MSM’s latest freakout over Afghanistan withdrawal
Plus: Bio-hazard in Sudan, AI learns new tricks, Biden’s anti-China solo act, CO2-vacuum plan, Golden Oldie: Bob v. Eliezer Yudkowsky, and more!
“Afghanistan has become a terrorism staging ground again, leak reveals.”
To read that headline in the Washington Post, you might think that Afghanistan has become, well, a terrorism staging ground—a place from which actual terrorist attacks are launched, or at least a place where they’re orchestrated.
You might also think that this amounts to an indictment of President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan—that, just as his critics had warned, turning Afghanistan over to the Taliban has turned it into a playground for anti-American terrorists. This impression is reinforced early in the Post piece, when its authors, Dan Lamothe and Joby Warrick, anticipate the GOP’s likely use of the documents their story is based on (which came from the Discord leaks): “The documents will almost certainly be used as a political cudgel by congressional Republicans and others still seething about the Biden administration’s chaotic management of the US exit from Afghanistan in August 2021.”
But, in truth, Afghanistan hasn’t become a “terrorism staging ground.” And, though GOP operatives may well use these documents as a cudgel, they’d probably never have thought to do that had the Washington Post not blown them out of proportion.
Here are some things you’ll learn if you read this entire story and read it carefully:
1) The terrorists in question aren’t al Qaeda, whose alliance with the Taliban was the reason the US invaded Afghanistan in the first place. Indeed, we learn (in paragraph 28!) that the documents contain “no mention of an al-Qaeda resurgence there [in Afghanistan], something many counterterrorism experts had feared would happen following the US withdrawal.”
2) The terrorists in question are ISIS—sworn enemies of the Taliban. Indeed, several days after this piece was published, we learned that the Taliban had killed the ISIS leader who planned the horrific 2021 Kabul airport bombing, which killed 13 US service members and 170 Afghans. (Another reason to unfreeze all those funds that belong to the Afghan government: the Taliban is in an ongoing war with ISIS, and some of the money would presumably go to that cause.)
3) These ISIS terrorists in Afghanistan don’t seem to have been involved in any way in a single terrorist attack outside of Afghanistan since the US withdrawal—at least, there’s no mention of that in the piece. So then what does the Washington Post mean when it says Afghanistan is “a terrorism staging ground”? Well, for example, ISIS militants “weighed multiple retaliatory plots in response to Quran burnings by far-right activists in Sweden and the Netherlands. Those plots included calls for attacks on Swedish or Dutch diplomatic facilities in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Russia, Turkey and other countries, the leaked documents said, though it does not appear any such strike was carried out.”
And it’s not clear if that “weighing” of “plots” was done by ISIS people in Afghanistan or in some other country. There is a repeated failure in this piece to be clear on what’s happening in Afghanistan and what’s happening elsewhere. Some plots are attributed specifically to ISIS militants outside of Afghanistan—in Iraq, for example—but often things are more ambiguous.
For example, read this paragraph:
It’s unclear the extent to which the Afghan chapter coordinates its operations with the group’s central leadership, believed to be based in Syria, but the leaked documents highlight that components in those countries are looking to attack Western targets. The most worrisome reports detail efforts by the group to recruit technical experts online for terrorist attacks abroad.
So did the “efforts by the group” take place in Syria or Afghanistan or both? In any event, it appears that these efforts, like all the efforts mentioned in the documents, came to naught. Why? One likely reason is the fact that they are listed in the documents. In other words, they were on the radar screen of US intelligence. Lamothe and Warrick write (in paragraph 26!): “As a collection, the documents indicate that US intelligence agencies have succeeded repeatedly in intercepting the communications among Islamic State cells. Such intercepts appear to have led to the disruption of plans for kidnappings and small-arms attacks on government buildings in Europe.”
So, here’s one takeaway from the Post piece: The catastrophists were wrong! Withdrawal from Afghanistan hasn’t turned the country into a playground for anti-American terrorists. Biden officials who said the terrorism problem could be managed through assiduous intelligence gathering and the disruption of any plots thus uncovered were right. Or at least, it looks that way so far.
Then again, “Afghanistan hasn’t become a terrorist staging ground” is a pretty boring headline. So never mind.
Attention NZN members!
This week paid newsletter subscribers get access to a conversation between Bob and Eliezer Yudkowsky, who has lately burst into public awareness as America’s leading prophet of AI doom.
And there’s a twist: the conversation is with the Eliezer of 13 years ago, back when he was at least somewhat more upbeat about the chances of AI turning out to be an asset for humankind (as opposed to, say, extinguishing humankind, which seems to be his current expectation).
Until recently, we’d thought this conversation—which first appeared on Bloggingheads.tv, predecessor of the NZN podcast—was lost to posterity. But then ever-alert staffer Clark McGillis spotted the video file whilst spelunking deep in the NZN servers. So we’ve decided to resurrect the conversation and put it on the podcast feed. It’s available now to paid subscribers—who can access it here or in their NZN member podcast feed—and will go public in a couple of weeks. Enjoy!
Where do you find footage illustrating an apocalyptic unraveling of America that hasn’t yet happened? The Republican National Committee faced that challenge in producing a video response to Joe Biden’s re-election announcement—a response intended to convey the dystopian hellscape a second Biden term would bring.
The GOP solved its problem with AI, which created vivid scenes to accompany voiceovers reporting that “financial markets are in free fall” and “an emboldened China invades Taiwan” and “border agents were overrun by a surge of 80,000 illegals” and “officials closed the city of San Francisco” in response to “escalating crime and fentanyl crisis.”
Actually, the video didn’t look much different from something a capable intern could have whipped up using stock archival footage and Adobe Premier. But the role played by AI did give the GOP a way to draw attention to its creation, which it billed as “an AI-generated look into the country’s possible future if Joe Biden is re-elected in 2024.”
Speaking of dystopian futures: Imagine a world in which commercials for pizza restaurants are made by AIs, AIs that don’t just produce the images but actually write the script before generating the visual and audio accompaniment—and even come up with the name of the restaurant to begin with. Now imagine that the prompt given to one of these AIs is “Write a short TV commercial script for a pizza restaurant. Use broken English."
In that imagined world, this is what you get. And it makes a second Biden term look like heaven on Earth by comparison.
Meanwhile, Wall Street Journal tech writer Joanna Stern told ChatGPT, “Write a tik tok script in the voice of Joanna Stern about an obscure iOS16 tip”—and then told other AIs to put the script into production, generating a fake Joanna Stern with a fake Joanna Stern voice. The good news for people who hope to have a role in the coming world is that Stern rejected the first several scripts before finding one that was up to human standards.
Early this month, after French President Emmanuel Macron said that European countries shouldn’t be “just America’s followers”—and, in particular, shouldn’t align with America’s confrontational stance toward China over Taiwan—he got the predictable wrist slaps from the predictable corners of the US foreign policy establishment. “Is France still an ally of the United States?” asked Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The answer to that question is in doubt.”
If having reservations about President Biden’s very hawkish China policy is grounds for questioning an ally’s fidelity to the US, then there are other allies who should report to Clifford May for interrogation. For example: