A Better Afghan Policy

What might a more successful exit from Afghanistan have looked like?

I have spent some time talking with colleagues and experts about that question, and it is a difficult one to answer. President Biden’s exit certainly has not gone well. The “orderly” withdrawal he had promised did not happen, and the world has watched agonizing scenes of Afghans trying to escape.

But I’ve also noticed a naïveté about some of the commentary on Afghanistan. It presumes that there was a clean solution for the U.S., if only the Biden administration (and, to a lesser extent, the Trump administration) had executed it. The commentary never quite spells out what the solution was, though.

There is a reason for that: A clean solution probably did not exist.

The fundamental choice, as my colleague Helene Cooper told me, was between a permanent, low-level U.S. war in Afghanistan — a version of what John McCain once called a 100-year war — and a messy exit. “The pullout was never going to be a simple thing,” says Helene, who covers the Pentagon. “It was always going to be an ugly pullout.”

My goal with today’s newsletter is to explain what the true options in Afghanistan were, as well as some alternate decisions by the Biden administration that might have worked out better.

It’s important to start with this background: The biggest failure in Afghanistan almost certainly was not anything that happened this week or even in the past decade. It was a decision, early in the 2000s, to seek total victory in a faraway war of questionable relevance to U.S. national interests. As Adam Nossiter, who became The Times’s Kabul bureau chief last year, has written, “The American war, like other such neocolonialist adventures,” was “most likely doomed from the start.”

Why not sooner?

The most salient failure of the Biden pullout is the apparent abandonment of thousands of Afghans who worked closely with the U.S. and whom the Taliban may jail, abuse or kill.

These allies have fought against the Taliban for years, served as translators for Americans and helped run civil society in Afghanistan. Many are understandably panicked. Something like 100,000 Afghans probably fall into this disparate category, experts say.

In hindsight, the solution may seem obvious: The U.S. should have helped many more Afghans leave the country before the military withdrawal. In reality, there was no easy way to do so.

When Biden and Afghanistan’s then-president, Ashraf Ghani, met for the final time, in the Oval Office on June 25, one of Ghani’s main requests was that the U.S. do the opposite and limit evacuations. As The Times has reported: “He wanted the United States to be ‘conservative’ in granting exit visas to the interpreters and others, and ‘low key’ about their leaving the country so it would not look as if America lacked faith in his government.”

It was an understandable request. A mass evacuation would have amounted to a surrender to the Taliban (for which Biden would have been blamed). The only hope for Ghani’s government depended on avoiding a large, advance evacuation of the Afghans who were helping run the country.

In the end, of course, Afghanistan still fell to the Taliban in a few chaotic days this month.

The real alternatives

The fairest criticism of Biden acknowledges the implausibility of an enormous advance evacuation — and then grapples with the less-satisfying alternatives. They do exist.

Biden and his team appear to have based their strategy around the consensus view of U.S. intelligence that the Ghani government could hold off the Taliban for months, at least. Little of the White House’s pre-withdrawal planning was based on the possibility — as some diplomats and Afghan officials were warning — that the government could quickly collapse.

“When you’re talking about life and death, you can’t just rely on the consensus opinion,” Michael Crowley, who covers the State Department for The Times, told me. “You have to prepare for contingencies.”

In Afghanistan, contingency planning could have included a much more rapid acceleration of the State Department’s processing of refugee visas, still done quietly. The administration also could have been less definitive about the military’s August exit date: The more territory the Taliban seemed to gain, the more U.S. troops could have remained temporarily, to oversee evacuation.

Both Michael and Helene point out that these scenarios probably still would have been messy. A huge, quiet evacuation program is a contradiction in terms. And under almost any circumstance, more Afghans would have wanted to leave a Taliban-run country than the U.S. would have been willing to admit (especially with the current immigration skepticism in this country). “People were still going to run to Kabul airport,” Helene says.

Since the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, the Biden administration has been trying to accomplish the large evacuation program that it could not attempt earlier. So far, the U.S. has helped about 70,000 people leave, although it is unclear how many of them are Afghans. Ultimately, the evacuation has the potential to look fairly successful.

Yet that would not make Biden blameless. Put it this way: If he and his aides could do it all over again and be less dismissive of a rapid Taliban takeover, don’t you think they would?

