Skip to content

An Afghanistan Picture Show

Osita Nwanevu
12 min read
An Afghanistan Picture Show
Biden at Camp David (August 15, 2021)

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


I wanted to do good, and “help the Afghans.” Ignorant of the very evident implications of the fact that I was the semi-privileged citizen of an extremely privileged country, I believed in the simple equality of all human beings, and expected that one of the Mujahideen commanders would set me some task, which I would do my best to fulfill ⁠— haul water, document a battle, or fight ⁠— and that would be that. It was shocking to me that, instead, quasi-divine powers were ascribed to my person. I was an American; I could do anything. And because I could not do anything, not even walk over the mountains very well (I had already lost forty pounds from amoebic dysentery), I failed all parties inevitably. Had I been physically fit, with a million dollars in my pocket, I still would have failed the Afghans, for I was nobody but myself.
-William T. Vollmann, Preface, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World, 2nd ed. (2013)

Here’s the deal, as the man himself might say:

  • Biden’s assumptions about how our withdrawal from Afghanistan would proceed were wrong, and the administration’s mismanagement of the exit has already been costly for the Afghan people ⁠— not just Afghans who helped the United States and those associated with them, but the many more no less morally worthy people who simply want out of the country we destroyed to no purpose. Really, mismanagement is only part of the story here. It has been clear for months that Biden is troubled by the optics of bringing in more refugees post-Trump, and an administration official suggested to Politico Monday that the potential for attacks from the right spooked the White House into constraining evacuation efforts: “It’s like they want the credit from liberals for ending the Trump cruelty to immigrants and refugees but they also don’t want the political backlash that comes from actual refugees arriving in America in any sort of large numbers.”
  • Biden has always been a poor communicator off-script and the answers he’s given to the press about Afghanistan’s situation have been meandering and confused. The prepared speech he gave on Monday veered close to blaming Afghan people for the position our intervention has put them in.
  • That speech also argued to the American people that we had to leave Afghanistan partially because it distracted from our expansive counterterrorism operations across “multiple countries in Africa and Asia” ⁠— which, Biden said, will continue to “warrant our attention and our resources.”
  • While one can imagine ways in which our war in Afghanistan might have ended better, it was never going to end well. And many of the preparations that might have smoothed our exit were put off by the dissembling of those who never wanted the war to end at all.

What we have in Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is less a sign that the Biden administration will behave much more morally abroad than a strategic decision to quickly bring one of the two most conspicuously costly, futile, and unpopular extant operations in American foreign policy to a long-promised close. Most everything else will continue; if we believe Biden, our smaller wars might even get bigger. We needn’t overpraise the administration out of spite for its neocon critics, as cathartic and relieving as it is to see their protests go unheeded.

That said, Biden has been a genuine profile in political courage this week. While the American people wanted out of Afghanistan, they wanted it passively. What we do abroad isn’t at the front of mind for most voters, especially now that we’re in the throes of a domestic crisis. It’s doubtful Biden would have been seriously penalized for kicking the can down the road yet again. In choosing instead to keep his promise, come what may, he deepened Afghanistan’s salience at some political risk to himself⁠— support for withdrawal has already dropped sharply ⁠— though it’s not at all clear that the fall of Kabul will figure largely in the midterm elections over a year from now.

On Thursday, New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz summarized the case for leaving and leaving now well:

If Biden did not withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year, he would have violated the agreement that Donald Trump had struck with the Taliban in February 2020. There is every reason to believe that Trump’s deal deterred the Taliban from targeting U.S. troops; 2020 witnessed fewer U.S. casualties in Afghanistan than any previous year of the conflict. And there is little doubt that an abrogation of that agreement would have led the Taliban to ramp up attacks on U.S. forces, which would in turn have led the U.S. to deploy more troops, triggering a broader escalation in the war.
Such an escalation would have likely been inevitable, even in the absence of Trump’s agreement. In the years before that deal, the Taliban was steadily gaining territory and killing Afghan security forces in such large numbers the U.S. government started concealing battlefield death tolls. Keeping Ghani’s kleptocracy indefinitely aloft with a few thousand American soldiers and scant U.S. casualties was simply not an option.

None of this is actually lost on the officials, politicians, and pundits complaining about the withdrawal. Last week, the New York Times published a revealing account of Biden’s final deliberations with the Pentagon, which urged him to consider Afghanistan’s rapid capture by the Taliban and potential collapse into a civil war. “If the Afghan government could not hold off the Taliban now, aides said he asked, when would they be able to?” the Times’ David Sanger and Helene Cooper reported. “None of the Pentagon officials could answer the question.”

