As the American withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerated toward catastrophe—the Taliban sweeping across the country, tens of thousands of Afghans desperately trying to exit the country, an unknown number of Americans not evacuated—a media narrative rapidly crystallized. Here, at long last, was not just the first true crisis of the Biden administration, but an epochal failure: the twenty-first century’s Saigon.
Disaster on this scale is media catnip, and the cats came running. The narrative hook is tidy enough: Biden has spent the last two years selling himself as a competent, no-nonsense pragmatist—a pure contrast with the shambolic buffoon who previously occupied the White House. Ever eager to showcase its nonpartisan bona fides, the press has hungered for a scandal, particularly one that undercut that image. Biden and other administration officials had, after all, insisted that nothing like what was rapidly unfolding in Kabul was in the cards. The Taliban would not roll over the Afghan army like Shaquille O’Neal taking on Chris Dudley in the post. The Saigon comparisons were made even more delectable because Biden himself had invoked the U.S.’s humiliating exit from Vietnam a month earlier: “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy.”
The criticisms were withering, particularly from the objective press. The withdrawal from Afghanistan “undercut some of the most fundamental premises of Mr. Biden’s presidency,” The New York Times’s Peter Baker wrote. CNN’s king of conflicts of interest, Chris Cuomo, noted that “President Biden, frankly, sounded like President Trump,” a comparison that was made again and again in the wake of Biden’s defiant speech defending the withdrawal. Meet the Press was devoted almost exclusively to the situation in Afghanistan. “The collapse of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban is likely to haunt Mr. Biden’s legacy,” host Chuck Todd predicted. Polls were brandished showing Biden’s support had dipped.
What most of this glossed over is that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable almost from the get-go; after the Bush administration refused to end it in 2001, failure became a fait accompli. The ostensible U.S. mission—some hoped-for combination of democracy, liberalization, and equal rights—proved possible in certain pockets of Afghanistan, but in most of the country, corruption and chaos remained a fact of life. Again and again, the media suggested that the human cost of the war wasn’t substantial on the basis of a low American death toll—without acknowledging the staggering number of civilian Afghan casualties, tens of thousands since the war began. Meanwhile, the United States’ sunk cost exceeded two trillion dollars. This was the status quo in Afghanistan for years: tragic civilian death totals, corruption, no progress, and no hope for improvement. Leaving the country has been popular for years in both parties. And yet we didn’t do it.
That the situation in Afghanistan has been an outrage for years is compounded by the fact that so much of the media’s coverage has failed to document these truths. Which isn’t to say that some truth didn’t break through now and again. In late 2019, The Washington Post produced the Afghanistan Papers, one of the most important pieces of investigative journalism of this century. Thousands of pages of internal reports and government cables revealed there was bipartisan consensus about what was happening in Afghanistan: that the war was unwinnable and pointless, that the government was (thanks to the U.S.) impossibly corrupt, and that the human cost for Afghans was profound. And yet those revelations made such a scant long-term impression on the media that it’s been almost comical to witness the shock and amazement at Afghanistan’s sudden downturn, given that it was a story that had already been written.
Afghanistan was also a bipartisan failure. Few things tie the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations together, but all three are implicated in the corruption of Afghan society that allowed the Taliban to return and in the U.S.’s continued involvement in the country, which has been a boon exclusive to military contractors. And yet many figures who participated in these two decades of failure have recently been trotted out to condemn Biden’s decision to leave, instead of being held publicly accountable.
Criticism has focused again and again on the method of withdrawal, but little of substance has been offered in terms of correction. Yes, the last two weeks have been chaotic, but it’s unclear how significantly the paltry alternative plans that have been bandied about would have changed things for the better. Critics are allowed to not only skate over the complexity of leaving a country the U.S. has occupied for two decades, but in many cases to ignore the myriad failures of the occupation itself. The subtext of these arguments is unmistakable: It would have been better for the U.S. to simply remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. (That the evacuation itself has markedly improved over the last few days has received comparably little mention in the press.) There is much to criticize about the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal, but it all rings hollow without the proper context.
Much of the problems with the press coverage lie in the coziness between foreign policy elites and reporters who rely on them for information. The biases of interventionists and hawks flow frictionlessly into news coverage, treating the exit from Afghanistan as a capitulation and outrage, rather than as one—and perhaps the best—of a number of bad options. Also on display is the way the media tends to reduce important matters to trifling political stories. Biden’s popularity has dipped, but the decrease may owe more to Covid-19 than to Afghanistan. And yet, the situation in Afghanistan has been endlessly depicted as a political liability for Biden, as if sinking another trillion dollars into this lost cause was the path to certain reelection. As always, commentators are allowed to embody the imagined outrage of Americans they’ve never spoken with as a vehicle for their own half-baked takes; meanwhile, withdrawing from Afghanistan has been popular with the voters whose opinions they abjure.
And then there is the press’s well-established bias toward “new” news. The status quo in Afghanistan was terrible, untenable, and bad—but it had slogged into that state of being for more than a decade. The situation at the Kabul airport, by contrast, was shiny, new, and—even better!—had some zingy visuals. The media remains abysmal at covering long, slow-moving crises; American foreign policy typically lives in those blind spots, but inequality and climate change seem to reside there as well. It’s possible to be just as outraged by these matters—and it’s easy to implicate a handful of presidential administrations as well. But as with the civilian death toll in Afghanistan and the staggering cost to the United States in terms of dollars spent, the elite press mostly doesn’t care. The withdrawal from Afghanistan has been messy, tragic, and outrageous, yes. The media played an outsize role in making this inevitable.