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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Donny and Bibi’s Folly

The Daily Escape:

Hyner View State Park, Hyner, PA – photo by Scott Hafer.

Maybe it’s early to have a full perspective on Trump’s decision to leave the Iran Nuclear Accord, but Wrongo is reminded of this quote from Benjamin Netanyahu, on September 12, 2002:

If you take out Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you it will have positive reverberations on the region.

He said this while he was pressing for the US to attack Iraq, who was an Israeli foe in 2002. Naturally, the results were far from positive for the region, and the outcome for the US was catastrophic in both financial and human costs.

Bibi has again been successful in urging another Republican president to start an adventure in the Middle East, this time, by backing out of the Iran deal. Once again, Bibi has set up an opportunity for the US to attack another Israeli foe. This decision is a truly consequential foreign-policy blunder.

Steven Walt in Foreign Policy:

It is important to understand what’s really going on here. Trump’s decision is not based on a desire to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb; if that were the case, it would make much more sense to stay firmly committed to the deal and eventually negotiate to make it permanent.

Walt says that this is what’s really going on:

Abandoning the JCPOA is based on the desire to “keep Iran in the penalty box” and prevent it from establishing normal relations with the outside world. This goal unites Israel, the hard-line wing of the Israel lobby…and hawks including National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and many others.

Walt says that the hawks’ great fear was that the US and its Middle East allies might eventually have to acknowledge Iran as a legitimate regional power.

The preferred strategy to keep Iran from becoming a regional power has been regime change. US neo-cons and others in the Middle East have pursued this for decades. The neo-cons see two possible routes to regime change. The first relies on ramping up economic pressure on Tehran in the hope that popular discontent will grow, and that the clerical regime will simply collapse. This is the same strategy that worked so well failed in Cuba. Since the Nuclear Accord would end the sanctions that were keeping Iran weak, it was reason enough for most Republicans and hawks to be against it.

The second option is to provoke Iran into restarting its nuclear program, which would give Washington the excuse to launch a preventive war. The Israelis and Saudis would be happy to watch the US and Iran fight. The thought is that a war would eliminate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and inspire its people to rise up and overturn their leaders.

This scenario shows how little thought these people give to outcomes: If we bomb Iran, their first reaction will not be one of gratitude. Bibi will again be wrong, there will be no “positive reverberations”. Rather, it would trigger fervent Iranian nationalism and the regime would become more popular.

Leaving the deal is another spectacular “own goal” from the Trumpkinhead. They must be dancing in Moscow and Beijing, the two biggest winners of the Trump withdrawal.

Other winners include the Iranian far-right, who will say that Rouhani and the reformists were naive to trust that the Americans would honor any agreement, and the Iranian public should move to the right in the next parliamentary election.

Bibi and his government will now campaign on how every Israeli should be terrified at the prospect of returning Iran back toward the possibility of becoming a nuclear power, something Bibi has worked hard to bring about.

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia get closer to a pretext for the direct military confrontation that they want, purchased with the blood of Americans, blood that the American neo-cons will be happy to spill. With friends like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who needs enemies?

Ultimately, Iran will probably end up getting nukes. But, every other country also wants some atomic insurance. The hawks need to remember that nuclear fission and fusion are 75-year old technologies. Even North Korea, among the poorest countries on earth, has mastered it. The bar just isn’t that high.

So, nuclear proliferation has a natural tailwind, and destroying America’s credibility removes the last wisp of an obstacle to it.

 

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Bibi’s New News Isn’t News

The Daily Escape:

Spring Flowers in the Tejon Pass, as seen from Rt. 5, CA -2018 photo by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel

On Monday, in a presentation in English, Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu attempted to give Donald Trump high altitude air cover for Trump’s pending decision to end the nuclear agreement with Iran. The basis of Netanyahu’s speech was that Israeli intelligence had gathered new and damaging information about the Iranian nuclear weapons program:

In a special address on Monday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented what he described as shocking, indisputable evidence that Iran had lied about its covert nuclear weapons program in the past and “continued to preserve and expand its nuclear weapons knowledge for future use” after signing the 2015 deal with six world powers to halt its nuclear activities.

Bibi presented 55,000 pages of documents and 183 CDs. Netanyahu said Iran hid an “atomic archive” of documents on its nuclear program. Reuters said that:

Most of the purported evidence Netanyahu presented dated to the period before the 2015 accord was signed…

Nancy Letourneau offered this: (emphasis by Wrongo)

But if you actually paid attention to the content of Bibi’s presentation two things stood out. First of all, the evidence isn’t so shocking. According to James Acton, the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, “everyone involved in negotiating the JCPOA assumed that Iran was lying when it said that it had never had a nuclear weapons program and the JCPOA was developed on that basis.” He also pointed out that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) already documented much of what Netanyahu presented.

