The Afghanistan Deal that Never Happened

“McKenzie was flying to Doha, Qatar that day to offer the Taliban a deal: Keep your forces outside the capital so the U.S. can evacuate tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans from the city, and we won’t fight you.

But by the time McKenzie landed, the offer was DOA. Taliban fighters were already inside the presidential palace, and Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, had fled the city. The Afghan government the United States had worked so hard to keep afloat for 20 years had collapsed in a matter of hours.

McKenzie had to think fast. His mission, to conduct a massive air evacuation from Kabul’s one functioning airport, had not changed. So, on the way to Doha’s Ritz Carlton, he came up with a new proposal. Don’t interfere with the airlift, he told the Taliban’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and we won’t strike.

The general, who spoke to POLITICO Magazine by video call almost exactly one year after the fall of Kabul, walked away from the meeting with a deal that would allow the U.S. military to control the airport while they undertook the largest air evacuation in U.S. history, flying out more than 120,000 people in the span of two weeks.

But during the meeting, he also made what critics say was a strategic mistake that contributed to what became a chaotic, deadly evacuation: refusing the Taliban’s offer to let the U.S. military secure Afghanistan’s capital city.

McKenzie defended his decision during the interview, noting that he did not believe it was a serious proposal, and in any case securing the city would have required a massive influx of American troops, which could have triggered more fighting with the Taliban.

At the end of the day, the U.S. military didn’t have many good choices.”

“I got on the airplane on Sunday morning. While I was on the airplane over, I was getting reports that the Taliban is in downtown Kabul, they’ve actually overrun the city. By the time I met with them, they had significant forces inside the city. So I said, ‘Look, we can still have a solution here. We’re going to conduct an evacuation. If you don’t interfere with the evacuation, we won’t strike.’

Mullah Baradar said, off the cuff, ‘Why don’t you come in and secure the city?’ But that was just not feasible. It would have taken me putting in another division to do that. And I believe that was a flippant remark. And now we know in the fullness of time that Mullah Baradar wasn’t actually speaking for the hard-line Taliban. I don’t know if he could have delivered, even if he was serious about it.

I felt in my best judgment that it wasn’t a genuine offer. And it was not a practical military operation. That’s why they pay me, that’s why I’m there.

By and large, the Taliban were helpful in our departure. They did not oppose us. They did do some external security work. There was a downside of that external security work, and it probably prevented some Afghans from getting to Kabul airport as we would have liked. But that was a risk that I was willing to run.”

“I believe the proximate defeat mechanism was the Doha negotiations [on a peace deal]. I believe that the Afghan government began to believe we were getting ready to leave. As a result, I think it took a lot of the will to fight out them.”

“You can go back to the very beginning of the campaign, when we had an opportunity to get Osama bin Laden in 2001, 2002 and we didn’t do that. The fact that we never satisfactorily solved the problem of safe havens in Pakistan for the Taliban. There are so many things over the 20-year period that contributed to it.

But yes, I believe that the straw that broke the camel’s back and brought it to the conclusion that we saw was the Doha process and the agreements that were reached there.

It’s convenient to blame the military commanders that were there. But it was the government of Afghanistan that failed. The government of the United States also failed.”

“It’s very hard to see in Afghanistan after we left. We had 1 or 2 or 3 percent of the intelligence-gathering capability that we had before we left. All our intelligence told us that the Taliban would probably allow space for al Qaeda to reassert itself and at the same time, they’re unable to get rid of ISIS. I think both are going to be entities that are going to grow.

The fact that al Qaeda leader Al-Zawahri was in downtown Kabul should give us pause. It tells you first of all, that the Taliban obviously negotiated the Doha accord in complete bad faith. They said they wouldn’t provide a safe haven for al Qaeda. What’s the definition of a safe haven if it’s not the leader in your capital city?”

Biden’s latest global infrastructure plan is all about competing with China. That’s a problem.

“Global power is often seen as a zero-sum game, and policymakers in Washington fear that China’s growing influence is coming at the expense of the US. Yet they haven’t offered an alternative to the BRI, instead largely chastising China for its intentions behind it and discouraging countries from joining it.

But that changed at the Group of Seven (G7) Summit last month, when President Joe Biden announced the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII). With the PGII, G7 governments and private funders aim to invest $600 billion in low- and middle-income countries over the next five years, with $200 billion specifically earmarked from the US.

The motivation isn’t hard to discern: Counter China’s BRI. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” said Jorge Heine, a professor at Boston University and Chile’s former ambassador to China. “It has finally dawned on Western countries that there is actually a need for infrastructure in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.””

“In his remarks announcing the PGII, Biden stated: “I’m proud to announce the United States will mobilize $200 billion in public and private capital over the next five years.” Despite that promise, however, the real money the US government has committed is far from $200 billion — adding up to about $170 million.

That discrepancy comes in part from how the US plans to finance this agenda. Kenny told me the US and the European Union have been keen to mostly rely on the concept of financial leverage. For example, a government may offer to finance $1 of an infrastructure project with the idea that this will then spur and be matched by $10 of investment from the private sector. “There’s this idea that you get from the millions and billions to these hundreds of billions by leveraging the private sector,” Kenny said. But, he added, “the fact is the record of that has been grim.” Rather than a one-to-10 public-private financing ratio, “we’re seeing a low one-to-one.”

