President Ghani Flees as Taliban Reach Kabul

The mirage of semi-order faded quickly.

The AP reports, Afghan president flees the country as Taliban move on Kabul.

Afghanistan’s embattled president left the country Sunday, joining his fellow citizens and foreigners in a stampede fleeing the advancing Taliban and signaling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.

The Taliban, which for hours had been in the outskirts of Kabul, announced soon after they would move further into a city gripped by panic throughout the day as helicopters raced overhead to evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy. Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.

[…]

President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country, two officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief journalists. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed in an online video that Ghani had left.

“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” Abdullah said. “God should hold him accountable.”

I will admit to struggling to find appropriately accurate language here. For one thing, most of the shorthand we would use in these circumstances are inadequate (i.e., state, country, and government). There is a region on the map called “Afghanistan” to be sure (so, nominally a country) and there was a two-decade attempt by the United States to build a state (a governing apparatus) to control that territory from a government seated in Kabul. But even if local tribal factions hold some collective attachment to “Afghanistan” in the sense of a country in the modern system, they clearly never saw the government in Kabul as exercising sovereign authority over them. And, even more importantly, the government in Kabul lacked the state capacity (and seemingly even the desire) to assert legal and administrative control over the space in question.

The US military presence was clearly all that was holding this whole house of cards together.

I could say that the Afghan government collapsed (and it clearly has) but it never looked like much of a government outside of Kabul to begin with. Yes, on paper it had a 300,000-strong military to enforce its will. Yet, that military ended up to be a fantasy, despite years of US training and spending. It seemed, even a few weeks ago that the government in Kabul had enough capacity to at least pretend for a while that the US occupation had wrought some sustainable good. But it has folded in such a rapid a complete fashion that one has to now ask if it really existed in the first place in any way that really mattered.

It has always been striking to me that in news coverage of these events, in recent weeks one rarely heard from the Afghan President/government officials. Yesterday I heard a report that Ghani had sent out a pre-recorded message, which did not sound like any assurance of serious leadership. I am not shocked in the least that he has fled the place.

The rapid takeover by the Taliban of Afghan territory outside of Kabul, with little to no resistance, underscored the lack of an actual Afghan state (meaning a legal-administration order with known, enforceable rules as dictated and executed by an established and known government). If the military was unable or unwilling to put up even a token resistance that would have slowed this advance even a little shows that there was no military in reality. Lack of basic logistical support was straight-up state failure at its most fundamental (if a state cannot maintain its enforcement mechanisms, the game is over). Desertions just underscored the lack of commitment to the kind of Afghan state and government the US thought it was building.

And, as best as I can tell, there wasn’t even significant resistance at the local level by local individuals to the Taliban’s advance. That itself is telling of the lack of any successful state-building in the territory known as Afghanistan in the last two decades

What all of this shows is that the degree to which there was an “Afghan state” (and even a government controlling that state) it was largely made up of the United States military.

This was an unsustainable circumstance the suggests we were all going to end up in exactly this place whether we withdrew now, years from now, or had done so years in the past.

It also means that the occupation of Afghanistan by the United States was an utter failure. I don’t know how else to put it. Further, I don’t know that better planning and execution would have ultimately made much difference. Sure, better is always better and there is also always the assumption that surely there was some formulation that would have produced a better outcome. However, it is wholly possible that such notions are just wishful thinking.

The lesson here should be: nation-building (to use the vernacular, as the issue is really state-building) is extremely difficult and indeed may be impossible via the tool of military invasion and occupation.

None of this is to ignore the true tragedy that is befalling many Afghans today and yes, the advances made for Afghan women are about to be turned back and that is an awful reality.


