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The Morning Dispatch: The Impact of Trump’s Troop Withdrawals
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The Morning Dispatch: The Impact of Trump’s Troop Withdrawals

Plus: Airlines struggle as demand for flights remains low.

Happy Thursday! All those 19-year-olds getting drafted into the NBA last night made your Morning Dispatchers feel old!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Pfizer and BioNTech said yesterday they plan to apply for emergency FDA authorization for their COVID-19 vaccine “within days,” after the results from the companies’ Phase III study showed the vaccine to be 95 percent effective against the coronavirus.

  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced all public schools in the city will move entirely online after New York City’s coronavirus test positivity reached 3 percent, a threshold backed by the city’s powerful teachers’ union. Indoor dining and gyms remain open at a reduced capacity in New York.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi was renominated by House Democrats yesterday to lead the House of Representatives for another two-year term, which she hinted would be her last as speaker.

  • The Trump campaign officially requested a partial recount in Wisconsin, alleging—without evidence—“mistakes and fraud” across the state, but particularly in Milwaukee and Dane counties, which broke heavily for Joe Biden. The campaign paid $3 million to the Wisconsin Elections Commission for the recount, as Biden’s lead in the state is large enough to not trigger one automatically.

  • The United States confirmed 181,640 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 11.7 percent of the 1,553,852 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,928 deaths were attributed to the virus on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 250,483. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 79,410 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

The Impact of U.S. Troop Drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq

In an effort to follow through on a core promise of his 2016 campaign, President Trump announced plans to withdraw roughly 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq before President-elect Biden enters office in January. Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller took to the Pentagon podium Tuesday to lay out the repositioning, characterizing it as an effort to end the country’s costly “forever wars.” But to some foreign policy analysts and lawmakers, the abrupt announcement reads as a base political move with tangible regional and global security repercussions.

With two months left in his presidency, Trump is poised to follow the lead of his predecessor’s 2011 retreat from Iraq. At the time, President Obama’s move was met with a flurry of criticism and warnings, validated when ISIS filled the power vacuum left behind by U.S. forces. In Afghanistan—where the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State all retain a presence to varying degrees—the aftermath of a withdrawal could come with similar repercussions. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said as much Tuesday, when he warned that “the consequences of a premature American exit” from Afghanistan “would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism.” Iraq, with only 3,000 U.S. troops remaining, is less likely to feel the immediate impact of an American withdrawal.

The resurgence of the Taliban in the 2010s—both in terms of influence and territorial holdings—set the stage for President Trump’s February so-called “peace deal” with the insurgent group. In an effort to facilitate a peace process before withdrawal, the agreement stipulated the initiation of intra-Afghan negotiations between Taliban leadership and the Afghan government, which had been excluded from the negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S. Since they began in September, however, the peace talks have stalled—and the Taliban has ramped up its campaign of violence against Afghan security forces. 

“I think there’s very little chance for success or breakthrough in the talks in the next three to six months, but in large degree, that’s because of the U.S. presidential transition and the fact that it’s going to take the U.S. awhile, from a policymaking level, to refocus on Afghanistan,” Andrew Watkins, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan, told The Dispatch. “The Afghan peace talks were at a standstill before they even got started and they haven’t really even gotten off the ground yet.”

Watkins believes a U.S. withdrawal amid a broken peace process, during a conflict that’s now considered the world’s deadliest, would be bad for Afghans, but also bad for regional and global security. “If you have sides scrambling for plan Bs and insurance plan policies, that’s when things could get really bad—in Afghanistan and in the region as well, because then all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, some of whom have really tense relationships with one another, are going to scramble to try to come out on top,” Watkins said. 

And although their influence in the country is nominal compared with the Taliban’s, ISIS and al-Qaeda operate offshoots of their global terror networks within Afghanistan. While the Taliban fights the former, it cooperates with the latter, despite pushes by the U.S. government to break ties. “The deeper you go into the text of the formal agreement, the more obvious it becomes that—however hard the U.S. might’ve tried to push for a complete denunciation and a breaking of ties—they clearly weren’t able to get the Taliban to agree to that,” explained Watkins. “Al-Qaeda has existed in Afghanistan and had a presence in Afghanistan since before the Taliban even formed itself. That’s not a presence or a legacy that’s going away quickly or easily.”

