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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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Monday Wake Up Call – April 23, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Red Winged Blackbird chasing Red Shouldered Hawk, FL – photo by Lana Duncan

Wrongo and Ms. Right attended a meeting with Lynn Novick, co-producer of The Vietnam War, a 10-part, 18-hour video history of the War that aired on PBS. The series was intended to be a shared public event that sparked a national discussion about the Vietnam War and the impact it had on America.

If you haven’t seen The Vietnam War, it is streaming here.

As someone who served in the military from 1966-1969, Wrongo was on orders for Vietnam twice. That he spent his time in Germany during the war was largely good luck. Many of his Officer’s Candidate School buddies died in Vietnam.

Novick showed a short video of the first episode in the series, followed by parts of episode six and seven. The series uses no historians or talking heads. There are no onscreen interviews with polarizing boldfaced names like John Kerry, John McCain, or Jane Fonda. Instead, there are 79 onscreen interviews with ordinary people who fought or lived through the war.

Two things stand out about the series: First, that it presents the perspective of South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese, along with that of the American soldiers, a significant advancement in perception for Wrongo. Second, how little that anyone on the US side, our government, our military or our soldiers, really understood about the Vietnamese. Novick told one story that was not included in the series, about how the North Vietnamese, traveling the Ho Chi Minh trail, would find an impassible rock formation, and without dynamite, they couldn’t work around it. The solution was to expose the area to US jets, who obligingly bombed the trail, making it passable for NVA trucks.

Lynn Novick said that you could divide the War into two phases: First, from the time of Truman through Kennedy, where honorable people were trying to do the right thing, and were simply getting it wrong. Then, phase two, when it became clear that our military thought that there was less than a 30% chance that we would be victorious. Novick said that recent scholarship dates that conclusion as being presented to the White House and the generals in 1965. Yet, the war went on for another 10 years. Clearly, in this phase, the decision-makers were no longer honorable people.

From that time forward, Presidents Johnson and Nixon knew that the war was unwinnable, but like their predecessors, they were unwilling to have the War lost on their watch. Their political calculations were largely responsible for 57,797 of the 58,220 deaths in the War.

And Vietnam remains the gift that keeps on giving. As of 2013, the US is paying Vietnam veterans and their families or survivors more than $22 billion a year in war-related claims.

The war at home pitted college students and clergy against politicians and the National Guard. There were huge demonstrations, and ultimately, the deaths of four Kent State college students at the hands of the Ohio Guard in 1970. That wasn’t all. Eleven people were bayoneted at the University of New Mexico by the New Mexico National Guard, and at Mississippi’s Jackson State University, police opened fire at demonstrators, killing two students and injuring 12.

These shootings of American kids by our own government led to the first nationwide student strike in US history. Over four million students participated.

The Vietnam War is a very complex and difficult topic. Our military’s plan was to win “hearts and minds” but they also bombed villages. We backed incompetent and corrupt in-country leadership. Our military falsified the metrics to show we were having “success” on the ground.

There was inconsistent, and eventually, dishonest direction from the White House.

Novick thinks that Vietnam was the most significant event for America from the Civil War to 9/11. It had a major impact, creating divisions that still persist today. In the Q&A, it was clear that the audience expressed many of the viewpoints that you might have heard 40 years ago. Ideas like the politicians prevented the military from winning, or that there were really no atrocities on the ground.

But, the afternoon’s discussion also opened people to being receptive to a different conversation, to be thoughtful about the meaning and mistakes of the War, and how we might use that experience to inform decisions our political class is making today.

So let’s wake up, America! Watch the series. Give some thought to the carnage that was wrought in our names, both in Vietnam and at home. Now, link all of that to our current endless fight against the Global War on Terror.

See any similarities?

To help you wake up, listen to Neil Young singing “Ohio”:

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

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Why Can’t an Anti-War Candidate Be an Anti-War President?

The Daily Escape:

Mural in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, near Durban, South Africa – April 2018 photo by Ottho Heldring

Since today is Friday the 13th, let’s talk about Donald Trump’s confusing strategy in Syria, which could turn out to be the unluckiest strategy of all for America.

