The Press Also Has Responsibility for the Afghanistan Mess

The American people believed our excellent coverage. This is the result.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

For roughly the last 15 years, the thrust of American coverage of our involvement in Afghanistan, much of it great journalism, went something like this: We have no idea what we are doing here, the prospect of our creating a stable regime is close to zero, the regime we have installed is corrupt and unworthy of our support, our troops are continuing to die, albeit more slowly, and probably for nothing.

The resultant US policy came very close, under Obama, to following Senator George Aiken’s advice about Vietnam: declare victory and seek to negotiate a withdrawal.1 Under Trump, it eventually evolved to something like “concede defeat and withdraw— but not until after the US election.” Under Biden, if you want to be honest about it, the Trump agreed-withdrawal deadline got stretched out for another 100 days in exchange for a disorderly exit.

For roughly the last 15 days, as these policies— again, in no small part the result of 15 years of devastatingly accurate press coverage— reached their inevitable denouement, the thrust of that coverage turned on a dime to something like this: How can we possibly abandon these poor people to their terrible fate?

There is plenty of dishonor to go around here, from Bush’s incoherent second term policy to Obama’s muddling to both Trump and Biden’s failures to plan seriously for the end game— especially with respect to the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have, many at great risk, helped us over the last 20 years.

But, again if we are to be honest, no small part of this dishonor must be shouldered by a press that seems to accept no responsibility for the fact that our policies were responsive to its coverage, and that itself, in most cases, took few anticipatory actions in the 17 months since Trump’s agreement to leave last Spring made our Afghan friends’ and staffers’ lives ultimately untenable.

A recent timeline should be illustrative: In February 2020, Trump agreed to surrender the country to the Taliban in May 2021; he then withdrew troops even faster than he had agreed to do. In March 2020, Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee. He had famously disagreed with Obama’s adding troops in Afghanistan while vice president, so it was then clear that the deadline likely applied no matter the outcome of last year’s election.

Anyone conversant with press coverage would have known that the Afghan government, which was being propped up by the US military and its pledge to remain, could not be expected to last much if at all past April 2021. (In the event, Biden bought four more months, although at the cost of a less orderly withdrawal than he presumably could have achieved in April or May.)

So any news organization wanting to relocate local staff or former helpers had 17 months to do so, from March 2020 through July of this year, and plenty of influence in Washington it could have deployed to seek assistance for them. (The influence of some newsrooms was on very public display once Kabul fell, and within five days all of their people were out and, with more help from powerful friends, being re-located.)

What might have been done differently to avoid today’s tragedies? Put simply, the only real alternative would have been, under either Trump or Biden, to surge troops yet again and decide to stay indefinitely, accepting the attendant cost and casualties. That would have been the best thing for our thousands of friends, and likely for millions of Afghans. But there is no indication it is what the American people, in what FDR once called their “righteous might,” want to do, and there are precious few willingly offering the blood of their own soldier children for the purpose.

Yes, it is awful that it ended this way. Yes, not enough was done to prepare for the fall of Kabul. Yes, despite the evacuation of more than 95,000 people so far, innocent human beings have suffered and will suffer.

But the press needs to assume its own share of responsibility for all of that.

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What Aiken really said is more complicated than is often recalled. A version simplified to “declare victory and get out” seems to many to have become Obama’s aim.