• Archive of "Afghanistan" Category

    Biden’s Foreign Policy; the Biden Doctrine

    January 22, 2024 // 4 Comments »

    Joe Biden ordered airstrikes on Iraq, against Iranian-backed militants, in retaliation for recent attacks by those militants that severely injured three American soldiers. Joe didn’t consult with Congress or anyone else before ordering the strikes, and no declaration of war exists of course. Yet no one believes the militias, following their spanking, will disappear or stop harming Americans.

    That sums up the Biden Foreign Policy, call it a doctrine if you’d like: a series of geopolitically unsuccessful, inconsequential, mostly reactive unilateral actions, with no end game. Underlying it all is the sense that no one is particularly frightened, respectful or wary of American power anymore. Let’s see how this worked on a global scale over the last three bloody years.

    The disastrous evacuation of Kabul in August 2021 should have warned all of us we were dealing with foreign policy amateurs. The rush for the last planes was an expected unexpected event. Yet the Biden administration did not quietly start the evacuation in February with high-value personnel, nor did it negotiate ahead of time for third country landing rights. Mistakes made as long ago as Vietnam evacuating locals who worked with us were clear, yet Biden did not kick start processing SIV visas for translators and others until literally the last flights were scheduled out. The entire evacuation appeared as an unplanned free fall, just “land some planes and see if that works.” No endgame really, simply a unilateral decision to cap the evacuation off at a certain point in time and declare it over no matter who was or was not saved.

    Ukraine is some yellowed vision of cold war. The Biden plan was based on a Wonka-like act of imagination, that U.S. arms wielded by amateur fighters backed up by intelligence, space-based targeting, and special forces infiltrated on the ground would hastily defeat a determined opponent (See Afghanistan, failure of the same strategy, 2001-2003.) When the miracle cure strategy failed, there was no Plan B except to continue to pour arms in to a war that had no clear end game, that was not winnable, only sustainable. Meanwhile, Biden restrictions on domestic mining mean the United States is the largest purchaser of Russian enriched uranium. If the Russians are scared of American power they hide that well.

    The results have not been better elsewhere. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine preceeded what one pundit described as “the 2023 brazen Chinese spy balloon’s uncontested trajectory over the United States, the recent Hamas invasion of Israel, the serial Iranian-fueled terrorist attacks on U.S. installations in Iraq and Syria, and the terrorist Houthis’ veritable absorption of the Red Sea. America’s enemies had become opportunistic, not deterred.” Biden took the bait at each open-ended opportunity, and now Joe is dangerously close to letting Gaza and Yemen spiral into a global conflict.

    And so another “coalition” fight, this time in Ukraine with NATO, ended up a U.S. primary struggle. It is NATO mostly walking away from the meat of the Ukraine struggle, and the baby NATO coalition elsewhere of France, Italy, and others that was supposed to control the Red Sea breaking down. It is a thin gruel of happy talk about caring for civilians backed up by unlimited arms to Israel, handled so poorly diplomatically that the U.S. has inherited pariah status globally. The modern version of American power was demonstrated when Egypt snubbed Joe Biden’s visit over the mess in Gaza. The question of Palestine, always simmering, is now another major issue to divide Red and Blue and further polarize society. In addition to receiving $6 billion in frozen oil funds from Biden as a ransom for five American hostages, Iran controls the playbook, attacking with impunity via its proxies across Iraq, Syria, and southern Lebanon; Iran’s partners carried out more than 100 attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria and the Red Sea.  They decide if and when the 1:1 conflict with Israel goes regional, and the U.S. will be again forced to react. The Houthis, also Iran-backed, have dragged the U.S. into a broad promise to keep the Red Sea open to shipping, as the world rolls its eyes as Pax Americana once again looks like a punchline. Can anyone say we are still indispensable?

    Another Biden foreign policy disaster has come home, literally, in the immigration crisis. For reasons too vague to enunciate, the Biden administration did away with any semblance of immigration law and flung open the southern border to anyone interested in wandering in. Already more than eight million illegal entrants have come across, with another quarter-million entering each month. As in Ukraine and elsewhere, there is no endgame. When will the border close? How much will caring for the millions cost (New York City has processed more than 160,000 migrants; some 70,000 remain in the city’s care. In Denver, caring for the new migrants has consumed 10 percent of the city’s budget)? The United States has now exceeded, both in real numbers and in percentages, all past numbers of non-native born American residents. What impact on our greater society will such an influx have, especially given how it is targeted at a handful of cities? Will the Russians ever surrender? What about the immigrants?

    Three years ago, there was no war in Ukraine and certainly no U.S. military involvement in the Crimea and Donbas. Israel and Hamas existed in their tinder-like stasis condition, no brutal massacre of 1,600 Jews (30 of whom were Americans) and no invasion of Gaza. Campus protestors limited their protestations that they were not anti-Semitic in their hatred of Israel. Iran and the U.S. cooperated on fighting ISIS in Iraq, uneasy partners for certain but not shooting cousins as now. The Houthi struggle was confined within Yemen’s borders. On the positive side, efforts were being made to watch diplomacy bloom with North Korea, which instead is now test firing missiles aplomb once again. Biden has made no progress on China either to limit their opportunistic stance or reduce their hold over America economically. Biden has largely ignored most of Africa and South America as well as the world’s most populous democracy (and nuclear power) India. It is impossible to call it progress and all too easy to call it sadly the Biden Doctrine.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Somebody is in Trouble Over Afghanistan

    January 3, 2024 // 8 Comments »

    Boy oh boy, if anyone looks seriously into the end game in Afghanistan is somebody gonna be in trouble. See, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) the collapse of the Afghan army and government was mostly our own fault. No dessert for you!

    You remember the war in Afghanistan, don’t you? Anyone? Bueller? See it was America’s longest war, stretching from 2001 until 2021, long enough that soldiers who deployed near the end had not even been born when it all started. Now that’s a war! The thing is, the war accomplished nothing in its 20 years. The situation on the ground — Taliban in charge, open territory for any terrorist needing an AirBnB — is pretty much status quo September 2001 except it is now 2024.

    And now it turns out that’s mostly our fault. SIGAR released its reportCollapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: An Assessment of the Factors That Led to Its Demise. It posits two major factors that lead to the demise: unclear U.S. war aims, and corruption and mismanagement on the part of the Afghan government created, advised, and funded by the U.S. (so that’s sorta on us, too.) General James Mattis, who served as Mad Dog,  head of Central Command from 2010 to 2013, and as Secretary of Defense from 2017 to 2018, told SIGAR, “The lack of political clarity on ends, ways, and means meant we were always wondering if we were still going to be here next year. Were we going to be funded next year? We weren’t sure whether to attack, retreat or go sideways.”

    SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces’ (ANDSF) collapse in August 2021 was the decision by two U.S. presidents to withdraw U.S. military and contractors from Afghanistan, while Afghan forces remained unable to sustain themselves. One former U.S. commander in Afghanistan told SIGAR, “We built that army to run on contractor support. Without it, it can’t function. When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the jenga pile and expected it to stay up.” The sad-great thing about those quotes is that they could have been applied at most any point in the 20 year war. Lack of political clarity? It was a couple of years into the war itself before anyone knew the reason for the war (it turned out to be “terrorism.”) An unstainable Afghan military? Maybe someone could point out where in say year 16 the army was sustainable. Boy, heads are gonna roll over that one! All we need to do is find out who was responsible for creating a sustainable army and political clarity and roast ’em.

    The other factor which contributed to the demise of the Afghan army was the last-minute wholesale restructuring of Afghanistan’s security institutions. In 2021, amid rapidly deteriorating security, President Ghani reshuffled most of his security officials, often replacing them with fellow ethnic Pashtuns. These leadership changes were part of a broader pattern of politicization and ethnicization (in favor of Pashtuns) of the security sector in the final years of the Ghani administration.

    One analyst told SIGAR, “Districts collapsed not because of the army, but because of that restructuring that happened and the fact that none of [the replacement police chiefs] had connections” at the district level. He claimed it was the police that did most of the fighting in the final 18 months, not the army. By undermining the morale and political legitimacy of the police, this restructuring directly contributed to the collapse in August 2021. Ethnic competition between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns was likely the single biggest source of dysfunction within the ANDSF. But some former Afghan officials described other types of friction. One former MOD official described competition between the younger and older generation of officers, between the jihadis and the professional officers, and between ethnicities. All these issues distracted from the fight, he said. Now, see, someone on the American side should have been watching for that!

    This strategic level mismanagement had a direct effect in the field. “Overnight, 98 percent of U.S. air strikes had ceased… the Doha agreement’s psychological implication was so great that the average Afghan soldier felt this idea of abandonment… U.S. soldiers were confused about what to engage and what to not. On an hourly basis, the U.S. military had to coordinate with the Doha office of Ambassador Khalilzad and others from the State Department to get clarification on what they could do,” said one former Afghan Army corps commander. “They [U.S. partners] said it was not right, but they have to follow orders. They would see the Taliban attacking our checkpoints. They would have videos of the Taliban doing it. But they would say we are not able to engage, because we have limitations. There was also so much concern about civilians, which gave the Taliban an advantage,” explained a former Afghan Army General.

    According to an senior Afghan official, it was not until President Biden’s April 2021, announcement of the final troop and contractor withdrawal date that Afghan President Ghani’s inner circle said they realized that the ANDSF had no supply and logistics capability. Although the Afghan government had operated in this way for nearly 20 years, their realization came only four months before its collapse.

    Then there was the lack of coordination between the U.S. and the Afghan governments as the Americans negotiating in Doha cut their own deals with the Taliban to enable a quick exit. One former Afghan government official told SIGAR that following the U.S.-Taliban agreement, President Ghani began to suspect that the United States wanted to remove him from power.  That official and a former Afghan general believed Ghani feared a military coup.  According to the general, Ghani became a “paranoid president… afraid of his own countrymen” and of U.S.-trained Afghan officers. According to a former Afghan general, in the week before Kabul fell, President Ghani replaced the new generation of young U.S.-trained Afghan officers with an old guard of Communist generals in almost all of the army corps. Ghani, that general said, was “changing commanders constantly [to] bring back some of the old-school Communist generals who [he] saw as loyal to him, instead of these American-trained young officers who he [mostly] feared.”

    Afghan officials, largely removed from the negotiations, struggled most of all to understand what the United States had agreed to with the Taliban. According to Afghan government officials, the U.S. military never clearly communicated the specifics of its policy changes to the Ghani administration. According to a former Afghan general, in a broad sense, the U.S. military took on the role of a referee and watched the Afghan government and Taliban fight, something the general referred to as “a sick game.” According to that general, Afghan troops had not only lost U.S. support for offensive operations, they no longer knew if or when U.S. forces would come to their defense. U.S. inaction fueled mistrust among the ANDSF toward the United States and their own government. The Taliban’s operations and tactics, however, suggested that they may have had a better understanding of new levels of support the United States was willing to provide to the ANDSF following the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. For example, under the U.S.-Taliban agreement’s rules, U.S. aircraft could not target the Taliban groups that were waiting more than 500 meters away—the groups “beyond the contact” that would engage in the second, third, or fourth wave to defeat the last ANDSF units. A senior Afghan official said this was a loophole that the Taliban used in their targeting to their advantage.

    SIGAR’s sad conclusion to the report could have been written at any point, including in 1968. “The U.S. approach to reconstructing the ANDSF lacked the political will to dedicate the time and resources necessary to reconstruct an entire security sector in a war-torn and impoverished country. As a result, the U.S. created an ANDSF that could not operate independently, milestones for ANDSF capability development were unrealistic, and the eventual collapse of the ANDSF was predictable. After 20 years of training and development, the ANDSF never became a cohesive, substantive force capable of operating on its own. The U.S. and Afghan governments share in the blame. Neither side appeared to have the political commitment to doing what it would take to address the challenges, including devoting the time and resources necessary to develop a professional ANDSF, a multi-generational process. In essence, U.S. and Afghan efforts to cultivate an effective and sustainable security assistance sector were likely to fail from the beginning.”

    “Likely to fail from the beginning” is a helluva epitaph for U.S. policy in Afghanistan. If only SIGAR could find the guys responsible, we might avoid another round in Ukraine, where our policy depends on another U.S. patsy leader whose army is now totally dependent on U.S. funding, supplies, and advisement in a war that cannot be won, only sustained at great expense.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Ukraine War is Just About Over

    November 22, 2023 // 5 Comments »

    The handwriting was on the wall. An Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled “I’m a Ukrainian, and I Refuse to Compete for Your Attention” summed things up nicely: a media junket the author’s friend had been organizing to Ukraine was canceled. The TV crew instead left for the Middle East.

    The United States controls how the war in the Ukraine proceeds and always has. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said it was the American side which scuttled any chance of peace in Ukraine as early as March 2022, soon after the war began. “The only people who could resolve the war over Ukraine are the Americans. During the peace talks in March 2022 in Istanbul, Ukrainians did not agree to peace because they were not allowed to. They had to coordinate everything they talked about with the Americans first. However, nothing eventually happened. My impression is that nothing could happen because everything was decided in Washington.”

    Fast-forward to 2023 and the story is different. Earlier this month NBC News quietly released a report which said U.S. and European officials broached the topic of peace negotiations with Ukraine, including “very broad outlines of what Ukraine might need to give up to reach a deal with Russia.” NBC said “the discussions are an acknowledgment of the dynamics militarily on the ground in Ukraine and politically in the U.S. and Europe.” They began amid concerns the war has reached a stalemate and about the ability to continue providing open-ended aid to Ukraine. Biden administration officials are also worried Ukraine is running out of men in this war of attrition, while Russia has a seemingly endless supply. Ukraine is also struggling with recruiting and recently saw public protests (not shown on American TV) about President Volodymyr Zelensky’s open-ended conscription requirements. Kiev is today sending 40 and 50-year-olds to the front.

    This comes as Time reported Zelensky’s top advisers admitted the war is currently unwinnable for Ukraine. Things look a bit better from the point of view of Ukraine commander-in-chief General Valery Zaluzhny, who believes the war is only at a stalemate. “It’s now a battle of inches,” say American sources quietly.

    Americans will be forgiven if they never hear this bad news, never mind be surprised by it if they did. The narrative which drove sports teams to wear blue and yellow patches and E Street Band member Steve Van Zandt to paint his guitar the Ukrainian colors was simple. Amid a flood of propaganda, the story was always the same: Ukraine was pushing back the Russians with weapons provided by a broad range of agreeable NATO benefactors. Between Ukrainian jet fighter aces with improbable kill ratios to patriotic female sniper teams with improbable hair and makeup, Russia was losing. It would be a difficult but noble slog for “as long as it takes” to drive the Russians out. Any talk about peace was insulting to Kiev, fighting for its survival and all. Meanwhile mediagenic President Zelensky at first flew around the world like the anti-Christ Bono, procuring weapons while showing off his man-to-man relationships with celebrities. Now desperate, Zelensky is inflight claiming Russia, Iran, and North Korea sponsored Hamas’ attack on Israel, trying to rattle up some support.

    It was as compelling as it was untrue. Any thoughtful analysis of the war showed it to be, from early days, a war of attrition at best for the Ukrainian side and while the U.S. could supply nearly bottomless cargo planes full of weapons and munitions, right up to the promised F-16 fighter-bombers and M1A tanks due on line soon, it could not fill the manpower gap. Any appetite for American troop involvement was hushed up early in the fight. Russia could do what she had always done at war, hunker down in the field and reach deep into its vast territory to find ever more conscripts to wait out the enemy. It didn’t hurt that Russia’s capability versus NATO equipment was surprisingly good, or perhaps the Ukrainians’ handling of sophisticated Western arms was surprisingly bad.

    But the most predictable factor leading to quiet U.S. moves toward some sort of “solution” in Ukraine is as predictable as the battlefield results. There is unease in the U.S. government over how much less public attention (despite the propaganda) the war in Ukraine has garnered since the Israeli-Hamas conflict began more than a month ago. Combined with what looks like a feisty new Speaker of the House seeking to decouple aid to Israel from aid to Ukraine, officials fear that shift could make securing additional funds for Kiev difficult.

    Americans, the people and their government, assisted by their media wielding the greatest propaganda tools ever imagined, seem capable of focusing on only one bright shiny object at a time. Over 41 percent of Americans now say the U.S. is doing too much to help Kiev. That’s a significant change from just three months ago when only 24 percent of Americans said they felt that way. In the case of wars, a new bright shiny object must include two clear sides, one good and one pure evil, with one preferably an underdog, daily combat footage which can be obtained without too much danger, and a football game-like progression across a map that is easy to follow. It should not be boring. Ukraine was such a conflict and enjoyed almost a full two-year run. But the fickle attention of America shifted to the Middle East just as things started to look more and more like static WWI trench warfare in Ukraine. It was a hard act to follow but something always follows nonetheless (the same calculus works for natural disasters and mass shootings, which are only as mediagenic-good as the next one coming.)

    Ukraine, like Israel, owes most of its continued existence to American weaponry. However, despite the blue and yellow splattered on social media at present, Ukraine does not have anywhere near the base of support Israel does among the American public and especially within the American Congress. The terms for resolving the war will be dictated to Kiev as much by Washington as they will be by Moscow, as with Crimea a few years ago. The end will be quite sad; Russia will very likely solidify its hold on Donbas and the Crimea, and achieve new territory to the west approaching Kiev, roughly 20 percent of Ukraine. Ukraine will be forced to set aside its goal of joining NATO even as the U.S. takes a new stand on its western border with Poland.

    It is all something of a set piece. America’s habit of wandering into a conflict and then losing interest is long (Iraq) enough to count as an addition to history (Afghanistan.) “We have your back” and “we will not abandon you” join “the check’s in the mail” and “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” among  joking faux reassurances. Our proxies seem to end up abandoned and hung out to die. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, never mind Vietnam before that, what was realized at the end could have most likely been achievable at pretty much anytime after the initial hurrahs passed away. It is sad that so many had to die to likely see it happen in 2023.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Talk to the American People about Ukraine, Joe

    October 20, 2023 // 18 Comments »

    America needs to hear from its own president, not Volodymyr Zelensky, about what is going on in Ukraine.

    America just can’t get enough of Endless War it seems; otherwise why would it keep getting into one of them? Leaving aside ancient historical examples like Korea (still ongoing) and Vietnam (result was a complete defeat of the U.S. after decades of conflict preceeded by years of U.S. nearly completely funding the failed French war effort there) we have the more modern examples of Iraq and Afghanistan. The former sputtered to defeat for the U.S. after decades of war (counting Gulf War I and the bombing campaigns which accomplished little permanently and Gulf War II which led to empowering Iran in Iraq via Gulf War 2.5) and the latter concluding decisively on the TV August 2021 with the symbolically cluster-futzed final evacuation (memories of Saigon.) Each war started with no real practical goal in mind (remember nation building? The War on Terror, i.e., a war against a tactic?)

    With that kind of track record you’d think America would take a breather from Endless War, you know, take a few years off to get its head together, maybe work the fentanyl problem, get the economy together so people other than Democratic commentators can see it growing. But no. Just a scant six months after hosing the last Afghan dust off our boots the U.S. finds itself mired in Ukraine. No clear, realistic goal? Check. Open-ended commitment of U.S. resources? Check. Potential to suck U.S. forces directly into the conflict? Check. Dubious one man celebrity leader? Check. Unclear as hell how Ukraine fits into our national interest, how much more time and money will be expected to achieve whatever our objectives are, and how much Europe plans to contribute to the war taking place in its backyard? Check.

    It is time for President Biden to explain some things to the American people.

    1) What is the endgame, Joe? Is it democracy in Ukraine? If so, you’re off to a rough start. Zelensky over the past two years conscripted his own citizens, kept young males from the freedom to travel, done away with opposition parties, canceled all future elections indefinitely, consolidated all TV platforms in Ukraine into one state broadcast, dealt harshly with dissidents, and assumed practically one-man rule over the nation, certainly its war. Plus there’s all that about units of the Ukrainian military being actual Nazis. So Joe, what is the plan to bring democracy to Ukraine? It seems only that things have gotten worse since the U.S. intervened to prevent the Russians from doing many of the things Zelensky has already done to his own country. FYI Joe, you’ll recall military imposition of democratic values historically has failed.

    2) Or Joe, is the point of the war to force Russia out of what Ukraine claims as its territory? Does that include the territory the U.S. gifted a few years ago to the Russians in the Crimea when under another president all this seemed much less dire? Or just to retake the land back which Russia gained after February 2022? That was the point of the Great 2023 Spring Counter-Offensive, right? Be up front with the propaganda-weary American people about how things are going; the Ukrainians in their offensive using most of the conventional ground-force arms in America’s arsenal, gained back only 143 square miles. The Russians, supposedly on the defensive, gained 331 square miles of land. With the Counter-Offensive now clearly a failure, what is the next step? Is there a plan? How do we define win? “As long as it takes” is not a viable option, it’s just a recipe for another Vietnam, another Afghanistan.

    3) What role if any will diplomacy with Russia play in achieving this end game, whatever it is? Have the Russians sought to meet and discuss the war? Has the U.S. offered to meet? If not, why not? Diplomacy can end wars. We know your secretary of state can pick a fight but can he stop one, the real test for his profession? Because it is complicated, we’ll give you a pass on how our own government helped create this situation in the first place, something the American people need to know more about at some point.

    4) Speaking of things the American public needs to know about, who blew up the Nordstrom pipeline between Russia and Germany? Is this the kind of war America is in that we would blow up the pipeline to press Germany to further join the fight? Or is it the kind of war where Ukraine would somehow muster the technical know-how to blow up the pipeline to force Germany to further join the fight? Why would the Russians blow up a pipeline that supplies their gas to Germany, a significant source of revenue? Is this war that dirty?

    5) The U.S. has appropriated $113 billion dollars to Ukraine, paying for everything from tanks to ambulance drivers’ regular salaries. And what else Joe? What systems are in place for accountability for this money? Could it be that more money simply deepens the quagmire and pushes us closer to direct conflict with Russia? You’ve spoken in the past how accountability lies with the Inspectors General at the Department of Defense, State, and USAID. They point to “a decade of shared experience gained from joint oversight of eight different overseas contingency operations, forgetting the spectacular failure of oversight of these overseas contingency operations,” and how the same agencies covered up waste, fraud, and mismanagement and deliberately mislead the American public on the progress made in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Joe, you need to address opposition to the more formal structure of establishing a Special Inspector General for Ukraine (SIGUR), such as SIGIR in Iraq and SIGAR in Afghanistan. “As much as it takes” is a blank check the American taxpayer needs to know more about. Senator Rand Paul in the spring placed a temporary hold on a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine, demanding unsuccessfully Congress insert a provision into the aid package creating an inspector general to oversee the distribution of the aid. As SIGAR noted, “While Afghanistan and Ukraine are very different countries with a history of facing very different threats, many of the challenges U.S. agencies faced in Afghanistan—coordinating efforts, dealing with corruption, and effectively monitoring and evaluating projects and programs—will be the same as the ones they will face in Ukraine.” And speaking of corruption, your own State Department has singled out Ukraine for its corrupt practices, which as you know from Iraq and Afghanistan will seriously dilute any aid. Why resist additional oversight?

    6) We know there are American Special Forces on the ground in Ukraine, and America forces in command and control roles in the ongoing fight. Are there redlines, either promised to Zelensky or just for yourself, Joe, to trigger a larger U.S. direct role in Ukraine? What would it take to have more “advisers” on the ground, or American air power, or American leadership embedded with Ukrainian troops in the field? At what point in escalation would you agree Congress needs to formally weigh in? And no fair making it all OK by calling the deployments “NATO” instead of American. A Russia-NATO scuffle is a Russia-U.S. scuffle.

