The Road Out of Kabul

Our weekly Discontents, 8/16/2021

The fall of Kabul is an inauspicious time not to be able to find my copies of Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Bernard Fall’s Hell in A Very Small Place. So this is going to be more scattered than I would have liked. Perhaps that’s thematically appropriate. 

Friday’s edition of Forever Wars – hello, Discontents readers – concerned how to conceptualize American responsibility for the collapse of its 20-year war. (TL; DR: massively expand refugee admissions; no more war; the war is what brought us to this point; pay Afghans reparations.) The U.S.-backed Afghan government has now fully collapsed. Now-former president Ashraf Ghani has fled the country; the Taliban’s Mullah Baradar, whom the U.S. has negotiated with for years, appears to be in charge. The U.S. might still bomb Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the future, but the U.S. lost the war long ago. What has changed is that the Taliban has fully triumphed.

President Biden is streaming troops into Kabul – thousands more than he inherited in Afghanistan –to secure an “orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel.” Biden nodded at saving the Afghans “who helped our troops… and those at special risk from the Taliban advance.” But what’s really at work here is a political attempt by the Biden administration to avoid a combination of Saigon 1975 and Benghazi 2012. Instead, we’re seeing images of desperate Afghans trying to hold on to C-17s as they lift off the tarmac – images that remind me, frankly, of New Yorkers jumping to their fate from the doomed Towers.

The evacuation that may last for days, quite possibly through August 31. Everything is fluid right now. From some reporting I’ve been doing as events unfold, the administration is drafting, ripping up and redrafting plans on the fly as reality overtake. There is talk of getting thousands of people out of Kabul each day. But as best I can tell, the priority for the U.S. remains the evacuation of Americans, and then people who worked for the coalition. If you are Afghan and did not serve the foreigners, you have to cling to a C-17 as faith takes hold in the face of otherwise certain death.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul is no more. The airport, obviously, must be held for any evacuation. That entails holding the road to the airport, something filled with an absolute crush of people according to every report I’ve seen. Again, it’s been a very long time since I was in Kabul – 2008, and then 2010 – but what I remember, particularly in 2010 as Surge refugees swelled the population of Kabul, was the congestion of Airport Road, from the bucolic streets closest to the airport outward to the clogged roundabouts. 

So now consider that there will be vastly more people on the road than I have encountered, all descending upon the airport attempting to flee the Taliban. Holding that road, an absolute prerequisite to evacuating U.S. and allied personnel from Kabul, may come under pressure from the Taliban, though as of Monday morning that hasn’t happened yet. Thus far, it has come under pressure from people determined to save themselves and their loved ones. Americans might end up manning one final series of de facto checkpoints in Afghanistan under the most stressful conditions of the entire war.

A friend of mine who spent many years in Afghanistan doing aid work got in touch with me as I was writing this. Characteristically, they found the words I was groping for. “I’m worried we’re either going to get drawn into the battle for Kabul,” they said on Saturday, “or we’re going to end up firing on crowds of desperate civilians as we try to hold fucking Airport Road.” Already, Matt Aikins, one of the best foreign correspondents in Afghanistan, shot video at the airport that shows “thousands arriving after false rumors that flights were taking everyone who arrived to Canada.” He reports that “already several [people were] killed inside and outside.” Unclear who killed them thus far.

Making matters worse, the airport runways are vulnerable from nearby hills – hills that feature, I’m reliably told, high-rise apartment blocks. “Perfect for firing on planes trying to take off or land,” my friend continued. They fear that Saigon isn’t the right comparison; Srebrenica might be.

Hopefully the 6,000 U.S. troops streaming to the airport don’t fire on people, though the New York Times reports this afternoon that they’ve shot two people dead at the airport. But the U.S. is taking over air-traffic control, according to a State/Defense statement last night. That means the U.S. controls not just who gets out, but what aircraft arrive and depart, and for all the talk about the horrors the Afghans are experiencing, it is prioritizing Americans and those who served them. We are hoarding for ourselves the way out of Kabul at the expense of the Afghan people – a final, awful microcosm of a generational disaster.

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Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

A gold ducat, one of the standard currencies of the 1500s, weighs about 3.94 grams. In 2021 dollars, that much gold is worth about $223. Since an F-35A stealth fighter costs roughly $78 million, then an F-35A costs 349,775 ducats, or roughly 66 times the cost of Columbus' first expedition. It's also annual wages circa 1520 for 11,946 pikemen or 9,570 arquebusiers. Comparing the cost of 21st century jets to 1500s army divisions is a mostly absurd exercise, though I think there’s real merit to comparing the wages of soldiers with other capital outlays of states and proto-states.

