Afghanistan and the Common Knowledge Game

Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in happier times, before fleeing Kabul with “four vehicle
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  1. Recently I find myself extolling the virtue and power of AND much more often.

  2. Agree with the general point and the Common Knowledge Game logic you first raised in the Harvey Weinstein context. But would quibble with your blaming last week’s mess in Kabul can be entirely blamed on a myopic focus on “domestic political ramifications”.
    In some cases there are “missionaries” openly pushing competing narratives that outsiders could evaluate on their merits. In cases like these the work of many missionaries is largely hidden from public view, but their messages are along the lines of “if you report views outside the ones we approve you will never get another interview with anyone in our organization again” or “if you openly discuss critical views with outsiders we will destroy any career opportunities you thought you might have” or “our paid advocates will do everything to cancel you and your friends”.
    As you note thousands of expert people knew Afghanistan was a hopelessly lost cause many years ago. They were not marginalized by organized domestic political interests who thought the war was winnable, but by specific corporate interests who wanted the gravy train to continue, politicians who wanted the big donations from those companies to continue, and senior military people hoping for lucrative jobs with those companies. No domestic voters felt strongly about the war in the sense that many domestic voters have strong views about immigration or abortion or taxes or infrastructure spending or other issues. My strong sense is that domestic voters largely supported the Obama and Trump claims that we needed to bring our troops home long ago.

  3. Great article and it truly does help me understand how this FUBAR action occurred.

    But the real surprise to me was your statement “people in the DOD and IC who knew better but were only too happy to see a painful debacle unfold”.

    Ben, these were Sins of Omission, not Commission but aren’t you saying these people that let it go should be labeled Saboteurs nevertheless?

  4. EVERYONE thought that the Afghan government would fall to the Taliban, and EVERYONE thought that they had plenty of time to square things away. Until they had no time at all.

    I find this fascinatingly true and it rings of “normalcy bias”. It happens again and again in disasters. The Titanic with guests still at the bar as the ship goes under (cue the band as Missionary for all is well!). The hordes of souls that went BACK IN to the Twin Towers on 9/11 to get back to work after having already successfully evacuated. I imagine this is also what happened in the Pogroms in Russia, Germany in the 1930s, the Armenians prior to 1915, etc.

    The signs are all there, and everyone knows it’s true. But they don’t have a Missionary speaking loud enough so that they know everyone else heard it too.

    Kind of like the fact Social Security is bankrupt, or the fact that the American security state doing warrant less mass surveillance spying on American citizens. It doesn’t matter that it’s true. Fundamentals don’t matter anymore. Narrative is what matters. And right now there is still no Missionary more powerful than the Emporer and he is saying he has new clothes on.

  5. Is it possible the Biden administration have naively relied on a structure that saw (under the past administration) a brain-drain of competent beurocrats? I.e. anyone who would have had the sense to stand up to these plans resigned months ago?

  6. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Hi, Hubert, thanks for the thoughtful post. When I say that the Biden WH (like all WHs) was focused exclusively and myopically on domestic politics, I’m not at all saying that domestic politics favored staying in Afghanistan. On the contrary. My view is that Bush’s initiation of the war, Obama’s continuation of the war, Trump’s … whatever that was …, and Biden’s fleeing of the war have ALL been designed and implemented to reflect whatever the WH thought was the winning domestic political stance on the war. NONE of these Administrations made policy for some war-fighting or nation-building or war-ending goal in itself, but only as it played in Peoria.

  7. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Hi, Peter, appreciate the note! I think “saboteurs” is way too strong, but if you’re on Biden’s WH team you probably think it’s too weak. I think the DOD slow-played any analysis that would help out the WH here AND I think that the WH ignored whatever strategic analysis the DOD provided.

  8. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Hi, Andrew, thanks for posting! I think that career State Dept. officials are some of the best people this country has, and it’s notable to me that they wrote a letter asking the WH and Blinken to reconsider their exit plans. Honestly I don’t think we have a shortage of smart career people in State (although Trump did his best to drive them out), but we have WAY too many not-so-smart political appointees in State who only care about the re-election of whoever the Big Guy is at the time.

