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.

Let Me Be Very Clear Here

June 18, 2017–President Trump’s lawyers are running around today making all kinds of noise about “the president is not being investigated” for obstruction of justice. One of them, Jay Sekulow, then takes it back, telling Fox News that he can’t be absolutely sure because he can’t read the mind of Robert S. Mueller, the special counsel. Let me be very clear here. There are at least three reasons to suppose that Donald J. Trump is under investigation for that very thing.

First, Mr. Trump has said so. You may like Trump’s practice of tweeting or not. But– the way these recent tweets have been handled by associates–let’s call them the “investigation tweets”–is very interesting. White House spin doctors in the past have almost uniformly commented that the tweets stand on their own. In the case of the investigation tweets, however, they have tried to walk them back, alleging Trump to have been recycling things he heard elsewhere.

Second, is “subject of investigation” notice. The lawyers have been saying Mr. Trump has received no such notice. I have also heard there is no requirement the FBI give such a notice. I’m not sure that is true. But whether or not it is, as an investigative branch of the federal government it seems to me almost certain that, as a courtesy, the FBI would give such a notice to the chief executive of the United States. Since Mr. Trump personally adverted he is under investigation, that seems to lend weight to the original reading of the investigation tweets.

Third is the line-up of witnesses Special Counsel Mueller is preparing to interview. Dan Coats is of no interest as a figure in the Russia Caper. He is only important to investigators in the context of an obstruction inquiry. Mike Rogers of the NSA may be of some interest in the Russian affair in search of what the codebreaking agency had learned of Moscow’s activities during the period of the election. But Rogers has been specifically placed in the president’s office, and as having been telephoned by the president, in connection with the alleged obstruction. Mueller’s cast of characters makes the most sense in the context of an obstruction investigation.

The really interesting question is why President Trump’s lawyers should want to muddy the waters in this fashion. Think on that for a while.

 

More on Contempt of Congress

June 16, 2017–Today’s New York Times responds directly to the posts here yesterday and two days ago (“Obstruction Starts to Come into Focus,” June 15; “Jeff Sessions’ Looking Glass,” June 14) about contempt of Congress. Correspondent Charlie Savage enlightens us on the details (his article is titled “On Executive Privilege and Sessions’ Refusal to Answer Questions”). Justice Department officials dragged up two pieces of paper to show an explicit claim to–let’s call it “potential-presumptive executive privilege,” where the president had asserted no such claim but the individual resisting answering an inquiry uses it as authority to refuse an answer.

Both these documents date from 1982. Only one was presidential–President Ronald Reagan signed a directive in November 1982 governing response procedures for “this administration.” On the face of it Reagan’s assertion had no power on any other president. Moreover, the “policy” was swept away in the Iran-Contra Affair.

The second document was a paper from Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), an August 1982 memo titled “Confidentiality of the Attorney General’s Communications in Counseling the President.” The OLC paper carved out a legal argument for presumptive privilege, but, Charlie Savage reports, it never addressed to the specifics of refusing to answer questions when under oath. OLC is also the entity that produced the notorious “torture memos” of the George W. Bush administration. There are two points to make here. First, here is a fresh example of why OLC papers are way overvalued when people attribute the power of court opinions to them. Second, the Reagan-era OLC opinion had no weight after January 1989. Other administrations needed to have joined with Reagan to make this a “longstanding policy.” Bottom Line: there is no such authority.

The Times also refers to an event of the Obama presidency as another exercise of the “potential privilege” power. This came during the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation of the CIA torture program, when agency officers hacked Senate committee computers and removed 10,000 pages of documents from them which the CIA had previously furnished to the Senate. (You will be able to read much more about this episode in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley [New Press].) Savage describes this material as “notes of briefings and [White House] Situation Room meetings.” If so, the outrage is magnified, since the CIA itself declassified notes of these types to its own officers for them to use in an effort to discredit the Senate intelligence committee report on CIA torture. That kind of self-dealing is unacceptable.

Mr. Davidson referred to–and journalist Savage reported–the practice of halting testimony with a point of order and asking the committee chairman to overrule the witness. This has not happened in Davidson’s experience. But there was plenty of that in Congress right through the 1970s. This is the time to bring back an old practice. As I said in this space two days ago, by not enforcing its authority the Senate intelligence committee here is helping to kill democracy in America.

Obstruction Starts to Come Into Focus

June 15, 2017–Just very quickly, because I am on something else. You are beginning to see the reasons why President Trump had an interest in having his officials stonewall at their congressional appearances. For Coats or Rogers to have confirmed that the president even mentioned to them the possibility of speaking out in behalf of Michael Flynn or, worse, pressing FBI Director Comey to drop the Flynn inquiry, would be disastrous for Mr. Trump. Our information is that the special counsel opened a wider inquiry on Donald Trump, to include obstruction of justice, shortly after the president fired Comey on May 9. Federal rules require the FBI to inform a person when they become the subject of an inquiry. Thus Mr. Trump was aware of that investigation from about mid-May. His officials, including the lap dog Jeff Sessions, testified at the Senate intelligence committee in June.

