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.

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.

Where Obama Erred

June 25, 2017–The alternatives were to give a televised speech from behind his desk in the Oval Office, announcing a series of measures to counter Russian political intervention, warning American citizens a foreign nation–was Putin a friend?–had meddled in the 2016 election–or to take quiet action (much earlier, covertly) to make it plain to Moscow that its actions were counterproductive. Doing nothing was not an option. That or anything else was a variant of what has appeared here several times in the past, in connection with the U.S. intelligence chiefs–that putting out the weak-kneed, diffident “statements” or “reports” that they did, was worse.

Fingering the Russians but including only generic palaver about computer hacking or remotely related data about RT News only made it harder to achieve the clarity that might have stood Putin down. Today’s Washington Post (“Obama’s Secret Struggle to Retaliate Against Putin’s Election Assault,by Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous, June 25, 2017) shows precisely why. When briefed by CIA director John Brennan, Republican figures on Capitol Hill chose to play partisan politics. Some made themselves unavailable to be briefed. Others asked why they should believe CIA when the U.S. intelligence community as a whole was nowhere to be seen on this. Brennan, who had cut his agency loose from oversight in the torture controversy (read about this in detail in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley), had only himself to blame. It would be cuttingly mordant that only the Democrats, whom Brennan had spurned, stood up to defend our country. On September 22, 2016 Senator Dianne Feinstein–Brennan’s direct target–and Representative Adam B. Schiff jointly told the public that Russia was conducting a campaign to undermine the U.S. election. Republicans scoffed.

On October 7 followed a statement from Homeland security director Jeh Johnson and director of national intelligence James Clapper asserting Russian intervention, but in terms even more vague. Johnson, with FBI director James Comey and White House counterterrorism director Lisa Monaco, had already failed to convince Hill denizens at an August briefing. Johnson had failed again when reaching out to state election directors in September. The conventional wisdom about the October 7 joint statement has already settled in: that it was wiped out by the revelation just hours later of Donald J. Trump’s misanthropy as proven by videotapes taken by a television show on which he had appeared. But the joint statement on the Russian Caper fell due to its own lack of weight. Johnson was batting with two strikes against him already. Clapper had a reputation as a liar, established by his perjury when asked if the National Security Agency were conducting blanket surveillance of Americans. In my opinion, Clapper was also the “Fearful Leader,” a Chicken Little continuously warning the sky was falling. Republicans could fairly dispute whether the full intelligence community agreed with these charges against Russia. The FBI, indeed, had pulled out of the joint statement at the last moment, inviting the question of where were the others.

Republican candidate Donald J. Trump had publicly invited the Russians to hack America in hopes of finding emails from Hillary Clinton he claimed still existed. Some moves of Trump campaign figures were known at the time, including the Moscow trips of associates Michael Flynn and Carter Page; the fact of pro-Moscow alternations to the party platform at the July 2016 convention; and the Trump speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April, which added to a mounting pile of public statements in which the candidate praised Vladimir Putin or else Russia more generally. Republicans took this as their cue, overturning decades of Republican Party hostility to Russia–and the Soviet Union before it. They put on blinders and earbuds when confronted with evidence of Russian election tampering.

President Barack Obama’s key moment came then. With Republicans actively denying the Russian Caper, the question became what to do about the election. Mr. Obama had taken Putin aside at a diplomatic conference in China in September to warn him against interfering. He repeated the warning in a message given to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak at the White House just as Johnson and Clapper put out their joint statement. Obama may have thought of this as moving on multiple fronts, but the truth is that Republican deniers robbed the diplomatic protest of any power it might have had. On October 28, when FBI director Comey announced he was reopening the Bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, inflicting grave political damage on the Democratic Party candidate, it became even more incumbent on President Obama to act. Obama is widely reported to have feared any open presidential intervention in the electoral politics. In 1968, faced with the analogous situation of evidence obtained of a Republican “October Surprise,” a Nixon campaign deal with South Vietnam to throw that election, President Lyndon B. Johnson also chose to do nothing in public. Perhaps Obama emulated LBJ. Instead he went out on the hustings, Michele Obama too, in a whirlwind of campaign appearances over the last days. Obama could have taken to the air waves with an Oval Office address warning Americans their election had been influenced by outside forces. He chose not to do that.

