The end of a 20-year war in Afghanistan has ushered in a new period of uncertainty in both there and in the United States. As of today, all U.S. troops have been withdrawn from the country, and well over 100,000 people have been evacuated. What now?
This week, The Brief co-hosts Markos Moulitsas and Kerry Eleveld were joined by guest Jon Soltz, chairman and co-founder of VoteVets, the nation’s premier progressive organization focused on military vets and military families. The group works to “elevate the voices of Veterans and military families through progressive legislative policies and electoral endorsements that impact the lives of active service members, Veterans, and the country.”
[Content warning: Addiction and suicide discussed below.]
Over the last two weeks, Americans watched as frantic, chaotic scenes of evacuation unfolded in Kabul, and the U.S. military scrambled to ensure the appropriate logistics needed to evacuate a total of over 122,000 people from the country—both military and civilian. “The fact that that nation’s government fell within hours, seemingly, of us beginning to pull out” showed that we had failed at nation-building and seemed to confirm the nation’s deepest fears, Moulitsas noted.
Eleveld provided an overview of Biden’s Tuesday speech on the issue, in which he emphasized the numbers: roughly 100,000 Afghans were airlifted out of the country, as well as 5,500 Americans. For Americans—many of whom were dual citizens—who chose to remain, the president reiterated his commitment to helping them get out should they desire to leave later on. Throughout his speech, Eleveld pointed out, Biden’s tone made it increasingly clear that it was no longer in America’s best interest to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan, trying to complete this mission when the situation was becoming increasingly fraught and deadly. “He really was trying to bring home the costs of the war, and the fact that it wasn’t in [our] strategic interests and that he wasn’t going to extend a forever war and then also extend our exit from a forever war,” she added.
But while the Taliban was able to turn the tide and retake power quickly, this was not the same situation as 20 years ago, and new complications began arising immediately. Now, rival groups like ISIS-K are also competing for power given the uncertainty amidst the power vacuum.
Moulitsas weighed in on the trade-offs the Taliban is being forced to make right now to stay in power, explaining that while few are eager and ready to trust the Taliban, “40% of Afghan people depend on foreign aid … and now the Taliban has to rule this country. They cannot have 40% of its population starving, because that’s just the seed for the next revolution, or maybe even seed for ISIS.” The Taliban has incentives to play nice with Western power to unlock the $8 billion in foreign reserves and allow the foreign aid to start flowing in again. He added, “I’m cautiously optimistic that the Talibans’ self-interest will lead them to keep allowing people to leave this country.”
Moulitsas also impressed upon the audience the price our troops pay when it comes to their mental health and wellbeing:
The best way to support your troops is to keep them alive, is to keep them back home with their families, safe and sound … suicide is a serious problem, in addition to drug use and opioid addiction, things like that. These are all major issues. Having these never-ending wars pretty much exacerbated that position … it does take a toll.
Regarding the hit to Biden’s image, Eleveld thinks Americans are living through a uniquely difficult time in history and often don’t agree on how to assign blame for these issues, and this is showing up in fluctuations in Biden’s approval ratings:
I don’t think think you can say it’s any one issue ... I mean, we are living in an age where the status quo is being completely upended … you see some of these polls, they’re very contradictory … I think people just have agita. I think people are just uncomfortable. This is an uncomfortable period of time to live in, and he is presiding over a change presidency in a world that is changing and a nation that is changing. And I think that’s part of what is reflected now in some of the dip in his poll numbers. I have no idea what kind of outcome that’s going to have, but that’s my sense of what is going on right now, because nothing seems linear about what’s happening.
Independents and individuals who are not partisan aligned or are politically disengaged have been the ones who are most likely to have shifting view of Biden’s performance thus far, Moulitsas added, but he remains concerned about making sure his public image stays strong: “We need Joe Biden’s approval ratings to remain … at least in a place where it doesn’t actively harm us heading into 2022.”
At this point, Eleveld and Moulitsas welcomed Soltz onto the show to talk about his thoughts on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, supporting veterans, and liberal activism as a vet.
Soltz served 2 tours in Iraq as a U.S. Army officer and has weighed in on military issues and legislation affecting veterans through VoteVets since 2006. On Afghanistan, he said, even 20 years ago everyone knew what the right thing to do was, but few had the courage to say it or push back against the status quo:
People ask me all the time, ‘Jon, how did you know the wars weren’t right?’ The truth is, everybody knew. The question was, did you have the courage or credibility to say it? When you look back at Afghanistan today, you have to look back at 15 or 16 years of people who have misled our country about where things really stood. That’s certainly been [weighing] on me in the last week. And when I think back to why I got involved, it wasn’t hard to know the truth, it was: Did you have the courage to speak it?