Mr. Trump could not openly claim executive privilege for his officials. There is legal precedent for criminal inquiry trumping (!!) privilege. The court hearing would merely worsen the president’s position–and his claim could itself be construed as a further act of obstruction. Mr. Trump could not claim secrecy–you saw in this space yesterday a citation to the statute that prohibits that. In addition there are prima facie grounds to argue that a personnel change is not secret. Trump’s minions were thus forced to contrive some excuse to justify their refusal to testify. An extremely awkward formula (of pretending to reserve the president’s ability to claim privilege later) was the result.

I continue to believe the Senate’s proper response, at the second (or was it the third? the first two occurred during the same hearing) instance of this maneuver, would have been to hold the witness in contempt.

Jeff Sessions’ Looking Glass–or is it America’s?

June 14, 2017–Yesterday the nation was treated to another deplorable performance by someone who is supposed to be an American leader. In fact, as attorney general, Jeff Sessions is supposed to exhibit sterling qualities, to be the president’s sidekick in the promised draining of the swamp. Instead we saw a small man, diminished further by his squirming, jumping, running away from questions. Mr. Sessions’ responses to the questions he did answer were denials that ranged from flimsy to vague. His invocation of an alleged Justice Department policy regarding non-executive privilege refusal to respond I will comment upon in a moment. Mr. Sessions was again under oath in this meeting with the Senate intelligence committee. I submit to you the odds are better than even that before this affair ends, Sessions will be revealed to have perjured himself again in that testimony. Far from draining the swamp, Mr. Sessions is dredging it deeper.

As for the alleged Justice Department “policy,” former DOJ employees were on the news shows last night saying they never heard of it. Sessions himself, after invoking this “policy,” could not say whether it was written or something in lore, could not say if he had read it (???!?!!–which means he either has no such policy or he has such short term memory problems that his ability to serve as attorney general is in question), and could not quote it as his authority. Today’s New York Times reaches back to the Iran-Contra scandal to find an instance where cabinet officials refused to answer a question in a similar fashion. That’s a poor precedent because in Iran-Contra there was an actual constitutional transgression from which to shield the president.

Here’s what we do know: that two senior intelligence community characters, director of national intelligence Dan Coats, and National Security Agency director Mike Rogers, adopted the identical approach of refusing to answer questions on the phony grounds that the president, in the future, might assert privilege over those subjects (but had not in fact done so at the moment testimony was given). It is far more likely that Sessions’ calculation was “if Coats and Rogers could get away with this, so can I.”

Jeff Sessions squirmed through his testimony, alternately lashing out (dastardly “secret innuendo” circulated about him) or pretending to ignorance (being forced to confront vague charges glimpsed through a “looking glass”). But Mr. Sessions knows very well the story Congress is trying to find out, and he must know that his actions as attorney general have created real questions as to propriety. His plaintive cry–aimed at Jim Comey–to “tell me what” the material act was that would have obliged his recusal from inquiries into the Russian Caper–followed by his strident claim that “of a certainty” there was no such thing–will ultimately escape perjury charges only because supporters will argue they were expressions of opinion rather than assertions of fact. In the meantime the question is, will Sessions get away with his behavior.

So far he has. All through the Sessions testimony I sat waiting for the senator who would stop and say, “Mr. Chairman, point of order, this witness is acting in contempt of the Senate.” The intelligence committee, in seeking information of direct relevance to its investigative purpose, is the body following a longstanding (and written) policy. The power of Congress to investigate was set in law more than a century ago. In connection with the specific refusals by Coats and Rogers, the National Security Act of 1947 explicitly provides, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as authority to withhold information from the intelligence committees on the grounds that providing information to the committees would constitute the unauthorized disclosure of classified information” (50 U.S.C. 413, sec. 501 (e)).

Trump administration officials are here attempting to carve out a wholly new rationale with which to deny information to Congress and the public. Democracy begins to die when executive powers believe they can act with impunity, and outside checks and balances. Sessions should have been held in contempt, not just because he was withholding information from a duly authorized congressional investigative body, but because he was participating in the construction of a wall to insulate the executive branch from proper oversight. The Senate intelligence committee demonstrated its powerlessness by failing to enforce its right to investigate. Chairman Richard Burr and the Republican members of the committee, by putting partisanship ahead of the authority of the Senate, are establishing their irrelevance. The Democratic members, by failing to pose the point of order, are acquiescing in that act. Democracy in America took a hit yesterday.

Trump’s “Satellites”

June 10, 2017–So, like Nixon at Watergate, The Donald does not mind jettisoning minions to avoid the hammer of justice descending upon his own head. There has already been a good deal of attention devoted to a set of individuals directly involved in the Russia Caper, but what about those people who work for President Trump within his own administration? Who might those “satellites” be?

Jeff Sessions: Let’s start with the Attorney General, both because of his prime position but also because former FBI director James B. Comey hinted during his June 9 testimony before the Senate intelligence committee that the Bureau was aware considerably in advance of things in his record that would oblige Sessions to recuse himself from investigations related to the Russia Caper. Apart from his potential vulnerability to Russia Caper charges, Sessions is open to perjury charges for sworn testimony before Congress. If Sessions did have vulnerabilities that required him to recuse himself, then his participation in the firing of James Comey opens him up to charges of conspiracy plus aiding and abetting illegal activity.