All Bibi had was old, dated Intel that he presented as new. This was stage-managed so that Trump can announce in 10 days that the US is pulling out of the accord because Iran “lied.”

If you followed the debate about the JCPOA during the Obama administration, you may remember that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) said that any nuclear weapons program Iran had was stopped in 2003, and had not been restarted. That was “re-certified” in the US 2011 NIE, with the same conclusion.

During the development of the 2007 NIE, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) believed all Iran had was a “feasibility study” which was based on the fear that Saddam Hussein might have a nuclear weapons program. But once the US invaded Iraq in 2003, and handed over control of the country to Iran-backed Iraqi political factions, Iran immediately stopped whatever “studies” they had been doing.

A nation’s files about nuclear weapons technology are among the most sensitive documents in their national security archives. They are extremely tightly controlled. Yet, the Israeli story is that they managed to steal 1,000 pounds of files from a Top Secret facility in Iran.

Apparently, unlike Wrongo, Bibi has never moved an office. A thousand pounds would take about 60 “banker’s boxes”. And you would need a truck, or two trips in a car to haul all that away.

From a top-secret Iranian warehouse.

Just try to imagine the actual logistics involved in removing that many documents, and then loading them on a truck. This isn’t a five minute operation.

Leaving the JCPOA may happen on Trump’s watch. He can reinstate US sanctions, but he can’t change UN Security Council resolution 2231. So if Trump reinstates sanctions against Iran, he will not have pulled the plug on the JCPOA accord.

To reinstate UN Security Council sanctions without Russian and Chinese agreement, Trump must state officially that Iran violated resolution 2231. After a formal investigative process, the “rollback” of UN sanctions would come to a vote where five of the eight signatories of the JCPOA would have to agree that Iran violated the deal.

Given that Trump won’t get the Iranian, Russian and Chinese votes, he must get all four European votes. That seems likely to be an uphill climb. France and the UK may buy in, but convincing the Germans and the EU may be difficult.

In effect, walking out of the deal may work to Iran’s advantage in the long run. In the short run, it may simply move Germany and the EU closer to Russia and Iran.

That surely won’t be a happy outcome for Trump, or America.

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Trump and Kim: Can Peace Really Break Out?

The Daily Escape:

Photo of TV broadcast by the Korean Broadcasting System, South Korea

We’ve gone from Trump and Kim Jong-un tweeting about who had the bigger nuclear missile button to possibly sitting down together in June. Joe Cirincione writes at Defense One:

Even if you politically oppose President Donald Trump and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, you should welcome Pompeo’s surprise meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un. More than anything else that has happened in the Trump presidency, this trip could bring us closer to resolving one of the most dangerous nuclear crises in the world today.

If the meeting happens, it will be the first meeting between any President Kim and a US president. The highest-level contact between the two nations occurred in 2000 between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.

Those talks came close to forging a deal to end North Korea’s nuclear program before they had even tested any bombs. Albright’s successor as Secretary of State, Colin Powell, promised in March, 2001 that the GW Bush administration would pick up where the Clinton administration left off.

But Bush identified North Korea as one of the Axis of Evil, and he, along with Dick Cheney, killed the negotiation process. North Korea exploded its first bomb five years later. Jung H. Pak writing for Brookings, picks up the story about Kim the Younger:

For the first seven years of his rule, from December 2011 to December 2017, Kim has gone full force on his version of “maximum pressure.” He has tested nearly 90 ballistic missiles (three times more than that of his father and grandfather combined) and conducted four of North Korea’s six nuclear tests, including the biggest one in September 2017, which had an estimated yield of 150 kilotons.

At the same time, he refused attempts by the US, South Korea, and China to engage, refusing to meet with any foreign head of state. Until now. Back to Joe Cirincione:

The Pompeo trip is an effort to correct the mistakes of the past. His talks with Kim, and the high-level talks between North and South Korea in preparation for their own summit, clearly establishes new, serious momentum towards deals with Pyongyang.