    No more malarkey, Joe. Time to talk to the American people about Ukraine.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Lessons from Afghanistan for the Reconstruction of Ukraine

    August 22, 2023 // 10 Comments »

    Though some say it is wishful thinking to be talking today about the reconstruction of Ukraine (they have to win first), it is never too early to pull out lessons learned from the last fiasco, in hopes they can be baked in to whatever eventual process is undertaken. That’s why a group of senators asked the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to put together a brief list of things not to do again in the course of rebuilding Ukraine.

    SIGAR was in charge of overseeing the two-decades-long, $146 billion spend to rebuild Afghanistan. Over the course of years, in addition to the 1,297 audit recommendations SIGAR made to recover funds, improve agency oversight, and increase program effectiveness, they also made 143 sector-specific recommendations to executive agencies as part of the agency’s Lessons Learned Program. So while few people seemed to listen to them regarding Afghanistan, that doesn’t mean they had nothing to say, especially as regards to the next reconstruction program in Ukraine. As SIGAR notes, “While Afghanistan and Ukraine are very different countries with a history of facing very different threats, many of the challenges U.S. agencies faced in Afghanistan—coordinating efforts, dealing with corruption, and effectively monitoring and evaluating projects and programs—will be the same as the ones they will face in Ukraine.”

    Trigger Warning: most of what SIGAR cautioned about for Afghanistan was exactly the same stuff its sister organization, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), cautioned earlier about in that war. Everything was equally ignored. It can be very frustrating to watch a whole-of-government approach to repeating one’s predecessor’s mistakes. It can be even more frustrating to have participated in it all, as I did, overseeing two reconstruction teams in Iraq while I still worked for the State Department.

    Here’s a wild prediction: at some point in the future there will be a Special Inspector General for Ukraine Reconstruction (SIGUR!) which will watch the same mistakes from Iraq and Afghanistan repeated, with no one listening. Creating SIGUR has already been suggested; Senator Rand Paul back in May temporarily placed a hold on a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine, demanding unsuccessfully Congress insert a provision into the aid package creating an inspector general to oversee the distribution of the aid.

    Nonetheless, there is always hope (the SIGAR people must be the most optimistic people on earth) in putting down on paper the blindingly obvious when billions of dollars and national credibility are at stake. So, from SIGAR with love, here are the seven lessons from Afghanistan for the reconstruction of Ukraine:

    — Lesson 1: The U.S. government struggled to develop a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve in Afghanistan and imposed unrealistic timelines that led to wasteful and counterproductive programs.

    Now who would think lacking a strategy and indeed any agreed-upon goal would slow things down? In Ukraine, will the goal be raising the entire country to Western European standards? Favoring the anti-Russian areas? Trying to buy loyalty in the pro-Russian areas? Or as in Afghanistan (as in Iraq, just substitute the two country names from here on out) simply spending money willy-nilly in hopes a coherent strategy might emerge in retrospect. Unrealistic timelines (variously, success before the next local election, before the next U.S. election, before the military change of command, before my tour as team leader is up…) meant most timelines were ignored. Hope they do better in Ukraine.

    — Lesson 2: Lack of effective coordination—both within the U.S. government and across the international coalition—was a major obstacle to success in Afghanistan and resulted in a disjointed patchwork of ineffective efforts, rather than a united and coherent approach.

    There’s that naughty word, coherent, again. In Iraq the Italian reconstruction team did not talk to never mind take direction from the Americans; they were too focused on providing commercial opportunities for their countrymen. USAID was really into schools and bridges, whereas State focused on “democracy building” such as empowering women in medieval Islamic societies via local modern drama clubs. The hope that synergy would emerge was consumed by the same thing that makes a million monkeys typing away at a million typewriters still unlikely to produce a great work of literature. And they may need all that time; reconstruction in Ukraine is expected to take decades.

    — Lesson 3: Though viewed as our greatest strength, the level of financial assistance in Afghanistan was often our greatest weakness.

    Like with teenagers and booze, too much money can only lead to trouble. Billions were spent with little oversight, leading directly to corruption. The money tsunami “overwhelmed the Afghan economy and fueled massive corruption from senior government officials in Kabul to low-level officials around the country. This corruption posed a critical threat to the mission.” SIGAR found “in Afghanistan, the U.S. government spent too much money, too quickly, in a country that was unable to absorb it” and warns of the same in the future Ukraine reconstruction.

    Lacking a trusted banking system connected to international standard systems, business in Iraq and Afghanistan was done in cash, vast amounts of paper money brought in to the country on pallets and stored in copier paper boxes stacked alongside the safes which could not hold a tenth of the moolah on hand. It begged to be misused.

    And then there was the unequal distribution of reconstruction funds. The military always had more than anyone else and so always won every discussion about what to do next. As SIGAR noted, when USAID tried to stop implementing projects in areas where they could not be monitored or evaluated, the military simply used funds from its Commander’s Emergency Response Program to implement those projects anyway—often in even less secure areas, where projects were unlikely to succeed.

    — Lesson 4: Corruption was an existential threat to the reconstruction mission in Afghanistan.

    This will be a massive issue in a place like Ukraine (it remains the most corrupt country in Europe excluding Russia; according to USAID, rooting out corruption in Ukraine will be a generational challenge) with its very organized crime emboldened by “lost” American weapons from the battlefield and new members with military experience. Rebuilding Ukraine means fighting graft first, claimed the Washington Post. Ukraine has “entrenched patronage networks that involve senior officials who can inhibit reconstruction and international aid by wasting assistance and damaging the government’s ability to deliver services. Combating corruption is difficult because it requires the cooperation and political will of those elites who benefit the most from it. Few cooperate willingly,” SIGAR wrote. Militia leaders, warlords, oligarchs, meh, they’re all pretty much the same problem in different headgear.

    — Lesson 5: Building and reforming the Afghan security forces was hindered by their corruption, predation, and chronic dependency on the United States.

    The Ukrainian military is 100 percent dependent on the United States for everything from spare parts to uniforms to strategic and tactical leadership. They have already lost the ability to fight on their own. The numbers help tell the story: over the course of two decades in Afghanistan, the United States spent an average of $375 million each month on security assistance. By comparison, the U.S. is currently spending $2.5 billion each month—nearly seven times the average monthly amount it spent in Afghanistan—on security assistance in Ukraine. Intended or not, that buys a lot of dependence.

    Meanwhile, as in Afghanistan, the Ukraine’s internal security forces remain rife with corruption and require urgent reform. Ukraine’s police have been largely feared and distrusted by the people they are supposed to serve. In some areas of the country, the police have resembled “a mafia-style organization” that intimidates locals with impunity, warns SIGAR.

    — Lesson 6: Tracking equipment provided to Afghan security forces proved challenging well before the government collapsed.

    So much military equipment poured haphazardly into a country is sure to see some of it end up in the wrong hands. In Afghanistan, the U.S. was supplying both sides of many encounters, arms leaking out into the countryside via corruption, lack of security, and poor stock keeping. Already in Ukraine, Russian organized crime groups, local crooks, and unauthorized volunteer battalions obtained or stole weapons from Department of Defense security aid meant to arm the Ukrainian military for its defense against Russia, according to an inspector general report revealed as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Military.com. In just a taste of what’s to come, the report shows how U.S. efforts to meet end-use goals for billions in security assistance donated throughout 2022 often failed. Little or no accountability existed on the U.S. side, allowing weapons to be diverted to criminals and opposition forces.

    Another Department of Defense (DOD) report made public found employees fell short of requirements for tracking financial aid to Ukraine. The report examined how the DOD was monitoring transactions from over $6.5 billion in funding from the Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act through Advana software, the only authorized reporting platform. Auditors warned DOD’s subpar reporting processes, including use of systems that are unreadable by Advana, could hinder oversight and transparency (the U.S. did not properly track $18.6 billion in aid to Afghanistan, partly because it employed software systems that were either incompatible with one another or incapable of handling the volume of data received. Most projects in Iraq, millions of dollars, were tracked only via a shared Excel spreadsheet.)

    — Lesson 7: Monitoring and evaluation efforts in Afghanistan were weak and often measured simple inputs and outputs rather than actual program effectiveness.

    In Iraq we evaluated a program’s effectiveness like this: we increased the amount of money we spent one quarter on education by 13 percent. The next quarter we announced a 13 percent improvement in education in our area; it was simple as that.

    “Oversight became an afterthought,” wrote SIGAR. “The U.S. government is poor at predicting the resources and length of time necessary to rebuild complex institutions in other countries. The timelines created by U.S. officials ignored conditions on the ground and created perverse incentives to spend quickly and focus on short-term goals. The U.S. government emphasized short-term, tangible projects where money could be spent rapidly and success claimed more immediately over less tangible but potentially more enduring, long-term programming, such as capacity building. Physical security, political stability, and immediate reconstruction needs took priority over the slow, iterative work of building good governance and the rule of law, the foundations for combating corruption.”

    There are the lessons, solid suggestions each one. They were largely ignored in Afghanistan and Iraq. Think they’ll do any better in Ukraine?

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Dissent Channel, Afghanistan and Confidentiality

    August 7, 2023 // 8 Comments »

    Something quite significant in U.S. diplomatic history is going to take place — a State Department Dissent Channel message, concerning the evacuation and withdrawal from Afghanistan, is going to be shared with Members of Congress.

    House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul announced his panel investigating the final days of American presence in Afghanistan will view the Dissent Channel cable. McCaul threatened to hold Secretary of State Antony Blinken in contempt if he did not provide him access to the diplomatic cable, which came from a confidential “dissent channel” that allowed State Department officials to discuss views which may be different from  administration policy.

    It is believed the July 2021 cable discussed concerns from the rank-and-file diplomatic staff not fully shared by senior embassy executives and management about the upcoming American pullout from the country, warning the U.S.-backed Afghan government could fall. The cable specifically advised an earlier withdrawal date than that ultimately chosen by the Biden Administration, and may have addressed the decision to conduct the entire evacuation from a single civilian airport in Kabul.

    So what is the Dissent Channel and why is this particular cable so important?

    The Dissent Channel was set up in 1971 during the Vietnam War era as a way for foreign service officers and civil servants at State (as well as United States Agency for International Development, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the former United States Information Agency) to raise concerns with senior management about the direction of U.S. foreign policy, without fear of retribution. The cables (formal, official State internal communications are still referred to as “cables” harking back to early diplomatic days when telegrams were used to communicate between Washington and embassies abroad) are sent to the State Department’s policy planning director, who distributes them to the secretary of state and other top officials, who must respond within 30 to 60 days. There are typically about five to ten each year. “Discouragement of, or penalties for use of, the Dissent Channel are impermissible,” according to the State Department internal regulations.

    Use of the Channel covers the scope of diplomatic mission. Historical messages include a dissent over the executive branch’s decision to “initiate no steps to discipline a military unit that took action at My Lai” in Vietnam and the “systematic use of electrical torture, beatings, and in some cases, murder, of men, women, and children by military units in Vietnam.” These actions by U.S. soldiers were “atrocities too similar to those of Nazis.” Another dissent was over the “hypocritical” U.S. support of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, bemoaning that the U.S. missed a “unique opportunity to intervene for once on the right repeat right side” of history. One older atypical dissent cable complained about having to arrange female companionship in Honduras for a visiting U.S. congressman. In the words of one now-declassified cable, “The Dissent Channel can be a mechanism for unclogging the Department’s constipated paper flow” related to employee dissent against current foreign policy actions.

    What the Channel does is one thing; who gets to see it is another. Until now, dissent messages have generally been regarded as something sacrosanct not to shown to outsiders and not to be leaked. “Release and public circulation of Dissent Channel messages,” State wrote to one inquirer,” would inhibit the willingness of Department personnel to avail themselves of the Dissent Channel to express their views freely.” The messages were first withheld from the rest of government (and the public) by State under the rules which created the system, and later under the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) “predecisional” Exemption 5, until the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act amendments made it illegal for agencies to use this exemption after 25 years. So sharing the Afghan dissent cable with Members of Congress, especially so soon after the administration’s evacuation policy failed in Afghanistan, is a very big deal at the State Department.

    One publicized exception to how closely held dissent messages are took place in 2017 when nearly a thousand State Department Foreign Service Officers signed a five page dissent message opposing President Donald Trump’s executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which prohibited seven additional Muslim nationalities from entering the U.S., aka “The Muslim Ban.” As a result of an anti-Trump contingent inside generally liberal and mostly Democratic-leaning State, the message was leaked in its entirety. Even more against precedent, Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer issued an extraordinary public rebuke to the diplomats: “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? They should either get with the program or they can go.”

    An almost-leak (a State Department official provided a draft, though the final version was not published, to The New York Times) took place in 2016 during the Trump-Clinton presidential election, after 51 Foreign Service Officers criticized the Obama administration via the Dissent Channel for failing to do enough to protect civilians in Syria in what was widely seen as an endorsement of Candidate Hillary’s pseudo-promise to put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. Other Trump-era dissent cables not shared outside the Department called for consultations on Trump’s removal from office, and rebuked the secretary of state for not forcefully condemning the president over January 6.

    To fully understand what the Dissent Channel is requires a better understanding of the State Department culture, academic in nature but frighteningly risk adverse. The academic side reflects the Department’s modern origins as being made up of those who were “male, pale, and Yale” where the tradition of loyal opposition holds sway. But it is the risk adverse side of State that tells how important internally revealing the Afghan cable is. Dissent messages are signed, no anonymous ones allowed, and while Secretary Blinken has promised to not show the names of those who signed the Afghan cable to Congress, State senior management will know exactly who wrote what.

    In addition, Dissent Channel messages must still be cleared for transmission to the secretary of state in Washington at post, though there is no requirement everyone agree with the contents per se (authorization does not imply concurrence.) So one’s colleagues know who wrote what, potential dynamite in an organization where dissent is otherwise not encouraged and corridor reputation plays a deciding role in promotions and future assignments. It is a significant step to write or sign a dissent cable and despite the regulations’ admonishment that use of the Dissent Channel not be discouraged by supervisors, it is discouraged.

    Nobody in Embassy Kabul who signed that dissent message, basically telling their boss the ambassador and the Biden Administration they were wrong, expected to have their opinions shown to Congress; quite the opposite. Blinken, by sharing the cable with Congress, is breaking faith with his institution and with his front line workers in a uncollegial way only imagined by them during the Trump administration. Once upon a time something like that would have called for dissent.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Jack Teixeira, Leaks, and a Matter of Trust

    April 21, 2023 // 2 Comments »

    Despite all the precautions and double-checks, at some level it ends up a matter of trust. And in the case of Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, much of that trust was violated. Why couldn’t the military trust him? Why do we have to trust him?

    The charging documents against Jack Teixeira, 21-year-old going on 14-year-old airman first class who is accused of leaking classified documents, indicate that he was granted a top-secret security clearance in 2021, which was required for his job as a computer network technician in the Massachusetts Air National Guard. While that may sound like an exceptional degree of access for such a junior service member, having top secret/SCI (sensitive compartmented information) clearance in that kind of job is standard. Other recent celebrity leakers were of a similar age and experience; NSA leaker Reality Winner was arrested at age 26. Edward Snowden did his leaking from the NSA and CIA in his early thirties, and Chelsea Manning was only 22 when she exposed massive amounts of State Department and U.S. military data via Wikileaks. With the exception of Winner, all worked as network engineers of some sort, sitting at the electronic nexus between the producers of intelligence and the consumers. There is no place elsewhere on the network which offers greater visibility. Think of how much water a plumber watches pass by as he fixes your pipes.

    Though each leaker had all the requisite background checks, at their young ages there wasn’t much background to check. Teixeira joined the military at age 20 and so, like Manning and others, his suitability for a clearance was based mostly on what kind of kid he was in high school. It is unclear what a better clearance system would look like, but it is equally clear the current one has some holes in it. Right now things are based mostly on a matter of trust.

    Teixeira violated the trust put in him in a number of ways, the most significant was the actual leaking of highly classified documents. The manner in which he appears to have obtained the documents, however, suggests other steps of breach of trust along the way. The documents as they appeared online on that Discord gaming and chat server appear to be photographs of classified documents. This makes sense; the military networks are physically isolated from the outside world and so electronic outloading secrets is near impossible. If a classified document is physically printed, as in the case of the Reality Winner leaks, a secret source code is surreptitiously embedded and can be traced back to the printer. In both Manning’s and Snowden’s cases some sort of storage device was illegally brought into the secure area, in Manning’s case a read/writable CD-ROM. What Snowden used has never been publicly disclosed though Oliver Stone’s film Snowden postulates it was some sort of media smuggled in and out via a Rubik’s Cube. Teixeira seems to have acquired classified documents printed by someone else and taken cell phone photos of them, either at work or, based on the daily detritus in the frames, at home. Teixeira was trusted not to bring a phone into his secured area and not to take documents out. He violated these trusts to try impress some online friends with the level of access he had.

    Here things are on more traditional ground. Standard spy tradecraft says someone will betray their country for one or more of a fairly standard set of reasons, MICE: money, ideology, compromise and ego, with the kid Teixeira solidly on the square marked “ego.” It’s easy to screen out the drunks and gamblers and bankrupt, harder to figure out who is doing it for themselves.

    But what other matters of trust were breached in the short saga of Jack Teixeira? The MSM soiled itself once again, proving to be more a tool of the state rather than a way to inform the people about what their government is up to. Most of the MSM joined with online pundits in first claiming the Teixeira documents were fakes, or at least grossly altered. When the story first appeared Reuters claimed, based on anonymous sources, that Russia was behind it. When the documents’ veracity became too obvious to ignore, the MSM switched over into claiming whatever the documents said, it was not very important, just things everyone sort of already knew (they did the same with the Snowden info.) Then despite the documents being of no great importance, when instructed from the White House briefing podium that the documents do not belong on the front pages of American newspapers, the documents were taken off line by the MSM and replaced with blurred images. Based on publicly available information, the New York Times and Washington Post tracked down the leaker before the FBI did, practically outing him on page one for the Feds. The trust between the press and its role in a democracy, and the people, was treated with the same callousness as the trust between Teixeira and the military.

    As for other matters of trust, the Teixeira documents show that post-Snowden the U.S. still spies on its allies. Snowden revealed American spying in Western Europe, for example, was down to the level of listening in on world leaders’ personal cell phones, and that in Asia the entire Japanese phone system was compromised. Teixeira reveals the U.S. listens in on Cabinet-level internal discussions in South Korea, and on high-level deliberations in Egypt (who, speaking of matters of trust) appeared to be planning on selling arms to Russia while at the same time being the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The U.S. also listened in on Jordan’s Crown Prince Hussein and of course ally Ukraine. There was no trust despite public pronouncements of common goals and joint efforts.

    But the biggest breach of trust revealed by the Teixeira documents is between the U.S. government and the people. The leaked documents show despite claims to the contrary, there are American (special) forces on the ground in Ukraine, catching the president in a solid lie. Other NATO forces have military personnel on the ground as well, dramatically risking wider conflict even as the president begs the American people to believe all that the U.S. is doing is passively supplying weapons to Ukraine. We also learn that any pronouncements of optimism that Ukraine may force back its Russian invaders cannot be trusted; the documents show U.S. intelligence assesses the much-vaunted spring counteroffensive by Ukraine will likely fail, and that the war writ large will continue into 2024. Not only does this show administration claims of progress to be false, it raises the possibility deeper American involvement will be necessary and likely.

    It is a familiar story. The sum of the Manning leaks showed the American government could not be trusted to tell the truth about progress in the Iraq and Afghan wars (echoing the Daniel Ellsberg leaks about Vietnam known as the Pentagon Papers.) The sum of the Snowden leaks was to show the American government could not be trusted when it claimed to not spy domestically on its own citizens, or on its closest allies abroad. It becomes a sad state of affairs where we the people end up trusting leakers, people by definition untrustworthy, to accurately and completely tell us what our own government is doing behind the always happy public announcements. If the leaked documents matched the public statements there would be nothing to say, indeed, no point in leaking, for the adolescent dork or the self-styled crusader. But it never works that way.

    So when we ask why we cannot trust kids like Jack Teixeira to follow the rules and earn the trust granted them, we need to look broader, at a military-government system that pretends to be based on trust while lying its pants off. That’s how Teixeira probably grew up seeing things, you can trust me.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Iraq was 20 Years Ago Today…

    March 19, 2023 // 13 Comments »

    I was part of Iraq 2.0, heading two embedded civilian provincial reconstruction teams (ePRTs) 2009-2010 and wrote a book critical of the program, We Meant Well, for which was I was punished into involuntary retirement by my employer the U.S. State Department. The working title for the book was originally “Lessons for Afghanistan from the Failed Reconstruction of Iraq” and was meant to explain how our nation building efforts failed to accomplish anything except setting afire rampant corruption, and how repeating them nearly dollar-for-dollar in the Afghan theatre was just going to yield the same results. After all, isn’t one definition of madness doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results?

    The title of my book changed to something less academic sounding, coming out as it did around the tenth anniversary of Iraq War 2.0. It is important to look back accurately; on the tenth anniversary the meme was still that the Surge was going to work, that the final push of soldiers and civilian reconstructors was going to break Al Qaeda in Iraq by coopting their indigenous Sunni partners. “Jury Still Out on Iraq Invasion” wrote Politico. My editor selfishly hoped the war would still be going on in a few months so we might sell some books. I knew we had something to worry about, not that the war would fail to drag on but that the failures would be so obvious no one would see the need to read a whole book about them.

    The way it all worked was like this. Washington would determine some broad theme-of-the-month (such as women’s empowerment) aimed at a domestic American audience. The theme would filter down to us at the PRT level and we were to concoct some sort of “project,” something tangible on the ground, preferably something that showed well in the media we’d invite to see our progress. It wasn’t hard because corrupt organizations arose like flowers from the desert to take our money. Usually run by a local Tony Soprano-type warlord, the organization would morph in name alone as needed from local activist group to NGO to entrepreneur incubator depending on the project. We’d give them boxes full of dollars (nobody wanted Iraqi money, a clue) and perhaps some event would occur, or a speaker might be brought in. We funded bakeries on streets without water, paid for plays on getting along with neighbors, and threw money at all this only because no one could find a match to just set fire to it directly. Little was expected in the end outside a nice slideshow celebrating another blow for democracy. In shopping for hearts and minds in Iraq, we made bizarre impulse purchases, described elsewhere as “checkbook diplomacy.”

    As Iraq morphed into a subject we were just not going to talk about very much (one journalist who read my early draft opined “So you’re the guy who is going to write the last critical book on Iraq before Petraeus takes a victory lap in his”) attention turned to Afghanistan. I knew this because suddenly I was flooded with requests to write recommendations for the same people who had failed so completely in Iraq to work in Afghanistan. As part of some escalation or another, the military was rehiring most of the civilians who had failed to reconstruct Iraq into exactly the same roles in Afghanistan, presumably to (fail) to reconstruct that sad place.

    I dutifully answered each personnel inquiry accurately, fully, and as a patriot, with the hope that someone would see what was going on and put a goddamn stop to it. I was very wrong. The key element of the fantasy was the reconstruction effort, the idea that rebuilding Afghanistan via $141 billion in roads and schools and bridges and hardware stores would gut the Taliban’s own more brutal hearts and minds efforts. That was the same plan as in Iraq only minutes earlier, where between 2003 and 2014, more than $220 billion was spent on rebuilding the country. Nonetheless, the Iraqi failure on full display, the United States believed that economic and social development programming would increase support for the Afghan government and reduce support for the Taliban (the log line for the war script.)

    However, as had its sister organization in Iraq, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) wrote “the theory that economic and social development programing could produce such outcomes had weak empirical foundations.” Former Ambassador to Afghanistan Michael McKinley noted, “It wasn’t that everyone, including conservative rural populations, didn’t appreciate services… But that didn’t seem to change their views.” As the Army War College wrote, “This idea that if you build a road or a hospital or a school, people will then come on board and support the government — there’s no evidence of that occurring anywhere since 1945, in any internal conflict. It doesn’t work.” As an American former advisor to President Ghani told SIGAR, “Building latrines does not make you love Ashraf Ghani.” But that was indeed the plan and it failed spectacularly, slow over its own twenty years then all at once last August. SIGAR summed up: “U.S. efforts to build and sustain Afghanistan’s governing institutions were a total, epic, predestined failure on par with the same efforts and outcome in the Vietnam war, and for the same reasons.”

