Eric Levitz has an excellent piece on how the political press has managed to make the withdrawal from Afghanistan into a political crisis for Biden even though the underlying policy is popular and the execution has gone as well as could be reasonably expected given the near-instantaneous collapse of the nominal Afghan state after years of assurances from critics of withdrawal that the nation-building plan was going great:
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has yet to cost our nation a single casualty. Evacuations of U.S. citizens and allies from Kabul’s airport are proceeding at a faster pace than the White House had promised, or than its critics had deemed possible. Afghanistan’s decades-long civil war has reached a lull, if not an end. On the streets of Kabul, “order and quiet” have replaced “rising crime and violence.” Meanwhile, the Taliban is negotiating with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai over the establishment of “an inclusive government acceptable to all Afghans.”
This may be an accurate description of what recent events in Kabul have meant for the president, politically. The latest polls have shown sharp drops in Biden’s approval rating, driven in part by widespread opposition to “the way” his administration handled its (otherwise popular) exit from Afghanistan. Yet this political fiasco is not a development that the media covered so much as one that it created.
Perhaps the most critical failure of the coverage is the failure to use any kind of relevant baseline in the analysis:
It has long been apparent that America’s exit from Afghanistan would be tantamount to the Taliban’s victory. U.S. intelligence officials may have been excessively optimistic about the Afghan government’s staying power, but even they thought the government in Kabulwould collapse within two years of America’s retreat. Simply put, there is no proud way to lose a war to a cult of heroin-dealing child rapists (especially when your side in that war featured no small number of men who fit a similar description). And there probably wasn’t a non-chaotic way of doing so, either. The Biden administration advised all U.S. civilians in Afghanistan to leave the country in May. Forcibly evacuating those who chose to stay, along with every Afghan ally who feared Taliban reprisals — before the Afghan government fell — would have been a Herculean task in terms of pure logistics. And it was an impossible task in terms of geopolitics: Before its collapse, the Afghan government had pressured the United States to limit its evacuation efforts, so as to avoid broadcasting the message that America deemed a Taliban victory inevitable. This was a reasonable concern. Few in the Afghan security forces were eager to die for a lost cause, which is one reason why the Taliban met weak resistance by the time it reached Kabul. Had the U.S. attempted to evacuate all its allies before the capital, the initial stages of that effort would have almost certainly expedited the surrender of the Afghan security forces and thus, left manyAfghans who worked with the U.S.in the same basic predicament they find themselves in now.
All of which is to say: Ascertaining how much of the heartache in Kabul today derives from imperfections in Biden’s withdrawal plan — and how much would have occurred under any plausible U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — is no easy task.
It is also a task that the media has felt no obligation to undertake. Mainstream coverage of Kabul’s fall and its aftermath has been anything but circumspect. Attempts to weigh the benefits of America’s withdrawal (e.g., the humanitarian gains inherent to the cessation of 20 years of civil war) against its costs have been rare; attempts to judge Biden’s execution of that withdrawal against rigorous counterfactuals have been rarer still. Instead, ostensibly neutral correspondents and anchors have (1) openly editorialized against the White House’s policy; (2) assigned Biden near-total responsibility for the final collapse of the proto-failed state his predecessors had established; and then (3) reported on the potential political costs of Biden’s actions, as though they were not actively imposing those costs through their own speculations about just “how politically damaging” the president’s failures of “competence” and “empathy” would prove to be.
To state what should obvious, “bad things are happening in a war zone with a state that has just collapsed” is not nearly enough to support a conclusion that Biden’s handling was incompetent. To seriously determine this requires answering “compared to what?” questions reporters leaping to their predetermined conclusion without even asking. And blaming Biden and not the architects of the war for the effects of the instantaneous collapse of the Afghan quasi-government makes sense only if you just oppose withdrawal per se.
It’s very telling that the media that insisted that it was bound by journalistic convention to, say, pretend to believe Republicans when they pretended to believe that compliance with email server management best practices was an issue of world-historical importance, feels free to completely one-sided editorializing in ostensibly straight news reporting when a politician dares to cross the Blob and its overriding conviction that war cannot fail, it can only be failed.