Today's D Brief: Taliban offer amnesty; The moderation question; Who are the Taliban's leaders?; SOUTHCOM assists Haiti; And a bit more.

The Taliban say they’ve offered amnesty to Afghans who helped the U.S.-led coalition. It’s one of several messages of alleged moderation that the group’s leaders have been communicating since they seized control of the capital city of Kabul on Sunday. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan with full dignity and honesty has announced a complete amnesty for all Afghanistan, especially those who were with the opposition or supported the occupiers for years and recently,” said Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, in a statement Tuesday. The Associated Press noted critically, however, that Samangani’s remarks “remained vague...and no formal handover deal has been announced.”

The Taliban also say they’re “ready to provide women with environment to work and study, and the presence of women in different [government] structures according to Islamic law and in accordance with our cultural values,” Samangani said—though it’s too soon to know precisely how the group intends to follow that guidance. 

U.S. President Joe Biden’s message: “I stand squarely behind my decision,” he told the world in an afternoon address Monday from the East Room of the White House. And about those terrible images of Afghans clinging to a U.S. Air Force C-17 as it began taking off, “We were clear-eyed about the risk,” said Biden. “We planned for every contingency, but I always promised the American people that I would be straight with you. 

“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” said Biden. “So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”

Big Q: Why didn’t the U.S. begin evacuation efforts sooner? Biden pointed a finger at former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country before Kabul fell on Sunday. “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier — still hopeful for their country,” said Biden. (Some observers found this to be insensitive.) “And part of it was because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, ‘a crisis of confidence,’” Biden said.

  • Watch the surge to Kabul’s airport recreated by USA Today’s graphics team, via satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies, here.

There were uplifting (if still very striking) images from Kabul, as well—including Reach 871, a C-17 Globemaster III safely evacuated some 640 Afghans from Kabul late Sunday. Defense One’s Tara Copp and Marcus Weisgerber have the story behind the incredible image, here.

Kabul’s airport reopened at 3:35 p.m. ET, the Pentagon said Monday. The plan is now to evacuate as many people as the U.S. and its allies can until 31 August, spokesman John Kirby said. Lots about how that might happen safely through that deadline remain unclear, but the airport reportedly remains open with a cleared tarmac as of press time this morning. 

Eye on the exit: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned in a statement Tuesday that the “Taliban must facilitate the safe departure of all those who wish to leave.”

Picking up the pieces: Much credit is due to former President Hamid Karzai and Kabul’s chief negotiator Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom stayed behind to work out some sort of future with the Taliban leadership. 

Picking up the loot: Taliban fighters were shown in the presidential palace on Sunday holding more U.S.-made M4 rifles than Russian-made AK-47s, Alex Horton of the Washington Post noted on Twitter. 

While developments are still moving at a rapid pace, that pace has slowed since Kabul fell on Sunday. The Defense Department was asked Monday if it’s already done or plans to do anything “to prevent equipment from falling into the hands of the Taliban by destroying it or anything else.” Army Maj. Gen. Henry Taylor replied, “I don't have the answer to that question.”

The Pentagon also pushed back on allegations the U.S. military was unprepared for what happened in the days leading up to Sunday. “It would certainly be wrong to conclude that the United States military did not view as a distinct possibility that the Taliban could overrun the country, including Kabul,” spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

You may wonder: Who’s in charge of the Taliban? That would be Mawlawi Hibattulah Akhundzada, and we haven’t seen him in public that much. The most visible face of the group has been its chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Two other known deputies include Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, son of the group’s deceased founder, Mullah Omar. The BBC’s Soutik Biswas flagged two others, along with his understanding of the group’s leadership structure, via Twitter, here. More below the fold.

From Defense One

Biden: ‘I Stand Squarely Behind My Decision’ on Afghanistan // Jacqueline Feldscher: The president acknowledged that Kabul fell to Taliban control faster than he expected.

Panic at Kabul Airport Imperils Evacuation Flights; At Least Two Afghans Dead  // Tara Copp: U.S. warns that any attacks on evacuation will meet “a forceful response,” but how long will the Taliban hold off?

Inside Reach 871, A US C-17 Packed With 640 Afghans Trying to Escape the Taliban // Marcus Weisgerber and Tara Copp: The Air Force evacuation flight from Kabul to Qatar came near the record for most people ever flown in the Boeing airlifter.

Foreign Governments Scramble To Leave Afghanistan Amid Violence and Chaos // Jacqueline Feldscher: "It’s sad that the West has done what it’s done," says UK defense secretary as NATO, UN, G7 react to Taliban takeover.

You Can’t Buy a Cause // Mark Kimmitt: Examining the roots of the Afghanistan forces’ collapse.

The 1 Thing That Could’ve Changed the War in Afghanistan // David Frum, The Atlantic: Had Osama bin Laden been killed or captured in December 2001, justice would have been served in the way Americans like: fast, hard, and cheap.

