The Morning Dispatch: Biden’s Afghanistan Legacy Play

Happy Wednesday! Just like that, it’s September—which is weird because 2021 just started two months ago.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Hurricane Ida’s confirmed death toll rose to four on Tuesday after the storm’s extreme rainfall resulted in the collapse of a section of Mississippi highway. More than 1 million customers in Louisiana remained without power as of Tuesday night. Gov. John Bel Edwards said yesterday that residents who had evacuated prior to the hurricane’s landfall shouldn’t return yet, because “the schools are not open, the businesses are not open, the hospitals are slammed, there’s no water in your home, and there’s not going to be electricity.”

  • A Texas law banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected—which is usually around the sixth week of pregnancy—went into effect early this morning after the Supreme Court did not grant an emergency petition to halt it. Lawsuits challenging the law’s constitutionality remain underway in federal court.

  • Eurozone year-over-year inflation reached its highest level since November 2011 this month, with consumer prices spiking 3 percent from August 2020 to August 2021.

  • Facebook announced Tuesday that, after months of consumer research and surveys, it has determined that its users want “to see less political content in their News Feed.” The company will now conduct larger tests in Costa Rica, Sweden, Spain, and Ireland, and begin tweaking its algorithm “to put less emphasis on signals such as how likely someone is to comment on or share political content.” 

  • After months of delay tactics from Democratic lawmakers, Texas Republicans on Tuesday advanced the final version of Senate Bill 1—legislation undoing many of the pandemic-era changes to election administration—to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. Abbott has said he will sign it into law.

  • An annual government report released yesterday projected that Social Security’s trust fund will likely be depleted by 2034, a year earlier than the same report estimated last year. Medicare’s likely insolvency date—2026—remained unchanged.

Biden Makes a Legacy Play on Afghanistan

(Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images.)

A few minutes before 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, President Joe Biden strode into the White House State Dining Room to deliver a speech he presumably had been anticipating ever since he announced back in April the United States would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of September 11—and likely much earlier.

“My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over,” he said forcefully, jabbing his index finger forward with every word. “When I was running for president, I made a commitment to the American people that I would end this war. And today, I’ve honored that commitment.”

A lot, of course, has happened between Biden making that commitment and the final C-17 military aircraft taking off from Hamid Karzai International Airport earlier this week. The Taliban marched through the country in days, reclaiming Kabul as the Afghan National Security Forces collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates. The Biden administration’s self-imposed withdrawal deadline moved up 11 days. Images of desperate Afghans plunging to their death from American planes rocketed around the world. An ISIS-K bombing near the airport killed 13 U.S. personnel and as many as 170 civilians. One of the United States’ retaliatory strikes eliminated a second “imminent” threat, but reportedly killed 10 Afghan noncombatants—including seven children—as well. The CENTCOM commander conceded upon the withdrawal’s completion that “we did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.” By the Biden administration’s count, between 100 and 200 Americans—and tens of thousands of Afghan allies—remain in Afghanistan despite wanting to leave.

The president addressed several of these shortcomings at various points in his remarks Tuesday, vacillating between “tak[ing] responsibility” for how events unfolded and shifting blame toward both the Trump administration and the Afghan government:

  • “The assumption was that more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces that we had trained over the past two decades and equipped would be a strong adversary in their civil wars with the Taliban. That assumption—that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time beyond military drawdown—turned out not to be accurate.”

  • “We owe [the 13 U.S. service members who lost their lives] and their families a debt of gratitude we can never repay but we should never, ever, ever forget.”

  • “We struck ISIS-K remotely, days after they murdered 13 of our servicemembers and dozens of innocent Afghans. To ISIS-K: We are not done with you yet.”

  • “Since March, we reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan, with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan—all the way back as far as March. … Now we believe that about 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan with some intention to leave.  Most of those who remain are dual citizens, long-time residents who had earlier decided to stay because of their family roots in Afghanistan.”

  • “For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out.”

  • “By the time I came to office, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country.”

