Fears That Trump Might Launch a Strike Prompted General to Reassure China, Book Says
By Michael S. Schmidt
New York Times
14 September 2021
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff twice called his Chinese counterpart in the final months of the Trump administration to reassure him that Donald J. Trump had no plans to attack China in an effort to remain in power and that the United States was not collapsing, according to “Peril,” a new book by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
“Things may look unsteady,” the chairman, Gen. Mark A. Milley, told Gen. Li Zuocheng of China on Jan. 8, two days after Mr. Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol to try to stop the certification of his election loss and in the second of two such calls. “But that’s the nature of democracy, General Li. We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Yet despite his assurances, General Milley was so concerned about Mr. Trump that later that day he convened a meeting with top commanders to remind them that the procedures for launching a nuclear weapon called for his involvement in such a decision.
The book also reveals how Vice President Mike Pence struggled more than was publicly known over how to navigate Mr. Trump’s demands that he upend the election certification. Speaking privately to former Vice President Dan Quayle, who oversaw the certification of the 1992 election in which he was on the losing ticket, Mr. Pence appeared open to going along with Mr. Trump’s plan, pushed the false claim that Arizona’s voting results were wrong and asked whether there was any way he could delay certification.
“Peril,” which is scheduled to be released next Tuesday, says its accounts are based on contemporaneous notes, documents and interviews with unnamed firsthand participants and witnesses. The New York Times obtained a copy of it.
Similar to other media reports and books released since Mr. Trump left office, the book details how Mr. Trump’s presidency essentially collapsed in his final months in office, particularly after his election loss and the start of his campaign to deny the results. Top aides — including General Milley, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Attorney General William P. Barr — became convinced that they needed to take drastic measures to stop him from trampling on American democracy or setting off an international conflict, and General Milley thought that Mr. Trump had declined mentally in the aftermath of the election, according to the book.
A little less than half of the book also covers the first several months of Joseph R. Biden’s administration, as the new president grappled with the pandemic, a faltering economy, Congress and the military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“If the mission is to preserve the Ghani government, I would not send my own son,” Mr. Biden is quoted as telling aides in his first few months in office during the discussions about the withdrawal,
referring to President Ashraf Ghani, who at the time was trying to repel the Taliban from taking over the country.
But it is the book’s details about the Trump administration that are likely to garner the most attention.
In the days leading up to the 2020 election, the book reveals, American intelligence showed that the Chinese believed that Mr. Trump planned to launch a military strike to create an international crisis that he could claim to solve as a last-ditch effort to beat Joseph R. Biden Jr.
General Milley, who had become increasingly concerned about China’s growing military power and the potential for one misread move to set off combat between the world superpowers, first called General Li around that time on a secret backchannel. He wanted to assure General Li and President Xi Jinping that the United States was not planning to attack China.
On the Jan. 8 call, General Li suggested that Chinese leaders feared that the United States government was unstable. He pressed General Milley over the course of an hour and a half about whether the military was going to take action.
Despite General Milley’s reassurances, he feared that Mr. Trump might be trying to find a moment that he could seize on to remain in power, similar to Hitler’s exploitation in 1933 of an arson fire at the German Reichstag to help institute emergency powers, the book said.
But even after the call, General Milley concluded that the situation was “grave” and General Li “remained unusually rattled,” the book reports.
Mr. Trump, General Milley had concluded, did not want a war but might order the launch of some sort of military strike that would set off a chain reaction and lead to war.
“I continually reminded him,” General Milley is quoted as saying, “depending on where and what you strike, you could find yourself at war.”
Later that day, General Milley spoke to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was growing increasingly concerned Mr. Trump would lash out and use military force.
“This is bad, but who knows what he might do?” Ms. Pelosi said. “He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time. So don’t say you don’t know what his state of mind is.”
“Madam Speaker,” General Milley said, “I agree with you on everything.”
General Milley, who as the president’s top military adviser is not in the chain of command, tried to reassure Ms. Pelosi that he could stop Mr. Trump.