Trump got elected in part because he was vocally against foreign quagmires. He was against involvement in Syria as a candidate, and as recently as two weeks ago, said he wanted to get out of Syria as fast as possible.

Now, he’s tweeting that the Syrian government has again used chemical weapons on its people. The gas attack led to what so far is a “war of words” between the US and Russia both at the UN, and in the Twittersphere. For his part, Trump tweeted that “missiles will be coming” at Syria. “Get ready Russia,” he taunted, “because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart.’”

We know that on April 7, antigovernment groups in the town of Douma in Syria claimed that dozens of people were killed in a chemical weapons attack. The rebels blamed the government, while the government denied responsibility.

Douma was the last battleground in Eastern Ghouta. It had been an enclave for militants fighting against the Syrian government. Douma was controlled by the Jaysh al-Islam, a jihadi group that was accused of using chemical weapons in Aleppo in 2016. Jaysh al-Islam said that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 70 people.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, (OPCW), sent a special fact-finding mission to Douma to verify reports of the alleged use of chemical weapons. Although they are now on the ground in Douma, the OPCW mission was not what the UN or the US wanted. They called for an independent investigation. That US resolution by Nikki Haley was vetoed by Russia with China abstaining. A resolution calling for OPCW to investigate was offered by Russia. It failed as well.

Now, we’ll see what the OPCW comes up with. But, we need to be open to a finding that it wasn’t gas. We need to be open to a finding that Assad didn’t do it. In fact, Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, said on Thursday that:

I believe there was a chemical attack and we are looking for the actual evidence….As each day goes by — as you know, it is a non-persistent gas — so it becomes more and more difficult to confirm it…

The Secretary of Defense can’t confirm it’s gas, much less who did it, but we’re gonna let the missiles fly?

Why isn’t anyone in the mainstream media asking, “Who did this”? Why aren’t they asking why Assad would do this when he’s just about to succeed after a six-year fight against those who wanted him out of power?

Why isn’t anyone asking why this occurred just after Trump said on April 3rd that he wanted to get out of Syria? Wouldn’t it be wise to see what the OPCW finds in Ghouta first before going all gung-ho with missiles and air attacks?

From Andrew Bacevich:

The purpose of all wars, is peace. So observed St. Augustine early in the first millennium A.D….but his crisply formulated aphorism just might require a bit of updating….I might suggest the following amendment to Augustine’s dictum: Any war failing to yield peace is purposeless and, if purposeless, both wrong and stupid.

We are in a purposeless fight in Syria. There is no threat to us, regardless of the outcome of the Syrian civil war. And the selective outrage about kids dying in Syria is mind boggling. There is no discussion about the dead children of Yemen, dying in a war by our ally, Saudi Arabia, with our active support.

Here’s where we are: Either Bomber Bolton will get another President to go hip deep into another Middle East war, you know, the kind of war where we’ll again be greeted as liberators.

Or, we can have the guts to say “enough” in Syria.

Trump should take a stand now on what remains of his principles. Engaging in possible war with Russia and Iran over Syria isn’t going to save our democracy, or his presidency. Is he man enough to say “enough”?

Wrongo is convinced that the time is right for a true anti-war candidate. That space was ceded to Trump in 2016, but the flyover states may be willing to vote that way again. They’re the ones whose kids are being sent off to die in the wars organized by the defense contractors, neocons and DC insiders, wars that we never win.

And then, their kids come home with PTSD. They move into crappy jobs, and some are lost to drugs and death caused by despair.

Who will step up and say “enough” in Syria?

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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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Lockheed’s F-35 Jet a Failure After 17 Years

The Daily Escape:

Cherry Blossoms in snow, Fairfax VA – March 2018 photo by Jen Johnson

Lockheed Martin‘s fifth-generation stealth fighter, the F-35, has cost $406.5 billion so far. And it still has 263 “high priority” unaddressed performance and safety deficiencies. The list of setbacks includes faulty ejection seats, software delays, weapons targeting problems, and helmet-display issues.

The program was launched in 2001. The blog, War Is Boring says:

The American people were assured the new jet would enter service in 2008 and be a high-performance replacement for the military’s aging airframes while only costing between $40 million and $50 million.

