In July of 2017, every member of the joint chiefs of staff met with newly-elected President Donald Trump for the first time. It didn’t go well. “You’re all losers,” the president told them, according to Foreign Policy magazine account. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”
It was a harsh assessment, obviously though arguably true, the joint chiefs of staff are the nation’s highest-ranking military officers. Their job is to follow the order of elected officials and protect the country, no matter how much their feelings may be hurt. But in this case, that’s not what happened because the rules are different now. According to U.S. Army Major General Paul Eaten, the president’s insults that day, and the similar comments he made in public, were a bitter humiliation for the nation’s military leaders. They made it their mission to undermine civilian control of the Pentagon ever after. “I was really shocked by how many of my former colleagues voted for the former president and openly supported him,” Eaten said. “But when [Trump] turned on the military, well, the military turned on him.”
Keep in mind, that is not how democracy is supposed to work—military leaders report to the people you elect. Again that’s not what happened. Stories began leaking about the president, President Trump, ignoring classified intelligence about Russian bounties in Afghanistan. Where do you think those stories came from? They came from the Pentagon—it was payback. Then the military refused to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, even though they were ordered to do so by the elected president of the United States—again no civilian control of the military. When Joe Biden finally became president, on inauguration day, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mark Milley, was so excited he couldn’t control himself. “No one has a bigger smile today than I do,” Milley told Michelle Obama—sucking up like a child. “You can’t see it under my mask, but I do.” The media people who have supported Biden from the very beginning — including a former C.I.A. Director, there are many of those on TV these days — also celebrated. They told us the adults were back in charge, they said. The orange man is gone—everything is going to be better now:
DANA BASH: Anybody who has any connection to reality about what is going on around them should have watched that and said, ‘The adults are back in the room” CORNELL BELCHER: It seems as though we have an adult in the White House who is simply doing the work FARED ZAKARIA: Really the theme I would say is that the adults are back JEMELE HILL: Still it is a relief to have adults in charge JOHN BRENNAN: Now we have adults in the White House DON LEMON: Okay, the adults are back in the room NICOLLE WALLACE: There is a sense, I think the world over, that the adults have returned JONATHAN CAPEHART: Now we have an adult in the White House and it’s glorious.
Those clips are amazing to watch now because they consist of the most childish people in the country celebrating adulthood. But they look especially absurd in light of what we’ve just seen in Afghanistan. These days, Joe Biden’s friends in the Pentagon and the “foreign affairs desk” at NBC News no longer think he’s an adult. He abandoned American citizens and got thirteen Americans killed, and suddenly they seem a little ashamed. Plus, he’s turned his back on the neocon project and that’s the greatest offense of all.
But the bigger question is why our media and the military were talking like this in the first place. “The adults are back in charge?” What does that mean, exactly? If you follow what our generals have been telling us for the past twenty years about Afghanistan, you quickly realize exactly what it means. “Adults,” means people are willing who pretend that everything is going fine when in fact it is not going fine.
Consider that no matter how badly our mission in Afghanistan was deteriorating—we were never clear on what that mission was—but clearly, our strategy of pacifying the nation was falling apart. No matter how bad it got in Afghanistan, the Pentagon and its spokesmen repeatedly told us they were making incredible progress. And “progress” is the word they used again and again and again—almost as if they coordinated it. In 2005, the head of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, told reporters quote, “over the three years that we’ve been operating there, [Afghanistan] has shown interesting progress.” In 2007, the website “Task and Purpose” reported that another senior General, Dan McNeil, had a similar message. Quote: “I’d like to point out that there is significant progress in the forward move of the Afghan National Army.”
In 2008, the commander of the 101st Airborne — another “adult” — concurred that progress was ongoing. Quote: “We’re making some steady progress.” Then, in 2010, even as coalition casualties increased, the progress somehow continued unabated—it was progress no matter what. An Army Lieutenant General called David Rodriguez told reporters at a news conference in Kabul, quote, “We are steadily making deliberate progress.”
That same year, Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, also wanted us to know about all the progress that was being made. “I think we have made significant progress in setting the conditions in 2009 and beginning some progress, and that we’ll make real progress in 2010.” Which we remind you was 11 years ago. Then Stanley McChrystal was fired for criticizing the Obama administration — and in particular, the total incompetence of the current president Joe Biden — General David Petraeus took over. And sure enough, Petreaus quickly declared that quote, “progress has been achieved in some critical areas, and we are poised to realize more.” Progress.