  9. Got it, appreciate the response. Thanks

  10. Ben, you once wrote about the most dangerous failure being that which comes as failure of imagination. The Afghanistan conflict is the perfect illustration of this, from beginning to end.

    Our conflict started those 20 years ago because we failed to imagine a threat that was willing to use commercial airliners as weapons of mass destruction. The conflict ended even after we imagined this exact scenario playing out. Literally the outcome that was easiest to imagine was what happened. Afghanistan spans the entire chasm of failures, beginning with imagination and ending with whatever the opposite of imagination is. The perfect bookends to hold together those two lost decades.

  11. Ben, didn’t something similar happen with the rescue operation for the hostages in Iran? I was just a kid, but I seem to remember allegations that the military (whose budget had been slashed by Carter) knew that the desert dust would cause the helicopter engines to malfunction.

  12. What happens on the first 9/11 in Afghanistan under the Taliban in 20 years? Surely they are savvy enough with public relations to be planning something. This has serious potential to create a massive missionary statement. God forbid it’s a US Citizen getting executed and/or having their head chopped off by the Taliban on TV, ISIS style.

  13. Good read Ben as always.

    I have said it before and I will say it here , I just don’t think we have serious people in DC. The party’s have become akin to religions in the very worst sense of that word.

    I hope and pray with all my heart that his post ages horribly , but when we exit on 8/31 the Taliban are going become less mainstream and what we are going to see happen to our American citizens and Allies is going to be stuff of nightmare’s. I think it will all be done in public so as to humiliate us in the worst possible way and help their recruitment.

  14. Hopefully, the worst of it will be more like what Iran did with J Carter in office 40 years ago, i.e. parade around Americans in blindfolds to humiliate America and consolidate political power within the country and region.

    The Taliban seem more reckless and less centrally controlled than the Ayatollahs did back then , so my fear of something horrid is high

  15. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Hi, Michael, thanks for the post! I did some research in grad school on the Iranian hostage rescue mission, and it was just a complete clusterfuck, including a broken rotor (nothing to do with sand) and one of the choppers hitting a transport plane and killing a bunch of servicemen. I’m a cynical guy, but I guess that I’m not at the point where I’m prepared to believe that the Pentagon would sabotage a mission to this extent. IIRC, though, there were still enough choppers to give the mission a try, but the commanders on the ground recommended to abort. Which is weird.

  16. Avatar for FFWA FFWA says:

    One of the things that has been lost in this discussion is this: In the twelve months prior to this withdrawal, not a single American Soldier died from combat in Afghanistan. More soldiers died in (each) Fort Bragg, Korea, and Germany. This really wasn’t an active war, from the American perspective. It was stable, albeit messy and expensive. It was the kind of uneasy action that great powers, who are maintaining peace in the world, get caught up in. I think the biggest narrative problem came from calling this a twenty year WAR. If soldiers aren’t dying, it really isn’t a war. It’s something else. The fact is, we probably could have maintained our current stance in Afghanistan for decades, like we have done in Korea and Germany (and Panama, and Egypt, and Colombia, and…)

    But because missionaries called this an ongoing, long war, we HAD to evacuate, and now we have a royal mess, with our allies feeling betrayed, Iran and other competitors (notice, not using the word “enemy”) expanding their influence, ISIS taking victory laps, and our standing in the world noticeably diminished. A terrible outcome.

    I just wish, somewhere, we had people in our leadership who could play Chess. But every decision seems to be made with an eye toward Twitter, and every four years we seem to toss the table, and take a loss.

    Maybe we need to begin reframing what is going on in the World. This isn’t so much about Afghanistan, or Iran, or even the great (much-touted) generational struggle between China and the US. The real question is: Can democracy stand up against authoritarianism in the age of social media, or will Democracy be “nudged” into impotence?

    Right now, it doesn’t look too good for Democracy…

  17. Avatar for FFWA FFWA says:

    If you want to see an interesting “inside baseball” review of the Desert One mission, see “Phoenix Rising” by Keith Knightingale.

  18. Ok, it wasn’t a WAR.

    Whatever the hell it was, it was a net loss for the people paying the bills, and it had been since approximately day 1.

    I don’t even know where to start with the “great powers…maintaining peace” business, so I won’t try.