To turn, briefly, to domestic politics on this topic, there is little doubt that Biden will receive understandable and deserved criticism regarding how this policy has played out. After all, not that long ago he promised that this would be orderly withdrawal. He was wrong about that. At a minimum, the administration did a monumentally poor job of estimating what the withdrawal would look like. It is impossible not to look at all of this as a poorly planned process, if not a debacle. And had it happened under Trump, the assumption would have been that it was the result of utter incompetence and there is little doubt that Biden is escaping criticism on this count from many co-partisans that they would have rained down on Trump.

I will say this: did the US government not understand that there was no one to turn Afghanistan over to save, it would appear, the Taliban? Did the Biden administration have reason to believe that a government in Kabul existed apart from a US military presence? If they did, today suggests that they were gravely mistaken.

How this affects Biden’s political fortunes will be tests of at least two assumptions. First, the American public supports withdrawal, but it remains to be seen how they will react to a messy one. Second, foreign policy tends not to impact domestic politics as much as foreign policy wonks think it does. I suspect that as long as there are no serious US casualties as a result of this withdrawal, that that maxim will continue to hold.

The reality is that in our polarized reality, it is likely that most Republican-leaning voters and politicians will not favor this action and Democratic-leaning voters and politicians will be generally supportive. The only pro-Biden group likely to be especially upset are never-Trump neocons like Bill Kristol. It is a group with a significant voice, but is also not as significant a group as they think they are.

There is also the reality that the news is currently dominated by the pandemic, and that is likely to increase in the coming weeks as the current surge in infections does not appear to have peaked as yet. The strain on hospitals across the southeast and wars over masking as school starts will almost certainly drown out news from the other side of the world.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Asia, National Security, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    And Ghani, along with his cohorts, will retire to a secure sinecure and live comfortably off the American aid looted from the Afghani’s.

    I have a clear recollection from watching the 2000 presidential debates, GW Bush prattling on about how it was not the American military’s and by extension America’s role to engage in nation building. Not two years after those words were spoken, the US was engaging in two massive nation building projects, one that failed completely and one that was really assisting a nation in transitioning from one regime to another.

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  3. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Well, as MarkedMan pointed out in today’s Open Forum, there is no nation of Afghanistan. It’s an expanse of land that contains various tribes, none of which, I may add, seems capable of getting along with the others. That is simply inimical to forming a national identity.

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  4. Gustopher says:

    It also means that the occupation of Afghanistan by the United States was an utter failure. I don’t know how else to put it.

    We kicked the can down the road for 20 years. We could have done so for 20 more. Is that a failure? Depends on the objectives.

    Our military did an amazing job of holding off the Taliban with a very limited involvement.

    How this affects Biden’s political fortunes will be tests of at least two assumptions. First, the American public supports withdrawal, but it remains to be seen how they will react to a messy one.

    No one cares about Afghanistan.

    It’s just been a gentle hum in the background of the national consciousness for the past 10-15 years or so. We used to care, but… we get bored.

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  5. @Gustopher:

    Is that a failure?

    I would argue that since the goal was to be able to leave a stable government in place, it was a failure.

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  6. Scott F. says:

    I suspect that completing the Afghanistan withdrawal when most of the country’s attention was elsewhere was part of the political calculus. This exit was always going to be messy. The Taliban live there. They needed only to wait the occupiers out.

    My personal belief is that Obama would have completed this withdrawal after the killing of bin Laden had he not understood that no amount of planning would deliver a clean exit. Obama’s political calculus was that he could not afford the “understandable and deserved criticism” he would have received for the inevitable ugly withdrawal. Biden (having seen Obama’s choice first hand) has recognized he can afford whatever political hit he might take. The Republican base sees him as illegitimate no matter what he does, so polarization has its upsides.

    We are getting out. Hopefully, we will learn a lesson and no go in next time.

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  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher:

    Our military did an amazing job of holding off the Taliban with a very limited involvement.

    Some have noted that “the amazing job” was a result of FG finally deciding to get off the dime and move toward leaving. I don’t know if we’d have been able to keep the “leaving any day now” ruse up for 2o more years or not, but even so, I’m not among the portion of society that has children to send for the experiment, so it’s not for me to decide about trying it.