A year later, in 2011, Petraeus doubled down, telling lawmakers quote, “The past eight months have seen important but hard-fought progress.” Speaking that summer to troops in Kandahar, the defense secretary, Robert Gates, echoed that theme:
ROBERT GATES, June 2011: And what you’ve accomplished is extraordinary because over the course of the year you have essentially ejected the Taliban from their home territory. And if we can hold this territory and expand the bubble, then I think by the end of the year, we can turn the corner of this conflict.
Gates didn’t actually use the word “progress”—he had more original language than that—but the message was the same. And just to make sure it was clear, senior military leaders kept using the word. A few years later, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph Dunford, confirmed that the progress was indeed continuing. Quote: “At this point, we have made significant progress,” Dunford said in 2013. Three years after that, in 2016, the new commander in Afghanistan, John W. Nicholson, was saying the same thing. “We are seeing some progress.” As recently as last year, a spokesperson for Mark Milley said he was hard at work, making sure to “accelerate progress” in Afghanistan.
So if you’re wondering why Americans are so confused that Kabul fell in an afternoon and the Taliban controlled the country we occupied for 20 years, maybe it’s because they thought we were making progress.
So considering that whole chronology — consider the news Reuters broke this week about Joe Biden’s recent conversation with the guy we installed as the “president” of Afghanistan, some college professor called Ashraf Ghani. Joe Biden told Ghani that, even as the Taliban was taking over the country this summer, the most important thing was keeping up the appearance of, you guessed it, progress. “I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” Biden said. “And there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”
Two things to stay about this. First, we know that this conversation took place because the Pentagon or State Department leaked it to Reuters. Why would they do that? Because whatever his faults, Biden did pull American troops from Afghanistan and they hate that. So leaked an audiotape of the president speaking to another head of state. That’s illegal. You can’t conduct statecraft if people are leaking the content of your conversations. Yet they are doing that to get back at him because he broke the rules. He stopped permanent war. He did it ineptly, but he did it.
Lying to the rest of us about what is actually happening with our troops with our money in our name in a foreign country has been the philosophy of this nation’s military establishment for the last twenty years, and it’s also the philosophy of every high-ranking official in the Biden administration. Project the illusion of progress, even when it’s clear we’re failing. Tony Blinken, who runs the State Department ineptly, just announced the news that more than a hundred American citizens are trapped in Afghanistan—really kind of progress:
ANTONY BLINKEN: Now, U.S. military flights have ended and our troops have departed Afghanistan. A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun. It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy. The military mission is over. A new diplomatic mission has begun. // We believe there are still a small number of Americans, under 200, and likely closer to 100, who remain in Afghanistan and want to leave. We’re trying to determine exactly how many.
We had twenty years to figure it out but we have no idea how many Americans including schoolchildren remain in Afghanistan because we’re the adults in the room. And that is why we are going to “lead with our diplomacy.” What does that look like exactly—how do you lead with diplomacy? Here’s one example. Back in April of this year, Tony Blinken’s State Department that announced that it was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on social programs in Afghanistan, to destroy the patriarchy—because that’s really our goal. Impose our modernist social values on prehistoric countries. We’re going to pay for programs that support “women’s empowerment.” Where did that money go—to people like Dr. Bahar Jalali, who just posted this dirge for equity in Afghanistan on social media. “For 8.5 years, I taught at the American University of Afghanistan as a faculty member and academic administrator,” she wrote. “I founded the first Gender Studies program in Afghanistan’s history there. All our work, hopes, dreams, progress. Only to have it snatched away so needlessly.”
It takes a special kind of arrogance, we used to call it cultural imperialism, to imagine other cultures want to ape your family structure for example. Isn’t it up to Afghans to decide what families they want? No. We tried to impose our customs on them and they hated it and maybe that’s one of the reasons the Taliban took over in a weekend.
We hired people like Bahar Jalali and Ashraf Ghani to “lead with our diplomacy”—that’s what Afghanistan has looked like for the past twenty years. Meanwhile, while we’ve been leading with our diplomacy, we’ve given billions of dollars of American military equipment to the Taliban:
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Row upon row of sophisticated assault rifles, boxes of pistols, ammunition, vision equipment. Videos posted by the Taliban online in recent days boast of what they say are their seizures of the assault rifles in the Afghan city of Herat. And at Kunduz Airport, armored Humvees by the dozen, some Mine- Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles called MRAPs, costing half a million dollars apiece, even a small drone. These are the potentially lethal spoils the Taliban are believed to have captured in recent days from defeated Afghan forces. Weapons made in America, supplied by the U.S. to their fallen Afghan allies.
So now, were arming the Taliban and marooning our own citizens in Afghanistan. Who could possibly have seen that coming?