August 26, 2021

In Afghanistan today, two explosions outside the Kabul airport killed at least 60 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. troops. More than 100 Afghans and 15 U.S. service members were wounded. 

ISIS-K, the Islamic State Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack. ISIS-K is an extremist offshoot of the Taliban organized in Pakistan about six years ago by younger men who think the older leaders of the Taliban now in control of Afghanistan are too moderate. The ISIS-K leaders want to destabilize the Taliban’s apparent assumption of the country’s leadership after the collapse of the Afghan government. 

The Taliban joined governments around the world in condemning the attack, illustrating their interest in being welcomed into the larger international sphere rather than continuing to be perceived as violent outsiders. Increasingly, it seems their sweep into power surprised them as much as anyone, and they are now faced with pulling together warring factions without the hatred of occupying U.S. troops to glue them together. 

Taliban leaders continue to talk with former leaders of the U.S.-backed Afghan government to figure out how to govern the country. Western aid, on which the country relies, will depend on the Taliban’s acceptance of basic human rights, including the education of its girls, and its refusal to permit terrorists to use the country as a staging ground.

The attack was horrific but not a surprise. Last night, the U.S. State Department warned of specific security threats and urged U.S. citizens to leave the area around the airport immediately. 

Later in the day, observers reported explosions near the airport. Paul Szoldra, editor-in-chief of Task and Purpose, tweeted that he had heard from a source that the explosions were controlled demolitions as U.S. troops destroyed equipment.

Tonight, President Joe Biden held a press conference honoring the dead as “part of the bravest, most capable, and the most selfless military on the face of the Earth.” He told the terrorists that “[w]e will hunt you down and make you pay,” but on our terms, not theirs. “I will defend our interests and our people with every measure at my command,” he said.

Despite the attacks, the airlift continues. Today, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of United States Central Command, said that more than 104,000 people have been evacuated from the airport, including 5000 U.S. citizens.

I confess to being knocked off-keel by the Republican reaction to the Kabul bombing. 

The roots of the U.S. withdrawal from its 20 years in Afghanistan were planted in February 2020, when the Trump administration cut a deal with the Taliban agreeing to release 5000 imprisoned Taliban fighters and to leave the country by May 1, 2021, so long as the Taliban did not kill any more Americans. The negotiations did not include the U.S.-backed Afghan government. By the time Biden took office, the U.S. had withdrawn all but 2500 troops from the country. 

That left Biden with the option either to go back on Trump’s agreement or to follow through. To ignore the agreement would mean the Taliban would again begin attacking U.S. service people, and the U.S. would both have to pour in significant numbers of troops and sustain casualties. And Biden himself wanted out of what had become a meandering, expensive, unpopular war. 

On April 14, 2021, three months after taking office, Biden said he would honor the agreement he had inherited from Trump. “It is perhaps not what I would have negotiated myself,” he said, “but it was an agreement made by the United States government, and that means something.” He said that the original U.S. mission had been to stop Afghanistan from becoming a staging ground for terrorists and to destroy those who had attacked the United States on 9-11, and both of those goals had been accomplished. Now, he said, “our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear.”

Biden said he would begin, not end, the troop withdrawal on May 1 (prompting Trump to complain that it should be done sooner), getting everyone out by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks that took us there in the first place. (He later adjusted that to August 31.) He promised to evacuate the country “responsibly, deliberately, and safely” and assured Americans that the U.S. had “trained and equipped a standing force of over 300,000 Afghan personnel” and that “they’ll continue to fight valiantly, on behalf of the Afghans, at great cost.”

Instead, the Afghan army crumbled as the U.S began to pull its remaining troops out in July. By mid-August, the Taliban had taken control of the capital, Kabul, after taking all the regional capitals in a little over a week. It turned out that when the Trump administration cut the Afghan government out of negotiations with the Taliban, Afghan soldiers recognized that they would soon be on their own and arranged “cease fire” agreements, enabling the Taliban to take control with very little fighting.  

Just before the Taliban took Kabul, the leaders of the Afghan government fled the country, abandoning the country to chaos. People rushed to the airport to escape, although the Taliban quickly reassured them that they would give amnesty to all of their former enemies. In those chaotic early hours, seven Afghans died, either crushed in the crowds or killed when they fell from planes to which they had clung in hopes of getting out. 

Then, though, the Biden administration established order and has conducted the largest airlift in U.S. history, more than 100,000 people, without casualties until today. The State Department says about 1000 Americans remain in Afghanistan. They are primarily Afghan-Americans who are not sure whether they want to leave. The administration is in contact with them and promises it will continue to work to evacuate them after August 31 if they choose to leave.

In the past, when American troops were targeted by terrorists, Americans came together to condemn those attackers. Apparently, no longer. While world leaders—including even those of the Taliban—condemned the attacks on U.S. troops, Republican leaders instead attacked President Biden. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) blamed Biden for the attack and insisted that troops should remain in Afghanistan under congressional control until all Americans are safely out. Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who replaced Liz Cheney (R-WY) as the third-ranking Republican in the House when Cheney refused to line up behind Trump, tweeted: "Joe Biden has blood on his hands.... This horrific national security and humanitarian disaster is solely the result of Joe Biden's weak and incompetent leadership. He is unfit to be Commander-in-Chief.”

The attacks on our soldiers and on Afghan civilians in Kabul today have taken up all the oxygen in the U.S. media, but there is another horrific story: the continuing carnage as the Delta variant of Covid-19 continues to rip through the unvaccinated. 

In Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has forbidden mask or vaccine mandates, 21,000 people a day are being diagnosed with coronavirus—more than twice the rate of the rest of the  country—and almost 230 a day are dying, a rate triple that of the rest of the country. Right now, Florida alone accounts for one fifth of national deaths from Covid.

Ten major hospitals in Florida are out of space in their morgues and have rented coolers for their dead; those, too, are almost full. Intensive care units in the state are 94% occupied. Sixty-eight hospitals warned yesterday that they had fewer than 48 hours left of the oxygen their Covid patients need, a reflection of the fact that 17,000 people are currently hospitalized in the state. 

Appearing on the Fox News Channel last night, DeSantis blamed Biden for the crisis. “He said he was going to end Covid,” DeSantis said. “He hasn’t done that.”

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Notes:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/25/us/politics/isis-terrorism-afghanistan-taliban.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/26/world/asia/kabul-airport-bombing.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/08/26/leaders-condemn-kabul-airport-attack-afghanistan/

https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/comparing-al-qaeda-and-isis-different-goals-different-targets/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/08/25/daily-202-us-allies-dangle-carrots-taliban-evacuation-end-looms/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/08/25/taliban-afghanistan-government/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/08/15/afghanistan-military-collapse-taliban/

https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/26/politics/republicans-kabul-biden/index.html

https://www.newsweek.com/10-major-florida-hospitals-using-rented-coolers-morgues-covid-deaths-overflow-1623499

https://www.wmfe.org/survey-68-florida-hospitals-have-less-than-48-hours-worth-of-oxygen/188797

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/08/26/ron-desantis-criticizes-biden-not-ending-pandemic-hes-exacerbating/

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