But, 17+years later, the F-35 has continuing redesign, test deficiencies, fixes, schedule slippages and cost overruns. And according to War Is Boring (WisB), it’s going into production with many still-unsolved problems:

Despite this, the F-35 Joint Program Office now intends to call—quite arbitrarily—an end to the plane’s development phase and developmental testing. Instead of completing the presently planned development work, the Program Office is now proposing to substitute a vaguely defined F-35 upgrade program called “continuous capability development and delivery.”

This means that the F-35 will begin operational testing this year, using 23 planes that still incorporate the 263 known deficiencies.

And it’s worse than it appears. The reason to build this aircraft was to combat advanced future threats by our competitor’s air forces. However, WisB reports that testing shows that the planes already delivered cannot even effectively address the current threats. That’s a problem. The ancient, battle-proven A-10 is one of the aircrafts the F-35 was designed to replace:

As of now, testing shows the F-35 is incapable of performing most of the functions required for an acceptable close support aircraft, functions the A-10 is performing daily in current combat.

More:

In the air-to-air mission, the current F-35 is similarly incapable of matching legacy aircraft like the F-15, F-16 and F-22.

So, it looks as if we have a mismanaged program that may take many additional years to turn around. Along the way, they have gotten much more expensive. CNBC reports that the cost of each aircraft has doubled:

As it stands now, the unit price for an F-35A — including aircraft, engine and fees — is $94.3 million.

So, it’s actually a worse aircraft than those it supposedly replaces, and it’s more expensive. And, we’re ordering many, many more of them. CNBC reports that the fleet will grow from 280 aircraft to 800-plus by the end of 2021.

And it seems well past the stage where the program could be cancelled, even if the Department of Defense wanted to. The plane has suppliers in all 50 states, a perfect form of political insulation from any effort to scrap the program.

If the F-35 can’t be fixed, we may see a gradual trickle of announcements about additional procurement of A-10s, F-18’s, etc., to plug the gaps. It might turn out that F-35s will be for show, or limited use only, a little like battleships in WWII.

The colossal cost for a program that doesn’t work is mind blowing – all things considered, the F-35 program will cost in the low trillions of dollars. Despite all of the effort, time, and money, it remains an open question if the F-35 will ever live up to the promises the Defense Department made years ago.

The latest annual report from the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, (DOT&E) has this summation: (brackets by WisB)

Finally and most importantly, the program will likely deliver Block 3F [the untested, allegedly “fully combat-capable” F-35 model now entering production] to the field with shortfalls in capabilities the F-35 needs in combat against current threats.

In other words, they acknowledge that the F-35s rolling off the production line will be unable to even deal with existing threats, let alone future ones. Where’s the accountability?

But the F-35 is a success in other ways. It’s been a perfect way for Congress to move taxpayer money to the defense industry. If the object is to keep Lockheed Martin shareholders happy, the F-35 is a roaring success.

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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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What the Tet Offensive Can Teach Us

The Daily Escape:


Wounded Marines carried on a tank during the fight to recapture Hue in the Tet Offensive in 1968 – photo by John Olson, The LIFE Images Collection. It is one of the most famous photographs from the Vietnam War. The pale figure is Alvin Bert Grantham from Mobile AL, who was shot through the chest. He survived.

Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Tet is the Vietnamese holiday that celebrates the lunar New Year. On that day, the North Vietnamese (NVA) and the Vietcong launched a massive military offensive all across South Vietnam. It was largely a surprise attack. The NVA thought their attacks would trigger popular uprisings throughout the country, and that the US military and the South Vietnamese could be beaten in a quick, though bloody battle.

They miscalculated. Within a month, the Tet Offensive was over, and the war continued for another seven years.

In “Hue 1968”, a remarkable book by Mark Bowen, (who wrote “Black Hawk Down”), Bowen faults General William Westmoreland, who days after Tet started, said that the country-wide attacks were a diversion from Khe Sanh, so he initially held back troops from Hue, and other Vietnamese cities.

Khe Sanh was the seat of the district government. US Special Forces built an airstrip there in 1962, and ultimately a fortified base. Westmoreland believed it was a strategic location both for covering the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and to cut off NVA infiltration from Laos. Bowen writes:

Indeed the attack he expected there [Khe Sanh] loomed so large in his mind that he had entertained the use of chemical and even tactical nuclear weapon (p. 314).

