Where are the anti-war voices?

Yesterday's newsletter detailed how the media is largely overlooking voices that supported Biden's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Instead media reports are almost exclusively highlighting criticism of the withdrawal — often from people complicit in two decades of failed policy in Afghanistan.

We have reason to believe that this is not an accident. On Wednesday, Popular Information spoke to a veteran communications professional who has been trying to place prominent voices supportive of the withdrawal on television and in print. The source said that it has been next to impossible:

I’ve been in political media for over two decades, and I have never experienced something like this before. Not only can I not get people booked on shows, but I can’t even get TV bookers who frequently book my guests to give me a call back…

I’ve fed sources to reporters, who end up not quoting the sources, but do quote multiple voices who are critical of the president and/or put the withdrawal in a negative light.

I turn on TV and watch CNN and, frankly, a lot of MSNBC shows, and they’re presenting it as if there’s not a voice out there willing to defend the president and his decision to withdraw. But I offered those very shows those voices, and the shows purposely decided to shut them out.

In so many ways this feels like Iraq and 2003 all over again. The media has coalesced around a narrative, and any threat to that narrative needs to be shut out.

Who is on TV? As Media Matters has documented, there are plenty of former Bush administration officials criticizing the withdrawal.

Is it really about execution?

Much of the criticism of Biden's decision to withdraw has focused on the administration's "execution." The critics claim the withdrawal was poorly planned, chaotic, and unnecessarily put Americans — and their Afghan allies — in danger. 

Some of these claims may be true. It's hard to know, for example, how many people have been left behind since evacuations are ongoing. But, with a few exceptions, the criticisms of Biden's execution are being made by people who opposed withdrawal altogether. 

For example, in a scathing column published in the Washington Post, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticizes the execution of the withdrawal. But she also makes clear that she does not think the U.S. military should have left. 

Twenty years was not enough to complete a journey from the 7th-century rule of the Taliban and a 30-year civil war to a stable government. Twenty years may also not have been enough to consolidate our gains against terrorism and assure our own safety. We — and they — needed more time.

Rice's argument for why the withdrawal was executed poorly is very similar. She says that waiting a few more months, until winter, would have made it more difficult for the Taliban to fight and "given the Afghans a little more time to develop a strategy to prevent the chaotic fall of Kabul." 

But Rice's argument makes clear that it is impossible to disentangle the execution of the withdrawal with the broader policy failures of the last two decades. It may be more difficult for the Taliban to fight in the winter, but the Taliban did not need to fight. Afghan security forces simply evaporated. 

The twenty-year effort to build up these institutions — touted by Rice and much of the national security establishment — was a total failure. An orderly evacuation would require some period of time between the end of U.S. military operations and the collapse of the Afghan security forces. What has transpired over the last week demonstrated that wasn't possible. 

Absent functional Afghan institutions, it's up to the U.S. military to facilitate an evacuation. That is largely what happened. Thousands of U.S. troops are in Afghanistan securing the Kabul airport and trying to get people out of the country. 

Was the status quo sustainable?

Another argument, advanced by former UK official Rory Stewart in the Washington Post, is that the U.S. military footprint was quite small and should have been retained indefinitely:

You would be forgiven for thinking the U.S. was getting itself out of another Vietnam War: fantastically dangerous and expensive, achieving nothing, and impossible to sustain. But in truth, U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan formally ended in 2014; troop levels had decreased to about 2,500; and there have been no American combat fatalities since February 2020.

When he became president, Biden took over a relatively low-cost, low-risk presence in Afghanistan that was nevertheless capable of protecting the achievements of the previous 20 years.

What Stewart ignores is that the low levels of violence in recent months coincided with the Trump administration's announcement that the U.S. military presence would end in 2021. If, instead, the Biden administration announced that it was staying indefinitely, the situation could have changed dramatically. 

The small U.S. military footprint also came with a high cost to Afghan civilians. With few troops on the ground, the military increasingly relied on air power to keep the Taliban at bay. This kept U.S. fatalities low but resulted in a massive increase in civilian casualties. A Brown University study found that between 2016 and 2019 the "number of civilians killed by international airstrikes increased about 330 percent." In October 2020 "212 civilians were killed."

Without masks, COVID wreaks havoc as schools reopen

Despite the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, Republican governors are banning schools from requiring masks. In many states, the school year has resumed and the early results are disastrous. 

In Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis (R) banned school boards from enforcing mask usage, Hillsborough County Public Schools reported this week that “10,384 students and 338 staff members [are] at home in isolation due to possible exposure of COVID-19 at school.” The school district is the seventh largest in the country, serving over 200,000 students. Earlier in August, Hillsborough County Public Schools announced parents could exempt their children from wearing a mask to school. On Wednesday afternoon, the district called an emergency meeting in light of the soaring cases.

Currently, Florida leads the nation in coronovarius-related child hospitalizations. Yet, earlier this week, the Florida Board of Education voted unanimously to punish two school districts, Broward and Alachua county school boards, for issuing mask mandates and “defying” DeSantis. 

In Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott (R) created a similar mask mandate ban, at least four school districts have already shut and returned to virtual learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Houston-area school districts alone have reported more than 1,700 total cases in the first two weeks of school, despite the fact that the largest district in the area, Houston Independent School District (ISD), has yet to open. 

Over the past month, Texas has experienced new records when it comes to COVID-19 related child hospitalizations, admitting an average of 40 children a day. The state is now averaging 15,577 cases a day, a 44 percent increase from the previous two-week period. On Tuesday, Governor Abbott, who appeared at multiple events unmasked over the past week, also tested positive for the coronavirus.

As Popular Information previously reported, a strong majority of parents want a mask requirement in schools. Yet, at least nine states have banned mask mandates, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Over the coming months, as more schools reopen, Popular Information will continue to investigate how districts are managing the return to in-person instruction.