Barack Obama’s biggest problem as president, for all his achievements, was to lack the courage of his convictions. From letting the generals talk him out of the Afghan withdrawal he had set as a condition of their “surge,” to imposing a “red line” in Syria and then failing to enforce it, to dictating a new secrecy policy and then letting the agencies run roughed over it, again and again this president compromised short of his own goals. Obama’s holding back in the 2017 election may prove to be his greatest error.

Ah! THERE is Mike Pompeo!

June 23, 2017–In May congressional overseers asked CIA director Mike Pompeo for a simple yes or no answer–did he have confidence in President Trump’s then-national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Pompeo shot back that the answer was more than a simple “yes” or “no,” and then he refused to provide it. –This from a man, a former member of the House intelligence committee, who had sworn at his nomination hearing that he would always be forthcoming and responsible to accountability (you can read much more on how the CIA escaped its management framework in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley). But more interesting, for the moment, is what this brief exchange says about the man and his institution.

All over the town, and here too, for months the talk has been of the Russian Caper. Michael Flynn’s role in that has been a primary element of the conversation. The Central Intelligence Agency–in repeated, multiple-sourced revelations– has been pictured as having its hair on fire. CIA officials went to Congress more than once to warn of the Russian meddling. Two days ago the New York Times team on the story (Matt Apuzzo, Matthew Rosenberg, Adam Goldman) inserted a new piece in the puzzle–that until the day President Trump fired Flynn from the security adviser job, Pompeo had served up hot, steaming secrets to him each time the CIA came to present the president’s daily brief. This at a time when the agency worried Flynn could be targeted by Russian blackmailers, and when the Justice Department had explicitly warned White House lawyers of that danger.

What does that say about Mike Pompeo? The Times speculated about whether CIA rank and file did not trust Pompeo and therefore held back informing them of their fears. (A different take on the same facts would be that agency officers, aware that Pompeo is Trump’s man, feared getting on his wrong side by going after another Trump loyalist.) But the question ultimately devolves upon Pompeo himself. The new CIA director did not need underlings to tell him that Michael Flynn had become radioactive. Talk about Flynn was, as I said, all over town. The FBI had an investigation going. This past January and February former general Flynn had yet to be specifically named as under scrutiny, but all the evidentiary elements were there.

Mr. Pompeo had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution–sorry if this sounds repetitive, but it is and will remain a central element in the narrative of the Russian Caper and you will hear it more–not a person. Pompeo was dealing with the nation’s top secrets. If there was doubt about someone in the room, the CIA director ought to have separately cleared with the president that Flynn could remain, or to have refused the security adviser access to the secrets. That’s what our top spooks have been doing recently with Congress. Pompeo appears not to have done either of those things. Where is Mike Pompeo? In Donald Trump’s pocket.

Afghanistan: The Great Game Is Over

June 22, 2017–The bells are ringing, the lights flashing. The silver ball is disappearing between the flippers, now unable to knock it back into play. If you didn’t score high enough to become top dog you’re done. It’s one more major operational initiative down the drain. I’m referring to Afghanistan, and the pinball wizards of the White House and Department of Defense, who myopically never seem to see beyond their own rhetoric, or make strategic decisions based on real world conditions.

History, it is said, plays out the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In Afghanistan we’re at the second stage. The first game went to the Afghan tribes–175 years ago in the Hindu Kush–when the Brits who were playing it failed to recognize the warning signs of widespread uprising. As a result their triumph in the first Anglo-Afghan war turned into military disaster when a British-Indian army tried to withdraw from Kabul in January 1842. Only a handful of troopers, maybe just one Englishman, survived the ambushes in the mountain passes as the army tried to edge past the insurgents and reach the relative safety of Jalalabad. The British failure had everything to do with failure to emplace an Afghani government acceptable to the tribes and their members.