And now, Republicans and a few neo-cons are offering strong support for the very negotiations they slammed when Democrats (and Powell) tried them. Now that the GOP has the presidency, negotiation with North Korea is no longer appeasement. Cirincione concludes: (emphasis by Wrongo)

This is why Republicans do arms control better than Democrats. They are not smarter nor do they strike better deals. But when a Republican president supports arms reductions or peace talks, he takes three-quarters of the party with him and the Democrats swing solidly in support. That delivers the bipartisan consensus needed for sustained national security policy. Republican presidents have led the way in nuclear reductions.

Will Trump and Kim meet? Probably, but where is a big question. The NYT reports that Kim doesn’t have a plane that can travel more than 3,000 miles. The Times quotes Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst who worked on Korea issues:

We know he has a plane, but it’s an old plane….No one really knows if it works.

Imagine: His missiles can fly for 8,000-12,000 miles, but his plane can’t.

Should we have any faith that Trump can work with South Korea to finally end the Korean War and de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula? Lots could go wrong, and the summit won’t take place until June. That is years away in Trump time.

It is difficult to imagine that North Korea will give up its nukes any time soon. What assurances can Trump give Kim that North Korea would not be sacrificing its security if it denuclearized? Is the US credible if Trump says he’ll guarantee North Korea’s security? Of course not.

Maybe both win just by having a meeting, even if it fails. Kim can be seen as continuing to call the tune in North Asia, while Trump can say that he tried a bold move to achieve a lasting peace, without losing anything strategically.

Would the two sides agree to a verifiable freeze of North Korea nuclear programs? And what would the US give in return? Remove its troops from South Korea?

A grand bargain may be impossible, but isn’t walking towards disarmament better than running toward nuclear war?

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Saturday Soother – March 31, 2018

The Daily Escape:

 

Zion National Park – 2001 photo by Wrongo

From Alastair Crooke:

At the beating heart of Trump’s Presidency lies the notion of the “Art of the Deal”.  It is said that Trump has few convictions, but his notion of how to negotiate – with a big stick, maximum leverage, and with credible, fear-inducing ‘threats’ –  is central to his whole Presidency.

Crooke continues:

This underlying notion of the ‘deal’ is transactional in essence, best practiced as a one-to-one operation, rather than in a multilateral context.  But in the sphere of geo-politics this is not so easy….in May… Trump will put his negotiating theory to the test in a very different ambit to that of New York real estate. The North Korean summit should be held; the verdict on the nuclear agreement with Iran is due to be pronounced then; the US Israeli-Palestinian determination is scheduled to be ‘handed down’ in May; the Sunni states’ Iran containment roles [are] to be set; and any punitive tariffs on China will be decided, and enacted.

May will be an important month for America. We could see success in all, some, or none of these negotiations.

Crooke posits that the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians and the Russians all have read and understand the concepts behind the Art of the Deal. They also know that the US is not really in a position to make good on the bluff, and particularly, not in each negotiation, in each part of the globe.

And despite John Bolton’s best efforts to reinforce Trump’s desire to show America as the strongest, baddest version of LeRoy Brown, all of these competitors and would-be adversaries won’t necessarily blink if Trump threatens them.

There are other problems with Trump’s Art of the Deal strategy. He’s not the only one who knows how to play high-stakes poker:  Putin and Xi did not become the undisputed leaders of Russian and China without knowing a bit about strategy and risk-taking.

And the leaders on the other side of each of these Trump initiatives are being told by their own “hawks” that one option is to out-Trump Trump, and win.

This raises the question of a diplomatic “off-ramp”. When Trump warns North Korea that the alternative to accepting America’s demands is military action, what will Trump do if Kim Jong-Un just says “no”? Or, what if Kim answers “yes, but only if America withdraws its nuclear shield from the Korean Peninsula”, or insists that American forces leave northeast Asia altogether?

What does Trump do then?

Does he go to war? The Donald can go to the well too many times with the Art of the Deal strategy.

Over the past 17 years in the Middle East and elsewhere, America’s military might has been shown to have serious limitations, despite our substantial capabilities.

Will Trump be able to bluff his way through May? And if he can’t, then what?

Relax! The good news is that we have a couple of months to figure this out.

Sounds like we need to enjoy the spring, now that it’s finally arrived. Here, the fields of Wrong have finally given up their snow. The birds are returning, and our thoughts turn to a spring clean-up of the damage brought by winter.

So, let’s procrastinate a bit by brewing up a vente cup of Dragonfly Coffee Roasters Ninety Plus Gesha Estates Panama Limited Batch #238, made with the Jose Alfredo Process. ($165/8oz.) Dragonfly claims that the taste is astounding and original, including deeply arousing notes of caramelized green apple surrounding lavish fruit notes that delicately transition the finish into rich cocoa.