A Moment for Soul-Searching // Eliot A. Cohen, The Atlantic: The United States owes its Afghan allies careful scrutiny of its institutional and personal failures—without recrimination, but also without excuses.

The Pentagon Needs a Strategy That Does Not Hinge on Fragile Networks // Dan Grazier: A failed wargame should make us think twice about “connect-everything” plans.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here

Here are a few other key, unanswered questions that could strongly influence the future direction of Afghanistan:

  • Will the Taliban permit a safe exodus from Kabul’s airport?
  • Have the Taliban truly moderated, as they claim? (The Wall Street Journal’s Sune Engel Rasmussen reported from Kandahar in May on the disconnect between the Taliban’s rhetoric and what would seem to be the reality on the ground.)
  • Will Taliban allow female lawmakers to remain in their post, and safely?

Back stateside, almost 50 U.S. lawmakers demand protections for Afghan women. Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were the only Republicans who signed a letter to POTUS46 asking for protections for Afghanistan’s female leaders and lawmakers—like Zarifa Ghafari, e.g.—where possible, and as soon as possible. Forty-six senators put their signatures on that plea, including 43 Democrats and Bernie Sanders, who is an independent. Read the letter (PDF) here.
Inevitable U.S. rhetoric watch: According to Politico’s Monday reporting, some Biden administration officials “say that the White House let political fear of GOP attacks make them act too cautiously on relocating Afghans to the U.S.” And that links up with an ongoing attack vector—active since at least May—wherein Republicans and demagogues are eager to stoke “political backlash that comes from actual refugees arriving in America in any sort of large numbers.” Indeed and unsurprisingly, Fox’s Tucker Carlson launched several such lines of attack in his show Monday evening. (By the way, the Republican party appears to have deleted a page on its site boasting of POTUS45’s spearheading the U.S. withdrawal agreement with the Taliban. Hat tip to Hugo Lowell of The Guardian for noticing.)
Meanwhile, the Taliban say they’re not deploying revenge tactics (yet). A spokesman for the group told MSNBC that the Taliban is not hunting down Afghans who worked with the U.S.-led coalition. But in the absence of a formal security force, accountability and verification are almost impossible to come by—leaving a void where criminals might present themselves as the Taliban, spokesman Suhail Shaheen said. The group’s chief spokesman insisted on Twitter, “No one is allowed to enter the homes of former officials, demand cars from them and threaten them, they will be taken seriously, they are under serious persecution.”
Another thing: A British student is now stranded in Kabul after deciding to vacation there, but he told the UK Times he has “no regrets” (so far). Story here.

SOUTHCOM assets to Haiti: U.S. Southern Command is sending eight helicopters to move U.S. Agency for International Development personnel and supplies into Haiti, after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake caused major damage throughout the country. Two U.S. Coast Guard cutters, two Coast Guard helicopters and a 14-person team from SOUTHCOM are already in the country, and a Navy P-8 Poseidon is “providing aerial images of earthquake devastated areas,” according to the command. An additional seven Coast Guard cutters and one U.S. Navy littoral combat ship were en route to Haiti as of Monday. USAID is leading the disaster assistance mission.

No cobra blood for Marines. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (aka, PETA) is claiming victory in their campaign to stop the killing of animals, like snakes and tarantulas, during the annual Cobra Gold exercise held in Thailand. In the past, that exercise generated graphic photos of American Marines drinking blood from a king cobra. (The animals are used in jungle survival training held during the exercise, where Marines are taught to drink cobra blood if they cannot find water.) Defense One’s Caitlin Kenney reports that a representative of the Thai armed forces told PETA that no animals were used or killed during this year’s exercise, according to a statement from the activist group. As part of its campaign, PETA sent letters to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the Marine Corps commandant Gen. David Berger, and also held protests at the Thai embassy—as well as outside of Austin’s home. 

Almost a week after the U.S. sent a helicopter to help Greece fight wildfires, an amphibious Russian plane sent to Turkey to battle fierce wildfires there crashed on Saturday, CNN reports, killing the five-person Russian crew and three Turkish nationals on board.
In concerning climate news here stateside, the federal government has declared a water shortage for Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—the first declaration of its kind in the U.S. As the Associated Press explains, the water levels on the Colorado River reservoir have fallen to historic lows. The declaration means cuts for farmers and others throughout the Southwest, with Arizona hit particularly hard. Residents of the state are no stranger to water restrictions and water-conservation campaigns (one of your D-Briefers remembers the “Save Water and Save Water Again” campaign in Phoenix in the late 80s, and messaging and restrictions have only ramped up since then). “Under a 2019 drought contingency plan, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico agreed to give up shares of their water to maintain water levels at Lake Mead. The voluntary measures weren’t enough to prevent the shortage declaration,” AP notes. More on the history and what this means, here.
Last thing today: It turns out climate change predictions aren’t exactly new. In August 1912—exactly six months after Arizona became the 48th state—a newspaper noted that coal consumption was pumping tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. “The effect may be considerable in a few centuries,” the Rodnev & Otamatea Times reported. See the clip, here.