do.
I am old enough to have been in college when the Iranians took 52 American hostages during Jimmy Carter’s administration. I have seen incompetence. I know what it looks like. Or at least I thought I did.
In 1571, a vastly outnumbered naval force of Christian sailors engaged in the last large scale naval battle using oars against a fleet of Ottoman ships. The weather favored the Turks in the morning, but by the end of the day the western force routed the Islamic aggressors. In Catholic circles, it is know that Pope St. Pius V (a Dominican) prayed a rosary throughout the time of the battle. Thereafter, he attributed victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Perhaps Pius V shows us today the way to actually accomplish something (which a rant like this cannot.) Sometimes there is no substitute for prayer. The governmental housecleaning can come later after our at-risk citizens are safely home.
Hi Jim, I’ll be the contrarian this time. For me this issue comes down to choice, American (and Canadian) civilians currently in Afghanistan had a choice to be there, and to remain. I don’t think anyone had much hope for the long term trajectory of the country with the drawdown of troops, and the speed of the Taliban offensive was certainly a shock, but it started over three months ago. That’s a bit of time to consider your options, the state department warning to leave as soon as possible went up June 28.
The primary mandate of the defense department is to defend the country, not to pluck civilians in danger from far flung locales. We had a scandal in 2006 when the federal government spent $85 million to evacuate 15,000 Canadians from Lebanon. 7,000 were back in Lebanon within a month when hostilities ended, giving rise to the term “Canadians of Convenience”. And they should get a bill, if someone airlifted me and my family from certain death then gave me a bill afterwards, I’d happily pay it. Hasn’t happened yet but you can fact check me if it ever does.
I sure hope everyone can make it out, but I feel worse for families who had a loved one killed or maimed serving in Afghanistan. How do they now rationalize their sacrifice? Or those who worked with the westerners and now face the wrath of the Taliban. I guess they had a choice too, but they made it years ago and there’s no sure escape now.
Rage is destructive and not very useful. There seems to be quite a bit of it served up these days, we should always consider our news diet and try to be cognizant of what we’re being fed.
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All good thoughts, and I have made some edits because I agree that the term “rage” is not appropriate in even these circumstances.
There is plenty of misery to go around – there are reports of Taliban examining cell phones of Afghanis and if there is a Bible app on it, a summary execution follows. There is no evidence that foreign citizens will receive that treatment, but we are talking about the Taliban here – whose on-site leader enjoyed an extended stay at the Guantanamo Spa and Resort, fully comped by the USA. I cannot imagine that he is all too kindly disposed towards the US and its people. We are all infidels, but I imagine that some infidels are worse than others in their eyes.
You make a reasonable point that warnings were up for six weeks or so, but I think there is a big difference between “the situation is deteriorating and you should leave” and “Drop what you’re doing and make tracks for the airport because we cannot guarantee your safety a week from today.” I could see where a small percentage would ignore serious warnings, but numbers of the stranded as large as these suggest that any warnings lacked the necessary context of urgency. Kind of like the warnings that fill the book that came with your new lawnmower.
I truly hope that there is a genuine inquiry into how this happened. And you are right that we have been sucked so deeply into partisan divisions that there is a great temptation to remain in our trenches as we lob invective at the other side. But I am trying to not go there – the intelligence community is not partisan, and neither is the military, at least in a strict sense. The career officials in the State Department and other agencies are not either – at least that is the theory. And this whole operation seems to have been conducted without the kind of cooperation among allies that had marked most of the Afghanistan conflict. I don’t know if it was a failure of political people, institutional people, or both. But it is certainly a failure, and an ugly one.
Last week I finished reading a pair of books about the Revolutionary War in the United States. The one big takeaway from the books was the English should have easily had the upper hand, however there existed a toxic combination of arrogance and incompetence in multiple levels of English leadership, primarily from King George and his cronies in London. The English, in addition to grossly underestimating the determination of their adversary, thought they were too smart to make any mistakes and any mistakes were due to the actions of others.
We all know how that turned out.
It seems time has not diminished the incapability of those in leadership positions to see how such a toxic combination always yields the same outcome.
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There is truly no combination worse than ignorance and arrogance.
All of this is very regrettable.
My extended family has been touched by this conflict – my cousin’s grandson was in the US Army and his chopper was shot down by the Taliban. He suffered innumerable injuries, and will never be the same. He was one of only 3 of 18 on board who survived the crash.
The path forward for Afghanistan, and Americans and Canadians there, is even less clear. So sad.
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I understand the arguments for why we all went there and why we all stayed. And I understand the arguments pro and con for getting out. Sadly, the costs are always paid by individuals and families however it goes, as you have shared.