“The one thing I can guarantee is that as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I want you to know that — I want you to know this in your heart of hearts, I can guarantee you 110 percent that the military, use of military power, whether it’s nuclear or a strike in a foreign country of any kind, we’re not going to do anything illegal or crazy,” he said.
“Well,” Ms. Pelosi said, “what do you mean, illegal or crazy?”
“I can give you my word,” General Milley said. “The best I can do is give you my word and I’m going to prevent anything like that in the United States military.”
After speaking to Ms. Pelosi, General Milley convened a meeting in a war room at the Pentagon with the military’s top commanders, telling them that he wanted to go over the longstanding procedures for launching a nuclear weapon. The general reminded the commanders that only the president could order such a strike and that General Milley needed to be directly involved.
“If you get calls,” General Milley said, “no matter who they’re from, there’s a process here, there’s a procedure. No matter what you’re told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure. You’ve got to make sure that the right people are on the net.”
The general added: “The strict procedures are explicitly designed to avoid inadvertent mistakes or accident or nefarious, unintentional, illegal, immoral, unethical launching of the world’s most dangerous weapons.”
Then, he went around the room and asked each officer to confirm that they understood what he was saying.
Twelve days later, General Milley said, he thought he might be one of the happiest people at Mr. Biden’s inauguration because Mr. Trump had finally left office.
“We know what you went through,” Mr. Biden told General Milley shortly before the inauguration. “We know what you did.”
While much had been reported about General Milley’s views of Mr. Trump, the book’s depiction of Mr. Pence revealed for the first time the depths that the vice president went to as his fealty to Mr. Trump collided with calculations about his political future and the counsel of his aides and advisers to follow the Constitution.
In the days leading up to Jan. 6, Mr. Pence called Mr. Quayle, the only living Republican vice president forced to certify an election in which he was on the losing ticket.
Mr. Pence told him that the president was convinced that Mr. Pence could throw out the election results in order to keep himself in power.
“Mike, you have no flexibility on this,” Mr. Quayle told Mr. Pence. “None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away.”
“I know, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell Trump,” Mr. Pence said. “But he really thinks he can. And there are other guys in there saying I’ve got this power.”
Mr. Pence then echoed Mr. Trump’s false claims of election fraud. “Well, there’s some stuff out in Arizona,” Mr. Pence said.
“Mike, I live in Arizona,” Mr. Quayle said. “There’s nothing out here.”
California’s Plan to Make New Buildings Greener Will Also Raise Costs
By Ivan Penn
New York Times
30 August 2021
California has led the nation in fighting climate change by encouraging the use of renewable energy and electric cars. Now the state is taking on an even harder challenge — reducing emissions from homes, businesses and other buildings that have to be heated, cooled and powered.
This month, state regulators updated California’s building code to require new homes and commercial buildings to have solar panels and batteries and the wiring needed to switch from heaters that burn natural gas to heat pumps that run on electricity. Energy experts say it is one of the most sweeping single environmental updates to building codes ever attempted by a government agency.
But some energy and building experts warn that California may be taking on too much, too quickly and focusing on the wrong target — new buildings, rather than the much larger universe of existing structures. Their biggest fear is that these new requirements will drive up the state’s already high construction costs, putting new homes out of reach of middle- and lower-income families that cannot as easily afford the higher upfront costs of cleaner energy and heating equipment, which typically pays for itself over years through savings on monthly utility bills.
The median single-family home in California sells for more than $800,000 compared to about $360,000 nationwide, and businesses pay more for rent in cities like San Francisco and San Jose than anywhere else in the country. A big reason costs are higher in California is that the state is not building enough homes, something lawmakers tried to address last week by advancing legislation that would allow more than one home on each parcel of land.
Adding solar panels and a battery to a new home can raise its cost by $20,000 or more. While that might not matter to somebody buying a million-dollar property, it could be a burden on a family borrowing a few hundred thousand dollars to buy a home.
“You’re going to see the impact in office rents. You’re going to see it in the cost of the milk in your grocery store,” said Donald J. Ruthroff, a principal at Dahlin Group Architecture Planning in Pleasanton, Calif. “There’s no question this is going to impact prices across the board.”
