The dreadfully ill-managed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to swirl in chaos, with no end in sight. Elements of the 82nd Airborne Division are deploying to Kabul to control the airport for the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies, their numbers estimated to be in the range of up to 15,000 and 30,000, respectively.
This intervention is too late to restore conditions that would allow an effective evacuation.
The general evacuation has seen only several hundred lifted out of the country so far. Thousands reportedly wait at the international airport in northeast Kabul, the only airfield available. But thousands more are in Kabul looking for a safe route to the airport — or in other locations too distant to allow hopeful evacuees to reach Kabul at all.
Americans are being warned that they will have no help getting to the airport. They’ll have to find a way themselves.
Awful videos, some too graphic for TV news to show, depict Afghans perishing as they attempt to ride transport aircraft on the outside to get out of the country.
U.S. service members who deployed to Afghanistan, some of them as many as seven or eight times, are heartsick at this spectacle. Their families, and especially Gold Star families, are as much so.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense and the national intelligence community are insisting that they briefed the White House throughout the spring and early summer on the realities that now expose President Biden’s July 2021 claim of a well-equipped and highly competent Afghan army as inaccurate, at the very least.
That last point functions as something of a pivot — a key pivot — in perspective on what’s going on. The pivot point is the media coverage of the Afghanistan debacle, how it treats Biden, and where the rest of the federal executive branch seems to stand on that.
Gloves come off for Biden
A few observations as this freight train gathers momentum. One is that, in spite of a relatively friendly response from the mainstream media to Biden’s White House address on Monday, the same media have given ink and air space to every sharp criticism of his administration made by left-wing voices.
There was a perfunctory effort at MSNBC and CNN to put Biden’s address in a positive light. But none of the usual-suspect media outlets is shielding Biden from full-throated reproach, if it comes from the left. Nor are we hearing the typical chorus of denunciation against right-wing critics. (A few on the left have seized the opportunity to utter talking-point sentiments about the right wing and “destroying American democracy,” but their irrational word-salad rantings splatter harmlessly in a void.)
A distinctive corollary development is the effective visual message sent by Biden’s absolute isolation in the imagery of his activities during the crisis so far. At no point has he been seen in company with his senior officials.
In the White House address, there was no Vice President Harris in her usual spot a few paces behind his right shoulder. At Camp David, he has been seen sitting by himself in the conference room facing the video-teleconference display, not a single aide in sight.
None of the normal official gaggles has been video-recorded or photographed: no Biden with his secretary of defense or state, Biden speaking from a lectern with his Joint Chiefs present, Biden with his national security adviser, Biden with White House aides – even if he’s at Camp David – on the phone with members of the National Security Council or with foreign officials, such as the NATO allies who’ve been in Afghanistan with us for much of the last 20 years.
Biden's National Security team is trying to insulate itself from Biden's disastrous decision.
They are leaking to the press that they warned him not to do it, but publicly they supported it and even cheer-led the decision.
That is until it fell apart.
— Michael P Pregent (@MPPregent) August 17, 2021
Biden is isolated
No one stood with him today
No one was at Camp David with him in that photo (attempt)
No Harris today
No Milley today
No Austin today
No leadership anywhere pic.twitter.com/PVCT8UyiNs
— Michael P Pregent (@MPPregent) August 16, 2021
The lack of visual messaging about such interactions is beyond bizarre. It’s also weird for the media, whose bread and butter such staging is, to simply ignore the empty space where the colorful pictures and story line ought to be.
(Late-breaking: Biden returned to the White House from Camp David a few hours early, on Tuesday evening instead of Wednesday. We’ll see if this results in more groups photo ops with his national security team.)
There’s something going on here, and to write it off as mere “incompetence” is to expose, shall we say, limitations of thought. This isn’t incompetence (why would so many of the people who served in the Obama administration, and would have served in a Hillary Clinton administration, suddenly become incompetent at messaging?); it’s something else.