Asked what he thought of Biden’s withdrawal plan and the resulting criticism the president received, Soltz said Biden had stuck to his promise to fully withdraw by September 11 and reiterated the fact that most Americans, and most veterans, backed this decision. (A poll commissioned by VoteVets shows that veterans overwhelmingly support the withdrawal, as do a majority of Americans: veterans support the withdrawal 63%-24%, mirroring the general public’s support, split at 65%-22%.)
Soltz defended the president’s plan, indicating that he was working with a very unstable and quickly moving situation on the ground:
I don’t think that everything that happened could have been anticipated … the fact that [Afghan President Ashraf Ghani] left that morning—I’m not sure anybody could have predicted that. I think that it’s incredible that we got 120,000 people out of that country … operationally speaking, it was a huge success to get that many people out. That, frankly, is unprecedented in a noncombatant evacuation operation.
The reliance on advanced weaponry that the Afghan army could not sustain remained an issue throughout our time in the country, he added.
During his Tuesday speech, Biden touched on the importance of veteran mental health, and this stood out to Soltz, as many vets struggle with PTSD, suicide, and other mental health issues. Soltz explained how hard it can be for returning vets to reconnect with civilians who have never experienced combat or worked in a war zone, especially for a war that over the last decade was increasingly forgotten by the public. He also praised Biden’s humanity on the issue, noting how crucial it is that our country’s president leads with empathy, compassion, and humility when it comes to potentially putting American soldiers’ lives on the line:
I think a lot of it is just based in the fact that people don’t relate anymore. I had a hard time when I came back. I woke up every day thinking, ‘Who died in Iraq yesterday?’ and it’s just not the world people live in … I don’t have an answer for [veteran suicide]. But when I see Joe Biden speak … Joe Biden wakes up and says every day ‘I know how these people feel. My son went to war for a year and then he died of cancer.’ I think he relates to it in such a personal way that there’s no think tank expert, there's no PhD who’s going to argue he doesn't understand it. He knows the pain he feels. And if he’s going to ask that pain of other people, he’s going to make sure it’s worth it. And he could not get to a point where the war was worth it any longer. More than being a president, he’s the father of someone he feels died in the war, and he lives with that every day.
“I think that’s one of the things that made him so resolute about the exit,” Eleveld added.
Eleveld then inquired about Soltz’s position on the use of military force authorization, which since 2001 has been used to authorize military force in these forever wars. “Do you want to see something done about that?” she asked.
Weighing in on this issue is one of VoteVet’s foremost priorities and should also one of the most urgent priorities as a country, Soltz replied:
If we’re going to get serious about the future, we have to get serious about repealing that legislation. Because that will change the game. The idea that we’re fighting organizations in Africa that didn’t exist on 9/11, or we intervened in Yemen in the early stages of the Bush administration, or we had people die in Niger under authorization from 2001—it’s absolute negligence from Congress. It’s the number one legislative priority of our organization … and we have had some success. We were able to prevent Donald Trump from using that authorization to strike Iran … but it’s challenging because there is something out there called presidential war powers. The president can essentially start war anywhere in the world within 90 days. I think in the future, if we’ve learned anything from this war, we will see veterans of it stand up and really talk about war powers … and Congress taking back their constitutional authority to control when this country goes to war in the future.
Democrats are often maligned when it comes to respecting military service. Moulitsas asked Soltz if he’d ever felt that his service was politicized, and Soltz replied:
99% [of Americans were able to separate] the war from the warriors. The things that we saw in Vietnam did not happen in these wars. I’ve never felt from conservatives or liberals that they didn’t respect people that had the courage to put on the uniform and [show up every day]. I’ve felt misunderstood … and we can disagree on policy, but I think that’s one of the most positive things I can say about this experience in the last 20 years. No matter what side you were on, when you came out of the airport in Atlanta and you got off the flight from the Middle East, and you were there and the USO was there, there were Republicans and Democrats there greeting you. Nobody really turned on the folks who served this country in this war, and I think that’s one of the great aspects of how our country handled this.
As the episode came to a close, Moulitsas asked Soltz how folks can get involved and support the work of VoteVets.
VoteVets does a lot of work fundraising for endorsed candidates and gathering signatures for petitions, Soltz said, but more importantly, they actually take local veterans from their communities and give them a voice. “If you’re a veteran, we may put you in a television commercial … That’s the heart of what we do, which is ‘How do we give veterans a voice in the conversation?’ A lot of that is helping veterans run for office, but a lot of it is also giving you a voice if there’s a key congressional district you’re from. We want you to sign up at VoteVets and join our organization.”
Moulitsas closed out with an enthusiastic endorsement of the VoteVets’ work over the years, stressing that “when VoteVets came on the scene in 2006, conservatives owned the conversation around veterans. It was sort of assumed that they were the ones that decided what veterans wanted, and what it was to be pro-veteran. Over the ensuing decades, VoteVets has really sort of transformed that and created a more balanced, more nuanced conversation when it comes to veterans … it’s a critical piece of progressive infrastructure.”
You can watch the full episode below:
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