The idea at the heart of California’s new building code, which is expected to go into effect in 2023, is to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of fossil fuels like natural gas, replacing them with electricity generated by renewable sources like solar panels, wind turbines and hydroelectric dams. It is difficult to make that switch because millions of homes and commercial buildings need to be updated. That’s why California is starting with the easiest buildings to change — ones that haven’t been built yet.
Regulators in California acknowledge their building code changes could raise construction costs but argue that the modifications will save money over time. Officials argue that the changes are essential to reducing planet-warming emissions that pose their own costs. Destruction from wildfires, heat waves and other extreme weather linked to climate change collectively add up to billions of dollars in expenses like firefighting, rebuilding homes and higher electricity bills.
“The urgency of climate change has gone up,” said Andrew McAllister, a member of the California Energy Commission, which developed and approved the building code changes. “We know we’ve got to get on the stick and do something.”
President Biden has also made fighting climate change a priority. The administration this month said the United States needs to triple or quadruple the annual pace at which it is adding solar energy in order to eliminate emissions from the electricity sector by 2035. That would increase solar generation from about 3 percent of the power sector to 40 percent.
California is already far along in that transition with more than a third of its electricity coming from renewable sources. Its building code change is meant to accelerate that.
California and Washington State develop their own energy standards for building codes. The other 48 and the District of Columbia largely use models developed by a division of the International Code Council, a nonprofit organization run by building officials from across the country. Some states leave buildings code decisions to local governments. The code council sometimes adopts energy-related standards developed by California, a representative of the group said.
Michael Marini, who co-owns a company that builds homes in Southern California, said he generally supports making buildings greener but he fears that the state is not thinking through the consequences of the changes it is pushing through.
Mr. Marini’s company, Planet Home Living, is adding rooftop solar panels in his latest projects, including townhouse-style and single-family homes in Los Angeles, as required by a previous change to the state’s building code that took effect last year. Those homes start at close to $1 million and go as high as $2 million. Buyers of those properties will not flinch at having to pay an extra $10,000 to $15,000 for solar panels, he said. Mr. Marini is also not worried about the new code change that will require him to add a home battery at a cost of about $5,000 starting in 2023.
But in other locations like San Bernardino, a far less affluent city east of Los Angeles, where the typical home sells for about $529,000, the cost of solar panels and batteries can be a bigger burden to home buyers.
“If we push it and we do things that are modern and efficient and green, we tend to be able to do it in Los Angeles,” Mr. Marini said. “That’s not entirely true in the rest of the country. We can’t do that in San Bernardino. At the end, the consumer absorbs the cost.”
The Sycamore Square townhouses were the last ones developed in San Bernardino before the solar mandate took effect last year. Glenn Elssmann, a partner in the project who hired Mr. Marini’s company as the contractor, said the added cost of the solar requirement would have made construction of the development impossible. Homes in Sycamore Square started at $340,000 for the four-bedroom, three-bath units and reached as high as $370,000.
Jimmie Joyce, 44, who works in payroll at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, will soon close on the purchase of a house in Sycamore Square after trying for almost a year to buy closer to Inglewood, a city near the Los Angeles International Airport where he lives now. His commute will likely increase from about 40 minutes to an hour and a half.
“I, for one, didn’t even plan on moving out that far,” Mr. Joyce said. “The way the market is, people are just overbidding to just try to get in things.” He said he made an offer $10,000 to $15,000 higher than the asking price on a home that ended up with more than 70 bids, including one that was $60,000 more than his.
His new home is already expensive for him, he said, and adding $10,000 to $20,000 more for solar, a battery and other amenities “would make that much more challenging.”
The changes regulators adopted this month will also require most new commercial buildings, including schools, hotels, hospitals, office buildings, retailers and grocery stores, and apartment buildings and condos above three stories to include solar and batteries. And regulators will require single-family homes to have wiring that will allow them to use electric heat pumps and water heaters, rather than ones that burn natural gas. About 55 percent of California’s homes use electric heat and 45 percent use natural gas.
