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As President Joe Biden ended his news conference on Friday afternoon about the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, a reporter called out an especially bellicose question.
“Why do you continue to trust the Taliban, Mr. President?” the reporter said.
Notwithstanding the militant group’s poor human rights record and ua-conservative Islamist ideology, multiple U.S. administrations have successfully negotiated with the Taliban. The Taliban have complex interests. As Biden noted on Friday, the organization is at war with the faction of the self-declared Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which is competing for power in Afghanistan.
But the reporter’s criticism-masquerading-as-query was the culmination of a week’s worth of dramatic finger-pointing and fretting from a Washington press corps that usually prides itself on neutrality.
Although the White House’s failure to foresee the rapid fall of the Afghan government and prepare accordingly has exacerbated the chaos of the U.S. withdrawal, Biden and his allies are furious with what they see as reporters’ and pundits’ unduly hawkish coverage of the exit.
“The media tends to bend over backwards to ‘both-sides’ all of their coverage, but they made an exception for this,” said Eric Schultz, a deputy press secretary under President Barack Obama. “They both-sides coverage over masks, and vaccines, and school openings and everything else. Somehow [the Afghanistan withdrawal] created a rush to judgment and a frenzy that we haven’t seen in a long time.”
Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the de facto leader of the party’s progressive wing and Biden’s rival in the 2020 presidential primary, offered a similar assessment.
“The extent to which the media is privileging voices who have gotten this wrong for years is ridiculous,” he said. “What we’re seeing is an attempt by the Washington foreign policy establishment to expiate its sins of over 20 years by putting this on the Biden administration.”
Journalists who cover the Pentagon spend an inordinate amount of their time with current and former military officials, many of whom go on to lucrative gigs with military contractors that profited from the Afghanistan War. It’s that kind of chumminess that contributed to the media’s amplification of the specious case for the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003.
As The Intercept has chronicled, the problem of media bias toward foreign adventurism is especially acute among talking heads paid to discuss military policy on television. Former U.S. military generals often inveigh against the withdrawal on cable news with just their past military titles rather than their current careers as contractors who stand to profit from an extended presence in Afghanistan.
A source close to the White House identified this dynamic to HuffPost. “They are elevating the Blob, whose members spent years lying about progress in Afghanistan (and who often have financial conflicts of interest),” the source said, using the “blob” colloquialism that refers to the Washington foreign policy establishment. “The result is that many in the press are left effectively endorsing the view that the U.S. should have sent more American service members into Afghanistan to fight and die to stop another Taliban offensive ― despite supposedly being impartial.”
This president himself vented similar frustration Friday during remarks at the White House. “People now say to me and others ― many of you say it on air ― ‘Why did we have to move because no Americans were being attacked? Why did we agree to withdraw 2,500 troops when no Americans were being attacked?’” Biden said.
Biden noted that in the past year the dearth of casualties was thanks to an agreement that then-President Donald Trump made with the Taliban promising a timeline for withdrawal on the condition that the Taliban not attack U.S. forces.
He then noted that if the U.S. reneged on its commitment to announce a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban would escalate their offensive and the U.S. would have to respond in kind.
“The idea that if I had said on May the 2nd or 3rd, ‘We are not leaving. We are staying,’ does anybody truly believe that I would not have had to put in significantly more American forces ― send your sons and your daughters, like my son was sent to Iraq? To maybe die ― and for what, for what?” Biden asked incredulously.
That’s a question that much of the media has rarely interrogated — until now. News broadcasts on the three major American TV networks ― NBC, CBS and ABC ― have barely mentioned Afghanistan at all in recent years, according to data compiled by media monitor Andrew Tyndall.
The Washington industrial complex is always going to be more in favor of having a muscular military approach.
Eric Schultz, senior adviser to former President Barack Obama
Even in 2020, the year in which Trump negotiated his agreement with the Taliban, the three networks mentioned Afghanistan just five times.
At the same time, now that Biden is taking a step that U.S. presidents have been very reluctant to take, he is facing a tidal wave of either negative coverage that omits critical context or outright condemnation from many of the same journalists who ignored the war under Trump and for years before.
For example, one White House correspondent passionately asked Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, why Biden did not see a national interest in keeping troops near the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan.
Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent of NBC News, has assigned himself the even greater task of defending the U.S.’s ability to create a functioning military and nation-state in Afghanistan.
Responding to Biden’s suggestion that “nothing could have fixed Afghanistan,” Engel tweeted, “I wish he’d come to Kabul more recently, even six months ago.”
For all of his optimism about the United States’ ability to shape politics in countries as different as Afghanistan, Engel apparently had little to say about the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers. The 2019 papers, which made public more than 2,000 pages of government documents discussing the war, reveal the degree to which U.S. military and civilian leaders considered the war unwinnable but lied to the public about the progress they were making.
To critics of the Washington press corps’s coziness with the national security establishment, some reporters’ selective indignation about the withdrawal is nothing new.
“The Washington industrial complex is always going to be more in favor of having a muscular military approach,” said Schultz, who is now a senior adviser to Obama. “That will always be the gravitational pull in Washington.”
What is novel is the willingness of many Democrats, including Biden himself, not to be cowed by hawkish Beltway voices and their chorus in the media.
Biden’s own transformation from an Iraq War proponent and member of the foreign policy “Blob” in good standing to an early and outspoken skeptic of Obama’s surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is remarkable.
He has stuck to his guns while under attack in the press, laying out a case for the limits of American military power in an interview with ABC News that would have been unthinkable at the height of the “global war on terror.”
“The idea that we’re able to deal with the rights of women around the world by military force is not rational. Not rational,” he said.
Schultz says that Biden has learned from the experience of Obama, who had to contend with the national security establishment’s skepticism of his decision not to intervene in Syria and his nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran.
“As a Democrat, I’m very relieved and encouraged and heartened that the White House knows they’re speaking to the country, not just Playbook subscribers,” Schultz said, referring to Politico’s popular inside-the-Beltway newsletter.