Tag: <span>Afghanistan</span>

Tetlock, the Taliban, and Taleb

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I.

There have been many essays written in the aftermath of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. One of the more interesting was penned by Richard Hanania, and titled “Tetlock and the Taliban”. Everyone reading this has heard of the Taliban, but there might be a few of you who are unfamiliar with Tetlock. And even if that name rings a bell you might not be clear on what his relation is to the Taliban. Hanania himself apologizes to Tetlock for the association, but “couldn’t resist the alliteration”, which is understandable. Neither could I. 

Tetlock is known for a lot of things, but he got his start by pointing out that “experts” often weren’t. To borrow from Hanania:

Phil Tetlock’s work on experts is one of those things that gets a lot of attention, but still manages to be underrated. In his 2005 Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, he found that the forecasting abilities of subject-matter experts were no better than educated laymen when it came to predicting geopolitical events and economic outcomes.

From this summary the connection to the Taliban is probably obvious. This is an arena where the subject matter experts got things very wrong. Hanania’s opening analogy is too good not to quote:

Imagine that the US was competing in a space race with some third world country, say Zambia, for whatever reason. Americans of course would have orders of magnitude more money to throw at the problem, and the most respected aerospace engineers in the world, with degrees from the best universities and publications in the top journals. Zambia would have none of this. What should our reaction be if, after a decade, Zambia had made more progress?

Obviously, it would call into question the entire field of aerospace engineering. What good were all those Google Scholar pages filled with thousands of citations, all the knowledge gained from our labs and universities, if Western science gets outcompeted by the third world?

For all that has been said about Afghanistan, no one has noticed that this is precisely what just happened to political science.

Of course Hanania’s point is more devastating than Tetlock’s. The experts weren’t just “no better” than the Taliban’s “educated laymen”. The “experts” were decisively outcompeted despite having vastly more money and in theory, all the expertise. Certainly they had all the credentialed expertise…

In some ways Hanania’s point is just a restatement of Antonio García Martínez’s point, which I used to end my last post on Afghanistan—the idea we are an unserious people. That we enjoy “an imperium so broad and blinding” we’ve never been “made to suffer the limits of [our] understanding or re-assess [our] assumptions about [the] world”

So the Taliban needed no introduction, and we’ve introduced Tetlock, but what about Taleb? Longtime readers of this blog should be very familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but if not I have a whole post introducing his ideas. For this post we’re interested in two things, his relationship to Tetlock and his work describing black swans: rare, consequential and unpredictable events. 

Taleb and Tetlock are on the same page when it comes to experts, and in fact for a time they were collaborators, co-authoring papers on the fallibility of expert predictions and the general difficulty of making predictions—particularly when it came to fat-tail risks. But then, according to Taleb, Tetlock was seduced by government money and went from pointing out the weaknesses of experts to trying to supplant them, by creating the Good Judgement project, and the whole project of superforecasting.

The key problem with expert prediction, from Tetlock’s point of view, is that experts are unaccountable. No one tracks whether they were eventually right or wrong. Beyond that, their “predictions” are made in such a way that even making a determination of accuracy is impossible. Additionally experts are not any better at prediction than educated laypeople. Tetlock’s solution is to offer the chance for anyone to make predictions, but in the process ensure that the predictions can be tracked, and assessed for accuracy. From there you can promote those people with the best track record. A sample prediction might be “I am 90% confident that Joe Biden will win the 2020 presidential election.” 

Taleb agreed with the problem, but not with the solution. And this is where black swans come in. Black swans can’t be predicted, they can only be hedged against, and prepared for, but superforecasting, by giving the illusion of prediction, encourages people to be less prepared for black swans, and in the end worse off than they would have been without the prediction.

In the time since writing The Black Swan Taleb has come to hate the term, because people have twisted it into an excuse for precisely the kind of unpreparedness he was trying to prevent. 

“No one could have done anything about the 2007 financial crisis. It was a black swan!”

“We couldn’t have done anything about the pandemic in advance. It was a black swan!” 

“Who could have predicted that the Taliban would take over the country in nine days! It was a black swan!”

Accordingly, other terms have been suggested. In my last post I reviewed a book which introduced the term “gray rhino”, something people can see coming, but which they nevertheless ignore. 