    No, wait, nobody said any of those things during the Afghan war, only afterwards when it was time to look around and assign blame to someone other than oneself. The Iraq reconstruction failed to account for the lessons of Vietnam (the CORDS program in particular.) The Afghan reconstruction failed to account for the lessons of Iraq. We now sit and wait to see the coming Ukraine reconstruction fail to remember any of it at all.

    “It is obvious that American business can become the locomotive that will once again push forward global economic growth,” President Zelensky said, boasting BlackRock, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs, and others “have already become part of our Ukrainian way.” The NYT calls Ukraine “the world’s largest construction site” and predicts projects there in the multi-billions, as high in some estimates as 750 billion. It will be, says the Times, a “gold rush: the reconstruction of Ukraine once the war is over. Already the staggering rebuilding task is evident. Hundreds of thousands of homes, schools, hospitals and factories have been obliterated along with critical energy facilities and miles of roads, rail tracks and seaports. The profound human tragedy is unavoidably also a huge economic opportunity.”

    We did worse than nothing. Iraq before our invasion(s) was a more or less stable place, good enough that Saddam was even an ally of sorts during the Iraq-Iran War. By the time we were finished Iraq was a corrupt client state of Iran. Where once most literate Americans knew the name of the Iraqi Prime Minister, a regular White House guest, unless he’s changed his name to Zelensky nobody cares anymore. And that’s what the sign on the door leading out of Iraq (and perhaps into Ukraine) reads — thousands of lives and billions of dollars later, no one cares, if they even remember.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Ukraine is America’s Afghanistan More Than Russia’s

    March 6, 2023 // 5 Comments »

    The thinking in Washington goes like this: for the “low cost” of Ukrainian lives and some American dollars, the West can end Putin’s strategic threat to the United States. No Americans are dying. It’s not like Iraq or Afghanistan ’01-’21. This is post-modern, something new, a clean great power war, Jackson Pollack for war. Getting a lot of foreign policy mojo at little cost. It’s almost as if we should have though of this sooner.

    Um, we did. It didn’t work out past the short run and there’s the message. Welcome to Afghanistan 1980’s edition with the U.S. playing both the American and the Soviet roles.

    At first glance it seems all that familiar. Russia invades a neighboring country who was more or less just minding its own business. Russia’s goals are the same, to push out its borders in the face of what it perceives as Western encroachment on the one hand, and world domination on the other. The early Russian battlefield successes break down, and the U.S. sees an opportunity to bleed the Russians at someone else’s bodily expense. “We’ll fight to the last Afghani” is the slogan of the day.

    The CIA, via our snake-like “ally” in Pakistan, floods Afghanistan with money and weapons. The tools are different but the effect is the same: supply just enough firepower to keep the bear tied down and bleeding but not enough to kill him and God forbid, end the war which is so profitable — lots of dead Russkies and zero Americans killed (OK, maybe a few, but they are the use-and-forget types of foreign policy, CIA paramilitary and Special Forces, so no fair counting them.) And ironic historical bonus: in both Afghanistan 1980s and Ukraine, some of the money spent is Saudi. See the bothersome thread yet?

    Leaving aside some big differences that enabled initial successes in Afghanistan, chief among which is the long supply lines versus Ukraine’s border situation, let’s look at what followed early days.

    Though NATO countries and others sent small numbers of troops and material to Afghanistan, the U.S. has gone out of its way to make Ukraine look like a NATO show when it is not. Washington supposedly declared support for Ukraine to preserve and empower NATO (despite the fact that Ukraine was not a member.) Yet, to keep Germany on sides in the Russian-Ukraine war, Washington (allegedly) conducted a covert attack on Germany’s critical civilian infrastructure that will have lasting, negative consequences for the German economy. Seymour Hersh reported the Nord Stream pipeline connecting cheap Russian natural gas to Europe via Germany was sabotaged by the United States. An act of war. The destruction of an ally’s critical infrastructure, and no doubt a brush back pitch carefully communicated to the Germans alongside a stern warning to stay put on sanctions against energy trade with Russia. It’s a helluva thing, blowing up the pipeline to force Germany to color inside the lines NATO (actually the U.S.) laid out. This, in addition to the U.S. treating NATO countries as convenient supply dumps and little more, shows that NATO will emerge from Ukraine broken. One does also wonder if the future of Europe is at stake why the greatest concern is expressed in Washington and not Bonn or Paris.

    As with Afghanistan, there are questions if we Americans will ever be able to leave, about whether Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rules applies — you break it, you bought it. President Zelensky, portrayed in the West as a cross between Churchill and Bono, in actuality was a comedian and TV producer who won the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election. Zelensky’s popularity was due in part to his anti-establishment image and promises to fight corruption and improve the economy. He was also aided by his portrayal of a fictional president in a popular TV show, which helped to increase his name recognition and appeal to young voters.

    Zelensky was preceded by the Ukrainian Revolution, also known as the Euromaidan Revolution, which began in late 2013 as a series of protests in response to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject an association agreement with the European Union and instead pursue closer ties with Russia. The protests grew in size and intensity, with demonstrators occupying the central Maidan Nezalezhnosti square in Kiev, demanding Yanukovych’s resignation and new elections. In February 2014, the situation escalated when Yanukovych’s security forces cracked down on protesters, resulting in violent clashes that left dozens dead. This led to Yanukovych fleeing the country and a new government being formed in Ukraine. The revolution also sparked tensions with Russia, which subsequently annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine. None of those problems goes away even if the Russia army retreats to its pre-invasion borders. The notion that there is nothing going on here except a rough land grab by a power-made Putin is shallow and incomplete.

    What’s left are concerns about the level of corruption in Ukraine, and the U.S.’s role in addressing it. Despite the U.S. providing significant financial aid to Ukraine, there have been reports of corruption and mismanagement of funds. Some have argued that the U.S. has not done enough to address these issues, and has instead turned a blind eye in order to maintain its strategic interests in the region. America’s history with pouring nearly unlimited arms and money into a developing nation and corruption is not a good one (see either Afghanistan, 1980s or ’01 onward.) Corruption can only get worse.

    A great fear in Afghanistan was arms proliferation, weapons moving off the battlefield into the wrong hands. Whether that be a container of rifles or the latest anti-aircraft systems, an awful lot of weapons are loose in Ukraine. In the case of Afghanistan, the real fear was for Stinger missiles, capable of shooting down modern aircraft, ending up in terrorist hands. The U.S. has been chasing these missiles through the world’s arms bazaars ever since, right into the Consulate in Benghazi. It is worse in Ukraine. America’s top-of-the-line air defense tools are being employed against Russian and Iranian air assets. What would those countries pay for the telemetry data of a shoot down, never mind actual hardware to reverse engineer and program against? There are no doubt Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other intelligence agencies on the ground in Ukraine with suitcases full of money trying to buy up what they can. Another cost of war.

    It is also hard to see the end game as the demise of Putin. This would mean the strategy is not fight until the last Afghani/Ukrainian but to fight until the last Russian. The plan is for that final straw to break, that last Russian death, to trigger some sort of overthrow of Putin. But by whom? Trading Putin for a Russian-military lead government seems a small gain. Look what happened the last time Russia went through a radical change of government — we got Putin. In Afghanistan, it was the Taliban x 2.

    History suggests the U.S. will lose in a variety of ways in Ukraine, with the added question of who will follow Putin and what might make that guy a more copacetic leader towards the United States. As one pundit put it, it is like watching someone play Risk drunk.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Iran’s Foreign Policy: A Complex Landscape

    February 23, 2023 // 5 Comments »

    The Nation asked of President Joe Biden “Is America back?” If it is, what is its signature accomplishment, the marker that Pax Americana or something similar worthy of Latin, is back?

    Certainly nothing here at home. Gas flutters at record levels, as much as $5 a gallon in places with all the side effects of higher grocery prices and supply chain missteps. Employment-wise, jobs of some sort are there but lack in quality and salary such that many people find unemployment a better deal than underemployment.

    Abroad Biden stretched NATO to its threads by threatening Ukrainian membership in the alliance, and ignoring objections to the alliance’s expansion across Russia’s political spectrum, contributing to an invasion few thought would happen and no one in the West outside of Washington wanted. The result is increasingly divided “allies” and massive expenses in arms and lives without much of a defined endgame. This foreign policy disaster-in-progress stands next to Biden’s other signature foreign policy action, withdrawal from Afghanistan in a haphazard way such that it displayed America’s confusion and fugue state more than its power. The world outside the Beltway seems well aware the outcome of more than 20 years of war and occupation is to return the country to its pre-September 11 state of medieval feudalism even if we chose not to talk much about it here at home.

    That’s not much to run on for the second term Biden all but announced his candidacy for in his State of the Union address. Hopes to make better progress here at home are dependent mostly on factors outside America’s control, to include the price of oil (thanks to a Saudi Arabia who brushed back Biden) and any return of Covid. Biden needs and might just be able to find a way to make peace with Iran, however, and score a major foreign policy victory, the kind of typical second term action he could pack into the end of his first term. The world might just forgive some sins (the return of U.S.. forces to Somalia and the endless war in Yemen the U.S. supports, for example) if it sees somnolent American diplomacy dragged out of the closet after six years and put back to use. America’d be back.

    The obstacles to some sort of agreement with Iran are formidable. Iran’s own foreign policy goals are nearly as mixed up as America’s, with the country’s leaders pursuing a complex and often contradictory set of objectives. From supporting armed groups in the Middle East to engaging in negotiations with the West, Iran’s approach to foreign affairs has been shaped by a variety of factors, including its history, ideology, and geopolitical interests. To achieve any sort of agreement, Biden would have to navigate all of the above.

    One of the most notable aspects of Iran’s foreign policy is its support for armed groups in the region. Iran has long been accused of backing militant organizations, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, as part of its efforts to project power and influence beyond its borders. This has led to increased tensions with Iran’s neighbors, particularly Israel, and has fueled concerns about the country’s intentions in the region. Iran controls Iraq (another American foreign policy blunder, about half of which was under Biden’s vice-watch) and complicates Syria and Yemen. But the complexity of the problem just adds to the value to a solution if it can be found.

    Another key aspect of Iran’s foreign policy is its relationship with the West, a fork in the road Biden has the most influence on. The country has been under international sanctions for decades, with the United States and its allies seeking to pressure Iran to limit its nuclear program and curb its support for armed groups (how’s that sanctions regime been working out?) After negotiations with the West during the end state Obama administration, including the 2015 nuclear deal, lifted some of the sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, the deal went south, the United States reimposed most sanctions, and Iran has responded by resuming some of its nuclear activities, leading to fears of a wider conflict.

    Iran’s foreign policy is shaped by its self-understanding it is a major player in the Middle East, something the U.S. has been very slow to acknowledge. The country has long sought to be a regional power, and has used its military, economic, and political leverage to advance its interests in the region, most notably securing a client state in Iraq. This has led to increased tensions with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which view Iran as a major threat to their security. But wouldn’t it be a nice gesture to the Saudi’s, who raised oil prices and refuse to crank up production to match that lost in the Ukraine war, to see the U.S. sit down with one of its adversaries?

    So what would it take for Biden to make some sort of deal with Iran?

    Sanctions relief: Iran would likely seek relief from the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the country, while the U.S. would want to ensure that any sanctions relief is conditional and proportional to Iran’s compliance with the terms of the deal. This is tricky business, but was more or less done in 2015 and is the actual stuff of diplomacy. The economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other countries have had a significant impact on Iran’s economy, reducing its ability to access the global financial system, sell oil, and purchase from other countries. This has led to a shortage of foreign currency, inflation, and a decline in living standards for many Iranians. Biden would have to make clear Iran can choose to be a threshold nuclear power and suffer indefinitely for it, or rejoin the global system and profit from it.

    Nuclear restrictions: Both sides would need to agree on the extent to which Iran’s nuclear program should be restricted and monitored, including limitations on uranium enrichment and the size of its nuclear stockpile. Again, mostly taken care of in 2015. Biden would need to fend off Israel entreaties to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities rather than trust Tehran to disarm them. Iran at the negotiation table would likely demand some sort of pullback of Israeli nukes from the Gulf.

    Timelines: A clear timeline for lifting sanctions and implementing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program is important to avoid stalling the agreement.

    Verification mechanisms: Both sides would need to agree on the mechanisms for verifying compliance with the terms of the deal, including regular inspections and monitoring.

    Regional involvement: As the situation in the Middle East is complex, regional actors, such as the Gulf countries, would need to be involved in the negotiations and have their concerns addressed. This is likely the most difficult part of the deal, bringing the regional actors into line, something a weakened America may not have the diplomatic cojones to make happen. Yemen however is a possible bargaining chip in several directions, and lessening the nuclear threat overall in the Gulf remains a goal worth pursuing.

    The outcome of any potential negotiations will depend on a number of factors, including Iran’s willingness to engage in constructive talks, the level of sanctions relief and other incentives the U.S. is willing to provide, and the international community’s support (particularly a reluctant Saudi Arabia and an even more reluctant Israel) for the negotiations.

    The U.S. and Iran have had a complicated relationship and there have been significant obstacles to reaching a nuclear agreement in the past. However, Biden has expressed a willingness to re-engage with Iran and revive the 2015 nuclear deal. He has also indicated that his administration is open to diplomatic efforts to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and other issues a la carte. For a president looking to take big issue success into the next election, it just might be worth a chance.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Apocalypses Now, Afghan Redux Edition

    February 17, 2023 // 4 Comments »

    It is altogether fitting and proper the final images for most Americans of their war in Afghanistan were chaotic airport scenes, all too familiar to many (Vietnam!) and all too alien to others (We lost? Nobody told me.) It is important two decades of smoldering ruin of American foreign policy — four presidents, six administrations, untold Afghan dead, 2,456 American dead, 20,752 American wounded, and some trillions of dollars spent, the money as uncountable as the Afghan dead and just as meaningless except as an aggregate. There will be deniers emerge in the decades to come, so a final set of pedestrian images of failure are necessary to rebuke them in advance. History has no intent on being being kind here, nor should it considering the scale and cope of the folly.

    The final judgement on paper at least rests with the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the body set up by Congress to monitor the progress over twenty-some years of the national building project America set out to do in 2001. SIGAR just wrote a report entitled Why the Afghan Government Collapsed summing up its work. Here’s the bottom line up front, as the military likes to say: the SIGAR report mentioned Iraq, where a similar nation building effort failing for similar reasons, only three times in 60 pages, one a footnote. Nobody learned any lessons there and it is doubtful as the Blob salivates over rebuilding Ukraine even as this is written that any lessons will be carried forward from Afghanistan. Vietnam begat Iraq which begat Afghanistan which will all be forgotten for the next one. Vietnam was mentioned in the report once only, “U.S. efforts to build and sustain Afghanistan’s governing institutions were a total, epic, predestined failure on par with the same efforts and outcome in the Vietnam war, and for the same reasons.” You’d think a statement like that might be worth a bit of expansion.

    SIGAR tells us the U.S. failed in Afghanistan in large part because “The Afghan government failed to recognize that the United States would actually leave.” There was thus never a push to solve problems or drive peace talks, simply a well-founded belief the American money which fueled abject corruption would continue indefinitely. Standing in the Tim Horton’s/Burger King at Bagram Air Base, thinking through lunch options before a trip to the air conditioned gym with its 75 treadmills in 2009, it all seemed a reasonable assumption. Left unspoken by SIGAR was that the Taliban saw just the opposite, that eventually, someday, maybe in a long time but not indefinitely, the Americans would have to leave. Same as the Alexander the Great, same as the British, same as the Soviets. That is one of the wonderful things about the SIGAR report, its historical portability. Change the dates and some adjacent facts and it reads well to describe the British ouster, or the Russian. The failure to win hearts and minds, the great costs to create the appearance of conquering great swathes of territory, the ability of the Afghan plains to absorb the blood of the conquerors, the endemic corruption of the puppet governments, it was all similar enough.

    SIGAR ignores much of what was happening in the field to focus on intra-USG/Afghan government problems, as one might comment effusively on a particularly pretty hat and fail to notice the woman wearing it was naked. Before the collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021, the primary U.S. goal in Afghanistan we’re told was “to achieve a sustainable political settlement that would bring lasting peace and stability.” But the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Afghan government without first negotiating with the United States was an obstacle to that goal. A similar occurrence happened in 2018, when the United States began direct talks with the Taliban. The U.S. direct negotiations with the Taliban excluded the Afghan government, weakening the negotiating position of the Ghani government and strengthening the Taliban. As Hugo Llorens, former U.S. special chargé d’affaires for Afghanistan, summarized, “Just talking to the Taliban alone and excluding our allies proved the Taliban’s point: The Afghan government were our puppets, you didn’t need to talk to them. You only need to talk to the Americans.”

    SIGAR then notes with the obviousness of a car wreck “The U.S.-Taliban agreement appeared to have emboldened the Taliban. All the Taliban really did was agree not to attack U.S. forces on their way out.” As a result, the agreement likely led Taliban leaders to seek a resolution to its conflict with the Afghan government on the battlefield rather than through peace talks. If this wasn’t a family report, you’d expect a “no sh*t” to follow. All sides were befuddled.  Former Ambassador Michael McKinley told SIGAR that the Afghan president consistently suggested development goals that were “completely off the charts,” and that his apparent “separation from Afghan reality” was concerning. He was “living in fantasyland.”

    The key elements of the fantasy was the reconstruction effort, the idea that rebuilding Afghanistan via $141 billion in roads and schools and bridges and hardware stores would gut the Taliban’s own more brutal hearts and minds efforts. That was the same plan as in Iraq only minutes earlier, where between 2003 and 2014, more than $220 billion was spent on rebuilding the country (full disclosure: I was part of the Iraqi effort and wrote a book critical of the program, We Meant Well, for which was I was punished into involuntary retirement by the U.S. State Department.) Nonetheless, the Iraqi failure on full display, the United States believed that economic and social development programming would increase support for the Afghan government and reduce support for the Taliban insurgency (the log line for the war script.)

    However, SIGAR writes, “the theory that economic and social development programing could produce such outcomes had weak empirical foundations.” Former Ambassador McKinley noted, “It wasn’t that everyone, including conservative rural populations, didn’t appreciate services… But that didn’t seem to change their views.” As the Army War College told us, “This idea that if you build a road or a hospital or a school, people will then come on board and support the government — there’s no evidence of that occurring anywhere since 1945, in any internal conflict. It doesn’t work.” As Scott Guggenheim, former senior advisor to President Ghani, told SIGAR, “Building latrines does not make you love Ashraf Ghani.” But that was indeed the plan and it failed spectacularly, slow over twenty years then all at once.

    There is not justification to blame SIGAR for anything, though the temptation to mock their prose is great given the importance of the mess they sought to document. But no fair. The blame lies with six administrations’ worth of president’s and the men and women who created the Afghan policy. The great news is now, having laid this all out in black and white, we can set the SIGAR report on the shelf alongside a similar one for Iraq (where the watchdog was creatively called SIGIR, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction) knowing it will never, ever ever happen this way again, promise.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Goodbye 2022 (and beyond!)

    January 5, 2023 // 1 Comment »

    Nobody is going to miss 2022. With the won’t-die pandemic, inflation at home and economic troubles abroad, plus the war in Ukraine, it has not been a happy 12 months. Nevertheless, with the year 2022 behind us, it is time for some housecleaning. Here are four memes we really should bury and not have to hear about again.

    The internet changed everything/The internet promotes democracy globally. Nope, it turns out the internet was a big grift and we were allowed to play with its full potential only for a few years until the big guys wanted it back for their own. Though the grift of free speech and a marketplace of idea took place in full view of us all, it was fully bitter and disappointing to see Twitter was never what we thought of it. From early days Twitter was manipulated by a small group of people to favor one set of ideas and either discredit another or simply make them go away. Now it happened that that small group of people had green hair and eyebrow pierces unfavored more liberal ideas, but that is just a technicality, like saying the thugs who monitor the web in North Korea favor North Korean ideas. It means missing the real point, of censorship, of favoring one way of thinking.

    The internet available to people in more liberal countries and the internet available to people in more totalitarian places are rapidly converging, not in the specific ideas they display but in the one-sided way they display them. It matters less each day that a powerful group of people in the United States control what we see or that a powerful group of people in China control what folks there see. The point is control itself, not specific content. And double-plus good for those who imagine folks in China yearning to swap their government-controlled media for America’s corporate controlled media. Same chicken but some eggs have brown shells instead of white. Ain’t nobody being empowered or standing up without permission no matter what it looks like in small-scale from the outside to glib commentators.

    Countries with a McDonald’s don’t make war on one another. It was ever-so journalistic NYT columnist Tom Friedman who coined the phrase. He wrote the benefits of economic integration reduce the policy choices open to governments, making war—which disrupts that integration—so unattractive as to be practically unthinkable, part of all that end of history stuff that was once the vogue for the hive mind. The concept was built around everyone wanting to be more like us. Well, you can’t get fries with that idea in Kiev or Moscow or in Warsaw today, it is as dead as the broader idea it embodied, that war had become obsolete. In fact, reality suggests it all can work in the opposite as Europe’s dependence (e.g., vulnerability) on Russian energy gave Putin one more weapon to consider as he planned his invasion of the Ukraine.

    Same for what Richard Haass of the Council of Foreign Relations calls integration, which has driven decades of Western policy and basically controlled the State Department, with its many offices for education exchange, cultural stuff and women’s issues. This strategy, too, rested on the belief that economic ties – along with cultural, academic, and other exchanges – would drive political developments, rather than vice versa, leading to the emergence of a more open, market-oriented world automatically more moderate in its foreign policy. The idea didn’t win the Cold War with jazz, movie stars, and public speakers, and it did not do much for us in 2022. Educational exchange, the grand savior of U.S.-China relations also near-collapsed in 2022, a victim of lop-sidedness, as well Covid, and misuse by the intelligence agencies.

    And we might as well lump in sanctions here as a dead and done policy option. Sanctions do not create meaningful changes in policy behavior. Sanctions in the case of Russia have accomplished less than nothing, as the limited availability of energy out of Russia had actually driven up the prices and resulted in a net gain in income. Most of the world had no interest in isolating Russia diplomatically and economically. Multilateralism, another thing that was supposed to have been dead, remains alive and allows Russia to sell its energy to China and India, much of it for re-export to the countries in Europe (and Japan) where it was originally intended. It is almost embarrassing to have to include a 2022 version of sanctions here as an example, given how decades of sanctions have failed to effect the situation in pre-Ukraine Russia, never mind China, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and elsewhere.

    You have to be at war to be at war. Not unique to 2022 but exemplified by it are the new forms of warfare-but-not-war the United States has pioneered. Is the U.S. at war in Ukraine, for example? Once upon a time that would have meant an act of Congress, a declaration of war, to answer the question in the affirmative. But who among us would say the U.S. is not just a little bit “at war” in Ukraine? The conflict continues to exist solely because of a growing in amount and complexity in the weapons available to Ukraine. American advisors in the form of Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries are on the ground, alongside American combat “volunteers.” No major decisions take place without Washington’s say so, and no form of conflict resolution will take place without Washington’s say so. But it’s not war, right?

    Same elsewhere, where U.S. weapons animate the conflicts with Yemen and Syria, and U.S. assistance runs like code in the background of the Israeli-Iran power struggle across the Gulf. Sure sounds like war.

