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What Could Go Right? A little humanity in Afghanistan

Sometimes progress stalls or stops. Here are partisan-free perspectives on the withdrawal, ways to help, and more.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

This is our weekly newsletter, What Could Go Right? Sign up here to receive it in your inbox every Thursday at 6am ET. You can read past issues here.

Progress is not an inexorable march forward. It can stall, stop, and disappear. When it does, what’s required of us is not to shut our eyes to it but to look, with great care, at what has happened and why. So while this newsletter chooses to focus on what could go right, sometimes we need to address what went wrong first. Afghanistan is one of those times.

First is how we got here. Despite all the quick takes, punditry, and playing of the blame game the past few days, there are a few pieces that have helped us wade through the mess. If you only have time for something short and sweet, here’s TPN Member Andrew Bacevich emphasizing on Tucker Carlson’s show that Afghanistan is a bipartisan failure, something to keep in mind as the chaotic withdrawal reaches peak politicization. If you’re open to a relatively short read, here’s Member Robert Wright on how Cold War geopolitics eventually led to the Afghanistan war—and how it would behoove us to be wary of moving back into that mindset—in his newsletter. And Isaac Saul, author of the Tangle newsletter, which specializes in presenting both left and right viewpoints, has a historical explainer here that’s free of partisanship.

Second is where Afghanistan is going. Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch wrote a piece for Persuasion earlier in the month, before the withdrawal, whose central argument that the war was not a total failure has drawn some accusations of rose-colored glasses and persuaded others. You can read and decide for yourself. It is true, though, that in the last 20 years the quality of life in Afghanistan has improved, as Rauch points out: “Infant mortality dropped by half during the US operation. Life expectancy improved by six years. . . . University graduates rose from under 31,000 to almost 200,000.” What kind of country is now left with the Taliban, and does it matter?

On August 15, a US C-17 military cargo plane evacuated around 640 Afghans from Kabul. After more people than anticipated pulled themselves onto the plane, the crew made the decision to fly to Qatar as planned rather than force anyone off the aircraft. Everyone onboard had been cleared to evacuate.

In The New York Times, Member Thomas Friedman weighed in on the ongoing debate about whether the Taliban will be a more moderate presence than in the past, considering that there may be some genies that can’t be put back in the bottle. Since the Taliban was last in charge, Afghanistan has entered the world of modern technology, for one. A country awash with smartphones may be one harder to abuse. The Taliban also, Friedman says, must contend with the pressure to soon “deliver order and jobs for Afghans” and a foreign aid system that does not look kindly on human rights violations, as well as a generation of women and girls accustomed to greater equality.

One Member, Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, who grew up in Iraq under the reign of Al-Qaeda, is skeptical, to say the least, that we’re about to see a more moderate Taliban. Rauch’s argument that conditions, especially for women, improved during the US’ involvement underpins the current coverage agonizing, for extremely good reason, about what will happen now to those women and girls who have been busy chasing their dreams—attending university, traveling to Canada for robotics competitions (and winning them)—and even enjoying simple pleasures like manicures

“The Afghans now at greatest risk are the same ones who have been on the forefront of progress inside their nation,” George W. Bush and Laura Bush said in a statement released on Monday. Like these brave Afghan women, who came out on Tuesday to defend their rights to the Taliban. 

We don’t know what’s about to unfold in Afghanistan. But we can look back and correct, and we can commit to paying attention. As Friedman put it in his column, the timeframe for assessing President Biden’s actions is a longer one than the day after the withdrawal. When that time comes, the media spotlight will have moved on. It ought not to.

If you’re looking to help Afghanistan, Member Anne-Marie Slaughter shared this Google doc of organizations taking emergency donations. Veterans Affairs has sent out a list of resources for veterans

Climate: the hot topic of the next 100 years. Last week we shared a perspective on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that called for clear-headed thinking and action, which spurred a follow-up discussion with readers over email and on social about what strategies work best for galvanizing public sentiment around climate. We loved this piece in the Christian Science Monitor on climate scientists’ new communications dilemma: the work of convincing people that climate change is real now largely accomplished, how to convey the urgency of climate change without shutting people down? It’s not an answer you can necessarily give in a sentence, but one we have to fumble through together. Meanwhile, climate queen Rebecca Solnit shared her thoughts in The Guardian. The real news of the report, she says, is not the science but cautious optimism about solutions

Below in the links section, solar fridges are helping with vaccine distribution across Africa, new data has confirmed that the US incarceration rate kept dropping in 2019, and more.


In a survey of 20 countries, conducted by YouGov and reported by The Economist, the percentage of respondents who said they would not get a shot or were unsure fell from 45% in January to 20% by late June.

From us: This seemed like a good week to remind people that there are ways to read the news without losing your mind. From October, but just as relevant today, we bring you five things to remember before giving up on everything.

Is the COVID pandemic shifting the balance of power to labor? TPN Member Diane Francis says yes, “in a profound way.” Read more about the move to a remote-work future and more in Francis’ latest piece, Covidnomics.

Progress, Please

(Found good news? Tweet at us @progressntwrk or email.)

Other good stuff in the news

United States:

International:

TPN Member originals 

Upcoming Events

Neue Denkmuster und konstruktiver Journalismus | Maren Urner | September 7
Diversity in Office, Equity in Campaigns | Anne-Marie Slaughter | September 23
Why Mobility Is Destiny | Parag Khanna | October 13

Until Next Time

Time to get back to history class!

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.