Regardless of the label we decide to apply to what happened in Afghanistan, it feels like we were caught flat footed. We needed to be better prepared. Taleb says we can be better prepared if we expect black swans. Tetlock says we can be better prepared by predicting what to prepare for. Afghanistan seems like precisely the sort of thing superforecasting was designed for. Despite this I can find no evidence that Tetlock’s stable of superforecasters predicted how fast Afghanistan would fall, or any evidence that they even tried. 

As a final point before we move on. This last bit is one of the biggest problems with superforecasting. The idea that you should only be judged for what you got wrong, that if you were never asked to make a prediction about something that the endeavor “worked”. But reality doesn’t care about what you chose to make predictions on vs. what you didn’t. Reality does whatever it feels like. And the fact that you didn’t choose to make any predictions about the fall of Afghanistan doesn’t mean that thousands of interpreters didn’t end up being left behind. And the fact that you didn’t choose to make any predictions about pandemics doesn’t mean that millions of people didn’t die. This is the chief difference between Tetlock and Taleb.

II.

I first thought about this issue when I came across a poll on a forum I frequent, in which users were asked how long they thought the Afghan government would last. The options and results were:

(In the interest of full disclosure the bolded option indicates that I said one to two years.)

While it is true that a plurality of people said less than six months, six months was still much longer than the nine days it actually took (from capturing the first provincial capital to the fall of Kabul) and from the discussion that followed the poll, it seemed most of those 16 people were thinking that the government would fall at closer to six months or even three months than one week. In fact the best thing, prediction-wise, to come out of the discussion was when someone pointed out that 10 years previously The Onion had posted an article with the headline U.S. Quietly Slips Out Of Afghanistan In Dead Of Night, which is exactly what happened at Bagram. 

As it turns out this is not the first time The Onion has eerily predicted the future. There’s a whole subgenre of noticing all the times it’s happened. How do they do it? Well of course part of the answer is selection bias.  No one is expecting them to predict the future; nobody comments on all the articles that didn’t come true.  But when one does, it’s noteworthy. But I think there’s something else going on as well: I think they come up with the worst or most ridiculous thing that could happen, and because of the way the world works, some of the time that’s exactly what does happen. 

Between the poll answers being skewed from reality and the link to the Onion article, the thread led me to wonder: where were the superforecasters in all of this?

I don’t want to go through all of the problems I’ve brought up with superforecasting (I’ve easily written more than 10,000 words on the subject) but this event is another example of nearly all of my complaints. 

  • There is no methodology to account for the differing impact of being incorrect on some predictions vs. others. (Being wrong about whether the Tokyo Olympics will be held is a lot less consequential than being wrong about Brexit.)
  • Their attention is naturally drawn to obvious questions where tracking predictions is easy. 
  • Their rate of success is skewed both by only picking obvious questions, and by lumping together both the consequential and the inconsequential.
  • People use superforecasting as a way of more efficiently allocating resources, but efficiency is essentially equal to fragility, which leaves us less prepared when things go really bad. (It was pretty efficient to just leave Bagram all at once.)

Or course some of these don’t apply because as far as I can tell the Good Judgment project and it’s stable of superforecasters never tackled the question, but they easily could have. They could have had a series of questions about whether the Taliban would be in control of Kabul by a certain date. This seems specific enough to meet their criteria. But as I said, I could find no evidence that they had. Which means either they did make such predictions and were embarrassingly wrong, so it’s been buried, or despite its geopolitical importance it never occurred to them to make any predictions about when Afghanistan would fall. (But it did occur to a random poster on a fringe internet message board?) Both options are bad.

When people like me criticize superforecasting and Tetlock’s Good Judgment project in this manner, the common response is to point out all the things they did get right and further that superforecasting is not about getting everything right; it’s about improving the odds, and getting more things right than the old method of relying on the experts. This is a laudable goal. But as I point out it suffers from several blindspots. The blindspot of impact is particularly egregious and deserves more discussion. To quote from one of my previous posts where I reflected on their failure to predict the pandemic:

To put it another way, I’m sure that the Good Judgement project and other people following the Tetlockian methodology have made thousands of forecasts about the world. Let’s be incredibly charitable and assume that out of all these thousands of predictions, 99% were correct. That out of everything they made predictions about 99% of it came to pass. That sounds fantastic, but depending on what’s in the 1% of the things they didn’t predict, the world could still be a vastly different place than what they expected. And that assumes that their predictions encompass every possibility. In reality there are lots of very impactful things which they might never have considered assigning a probability to. That in fact they could actually be 100% correct about the stuff they predicted but still be caught entirely flat footed by the future because something happened they never even considered. 

