The War of Ideas Isn’t Over

I have spent some of the last week educating myself about Afghanistan. You might ask where I was back when the US had a strategic advantage. I now regret the time spent at the paint store squinting at 200 different shades of white. Here’s an idea: America gets only 20 paint colors until we achieve our foreign policy objectives. 40? All I know is that we are past the optimal number of shades of white, considering what just happened.

A lot of the “takes” in the past week have been on the subject of blame. Despite the fact that American lives are still at risk in Afghanistan, this has not been a unifying event, like 9/11 was.

Are we picking our battles in such a way that helps vulnerable people? Any energy spent fighting your enemy B is a resource you cannot use to fight enemy C. Incidentally, that is one of the points that President Biden made in his speech on August 16th. There is an opportunity cost to mean tweets.

I reached out to a veteran friend of mine for insight last week. This is part of what he told me:

Biggest mistake is looking at Afghanistan as a single cohesive entity. It isn’t. There is no national identity. The Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Kazaks of the north … Karzai was a Pashtun and always ensured the main leadership roles were Pashtun.

He said that there are sub-units of Afghan people opposed to the Taliban who are upset by the advance we all witnessed to Kabul. Divided people lose, and then they don’t have the capacity to help others.

There was a time when the Taliban were few in numbers and hanging on the fringes. One advantage they had is that they went with the “legalize it, tax it” drug policy. Farmers under their jurisdiction can grow opium poppy and pay the Taliban a fee. In the American sphere of influence, we were fighting against the laws of supply and demand. The American public is not the only destination market for illicit opioids, but it’s a big one. It’s pretty self-defeating to ask our security forces to fight against drugs when most Americans can’t be bothered about them.

Consider the movie Little Miss Sunshine, a beloved American comedy. Consider the grandpa. He’s not a perfect man. He has his little vices, like dropping F-bombs in front of his young granddaughter. And, he snorts heroin. It’s easy to imagine what a great rapport he has with his dealer. No one would report his behavior to the police.* The drug habit is not portrayed as a virtuous thing, but overall he’s a sympathetic figure.

There is a lot of muddled thinking in our society when it comes to drugs. The bill comes due.

Humans are very creative. The good news is that we could have more discussions about drugs and experiment with new policies. It’s not inevitable that laws regarding drugs will be the same next year, but there is a lot of inertia that needs to be overcome. A society where celebrities joke openly about doing illegal drugs is not going to also be a society that can effectively “reshape the world in its image”, to quote Tyler.  

Tyler’s point is that this unfavorable outcome was not inevitable. From responses I read, many people offering opinions on Tyler’s article did not read past the headline. Nuance can’t be conveyed in a headline or a tweet. Tweet culture is a handicap right now, at a time when good complete ideas are badly needed. What happened in Afghanistan was complex. A tweet might be long enough to say what you would like to see happen, but it’s not long enough to help anyone.

The same Americans who tweet that they want refugees to live somewhere safe won’t go to a city council meeting and argue in favor of building high-density housing in their neighborhood. The same Americans who have tweeted that they hope the Taliban will build an “inclusive” society…

If you take the view that the failure in Afghanistan was inevitable, then Matt Y ’s explainer is ungated and helpful. There is also a lone voice saying that 20 years of “jail” had value.

If indeed this is a major crisis, then we are showing a lack of awareness when it comes to media. Some Americans alive today might not know about the role of media in fighting Nazis. Here is a fun read about that. In addition to WWII-era Brits, the Taliban are also strategic with media.

Considering that this is partly a war of ideas, I don’t know if taking Kabul so fast will look strategic in hindsight. There is much still to be determined. Had the Taliban consolidated power more incrementally, they would have been able to control the images that got out.

Here’s one image I won’t forget:

On the assumption that 20 times more people saw the image than liked it, this picture has been seen by well over 2 million people. Imagine how those girls’ lives have changed. “they are now with the Marines.” The entire world is breathlessly watching the airlift, and any abuses by the Taliban are headline news.

The media you choose to consume shapes the world around you. Every click is a vote for the kind of world you want. The war of ideas continues.

James Bailey here on information consumption (not on Afghanistan)

*It’s nothing glamorous or entertaining, but this is one approach to opioid use. As more parents lose children to fentanyl overdoses, more civic action is happening which generates publicity. Deaths from opioids increased rapidly after 2010. Little Miss Sunshine came out in 2006, so perhaps if it were made today they wouldn’t have taken such a cavalier approach to heroin.