Journalists Getting Suckered by Ass-Covering Sources on Afghanistan

Rather than explaining why the government didn’t know that Ashraf Ghani was going to flee the country, allegedly with bags of cash, national security sources are busy suckering journalists to report that they warned of the quick demise of the Afghan military.

A positively egregious example is this piece from WSJ’s Vivian Salama. What it reports is that 23 people in the State Department concerned about the rapid collapse of the Afghan government warned that the collapse would happen after August 31 — that is, still eleven days in the future from today. It also reports that the Biden Administration was already hastening efforts to get allies out of Afghanistan the day after those 23 people warned Tony Blinken (meaning, State was already aware of and working on the urgency).

The cable was sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director of Policy Planning Salman Ahmed. Mr. Blinken received the cable and reviewed it shortly after receipt, according to the person familiar with the exchange, who added that contingency planning was already under way when it was received, and that Mr. Blinken welcomed their feedback.


The signatories of the dissent channel cable urged the State Department to begin registering and collecting personal data in advance for all Afghans who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas, aimed at those who worked as translators or interpreters; locally employed embassy staff; and for those eligible for other U.S. refugee programs while there was still six weeks left before the withdrawal deadline.

It also urged the administration to begin evacuation flights no later than Aug. 1, the people said.

On July 14, a day after the cable was sent, the White House announced Operation Allies Refuge to support the relocation of interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their immediate families who supported the U.S. government for the special immigrant visas. Evacuations didn’t kick into high gear until last week and have been complicated by the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Sunday.

Several other actions that have since been taken by the administration were consistent with some of the requests and recommendations in the cable, the person familiar with the cable exchange said. [my emphasis]

In other words, the story should be about how top Biden officials were already ahead of where the 23 people who signed this dissent cable were, and where they weren’t, they integrated the recommendations of the cable.

The story should be about how the process worked. The story should be about how, even these 23 people who were really alarmed about the fragile state of the Afghan government were still too optimistic about how long it could survive.

The story probably should also be about how, after Biden made comments on July 8 (which the article quotes) that were far too rosy about the state of the Afghan government, someone got him to stop.

That’s not what the story is about though. The paragraph describing how contingency planning was already underway is the seventh paragraph in the story; the paragraphs describing how the White House had already prepared an attempt to accelerate SIV evacuations appear at paragraphs 16 to 19.

In paragraph two, meanwhile, the story uses the word “imminent” to suggest days when it really means weeks.

The classified cable represents the clearest evidence yet that the administration had been warned by its own officials on the ground that the Taliban’s advance was imminent and Afghanistan’s military may be unable to stop it.

And the headline doesn’t note that the cable’s warning was, like all other warnings, too optimistic about the state of the Afghan government.

Internal State Department Cable Warned of Kabul Collapse

I get that such stories — suggesting that Biden ignored warnings and so owns this collapse — will drive a lot of traffic. Biden does own this collapse, along with Trump, Obama, and (especially) George Bush. But he owns it because of stupid decisions made 18 months and 18 years ago, not the efforts he made in July to mitigate the aftermath of those earlier decisions.

A far more urgent, and honest, story is the explanation for why, thus far, zero anonymous sources have claimed to have an explanation why no one knew that Ghani was going to flee. Another urgent story is to understand what forces helped the Taliban succeed so wildly, and how such efforts were able to so thoroughly evade our intelligence collection. Another interesting story is why Afghan veteran Christopher Miller, who was promoted way outside of his expertise level and was surrounded by flunkies fiercely loyal to the President, is making shit up about what was the real plan he was hired to implement.

Every story claiming prescience published thus far has in fact revealed that the people claiming prescience didn’t know this would happen either. It’s time to stop pretending they did and starting figuring out why they didn’t.

61 replies
  1. Tarkeel says:

    There was an opinion piece in one of the major Norwegian newspapers two days ago relating to this. Written by two lawyers whom have personal experience representing Afghan asylum seekers, most of whom have been painting what’s probably been a pretty accurate picture of the situation in Afghanistan. However, because their information didn’t fit with “accepted knowledge” they were deemd to be lying, and because they were all telling different variations of the same story, their lies were magnified premeditated coordination and thus an even greater sin.

    Google translate does a rather good job of conveying the contents of the article:

    The Taliban’s rapid takeover is said to be very surprising. Really? In our opinion, it is only “surprising” because the information on which the Western authorities have relied has been incomplete.