The US is relying on leveraging to fund the PGII for two reasons. One, Congress is unlikely to authorize any more money for this kind of initiative, especially given its failure to pass increased funding for domestic programs (the rebranding of the initiative from “Build Back Better World” was no coincidence). So leveraging private companies “makes small amounts of US government money look bigger,” Kenny said, while enabling the administration to take credit for the whole promised sum.”

“The other reason, according to Kenny, is a deeply embedded ideological belief, stemming back to the Washington Consensus of the late 20th century, that the private sector beats government when it comes to delivering on goods like infrastructure. Reliance on the private sector also has the added benefit of preferring US companies and workers for various development projects, but Kenny added that US policymakers genuinely appear to believe this method makes these projects more affordable to low- and middle-income countries.

This line of reasoning is shaky, though, as public-private partnerships like the ones the PGII proposes are often very complex.”

“China and the BRI have had a different model, which has proven more successful. Kenny told me that China has been more willing to finance infrastructure that will be owned and operated by Global South governments. Fundamentally, this allows projects to be built faster and more cost-effectively as governments are already responsible for most infrastructure (approximately 83 percent of infrastructure investment worldwide is government-financed, per a 2017 study), and they don’t need to bargain and haggle with private companies.”

“One key way for the US and G7 to support the Global South would be to better use existing multilateral institutions like the World Bank and regional development banks like the African Development Bank, especially because, as Kenny told me, the World Bank actually can do the concept of leverage pretty well. While the US is proposing the approach of a “bespoke retailer” that pursues public-private deals one project at a time (each maybe a $100 million investment), the World Bank is like a big “wholesaler” that leverages money from the whole market (in the range of hundreds of billions) to support a range of public sector projects.

“Governments put in a little bit of capital to the World Bank, which then goes out and borrows massive amounts on private markets, issuing bonds at a 10:1 ratio,” Kenny said, meaning that they can get a lot of money for construction and development projects for the Global South. The World Bank also used to be much more engaged in financing hard infrastructure like roads and railways, only for priorities in terms of what is funded to change in recent decades. A massive recapitalization of the World Bank, Kenny said, could be an important place to start.

Dean Baker, senior economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, also suggested the issuance of “special drawing rights” (SDRs) from the IMF to shore up the central banks of countries in the Global South. SDRs effectively act as “coupons” from the IMF — the closest thing to the world’s central bank — and they function like cash transfers to countries in times of crisis.

SDRs were most recently issued to support countries around the world facing a financial crunch during the Covid-19 pandemic, and were used by low- and middle-income countries to pay for vaccines and other health care needs. However, as the authors of a Brookings Institution analysis of SDRs during the pandemic found, high-income and upper-middle-income countries currently receive the majority of SDRs, so distribution would need to become more equitable.

The US would also be wise to focus on its strong suits. As Kenny wrote in a recent article, the best way the US could help build the human capital of the world by way of providing scholarships and visas for access to its world-leading institutions of higher education, as well as increasing the number of work visas issued. And many of these migrants would end up sending capital back to their home countries in the form of remittances. A 2019 IMF study found that remittance flows total up to greater amounts of cash to low- and middle-income countries (China excluded) than overseas development aid.”

“A final option for the US is to ditch the global competition frame and collaborate with China to invest in the Global South. Baker argued that the “competition basically makes zero sense” due to the global scale of issues like the climate crisis, pandemics, and global development more generally.”

“Fundamentally, the Global South hasn’t necessarily bought into the geopolitical ideological competition of “democracy vs. autocracy” between the US and China. The Global South, as seen in its position toward the Russian war on Ukraine, is increasingly pursuing a strategy of what Heine termed “active nonalignment,” meaning rather than siding with either of the big powers in this supposed “new Cold War,” they’re more narrowly focused on their own economic growth and development.”

The US spends billions on foreign aid. But it doesn’t know how much good our money is doing.

“Over the past two decades, researchers have become much better at determining whether a certain idea actually achieves intended goals. The focus on results — evaluating whether a program benefits people cost-effectively — has changed philanthropy and even the US government’s domestic programs.

In theory, USAID recognizes the importance of making sure their programs work. But in practice, it’s largely failing to do so.

Two USAID reviews, one by USAID’s office of the inspector general in 2019 and another commissioned by the agency in 2020, reveal two dismal facts: The agency gives out billions to programs that don’t achieve their intended expectations, and, worse, it’s not even sure of the impact of most of the money it gives in aid. Recent agency moves and statements suggest that USAID wants to fix this problem. Whether it can will determine the fate of billions of dollars — and the health and well-being of many millions around the world.”

The US could stop one cause of heat wave deaths tomorrow

“There’s one policy the US can pass today that can also save lives: stopping utility shutoffs in the summertime because a customer has missed one or more payments.

