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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

General who commanded Afghan war sounds off on withdrawal

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 2012, Republican presidential candidate (and future senator) Mitt Romney announced his running mate: Rep. (and future House Speaker) Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

The big idea

General who commanded Afghan war sounds off on withdrawal

Retrospectives, reevaluations and recriminations are definitely on Washington’s menu later this month, when we reach the first anniversary of President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. In fact, as The Daily 202 documented, the relitigating has already started.

But it’s still notable that one of the prominent figures speaking out now is General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who oversaw the American departure as the head of the U.S. Central Command. He retired in April 2022.

In a pair of interviews with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly and Politico’s Lara Seligman, McKenzie blamed every administration from 2001 onward for mismanaging the conflict and said he would have kept 2,500 American troops on the ground “indefinitely.”

McKenzie told Kelly the United States lost its way in Afghanistan, cited specific things the United States should have done differently last year, and seemingly called out Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

  • The withdrawal, completed Aug. 31, had three significant setbacks. Not all Americans who wanted to leave got out. A terrorist attack at Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghans. And many locals who partnered with American forces over 20 years of war against the Taliban were left behind in a country controlled by that Islamist group.

Over the long term, the chief question is whether the United States can prevent the country from once again becoming a haven for terrorists eager to strike America or its allies.

“We got well over 120,000 people out. And that’s the good news story,” McKenzie told NPR. But leaving Afghans behind was “the bad news story” that “still haunts me to this day.”

“They had every expectation that we would bring them out,” he said. “We did not, and we were unable to do that.”

A rough end to 20 years of war

The withdrawal was a signature Biden campaign issue in 2020. And he declared in a February interview that year with Margaret Brennan of CBS he believed the United States would have “zero responsibility” for what happened on the ground after withdrawing.

But former president Donald Trump set things in motion by signing a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, paring down U.S. forces there, and freeing 5,000 prisoners.

Not to be overlooked: The departure came after 20 years of war and metronomically regular warnings that the United States and its allies were not winning.

Still, McKenzie told Seligman Trump’s agreement was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

So who, Mary Louise asked McKenzie, ultimately bears the responsibility for the way the withdrawal unfolded?

  • Ultimately, the chain of command does,” he said. “That was a national decision made by the president, and we executed that decision. We had an opportunity to discuss it. We had an opportunity to give input. The president made a decision, and we executed it.

You’ll never find a more civilian civilian than The Daily 202. But Biden is at the top of “the chain of command.” Austin is right beneath him. So it sure seems like McKenzie is pointing the finger at the White House and the Pentagon. He certainly didn’t absolve them.

(Note that Biden said in remarks marking the end of the U.S. presence “I take responsibility for the decision.”)

Here’s what McKenzie identified to NPR as things that went wrong with the withdrawal:

  • Difficulties processing those who wanted to leave. “It took a while, frankly, for our consular officials to get there in the numbers needed to handle the press of people that were outside” the airport, said McKenzie.
  • We should have begun to bring people out much earlier, rather than waiting until the very end,” he said. “And that would have been in the Spring, even, we should have begun to do that.

In his Aug. 31, 2021 remarks, Biden took aim at the idea of starting large-scale evacuations earlier, saying that wouldn’t have reduced the chaos.

“There still would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown in confidence and control of the government, and it still would have been a very difficult and dangerous mission,” he said.

The long view

In his broader diagnosis of the war, McKenzie identified a kind of mission creep, as the initial goal of hunting down Osama bin Laden after 9/11 and leaving al-Qaeda unable to attack America swelled into an effort to impose a kind of government that couldn’t take root there.

  • “I don't believe Afghanistan is ungovernable,” he said. “I believe Afghanistan is ungovernable with the Western model that [was] imposed on it … We lost track of why we were there, and we did not keep the main thing the main thing.”

The chain of command responsible for that stretches back two decades. And while Biden has affirmed that U.S. officials lied about the way the war was going, the United States doesn’t really have the culture or infrastructure required for that kind of mass accountability.

What’s happening now

Gas prices fall below $4 a gallon, the lowest point since March

“The national average for a gallon of gas has fallen below $4 for the first time since early March, a key psychological threshold for cash-strapped Americans even as inflation remains elevated,” Aaron Gregg reports.

  • “The U.S. average dropped 2 cents overnight to $3.99, AAA reported Thursday, a 20 percent pullback from its June peak above $5. The run-up in gas prices earlier this year is tied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing turmoil in energy markets.”

White House details election-year pitch for economic package

“The House is poised to pass the Inflation Reduction Act on Friday and send it to President Biden for his signature, but the White House and Democrats are wasting no time in planning their campaign to highlight the benefits of the sweeping package,” Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reports.

“The midterm message, in a memo first obtained by Axios, stresses that the recent spate of wins by Biden have hurt special interests, including oil and gas companies, the pharmaceutical industry and gas companies.”

The war in Ukraine

U.N. could discuss nuclear plant

“Russia requested a U.N. Security Council meeting on Thursday over the Zaporizhzhia plant. The head of the U.N. atomic energy watchdog has appealed for access to the plant and warned of the need to avert ‘nuclear disaster.’ Kyiv and Moscow are accusing each other of shelling the nuclear facility, which Russian forces captured earlier in the war,” Ellen Francis, Sean Fanning and Robyn Dixon report.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Historians privately warn Biden that America’s democracy is teetering

“President Biden paused last week, during one of the busiest stretches of his presidency, for a nearly two-hour private history lesson from a group of academics who raised alarms about the dire condition of democracy at home and abroad,” Michael Scherer, Ashley Parker and Tyler Pager report.

