The puzzle for me is the absence of contingency planning: If everyone knew we were headed for the exits, why did we not have a plan over the past two years for making this work?

– retired General Douglas Lute

There is no featured post this week.

This week everybody was talking about Afghanistan

Kabul fell to the Taliban yesterday.

It’s no great surprise that the Taliban is taking over now that American troops are pulling out. But the speed of the Afghan government’s collapse has stunned many commentators and even US government officials. The human tragedy for any Afghan who shares Western values, especially women who are educated or employed or just want to be able to leave the house, will probably be immense.

There are two ways to read this:

  • Biden should have prevented this by leaving some number of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.
  • The speed of the collapse underlines just how little our 20-year war accomplished, and makes the case against investing more American blood and treasure.

I hold the second position. I see the appeal of the first position, because I appreciate how much suffering this outcome will unleash. (“It’s like my identity is about to be scrubbed out,” one woman said.) But I think people who hold that view need to say the word “indefinitely” out loud and fully wrap their minds around it. In 20 years, we did not build a government that the Afghan people want to defend, and $83 billion in weapons and training did not establish a fighting force that could stand up to the Taliban for more than a few days.

More years and more billions probably wouldn’t change that. Quite the opposite, in fact: Governments propped up by a foreign power typically get better and better at sucking up to the foreign power, and worse and worse at representing their people.

If we’d been facing reality these last 20 years, we wouldn’t be in this position today. Instead, we’ve heard a constant series of justifications for staying another year, and then six months after that, and so on. Within months of the invasion in 2001, we had troops in Kabul and knew that Bin Laden had escaped from Tora Bora. That was the moment for a realistic conversation about what we could hope to accomplish in Afghanistan and how much the American people were willing to sacrifice to do it. Instead, the Bush and Obama administrations conspired to sell us fantasies. Trump kept saying we should get out, but then kept letting the generals talk him out of it. The Biden administration has finally faced up to reality, ugly as it is.

The one thing Biden can be faulted for is summed up by the quote at the top. Why wasn’t there a better plan for getting Americans, as well as the Afghans who had helped us, out of the country in an orderly way?

One thing we can say clearly is that an open-ended commitment to keep fighting in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular across a broad spectrum of the American public. Trump ran against “endless wars” in 2016, and kept threatening to pull troops out of Afghanistan precipitously, but then being stalled by his generals. (Now, of course, Trump insists his withdrawal would have been better.)

Back in 2008, it was already considered a gaffe when John McCain envisioned having troops in Iraq for 100 years. Nobody wanted that.

The Economist (subscription required) describes Afghans preparing for Taliban rule: hiding books they expect to be banned, buying burqas, etc. The reporter talks to one woman in Kandahar became a doctor under the American-backed government. Now she stays home, or wears her mother’s poorly fitting burqa when she goes out.

India’s Deccan Herald describes the problem of “ghost soldiers”: non-existent personnel falsified so that corrupt officials could collect American money to pay and supply them. Last summer, a report to Congress from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said:

[G]etting an accurate count of Afghan military and police personnel has always been difficult. For example, in 2013, before becoming president, Ashraf Ghani told Inspector General Sopko in a meeting at his residence that the United States government was still paying the salaries of soldiers, police, teachers, doctors, and other civil servants who did not exist.

One of the enduring impediments to overseeing U.S. funding for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) has been the questionable accuracy of data on the actual (“assigned,” as distinct from authorized) strength of the force.

Seeing how fast the ANDSF units collapsed, you have to wonder how many of them really existed in the first place. And if they existed, were they being paid, or was the money vanishing before it got to the soldiers?

When an Afghan police officer was asked about his force’s apparent lack of motivation, he explained that they hadn’t been getting their salaries. Several Afghan police officers on the front lines in Kandahar before the city fell said they hadn’t been paid in six to nine months.

and the infrastructure bill

I was wrong. For months, I have been skeptical that Republican Senate votes were available for anything Biden wanted to do, no matter how obviously good for the country it might be. So the negotiations over the bipartisan infrastructure bill looked like a stalling exercise, similar to the way Republicans strung President Obama along on the ACA. Republicans and Democrats might spend all summer constructing a “framework” for an infrastructure compromise, but when push came to shove, I figured, the details would never work out, and the ten Republican votes needed to overcome a filibuster would evaporate.

