There is no shortage of facile commentary about this disaster. It grabs attention like a bad car wreck, but attention and insight are two very different things. This post will mostly be a list of “dont’s,” gaps in our current knowledge, admonitions about epistemic humility, and reminders of stupefying incompetence exhibited by the ostensibly qualified. And I know about some of them because I’ve made the same mistakes as many of those reacting to events now.
Beware of false analogies. Kabul in August of 2021 is not Saigon—or Phnom Penh—in April of 1975. Among the many differences, the order of generational temperaments in the US is a near-exact opposite. Referring, as I usually do, to Strauss-Howe generational theory: Vietnam wound down under Civic/Hero (Greatest Generation) senior leadership, uneasily aided by Adaptive/Artist (Silent Generation) management, vigorously contested by first-wave Idealist/Prophet (Boomers) in the rank and file. The trained order-takers were the elders, and the instinctive order-givers were the youth. But the crises of the 2020s are being met—or not—by Boomer (and some Silent) senior leadership, Reactive/Nomad (GenX) management, and Civic/Hero (Millennial) rank and file (see the “Future” section below for my speculation along these lines). The past two decades of waning Silent leadership have been, for anyone familiar with the Strauss-Howe model, unsurprisingly inconclusive in Afghanistan. There was never any real chance that we would, for example, impose a constitution written by Americans, as in Japan in 1946, thereby forestalling any so-called “Islamic Republic,” or garrison the country with hundreds of thousands of troops for four and a half decades, as in Germany, normalizing American culture.
American generations of three-quarters of a century ago were also rather more clear-eyed about the economics of the situation. To repurpose a quote from the great Illinois statesman Rod Blagojevich, we’ve got “a fucking valuable thing; you don’t just give it away for nothing.” The … valuable thing we’ve got is a liberal society with life- and freedom-affirming values. The cost of protecting its development in an environment where it could easily be destroyed is immense. NATO alone cost >3% of US GDP in the 1980s, a staggering sum. I don’t endorse all, or even most, of that particular expenditure, but it does give some idea of what is involved, and it exceeded what we spent in Afghanistan by well over an order of magnitude.
Kabul in August of 2021 is also not Kabul in September of 1996. The Taliban controlled most, but far from all, of the country after early autumn that year, and the retreat of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces from Kabul was relatively orderly. We must assume that Afghanistan is on a cycle of generational temperaments too. If the generation born since the mid-’90s there is a post-Crisis era (that era presumably being, in Afghanistan, 1979-96), Idealist/Prophet one like the Boomers—and their opposite numbers elsewhere in the world—what’s happening there right now is an analog of the frenzy of the early months of the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, summer 1966. This is obviously not a mere repeat of a quarter of a century ago.
I suggest that the events of the past few weeks constitute an astonishingly acute instance of self-organized criticality, and we would do well to view it in that light. Greater understanding of critical points in dynamical systems will also keep us from elementary errors like the post hoc fallacy, currently manifesting in the conspiracy theory that the Chinese made the whole thing happen so they could control $~1T in rare-earth elements in Afghanistan. Left out of that scenario is the reality that the Taliban largely controlled the mineral deposits in question some time ago; indeed, much of this month’s lightning takeover has merely constituted making de jure what was already de facto. Also left out is the one about how the US invaded Afghanistan in late ’01 supposedly in order to build an oil pipeline for Unocal—which never got built, but conspiracy theorists aren’t exactly known for successful predictions.
My favorite conspiracy theory right now, though, is a magnificently paranoid left-wing one about how the takeover is a Trump op to sabotage Biden. My second favorite, which is more conventionally nutty, is that the Chinese did it to steal and reverse-engineer US military hardware—never mind that they already have thousands of spies in Silicon Valley alone and undoubtedly recruited tens of thousands more all over the country after the OPM data breach in ’15.
Lest the above seem flippant, this is where I point out that we’re seeing the real “cisheteronormative patriarchy” of politically-correct nightmares impose itself on, and indeed largely define the day-to-day life of, a nation-state with the area of Texas and the population of California. All those people who died falling off of or being run over by planes at HKAIA weren’t risking and losing their lives for no reason. Executions of gays and women for trivial “offenses,” reprisals against anyone determined to have worked with US personnel, and involuntary “marriages” are all already underway and will occur in large numbers.
Knowing those numbers to moderate precision matters, and this is where we edge into the minefield of media coverage. Journalists are not renowned for numeracy. At present they seem motivated to uncover Taliban atrocities, so we may hope for a relatively clear, if horrific, qualitative depiction of events. But quantification may be elusive. How many Taliban are physically available to oppress a country of nearly forty million people? (I have seen one report that there are only 70k, which would be fewer than 1 in 500 of the general population, and that they were initially outnumbered 4:1 by the ANSF.) How many casualties were there in the final weeks of fighting? How much matériel do the Taliban forces have, and how long would it last in sustained combat? How much replacement matériel—and money—are they getting from outside the country? How many violent deaths per 100k population per year (especially this year) are occurring in, say, District 8 of Kabul, and how does that compare to the bottom centile of the Washington Post “Super Zips” ranking—for example, 64126/7/8 in Kansas City? For that matter, how might even a relatively safe area of Kabul compare to its namesake, Cabool, MO (MHI $~26k, only three-eighths of the US national median), named in the immediate aftermath of the Second Anglo-Afghan War? There’s a genuine hook to that story, especially since the kind of people who rant about the cisheteronormative patriarchy nearly always hold the likes of Cabool in very low regard.