Who writes this stuff?

Now, settle back and contemplate the arrival of spring by watching and listening to a video of a Bobolink, by the great Lang Elliott. The Bobolink is a member of the Blackbird family:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Trump’s Cabinet Moves Signal Danger Ahead

The Daily Escape:

Impalas sharing a drink – Via

A few additional thoughts about the falling dominoes in Trump’s cabinet that were triggered by Tillerson’s firing. There are rumors that Gary Cohn will be replaced by Larry Kudlow, and that National Security Advisor HR McMaster may be replaced by John Bolton.

So, think about the new line-up. Kudlow is economic czar. CIA Director Pompeo becomes Secretary of State. Gina Haspel, who oversaw the secret CIA torture prisons in Thailand is promoted to Director of the CIA, and John Bolton turns up as National Security Advisor. These people, along with Nikki Haley at the UN, who this week threatened another cruise missile attack inside Syria, are among the worst possible choices for their respective jobs.

Unless we exhume and reinstate Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Wrongo had direct experience with Kudlow during the Reagan administration, when Kudlow was associate director for economics and planning in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under David Stockman. Wrongo was at the big NY bank, and was lobbying for approval of a new line of business that was a stretch under the Glass-Steagall regulations at the time. In our one meeting, Kudlow was a pompous asshat. He lectured us about “trickle-down” economics, and how the country was in the midst of a conservative cultural revolution led by St. Ronnie.

We couldn’t get away from him fast enough. BTW, we did get the exception to the regulations, without any help from Kudlow. Perhaps it is useful to remember that Kudlow has no training in economics, although he plays one on TV. Also, he was fired from Bear Stearns for his $100,000 per month cocaine habit. And that’s in 1994 dollars. Real economist Brad DeLong says appointing Kudlow is like appointing William Shatner commander of the 7th Fleet.

If all of these moves come to pass, Trump will be surrounded only by true believers. Any Generals that are left, except for Mattis at Defense, may act as if they are true believers, as well.

Think of these moves as the first step in a new neo-con takeover of our national security strategy:

  • There will be no normalization of our relations with Russia
  • There will be a confrontation with Iran
  • The effort to destabilize Syria will continue
  • China will be confronted, first on trade, and second, on their growing regional aspirations
  • Nothing will come from any discussions with North Korea

Trump’s neocon cabinet now will have the means both to support Israel’s ambitions in the Middle East, as well as their own desire for Washington’s military hegemony in the world. They will use the “Russian threat” as a justification of more defense spending and even more militaristic actions abroad.

This is an extremely dangerous agenda. Russia’s new weapons as announced by Putin last week seem to suggest that they may have some military superiority over the US. Certainly, that may embolden China and Iran to move closer to the Russians.

If the administration persists in making charges and threats against Russia, Iran, and China, those nations must eventually react. They may become allied militarily, anticipating a possible war against the current US regime.

If, as Haley has threatened, the US were to again strike Syria, Russia has to choose whether to let it pass (as it did when Trump fired 50 cruise missiles previously), or to respond. If the US misjudges its attack, and Russia responds with actions that kill US military personnel, then the US regime faces the same choice, to let it pass, or not.

Any time we (or the Russians) are forced to consider retaliation, there is a clear cost to not retaliating, as well as a strong inclination to not just turn the other cheek.

Trump’s new cabinet line-up can lead us into a profoundly dangerous situation.

And it will be driven by a tiny minority: A neocon cabinet. Plus the Israelis who ardently desire the US to take on Iran. And elements of the US military/security complex, who feel we must be the biggest, baddest asshats in town.

We are sitting in the middle of the most reckless behavior in modern history.

Where are the voices against this?

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Saturday Soother – March 10, 2018

(The northeast is digging out from two nor’easters, with another possible on Monday or Tuesday. The Wrong family will return from FL into the middle of all that on Sunday. Sunday Cartoon Blogging will be published on Monday, March 12th)

The Daily Escape:

Harbin Opera House, winter. Harbin, China – 2015 photo by Iwan Baan

Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un have stopped trading insults and seem to be willing to meet face-to-face, sometime in May. No sitting American president has ever met a North Korean leader, and Trump has repeatedly vowed that he would not commit the error of his predecessors: Being drawn into a protracted negotiation in which North Korea extracted concessions from the US, but held on to key elements of its nuclear program.

The setup is this: Trump says “they are only talking because we threatened them.” Kim says “they are only talking because we have nukes.”