Well, Tuesday a $1 trillion (or $550 billion, if you only count new money) infrastructure bill got through the Senate with 19 Republican votes, including Mitch McConnell’s. That happened despite ex-president Trump’s strenuous opposition.

The Senate went on to pass (50-49 on party lines) a budget resolution that makes space for the $3.5 trillion infrastructure package Democrats plan to pass through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process. That will be taken up in September, after the Senate returns from its recess.

At that point the cat-herding begins: Since no Republican support is expected, all 50 Senate Democrats and all but a handful of the House Democrats have to come to agreement. Speaker Pelosi wants the House to consider both bills simultaneously, so it’s likely neither will pass the House until the Senate passes (or fails to pass) the reconciliation package.

The path of disaster is that the reconciliation package fails, and House progressives follow through on their threat to sink the bipartisan bill, with the result that nothing passes. I think Democrats of all stripes recognize how bad that would be, so I expect the Senate to pass something via reconciliation: maybe not $3.5 trillion, maybe without everything currently envisioned.

So what’s in the two bills? I haven’t looked at the 2,700 pages of text myself, so I have to trust other sources.

Investopedia has a good summary (though I don’t understand why it says the bipartisan bill is $1.2 trillion, when most other sources I found said $1 trillion).

The bipartisan bill is almost all “traditional” infrastructure: roads, bridges, the power grid, water systems, ports and airports, environmental clean-up, public transit, etc. But Democrats did get a certain amount of forward-looking funding included: rural broadband, cybersecurity, electric school buses and charging stations. The $550 billion of new spending is spread over five years.

The reconciliation package isn’t written yet. Various Senate committees have been assigned amounts of money and objectives, with the recommendation that they each have their part of the bill written by September 15. The $3.5 trillion is supposed to be spent over eight years.

In a nutshell, the reconciliation package covers two things Republicans couldn’t stomach: serious amounts of money to combat and mitigate climate change, and “human infrastructure” like housing, education, and elder care.

To me, the climate change projects are worth the disaster-scenario risk, but I could compromise on the rest. I think it’s important to keep repeating David Roberts’ point: There is no non-radical position on climate change now. The choice is whether to take radical action or accept radical impacts.

One thing to keep in mind: It takes time to build infrastructure, so hardly any projects will be complete and improving Americans’ lives in time for the 2022 elections. At best, Democrats’ 2022 message will be more like “Help is coming” rather than “Look what we built.”

Conversely, since the actual roads and bridges will still be in the future, Republicans will be able to manufacture fantasies of elaborate boondoggles, similar to the way they imagined “death panels” into the ACA during the 2010 election cycle.

and the climate report

The Working Group I (of three groups) contribution to Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out this week. I’ve been having a hard time getting a handle on it.

The full report is nearly 4,000 pages. The summary for policy makers is 42 pages, but consists almost entirely of conclusions and assessments.

Observed increases in well-mixed greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by human activities. … It is virtually certain that the global upper ocean (0–700 m) has warmed since the 1970s and extremely likely that human influence is the main driver. It is virtually certain that human-caused CO2 emissions are the main driver of current global acidification of the surface open ocean.

Long strings of sentences like those invite the Big Lebowski response: “Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” which is basically what it got from Fox News. Not everyone in the world agrees — especially not scientists from think tanks funded by fossil fuel companies — so there’s still a controversy.

Of course, the summary is the opinion of hundreds of the top climate scientists in the world, as selected by governments with a wide variety of political views and economic interests. The details backing those assessments are in the 4000-page report, as well as in the thousands of studies and peer-reviewed research papers it cites. But if you don’t have the time or expertise to evaluate all that — and I don’t — then why shouldn’t we believe the one or two guys Fox managed to dig up?

The question I’d like answered is: What do we understand now that we didn’t understand in 2013, when the fifth assessment came out?

