Editor’s Note: Sign up to get our new weekly column as a newsletter. We’re looking back at the strongest, smartest opinion takes of the week from CNN and other outlets.
Almost every US president of the last 70 years has been haunted by the aftereffects of two watershed events: the notorious 1938 “peace in our time” agreement struck at Munich between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and the 1949 Communist victory in China’s civil war.
For decades, no occupant of the White House wanted to strike a “peace” deal that a dictator would instantly violate – or to sit on the losing side of a debate over who allowed an American ally to get vanquished.
Until Donald Trump – and Joe Biden.
The past week’s events showed that the two bitter rivals had something in common: They were willing to “lose” Afghanistan to end America’s longest war.
Trump’s administration signed a peace agreement with the Taliban last year that proved to be worthless. And Biden ordered the last US troops to leave by the end of this month, braving withering criticism as thousands of Afghans who had supported the US presence scrambled to get out before the Taliban could fully assume power – and possibly mete out vengeance.
As Frida Ghitis pointed out, Trump sought to blame Biden for the outcome. And, in her view, Biden deserves much of it: “He made the final decision to withdraw. He chose to abide by a disastrous agreement crafted under the previous administration; moved the troops out with obviously poor planning for contingencies, and is the President under whose watch the two-decade old war ended in a humiliating rush for the exits by the US and NATO…”
But what of his predecessor? “Since Trump is so vocal about Biden’s failing, we must look at his role in this tragedy,” she wrote. “And it’s a doozy.”
He “relentlessly, cluelessly sabotaged peace talks, proclaiming his determination to pull out, and unexpectedly announcing troop reductions. His tweets became a major obstacle to negotiations, as he declared he was withdrawing US forces, the only leverage of US negotiators, without obtaining any real concessions from the Taliban. In February 2020, Trump unveiled an agreement with the Taliban. The deal was an utter embarrassment, one of the worst ever negotiated by an American president.”
In a Q&A with Peter Bergen, Roya Rahmani, the first woman to serve as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US, said this past week’s takeover points “to an immense failure of Afghan democracy. It points to the failure of diplomacy. It points to the failure of the international aid and assistance…it puts into question all the sacrifices being made by Americans, by our allies, and multiplied by all the Afghans with so much blood, tears, and sweat that we all put into the past 20 years.”
“I am afraid that the very basic rights of women are in line to be sacrificed,” Rahmani said. “What the Taliban are going to offer to women is way below equal citizenship…women will be treated as a ‘lower class,’ deemed fit only for specific roles and nothing else.”
Why the chaos
Biden is not only responsible for the decision to withdraw US troops, wrote Alice Stewart, but also for the policy’s execution. “In a matter of days, the Taliban have overrun the country and assumed control of Kabul, while thousands of Afghans, afraid for their lives, attempt to flee on flights bound for Europe, the US and elsewhere.”
Throughout Biden’s eight years as vice president, he stood out among Obama administration figures in consistently opposing the war in Afghanistan, as David Axelrod noted.
“As Biden said in his televised remarks Monday, the fact that the Afghan security forces in which we invested so much were abjectly ill-prepared and unwilling to take up their own defense was a pretty fair sign that they never would be,” wrote Axelrod.
“Yet the argument for leaving doesn’t explain or justify the chaotic manner in which we did. There is shame in those images of Afghans who for years had helped support our efforts, chasing US military aircraft down runways in a desperate attempt to escape Taliban reprisals.”
Did Biden “carry some of the scars of his past battles over Afghanistan into his decision-making as Commander-in Chief? Was he so determined not to be cowed by the Pentagon, as perhaps he felt Obama was, that he ignored warnings he should have heeded?” (For a former CIA official’s analysis of what went wrong, read Peter Bergen’s interview with Douglas London.)
The video images of the week drew comparisons to the 1975 American evacuation from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. But historian Julian Zelizer observed that “the collapse of Afghanistan is unlikely to be a decisive political issue.” For one thing, the Saigon retreat wasn’t the factor that resulted in President Gerald Ford’s defeat by Jimmy Carter; he was brought down by the economy and the aftermath of Watergate. And the Afghanistan War never occupied the psychic space in America that Vietnam did, Zelizer wrote.
“The conflict over the war had literally consumed American life. There had been a massive anti-war movement that made the war an unavoidable topic in college campuses, churches, schools, civic institutions, newspapers and television, political campaigns, and more. Given that there had been a draft in place until 1973, every American family had been forced to wrestle with the possibility that their child would end up being sent into this deadly conflict – and many were. Vietnam was woven into popular music, film, and fiction. In other words, the Vietnam War had been everywhere in American life for over a decade.”
