The Press Gets It Right on Afghanistan

By News on the Record Archives
Cover image for  article: The Press Gets It Right on Afghanistan

When it comes to recent events in Afghanistan, the press -- barring a few exceptions -- has succeeded in chronicling the extent to which the withdrawal of American forces has been so completely and overwhelmingly bungled. In doing so, the media has largely prevented President Joe Biden from deflecting criticism by defending the concept of the withdrawal itself rather than taking responsibility for its failed execution. Although reasonable people can disagree about whether a modest presence of American troops ought to have remained in a country where the United States had not suffered a combat fatality since February of 2020, withdrawing from Afghanistan was broadly popular with the American public and was supported by both former President Donald Trump and President Biden.

The execution, however, has represented one of the most startling foreign policy failures in American history, with numerous commentators, officeholders and even a Marine present on the roof of the United States embassy in Saigon during the evacuation there arguing that the Fall of Kabul “definitely is worse” than that of Saigon. American equipment and weapons with a combined value totaling in the billions of dollars were left behind for the Taliban, including even “Black Hawk helicopters and A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft.” The departure took place without the security of the United States embassy in Kabul being assured, and the proverbial cart was put before the force by withdrawing service members ahead of many non-combatants. The Pentagon has indicated that Americans were beaten in the vicinity of Hamid Karzai International Airport and, to make matters worse, a fact-check by The New York Times suggests that President Biden has made numerous false and misleading statements when commenting on the withdrawal including, at times, even contradicting the official line from the Pentagon.

Fortunately, the press has been effective in making Americans aware of the goings-on, even when the targets of scrutiny are political figures often favored by many journalists. As Peter Baker writes in The New York Times, “For most of the last week, in the fires of the worst foreign policy crisis of his young administration, the president who won the White House on a promise of competence and compassion has had trouble demonstrating much of either.” The Portuguese author and former politician Bruno Maçães, who wrote a series of excellent dispatches as the withdrawal was unfolding, in one lucid tweet, even wrote, “As someone who never supported Trump or Biden I think I can be impartial when I say Biden has done more to diminish America’s standing in the world in 7 months than Trump in 4 years. I am slightly surprised by this, by the way.”

And then there were the headlines and magazine covers, from The Economist’s “Biden’s Debacle” to the New York Post’s “DumKirk”, the latter causing Sohrab Ahmari to quip, "My colleagues are geniuses." Some headlines overstated matters, such as Michael Kazin’s New York Times essay, “To Save His Presidency, Biden Must Tell the Truth About Afghanistan.” News cycles, after all, can come and go, and domestic issues often take precedence over foreign affairs, though it may be the case that the Fall of Kabul will become the event that defines this presidency as the Iran Hostage Crisis arguably did President Jimmy Carter’s. An August 21st USA Today editorial similarly asked if Kabul would become "President Biden's Katrina."

The Wall Street Journal, in particular, has boasted an impressive panoply of editorials and commentary pieces on Afghanistan, including guest opinions from former Vice President Mike Pence, Rep. Dan Crenshaw and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (the latter written with Bradley Bowman). Other noteworthy papers included Seth J. Frantzman’s thought-provoking Jerusalem Post piece "The Afghan gov't overthrown by Taliban never existed -- ex-soldier"; multiple outlets’ attention to the particularly galling image of Taliban fighters mocking the famous image of American marines raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, and on-the-ground live reporting from journalists remaining in Afghanistan for as long as possible.

Then, there were the critics of the critics, who argued some version of: The media provides far more scrutiny to how a war is ended than how one begins, but this makes sense because the national press is generally quite bellicose. Although there may be some truth to the argument put forward by those such as Glenn Greenwald and Pedro Gonzalez that the American press -- from the prelude to World War I on down -- historically has been “pro-war,” in this case, much of the media attention has correctly focused on the failed process of ending the war more than it has fully endorsed continuing the conflict in Afghanistan. And though there were occasions where interview guests such as McMaster made the case for continuing the military presence in Afghanistan on CBS, this, in my view, is a worthwhile perspective at least to hear out.

To be sure, this is the most sustained and comprehensive outpouring of criticism of the Biden administration yet seen on the part of the press, and it is more than justified. From the haste of the collapse to long-standing, misleading statements about the competence of the Afghan National Security Forces being revealed to be untrue to watching American citizens being at the mercy of the Taliban when trying to reach the airport for evacuation, recent events in Afghanistan have marked a stunning failure in American military and diplomatic capability.

For once, a few gadflies notwithstanding, the press -- from Right to Left -- was unified in bringing into focus the extent of the incompetence that has so frustratingly been on display.

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