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The biggest problems in how the Afghanistan story has been told

The US media’s coverage of the withdrawal focused on drama at the expense of the more important bigger picture.

The volume of news coverage of events in Afghanistan over the past month has been overwhelming, and the chattering class has been working overtime in commenting on those events. There are bound to be many misconceptions in that torrent of words, in addition to the predictable blame-shifting and finger-pointing motivated either by partisan politics or a desire to preserve personal reputations. There are many fouls in the coverage that deserve to be called.

The following are three of the most pervasive problems in that torrent. They have been exhibited in the first instance in coverage by the press, including the mainstream press. But the problems also affect punditry and critical commentary and how such commentary tends to be received.

Not considering the alternative, or whether there was one

Almost everyone feels dismay over the chaotic nature of the denouement in Afghanistan. But almost no one expressing such dismay has presented a convincing alternative scenario for how U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan could ever have ended on a significantly happier, well-ordered note. Sure, with the benefit of hindsight, there are many procedural details about the withdrawal that could have been handled differently, and officials in the Biden administration no doubt wish they had done so. But hindsight-viewed details do not speak to the fundamental conditions that underlie what has happened in Afghanistan.

The very speed with which the Afghan government and its security forces collapsed demonstrates the fragility of what the U.S. military had been propping up. The fact that the propping up was sustained for 20 years belies any assertion that more time and more patience would have produced something appreciably different. The situation had become a game of Jenga, in which through skillful play one can extract some of the supporting blocks without things falling apart, but it is inevitable that at some point further extraction will result in collapse.

There was no way to extract more Afghan nationals who had worked with Americans, and whose current fate is the object of much sympathy and concern, without hastening the collapse. As President Biden noted in his mid-August speech on Afghanistan, the Afghan government itself asked the United States not to organize any such exodus precisely for fear that it would provoke a crisis of confidence and precipitate the collapse.

The policy choice unavoidably comes back to either the ugly withdrawal of 2021, or keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan — and prolonging the war there — indefinitely (or until some future year when there would still be an ugly withdrawal and collapse). Critics are fond of suggesting that there was some middle way between the actual events of August 2021 and the waging of a forever war, but they don’t offer a convincing picture of any such middle way, or don’t offer any picture at all.

It is cheap and easy to bemoan, without offering a credible alternative, regrettable states of affairs and to criticize those in power when such affairs occur. The press needs to do a better job of calling out shortfalls in credibility among critics of the withdrawal or of how it was conducted. An example is the previous U.S. president, whose anti-immigration policy adviser Stephen Miller, far from preparing for any exodus of Afghans in the event of a Taliban takeover, actually did whatever he could to slow down processing of Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans who had worked with the United States. The same political appeal to xenophobia lives on among some prominent members of Mr. Trump’s party who are resisting resettlement of those Afghans in the United States.

Believing an exact scenario can be predicted

After almost any salient untoward event overseas (or involving foreigners) that the American public and press consider shocking or surprising, a familiar finger-pointing question gets asked: was this an intelligence failure or a policy failure? One assumption underlying this question is that whatever surprised the public and the press must have been as much of a surprise to those inside government charged with following the situation in question. A further assumption is that intelligence agencies ought to foretell future events with crystal-ball precision and detail. If they did so, and if they reported their prophecy to policymakers, then there supposedly was a policy failure. To the extent they did not, this is seen as an intelligence failure.

In fact, many of the overseas happenings capable of causing public surprise ensue from an unfathomably complex interplay of fears, anger, and other emotions of many different people, overlaid on a similarly complex matrix of economic, political, and social conditions. Such happenings include popular uprisings and revolutionary political upheaval as well as some military and security collapses. Such events are beyond the ability of even the most adept intelligence agency, and the most astute expert observer — inside or outside government — to predict with anything approaching precision.

Deep understanding of underlying conditions and grievances, and of potential and even likely scenarios, should be expected, but not the ability to prophesy the timing of when a scenario will unfold or exactly what catalyzing event will precipitate apocalyptic change. Such prediction would be at least as infeasible as predicting at the beginning of a Jenga game which block’s extraction, and on which turn, will lead the structure to collapse. Appreciation for the dynamics involved comes at least as much from catastrophe theory — a branch of mathematics that shows how small perturbations in a complex system can lead to big, sudden changes — as from any perusal of intelligence reports or policy analyses.

The collapse in Afghanistan is very much in this category of overseas events capable of causing public shock and surprise but beyond crystal-ball prediction. There is no indication that either U.S. intelligence agencies or the Biden administration’s policymakers lacked understanding of the fragility of what they were dealing with — notwithstanding some unfortunate earlier rhetoric by the president when he was trying to reassure the public about the withdrawal. But prophecy of the timing and speed of the collapse, which were a function of the fears and other emotions of thousands of individual Afghans, is a different matter. When even the Taliban themselves evidently were surprised by the speed of their victorious sweep to power, don’t expect to find greater predictive precision in U.S. intelligence analyses or policy papers about what the Taliban would do.

And yet, that unfounded expectation of precision persists, often promoted by self-interested blame-shifting. Two former senior Trump administration officials, for example, acknowledged to reporters that the CIA had warned about the fragile state of the Afghan government and security forces but took pains to point out that the agency had “resisted giving an exact time frame” for a collapse.

Focusing more on the dramatic than on the important

Admittedly, there have been immediate matters of genuine importance to address in the past couple of weeks, mostly involving the status of Afghan nationals who had worked with the United States, as well as the problematic security situation around the Kabul airport during evacuation operations. But much about Afghanistan that has been in the newspapers and on the airwaves the last couple of weeks has been sheer drama. It has been the stuff that draws eyeballs to screens, stimulates clicks, and sells newspapers. The process has yielded images that will take their place in American culture alongside other morbidly fascinating images from previous U.S. wars. It is not going too far to say that the “debacle” or “fiasco” in Afghanistan has in large part been manufactured by the media.

Every bit of attention paid to the immediate and the dramatic is that much less attention devoted to what is important in the long term. That misdirection of attention loses sight of how the chief problem is less what happened in the last two weeks of the U.S. war than what happened during the previous 20 years, with all the accompanying costs and futility. It also distracts from needed attention to policy toward Afghanistan in the months and years ahead.

Consequences

The ill effects of all these aspects of mishandling of the Afghanistan story go beyond policy toward Afghanistan itself. Bad habits get inculcated that pollute and distort discourse on other foreign policy questions, including ones not necessarily involving war. The failure to consider the alternatives, if any, to a policy being criticized are already illustrated in, for example, most attacks on the multilateral agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program. The failure to recognize the unpredictability of many untoward overseas events overlooks the need for policymakers to prepare for multiple contingencies that could affect U.S. interests, without knowing which one will materialize.

Focusing on the immediate and the dramatic more than the long-term and the truly important precludes appropriate political accountability. In the case of Afghanistan, it means that, out of the four U.S. presidents under whom the war was fought, the one who ended on his watch two decades of costly futility will, inappropriately, be pilloried more than the three who did not.

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