Maya Angelou was right about the Taliban. Okay, not about the Taliban specifically, but about people (and the B-2 bomber). “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
The new supreme leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. It’s not quite the job change it sounds like because he was the emir of the Taliban already. Anyway, in 2017, he let his son blow himself up as a suicide bomber. In poker, if you scratch your nose every time you bluff, it’s called a tell. In life, when you’re in charge of a terrorist movement and you let your son be a suicide bomber, it’s a little more than a tell. You might even call it a shout.
The State Department, which has been filling the air with talk about how the Taliban is our “partner,” expressed concern Tuesday about the new government. Specifically, it’s upset that the new government doesn’t contain any women. It noted in a statement that the new government “consists exclusively of individuals who are members of the Taliban or their close associates and no women.”
“We have made clear our expectation that the Afghan people deserve an inclusive government,” a department spokesperson told The Hill.
Let’s stop here for a moment. Shortly after Bill Clinton was elected, he vowed to have a Cabinet that “looked like America.” I used to joke at the time that this meant 17 left-wing lawyers who all thought the same way but looked like a Benetton ad. It was a kind of diversity, just not a particularly meaningful one in terms of policy.
Now, I understand that it would be pretty significant for the Taliban to include a woman in its leadership, given its whole “keep ‘em barefoot, burqa’d, and pregnant” philosophy. But I was told that the departure from Afghanistan was necessitated by the fact the U.S. would only do what is in our core, vital national interest. No more nation building and social experimenting. Which raises a question: If the Biden administration doesn’t care whether Afghanistan is democratic, why should it care whether it practices gender inclusivity? If pushing democracy is a folly of social engineering, why isn’t affirmative action for women?
Indeed, if the Taliban had decided to put a woman in charge of something, what are the odds that a bunch of terrorists and fanatics would pick someone who disagreed on the stuff that actually touches on our core, vital national interest? Just as the Clinton administration was never going to appoint a woman who meaningfully disagreed with the boss’s worldview, what are the odds that a woman whom Mullah Haibatullah signed off on would be some kind of ideological maverick within the government? I mean, they weren’t going to make Cher or Alyssa Milano minister of the interior, were they? And they weren’t going to make some native Afghan woman a minister for reproductive rights or democracy promotion.
We’re in a weird place when we’re officially more concerned about the lack of gender diversity at the top of a terror state than we are about, you know, a terror state.
This is just a small example of a larger problem. I’ve written a lot of “news”letters lately about the issue of mistaking words for things. I’ve also written a lot about how foreign policy “realism” is often just a concept that the losers in foreign policy debates invoke to criticize the winners. The people in charge who didn’t listen to me are “idealists” or “ideologues,” while I’m just a realist.
Let’s start with the words. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said today that these new leaders of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have “challenging track records.”
How many Americans does a roster of terrorists need to kill before it warrants a tougher adjective than “challenging”? I mean, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the al-Qaeda-aligned Haqqani Network, is the new interior minister. The FBI is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest. (Can I collect some of that shmundo by calling the Feds the next time I see him give a press conference? “I know exactly where he is! Pay me!”)
Can we at least call that “troubling”? Or even—dare I say—“bad”?
Now let’s move on to Biden’s “realism.” The White House talks constantly about the wonder-working power of the “international community.” We pulled out our troops and gave the Taliban the fourth-largest military helicopter fleet in the world, but we have lots of leverage because we have the “international community” in our corner.
A couple of weeks ago, George Stephanopoulos asked Biden if the Taliban had changed. He responded:
“No. I think they’re going through sort of an existential crisis about: Do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government? I’m not sure they do.”
Now, he’s right that the Taliban would like to be recognized by the international community as a legitimate government. But you know what? So would every government everywhere. That’s in the basic job description of all governments. The Iranians want that. The North Koreans want that.
This should not be an interesting insight. Such recognition brings all sorts of benefits. Sanctions get lifted. You can park stolen money in more reliable banks. You get to send people to conferences in Switzerland and New York, and they can bring back better chocolates and bagels than you can get in Kabul. Being recognized as part of the Parliament of Man affords more opportunities to go to Hooters (“I go for the Buffalo wings.”—Sirajuddin Haqqani).
The issue isn’t what the Taliban wants, it’s what price the Taliban is willing to pay for what it wants. For nearly 20 years now, Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn have been figuratively running around like that guy in the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” who yelled “It’s a cookbook!” screaming, “They want an emirate!”