In lieu of answers, Biden’s most ardent critics in the press have offered the public hysteria. The notion that the major, putatively neutral institutions of our media are truly bias-free ⁠— diligently committed to offering information without favor for particular parties or perspectives ⁠— has always been laughable. But it would have taken a particularly cheeky satirist to imagine journalists asking in earnest, upon our withdrawal from Afghanistan, how our exit might compromise American interests in Tajikistan. More predictably, the Times has reported that we’ve given Russia a great gift in leaving, and just about everyone’s been willing to toss the standard J-school bromides aside to render spiritual judgment on the administration’s move and offer their predictions about how the political aftermath might play out. “Mr. Biden will go down in history, fairly or unfairly, as the president who presided over a long-brewing, humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan,” the Times’ Sanger wrote in another piece, adding that the administration’s intended shift in foreign policy priorities is “not one that Mr. Biden can easily sell amid the images of chaos in Kabul.” Are these facts?

I’ve previously called this mode of writing “repunditry.” And about two years ago, I wrote about the Biden campaign’s frustration with the press’ slipperiness about facts and opinions in its coverage of the allegations against Hunter Biden:

Speculation about what voters might think or might decide about the candidates and how they might fare in the elections in question still seems to occupy much more space in our papers and take up much more time in television news than straightforward coverage of what we firmly know about them—their personal biographies, their political backgrounds, and their platforms. Campaign reporters spend more time telling voters what voters think than they do relaying facts—on a particular policy proposal, on a particular bill a candidate may have voted on—voters might not know about.
Since the beginning of October, The New York Times has published eighty-three stories categorized on their website as “Election 2020” coverage as of Saturday morning. Eight of them have had the solutions offered by the candidates to address the problems facing the country as their main subject. Those articles have competed for space and clicks with speculation about quarterly fundraising totals and multiple pieces about the “questions” Bernie Sanders “will inevitably face” about his heart attack. Dubious material can become news in this kind of culture. The allegations about Hunter Biden could, indeed, impact the primary race. This is in part because mainstream media outlets spend time discussing them. When we read political reporting—perhaps when we read much of the news in general—we are looking to an independent variable for announcements about dependent variables.
There’s no clear way out of this dynamic and it’s not obvious that it’s fully a problem. We value journalism, in part, because we hope, perhaps naively, that the material journalists put into the world can guide decision-making. But the conventions of the contemporary press hold that some sorting of that material is necessary for the public’s sake—clear facts must be separated from disputable non-facts, especially politically charged opinions. The major papers have been particularly scrupulous about this distinction on certain matters—respected voices in the newspaper world routinely urge caution about describing clear patterns of misinformation from politicians as “lies.” The Trump era has seen papers like the Times deploy a variety of euphemisms for the word “racist.”
This caution lapses considerably for other material, including predictions and assessments of political viability.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, we’ve gotten the coverage we’ve had for two reasons. The first is that the press is deeply enmeshed with the military, the defense industry, and the major institutions and voices of the foreign policy world. The second is that the press depends upon the perception of change and the creation of new narratives to keep eyeballs on screens and web pages. Biden the success story wasn’t going to keep people tuned in for very much longer, and in beginning to “report”, months ago, that the end of the Biden honeymoon would soon be upon us, the press helped ensure that very outcome. Remember this week the next time they try to attribute Democratic losses to progressive candidates and activists ⁠— the week the outlets that boosted Biden as a bulwark against the left began actively trying to hobble him.

But remember too that all that happened this week isn’t the end of our imperial project. In response to an article going around this week arguing that the war in Afghanistan was a profitable success for the defense industry, Slate’s Fred Kaplan pointed out, fairly, that the industry’s made most of its money in the last decade on weapons that were largely useless in the War on Terror:

Raytheon’s big contracts have been for a new nuclear cruise missile, strategic missile defense systems, and a lot of projects dealing with sensors, satellites, electronics, and cyberwar.
Lockheed Martin has made some money from the Afghanistan war, especially in its subdivisions that manufacture Black Hawk helicopters and multiple-launch rocket systems. But the big bucks have come from contracts for the F-35 stealth fighter ($12 billion in the current budget alone), the combat systems for Aegis cruiser ships, and lots of electronics for command-control, cyberwar, and space communications.
General Dynamics has made a little money from Afghanistan with the Marines’ LAV-25 light-armored vehicle, but the multibillion contracts have been for nuclear submarines, Burke-class destroyer ships, and—on the commercial side—Gulfstream jets.
Northrop Grumman’s big-ticket items have been missiles and combat planes, including the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile and B-21 bomber (now in research and development), as well as the Webb Space Telescope, the orbiting observatory, and the Mars Ascent Propulsion System.

The big money, in other words, has been in provisioning us for the next great war. And one has to wonder what the response from the industry will be if our withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan encourage more scrutiny over how much we’re spending on defense, what we're spending it on, and whether that spending is justified.

One word you can expect to hear more of if that conversation heats up is “Taiwan.” And it’s already come up in conversations about our leaving Afghanistan. An excerpt from Biden’s interview with George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday:

Stephanopoulos: You talked about our adversaries, China and Russia. You already see China telling Taiwan, "See? You can't count on the Americans."
Biden: Why wouldn't China say that? Look, George -- there's a fundamental difference between Taiwan, South Korea, NATO. We are in a situation where they are entities we've made agreements with based on not a civil war they're having on that island or in South Korea, but on an agreement where they have a unity government that, in fact, is trying to keep bad guys from doing bad things to them. We have kept every commitment. We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan. It's not even comparable to talk about that.