At the very least, it looks like putting Joe Biden out on a long limb by himself. It’s not clear what would be done with that shaped condition in the next 15 months, before the 2022 election – if that’s even a relevant time marker for what this is about.
Since we won’t resolve what it is, we may note it and consider one other aspect of the “Biden isolation” messaging, an example of which is a series of soundbites burbled out at Politico’s Playbook on Monday about Biden’s decision on Afghanistan being intentional (h/t: RedState). I can see why these soundbites weren’t collated as a polished article: it would be incoherent and eyebrow-raising.
Some of the bites are strangely disjunctive with the reality before us, such as the manifestly ridiculous claim that Biden is very hands-on in managing issues like Afghanistan, and has been making all the decisions, against the advice of his assistants, because he’s epically “stubborn.”
There is no possibility of believing that.
This is a president who can’t remember the simplest information about his own schedule and has to refer to cue cards to blurt it out for the media. I have no doubt that he remembers very well his personal position on Afghanistan in 2009 – it’s the one thing he was able to speak about fluently in his address on Monday – but that would conform nicely with the features of geriatric dementia. It’s about remembering the mental landscape of the past.
But his earlier position’s significance became water under the bridge years ago. Biden’s preference for a light U.S. footprint while retaining a terrorist-hunting base in Afghanistan has already shaped what has happened there since. No decision made in 2021 is about that. Biden’s 2009 policy posture, on which he is obviously still insistent, has zero relevance to decisions about how to execute the current withdrawal.
Moreover, we’re supposed to believe that a federal bureaucracy that fought Donald Trump tooth and nail, in a partially successful effort to derail his policies, was able to do no more than wring its hands as Joe Biden “stubbornly” made decisions like it’s 2009. Sorry, that story line doesn’t even stand on its legs out of the gate, much less buck or kick.
The Politico soundbite collection appears meant to “hang it all” on Biden. There were a number of such examples, including the leaks reported uncritically by outlets like the New York Times that the intelligence and defense communities had done their jobs, but were thwarted by Biden. Foreign leaders are said to be discouraged by Biden. We’ve been told that Biden has spoken to no foreign officials at all, a grave deficiency of performance.
“Knives out for Biden” is the characterization running around on social media. But that is uninteresting without context. What is the purpose? Is there a rational, realistic one?
To proclaim that the knife-wielders are just trying to save their own hides is to ignore that the knife-wielders also control the top-line, mainstream message being delivered on “Afghanistan,” and that they have routinely covered up for Biden, and others (including Obama), in the past. Yet not this time. This time a whole phalanx has turned against the POTUS, apparently making him a scapegoat.
The other “Q”
Again, we won’t solve this now. Just a few more observations that seem relevant. Another one is that there’s a thread in the Taliban takeover that seems to point toward Qatar.
The Qataris delivered senior Taliban bigwig Mullah Baradar to Afghanistan on Tuesday, flying him and a rather large delegation of his Taliban henchmen into Kandahar in a Qatari C-17 transport aircraft. That’s not surprising, given Qatar’s role in housing Taliban and hosting talks in Doha.
But it’s informative in conjunction with other developments, such as one highlighted by Natsecjeff:
I literally NEVER thought I'd see this happen but oh boy what a time to be alive.
So, some Taliban officials visited Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul (which is a Shi'ite/Hazara neighborhood) and attended a Shi'ite Ashura mourning event.
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) August 17, 2021
The Taliban attending an Ashura mourning event with Shiites in Kabul looks like something a patron might urge – a patron like Qatar, with its well-known links to Iran. I doubt the Taliban, if they were simply retaking Afghanistan to resume being what they were 20 years ago, would bother with this at such a busy time. As Natsecjeff observes, it will be a rallying point for vicious rival Islamic State, seemingly unnecessary to feature in public messaging.
Unless it’s something done at the behest of a patron like Qatar. And that’s a prospect that alters the character of what’s going on. It wouldn’t be just the Taliban with a plan here.
