The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Lunchtime roundup

Stories from the usual suspects:

Finally, Whisky Advocate calls out a few lesser-known distilleries in Scotland worth visiting—or at least sampling.

Could we have avoided 20 years of war?

New York Times reporter Alissa Rubin, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work covering Kabul, looks back on the Bush Administration's refusal to entertain a deal with the Taliban in 2001:

“The Taliban were completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty,” recalled Barnett Rubin, who worked with the United Nations’ political team in Afghanistan at the time.

Messengers shuttled back and forth between [Hamid] Karzai and the headquarters of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in Kandahar. Mr. Karzai envisioned a Taliban surrender that would keep the militants from playing any significant role in the country’s future.

But Washington, confident that the Taliban would be wiped out forever, was in no mood for a deal.

Almost 20 years later, the United States did negotiate a deal to end the Afghan war, but the balance of power was entirely different by then — it favored the Taliban.

“When I heard the U.S. were going to meet in Doha with the Taliban and without the Afghan government, I said, ‘That’s not a peace negotiation, those are surrender talks,’” said Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan.

“So, now the talks were all about us retreating without the Taliban shooting at us as we went,” Mr. Crocker added, “and we got nothing in return.”

As Winston Churchill once said, "Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war." If only we'd listened.

The best take I've read

"Over-extended, hollowed-out, debt-burdened empires are not exactly intimidating to many enemies. Leaving Afghanistan is therefore not the blow to American power and prestige these pundits are claiming. Staying in Afghanistan is."—Andrew Sullivan.

Happy birthday, Gene

Eugene Wesley Roddenberry would have been 100 years old todayStar Trek and NASA have a livestream today to celebrate.

In other news:

Finally, sometime today I hope to finish reading Joe Pinsker's interview with author Oliver Burkeman about how not to get sucked into things that waste your time, like the Internet.

David Ignatius on our withdrawal from Afghanistan

The Washington Post columnist weaves together all the threads in the story and avoids putting the blame on any one person:

The structure of the Kabul government has been rotting from within for all 20 years of the United States’ war. And every U.S. commander knew its weakness. They worried about the corruption and incompetence of the government, devised elaborate strategies to fix it, kept convincing themselves they were making progress. Hope is not a strategy, as every commander knows. In this case, it was.

Biden is being flayed both for his decision and its sloppy execution. Many of us had warned that by withdrawing the small remaining force too quickly, without a transition plan, he was unwisely ending a low-cost insurance policy against the disaster now unfolding. Biden owns the final decision, for better or worse.

But the hard truth is that this failure is shared by a generation of military commanders and policymakers, who let occasional tactical successes in a counterterrorism mission become a proxy for a strategy that never was. And it was subtly abetted by journalists who were scratching our heads wondering if it would work, but let the senior officials continue their magical thinking.

We never had a clear goal in Afghanistan, other than punishing the Taliban for providing a safe haven for Osama bin Laden. Just imagine what we could have done with the $100 billion we spent every year on that debacle.

Crossing the Rubicon

Eric Schnurer outlines the alarming similarities between our present and Rome's past; specifically, the end of the Republic in 54 BCE:

History isn’t destiny, of course; the demise of the Roman Republic is a point of comparison—not prediction. But the accelerating comparisons nonetheless beg the question: If one were to make a prediction, what comes next? What might signal the end of democracy as we know it?  There is, it turns out, an easy answer at hand.

While there is no precise end date to the Republic, there was a bright-line occurrence generally recognized as the irreversible beginning of the end for participatory government. In fact, it is such a bright line that the event itself has become universally synonymous with “point-of-no-return”: Julius Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon.

And there is indeed an event looming—probably before the end of this year— that poses almost precisely the same situation as what provoked Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon: the possible indictment of former president Donald J. Trump.

When Trump’s supporters urge him to cross the Rubicon and cast the die—events that become highly likely if he, like Caesar, faces indictment—that is what they contemplate.

Well, at least the fall of the Republic will probably work out OK for urban areas...maybe...

Quote of the Year

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch: "[A] government that collapses in days without America propping them up wasn't worth $2.2 trillion and thousands of American lives."

Josh Marshall agrees:

It is crystal clear that the Afghan national army and really the Afghan state was an illusion. It could not survive first contact with a post-US military reality. As is so often the case in life – with bad investments, bad relationships – what we were doing there was staying to delay our reckoning with the consequences of the reality of the situation.

