Afghanistan--Who Gets to Criticize?
Who is allowed to Assign Blame?
In the last week the news from Afghanistan, site of American’s longest war, has been disturbing, worrisome, and sad. Just last month 73% of Americans polled were in favor of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Just two weeks ago I heard a pundit on NPR opine that, although the Taliban held sway in the countryside, the major cities in Afghanistan would be able to withstand the onslaught and that eventually there would be a negotiated settlement among the Afghans. Now news coverage of all types and stripes feeds us again and again the image of desperate Afghans clinging to or running alongside a giant airplane moving slowly down the runway at the Kabul airport, an image that cannot help but evoke the coverage of America’s desperate evacuation of Saigon at the the end of the Vietnam War. Our hearts rightly go out to the people of Afghanistan who believed in what the U.S. told them we to stand for, people who signed onto our effort to convert Afghanistan into a modern democracy, people we are now abandoning.
Who is to blame? Whose opinion counts? The media, and not just the right wing media, seem united in amplifying only the voices of the hawks, folk who have been wrong again and again in their situation assessments during our twenty-year occupation. Orion Donovan-Smith, writing for The Spokesman, gets assigned a headline, “A Self-Inflicted Wound,” for an article that is essentially an opinion piece by one man, former ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker. Crocker is quoted as if he were the only person with standing to offer an assessment, an assessment he offers as a Monday morning quarterback from his retirement in Spokane Valley. Crocker’s opinion ends critically with:
“I’m left with some grave questions in my mind about his [Biden’s] ability to lead our nation as commander-in-chief.”
Why is Crocker given standing? Where is Crocker’s pointed criticism of Trump’s deal with the Taliban in which Trump cut out the Afghan government we have expended so much blood and treasure trying to establish? As Judd Legum writes in an article, “The media's systemic failure on Afghanistan”:
Like Panetta, Crocker also touted the Afghan military and police, saying in a 2012 speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that the security forces represented an "amazing achievement." He described the group as a "capable” and “multifaceted," and claimed they were "close to their maximum strength of 352,000." Like Panetta, Crocker was wrong about their capability and size.
Crocker also touted the "courage and determination" of President Hamid Karzai. But Karzai had "won reelection after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes." After securing power, Karzai presided over a deeply corrupt and incompetent government. Kabul Bank, the country's largest bank, nearly collapsed under the "weight of $1 billion in fraudulent loans." Among the recipients was Karzai's brother, Mahmoud Karzai. Crocker's predecessor, Karl Eikenberry, pressed Karzai to take action in response to the Kabul Bank scandal. But when Crocker replaced Eikenberry in 2011 that ended. Crocker's "attitude was to make the issue go away, bury it as deep as possible, and silence any voices within the embassy that wanted to make this an issue,” according to interviews conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Crocker's role in covering up the corruption of the Afghan government is not mentioned in Viser's Washington Post article or the other outlets that quoted him for criticizing the withdrawal — NBC News, The Hill, Axios, and Fox News.
Are the media engaged in a massive groupthink, an opportunity to be critical without regard for the history of the conflict or the background of the people they quote? Judd Legum weighed in again yesterday, August 19, with “Where are the anti-war voices?,” another article well worth reading.
Once a society has committed lives and money to a conflict the media and our own pride make it hard to acknowledge to ourselves the false pretenses led us to war. It is hard to admit a mistake after a large investment. Like me, many of my readers are old enough to remember the same delusion that surrounded the Vietnam War. Thom Hartmann reminds us of the history of our immersion in Afghanistan and the false pretenses under which we the people of the United States were drawn in twenty years ago. Elements of the Taliban were sympathetic to Osama bin Laden, but Bin Laden was not a state actor, Bin Laden was a criminal. Avenging the crime of the events of September 11 did not require twenty years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and the collective frenzy fostered by complicit media enmeshed us in another misguided “nation-building” experiment. Much of what followed over the last twenty years was a doubling down on our initial illusion.
The current media obsession with the last details of a withdrawal poorly initiated by the prior President loses track of our own history and societal delusion.
The media (and we) speak of “The Taliban” as if it were one individual with one voice and one intent. It is the same simplistic shorthand that others use to lump all of us U.S. citizens under the voice of whatever is the current administration. The reality is far, far more complicated both here and in Afghanistan. All the breathless bullshit from military, ambassadorial, and conservative pundits fails to capture the complexity and fluidity of a country in the midst of armed upheaval. Each pundit is like one of the blind men exploring an elephant, each with their own limited input, each with their prior bias, each guessing at the future. We have only to look at Vietnam for proof of how that turns out decades later…
Keep to the high ground,