But the primary purpose of yesterday’s speech became clear in its final moments. “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” Biden said. “We’ve been a nation too long at war. If you’re 20 years old today, you have never known an America at peace.”

“There’s nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war,” he continued, citing both the “hell” that veterans and their families go through and a Brown University study pegging the Afghanistan War’s cost over the past two decades at $300 million per day. “When I hear that we could’ve, should’ve continued the so-called low-grade effort in Afghanistan, at low risk to our service members, at low cost, I don’t think enough people understand how much we have asked of the 1 percent of this country who put that uniform on, who are willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our nation.”

After weeks on the defensive—during which he saw his net approval rating drop from +10 to -1—Biden here was returning to safer political terrain. Regular readers of The Sweep know that issue polling is generally worth about as much as the paper this newsletter is printed on, but the results of several different surveys published in recent days have been both consistent and overwhelming. A significant majority of American voters believe the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has gone poorly, but a similarly significant majority still believe the war is no longer worth it and withdrawal itself was the correct decision. As the news cycle inevitably moves on, Biden is banking on the country’s focus shifting from the former to the latter. If he becomes known as the president who finally ended the United States’ foreign entanglements abroad while overseeing “one of the biggest airlifts in history,” the pain of the past few weeks may prove politically worth it.

But it’s a risky bet, as Biden’s fortunes are now tied to the Taliban’s willingness to adhere to handshake agreements and abide by the rules of the international order. The president maintained yesterday that the United States’ “over-the-horizon” anti-terrorism capabilities are a suitable replacement for boots on the ground—but what if they aren’t? Press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday that the administration is “going to get” any remaining Americans that want to leave Afghanistan out of the country—but what if it can’t? During yesterday’s press briefing, Philip Wegmann of RealClearNews asked if the White House was preparing for a “worst-case scenario” hostage situation. “Our focus right now is on making clear to the Taliban and to others in Afghanistan that we are going to get these American citizens out, that we are going to hold them to that,” Psaki responded.

For better or worse, Biden’s legacy will be inextricably linked to the Afghanistan War; it was a 20-year conflict, and he was there for all of it—beginning, middle, and end.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001, Biden voted—alongside 97 of his colleagues—to authorize the use of force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In a hearing one month later, he told then-Secretary of State Colin Powell that “both political parties are united in our resolve to pursue and conclude successfully this war.”

“The world should also know,” Biden continued, “that there’s broad agreement not only on eliminating Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network—as well as the Taliban that supports him—but there’s also broad agreement and support for the president’s resolve to keep a coalition together to help feed displaced Afghans, as well as put together … a viable government that will be a source of stability and not a source of unrest after we successfully prosecute this war effort.”

“I need not tell you this won’t be easy,” he concluded then. “But be assured many of us will stand shoulder to shoulder with you in what are bound to be some very difficult decisions you and the president are going to have to make.”

Twenty years later, President Biden was faced with his own “difficult decisions” in Afghanistan, and chose to cede the country to the Taliban once again.

“I give you my word,” he said at the end of his speech yesterday. “With all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America.”

An Update on the January 6 Select Committee

We haven’t heard much from the January 6 select committee since the fireworks of the initial hearing back in July, but the investigation began to ramp up in earnest over the past week, with Rep. Bennie Thompson—the committee’s chairman—sending information requests related to the riot to dozens of social media and telecom companies, including AT&T,​ T-Mobile, Apple, Google, and Twitter. Harvest was all over it in yesterday’s Uphill (which you should be sure you are subscribed to!).

What kind of data is the committee looking for?

The request seeks information such as records of incoming and outgoing calls, metadata, text messages, and emails ranging from April 2020 to January 2021. The letters to companies also note that they are seeking records of individuals as well. Although the specific names were redacted from the orders, Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson told reporters last week that members of Congress would likely be included in the request.

On Monday, CNN reported that the records request included GOP Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Jody Hice of Georgia, and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.

Among those on the list, some reportedly had phone conversations with Trump on January 6.

Seeking members’ communication records is an aggressive move.