This is why the Taliban exists. And the only existential crisis it faces is making good on that promise, not least because the first Taliban “moderate” who proposes a women’s empowerment program or gay rights initiative will get beheaded by his underlings.
Forming an emirate was so important to the Taliban that it was willing to fight the U.S. in a bloody war for 20 years. But the Biden administration seems to think the group can be bought off with “inclusion” in the international community. And, yeah, sure, it can trade all sorts of things—including, no doubt, stranded Americans—in exchange for inclusion, recognition, and, eventually, pallets of cash. But it has demonstrated for 20 years that it’s not going to negotiate away the very reason for its existence. When faced with an existential crisis, the Taliban will choose existence, not access to swag at the U.N. gift shop.
The reigning Brahmins of our foreign policy keep talking about how more than 100 nations “expect” the Taliban to do this or that. Does this mean that if only 97 or 64 nations “expected” the Taliban not to conduct mass executions it wouldn’t be that big a deal? Is some Taliban minister holding firm on his door-to-door death squad policy only until he gets the news that Burkina Faso has joined the Grand Coalition of Condemnation??
How have the expectations of the international community changed North Korea’s behavior? Or Iran’s? Or Russia’s? Remember all of the jaw-jawing of Bashar Assad? If you slaughter your own people, your wife won’t get profiles in Vogue anymore! His answer: “Your terms are acceptable.”
If you’re some Belgian nuncio or German cookie-pusher, not being part of the “international community” might pose an “existential crisis.” But no one in the Taliban leadership has been living in the mountains, crapping in caves without the benefit of first world toilet paper, and letting their sons vaporize themselves so they can get reserved tickets to hear Larry Summers’ presentation at Davos.
In other words, the Biden administration is suffering from a profound case of ideological and psychological projection. The idea of being cut off from polite international society would indeed amount to an existential crisis for Biden, Blinken, Dasher, and Vixen. But 20 years of murder suggests that the good opinion of the Hague is less of a priority for the Taliban.
In a really excellent conversation on The Remnant, The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood noted that when it was last in power, the Taliban really wanted to establish bilateral relations with the Chinese. But the Taliban, being the Taliban, couldn’t stop being the Taliban. So it blew up Afghanistan’s legendary Bamiyan Buddha statues. As Wood noted, that was pretty much the only thing the Taliban could do to really piss off the Chinese. The group did it anyway. The guy who pushed for that grotesque vandalism at the time? Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund—the new prime minister of Afghanistan! This isn’t the Taliban 2.0. It’s the Taliban 1.0, Chapter 2.
But forget the Taliban for a second. Just this morning, I listened to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Morning Joe explain—as Biden has many times—that we can get China, India, and the whole world to adopt carbon neutral policies by the power of our example. If we do it first, everyone else will follow.
This has been a central Democratic argument for decades. But what evidence is there for it? Sure, some countries might follow our lead. But the problem is that any country willing to follow our lead on climate change is already doing this stuff. In fact, you could argue that we’re following their lead. The countries that aren’t doing this stuff don’t care about our example. We’ve been leading by example on all sorts of things—democracy, human rights, gay rights, etc.—for a long time. Has China become more democratic? It’s still throwing Uyghurs in concentration camps. Hell, it just banned “effeminate men” from TV.
The lazy formulation of “isolationism” versus “internationalism” that is so often foisted on us leaves out some other isms. The most relevant is “multilateralism.” For 20 years, the dominant foreign policy argument of the Democratic Party has been that it’s better to be wrong in a big group than to be right alone.
Now, I’ve got no problem with multilateralism—I’m still a big booster of a “League of Democracies”—but multilateralism is a means, not an end. Large groups of countries can work together for bad things or good things. There’s strength in numbers, power in unity, blah blah blah. But cooperation isn’t what matters, it’s what you do with it. The Nazis had a coalition of the willing, too.
Again, I get that people who love big conferences and working the phones and hotel lobbies for joint statements shudder at the thought of being on the outs with the international community. But letting our foreign policy be dictated by the FOMO of transnational progressives is not what foreign policy is for. And thinking that the leaders of other countries share our ideological priorities and will conduct themselves accordingly isn’t realism. It’s blinkered—Blinkened—folly.