Speaking of journalistic hooks, here’s how this mess works with existing structural media biases:
Remember, the above are biases. Their manifestations may be significantly decoupled from the true significance or long-term effects of the events being depicted. In particular, they may attempt to connect ambiguous events into a coherent whole in a situation which is deeply chaotic and full of minimally- or entirely non-related factors. You can help by resisting the natural urge to see an octopus with neatly labeled limbs (AFGHANISTAN, BIDEN, CHINA, etc) controlled by a single brain. Although there are people in the current presidential line of succession who might be replaceable by an actual octopus with no visible degradation in performance.
But as bad as things are, there is hope for some truly meaningful information, especially if someone digs into the real connection with Pakistani ISI, and elucidates the extent to which Afghanistan is (again) becoming a de facto territory of Pakistan. And while they’re at it, honest journalists should definitely hit up Stephen Biddle for an interview.
David Brin is optimistic that the situation will remain, or become, fluid, insofar as suicide bombs and IEDs could be deployed just as effectively against the Taliban as they were against the Coalition. A broader question, keeping “narrative bias” in mind, is whether there are or could be substantial factions other than the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the seemingly vanquished Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Media narratives prefer a single, readily identifiable protagonist and antagonist. But what if multiple anti-Taliban insurgencies erupt?
To take another swipe at narrative bias, specifically the Saigon-1975 analogy, Afghanistan isn’t, or rather won’t, be Vietnam in another way: there is no obvious path toward making it a de facto ally after, or if, things settle down. Even ordinary Vietnamese with harrowing memories of the war are friendly toward Americans now. I can imagine Thucydides smiling thinly, nodding, and pointing to what lies just north of Vietnam on a map. Asked about Afghanistan, he would frown, shake his head, and not point anywhere.
That country to the north has its ambitions, and may benefit both directly from the Taliban coup and indirectly from the power vacuum now opening in CENTCOM—and by immediate inference, in INDOPACOM. Whether that inference is justified is among the great questions of the early 2020s. Keep an eye on the TAIEX. Also the NX 100. For that matter, keep an eye on the Shanghai Composite and the Wilshire 5000. Markets are predictive and should signal a China vs India/US clash.
We certainly seem to be—and long have been—in a drift to failure. While I believe that some such event as abrupt as what happened in Kabul last weekend will eventually provoke Americans into a massive societal response, I don’t expect it to be this one. Historically it has required a combination of generational-temperament alignments and direct action on US soil: 4/19/1775, 4/12/1861, 12/7/1941. Until then, game-theoretic considerations and incentives promote international estrangement and authoritarian impunity. To again paraphrase Georges Danton: De l’impunité, encore de l’impunité, toujours de l’impunité et la ordre mondial sera détruite!
One relatively immediate question is how much of that impunity will emanate from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan itself. We should hope that they retain their earlier, well, temporal and visual bias: lots of prompt casualties from highly kinetic events. We must assume, after the events of the past eighteen months, that a shift toward lower time preference would manifest itself in a biological rather than conventional, chemical, or even nuclear attack. And there is absolutely no need to develop something from scratch, or even modify any existing biological agent; smallpox will do just fine as is. A reasonable R₀ value of 5 yields a herd immunity threshold of 80%, and well under 40% of living Americans are immune today; as of mid-2021, over 200 million Americans are too young to have been vaccinated against smallpox. Any noticeable delay in vaccine distribution, to say nothing of vaccine “hesitancy,” would doom many times the number who died from either COVID-19 directly or the lockdown effects. And the victims being far younger, years of life lost would be orders of magnitude greater.
I will make one firm negative prediction: there will be no “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” to defend Afghans from Islamic dictatorship, only excuses about how there is nothing to be done, or even that the Afghan people somehow deserve calamity. The Venn diagram overlap between people who believe in a cisheteronormative patriarchy and people who think guns are icky is too large.
Meanwhile in DC, the early 2020s being what they are, I must wonder if an attempt at invoking Amendment XXV would neither clearly succeed nor clearly fail, but dissolve in chaos, with Biden’s Cabinet—which, incredibly, has met only twice in seven months—deadlocked over what to do and not even agreeing on who is President. It will be fun, if marginally stressful, to watch heavily-credentialed members of what Taleb calls those who are susceptible to “what can be explainable, academizable, rationalizable, formalizable, theoretizable, codifiable, Sovietizable, bureaucratizable, Harvardifiable, provable” behave like feces-flinging apes in a zoo. As obliquely mentioned above, the current presidential line of succession does not inspire confidence, being comprised almost entirely of failures and unknowns; were Biden, Blinken, and Austin to (very justifiably) resign, there would be no #1, #4, and #6 on the remaining list … and a deadlocked Senate full of more clothed apes that could block every nomination. Will 2021 be an American anno quattuor imperatores?
Psalm 146:3 comes to mind. Or possibly Matthew 12:43-45. My generation hasn’t provided, and isn’t about to produce, a Churchill—or an FDR (or an Eleanor), a Marshall, a Stimson to go to DC and do magic things with their incomprehensible wisdom, so give up on that idea and work on the person staring at you out of the mirror, because tag, you’re it.
PS — This report (also the source of the 70k Taliban strength figure mentioned earlier) is indicative of both highly effective “social engineering” by the Taliban and utter ineptitude by their ANSF and US opponents, decidedly including US civilian leadership.