  2. Terri Richmond says:

    Much appreciated. Corollary would be the sudden focus on the media on a 20 year war. Korea was known as the “forgotten” war. Media has paid little attention to Afghan conflict….also true of most Americans. As one person said to me “what war?”

  3. DLup says:

    And almost not a word anywhere about Pakistan’s role with the Taliban and interests in the region.

    • emptywheel says:

      They’re one of the obvious forces that were helping the Taliban, sure. But if they were the key players here, it means we’ve got some huge intelligence gaps covering Pakistani intelligence, which would be concerning.

      It’s also highly likely that Russia was involved. I’m even more concerned about the gaps in intelligence we have on them bc those gaps have been 10 years in the deliberate making.

      • Rugger9 says:

        Considering how much relations have warmed between India and the USA under DJT, I think the Pakistanis were loath to share intelligence about the Taliban.

        Back in my time in Government service, India was supported by the USSR, and Pakistan was our ally but that dynamic changed with 9/11 as well as the fact that many of the Taliban are Pakistani Pashtuns in origin. For example, the presence of OBL in Pakistan was known, but the ISI kept OBL safe until Obama was able to figure out OBL’s hiding place and gave him a burial at sea (from the Vinson, my old ship). The point is that once the USSR collapsed, India successfully reached out to the USA and Pakistan felt betrayed in the exchange. After that we were not going to get anything particularly useful from ISI.

      • nadezhda says:

        I take your point about being blind to Russia – the GRU unit’s appearance was an unwelcome surprise. But I really think ISI’s fingerprints are going to be found all over this. At some point they’re going to want some help, if only to get financial resources flowing again. I don’t know what price we should demand, but certainly something higher than they paid for sheltering UBL

        • bmaz says:

          Heh, yes, and welcome to the EW comments, and please join in more often. It is a good place, or at least we try very hard to keep it that way.

    • Doug R says:

      I guess it speaks to the know-nothing nature of America journalmilism that even stories of places we’ve invaded ignore the colonization nature of the Taliban, invented by the Pakistanis.

      • timbo says:

        Maybe they ignore looking into this because before the Taliban, there were the Islamic fundamentalist schools and Muhajaeen training camps that the CIA helped organize and bankroll during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan throughout the 1980s…

    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      Sarah Chayes is trying to make the Pakistan connection clear, on TV and in her blog. She actually knows whereof she speaks, meaning she doesn’t pass sweeping judgments–but she is willing to engage in thrilling on-air slapdowns with former Obama officials still in short pants.

  4. Savage Librarian says:

    One area that seems to have garnered little attention is our significant dependence on mineral resources with respect to our reliance on technologies and transportation. AFAICT, there has been little, if any, correlation made between competing interests in mining minerals in Afghanistan and mining minerals on the moon and/or Mars.

    But as this OCCRP article (“How Afghanistan’s President Helped His Brother and a U.S. Contractor Secure a Lucrative Mineral Processing Permit” – Margaux Benn and Zack Kopplin 28 April 2021) noted, the Ghanis and some US entrepreneurs were very interested in mining.

    It is interesting to note, that article appeared almost exactly a year after Trump signed an executive order for mining on the moon. And, Trump was very interested in mining in both Afghanistan and on the moon. It wouldn’t surprise me if Trump had an obsession about mining that Miller and other Cabinet members were aware of. It may have seriously complicated issues in Afghanistan. And it also had an obvious impact on Ghani, and, I believe, his relationship with the UAE.

    “Why does President Trump want to mine on the Moon?” – Manish Pandey and Michael Baggs, 12 April 2020

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Amen. Thank you.

    Long past time for the corporate media to stop being so credulous when it comes to proliferating anti-Democratic propaganda – usually under the both-sides-guise – while giving the GOP a free ride. Time for it to start asking and answering the kinds of question you raise. And past time for the Democratic leadership to publicly act as if they know that bringing a water balloon to a knife fight is not likely to end well – for them or for anyone else.

    • Rugger9 says:

      One of the Salon writers (it might have been Marcotte) observed that the courtier press has a couple of overriding manias: access and a warped perception of objectivity. Note that truth is not in the picture here, so in order to maintain the access to the GQP sources, “objectivity” demanded that the Ds be bashed at every opportunity to counterbalance the reporting of GQP peccadillos.

      Reporting ought to mean telling the truth, but the modern editorial model clearly means stenography to provide the bothsides picture without making any comment about whether either side is telling the truth. That has to change first.