Chris Ochoa, senior counsel for codes and regulatory and legislative affairs at the California Building Industry Association, said the builders support efforts to address climate change. But he believes more needs to be done to retrofit existing buildings with more energy-efficient systems, too. Otherwise, new homes, with more efficient and advanced systems, will become even less affordable to first-time buyers.
There are 14 million existing homes, a number that dwarfs the roughly 100,000 permits that builders seek annually for new homes in the state, Mr. Ochoa added.
“You’ve really got to focus on the existing housing stock,” he said. “That’s where you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck.”
Mr. Ruthroff, the architect, said the state’s approach to focus on new homes made sense because it is “the low-hanging fruit.” But he added that there was only so much to be gained from imposing such requirements on new buildings since they are already much better insulated and have more advanced appliances and heating and cooling equipment than older homes.
Mr. McAllister, the energy commission member, said he appreciates the need to upgrade existing buildings. But tackling that problem will take many years and a lot of money. “It’s going to take tens of billions of dollars to get into our existing homes,” he said.
For now, the commission is focused on requiring the most cost-effective changes. For example, its recent code change was based on analysis that determined that it made economic sense to require solar panels and batteries for new homes and most commercial buildings, but not for much larger warehouses and factories. The new code changes will also go down easier, Mr. McAllister claimed because many homeowners and businesses are already buying solar panels and batteries.
“Solar is cheap,” Mr. McAllister said. And “it’s an amenity that the marketplace actually wants.”
Let’s Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew From Afghanistan Was the Problem
By Ezra Klein
New York Times
26 August 2021
In 2005, two of my colleagues at The American Prospect, Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias, wrote an essay I think about often. It was called “The Incompetence Dodge,” and it argued that American policymakers and pundits routinely try to rescue the reputation of bad ideas by attributing their failure to poor execution. At the time, they were writing about the liberal hawks who were blaming the catastrophe of the Iraq war on the Bush administration’s maladministration rather than rethinking the enterprise in its totality. But the same dynamic suffuses the recriminations over the Afghanistan withdrawal.
To state the obvious: There was no good way to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban. A better withdrawal was possible — and our stingy, chaotic visa process was unforgivable — but so was a worse one. Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn’t reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America’s belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one. That is the reckoning that lies beneath events that are still unfolding, and much of the cable news conversation is a frenzied, bipartisan effort to avoid it.
Focusing on the execution of the withdrawal is giving virtually everyone who insisted we could remake Afghanistan the opportunity to obscure their failures by pretending to believe in the possibility of a graceful departure. It’s also obscuring the true alternative to withdrawal: endless occupation. But what our ignominious exit really reflects is the failure of America’s foreign policy establishment at both prediction and policymaking in Afghanistan.
“The pro-war crowd sees this as a mechanism by which they can absolve themselves of an accounting for the last 20 years,” Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, told me. “Just think about the epic size of this policy failure. Twenty years of training. More than $2 trillion worth of expenditure. For almost nothing. It is heartbreaking to watch these images, but it is equally heartbreaking to think about all of the effort, of lives and money we wasted in pursuit of a goal that was illusory.”
Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, phrased it well: “There’s no denying America is the most powerful country in the world, but what we’ve seen over and over in recent decades is we cannot turn that into the outcomes we want. Whether it’s Afghanistan or Libya or sanctions on Russia and Venezuela, we don’t get the policy outcomes we want, and I think that’s because we overreach — we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.”
It is worth considering some counterfactuals for how our occupation could have ended. Imagine that the Biden administration, believing the Afghan government hollow, ignored President Ashraf Ghani’s pleas and began rapidly withdrawing personnel and power months ago. The vote of no-confidence ripples through Afghan politics, demoralizing the existing government and emboldening the Taliban. Those who didn’t know which side to choose, who were waiting for a signal of who held power, quickly cut deals with the Taliban. As the last U.S. troops leave, the Taliban overwhelms the country, and the Biden administration is blamed, reasonably, for speeding their victory.
