Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy: Old Wine and No Bottle

August 26, 2017–The next presidential election in the United States will occur in four years. The young Marine or GI deplaning at Bagram base then, beginning his first tour in the war, will not have been born yet when the American war in Afghanistan began. That is, assuming the U.S. war effort will not yet, by 2020, have gone down in flames. The predilection of American generals for dated and inadequate strategic formulas–which some officers even recognize as such–is one root of disaster. Another is the monumental arrogance and incompetence of a president who is simultaneously frozen in the face of decision and convinced his strategy–spoon-fed by tiny-minded generals–is the most brilliant ever. All of this is a recipe for endless anguish. And a load of tripe.

You’ll have read in a dozen places already that the United States has little reason to believe it can do with 8,400 troops in-country what it could not when there were 100,000 in Afghanistan. That’s whether or not Trump sends another 4,000–or any other number. Let’s review: When there were a hundred thousand, American troops were conducting their own offensive operations, Special Operations Forces (SOF) put a cap on the effort by targeting the enemy leadership, development programs helped win Afghan favor by building clinics, schools and the like, and there was a reasonably coherent Afghan government–one we perhaps frowned upon, but which actually had a writ that extended past Kabul’s city limits. Besides that, the Taliban enemy had been reduced to a fraction of its former strength. None of those factors applies today.

In Afghanistan today there are no U.S. operations apart from SOF’s special ones. The Afghan military is in the lead but except for their own SOF they don’t fight. Regular troops and national police hold static positions like outposts and checkpoints that merely make them clay pigeons. Recent Taliban and Afghan ISIS strikes in major national army bases, regional headquarters, and even the heart of the government quarter in Kabul, demonstrate that the static security approach is bankrupt. Depending on who you speak to the Taliban control between 50 and 60 percent of the country. Afghan police are suffering their greatest losses ever, while the military has suddenly decided its casualty figures are classified. The latest Afghan reform plan is to expand their SOF from 27,000 to much larger. That is not likely to work either–Afghan SOF constitute a very high proportion of the total force structure and cannot be much expanded without diluting their quality. Moreover, since they are already the general reserve called upon in every emergency, their offensive capability will only be restored within a context in which their effectiveness has diminished.

One American response, one particularly attractive to the CIA, was to work in Afghan localities with local militias and leaders who could call on their followers. While this has produced more troops to staff checkpoints it has not increased government’s overall capability, and has indeed increased the centrifugal forces tearing the country apart. The Afghan president is feuding with his vice-president. Another vice-, a communist general from the 80s, and other muslim warlords from that era, are all reasserting their authority. Indeed, Afghanistan today resembles nothing so much as the warlord state that existed after the collapse of communist rule in the country. Corruption is rampant, eating up the aid that is aimed at helping the nation. General H. R. McMaster, now Trump’s national security adviser, ran an anti-corruption campaign in his most recent tour of Afghan duty. He saw up close and personal the depth of corruption and disintegration of the government. Now the Trump strategy–of which McMaster is an architect–assumes a stable Afghan government. McMaster even sided with other military chiefs this past July in shooting down a different strategic approach which did not make that assumption. Hal McMaster charged an earlier generation of U.S. generals with dereliction of duty for not speaking the truth to Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam war. Here you see McMaster doing the same thing for Donald J. Trump. I call him “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster. He has decided dereliction of duty is a good thing.

Other generals were responsible for convincing President Barack Obama to shift from a stance of steady withdrawal to one of determining the course of action by looking at the state of the war. The Taliban were worn down then, but they were reforged in the heat and darkness and have re-emerged stronger than ever. Chasing their heels are an even fiercer Afghan ISIS. The Russians, sensing an opportunity for payback from the CIA covert operation in the 1980s, are moving to help them. The Chinese seem to be headed in that direction too. The role of Pakistan–on which the U.S. defends, but which Trump has threatened–is cloudy. If war conditions dictate action this is a formula for conflict without end. That is why our 18-year old GI will be arriving at Bagram in 2020. Donald Trump explicitly promised a U.S. victory, and he said that America will attack. Under the prevailing conditions there might be a broken-backed attack but there will be no victory.