      Apparently because I originally registered as Republican when I turned 18 (this is the Tom Campbell GOP, not the modern GQP) I still get the surveys from the GQP including Newt Gingrich mailed to me and they’re still bitching about the press being liberally biased. Of course they also ask for money in business reply envelopes so I’m sending rocks as soon as I figure out how to not have them break through the envelope.

  6. Peterr says:

    The number of “unnamed officials” being cited is a huge red flag to me. It’s a real sign of a massive CYA effort — not coordinated, but rather the sense that a *lot* of people screwed up in a big way and they are all individually scrambling for cover.

    The dissent channel is an official process at State, that creates a mechanism for people to raise issues they think are being ignored or downplayed by the usual channels, so that folks don’t go to Congress or the media with their problems. All in all, it’s a good program and worked as designed in this case. What makes me curious is who shared this cable with the WSJ.

    This is one of those big stories where information about those making the claims is absolutely central to the story. If your unnamed former senior administration official has a name like Bolton or Addington, that’s kind of important when it comes to assessing what they have to say.

    Any reporter covering this story, especially if they are talking to senior sources, needs to be clear: “If you want your ass covered, you need to attach your name to your ass.”

    And don’t get me started on the passive voice: “Decisions were made . . . actions were taken . . . proposals were recommended . . .”

    • emptywheel says:

      I’ve seen some spooked up people claim that this is dissension within the Afghan embassy, suggesting that the Acting was not as concerned as the subordinates. That makes sense. But it also means things may have looked different in DC.

      • Peterr says:

        That makes a lot of sense. I suspect the dissenters would have also had at least a couple of voices in Foggy Bottom, who had been posted to Kabul earlier. “You gotta get DC to take this seriously” say the folks in Kabul, and DC friends reply “You put it up via the dissent channel, and we’ll add our names and also speak out once it hits the 7th Floor.”

  7. George E. Marcus says:

    Anyone who wants to understand how doomed this effort was from its outset (say starting two weeks after the battle of Tora Bora), could greatly benefit from reading Morgan, W. 2021. The hardest place : the American military adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley.

    • matt fischer says:

      For a comical take on misguided adventure in Afghanistan I recommend Eric Newby’s ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.’ The book is not about war but it’s a fitting reminder of the folly of our hubris.

  8. Theodora30 says:

    The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has been lambasting the media for its false narratives. This bit really caught my attention:
    “According to documents provided by the State Department, it sent increasingly ominous warnings (even with offers to pay for airfare out of the country) beginning on April 17 and following on May 15, May 17, June 8, June 28, July 15, July 20, Aug. 7 and Aug. 12. “

    That proves that the Biden administration was trying to get those people out months ago when it was safe but they chose not to. To our intrepid “liberal” media this is somehow the fault of the Biden administration.

    Judd Legum at popular. info reported that his sources have told him that major media outlets are refusing to book people who support the withdrawal. And then there is all the attention I have seen to that Morning Consult poll that showed a 20 point drop in support. Most of those reports failed to point out that nearly 50% share still in favor and there is a twelve point margin in favor of getting out of Afghanistan. These media people are the same ones who wring their hands about right wing Republicans misleading the American public.

    • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

      Every story claiming prescience published thus far has in fact revealed that the people claiming prescience didn’t know this would happen either. It’s time to stop pretending they did and starting figuring out why they didn’t.

      Reading MW call b.s. on the mostly awful reporting was a great way to end my week.
      Because I hold Judd in pretty high regard, his news about who *doesn’t get booked* suggests that we are not likely to make progress figuring out who didn’t know, and why they didn’t know. I suspect that frustration about these very questions is part of what is driving the development of new media outlets and podcasts.

      My conversations this week have echoed William Ockham’s comments below: how else did people think this would happen?

  9. OldTulsaDude says:

    Dante could have written about for-profit journalism instead of hell as the signs are the same: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter.

  10. Cathie Fornssler says:

    I expect just about everybody from the Trump administration will now be revealing they actually had A Secret Plan To Win Afghanistan – which, unfortunately, they didn’t tell anybody about until it was too late.

  11. J R in WV says:

    “A far more urgent, and honest, story is the explanation for why, thus far, zero anonymous sources have claimed to have an explanation why no one knew that Ghani was going to flee.”

    Because Ghani was smart enough to not tell anyone where his pile of $$$ was, where he was going to take it, when he planned to leave, who was leaving with him, etc, etc. People can’t spill details when all the details are in the mind of the one leader.