Fortunately, Grist links to a number of what’s-it-all-mean popularizations, of which this video by Columbia University climate-science grad student Miriam Nielsen is my favorite. And not just because she understands that all this bad news requires a puppy break in the middle.

The main answer to my question seems to be that the uncertainty is shrinking: There’s already been 1.1 degrees centigrade of global average warming since 1750 (when coal-burning really got going). Due to greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, that will become 1.5 degrees in the next two decades. And the wide range of unusual weather events — droughts, heat waves, floods, storms, etc. — that we’ve been wondering whether to blame on climate change? Yeah, they’re climate change. And they’re going to happen more frequently and more extremely as the planet continues to warm.

Another Grist article calls attention to “tipping points”, which are thresholds that change the system in ways that stoke further change, making the previous status quo unrecoverable. One such tipping point involves the arctic permafrost: If CO2 emissions raise global temperature enough to start melting the permafrost, the additional CO2 that had been frozen there will be released.

Time for a puppy break.

and the census

The census fact that made headlines is that the US has fewer White people than we thought: down to a little less than 58%, from 64% in 2010 and 69% in 2000. The percentage of Blacks also fell slightly (12.1% to 11.9%), while Hispanics (19.5%) and Asians (5.9%) increased. And it wasn’t just percentages: The raw number of people identifying as White dropped from 196 million in 2010 to 191 million in 2020.

But that’s not the whole story. If you look at a category the Census Bureau calls “white alone or in combination”, that’s still 71% of the country. Its percentage fell much less, from 73% in 2010, and its raw numbers are actually up. So it’s not that Whites are being “replaced”, the way Tucker Carlson likes to tell the story. There’s more interracial marriage and mixed-race children than there used to be, so fewer people are identifying as purely White.

Politically, the important issue is whether light-skinned Hispanics and other Americans who don’t fit traditional definitions of whiteness will see themselves (and be seen by others) as participating in the racial majority. That’s a social question, not a demographic question.

and the pandemic

I remember a button-and-t-shirt meme from the 70s: “Cheer up! Things are getting worse at a slower rate.” That’s the story here. The new-cases-per-day numbers keep rising — 130K now — but if you look at the trend over the past several Mondays — 50K, 80K, 110K — you can see the graph starting to level off. (Southern Missouri, where this wave started, is having fewer cases now.) OTOH, school is opening and it’s too soon to see the results of this year’s Sturgis super-spreader rally (which was even bigger than last year), so the contagion might take off again.

Compared to two weeks ago: cases are up 64%, hospitalizations 65% (to 76K), and deaths 113% (662). Deaths are a lagging indicator, so the fact that deaths are increasing faster than cases is, perversely, a good sign.

This wave continues to be concentrated in the comparatively unvaccinated South. Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi are all averaging over 100 new cases per day per 100K people, compared to 13 in New Hampshire and 14 in Maryland and Michigan. Michigan is the oddball here: Its 49% vaccination rate is slightly less than Florida’s 50%, though well above Mississippi’s 36%.

Florida’s Ron DeSantis is making a case to be the most pro-Covid governor in the country. (As the cartoon demonstrates, though, there is competition.) In spite of having some of the worst county-wide outbreaks (Columbia County has 212 new cases per day per 100K), he has banned mask mandates in schools and vaccine mandates in businesses and government offices. He describes Covid in schools as a “minor risk”. He told President Biden to leave Florida alone at a time when the state was requesting ventilators (which it got) from the feds.

School districts have been defying Santis and mandating masks anyway. He threatened to not pay the superintendents, but has backed down.

Being the retirement capital of the US, Florida is blessed with abundant hospital beds. So its nation-leading 72 Covid hospitalizations per 100K aren’t collapsing the system as badly as Mississippi’s 52 are. Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee (where my nephew’s wife is a nurse) is full. Go have your emergency somewhere else.

and you also might be interested in …

Andrew Cuomo faced reality and resigned. Matt Gaetz, on the other hand, will probably hold out until there’s an indictment.

