The War Is Over

Yesterday, at 3:29 p.m., the United States War in Afghanistan came to an end. The last American C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport, and a conflict that began with, arguably, the biggest bang in American history ended with something of a whimper.

It would not be unreasonable to say the evacuation was a great success. Around 6,000 Americans were extracted from the country, including all military and U.S. government personnel. In addition, roughly 114,000 Afghans were able to escape with U.S. assistance. This despite the unexpectedly rapid collapse of both the Afghan government and army. There is no analogue in U.S. history; even Saigon was smaller in scale, and also took place under (nominally) better conditions.

On the other hand, one could also focus on the failures. The Taliban is back in control, having encountered virtually no resistance as they reclaimed power. There was last weeks terrorist attack, of course, and with it the possibility that ISIS and Al-Qaeda are on the rise once again. Further, the U.S. was not able to get everyone out of Afghanistan that it wanted to rescue. There are about 500 Americans left in the country; about half of those wanted to be extracted and were not. If there is a clear explanation for what happened with those 250 folks, and why they were left behind, we have not seen it. Perhaps that will become clearer as the dust settles. We have also seen nothing specific on how many Afghans were left behind. Perhaps that number will also be revealed at some point, but its also possible it will never be known, and maybe even that it cannot be known.

Many media types are declaring this to be the end of Americas longest war. Indeed, the headline of the piece linked in the first paragraph is The last US military planes have left Afghanistan, marking the end of the United States longest war. While that suits the general desire for drama and for all news to be BIG NEWS, this is patent nonsense. The Cold War (mid-1940s to early 1990s), the War on Drugs (1980s or earlier to present), and the War on Terror (2001 to present) all eclipse Afghanistan. One might argue those were metaphors, or were rhetorical, and yet they all involved decades of domestic tension, heightened military spending, and use of military force to advance strategic goals.

Even if you reject the notion that those thematic wars were actually wars, it doesnt matter. Limiting ourselves to more conventional wars, in which the United States armed forces engaged regularly and violently with an armed opponent, the longest conflict in American history is, without question, the Indian Wars. You dont even have to take our word for it; the U.S. government maintains an official list of periods of war, updated each year, and used for purposes of awarding certain veterans benefits. That list says that the Indian Wars took place from January 1, 1817, through December 31, 1898, inclusive, which is 81 years. Even if you want to argue that the Indian Wars were, in fact, a collection of many different wars against many different Native American nations, the U.S. still battled the Apache Nation regularly from 1849-86, which is 37 years.

In short, there is no viable argument for Afghanistan as the United States longest war. And the point here is not to make a historians-know-best point about the past. It is to give an illustration of the tendency of the media (and of politicians, for that matter) to overdramatize things. This may just come up again later in this item.

Anyhow, as the U.S. and the world move into the post-Afghanistan era, there are four important questions that present themselves, from where we sit:

  1. Whither the Taliban?: There are really two sub-questions here. The first is whether the Taliban will revert to form, and resume their existence as a fanatical and violent theocracy, or if they will try to curry favor with the rest of the world by curbing their worst impulses. The summary execution of an Afghan folk singer yesterday, whose crime was...making music, is not an auspicious omen.

    The other question is whether the Taliban, regardless of how they conduct themselves, can build and maintain a viable government. We have already written, at length, about the many reasons we are skeptical.

  2. Whither Joe Biden?: There is no shortage, right now, of pundits predicting doom and gloom for Joe Biden from here on out, presenting this as a political disaster of epic proportions. Fox has taken the lead here, but not far behind, interestingly, is CNN. In particular, CNNs Stephen Collinson has been doing his best Chicken Little impression for the last week or so, and has cranked out at least half a dozen the sky is falling pieces. The one he produced yesterday was put up on CNNs homepage with the headline The humbling US retreat stained the Presidents aura of competence and raised questions about his leadership, candor and capacity to quell the nations crises.