  19. Perhaps what went wrong in Afghanistan is what went wrong in Iran.
    Simple Incompetence as opposed to Evil.

    Borrowing a N Taleb basic assumption

  20. I’m very interested in one specific piece of the narrative that some are trying very hard to turn into common knowledge. There are a lot of people on Twitter reeeeally pushing the “we should have never been there in the first place” version of events. People are actually trying to retcon 9/11 and two years ago I couldn’t imagine it working on anyone outside of the Ron Paul Kook Brigade/Bernie-bordering-on-tankie Bros horseshoe. And yet here we are. For the life of me I don’t see who benefits from that particular version of history but I’m sure it’s a lot less thought out and is simply just the reflexive action of people who are contrarian by default.

  21. Avatar for Zenzei Zenzei says:

    Whenever I bring up the plight of the women of Afghanistan in the face of our withdrawal to avid liberal feminists (two of them being my daughters)…I keep getting that.

    “Yes, it’s terrible and that is why War is Bad and we never should have been there!”

    which is a questionable logical proposition on many levels.

    One of the reasons I remain in this forum is the ability of its members to hold multiple conflicting ideas in their minds and talk about the problem from a variety of viewpoints,

  22. Guessing the narrative is going to change yet again after this. What an utterly unnecessary loss of life. You cannot abstract away the murder of civilians while they wait in line to be rescued. (Or at least I hope you can’t; God help us if you can)

  23. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Responding to D_Y’s pushback against the retconning of 9/11 for a “we should never have been there” common knowledge … the problem I have with the pushback is that a massive boots-on-the-ground occupation (which is what we did) was presented by both the Bush and Obama Administrations as the only possible alternative to doing nothing against Al Qaeda and their Taliban-supported safe haven in Afghanistan. Even after we achieved the stated goal of breaking Al Qaeda and killing bin Laden (who wasn’t even in Afghanistan, of course), we stayed in Afghanistan with a very active combat mission under the notion of preventing future terrorist threats.

    Invasion + occupation was NOT the only alternative to doing nothing. In fact, it was candidate Joe Biden in the 2007 primaries who was probably the loudest voice for a smaller footprint + Pakistan-based containment strategy. Do I think this sort of drone-heavy approach would have worked? No idea. Worked for WHAT? To break Al Qaeda as a viable organization? Yeah, I think so. To break the Taliban? Not a chance. But it sure as hell wouldn’t have been a 21-year quicksand for trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives.

  24. You’ve thought about it a lot more deeply than those who are pushing for the retconning. It doesn’t seem to be coming from places that are thoughtfully and deliberately looking at what went wrong in the early days. It looks a lot more like the guy you’ve never noticed in your graduating class saying “see, I told you so!” when you find out at your 10 year reunion that Mr. Peterson was arrested for selling pot to his students. They want to retroactively apply their knowledge of today to 20 years ago and they’re hoping nobody asks any questions and instead just nod along and agree.

  25. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Yeah, I was a 17-year old telling anyone who would listen my vile opinions about turning countries into glass. I have too many bad opinion skeletons to consider retconning a valid option.

  26. There may be some conflating happening between “we never should have been there” and “we were there 50 times as long as we should have been”.

    Tora Bora was 12/2001. Once the front reached the Pakistani border, either:

    1. Continue pursuit into Pakistan.
    2. Bring US military home because the only part of this that they are good at is over.

    The arguments about preventing another 9/11, etc should explain why Afghanistan is special. Because some of those guys trained there? Where else might they train? Shouldn’t we be occupying all those places too?

  27. Avatar for Pat_W Pat_W says:

    Afghan insurgents have been setting off bombs in market places and other public venues, but it seems more frequently in the last 12 months. This suicide attack, it seems to me, has been seized on by journalists, as easy click bait. This is happening from all directions. What about the 30 dead, or 40 dead, in very recent memory?

  28. I will be as charitable as is possible for someone of my character. Here goes…

    I wonder if the reason the media has paid more attention to this particular bombing is in some way connected to the fact that 13 servicemen where killed in cold blood while trying to evacuate innocent civilians not four days after the commander-in-chief said that every contingency was planned for. Just going way out on a limb here.

    If you honestly do not see how this is different than previous attacks then you’ve lost the plot entirely (or perhaps never had it to begin with). This is an enormous shift in the story and it changes everything.

