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Biden’s Afghanistan Blame Game
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Biden’s Afghanistan Blame Game

‘For all this talk of chaos, I just didn’t see it, not from my perch.’

Happy Friday! For those keeping track at home, it’s been a good week in the centuries-old war between humans and hippos.

Zimbabwean safari tour guide Paul Templer told the story of how he was able to escape the jaws of one of the beasts after falling out of his canoe in the Zambezi River, and a motorist driving an SUV accidentally rammed into one on a highway in Colombia.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The FBI arrested Jack Teixeira at his mother’s home in Dighton, Massachusetts, on Thursday, accusing the 21-year-old of leaking a number of classified U.S. government and military documents online. Teixeira has served in the Massachusetts Air National Guard since 2019 and was a member of the guard’s 102nd Intelligence Wing. His alleged leaks—which included details about the Ukrainian war and U.S. intelligence capabilities—have raised questions about the wide dissemination of classified information and led Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to order a review of intelligence management procedures.
  • Bloomberg reported earlier this week Russian President Vladimir Putin personally approved the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich last month, possibly signaling the increasing influence of hard-liners in the Russian government intent on heightening tensions with the U.S. 
  • The Treasury Department announced another tranche of sanctions this week targeting several dozen Russian individuals and firms including Alisher Usmanov, one of Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs. The sanctions also aim to crack down on Russian oligarchs and firms evading already-imposed sanctions to further isolate the Russian economy from the global market.
  • President Joe Biden announced Thursday a new rule from the Department of Health and Human Services that, if implemented, would expand Medicaid access to DREAMers—participants in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—allowing them to apply for the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges. HHS estimates about 34 percent of the roughly 600,000 people enrolled in DACA are currently uninsured.
  • The Florida legislature passed a bill to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy with exceptions up to 15 weeks for rape and incest (current Florida law includes a 15 week exception for the life of the mother). Gov. Ron DeSantis has expressed lukewarm support for the bill and is expected to sign it into law. “We welcome pro-life legislation,” he said when asked about the ban.
  • ProPublica reported Thursday Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sold property in Savannah, Georgia—including the house where his mother was living—to Dallas real estate magnate and Republican donor Harlan Crow in 2014. Thomas—under fire for another ProPublica report alleging he had not disclosed numerous expensive vacations Crow gifted he and his wife—had not previously disclosed the sale, worth $133,363, which may be a violation of a federal disclosure law. Crow said in a statement he bought the house to one day turn it into a museum of Thomas’s life. (Disclaimer: Harlan Crow is a minority investor in The Dispatch and a friend of the founders.)
  • The Women’s Tennis Association said Thursday it will resume its tour in China in the fall, ending a 16-month boycott in response to tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance from public life after she accused a Communist Party member of sexual assault in 2021. She has appeared in public only a handful of times—including at the 2022 Beijing Olympics—since she posted the allegations on social media. The WTA said it will never secure its goal of a transparent investigation into the CCP member, adding those close to Peng had assured the organization of her safety. 
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported yesterday the producer price index (PPI)—a measure of what suppliers and wholesalers are charging customers—fell 0.5 percent month-over-month in March after increasing 0.4 percent in January and holding steady in February. Producer prices were up 2.7 percent year-over-year in March. The cooling could signal easing inflation to Federal Reserve officials, who will decide in May whether additional interest rate hikes are necessary to restrain inflation.
  • Republican Sen. Ted Budd of North Carolina endorsed Donald Trump on Thursday, becoming the seventh Republican senator to endorse the former president. Budd secured Trump’s endorsement for his 2022 Senate campaign, helping him defeat Gov. Pat McCrory in the primary.
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Thursday he would return to the Senate on Monday after being absent for more than a month to recover from a concussion sustained from a fall in early March. The announcement counters reports speculating McConnell might be preparing for retirement.

Chaos? What Chaos?

American soldiers watch over Afghan refugees waiting in line to be processed for an exit flight out of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)
American soldiers watch over Afghan refugees waiting in line to be processed for an exit flight out of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)

If you’re looking for someone to blame for the chaos that ensued as American troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, the 12-page assessment released by the White House last week provides a menu of options:

  1. The Trump administration, for mucking everything up;
  2. Intelligence and military leaders, for completely missing the warning signs;
  3. Congress, for too much bureaucracy;
  4. The Afghans, for falling so quickly; and
  5. No one, because you know what—it actually wasn’t that bad!