    That seems a wee bit dramatic to us. Especially since CNN in general, and Collinson in particular, wrote dozens of pieces about how [X] was the final straw; the breaking point that would spell doom for Donald Trumps political support. Its certainly true that Biden still has some challenges remaining on this front. The Republicans are doing, and will do, everything they can to turn this into Benghazi v2.0. The resettlement of those 100,000+ Afghan refugees will create some domestic tensions. There may be tough questions about those 250 or so Americans that werent evacuated.

    On the other hand, there do not appear to be any devastating photographs from yesterday, nothing along the lines of the helicopters leaving Saigon, or the dead American soldiers hung in a town square in Tehran after Jimmy Carters Operation Eagle Claw, or George W. Bush inspecting the damage in New Orleans from his plane. Human beings are visual creatures, and the presence/absence of a powerful image matters more than it probably ought to.

    There are also, as we pointed out yesterday, the distractions. Theres a pandemic going on in the United States, and yet another mega-hurricane fueled (in part) by global warming. Biden is more likely to be judged on his handling of those things, than his handling of Afghanistan. The next few months will also see big debates about infrastructure (x2), prescription drugs, voting rights, abortion (see below), the debt limit, the budget, evictions (see below), and who knows what else. It is hard to see how people will find the mental space to dwell on Afghanistan, no matter how much Fox and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) might like them to. Notice, incidentally, that last weeks terror attacks have already been pushed off the front pages, and are barely registering anymore.

    Further, theres the case, which we outlined above, that the Biden administration actually did pretty well here. When the Soviets left Afghanistan, they took more time to do it (about 9 months), but it was still chaotic and violent. Further, the Russkies demonstrated something that should be obvious, namely that a retreating army cannot also prop up an unstable government. Its one or the other, but not both. And the Soviet leader in 1988 (Mikhail Gorbachev) was not hamstrung by his predecessor. The point is that Biden got dealt a nearly unplayable hand, and he seems to have played it pretty well. Or, at least, as well as it could have been played.

    And finally, and perhaps most importantly, theres the historical precedent. Or, more accurately, the lack of one. Who, exactly, is the president who saw his administration wrecked by an ugly military withdrawal? This is hardly the first time the U.S. has disengaged in a fashion that was not pretty. The end of the Philippine War (in fact, the whole war) was ugly, but that didnt hurt the Theodore Roosevelt administration. The United States departure from Mexico in the 1910s was really messy, but it didnt hurt Woodrow Wilson. The Korean War—which technically never ended, by the way, since it never got past the armistice stage, and so is at 3.2 Afghanistan Wars and counting—hardly ended with a triumph, and yet Dwight D. Eisenhower was reelected in a landslide. The Vietnam War is the archetype for bad endings, and while Gerald Ford was not reelected, Saigon was not in the top 10 of issues that hurt him the most. Voters were mostly relieved that it was over after a 21-year commitment (also longer than Afghanistan, incidentally), and those who were angry tended to point the finger at the presidents who came before Ford. For a more thorough argument on this point, see the piece that Seth Masket wrote for Politico on the subject.

  3. Whither Americas Reputation?: There are also many pundits, with CNNs Collinson again a notable example, decreeing that the United States reputation is in tatters now, and that the world will never trust America again. Or if you really want an exercise in histrionics, see this piece by Grady Means, whose claim to expertise is that he worked as a policy adviser to Nelson Rockefeller in the White House. Last we checked, Rockefeller was just the VP (and thus hardly the decision-maker on foreign policy), and he also left office 44 years ago. In any case, Means believes that by weakening America and enabling China, Joe Biden has made a nuclear war all-but-inevitable. Ok, then.

    If a person wants to argue that the United States international reputation has been in decline for [X] years, and Afghanistan is just the latest blow, we would be willing to entertain that argument. We wouldnt necessarily buy it, since its more probable that Americas reputation ebbs and flows, but we would at least entertain that argument. On the other hand, it is laughable to us to suggest that the last couple weeks events were some sort of profound turning point for the U.S. in the eyes of the world. Again: Drama, anyone?