My most recent newsletter is a long review of fellow Discontents’ writer Patrick Wyman’s The Verge. What stuck with me about that history, as Wyman tells it and as it relates to my beat, is that the sheer financial demands of fielding professional coin-paid armies imposed tremendous strain on the treasuries of nations. The inability to pay, as central to 1527 as it is to 2021, becomes a fulcrum around which history turns. 

In my review, I spent a long time comparing the history as told to the history as modeled in games. One of the most persistent flaws of learning the shape of the world from a video game is that games, even ones with built-in espionage and fog-of-war mechanics, present information and state capacity as far more straightforward than can exist in reality. A durable condition of history, that leaders know less about their realms in aggregate than people living below know in specific, is hard to model. We get myths and assumptions of unitary states. Mistaking the model for the reality, or the map for the terrain, is what leads to a moment of surprise, a crashing wave of known but neglected truths rushing forth once the edifice of denial collapses.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

This week I followed up with a big development in a story about alleged sexual abuse going on in Massachusetts sober homes run by one alleged big fucking piece of shit which I had alluded to previously. If you missed the initial discussion about the addiction crisis in Boston with someone who runs a recovery focused group here you can find it here.

You ever go to the pharmacy and wonder what the pharmacist’s fucking deal is? In the same issue I interviewed one to find out. “People are regularly stunned by the cost of their medication,” he told me. “They're expecting $10,15,20, but the retail price is $250. They can’t fathom it. And they shouldn’t have to because it’s outrageous.”

“It’s criminal. As Douglas Adams wrote: First against the wall when the revolution comes. Insurance makes sense, but what we’ve turned it into is you pay your premium, or your company does, or you both do, and the insurance company still won’t pay for treatment. They make it a game of if we just keep rejecting it and demand more and more proof that you really need [the treatment], then you’re just going to give up. And we get to keep your premiums.”

That one is pay-walled but here’s 20% off to subscribe. ($4.80 a month)

All the discussion this week about Afghanistan and our general role as purveyors of war and destruction around the globe and specifically the way the media talks about it reminded me of what I called The Rube Goldberg machine of pain.

You can remain in good standing in media or politics while advocating for as much violence and pain as you want as long as you do so politely and aren't saying you'll directly deliver it personally. Writing a story called “Invade Iraq now!” — or Iran or wherever for that matter — will never get you fired but saying “I'm going to come kick your ass” to one specific person will. Saying “We need to reopen the economy” during a pandemic despite the massive loss of life that would result is fine while telling someone “I hope your parents die” is not.

In other words hoping for one death is an abomination while passively accepting or enabling the deaths of 100,000 is just astute politics to paraphrase the fella.

The whole thing is a stupid game like when kids annoy their siblings by saying “I'm not touching you” while poking them with a stick. The idea is that as long as there's a buffer between you and the violence you are calling for through systemic means then your soul and professional reputation can remain clean.

Sick Note

Libby Watson

This week I spoke to Barbara, a trans woman living in a large Southern city, about the painful and expensive transition process. She’s had to deal with poor insurance coverage, paltry paid time off, and very big needles burning the hair out of her genitals for an absurd amount of money. I also wrote a short thing about the dangers of relying too much on algorithms in healthcare, and how the companies that produce them pretend they’re vital—right up until the point that those algorithms screw up, at which point it’s always been on the doctor to ignore them, actually.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

Hearkening back to the departed Donald Rumsfeld, Foreign Exchanges columnist Daniel Bessner discussed some of the “unknown unknowns” of American Empire:

Today, very few people believe the United States can make, or remake, the world in its image. This is perhaps the biggest ideological consequence of the manifold failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere. The Progressive dream that has guided US foreign policy for a century—the idea that power and will can overcome history, tradition, and local politics—is now recognized by many within and outside the foreign policy establishment to be a chimera. As the Joe Biden administration commits itself to a strategy of hegemonic stabilization, it’s unlikely that we’ll witness any dramatic foreign interventions that aim to overthrow regimes and replace them with US-led “democracies.” There are just too many unknown unknowns to make this a viable approach to foreign policy.

But if Americans no longer consider their country the “indispensable nation”—capable, as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright affirmed in a 1998 interview, of “see[ing] further than other countries into the future”—what do we believe?

For those of us on the left, the answer is clear: we believe the United States should not govern the world and shouldn’t try; that spending an enormous amount on “defense” funnels money away from crucial social welfare programs; and that in the overwhelming majority of cases it is impossible—and immoral—for one nation to force another nation to adopt its own preferences. Again, there are too many unknown unknowns.