As Charlotte wrote in a piece for the site last week, Joe Biden has indicated he plans to reduce U.S. ground forces but leave a “small American footprint” in Afghanistan in the form of counterterrorism and intelligence personnel. The president-elect has long signaled—at least rhetorically—a desire to bring troops home from the region, as evidenced by this 2012 tweet.

But Biden’s frontrunner for secretary of defense—Pentagon veteran Michèle Flournoy—is known among Democrats for her relatively hawkish tendencies. During her service in the Obama administration, f0r example, Flournoy supported the president’s “surge” strategy in Afghanistan—a 30,000-troop increase. Flournoy will likely play a leading role in the Biden administration’s decision to further draw down troops or undo Trump’s decision. 

Lawmakers have split in their responses to the Trump administration’s announcement, and not necessarily along partisan lines. The two highest ranking members of the House Armed Services Committee both issued statements on the decision. Democratic Rep. Adam Smith applauded it, saying that “reducing our forward deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision.” Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry, on the other hand, didn’t reserve criticism for the president’s move, arguing “these additional reductions of American troops from terrorist areas are a mistake.”

Many policy analysts and elected officials agree that—whether or not a drawdown is a prudent security move–the decision should have been Biden’s. “Trump’s actions are akin to a firefighter who finally gets the fire down to mere embers but then gets tired and goes home, no matter that a flare up is inevitable,” Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch. “A true leader would put national security above ego and leave a full range of options to the president-elect.”

“I believe it’s political. There was no tactical, operational or strategic merit to doing this,” retired Marine Gen. John Allen said during an event organized by the Global Security Forum. “We question whether this was to fulfill a campaign promise or to foreclose options for the Biden administration.”

In a statement to The Dispatch, Rep. Liz Cheney also took shots at the seemingly political nature of the reductions of American forces. “Decisions about troop levels should be made based on conditions on the ground not political timetables in Washington. Cutting troop levels in Afghanistan to 2500 puts at risk our efforts to prevent terrorists from establishing safe havens from which they could again attack the United States,” she said. “We saw the consequences of political withdrawal decisions during the Obama/Biden administration when America’s withdrawal allowed the formation of the ISIS caliphate. We must not repeat those devastating policies.”

Boeing 737 Cleared by FAA, But Air Travel Demand Dwindles

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Wednesday gave the go ahead for Boeing’s 737 Max to hit the skies again, formally ending a 20-month emergency order of prohibition on the airplanes that began in March 2019 after fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people. “The path that led us to this point was long and grueling, but we said from the start that we would take the time necessary to get this right,” FAA chief Steve Dickson said in a video message on Wednesday. “I am 100 percent comfortable with my family flying on it.”

The news is undoubtedly good for Boeing and its shareholders, but the return of the 737 Max comes at a time of unprecedented volatility for the airline industry; fear of the coronavirus and a dramatic surge in unemployment have occasioned a plunge in profits. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), American passenger airlines reported a net loss of $11 billion in Q2 2020. They reported a net profit of $4.8 billion in Q2 2019.

The ebb and flow of lockdowns and travel restrictions over the past eight months have all but eviscerated consumer demand for air travel, forcing airlines to cancel flights, slash labor costs, and ground fleets of planes in boneyards in response to a drastic plunge in revenue. Business travel has also taken a huge hit during the pandemic, while working from home and Zoom conferences have transformed the teleworking world.

Airlines are pulling out all the stops to win back potential flyers. United, Delta, and American Airlines, for example, have permanently cut change fees to entice customers. But there’s no getting around the fact that the last eight months have tanked the industry, even as some studies have found that the risk of COVID-19 transmission on planes is relatively low. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said last month that, of approximately 1.2 billion airline passengers in 2020, there have only been 44 cases of reported COVID-19 transmission “thought to have been associated with a flight journey.”

Nevertheless, preliminary BTS data show that airline traffic among the country’s 23 biggest airlines fell an estimated 65 percent from September 2019 (71.5 million passengers) to September 2020 (25.1 million passengers). The year-over-year numbers are stark, but it’s worth noting that numbers have been trending upward—at least until this latest coronavirus surge. When the country first locked down in late March and early April, TSA traveler throughput dropped—at its lowest points—below 100,000 passengers per day, compared to 2.5 million per day on the same date a year earlier. The United States has broached 1 million daily passengers exactly once in the eight months since—on October 18—and is averaging just under 800,000 per day over the last week, compared to an average of about 2.2 million over the same timeframe a year ago.