    In fact, it is possible that the leaders and citizens of other nations will observe that the U.S. stuck with Afghanistan for 20 years and untold billions of dollars, and then did everything it could to save as many of its friends and allies as possible when the end came, and will conclude that the U.S. actually sticks to its commitments pretty well. Further, the U.S. remains the worlds greatest military power, its wealthiest nation, its largest provider of foreign aid, and its largest exporter of popular culture (which has rather significant propaganda benefits, whether by design or not). Our guess, and we dont really feel were going out on a limb here, is that Americas reputation will be just fine.

  4. Whither War?: This is probably the most profound, and most difficult to answer question, at least right now. The United States has not formally declared war against a nation since the 1940s, primarily because Congress doesnt want to be left holding the bag for an unpopular war. Thereafter, large-scale declared wars with millions of U.S. soldiers were supplanted by medium-scale authorized-use-of-force wars with hundreds of thousands of soldiers, like Korea and Vietnam. This put the onus almost completely on the president. Thereafter, the authorized-uses-of-force have remained, but the deployments have gotten smaller. Roughly half as many personnel served in Iraq and Afghanistan combined as served in Vietnam alone.

    Anyhow, Congress has passed the buck about as much as they can, and yet members who have been around for 20 years are still getting slammed for their pro-Afghanistan (and particularly pro-Iraq) votes. Meanwhile, presidents dont particularly like lots of public attention being paid to things that might get their presidential hands dirty, nor do they particularly like congressional oversight. To us, it all points to a future of barely acknowledged quasi-wars, waged as much as possible with technology like drones, and under the authority already granted the president by the War Powers Resolution. Actually, that resolution doesnt really grant presidents the authority to wage wars all by themselves, but they have seized that authority nonetheless, and Congress never says boo.

Anyhow, thats how we have it roughly 12 hours after the Afghanistan War ended. Time will tell if we have the right of it, or if well be proven as wrong as Neville Chamberlain was when he claimed in 1938 that he had secured peace in our time thanks to his negotiations with Adolf Hitler. (Z)

Under the Roe-dar

Speaking of distractions, Afghanistan has captured a lot of attention, as have the hurricane and the latest pandemic developments. Even for those whose gaze is trained on Texas, attention is being paid to voting laws and mask mandates. That means that very few folks have noticed that the gutting of Roe v. Wade, courtesy of the Lone Star State, could be just 24 hours away.

When Mitch McConnell cooked the books to create a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, many red states responded by passing garden-variety abortion bans, with the idea that they would trigger lawsuits and, in turn, give SCOTUS an opportunity to reinvent U.S. abortion law. Texas decided to try a different approach. Their S.B. 8, passed into law by the Republican-dominated legislature, and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), criminalizes abortion six weeks after conception (i.e., long before most women know they are pregnant). It further defines anyone who does anything to encourage the abortion to be an abettor. So, if a person drives a woman to an abortion clinic outside of Texas, or counsels a woman to get an abortion, or hold her hand while the procedure is underway, they are an abettor. And in the coup de grace, enforcement of the law is left to private citizens, who are empowered to file suit against abettors. The abettors would be subject to as much as $10,000 in fines, and if they are also an abortion provider, would immediately be shut down by the Texas court system.

The whole purpose of these gymnastics is to create a situation where there is nobody to sue preemptively. Since abortion bans are normally enforced by state officials, they can be enjoined from doing so. But when all 29 million Texans (and, in fact, all people outside Texas, too) are potential enforcers, theres nobody to target until someone actually files and wins a $10,000 lawsuit.

There is a legal case percolating in the federal system, but various judges (Republican appointees, all) have declined to fast-track it. Those same judges have refused to issue an injunction. And so, the ball is now in the Supremes court. If they dont stay the law today, then it will take effect tomorrow. And then it will quickly become difficult-to-impossible to get an abortion in Texas, a state of affairs that will last until the lawsuit is resolved, and that may be permanent.