“The conversation during a ferocious lightning storm on Aug. 4 unfolded as a sort of Socratic dialogue between the commander in chief and a select group of scholars, who painted the current moment as among the most perilous in modern history for democratic governance, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting.”

Monkeypox vaccine maker voices concerns on U.S. dose-splitting plan

“The manufacturer of the only vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration to protect against monkeypox privately warned senior Biden health officials about their plan to split doses and change how the shots are delivered,” Dan Diamond reports.

… and beyond

Secret contacts revive the search for Austin Tice, missing for 10 years in Syria

“Ten years to the day that Austin Tice disappeared, and three months since [his parents met with Biden in the Oval Office], a sprawling, multinational and often halting effort to get him back is showing signs of revival,” McClatchy's Michael Wilner reports.

“Channels of communication through third parties that went dormant for months are back on, and direct contact between the United States and Syria is quietly underway, raising hopes that a serious negotiation is possible.”

FBI quest for Trump documents started with breezy chats, tour of a crowded closet

“In [the weeks following the FBI's initial trip to retrieve boxes from Mar-a-Lago], someone familiar with the stored papers told investigators there may be still more classified documents at the private club after the National Archives retrieved 15 boxes earlier in the year, people familiar with the matter said. And Justice Department officials had doubts that the Trump team was being truthful regarding what material remained at the property, one person said,” the Wall Street Journal's Alex Leary, Aruna Viswanatha and Sadie Gurman report.

The Biden agenda

Biden administration announces new projects from bipartisan infrastructure law

“The 166 awards, totaling more than $2.2 billion, are the first from funding in the 2021 law for what are called RAISE grants, for Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity. RAISE grants — which may include a 20 percent matching fund requirement — can go to a wide variety of entities, including states, territories and Washington, D.C., as well as tribes, cities and regional transportation entities,” Roll Call's Niels Lesniewski reports.

Clock is ticking for Biden to make key decisions on student loans

“With less than three weeks to go until the federal student loan repayment pause expires, millions of borrowers are still in the dark about whether President Joe Biden will extend the current payment moratorium or possibly forgive any of their debts,” CNN's Maegan Vazquez and Katie Lobosco report.

Biden faces October deadline to decide whether to help Trump avoid questions in Strzok lawsuit

“US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson set the October 14 deadline at hearing Wednesday in the lawsuit brought by former top FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok, who was terminated by the FBI in 2018 after the revelation of anti-Trump texts which Strzok exchanged with a top FBI lawyer that he was having an extramarital affair with at the time,” CNN's Tierney Sneed reports.

Buttigieg promises action on airline delays

“Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday that his agency is ready to take enforcement actions against airlines that don’t perform, as flight delays and cancellations continue to roil the busy summer travel season,” Politico's Oriana Pawlyk reports

How the corporate minimum tax could hit these ultra-profitable companies, visualized

More than 250 companies in the S&P 500 averaged more than $1 billion in pretax income over the last three years, according to a Washington Post analysis of Calcbench data. Of those, 84 paid less than 15 percent in income tax globally. The list includes tech companies such as Amazon and Intel, banks like Bank of America and U.S. Bancorp, telecom giants Verizon and AT&T, and other household names like General Motors and UPS,” Kevin Schaul reports.

Hot on the left

An unusual deal gave Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin $8.5 million in stock. He paid $0 in tax on it.

“In January 2020, Glenn Youngkin, now the Republican governor of Virginia, got some welcome news. A complex corporate transaction had gone through at the Carlyle Group, the powerful private equity company that Youngkin led as co-chief executive. Under the deal, approved by the Carlyle board and code-named ‘Project Phoenix,’ he began receiving $8.5 million worth of Carlyle stock, tax-free, according to court documents,” NBC News's Gretchen Morgenson reports.

Hot on the right

Elbridge Colby: America must prepare for a war over Taiwan

“The disquieting reality is that the United States does not appear to be adequately preparing for such a conflict despite a strengthening commitment, especially by the Biden administration, to the island and its autonomy,” Elbridge Colby writes for Foreign Affairs.

“Although the administration may be making moves in the right direction, the changes it has made so far appear to be unequal to the urgency and scale of the threat China poses. As a result, the unnerving truth is that the United States does not seem to be backing up its strong and, in many ways, commendable rhetoric with the degree of effort and focus needed to be ready to defeat a Chinese assault on Taiwan.”

Today in Washington

Biden is on vacation in Kiawah Island, S.C. He has no public events scheduled.

In closing

The world’s cornhole elite, chasing that one perfect toss

“Tailgates, barbecues and frat quads have all done their part to raise awareness of cornhole, known in some regions as ‘bags,’ and played in its modern form since the 1970s. On lawns and decks all over America, the game offers a way to pass the time while the burgers get grilled; a way to benignly bond with a father-in-law; a way to assert momentary, marginal athletic dominance over one’s buddies while holding a Bud Light in one hand, ” Ashley Fetters Maloy writes.

“In recent years, though, many have gotten acquainted with the elite levels of the game by flipping past ESPN coverage of major cornhole tournament finals.”

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.