Another possible scenario was suggested to me by Grant Gordon, a political scientist who works on conflict and refugee crises (and is, I should say, an old friend): If the Biden administration had pulled our allies and personnel out more efficiently, that might have unleashed the Taliban to massacre their opposition, as America and the world would have been insulated and perhaps uninterested in the aftermath. There have been revenge killings, but it has not devolved, at least as of yet, into all-out slaughter, and that may be because the American withdrawal has been messy and partial and the Taliban fears re-engagement. “What is clearly a debacle from one angle may actually have generated restraint,” Gordon told me. “Having spent time in places like this, I think people lack a real imagination for how bad these conflicts can get.”
Let me offer one more: Even though few believed Ghani’s government would prevail in our absence, and the Trump administration cut them out of its deal with the Taliban, there’s widespread disappointment that the government we supported collapsed so quickly. Biden has been particularly unsparing in his descriptions of the Afghan Army’s abdication, and I agree with those who say he’s been unfair, underestimating the courage and sacrifice shown by Afghan troops throughout the war. But put that aside: Americans might have felt better seeing our allies in Afghanistan put up a longer fight, even if the Taliban emerged victorious. But would a multiyear civil war have been better for the Afghans caught in the crossfire?
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, put it simply: “I think there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance, and smart people are struggling with how to rationalize defeat. Because that’s what we have here in Afghanistan — a defeat.”
I will not pretend that I know how we should have left Afghanistan. But neither do a lot of people dominating the airwaves right now. And the confident pronouncements to the contrary over the past two weeks leave me worried that America has learned little. We are still holding not just to the illusion of our control, but to the illusion of our knowledge.
This is an illusion that, for me, shattered long ago. I was a college freshman when America invaded Iraq. And, to my enduring shame, I supported it. My reasoning was straightforward: If George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell and, yes, Joe Biden all thought there was some profound and present danger posed by Saddam Hussein, they must have known something I didn’t.
There’s an old line: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And so it was with the Iraq war. Bush and Clinton and Powell and Blair knew quite a bit that wasn’t true. As Robert Draper shows in his book “To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq,” they were certain Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Only he didn’t. They were also certain, based on decades of testimony from Iraqi expats, that Americans would be welcomed as liberators.
There were many lessons to be learned from the Iraq war, but this, for me, was the most central: We don’t know what we don’t know, and, even worse, we don’t always know what we think we know. Policymakers are easily fooled by people with seemingly relevant experience or credentials who will tell them what they want to hear or what they already believe. The flow of money, interests, enmities and factions is opaque to outsiders and even to insiders. We do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.
“Look at the countries in which the war on terror has been waged,” Ben Rhodes, who served as a top foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama, told me. “Afghanistan. Iraq. Yemen. Somalia. Libya. Every one of those countries is worse off today in some fashion. The evidentiary basis for the idea that American military intervention leads inexorably to improved material circumstances is simply not there.”
I wrote a book on political polarization so I am often asked to do interviews where the point is to lament how awful polarization is. But the continuing power of the war-on-terror framework reflects the problems that come from too much bipartisanship. Too much agreement can be as toxic to a political system as too much disagreement. The alternative to polarization is often the suppression of dissenting viewpoints. If the parties agree with each other, then they have incentive to marginalize those who disagree with both of them.
At least for my adult life, on foreign policy, our political problem has been that the parties have agreed on too much, and dissenting voices have been shut out. That has allowed too much to go unquestioned, and too many failures to go uncorrected. It is telling that it is Biden who is taking the blame for America’s defeat in Afghanistan. The consequences come for those who admit America’s foreign policy failures and try to change course, not for those who instigate or perpetuate them.
Initially, the war in Afghanistan was as broadly supported and bipartisan as anything in American politics has ever been. That made it hard to question, and it has made it harder to end. The same is true of the assumptions lying beneath it, and much else in our foreign policy — that America is always a good actor; that we understand enough about the rest of the world, and about ourselves, to remake it in our image; that humanitarianism and militarism are easily grafted together.
