The media's systemic failure on Afghanistan

After two decades of war, President Biden finally made the decision to fully withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. It did not go as planned. The Afghan government and security forces, which the United States spent two decades building up, evaporated in days. The Taliban, the Islamist group which harbored Al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks, quickly regained control over the country. 

This was a failure that comes with real consequences for innocent Afghans. At particular risk are the Afghans that assisted US efforts, who may face retribution if they remain in the country, and women and girls, who may be stripped of their rights by the repressive Taliban regime. 

But was this primarily a failure by Biden, for deciding to withdraw now? Or was it the unavoidable conclusion of failed policies in Afghanistan across four presidential administrations? Most coverage has focused criticism on Biden. And to bolster that argument, media outlets are relying on many of the people responsible for two decades of failure in Afghanistan. While there are legitimate criticisms of the way Biden executed the withdrawal, the result is an extremely distorted narrative.

Inside the Washington Post's "straight news" piece on Afghanistan

Let's examine, for example, this piece in the Washington Post: "Biden’s promise to restore competence to the presidency is undercut by chaos in Afghanistan." Although this is presented as a "straight news" piece, the entire premise is that Biden's decision to withdraw reflects his own incompetence. The author, Matt Viser, reports that the decision and its execution reflected "an inability to plan" and "an underestimation of a foreign adversary."

As proof, Viser cites, "leading lawmakers and others" who believe that "the chaotic, and deadly, implementation of [Biden's] decision reflects a failure by Biden at a critical moment to deliver the steady leadership and sound judgment he promised." Who are these "leading lawmakers and others"? The same people who have been consistently wrong about Afghanistan strategy for the last twenty years. 

The lead quote comes from former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who said Biden's decision to withdraw reflects the fact that Biden "didn’t really spend much time on the issue" and the Biden administration was simply "crossing their fingers and hoping chaos would not result."

But is Panetta a credible voice on how policies will play out in Afghanistan? In a November 2011 interview with Charlie Rose, Panetta said that the military campaign in Afghanistan had "seriously weakened the Taliban" and now the Afghan people were "able to control their own fate." He said that the development of the Afghan army and police force was "on target" and they were "doing the job." 

This was a consistent refrain during Panetta's tenure as Secretary of Defense. "[W]e are moving in the right direction, and we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan," Panetta said in December 2011. 

After a March 2012 visit to Afghanistan, Panetta was even more optimistic. "Afghanistan needs to be able to govern and secure itself," Panetta said. "We are very close to accomplishing that." In January 2013, Panetta announced we had entered "the last chapter of establishing a sovereign Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future."

Panetta, of course, was wrong about all of this. Afghanistan was not "close" to being able to "govern and secure itself" in 2012. The "last chapter" of establishing a sovereign Afghanistan did not occur in 2013. Nor was Afghanistan ready to "govern and secure itself" eight years later. But, year after year, that rosy picture was used to continue to sell the war to the American people. 

As recently as June of this year, Panetta was touting the "progress" that had been made in building up the Afghan security forces and government. 

[W]e did make gains in Afghanistan. We have made progress...We have improved their society in terms of how they operate… I saw the Afghan military do some very effective operations… So we have something to work with.

But it was the failure of the Afghan government and security forces to survive even a few days in 2021 that made Biden's withdrawal so chaotic. Had the institutions touted by Panetta held, even for a short period of time, evacuations could have occurred in a more orderly fashion. But neither Panetta's role in the failed mission, nor his history of poor judgments about the trajectory of the country, are mentioned in the Washington Post. Instead he's given free rein to paper over his involvement and place the blame on Biden. 

This is not an isolated problem. Panetta was also quoted by Fox News, the New York Post, The Hill, MSNBC, NBC News, the New York Daily News, CNN and many other outlets. None of them noted Panetta's prior inaccurate predictions about the future of Afghanistan.

The next person quoted in the Washington Post piece is Ryan Crocker, the former Ambassador to Afghanistan during the Bush and Obama administrations. His criticism of Biden is even harsher. "I’m left with some grave questions in my mind about his ability to lead our nation as commander in chief," Crocker said. 

Like Panetta, Crocker also touted the Afghan military and police, saying in a 2012 speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that the security forces represented an "amazing achievement." He described the group as a "capable” and “multifaceted," and claimed they were "close to their maximum strength of 352,000." Like Panetta, Crocker was wrong about their capability and size.

Crocker also touted the "courage and determination" of President Hamid Karzai. But Karzai had "won reelection after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes." After securing power, Karzai presided over a deeply corrupt and incompetent government. Kabul Bank, the country's largest bank, nearly collapsed under the "weight of $1 billion in fraudulent loans." Among the recipients was Karzai's brother, Mahmoud Karzai. Crocker's predecessor, Karl Eikenberry, pressed Karzai to take action in response to the Kabul Bank scandal. But when Crocker replaced Eikenberry in 2011 that ended. Crocker's "attitude was to make the issue go away, bury it as deep as possible, and silence any voices within the embassy that wanted to make this an issue,” according to interviews conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. 

Crocker's role in covering up the corruption of the Afghan government is not mentioned in Viser's Washington Post article or the other outlets that quoted him for criticizing the withdrawal — NBC News, The Hill, Axios, and Fox News

The next pundit Viser quotes is Eliot A. Cohen, a prominent hawk who advised Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during the Bush administration. Cohen calls Biden's decision "very bad" and a "moral disaster." But Cohen would likely criticize most military withdrawals. He recently wrote a book calling for "a substantially larger military" and more wars. He even suggests the U.S. should be more open to nuclear war. "The actual use of nuclear weapons by the United States is not a last resort," Cohen writes. 

Finally, Viser includes brief, critical quotes about the withdrawal from four members of Congress who have supported and funded operations in Afghanistan for many years — Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Mark Warner (D-VA), and Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA). 

The heard and the unheard

Unrepresented in Viser's piece are any voices that supported withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan — even though a poll last month found that 73% of Americans supported withdrawal. A poll taken August 13-16, amid unrelentingly negative press coverage of the decision, showed that support for the withdrawal dropped significantly. The number of Americans who support withdrawal, however, is still substantially larger than the number of Americans who oppose it. But the Washington Post piece, and many other news articles, only include critics.

The opinions of critics of the withdrawal from Afghanistan — many of whom were complicit in the failed policy over 20 years — are then laundered by prominent media figures as "fact." As Jon Alsop notes in the Columbia Journalism Review, NBC's Chuck Todd asserted that the withdrawal from Afghanistan will "haunt Mr. Biden’s legacy" and Axios' Mike Allen called it an "embarrassment."   

The one-sided coverage of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan mirrors the mistakes made in the run-up to the Iraq War. Then, "Bush administration officials were the most frequently quoted sources, the voices of anti-war groups and opposition Democrats were barely audible, and the overall thrust of coverage favored a pro-war perspective." Nearly two decades later, history is repeating itself.