Both leaders bring their unique orthodoxy to the negotiating table.

It’s pretty clear that South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, has been doing a lot of work behind the scenes to help bring this about. It is unclear whether it has been with, or without, the blessing of Washington.

We know for sure that Mike Pence had nothing to do with it.

In Wrongo’s experience, the South Koreans are very skillful negotiators, and Trump must expect that the North Koreans are as well. In particular, the North Koreans have proved to be quite skillful in the past at subverting the very deals that they have agreed to and signed with the West.

Is Kim Jong-un really willing to give up his nuclear program for a deal from a man whose proven to be an unreliable negotiating partner with his allies, much less his adversaries? If something seems too good to be true, then it probably isn’t. If talks fail, both will have made their going-in position, that the other side can’t be trusted, justify their desire for a belligerent show of force going forward. They may both think there is nothing to lose by meeting.

If Trump can somehow defuse the threat from North Korea, he should get all of the credit that this achievement deserves. But, it really seems that these two are unlikely to achieve very much. Still, only the most cynical would say we shouldn’t “give peace a chance”, no matter how slim the odds of success may be.

So, there’s a calming diplomatic note at the end of the week. Time to continue the soothing for the weekend. To help with that, grind up some Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda coffee beans ($45/8 oz.) from Portland, OR-based Heart Roasters. Then brew a cup, noticing its notes of orange, vanilla, honey, and jasmine. With Heart’s Coffee, the company says it is easy to get the brewed coffee’s tasting notes. Soon, you’ll be saying things like, “I really taste the vanilla notes”.

Now, settle back in a comfy chair and listen to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, performed by Karl Richter in 1969 on the 1766 Riepp organ at Ottobeuren Monastery, Germany. You will notice that Richter is playing from memory. An assistant is there to pull out the stops, as the piece requires too much with hands and feet to also pull stops without interrupting the music. You should watch the video simply to see Richter’s footwork:

Some may know the music as the opening title sequence from the 1975 movie, “Rollerball”. The film is set in 2018. The world is governed by global corporations, with entities such as the Energy Corporation, a global energy monopoly based in Houston. The corporations control access to all transport, luxury, housing, communication, and food. Rollerball is a game, and Rollerball teams represent cities, and are owned by the global corporations. The Energy Corporation, describes Rollerball as having a “distinct social purpose”: To show the futility of individual effort.

Think you see some parallels to the real 2018?

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Monday Wake Up Call – February 12, 2018

The Daily Escape:

The Three Sisters, viewed from Canmore, Canada – photo by DiscInPc

Strategy must be lost on the Trump administration. We revisit Afghanistan. Pepe Escobar reports that for the past two months, Beijing and Kabul have been discussing the possibility of setting up a joint military base on Afghanistan’s border with China. Escobar quotes Mohammad Radmanesh, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense:

We are going to build it [the base] and the Chinese government has committed to help financially, provide equipment and train Afghan soldiers…

Escobar says that the military base will be built in the Wakhan Corridor, a mountainous and narrow strip of territory in northeastern Afghanistan that extends to China, and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan. He also reports that, according to local Kyrgyz nomads, joint Afghan-Chinese patrols are already active there.

Beijing is trying to prevent Uyghur Islamic fighters, who are exiled in Afghanistan, from crossing the Wakhan Corridor and conducting terror operations in China’s Xinjiang territory. Xinjiang is an autonomous territory in northwest China that has seen years of unrest, primarily from Muslims.

China’s concerns are backed by solid evidence. In 2013, al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri supported jihad against China in Xinjiang. In July 2014, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, supported a move against Xinjiang.

China doesn’t want its Belt and Road Initiative, or the New Silk Road, which will connect China with Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe to be compromised by terrorists. And one of its links, the $57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), could be hurt if terror threats abound in Central and South Asia. It could also affect China’s investments in Afghanistan’s mineral mining industry.

The Chinese are smart. Their new ambassador, Liu Jinsong, was raised in Xinjiang and was a director of the Belt and Road Initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund from 2012 to 2015. He understands how the local problems could hurt the New Silk Road. The plan is to prevent terrorists from having access to Chinese territory, and work to broker a deal between Kabul and some factions of the Taliban. If this sounds familiar, it is also Russia’s strategy, and Iran’s, and India’s as well.

Compare this joint approach with Washington’s strategy. Trump’s plan for Afghanistan involves defeating the Taliban, and then forcing them to negotiate. Since the Taliban control key areas of Afghanistan, the US strategy requires a new mini-surge.