As far as I can tell there were no advance predictions of the probability of a pandemic by anyone following the Tetlockian methodology, say in 2019 or earlier. Or any list where “pandemic” was #1 on the “list of things superforecasters think we’re unprepared for”, or really any indication at all that people who listened to superforecasters were more prepared for this than the average individual. But the Good Judgement Project did try their hand at both Brexit and Trump and got both wrong. This is what I mean by the impact of the stuff they were wrong about being greater than the stuff they were correct about. When future historians consider the last five years or even the last 10, I’m not sure what events they will rate as being the most important, but surely those three would have to be in the top 10. They correctly predicted a lot of stuff which didn’t amount to anything and missed predicting the few things that really mattered.

Once again we find ourselves in a similar position. When we imagine historians looking back on 2021, no one would find it surprising if they ranked the withdrawal of the US and subsequent capture of Afghanistan by the Taliban as the most impactful event of the year. And yet superforecasters did nothing to help us prepare for this event.

IV.

The natural next question is to ask how should we have prepared for what happened? Particularly since we can’t rely on the predictions of superforecasters to warn us. What methodology do I suggest instead of superforecasting? Here we return to the remarkable prescience of The Onion. They ended up accurately predicting what would happen in Afghanistan 10 years in advance, by just imagining the worst thing that could happen. And in the weeks since Kabul fell, my own criticism of Biden has settled around this theme. He deserves credit for realizing that the US mission in Afghanistan had failed, and that we needed to leave, that in fact we had needed to leave for a while. Bad things had happened, and bad things would continue to happen, but in accepting the failure and its consequences he didn’t go far enough. 

One can imagine Biden asserting that Afghanistan and Iraq were far worse than Bush and his “cronies” had predicted. But then somehow he overlooked the general wisdom that anything can end up being a lot worse than predicted, particularly in the arena of war (or disease). If Bush can be wrong about the cost and casualties associated with invading Afghanistan, is it possible that Biden might be wrong about the cost and casualties associated with leaving Afghanistan? To state things more generally, the potential for things to go wrong in an operation like this far exceeds the potential for things to go right. Biden, while accepting past failure, didn’t do enough to accept the possibility of future failure. 

As I mentioned, my answer to the poll question of how long the Afghanistan government was going to last was 1-2 years. And I clearly got it wrong (whatever my excuses). But I can tell you what questions I would have aced (and I think my previous 200+ blog posts back me up on this point): 

  • Is there a significant chance that the withdrawal will go really badly?
  • Is it likely to go worse than the government expects?

And to be clear I’m not looking to make predictions for the sake of predictions. I’m not trying to be more accurate, I’m looking for a methodology that gives us a better overall outcome. So is the answer to how we could have been better prepared, merely “More pessimism?” Well that’s certainly a good place to start, beyond that there’s things I’ve been talking about since the blog was started. But a good next step is to look at the impact of being wrong. Tetlock was correct when he pointed out that experts are wrong most of the time. But what he didn’t account for is it’s possible to be wrong most of the time, but still end up ahead. To illustrate this point I’d like to end by recycling an example I used the last time I talked about superforecasting:

The movie Molly’s Game is about a series of illegal poker games run by Molly Bloom. The first set of games she runs is dominated by Player X, who encourages Molly to bring in fishes, bad players with lots of money. Accordingly, Molly is confused when Player X brings in Harlan Eustice, who ends up being a very skillful player. That is until one night when Eustice loses a hand to the worst player at the table. This sets him off, changing him from a calm and skillful player, into a compulsive and horrible player, and by the end of the night he’s down $1.2 million.

Let’s put some numbers on things and say that 99% of the time Eustice is conservative and successful and he mostly wins. That on average, conservative Eustice ends the night up by $10k. But, 1% of the time, Eustice is compulsive and horrible, and during those times he loses $1.2 million. And so our question is should he play poker at all? (And should Player X want him at the same table he’s at?) The math is straightforward, his expected return over 100 games is -$210k. It would seem clear that the answer is “No, he shouldn’t play poker.”