Gamers’ Corner : Four Roads to Paris

August 25, 2017–Tomorrow I’ll be back to say something about strategy for the Afghanistan war, but today is for celebration with our colleague Stephen Rawling, whose ATOMagazine has just succeeded–after a series of unfortunate setbacks–in getting back on the street with the release of its game set Four Roads to Paris.  Steve’s concept for this set of games is to ask four different designers to craft a simulation of the same historical event, in this case Germany’s 1940 invasion of France and the Low Countries. There were no holds barred for the designers. In one of these games, a two-player simulation, the players are the British and French allies, the Germans are represented by an automaton. In another game the play is solitaire, the player represents the Germans, and the French are the automaton. In my contribution to the set, titled Seeds of Disaster, players create a new history of the 1930s, building the military establishments they will use once war comes. Altogether a worthy collection. Congratulations Steve!

McMaster’s Un-Appropriate Dereliction

August 11, 2017–As the world staggers toward an entirely unnecessary nuclear abyss I have to question–again–the alleged competence of General H. R. McMaster, currently serving as national security adviser to President Donald J. Trump. Pictures of General McMaster sitting alongside President Trump as the latter hurled threats at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, further exacerbating tensions brought on by nothing more than words plus weapons testing, are supremely distressing. The function of a national security adviser is to keep a president’s foreign policy system operating efficiently and to furnish the president insightful advice on the policies themselves.

General McMaster has accomplished neither. When he attempted to jettison some of the overblown ideologues who had been brought on to the National Security Council (NSC) staff by his predecessor, McMaster was blocked by White House political potentates. His efforts to tone down presidential rhetoric were similarly derailed. When Mr. Trump attended a NATO summit and neglected to affirm a fundamental United States security alliance, McMaster tried to represent his boss as having said what he did not, in fact, say. At an international conference in Hamburg, Germany, where Trump continued to mouth patent falsities, McMaster proclaimed the president’s remarks “appropriate.”

H. R. McMaster achieved an undeserved intellectual reputation I argued, based on his book Dereliction of Duty.  There he described the strategic level of United States leadership during the Vietnam war. McMaster criticized the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for giving President Lyndon B. Johnson false impressions of the practicality of U.S. strategies, and accused them of dereliction of duty for not providing the nation’s top leader with their real views. Years ago–as long ago as 2009–I showed in my book  Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War  that the McMaster charges were unfounded, that the JCS had in fact repeatedly offered the president a standard, set view, of what the strategy should be. That the JCS had wrong ideas of what might work does not make them guilty of dereliction. In any case, in principle, one should hope that senior advisers do guide–or nudge, if they have to– presidents toward good policies.

From that standpoint it appears that General McMaster very quickly gave up on nudging his president, and soon after that became an enabler for presidential crankiness. At that point I wrote a reflection observing that McMaster, following his remark quoted above, had learned “Appropriate Dereliction.”

Generals are trained in deterrence and in the tenets of credibility. H. R. McMaster certainly knows enough to see that Trump, with his “fire and fury” rhetoric, is painting himself into so tight a corner that he may have to use force simply to preserve his credibility. It was incumbent on McMaster to steer his president away from that fateful, stupid, place. Instead McMaster sat at Trump’s side as an authenticator, while Mr. Trump thundered away. Today General McMaster is no longer just guilty of Appropriate Dereliction, he has moved up to Un-Appropriate Dereliction as well.

Gamers’ Corner: THIRD REICH Note

August 4, 2017–Just a quick note for everyone who’s interested : Thanks for those of you who have sent in suggestions for elements a new edition might include. Dave Heath and I have discussed a few possibilities, but, more important, Dave is going to create a space on the Lock ‘n Load website where gamers can put suggestions for elements right in the hopper. I’ll be posting the address as soon as I have it.

This is going to be fun !!!