This pits the US “coalition” against all of the great powers of the region. Think we are likely to succeed?

Let’s link this up with another Trump idea, his parade. Danny Sjursen, an Army major who served in Afghanistan wrote in an article in the American Conservative, “Parade of Defeat: Trump Prefers Spectacle Over Strategy:

Remember when military parades actually celebrated victories? Those were the days, or, better yet, the day—June 8, 1991…after the US military’s 100-hour lightning ground war ejected Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, some 8,800 soldiers marched down Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC…The White House called it the National Victory Celebration.

Sjursen adds: (brackets by Wrongo)

So, one cannot help but wonder what it [Trump’s Parade] is…celebrating. Nearly 17 years of indecisive quagmire?

He goes for the kill: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Trump…has turned the petty political appropriation of the troops into an art form. Soldiers are a pawn in the game, a very old game, in which the hawkish interventionists inspire the base and depict the opposition as dovish traitors. This is…meant to disguise what amounts to paltry policy in foreign affairs; it’s spectacle not strategy.

Linking our non-strategy in Afghanistan, which all of the region’s powers hope to solve with trade and diplomacy, to Trump’s parade, a good question is: How are our wars doing? The short answer: Badly. But haven’t we “beaten” ISIS?  Not really. ISIS has leaped across the borders of Syrian and Iraq to Africa and Asia. That’s why China is building a base in Afghanistan.

For all the talk of new strategies about “turning corners” and “breaking stalemates,” more fighting in Afghanistan will just waste more of our resources. Today, a record number of Afghan provinces and districts are under the control of, or contested by, the Taliban. Short-term success isn’t sustainable.

Trump has no exit strategy. But no worries, he has a parade strategy.

So, time to wake Trump the (family blog) up. He’s got to get focused on closing a deal with his Russian and Chinese friends. To help The Donald wake up, here is the “Unity JAM” by Tony Succar, a percussionist and arranger:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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The Countries Arrayed Against Us in Afghanistan

The Daily Escape:

Gas crater in Turkmenistan. It has been burning since the 1970s when Soviet engineers accidentally collapsed it while exploring for gas. The escaping methane was lit to avoid poisoning nearby villages. It has been burning ever since. Photo by Amos Chapple

Afghanistan has been burning for about as long as that gas crater. We are now ramping up our commitment to the Afghans by shifting military resources from Iraq and Syria back to Afghanistan.

On one hand, our presence makes it very difficult for the Taliban to win. They don’t have an air force, or anti-aircraft weapons. The Afghan Army is better trained than before, and they greatly outnumber their opposition.

On the other hand, the Afghan government can’t win; 40% (or more) of the country’s rural districts are under the Taliban’s control. They are active in other parts of the country. Government corruption remains rampant, and there’s a constitutional crisis in Kabul that’s been going on for three and a half years.

But let’s talk about the countries that are arrayed against Afghanistan. Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, all of which share common borders with Afghanistan, and all of which would be quite happy to see the US fail in its 16-year long war, are working with the Taliban.  According to Carlotta Gall in the NYT:

Iran…is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials.

Ms. Gall quotes Javed Kohistani, a military analyst based in Kabul:

Having American forces fight long and costly wars that unseated Iran’s primary enemies has served Tehran’s interests just fine. But by now, the Americans and their allies have outlasted their usefulness, and Iran is pursuing a strategy of death by a thousand cuts to drain them and cost them a lot.

So, Iran is thinking strategically. They have outmaneuvered us in Iraq, and in Syria. And they are siding with the Taliban against us in our biggest bet in the Middle East.

They are not alone. Russia now supports the Taliban. They are backing them in regions where the US is carrying out airstrikes. Their initiative reflects Moscow’s concerns that Afghanistan might become a new staging ground for Central Asian jihadis pushed out of Syria and Iraq after the defeat of ISIS. Moscow thinks that scenario could threaten its own security.

Also, Russia is trying to build an international consensus around direct engagement by major countries with the Taliban. This from the WaPo:

Russian policymakers support engagement with Taliban factions that support a diplomatic settlement in Afghanistan, while eschewing factions that seek to destabilize the war-torn country. Moscow’s selective engagement strategy toward the Taliban contrasts markedly with Washington’s historical resistance to engagement with the Afghan militant group.

Russians are inserting themselves in Afghanistan following their very successful intervention in Syria. Russia’s approach could increase its status as a counterweight to US influence in the Middle East.