    U.S. leadership is near dead. Anybody see any American leadership exercised globally (never mind internally) over Covid? Any international, coordinated responses? Nope. Instead every country made up its own rules, bought its vaccines from its own political partners and allowed/banned travel in line with its national economics. The recent gathering of world leaders in Egypt to address climate change accomplished as little as previous meetings other than to prolong John Kerry’s 15 minutes of fame past their due date with all the grace of milk spoiling. American whining to expand NATO eastward is met with sighs of fatigue. Lastly as far as leadership is concerned there is Ukraine, where each U.S. pronouncement and weapons dump is met with increasing silence out of France and Germany. The U.S. appears resigned to “lead” around little Poland to accomplish its aims. Best to just retire the phrase for now and hope things go better in 2023.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Whither Ukraine

    December 9, 2022 // 3 Comments »

    From the moment Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, there were only two possible outcomes: Ukraine reaches a diplomatic solution which resets its physical eastern border (i.e., Russia annexes much of eastern Ukraine to the Dnieper River, and establishes a land bridge to Crimea) and firmly reestablishes its geopolitical role as buffer state between NATO and Russia; or, via battlefield losses and diplomacy Russia retreats to its original February starting point (albeit inside the Ukraine in areas like Donbas) and Ukraine firmly reestablishes its geopolitical role as buffer state between NATO and Russia.

    As of Day 237 (October 17) despite much noise about nuclear war and regime change, those are still the only realistic outcomes. Diplomacy is necessary and diplomacy is sufficient to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Until all parties realize that and sit down, the increasingly bloody and efficient meatgrinder will continue. The current status of the war — WWII style 20th century conquering of territory by creeping land advances with 21st century weaponry — cannot continue indefinitely.

    Vladimir Putin’s goal in his invasion has never been something quick and has never included Kiev. It has always been to widen the speed bump Ukraine is between Russia and NATO. This problem for Putin is ever more acute as NATO builds up strength in Poland. While powerless to negotiate for itself at the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was promised NATO would not expand eastward, a lie, and now Poland is sacrosanct NATO territory, as blessed as Paris, Berlin, or London as untouchable by foreign invasion.

    The Russian countermove (and there is always a countermove, these guys play chess, remember) is to widen the border with Ukraine and make it strategically impossible for NATO to cross in force. The war would be fought with NATO on Ukrainian territory. The idea that the Soviet Union was tricked in 1989-90 is at the heart of Russia’s confrontation with the west in Ukraine and no conclusion to that fight will take place without acknowledgment on the ground. That’s why any plan to drive Russia back to pre-February 2022 borders would be a fight to the end and an impossible victory for Ukraine no matter how much U.S. weaponry they are gifted.

    So Russia wants the eastern portion of Ukraine (east of the Dnieper River) as buffer ground. It wants Crimea and maybe Odessa as staging grounds to drive northward into NATO’s invading flank if things ever come to that. The invasion of Ukraine is survival-level action in Putin’s mind, and a settling of an old score from 1989, and it is impossible to imagine him having taken the inevitable step of starting the invasion that he would back off without achieving results. It is not a matter of “face” as portrayed in the Western press but one of literal life-or-death in the ongoing struggle with NATO. There is no trust after 1989 in Putin’s calculus. Imagine North Korea asking to renegotiate the location of the DMZ southward at this point.

    A quick word about the non-use of nuclear weapons. Putin’s plan depends on fighting Ukraine, and thus the U.S. by proxy, not direct conflict with the militarily superior United States and whole of NATO. Despite all the tough talk, Ukraine is not a member of NATO and is unlikely to be a member in the near future, and so the only way to assuredly bring America into the fight on the ground or tactically, air strikes, is a nuclear weapon. That opens the door for anything; until that mushroom cloud, Russia and the U.S. are a married couple having an argument, saying anything but limiting themselves to angry words and the occasional thrown dish. Set off that nuke and it is like one partner escalated from late nights out with the boys to a full-on affair and at that point all the rules are thrown away. Anything can happen, and Putin’s plan cannot withstand “anything” in the form of U.S. direct intervention. Hence, no nukes. And Biden should tell Kiev to stop bombing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to try and force the nuclear card. Absent something like that, Putin’ll fight conventionally.

    Sanctions don’t matter, they never have. From Day One U.S.-imposed energy sanctions have played to Russia’s favor economically as oil prices rise. Things may come to a head in a month or two as winter sets in in Germany and that natural gas from Russia is missed but that is a domestic German problem the U.S. is likely to simply poo-poo away (once economic powerhouse and U.S. competitor Germany showed its first negative foreign trade imbalance since 1991, a nice bonus for America.) Things got so loose that someone needed to blow up the Nordstrom 2 pipeline to make the point with Germany that it may have to do without Russian energy to maintain the fiction sanctions will bring an end to this war. Sanctions are a Potemkin mirage for the American public, not a restraint on Russia. There is no regime change coming in Moscow as there is no one with the power to pull it off who would want anything to change.

    Putin’s call for diplomacy will occur only if the costs continue to mount on his side under his form of warfare. Here Putin faces a weakness, his chosen style of warfare. WWI was essentially a play on 18th century warfare where the two sides lined up across a field and shot at each other until one side call it quits. But WWI saw armies face off across those fields but with 20th century artillery, machine guns, and other tools of killing far more effective than an 18th century musket. It was unsustainable, literally chewing up men and eventually simply wore out both sides. Fresh troops from the U.S. gave the advantage to the British/French side at the crucial end game of WWI, but if the U.S. had stayed home in 1917 the war would have been militarily a ghastly tie.

    See the plan yet? Putin knows nothing short of a NATO strike can dislodge him from eastern Ukraine and thus has no incentive to leave. Putin has from the first shots calibrated his invasion not to give the U.S. a reason to join in. That’s why the tit-for-tat on weaponry used is so near comical; Russian fires missiles on Ukrainian cities, Ukraine demands anti-missile weapons from the U.S. America can salvage its self-proclaimed role as defender of the Ukraine simply with these arms fulfillment packages, along with a few special forces and the CIA paramilitaries. Where is are the Russian strategic bombers? Where is the global war on Ukrainian shipping? Where are the efforts to close Ukraine’s western border with Poland? Where is the gargantuan Red Army NATO expected to roar into western Europe for 40 years? The conquest of Ukraine being treated as a small unit exercise tells us much.

    None of this is any great secret. The off ramp in Ukraine, one of the two possible outcomes, is clear enough to Washington. The Biden administration seems content, however, shamefully not to call for diplomatic efforts but instead to bleed out the Russians as if this was Afghanistan 1980 all over again, all the while looking tough and soaking up whatever positive biparty electoral feelings are due for “war time” president Joe Biden. As with Afghanistan in 1980, the U.S. seems ready to fight until the last local falls (supplying them just enough weaponry to avoid losing) before facing the inevitable negotiated ending, a shameful position then and a shameful one now. A multipolar, spheres-of-influence world has returned, acknowledge it with diplomacy and stop the killing.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Bidin’ His Time

    July 18, 2022 // 11 Comments »

    The New York Times and Washington Post sent up flares last weekend on behalf of the Deep State: one way or another they said, Biden is on borrowed time. The last man standing who ended up the answer to Anyone But Trump turned out so inadequate for the job Deep State parliamentarians gave him a vote of no confidence and say he should go.

    The Times wrote a scathing summary of What Everyone Knows, that Biden at 79 is a wreck; in their words the man “is testing the boundaries of age and the presidency.” He can barely walk unassisted. He has his zombie moments on stage. He is fully dependent on wife Jill to nudge him onward in public events, redirect him, get him back on the TelePrompTer and even then he will read anything there, including stage directions, Ron Burgundy-like. Not a pretty picture. It is also not a new picture, given the pass on campaigning Biden was granted by the MSM which helped hide all this during the campaign. That’s why the MSM articles are so noteworthy, they denote a change. From here on to 2024 it is OK to (finally) talk about how old and 25th Amendment-ready Biden is.

    The 25th Amendment got a bad name during the Trump years, being invoked as the handy-dandy alternative to multiple failed impeachments and prosecutions, a kind of last chance to dump a seated president when all else fails politically. In fact the amendment, written after the Kennedy assassination exposed the problems of no clear line of deep succession in the Constitution in the nuclear age, provides precisely the mechanism needed in Joe Biden’s case. Biden’s wacky gaffes have strayed over the line. His clumsy and chaotic policy killed innocents in Afghanistan and embarrassed the U.S. globally. His claim “Putin cannot remain in power” in response to the Ukraine War, and that the U.S. would absolutely defend Taiwan, threatened relations with two superpowers. Aides rushed to blurt out no policy had changed and gently correct the president. Falling off a standing bike is a problem for Joe; falling off nuclear policy is a problem for America.  On the face of it all Biden either needs to resign for “personal reasons” (the timing set so it does not appear tied to the latest Hunter revelations) or face the judgement of the 25th and reality, that he is medically no longer fit to carry out his role as Anyone But Trump.

    There’s no need for a specific trigger; the outstanding defeat expected for Democrats in the midterms could readily serve however, or the latest polls which show Joe’s approval ratings at a Nixonian 33 percent, with 64 percent of Democratic voters saying they would prefer a new presidential candidate for the 2024 presidential campaign. Only 13 percent of American voters said the nation was on the right track — the lowest point in NYT polling since the depths of the financial crisis more than a decade ago. The Deep State does not need a reason to invoke the 25th Amendment, Joe is the reason. Biden is a good egg and a loyalist, he’ll go as quietly in 2022 as he did in 2016 when he was likely told by Barack Obama he was going to have to sit out the election to pay off the party’s blood chit and allow Hillary to run unprimaried.

    Biden leaving is the easy part. What happens next?

    The obvious follow-on is not much better than Biden staying in the White House until 2024 (nobody expects him to run then under any circumstances.) If Biden resigns or is moved from office under the 25th Amendment, Kamala Harris as vice president automatically takes over. Her poll ratings are as dismal as Joe’s and after 18 months in office has nothing, literally nothing, to show for it. Despite being a black woman, Harris brings little to the table; she couldn’t even beat Biden in the Democratic primaries and the identity politics she is a living symbol of have lost some of their luster. She is far too quiet on what could be her signature issue, abortion rights, tagging along with the slow motion efforts to look busy out of the White House.

    The tricky thing about Joe leaving power is thus what to do with Kamala. She hasn’t done much to make her a strong candidate going forward, and she hasn’t made enough mistakes to justify nudging her, too, aside. It’s a real conundrum. Her approval rating is 15 points below where Biden stood at this stage in Obama’s first term and 11 below Mike Pence under Trump.

    Right behind the Kamala problem is the, um, well, somebody problem. There is no likely Biden successor. The left-overs from the 2020 campaign, guys like Beto and Buttigieg, are just that, leftovers. Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary faces a conundrum of his own. Should he appear too competent in the role he risks being forever labeled the technocrat he is at heart, handy with tools around the office but uninspiring for the big stuff. Stumbling as Transportation Secretary, he’ll lose even the points he has for basic competence and appear more a glory seeker. Guy can’t win.

    Spokesmodels like Beto have no chance in a national campaign. They look good on home ground but don’t have the intellectual meat on the bone needed to campaign effectively across 50 states, especially in a primary where they really do need to answer questions on complex farm subsidies in Iowa and drooping Social Security in Wisconsin and failed solar jobs in Ohio and critical race theory in Virginia. You can only stand there and smile so long before someone (such as Democratic primary voters in 2020) notice there’s nothing more behind the smile.

    Several of the Democratic governors-in-waiting face tough re-election contests before they even think about 2024. The bottom-feeding criteria of “Anyone But Trump” is now “Anyone a bit better than Biden.”

    Somewhere there are Deep State Democrats in a room wondering how they got there, especially after winning the last election. Trump has defied them multiple times, the Dracula candidate they cannot put down and must resign themselves to facing off against in 2024 without the aid of the pandemic. Biden the caretaker president was just re-elected by the MSM as a punchline, and Harris has not risen to the challenge. Their bench is thin, the issues facing the country — it’s the economy again, stupid — mostly of their own fumbling design. There are people in that room rolling their eyes and saying they have little to gain replacing Biden, and arguing that he be allowed to serve out his term. They may be right.

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Biden at 500 Days

    July 1, 2022 // 2 Comments »

    The Joe Biden administration at about 500 days in office tests the limits of those who claimed 501 days ago “anybody” would be better than Trump. With the threat of nuclear war now well alive, Biden presides over the highest gas prices, the worst inflation, and the saddest stock market in lifetimes. It is not morning in American as much as late Sunday afternoon and raining.

    Start with the record breaking vacation time. It became a meme during the Trump years to criticize him for weekends at Mar-a-Lago, and to point out how much the Secret Service paid him for their accommodations. Yet as he marks Day 500, Biden is preparing for another weekend scram, on track to take more vacation than any other of his predecessors. So far since taking office Biden spent 191 days away from the White House vacationing in either of his two Delaware properties, at Camp David or on Nantucket. Trump spent 381 days on vacay but over four years. Go Joe!

    And as for those Secret Service room bills, they pay them for every president, as the Service is prohibited from accepting “gifts,” even the free accommodations necessary to protect the president. At Biden’s home in Delaware he charges the Secret Service $2,200 a month rent for a cottage on his property. He made $66,000 in total off the Service in 2013; contemporary figures are not available but they tally up, just like Trump and the others. Hillary bought a second house in upstate New York just for the Secret Service anticipating her victory in 2016.

    But what of the time Joe Biden has spent in the office, how have the 500 days gone so far? Biden succeeded primarily in engineering a new form of war in Ukraine, not quite Cold and not quite Hot. Not Cold as in 1945-1989, because American Special Forces may soon be on the ground in Kiev and American ships in the Black Sea, and Ukrainians have boasted how American intelligence and targeting information have killed Russian ships, tanks, and generals. With no regard to what leakage into the global black arms market might mean, Biden is sending billions of top-notch weapons into the nation with the avowed aim of bleeding out Russia. When something like this was tried in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. had the common courtesy to do it through the CIA and keep at least some of it secret. No more. Vladimir Putin, in return, has reminded the world several times he has nuclear weapons he is not all that opposed to using. Joe Biden has succeeded where presidents since 1989 have failed — he sends Americans to bed at night worrying about nuclear holocaust. And that is his greatest foreign policy accomplishment absent the clusterfutz evacuation from Afghanistan and a soon-to-really-happen trip to forgive the Saudis for their sins and become the first president since the 1970s to overtly beg for more oil.

    (For the record Trump was the only president in some 20 years who did not start a new war during his term, and the only one in that same rough time period who made an effort to seek peace with North Korea, a country Joe Biden continues to ignore as official policy. When asked in Seoul if he had a message for Kim Jong Un, Diplomat-in-Chief Biden said “Hello. Period.”)

    In other Leader of the Free World accomplishments, Biden’s actual leadership was shown when Mexico snubbed him, refusing to attend the Summit of the Americas because Biden would not also invite Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, all Cold War hissy fits Joe is keeping alive for a new millennium. “There cannot be a summit if all countries are not invited,” Mexico’s president said at a press conference. “Or there can be one but that is to continue with all politics of interventionism.” It really is 1980 again! Additional leadership has been shown in Europe, where Germany and France agreed to U.S. demands to stop buying Russian energy but just not for a couple more months, okay? To make it look like something is being leadered around they have stopped buying energy delivered by ship as a face saving gesture, just as they keep lapping up the massive pipeline delivered materials. But Biden did travel twice to Europe and declared “America is back,” so there’s that.

    As for domestic achievements, everyone in America knows about Joe’s gas pains, which he disingenuously claims like a hubby caught with lipstick on his collar are not his fault. Biden apparently sees no connection between his sanctions against Russian energy (which seek to remove significant amounts of oil from the world markets) cutting supply at a time when demand is rising, and inflationary prices. The good news is the sanctions on Russia, well, no, it is not good news, Russia is still fighting away in the Ukraine which means the sanctions have so far failed in their primary function. Biden will give them more time apparently, as the U.S. is not seeking negotiations to otherwise curtail or end the fight.

    Biden further sees no connection between his failure to anticipate a baby formula crisis and hungry children. A smarter Biden would have one of his interns sit down with The Google today and make a list of everything that is affected by supply and demand, and of those things, jot down which are only made in a single factory. That accomplishment alone would eclipse the rest of Biden’s domestic agenda, which consists today entirely of pretending historic inflation is Putin’s fault.

    Of course that last line is not fair, as Joe did finally pass a $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending bill which in no way could have helped contribute to inflation by dumping all that money into an economy still chasing goods scarce from those naughty supply chain issues. Then there was that $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill (less than half of American approve of Biden’s Covid handling) now that everyone feels better which in no way could have helped contribute to inflation by dumping all that money into an economy still chasing goods scarce from those naughty supply chain issues. Plus wages are up, pouring more money into an already inflationary economy.

    The media actually listed Joe’s Biggest Achievements for us in case they were hard to pick out, to include appointing a boatload of judges, 80 percent of whom are women and 53 percent are people of color (“judges that reflect our nation”) which in no way reflect our nation and in no way is racist because you obviously fight back against racism and gender inequality by promoting people based on race and gender. Biden also strategically secured America by overturning the Trump ban on transgender people in the military. In fact, the White House brags it has the first majority non-white Cabinet in history, with most women in the Cabinet, including first woman Treasury Secretary, first LGBTQ and Native American Cabinet officials, and first woman Director of National Intelligence as if someone was giving out prizes for those things.

    But it is always best to go to the source, the White House itself with its own list of “record firsts” in Joe’s presidency. You can read them yourself, but you’ll run into the same problem everyone else does — it is all boasting with no links, sources or details attached. So we hear Joe was “most significant by economic impact of any first-year president” but with nothing more. Um, okay. A lot of the rest of the stuff, unemployment and child poverty, got better by the numbers but there is not a word about how anything Joe did caused those things. It is kinda like taking credit for a comet on your watch, especially given how much “not our fault” garbage is being tossed around when someone brings up inflation or fuel prices.

    As for Democratic issues of importance like gun control, abortion rights, and climate change, the home town stuff, Biden rates a zero. The EPA continues to recommend Flint, Michigan residents use filters in their homes to remove lead. Joe has driven home the idea that unless a president has a super majority in both houses and now, the Supreme Court, you better not expect much from him. Indeed in Biden’s case he can’t even wrangle his own party, with two key Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, stymieing Joe. Biden for his part predicted Republicans would have an “epiphany” after Trump left office, but that has not yet materialized. The expected Democratic midterm loss currently scheduled for November 2022 will not help. And we haven’t even talked about Biden’s Dead Man Walking lifestyle and walk-it-back gaffes.

    So it has only been 500 days, plenty of time left. But to date the Biden administration has strained those statements about how anyone but Trump would be a better president.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Doomsday Clock Tells Us Maybe It’s Time

    May 28, 2022 // Comments Off on Doomsday Clock Tells Us Maybe It’s Time

    Looking back just a handful of years the world seemed, to many Democrats and the MSM at least, a powder keg. Trump’s ignoramous remarks about Taiwan coupled with aggressive sanctions threatened war with China. The only question seemed to be whether it would erupt in the Taiwan Strait first or over some lousy lump of rock in the South China Sea, the WWI Archduke’s assassination for the modern age.

    Elsewhere in Asia, Trump’s clumsy mano-a-mano with North Korea set the world on edge as rumors had it he was ready to evacuate American dependents from South Korea ahead of imminent hostilities. Then there were the Tweet Wars, with insults such as “Little Rocket Man” and Kim’s “dotard” retort hurled across the Pacific presaging a nuclear exchange, followed by those clumsy diplo efforts that looked like the worst Grindr first date ever. There would be no war; Trump would simply give it all away, canceling vital military exercises in South Korea and considering withdrawing U.S. forces from the peninsula.

    War in the Middle East was one tick from inevitable, with Trump having dumped the Obama-era nuclear accord with Iran, done something or not enough in Syria, no one was sure, and fanned the flames of Islamic butt aching by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. No one remembers why anymore, but the U.S. was supposedly also at the brink of war in Venezuela, and with Trump failing to Lead the Free World and NATO weakening, the dogs of war sat on the front stoop begging Scooby Treats in Europe. At the end things got really hairy, with both Pelosi and members of the Joint Chiefs terrified what a desperate Trump might do with nuclear weapons.

    So it is no surprise the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists described things as “a global race toward catastrophe” and set its famous Doomsday Clock in 2019 at 100 seconds to midnight and kept it there, the closest it had ever been to apocalypse, what they called “the new abnormal.” Something was literally going to blow if the pressure were not let off, and the Bulletin offered along with about half of America that the 2020 “leadership change in the United States provided hope that what seemed like a global race toward catastrophe might be halted and — with renewed U.S. engagement — even reversed.” Biden would lead the way.

    The Bulletin is no small potatoes. Founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago scientists who helped develop the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin created the Doomsday Clock, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey the threat to humanity. The Doomsday Clock is reset every year by the Bulletin’s Board in consultation with 11 Nobel laureates.

    So with the warmongering Trump safely stowed away in his villain’s lair of Mar-a-Lago, what of the peacemaker, Joseph Biden? Biden took office with no immediate crisis at hand. Yet all he has done is blunder poorly through a growing threat board of nuclear-tinged incidents.

    Holy malarkey have things gotten more tense with China. Biden envisions China as an autocratic foe for democracy to wage a global struggle against. “On my watch,” Joe said, “China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim the world was at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” In Biden’s neo-Churchillian view, the U.S. and what the hell, the whole free world he believes he is president of, are in an ultimately nuclear death match with China.

    Biden puts his diplomatic gaffes where his oral ones are. Joe recently broke code and blurted out the U.S. will indeed defend Taiwan, which, if true, ultimately would involve for nukes. Some saber rattling? Sure. Even as Chinese president Xi spoke of peaceful reunification during the October political holidays, the U.S., U.K., and Japan conducted joint operations in the China Sea. Meanwhile, on Biden’s watch Australia ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines, a move which enraged China and NATO-ally France. Calling Biden’s actions Trumpian (aïe-aïe-aïe!) France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. France had never before withdrawn its ambassador to the U.S., dating back to the initial alliance in 1778, two years after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. So never mind the likelihood that Biden will ever recruit France into any coalition against Chinese power, or China vis-à-vis North Korea. And la-di-da to Candidate Biden’s promises to repair U.S. alliances post-Trump.

    That alongside a new Pacific parley which will see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies. The genesis was the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its two newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings both the British and the Australians, nuclearized, into the South China Sea in force as if an arms salesman wrote Biden’s policy. In the background looms research by all sides into hypersonic weapons capable of delivering nuclear bombs under existing missile shields.

    In the greater MidEast, the less said about the signal sent by America’s crude cut-and-run exit after 20 years in Afghanistan, many of those alongside NATO allies like Germany and Canada cajoled into participation, the better. The U.S. Embassy, which remains in Jerusalem, remains a sore thumb to many Islamic nations. Unwilling to cut a new Iran deal alongside the Russians and unable to do so without them, Biden changed nothing in the nuclear calculus among the U.S., Israel, and Iran. Two of the three remain nuclear powers and the other sits on the threshold either to suffer another nuclear-trigger happy Israeli brush back pitch or slide into the abyss with a mushroom cloud heralding a new club member.

    As Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden had several options. A) Biden could have taken the Obama route, declaring Ukraine unimportant strategically to the U.S. and lumping it alongside Donbas, Georgia, and Crimea. Kick in some new sanctions, maybe some arms sales, a lot of “standing with” proclamations. Or B) Biden could have demanded NATO take its role as defender of a free Europe seriously, and support militarily a NATO-led effort of sanctions and military assistance to Ukraine. Or C) Waive NATO aside as the generally useless organization it is and implement largely U.S.-led sanctions and military assistance to Ukraine. Or chose D) Tie some sort of ambiguous victory in Ukraine to U.S. prestige, pretend NATO was standing tough, and devote U.S. military resources to everything short of direct combat with Russia. Any one of these would have left Biden in good stead domestically as a strong leader and avoided further entanglement and distraction.