In The New York Times, Michael Kazin suggested that “as the public’s attention shifts away from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden’s decision may seem less like a failure and more like a sober, even necessary end to a policy that was doomed from the start.” But the stakes are still huge for Biden and his party: “The president and his fellow Democrats face a political environment so daunting that even the slightest disruption could derail their domestic agenda.”
School masks and Covid boosters
In Texas, as in Florida, some local school boards are defying their governors’ orders prohibiting schools from mandating masks. Stephen I. Vladeck, who teaches law at the University of Texas and has two young children, noted that his state’s governor, Greg Abbott, wasn’t swayed even after his own breakthrough case of Covid-19.
“This debate isn’t about ‘freedom’ in any analytically coherent sense,” Vladeck wrote. “It’s about the politicization of a specific public health crisis — where ‘owning the libs’ has become a policy priority, especially for those, like Governor Abbott, who seem to be clamoring for attention and support. There ought to be some things more important than scoring political points. I would have thought that the health and well-being of our children would be close to the top of that list.”
In Michigan, teacher Caroline Nyczak is thankful that she’s vaccinated and can feel safe teaching in person. “It baffles me why any teacher would choose not to get the vaccine, especially if they know they will inevitably be working with unvaccinated children,” she observed. “Vaccinated teachers are one of the only ways to ensure safe classrooms, effective learning, and healthy children.”
Booster shots are on the way for most Americans this fall, health officials announced Wednesday, citing evidence that the protection offered by vaccines wanes over time. “The booster makes a lot of sense,” wrote Dr. Kent Sepkowitz. “What we must not do, however is assume the third shot is the charm. Rather, the boost is another temporary measure that will provide months of less worry. Because – spoiler alert – Israel has already shown the third shot provides a real but only transient protection against infection. Even after three vaccines, some people are still getting infected.
More than 2,100 people died and more than 12,000 were injured by the major earthquake that struck Haiti last weekend. It came a little more than a month after the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moise, and 11 years after an even more devastating quake. “The images, this time coming from Les Caye rather than the leveled capitol city Port-au-Prince, have dominated social media,” noted Peniel E. Joseph. “Rescue operations and international aid have been amassed but are experiencing great difficulty reaching inhabitants in the epicenter of the quake.”
The narrative of Haiti’s compounding crises is only part of the nation’s story, Joseph wrote. “Haiti is neither irreparably broken nor perpetually resilient. The island, likes its people, contains multitudes. Until American foreign policy, as well as the international community, fesses up to the historic and continuing influence they play in Haitian affairs we will continue to interpret this unfolding history in isolation without realizing that it is in fact, a mirror.”
When it started
Jason Amerine was there at the beginning. The now-retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel led a team of American special forces troops that worked with Afghan leader (and later President) Hamid Karzai to wrest control of the country from the Taliban, which had sheltered al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the US on September 11, 2001.
After ousting the Taliban, the Bush administration moved ahead with the invasion of Iraq in the false belief that its leader Saddam Hussein had worked with al Qaeda and had weapons of mass destruction. When the Iraq adventure morphed into a civil war, the US needed Pakistan’s help in resupplying its troops, and so couldn’t press that nation to clamp down on the Taliban in Afghanistan, Amerine wrote.
“Years of benign neglect followed in Afghanistan as Kabul and all our Afghan allies became more and more alienated by America’s lack of action to combat the Taliban,” Amerine wrote. “Our mission in 2001 was to remove the terrorist safe havens of Afghanistan. It was an act of revenge. I was proud to see it evolve into something more as little girls went to school and women were allowed to vote. But now the noblest gains of our mission are lost and we are left to say, ‘At least we got Bin Laden.’ It just rings so hollow to me,” Amerine noted.
“Afghan women have been used as political pawns and treated more as symbols than humans by powerful people (mostly men) on all sides of the conflict,” wrote Jill Filipovic. “Now, no one has more to lose than Afghanistan’s women. And no one is owed a greater debt. They aren’t going to get their deserved honor from the brutal and miserable fundamentalists taking over their country. Which is why the US and every other nation that participated in this war must open its doors and welcome whichever women, and their families, want to leave Afghanistan and have a shot at a safe life.”
Zarlasht Halaimzai fled Afghanistan as a 15-year-old in 1992 with her family, settling in the UK. “As violence intensified, my family fled the conflict that would eventually result in the Taliban’s first takeover of the country,” she wrote. “Now, after footage of desperate people chasing a plane on an airport tarmac went viral, I am shocked at the muted response from governments around the world, which have not done nearly enough to address the man-made humanitarian disaster unfolding before us. The US and its partners have argued that Afghanistan is no longer their responsibility – that they did what they could and sacrificed too much for a country that apparently Afghans don’t want to fight for. But they grossly mischaracterize just how hard Afghans have fought for democratic freedoms.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
Nick Ochsner was 12 when his dad told him he was headed for a US military posting in Afghanistan. “He was excited; I was excited,” Ochsner wrote.