But superforecasting doesn’t deal with the question of whether someone should “play poker” it works by considering a single question, answering that question and assigning a confidence level to the answer. So in this case they would be asked the question, “Will Harlan Eustice win money at poker tonight?” To which they would say, “Yes, he will, and my confidence level in that prediction is 99%.” 

This is what I mean by impact. When things depart from the status quo, when Eustice loses money, it’s so dramatic that it overwhelms all of the times when things went according to expectations.  

Biden was correct when he claimed we needed to withdraw from Afghanistan. He had no choice, he had to play poker. But once he decided to play poker he should have done it as skillfully as possible, because the stakes were huge. And as I have so frequently pointed out, when the stakes are big, as they almost always are when we’re talking about nations, wars, and pandemics, the skill of pessimism always ends up being more important than the skill of superforecasting.


I had a few people read a draft of this post. One of them complained that I was using a $100 word when a $1 word would have sufficed. (Any guesses on which word it was?) But don’t $100 words make my donors feel like they’re getting their money’s worth? If you too want to be able to bask in the comforting embrace of expensive vocabulary consider joining them.


Afghanistan, or Just Because You Decide to Leave the Party Doesn’t Mean You Should Jump Out the Window

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I- A Brief Meta-Aside

I recently read a post by Tanner Greer over at Scholar’s Stage where he talked about the golden age of blogging, and what was present then that’s missing now. His basic conclusion was that back then people used blogs to think, discuss and react. That it was a conversation where ideas were fleshed out. Additionally blogging was subversive, people frequently blogged under pseudonyms because they often felt like whistle blowers or the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

Since then blogging has become professionalized—less thinking and more telling. People publish under their own name because credentials are important if you’re telling people something. Alongside declaiming something from on high they’re also designed as a way to flesh out the author’s CV, another aspect which works against having a discussion. Greer writes mostly in the national security space, and speaking of that space here’s how he describes it:

A junior officer who decided to take his views online in 2005 did so knowing that it might hurt his career; an M.A. student who decides to bring his views online in 2015 does in hopes it will help his career. Much of what is published in forums like War on the Rocks, The Diplomat, The National Interest, or Foreign Policy would never be written if its authors did not know it would directly boost their career goals and social profile. I don’t begrudge authors for this, but I cannot pretend it makes compelling reading. But this change in the media landscape also affects those writing for more disinterested reasons. Anyone who writes for a professional outlet knows that their writing must sound professional, or their professional reputation suffer[s]. They know that in the years to come they will be judged by these articles in [a] way they would not be judged for 200 word jottings published on Typepad or WordPress. The results are predictable: much of modern strategy writing is overly formal, easily slips into platitudes, and is far more likely to follow stale partisan prescriptions than was the case a decade ago. The decline of independent bloggery has stripped debates over strategy of their personality. [Emphasis his]

The whole post is titled “In Favor of Bad Takes”, and while I think its conclusions are less true in the rationality space (which might be the best description of where I’m located, though the relationship is definitely parasitic) it nevertheless rang true for me even so. And it inspired me to try to move my writing at least somewhat in that direction. 

I’m always looking for ways to contribute more through writing, and this seemed like an approach that might work. So I’m going to experiment with splitting up my writing (the non-newsletter, book review stuff) between dialogue/conversational pieces and essays. In my imagination this will allow me to put out more polished (though probably fewer) “essays” while doing more shorter, immediate, thinking out loud pieces. Increasing both my total output and the benefit I provide to the larger world (which I know is slight, but every little bit helps right?)

Also the essay I promised to publish next about environmental chemicals is going slow. At the same time I’m fascinated by what’s happening in Afghanistan, and I’d like to put in my two cents before it’s old news. 

II- What should we have done with Afghanistan in general?

I think there are a lot of ways to look at the Afghanistan situation and I’m going to try to hit as many as I can. But let’s start with how I think we should have handled things.

It should now be clear to everyone that it was not possible to externally midwife a stable, independent state in Afghanistan. That despite 20 years of working on it, nothing stuck. This is true in two ways. We clearly didn’t create a new military willing to fight, which is unsurprising since we didn’t create a new state either. But neither did we lessen the dedication of the Taliban by a single degree either. As you can see from the swift fall of the country after we left the Taliban’s power is just as great as always and I’m hearing some argue that it’s even greater. This makes a certain amount of sense. For the Taliban it was always a matter of intense personal honor, it is their country after all. While the US public only ever considered it a liability and a hassle, particularly after Bin Laden was killed.

