Graveyard of Empires Welcomes Another: RIP


“The State Department could not immediately be reached for comment. Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday (August 12) that the departure of Americans from the embassy was “not an evacuation,” but rather “a reduction in the size of our civilian footprint.”
Susannah George and Bryan Pietsch reporting in the Washington Post 8/15/21

Ned, tell that to the families of the three Afghan souls who fell from the sky as the US military cargo plane rose from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul with US evacuees on board. Tell it to the Afghans we all saw clinging to the side of the plane or the hundreds of Afghans running alongside as it prepared for takeoff.

The scenes from this war-torn and war-weary country are heartbreaking; as the President called it, “gut-wrenching”.

It is painful to watch the desperation of those people, especially the women and children, who face yet another period of brutal Taliban rule.

You can’t help but feel angry and humiliated. The US is engaged in surrender once again, acknowledging the failure and probably futility of yet another nation-building escapade in a country where the religious extremes allow no separation of church and state, none of the freedoms women and children enjoy in democracy, and none of the safeguards against government oppression. It is what has been described as “a graveyard of empires.”

Now, the US and its allies are carrying out an emergency evacuation from a country in which 2,448 American soldiers have fought and died alongside 3,846 contractors, 1044 NATO troops, 444 aid workers, 72 journalists, and 113,245 Afghan soldiers and civilians. The cost in life reported by Market Watch is horrifying. But so is the incomprehensible number of injured and maimed, and the suffering of families of soldiers who have died, been injured, or deployed over and over again.

The human cost of the war is made worse by the financial cost, close to $1 trillion in just Defense and other governmental agency expenditures. Total direct and indirect costs are equally incomprehensible.

President Biden spoke quite forcefully and convincingly about those costs and the futility of the American experience over the last 20 years. He has been consistent in his determination to see us out of there, and he is right that most Americans have wanted the war to end.

Ending wars, however, is sometimes harder than winning them and we have failed at both in Afghanistan. President Biden failed to execute an honorable or even tolerable end. In a grand understatement, he said it’s been hard and messy and, yes, “far from perfect.”

Just a month ago, the President said:

“The Taliban is not the south—the North Vietnamese army. They’re not—they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the—of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”

Those of us old enough to remember the evacuation of Saigon remember with anguish what Colbert King of the Washington Post recalled the late Ed Bradley of CBS reporting:

“Some Americans who pushed toward the bus tried to pull their Vietnamese wives and children along with the…..There were desperate scenes of families separated and crying out for help, pleading not to be left behind, clutching at the last straw of hope.”

There were scenes like that all over the city and we all remember, of course, the desperate Vietnamese clinging to the helicopter as it lifted off the roof of the US Embassy.

Biden was right about one aspect of it all. This is not comparable to Vietnam. The situation in Afghanistan appears much worse, and the future of the Afghani people is surely worse than that of the South Vietnamese as they pondered their fate nearly a half-century ago.

There have been thousands upon thousands of words written and spoken into microphones about our calamitous withdrawal from the country. There will be thousands more as this epic disaster continues to unfold. The media are deeply embedded in the drama and will not let the curtain close. There is so much more we need to know and understand. What is written here in haste may not even be relevant in months and years to come. People may not remember or care how it ended only that it ended. There is little I can add that hasn’t been said better.

Except this: What the amateur spin doctor Ned Price said about the ‘non-evacuation’ was very telling and, in some respects, stupid yet profound. He unknowingly epitomized government manipulation of the language and the contrivance of public perceptions that have been tolerated for so long it has become legendary. Truth is as passé as objective journalism. We must find our way back to it.

The history of US involvement in Afghanistan, like our history in Vietnam, is one riddled with deception, cover-ups, and incredibly bad political and military decisions. They can be traced back to ‘Charlie Wilson’s War, a misguided effort to get the US engaged on the side of the Mujahideen freedom fighters at war against the Soviet’s own nation-building campaign there forty years ago, described well by Kelly Johnston on his site Against the Grain.

President George W. Bush got us into Afghanistan after 9/11, for the noble purpose to destroy a terrorist base and get Osama Bin Laden, but his administration also flirted with nation-building. He tried to convince us that the war would not cost more than we could afford, but it did, in human life and national resources.

President Barack Obama’s leadership on Afghanistan was indecisive, on-again, off-again, but never fully committed to winning the war or the peace. His surge strategy failed. President Trump was also on-again, off-again initially and then he committed fully to his original intent to leave. He negotiated a deal with the Taliban and thought he had succeeded well enough to set a date of May 1, 2021, for withdrawal. The deal was a dud and the withdrawal date an Afghan desert mirage.

The Taliban waited.

President Biden acted predictably and doubled down on withdrawal. He told the Taliban and the rest of the world exactly what we were going to do, and when.

The Taliban waited some more, and then they pounced.

Senior administration officials said they were shocked and caught totally off guard. Were they really? The entire giant military, diplomatic, and intelligence community really got it wrong?

Through two decades of war, the American people were spun like laundry in a commercial clothes dryer. We were told the US was winning when we were losing. We were told our soldiers and veterans would be taken care of. We were lied to about the success of military engagements. We were told we would not have to sacrifice or pay higher taxes. We were misled about the massive scale of corruption in Afghan governments and in the politics of the provinces and their overlords. We were badly deceived about the quality and preparedness of the Afghan Army and police (Journalist Glenn Greenwald has much more detail on Substack).

This summer, we were told that the Taliban would reach Kabul in months and then weeks, when it took days. And, in an incredibly symbolic gesture to all of the deceptions and deceit that have become the hallmark of our sad experience in transparency, we were told the emergency evacuation was merely a “reduction in size of our civilian footprint.”

I don’t mean to pick on Ned, but his dizzying spin says so much about the last 20 years. The real question now that may never be answered is who in our government was misled over the past 20 years and who wasn’t, and how did we ever so blindly ignore the Vietnam experience and all that it should have taught us.

What a tangled web we weave, indeed, when first we practice to deceive.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.