  29. Sometimes the media ignores things they shouldn’t; other times they make a big deal about nothing; and sometimes they get it right. For many reasons the media’s emphasis on the recent suicide attack falls in the latter category.

  30. Avatar for Pat_W Pat_W says:

    Are you saying the story changed because Biden proclaimed, if I may paraphrase, “I’m in charge and everything is under control.”?

    That much I get. He’s been playing the fool when he ought to know that both bureaucracy and war are uncontrollable.

    Assume for the moment I am teachable. What am I missing?

  31. I’m saying the story didn’t change, rather a brand new story emerged. Things were going down one track and then suddenly a huge externality changed the course of things in a very bloody, horrific way. That’s a big deal. Whether or not it was an utterly unsurprising outcome is irrelevant. Not being able to see how profoundly this shifts the story arc is an indicator that you’re watching a different movie than the rest of us.

    I assure you that I am every bit as cynical about the corporate press as you are, maybe even a little more. But this was a moment that required the wall-to-wall coverage that they have carelessly given to so many unworthy causes in the past. That their track record is so poor does not indicate a lack of newsworthiness of this particular event.

  32. Lots of different options are always present, but they don’t get a seat at the table. Garrisoning, let alone garrisoning-while-nation-building is an entirely different mission than seek and destroy. The US Military is amazing at that seek and destroy bit. The problem is that the mission afterwards quickly gets to the question of “Now what?”

    The end result of most wars in history I think is a change of national borders (and subjugation) in favor of the victor. Wars where the borders intentionally don’t change are a relatively new phenomenon (last 100 years or so?). The modern American interpretation seems to be some form of conquer the army, leave the vast majority of the population and infrastructure in tact, oust the rulers, prop up their former rivals and turn them into the new rulers, allow private corporations to profit, while heavily subsidizing those new rulers from the victor’s tax base, and on the back of the victor’s soldiers, hoping to create a new and powerful military and economic ally out of the ashes of the old regime. I don’t know if that experiment will continue.

    I think the empires of the past would simply decimate and subjugate the losing populace leaving behind only a small fractured remnant that wouldn’t be able to stage an uprising. Our modern sensibilities don’t allow for that obviously. That also creates a problem for us where the existing political rivalries as well as their political and economic power bases are still in tact.

  33. For weeks our Government was telling people to “shelter in place” in the last several days they have told them ‘avoid the airport” . Now I see the beginnings of the narrative- those that are stuck in Afghanistan didn’t want to leave…


  34. They really are trying to go with the “you shouldn’t have worn that dress” excuse. If it wasn’t so despicable it would be impressive for its chutzpah.

  35. Will the Reuters disclosure of the transcript of the call between Biden and Ghani be an accelerant of Biden’s hasty Afghan withdrawal decisions being purely political machinations?

    Looks terrible on the surface

  36. “You need to change the perception whether it’s true or not”

  37. I remember when quid pro quo phone calls with world leaders were grounds for impeachment.

  38. How about Jake Sullivan telling Good Morning America that the US won’t rule out giving aid directly to the Taliban?

  39. Looking forward, I wonder about the consequences of 20 to 30 year old males toting guns that, for their entire lives, have grown up in some dystopia worse than many fictional portrayals. Capital punishment never happened following a trial, as espoused by the occupying country (even if they claim a hidden court on the other side of the world did have hearings).
    No. A normal afternoon interrupted by a faint buzzing approaching in the sky of a mindless winged robot. And next thing you know a screaming rocket, a deafening explosion, debris, blood, and body parts flying everywhere. I assume that Afghan civilian collateral wasn’t valued even as much as reporters from allied countries.
    I have to believe that there’s a substantial number of Afghans with serious mental and emotional trauma having driving them towards psychotic tendencies. This might be very different than the Soviet Union’s occupation with competitive advantage. They still mostly carried out by visible humans even if a missile launched from a helicopter.
    I’m seriously concerned about what happens next. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen an entire generation in a geographic region have their entire formative years happen in such a dystopia, certainly not that included robots executing capital punishment like a lottery loss. I can’t imagine why anyone in Afghanistan believes that the US espoused social structure deserves to survive. And I don’t see a bunch of religious zealots ready to be mauled by lions, or burned at the stake while joyfully following a lower class carpenter to help bring peaceful reform. Or a pastor from Atlanta oozing wisdom and integrity, peacefully protesting. But one can hope.

    Before you @ me about racial injustice, the slums in India, the Apartheid, the Holocaust, etc., please go back and consider the difference between all the historic injustices against specific groups by people locally present and what a 6 year old boy might perceive from robots hunting for sport from the air… For 20 years. By someone sitting at a computer in Terre Haute, Indiana. But they don’t know that. And sure, maybe his uncle was a terrorist by any objective standard. But he doesn’t know that either. It’s not like there’s even a due process record for him to revisit in his later years.

  40. Thanks, acoates, a fine answer to the question, “Why are we there?”. That requires knowledge of who was there and what their role might have been and what promises were made by whom and to whom and who, based on accepted high-level reasons for our being there, might be the enemy, and why they are such, remain open. They remain open because they are political in the worst possible sense. All such answers, reasons, decisions are necessarily political In the U.S., by political organizations such as the elected members of the executive and legislative branches of the federal gov’t, the military establishment headed by the DoD and the joint chiefs (and perhaps a joint passed around the table would help), and the intelligence agencies too large to be effective but large enough to block any effective solutions or public awareness of what they ‘know’.
    I don’t find outrage a useful emotion in addressing such issues. Perhaps more practical, meaningful approaches can be offered here, for which I optimistically await. At the moment I have none to offer.

  41. “All such answers, reasons, decisions are necessarily political In the U.S”
    Agree, to some extent, but the answer still leaves a foul taste in my mouth. Greed, and the vast sums of money to be made by arms manufacturers has to enter in. Plus, those in the bureaucracy who want to work for these arms manufacturers upon leaving civil service. I wish there was a clean, actionable answer to "why are we there?’ We currently have US troops garrisoned in between 160 and 177 different countries, depending on who does the counting. Why are they there, and what would happen if we brought them all home and fired all the mercenaries in US employ? We can’t BITFD because we may or may not know who or what is waiting in the wings, to build a new US in their image. I’ve found looking backwards at our failures & expecting the guilty to be punished is a waste of time. There is insufficient outrage and those in politics feel secure that they are untouchable. A cynical view, but born out of experience. I used to call myself ‘an optimist with experience’, but I’m ok with being called a cynic now. like you, i want to know how we as a country can proceed forward, today, in a better direction. I have long since cast a vote of no-confidence upon our current elected officials in Washington, and can only hope that enough people can join the pack and create something better from the ground up and not accept diktat from the top down. I have to keep hoping that those who sow the wind will eventually reap the whirlwind. Hope and cynicism are strange bedfellows, I know, but I have to start somewhere.

  42. “Perhaps more practical, meaningful approaches can be offered here for which I optimistically await. At the moment I have none to offer.”

    Great point. Is there a good historic example, following decades long occupation, of an occupier changing course to a healthier equilibrium? Out of my knowledge sphere. @bhunt?

    If we don’t have an alternative to propose, can we, as @Barry.Rose suggests, demand BITFD in good faith? Without an idea for @bhunt build it back up? I would trust any random 10% of this pack to take over the Fed, financial / banking regulatory functions, or law making on complete blind faith knowing that there’s overwhelming consensus on 90%+ of BITFD and Build It Back Up. If Powell / Kashkari got to hand pick I might want 15% of the pack.

    Having just dropped my freshman daughter off at a college with one of the highest percentage of Native American students, that’s probably not a model. But that might be a group to ask. Maybe Congress should have to sit through a read an admission of all occupation before every daily session. Fort Lewis reads this before any on campus events:

    “The land we gather on today, at Fort Lewis College, is the ancestral lands and territories of Nuchu (Ute), Apache, the Pueblos, Hopi, Zuni, and the Diné Nation. We think it is important to provide this acknowledgement because the narratives of this land and region have long been told from one dominant perspective, without full acknowledgement of the tribes who lived on this land before it was Fort Lewis College. Thank you for your attention and respect in acknowledging this important history.”

    Congress might want to save their time by reducing the military bases so they can get back to calling donors from UTX, NOC, HON, LMT, etc.

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