Gamer’s Corner : Last Call for Game Demo

July 28, 2017– We’re coming up on the date now and I just want to be sure you know. If you are interested in the Against the Odds company’s new multigame package Four Roads to Paris, this is your chance to see the first public showing of the set. Obviously it’s easy if you live around Washington but all are welcome! I’ll be showing the games, demonstrating my entry in the set, called Seeds of Disaster, and fielding your questions on all manner of things about boardgames at the shop Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, 645 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington, DC, 20003. Their phone is (202) 544 – 1059. The event takes place Saturday, July 29, from noon until 3 PM or whenever audience interest flags.

Gamers’ Corner: New THIRD REICH !!!

July 26, 2017–I’m on other matters right now but I want to take a moment to inform all gamers of exciting new prospects that lie ahead. I’m speaking of my game Third Reich. Out of print for years now, in its Avalanche Press edition, Third Reich is going to be back with us again!  Better than ever! David Heath and Lock ‘n Load Games have acquired Third Reich in two formats. One will be the classic board game, returned somewhat to its roots but with updated components and features. The other is going to be Third Reich : The Card Game, an entirely fresh version of the game that preserves its essential design features while enabling rapid-fire, even lightning play.

I’ll have more to say about both games later. Stay tuned as we move toward publication!

The Russia Caper: Cutting off your Nose to Spite your Face

July 22, 2017–How now brown cow? Brown cows make chocolate milk, don’t they? And wild presidents make cogent policy. The latest out of Washington is as crazy as a hoot. Early this week President Donald J. Trump had an interview with the New York Times in which he complained about Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The complaints, public and bitter, were enough to tell any official he no longer enjoyed the president’s confidence. For those who serve at the pleasure of the president that’s the time to resign. Instead, Jeff Sessions had a press conference the next day and said he is staying on. After that came the leak of highly-classified material, one or more cables from former Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak which purport to record for his superiors in Moscow the specifics of conversations with Sessions, talks about the prospective Russian policy of a future Trump administration, on two occasions during the 2016 campaign.

First we need to consider the origin of this leak. The contents of Jeff Sessions conversations as reported by the Russian ambassador could only have come from intercepts of Russian cable traffic. That kind of material is among the highest categories of “special compartmented information,”–American spies’ most closely held secrets. An uproar ought to have followed. Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly railed at leakers–especially at former FBI director James Comey who told in Senate testimony of his giving memoranda recording unclassified discussions with the president (which Trump seems to think illegal)–has been silent on this leak. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, was asked about the leak at the Aspen security seminar which he is attending. Coats professed ignorance, said he would have to check into it. No “this is outrageous, we’ll get this leaker,” no “I’ve already initiated an investigation.” No nothing. The silence says volumes. [Update, July 23: Since this posted, Mr. Trump has tweeted a complaint after all–and repeated his unfounded accusation against James Comey. Apart from the tweet there is no other action, neither investigation nor statement from his own press spokesman.] Although it is possible the leak came from down the food chain, from someone set against Jeff Sessions, it seems probable it came from the White House. For the moment I still accept that explanation.

Now we come to the reports themselves. In his cables Ambassador Kislyak specified he had spoken to Sessions in April 2016, at a side meeting on the evening of Trump’s first big foreign policy speech; and in July, during the Republican convention. Readers of this space will recognize elements that confirm hypotheses posted here for months, since last year. (See “Obstruction Starts to come into View,” June 15, 2017.) The leaked cables demonstrate that Jeff Sessions did have a conversation with Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016, something the attorney general has not remembered, vehemently denied, and–together with other elements of this bill of particulars–impugned the honesty and integrity of anyone who would make claims based on those events. The cables also say Sessions spoke of a Trump policy toward Russia. At the Republican convention Trumpist operatives moved to revise the party platform to take a more pro-Russia stance and weaken U.S. sanctions against Russia. Sessions, in close proximity or perhaps even simultaneously, had that other talk with the ambassador.

In between, in early June, we have the Donald Trump, Jr., meeting with a Russian emissary about “adoption,” Moscow’s code for sanctions, with promises of dirt to smear Hillary Clinton. We have since learned the emissary was not only close to the Russian state prosecutor but that she had provided legal representation for the FSB–the Russian secret police–in fact its unit responsible for hacking.

