Talking Points

4 smart perspectives on Afghanistan

If you're like me, you've been frustrated and more than a little irritated by media analysis of recent events in Afghanistan. While on-the-ground reporting has been invaluable, much of it has been couched in highly polemical terms, with journalists flinging around words like "fiasco," "reckless," and "calamity," as if the awfulness of the Biden administration's policymaking and implementation should be self-evident to all.

Thankfully, others are doing a better job of furthering our understanding of rapidly unfolding events — and, more importantly, of how we got to the present. Here are four of the best recent takes:

Francis Fukuyama's short essay for American Purpose looks all the way back to the Bonn Conference in late 2001, shortly after the collapse of the Taliban government, for the source of our current problems in the region. That's when we set a goal of creating a centralized, bureaucratic Afghan state instead of trying "to stabilize the country under a coalition of local warlords and tribal militias." The latter would have rubbed a lot of Americans the wrong way, but it likely would have been far more effective than the (ultimately doomed) approach we adopted instead.

David Frum makes a related point in a brief tweet thread about why the Afghan military crumbled as soon as the U.S. withdrew air and logistical support. The answer, once again, was a lack of national cohesion in Afghanistan, which left us as the linchpin holding the country together, which was both "hopeless" and something "nobody else on Earth … would ever attempt."

Ivo Daadler's lengthier tweet thread cogently explains why it's wrong to assume, as so many stories published over the past two weeks have done, that Joe Biden could simply have chosen to disregard the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban over American withdrawal. If Biden had attempted such a reversal, Taliban attacks on U.S. troops would have resumed and accelerated over the low and seemingly sustainable baseline of the past year. Biden's choice, then, "was between withdrawal or a major surge of troops to fight a strengthened Taliban."

Matthew Yglesias's powerful Substack post looks at a long list of American geopolitical decisions over the past 20 years and concludes provocatively that "the national security establishment has never cared about Afghanistan." By which Yglesias really means that we have consistently prioritized other considerations in dealing with major players in the region, including Iran, Russia, China, and Iraq. The national security establishment clearly cares enough about Afghanistan to oppose withdrawal, but it has never cared enough to do what would have been needed to make a decisive difference there.