The tragedy of humanitarian intervention as a foreign policy philosophy is that it binds our compassion to our delusions of military mastery. We awaken to the suffering of others when we fear those who rule them or hide among them, and in this way our desire for security finds union with our desire for decency. Or we awaken to the suffering of others when they face a massacre of such immediacy that we are forced to confront our passivity and to ask what inaction would mean for our souls and self-image. In both cases, we awaken with a gun in our hands, or perhaps we awaken because we have a gun in our hands.
To many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop. There are vicious regimes America finances directly. It is callous to suggest that the only suffering we bear responsibility for is the suffering inflicted by our withdrawal. Our wars and drone strikes and tactical raids and the resulting geopolitical chaos directly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis.
This is the deep lacuna in America’s foreign policy conversation: The American foreign policy establishment obsesses over the harms caused by our absence or withdrawal. But there’s no similar culpability for the harms we commit or that our presence creates. We are much quicker to blame ourselves for what we don’t do than what we do.
My heart breaks for the suffering we will leave behind in Afghanistan. But we do not know how to fix Afghanistan. We failed in that effort so completely that we ended up strengthening the Taliban. We should do all we can to bring American citizens and allies home. But if we truly care about educating girls worldwide, we know how to build schools and finance education. If we truly care about protecting those who fear tyranny, we know how to issue visas and admit refugees. If we truly care about the suffering of others, there is so much we could do. Only 1 percent of the residents of poor countries are vaccinated against the coronavirus. We could change that. More than 400,000 people die from malaria each year. We could change that, too.
“I want America more forward-deployed, but I want it through a massive international financing arm and a massive renewable energy arm,” Senator Murphy told me. “That’s the United States I want to see spread across the world — not the face of America today that’s by and large arms sales, military trainers and brigades.”
The choice we face is not between isolationism and militarism. We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.
For this Afghan filmmaker, Silicon Valley business training is a way to change old ways back home
By Jody Meacham
26 July 2017
It’s hard being a businesswoman in Silicon Valley. It’s even harder in a place where society hasn’t made up its mind yet about whether girls should go to school.
Masooma Ibrahimi, 33, was born in Iran to Afghan parents who had fled the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s. They moved back when she was prevented from going to college in Iran because of her nationality. In her parents’ homeland, where many girls were forbidden to go to school under the Taliban, she was allowed to go to college and study film making.
Last week she was visiting tech companies up and down the Peninsula as part of a mentorship program at Akraya, sponsored by the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women, learning how she might turn Arastoo, Afghanistan’s first woman-owned film-making company, into a profitable business.
“Most of the Afghan people think that filming is a hobby, not an industry,” Ibrahimi said. “But film documentaries or short films or feature films have a lot of effect on the lifestyle of the area. Afghanistan is a backward country. We have a lot of problems. We have very, very, very bad customs in our country and film can change your mind. Film can change your life, also.”
Changing lives in Afghanistan has always been what she’s about, Ibrahimi said.
She has written thousands of television and radio scripts in Afghanistan, daily dramas broadcast into remote villages where sometimes the only outside communication is a battery-powered radio, telling stories about how the ongoing war has stifled societal development and about how women try to survive despite oppression born of custom.
“I have written programs especially for teenagers,” she said. “Each season has been 75 episodes for four years. After this I have written a lot of short serials to change Afghan families’ minds, because in far provinces there is not television and electricity and most people listen to radio. I have started writing a daily serial in radio from 2012 for four years.”
But the grind was exhausting. It finally cost her her job and cost viewers and listeners an important perspective.
“In Afghanistan, families have to know about problems of women in Afghanistan,” she said of the audience for her stories. “For example, when a girl becomes teen-age and becomes — you know, (starts her) period — she couldn’t tell about her situation to her mother or father. If her mother and father know about this, (it's) 'OK, you have to marry.' Why? For example, she is 13. She is 12. I want to change it.”