A few days later, Westmoreland wrote:

The use of tactical weapons should not be required in the present situation…. [but] I can visualize that either tactical nuclear weapons or chemical agents would be active candidates for employment (p. 315).

Imagine. In 1968, field commanders were willing to recommend using tactical nuclear or chemical weapons in a war that was not an existential threat to the USA. This is the type of nuclear weapon that the Trump administration is currently thinking of adding to our to-be-built nuclear arsenal. Also remember that Trump has delegated tactics to field commanders in the Middle East and Africa, our current Vietnams.

There are a few lessons to be learned from the Tet Offensive. You can say that it was the beginning of the end for our Vietnamese adventure, but it took until 1975 for us to finally leave.

One thing that changed forever was the US public’s faith in what LBJ and the generals were saying about the war. Both had grossly oversold our progress to the American people, and Tet made that clear. More from Bowen:

For decades…the mainstream press and…the American public believed their leaders…Tet was the first of many blows to that faith in coming years. Americans would never again be so trusting (p. 505).

The publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 sealed the deal. They showed that American leaders had been systematically lying about the scope and progress of the Vietnam War for years.

After Tet, there was no more conjecture in the White House or Pentagon that the war could be won quickly or easily. The debate moved from how to win, to how to leave.

A month later, LBJ decided not to seek reelection. Westmoreland was soon removed as the field commander. And 1968 also brought the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, and then, the riots. Richard Nixon was elected eight months later, promising not victory, but that he had a “secret plan to bring the war to an honorable end”.

What have America’s presidents and generals learned from the Tet Offensive? We know that the military teaches future commanders about Vietnam to no apparent effect. It is still re-fought by our military. And almost half a century after Tet, they haven’t won it yet.

The Pentagon got the Trump administration to agree to a new “mini-surge” in Afghanistan intended, in disturbingly Vietnam-esque language, to “reverse the decline,” and “end the stalemate”.  The Pentagon convinced Trump that more troops will do the trick.

This is tragedy bordering on farce. And sadly, there is no course in quagmire management for future presidents.

Vietnam was, in truth, a 21-year war, from our first advisors at Dien Bien Phu, where the French were defeated in 1954, to that last helicopter in Saigon in 1975.

Afghanistan is now a 17-year war, with about as realistic hope of ending successfully as Vietnam had at the 17-year mark. And much like in Vietnam, we have no real strategy, and no long-term realistic end state that we can see.

The only thing that keeps Afghanistan going is that very few Americans have a relative in the fight, because we ended universal conscription in 1973.

That was one lesson from Vietnam that our military accepted and put into practice.

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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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Saturday Soother – Veterans Day 2017

The Daily Escape:

Normandy – 2016 photo by Wrongo

Wrongo served in the US Army during the Vietnam era, although not in-country. Wrongo’s dad served in the Army in France and Germany in WWII. Wrongo’s Grandfather served in the Navy in WWI, captaining a small boat on the east coast of the US. It is not clear exactly how he earned the nickname “Captain Sandbar”, that story is lost to history.

Veterans Day (no apostrophe before or after the “s”) honors those who served, while Memorial Day honors those who died in military service.

So today, let’s remember all of those who have served in the military.

And here’s a wish that those who are in positions of political power, those chicken hawks who get to decide where and when Americans serve, become much better at making those decisions.

Our military is worn down after more than 16 years of multiple deployments, fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq — and to a lesser extent, in Syria. They are spread thin, providing defense for our allies in Europe and Asia, along with being stationed in about 800 locations around the world.

The problem isn’t that the US military is too small. Our politicians keep asking the military to do too much. And worse, they ask it to do things it shouldn’t do, like regime change and nation-building.

Let’s hope that our political leaders stop thinking of the military as a shiny toy that they can take out and play with whenever some tin-pot mocks General Tiny Hands.

Here is some beautiful (and meditative) music for your Saturday, the Adagio in G Minor attributed to Tomaso Albinoni, but actually composed by 20th-century musicologist and Albinoni biographer Remo Giazotto, purportedly based on the discovery of a manuscript fragment by Albinoni. Albinoni died in 1751, and Giazotto obtained a copyright for the Adagio in 1958.

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

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