Just about the only person absolved of culpability in the document is President Biden, depicted as a figure of heroic resolve failed by the national security apparatus, who nevertheless moved quickly to make the best of a bad situation inherited from his predecessor. Intelligence analysts and lawmakers have panned the summary—and question whether the administration has learned from its mistakes.

The administration does take full responsibility for following through on the withdrawal. “First and most critically, the president’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan was the right one,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at a briefing about the report. “He absolutely has responsibility for the operations that our men and women conduct and the orders that he gives, and he continues to believe that the order to withdraw from Afghanistan was the right one.”

After that, though, the buck passes—primarily to former President Trump. The Biden administration has long critiqued its predecessor for negotiating the Doha agreement with the Taliban, undercutting the Afghan government and painting the U.S. into a corner. When Biden took office, the assessment explains, “the Taliban were in the strongest military position that they had been in since 2001” while the U.S. had only 2,500 troops on the ground and a short deadline to avoid resuming hostilities with the Taliban. “The departing Trump Administration had left the Biden Administration with a date for withdrawal, but no plan for executing it,” the document argues. “And after four years of neglect—and in some cases deliberate degradation—crucial systems, offices, and agency functions that would be necessary for a safe and orderly departure were in disrepair.” The document also blames Trump for cutting State Department staffing, degrading its ability to process Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan translators and allies—and Congress for setting up such an onerous, years-long SIV application process in the first place.

“Decisions made and the lack of planning done by the previous administration significantly limited the options available,” Kirby said last week. “Thus, President Biden’s choice was stark: either withdraw all our forces or resume fighting with the Taliban. He chose the former.”

That doesn’t mean the administration couldn’t have better executed the withdrawal, some analysts insist. “Biden was right that the [Doha] deal was bad,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow focused on counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an Army veteran. “So why did he follow through? They still maintain that they had no choice. There’s always choices.” The Biden administration had already delayed the withdrawal beyond the original deadline, and the Doha agreement included a provision allowing the U.S. to drop out if Taliban-Afghan peace talks broke down—which they did as the U.S. withdrew. A February report from the special inspector general for Afghanistan blamed the Afghan military’s swift collapse on both administrations, citing its heavy dependance on U.S forces and the blow to morale of a swift withdrawal.

Maybe the Biden administration would have planned the withdrawal differently if officials had realized the Afghan government would collapse so quickly—but according to the summary and administration officials, myriad high-level and on-the-ground briefers from the military and intelligence community all failed to predict that outcome. “There were some assessments passed to [Biden] that proved faulty, that proved to be wrong, that proved to not shake out the way he had been given to understand that they would,” Kirby said. This echoes what Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as the situation disintegrated: “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army, and this government, in 11 days.”

Meanwhile, the report puts military leaders on the hook for the August 26, 2021 suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and  170 Afghans. “To manage the potential threat of a terrorist attack, the President repeatedly asked whether the military required additional support to carry out their mission at HKIA,” the report said. “Senior military officials confirmed that they had sufficient resources and authorities to mitigate threats.”

Administration officials have also bristled at a now-common descriptor for the withdrawal—chaotic. “For all this talk of chaos, I just didn’t see it, not from my perch,” said Kirby, Pentagon spokesman during the withdrawal. “At one point during the evacuation, there was an aircraft taking off full of people, Americans and Afghans alike, every 48 minutes, and not one single mission was missed. So I’m sorry, I just won’t buy the whole argument of chaos.” Did Kirby somehow miss the abundant video footage of the confusion—even mayhem—that the rest of us watched? Or is this just a Baghdad Bob-style attempt at blame-shifting at the outset of the 2024 presidential campaign on a policy decision for which Biden has been roundly criticized? Whatever the case, among those who acknowledged the tumult in realtime was… Kirby who in August 2021 accurately described a “physical crush and chaos” at the airport gates.

Pressed on stories of Afghan allies swarming the airport gates for days on end or the footage of desperate Afghans clinging to evacuation planes as they took off before falling to their deaths, Kirby deflected. “Nobody is saying that everything was perfect,” he told reporters, “but there was a lot that went right.” He didn’t address the airstrike—intended to prevent a repeat of the suicide bombing—which killed 10 civilians, including seven children.

