One of the constant themes of coverage was scorn, bordering on contempt, for the notion that the Taliban might cooperate with the U.S. government in the evacuation. No matter how many times press secretaries for the Pentagon, White House and State Department explained that the administration was in constant conversation to “deconflict” with the Taliban, and no matter how many thousands of evacuees went through Taliban checkpoints, reporters sneered. Why are we trusting the Taliban? Who decided to outsource our protection to the Taliban?
Certainly, the Taliban has been a vicious group trying to enforce religious fanaticism by force. But it now also has to fight off Islamic State-Khorasan and figure out how to run a fractured country. Measured voices — including Aaron David Miller, former Middle East negotiator for the State Department — patiently explained that no one really knows if we are dealing with Taliban “1.0, 2.0 or 3.0.” Wait, facts should inform our opinions and decisions? What a concept.
Press secretaries, generals, the national security adviser and others explained again and again that the administration doesn’t trust the Taliban, but that the United States and the Taliban have a mutual interest in a successful withdrawal. Despite obvious evidence of cooperation, former administration officials denounced the suggestion that practical self-interest (getting the United States out) could trump ideology. H.R. McMaster, retired Army lieutenant general and national security adviser to President Biden’s predecessor, scorned the idea.
In fact, the commentary was off-base. Now actual reporting is filling in the gaps to provide a fuller picture of the Taliban’s actions. CNN reported, “The U.S. military negotiated a secret arrangement with the Taliban that resulted in members of the militant group escorting clusters of Americans to the gates of the Kabul airport as they sought to escape Afghanistan, two defense officials told CNN.” The report continued: “The officials said Americans were notified to gather at preset ‘muster points’ close to the airport where the Taliban would check their credentials and take them a short distance to a gate manned by American forces who were standing by to let them inside amid huge crowds of Afghans seeking to flee.” No wonder military officials described the Taliban’s conduct as “professional.”
NBC News added to the portrait: “Less than 24 hours before the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban stopped a bus headed for the Kabul airport and forced all the passengers off, saying the bus might be rigged with explosives and that it had two possible suicide attackers on board, according to the account of a U.S. citizen who was on the bus. The U.S. citizen, whose name NBC News is withholding for security reasons, was on the bus with his six daughters Sunday when Taliban fighters stopped it at the Panjsher Pumping Station just outside the airport, two people familiar with the account said. The Taliban told everyone to get off.” They stayed hidden until they got the all-clear.
NBC also reported: “For more than a week, militants who fought the U.S. for two decades drove Americans through checkpoints, cleared streets so Americans could pass safely and even carried luggage to the airport gates, the officials said. They may have also prevented some attacks, officials said, although the three senior defense officials were unfamiliar with the bus incident.”
This is just one example of many in which arrogant pundits without a military background (let alone access to current intelligence), former national security officials seeking to exonerate themselves and think tank commentators who cheered for the 20-year war operated in a largely fact-free environment. The narrative that the operation was a failure was set at the beginning of the crisis. Instead of allowing reporting to inform the commentary, commentary took fanciful leaps across the media.
Cable TV news outlets as well as online and print media would do well to engage in their own self-reflection of their coverage over the past two decades, often spoon-fed by defenders of the war. Over the past two weeks, cynicism and punditry regularly took the place of fact-based reporting. Especially when it comes to a foreign policy crisis, the media cannot simply rely on the same White men who drove policy (poorly) for takes, especially without disclosing their ties to defense contractors.
The country could have done without the ill-conceived second-guessing disguised as analysis from supposedly neutral reporters. This coverage did not serve to inform or contextualize events. In that regard, members of the media join the list of Americans who might take a moment to consider their errors and excesses.