Given that state-building was impossible, we should have never tried. If we needed to punish them, or capture Bin Laden, or prevent terrorist training camps we should have done that. (And I’m not even sure how much of that needed to be done.) But trying to reform the culture of the area was always going to be an ultimately pointless endeavor. 

I understand that while it’s now clear to everyone that state building was impossible that wasn’t always the case, but it should have been. Certainly there were lots of people pointing it out. And in addition to those people there was the example of Soviet and British attempts to do something similar.  It’s not as if the Afghani’s didn’t already have a reputation of being entirely intractable. 

All of this is to say that I disagree with the whole “You break it you bought it” philosophy. We should have tried to break as little as we could—as small a footprint as possible. And not “buy” anything. Terrorism is in any case a flashy, but low impact danger. I think this is another place where the pandemic is very illuminating when you compare the money spent preventing that with how many people died and the money spent on the war on terror with how many people die from terror attacks. And of course there’s the sad fact that more people died from combat just in Afghanistan (2,372 Military 1,720 Civilian contractors 4096 total) than died on 9/11. It gets even worse if you include Iraq. 

III- Given the situation Biden inherited what should he have done?

Let me be clear, I agree that we couldn’t stay in Afghanistan forever. As illustrated above I would have never planned to “stay” in the first place. And while I don’t intend to talk a lot about Trump (such discussions have a tendency to become all about him) I think his instinct that it was past time to get out was a good one. That said everything that happened since then has been disastrous. The so-called negotiations with the Taliban were a joke, and he and his State Department were either idiots or so eager to get a deal that they decided to ignore the fact that the Taliban didn’t intend to follow through on anything.

Those people who think we could have stayed forever make the argument that we had the country entirely under control. That there hadn’t been a combat death since March of 2020, and this condition was maintained by only a few thousand troops. And as that was the case there was no reason not to keep this going indefinitely. That initially sounded like a compelling argument, but it seems now that it was a gross misinterpretation of the situation. Once it was clear that the long waiting game the Taliban had been playing was about to be over, then there was no reason for them to kill troops anymore, it became all about convincing the US to follow through on their promise to leave while they gathered their strength. Is it a coincidence that:

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020 that called for peace talks between the two Afghan sides to start in March.

And that the last combat fatality was also in March of 2020? 

There are some people, as I mentioned above, who were and perhaps still are under the impression that we could have stayed indefinitely. But basically everyone else agrees that we had to leave at some point and this was as good a point as any. As such the vast majority of the criticism is over the manner of that departure. Or as Mitt Romney said, “Contrary to [Biden’s] claims, our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever.”

If we add the assumption that the Taliban are awful, duplicitous monsters to the assumption that it’s time to get out, how does that change things? Well had we known that (and I believe we should have at least known it was possible). We should have prepared for all eventualities. It’s obvious that we didn’t. At a minimum Biden should have decided what was necessary to consider our withdrawal a success, and had the assets in place necessary to assure that. This does not appear to have happened, primarily because everyone appears to have severely underestimated the Taliban. 

As part of the damage control over this debacle Biden seems to be floating the idea that he inherited some timetable he couldn’t mess with, which I don’t buy at all. But this idea also leads into the assertion that they underestimated the Taliban. Also while I’ve been talking about Biden, you should read that to include him and everyone under him. I think the State Department obviously dropped the ball, and the military leadership also has a lot to answer for. I have heard some things that lead me to believe they’ve made Biden’s job harder.

Those caveats aside, what would success look like?

IV- Getting people out of there

I feel bad reading things like this:

Politico granted an Afghan journalist anonymity to write a brief essay on his experience hiding in Kabul over the weekend. “We could never have imagined and believed that this would happen. We could never imagine we could be betrayed so badly by the U.S. The feeling of betrayal … I dedicated my life to the [American] values,” he wrote. “There was a lot of promise, a lot of assurance. A lot of talk about values, a lot of talk about progress, about rights, about women’s rights, about freedom, about democracy. That all turned out to be hollow. Had I known that this commitment was temporary, I wouldn’t have risked my life. … I don’t care if it’s the Trump administration or the Biden administration. I believed in the U.S. But that turned out to be such a big mistake.”