    Perhaps, if we were really serious about staying there forever, we could do something like offer undocumented residents of the US permanent resident status for serving in the GWOT. That would have both the benefit of keeping “our children” from the meat grinder that is war (even long term, low level war) and allowing us to shift our betrayal away from the indigenous Afghanis and onto a cohort that “we the people” care even less about.

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  8. Gavin says:

    1] Never mind the plan for retreating/leaving, there never was a plan for how to proceed from “Get the Taliban out” to “Get the Afghanis actually on our side.” And that lack of plan was implemented for 20 years.
    2] What’s the date when any military or political “leader” will have all personal profits from Afghanistan misadventures retroactively removed as punishment for their failure? Never? And that’s why I’m not shocked this happened twice so far and will continue to happen in the future. Calling it now: It’s only a matter of time until Iraq is #3. Vietnam was #1.
    3] If you want the US to stay there [wherever there is] forever, what’s the date when it becomes state #51?
    4] There was no such “Afghan Government.” That was not a thing – Afghanis didn’t assent or pay attention to the rando warlord who woke up one day and asserted he was king because he was taking CIA payouts.

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  9. JohnSF says:

    @Scott F.:

    The Taliban live there. They needed only to wait the occupiers out.

    Outside the Pushtun lands the Taliban are every bit as much” occupiers” as was the US.
    And a lot of the Taliban leadership don’t live there.

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  10. Scott says:

    I posted this in the Open Forum but will duplicate it here.

    To me the principal issue is that, as Americans, we view these conflicts through our own eyes and ideological lenses. We fought in Vietnam under the guise of fighting International Communism. We fought in Afghanistan under the guise of fighting radical Islam. Neither are true as the real reason those conflict were going on. Vietnam was first a anti-French, anti-colonialist war and then a civil war. We decided to choose sides in that civil war while imagining we were fighting International Communism. We never understood what we were doing.

    In Afghanistan, it is the same thing. Once we took out al-Qaeda, we emmeshed ourselves into tribal warfare and tried to take sides. And this is the result.

    The talking heads keep talking how we will be targets again of terrorism. I submit we were a target primarily because we were there not so much because of who we are. Any country (China, Russia) will be a target if they involve themselves in Afghanistan.

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  11. JohnSF says:

    @Gavin:

    Afghanis didn’t assent or pay attention to the rando warlord who woke up one day and asserted he was king because he was taking CIA payouts.

    This is silly.

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  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I will say this: did the US government not understand that there was no one to turn Afghanistan over to save, it would appear, the Taliban?

    It’s a certainty that some individuals understood it all too well while others had had rose colored glasses permanently affixed to their eyes.

    Did the Biden administration have reason to believe that a government in Kabul existed apart from a US military presence? If they did, today suggests that they were gravely mistaken.

    I don’t think anybody in the Admin were so delusional as to believe in any such thing. Biden made it quite clear in his statement yesterday that it was long past time to cut our losses.

    How this affects Biden’s political fortunes will be

    I doubt there will be any affect whatsoever. 90% of Americans are relieved it’s finally done, even most of the MAGA crowd, whether they will admit it or not. The fact that it only took 5 weeks for the total collapse of the Afghan govt only proves that leaving was the right thing to do.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I would argue that since the goal was to be able to leave a stable government in place, it was a failure.

    I’m not sure that was the goal. The results show nothing of the kind.

    It might have been the goal at some point, but for the past decade (at least) the goal has clearly been to kick the can down the road until we got bored and stopped caring. Mission accomplished.

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  14. JohnSF says:

    @Scott:

    Any country (China, Russia) will be a target if they involve themselves in Afghanistan.

    Pakistan has involved themselves, continually.
    And it has caused them damage, from time to time.