Now she has moved into writing and producing short films and documentaries that have won prizes at small film festivals in Switzerland, India, Iran, Ireland and the United States. During her week in Silicon Valley she learned about business plans and marketing to make Arastoo a going concern in which she and her film-maker husband can make a go of it.
“I went to many different companies, for example,” she said. “We went to Facebook, Google, for example. It was great, you know? It was dream. It’s not real. And I was so sad. Why is my country so backward? Too backward. Why do we not have this company in my country? I shake and the hair on my body rose.
“Now I think I wake up from a very long sleep. I have to stand. I have to go back. I have to change. I have to make some change in my personal life, in my career, in my society. I want to share all of the things I learned here with my family, my relatives and my colleagues. It is very important because here is very, very advanced country. We will learn many things within it.”
Not everyone home in Kabul wants to see things change. Monday, after getting back home, she reported on on her Facebook page about an explosion in the city that killed 20 people.
She had said before leaving the United States that such violence has driven many of her fellow filmmakers out of the country.
“When you are walking in the street, an explosion takes place,” she said. “Just in one second, two seconds, many people will be injured and killed. Our people are so tired. We don’t need war. We don’t need terrorists or radical persons. We want to have a very relaxed life. We want to be happy. We want to improve our country. But there are some people who don’t want this change because they like to control the people for themselves, control the minds of people.”
Biden Could Still Be Proved Right in Afghanistan
By Thomas Friedman
New York Times
16 August 2021
For years, U.S. officials used a shorthand phrase to describe America’s mission in Afghanistan. It always bothered me: We are there to train the Afghan Army to fight for its own government.
That turned out to be shorthand for everything that was wrong with our mission — the idea that Afghans didn’t know how to fight and that just one more course in counterinsurgency would do the trick. Really? Thinking you need to train Afghans how to fight is like thinking you need to train Pacific Islanders how to fish. Afghan men know how to fight. They’ve been fighting one another, the British, the Soviets or the Americans for a long, long time.
It was never about the way our Afghan allies fought. It was always about their will to fight for the corrupt pro-American, pro-Western governments we helped stand up in Kabul. And from the beginning, the smaller Taliban forces — which no superpower was training — had the stronger will, as well as the advantage of being seen as fighting for the tenets of Afghan nationalism: independence from the foreigner and the preservation of fundamentalist Islam as the basis of religion, culture, law and politics.
In oft-occupied countries like Afghanistan, many people will actually prefer their own people as rulers (however awful) over foreigners (however well intentioned).
“We learn again from Afghanistan that although America can stop bad things from happening abroad, it cannot make good things happen. That has to come from within a country,” said Michael Mandelbaum, a U.S. foreign policy expert and the author of “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era.”
All of which leads to a fundamental and painful question: Was the U.S. mission there a total failure? Here I’d invoke one of my ironclad rules about covering the Middle East: When big events happen, always distinguish between the morning after and the morning after the morning after. Everything really important happens the morning after the morning after — when the full weight of history and the merciless balances of power assert themselves.
And so it will be in Afghanistan — for both the Taliban and President Biden.
Let’s start with the Taliban. Today, they are having a great morning-after celebration. They are telling themselves they defeated yet another superpower.
But will the Taliban simply resume where they left off 20 years ago — harboring Al Qaeda, zealously imposing their puritanical Islam and subjugating and abusing women and girls? Will the Taliban go into the business of trying to attack U.S. and European targets on their soil?
I don’t know. I do know they just inherited responsibility for all of Afghanistan. They will soon face huge pressure to deliver order and jobs for Afghans. And that will require foreign aid and investment from countries that America has a lot of influence with — Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the members of the European Union.
And with the United States gone, the Taliban will also have to navigate their survival while swimming alone with some real sharks — Pakistan, India, China, Russia and Iran. They might want to keep the White House phone number on speed dial.
“The post-2001 Taliban have proved to be a learning, more political organization that is more open to the influence of external factors,” said Thomas Ruttig in a paper for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, The Washington Post noted.
We’ll see. The early signs — all sorts of Taliban abuses — are not promising. But we need to watch how, and if, they fully establish control. The Taliban’s main beef with America is that we were in their country. Let’s see what happens when we’re gone.