This year’s drastic dip in consumer demand for air travel has prompted a sea of layoffs and furloughs among airline workers. The number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) employed by passenger airlines fell by nearly 60,000 from March to September, and the September figure—404,869—represented a 10.5 percent drop from September 2019. And airlines are warning that more layoffs may be on the horizon if they can’t come to agreements with workers’ unions. 

For the second time in two weeks, Southwest Airlines sent warnings to more than 400 employees on Wednesday—including mechanics, technicians, and cleaning personnel—that they may be furloughed if the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association does not agree to a one-year 10 percent cut in pay.

Commercial airlines are hoping that this week’s promising news on the COVID-19 vaccine front means the virus could be under control by early next year. But absent a congressional relief package that offers industry bailouts, airlines are bracing for an unprecedented loss of revenue that will be difficult to recover from even once consumer demand reaches pre-pandemic levels.

Worth Your Time

  • Messenger RNA has been in the headlines recently as the technology underpinning the successful vaccine trials by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. Damian Garde and Jonathan Saltzman, writing in Stat News, outline the underdog story of a bleeding-edge technology whose “prospects have swung billions of dollars on the stock market, made and imperiled scientific careers, and fueled hopes that it could be a breakthrough that allows society to return to normalcy.” Messenger RNA relies on replicating the RNA the body produces to tell cells which proteins, including antibodies, to create. But it was mired in setbacks until the research of Katalin Kiriko, a Hungarian-born American scientist who spent years working through rejection: “Every night I was working: grant, grant, grant…it came back always no, no, no,” she told Stat News. But Harvard academics, in Moderna’s case, and German biotech entrepreneurs, in BioNTech’s, paid attention to Kiriko’s research, creating companies that are now at the forefront of the global fight against COVID-19.

  • Michael Lind, writing in Tablet, reframes the ongoing turmoil over “wokeness” as the WASPs (or at least their descendants) reclaim power. The Yankee Protestant ethos dominated American politics from the 1860s to the New Deal, which represented “the partial overthrow of Yankee Protestant hegemony in American society by a coalition of outsiders, chiefly provincial Southern and Western whites and European-American immigrants in the North, many of them Catholic.” But WASPs retained some control over elite institutions like the Ivies, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and America’s “Deep State,” allowing them to preserve and create “a version of Social Gospel Protestantism.” Lind concludes that what we are seeing  now “is a power grab carried out chiefly by some white Americans against other white Americans,” namely the “recalcitrant Southern, Catholic, and Jewish whites, along with members of ethnic and racial minorities who refuse to be assimilated into the new national orthodoxy.”

  • In doing research for the newsletter today, we came across this sharp Mercatus Center policy brief from Veronique de Rugy and Gary Leff making the case against a second airline bailout. “In spite of the first bailout, the largest carriers have already separated from 30 percent of their nonunion staff. This new bailout will do nothing to bring these jobs back and, therefore, isn’t about preserving old employment levels,” they argue. “Bailing out airlines the first time around was a bad idea; doing it again would be even more counterproductive. It only delays the inevitable. Adapting to less demand is not only a necessity; it should be welcomed. Airlines should be more flexible to adapt to emergencies, even if doing so will never be painless or ideal.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In his midweek G-File (🔒), Jonah makes the case for something that may not be in the best business interests of The Dispatch, but is true regardless: You should read a wide variety of news sources from across the political spectrum. “One of the most amazing things about the culture war is how so many of its combatants are convinced their side is losing in a rout,” he writes. “If lefties read more right-wing stuff, they’d learn that there are a lot of people out there who believe that the left has been blitzkrieging across the cultural landscape unopposed for decades. And if righties read more lefties they’d discover that a lot of left-wingers write as if they are desperate chroniclers of an extinction-level event.”

  • On the latest episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah and the guys talk Big Tech regulation, COVID-19’s third wave, Biden’s Cabinet, and Trump’s refusal to concede the presidential election.

Let Us Know

If you were king or queen for a day, what would be your public policy approach to getting us through the winter and to a widespread vaccine? What would you restrict, and what would you leave open? How much stimulus, and for what? Who should get the vaccine first once it is approved for emergency use?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Thomas Watkins/AFP/Getty Images.