So, what will SCOTUS do? Everyone knows they want to restrict abortion, and this would allow them to do so without getting their robes dirty. Undoubtedly, if they chose to look the other way, many red states would quickly pass laws based on the Texas law. On the other hand, do the justices want to yield their authority over this very significant issue to...a state legislature? Further, will they be concerned about some of the cans of worms this would open? What if a blue state passed a law that said that any citizen can sue a gun owner for $10,000 unless that gun owner can prove they are a member of a well-regulated militia?

It is also remarkable that Abbott & Co. are apparently not only unconcerned about such cans of worms, but also about other likely effects of this law. Do they really want the optics of someone who tried to counsel an impoverished, scared 15-year-old being sued and raked over the coals in state court? Do they want the courts inundated with lawsuits from both pro-life fanatics and people looking for a quick buck? Do they want to encourage the emergence of a whole new class of ambulance chasers, looking anywhere and everywhere for abettors to sue?

We will find out the answers to at least some of these questions sometime today. (Z)

750,000 Households Could End Up Losing Their Homes

Last week, the Supreme Court struck down eviction moratorium v2.0, which means that many Americans who are now in arrears on their rent/mortgage are at the mercy of their landowner/mortgage holder. Yesterday, Goldman Sachs put a number on the problem, estimating that between 2.5 million and 3.5 million American households are behind on rent, and that 750,000 households could be forced out of their homes by the end of the year. That tracks pretty closely with estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau last week.

Inasmuch as Joe Biden has taken his best shot, and was smacked down by the Supreme Court, there would appear to be just three ways forward left:

  1. Congressional Action: This is what Goldman Sachs is calling for. But what are the odds of getting something through the Senate?
  2. Unclog the Pipes: The various COVID-19 relief bills set aside $45 billion to help renters and mortgage holders. Just $4.5 billion of that has been distributed to those in need. Another $20 billion has been given over to state governments, but is stuck there. And $20 billion is still in the hands of the Treasury Department.

    This appears to be primarily a red-state issue; governments are either unable or unwilling to distribute the funds theyve been given. These are often the very same governments that would not accept Obamacare funds because they were...Obamacare funds. If owning the libs and rejecting welfare is more important to the leaders of these states than the welfare of their citizens then...thats a tough nut to crack. In any event, whether that is the dynamic or not, it would seem that the time has come for Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen to step up and, well, do some yellin.

  3. None of the Above: If nobody steps up and does something, then the cards will fall where they may, and many Americans will end up homeless—with the school year just underway, and winter approaching.

It is hard to imagine that the politicians, on either side of the aisle, will allow this to happen. Both out of fear of blowback, and also out of whatever humanity they might have within them. On the other hand, the power of positive incompetence and of the desire to own the libs are very strong, so we just dont know. (Z)

A Fine Time for Feinstein to Resign?

The headline of this piece by Jeremy Stahl wonders Why Arent Democrats Talking About the Worst Possible Outcome of the California Recall? He is speaking, of course, of a situation in which Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) is recalled, then Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) dies or is compelled to resign, thus handing her seat to an appointee of (presumably) Larry Elder, and turning control of the Senate over to the Republicans.

Stahls Twitter bio says he lives in Los Angeles, so were not sure why he says that Democrats are not talking about this issue. Maybe he wears his AirPods too much. In any event, the truth is that many people are talking about this, to the point that weve written about it several times. But talk doesnt matter much, all that matters is what Feinstein thinks. And she thinks that the recall has nothing to do with her, and that she wants to keep her seat. So, she has no intention of resigning.

People may not like it, but shes earned the right to depart office on her terms, by virtue of having won a 6-year term. And we actually have a different question we are wondering about: Why isnt the California legislature working to change the rules for senatorial replacements? They could adopt a model where the governor can choose only from a list compiled by the departed senators party (like, say, in North Carolina). Or they could just speed up the timeline for the special election (like, say, in Massachusetts).