American pundits today are fond of picturing Afghanistan as the nation’s longest war. We could actually have ended it over half a decade ago. Instead we have the generals mulling over whether to send three to five thousand extra troops to supplement the eight-thousand four-hundred we already have in the battle zone. Let’s review the bidding.

In 2009 new president Barack Obama ordered up a policy review for the war in Afghanistan. The scuttlebutt was he didn’t want to be visiting wounded GIs in hospital–he wanted to staunch the flow of casualties. Plus there were estimates the war might cost a trillion dollars over another ten years. At the time the Pentagon was offering another incremental troop increase. Prodded by Obama, they took up the field commander’s proposal for a “surge,” like the one that had been carried out in Iraq. General Stanley A. McChrystal, the field man, resisted doing anything by half. President Obama settled on McChrystal’s 40,000-man recommendation, but coupled it with a decision that eighteen months after the troops deployed, America would start to exit the war.

So the troops went in. Starting in 2011 the drawdowns began. Masses of equipment were brought out. Our NATO allies and other troop contributing countries among the ISAF command began to take the lead in the war, but also to conduct a parallel force reduction. Masses of equipment were brought out. More was designated surplus and handed over to the Afghanistan government forces we had been supporting.

That would have been the “clean” withdrawal. The surge buying a decent interval so Afghanistan could get its affairs in order and beat the insurgents. But the allies–who included the British, back for a fresh pinball game–had never solved the political equation. And the generals–primarily Americans–could not put down the game, plumping for a residual force to continue supporting the Afghan military and conduct a core program of commando strikes. As the country’s situation deteriorated, the generals convinced President Obama to slow the rate of withdrawal. His administration ended with 8,400 instead of 5,500 troops still on the Hindu Kush. In addition to everything else, we are well on the way to reaching the trillion dollar mark that Mr. Obama feared spending there by 2019.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, caught within a complex mosaic of tribal loyalties, could not build a unified polity. His government, perched atop a warlord system, always functioned to favor one or another faction. Karzai, on the CIA’s payroll for $1 million a month, used the money to play favorites. Recognizing elements in U.S. tactics that were most objectionable to Afghans, Karzai increasingly denounced, then forbade, U.S. night raids and air strikes.

Allied strategy, which resisted anything that could be termed “nation building,” contributed little to building Afghan institutions. Karzai has left the Afghan government corrupted, and his successors could not even form a government until months of conversations brought forth an uneasy compromise. President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, has never honored commitments made to Vice-President Abdullah Abdullah, a Tadjik. Recent Ghani moves against one governor (read warlord), Rashid Dostum, demonstrate his desperation. Ghani’s decision to permit the return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another figure from the warlord era, show his increasing political isolation. Afghan politics is swiftly returning to the modalities of the early 1990s, when warlords fighting among themselves permitted the Taliban to take over in the first place.

The allies resisted efforts to settle the conflict by negotiation during the “surge” period of ascendency, then encouraged them when the Taliban enemy grew increasingly powerful–and less willing to talk. As U.S. and ISAF troop strength progressively diminished a new phenomenon arose–insider attacks by soldiers of our Afghan army or police. No doubt there are a certain number of Taliban infiltrators in the Afghan national army, but the spectacle of the foreign power that came in, mobilized Afghans to its will, and now leaves them before an implacable Taliban is a sufficient motive. Over the past few months insider attacks have been the main cause of U.S. casualties. Afghan government forces are increasingly reluctant to fight. The dependence on Afghan special operations forces now becomes questionable when the latest insider attacks come from within their ranks.