    Instead, Biden went for E) All of the above plus a stated policy of watering the fields of Ukraine with the blood of Russian martyrs as if this was Afghanistan 1980 all over again. The goal is not just to have Russia leave, it is to attrite them to the last possible man.

    Among the so-many problems of this bleed ’em dry strategy is that it set the U.S. and Russia on a direct course to collision (the U.S. providing targeting data to sink flagships and kill generals in the field is only short of war because a Ukrainian finger was presumably on the trigger not an American one) and provoked the first serious mention of the use of nuclear weapons of the 21st century. Suddenly what could have faded off as a semi-failed land incursion into Ukraine became the first struggle of the New Cold War (Nancy Pelosi said the struggle is about defending “democracy writ large for the world”) Eagle versus the Bear, Top Gun III, with everything from Russian pride to Putin’s own regime survival now on the line. And when everything is on the line, you invoke the “everything” weapon, nukes. Putin is a cautious man, but accidents happen and miscalculations with nukes (chemicals, biologicals, heavy cyber, etc…) sting.

    While Joe is talking up the bleeding strategy as a common-sense response to Russian aggression (while we’re there with all these U.S. weapons for the Ukrainians we might as well get a piece of the Bear for ourselves, seems only fair), the shift amounts to a significant escalation. By canning diplomatic efforts in favor of a more violent war, the United States greatly increased the danger of an even larger conflict — the atomic threats out of Moscow. This is risk way out of line with any realistic gain. Earlier U.S. rattling, about the Russian blitzkrieg threatening Poland and beyond, seems near-comical as the Russian offensive bogs down in the mud of eastern Ukraine. What kind of nuclear gamesmanship is it when Biden risks all for nothing much? What kind of nuclear gamesmanship is it to tell your opponent humiliation is his only way out?

    As for the Doomsday Clock, the hopes the Bulletin showed on Biden’s election in 2020 were stomped on by Russia, with a major assist from Biden himself. The clock stays set at 100 seconds to midnight, same place Trump left it.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Tell Me How This Ends in Ukraine

    March 21, 2022 // 5 Comments »

    In the opening days of Iraq War 2.0, a wiser but not yet-General David Petraeus famously asked “Tell me how this ends.” Petraeus understood how wars end is more important than why they started or how they were carried out. So how does the current war in Ukraine end?

    Petraeus, for his part, said with a straight face “Russia doesn’t have the numbers and beyond that everyone in the entire country hates them and most of the adults are willing to take action against them, whether it’s to take up weapons or to be human shields.” While accurately describing the roots of his own failure in Iraq, Petraeus misses the point. America’s goal was to create a neocon version of democracy in the Middle East. Putin seeks something much simpler: a classic buffer territory between him and NATO. He does not care about hearts and minds. He only has to break things.

    The early days of the Ukraine war have been dominated by propaganda riven with sympathy for the plucky defenders. This purposefully created a false sense Russian setbacks and a misunderstanding of Russian strategy. The Russians are executing a standard mechanized warfare maneuver in line with their goals, attacking south from Belarus to link up with forces attacking northward from Crimea. When they link up south of Kiev, Ukraine will be split into two. Kiev may be bypassed, or it may be destroyed, but that is secondary to the larger strategic maneuver. Another Russian thrust from east to west seeks to cut the nation into quarters so Ukrainian forces cannot reinforce one another. Forget all the silliness about the Russians running out of gas; their supply lines are short (many Russian forces are within 70 miles of their own border), protected, and over decent roads. This is what is happening on the ground and Ukrainian forces are in no position to do anything but delay it. Watching war through a smartphone from a peaceful country may help you believe the Russian assault is going poorly but that is at odds with the facts. So here’s how that all ends.

    The Best Case for Everyone is the Russians, perhaps under the guise of some humanitarian gesture, withdraw to the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine and some strategic points, things like bridges and airports. Ukraine is essentially divided into two semi-states, the western half nominally under NATO control and the eastern half a Russian buffer zone with a new Iron Curtain in place. Putin settles back into his easy chair. His brush back pitch to Ukraine dealt out a serious spanking, he holds some new territory as a prize, he can announce victory at home, and his troops are better positioned if he needs to push west ever again. NATO meanwhile can also claim some measure of victory, validating all the propaganda about the valiant Ukrainian people. The status quo of Europe resets and after a decent interval the oil and gas restart flowing westward.

    Putin made this strategy clear in his asks for a cease fire, that Ukraine accept demilitarization, declare itself neutral, and drop its bid to join NATO. He does not really want the cities, and he does not want to occupy a hostile population. That is why he agreed to safe corridors westward for refugees and why he has held back sustained shelling and rocketing of Kiev, for now. Depopulation aids Putin in neutering eastern Ukraine, and avoids later ethnic conflict between Ukrainian nationalists and the local Russian population.

    The Next Best Case is NATO makes a secret agreement to keep Ukraine out of the alliance in return for Putin withdrawing in whole or in part (see above.) This is very tricky diplomacy, as it cannot appear NATO appeased Putin and it cannot seem in the eyes of the world that Putin “lost.” The Russians would be very tempted to leak the secret agreement to show they had achieved their goal, and the resulting denials from NATO and the US would seem shallow. The rest of eastern Europe would take note on who they could trust. This scenario is also unlikely, as it requires Russia to trade land for a promise from the West. Putin knows nothing short of a NATO strike can dislodge him from eastern Ukraine and thus has no incentive to leave.

    A Very Bad Case would be a decision by Putin to occupy or destroy Ukraine, install a puppet government, and roll his army right to the Polish border as if it was 1975 all over again. Putin certainly is holding this out as a threat if Zelensky ignores western pleas to cut a deal. Russian troops are positioning to assault the cities. Ask people of Aleppo and Grozny if they think Putin would turn them loose.

    The idea may prove tempting to Putin. He can claim full victory, be done forever with the Ukrainian problem, leave NATO looking emasculated, strike fear into the other former satellites, and leave Joe Biden out of a job in his self-proclaimed role as leader of the free world. Biden has overplayed his hand, not recognizing there is almost nothing he can do to affect the situation on the ground. Sanctions did not stop Putin from invading (Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine…) and sanctions will not cause Putin to retreat. Biden, like Putin, knows most Russian oil and gas exports are untouchable if he wants to keep the Europeans on the team.

    But the biggest problem for Biden is history (and voters) remembering him as the president who watched the Iron Curtain rebuilt. Unlike Obama’s cool reaction to Putin invading Crimea in 2014, Biden has vowed to “save” Ukraine as if he was fighting Corn Pop again. By claiming in his State of the Union address that Putin had “shaken the very foundations of the free world,” Biden has created the impression he is going to put a stop to something of that scale. Such predictions carry an incredible political risk, especially for a commander in chief who also promised a weary America it is not going to war. As NBC’s Chuck Todd put it “I fear this is going to feel like a speech that didn’t age well.” Following the sad, embarrassing finale in Afghanistan, any ending in Ukraine that looks like a Putin win after all this saber rattling pretty much ends the effective portion of the Biden presidency.

    That leaves only to consider The Horrible Case, where someone in NATO tries for a no-fly zone, or sets up a refugee protected zone, as was done in the former Yugoslavia. Ukrainian propaganda is aimed at making this happen; Zelensky knows partisans with rifles are only going to get him so far. He needs direct Western military intervention to survive. And a non-partisan 74 percent of Americans say NATO should impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine.

    Consider the tinder in place. If you believe the CIA and US special forces are not on the ground already in Ukraine, parsing intel and advising, well… We know US spy planes and drones are overhead. Imagine an incident where an American is taken prisoner by the Russians. Imagine the US providing a weapons system that requires “trainers,” in the way Russian trainers manned ground-to-air facilities in past Cold War wars in South East Asia and the Middle East. Or maybe a border incident, real or imagined, with NATO member Poland to try and force NATO into the fight. Or a UN demand for some peacekeeping force stop Putin’s war crimes. Maybe a “one time surgical strike” for humanitarian reasons on a Russian column threatening a hospital?

    Not on a menu is another Afghanistan (US or Soviet version) or some sort of open-ended Ukrainian insurgency. What Putin is doing is an old school war to grab territory, not changing allegiance among the Taliban. His supply routes are short, his troops fighting the modern battle they trained for, albeit outside Kiev and not in the Fulda Gap. Unlike Afghanistan, Ukraine has cities dependent on modern infrastructure, and cities are easily encircled, besieged and starved out, or just leveled.

    Equally not going to happen is some sort of regime change inside Russia. Putin has been in charge for 22 years and controls the media, the military, and the intelligence services. Those were the people who brought Putin to power in Russia’s last coup. There is no means to the end the West wishes for, and no clear evidence the people of Russia want such as outcome in the first place. After all, a million pink hats in Washington accomplished… very little. A few protests scattered across the vastness of Russia are exaggerated for a Western audience. Western sanctions will not drive ordinary Russians to demand change. Remember how well US sanctions to bring about regime change have gone in Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea? Decades of sanctions have not changed Putin, and the new ones have no beef on them to change that. And as for the West’s dream of a coup, what could make life more interesting than the world’s second largest stockpile of nuclear weapons having no one firmly in charge?

    Anything can happen, but Putin “losing” in Ukraine seems among the most unlikely of scenarios.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Deterrence Works, Propaganda Fails in Ukraine (So Far)

    March 18, 2022 // 7 Comments »

    Deterrence works. Russia’s nukes are the only thing keeping the US from full-out war in Ukraine only six months after retreating from Afghanistan. So far, the unprecedented propaganda effort by the Ukraine and its helpers in the American mass media to drag the US and NATO directly into the fight has failed. But this struggle — for your mind space — is not over.
    To understand what follows, you have to wipe away a lot of bullshit being slung your way. Putin is not insane, not a madman. He is carrying out a rational political-military strategy in Ukraine, seizing Russian-speaking territory such as Donbas, demilitarizing by force the eastern Ukraine, and most of all creating a physical buffer zone between himself and NATO. That zone may end at the Dnieper River with a loop around Odessa, or it may end at the Polish border, depending on how smoothly things go on the ground and on what level of “stay away” message Putin wishes to send to NATO. Putin is not making the first moves toward some greater conquest. All the bad takes saying “if we don’t stop Putin now, he’ll invade Moldova/Estonia/Poland/all Europe just like Hitler” ignores the part about the German military in WWII having some 18 million men under arms. The Russian army today has 1.3 million, the best of which are going to be in Ukraine for awhile.
    Every war has its “is the juice worth the squeeze” question. In other words, is what you can realistically hope to achieve worth the cost of getting it? For Putin, that means solving his border problem at the cost of maybe a few thousand men killed and wounded and another dollop of weak sanctions. He understood the needs of Europe meant sanctions would never harm sales of the fossil fuels which make up most Russian exports. But no Paypal for you, comrade! Putin could also look to history and see how decades of sanctions have not changed much in Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
    Putin most importantly also knew US/NATO would not fight him on the ground for fear of starting a nuclear war. That is exactly what nukes are for, and is the history of the Cold War in a sentence. I have nukes and that allows me to do certain things any way I want because they stay below the threshold of risking atomic war. This is why the US could destroy Quaddafi and Saddam (no nukes to deter) and why the US will never attack North Korea (nukes.) Being a nuclear superpower makes things easier; the US can fight all over Central America and the Middle East, and Russia in the ‘Stans, and none of that is important enough to consider using nukes to stop.
    Putin knows that. Biden knows that, as does NATO. Ukraine, however, is still thinking it can change the game.
    Ukraine knew on Day One no one was coming to its rescue, and its leaders know they don’t have enough men or weapons to defeat the Russians on their own. Their only hope to remain a unified nation (it is easy to imagine a divided Ukraine, Western Zone and Eastern (Russian) Zone as the end game) is outside help. A no-fly zone, some air strikes to blunt Russian advances. Something, anything.
    That’s why every knucklehead in America right now is being blitzed with Ukrainian propaganda, and your brother-in-law is ready to head to Europe with his never-cleaned hunting rifle. The goal is to change public opinion such that a weak guy like Joe Biden starts to doubt himself. Ukrainian lobbyists from K Street take influential Senators to lunch, knowing they’ll return to their offices to find thousands of constituent emails demanding the US “do something.” The goal of Ukrainian propaganda is get Biden to take that Pentagon meeting laying out options for some limited bombing, or to listen to those analysts saying the US could set up a small no-fly zone on Ukraine’s western edge to show the Russians we mean business. Drop in some Special Forces. Something, anything. The goal of the propaganda is to get Biden to sign off on something (hopefully) small enough that it falls below the threshold of provoking a nuclear response. Is it necessary to say that is a very risky and delicate tasking?
    The bad news is Ukrainian propaganda is working. A non-partisan 74 percent of Americans say NATO should impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine. And we are just getting started. We’ve had the hero phase with the non-existent Ghost of Kiev and the not surrendering but they surrendered brave Ukrainians, alongside the grandmas and supermodels with guns. We’ve had the Russians are going to kill us all phase, with the faux threat of invasion to the west and the faux scare the Russians were going to create a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident by shelling a power plant. We are currently moving into the not verifiable atrocities phase, where “reports” will claim the Russians are killing children, or using rape as a weapon, or targeting hospitals. Alongside it all is beef cake talk about Zelensky, the likes we haven’t seen since before the cancelations of Andrew Cuomo and Michael Avenatti. The fact-checking mania of Covid is history as America media removes all the filters on pro-Ukrainian content.
    The quality of the propaganda is not important (any pile of scrap metal on snowy ground is breaking news of another Russian helo shot down, even if the metal has “Acme Junk Pile” written on it.) The quantity is important, the attempt to overwhelm American mindspace to the point where logic is shoved into the back corner. There is a growing cottage industry of “experts” explaining how to can go to war without going to THAT kind of war. Dissenting voices are few, and are often labeled as “Putin lovers,” with progressives and Late Night hurling homophobic slurs at them like high school kids.
    It is not like America does not know how to step away from a fight which isn’t ours when we want to. Crimea, Chechnya, Rwanda, Hungary ’56, Czechoslovakia ’68, Afghanistan ’79, even to a certain extent in Syria 2016.
    There are two battles now playing out over Ukraine. The one on the ground, and the one on your social media seeking to drag America into the mud. Only six months after the sad ending in Afghanistan, it is stunning to watch America again contemplate going to war for some abstract purpose far removed from our own core interests. And this time, with the risk of a nuclear exchange to remind us of our mistake, not just an inglorious departure from Kabul.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Leading to War in Ukraine?

    March 11, 2022 // 19 Comments »

    The whole idea of boycotting Russian vodka reminds too much of “freedom fries” from Gulf War II. It seems stupid and silly until you realize we are stupid and silly and this is how we are led to war.

    The tsunami of pro-Ukrainian propaganda is only matched by its transparency. The Ghost of Kiev was crafted out of an aircraft computer game. The Ukrainians on that island who would rather die than surrender surrendered. The supermodels joining the army are holding toy rifles. Zelensky is Where’s Waldo, popping up in undated video with unidentifiable backgrounds, dressed in military cosplay reminiscent of George W. Bush in his flight suit. The simplistic narrative is the same simplistic narrative: plucky freedom fighters against some evil dictator. It’s the same story of the resistance fighters in Syria against Assad, the Kurds against ISIS, the Northern Resistance, the Sunnis who joined our side, the Taliban who Ronald Reagan called the equivalent of our Founding Fathers for their fight against the Red Army.

    Putin now is the most evil man on earth, unhinged, mentally unwell. Saddam once was, Assad used to be, and Quaddafi was to the point where America cheered as he was sodomized with a knife on TV.  Putin is so unstable we don’t know what he’ll do. Familiar voices are raised: The Brookings Institution’s Ben Wittes demands: “Regime change: Russia.” The Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass roared that “the conversation has shifted to include the possibility of desired regime change in Russia.” One headline wishfully notes “knocking Putin’s teams off the sports stage leaves him exposed to his own people.” No one seems to recall, however, our last attempt at regime change in Russia is what put Putin into power in the first place.

    Putin’s goals have gone in a matter of days from sorting out Cold War borders to “the restoration of a triumphalist, imperialistic Russian identity, or another bloodstained nationalistic surge to cover for the criminality of his regime, or whether he just has come egotistically unmoored.” One former Iraqi War cheerleader tells us Ukraine, the “front line between democracy and autocracy, is a core interest of the United States… Ukraine is where the battle for democracy’s survival is most urgent. ”

    Others are more direct. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Senator Roger Wicker, and Zelensky demand a no-fly zone. They have friends; a poll as the invasion began found “52 percent of Americans see the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a critical threat to US vital interests” with almost no partisan division. No polling on what those vital interests might be. Rep. Eric Swalwell and Rep. Ruben Gallego want all Russians deported from the US. As if preparing for war, the U.S. has already closed its embassies in Ukraine and Belarus, and placed Embassy Moscow on “Authorized Departure” status for non-emergency staff and family members. On the other end of the government, the CIA is training Ukrainians for an insurgency. You know, like with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan years ago. Lawmakers at a congressional hearing discussed having American intelligence provide more direct assistance to Ukraine, including ground operatives.

    No dissent is allowed. You are either “with us or against us.” The homogeneity of our social and MSM is terrifying. Censorship is in full fury; the fact checkers are hands off even the most outrageous claims (the Ukrainians have trained cats to spot Russian laser sights) and Twitter calls out Russian sources but not pro-Ukrainian ones. Facebook and YouTube post Ukrainian propaganda made in violation of the Geneva Convention. Google News will not include anything from Russian state media. The NYT is running anonymously-sourced tales claiming the Russians are deserting or sabotaging their own vehicles. Rolling Stone is naming “the American right-wingers covering for Putin as Russia invades Ukraine,” currently Tucker Carlson, Alex Jones, J.D. Vance, and Tulsi Gabbard. The worst of all of course is Trump, whom Liz Cheney claims “aids our enemies” and whose “interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States.” When he proposed Congress vote on military escalations by the US in Ukraine, Senator Mike Lee was quickly called “Moscow Mike.”

    If all that isn’t laying the ground work for a fight, it has been an awful lot of work for nothing.

    We’ve been here before when everything was the same but not the same. Following Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, and feints toward Ukraine, then-President Barack Obama said Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there. “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” Obama showed the same realism in 2013 when in the face of war-mongering over Assad “gassing his own people in Syria” he backed away from widening the war (if only Obama had been equally pragmatic over Libya.)

    But Biden is not Obama. Biden, due to age and background, is not a strong man. Unlike Obama, he does not see himself awash in the stream of history, but more as a caretaker until the Democratic Party can regroup, the Gerald Ford of his era. Biden is a weak man who will come under increasing pressure to “do something” as it becomes apparent the newest layer of sanctions against Russia accomplishes as little as the last layer of sanctions. The previous sanctions, among other things, did not stop Putin from invading Ukraine.

    But more than anything else, Joe Biden is a Cold Warrior, burdened fully with a world view Obama was not. That world view says the role of the United States is to create a global system and enforce its rules. We can invade nations that did not attack us and demand regime change but you cannot. We decide which nations have nuclear weapons and which can not. We can walk our NATO-alliance right to your border but you cannot do the same with yours. We decide what systems control international commerce and who can participate in them. It is right and just for us to talk about crippling an economy, but not you. It was all best expressed by Condoleezza Rice, who commented with a straight face on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “When you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime.”

    This world view says the United States can empower former Soviet satellites and grow American influence by expanding NATO eastward (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany by default) and to do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states so that none of them would become a threat or rival in Europe. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe, dependent on America for defense.

    As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn to match the West’s needs (the same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East.) The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders. Ukraine as a possible NATO member is a threat to Putin and he is now taking care of that. Americans live in a country that has no border threats and fails to understand the mindset time after time; imagine Mexico joining the Warsaw Pact in 1970.

    We were warned. After the Senate ratified NATO expansion in 1998 despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ambassador George Kennan stated “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely. I think it is a tragic mistake. No one was threatening anybody else. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.”

    That’s the circa-1998 trap Joe Biden is being lured back into. Only months after the America collapse and retreat from Afghanistan, Biden learned nothing. Our defeat did not teach us humility and restraint. It did not school us that America can no longer dictate global rules, sitting as judge while an ally invades a neighbor and then turning to hurl lightening bolts when an enemy invades one. It did not budge us a hair away from the destructive moral certainty that fuels our foreign policy. All that’s missing now is for someone to claim Russia and China are a new Axis of Evil.

    Putin invaded Ukraine because, unlike Biden, he understands the new, new world order has different rules. Joe Biden, not always a quick study, has two choices. He can give in to the voices for war and try and prop up the myth of World’s Policemen for another round, or he can understand the consistent failures of American crusades and the global Pax Americana since WWII, especially those in the Middle East of the past two decades, plus the rise of multipolar economic powers to include China, have changed the rules. Negotiation is no longer appeasement. We aren’t in control anymore, and despite Iraq and Afghanistan, Biden may seek another bloody confirmation of that. Or he can understand America’s core interests are not in Ukraine and keep the peace.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Want War with China? You Can Help!

    December 8, 2021 // 1 Comment »


    In one of the great scenes in the movie Citizen Kane, newspaper publisher Charles Kane, in desperate need of headlines to boost circulation, decides a patriotic war would be just the thing. When his reporters fail to find evidence of imminent hostilities, Kane famously bellows “I’ll supply the war, you supply the pictures!”

    Kane is directly modeled after the real-life William Randolph Hearst, who generously fanned the flames of the Spanish-American war, making the sinking of the Maine, a U.S. warship, by the Spanish, into a casus belli. It was all a lie; the Maine exploded internally, on it’s own. No matter, a war was needed and so that decision made, a cause was created. The real reasons for the war included a U.S. desire to take control of Cuba and to become a Pacific power by seizing the Spanish colony in the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at this time, advocated for the war as a rally-round-the-flag event to heal the lingering wounds of the American Civil War and as an excuse to increase the U.S. Navy’s budget. After all, they sank our ship! The press would wait until WMDs were created to ever be that compliant again.

    Very much the same story in Vietnam. The U.S., imagining a global communist conspiracy rising from the ashes of WWII, began its war in Vietnam by proxy in 1945, soon funding the French struggle for years. By 1950 the first American military personnel were stationed in Saigon. When America advisors, and casualties, began to come to the public’s attention, and successes by the other side began to pile up, the real American war got underway. But with a more overt war, a more overt reason had to be found. That took the form of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, a claim two American warships came under unprovoked attack by the North. What really happened was far from that, but does not matter. Congress passed an enabling resolution and the war escalated as needed. They hurt our ships!

    There are even historic breadcrumbs suggesting the U.S. purposely ignored warnings about an impending attack on Pearl Harbor, knowing it was soon enough going to war with Japan. Allowing the attack to happen was a good excuse to escalate America’s growing role supplying war material to Britain to outright combat, given the public’s reluctance to go to war absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event. They sank our ships!

    In the late 1990s, The Project for the New American Century think tank developed its “compelling vision for American foreign policy” based on a “benevolent global hegemony.” They had nothing less in mind than a global war of conquest, occupation, and regime change, focused on the Middle East. The war was set, but the problem lay in convincing the American people to support it. “The process of transformation,” the neocons wrote, “even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.” Somebody better sink some damn ships!

    The new Pearl Harbor fell into their laps from the sky on 9/11. Even then, though, another made-up reason was needed to justify the invasion of Iraq, the jewel in the neocon planning. The Bush administration made a few attempts to link Saddam to 9/11 directly, then to terrorism generically, even threw in some tall tales about his cruelty to his own people and gassing the Kurds, but none of it stuck with the public, correctly confused about why an attack largely planned, funded, and executed by Saudis required a war in Iraq. In the end the decision to stress the threat posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction above all others was taken for “bureaucratic” reasons to justify the war, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. “It was the one reason everyone could agree on.” It really did not matter that it wasn’t true.