If the headlines are to be believed, the swiftness with which the Taliban reasserted its authority was shocking. It’s as if the U.S. established a “temporary” twenty-year presence in this country without being the catalyst to any real progress. I know that’s not true – the lack of progress – but I have to wonder where the U.S. fell short in leaving Afghans ill-prepared for the return of the Taliban. Did we need forty years instead of twenty? Am I naive to assume Afghan citizens and their military should’ve had the training and leadership necessary to stand up to the Taliban? Echoes of Vietnam…
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I have read a lot on this, and some of it says that the Afghan Army was never built as a stand-alone unit, but one that operated under air cover and with support of NATO forces. But others may know better on this. I have also read opinions that Afghanistan was poor soil for trying to grow a cohesive, national government because that’s just not how that collection of regional extended tribes and clans has operated through history. I have been a little amazed at the way NATO allies have excoriated the US in this operation and for these choices. If reports about how they were not consulted are true, their anger is understandable.
J.P., having lived in D.C. for a while, and having extended relatives that have “worked for the government”, let me just say there are zero simple answers and none of us will ever understand. I can tell you that the intractability of a certain type of government employee when it comes to helping the poor people of (insert country here), and the Pollyanna viewpoint of those government employees, is at many times, unbelievable! Do a deep dive into the last days of Vietnam (on documentary film) and watch the ridiculous U.S. ambassador and his behavior and inability to parse the information being given by his subordinates (under the guise of ‘saving face’), and you’ll start to get an idea of what the attitudes of those old multigenerational “Harvard/Yale” clubby school boys in “public service” are all about. There’s still a vestige of those folks ensconced in D.C.
Everyone knew what was going to happen, and how fast it was going to happen, but whether or not that information was being given to the seniors in charge, and being transmitted with the gravitas needed, is questionable. Let me tell you, U.S. citizens on the ground there knew a looong time ago they needed to “bug out”. There were Jewish people that escaped Germany prior to Hitler taking over, and those that did not. I have no shame telling you that since the Reagan administration, and the end of the “American Century”, I’ve been fingering my check-book and staring towards New Zealand myself.
I bear no ill will against Biden, he’s absolutely correct that the U.S. should not be involved in other nations civil wars. Ever. 20 years of training and spending literally trillions to have the senior government flee the country (after wildly enriching themselves) and the local 300,000 soldiers throw down their weapons and flee. Wasted American money, resources, and lives. How would we feel if the French had decided to back the south during our civil war and landed troops? We are only in the Middle East because of oil, and if we hadn’t been there for years, accessing the natural resources, we may have never built up the level of resentment that they have for us. Nobody’s flying planes into the C&N Tower in Toronto. If you haven’t read about the 150 years the U.S. (and U.S. businesses) have been “government-mauling” in Central and South America, you’ve wasted part of your college education. My father, who we used to call a “cloth coat” republican, was heavily wounded in Guadalcanal in hand-to-hand combat; and he fully expected if I was drafted in Vietnam, to go to Canada! He didn’t want his kid dying defending Du Ponts rubber plants, and the insanity of McNamara!
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On your first point, I agree completely. I recently read a book about Thomas Sowell, the economist and author. The thing that turned him from being a socialist to a conservative was a year or so working for the Federal government. He observed that everyone there had his or her own agenda, which often had little to do with the agency’s stated agenda of helping the poor.
I see your point on the civilians there, but as I noted with DougD, there is a big difference between “this is a bad neighborhood that is getting worse, and you would be wise to leave” and “The Taliban is outside”. Time will tell, but since writing this I have heard reports of a diplomatic “dissent” being filed by those there, which urged a re-thinking. And yes, some Jews got out before Hitler, but those that stayed were not in a country controlled by a friendly government until a week before they were rounded up.
It is an ugly situation. It might have been this ugly had Trump been in charge, but we will never know. It will eventually come out how we got here. Personally, none of the people acting as spokespeople are leaving me with much reason to relax knowing that things are in good hands.
I guess what I’m really saying is that until we get a handle on the madness here, the U.S. should start thinking about being “old fashioned” pre-WWI isolationist! When I think about what could have been done here with the trillion plus spent there over 20 years, well…just think…
I remember reading an in-depth long form article, not that long ago, on how the Chinese are funding electrics and solar, and I believe the author said: “…this is a Pearl Harbor moment for America and no one gets it…”. Then the last administration went double down on funding coal…sheesh J.P., what’s going to happen?
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An interesting post and discussion JP. The bungled evacuation situation will definitely be a stain on Biden’s presidency……whatever the reasons it happened….but does any government ever admit that they screwed up? Not in my recollection.
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I don’t expect people to say “I failed” to the cameras but it is common to at least acknowledge the real world. When foreign leaders and normally friendly news sources are calling this a debacle of historic proportions, I would expect an acknowledgement that those things are being said when reporters are asking those specific questions. This piece went to bed Thursday evening and now 3 more days have passed. Is anyone starting to think this is under control yet? Or have faith that we are turning a corner?
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There’s a lot to sort through with this. The simplest explanation for why so many Americans were not evacuated earlier is that Biden and co. really didn’t believe the Taliban would completely over run everything as fast as they did (though evidently now it’s coming out that Biden supposedly was warned about this possibility); and their reluctance to escalate the situation any further reduces the options for getting Americans out.