The report proved unsurprisingly unsatisfactory to lawmakers—mostly but not exclusively Republicans—who are continuing to pursue additional oversight. Sen. Tom Cotton described the withdrawal as “an unmitigated fiasco,” and argued the Biden administration’s blame-shifting “won’t change that.” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas—chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—dismissed Kirby’s briefing as “disgraceful and insulting.” Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton told Fox News, “I don’t think it’s enough to just blame the previous administration.” The State and Defense Departments have given lawmakers more in-depth reports, but House Republicans are currently fighting to obtain classified cables related to the withdrawal. The State Department has thus far demurred, arguing such a disclosure would chill free analysis in future cables.

The administration does hint at learning from some mistakes, noting it now emphasizes evacuating Americans sooner and warning early and loudly about deteriorating security situations—citing Ukraine as a prime example. “In a destabilizing security environment, we now err on the side of aggressive communication about risks,” the summary says.

Although the circumstances in Ukraine and Afghanistan are far from equivalent, Roggio argued the administration’s failure to acknowledge mistakes in the withdrawal undermines confidence in its ability to accurately assess conditions in Ukraine. “The U.S. military’s intelligence is far better in assessing states than they are terrorist organizations, but what I witnessed in Afghanistan doesn’t inspire confidence that this administration is properly processing information,” he told The Dispatch. “Refusal to recognize their failures—what gives me the confidence that they aren’t making the same mistakes elsewhere?”

Worth Your Time

  • The Biden administration’s new standards on vehicle emissions might delay the electric vehicle future rather than speed it up, as the automotive industry struggles to meet aggressive production targets, Joe Lancaster argues in Reason. “Overall, the E.V. industry is struggling to reach scale,” he writes. “Ford, which sells more E.V.s than any company except Tesla, lost $2.1 billion on its electric division last year and expects to lose another $3 billion this year. Rivian, an electric truck and SUV manufacturer with one of the most successful IPOs in recent history, is struggling to meet its own production targets as it burns through cash. At this rate, there’s no guarantee that the automotive industry will be able to reach the government’s target of 67 percent E.V.s by 2032.” And pushing companies to meet those targets could lead to fewer investments in innovation, jeopardizing the long-term sustainability of the E.V. market: “The Biden administration should let the market decide. Clearly, there is a demand for electric vehicles. But by insisting on the rate at which the industry needs to make the transition, the administration’s incentives could be undermining progress.”
  • Sweet tooths and conspiracy theorists, unite: Ice cream might be good for you, and scientists are trying to cover it up. In 2018, a Harvard doctoral student found that, “among diabetics, eating half a cup of ice cream a day was associated with a lower risk of heart problems,” David Merritt Johns reports for The Atlantic. “He’d hardly been the first to observe the shimmer of a health halo around ice cream. When I contacted Tufts University, where he now works as a scientist, a press aide told me he was ‘not available for this.’ Inevitably, my curiosity took on a different shade: Why wouldn’t a young scientist want to talk with me about his research? Just how much deeper could this bizarre ice-cream thing go?” The skepticism about ice cream’s health benefits reveals a deeper truth: “A scientist may worry over how their story fits with common sense, and they may also worry that it poses a threat to public health, or to their credibility. If there’s a lesson to be drawn from the parable of the diet world’s most inconvenient truth, it’s that scientific knowledge is itself a packaged good. The data, whatever they show, are just ingredients.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Nick (kind of) downplays the likelihood (🔒) of a Trump 2028 nomination if he loses in 2024. “I’m 90 percent confident in my prediction,” he writes. “Well … maybe 70 percent confident. Fine, 51 percent confident. But definitely more confident than not.”
  • On the podcasts: Sarah, Steve, and Jonah discuss the Discord leaks, Republicans’ approach to abortion policy, and Tim Scott’s 2024 bid.
  • On the site: Kevin explores the past, present, and future of dollar dominance: “The United States remains in a strong economic position, with lots of options and lots of resources to throw at our long-term fiscal problems. But that position will not last forever if we remain on our current course.”

Let Us Know

Besides ice cream, what’s one food you’re hoping scientists have secretly discovered is actually good for you?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.