When I wrote of obstruction coming into view, my point was to show how these pieces fit the pattern of a planned political action. The leak of the Kislyak cables starts to fill in the two key pieces–there had to be a Trump campaign expression of interest (Mayflower), and there had to be a sign the Trumpists were serious and could deliver (Republican platform). In between there was a Russian profer– an offer to the campaign describing what Moscow could do for them. That came at the Donald Jr. meeting, and that was the reason why all the campaign senior officials crowded into that room that day.

Quite disturbing in the latest leak is the new context it puts around Mr. Trump and his top aides. Trump denounced Jeff Sessions and expected him to leave. Trump’s rationale was that Sessions had recused himself on investigation of the Russia Caper. But the reason Sessions had to recuse himself was that he had lied to protect Donald Trump–claiming not to remember the Mayflower discussions, denying any substantive discussions, perjuring himself at a nomination hearing. Suddenly a leak appears that destroys both of the attorney general’s original propositions. The leak also confirms our sense of the first move in the Russia Caper. Someone is surfacing the basic conspiracy just to get rid of one person, one who was loyal before but is now out of favor.

Category 5 Hurricane or Trump Meltdown?

July 12, 2017–This past weekend witnessed the escalating controversy–naturally about the Russian Caper–following on the New York Times’s revelation that Donald Trump, Jr. had taken a meeting with a Russian surrogate purporting to have scandalous information, straight from Russian legal sources, that might help defeat Hillary Clinton. By the overnight from yesterday to today the situation at the White House was being described as akin to a Category 5 hurricane (one with winds in excess of 157 mph, which can be expected to destroy most frame houses [total roof and wall failure]), with White House staff tiptoeing around each other. Ms Sarah, the mouthpiece, is as clueless as ever. The sudden emergence of Kellyanne Conway from her undisclosed location is proof positive 1600 Pennsylvania is in all-hands-on-deck emergency mode. But the president himself is nowhere to be seen.

The Times’s description of how it came about that Donald Jr. released the actual email thread that featured him gloating over the prospects of oppo research from the Russians, and then setting up this meeting–to which he added Trump’s then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, plus his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, is very instructive. First wind of the meeting, which took place in June 2016, weeks before the Republican Party convention that nominated Trump as its standardbearer, came while the president was airborne, returning from the disastrous European trip where he emerged isolated from his Group of 20 allies and bested by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Evidently the initial press release attributed to Donald Jr. was actually compiled by Trump advisers aboard Air Force One and approved by the president. Over the next several days a succession of admissions from Donald Trump Jr all failed to quiet the firestorm, leading him finally to release the emails themselves–just before the moment the Times stood to publish them, and manipulating the newspaper, asking it for time for Trump to contrive a response, while Donald Jr. in reality moved to put out the emails himself.

President Trump’s defense of his son oddly lacks in conviction. You will recall that, during Watergate, Richard Nixon tried to still the beasts by jettisoning a series of his closest associates. That’s been discussed in this space, along with Donald Trump Sr.’s very suggestive statement a while back that if “satellites” were found to have participated in a Russian Caper, he remained innocent. We may be entering the satellite-phase now.

I want to focus some elements that need greater attention. The first is, where did this revelation come from? We’ve spoken before about “Russian cards” and how Mr. Putin had tricks he could take. This could have been where some of the information came from. Putin has an incentive to keep American politics on the boil and this controversy was sure to do it. A variant on that is to bring in the British intermediary, Rob Goldstone, with his Russian oligarch clients–an individual who could have served as intermediary much as he is reported to have done in setting up these actual meetings. Goldstone’s messages were the most incendiary elements of this picture–that dirt was aimed at Ms. Clinton, that it flowed from Russian legal sources, and that it formed part of a Russian campaign to support a Trump candidacy.

On the Trump campaign side, it’s difficult to believe that either the president’s son or his son-in-law would be one’s to rock the boat like this. That leaves Paul Manafort, whom the Trump campaign dismissed at full stride, did not reward with any government position, and treated very differently from Michael Flynn, which must have rankled.