Last week I also welcomed Andrew Fishman of The Intercept to the FX podcast to discuss what could be the final year of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, unless of course he follows through on his repeated coup threats. And I offered my own early thoughts about the weekend’s remarkable events in Afghanistan.

The Flashpoint

Eoin Higgins

Last week at The Flashpoint I talked to people in the restaurant industry about how catching Covid affected them and their fears of what's coming next from the delta variant. 

"We were just so used to working when we were sick, even bad off, that nobody really did anything," one line cook, Dawn, told me. "That's just how kitchens work."

It's all adding up to another moment of anxiety and stress for workers in American restaurants as they face a future either where they'll be exposed daily to a potentially fatal disease or will face loss of income. It's a no-win situation for workers in one of America's most grinding professions. 

A DACA recipient originally from El Salvador—he came here when he was six—Dan told me that he's already had to deal with the up and down of Covid-disrupted work. Dan returned to his job in the summer of 2020, but when the second wave hit in early 2021, he went on unemployment for six weeks. 

"I was technically getting shifts but making like $200 a week because it was so slow, and then I remember on top of that the restaurant was about two to four Covid cases from having to close at any given moment because we would be so short staffed," said Dan. 

You can read the piece on line cooks here and on future concerns here

This week, a piece looking at Afghanistan from the perspective of disillusioned veterans and more. Sign up at the link to stay in touch. 

Discourse Blog

Hi all. The big news last week, at least in Discourse Blog’s small corner of the media, was the New York Times’s ongoing war with its unionizing employees on the tech team. Things got so bad that over 300 employees walked off the job on Wednesday. That action was predicated by the stalling, obscuring, and gaslighting tactics of management, who are clearly determined to weaken the unit by any means necessary.  

The other big news, of course, was Andrew Cuomo’s resignation. Jack eulogized the soon-to-be-former New York governor the best way possible: by noting he was an abject disgrace and we’re better off without him. Sam also covered another corner of the Democratic party: their wholesale flight back into the arms of the police. Rafi, meanwhile, investigated just how dumb Madison Cawthorn actually is (pretty dumb!)

And, as always, we have a couple palate cleansers: Caitlin ranked every single state flag, and Jack put up one of the best Birds of the Week we’ve had thus far.


Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz

We often talk about the idea of a sort of hemispheric border, an externalization of the U.S. southern border to exist in some form far from the legal dividing line. Both the Trump and Biden administrations busied themselves with building out this infrastructure, coordinating with police, border, and military personnel in Mexico and Central America to prevent migrants from ever leaving or reaching the U.S. border in the first place. In combination with restrictive border policies like the Title 42 order—which has been used since last year to summarily expel migrants before they can even make an asylum claim, under the guise of public health—it keeps the U.S. government from being forced to even deal with the question of asylum claimants.

Now, these policies have blended together as groups of migrants expelled on flights to southern Mexico are being subsequently illegally expelled to a small town in Guatemala, in a process that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has decried as unlawful “chain refoulement,” a chain violation of international refugee law. U.S. officials were ostensibly told that the expelled asylum seekers would be allowed to seek humanitarian protections in Mexico, though if they have a problem with the sequence of events they certainly haven’t acted on it, and are planning on sending thousands of additional migrants to southern Mexico.

As we discuss in last week’s BORDER/LINES, the Guatemalan town where they’re ending up is hundreds of miles from both El Salvador and Honduras, has one small refugee shelter with a capacity of 30, and no obvious transport out. In all likelihood, it will become yet another refugee camp for those who tried to seek protections in the U.S., this time far away enough from the prying eyes of migrant advocates and U.S. journalists to be functionally invisible, which is the administration’s goal.

Kim Kelly

This past week, a story I've been working on since April finally went live. I filed it in early May, expecting to see it published a few weeks later, but instead found myself caught up in an intensive fact-checking and legal review process that caught me off-guard and delayed publishing for months. My editor was puzzled about it, too; her parent company is currently in the midst of a union contract campaign, though, and I've experienced similar weirdly intense legal processes at other big media companies who were either mid-union drive or locked in a more contentious part of the process, so I guess it's not altogether surprising that said company would be extra prickly about picking apart a labor story. It was extremely frustrating, but my editor went above and beyond to make sure we made it happen, and I have nothing but love for her (and awe at her patience!).

The end result is a deep-ish dive into the women of the Warrior Met Coal Strike, which has now entered its fifth month with no end in sight. Coal miners' wives have a long history of struggle in the coalfields, and it was a real pleasure to get to dig into some of that history. Read more about all that here.