    But with the Taliban as proxies, they will certainly be able to exert the degree of control they wish over the territory.

    They just have the required degree of bloody-minded persistence to achieve their ends.

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  15. @Gustopher:

    The results show nothing of the kind.

    Not to sound too snarky, but that is why I say it was a failure 😉

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  16. Lounsbury says:

    Well US has re-learned the lesson every empire learns, even one’s tributary rulers need to have some local power base – and one can not without them losing (or failing to gain) such base impose one’s metropolitan cultural goals on them.

    Of course Americans are unlikely to actually learn this lesson, and rather go down various hand-wringing pathes of self-flagellation.

    In any case if the core Taleban do not moderate from their 1990s approach, I would expect that soon enough they will themselves fracture and organic non-Pashtun resistance will emerge. Rather more likely to be be successful than Centralised State fantasies built up on the poor base of American bullion.

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  17. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: India will continue to play and the Russians without doubt via Tadjik and Uzbek proxies. None of the Central Asian neighbours will be terribly happy to have the Talebans on their border and one rather doubts the Pashtun supremacist strain of the Taleban will be too long in generating revival of old resentments.

    Unlike the USA, all these actors have actual direct stakes in the Afghan territorial game, not vaguely theoretical security interests.

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  18. de stijl says:

    @Scott:

    I used to live a block and a half from Fitzgerald’s home.

    A slice of St. Paul were the very rich live a few blocks away from the quite poor. (I was poor.)

    He was drunkard and often a jack-ass, but that man could turn a sentence, couldn’t he though?

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  19. de stijl says:

    The Iraq War substantially increased Iran’s regional sway.

    We got suckered. Good on them. It was fair play. Sneaky, but fair.

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  20. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:
    I’ve said before: a unitary Afghan state was a chimaera.
    The goal should have been tacit, de facto, partition, based on balancing the tribal interests and power bases.
    Bringing India into play, and obliging Islamabad to realise that half a loaf (the Ghilzai provinces) serves them better than none.
    (Oh, and dropping the stupid “anti-poppy” policy which wrecked what little support Kabul, had among farmers in Helmand and elsewhere)

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  21. Scott F. says:

    @JohnSF and @Lounsbury:
    Seizing territory and sustaining the governance of territory are two different skill sets. There is no indication the Taliban have both.

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  22. JohnSF says:

    @Scott F.:
    The Taliban (and the ISI) simply believe you can sustain minority rule via terror and slaughter.
    They may be proved incorrect.
    But it’s worked often enough in the past for them to think it a viable strategy.

    During the last period of Taliban rule they had little enough support among Kabulis, or the Hazara, or the Baloch.

    Didn’t prevent their control being effective enough for their purposes, though.
    And the Northern Alliance was on it’s last legs against Taliban offensives in 2001.

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  23. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: And not to be too snarky myself but that’s why I think you missed the actual goals.

    People who do a terrible job get better results than this. When something goes this badly, you probably missed the real objective of what was happening.

    (Unless the lesson taken from Vietnam was summarized by Homer Simpson’s famous quote: “You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.”)

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  24. Slugger says:

    US politics kept Obama from doing the obvious thing. If he had withdrawn, the Limbaughs of this world would have yipped about it incessantly. Right now, there are lots of people comparing Biden to Carter, asking him to resign, etc. None of this is a good reason for remaining, but that is the politics that we have.

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  25. R. Dave says:

    Steven Taylor in OP:

    This was an unsustainable circumstance the suggests we were all going to end up in exactly this place whether we withdrew now, years from now, or had done so years in the past.