Beyond that are the people who may have been told by these people.

One other point. Some time back I laid out an outline chronology for the Russian Caper. This latest piece fits into it nicely. Ambassador Kislyak met Trump officials (Manafort and Kushner, at a minimum, not sure of Donald Jr.) alongside an event at the Mayflower Hotel. Six weeks later the newly-reported meeting takes place. My guess is it had the function of confirming some promise, or clarifying a plan. Manafort, Kushner, and Trump Jr. are all involved, were all copied on the email chain, and the timing of the meeting was changed twice but they all still made sure to be there. Candidate Trump himself, shortly after this meeting, made an obscure remark to the effect that revelations about Hillary Clinton would be coming up soon. That might be a reference to his own opposition research but it could also refer to the Trump Jr. event. In any case the Trumpists went ahead to fiddle with the Republican Party platform in a way to indicate they favored weakening or removing sanctions on Russia, which I continue to believe was the overt act that told Putin his American understudy was on board with a collusion.

Odd, isn’t it, how pieces in this puzzle continue to fall into place.

 

Trump: Lurching Through the Swamp

July 9, 2017–If you thought President Donald J. Trump’s first foreign trip a disaster, the second has been even more extraordinary. In fact we’ve yet to finish mopping up the detritus of the first trip–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is off from Hamburg to try, by shuttle diplomacy, to mediate the Saudi blockade of U.S. ally Qatar that Mr. Trump approved on that first trip. Here, on the second, more booby-traps were set.

For starters let’s look at the prep. You do something, mess it up, and do better the next time, right? Some of the talking heads–the ones who weren’t praising Mr. Trump’s alleged brilliance–took that line after the first trip. Now? I bet they all speak of our brilliant president. But the truth is neither of those things applies. Brilliant results? We’ll get to that in a minute. But better preparations? Laughable! The Polish leg of this trip amounted to pure PR stunt. Warsaw merely provided backdrop for a saber-rattling speech.

The Hamburg summit, a meeting of the Group of 20, the union of the world’s largest economies, was bound to be problematic given Trump’s climate denialism and anti-trade stances. Despite that, careful advance work could have minimized the damage. Instead, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the German host, brought together Europe, Russia, China and Japan–everyone but the U.S.–in a show of unity. A photograph of a break in the conference, with Mr. Trump sitting alone by himself while officials from all over the world chattered excitedly behind the table, said it all. The United States is not just alone it is irrelevant. This from the man who was going to make America great again.

Donald Trump’s much-discussed meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin took place at Hamburg. This first encounter of the two presidents was the most significant event of the trip. Worth getting right. From the perspective of United States foreign policy, Mr. Trump did everything possible to make this event a disaster. He made it impossible to keep a tangible record on the U.S. side. He permitted no professionals or experienced advisers in the room. He resisted having an agenda. As a result the Russian foreign minister went off to claim one thing, with the American secretary of state left to paint a picture that could differ only in nuance without inviting Moscow to contradict him. This arrangement may have suited Donald Trump’s personal interests–but that only shows, again, that this president puts personal ahead of national interest.

Back to Warsaw. White House staffer Stephen Miller bragged about Trump’s speech, which appears to have been reaching for an invocation of the inaugural address, but one with a more international flair. The most pompous rhetoric, invoking the “decline of the West,” was attributed to Mr. Trump personally, on Air Force One, as Miller, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and the president huddled over the text. Here’s a fresh failure from “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster (see, “H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” in this space, May 17, 2017). To say there is an existential threat to the existence of the West is a huge (“Yuge”?) distortion of reality–and, if there is, an America backing away from NATO is in no position to contain it. For Donald Trump to assert he will be the West’s savior is pure bombast. General McMaster ought to have warned his president against this bit of foolishness.

Trump took the occasion in Warsaw to denounce the U.S. media and American intelligence services, once again, for speaking of a Russian political influence operation aimed at America’s 2016 election. Not only was that an improper act–carrying the nation’s internal disputes to foreign lands, Trump used the assertion as platform for asking Polish leaders if they have similar problems with their press. As it happens, the Polish government has been imposing authoritarian restrictions on media, which Donald Trump supported with this sally. This amounts to extending, not draining, the swamp.