The Taliban have had some problems of their own, most recently the challenge from an even more lethal offshoot of the ISIS/ISIL “caliphate” front. But either faction will fight, and the Afghan government has been losing ground steadily. Towns have been captured and held. The war is no longer an affair of posts and police stations. The insurgents are now believed to have a foothold in more than half of Afghan villages. Dangers became plain early in June when powerful car bombs exploded in the most heavily-guarded sector of Kabul, the diplomatic quarter. Almost two hundred were killed and five hundred wounded. Afghans marched in protest of their own government’s failure to protect them–whereupon government troops opened fire on the crowd, killing, among others, the son of a senior parliamentarian. Taliban bombers struck again at the funeral marches for some of these victims, inflicting yet more casualties in the heart of Kabul. In short, national authority appears to be collapsing before our eyes.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress last week that the U.S. has not been winning in Afghanistan. That is  true. So true that the Trump White House is giving the Pentagon the liberty to decide for itself what to do in the war. President Trump wants nothing to do with the next decision on Afghanistan. Little wonder. At a certain point the U.S. residual force there will become a target in its own right. A Mattis incremental reinforcement, even 5,000, won’t make a difference. If the U.S. could not grind a weakened Taliban into the ground with 140,000 American and ISAF troops, ten or fifteen thousand will accomplish little more than to make a more lucrative target for a surging enemy. It could be like the British in the Hindu Kush in 1842. Folly follows tragedy.

Good News from Trump?

June 21, 2017–What does it mean when the President of the United States, faced with a major military decision bequeathed to him by his predecessor, turns around and tells the secretary of defense to make the decision by himself? What does it say when the White House stays silent on the matter and the news appears in a simple Pentagon press release of an afternoon?

In most presidencies the chief executive–the nation’s top politician and party leader too–is anxious to garner the credit for every important development. White House spin doctors are out the gate ahead of agency flacks, and, in fact, the White House often dictates the media roll out strategy for how something will be presented to the public. So far, in this area the Trump administration has exhibited little cohesion. This is not just a matter of the method of employing Sean Spicer. Or of the minimally-informative, mis-spelled, ungrammatical, approach of the White House press office. (Though, hopefully, Spicer’s move to a more strategic role in the White House communications operation may have a positive effect.)

No, the Pentagon press release signified that Secretary of Defense James Mattis will be in the driver’s seat rather than President Trump. The question of whether to send three thousand–or five thousand–reinforcements to Afghanistan has been on the president’s desk since Barack Obama held the office, and Obama did not want to tie the hands of his successor. Now Trump, too, has passed the buck.

Major alternative explanations for this are two. One is that the Trump White House has decided that Afghanistan is headed for disaster and it wants the responsibility for the United States part in that to go somewhere else. The other possibility is that President Trump is conceding that he knows little of military affairs so is willing to outsource the decisionmaking in this area. If the latter is true it may indicate the start of a new method, radically altering the understanding of “cabinet government.” The president as a CEO, essentially cheering on his lieutenants.

Given what we know of Mr. Trump’s sense of self-importance I have to incline to the first alternative. But the other is possible too, and if the cabinet were populated by more knowledgeable, more skillful officials–like General Mattis–that might be good news for Americans. Stay tuned.

Where in the world is Mike Pompeo

June 19, 2017–Like Carmen Sandiego, no one seems to know where in the world is Mike Pompeo, the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). I say this not in jest. Pompeo has been placed in a number of places where President Donald J. Trump has major interests, including in South Korea, just after the latest eruptions from Kim Jong-un in the north; in Syria-Saudi Arabia, in the context of the U.S. covert operations against ISIS/ISIL, and so on. Director Pompeo has specifically been placed at the White House with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats when Mr. Trump took aside the top spooks and reportedly implored Director Coats to try and tamp down on then-FBI director James B. Comey. The Senate intelligence committee is bending every effort to obtain testimony from Coats, but so far there is complete silence on Mr. Pompeo. It is as if the CIA has divorced itself from oversight and accountability. In fact I argue this precise case in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley. There you will find extensive discussion on this matter.