    Due respect, but this is rather obviously a self-serving delusion (and thus almost certainly going to become the common wisdom). We’ve held off the Taliban with a minimal presence for years now, and there’s no reason to believe that was going to change anytime soon, so we could very easily have orchestrated a much less chaotic, humiliating, and morally bankrupt departure. At a minimum, we could have held the status quo long enough to depart on our own timeline rather than having our personnel be practically chased out of our facilities by advancing Taliban forces, and with hardly any greater effort than that, we could have held long enough to evacuate all those who will now be targeted by the Taliban for working with us directly over the years and some sizeable number of other particularly vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees. In fact, the truth is, we could have held the Taliban off indefinitely with very little cost, but I grant the political support wasn’t there for that, so sure, the final outcome – a Taliban restoration – may have been inevitable. But the manner in which it’s taking place was completely and easily avoidable.

    Steven Taylor in OP:

    The reality is that in our polarized reality, it is likely that most Republican-leaning voters and politicians will not favor this action and Democratic-leaning voters and politicians will be generally supportive. The only pro-Biden group likely to be especially upset are never-Trump neocons like Bill Kristol. It is a group with a significant voice, but is also not as significant a group as they think they are.

    I’m not sure the Dems can hold off a Trumpist Republican victory in the general election if the never-Trump Republicans don’t show up again in 2022 or 2024. The general election isn’t everything, though, and there may well be enough centrist Democrats who believe in concepts like national honor and the responsibility to protect to hurt Biden and/or his chosen successor in the 2024 Democratic primary. Ditto for Congressional elections in 2022. I, for one, will be withholding my primary vote from Biden and his allies over this issue, even though I would ultimately hold my nose and vote for them against the Republicans in the general.

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  26. Yes, on paper it had a 300,000-strong military to enforce its will.

    When progress is measured based (among other things) on the number of Afghan troops on paper, just how surprising is it that the actual number of troops might be considerably smaller?

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  27. CSK says:

    Ghani claims he left in order “to save Kabul from bloodshed.” A Taliban official says that “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” will soon be declared.

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  28. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: Ah yes the poppy eradication programme…. Brilliant of course.

    @Scott F.: Rather depends, but yes, it is very likely that either (a) the current Taleban will themselves fragment on inter-ethnic bases, or (b) by a mix of Pashtun supremacism and Sunni extremism, will generate their own counter-insurgencies.
    [or indeed (c) a combination of both]

    And of course as the Indians are not going to be particularly desirious of seeing the Pakintelligence aligned Taleban have an easy walk, will be sniffing around, as will the Russian’s Central Asian client-regimes, who are all quite Kuffar in the view of the Talebans. And with Uzbek, Tadjik and Turkmens minorities maltreated by Pashtun supremacist Talebans (likely as that happened last time around)…. unlikely to be a stable Emirate too long.

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  29. @R. Dave:

    I’m not sure the Dems can hold off a Trumpist Republican victory in the general election if the never-Trump Republicans don’t show up again in 2022 or 2024.

    I honestly don’t think that the never-Trumpers I am talking about (again, Kristol, the Bulwark gang, etc) amount to much of a voting block. Certainly not in proportion to the amount of air time and column space they are likely to have in the next couple of weeks.

    The number of people for whom this matters enough to change votes (or to lead to abstention) is low, I would wager. For that matter, I don’t think it will affect the voting behavior of Kristol nor of the Bulwark guys.

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  30. Sleeping Dog says:

    @R. Dave:

    Dave, did the US hold off the Taliban over the last 2 years with a small number of troops in country or did the Taliban decide there was no benefit in poking the bear, when it would leave the area on its own?

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  31. JohnSF says:

    Latest report: the Taliban are occupying the Arg. (The Citadel-Palace of Kabul)

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  32. Raoul says:

    As someone who was against withdrawing from Afghanistan, the sudden turn of events has altered my opinion. Obviously, there was never an opportunity to establish any semblance of a forward looking government without a permanent US presence. The Afghans were stealing US treasury at the expense of US blood and that was it. I feel bad for for a lot of Afghans but they were betrayed by their own. Getting out of there is the old bandage trick – fast and faster. To be clear, Pakistan is the real culprit here, and this may blow up in their face- karma.