    I’m sure Ghani’s protective team was aware that things were going to happen, that they had to be ready to move quickly when they got the word. I’m also sure none of them knew when because Ghani didn’t know when. But they were obviously ready to move on a moments notice and did so effectively and instantly.

    I’m not trying to compliment Ghani, who is obviously as crooked as a goat’s hind leg, but he was an experienced warlord type of crook, with a small trusted group of fighters willing to go with him.

    I am also very tired of people trying to blame Biden for things that are the fault of G W Bush and D J Trump, who collectively spent 12 years trashing our military and the untamed territory of Afghanistan, while Biden had no actual transition because the former guy’s administration illegally refused to have any transition, and had 7 months to dig out the crooks Trump put in charge and replace them with honest and effective staff able to understand the criminal activity and undo the illegal stuff they were up to.

    Thanks to Larry O’Donnell and M T Wheeler for covering the truth about this failed attempt to do whatever it was supposed to be, and the actual successes of the Biden administration.

  12. Dr.C. says:

    Not really off topic but I’ve seen little discussion as to what will happen when COVID hits Afghanistan, especially the delta variant. As of yesterday, only 0.6% of the population were fully vaccinated and suspect most of those will be trying to leave. There are some reports of the Taliban forbidding COVID vaccination: It’s a further disaster in the making.

    • ducktree says:

      Well, traveling inside and across the borders of Afghanistan are very likely to be “locked down” by the Taliban (for their own purposes – not COVID-19) which the Republican’s will signal as another Biden failure.

    • Rugger9 says:

      Given the state of sanitation, ongoing wars, proximity to India and Pakistan, etc. it could be very bad indeed. However, I doubt we will hear much about it, and certainly we would have a hard time trying to do anything about it.

      After all, IIRC OBL’s location was found using a ruse about vaccinations (according to the local rumors), so I don’t think anyone in the area will be too keen about a vaccination drive for COVID-19.

  13. Savage Librarian says:

    Embedded in this article is the author’s dissertation. It seems reasonable that it is essential to understand the components of commitment and how they interact to reinforce or undermine outcomes. Although this pertains to the military, by way of analogy, it seems it could pertain as well to the events at the Capitol on 1/6/21.

    “Afghan troops sought safety in numbers – igniting a cascade of surrender” – Todd Lehmann, 8/20/21
    “In summary, the organizational solutions to commitment problems I consider—resolve, adaptation, and flexibility—directly influence military effectiveness, and along with other types of commitment solutions, provide a better framework for understanding military effectiveness than existing approaches. For both scholars and practitioners alike, this dissertation demonstrates that a careful study of military commitment problems can improve our evaluation of military effectiveness as well as our understanding of how states build and sustain effective military organizations.”

  14. WilliamOckham says:

    I really don’t understand why anyone expected anything other than what happened. A colonial power installs a puppet government and props it up with bribes and military power. When it turns off the graft spigot and pulls its military forces, what happens next? Every. Damn. Time.

    The puppet leadership isn’t stupid, they’re venal. They get out as fast at they can. The lower ranks give up. What we’re seeing is tragic AND it was inevitable. The longer we stayed in Afghanistan, the faster this process was going to happen when we did pull out.

  15. Molly Pitcher says:

    As I said previously, the SIV application process seemed designed to be overly complicated and nearly impossible to fulfill. Olivia Troye, who worked in the Trump administration and became a whistle blower as former Homeland Security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, specialized in national security matters and personally favored SIVs or special immigrant visas for Afghan refugees.

    Today she tweeted this: “There were cabinet mtgs about this during the Trump Admin where Stephen Miller would peddle his racist hysteria about Iraq & Afghanistan. He & his enablers across gov’t would undermine anyone who worked on solving the SIV issue by devastating the system at DHS & State.”

    “Olivia of Troye
    I tracked this issue personally in my role during my WH tenure. Pence was fully aware of the problem. We got nowhere on it because Trump/S. Miller had watchdogs in place at DOJ, DHS, State & security agencies that made an already cumbersome SIV process even more challenging”

    This article from Alternet is the easiest story to access at this time:

  16. earthworm says:

    i appreciate Dr Emptywheel’s work to bring clarity and better understanding of multiple situations that face us.
    re: coverage of Afghanistan:
    What i look for is any analysis of parallels between where USA is now, and dissolution of former USSR in wake of its Afghanistan episode.
    American policy makers, etc., whooped about it then, but failed to imagine that same fate could await US.