The notion that we should consider going to war with China over Taiwan is both utter lunacy and a fully mainstream foreign policy position. And the very real possibility of a conflict is cause for more concern than we’ve managed work up about it, especially now that the right is stoking Sinophobia more aggressively among Republican voters. On Thursday, The New Yorker ran a profile by Benjamin Wallace-Wells of one of the conservative policy hands leading that effort, Eldridge Colby:

Colby, a fortysomething graduate of Yale Law School, was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development in the Trump Administration. Amid many people saying roughly the same thing about the now-ending generational conflict over Islamic extremism, Colby is distinguished by a vision of the generational conflict to come. In his view, idealism and Afghanistan are both sideshows to the real military, economic, and diplomatic action—all of which concerns China. I spoke to Colby by Zoom last week, as the Taliban captured Kandahar and Herat. He was in Brazil, where, it turned out, his family has spent the pandemic. “Get out of the Middle East,” he said, when I asked how the U.S. should reprioritize its resources. “More significantly, I think we’re going to have to reduce in Europe. Basically, my view is, if you’re in the U.S. military and you’re not working on China”—he paused for a moment to acknowledge a couple of lesser but still worthy projects, nuclear deterrence and “a cost-effective” approach to counterterrorism—“get yourself a new job.”
[...] This fall, he will publish his first book, “The Strategy of Denial,” which offers a military strategy for how to deal with China. As advance copies circulated this summer, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, pronounced it “brilliant” and said that it would be “constantly referred to as we grapple with this challenge”—a suggestion, if one were needed, that many conservatives believe that this conflict is here to stay.
Colby’s book is clinical and ominous. He wants the American people prepared to go to war with China over Taiwan, both because that might deter China from invading the island and because, if deterrence fails, he thinks that American military intervention will be the only way to keep Taiwan free. He notes the Chinese leadership’s decades-long insistence that Taiwan is part of China, and documents the steady Chinese military buildup: around ten-per-cent annual increases in its budget for a quarter century; he also pointed out that China has a Navy that exceeds America’s in the number of boats, if not yet tonnage, as well as missiles that can reach U.S. bases around Asia and as far as Honolulu. All of this is pointing, Colby argues, to an invasion of Taiwan, an event he sees as likely and whose consequences he believes could be disastrous. His concerns in the book do not include human rights; they are instead almost entirely strategic—a successful invasion would send an unmistakable message to all other countries in Asia about who is the dominant power in the region and who gets to write the rules of the economic order.

Stay tuned.

A last word about Afghanistan. One of the more memorable works of memoir I’ve read in recent years is An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or, How I Saved the World, by journalist, novelist, and one-time Unabomber suspect William T. Vollmann, who decided to join the Mujahideen about a year after graduating from Cornell with a BA in comparative literature. It went exactly as well as you would expect, and the book is a searching and often bleakly funny meditation on humanitarian intervention, altruism, and what it really means to help others. “I was very foolish,” he would later write in the preface to a 2013 edition of the book, “but I never knowingly did harm, and I tried not to lie about myself. Please let me tell you the obvious about Afghanistan: Every child and grandmother we kill makes us new enemies. We will never ‘win’ over there.”

A passage towards the end:

As they walked along the mountain trail, butterflies settled and rose in the sand, fanning their wings like helicopters. The guerrilla beside the Young Man took his hand, the palm of it, the soft flesh of it, between two fingers, pinching it and working it. “ this?” he said. “You not strong.” The Afghan’s hand was dark and hard, like a new walking shoe that hadn’t been broken in. The Young Man was not ashamed. “I do different things in America,” he said. “I read, write, push buttons. You dig, plow, shoot.” The guerilla said nothing.
Seizing the charred stump of a rocket bomb, a Mujahid raised it high above his head and turned to face the Young Man, his eyes shining fiercely as if to say: This is why you came! Now look, look! Your business here is to see! See this, and understand it; never forget it! And the young man stood looking at the man’s leathery reddish-brown face, the cheeks drawn up in effort as he held the bomb high, the parted lips, the even white teeth, the graying hairline just below the double-lipped prayer cap, the shadow of the bomb falling from shoulder to shoulder, those upraised arms in which the bomb casing lay khaki and black and orange-rusted, rusted through in places so that the Young Man could see the skeleton grid beneath the shell (it must have been a dud), and the bomb hung eternally in the air and the Mujahid’s cotton shirt hung own and the river flowers clear and shallow behind him, leaving undisturbed the white rocks that lined it, and the hills were tan with dry grass, green-spotted here and there with a brush or a tree, and the other Mujahideen had also turned and were staring at the Young Man as the bomb stared at him and he stared back and said to himself: Whether or not I can do anything useful, at least I will remember.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Good night.