This gets back to my first point on what our initial goals should have been going in, but when Biden decided to follow through on Trump’s agreement to get out, he obviously knew that there were a bunch of people whose lives were going to be made a lot more dangerous. And of course he didn’t entirely ignore this, there was lots of talk about saving interpreters and other people who had worked with US forces. And I don’t know if the journalist quoted above was ever on the list, but at a minimum the US has a responsibility to ensure the safety of American citizens. 

But now we’re hearing that Kabul fell so fast that they might not be able to get people out. I read this morning (in the Dispatch Newsletter) that:

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC’s Good Morning America Monday. “We are working to do that—first, by securing the airport today. And then, in the days ahead, by taking people out one flight at a time, flight after flight. We fully intend to continue an evacuation process to bring out people who worked alongside of us in Afghanistan.”

But reporting throughout the day and overnight suggests this will be a very difficult task. “As the situation on the ground in Afghanistan’s capital continues to deteriorate, thousands of U.S. citizens are trapped in and around Kabul with no ability to get to the airport, which is their only way out of the country,” reports Josh Rogin, a global affairs columnist at the Washington Post. “As Taliban soldiers go door to door, searching for Westerners, these U.S. citizens are now reaching out to anyone and everyone back in Washington for help.”

The US made Kabul the rallying point for people fleeing and wanting to escape the Taliban and as recently as Friday was saying “Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment”. But it turns out that they were wrong, and couldn’t promise that. If only there were someplace that could have acted as a rallying point, some place with an airport that the US could have guaranteed to defend…

I’ve looked into things and Bagram Air Base, which was so precipitously abandoned at the beginning of July, is only about an hour and a half drive from Kabul. Would it have not made sense to maintain that as a refugee camp, have everyone who qualified and really wanted to leave come there as soon as the Taliban started advancing and then they could have flown them out or flown in more troops at their leisure? Instead they waited until the last minute and now they’ve got a situation where they’re trying to hold a commercial airport in a city that’s already fallen, and having to send more troops. Precisely what Biden didn’t want to do.

I understand that staying in Bagram could devolve into getting dragged back in, and it might be hard to leave if you’re surrounded by the Taliban, etc. And it might be hard in the end to not take everyone who showed up. But how is that any worse than what’s already happening?

(And one thing you may not have heard by abandoning Bagram they also essentially turned over the 5000 prisoners held there to the Taliban as well.)

We can talk about the promises made to the journalist about freedom and democracy, but the promise to get people out of Afghanistan was a promise Biden made. Not something forced on him by Trump, and it’s one that now looks like it’s going to be very difficult to fulfill. Obviously this is once again related to being laughably overconfident, but my suggestion of keeping Bagram as a backup does not seem like it would have been particularly difficult to do, and given the vagaries of war and war in Afghanistan in particular, surely someone must have considered the need for a failsafe.

V- Enforcing some kind of standard

It’s my understanding that, inexplicably, the peace deal with the Taliban had no enforcement mechanisms. That’s obviously on Trump and his State Department, but despite what Biden says about his hands being tied, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that Biden couldn’t have delivered some ultimatums or threats. One hardly imagines that anyone would count it against him if he didn’t follow the letter of the agreement given that the other party is the Taliban. Nor was the Taliban particularly good at following their side of the agreement.

 

Again, I don’t have a problem with withdrawing, but it appears that both Presidents were so eager to get out that they took no thought for how to accomplish that in a fashion that didn’t end up as a debacle. 

VI-Politics

Biden is already taking flack from both sides of the aisle over the withdrawal. Whatever blame Trump deserves (and I’m sure it’s plenty) Biden is going to end up most closely associated with the debacle. Setting aside the people of Afghanistan, and whether he should have taken a firmer stance with the Taliban, one has to imagine that Biden could have made the withdrawal less politically costly. And that even if he doesn’t care about the Afghans that he does care about about keeping congress on his side. Here I am less inclined to offer suggestions for what he should have done, but clearly it’s hard to imagine it going much worse than it did. In particular I’ve read articles about members of Congress pressing him for a better plan to get people out as far back as June. Something that reflects my previous point and a refusal by Biden and his team to even listen to criticisms of the plan that were being raised by members of his own party.

Failing to heed the concerns being raised by congress is not the biggest mistake, but it is the most surprising. The biggest long term consequence of the debacle might be on the international stage, and that shows up at several different levels.