  17. jaango1 says:

    When I think of what’s occurred in the past twenty years, the Pakistani military movement created and protected the Taliban Movement, and until the “decision-makers” and not the standardized government employees, today’s “employees” are having to contend with the daily aspects. And unfortunately, the “news media” will never address or conclude the “role” of the Taliban during these past 20 years. And yet, I could say more, but what’s the point regarding our nation’s political and military debacle.

  18. harpie says:

    Via Laura Rozen:
    Pompeo Is Lying About Afghanistan
    He laid the groundwork for the Taliban takeover. Now he’s blaming Biden.
    WILLIAM SALETAN AUG 20, 2020 11:16 PM

    […] Pompeo supported the U.S. withdrawal. But he didn’t just endorse the pullout; he directed it. He cut a deal with the Taliban to remove all American troops and to release Taliban fighters from Afghan prisons. He vouched for the Taliban’s assurances, even as the insurgents staged hundreds of deadly attacks. And he defended the ongoing troop withdrawals, undercutting the Afghan government in its own talks with the Taliban, as the militants besieged provincial capitals. […]

  19. Jenny says:

    The U.S. ignored corruption within the Afghan government. Did that lead to its fall?
    As the Taliban faces protests and dissent across Afghanistan, William Brangham explores the collapse of the country’s government — built and supported by the U.S. and allies for 20 years. For a deeper perspective, Brangham speaks with Sarah Chayes, who covered the fall of the Taliban after 9/11 for NPR and served as advisor to several senior U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

    The Ides of August by Sarah Chayes

    • AndTheSlithyToves says:

      Thank you, Jenny! I’ve been meaning to repost this. Earlier this week in reply to a Raven Eye comment, I plopped it into one of Marcy’s initial pieces on Afghanistan–she had also linked to it in her twitter feed when Sarah originally posted it. The comment section–which continues to grow–is also well worth a read.

      • Jenny says:

        You are welcome. Highly insightful. Plus she lived in Afghanistan. Experience is knowledge in my book.

  20. bidrec says:

    Comparing the delivery of SIGINT/COMINT/HUMINT with the delivery of Real Time [Stock] Market Data to the ultimate client the former is vastly inferior. Military intelligence is “serviced” as it goes up the “tributary” and then must pass consensus before it is delivered. Market data is delivered raw to the consumer.

    Winning a war is what Alfred Hitchcock would call a “MacGuffin”, “object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, …”

    If you want to be where the action is listen to an earnings call for a defense contractor like Lockheed or Raytheon.

    Sorry for the cynicism but I served and observed.

  21. Franktoo says:

    Corruption obviously reduced support for the Afghan government, but this on-going problem obviously didn’t precipitate the collapse of the Afghan military. A more reasonable explanation for their collapse is the sudden removal of close US air-support from within Afghanistan and foreign maintenance workers from the Afghan air force (which is absolutely essential to reinforcement and re-supply in a country where the roads aren’t secure. Military advisors who worked directly with Afghan officers in the field would be aware of this problem, but not State Department officials Kabul. Withdrawal of half of our already-limited military forces was announced last November, and those who worked directly with the Afghan military might have been the first to depart, because their jobs were the riskiest and they didn’t provide security for key locations like Bagram Air Force base.

    The other problem is that Afghan forces were deployed to protect as many civilians as possible. That would allow the Taliban to concentrate and pick off isolated units – unless good intelligence allowed such concentrations to be attacked by air and these isolated units could be resupplied and reinforced by air. It’s my hypothesis that Afghan soldiers trapped by some of first Taliban attacks this summer were abandoned without adequate reinforcement or resupply. If rumors of these problems then swept across Afghanistan that would explain the sudden collapse.

    Is there any evidence to support this hypothesis? Not really. A WaPo article dated May 8 describes the opening stages of the Taliban offensive and lack of air support and that caused the abandonment of outposts surrounding cities. This was even before Bagram Air Force Base was evacuated on 7/2.

    By the end of June, the Taliban claimed it had taken control of 90 of the country’s 370 districts since May, but the UN asserted “only” 50 districts had been captured. There must have been a hundred or more engagements that haven’t made the US news during those six weeks during which Afghan morale was decimated, but we don’t know whether the issue was lack of air support, reinforcement, overwhelming numbers, fear of Taliban retaliation against soldier’s families or the rumored slaughter of cut-off forces that resisted.

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