Theres an argument that the legislature cant change the rules without going through the ballot initiative process, but its not a great argument. Further, if they just do it, then it will take time to work out any lawsuits. By then, the clock will have run, and the normally scheduled special election would be upon us.

The legislature likely wont move right now, for fear of signaling that Newsom might lose. But after he is recalled, if he indeed is? It wouldnt be surprising for them to take action. (Z) actually sent a message to the state Representative and state Senator who represent him; we will report back if and when they reply. In the interim, Feinsteins status, not to mention the possibility of Governor Larry Elder, will serve to keep many Democratic voters in line behind Newsom, for fear that voting to recall him and replace him with some other Democrat could turn disastrous. It could also motivate some Democrats to actually fill out their ballots and drop them in the mail, rather than the trash. That is what the Governor really needs. (Z)

Cawthorn Worried about Bloodshed

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) spoke at yet another conservative complaint-a-ganza this weekend. And he crossed a line, even by his standards. Although he said in January that Joe Biden won the election fairly, he has revised his thinking after seeing how the political winds were blowing, and is now an outspoken stop the steal-er. During his speech on Sunday, he got into quite a...groove, we guess, and declared: And I will tell you, as much as I am willing to defend our liberty at all costs, theres nothing that I would dread doing more than having to pick up arms against a fellow American. And the way that we can have recourse against that is if we all passionately demand that we have election security in all 50 states.

Afterward, a Cawthorn spokesperson explained that the Representative wasnt arguing for violence, he was explaining how much he hopes to avoid violence. Sure, right. What Cawthorn quite clearly argued, and what the crowd quite clearly understood, was that if another election is stolen, then violence is an appropriate response. And since our guy lost is regarded as prima facie evidence of a stolen election, it means that if our guy loses, then we need to get violent.

Cawthorn is one of a cadre of absolutely reprehensible House members who are willing to say whatever it takes to get the base fired up, regardless of how harmful it is to people or to the American democracy as a whole. These folks—and everyone knows who they are—have been enabled by a fawning media, colleagues that do not hold them accountable, and a president/former president who leads the way in saying such things.

What this is, then, is yet another object lesson in why the 1/6 commission has to do its job, do it well, and hit back hard against these fascist-adjacent (or is it just fascist?) folks. Its one thing to disagree with your opposition; thats what democracy is built upon. Its another thing entirely to be willing (or, at least, to say youre willing) to tear the whole thing down if you dont get what you want.

Meanwhile, most of the real nutters are in districts so safe that even Roy Moore could be elected in them. By contrast, Cawthorns district, NC-14, is currently R+9. That puts him in a strong position, yes, but it does not make him invulnerable. And what if the new North Carolina maps, whenever they are completed (dont hold your breath) shave a few points off of that? Could be that Cawthorn gets just a little too hot for the good people of NC-14 to handle. (Z)

FEAR in America, Part I: The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

When (Z) was an undergrad, one of his professors pointed out that when the Charles Manson case was tried, there were over 400 pieces of evidence suggesting that he was innocent of all charges. However, there were also 1,700 pieces of evidence pointing to his guilt. And so, he was sent to the crowbar hotel, where he spent the rest of his days. The obvious lesson here is that the evidence for something is never, ever 100% in one direction, even if its the correct direction.

Robert F. Kennedys assassination has been in the news recently, in view of his assassin Sirhan Sirhan being tentatively approved for parole (something Gavin Newsom would have to approve in order for him to actually be released). A few readers wrote in and suggested it would be helpful to talk about the RFK assassination theories, since RFK Jr. is a believer, and thus supports Sirhans release. We think theres some utility in that, and so away we go.

