The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Tag: taliban takeover

Danziger Draws

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

Testimony By Military Chiefs Vindicates Biden's Afghan Decisions, Evacuation

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet

Top military leaders appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, taking questions from lawmakers about, among other topics, President Joe Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden has faced heavy criticism for the chaotic evacuation and has seen his approval numbers decline since it was carried out. But despite much of the media's framing and the Republicans' spin, Biden's actions and choices were largely vindicated by the day's testimony.

CNN, for one, didn't see it that way. It aired a segment Tuesday afternoon focusing on the fact that officials testified that they advised Biden to leave 2,500 troops in Afghanistan rather than pull out completely at the end of August, as he did. Host Jake Tapper said this contradicted Biden's remark in an ABC News interview that he hadn't acted against the generals' advice.

Since the withdrawal, many commentators in the media concluded that the chaos that resulted must be blamed on Biden. Backed by military hawks, many of whom helped launch the disastrous War on Terror in the first place, pundits grasped for concrete failures they could pin on Biden. CNN and Tapper seemed happy to latch on to this one: Biden didn't listen to the generals. And to make it worse, he lied about it.

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz seized on this issue too:

But this framing of the hearing was superficial and misleading.

When Biden was asked by ABC News about reports about the generals advising him to leave troops in Afghanistan, he gave a defensive and admittedly confusing answer. At one point, he said he couldn't recall anyone giving him this advice. But he also said that the generals were "split" on the issue, directly implying that some of them had, in fact, given this advice. It was a squirrelly answer, to be sure, but it's not a major cover-up.

And the reality isn't a mystery at all. In fact, the central narrative of Biden's decision to pull out of Afghanistan was precisely that he was going against the mainstream views of the hawks in the national security community and the top military brass. Many argued that this was what made the decision bold and difficult for Biden, and it's why Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama before him were never able to leave the country, despite their stated desires to end such conflicts. Biden finally stood up to the generals.

After all, the general's advice to leave behind 2,500 troops wasn't a piece of tactical wisdom that Biden ignored. They were asking him to abandon his central policy objective on Afghanistan, which was to get out. They were also asking him to abandon the deal Trump had made in 2020 to finally leave the country.

For the media to latch on to this criticism is to give away the game so many of Biden's critics in the commentariat have played. It was a constant refrain from critics during the withdrawal that Biden's choice to leave — a highly popular position among voters — wasn't the problem; the problem was the way Biden did it. That argument completely collapses if one takes the position that the thing Biden could have done to withdraw better was not withdraw at all.

Indeed, despite the fact that so many of Biden's critics were desperate to say he botched a withdrawal that, in theory, could have been run properly, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley gave testimony completely contradicting this view.

"From an operational and tactical standpoint, [the evacuation] was successful. Strategically, the war was lost. The enemy is in Kabul," Milley said. "It was a logistical success but a strategic failure."

This is precisely what many in the media and the GOP refuse to acknowledge. The evacuation actually went off remarkably well, given the conditions it was carried out under. The military didn't expect the Afghan government to collapse as quickly as it did, but once it fell, the U.S. implemented a high-stakes plan to evacuate more than 100,000 people from a hostile country with impressive agility.

The strategic failure, such as it is, also isn't Biden's. It was a failure of the war itself, which began 20 years ago. But that fault doesn't lay with the Biden presidency. He came in with the Trump administration's agreement to leave the country already in place and with an American people who were ready to see the war end. And under his leadership, the military carried out a successful evacuation from a dismal situation.

Milley even admitted that, had the president followed his and others' advice to leave in 2,500 troops, the Afghan government wouldn't have been able to sustain itself when U.S. forces withdrew.

"The end-state probably would've been the same, no matter when you did it," he said.

And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin admitted that, had the U.S. stayed behind past August, it would have reignited the war and required more troops to be sent in:

These facts effectively demolish the mainstream criticisms of Biden on Afghanistan. The evacuation was a logistical success. The main alternative Biden was presented with by the generals was leaving 2,500 troops behind. That would've reignited war with the Taliban, required more troops, and it wouldn't have fortified the Afghan government to better resist the Taliban in the future. It would've just been kicking the can down the road, and whenever the U.S. finally decided to pull out for real, the "end-state probably would've been the same."

But Biden's critics refuse to learn these lessons, even when they're presented under oath.

There is one major criticism of Biden on Afghanistan that does have merit, though, but Republicans and members of the media rarely raise it. He was much too slow in issuing Special Immigrant Visas that were already in the pipeline for Afghans who had helped the U.S. military and wanted to leave. And he should've made it much easier for refugees of all kinds to leave the country and come to the United States. Biden was far more permissive of accepting Afghan immigrants than the Trump administration was, but not nearly to the extent demanded by the circumstances and justice.

That's a very different story from the one we're hearing. But it's what the public should know.

Danziger Draws

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

Mainstream Media Ignored Afghan War For Years

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

When the Taliban reclaimed Afghanistan last month, their victory was the culmination of two decades of failures by U.S. political, military, and diplomatic elites across four presidencies.

It also starkly revealed the failures of the U.S. press, whose relatively minimal coverage of the country in recent years had allowed those responsible for faltering U.S. policy to escape accountability. Conveniently for those leaders and pundits, the recent spike in context-free negative coverage of the Taliban takeover has now helped make President Joe Biden the scapegoat for ordering the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Afghanistan was only treated as a major news story when U.S. forces invaded in 2001, when they evacuated last month, and to some extent during the Obama-era surge in troop levels. Over the last decade, even as events transpired that led inexorably to U.S. defeat -- the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians to an ongoing civil war and terrorist strikes, the loss of the Afghan government's credibility amid a host of corruption scandals, a revived Taliban undeterred by U.S. airstrikes or the U.S.-trained Afghan military -- news coverage remained largely muted. As one Afghanistan specialist put it, "This is the least reported war since at least WWI."

