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The Morning Dispatch: Another Saigon?
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The Morning Dispatch: Another Saigon?

The U.S. still needs to evacuate nearly 100,000 people, both Americans and Afghan allies, from territory now controlled by the Taliban.

Happy Thursday! A special thanks to the many Dispatch members who tuned in for Dispatch Live last night with Steve, David, and Tom. If you missed it, you’re in luck. Here’s the video:

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, President Biden claimed he didn’t think there was a way to withdraw from Afghanistan “without chaos ensuing,” but added that U.S. troops will remain there beyond the administration’s self-imposed August 31 deadline if every American is not evacuated from the country by then. As many as 15,000 Americans—and 80,000 Afghan allies—remain in Afghanistan in need of evacuation.

  • Public health officials in the Biden administration on Wednesday announced a plan—pending final FDA and CDC approval—to begin administering COVID-19 vaccine booster shots on September 20 for Pfizer and Moderna recipients eight months past their second dose. “The available data make very clear that protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection begins to decrease over time following the initial doses of vaccination,” the officials said, “and in association with the dominance of the Delta variant, we are starting to see evidence of reduced protection against mild and moderate disease.”

  • The Biden administration is also moving toward requiring nursing homes and long-term care facilities to—as a condition of receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding—mandate their employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The move, once implemented in the coming weeks, would affect approximately 15,000 nursing homes and 1.3 million employees.

  • The Transportation Security Administration announced Tuesday it is extending its federal mask mandate for airline, bus, and train passengers—originally set to expire September 13—through January 18, 2022.

  • Under pressure from the United States, the International Monetary Fund said Wednesday that it will block the Taliban from accessing nearly $500 million dollars in emergency reserve funds that were originally set to be disbursed to Afghanistan next week.

  • After fleeing the country earlier this week, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani turned up on Wednesday in the United Arab Emirates, which confirmed it welcomed him and his family “on humanitarian grounds.”

  • T-Mobile announced this week that hackers may have accessed the personal information of nearly 50 million of the wireless carrier’s current, former, and prospective postpaid customers, including first and last names, date of birth, and Social Security/driver’s license information.

  • Georgia’s State Election Board on Wednesday unanimously approved the creation of a bipartisan, three-person review panel to investigate the way elections are handled in heavily Democratic Fulton County. The performance review panel is one step in a process that could—under Georgia’s new election law—allow the State Board to choose a temporary replacement administrator for Fulton’s board of elections.

  • A federal appeals court upheld a Texas law that outlaws an abortion procedure commonly used in second trimester abortions, dilation and evacuation. The law has been on the books since 2017 but never enforced, the Associated Press reports.

How to Get Out of Afghanistan

Afghans on their way to Kabul’s airport in an attempt to flee the country. (Photo by Aykut Karadag/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

When it comes to Kabul, the Biden administration is tired of the Saigon comparisons. “Remember, this is not Saigon,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the time to clarify to CNN’s Jake Tapper. He’s right—there are some operative differences, not the least of which is this: The evacuation of Saigon’s U.S. military and civilian presence was almost entirely complete before the North Vietnamese took the city, not after. About 130,000 South Vietnamese also escaped in the operation. 

To retrieve the 10,000-plus Americans and 80,000 Afghan allies currently stranded in Afghanistan would require one of the largest non-combatant evacuation operations in U.S. military history, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday. The effort—even if it falls short of evacuating the nearly 100,000 evacuees, which it almost certainly will—is likely to be second only to the 1975 American departure from South Vietnam in its scope.

As of yesterday, about 4,500 of the 6,000 authorized U.S. troops occupied Hamid Karzai International to secure its perimeter and aid in the evacuation. According to the Pentagon, the U.S. could be airlifting between 5,000 and 9,000 people daily in the coming two weeks, given that Karzai’s airspace remains secure. 

But to fill the military and commercial aircrafts outbound from Kabul’s airport, the evacuees must first get there. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan’s capital, up to its airport’s gates, poses immediate danger to travelers—with or without U.S. passports.

Below a security alert urging trapped Americans to “consider” making their way past Taliban checkpoints and to the airport, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad affixed a bold disclaimer: “THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CANNOT ENSURE SAFE PASSAGE TO THE HAMID KARZAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.”

And for Afghan nationals, the situation has been much worse. As masses of families flood Karzai, Taliban fighters have dispersed crowds by beating evacuees with batons and chains and firing off automatic weapons into the air, all while U.S. troops guarding the complex watch with orders to stand down.

Andrew and Charlotte covered the evacuation efforts, and some of the sticky domestic debates they’ve elicited, in a story on the site today:

The basic reality of the current American position in Afghanistan is this: The Kabul airport, which is held by U.S. forces, is one tiny island in a sea of Taliban-controlled territory. America and other entities can land and take off planes, so anyone who gets into the airport will make it to safety. But the streets surrounding the airport are seething with Taliban combatants, who have begun operating checkpoints of those trying to get through.

In our domestic political conversation, the White House may talk about prioritizing the evacuation of various groups and its critics may complain about those professed priorities. But both groups ignore the fact that both would rather leave unspoken: As things stand now, America isn’t getting to pick which Afghans and Americans will be flying out on our evac planes. That decision belongs to our jihadi adversaries.

Meanwhile, the administration has repeated its claim that current evacuees are to blame for their own tardiness. The Afghan government and its supporters, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday, objected to a mass evacuation “lest we trigger a loss of confidence.” No mention was made of the Biden team’s mixed public messaging regarding Afghanistan’s security. 