And let’s also remember: When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, iPhones, Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist. Flash forward to today: Afghanistan is not only much more connected to the world, but it’s connected internally as well. It will not be nearly as easy for the Taliban to hide their abuses from the world or from fellow Afghans.
In 2001, virtually no one in Afghanistan owned a mobile phone. Today, more than 70 percent of Afghans do, and many of them have internet-enabled smartphones. While there is nothing inherently liberalizing about owning a phone, according to a 2017 study by Internews, Afghanistan’s social media “is already propagating change as it has become a platform for denouncing cases of corruption and injustice, bringing attention to causes that have not yet been addressed on traditional media and seemingly letting any social media user voice a public opinion.’’
Maybe the Taliban will just shut it all down. And maybe they won’t be able to.
At the same time, a July 7 report in Time magazine on Afghanistan observed: “When U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban from power, in 2001, there were almost no girls in school across the country. Today, there are millions, and tens of thousands of women attending university, studying everything from medicine to miniature painting.’’
Maybe on the morning after the morning after, the Taliban will just order them all back under burqas and shut their schoolrooms. But maybe they will also encounter pushback from wives and daughters that they’ve never encountered before — precisely because of the social, educational and technological seeds of change planted by the United States over the last 20 years. I don’t know.
And what if all of the most educated Afghans try to emigrate — including civil servants, plumbers, electricians, computer repair experts and car mechanics — and the morning after the morning after, the country is left with a bunch of barely literate Taliban thugs to run the place? What will they do then? Especially since this is a much more environmentally stressed Afghanistan than the one the Taliban ruled 20 years ago?
According to a report published last year by National Geographic, “Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and one of the least equipped to handle what’s to come” — including drought, flooding, avalanches, landslides, extreme weather and mass displacement.
As for the Biden team, it is hard to imagine a worse morning after for it in Kabul. Its failure to create a proper security perimeter and transition process, in which Afghans who risked their lives to work with us these past two decades could be assured of a safe removal to America — not to mention an orderly exit for foreign diplomats, human rights activists and aid workers — is appalling and inexplicable.
But ultimately, the Biden team will be judged by how it handles the morning after the morning after. Biden made a claim — one that was shared by the Trump team — that America would be more secure and better able to deal with any terrorist threats if we were out of Afghanistan than if we stayed embedded there, with all the costs of people, energy and focus. He again suggested as much in his address to the nation Monday afternoon.
The Biden team essentially said that the old way of trying to secure America from Middle East terrorists through occupation and nation-building doesn’t work and that there is a better way. It needs to tell us what that way is and prove it out the morning after the morning after.
We’re at the start of one of the biggest geopolitical challenges the modern world has ever faced. Because there’s now a whole slew of countries — Libya, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia — that have evicted the colonial great powers that once controlled them (and that brought both order and disorder) but have now also manifestly failed at governing themselves. What to do?
When the French president, Emmanuel Macron, visited Lebanon in July 2020, he was presented on his arrival with a petition signed by some 50,000 Lebanese calling for France to take control of Lebanon because of the Lebanese government’s “total inability to secure and manage the country.”
I doubt that is the last such petition we will see.
For the last 20 years, America tried to defend itself from terrorism emanating from Afghanistan by trying to nurture it to stability and prosperity through the promotion of gender pluralism, religious pluralism, education pluralism, media pluralism and, ultimately, political pluralism.
That theory was not wrong. We are entering an unprecedented era in human history, two simultaneous and hugely challenging climate changes at once: one in the climate of technology and one in the climate of the climate. Without such pluralism, neither Afghanistan nor any of these other failing states (or America, but that’s for another column) will be able to adapt to the 21st century.
But the theory relied on there being enough Afghans willing to sign on for more such pluralism. Many were.
But too many were not. So Biden determined that we needed to stop this effort, leave Afghanistan and readjust our defense strategy. I pray that he is right. But he will be judged by what happens the morning after the morning after.