Finally, Pakistan has long been recognized as a safe harbor for the Taliban. We have long believed that there is no way we can seal the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, so Taliban troops are free to leave the battle and return to relative safety in Pakistan. Our strategic concern has been to balance the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands, against the chance that our desire to crack down on their safe havens for the Taliban will alienate them.

The Taliban is undefeated mostly because Pakistan gives it support and sanctuary. The Trump administration has told Pakistan that it will no longer tolerate them providing the Taliban with a safe haven, but whether it changes anything on the ground remains to be seen.

We have an array of strong competitors who share borders with Afghanistan, all of whom want us to lose. And Afghanistan is a bad hand for nation-building: Over 50% of the population is under 19, and 39% are impoverished.

That’s a lot of young, impressionable kids with nothing to lose, and every reason to earn a living through illicit means, or by joining an insurgency. And Afghanistan’s population is growing faster than its economy. When the US invaded in 2001, the population was approximately 21 million people; today it is 35 million.

For anyone hoping to disrupt the Taliban’s ability to recruit, this is very bad news. The Taliban’s opium trade accounts for 400,000 jobs alone. That’s more jobs than those that are employed by the Afghan National Army.

Again, we should insist that Trump and the Congress answer these questions:

Why are we there? What end state are we trying to bring about?

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Trump’s Syria Policy Could Threaten NATO

The Daily Escape:

Swaziland street scene – 2012 photo by Wrongo

Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” against Kurdish militias inside Syria on January 20. Reuters reports that Turkish artillery pounded Kurdish positions, while rockets fired from inside Syria hit two Turkish border towns, wounding dozens. More from Reuters:

Intense Turkish artillery fire and air strikes continued to hit some villages, the YPG said, while fierce battles raged to the north and west of Afrin against Turkish forces and their rebel allies…

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey had informed the Syrian government of its military operation in Afrin with a written statement before the incursion was launched. Apparently, Moscow gave the green light to Ankara to commence Operation Olive Branch, and has moved Russian troops out of harm’s way in Afrin. From Stratfor:

The war in Syria should be ending. The Islamic State has lost all the territory it seized in 2014. The Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, has confined other anti-government rebels to besieged pockets in the south, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus and in the northwest. Opposition hopes of removing Syrian President Bashar al Assad have vanished. But the war refuses to die. It just takes new forms.

The new fighting is between Turkey and American surrogates. The US announced a post-Islamic State mission that would keep American advisers and their local surrogates in Syria for years to come. The mission calls for the US to train, arm and advise a 30,000-strong, mostly Kurdish border security force. The border that this force will secure is between Syria and Turkey.

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sit well with Turkey’s president Erdogan, who pledged “to strangle it before it’s even born.” He moved Turkish military units to the border and launched artillery at Kurdish positions in their Syrian enclave of Afrin. Erdogan is a smart guy. He told members of parliament from his Justice and Development Party:

Hey, NATO! You are obliged to take a stance against those who harass and violate the borders of your members.”

Naturally, it’s Turkey’s borders that Erdogan wants NATO to protect from Kurdish militias. The US border security plan could tear NATO apart. Several European partners are unhappy with this latest move by the Trump administration. Importantly, this may commit the US to a long-term presence within a country that doesn’t want us there, and where we have no real strategic interest.

Erdogan’s incursion has received support from al Assad’s government, Russia, and Iran. They see the US plan as a pretext to keep a military presence in Syria, to deprive Syrian authorities control over large swaths of the country and gain some leverage over the war’s likely victors. Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, wrote:

By controlling half of Syria’s energy resources, the Euphrates dam at Tabqa, as well as much of Syria’s best agricultural land, the US will be able to keep Syria poor and under-resourced…

Russia admonished the Kurds that their decision to put their faith in whatever US Central Command (CENTCOM, the controlling regional Defense Department command for Syria and the ME) has planned for them is a poor decision. And the US has already backtracked on their support for the Kurds in Afrin. CENTCOM has announced through a spokesperson, that the US will not continue to support them.

So, what’s the strategy? Both Russia and Iran can simply sit back and watch as Erdogan goes about crushing the US’s proxy (Kurdish militias) in northern Syria. And, they have nothing to lose if a nasty spat develops between the US and Turkey. On the other hand, if Turkey succeeds in vanquishing the Kurdish militia, US will have to vacate northern Syria, which would also be to the advantage of Russia and Iran.

It is hard to explain the Trump administration’s decision to keep the US military presence in Syria indefinitely, against the wishes of Damascus, Russia, Iran and Turkey. Tehran knows that if the US is forced to vacate Syria, it would mean the US-Israeli failure to block Iran from establishing the “Shia Crescent”.