    This was followed by two decades of conflict under four presidents. Along the way mini-versions of the same scam — war decided on first, reasons ginned up later — were run to justify invasions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, mostly a creation of a mini-Pearl Harbor events in the guise of “he’s gassing his own people.” Genocide is especially handy as the rhetoric can be recycled — never again, America has to believe in something, we can’t stand silently by. It does not matter what is true because the incidents, real or imaginary, are just like buses; miss one and another will along soon enough.

    Which brings us to China, which appears to be the next war now searching for a reason.

    “The Fight for Taiwan Could Come Soon,” warns the Wall Street Journal, alongside nearly every other publication of note. President Biden has begun the propaganda spadework, declaring “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Is war imminent? One report shows China just surpassed the U.S. in global wealth, one of Biden’s three tripwires.

    The reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan are lengthy and cover economic, military, and political fields. There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities. But that is not what the historical playbook says matters. It may be the United States has already decided a good, old fashioned, bench clearing, global superpower showdown is needed, muscle tussling eagle vs. dragon for control of the Pacific. We just need to find a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication.

    Now it is possible the war fever over China is just a con inside a con. It is possible the Deep State really knows it will never fight an actual war, but is simply using the threat as a way to run up the defense budget. They remember how the lies about the “missile gap” and all the other “gaps” with Russia exploded the military industrial complex budget following WWII. A Chinese threat requires endless spending on the good stuff, big carriers and space forces, not the muddy ground troops we squandered losing to goat farmers in Afghanistan.

    That would be the best case scenario and if that’s all this is, it is well underway. But what if the U.S. has its mind set on a real war, as in Vietnam and after 9/11, and needs a palatable reason to be found?

    So, a challenge to all readers. On a post card addressed to the White House, what would be the declared justification for the U.S. going to war with China? You can have fun with this (Beijing kidnaps Taylor Swift and a rescue mission escalates into full-on war. Or China is caught releasing a virus that disables global trade) or geopolitical serious stuff about struggles for rare earth minerals or disputed islands. No cheating with statements pretending to reasons, things like China is an “imminent threat” or declarations like “clear and present danger.” Pretend you’re a modern day Paul Wolfowitz, handed the fait accompli of war and tasked with ginning up a reason Americans will buy. But no “they sunk our ship” scenarios. Been there, done that.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Requiem: Is This the Last 9/11 Article?

    October 2, 2021 // 15 Comments »

    Wait, stop. I know it’s almost October, but I’m not done with 9/11. I know we just had the 20th anniversary, promised for a day to never forget whatever, and then an old-looking Bruce Springsteen rose to sing about everyone dying around him (read the room, Bruce.) Missing was a hard look at what happened over the last 20 years. Before we move on, can we address that? Because after the symbolic Big 2-0, and with Afghanistan sputtering out of our consciousness, this might be the last 9/11 article.
    Part of the reason for the lack of introspection is the MSM went back to the same people who screwed everything up for “takes” two decades later. It’s kind of like inviting students to grade themselves. It was familiar, like the parade of generals following the Vietnam war who blamed the politicians and vice-versa. I’d like a browser widget that blocks 9/11 commentary from any of the people who were wrong about WMDs, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the like. The last thing anyone’s life needs right now is to hear David Petraeus’ or Condi Rice’s take on anything.
    Yet as if to create the anti-widget of my dreams, the Washington Post created a review of the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades — what they generously called works of investigation, memoir, and narrative by journalists and former officials. The books included were written by people taking post-mortem credit for issuing warnings they themselves never acted on, agencies blaming other agencies as if all that happened was the FBI lost a pickup softball game to the CIA, and of course journalists who helped sell the whole WMD line profiting off their mini-embeds to write a new “classic” war book about What It’s Really Like Out There, Man.
    WaPo left my Iraq book off the list, an accidental omission I’m sure. I joke but I don’t. I wrote ten years ago, as it was happening, how nation building was going to fail in Iraq. It would have made good reading a decade ago for anyone headed into the same situation in Afghanistan. So while WaPo’s article does a good job with the “celebrity” books of the era, it ignores the people who saw through it all at nearly every step. I guess many of them did not write books, or at least not “Washington Post” books. So the list includes Petraeus’ U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the Bible behind the Surge which outlined how nation building was gonna work (update: he was wrong.) But nothing from the weapons inspectors who told the world quite clearly Saddam had no WMDs and the whole premise of the Iraq War was a lie. Nothing explaining how the Afghan War was reinvented to cover-up not finding bin Laden. Nothing about drone killing American citizens, bombing wedding parties, torture, collateral damage, or any of the things that actually caused us to lose multiple wars of terror. Ironically, the last official drone strike of the war killed innocent civilians the Pentagon pretended were terrorists.
    I’ve read almost all the books on WaPo’s list. They would make for a decent but obviously incomplete undergrad survey class syllabus, something like “Opportunities and Losses: America in the Middle East post-9/11,” lots of facts amassed without the necessary critical thinking applied. So here’s what’s missing, the conclusions we do not want to see in black and white 20 years later. Think of what follows as a B+ final exam submission for that imaginary survey class.
    — Nobody trusts the government about anything. Partisans support their guy but with a wry “Hey, they all lie.” Any rebuilding of trust post-Watergate died with the WMDs, etc. and is unlikely to be restored in our age of social media/manipulation.
    — They didn’t make mistakes. They lied. They lied about how 9/11 happened, they lied about WMDs, they lied about intentions, they lied about goals, they lied about Pakistan’s role, they lied about the strength of the puppet governments in Baghdad and Kabul, they lied about the vitality of ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban, they lied about our progress, they lied about it all. They lied to make Pat Tilman’s death seem like Captain Miller’s. No one was ever punished.
    — On a simple material level, my God what did we waste in lives and money in all the wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the havoc of refugees let loose? And yet we demand the point of 9/11 be our victimization alone. We even appropriated the term Ground Zero, which once referred universally to Hiroshima.
    — American foreign policy credibility and our post-WWII imperialist strategy has finally been shown to be a farce. A lesson that should have been clear post-Vietnam needed to be relearned. That means we the public are stupid and gullible. We the nation are still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with peers, near-peers or non-allied countries with shared interests, we have few if any tools. That’s why we have no idea whatsoever how to work with Iran or China, and why our strategy with North Korea is hope fat boy slim dies before he (likely accidentally, think Chernobyl) blows up half of Asia.
    — They don’t hate our freedoms. They don’t want to be like us. We based policy on finding a handful of Afghan women who wanted to wear mini-skirts when the bulk of them simply wanted to be left alone. The lesson was always obvious; they didn’t want to be British, either.
    — Americans pretend our little journey to the dark side of torture was over years ago, our bad! but lots of others remember and Gitmo is still open. We will never unstain our reputation globally. Like that one-time little sexy business trip affair, it just becomes a thing polite people don’t talk about.
    — We emerged from 9/11 a “paranoid, xenophobic and martial society.” We’ve let the easy certainty of “you’re either with us or against us” morph into students being taught not to think but “being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues.”
    — America became a massive surveillance state. The government (and many large corporations) monitor your communications and interactions. You cannot opt out. We willingly purchase electronics to aid the government in monitoring us. Here’s one in pink!
    — We willingly gave up our privacy out of fear. That fear now exists in the body politic to be summoned like a demon and manipulated by whomever wishes it for whatever purpose, say to imagine Trump is a Russian spy, or your neighbors as Nazis because they oppose what you support, or Covid survival demands further loss of freedom.
    — The media, which served in times past as a counterpoint, instead fully adopted the role of promoting Bush’s wars and WMDs, Trump the spy, etc. They allowed Obama to wave away questions about torture, drone assassinations, and new wars because he was their chosen one. No one sees the media as anything but partisans now, albeit our partisans and their partisans depending on which channel is on. The result is we are ever more uninformed and simultaneously more opinionated. What part of a doctor’s day is spent dealing with knuckleheads who value their degree from the University of Google more than what he has learned in a lifetime of practice?
    There, that’s it. I predict the 9/11 commemorations will become lower and lower key in the years to come, much like America lost interest in the space program in the later years and rocket launches were no longer even televised. But each year the anniversary rolls around and we’re admonished to never forget, remember how much we already seem to have very purposely forgotten.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    In Search of Biden’s Foreign Policy

    September 29, 2021 // 4 Comments »


     

    Since Biden was elected in part as the answer to Trump’s perceived foreign policy blunders, it seems reasonable nine months in to go searching for the Biden Doctrine, to assess his initial foreign policy moves, to see what paths he has sketched out for the next three years.

    (Sound of tumbleweeds.)

    So what of the Biden foreign policy? Biden took office with no immediate crisis at hand. Yet all he has done is blunder poorly through a handful of incidents.

    Afghanistan of course has been Biden’s only significant foreign policy action. Ending the Afghan War almost happened under Trump, the last steps derailed by false reporting the Russians were paying bounties to the Taliban for dead Americans (which made no sense; why would the Taliban do anything that might slow the inevitable American withdrawal? They had already won) and a ridiculous media tsunami claiming Trump disrespected the troops. Biden won the election in November and took office in January. There was ample time for replanning and renegotiating anything left behind by Trump, especially since most of the Biden team had muddled in Afghanistan for years previously during the Obama era and knew well the mess they’d help create. The rush for the last plane out of Kabul was a fully expected unexpected event. The Biden administration did not quietly start the evacuation in February, nor did it negotiate ahead of time the third country landing rights it knew would be needed. The lessons learned in Iraq and Vietnam evacuating locals who worked with us were clear, though Biden did not kick start processing of the SIV visas until literally the last flights were scheduled out of Afghanistan.

    Biden instead chose to place his first foreign policy act’s fate in the hands of negotiations with the Taliban, depending on them to uphold agreements, provide security, vet Americans enroute to the airport, and generally play nice with whatever America needed to do to save face as the door hit us in the ass on the way out. The National Security Council spokeswoman even called the Taliban “businesslike and professional.” If this was naïve, then a new word meaning “more than naïve” needs to be created. Even assuming good intentions (!) the Taliban are loosely organized, with plenty of local warlords, ISIS spinoffs, and rogue elements to ensure things would go wrong, for example, the terror bombing which killed 13 Americans and basically ended the evacuation. Biden’s follow-up? Lie about the success of a revenge drone strike to make sure America’s final official act in the war was to kill civilians. This all added up to the most amateurish foreign policy execution seen in a long time. Mistakes? How  about assuming your enemies share your goals, negotiating after you have lost and hold no cards, failing to plan for anticipatable events, and fibbing about it all and blaming your predecessor. For a foreign diplomat sitting in London, Tokyo, Beijing, or Paris, the question had to have been “who if anyone is in charge in Washington?”

     

    Biden’s other foreign policy gesture, the nuclear submarine agreement with Australia which alienated the French, again begs the question of who is in charge.

    Perhaps the most significant foreign policy problem America faces is no one is in charge . If one understands diplomacy as “America’s interactions with foreigners” then the extended answer is more like there are too many people in charge of parts of the whole. You get celebrity policy, like Trump with Kim, John Kerry jetting around the world solving climate change, or the endless strings of special envoys (Biden has 14, which overlay the existing diplomatic structure with a new layer of bureaucracy. Tillerson had done away with 35 special envoys, Pompeo added back 5.) It seems if the issue is important enough, it is too important for regular diplomats. Next level down are the host of other organizations playing at policy. For the large and growing swatch of the world controlled by warlords, militias, and criminals organizations, policy is made by the intelligence agencies, for example. They have people on ground too muddy for diplomats and too complicated for the White House to focus on. They make policy with payoffs and bribes, if not with targeted kills.

    But the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. Biden just learned how that works. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibilities, budget, and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever-shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Generals outlast administrations. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, and value to diplomats or even presidents. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to if you wanted Washington’s ear—or to pry open its purse?

    Any criticism of the deal with Australia begins with the question of what idiot could so completely screw up a deal involving a NATO-ally and a partner like Australia? On the face that’s the kind of lunk-headed stuff Trump was often accused of. You’ve left with the bad jokes about not being able to find a girlfriend in a bawdy house.

    What actually happened was Australia ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines under a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies with one another. The genesis of all this of course is the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings now both the British and the Australians into the South China Sea in force, with an arms salesman in the Pentagon finding a way to sideline the French at the same time. Calling America’s (by default, Biden’s) actions Trumpian, France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. France had never before withdrawn its ambassador to the U.S., dating back to the initial alliance in 1778, two years after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. France assumes the EU presidency next year and promises revenge, never mind the likelihood that Biden will never recruit them into any coalition against Chinese power. So much for Candidate Biden’s promises to repair the U.S.’s alliances post-Trump. He has of course been radio silent on the Aussie deal, and likely learned about it mostly from the media. Arms sales, titularly approved by State, are one of the military’s primary foreign policy carrots.

     

    Joe Biden certainly has his hands full of domestic problems — Covid the virus which has killed thousands of Americans, Covid the public policy disaster which is killing the rest of us, unemployment, inflation, immigration, abortion rights — it’s a long list. So it’s easy to forget Biden was elected in part for his foreign policy expertise. During the campaign Trump was presented as a foreign policy disaster, skirting just short of tragedy thanks to pseudo-coups by patriots like Alexander Vindman and Mark Milley. There were his homoerotic ties to Putin, fights with the French and British, near sell out to North Korea, the brink of war with Iran, and his failure to blunt the rise of China. At least that’s what we were told, because of course none of those things actually happened.

    But first the strawmen. Every president except George Washington inherited his predecessor’s wins and losses and works in progress, and has had at some point needed to take ownership. “But Trump!” worked as a campaign strategy well enough for Biden, but nine months is long enough to have worn it out as a foreign policy (and of course as a domestic excuse.) Trump did not decimate the State Department. Over the decades the most damage done to State has been by various Congresses slashing the budget for diplomacy. The answer to that is for the new president to get some more money into the game, and no signs Biden is working on that.

    One final point about all that rhetoric about Trump gutting the State Department. Decades before Trump, the State Department slide into being an agency without primary agency. Under Cold War administrations it focused on arms control. During the Bush and early Obama years, it was sent off to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton switched the organization to “soft power” programs. John Kerry started on Syria as a signature aim but ended up focused singularly on the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson never articulated any goals at all beyond some verbiage about structural reform that never saw daylight. State played a concierge role while Trump tried personal diplomacy with North Korea. Pompeo had little to say other than to support his boss ending the Obama nuclear deal with Iran. And of course no one complained much when State was hiring below attrition during the Obama years. As Trump took office, two thirds of new hires at State came from “fellowship” programs created not to bolster core diplomatic skills sets but in response to various diversity lawsuits. Or take a longer view. In 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052, as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. So enough with the excuses.

     

    Nine months in Biden has shown no grace or skill at foreign policy. He has handed execution over to naïve and incompetent people, and watched his military sketch out America’s broader strategy toward China. Biden has otherwise done little of what he promised; there are no signs of him paying any attention to nuclear threats Iran and North Korea. No options have come forth for follow-on in Afghanistan. No significant engagement with NATO or Russia. None at all with China (Trump’s tariffs remain in place.) Not a peep on policy toward Africa or South America. Biden can’t even claim he’s providing stability by staying the course because that means overtly supporting Trump’s policies. Foreign Policy, a reliable Democratic acolyte, struggles to define Biden as a foreign policy success, resorting to listing his accomplishment as “rejoining multilateral organizations, reinvigorating alliances [and] donating vaccines.” Obama got a Noble Peace Prize for doing even less of course, but that must be little solace for poor Joe.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    The Last Question About 9/11

    September 18, 2021 // 5 Comments »

     

    History rarely falls between neat bookends. The Sixties didn’t end until 1975 with the fall of Saigon, for example. The New Millenium really started on September 11, 2001 and now, two decades later, is wrapping up with the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the New York awkwardly bumping into the endgame in Afghanistan.

    I was working for the U.S. State Department on 9/11/01 at our embassy in Tokyo. My job was to look after the interests of private American citizens (ACS work to the informed) and the summer had been abuzz with warnings and threats of some sort of terror attack. Everyone was certain it would be aimed at us overseas, the way the 1998 Nairobi and Dar es Salaam attacks had been.

    Because of the “No Double Standards” rule, despite being a fairly low-level staffer in the embassy, I was better informed than many of my colleagues. The “No Double Standards” rule grew out of the 1988 terror bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. Because some members of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had been tipped off to possible danger to that flight, and chose to change their plans and live, and because the public was left in the dark and were destroyed in mid-air, the rules were changed.

    The new rule said if the government shares information with the official U.S. community that could also affect the safety of non-official Americans, the info has to be shared with the public. This lead to many complicated situations that summer; if the embassy wanted to tell its staff to stay off flights into the Philippines, it had to also tell the public, with all the resulting panic and media guff. A lot of the warnings and threats were therefore found not to be credible and thus not released individually even as the growing storm was hard to miss. I was a silent partner, seated in the classified space with the big boys as CYA insurance that they had considered the needs of the American public in their decisions.

    Late afternoon on September 10, 2001 Tokyo time I was called to review a highly classified document detailing an imminent attack at a specific location in Japan. The acting chief of mission had already decided to release the information to employees and thus I was required to release it to the public. The warning was sent out publicly via our-then very limited FAX system. By 2021 an archived copy has been removed from the embassy website and even the Wayback Machine-Internet archive can only find a place holder. Believe whatever you like to believe but within eight hours the first plane struck the World Trade Center in New York. The summer was over.

     

    Sometime that autumn we learned some of the widows of those among the 25 Japanese men killed at the World Trade Center were having a difficult time obtaining death certificates from New York and making insurance claims. The bureaucracy was finally catching up on the events of that terrible September Tuesday and despite all the talk about “anything we can do to help” the issue of working with the widows became a third rail inside the embassy; nobody wanted to touch it. It ended up in my office, specifically in the hands of my local Japanese staff. It was treated as a paperwork problem, same as when more mundane widows needed some help filing for their American spouse’s Social Security benefits. We were told to help where we could, be a point of contact, an office others could refer pesky phone calls to.

    I initially stayed away from it all, not as much because I had other things to do but because I had no idea what I would do. I would see them come in to our conference room, the widows, many with small kids. Then one of my local employees would disappear inside, too. Afterwards there would be a near-empty tissue box on the table, maybe some papers for me to perfunctorily sign, and a very quiet office for the rest of the day.

    One afternoon I just walked in and sat down. Then again, then again on another day. It had been by this time a couple of months since the attacks, and that awful feeling all this was normal now had set in. Not all of the eligible widows came into the embassy. Some made the journey to New York, some hired lawyers, some received more help from the husband’s employer than others. They did not need to see me, they had to choose. I could pretend to be busy at my desk with paperwork. I, too, had to choose.

    I listened to my local employee ask the questions, and then the routine answers while the elephant in the room whispered “We’re talking about a man burned into nothing, aren’t we?” Sometimes the widows would ask me why I was there. They meant I guess what was my job, me being an American and all, but I could not escape the broader question. So we talked. Many had never been to New York, they had in the Japanese way stayed home in Tokyo with the kids. So they asked about Brooklyn, where their husband had lived. Had I ever been to the World Trade Center? Yes, I have a favorite photo of some old school friends and me taken on the outdoor observation deck. Was that on the North Tower where my husband was killed? Yes.

    Only one widow grew angry. I was the first and likely only U.S. government official she had spoken to. That line in the State Department job description about representing America abroad bit hard that day. She, demurely and ever-so-politely, hated me. She hated my country. She forced herself to repeat how much she hated everything about me in limited English, then repeated it in Japanese and demanded it be translated even as I understood every word. You, knowing none of the Japanese language, would have understood every word. After that I had to somehow finish the work day and go home to hear my own kids tell me about how hard multiplication was and appear like I was still part of the human race.

     

    A problem developed in New York. Never before had the city had to issue thousands of death certificates so quickly without any remains, any actual proof that the person was indeed dead and not just missing. That bit of official paper was the key, however, to all sorts of insurance claims and death benefits and condolence money and the like, never mind being the one document which would explain bureaucratically how Mrs. Tanaka had become a widow and her children now fatherless. It seemed every bank, elementary school, and employer in Japan needed a copy to update their records.

    The NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) had begun the very long process by classifying all 9/11 deaths as homicides. No death certificates would be issued for the terrorists and they would never be included in any count of the dead. DNA and other technologies were not as advanced as today so out of close to 3,000 certificates issued, DNA at the time accounted for only 645 identifications, dental records 188, fingerprints 71, and found personal effects 19. We had been asked at one point to collect dental records and then DNA samples from the widows on behalf of their husbands but this proved of little value; some sort of human remain had to have been found at the Trade Center site to make a comparison match and some 40 percent of the victims left nothing of themselves behind. They just disappeared. The initial explosions, massive compression as the Towers imploded, and the fires destroyed most completely. Those death certificates simply stated “physical injuries (body not found.)”

    I have no memory of whose form it was, but one of the widows presented it to me. I was supposed to place her under oath and ask her why she believed her husband had died on September 11 given the absence of evidence — neither his body nor any evidence of it had ever been found. I had come to know this woman and her young children a bit; her claims somehow all were complicated and we had developed an odd workaday relationship. Easier to just get things done at this point I guess. So I asked her the question. How does she know her husband is dead?

    She said he was only to be in New York for a few months, and she and the kids stayed behind. But he missed his children and maybe her, a brave joke for her to make to me under the circumstances, and vowed to call every evening Tokyo-time to say goodnight. Tokyo-time night was New York-time in the morning, and so he’d make the calls from his office in the South Tower after he arrived at work. He called every morning/night, sometimes chatting, sometimes in a hurry. He called early the morning of September 11 (the plane hit at 9:03 am) and said goodnight. Now my phone never rings anymore, she said, so I know he is dead. But I still do not know why.

     

    I don’t think I saw the widow more than once or twice after that and I don’t know what happened to her. Her husband’s name is the one I visit when I am in New York at the Memorial. This year, 20 others having past, watching the results of our generational revenge war on Afghanistan and having experienced a year in the Iraqi desert myself for an equally pointless war, I still cannot answer her question. I still don’t know why and I’ve been thinking about it for almost 20 years.

     

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    The Worst Day of the Afghan War

    September 11, 2021 // 15 Comments »


    The Kabul airport suicide bombing was the largest single-day loss of life for Americans in the Afghan War since 2011. It was a terrible day, but begs the question: what was the worst day of the Afghan war?

    It is hard not to consider the Kabul airport suicide bombing the worst day; 13 Americans and maybe a hundred Afghans dead. How old were the Americans? How many hadn’t even gotten out of diapers when the war started 20 years ago? Did any have parents who also served in Afghanistan? Who were the Afghans?

    All of the dead were so close to safety after who knows what journey to that moment together, a hundred yards across the tarmac and into an airplane out. Good people only die at the last minute in bad movies and sometimes real life. But was it the worst day?

    Shall we count the dead? The worst day for American casualties in Afghanistan was August 6, 2011, when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down over eastern Afghanistan. Thirty Americans, including 22 SEALs, died.

    There were a lot of other worst days.  On June 28, 2005, 19 Special Operations troops were killed during Operation Red Wings. Three service members died in an ambush and 16 others lost their lives when their helicopter went down in an effort to help.

    — On July 13, 2008 nine Americans and 27 others were wounded in an attack on an American observation post in the Battle of Wanat.

    — On October 3, 2009 eight Americans and four Afghans were killed at Combat Outpost Keating when 200 Taliban fighters attacked the base in eastern Afghanistan.

    — On December 30, 2009 a Jordanian double-agent lured seven CIA operatives to their deaths in a suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman.

    — On September 21, 2010 a Black Hawk helicopter went down in Qalat, killing five soldiers of the 101st Airborne, three Navy SEALs, and one support technician.

    — On April 27, 2011 eight U.S. airmen and one contractor were killed at the Kabul airport. A U.S.-trained ally Afghan Air Corps pilot became angry during an argument and began shooting.