But as I’ve said..., we knew this part. What has been deeply revealing to me is the American response. ... [T]he reaction has demonstrated to me is the sheer depth of denial. The inability to accept the reality of the situation. And thus the excuse making. Sen. Maggie Hassan’s press release ... is a painfully good example of that. So is this article by in The Atlantic by George Packer. Virtually everything Richard Engel has been writing on Twitter for the last 24 hours. All so much the cant of empire. But more than this, far more important than this, simply unwise.

In just the last century, let alone the past thousands of years of humanity, no one has held Afghanistan. The British, the Soviets, and now us, three separate empires with nearly-unmatched power, all three with bloody noses courtesy of an ungovernable quintet of steep valleys with few natural resources other than poppies.

You'd think we'd learn. But no, we didn't.

After 20 years, 200,000 dead, and $1 trillion spent, we get nothing

The Afghan government—or whatever approximation of a government they actually had—has fallen as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban took Kabul earlier today:

Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, confirmed earlier reports that Ghani had left Afghanistan.

“He left Afghanistan in a hard time, God hold him accountable,” Abdullah, a longtime rival of Ghani's, said in an online video.

Ghani’s team confirmed the departure to CNBC.

The Taliban ordered their fighters to enter Kabul because they believed police had deserted all their positions, a Taliban spokesman told NBC News, which could not confirm these claims.

The spokesman urged residents of the capital to remain calm.

Earlier, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said fighters would "be on standby on all entrances of Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power is agreed." In a separate statement to NBC News, a Taliban spokesman said that those entering Kabul were unarmed on instructions from senior commanders.

American politicians, including people who voted for the calamitous occupation of a country that no foreign army has ever successfully occupied, have tried to spin the Taliban's rapid takeover as some kind of intelligence failure. Josh Marshall points out the obvious flaw in that argument:

There’s no intelligence failure. We don’t need to pretend there is. Every actual report going back many years portrayed the Afghan army is thoroughly compromised by corruption and beset by chronically bad morale. Desertion was commonplace. This isn’t a surprise and we shouldn’t pretend it is.

Just what did we accomplish in 20 years? Absolutely nothing:

The Taliban’s political arm in Doha has claimed that they are no longer the bloody theocrats who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when accused criminals were publicly executed at Kabul’s football grounds, including women who were stoned to death for adultery. Their negotiators have stressed that there is no rule in Islam against the education of women, for example. Yet the disconnect between statements made from Qatar and what is being done by Taliban commanders in Afghanistan is now canyon-sized. In Herat, where 60% of the students at the university were women, they have reportedly already been ordered back to their homes. Female employees have been told to give up their jobs to male relatives. On the education of girls one Taliban commander, interviewed by the BBC, was crystal clear. “Not a single girl has gone to school in our village and our district… the facilities do not exist and we wouldn’t allow it anyway.”

Even the best possible outcome, where the Taliban’s leadership decides to show it is serious about reform, looks bleak. For sure, Afghanistan’s government has made only fitful progress in raising the quality of life for ordinary Afghans, even in cities, where it has had far more control than in the countryside. Its corruption has been deep and galling, and no doubt part of the reason the Taliban were able to conquer the country so effectively. Footage of Taliban soldiers walking through the opulent interiors of the captured house of Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord and former vice-president, who is said to have fled to Uzbekistan, underline the rottenness of the state. And yet, buoyed by a tsunami of aid money, the government did educate people, and few Afghans starved. As embassies close and foreigners flee, the aid that has sustained the country’s economy, and helped to educate its children, including girls, will now surely dry up. A humanitarian catastrophe could quickly follow.

Of course we accomplished nothing. President George W Bush never had a clear idea of what victory would look like, even with Colin Powell—the guy whose Rule #2 for armed conflict is "have a clear, attainable objective"—running the State Department.

And in case you already had trouble sleeping, the Department of Homeland Security has put out a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin that says, basically, the right wing nut jobs are about to go batshit:

  • Through the remainder of 2021, racially- or ethnically-motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) and anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists will remain a national threat priority for the United States. These extremists may seek to exploit the emergence of COVID-19 variants by viewing the potential re-establishment of public health restrictions across the United States as a rationale to conduct attacks.  Pandemic-related stressors have contributed to increased societal strains and tensions, driving several plots by domestic violent extremists, and they may contribute to more violence this year.
  • Law enforcement have expressed concerns that the broader sharing of false narratives and conspiracy theories will gain traction in mainstream environments, resulting in individuals or small groups embracing violent tactics to achieve their desired objectives. With a diverse array of threats, DHS is concerned that increased outbreaks of violence in some locations, as well as targeted attacks against law enforcement, may strain local resources.