It’s unknown whether the companies will comply with the request or whether the panel will seek to compel cooperation. The committee does have subpoena power, but attempts to wield it will likely result in court battles, particularly if members of Congress are targeted.

Republicans, unsurprisingly, are not pleased with attempts to unearth their private conversations about January 6 and the events leading up to it.

Indiana GOP Rep. Jim Banks sent a letter to Thompson Friday slamming the move. “This type of authoritarian undertaking has no place in the House of Representatives and the information you seek has no conceivable legislative purpose,” he wrote.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went a step further on Tuesday night, arguing that the tech and telecom companies would be “in violation of federal law” if they complied with the committee’s requests and making a direct threat of retribution. “If companies still choose to violate federal law, a Republican majority will not forget and will stand with Americans to hold them fully accountable under the law,” he wrote. The Dispatch emailed McCarthy’s office Tuesday night asking which federal law complying with a congressional subpoena would violate; we did not receive a response by time of publication.

What else is the select committee up to?

Last Wednesday, the panel demanded records from eight executive branch agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice. The wide-ranging request asks for “all documents and communications relating in any way to remarks made by Donald Trump or any other persons on January 6.” It asks for calendars, schedules, and movement logs related to the former president, as well as former Vice President Mike Pence. The request also asks for information on a list of Trump aides, including Mark Meadows, Stephen Miller, Kayleigh McEnany, and others.

The committee also sent a request to 15 social media companies asking for records to be preserved that have some bearing on “the spread of misinformation, efforts to overturn the 2020 election or prevent the certification of the results, domestic violent extremism, and foreign influence in the 2020 election.” The targeted companies include 4chan, Gab, Parler, and Reddit, among others.

Worth Your Time

  • In the New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat notes that, like most Americans post-9/11, he harbored “overconfidence in American military capacities, naïve World War II nostalgia, and crusading humanitarianism.” But the Afghanistan War has led him to a deep sense of cynicism about not only the “class of generals, officials, experts, and politicos” that managed the war effort over the years, but “America’s capacities as a superpower.” Although the Biden administration’s “shambolic” withdrawal “displayed an incompetence in departing a country that matched our impotence at pacifying it,” he writes, “the circumstances under which the Biden withdrawal had to happen doubled as a devastating indictment of the policies pursued by his three predecessors.”

  • In yesterday’s edition of “The Trailer” newsletter, the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel explores how, after months of struggling to define their opposition to President Biden, Republicans have found something that sticks with Afghanistan. “For most of this year, Biden himself wasn’t an effective foil in Republican advertising, which more frequently linked Democrats to their far-left House members, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.),” he notes. “This has begun to change.”

  • There’s no shortage of news nowadays detailing the myriad ways in which the world is getting worse. But there’s a real dearth of coverage detailing the numerous ways quality of living has risen in the United States in recent years. Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown compiled a list, ranging from a long-term precipitous drop in violent crime to more efficient cancer treatments to more trivial things like the quality of our home entertainment systems.

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In this week’s edition of The Sweep, Sarah provides an update on 2022 and clues readers in to what she’s watching to get a sense of where the political winds lie ahead of the midterms: the Virginia gubernatorial race, the California recall election, congressional retirements, and the strength of both parties’ candidate recruitment. Plus, Chris Stirewalt weighs in on why Democrats’ penchant for mail-in voting could spell doom for California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

  • Reason’s Peter Suderman joined Jonah on The Remnant this week for a discussion of Afghanistan, Bitcoin, and government spending. Stick around till the end to hear Peter’s thoughts on Kanye West’s new album, as well as a deep dive on his side hustle as a cocktail aficionado.

  • David’s Tuesday French Press(🔒) focused on the “seemingly endless” stream of conspiracies tormenting American politics and culture. Americans “should reject partisanship as an identity,” he writes, “in part because we are learning that there are often no limits to the gullibility and rage of the truly partisan person, especially when negative polarization means that partisan commitment is defined by animosity against the other side.”

Let Us Know

What kind of retribution do you think Kevin McCarthy has in mind for companies that comply with requests for information from the January 6 committee? Should they comply? 

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

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