Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 21 August 2021

A Rough Beast Returns

Aug. 21, 2021, 11:00 a.m. ET

Credit...Omar Haidari, via Reuters


Maureen Dowd

By Maureen Dowd

Opinion Columnist

Maureen Dowd Get an email as soon as Maureen Dowd’s latest column is published. Get it sent to your inbox.

WASHINGTON — As President Biden watched Kabul descend into hell, did he think of his beloved Yeats?

He is the poet Biden recited as a teen to conquer his stutter. And Biden has quoted Yeats before while talking about the Middle East.

“The Second Coming” eerily sprang to life in the president’s helter-skelter exit from Afghanistan, a land that still prizes falconry and falcons flying in widening gyres.

When Yeats writes about darkness dropped in the sands of the desert and a slouching “rough beast” with “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” he could be describing the Taliban. Anarchy loosed upon the world, a blood-dimmed tide, and the worst, full of passionate intensity.

Biden did the right thing getting us out of there. But he did it badly.

Wynken, Blynken and Nod, as some in military circles are derisively calling Jake Sullivan, Tony Blinken and Biden, consider themselves foreign affairs savants. Yet even Democrats can’t defend them and are convening hearings.


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The pandemonium drew comparisons to some of the worst debacles in modern American history: the fall of Saigon and the Bay of Pigs. A baby hoisted over razor wire into the arms of a Marine. Afghans clinging to the wings and landing gear of an American jet as it took off, then plunging to the tarmac; later, human remains were found on one of the wheels. A 17-year-old Afghan soccer player falling to his death off the side of a plane.

Women’s rights vanished with the crack of a Taliban whip. The Wall Street Journal said some Taliban commanders were commandeering young women to be brides for Taliban fighters. The story captured the heartbreaking moment for young women who had never lived under Taliban rule. A young researcher, caught by surprise at the fall of Kabul, was working last Sunday in a short skirt. Trapped at the office as the Taliban closed in, she thought about wrapping herself in a curtain before a friend arrived to escort her home.

Allies expressed their furious sense of betrayal, with British lawmakers raging against Biden in Parliament. Biden’s abrupt unilateral path was “throwing us and everybody else to the fire,” said one. It was another hard lesson about getting tied up with the Americans for the British, who enabled George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to execute their spurious, attenuated occupations of Muslim countries.


President Joe Biden delivering remarks on Afghanistan, at the East Room of the White House, on Friday.

President Joe Biden delivering remarks on Afghanistan, at the East Room of the White House, on Friday.Credit...Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Americans are not built to occupy feudal countries under scorching suns halfway around the globe. Even the British long ago had to face the folly of that, in particular in 1842 when some 17,000 British and Indian Army soldiers, wives and servants were killed as they tried to retreat through the snowy mountains to Jalalabad.


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The idea that we were going to turn Iraq and Afghanistan into mini-mes of Jeffersonian democracy was always an arrogant miscalculation, driven by macho hubris, not national security. If we stayed for a century — installing corrupt, larcenous puppets, listening to generals lie about turning the corner, surging, and wasting trillions — we couldn’t do it. (General Petraeus, please stop talking.)

But how could we leave the tens of thousands of Afghans who helped and trusted us to the tender mercies of the Taliban? A U.N. report warns that the Taliban were hunting down people who worked with America or NATO, as well as their families, and threatening to kill them.

Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, looked flummoxed when The Times’s Helene Cooper pressed him on why they did not have a good plan to save the Afghans desperately clawing to get into the airport.


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The greatest military on earth is now dependent on “diplomacy with the Taliban,” as Cooper posed it, to save the people who risked their lives helping us. Austin and General Milley seemed to have bungled the whole thing. They did not inspire confidence in that news conference, which aired even as some Afghans in the military fled their country in American aircraft and the Taliban were seizing American guns, helicopters and trucks.

Donald Trump could have made safe and orderly passage a part of his deal when he negotiated his 2020 “surrender agreement,” as his former national security adviser H.R. McMaster called it in an interview with Bari Weiss.

We all know Trump is a terrible deal-maker. Biden could have told the Taliban he was not abiding by Trump’s fatally flawed deal and renegotiated it to avoid this pell-mell disgrace.

But Trump and Biden were so impatient to get out, their screw-ups merged into strangulating red tape.


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The State Department dawdled for months in getting visas for Afghan allies and, as the Taliban seized cities, towns and provincial capitals, it neglected contingency planning for a possible evacuation.

Still, it is enraging to watch a parade of dunderheads preen on cable — anchors and generals and chatterers — the same people whose cheerleading ensnared us in 20 years of quicksand in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We didn’t know 9/11 was coming, even though we should have. We didn’t know Jan. 6 was coming, even though we should have. We didn’t know the Potemkin government in Afghanistan that we’d propped up for two decades would fall in two seconds, even though we should have.

What else don’t we know? 

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