Terry H. Schwadron

August 30, 2021

The desire for Blame in the hastened chaos in Afghanistan is so urgent that American politicians are willing to demean everyone in sight — Joe Biden tops the list, but military leaders, the Taliban, even refugees. What we saw in recent days was that Blame can’t even wait until the pullout from Kabul airport is finished.

· Biden badly wants to show he has as much control as is reasonable in this chaotic solution, and he blames ISIS-K, the Taliban and Donald Trump for any failures in what has turned into a chaotic chapter including a fatal bombing as well as military heroics to rescue tens of thousands.

· Veterans’ groups, nonprofit humanitarian refugee organizations and even Democratic supporters want to Blame bureaucracy for its perpetual slowness in processing backgrounds, and the combined teams from Biden and Donald Trump for having insisted on a crazed withdrawal under time pressure.

· Of course, Republican leaders only want to blame Biden, and already are throwing around threats of impeachment and endless Congressional hearings — which will begin with a Democratic Congress — to ensure that they, as Republican alternatives, will show that Joe Biden “has blood on his hands,” as Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-NY, says, right into next year’s Congressional elections.

What is most important now seems to be Blame, not saving people, not figuring out a coherent strategy, not even finding engaging with the Taliban to find the ISIS culprits. As White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, it seems easy to lob criticisms from the sidelines.

Increasingly, we’re fighting about the right invectives to describe what has gone on with the Afghan airlift — a good example of how the news is as much about the storytelling as the events themselves. Even before we’ve reached the end of the play, the reviews keep pouring in, and the spin game has been turned up to 11.

It’s true that international escape routes could have been pre-planned, and sufficient aircraft and security arrangements ready to go; it’s just as logical that such an Afghan collapse would have proved dangerous a month earlier or later.

We are struggling over words that are accurately descriptive but politically neutral in favor of the constant attempts to tar or magically save a reputation for competence that Team Biden desperately wants to maintain. With several appearances by Joe Biden (Breitbart and Fox inexplicably keep saying he is Joe Hidin’), the White House clearly still is working hard to make this a narrative about heroic rescues rather than crisis planning lapses. Biden’s Republican opponents have no problem finding words that include disaster and the inevitable product of a senile presidential mind.

Along the way, the blistering criticisms about saving all Afghans who worked with Americans and allies, over open worries about upholding “American honor” in rescuing everyone and anyone who feels threatened in Afghanistan by the Taliban takeover seem to gloss over that more than 100,000 have been successfully airlifted out. And the obvious contradictions of sending in more U.S. troops on an ongoing basis to take out U.S. personnel fall all around like so much loose talk.

What We’re Seeing

Even before the actual disaster of a terrorist bomb outside the gates of Kabul airport — with more threatened in believable intelligence reports — we could all agree that what we were seeing on nonstop, repeating television clips was a dangerous and dicey state of chaos. In its aftermath, we’re hearing a welter of contradictory stuff from all political points of view, knowledgeable or not, that essentially say there should be more troops in Aghanistan, no troops there, that we should be out, but should have held onto Bagram as a much less-defensible air base relatively far from Kabul. It’s maddening Monday-morning quarterbacking.

We all should be able to agree on is that it has been hard work to that bring about order from chaos and that there was insufficient planning for the quick fall of Afghanistan, but a fantastic rebound from U.S. and allied military to quickly ramp up extractions from a besieged and frightened Kabul.

But even in the few hopeful moments during the week, we found we needed Blame, craved it. Otherwise, how could we ever come to terms with the fact that we’ve been in an unwinnable war with no real goal for 20 years at a cost of 2,500 American lives and tons more Afghan lives.

“Last week, the widespread impression was also that Biden officials were caught flat-footed by the speed at which the Taliban overran the war-torn country,” said TheHill.com. “They’re definitely trying to regain some control over the narrative,” a Democratic strategist close to the White House told the news outlet.

Naturally, we are seeing the current mania of taking in information only through a filter: Too often, partisan concerns are governing how we evaluate a flood of admittedly unconnected and often contradictory data here about just how things are going in Afghanistan.

On a single day just before the explosion, four opinion writers for The Washington Post posting on the same day could hardly find themselves describing the same situation. Marc A. Thiessen said Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are delusional in under-estimating a rebirth of terrorism, adding that “the disaster they created in Afghanistan will be far more difficult to clean up.” Kathleen Parker knocked Biden for saying “that there was never any way to avoid chaos during our withdrawal leads one to ask: When, exactly, did chaos become a fait accompli in his mind?”

Jennifer Rubin said “the media’s premature declaration of ‘failure’ looks off-base . . . It becomes more difficult to argue that the United States has ‘abandoned’ Afghans, given that we are moving heaven and earth to extract tens of thousands of them.” Paul Waldman opined, “The Biden administration’s execution of the Afghanistan withdrawal is a story that includes both an initial mishandling and an extraordinary logistical achievement.”

Then you can throw in the Republican leadership confusing criticisms about how this all Biden’s fault, and wouldn’t have happened with Trump, who made the deal with the Taliban.

Drop ‘Failure’

The indictments of Team Biden have gotten only worse since the bombing.

Maybe, like in the Olympics where winning silver is never good enough, we should just avoid using the word “failure” for an operation that is saving so many people. Just maybe there will be time later, after we argue endlessly anew about services and housing and U.S. placement for all those Afghan refugees, we can figure out the historical view of what we’re seeing in real time.

Maybe we should focus on getting today’s work done.

For all of Biden’s faults in this episode, at least he is dealing directly with the problem. The challenge to the Trump administration in setting a deadline of May 1 deadline was no better. It strikes me as impossible to overstate the difficulty of having to remove a significant portion of the native population after having lost the war.

As columnist Waldman noted, “A Democratic president is forced to clean up a mess left by his predecessor, and when doing so turns out to be complicated and difficult, his critics act as though they would have performed perfectly a job they would never have even tried to do.”

It seems clear that the first six months of the Biden administration were largely defined by a projection of competence on getting vaccines distributed and aid packages through the Congress, re-starting the economy and eliminating some of the worst moves that happened under Donald Trump. The easiest question to determine here may be whether we will have achieved enough in Afghanistan to keep that patina of competence alive.

Then we can worry more about deeds than words, and trade Blame for Planning.