Right now, only 18 states have any protections that prevent utilities from shutting off a customer’s power in a heat wave because of missed payments, while 41 states have these protections for the cold. That leaves most of the population vulnerable to utility shutoffs during the deadliest extreme weather window of the year.”

America’s Fishing Industry Is Getting Caught Up in the Trade War

“Tariffs on seafood have hit Alaska in particular, Alaska’s fishing industry generates over $5 billion dollars in economic activity and creates nearly 70,000 jobs in the state, making it a vital lifeline for the state. Over 40 percent of U.S.-caught Alaskan salmon and one-third of all seafood from Alaska is exported to China each year. Much of it is processed in China and then re-imported to the United States for sale in grocery stores.

As the National Fisheries Institute points out, this split processing stream has contributed to rising seafood costs for U.S. consumers, as China’s retaliatory tariffs hit seafood when imported for processing and the original U.S. tariffs hit products upon their return to American shores.”

“For consumers, meanwhile, these costs are discouraging consumption of fish, according to a February study published by data analytics firms IRI and 210 Analytics. That month alone, sales of frozen seafood products decreased by 9.4 percent, while fresh seafood sales decreased by 12 percent.”

My Baby Needed Special Formula From Europe. U.S. Trade Policy Made It Almost Unobtainable.

“My son was born with severe heartburn and cried constantly—and the baby formula on the shelves only caused him more pain. At the suggestion of our pediatrician, we turned to a European goat milk formula that we hoped could soothe my son’s stomach until he grew out of his condition. But recently our orders were canceled, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

America’s baby formulas are incredibly standardized. The FDA claims that that’s safer, but those regulations mean that most formulas have multiple ingredients that could be allergens or irritants. Milk-based formulas in the U.S. also have soy ingredients like soy oil, as well as palm oil. And most American formulas have higher than average levels of iron, which can cause constipation. While many European brands are similar to American ones, you can find brands there that don’t contain so many possible irritants to a child’s sensitive stomach. We used Nannycare, and my son found it much more tolerable than its stateside competitors.

It’s impossible to say for sure why my English supplier suddenly decided not to sell formulas to a buyer in the U.S. But the timing of the cancellation provides a clue: It happened shortly after the FDA blocked a large amount of European formula from being sold, declaring that they did not meet the agency’s standards.

We are far from the only family that relies on European baby formula. Yet the free flow of perfectly safe goods into the United States is still extremely restricted. The agency’s strict rules about how formulas can be made limit options for children with medical issues and leaves parents with products that can cause their little ones pain.

Worse yet, these regulations are more driven by bureaucratic and political interests than by science. These products, after all, have not caused a wave of problems for European babies.”

China targets Fed to gain influence, senator charges, drawing Powell rebuke

“China has recruited Federal Reserve economists for more than a decade to share sensitive and confidential information about U.S. economic policymaking in a bid to gain influence over the central bank, a Senate Republican charged in a report Tuesday.

The report from Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the top GOP lawmaker on the Homeland Security committee, detailed what Senate investigators called “long-running and brazen actions by Chinese officials and certain Federal Reserve employees” to replicate the playbook China has used to infiltrate the science and technology sectors. It involves recruiting industry experts to provide proprietary information or research in exchange for monetary benefits or other incentives, it said.

The Fed has failed to effectively combat the threat and doesn’t have sufficient expertise in counterintelligence or adequate policies to thwart China’s influence campaign, which includes efforts to obtain information about interest-rate decisions, the report concluded. It calls on Congress to enact bipartisan legislation that would enhance security around federally funded research, among other measures.”

Biden says he wants a two-state solution. Why is he silent on Israeli settlements?

“Severe setbacks for the two-state solution have made US policy seem far-fetched at this point.

That reality came across in Biden’s remarks. “We’ll discuss my continued support — even though I know it’s not in the near term — a two-state solution,” he said upon his arrival this week. He conceded that such an outcome was elusive, while still clinging to it.

A number of factors have contributed to the declining prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Not enough US diplomatic muscle has been put into making the deal happen. The recently disbanded Israeli government didn’t even agree to it as policy (and the previous prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t really, either). Divisions between the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza have detracted from the Palestine Liberation Organization’s authority and legitimacy as a negotiating partner. And wealthy Arab states, like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have prioritized normalizing relationships with Israel — which come with economic and tech cooperation, defense business, and weapons sales — at the expense of Palestinian rights.

But the largest by far is the rampant expansion of settlements in the West Bank that has precluded Palestinians from living there.”

Biden sought to end endless wars. So what’s the military doing in Somalia?

“in May 2022, Biden agreed to send about 500 US troops to Somalia.

Those troops will return to Somalia soon to fight the extremist group al-Shabaab as the resurrected government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (HSM) deepens ties to Washington and seeks the support and legitimacy provided by the American military. But on a deeper level, this US deployment represents the continuity of the so-called war on terrorism in spite of Biden’s best efforts to end it.

Congress has not approved a new resolution for the use of military force abroad, and the Biden administration says it is sending troops to Somalia under the 2001 authorization that Congress passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks to target al-Qaeda — and that has been used in 85 countries as the basis for military activities.”