First with respect to the Taliban it’s hard to imagine how the US could look more ridiculous, and the Taliban could look better. And I assume that this effect will carry over to similar groups. For example, does what happened in Afghanistan make a group like Hamas more or less scared of the US? I assume less scared and more bold.

Second there are those countries in direct competition with us. Countries like China and Russia and to a lesser extent India and possibly even Pakistan. How does this play out with them? Does this make them more respectful of US power and its demands or less? Certainly there have been plenty of reports about China gloating about our withdrawal, with one headline talking about how the Taliban have “embarrassed” an “arrogant” America. 

Finally there are those countries who have a defensive alliance with the US, alliances analogous to the deal we had with the previous government of Afghanistan. I read a newsletter this morning from Matthew Yglesias, and while we agreed on many points he claimed that the Afghanistan situation will end up having a positive impact on these relationships. That it will encourage countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and all the NATO countries to finally begin spending an appropriate amount on their own defense. Yglesias goes on to recommend:

I think it would be excellent for Secretary of State Blinken to send a memo to Tokyo and Taipei and Seoul and Berlin and say “look you’re right, this Afghanistan thing shows there are limits — the United States can do a lot for an ally but if the ally seems really unimpressive and helpless, we can’t do everything.” Don’t be the next Afghanistan! 

First off I feel relatively certain that if we wanted those countries to spend a greater percentage of their GDP on defense, that there are less costly, more direct ways than precipitously abandoning an ally and all the people who helped us out. Secondly, are you sure that’s the lesson all those countries are taking from the situation? That the US is still the best partner to have, they just need to step it up a little bit? Or are they taking the lesson that under the veneer of the alliance they’re essentially on their own. To put it in more concrete terms, do you think this makes it more likely or less likely that Japan will decide that it needs its own nukes?

VI- I’ve seen this movie before

The 70s were kind of awful for the US. There was the oil embargo. The Iran hostage crisis. Civil unrest and riots. All of this alongside hyperinflation, and of course, most relevant for our purposes, the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon.

I’ve often wondered how we managed to reverse all of these trends, regain our confidence and get out of this “funk”. I think Reagen deserves at least some of the credit. Perhaps more than the Democrats want to give him, but less than that required for the sainthood the Republicans want to bestow on him. I also think that some things just had a natural lifecycle which eventually reached its conclusion. You can’t embargo oil forever. And as much of the civil unrest was centered around the war, when the war ended, so did the unrest. I also think that at the end of the day our fundamentals were solid. We did eventually win the Cold War, vanquishing our main ideological competitor. We also went through several decades of tremendous innovation with computers, which started more or less in the 70s.

I expect that the debacle of Afghanistan along with the divisiveness of our politics, the increasing inequality, and the pandemic, among other things, will lead to a similar loss of confidence, and I’m not sure our fundamentals are still solid. 

Of all the things I read about Afghanistan over the last few days, the one that really struck with me was a newsletter from Antonio García Martínez titled “We are no longer a serious people”. And I think I’ll end with a long excerpt from it:

This is the true privilege of being an American in 2021 (vs. 1981): Enjoying an imperium so broad and blinding, you’re never made to suffer the limits of your understanding or re-assess your assumptions about a world that, even now, contains regions and peoples and governments antithetical to everything you stand for. If you fight demons, they’re entirely demons of your own creation, whether Cambridge Analytica or QAnon or the ‘insurrection’ or supposed electoral fraud or any of a host of bogeymen, and you get to tweet #resist while not dangling from the side of an airplane or risking your life on a raft to escape. If you’re overwhelmed by what you see, even if you work at places called ‘the Institute for the Study of War’, you can just take some ‘me time’ and not tune into the disturbing images because reality is purely optional at this stage of the game.

It’s a pleasant LARP, with self-reinforcing loops of hashtags, New York Times puff pieces and Psaki ‘circling back’, until one day the Taliban roll in and everyone is running for the helicopters. It’s like US elites finally had the VR headset knocked from their faces and actually had a look around. And what they saw was a roomful of men with faces out of an illustrated bible looking like they’d just pillaged a Cabela’s—that’s how much top-shelf, modded-out AR hardware they captured—sitting down for a super-awkward Zoom meeting announcing a sudden change of plans for American foreign policy.

This might seem flip and ‘too soon’, but the irony highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.

In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.


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