And it put Trump in the worst possible position to begin his unscripted talk with Vladimir Putin. Obliged to raise the issue of Russian political meddling, Trump started from where he had denounced this as “fake news.” He virtually invited Putin to denounce the charge, which the Russian was happy to do. At the end, Secretary Tillerson tried to extend the cloak of invisibility over the covert operation, using the old saw that what is important is to move forward, not dwell in the past. As Air Force One took off for the return to the U.S., the New York Times put out the story of yet another meeting with a Russian connection–organized by Donald Jr., and attended by campaign big shot Paul Manafort, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, this one took place a month ahead of the political convention that nominated Trump for the Republican Party.

General McMaster, on the plane, declared that “What the president and Secretary Tillerson charged us with as they came out of the [Putin] meeting is what we’re going to do going forward.” Watch out for the booby-traps.

 

 

Jose Rodriguez’s Tortured Logic

July 1, 2017–You will recall Jose Rodriguez as the officer in charge of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center at the height of its torture program, and subsequently the agency’s director of operations–the aggrandized “National Clandestine Service”–when he led the charge to destroy videotapes documenting the tortures the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) had carried out. Psychologists hired by Rodriguez for the CTC are now being sued in U.S. district court by victims of the tortures the CIA carried out. Mr. Rodriguez, called as a witness from the CIA, has provided evidence in this suit, now on the docket for the Eastern District of Washington State.

The CIA man filed a declaration this past January, under penalty of perjury; and he was sworn and deposed by lawyers in the case on March 7, 2017. The affidavit is stipulated as correct, and the deposition under oath is what it is. Both shed some very interesting light on the CIA torture program conducted under his leadership. With Independence Day coming up this seems a good moment to review these actions taken in the name of America.

According to the Rodriguez declaration, CIA hired psychologists James E. Mitchell and J. Bruce Jessen because the CTC “had no resident experience in interrogation”–skills which, Rodriguez says plainly, “must be developed over years.” Neither Mitchell no Jessen had ever conducted an interrogation, and the most experience they had acquired lay in playacting and subsequently debriefing individuals training to escape and evade prospective captors.

Concerning the techniques which Mitchell and Jessen did speak for, the ones used in so-called SERE training, Rodriguez said at deposition that to his knowledge their long-term effects had never been studied by the CIA. Rodriguez had no knowledge whether their use could lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  He never asked anyone whether PTSD could result from them. He also never asked anyone to research the literature on potential effects, in spite of the fact that the notorious Justice Department “legal” memos stipulated that that kind of a search would figure in showing agency personnel had exercised due diligence to meet a standard of legality for their actions.

Jose Rodriguez never observed any interrogations. He never watched one on tape. He never experienced any torture method himself. When assessing the effectiveness of interrogations the CIA took no account of the physical or psychological harm inflicted upon detainees. Rodriguez continues to maintain there was no CIA torture, although, given all this, there is literally no way he could know that.

At a certain point psychologists Mitchell and Jessen themselves decided a detainee had become compliant, and recommended to CTC that waterboarding him be stopped. Rodriguez confirms that happened, adding that his response was to order them to continue.

In a deposition studded with “I don’t remember”s and “I don’t know”s, Rodriguez insisted on answering a question on the potential of CIA interrogation techniques to produce long-term harm. His answer was “No,” and his reason was because “It never did.”

This is the level of management exercised in the rendition and detention program–hire people for expertise which they lacked, let them propose strong arm methods, conduct no research, no review, order them to continue when they advised stopping, and insist the program had been hugely useful. I have not mentioned that Rodriguez continues to obfuscate over the status of Abu Zubaydah–claiming him a high-level Al Qaeda official–as well as the timing of key Zubaydah revelations on Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Jose Padilla–given before CIA torture began, and used by Rodriguez as primary examples for the effectiveness of interrogation. Altogether a sad story.