    — The worst day might have been one out of the other hundreds of green-on-blue killings, incidents when an Afghan soldier purposely killed an American ally, the worst kind of proof we had lost and refused to believe that until belief was forced upon us.

    — Or maybe the symbolically worst day was February 8, 2020 when two American soldiers were killed fighting in eastern Afghanistan, the last “combat” deaths. In between those deaths and the deaths by the suicide bomber at Kabul airport, five other Americans died in “non-hostiles,” suicides and accidents. Those were bad days, too.

    — The worst day might have been have been the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star/poster boy who ceremoniously joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies.

     

    — Or maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff while on a propaganda mission. Would either have been proud to give their lives those ways, knowing what we know now?

    Maybe the worst day was when some soldier back home, thinking his war was over, realized he had been conned, it was all a lie, that he never fought to defend America or help the Afghans, and neither did his buddy who died among the poppies outside a village without a name. Maybe it was when he realized his dad had told him the same thing about Vietnam. Or maybe it was when he heard President Biden, mentally stuck in 2006, claim those killed at the Kabul airport were actually “lives given in the service of liberty.”

    Or the worst day might be tonight, when some American veteran tells his wife after a couple too many he is going out to clean his gun in the garage. An average of 20 vets take their own lives each day. On August 16, the day after Kabul fell, the Veterans Administration Crisis Line saw a 12 percent increase in calls.

    Of course the Afghans had some worst days too, though no one really keeps track of those. The Kabul airport suicide attack must rank high. Or it could have been when the U.S. bombed an Afghan hospital. Or maybe when a U.S. drone, our national bird, attacked a wedding party. The Haska Meyna wedding party airstrike killed 47. Another airstrike against a wedding party killed 40 civilians. The Wech Baghtu wedding party attack took 37 lives. An airstrike on the village of Azizabad killed as many as 92 civilians. A U.S. drone strike that destroyed 32 pine nut farmers.

    Because the big days for Afghans were often covered up instead of mourned, no one knows which was the worst day. We hide behind an Orwellian term too macabre for Orwell, collateral damage, to mean violence sudden, sharp, complete, unnecessary, and anonymous. For most Afghans, it defined our war against them.

    Or perhaps judging the worst day for the Afghan side via a simple body count is wrong, there were just so many. But if pain is the metric, then the worst day for Afghans clearly took place inside one of the black sites, where the United States as a national policy tortured people to death.

    We only know one name out of many. Gul Rahman died almost naked, wearing only socks and a diaper, shackled to the floor, in a CIA black site, for freedom, although no one can really explain the connection anymore. He’d been subjected to 48 hours of sleep deprivation, rough treatment, and cold showers, interrogated 18 hours a day. There were 20 other cells nearby for other Afghans. A CIA board recommended disciplinary action for the man held responsible for the death but was overruled.

    Those worst days highlight, if that word is even morally permissible here, the long series of atrocities committed in Afghanistan (and Iraq, and Vietnam, and…) instances where our killing of civilians, whether accidental or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance the U.S. could capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. That’s why we lost.

     

    Because it is so very hard to understand 20 years of tragedy, we focus on something small and symbolically fetishize that, turn it into a token, a symbol of the greater failure that is easier to grasp, easier to acknowledge. Few Americans know much about the horrors inflicted across the decades of war in Vietnam but if they know anything they know My Lai. As documented in Nick Turse’s diligent Kill Anything That Moves, My Lai was indeed a real horror show, but simply best-known because it was the one where lots of photos were taken, not the worst. And that’s before we zoom out to see Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.

    So it may be with the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. Maybe they deserve their place in the coda of the war, a way to summarize things. The pieces are all there: tactical fumbling by Washington, Americans out of place, civilians just trying to escape taking the worst of the violence, an enemy no one saw or knows well disrupting carefully planned out global policy goals, sigh, again.

    There’s also the hero element, the Americans were innocents, killed while trying to help the Afghans (albeit help the Afghans out of a mess created earlier by other Americans.) And of course, following the bombing, a revenge airstrike against ISIS-K leaders, or a random goat farmer or an empty field (we’ll never know and it doesn’t really matter) followed by another which killed ten civilians using a “ginsu knives” bomb which shreds human flesh via six large blades. They may claim a bit of history by being the last Afghan civilians killed by the United States. Have we finally stopped holding that devil’s hand?

     

    The Kabul airport suicide bombing may be so jarring, so perfectly timed to illuminate 20 years of failure, that it will even be investigated. A blue ribbon committee might tear into what happened, the intelligence failure, some bad decision by a first lieutenant on where to deploy his men. Unlikely, but maybe even a low-level scapegoat will be named and punished. The committee certainly won’t look too far into reports the U.S. knew the attack was coming and let the troops die to appease Britain’s needs.

     

    We miss the point again. The issue is to ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 20-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of another kid or another dozen Afghans, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Special Immigrant Visas (SIV): A Brief, Sad History

    September 4, 2021 // 3 Comments »

    The story of Afghans fleeing their country seeking Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) is the story of the war.

    In the hubris of conquest 20 years ago, no one could conceive the U.S. would need to evacuate locals who worked with us. Instead, they would form the vanguard of a New Afghanistan. Admitting some sort of escape program was needed was admitting our war was failing, and so progress implementing the SIV program was purposefully very slow. When it became obvious even in Washington that we were losing, an existing State Department perk for local employees was hastily remade into a covert refugee program.

    Even then, with no one wanting to really acknowledge the historical scale our failures, the SIV program was never properly staffed to succeed. Instead it was just tarted up to appear to be doing something good while never having any plan in place to do good, like the war itself. Admitting we had a refugee program for countries we had liberated was a tough swallow. Now, at the end, the Afghans who trusted the SIV program — trusted us — will randomly be rushed through the pipeline to make a few happy headlines, or left behind to their fate on the ground. No one now in the government actually cares what happens to them, as long as they go away somehow. At best the SIV program will be used to create a few human interest stories help cover up some of the good we otherwise failed to do.

     

    The current SIV story starts with the end of the Vietnam war, the desperate locals who worked for us at risk as collaborators, clambering aboard the last helicopters off the roof of the Embassy, followed by thousands of boat people. A sloppy coda to an expected unexpected ending. This is what the SIV program was supposed to be about, you know, never again.

    During the first few years of the Iraq and Afghan wars (“the Wars”), the official vision in Washington was that the Wars would transform the countries into happy meals of robust prosperity and nascent democracy. Congress, imaging early local hires as our American Gurkhas, loyal brown people serving us, wanted to thank those who provided such service. They created a visa program modeled after the existing Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The State Department employed the SIV program abroad for many years. Local employees, say a Japanese passport clerk working in Embassy Tokyo, after 15 years of service could be rewarded an SIV to the Homeland. Such a prize would encourage workers to stay around for a full career, and course they wanted to be like us anyway.

    Congress had the same vision for the Wars. In 2006 they authorized 50 Special Immigrant Visas annually to Iraqi and Afghans working for the U.S. military. The cap was set at 50 because the visa was intended only for the very best, and besides, the locals would mostly want to live in their newly democratized countries anyway.

    What seemed like a good idea in the hazy early days of the Wars turned out to not make any sense given events on the ground. Military leaders saw their local helpers murdered by growing insurgencies Washington pretended did not exist. The limit of 50 a year was a joke as soldiers helped their locals apply by the hundreds. Political winds in Washington went round and round over the issue. An amendment to Section 1059 expanded the total number of visas to 500 per year in Iraq only for two years. But to help keep the pile of applications in some form of check, lower ranking soldiers could not supply the necessary Letter of Recommendation. That still had to be addressed to the Ambassador (Chief of Mission) and signed by a General, Admiral or similar big shot. The military chain of command would be used to slow down applications until we won the Wars.

    Despite a brave face, the SIV program quickly devolved into a pseudo-refugee route to save the lives of locals who helped us conquer. Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 upped the number of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to 5,000 annually through FY 2012 for Iraqis (but not Afghans, we thought we were still winning there.) The changes reduced the necessary service time to only a year, but added the criteria “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”

    Importantly, the critical Letter of Recommendation no longer had to come from an inaccessible big shot per se. Officially the Letter still had to be co-signed by brass but in fact could be written by a lower level supervisor, such as the U.S. citizen who directly supervised the local. The Letter needed only to include a brief description of “faithful service” to the U.S. Government, nothing more. As conditions on the ground deteriorated, the standard of proof required to demonstrate the “ongoing serious threat” was reduced to a self-statement by the local. Visas out of the 5,000 allotted not used in one year could be rolled over into the next year. Documents could be submitted by email, ending the almost impossible task of accessing the fortress Embassies.

    Though officially absolutely not a refugee program, SIVs were made eligible for the same resettlement assistance programs as regular refugees. SIV. The State Department would even loan them, interest free, the travel cost to the U.S. “Feel good” companies like Amazon and Uber offered special hiring consideration. You can read the full details of how to apply online. It all sounded good. But by the time one war ended, despite over 100,000 Iraqis being generally eligible for SIVs, the State Department only issued around 2,000 principal visas.

     

    Like the Wars themselves, what seemed a good idea on paper was lost in the desert. In reality simple steps devolved into dead-ends, like whether the letter needed to be on DOD letterhead, a minor thing that became a game-ender if the American supervisor had left the service and was living stateside. The ever-prissy State Department also warns “all letters of recommendation should be proofread closely. Letters of recommendation with significant spelling and grammar errors may delay processing.”

    But the biggest hurdle was always the security advisory opinion, SAO, a background clearance check showing the applicant was not a bad guy. The problem, exacerbated in the Wars’ countries where names and dates of birth can be flexible, is the loyal translator hired in haste in 2010 and known to Sergeant Snuffy as “Suzy” might also have been trying to save her family in 2020 by passing information to the Taliban, if not the Chinese, Afghanistan was always the Great Game after all. The SAO was a whole-of-government file check and took time; average processing was over three years. (Aside: I had a State Department colleague whose job it was to work these. Because the CIA would not release its most secret files, once a week he had to drive over to Langley and take handwritten notes inside a vault. If his boss had a concern, he had to go back a week later to resolve it. He did not close many cases.)

    Despite over 26,000 SIV visas available for Afghans (the Iraqi program sunsetted in 2014) at no point in the two decade war were more than 4,000 principals ever issued in a year (inflated numbers from State include tag-along spouses and children for each principal applicant.) The estimate is some 20,000 active Afghan SIV applications are still somewhere in the pipeline. Congress even created a whole new application category, Priority 2, simply for those who could not quite meet the statutory requirements of the SIV program. As recently as July 30, 2021 Congress authorized 8,000 additional SIVs for Afghans, so supply is not the issue, processing is and always has been. One NGO which helps Afghans in the SIV process bemoans their efforts to speed up things have stumbled across three administrations, seven Congresses, seven Secretaries of Defense, and five Secretaries of State.

    None of this is new. State had agreed in 2018 to clear the backlog of SIV applications as part of a class action lawsuit but never did. A 2020 State Department Inspector General report found the SIV program’s understaffing made it unable to meet a congressionally mandated nine-month response time. SIV staffing levels hadn’t changed since 2016, despite a 50 percent increase in applicants. There was only one analyst dedicated to SAO security checks. The program was supposed to be overseen by a senior official but the position was left unfilled for three years. State never built a centralized database to verify applicants’ USG employment and instead relied on multiple computer systems which could not connect to each other, leading to workers manually typing in information. A little late, but in February President Biden issued an executive order demanding another review of delays. Meanwhile, in the first three months of 2021 the State Department issued only 137 SIVs.

    There is now pressure on Biden to “do something” about the SIVs in Afghanistan. What happens to the ones left behind is up to the Taliban. For those evacuated, to where and what purpose? Will they still be wading through the bureaucracy years from now, out of sight in refugee camps? Or will the SIV rules be thrown out and everyone rapidly approved to avoid another Biden disaster?

    That’s the beast of the Afghan War, SIV version, all too little, too late, all uncertain, all based on thrown together plans, stymied by hubris, failure to admit we screwed up, and a failure to coordinate a whole-of-government approach. So people suffer and people die in chaos in some far away place. Again.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Who’s to Blame for Losing Afghanistan?

    August 28, 2021 // 14 Comments »


     

    Who should we blame for losing Afghanistan? Why blame anyone?

    Did anyone expect the U.S. war in Afghanistan to end cleanly? If so, you bought the lies all along and the cold water now is hitting sharp. While the actual ending is particularly harsh and clearly spliced together from old clips of Saigon 1975, those are simply details.

    Why blame Biden? He played his part as a Senator and VP keeping the war going, but his role today is just being the last guy in a long line of people to blame, a pawn in the game. That Biden is willing to be the “president who lost Afghanistan” is all the proof you need he does not intend to run again for anything. Kind of an ironic version of a young John Kerry’s take on Vietnam “how do you ask the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out, it’s easy: call Joe.

    Blame Trump for the deal? One of the saddest things about the brutal ending of the U.S.-Afghan war is we would have gotten the same deal — just leave it to the Taliban and go home — at basically any point during the last 20 years. That makes every death and every dollar a waste. Afghanistan is simply reverting, quickly, to more or less status quo 9/10/01 and everything between then and now, including lost opportunities, will have been wasted.

    Blame the NeoCons? No one in Washington who supported this war was ever called out, with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld who, if there is a hell, now cleans truck stop toilets there. Dick Cheney walks free. The generals and diplomats who ran the war have nice think tank or university jobs, if they are not still in government making equally bad decisions. No one has been legally, financially, or professionally disadvantaged by the blood on their hands. Some of the era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    George Bush is a cuddly grandpa today, not the man who drove the United States into building a global prison archipelago to torture people. Barack Obama, who kept much of that system in place and added the drone killing of American citizens to his resume, remains a Democratic rock god. Neither man nor any of his significant underlings has expressed any regret or remorse.

    For example, I just listened to Ryan Crocker, our former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, on CNN. Making myself listen to him was about as fun as sticking my tongue in a wood chipper. Same for former general David Petraeus and the usual gang of idiots. None of them, the ones who made the decisions, accept any blame. Instead. they seem settled on blaming Trump because, well, everything bad is Trump’s fault even if he came into all this in the middle of the movie.

    In the end the only people punished were the whistleblowers.

    No one in the who is to blame community seems willing to take the story back to its beginning, at least the beginning for America’s latest round in the Graveyard of Empires (talk about missing an early clue.) This is what makes Blame Trump and Blame Biden so absurd. America’s modern involvement in this war began in 1979 when Jimmy Carter, overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up what was already a pro-Soviet puppet government, began arming and organizing Islamic warriors we now collectively know as “The Taliban.”

    People who want to only see trees they can chop down and purposely want to miss the vastness of the forest ahead at this point try to sideline things by claiming there never was a single entity called “The Taliban” and the young Saudis who flocked to jihad to kill Russians technically weren’t funded by the U.S. (it was indirectly through Pakistan) or that the turning point was the 1991 Gulf War, etc. Quibbles and distractions.

    If Carter’s baby steps to pay for Islamic warriors to fight the Red Army was playing with matches, Ronald Reagan poured gas, then jet fuel, on the fire. Under the Reagan administration the U.S. funded the warriors (called mujaheddin if not freedom fighters back then), armed them, invited their ilk to the White House, helped lead them, worked with the Saudis to send in even more money, and fanned the flames of jihad to ensure a steady stream of new recruits.

    When we “won” it was hailed as the beginning of the real end of the Evil Empire. The U.S. defeated the mighty Red Army by sending over some covert operators to fight alongside stooge Islam warriors for whom a washing machine was high technology. Pundits saw it as a new low-cost model for executing American imperial will.

    We paid little attention to events as we broke up the band and cut off the warriors post-Soviet withdrawal (soon enough some bozo at the State Department declared “the end of history.” He teaches at Stanford now) until the blowback from this all nipped us in the largely unsuccessful World Trade Center bombing of 1993, followed by the very successful World Trade Center bombing on September 11, 2001. Seems like there was still some history left to go.

    How did U.S. intelligence know who the 9/11 culprits were so quickly? Several of them had been on our payroll, or received financing via proxies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, or were inspired by what had happened in Afghanistan, the defeat of the infidels (again; check Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, et al.)

    If post-9/11 the U.S. had limited itself to a vengeful hissy fit in Afghanistan, ending with Bush’s 2003 declaration of “Mission Accomplished,” things would have been different. If the U.S. had used the assassination of Osama bin Laden, living “undiscovered” in the shadow of Pakistan’s military academy, as an excuse of sorts to call it a day in Afghanistan, things would have been different.

    Instead Afghanistan became a petri dish to try out the worst NeoCon wet dream, nation-building across the Middle East. Our best and brightest would not just bomb Afghanistan into the stone age, they would then phoenix-it from the rubble as a functioning democracy. There was something for everyone: a military task to displace post-Cold War budget cuts, a pork-laden reconstruction program for contractors and diplomats, even a plan to empower Afghan women to placate the left.

    Though many claim Bush pulling resources away from Afghanistan for Iraq doomed the big plans, it was never just a matter of not enough resources. Afghanistan was never a country in any modern sense to begin with, just an association of tribal entities who hated each other almost as much as they hated the west. The underpinnings of the society were a virulent strain of Islam, about as far away from any western political and social ideas as possible. Absent a few turbaned Uncle Toms, nobody in Afghanistan was asking to be freed by the United States anyway.

    Pakistan, America’s “ally” in all this, was a principal funder and friend of the Taliban, always more focused on the perceived threat from India, seeing a failed state in Afghanistan as a buffer zone. Afghanistan was a narco-state with its only real export heroin. Not only did this mean the U.S. wanted to build a modern economy on a base of crime, the U.S. in different periods actually encouraged/ignored the drug trade into American cities in favor of the cash flow.

    The Afghan puppet government and military the U.S. formed were uniformly corrupt, and encouraged by the endless inflow of American money to get more corrupt all the time. They had no support from the people and could care less. The Afghans in general and the Afghan military in particular did not fail to hold up their end of the fighting; they never signed up for the fight in the first place. No Afghan wanted to be the last man to die in service to American foreign policy.

    There was no way to win. The “turning point” was starting the war at all. Afghanistan had to fail. There was no other path for it, other than being propped up at ever-higher costs. That was American policy for two decades: prop up things and hope something might change. It was like sending more money to a Nigerian cyber-scammer hoping to recoup your original loss.

    Everything significant our government, the military, and the MSM told us about Afghanistan was a lie. They filled and refilled the bag with bullhockey and Americans bought it every time expecting candy canes. Keep that in mind when you decide who to listen to next time, because of course there will be a next time. Who has not by now realized that? We just passively watched 20 years of Vietnam all over again, including the sad ending. So really, who’s to blame?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Afghanistan Mon Amour

    May 1, 2021 // Comments Off on Afghanistan Mon Amour

    President Biden announced he will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11. That will end 20 years of a war which killed some 2,300 Americans, an unknown number of Afghans, and cost trillions of dollars to accomplish nothing.

    Biden speaks more plainly about failure than any previous president. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result. I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.” We’ll take Biden at his word for now. Best to focus on the good.

    So leave aside how Biden piggy-backed off Trump’s decision, roundly criticized, to negotiate with the Taliban, and how Trump’s own plans to withdraw troops were sabotaged by the Deep State, including the false claims Russians were paying bounties for dead Americans. This could have been over two years ago, same as it could have been over 10 years ago. But neither Bush nor Obama had the courage to do it, Hillary certainly would not have, Trump was stopped, and so the dirty work fell to Joe.

    Let’s also leave aside the inevitable as America runs for the exit (and this alone suggests Biden plans on being a one-term president, setting himself like this.) The puppet regime in Kabul will dissolve like paper in the rain. The only question is how ugly the Taliban takeover will be; will they just close schools or will they behead teachers on TV?

    We should leave aside the Bush decision to invade Afghanistan at all. Sure the 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudi, but Afghanistan was such an easy target and Al Qaeda did have some training camps there. Of course the 9/11 hijackers trained in American flight schools but even Dick Cheney wouldn’t bomb those (Biden’s choice of 9/11/2021 as the withdrawal date is meant to support that original sin of a lie.) Revenge morphed into nation building, “democracy in a box” it was called, and so by late 2001 the framework of the 20 year war was set. At the next off ramp, Obama let David Petraeus, then waiting for someone to cast Tom Hanks in his biopic, talk him into a surge of 30,000 troops soon after he took home his Nobel Peace Prize, the most ironic reward since Henry Kissinger got his. The rest is history.

     

    The modern American way of war is well-defined. Go in without an endgame, quit when the political cost hits critical, and leave the people supposedly democratized or otherwise liberated to their fate (Newspeak: “author of their own future”) while we honor our wounded troops with a free breakfast at Denny’s. Biden’s good friend, John Kerry, is an easy target because of his famous statement in 1971 about Vietnam: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out it’s pretty easy.

    (The last American solider to die in Afghanistan, as of today, is Javier Gutierrez. He was shot to death by an Afghan soldier after a disagreement.)

    Next unleash the pundits to write about lessons learned. Their usual pattern is we had good intentions but the Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, et al, just didn’t do their share and we should never repeat this kind of thing. Nobody talks much about inertia, bureaucratic cowardliness, endless war as a questionable prophylaxis against terrorism, the ugliness of staying in because you don’t know why you started and are afraid of what happens if you end it. The only people now whining about unfinished business are feminists who seem to believe Marines should die so girls don’t have to wear burkas.

     

    The key theme in all these lessons learned is how could we have ever known it would turn out this way?

    Even before it started the war had to fail. Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, had beaten Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, and the mighty Red Army. What betting man would think the U.S. would end up any different? 

    Many knew the war would fail when it was back-burnered for an equally doomed jihad in Iraq in 2003. Or maybe it was when Bin Laden escaped Afghanistan, and again when he was killed 10 years after the initial U.S. invasion and yet the troops stayed on. Perhaps it was when SNL 20 years back did a skit about a suburban cocktail party that comes to a halt to celebrate the U.S. capture of Kandahar though no one knows exactly why it mattered, just that we won!

    Others foresaw the eventual failure upon the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star who joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies. Maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff (say her name) while on a propaganda mission. Maybe it was in 2009 when former Marine Matthew Hoh resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan with the State Department over the war’s escalation. It could have been all those “feel good” media pieces about sons deploying to the same Afghan battlefields their fathers had served on.

    Or maybe when The Washington Post, long an advocate for all the wars everywhere, took a bruised penance publishing the Afghanistan Papers showing the government lied at every step. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” wrote Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” It’s a sordid trip down a street without joy, with little grace and less honor, last chapter just as bad as the first. FYI, America will mark the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers this year.

    The final knowing point for me personally was in 2012. That was when, after having written a whistleblowing book on the failure of Iraq reconstruction and nation building, focusing on the carpetbaggers the U.S. hired to do most of the ground work, I began receiving requests for recommendations. The U.S. was hiring the same monkeys to work on the Afghan program.

    I responded to each inquiry with a short note and a draft copy of my book, only to find later in every case the person who had helped sink the U.S. effort in Iraq was rehired in Afghanistan. Ironically, the initial title for my book wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The publisher changed it, thinking the war in Afghanistan might be over before we hit the shelves almost a decade ago.

    Those with any sense of history saw Afghanistan (and Iraq for that matter) and heard echoes of Vietnam-Vietnam-Vietnam. Others looked back to a war where far more Americans were killed, some 35,000, where we stayed for 70 years without a peace treaty, with the North Korea we “beat” now a nuclear power. Yet politicians dared stand up in 2001 to say “we’ll get it right this time, trust us.” Who could have imagined nearly all Americans did answer “OK.” And then said OK again and again for 20 years even as their own sons and daughters came home dead, maimed or psychologically destroyed.

    Lessons learned? None at all. We’ll do it again just as Vietnam followed Korea, and Afghanistan followed Vietnam. Fathers whose hands shake with PTSD sent their sons off to the same fate. If that, that, can’t stop these pointless wars, nothing ever will. So, nothing ever will.

