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Journalists reflect on Afghanistan as Biden prepares to announce troop withdrawal


A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Nearly 20 years ago, in the White House Treaty Room, President George W. Bush announced the beginning of “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Bush vowed that the US would win the War in Afghanistan “by the patient accumulation of successes, by meeting a series of challenges with determination and will and purpose.”

Flash forward to now. After more than 2,300 US casualties, President Joe Biden is set to enter that same room on Wednesday and formally announce the withdrawal of military forces before the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. After Biden delivers his speech, he’ll visit Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery, where service members killed in Afghanistan are buried.

It’s an important moment for the US — one that comes with quite a few editorial decisions for the press corps. What should the focus of coverage be? The potential national security implications of the decision? What it means for the future of Afghanistan? The sacrifices that were made there? The political infighting in the GOP? All of the above?

None of this is easy

For some insight, I reached out to Jake Tapper, who has covered the Afghanistan War extensively. “One thing I learned while writing The Outpost was the importance of having humility about war, sacrifice, and the difficulty of these decisions,” Tapper said. “Our politics too often lends itself to glibness — ‘end forever wars’ or ‘don’t surrender to terrorists’ — but our servicemembers and their sacrifices deserve more and better.”

“All of these discussions merit nuance and challenging easy answers,” Tapper added. “If we should stay there longer, how much longer? If we should leave in September, what might merit the need for troops to go back? What about all the troops that have been there for five tours already? What about the girls who will likely be subjected to Taliban repression? How close are the the Taliban and al Qaeda today and what threat does the latter pose to the US or our allies? None of this is easy and we shouldn’t pretend it is.”

“My son asked me today if we won or lost the war”

When I reached out to Jim Sciutto, he pointed out that the press doesn’t exactly have an answer to the most basic question of all. “My son asked me today if we won or lost the war. I realized as I answered him, it’s not clear,” Scuitto said. “We beat AQ – for now – but the Taliban outlasted us, just as they said they would. And the Afghan people and government are basically left out in the cold. All our promises of a functioning democratic government and a healthier, less impoverished economy and peace – which I heard hundreds of times in dozens of trips there from countless officials and commanders – failed to materialize. Now, we can leave and they of course cannot.”

Sciutto’s advice? “I think we need to cover it with scope and context and humility as Americans,” he said. “At a minimum, it is not all we hoped for or promised. My two cents.”

Maddow’s suggestion

The end of the Afghanistan War led Rachel Maddow’s program Tuesday. Outside the policy discussion, she had this advice. “If you know any servicemen or women, any veterans who have served in Afghanistan … this might be a good time to reach out. Particularly, once the President has given his speech tomorrow. It has been a horrendous conflict there. … For a generation of post 9/11 Afghanistan veterans in this country, it is going to be a very, very big deal. So keep them in your thoughts…”

Divide in right-wing media

Just as there exists a divide within the Republican Party about how to best move forward in Afghanistan, the divide is reflected in right-wing media. Some of the more pro-Trump outlets were on board with the decision, attempting to give credit to Trump for the plan. Others were sounding warning sounds, saying it will lead to disaster…”

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