The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


The CIA Can’t Learn From Its Own History

The Daily Escape:

Fall in Chatham NH – photo by Robert F. Bukaty

From the NYT: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

The CIA is expanding its covert operations in Afghanistan, sending small teams of highly experienced officers and contractors alongside Afghan forces to hunt and kill Taliban militants across the country, according to two senior American officials, the latest sign of the agency’s increasingly integral role in President Trump’s counterterrorism strategy.

This new effort will be led by small units known as counterterrorism pursuit teams. They are managed by CIA officers from the agency’s Special Activities Division and operatives from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence arm. It will include elite American troops from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). But most of the troops will be current members of the Afghan militia.

The NYT quotes Ken Stiles, a former CIA counterterrorism officer:

The American people don’t mind if there are CIA teams waging a covert war there…They mind if there’s 50,000 U.S. troops there.

Well, Mr. Stiles, Wrongo minds quite a bit. And if Americans really don’t mind a covert war over there, then we shouldn’t wonder “why they hate us.”

But as with most Trump administration initiatives, it gets worse: The NYT article says that contractors will have a significant role. In August, the former head of Blackwater, Eric Prince, lobbied the Trump administration for a contractor-led effort to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. This might be his payday for that marketing effort. Let’s assume until we learn otherwise, that Prince and his contractors will be involved in the CIA’s new campaign.

It is possible that this campaign will be a boon for the Taliban. It will certainly kill a few of them, but it will also alienate quite a few Afghans. Think about it: Most Taliban fighters are locals. Killing them creates new local recruits for the insurgency.

The worst part of this is that we’ve been here before. During the Vietnam War, we stood up something called Operation Phoenix:

[Phoenix] was designed to identify and “neutralize” (via infiltration, capture, counter-terrorism, interrogation, and assassination) the infrastructure of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF or Viet Cong). The CIA described it as “a set of programs that sought to attack and destroy the political infrastructure of the Viet Cong”.

There were two components of the program. Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs) and regional interrogation centers. PRUs would kill or capture suspected NLF members, as well as civilians who were thought to have information on NLF activities. Many of those captured were then taken to interrogation centers where some were allegedly tortured in an attempt to gain intelligence on VC activities in the area.

Phoenix operated from 1965 to 1972. By 1972, Phoenix had neutralized 81,740 suspected NLF operatives, informants and supporters, of whom between 26,000 and 41,000 were killed. We had the body count, but the passive support for the Viet Cong in South Vietnam increased because of Phoenix.

And of course, we went on to win lose the war.

So, we are starting down a road that we shouldn’t, because we haven’t learned from our past experience. Perhaps CIA Director Mike Pompeo could open a book, and learn something about the CIA’s history before he jumps at the latest shiny idea.

For years, the primary job of the CIA in Afghanistan has been training the local Afghan militias. It also used members of the militias to develop informant networks and collect intelligence. This means the CIA has few independent sources of intelligence in the country. It will have to depend on the people it has trained in the militias, each of which are local, and have their own agendas. Success in this campaign depends on reliable intelligence. Who in this or that hamlet is a member of the Taliban? Without trusted local sources, the militia, whether under CIA or contractor command, will likely use torture to get answers they need.

It is predictable that this campaign will end up with big body counts just like Operation Phoenix, and without having made Afghanistan secure for its people.


America’s Negotiations With North Korea are Similar to Israel’s With Palestine

The Daily Escape:

Lake Waramaug, Litchfield County CT. It is the second largest natural lake in the state.

Our problems with North Korea (NK), and the impossible negotiating position we have with them, brings to mind Israel’s relationship with Palestine. Both NK and Palestine:

  • Had their borders drawn by other powers after WWII
  • Had been invaded many times by their neighbors
  • And they have fought wars with them ever since
  • Are anti-US, and anti-Israel
  • Are allies
  • Have a large benefactor that props them up economically. Iran in the case of the Palestinians, and China in the case of NK

And both countries appear unwilling to negotiate with their sworn enemies towards a peaceful solution. We officially ended the Korean War in 1953. The parties to the Armistice tried to negotiate a withdrawal of foreign forces from the peninsula and settle the question of who would rule a reunited Korea. Talks took place in 1954, but broke down over how to hold fair elections for a unified government.

The Armistice specified that no new weapons would be introduced on the peninsula, but in 1957, the US informed NK that it would no longer abide by that part of the Armistice agreement. In January 1958, the US deployed nuclear missiles capable of reaching Moscow and Beijing, in South Korea.