     

    We will do this again because failure has no such consequences for the decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as the bestest president ever. Trump is criticized both as a war monger and for talking about pulling back U.S. troops in the Middle East. The era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    In the classic 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour a Japanese man says to his French lover “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” His frustration is in the two being bystanders on opposite sides of a war where all sides were inherently evil. There is always in the background talk about justice. What justice will be available to the Americans who went to their God like soldiers in Afghanistan, the uncountable Afghans who died at our hands, the promises to the living of a better future all now reviled lies?

    There are still those nights it takes a fair amount of whisky to abort thoughts about why no one gets impeached for wasting lives. But for tonight at least I’ll fill a glass half empty so I can raise it to Joe, for finally, imperfectly, awfully, clumsily ending this mess, better late than forever.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    What Keeps Canada Safe at Night? Joe Biden?

    March 12, 2021 // 3 Comments »

     

    We know what keeps America safe at night — rough men on the walls stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm, duh. But what about Canada? Or say, Cambodia or Bolivia?

    This is by way of trying to figure out why Joe Biden bombed Syria and derailed the resumption of the Iran nuclear accord, and why he has called off, delayed, or stalled further withdrawals from the places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria along the bloody trail of the old Global War of Terror. Canada (along with Cambodia, Bolivia and most others) never sent any of their rough men to most of those places to begin with, absent Afghanistan where some Canadian forces were deployed until 2014, a long 7 years ago. The peak was only about 2,000 soldiers anyway. Canada maintains a handful of small foreign outposts, mostly to handle logistics. They’re not fighting anyone anywhere.

    The U.S. famously has some 800 bases strewn around the globe, with troops in 150 countries, and boasts its special forces during any given week are deployed in 82 nations. Many of those Sneaky Pete’s are killing people in those places without the knowledge of the “host” country. Last year they operated in 72 percent of the nations on this planet, including 13 African nations. Can you name them? Why were Americans risking their lives in Burkina Faso? So we can sleep better?

     

    Few expected much from Joe Biden foreign policy wise, and he has delivered. About a month into office he bombed Syria. The ostensible justification was the target was not “Syrian” but 22 people associated with Iran. Militias in Iraq allegedly under Iran’s control killed an American contractor in Erbil so the bombing in Syria was retaliation for that. This was not only supposed to be a legal, moral, and ethical act by the Home of Democracy (c), it was supposed to have accomplished something toward Americans being safer. It did not; a U.S. airbase in Iraq was rocketed a few days later.

    Imagine Chinese aircraft flying halfway around the world and killing 22 people in Detroit in retaliation for something that happened in, wherever, Thailand. That OK? Whatever nations are looking to China for “leadership” (one of the things Biden was to restore after Trump broke it) might not be sure. China is an interesting example, because they did not retaliate against the United States for bombing their embassy in the former Yugoslavia in 1999. As in 1988 when an American cruiser shot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing all 290 people on board, Washington just said it was a mistake so no retaliation was necessary. The world is encouraged to accept America alone does bad things for good reasons. Or no reason at all. Talk about uniqueness.

    If I thought like a Canadian, I would find it difficult to understand why the U.S. has to fight everyone. It is very hard to imagine America has enemies who need killing in 72 percent of the nations on earth. Or maybe not — after decades of invading, bombing, and regime changing, maybe they really do hate us. The relationship between the U.S. bombing people and people not caring for the U.S. seems unclear to Joe Biden and most of his predecessors, however.

    Thinking like an American, the ostensible reason for all this bombing seems to be Hitler. He’s why we couldn’t support Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea and no other president has even tried for 20 years, and why Biden seems reluctant to revive the Iran nuclear accord. In 1938 olde timey British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain got hoodwinked by Hitler. No American president wants to be Neville Chamberlain. So every bad guy in the world, whether Slobo Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Assad, the cabal that runs Iran, Hugo Chavez, Castro even dead, is Hitler.

    It follows every friction point is Munich 1938 and the only way to deal with it without appearing Chamberlain-level weak is to attack just one more country. When actual fighting cannot be on the table, presidents are content with crippling sanctions, a kind of economic Guantanamo, as have been in place against Cuba since about when the Beatles first came to America, before that with North Korea, and since roller disco was popular in the case of Iran.

     

    It works for us, at least as far as politicians are concerned. They don’t look like Neville Chamberlain. They hardly ever suffer any consequences. There is absolutely no demanding of accountability (the new Washington watch word) for any act of war committed by any American president, including those who lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and created a global torture system the actual Hitler would have been happy to have franchised. Foreign policy in general is not a constraint on policymakers, because most of the public doesn’t care about it (quick, find Burkina Faso on a map.) Those that do care usually are pretty supportive of America’s wars, love the troops and all that. Washington and the media help out, spending most of a decade messaging “we have to be at war” post-9/11 for example, and that poo stain doesn’t wash out easy. The thing that finally turned the country against the Vietnam War, the draft of nice white middle class kids, is gone. Also gone are the waves of body bags, as much of modern killing is death from way above.

    The other reasons Joe Biden bombed Syria are equally familiar and equally false. We have backed away from “we need to protect the oil” since the first Bush Gulf War in 1991 though the phrase had a good run. Still out there is some version of “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” No one has invaded the U.S. since 1812, and when push came to shove on 9/11 a bunch of guys with box cutters worked around the $305.4 billion 2001 military budget. People on the left used to talk about “The American Empire” but even that has turned out to be pretty weak; we don’t imperially profit by raping conquered lands as a proper empire does. Where is our Raj? Our Opium War? Our rubber plantations and breadfruit farms? America got no oil from Iraq and no minerals from Afghanistan.

    We instead mostly wreck places (Libya and Vietnam come to mind) and then abandon them, or grab a little land for yet another overseas base. Americans sometimes talk like it’s all a great game of Risk, but war to simply grab resources and territory isn’t how things have worked for a long time. Other justifications? Ask any still living Iraqi how “spreading democracy” worked out. Stopping various genocides comes up from time to time, though when a real one came along in Rwanda the U.S. wasn’t up for it. And, oh yeah, Biden is the leader of the free world. Was there a vote, because if so it’s likely Andrea Merkel would have won. Did American get tasked by all other good countries to protect them, as if Canada couldn’t build a nuke if it wanted one and who is threatening them anyway? The Canadian military could invade Burkina Faso if they wished to. They just don’t wish to.

    The fall back justification since 1945 has been the myth that the U.S. is engaged in some global muscle-tussle to be the most powerfulist place. It used to be just Russia, but lately China seems to be the one we imagine challenging us everywhere while still owning the largest foreign share of American debt and making nearly everything sold in our stores. When was the last time China shot at us, never mind invaded us? Some may even remember we already defeated globalist Russia once before (Google “the Cold War, we won.”)

    Military spending does absorb over half of the federal government’s discretionary budget, meaning more money is spent on the Pentagon than on schools, infrastructure, climate, research, and diplomacy combined, so that may also have something to do with all this. Fun fact: in addition to leading the world in bombing, America is also the leading global arms dealer.

     

    Most of Joe Biden’s foreign policy team are brutalist left-overs from the Obama administration, the one that invaded Libya and set the ball rolling in Syria and Ukraine. They’re needed in 2021 about as much as mimes at a funeral. Head of the gang is Victoria Nuland, who worked to start her own war in Ukraine a few years ago. Supporting her are Tony “Global Policeman” Blinken and Susan Rice, she of invading Libya fame.  Maybe they and the others of the Class of 2016 will finally have those full-on wars  have always wanted but a stronger president like Obama sort of resisted. Bloody Nuland says more wars are basically a requirement. She co-wrote an article titled “Superpowers Don’t Get To Retire,” proclaiming “there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters.” With policy friends like this, it’s clear why Biden bombed Syria and will do more of that kind of thing as opportunities arise.

    “America is back,” Biden bleats at every opportunity. What that means America is back to business as usual, and that means people abroad are gonna die. Blame Canada.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Requiem for the U.S. Department of State, Part I of II

    May 20, 2020 // 1 Comment »


     
    Saying “Mike Pompeo” out loud feels odd, like mouthing the name of an old girlfriend, or shouting out your GMail password. It just feels wrong in your mouth, because what’s Mike or the State Department done lately? As the Trump administration wraps up its first term focused on domestic issues, it occurs the United States has passed almost four years without a foreign policy, and without the need for a Secretary of State or a department of diplomats behind him.
     
    On his first anniversary in the job Pompeo told assembled diplomats “We needed everyone in their place, working on the mission, if we were going to achieve this mission on behalf of the president” but never actually said what that mission was. A Google query shows “Searches related to Mike Pompeo Achievements” include “mike pompeo weight – mike pompeo net worth.” One can easily imagine Pompeo, even pre-COVID, slipping out the side door at Foggy Bottom shouting “I’ll be working from home, check with my deputy if anything comes up” while his wife is waiting in the car for him, Ferris Bueller-style.

    We had high hopes for Mike. He and John Bolton (as National Security Advisor) were the Bad Boys who were supposed to start wars with Iran and North Korea, outdo Cheney and even challenge the legend himself, Henry “Bloody Hands” Kissinger. Pompeo watched as not much happened between the U.S. and North Korea. He watched as the ending of the Iran nuclear treaty caused not much to happen. John Bolton, who liberals expected to see on a throne in Tehran rolling a mullah’s bloody head around his lap, instead sits by the phone hoping a think tank will offer him an intern to listen to his stories, or maybe Dancing with the Stars will ring needing a last-minute. That show on Fox?

    Prior to Pompeo, the Secretary of State was Rex Tillerson. Tillerson couldn’t even come up with an elevator speech of his accomplishments when asked, listing as he left office North Korean sanctions which achieved nothing, alongside his own mea culpas for failing to make progress in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, where with a straight face he noted there was “more to be done.” A bit hard to blame him, as Trump chose a policy of stasis, not wanting to withdraw the last trooper and forever be the man who lost Afghanistan. Imagine if the U.S. had followed similar political caution and still garrisoned Vietnam?

    Commentators wrote Tillerson would be remembered as the worst secretary of state in history. Wrong. He made no significant blunders, gave away nothing. He just didn’t do much at all. His actual only real accomplishment was a humiliating apology tour of Africa meeting with leaders on the periphery of U.S. foreign affairs grouchy over the president calling their nations sh*tholes.

     

    It would be easy to blame Trump, his open mic night style of making decisions, his decrees by Twitter, sucking all of the diplomatic air out of the room and suffocating up-and-coming diplomats like Mike and Rex before they even had a chance to try on their plumed hats. Unlike his predecessors, Trump never took advantage of his get-one-free foreign incursion along the lines of invading Grenada, occupying Lebanon, or an adventure in Somalia, never mind the big ticket items like Iraq Wars I-III. Sure, Trump did bomb Syria (who hasn’t?) and nipped at Iran, but the tumescence was over before the media could even declare the end of the world again.

    One can imagine meetings with friendly foreign nations in the Age of Trump: “Anything new from your side? No, you? Nah, something on Twitter from POTUS about armageddon, misspelled. Say, Crimea still giving you trouble? A little, whatever, you watching Tiger King? Pretty funny. Quite.”

     

    So turn the page backwards to John Kerry, Obama’s second term Secretary of State. Kerry imagined himself a Kennedy-esque man of action, Flashman at the ready, and had the State Department keep an online tally of how many miles he had traveled doing diplomatic stuff. The Nation called him “One of the Most Significant Secretaries of State in the Last 50 Years,” heady company when you realize the list includes Acheson, Dulles, Rusk, and Kissinger.

    OK, but… Kerry’s signature accomplishment, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, faded quickly. As negotiated the thing was only for ten years anyway, and would be about half over even if Trump had not walked away. And that’s giving Kerry full marks for getting an agreement where the National Security Council did much of the heavy lifting, and one which the Iranians wanted badly enough to help their economy they were willing to trade away a lot of Wonka tickets. Kerry’s work with the TPP and Paris Agreement also showed good effort. We’ll put them up on the fridge next to the one song Ringo got onto each Beatles album. Kerry’s muscular efforts came to little substance (albeit through little fault of his own) but the legacy business is harsh.

    After that, you have John Kerry helping muck up Syria. Kerry floundering in the Ukraine and Crimea. Kerry failing to move the ball forward in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Palestine, or blunting China as it assumed a pivotal role in Asia in every way except militarily (they’re working on it.)

    That Nation article praising Kerry also cites as achievements “the military retaking of Mosul, the sponsorship of an Oceans Conference, the strengthening of the Gulf Cooperation Council…” all of which mean what in 2020? Kerry did sing Happy Birthday to Vladimir Putin at the APEC conference in the midst of a U.S. government shutdown. Kerry’s most significant achievement was leaving many Democratic voters secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush beat Kerry to take on a dismal second term.

     

    But Hillary! Never mind “one of,” Google chair Eric Schmidt called her “the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson” (suck it, Kerry.) Secretary of State was only the first half of the prize Hillary got for clearing the way for Obama in 2008 (Barack shooing Joe Biden aside for her in 2016 was the second) and Clinton made the most of it. For herself. Ignoring America’s real foreign policy needs (or was she being ignored?) she turned the State Department into an arm of her Foundation, projecting “soft power” on things like women’s issues and AIDS to match her eventual platform, all the while generating B-roll for the campaign like a chunky Angelina Jolie. She also had the Department obsessively document her constant travels, with formal photos of Secretary Clinton alongside world leaders as well as selfies of Hil letting her hair down among her own diplomats. “Texts from Hillary” predated Instagram. Not a pair of dry panties to be found over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    But in the tally of history, Hillary Clinton accomplished… not much. Time Magazine listed her key accomplishments as “the liberation of Libya, establishment of diplomatic ties with Burma and the assembly of a coalition against Iran.” In a summary piece, USA Today singled out “Clinton convinced Chinese leaders to free blind dissident Chen Guang Cheng,” who returned the favor by joining an American think tank opposing abortion and gay marriage.

    From the horse’s mouth, quoting Hillary Herself, key accomplishments were “hosting town halls with global youth, raising awareness for religious minorities, protecting Internet freedom and advancing rights for women and the LGBT community around the world.” Not resume items as momentous as forever changing the Cold War balance of power by opening China like Henry Kissinger or assembling the first Gulf War coalition like James Baker. Meanwhile, the world owes Hillary for her significant contributions to the failed state of Libya and the subsequent refugee flow, the human misery of Syria, the missed chances of the Arab Spring, and failing to end other wars she helped start or voted for.

    A generation before Hillary we have Colin Powell and Condi Rice, whose only accomplishments as Secretary were to march America into the desert and abandon her there (Colin) and march the State Department into the desert with the guaranteed-to-fail mission to create democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and abandon her there (Condi.)

     

    The good news is the U.S. is experiencing a peace of a sorts not by sweating out the sins of diplomacy, but just by not going around the world throwing matches into buckets of gasoline. Trump has made little use of his Secretaries of State and their Department. No recent president made much use of those diplomats either, so they are unlikely to be missed.

    The next Secretary, whether working for Trump or Biden, will find themself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. They may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing a network of embassies to serve as America’s concierge abroad, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations.

    If the U.S. government had to downsize into a smaller capital, the State Department would likely end up on the curb, alongside those boxes of the kids’ elementary school drawings. Cute, sentimental, good times, but why did we keep them all these years?

    How did this happen? In Part II of this article, we’ll look at the factors internal to State and the United States, and those external, global changes, that left the Department adrift.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    On the Afghan Papers, Tequila, and Anne Smedinghoff

    January 3, 2020 // 27 Comments »


     

    It’s common this time of year to write review articles making sense of the events of the last 12 months. But what all of them will omit is one of the most important stories of the year. For the first time in some two decades America hasn’t started a new war.

    In 2019 34 American service members died in war. In 2009 it was 459, in 2003 it was 526. A total of 6857 since the post 9/11 wars commenced in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan. Bush began that war, then invaded Iraq in 2003. Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 then immediately expanded the war in Afghanistan. He went on to restart America’s war in Iraq after it was over the first time, launched a new war to turn Libya into a failed state and trigger the refugee flows still disrupting EU politics, engaged the U.S. in Yemen, abetted a humanitarian crisis in Syria, and set off yet another refugee flow into Europe through military intervention. So three full years without a new war is indeed news.

    This year also brought mainstream confirmation of the truth behind the Afghan War. The Washington Post, long an advocate for all the wars everywhere, took a tiny step of penance in publishing the “Afghan Papers,” which show the American public was lied to every step of the way over the past 18 years about progress in Afghanistan and the possibility of some sort of success. Government officials from the president(s) to the grunt(s) issued positive statements they knew to be false and hid evidence the war was unwinnable. The so-called Afghan Papers are actually thousands of pages of notes created by the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a watchdog federal agency created to oversee the spending of close to one trillion dollars in reconstruction money.

    The SIGAR documents (all quotes are from the Post’s Afghan Papers reporting) are blunt. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking… If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction, 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added. “Who will say this was in vain?” There are plenty of similar sentiments expressed going back a decade, with hints of the same almost to the first months of the conflict. The record of lies is as stark, final, and unambiguous as the death toll itself.

     

    Underlying all these comments given to SIGAR confidentially (WaPo had to fight a hellish FOIA battle to get these Papers released and even then most names were redacted) is a subtheme of what happens when the public finds out they’ve been lied to? The lesson there is a clear one: the public will have it shoved under their noses and ignore it repeatedly. The “secrets” of what was going on in Afghanistan were available for any who cared to call bullsh*t. Everything that failed in Afghanistan was at some level a repeat of what had failed earlier or concurrently in Iraq. The Papers quote an Army brigade commander in eastern Afghanistan who told government interviewers that he often saw nation building proposals that referred to “sheikhs” literally cut-and-pasted from reconstruction projects in Iraq. (“Sheikh” is an Arabic title of respect regularly misused by the military in Iraq but inapplicable across most of Afghanistan.) Many reconstruction personnel on the civilian side were transferred from Iraq to Afghanistan, and senior military leaders followed enlisted sons and fathers in doing deployments in both nations.

    On paper the story was the same. Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks exposed the lies in Iraq, only to face jail time and personal destruction. Whistleblower Matt Hoh, who served in Iraq as a Marine and in Afghanistan with the State Department, resigned in protest and told all as far back as 2010. My own book on Iraq exposed reconstruction was a failure in 2011, as did Chris Coyne’s on reconstruction in Haiti in 2010, or Douglas Wissing or Anand Gopal on Afghanistan or more recently Scott Horton’s in 2017. The Army’s Lt. Col Danny Davis, or even SIGAR’s own reporting over the years told much of the same story if anyone had bothered to read it. If anyone had looked deeper, they would have seen the same errors in reconstruction made many times before, from Somalia to the massive CORDS program in the Vietnam War.

    The Papers also show during the peak of the fighting in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, U.S. politicians and military commanders believed the more they spent on schools, bridges, canals and other projects the faster things would improve. Aid workers told SIGAR from the ground “it was a colossal misjudgment, akin to pumping kerosene on a dying campfire just to keep the flame alive.” One staffer with the Agency for International Development claimed 90 percent of what they spent was overkill: “We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason.” A contractor explained he was expected to dole out $3 million daily for projects in a single Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He once asked a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker could responsibly spend that kind of money back home, and “he said hell no. I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.”

    It was never a question of would it work, but more of a question of finding any example in the past where it did work. The one cited by so many NEOCON believers was the post-WWII Marshall Plan, as if loans to German and Japanese industrialists to rebuild factories and retool from tanks to cars had anything to do with the medieval economy of Afghanistan.

    But perhaps owing to their roots as the watchdog of the reconstruction program, SIGAR saves some of its most laser-like commentary for nation building.

     

    But Afghanistan was always supposed to be more than a “kinetic” war. The real battles were for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, with money as the weapon. Democracyfreedompluralisticsociety would be created from the primeval mud, with roads and bridges and factories as its Adam, and schools for boys and girls as its Eve. One of the core lies told to the public, and to each other on the ground in Afghanistan, was that a large portion of reconstruction money should be spent on education, even though Afghanistan had few jobs for graduates. “We were building schools next to empty schools, and it just didn’t make sense,” a Special Forces officer explained. “The local Afghans made clear they didn’t really want schools. They said they wanted their kids out herding goats.”

    “There was not a willingness to answer questions such as, what is the meaning of this number of schools that you have built? How has that progressed you towards your goal?” said John Garofano, who supported the First Marine Expeditionary Force in its reconstruction spending in Helmand Province. “How do you show this as evidence of success and not just evidence of effort or evidence of just doing a good thing?”

    And it is on that specific bruised prayer of a lie that Anne Smedinghoff, the only State Department Foreign Service officer to lose a life in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, died.

    This is what all those lies detailed in the Afghan Papers translate into on the ground. Anne was a diplomat, just 25 years old, assigned by the State Department to create good press in Afghanistan so the people at home could see we were winning. It was a hard fight, her work was supposed to show, but the sacrifices were worth it because we are accomplishing this. This in the very specific case which destroyed Anne was handing out unneeded books to Afghans who lacked clean water and childhood vaccines twelve years into America’s longest war so she and (important) more senior people could be photographed doing so. Inside the beltway this was called a “happy snap,” photos of Americans doing good with, albeit always in the background, smiling Afghans lapping it up. Through a series of grossly preventable micro-errors in security nested like Russian dolls inside the macro-error of what Anne or any American was doing in rural Zabul, Afghanistan anyway, Anne’s body was blown into pink mush by jagged fragments of steel from an IED.

    The school where Anne was killed was “built” by the U.S. in October 2009, only to enjoy a $135,000 “renovation” a few months later that included “foundation work, installation of new windows and doors, interior and exterior paint, electricity and a garden.” The original contractor did miserable work but got away with it in the we’ll check later Potemkin world where the appearance of success trumped actual results. The Army noted as the school opened “The many smiles on the faces of both men and women showed all were filled with joy and excitement during this special occasion.” That the Afghans in the area likely needed sewage processing to lower infant mortality levels from water borne disease was irrelevant, they got a freaking school.

    The limited official reporting on what happened to Anne bungled most of the details, and State clung (as they later did with Benghazi, some lessons are learned) to a weak tea that the “cause” of Anne’s death were the actions of the bad guys, anything we did up to our very presence on the ground treated as a kind of background. The desire to not look too deep was underscored by then Secretary of State John Kerry, who said “she tragically gave her young life working to give young Afghans the opportunity to have a better future” and smoothed the media into blending Anne’s death into what the entire world now knows is the fake narrative Anne herself died trying to create.

    Kerry is an easy target because of his Vietnam-era protests, including his famous question to Congress in 1971 “Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake. We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

    To the State Department, what mattered in the life and then death of Anne Smedinghoff was damage control to what the Afghan Paper show they secretly knew was an already-failed story.

     

    Anne was only one of thousands of Americans, and, literally-only-God-knows how many Afghans, who died for the lies in the Afghan Papers. Same in the other countries America made war against, Syria and Libya for example, whose “papers” exposing those lies we await. So that’s why the biggest story of 2019 is the one no one seems to want to talk about, that for the first time in decades we seem to be slowing this all down.

    When someone writes now, in light of the reveals of the Afghan Papers, Anne died in vain, someone else will dismiss that as playing politics with a young woman’s death. But if you will read one more sentence, read this: Anne’s presence in Afghanistan was about politics, and her death delivering books for a photo op was a political act in support of lies. Her death thrusts her into the role of symbolism whether anyone likes that or not, and our job is simply to determine what she is indeed a symbol of and try to learn from that.

    For me, I learned on the same day Anne died an airstrike elsewhere in Afghanistan inadvertently killed ten children. I learned on the nights I think too much about things like that it usually takes a fair amount of tequila to abort my thoughts. And I take no pride in admitting I usually just drink from the bottle. But tonight I’ll use a glass, so I can raise it to Anne. I know she won’t be the last, there’ll be another set of “papers,” but there’s always hope at the bottom of a glass, isn’t there?

      

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen