The Daily 202: Biden said U.S. officials lied about Afghanistan. It’s not clear whether they’ll be held to account.
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The Daily 202
Intelligence for leaders.
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Olivier Knox By Olivier Knox
with Mariana Alfaro
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Nineteen months ago, Joe Biden bluntly affirmed U.S. officials had lied to the public about how the United States was doing in Afghanistan. In August 2021, it’s not clear whether they’ll ever be held accountable.
“Yes. Yeah,” he told the New York Times editorial board in an interview published in January 2020 when asked whether Americans had been lied to over the course of the war.
Holding the alleged liars accountable may be an impossible job: Under Biden’s three predecessors, countless senior officials from agencies like the Pentagon and State Department paraded before Congress or television cameras to deliver rosy (or at least unrealistic) forecasts that often veered into falsehood territory.
There’s not a lot of precedent in American history for that kind of large-scale accountability, and after the last 20 years it’s possible to wonder whether elite impunity is a national religion.
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But my colleague Craig Whitlock has documented, first in the pages of The Washington Post and now in his new book, “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” the chasm between the sunny public messages and the sobering, even grim private assessments by officials at every level.
“The strategy became self-validating. Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Craig quoted a senior counterinsurgency officer, retired Army colonel Bob Crowley, as saying.
American commanders served up public displays of optimism “so unwarranted and baseless that their statements amounted to a disinformation campaign,” Craig reported.
A Taliban fighter stands guard outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul on Aug. 17. (Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty Images)
A Taliban fighter stands guard outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul on Aug. 17. (Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty Images)
The White House did not return emails asking whether the president thinks everyone who testified to Congress that the Afghan forces could stand on their own did so in good faith, or whether some needed to be held accountable for misleading the public. Lying to Congress is a federal crime, though it is rarely prosecuted.
(The Daily 202 also asked whether Biden regretted not speaking out publicly earlier against the U.S. presence. In the Times interview, the future commander in chief said he did not have a responsibility to do so when he was vice president.)
In fairness, the administration is a bit busy trying to evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghans from Afghanistan. In Congress, meanwhile, at least four committees — all run by Democrats — are poised to look into the pullout, and it’s unclear to what extent they’ll pore over the last two decades.
We need accountability, but formally pinning blame may not be desirable right now, according to the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko. More than any other U.S. official, Sopko has chronicled the failings and failures of what is often derided as 20 one-year campaigns, each one unable or unwilling to learn from the one that preceded it.
“There is no one president or one decision that can be held accountable. There's a lot of people who should be held accountable, and a lot of programs should be held accountable,” Sopko told NPR yesterday.
“We try not to point the finger at an individual because that's not useful right now,” he said. “We want to try to learn from those 20 years so we don't repeat it.”
Sopko’s latest report, published overnight Monday, doesn’t cover the final collapse of the Afghan military and the Taliban’s triumphant march across Afghanistan and into the halls of the country’s presidential palace.
That’ll be in the next one.
But it’s a sobering assessment, echoing his other report cards on the conflict President George W. Bush plunged into after the 9/11 attacks.
“Twenty years later, much has improved, and much has not. If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak,” the report says.
“By most measurements, security has progressively worsened. Even after the U.S. government spent more than $83 billion building the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), the Taliban controls more territory than at any point in the war, the number of effective enemy-initiated attacks is steadily increasing, and fear for personal safety among Afghans has never been higher.”
The report landed a bit more than a month after Biden declared “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” only to see that unlikelihood turn into certainty. But Sopko’s assessments of the Afghan military have been grim for years.
The White House, its credibility under fire, made “responsibility” the watchword of the day on Tuesday.
One day after Biden declared “the buck stops with me” — but also blamed Afghan leaders and the country’s military for melting away — national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the president “is taking responsibility for every decision the United States government took with respect to Afghanistan.”
Congress has already promised to undertake an investigation into why the United States wasn’t better prepared for the Afghan collapse.
Sullivan promised the administration would go back and assess “every aspect of this [the withdrawal] from top to bottom.” But he disputed a reporter’s suggestion it would be a “’what-went-wrong’ review.”
“And of course we intend, after we’ve had the opportunity to run that analysis, to share that with people,” he said.
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What’s happening now
Four congressional committees are now investigating the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Democratic leaders on the Senate’s Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence committees, as well as the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have said they will conduct hearings on Afghanistan. This morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing next week “with the highest levels of officials in the Biden administration.”
The Biden administration will begin offering coronavirus booster shots to all Americans on Sept. 20, top health officials announced this morning after concluding that a third shot is needed to fight off waning immunity, Bryan Pietsch reports. “In a joint statement from top public-health and medical experts, the administration confirmed that it is developing plans to begin offering the booster shots after reviewing a wide array of data. The plan, which applies only to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, calls for all Americans to get a booster shot eight months after receiving their second doses. The officials said they expect a booster shot will be needed for people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but they are still reviewing data and will announce plans at a later date.”
The WHO criticized the move to give boosters as much of world struggles for first doses. “WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus renewed his call for global solidarity in response to the pandemic, warning against ‘vaccine nationalism’ and calling on countries to share doses,” Frances Stead Sellers reports. “Vaccine injustice is a shame on all humanity,” Tedros said.
Three studies published today by the CDC show that protection against the coronavirus from vaccines declined in the midsummer months when the more contagious delta variant rose to dominance in the U.S., Ben Guarino reports. “At the same time, protection against hospitalization was strong for weeks after vaccination, indicating the shots will generate immune fighters that stave off the worst effects of the virus and its current variations.”
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More on Afghanistan
Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani resurfaced in the United Arab Emirates.
“The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation can confirm that the UAE has welcomed President Ashraf Ghani and his family into the country on humanitarian grounds,” the UAE’s foreign ministry said in a statement this morning.
“It remains unclear where the 72-year-old Ghani is in the UAE and whether he plans to remain in the emirate,” Sudarsan Raghavan reports. “Inside Afghanistan, Ghani has been widely condemned by even his staunchest supporters for abandoning the country as the Taliban took control.”
“Russian officials in Kabul have charged that Ghani fled with four cars and a helicopter filled with cash, Russia’s news agency RIA reported Monday. Ghani has not responded to the allegation.”
The situation outside the Kabul airport appeared anything but calm on Wednesday, challenging the Biden administration claims that U.S. citizens and others can evacuate safely.
'Taliban fighters were using guns, truncheons and makeshift whips to harass and control massive crowds that had gathered outside the Kabul airport in the hopes of fleeing Afghanistan, CNN’s chief international correspondent said in live reports from outside the facility on Wednesday, Erin Cunningham reported.
“The gunmen even approached [CNN correspondent Clarissa] Ward and her team near the airport’s perimeter as they reported on the chaos, shouting at her ‘to cover her face’ and nearly pistol-whipping CNN senior field producer Brent Swails as he filmed video on his iPhone, she said.”
“'I’ve covered all sorts of crazy situations. This was mayhem. This was nuts,' Ward said, describing one Taliban fighter who was hitting people with a whip fashioned out of a bicycle lock.”
An Afghan journalist made a heartfelt plea during an exchange with the head of NATO: “Don’t recognize the Taliban.”
During a news conference, reporter Lailuma Sadid “questioned NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about the coalition’s rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years,” Julian Mark reports. “‘Appearing to sympathize, Stoltenberg told Sadid it was an “extremely difficult’ decision to make. … Sadid pleaded with Stoltenberg: ‘Please don’t recognize the Taliban and don’t put us again in the same situation.’”
Meet Abdul Ghani Baradar, the likely next leader of Afghanistan.
“The man likely to be Afghanistan’s next leader entered Kandahar on Tuesday escorted by a fleet of white SUVs, showered by fireworks and greeted by thousands of Afghans, at least a few holding rocket-propelled grenades,” Kevin Sieff and Joshua Partlow report. “For years, the Taliban’s political leaders were ghosts, the invisible strategists of a powerful insurgency, and now here was the convoy carrying Abdul Ghani Baradar.”
“The way Baradar might govern — and even his ability to consolidate power in Kabul — is impossible to predict. Even as he and other Taliban leaders have articulated a more liberal vision of the state in recent days, signs of the Taliban’s repressive techniques have re-emerged. … It’s not even clear where he will live. In Kabul, the Taliban has taken over the glitzy, multimillion-dollar presidential palace that U.S. funds helped to restore. Baradar, who once emblematized the Taliban’s ascetic-warrior image, will have to decide whether to sleep there, in the former home of the men he spent two decades fighting.”
Mike Pence says Biden’s perceived weakness emboldened the Taliban.
The former vice president weighed in on the situation in Afghanistan in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. “The Biden administration’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan is a foreign-policy humiliation unlike anything our country has endured since the Iran hostage crisis,” he wrote.
“The progress our administration made toward ending the war was possible because Taliban leaders understood that the consequences of violating the deal would be swift and severe. … But when Mr. Biden became president, he quickly announced that U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan for an additional four months without a clear reason for doing so. … Rather, it seems that the president simply didn’t want to appear to be abiding by the terms of a deal negotiated by his predecessor.” Biden has said pushing the date was necessary for an orderly process.
“Once Mr. Biden broke the deal, the Taliban launched a major offensive against the Afghan government and seized Kabul. They knew there was no credible threat of force under this president. … Weakness arouses evil — and the magnitude of evil now rising in Afghanistan speaks volumes about the weaknesses of Mr. Biden.”
Former defense secretary Mark T. Esper blames both Biden and Trump for the Taliban’s return to power.
“Biden in particular is responsible for the chaotic execution of the U.S. withdrawal, Esper said during an interview with CNN late Tuesday. He maintained that the disorganized evacuation of thousands of Americans and Afghans from Kabul could have been avoided,” Andrew Jeong reports. “Esper was Trump’s secretary of the army and later defense secretary. Esper said his former boss’s attempts to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan helped embolden the Taliban last year.”
The Taliban seized U.S. military biometric devices.
“The devices, known as HIIDE, for Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, were seized last week during the Taliban’s offensive, according to a Joint Special Operations Command official and three former U.S. military personnel, all of whom worried that sensitive data they contain could be used by the Taliban,” the Intercept’s Ken Klippenstein reports. “An Army Special Operations veteran said it’s possible that the Taliban may need additional tools to process the HIIDE data but expressed concerns that Pakistan would assist with this.”
At the table
Today we are lunching with Bill Canny, interim director of policy at the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and J.C. Hendrickson, senior director of refugee and asylum policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Alfaro: There are tens of thousands of Afghans with connections to the U.S. mission, but only a minority qualify for refugee protection in the U.S. That group includes those who qualify for special immigrant visas (SIVs). Can you walk me through the process Afghans must go through to come to the U.S. as a refugee under these SIVs?
Hendrickson: It’s an extremely rigorous process to apply for the SIV program, or to apply as a refugee. Regardless of what pathway you take, there’s a tremendous amount of security vetting by U.S. law enforcement involved, and that takes several years to complete. This is not something that’s sort of rushed along. There’s a 14-step process to get an SIV if you are an Afghan who is affiliated with the U.S. mission there. This is a process that should take about nine months, but because of the backlogs in the system, the process takes several years. The people we are talking about today, who are being relocated to the U.S. as part of Operation Allies Refuge, these are people at the very end, the last few steps in that process. They’ve been waiting for this for a very long time.
Canny: Out of all immigrants who come to the U.S., refugees with SIVs are the most heavily vetted group. It runs through multiple databases and multiple agencies. SIV recipients include those who worked with the U.S. and their families — you have a principal applicant that makes a case for persecution on a variety of possible grounds. It wouldn’t just be the male or female interpreter, but also his or her family who would be allowed to come in.
Processing refugees now has also slowed down due to covid. We need for U.S. government agencies to kind of reinvigorate their offices to adjudicate refugees. The process remains a bit stalled by covid and the need for USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) to get teams out to adjudicate refugee cases.
Alfaro: What about those who weren’t already on that SIV pipeline?
Hendrickson: You put your finger on a really important point here — the SIV program, or the newly created P-2 program, are very narrow protection pathways that will help less than 1 percent of Afghans. These themselves are not solutions for some of the issues we’re seeing. Afghanistan has about 18.4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees released a report yesterday that showed 550,000 have been internally displaced people in Afghanistan. And that number is up from 390,000 people just last week.
Even if the SIV program and the P-2 program are fully scaled up and some of the kinks are worked out, this is not the time for the U.S. and other wealthy nations to take their foot off the gas in Afghanistan. We must drive up humanitarian aid to trusted partners on the ground and push other donor nations to do the same.
Alfaro: When we see images like that of a U.S. Air Force carrying 640 Afghans out of Kabul, where do they go?
Canny: I haven’t heard where it went, but I am pretty confident it didn’t come to the U.S. We think those people were discharged someplace else. This looked like a highly unusual situation. That was just the chaos of the moment. The U.S. military is going in and securing the airport to evacuate in an orderly fashion.
Alfaro: I don’t think many of us expected this situation to escalate so fast. As someone who works with refugee resettlement efforts, is there a point of reference in history that can compare to the work that will now go into getting these Afghans into safety?
Canny: Certainly, the Kosovo situation moved fairly quickly, so that’s my only direct experience in the setup of refugee camps in Macedonia, for example, at the time. Otherwise, people refer to Vietnam.
Hendrickson: The United States hasn't done anything like this in at least the last 20 years, and it should be encouraged. We should be doing this when there’s a crisis like this. In terms of the refugee admissions goal, we are on track this year to resettle the fewest number of refugees in the program’s history. Has the U.S. historically done more for refugee resettlement? Yeah. In fact, that’s the norm, one that crosses administrations regardless of party — until the Trump administration. Up until 2016, the average refugee admissions goal since 1980 was 95,000. We need to rise to the occasion again.