To start with, there are two rather difficult facts that the conspiracy theorists have to overcome. The first is that Sirhan was present at the death of RFK, with a gun he fired eight times. In other words, he is clearly guilty of something. Second, he was put on trial, and during that trial admitted to the shooting. Not too easy to conspiratorially theorize your way around these two things.

Nonetheless, the conspiracists are nothing, if not creative. The theories about RFK are actually very similar to those about his brothers death. That is to say, they posit that there was a second shooter, and their evidence for this is almost entirely based on guns and gunshots. In RFKs case, there are basically three key proofs that Sirhan did not act alone:

  1. He was behind RFK, but the fatal shot appears to have come from the front.
  2. His gun held eight bullets, but at least nine bullets/bullet holes were found.
  3. The best recording of the incident includes the sound of 13 shots, not 8.

Youll note that we have FEAR capitalized in the headline. That is because it is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. And all three of these are good examples of that particular phenomenon. To wit:

  1. Alleged inconsistencies in the wounds are pretty easily explained; Kennedy was walking through the room, shaking hands, and often had his head turned.
  2. Between the bullets extracted from Kennedy and from other folks who were hit, as well as bullets/bullet holes found in the walls/ceiling of the room, there were a total of nine bullet hits. As you may have heard, bullets sometimes ricochet, and that is what happened here, according to LAPD ballistics experts.
  3. The recording is, in some ways, the most compelling evidence for a conspiracy. Certainly it is the linchpin for RFK Jr., who has declared You cant fire 13 shots out of an eight-shot gun. What happened was that Polish journalist Stanislaw Pruszynski was recording the speech that proved to be RFKs last, and had not yet shut down his equipment when the fatal shooting took place. Pruszynskis tape came to light, and gave the conspiracy theory a real boost, 36 years after the assassination.

    At this point, perhaps you are noticing that something doesnt quite add up. If Pruszynski had the only existing recording of the gunshots, and in a case of intense international interest, why didnt he turn it over to investigators immediately? Or, failing that, sell it to the highest media bidder? That would be like Abraham Zapruder tossing his recording of the JFK assassination into a dresser drawer until the end of Bill Clintons term. And the answer is that you cant actually hear any gunshots on the recording. They have been recovered, using computers, by an audio engineer named Philip Van Praag. By looking at the shape of the audio waves, and doing some testing with recordings of various guns, hes concluded that there were two guns, firing a total of 13 shots, and that, further, two of the shots were too close together to have been from the same gun. A few other audio experts have supported Van Praags conclusions, but most have dismissed him, quite correctly pointing out that he failed to account for the fact that inside a closed space...sound bounces around.

    If you would like to hear the tape, and Van Praag talking about it, you can watch the brief video here.

Anyhow, this is how it works with conspiracy theories. You start with the things that do not add up perfectly (because again, nothing ever adds up perfectly). Then you add in stuff that seems scientific and rigorous, and appears to come from experts. If you can wait 20-40 years, until all the actual witnesses are dead or are left with distant memories, all the better.

The RFK conspiracy theorists also have to stand on their heads to deal with some of the problems in their understanding of what happened. There is, for example, the small issue that Sirhan confessed to the crime. The explanation there is that he was coerced, so as to avoid the death penalty. Another problem is that theres no great explanation for how a second person could have pulled a gun, fired it five times, put it away, and got away without being noticed by anyone on the scene. There are a few answers to that problem (like, for example, it was one of RFKs bodyguards), but they tend to be rather far removed from reality. And thats before we get into the folks who think that Sirhan definitely did it, but hes innocent because he was a Manchurian-candidate type, programmed by the USSR/CIA/Johnson White House/Mafia/Cubans/Canadians to kill Kennedy.

The ultimate point is this: The RFK conspiracy theory, like most conspiracy theories that achieve wide circulation, is an excellent example of the selective (and somewhat dishonest) use of evidence. Tomorrow, we will discuss a second example, one that is from the present day, but isnt a conspiracy. At least, its not a conspiracy...yet. (Z)


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