I have heard speculation that part of getting Americans out may involve us bribing the Taliban with billions dollars to ensure safe passage. Combined with the billions worth of equipment they seized, this will be an a truly humiliating tragedy of the US having funded one of the worst regimes on the planet.
While withdrawal from Afghanistan has been an idea with strong bipartisan support for some time. Obama wanted it; Trump made a deal with the Taliban for it; and Biden, who chose to keep Trump’s deal, is now seeing it through to disastrous ends. Like a lot of people, I believed, that withdrawal was the only real option; it was just a question of when we did it. It was only this past week that I came upon Dan Crenshaw’s alternative position that the best long term solution for Afghanistan was to continue keeping a few thousand American troops over there (as we do in many countries) and assist the Afghan military in keeping the Taliban at bay. There would have been no real end day for this; like pulling weeds from a garden, it would be continuous maintenance; but it would have been a much smaller year-to-year effort than what we were doing at the height of our involvement in the country. And if that prevented a disaster like what we are seeing now, kept Afghanistan from once again becoming a harbor of terrorism that could result in another 9/11, and stopped our enemies from exploiting this new situation to their own gain; I am beginning to think we should have more strongly considered that option.
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Also, sorry for the bad grammar in that post. There really needs to be a way to edit comments on this.
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Yes, that’s a tough question, to leave or to permanently establish NATO East (which most would still call Afghanistan).
As of this morning (Monday), a lot of the “talking heads” are lamenting the idea that somehow the Biden administration has “given” the terrorist an entire country to use to foment their plans; but no one takes over an entire country in that amount of time without the tacit agreement of a large amount of the population. 300,000 people in the army dropping their weapons and walking off means that they either didn’t care, or couldn’t be bothered, or that a vast amount of the population was just without a moral conviction anyway. Time to reread T.E. Lawrence on the Arab mindset. BTW, for those with short memories, Afghanistan WAS Russia’s Vietnam, and the U.S. was surreptitiously supplying a lot of the ordinance to the mujahedeen!
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I think that may have been the great conceit, that the US efforts were geared towards replacing what was there with what they saw as a functional western democracy. It’s like saying you want to revitalize a small town and instead of putting effort into the institutions that are there, someone builds a Wal-Mart and a McDonalds out by the highway. The more I read, the whole effort (from a military not designed to operate without help to a civil society that was not receptive to western-style secular liberalism) was doomed. Really, flying gay pride flags at the embassy in a muslim country? It may be how we roll here, but it is not how they roll there, and such an ostentatious display was like sticking our thumbs into the eyes of the locals. We played our hand there quite badly.
It was the mujahedeen who drove the Russian army out, not an “Afghan military”. Over the weekend I read that one of those indigenous clans drove the Taliban out of two or three provinces. It is not surprising to me that those soldiers of the “Afghan military” headed back to their tribes where any real fighting will be done (if it is to be done at all). Those on the inside surely saw that the Afghan military had a shelf life akin to unrefrigerated milk once NATO was gone.
It is interesting how “we should have stayed” has been gaining a lot of traction in the media discussions. Personally, I can see both sides of that argument and I don’t really like either answer. What I have found more interesting is wider talk of the President’s cognitive condition being seen outside of the usual places. When the British are calling him “doolalley” (denied officially, of course) and even Tony Blair uses words like “imbicilic”, something is different here. One of the biggest raps on Trump was how the rest of the world (Europe particularly) viewed us as unstable and unreliable. This administration was supposed to be the antidote to that, but there have been (officially denied, again) comments from inside the British government that they would have been better off with Trump. I am starting to wonder if 25th Amendment talk is actually going to become something more than right wing delusion. Places like CNN, NYT and WaPo will be interesting to watch in the coming weeks to see if these topics disappear or if they pick up steam.
You bring up a very important point, J.P. and that this the conceit of the U.S. that everyone wants to be us! As an extensive European traveler, who knows a lot of people that are extensive Asian travelers, the idea that everyone is clamoring to be or get into the U.S. is, well… you are disabused of that position pretty quickly as you travel. I’ve been told more than once by people in other countries that the only people they’ve known that emigrated to the U.S., are either people that were unsuccessful and had zero options in their own country, or felt that they could make fantastic money co-opting something in the U.S. Otherwise, why would you give up a comfortable life-style with an insane amount of paid vacation and holidays, and better health care than the U.S. (at least in the educated world)? Of course, people in terrible parts of the world want to come here, mostly just to be left alone to work and have a family. When it comes to the Arab nations, it’s why I say maybe we need to reread T.E. Lawrence to understand the mindset. It’s another reason I promote pre-WWI style isolationism. You can bet that our military wouldn’t be there at all if there wasn’t some sort of misguided idea to stabilize the area and maintain cheap oil. A trillion dollars would have gone pretty far in getting me my nuclear powered flying car I was promised in grade school!
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