We kept them there until 1991, and tried to reintroduce them in 2013, but South Korea refused. NK conducted its first underground nuclear test in 2006.

NK has very close relationships with many Arab countries. From the Diplomat:

North Korea…actively supported Arab countries in their military operations against Israel. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War…North Korean pilots staffed Egyptian MIG-21s…During the 1980s, North Korea shifted [to] arms…sales to Israel’s enemies in the Middle East. The DPRK exported missiles to Iran, Syria, and Libya and assisted both Syria and Iran in their attempts to develop nuclear weapon capabilities.

NK’s relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began in 1966. NK today recognizes the sovereignty of Palestine over all territory held by Israel, except the Golan Heights, which NK considers Syrian Territory. The Diplomat says that NK helped Hezbollah build underground tunnels in Lebanon.

Quartz reports that NK helped Syria build a nuclear facility (that Israel destroyed in an air raid in 2007). In 2014, Syria asked NK to help monitor its presidential elections. In 2016, NK sent two units to fight in the Assad regime’s civil war.

Al-monitor reports that NK also cooperates closely with Iran. Israel believes that Iranian scientists were present at most of NK’s nuclear tests. Iran’s Shahab missiles were developed with the assistance of NK, and are based on the NK Nodong missile.

Where do we go from here? After 63 years, we have failed to successfully negotiate with NK. Even Steve Bannon gets it:

There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it…Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.

KAL’s cartoon captures the problem:

We are stuck in the moment, and we can’t get out of it, just like Israel and Palestine.

Our history with NK tells them that we are not trustworthy. Barack Obama replaced direct engagement with pressure tactics, called “strategic patience.” He also rejected negotiation with NK without a prior commitment to denuclearization.

And here we are. We won’t talk to them unless they give up the bomb. They already have the bomb, so they won’t be giving it up. We can’t move against them without huge damage to Japan and South Korea. Would we sacrifice either country to save the US homeland from a NK nuclear-tipped missile?

What should we do now? Will we accept the fact that NK is a nuclear power? Will we continue to rely on sanctions?

Would we commit to a no-first-strike policy that might reduce tensions with NK?

Would we agree to stop the provocative war games?

What will the Trump administration do to avoid nuclear war?

Nobody knows. Here is U2, live in Boston in 2001 with their Grammy-winning “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” from their 2000 album, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”:

As you sing along, remember the song was written to persuade someone that suicide wasn’t the answer.

Takeaway lyric:

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment
And now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better…

Now you’re stuck in a moment
And you can’t get out of it


North Korea and Our Terrible Missile Defense

The Daily Escape:

Near Rocky Creek Bridge, Big Sur CA – 2017 photo by Charlene Renslow

We didn’t attempt to shoot down the Hwasong-12 North Korean (NK) missile on Tuesday. The official reason was that it was clear that the missile wouldn’t hit American soil. Based on the US reasoning, there are at least two things to consider:

  • We have the capability to shoot down NK medium-range missiles, but do not want to give NK and China any free intelligence on our capabilities.
  • We do not have the capability to shoot down NK medium-range (or greater) missiles.

Now, Wrongo has some “expertise” in the missile defense biz. He managed a nuclear missile unit in Germany during the Vietnam era. One mission of the unit was anti-tactical ballistic missile defense. That meant we were supposed to shoot down enemy missiles.

So, when Wrongo hears the US’s reasoning, it makes sense. Why give a potential enemy a free look at your weapons? Why take an aggressive action when we are not threatened? Both are reasonable positions. Shooting down an enemy missile aimed at US territory is logical, but shooting down a missile test aimed at the sea would be considered an act of war by NK. We could adopt a policy to intercept certain types of missiles or those on certain kinds of trajectory. But, we haven’t made that policy choice at this point.

The second possibility is frightening. Since the 1950’s, we have made a huge investment in anti-missile weapons. Today, we have 33 Aegis warships that are designed to hit a mid- or intermediate-range missile like the Hwasong-12. Sixteen of those warships are currently in the Pacific. But, right now we only have eight Japan-based Aegis ships, and two of the eight are out of commission due to the collisions of the Fitzgerald, and the John S. McCain.

But it gets worse. From the NYT: (brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

The allies could do little more than track the [NK] missile Tuesday as it arched over Hokkaido and splashed into the northern Pacific. Analysts said Japan could have tried to shoot it down if its Aegis destroyers, which are armed with SM3 Block I interceptor missiles, happened to be in waters between North Korea and Japan. But because the SM3 is slower than the Hwasong-12, they would have had to make the attempt before the missile passed over the ships.

