Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Encore Presentation: Embedding

Now we're beginning to see, thanks to Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon, that the awful decline in President Biden's approval numbers was caused neither by public indignation over inflation nor Fox News bogus preoccupation with the president's age, but mostly by our "liberal" media's insane rage over the withdrawal from Afghanistan, I felt like re-upping this post from when it was going on, trying to puzzle out what the journos were so outraged over:

... but even Bunch has the same objection to "how" Biden left as all the embeds have: why did Biden bet that the Afghan government would be able to hold out for four weeks, giving us enough time to get all the journalists' friends to safety, along with the American business community and the Afghan employees of the military? Why didn't he realize it would collapse in a week and start moving everybody out earlier?

To which there's one obvious answer, if you give it a little thought: the moving-out process was going to be a trigger for the collapse, as the White House was warned—if we'd started three weeks earlier, it would have happened three weeks earlier, with the same results. Or 12 years earlier, no doubt.

The journalists' personal involvement is really affecting their judgment.  For one thing, they don't seem able to digest the fact that the evacuation process has at least another 11 days to run, until 31 August and it's getting more efficient on a daily basis. Thus the latest "scandal", as Adam Silverman notes at Balloon Juice (essential reading):

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that two dozen or so State Department officers at the US Embassy in Kabul had written and transmitted a cable through the State Department’s dissent channel on 13 July warning that the Afghan government and military could collapse quickly after the US completed its withdrawal on 31 August 2021 leading to the Taliban quickly retaking control in Afghanistan and, as a result, evacuation operations should begin no later than 1 August. Everyone has latched on to this as evidence that the Biden administration, especially his national security principals, should have known that the Afghan government and military would collapse and the Taliban would quickly retake Afghanistan. As I type this David Ignatius is making this point on MSNBC. But there’s a chronological fallacy in this criticism. The dissent cable’s focus is on what might happen shortly after 31 August. Today is 20 August. Everything initially went sideways between 10 and 12 August, with the Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) beginning on 12 August. While what the Foreign Service officers in Kabul warned did happen, it happened almost three weeks before they had assessed that it would happen. It is important to note here that someone in the Biden administration took the dissent cable seriously because the day after it was transmitted, they announced Operation Allies Refuge, which is the name for NEO mission that is currently ongoing.

This is a non-controversy that a variety of pundits and reporters are trying to turn into a scandal. That President Biden and his team failed to heed the dissent cable and prevent the Afghan government and military from collapsing after 31 August. Which is eleven days from now! 

I felt really bad for The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins, on the radio, complaining that none of his friends have been evacuated yet, and they're all sending him texts and emails begging him to somehow help. But I don't know: today's official figures are that 2,500 Americans and 14,500 Afghans have been evacuated so far since 15 August, and if they keep up the same pace and proportion in the NEO through the end of the mission and rescue all 15,000 Americans reckoned to be stuck in Afghanistan, they'll have rescued well over 80,000 Afghans, so maybe it's not time for Filkins to despair just yet.

And then there's the nastier tone taken by NBC's Richard Engel, which got me unspeakably enraged:

No, really, negotiating with the winners of the war is exactly what we need to do, leveraging their need for outside money and assistance (particularly from Europe) against our need to get people out, There's a reason the Taliban leadership keeps making assurances on everything from keeping women civil servants at their jobs to allowing Afghan civilians passage to the airport, which is that it really benefits them, and will benefit them much more if they can manage to keep the promises. We should also recognize that it's not necessarily easy to keep the promises, because the Taliban is a pretty loose organization, representing a lot of different views, and there's a gulf between the practiced diplomat talking to the press in Doha and the 18-year-old with the Kalashnikov patrolling the street (and probably pretty frightened himself, of what will happen if the crowds start thinking of him as weak), and there are going to be errors and glitches, some of them tragic.

But they did win the war, and we need their help too, as much of it as we can get. When somebody does get hurt, or is left behind in Herat or jailed for nothing, there will be a tendency to blame it on Biden and his failure to get tough with the enemy, but I'm afraid there's no possible approach that wouldn't be worse.

The embedding of journalists, even journalists as smart as Filkins, has broader consequences, as Josh Marshall argues in this important post ("The Fall of Kabul, Washington, and the Guys at the Fancy Magazines"), :

official DC, which means the city’s elite national political press, was deeply bought in. This doesn’t mean they were warmongers or rah-rah militarists. They were seldom the biggest cheerleaders for invasions and the organizations they work for often produced some of the deepest critiques or exposes of the failures and shortcomings of these efforts. But they were deeply bought in in ways that are likely best seen in sociological terms. Countless numbers embedded with US military formations. They accompanied members of Congress on “CODELS” to the warzones. They’ve been immersed with a Pentagon which has spent two decades building hammers to hit nails in the Middle East and Central Asia. Their peers study and write in the world of DC think tanks focused on the best ways of striking those nails. Wrapping this all together, they have built relationships with America’s local allies, particularly the more cosmopolitan and liberal city dwellers who aspire to a future more like the one people take for granted in North America and Europe.

We hear about the very real and dire fate of women and young girls under the Taliban, robbed of futures, banished from public life. And yet when these realities are adduced as the justification for continued or expanded military occupations we must also see that they are both very real and also the latter day cant of empire, much like the way the British East India Company justified its rule of the subcontinent by banning practices like the suttee...

It's not just embedding them in a network of friends who they are going to be confusing with the 38 million Afghans they don't know and scarcely imagine, it's embedding them in an imperial (or "neoconservative"!) project, which only the morally deficient could oppose ("So you're in favor of widows being forced to kill themselves by jumping onto their husbands' funeral pyres?"), that actually ends up elevating America's "credibility" above the welfare of the dark-skinned people for whom so much performative concern is displayed by the New York Times magisterium, as in another Josh Marshall piece ("Catching Up on the Fall of the Afghan Government"): 

I’ve been struck in reading news commentary over the last 48 hours how much the senior/commentatorish foreign policy reporters for The New York Times are wedded to what we might call a Davos/CFR consensus on foreign policy questions. It’s as much the Post as the Times and applies to that whole milieu. I first started thinking about this when I saw this piece by Steven Erlanger two days ago. All filled with chin-scratching comments about the loss of “credibility,” American retreat from the world, etc. You could read the piece and have little sense that things weren’t going great in Afghanistan or that really any of the last 20 years had even happened.

(Pleased to note that Josh feels about Erlanger, and David Sanger and Peter Baker, precisely the way I do.)

the troops share quarters
with guns and mortars
from Bombay to Bihar
and when the monsoon hit
they'd straggle under it
with one race or another
a brown or yellow brother
and next day turn those buggers
into beefsteak tartare!

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