Yay us?

Prince Humperdink of New York

Reporter Miriam Pawel, who has covered Albany, N.Y., since the early 1980s, explains the critical difference between Mario Cuomo and his son Andrew:

Even in those early years after Mario Cuomo was first elected governor, in 1982, the differences between the two men were as apparent as their similarities. Both were ruthless competitors, prone to bullying. Both were control freaks, inclined to trust very few people outside a small circle of confidants.

But Mario Cuomo’s sharp elbows on the basketball court and pugilistic verbal gymnastics were wrapped in moral complexity, intellectual heft and Jesuitical questioning. His son exhibited none of those qualities. He had inherited his father’s fierce, win-at-any-cost competitive spirit without the humanity or introspection.

Perhaps the most telling difference between father and son was that people liked Mario Cuomo. He had a large circle of lifelong friends, from college classmates to gubernatorial appointees. Many remained loyal long after they stopped working for him; he generated genuine affection.

The same was not true for Andrew Cuomo. “The problem with Cuomo is no one has ever liked him,” Richard Ravitch told the Times reporter Shane Goldmacher. “He’s not a nice person, and he doesn’t have any real friends.” Mr. Ravitch should know: He served in various high-ranking state positions, including chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority while Mario Cuomo was governor in the early 1980s, and lieutenant governor while Andrew Cuomo campaigned for the top job.

There's a reason for the ancient trope of good kings fathering evil princes.

Two big wins for all of us

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation this morning:

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said Tuesday he would resign from office, succumbing to a ballooning sexual harassment scandal that fueled an astonishing reversal of fortune for one of the nation’s best-known leaders.

Mr. Cuomo said his resignation would take effect in 14 days. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, will be sworn in to replace him.

“Given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing,” Mr. Cuomo said from his office in Manhattan. “And therefore that’s what I’ll do.”

The resignation of Mr. Cuomo, a three-term Democrat, came a week after a report from the New York State attorney general concluded that the governor sexually harassed nearly a dozen women, including current and former government workers, by engaging in unwanted touching and making inappropriate comments. The 165-page report also found that Mr. Cuomo and his aides unlawfully retaliated against at least one of the women for making her complaints public and fostered a toxic work environment.

Good. He needs to go. And yes, I am happy that my party threw the book at one of our own. We hold ourselves accountable, unlike the other guys.

But that's not all the Democratic Party did today. We also passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill in the Senate with the support of nine Republicans:

The 69-to-30 vote follows weeks of turbulent private talks and fierce public debates that sometimes teetered on collapse, as the White House labored alongside Democrats and Republicans to achieve the sort of deal that had eluded them for years. Even though the proposal must still clear the House, where some Democrats recently have raised concerns the measure falls short of what they seek, the Senate outcome moves the bill one step closer to delivering President Biden his first major bipartisan win.

The bill proposes more than $110 billion to replace and repair roads, bridges and highways, and $66 billion to boost passenger and freight rail. That transit investment marks the most significant infusion of cash in the country’s railways since the creation of Amtrak about half a century ago, the White House said.

The infrastructure plan includes an additional $55 billion to address lingering issues in the U.S. water supply, such as an effort to replace every lead pipe in the nation. It allocates $65 billion to modernize the country’s power grid. And it devotes billions in additional sums to rehabilitating waterways, improving airports and expanding broadband Internet service, particularly after a pandemic that forced Americans to conduct much of their lives online.

If this bill becomes law, it's possible that within my lifetime the United States could have the same quality of roads, bridges, and trains that Western Europe has today. (NB: I expect to live at least another 50 years.)

Meanwhile, as if to underscore this week's IPCC report, the dewpoint outside my window right now has almost reached 26°C, giving us a delightful heat index of 38.7°C. Even Cassie didn't want to be outside for her lunchtime walk.

Update: the 2pm readings at O'Hare show even lovelier weather: temperature 33°, dewpoint 25°C, heat index 40.4°C. Bleah.