In order to hit the NK missiles, Aegis destroyers would have to be dangerously close to the NK coast to get a chance to strike an ICBM in the “boost” phase, before it gained altitude. If our ships were that close to NK, they would be vulnerable to North Korean submarines.

And the SM-3 anti-missile interceptors on the Aegis ships have a testing record that includes many failures. Between January 2002 and August 2017, the DOD attempted 37 intercepts of a mid-range missile and hit the target 29 times with an SM-3. On Wednesday, we conducted a successful intercept test using a newer generation SM-6 missile against a medium-range ballistic missile target:

The USS John Paul Jones detected and tracked a target missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii with its onboard AN/SPY-1 radar…

This is the second time an SM-6 missile has intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile target.

Our problem is that, while the Obama administration pushed for a ship-based defense against mid-range NK missiles aimed at Japan or Guam, we now know that we have a better chance of hitting missiles that can’t fly so high. From Defense One:

The highest probability of success is to hit the enemy missile closer to the ground, during the so-called boost phase. That’s what America’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is aiming for in the future.

Decoding all this: If we attempt a shoot-down, and it fails, all of those Aegis ships are worthless, and Russia, China and NK will know it.

We also have the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployed in South Korea. There have been 15 intercepts in 15 tests for the THAAD system, according to the MDA. Now, there is talk of deploying them in Japan. THAADs are currently also deployed in Guam and Hawaii.

Finally, there is the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System (GMD). GMD, like THAAD, is a hit-to-kill system. Unlike THAAD which intercepts missiles during their terminal phase, GMD is aimed at destroying them in midcourse. It is the only system the US has that could be capable of destroying an ICBM launched at the US by NK. There are 40 GMD interceptors deployed in Alaska at Fort Greely, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The GMD has a troubled history, with many failed, or incomplete tests.

The military’s next anti-missile solution won’t even begin testing until 2023.

Until then, every time an NK missile heads toward Japan, Guam, or anywhere else, the president will have to decide whether attempting to shoot it down is worth the costs of probably missing it.

And without a missile defense, our next best alternative is massive nuclear retaliation on the NK homeland.

That’s a ticket for the destruction of South Korea and Japan.

And a likely war with China.


If You See Something, Say Something

The Daily Escape:

Interior, Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Spain

But don’t say something if you haven’t seen it.

You have to wonder about what the Trump administration is thinking when it comes to foreign policy. On Monday night, the White House warned that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is preparing another chemical-weapons (CW) attack, and that if Bashar followed through with it, there will be “a heavy price” to pay.

The universal response was surprise, because no evidence was offered as proof of the claim.

And then UN Ambassador Nikki Haley weighed in:

You’ll notice she said “any” attacks will be blamed on Damascus, thus leaving the door wide open for someone to commit a “false flag” attack. When you long for John Bolton to return as UN Ambassador, you know things are very bad.

And initially, nobody had told the Pentagon or the State Department about the “plan” to go after Syria again:

  •  On June 27, Paul Pillar and Greg Thiemann warned on Defense One that President Trump was “cherry picking” intelligence to justify war on Iran, Syria’s ally, − in a replay of the Bush Administration’s propaganda campaign to justify the March, 2003 Iraq invasion.
  • Pat Lang at Sic Semper Tyrannis proposed that international observers should be posted at Syrian air bases to independently verify which type of munitions is being used by the Syrian Air Force. That is an idea that the US, Russia and Syria should agree with.

Defense Secretary Mattis was quoted by the BBC saying, “They didn’t do it.” Mattis’ face-saving claim was that the Trump warnings to Russia and Syria “worked” and that the Syrians no longer planned a new CW attack from Shayrat air base. Go, Donald!

Let’s unpack this: By acknowledging there are more CW in Syria, the Trump administration admits that intelligence exists to prove that claim. If the CW do exist, that violates the agreement Obama made with Putin after the 2013 attack on the Syrian city of Ghouta.

The deal with Putin was the justification Trump used to justify the Tomahawk strike at the Shayrat airbase in April. The administration said they had received intelligence indicating there were stockpiles of CW at the airbase, even though no actual proof was ever provided that CW were really present.

In fact, Seymour Hersh published a lengthy account in Die Welt this week based on conversations with US officials, debunking the idea that Syria was behind the April CW attack. Hersh warned that the US was setting the stage for another “false flag” attack by the jihadists, to be blamed on the Syrian government. Here are three questions:

  1. What is the Administration’s source of the new Syrian CW intelligence?
  2. What hard evidence has the source given about a Syrian CW stockpile?
  3. Since Trump decided to blurt (via Spicer) that Syria was planning more CW attacks, why didn’t he simply claim that Assad is keeping a stock of chemical weapons in violation to the agreement Putin made with Obama? After all, Mattis has already admitted that much.