That shouldn’t surprise us. Something analyst Michael Pregent noticed shouldn’t either: that media coverage of the Taliban has had an oddly benign tone, especially in some of the Middle Eastern media.
Anyone else notice this narrative being pushed by Middle Eastern media that maybe the Taliban has changed for the better and they won't be as bad?
— Michael P Pregent (@MPPregent) August 17, 2021
— heather nauert (@HeatherNauert) August 17, 2021
Al Jazeera, tellingly, the media outlet for the Qatari emirate, was present for the Taliban entry into the presidential palace, publishing professionally recorded exclusives on that expedition.
And as mentioned in one of our Web Crawler headlines on Monday, I was immediately set to pondering who bankrolled the reported Taliban campaign of bribery in the last few months to take the Afghan army off the field in the provinces. Given the whiff of Qatar in this across the board, Doha is an obvious probability.
Qatar’s connection with Iran, and with the Washington, D.C. establishment, adds context to the import of these factors. It’s notable that the IAEA announced on Tuesday the addition of a second centrifuge cascade to Iran’s current uranium-enrichment effort: a measure that will significantly accelerate the stockpiling of near-weapons-grade uranium.
Iran is on a clear path to “breakout” at this point. And given the feckless behavior of the United States in the Afghanistan withdrawal, the odds are declining fast that Tehran is merely trying to get Washington’s attention or angle for advantage in negotiations.
America’s attention isn’t the prize it was eight months ago. The old explanations are no longer applicable. We’re seeing major muscle movements here, and they aren’t necessarily about incentives for U.S. decision-makers.
One of the key movements is China’s predictable exploitation of the Afghanistan debacle for threat messaging to Taiwan (and beyond Taiwan to the rest of East Asia).
China conducts live-fire drills near Taiwan as Chinese media warns island that US 'won't come to help' in a war https://t.co/mzLyXeP4TO
— Military and Defense Insider (@MilDefInsider) August 17, 2021
At such a moment, it’s not exactly a comfort to watch Australia slapping itself silly with repeated COVID lockdowns and Orwellian over-policing of a people long accustomed to basic freedoms and robustly respected civil rights. New Zealand seems to be in a similar twilight zone, imposing a new lockdown this week on the basis of one – yes, one – new COVID-19 case. Will these allies be of any use if China moves faster than most people are thinking at the moment?
New Zealand enters nationwide lockdown over one Covid case https://t.co/XpBfjYRtgP
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) August 17, 2021
Of course, the question must arise, will America be of any use? Sure, our defense and intelligence establishments are repudiating President Biden at this hour. But considering their character, recently on indecent display, that’s not reassuring.
In any case, “the” alternative to Biden isn’t evident. It’s the opposite of reassuring to imagine being gratified that someone we can’t see and whose identity we don’t know is making security and conflict decisions for America, just because he’s not actually Joe Biden, the unique DNA package. In truth, that’s the condition we already have.
At RedState, Joe Cunningham looked at the problems Democrats would have if they follow through on this isolation and scapegoating of Biden to try removing him with a 25th Amendment move. He points out that the Democrats only buy themselves a peck of trouble by effectively eliminating the position of vice president until the 2024 election.
Besides adding that making Kamala Harris president wouldn’t change the policy trajectory of the current administration anyway (she wouldn’t be the decision-maker, any more than Biden is), I would add this: we may have reached what we might call the critical juncture. Preserving the structure of our current political reality isn’t necessarily the priority of whoever’s making decisions like a systematic sell-out of America in Afghanistan, which efficient logic would tell us is what we’re seeing.
That’s a point that applies to America’s domestic political conditions and to the broader ones of the world: not in distinct, separate sets but on a continuum.
The Democrats would be restrained by their 25th Amendment troubles only if they remained within the boundaries of the Constitution. The surreal collapse of shibboleths and crumbling of cornerstones we are witnessing may portend a different mindset – slouching, as it were, toward Washington, waiting to be born.