“My dad lived for being a soldier, had since he was a kid. He’d just spent nearly two years in grueling Special Forces training to become a Green Beret. He jumped at the prospect of putting his new skills to use. And in those heady, patriotic days following 9/11, the chance to go meet the enemy and get revenge sounded good, too.”
On Jimmy’s Ochsner’s fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan – his fourth in four years – he was killed by a roadside bomb near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“Two decades of war. Thousands of lives lost. Trillions of dollars spent,” Ochsner wrote. “The Taliban has retaken the country my dad and thousands of others died fighting to free from future oppression. If my dad were alive today, I know he would be worried about the thousands of Afghans who risked their lives and their families’ security in service to an America that has now left many of them stranded, helpless, behind enemy lines.”
Kinder, gentler Taliban?
The victorious Taliban promised peace and an amnesty as it took over Kabul this past week.
But when the group first took control of Afghanistan in 1996, Peter Bergen recalled, they “imposed their ultra-purist vision of Islam on much of the country. Women had to wear the burqa and stay at home unless accompanied by a male relative. Music, television and even kite flying were banned. There was no independent media; only Radio Shariat that blared Taliban propaganda. In an unsettling echo of how the Nazis treated the Jews, the Taliban forced the country’s miniscule Hindu population to wear distinctive clothing.”
“These edicts were enforced by the religious police of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. I witnessed black-turbaned vigilantes roaming Kabul’s streets like wraiths dispensing their ferocious brand of ‘Islamic’ justice. Curfew started at 9 p.m. and by 8 p.m. the streets were deserted except for the young Taliban soldiers who stood at every traffic circle, carefully checking passing vehicles…In Kabul, one of the few diversions available were the well-attended public executions in the former soccer stadium. The victims, including women, were stoned to death or shot in the head.”
The Soviet Union ended its ill-fated occupation of the country in 1989, but left behind its “puppet president,” Gen. Mohammed Najibullah. When the Taliban gained control of Kabul, as Peter Hopkirk noted in the foreword to an updated edition of his book, “The Great Game,” Najibullah was “dragged from the UN compound there, where he had been given sanctuary…brutally beaten, castrated, then strung up publicly.”
California recall gets real
Radio host Larry Elder’s views couldn’t be more out of sync with those of most voters in the liberal state, but there’s a chance he could replace Gavin Newsom as governor of California if voters approve a recall and give him a plurality of the votes, Lincoln Mitchell wrote.
Elder “has called global warming a ‘crock’ and a ‘myth’,” though he has softened his stance recently. “He has also shown a broader skepticism toward science – opposing mask and vaccine mandates entirely and saying they stand in the way of American freedom. And he has vowed to get rid of a legal baseline for the state minimum wage, arguing that ‘The ideal minimum wage is $0.00…’.”
“The partisan balance of the US Senate may be at stake in this recall as well,” Mitchell noted, since the new governor would have the ability to appoint a replacement for 88-year-old US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, should she step down.
Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin argued this week that while Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on and overturn the 2020 election results were “at a minimum, outrageous,” it would be a mistake for Attorney General Merrick Garland to launch a criminal investigation of the former president. “Based on the available evidence, there is no basis to prosecute Trump and little reason even to open a criminal investigation…One mark of modern despotism is the legal pursuit of former leaders by current office-holders, and the United States has wisely avoided this cycle…”
Donald Ayer and Norman Eisen agreed that “the idea of a prevailing presidential candidate’s Justice Department prosecuting his predecessor for things done while serving as president sounds like the stuff of dictatorships – in the abstract…But facts matter. And a president working to destroy our system of democratic electoral government is arguably a concern on a level by itself. The stronger and more compelling the direct and admissible evidence becomes that Trump did exactly that, the clearer it becomes that it must take precedence.”
Jan Reeder: It was easier to donate a kidney to my husband than to keep him safe during the pandemic
David M. Perry: It’s time for fans to demand the ‘Jeopardy!’ host we deserve
Saira Shah: 20 years ago, I smuggled myself into the Taliban’s country to tell the story of women
Dean Obeidallah: Our Muslim allies must step up to protect the women of Afghanistan
David A. Andelman: World is deeply shaken by America’s retreat
Jillian C. York: Why Facebook’s continuing Taliban ban should concern us all
‘Cooking with Paris’
Paris Hilton coined the word, “sliving,” which, as Holly Thomas wrote, equals “slaying and living.” The heiress and social media star has a new Netflix show, “Cooking with Paris.”
“Critics are taking issue with Hilton as host of a show about food, but be under no illusion, this woman isn’t pretending she can cook. In fact, she’s probably pretending she can’t, but that hasn’t deterred much of the internet from scoffing at her poor culinary skills, and wondering at the point of a food show that doesn’t include knockout recipes. Let the woman sliv!”