A permanent war

One final alternative did exist: The U.S. military could have stayed in Afghanistan. There is no reason to think it would have succeeded in creating a stable Afghan government, after failing to do so for 20 years. But it probably could have prevented complete Taliban control.

The economic costs were manageable, in the short term. The U.S. mission has recently cost less than $20 billion a year, Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told me. That’s less than 0.5 percent of the federal budget. The continuing war was also killing a handful of American troops each year, and the bombing of Taliban targets was killing hundreds of Afghan civilians a year.

Some former U.S. officials have suggested that staying in Afghanistan indefinitely was worth these costs. On the other hand, these tend to be the same officials whose previous optimistic promises have repeatedly proven false. At some point, the conflict with the Taliban would likely have intensified again, requiring more U.S. troops, money and sacrifice. Already, polls showed that a large, bipartisan majority of Americans wanted the military to leave.

All of which suggests that a withdrawal may have been inevitable, sooner rather than later. It could have gone better than it has. But it was probably destined not to go well.

More Afghanistan news:

Biden said that he planned to stick to his Aug. 31 deadline for military withdrawal but was willing to adjust “should that become necessary.”

The Taliban said they would no longer allow Afghan citizens to reach the airport. (Today’s “The Daily” is about the ongoing evacuation.)

Two House members secretly flew to Kabul on an unauthorized oversight mission.

A group of Afghans who worked for The Times, along with their families, touched down early this morning with help from the Mexican government.

Here’s how life in Kabul has changed under Taliban rule.



House Democrats overcame internal disagreements to pass a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint.

The House also voted to strengthen federal oversight of state election laws. Senate Republicans will likely filibuster the bill.

The Supreme Court reinstated a Trump program that forces asylum seekers to await approval in Mexico.

Kathy Hochul spoke to The Times about becoming New York’s first female governor, redistricting in the state and why she’s a “Biden Democrat.”

Herschel Walker, the former N.F.L. star and ally to Donald Trump, is running for the Senate in Georgia as a Republican.

The Virus

Ohio State University, Goldman Sachs and Disney Cruise Line announced vaccine mandates.

U.S. intelligence agencies delivered a classified report to Biden on the virus’s origins.

Other Big Stories

Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister, said he opposed both a restored U.S.-Iran nuclear deal and peace talks with the Palestinians.

These maps tell the story of two Americas: one parched, one soaked. Follow extreme weather updates.


Children with disabilities need better sex ed, Cammie McGovern argues.


Lives Lived: Charlie Watts was quiet, unflashy and a bit aloof — despite playing drums for the Rolling Stones. He died at 80.

Letter of Recommendation: Raw onions are the best food.

Too many totes: How a planet-friendly bag became part of the problem.

Dementia: Can everyday actions predict risk years before symptoms emerge?

Advice from Wirecutter: Replace your old, dribbly showerhead.


A hosting debacle at ‘Jeopardy!’

Two weeks ago, “Jeopardy!” announced its new host: Mike Richards, the show’s executive producer and the initial leader of the host search. Nine days later, he was out of the job. What happened?

Richards was already unpopular among fans, many of whom felt he had rigged the search in his own favor. In The Ringer, Claire McNear reported that Richards had made offensive and sexist comments on a podcast he had hosted in 2013 and 2014, not long after several women had sued him and other producers on “The Price Is Right” over harassment and discrimination. (He denies the allegations of the lawsuits.)

After Richards stepped down, “Jeopardy!” announced Monday that the actress Mayim Bialik — whom it had tapped to host prime-time specials — would temporarily replace him. The search for a permanent host continues. — Tom Wright-Piersanti, Morning editor


What to Cook

Hear us out: Try a salad inspired by barbecue potato chips.


Looking to save hundreds on designer shoes? Enter luxury’s gray market.

Life Hacks

Research suggests that people who let their thoughts wander are happier. Here’s how to get in the mind-set.

Late Night

Jimmy Fallon joked about a U.S. intelligence review of the virus’s origins.

Now Time to Play

The pangram(s) from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was abnormal. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Garbage (five letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. The word “malinformation” — facts taken out of context to support a false narrative — appeared for the first time in The Times yesterday.

Here’s today’s print front page.

On “The Argument,” a debate about vaccine mandates.

Natasha Frost, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Source: Read Full Article