Alfaro: For our readers interested in helping the resettlement efforts, what’s the best thing they can do right now?
Canny: The best thing they can do is get in touch with their local resettlement agencies that are available on the Refugee Council USA website. They can get in touch and see what their needs are as we hopefully resettle more and more Afghan refugees.
Hendrickson: There are three ways you can support people in Afghanistan now: You can donate to organizations that are working on the ground in the country; you could also show your support by raising awareness and sharing facts about what’s going on; and we have a tool online that lets you email the president demanding an increase in refugee admissions.
Quote of the day
“We could not have done the things that we did as a country without those Afghans. We made promises to them — and we know what’s going to happen to them,” said Johnny Spann, the father of the first American killed in Afghanistan. Although Spann said he’s not opposed to U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan, he disagrees with it happening now. “I’m very frustrated and ashamed of the way we’re exiting.”
The Afghanistan papers, visualized
As part of a government project to understand what went wrong, a federal agency interviewed more than 400 people who had a direct role in the conflict in Afghanistan. In those interviews, generals, ambassadors, diplomats and other insiders offered firsthand accounts of the mistakes that have prolonged the war. Explore the revelatory documents.
Lunchtime reads from The Post
“Haiti earthquake survivors, stranded by storm, search for shelter,” by Ellen Francis: “Heavy rainfall on Tuesday battered temporary shelters set up since the weekend, drenching people stranded by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake. Some slept out in the open. Officials raised the death toll on Tuesday to 1,941, though that figure was expected to rise. Flooding and mudslides cut off some roads, blocking aid deliveries and residents still searching for victims in the rubble. UNICEF has estimated that the powerful earthquake affected about 1.2 million people, including 540,000 children. Schools, bridges and medical facilities collapsed.”
“Federal mask mandate for planes, buses and trains to extend into next year,” by Ian Duncan: “The Transportation Security Administration said Tuesday that it will extend a federal mask mandate for airline, bus and train passengers into next year, requiring the face coverings until Jan. 18, 2022. The mandate — issued in the first days after President Biden took office — was never relaxed, even during the early-summer months when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began telling fully vaccinated people that masks were generally no longer necessary. While a CDC order imposing the transportation requirement has no end date, TSA enforcement rules had been set to expire Sept. 13.”
… and beyond
“China’s Xi calls for wealth redistribution and clampdown on high incomes,” by Financial Times’ Tom Mitchell and Sun Yu: “President Xi Jinping has called for stronger ‘regulation of high incomes’ in the latest sign that a 10-month campaign targeting China’s largest technology companies is rapidly expanding to encompass broader social goals. State media reported that a meeting of the Chinese Communist party’s Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission on Tuesday, chaired by Xi, had emphasised the need to ‘regulate excessively high incomes and encourage high-income groups and enterprises to return more to society.’ The committee added that while the party had allowed some people and regions to ‘get rich first’ in the early decades of China’s reform and opening period, it was now prioritising ‘common prosperity for all.’”
Hot on the left
West Virginia activists are coming for Joe Manchin, writes the Nation’s Aída Chávez. “In 2017, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin dared a group of local activists to mount a primary challenge against him. ‘What you ought to do is vote me out,’ he told the activists, who were asking him to hold a public town hall for his constituents. ‘Vote me out! I’m not changing. Find somebody else who can beat me and vote me out.’ Grassroots organizers in the state are taking his advice. West Virginia Can’t Wait, an organization that formed in late 2018 with the stated mission of winning ‘a people’s government,’ is kick-starting the effort to replace Manchin, raising money to oust the conservative Democrat and build a lasting political infrastructure that can take on his statewide machine.”
Hot on the right
Florida school districts with mask mandates may be investigated and punished, the state said. “Florida education officials determined Tuesday that the Broward and Alachua county school districts violated state law by requiring students without medical exemptions to wear masks and voted unanimously to consider penalties,” Meryl Kornfield reports. “Penalties that could be imposed on the districts by the Florida Board of Education, appointed by the governor, would be the first since Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) threatened to withhold money from districts that require face coverings.'
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) said the state would use federal coronaviurs relief money to increase the funding available to public school districts only if they're open for in-person learning and don't require children to wear masks, CNN’s Paul LeBlanc reports.
Today in Washington
Biden and Vice President Harris will receive a briefing from members of the coronavirus response team at 2:15 p.m. At 4:30 p.m., Biden will deliver remarks on the pandemic response and the vaccination program.
CNN’s chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward, who is in Kabul, described what she witnessed as the Taliban took over the city during an interview with Stephen Colbert:
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