“The Americans over there aren’t tourists. These are people who have worked in dangerous places before, for NGOs and other international organizations,” said Jason Killmeyer, former chief of staff of global defense, security, and justice at Deloitte. “I think they were comfortable with the level of risk, but also underestimated the pace at which the Taliban would move in and overestimated the competence of this administration.”

Ultimately, the droves of stranded Americans and Afghans appear to be at the mercy of the Taliban. Asked yesterday if the military would consider deploying troops to extract U.S. citizens behind Taliban lines, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin argued that such a move would dilute the forces guarding the airport—Afghanistan’s last remaining exit point with the Taliban’s takeover of its borders and Bagram Air Base. 

“In terms of whether or not we intend to send forces outside of the airfield to collect up American citizens or Afghans who were special immigrant visa applicants. The forces that we have are focused on the security of the airfield,” Austin said in his first public appearance since Kabul’s fall. “But we will continue to coordinate and deconflict with the Taliban.” 

The administration’s plan rests on the same false premise repeated by the U.S. since before the Taliban’s takeover: Because the Taliban wants international legitimacy, it’s willing to engage in good faith diplomacy. The international community, Americans were told, would not accept a government in Afghanistan implemented “by force.” This logic was allegedly sufficient to keep the Taliban’s military operations at bay (a strategy that has clearly not gone as planned).

“The Americans were consistently lied to over the two years. We were told that we expect the Taliban to reduce violence. The Doha agreement doesn’t say anything about reducing violence,” Husain Haqqani, who served as Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and now works at the Hudson Institute, told The Dispatch. “Essentially, the deal was a surrender to the Taliban. And if the deal was to surrender to the Taliban in return for safe passage, the American public should have been told that. … A lot of lives would have been saved. A lot of Afghans would have made plans to leave the country.” 

Worth Your Time

  • To best understand what’s happening in Afghanistan right now, you need to appreciate the country’s history. Through personal stories, helpful graphics, and moving photographs from Kiana Hayeri, Jason Motlagh’s latest piece for National Geographic provides a comprehensive look at the region’s past—and why it remains so fraught. “For 50 years, Afghanistan has swung from coups to conflicts,” he writes. “In 1973 an Afghan general ousted the king and declared himself president. Five years later, Afghan communists assassinated him and seized power. The Soviet Union invaded the next year to prop up the unpopular communists, sparking a decade-long guerrilla war. The U.S. funneled billions of dollars via Pakistan to anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters from across the Islamic world—including the Saudi jihadist Osama bin Laden—and they eventually forced the Soviets to withdraw. A power-sharing deal failed, and the militants fractured into warring factions. The Taliban emerged in the chaos and seized power in 1996.”

  • Sticking with that historical theme, Hal Brands asks in Bloomberg if the embarrassment in Kabul can’t jumpstart a new, better chapter in the United States foreign policy—like a similar failure in Saigon did nearly a half century ago. “Failure can sometimes create unexpected opportunities,” he argues. “The U.S. surged to victory in the 1980s because it invested in a retooled military that featured the nation’s technological advantages as well as aggressive new strategies for halting and punishing Soviet aggression. It undertook, especially in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, covert interventions that punished Soviet overextension by funding well-motivated insurgents that were rebelling against communist regimes. And it launched, under President Ronald Reagan’s administration, a multipronged campaign to regain momentum in the Cold War. The U.S. waged economic warfare on the Soviet Union, delegitimized it in international forums, and otherwise forced Moscow on the defensive.”

  • “Social isolation and loneliness tend to go together,” Kim Tingley writes in a piece for New York Times Magazine, but, clinically speaking, the two are actually distinct phenomena—with distinct health impacts and solutions. “In February 2020, a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine noted that a third of Americans over 45 feel lonely; a quarter of those over 65 are socially isolated,” Tingley notes. “Each condition increases a person’s risk of premature death from any cause—as much as or more than smoking or a lack of physical activity do—as well as the risk of heart disease and stroke. Social isolation increased the risk of dementia 50 percent, and loneliness correlated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. Older adults, along with people in marginalized groups, are at heightened risk of both isolation and loneliness.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Scott Lincicome’s latest Capitolism (🔒) makes a passionate case for why the United States should do more for refugees—Afghan and otherwise. “The United States between 2012 and 2017 accepted a net increase of 654,128 asylees, refugees, and similarly situated people,” he notes. “That might sound like a lot, but it was only 0.2 percent of the U.S. population as of 2017—an acceptance rate surpassed by 49 other countries over the same period and well below the top 50’s average of 1.2 percent.”

  • The bulk of Wednesday’s Dispatch Podcast focused on the United States’ Afghanistan withdrawal: Was there a middle ground between staying forever and what we’ve seen this week? How should evacuations be prioritized? Will Biden be able to rebound from this politically? Plus, quick conversations on the state of the pandemic and the latest Census data.

  • What does the fall of Kabul mean outside of Afghanistan? Nothing good for the world order, Paul Miller argues. Miller paints a stark future for the future of liberalism and democracy. “There is an old adage about how one goes bankrupt: gradually, and then suddenly,” he writes. “We are on the gradual slope to the bankruptcy of world order, and we do not know how close we may be to a precipitous collapse.” 

Let Us Know

Do you, like Hal Brands, harbor some optimism that this week’s humiliation in Afghanistan could serve as a jumping off point for a reinvigorated America on the world stage? Or has the U.S. already peaked as a global superpower?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).