To be clear, we know as much as we do about these events thanks to the essential coverage provided by American journalists and their Afghan colleagues. But their work was generally ignored by broadcast and cable news channels and rarely made the newspaper front pages. Without sustained media focus, it was relatively easy for the bipartisan foreign policy community to continue on its flawed course. Only in the frantic final days of the U.S. presence in the country -- when it was too late to change the outcome but just in time to assign blame -- did Afghanistan become a singular focus for major news outlets.

The New York Times, for example, ran 55 front-page stories about Afghanistan in August, according to a Media Matters review of the Nexis database. That figure is higher than in any single month other than October 2001 -- when the U.S. invaded the country -- and higher than in any full year since 2015. The Times averaged roughly three front-page stories about Afghanistan a month over the four years of the Trump administration; it has averaged nearly three such stories a day since August 16.

graph of ny times afghanistan coverage

The same pattern played out on TV. Afghanistan coverage on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News in August 2021 exceeded that of any full year since during the surge in 2010, according to the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer. In fact, CNN and MSNBC spent more time covering Afghanistan last month than they did from 2017 to 2020 combined.

Here's what the coverage looks like by month:

graph stanford cable news afghanistan coverage

Coverage on the broadcast nightly news shows had also been sparse, according to data that researcher Andrew Tyndall provided to Responsible Statecraft:

broadcast nightly afghanistan coverage

The Taliban's swift seizure of territory culminating with the capture of Kabul as the government evaporated and the military dissolved; the U.S. evacuation of more than 120,000 Americans and Afghan allies; and the terrorist attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghans are all major stories that dominated last month's news coverage.

But when major stories happened in Afghanistan in previous years, they did not break through to nearly the same extent.

economist afghanistan chart

While U.S. combat fatalities waned in recent years, American service members continued to die in Afghanistan, and the ongoing civil war between the country's government and the Taliban remained deadly for Afghan forces and civilians alike. The discrepancy between those casualty figures may have made the war seem less pressing to Americans, but it is crucial to understand the context in which the Taliban swept across the country.

At the same time, Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government remained breathtakingly corrupt, destroying its legitimacy with the local public. Its U.S.-trained security forces engaged in rampant sexual abuse of children. Its capital was rocked by deadly terrorist attacks. Despite all this, the U.S. financial support for the regime kept flowing, at an estimated total cost of more than $2 trillion. The Trump administration dramatically expanded airstrikes, resulting in a surge of civilian casualties.

These failures have been documented both inside the government and outside it. The office of John Sopko, the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), investigated and documented a wide array of U.S. strategic errors and failed policies over the years. Most recently, Sopko concluded that "the U.S. government struggled to develop a coherent strategy, understand how long the reconstruction mission would take, ensure its projects were sustainable, staff the mission with trained professionals, account for the challenges posed by insecurity, tailor efforts to the Afghan context, and understand the impact of programs."

U.S. officials knew the Afghan effort was going poorly, even as they bragged of their successes to the American public. And it's true that some outlets tried to puncture that facade. The Washington Post reported in December 2018 on the Afghanistan Papers, documents generated as part of SIGAR's investigations which revealed "explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public." Sopko told the Post that the documents show "the American people have constantly been lied to."

That's a dramatic statement that should have triggered a rethinking of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. But as with so much of the great Afghanistan journalism of the era, the story did not significantly break through on TV news and become part of the broader media understanding of the war.

As the Taliban swept to power in the face of the U.S. withdrawal and Afghanistan became the central story for the press to an extent not seen since the 2001 invasion, another weakness came back into focus.

Americans needed crucial context about the failure of the U.S. mission given the relatively minimal reporting on Afghanistan in recent years. But as coverage of the country dramatically ramped up over the last month, outlets instead frequently prioritized the views of Washington-based journalists and pundits who presided over the quagmire in the first place.

Over the last month, news outlets all too often turned to the very people responsible for U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. These architects of failure were regular guests on TV, prioritized for quotes in print articles, and had their views splashed across the op-ed pages of major newspapers. By presenting the end of the war through the same perspectives which guided their coverage for two decades, news outlets took them off the hook for the calamities they helped bring about -- and allowed them to pass the blame to Biden.

The press is in a dangerous position when its interests align with the people it covers. And in this case, it shares with generations of U.S. politicians, diplomats, and military leaders a desire to escape nagging questions of its conduct over the longest war in U.S. history.

Methodology

Media Matters searched articles in the Nexis database for The New York Times for any variation of the term "Afghanistan" in the headline or lead paragraph of any article in the paper's A section on page 1 from January 1, 2001, through August 31, 2021.

Research contributions from Rob Savillo

Danziger Draws

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

Danziger Draws

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

Danziger Draws

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

Cruz Torched On Twitter For Sleazy Attack On CNN Correspondent

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

With Afghanistan having fallen to the Taliban following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, CNN's Clarissa Ward has been on the ground in Kabul fearlessly covering that tense and dangerous situation. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, on Monday, used the tragedy to take a cheap, baseless shot at Ward, and he is being slammed for it on Twitter.

Ward, reporting on Afghanistan's transition from a fragile democracy to a far-right Islamist dictatorship under the Taliban, was wearing a head covering and concealing her hair:

Read Now Show less