And this, from NY Mag:

Plenty of critics…saw this as a Wag the Dog scenario of made-up intelligence. But…Syria is a dog that can wag its own tail, and ours too if we let it. And if the Trump White House is issuing ultimatums that its own national-security team doesn’t want to take full responsibility for, based on intelligence that is too secret to share with mid-level staff…chances are it’s not fully briefed on how that wagging tail will affect key players like Russia and Iran.

Isn’t it interesting that Trump’s response to the “intelligence” that Russia hacked the election is “show me the proof”. But when he says, “Syria is about to use CW again”, it requires no proof?

That’s beyond cynical.

What is our Syria strategy? If the Administration is thinking about launching another attack on Syria, we have to ask: what are we doing? Most Americans accept that we should fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

But, is the Trump administration doing anything to end our role in Syria that isn’t about transforming it into a war with Russia and Iran?

Some music: Here is Artists for Grenfell, fifty artists, including Nile Rodgers, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Liam Payne, the London Community Gospel Choir, and others, who teamed up to re-make Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as a charity single in memory of the Grenfell Tower fire:

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


Are We Using The Special Forces Too Much?

The Daily Escape:

Tuscany – photo by satorifoto

From TomDispatch: (brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

If you want a number, try 194. That’s how many countries there are on planet Earth (give or take one or two). [Here is another]…number that should boggle your mind: at least 137 of those countries, or 70% of them…have something in common…They share the experience of having American Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to their territory.

TomDispatch’s managing editor, Nick Turse, provides additional perspective:

In the waning days of George W. Bush’s administration, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to about 60 nations around the world. By 2011, under President Barack Obama, that number had swelled to 120. During this first half-year of the Trump administration, US commandos have already been sent to 137 countries, with elite troops now enmeshed in conflicts from Africa to Asia. 

Now, SOF units are not deployed in 137 countries continuously. According to General Raymond Thomas, the chief of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), about 8,000 are deployed overseas at a given time. But, our commitment to SOF has grown from a few thousand troops in the 1980s to about 70,000 at present, a force larger than the armies of several nations.

We use these troops as the tip of the spear, so if a conflict is intensifying anywhere, the SOF will be front and center. We also have adopted a convenient blind spot: The American public does not consider the SOF operating in a foreign country to be “troops on the ground”, so politicians pay no price politically for deploying them.

As an example, one year ago in Syria there were about 50 special operators helping anti-ISIS forces. Now, as our proxies move to take the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa, that number is 500 (or higher). 

We used the SOF to great effect in Afghanistan right after 9/11. After their initial tactical success, America didn’t declare victory and go home, but stayed and added regular military forces alongside our special operators. And for the past 16 years, we have been raiding homes, calling in air strikes, training local forces, and waging war against a growing list of terror groups in that country. 

For all those efforts, the General in charge in Afghanistan says the war is now a “stalemate.”

Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and the author of Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State, observes:

Whereas on 9/11 al-Qaeda had a few hundred members, almost all of them based in a single country, today it enjoys multiple safe havens across the world.

In fact, he points out, the terror group has become stronger since bin Laden’s death. Our thinking has been that “if we can take out this warlord, or disrupt this one guerrilla mission, the insurgency will crumble”. That’s why we use the SOF, and yet, the insurgencies just continue.

Think about Obama’s drone war taking out terrorist warlord after terrorist warlord. It has achieved little more than offering upward mobility to the careers of ISIS and al Qaeda’s middle management.

Of course, the SOF does many good and heroic things under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Near Mosul, a US special operations medical unit and its ICU prop up allied proxy forces that have limited medical capabilities. An Air Force Special Operations Surgical Team recently spent eight weeks treating 750 war-injured patients there. 

The failure to win these localized proxy wars should be blamed on the White House and Congress, who confuse tactics with strategy. That isn’t the fault of the special operations commanders. They live in a tactical world. Washington has consistently failed to even ask hard questions about the strategic utility of America’s Special Operations forces. Turse concludes:

These deployment levels and a lack of meaningful strategic results from them have not, however, led Washington to raise fundamental questions about the ways the US employs its elite forces, much less about SOCOM’s raison d’être.  

General Thomas told members of the House Armed Services Committee last month:

We are a command at war and will remain so for the foreseeable future…

And not one Congressperson asked why, or to what end. 

You need a little music. James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” series is always fun. Here he is with Elton John:

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