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  33. Argon says:

    Afghanistan nation building success presaged by Animal House, decades ago:

    Bluto: “Christ! Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the f***ing peace corps!”

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  34. Argon says:

    To be honest, I’m now concerned about what happens with Pakistan. I’m sure India is too.

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  35. Terrye Lee Cravens says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I do not think that was the goal. The US intelligence was that the Afghan government would fall in 90 days. It fell in about 9. They were off on the time line, but not the substance.

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  36. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Raoul: As someone who was against withdrawing from Afghanistan, the sudden turn of events has altered my opinion.

    As someone who was against going into Afghanistan from the very beginning, the sudden turn of events has confirmed my opinion. (not picking on you Raoul)

    It was always a bad idea, especially in the way we tried to do it. Doomed to failure from the very beginning. All of you people saying, “Well if only we had done it this way…” are dealing in what if’s. We didn’t, and we never would have. I saw it in 10/01 and said as much. Not that anybody listened, or ever admitted that I was right all along.

    Jus’ sayin’…. I told you so.

    eta, well, not you, pretty sure I wasn’t commenting here back then, come to think of it, I doubt I was commenting anywhere other than my personal circle of friends, none of whom will ever say, “You were right, Tom.”

    sigh… too bad so many of them are dead now.

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  37. Gromitt Gunn says:

    It was obvious to any Trekker from Day 1 that we were the Cardassians in this situation. It was only ever going to end like this.

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  38. Terrye Lee Cravens says:

    @R. Dave: I am a Never Trumper and I do not blame Biden for this. The idea that we could control the situation and manage is anything is an illusion, just like the government and military over there. We did not hold off the Taliban, they just waited us out. If they had gotten tired of that a small contingency of American military would not have stopped them. We should have left earlier. I do not think most Americans are going to feel differently.

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  39. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    One of my favorite quotes ever.

    Along with Homer’s take on volunteerism:

    Pfft. Volunteering is for suckers. Do you know that ‘so-called’ volunteers don’t even get paid?

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  40. de stijl says:

    @Terrye Lee Cravens:

    So off by a full factor then…

    Just as when experts predicted that total victory was possible with 6 months of applied effort.

    A category error. Delusional.

    I don’t want easily deluded can-do assholes fouling up the system with bullshit future scenarios that cannot exist. It is exactly contra-indicactive of what we need.

    We need truth. Can our proxies hold this territory? Yes? No?

    Yes or no. Not give us 6 months or two years or indefinite goal shifting bullshit.

    Bad planning is not the problem. It is bad projection substituted for a solid plan. That falls squarely onto senior leaders that 1. Fell for bullshit or 2. Allowed bullshit.

    Both are damning. Desirous to meet your leaders goal so much you fudge facts. That is absolute disaster. Been there and done that and it is a fool’s game.

    Not an intelligence failure but a leadership failure. It was never close to sustainable but we fronted as if.

    A goal is not a plan.

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  41. de stijl says:

    Senior leaders should have already inoculated themselves against sunk-cost fallacy.

    That’s pretty basic.

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  42. de stijl says:

    1. We have unbeatable military force
    2. We cannot lose

    2 does not follow 1.

    A category error. Bad logic.

    I sincerely hope future leaders learn from our bad choice and from the leaders who made bad decision upon bad decision.

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  43. JohnSF says:

    Zarifa Ghafari;

    Ms Ghafari, 27, rose to prominence in 2018 by becoming the youngest, and first female, mayor in Afghanistan in Maidan Wardak province. The Taliban has frequently vowed to kill the articulate, politically influential female critic. Her father General Abdul Wasi Ghafari was gunned down on 15 November last year, just 20 days after the third attempt on her life failed.

    “I’m sitting here waiting for them to come. There is no one to help me or my family. I’m just sitting with them and my husband. And they will come for people like me and kill me. I can’t leave my family. And anyway, where would I go?”

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