Sean Spicer: The president’s press spokesman of course has stood before the public day after day, effectively spouting lies. Some of those lies may have abetted the illegal activity. Also the degree to which he was witting of the rest, and the political advice he gave, may expose Spicer to conspiracy charges.

Political advice, public posturing, and leaking may expose Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus to charges of conspiracy and of leaking classified information.

Dan Coats, Mike Rogers, and Mike Pompeo, respectively the Director of National Intelligence, and heads of the NSA and CIA, have stonewalled Congress, opening them to contempt charges, since the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, explicitly provides that no order, charge, or other instruction may be cited to justify denying Congress any information necessary for its oversight role. Their stonewalling posture also aids and abets the cover up. President Trump also made an affirmative attempt to recruit Coats and Rogers to pressure the FBI to drop its investigation of Mike Flynn. If these officials either did as asked, or indicated to President Trump that they would do so, they would become active participants in an obstruction of justice. Depending on the advice they gave the president, the spooks may also be open to conspiracy charges.

H. R. McMaster : Here we’ve taken to calling the general “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster for his excuses made for the Trump campaigners who asked the Russians for a backchannel on Russian communications links, an element of the Russian Caper conspiracy (which I am treating separately). Though that action represents a separate transgression, McMaster’s defense of it as completely “appropriate” is part of the cover up. If Donald Trump ordered McMaster to mount that defense, it would be an unlawful order and, as an active-duty Army officer General McMaster would be liable for carrying out an illegal order (Universal Code of Military Justice, 908– 890 (Art.90[20]); 891 (Art. 91 [2]); 892, Art. [1], [2]). If McMaster did this voluntarily and the conspiratorial act is found to have been criminal, then he is open to charges of aiding and abetting.

Stupid Foreign Policy = Damaged National Security

June 9, 2017–When President Donald J. Trump sashayed over to Europe on his first foreign trip, in this space we commented about the stupidity of the foreign policy. The context there primarily concerned NATO and how snubbing our great friends in the alliance was certainly not a good thing. Our coverage mentioned the fabulism involved in thinking that Israel and its Arab neighbors were moving along converging pathways. Now I want to return to the Middle East to show just how stupid all of this has been.

Let’s start with Syria. The cruise missile attack on the Russian-Syrian airbase has come and passed. As Jack Kennedy once said, it’s like taking a drink–after a while the effect wears off and you need another. Trump is there now. The U.S. is upping the ante, sending in more Special Forces for more active roles, and moving ahead with heavy arms for Syrian rebel troops. But since the target is ISIS, America is effectively ranging itself alongside the Syrian government (and against the rebels we are arming) and the Russians. This was a problem for Obama policy too–made in this space years ago now–but Trump has not solved it.

Next to Qatar. This one is all Trump. The president insists he encouraged the Saudis to act aggressively against supporters of terrorism. Saudi Arabia and a number of other locals–some of them on Trump’s travel ban list, by the way–joined together to ostracize Qatar. Now it happens that Doha, Qatar’s capital, is a main transit point for American soldiers headed for Afghanistan and a site for diplomatic contacts, with the Taliban, among others. Qatar also hosts Al Uedid, the major U.S. airbase from which the Syrian war is being conducted, as well as a sophisticated command center that wages it. Trump not only supports the Saudi initiative he went on twitter to claim credit for encouraging it. Saudi Arabia is angry at Qatar for supporting the other side in its Yemeni war. U.S. policy in that affair is completely at odds with our interests in Syria and Afghanistan.

Now Iran. The Trump-era CIA has just refashioned one of its mission centers to target Iran–with which we are supposed to be improving relations because they are keeping their side of the nuclear bargain (something the U.S. concedes). Worse, ISIS is now attacking Iran too. So, in Iran Mr. Trump now has the United States allied with ISIS?

President Trump’s grasp of American national interests is so tenuous that policy careens from pillar to post. Stupid foreign policy damages U.S. security.

[EDITOR: This piece was actually written to appear before the “update” on this website but it appears the posting instructions were entered incorrectly. Sorry!]

 

Update: Senate Torture Report

June 9, 2017–Some days are better than others. Yesterday North Carolina Senator Richard Burr seemed fairly reasonable in his questioning of James B. Comey before the Senate intelligence committee. Not long before that, Burr raised concern when he renewed earlier demands he had made that the federal executive return to the intelligence committee all copies of the SSCI report of its investigation into CIA torture and detention programs. That day was a pretty poor one.

The Obama administration took little formal action on Burr’s demand. Its Justice Department wavered on whether to declare the report a “federal record,” which would have ensured its perseveration and opened it to freedom of information requests. It ordered other agencies not to “open” their copies. The John Brennan CIA working to bury the report, interpreted that as an instruction to destroy copies in its possession. Now, under the Trump administration, Senator Burr is about to get his wish.

The publisher Melville House, which put out one of the printed editions of the executive summary of the committee study, is responding to this effort to put the report back in the secret vault by making its edition available to the public for free. Get in touch if you are interested.