Trump has delegated far too much autonomy to the Pentagon. The White House is focused domestically, or otherwise engaged in infighting, and Trump doesn’t have the interest, or expertise to provide leadership in the region.

Despite all Trump’s campaign rhetoric, his ME policy will only lead to further US humiliation in the region. The US needs a Metternich.

Instead, we’ve got Trump & Tillerson, sort of the “Abbott & Costello” of international affairs. Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon have been completely outplayed for the past year or two.

Sometimes you just have to get out of the way, and just take the shame/blame that’s coming to you.

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Tillerson: We’re Staying In Syria

The Daily Escape:

Coquina Rock outcropping, early morning, Flager Beach FL – 2017 photo by sir_oki

(By the time you read this, you may know if the US Congress has willfully kicked another own goal by allowing another government shutdown. If it has happened, it will be because Republicans couldn’t keep their factions in line in the House, and that the Democrats wouldn’t help the GOP in the Senate. As Wrongo writes this, there’s no sign that either are in place, but Wrongo thinks they will avert a shutdown.)

Secretary of State Tillerson visited Stanford University, and spoke about our threadbare geopolitical strategy. From the Guardian:

The US intends to maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria, not only to fight Isis and AL-Qaeda but also to provide a bulwark against Iranian influence, ensure the departure of the Assad regime and create conditions for the return of refugees…

This is laughable. Think about the results to date on our Syrian strategy: US-backed jihadis along with the Assad regime have wrecked Syria, and changed the politics in Europe because of massive refugee migration. And the politics on the ground in Syria are unchanged.

Tillerson’s speech was more of the same old, same old about challenges and threats, some of which are unrelated to a grand strategy of US in the Middle East. But the most basic question, why the US remains in Syria, (and in the Middle East in general), were not addressed, much less answered.

It doesn’t take a 6’3” 239-pound geopolitical genius to figure out that the Trump administration’s prime ME directive is the containment and roll back of Iran’s influence in the region. But our partners are unreliable, and in some cases, disagree with this strategy. Wishful thinking is a bad basis for strategy, it is really a recipe for yet another ME disaster.

The hidden hands enabling America’s obsession with Iran, a country that presents zero military threat to us, are Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel wants Iran-friendly Hezbollah neutralized in Syria and Lebanon, and is willing to fight to the last American in pursuit of that objective. The Saudis are fighting Iran for dominance in the region.

By carving out territory in Syria, we are creating a fundamentally weak situation, both militarily and politically. Over the next few months, Assad will prevail, and that will be the end of the Syrian civil war. Then, something entirely new will emerge. The Northeast of Syria, the Kurdish-controlled areas where we are placing our 2,000 ground troops, will become a main focus for Syria, Turkey and Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran.

And here, we enter uncharted political territory. We have no legal right to occupy a portion of Syria, and we must expect that at some point, Syria and Russia will call us on that. What will be our response? Is Trump willing to head-to-head with them, and possibly see US troops killed? For what?

Tactically, we have aligned with the Syrian Kurds to try and check a regional grouping who will surround our position. Worse, our policy is opposed by our ally, Turkey, who wants us to stop helping (and arming) the Kurds.

We are engaging in more superficial thinking about the ME, once again attempting to reshape the region. And to help us, we are counting on a rapprochement between Saudi-Arabia and Israel. It also requires them to commit military support to American efforts to block the combined interests of Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

When you listen to Tillerson, you would think that the US had defeated ISIS, and our troops are there for the mop-up, that the Syrians, Russians and Iranians were hardly involved. Little of that is true.

Tillerson’s Syrian manifesto requires that Assad step down, now by losing an election, because evicting him by force proved impossible. Yet, it seems probable that Assad would win a fair election.

Isn’t Tillerson’s plan just more neo-con regime change? Think about Iraq. The US wanted Saddam out, and thus handed the country to Iran. In Syria, the goal was to oust Assad. Now, Assad is staying, and Russia has an unprecedented footprint in the region.

Under Trump, we have no end-game in Syria, or in Afghanistan. We choose to sit in the middle of a divided region: Arab vs. Persian, Kurds vs. Turks, Sunni vs. Shia, Saudi Arabia vs. Iran, Israel vs. Palestine, and remnants of ISIS vs. everyone else.

It is a powder keg waiting to go off.

Has Tillerson come up with a sound strategy? Definitely not.

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