Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Narratology: Something Much Worse

I can't get over the videos of these Taliban fighters as ridiculous country boys. Sure they're woman-hating murderers, but so were the kids the US sent to Vietnam to take orders from Lieutenant Calley. Who's a bad guy? Think about it.

What actually happened, on the American side, is now getting a good deal clearer, thanks to the brilliant folks at Just Security and retired CIA analyst Douglas London, who has given them a statement ("Afghanistan, not an intelligence failure but something much worse") based on his own work as counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia in 2018-19 and as a Biden volunteer in 2020:

By early 2018, it was clear President Trump wanted out of Afghanistan regardless of the alarming outcomes the intelligence community cautioned. But he likewise did not want to preside over the nightmarish scenes we’ve witnessed. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the principal architect of America’s engagement with the Taliban that culminated with the catastrophic February 2020 withdrawal agreement, terms intended to get the president through the coming elections. Pompeo championed the plan despite the intelligence community’s caution that its two key objectives– securing the Taliban’s commitment to break with al-Qa’ida and pursue a peaceful resolution to the conflict — were highly unlikely.

America’s special representative, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, was a private citizen dabbling on his own in 2018 with a variety of dubious Afghan interlocutors against whom the intelligence community warned, trying opportunistically to get “back inside.” Undaunted, his end-around to Pompeo and the White House pledging to secure the deal Trump needed which the president’s own intelligence, military and diplomatic professionals claimed was not possible absent a position of greater strength, was enthusiastically received. Our impression was that Khalilzad was angling to be Trump’s Secretary of State in a new administration, were he to win, and would essentially do or say what he was told to secure his future by pleasing the mercurial president, including his steady compromise of whatever leverage the United States had to incentivize Taliban compromises. (h/t djchefron)

As in other cases, it was the announcement Trump wanted, not the thing itself, and he wanted it in the early part of the presidential campaign—for the presidential campaign. 

The thing itself, the protected withdrawal of US troops and the Taliban carrying out its part of the deal, would be better timed after the election, obviously, in other words too late to affect the vote. If it led to mayhem and chaos and a swift Taliban takeover, too bad, or he could always allow the generals to talk him into backing out of the deal, putting 8,000 troops back in country as the Taliban attacks on them resumed, so be it. It was the election that mattered.

For Khalilzad, too, it could go either way. A wily hegemonist who had signed the PNAC and served as W. Bush's point man on Afghanistan and Iraq both, he had designed a plan to defeat the Taliban months before the 9/11 attacks

"The United States must act now to weaken the Taliban and stem the spread of Talibanism"[12] - June, 2001

"Washington should

  1. change the balance of power by offering assistance to the foes of the Taliban;
  2. oppose the Taliban ideology--giving air time over the Voice of America to Taliban opponents and moderate Islamic leaders;
  3. press Pakistan to withdraw its support;
  4. aid victims of the Taliban;
  5. support moderate Afghans through helping to convene a grand assembly to select a broad transitional government; and
  6. elevate the importance of Afghanistan at home."[9] - June, 2001

and helped put it into action after 9/11, while Americans were being told the only purpose of our Afghanistan incursion was to cripple al-Qa'eda—Khalilzad was in the mix working to turn that into a classic (and classically unworkable) counterinsurgency effort. But he also, unquestionably, as ambassador to Iraq from 2005 and UN ambassador from 2007,  helped W. climb down from the neoconservative crazy of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bolton era.

Anyway, that was the Trump plan, to get a deal, as they did in February 2020, and leave the consequences—the worst feature of the agreement being that it gave the US no leverage to force the Taliban to live up to its terms—for later.

Biden's approach as a candidate was also a gamble, but rooted in a desire to do the right thing—he'd wanted to end the Afghanistan imbroglio for a long time, as he's told us, since trying to persuade Obama to get out in 2009—and evidence leading to conclusions with which London happens to disagree:

There was a rather naïve confidence among Biden’s more influential foreign policy advisors that the Taliban’s best interests were served by adhering to the agreement’s main points. Doing so, they argued, would guarantee the U.S. withdrawal, and leave room for more constructive engagement, possibly even aid, should the Taliban come to power. The Taliban learned a great deal about the utility of PR since 2001, and maximized their access to Western media as highlighted by Taliban deputy and Haqqani Taliban Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani’s apparently ghost written New York Times OpEd. The reality, of course, as the intelligence community long maintained, was that the Taliban’s control over the country was predicated on isolation from the rest of the world, rather than integration. International recognition, global financial access, and foreign aid were not going to influence how the Taliban would rule.

I'm not convinced that that even makes sense. If they weren't interested in international recognition, global financial access, and foreign aid, why were they bothering with the PR?  Why were they having their English-language spokesman broadcasting their promises for a new approach

“We are going to allow women to work and study. We have got frameworks, of course. Women are going to be very active in the society but within the framework of Islam,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman, said at a press conference in Kabul on Tuesday....

“We are committed to the media within our cultural frameworks. Private media can continue to be free and independent. They can continue their activities,” he said.

He also said the group has no plans to enter the homes of people or carry out retaliatory attacks on anyone who served in the previous governments, worked with foreigners or were part of the Afghan National Security Forces.

There have been unconfirmed reports of Taliban fighters entering the homes of Kabul residents, but Mujahid said those were impostors who should be turned over to the Taliban and face appropriate punishment.

There's no reason to suppose they have suddenly become nice people—though, just as most Afghans in general are too young to remember the atrocious Taliban rule of 1997-2001, so are most Taliban, and they're other people than they were back then. But there is reason to suppose they recognize that the international enmity they aroused back then—not just from NATO but more saliently from Iran and Russia through Tajikistan and China, all of which quietly accepted the NATO action because of the instability the Taliban represented (China really afraid they'd be setting up training camps for insurgent Uyghurs) and in some degree sponsored resistance in north and west, and impatience even from Pakistan and the paymasters in Saudi Arabia. They do need investment—That's what their ongoing diplomatic activity is plainly about, I"m sure they are discussing Belt and Road projects with China and fuel assistance with Iran and Russia, and they're plainly trying to look nice. Which is sometimes enough.

And indeed it really doesn't look as bad as it was originally  Kevin Drum turns out to be right, and there isn't a bloodbath in Afghanistan at all, at least for the moment:

Even given all our mistakes, did the events of the past couple of days have to be so horrific? My answer might surprise you: they haven't been. I'm speaking relatively, of course, but the truth is that I expected worse. I wouldn't have been surprised to see something like Fallujah on steroids: bodies hanging from bridges, lines of "traitors" being shot, Taliban fighters surrounding American forces, and so forth. But so far, we haven't seen that. The Taliban takeover has been far smoother and less vicious than I expected.

We've heard meta-reports of reports of the conquering army doing very bad things ("we're hearing reports of soldiers going from house to house looking for people who served Americans as interpreters", "we're hearing reports of young girls being married off against their will"), but none of the reports that are being meta-reported. They've contributed to the awful panic at Kabul Airport, which now seems to have calmed down considerably itself, as regular flights take off and people who thought they were witnessing last chance in Saigon realize that they're going to get out eventually, but they've remained rumors.

The "way Biden did it" may not have been that bad at all. That he did it at all—that he honored the terms of the Trump-Pompeo deal as the last best chance of getting out of the pointless 20-year war—is important, in any case, but the "chaos" is nowhere near as awful as it was looking as recently as Monday

The Taliban may may not have become nice, but they only need to look nice, and only for a while—for that window of time the West needs to extricate the key endangered people from Kabul. 

Or Kabul, Herat, and Mazar, as the extraordinary Sarah Chayes was saying the other day on the radio, confirming my view that the problems of a pretty small number of urban Afghans are things we can deal with in that way, while there's nothing we can do about the problems of the vast majority, especially women, aren't, since the Taliban has nothing to do with them, and they haven't changed at all since 2001. You must listen to this to get an understanding of how little there really is to rescue.

Chayes also has some extremely harsh and I'm afraid justified things to say about Biden, and his contempt for the Afghans who "refused to fight" as if there was some reason every Afghan should be anxious to die for the Americans' nation-building project—and failure to distinguish between the wealthy, privileged, and mostly deeply corrupt men who did the surrendering and the poor everybody who serve as the grass when elephants are fighting and merely get trampled no matter who wins. But that doesn't stop her from agreeing with the decision to pull out. As she told another interviewer last week,

I was hearing complaints by 2002 about the behavior of the officials of the government that we were supporting wearing, you know, U.S.-branded clothes, if you will. And that never changed. It got worse and worse to the point that by, you know, 2006 or '07, when I lived in downtown Kandahar and spoke Pashto, so Afghans could - and had no guards or anything around my house so Afghans could come and visit me. And I would get delegation after delegation of elders, you know, explaining that, for example, the Taliban shake us down at night and the government shakes us down in the daytime.

And so my question is, what democracy did we bring to Afghanistan, you know? Meanwhile, we're building a banking system during the very same years that we were incubating, you know, the crash of 2008. By 2010, the Afghan banking system crashed because it was a Ponzi scheme. And so I think the painful thing I have to ask myself is American democracy - is that what we brought or is cronyism, you know, systemic corruption, you know, basically a governmental system where billionaires get to write the rules - is that, in fact, American democracy as we are now experiencing it?

Biden's instinct on that was right, regardless. He is taking responsibility in a way Trump or that monster Pompeo wouldn't even dream of, but his gamble may have paid off; we may be able to rescue those people our departure is hurting the most. And he wasn't exactly lying: intelligence did consider the possibility of a rapid Taliban takeover, but he truly didn't anticipate that it would happen, Most important, the American project wasn't, on the whole, doing any good. It was nurturing a tiny urban upper class, some of whom became lovely and kind campaigners for human rights or brave and generous participants in a well-meant but ill-conceived military plan, others monsters of corruption and violence counteracting all the good, but no nation was ever getting built by this technique.


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