Trump was not reinstated as president on August 13. Mike Lindell’s three-day symposium, which was supposed to reveal irrefutable proof that China stole the election from Trump by hacking Dominion voting machines all over the country, came and went without convincing anybody, much less leading to a 9-0 Trump reinstatement vote at the Supreme Court. The main question the symposium raised for sane observers was: Is Lindell a grifter, or is he the victim of grifters who sold him “proof” of something he desperately wanted to believe?

Meanwhile, a judge has allowed Dominion’s billion-dollar defamation lawsuit against Lindell (and others) to go forward. (Is there an insanity defense in civil lawsuits?)

This is yet another opportunity for Trump cultists to return to reality, but I doubt many of them will. For the few who do, I believe the best we can hope for is not an “OMG, I’ve been lied to” moment, but rather a shift of attention somewhere else, with eventual amnesia about the whole delusional episode.

Remember when President Obama had the audacity to wear a tan suit? Or when he put his feet up on the White House desk? Or when his family took vacations? Or “lived large” in the White House with a chef and servants and stuff? Or did hundreds of other things that nobody thought to object to when white presidents did them?

Incredibly, after eight years of constant criticism in the White House, Obama still doesn’t know his place. Look at what he did Saturday: He had a party to celebrate his 60th birthday! I mean, who does that?

OK, maybe he scaled down the guest list a little so he wouldn’t host a super-spreader event, but there was still a big tent. Well, NYT columnist Maureen Dowd wasn’t going to let him just get away with it. He’s “Jay Gatsby”, “Barack Antoinette”, “nouveau riche”, “lofty”. After selling millions and millions of books, he has the cheek to live in a “sprawling mansion”. He invited celebrities, and they came.

How uppity can you get?

Haiti had a powerful earthquake.

A 12-year-old Canadian girl was forced out of co-ed hockey because … I’m not sure exactly. Something to do with dressing rooms.

and let’s close with something big

Remember the movie “Air Bud” about the dog who played basketball? Well, they should make one about an elephant. Though I’m not sure what the rules say about throwing your teammate at the basket.

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  • fmanin  On August 16, 2021 at 4:54 pm

    Of course we had to leave Afghanistan, but the human tragedy is not entirely unavoidable. After 20 years, we had a duty and a responsibility to the people we were leaving behind. It’s beyond shameful that the plan was seemingly to just leave Afghans at the mercy of the Taliban, including those who worked for us. The obvious solution would have been to facilitate the escape of any Afghans who didn’t feel they had a future under the Taliban.

  • Mike Val  On August 16, 2021 at 10:16 pm

    Well done as always, but a minor note: “Afghani” is a unit of currency, “Afghan” is the adjective or person of that nationality.

    • weeklysift  On August 18, 2021 at 4:21 pm

      You appear to be right, and I’ve made the correction, though Wikipedia claims some dictionaries disagree. I used “Afghani” originally because to me an Afghan is a kind of blanket. But I guess I’m out of step.

  • Dan Cusher  On August 17, 2021 at 9:34 pm

    “So it’s not that Whites are being ‘replaced’, the way Tucker Carlson likes to tell the story. There’s more interracial marriage and mixed-race children than there used to be, so fewer people are identifying as purely White.”

    Um, I think that’s *exactly* what Tucker means when he talks about “replacing” – it’s a sex/reproduction thing. In his racist, misogynistic, sexualized view of the world, men of color are stealing our white women, replacing us (white men) in our marriages, and their mixed race children are replacing, in the next generation, the hypothetical pure white children we would have had with our white wives if only those Democrats hadn’t opened the borders. That’s what these sickos like Tucker are terrified of.

    Of course, that’s only a bad/scary thing if you’re a white supremacist who buys into the pseudoscience of races being evolutionary units who survive or go extinct together. Otherwise, it’s just a sign that people are less racist in their choice of romantic partners than they used to be.

  • nicknielsensc  On August 22, 2021 at 1:57 pm

    The desertion of the Afghans was not an oversight, it was intended.

  • Dwight Porter  On August 23, 2021 at 5:33 am

    Re Obama’s party, you should see this piece by Matt Taibbi:

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