24 January 2013

The Mali Trap

Attached is a very important report written by one the finest reporters now covering the instabilities in the Islamic world from Afghanistan to Morocco.

JANUARY 21, 2013

The Tuareg Insurgency
The Mali Trap
by PATRICK COCKBURN, Counterpunch

It was always probable that French military intervention in Mali would have explosive consequences in other parts of the region. Even so, it is surprising that a splinter group from al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) should have been able to react so quickly by seizing hostages at the gas field facility at In Amenas in south-east Algeria.
The speed of the jihadi retaliation has led to doubts that the two events are connected, but the likelihood must be that French action in Mali precipitated a pre-planned assault on this target. It is a typical al-Qa’ida operation, in the tradition of 9/11, geared to attract maximum worldwide attention by a suicidal act of extreme violence.
Foreign leaders were swift to back the French action and pledge to pursue the perpetrators of the hostage-taking to the ends of the earth. This is the sort of reaction al-Qa’ida intends to provoke, whereby a small group of gunmen is presented as a threat to the rest of the world. Recruits and money flow in.
Local disputes – in this case between the Tuareg of northern Mali and the government in the capital, Bamako – become internationalised. Foreign military intervention may restore order and even be welcomed by the local population in the short term. But the presence of a great power can be destabilising.
This was one of the many lessons of the US takeover of Iraq and Afghanistan. Most Iraqis and Afghans were glad to see the departure of the previous regimes. Iraqis wanted an end to Saddam Hussein’s rule, but this did not mean that they welcomed foreign occupation. Similarly, in Afghanistan, foreign forces were initially popular and the Taliban discredited. But in both cases foreign forces soon behaved like colonial occupiers, and were resented as such.
Will this now happen in Mali? There is plenty of evidence that the jihadi fighters of AQIM, Ansar al-Din, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa are feared and hated in south Mali where most of the 14.5 million population live. They are not much more popular in the north where they have imposed sharia.
The Americans might well have got away with military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan if they had then got out quickly. The same is true of the French in Mali. The danger for them is that they will stay too long, become entangled in ethnic rivalries, and keep in power a dysfunctional and corrupt Malian government.
The political earthquake zones of the world have tended to be in countries where there are deep ethnic or religious differences. The list includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland. Mali fits all too well into this pattern. The north of the country has had a simmering Tuareg rebellion from at least 1963. The latest crisis has its origin in a nationalist uprising by the Tuareg in 2012. The opportunistic takeover of the rebellion by the jihadi groups came a few months later after a military coup in Bamako.
In Syria and Iraq, internal crises are exacerbated by interference from neighbours, with their own interests and local proxies. Here, again, there is a strong parallel with Mali. Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso all have impoverished and restive Tuareg minorities. Their governments pretend their main concern is the threat of Islamic fundamentalism because this presses the right buttons in Washington, London, Paris and Moscow. But the recent history of the region shows that their real concern is Tuareg separatism. The threat is all the more serious for them because, poor though the Tuareg may be, they are often living on top of great reserves of oil, gas, uranium and valuable minerals.
Tuareg nationalist insurgency, not radical Islam, is at the heart of the crisis in Mali. What, for instance, are AQIM doing in northern Mali, which has never in the past been a bastion for fundamentalists? AQIM is in origin an Algerian movement that emerged from the civil war of the 1990s. Formed in 1998, its members moved to northern Mali in 2003, where the government saw it as a counterbalance to Tuareg separatists. For all the French rhetoric about AQIM being a threat to Europe, the group made no attacks there over the past decade, being more interested in raising money through hostage-taking and smuggling cigarettes and cocaine.
Algeria’s links to AQIM are cloudy, but not so the movement’s past connection with the Malian government. The strange truth is that it was the Malian government which, over the last 10 years, tolerated AQIM in northern Mali and allowed it to operate, taking a share in the profits of its kidnapping and drug-running operations. International military aid for use against al-Qa’ida was diverted for use against the Tuareg.
There are few eyewitnesses able to give convincing accounts of developments in northern Mali, but one is May Ying Welsh, a journalist working for al-Jazeera. She writes after a recent visit that “for years, Malian Tuaregs have been complaining that their government was in bed with al-Qa’ida, but their cries fell on deaf ears”. She quotes a Malian army commander, Colonel Habi al-Salat, who defected to the Tuareg rebels in 2011, as saying, “Mali facilitated al-Qa’ida, providing them with complete freedom of movement, because they believed the presence of this group would impact the Tuareg struggle against the governing regime.”
The latest Tuareg uprising of 2012 was precipitated by the fall of Gaddafi in Libya a few months earlier. He had long kept a sort of order in the states in and around the Sahara. His defeat also meant the region was awash with modern weapons. Tuareg in the Libyan security forces, who knew how to use them, were coming home. The Tuareg rebellion was led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which was then pushed aside by Ansar al-Din and its jihadi allies.
The French may calculate that they can use their air force to destroy Islamist units. This worked well for Nato in Libya. But against guerrillas in a desolate country with a ferocious climate, this may not be so effective. Air power works best against fixed positions or vehicles, but kidnap victims in Mali report the Islamists have hidden fuel, water and food across the country and have hacked hideouts into the sides of cliffs. They will be a difficult enemy to defeat.

17 January 2013

The China Threat: The MICC Pivots Obama Back to the Future

The report, US model for a future war fans tensions with China and inside the Pentagon, by Greg Jaffe in the Washington Post is an excellent case study of how inside-the-beltway networking by the players in the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex (MICC).  Jaffe builds a consensus to keep defense spending high when wars end and the terrifying peace dividend threatens to break out. At the center of Jaffee's report is an influence peddling network orchestrated by an ancient artifact of the Pentagon, a futurist named Andrew Marshall, nicknamed Yoda.  

Most of the ideas surrounding the all seeing - all knowing - deep-strike precision guided attack systems portrayed in Andy Marshall's so-called Revolution of Military Affairs (its most recent incarnation is the Air-Sea Battle described by Jaffe below) have been around in various forms for a very long time, dating at least from McNamara's electronic line the Viet Nam war, but some of these ideas have conceptual roots in World War II (e.g., the wide area surveillance and close control command architecture of the British air defense system as well as the "precision" weapons programs developed by the US and Germany during WWII).  In fact, readers with a sense of military history will quickly realize that Marshall's ideas are basically a rehash of America's traditional mechanical conception of attrition warfare, especially those ideas underpinning the critical-node theories of strategic bombardment (begun in the 1930s at the Army Air Corps Tactical School), albeit papered over with new fancy sounding acronyms. 

Readers with a sense of history will also recall that Obama's pivot to China is hardly a new idea.  It was first floated in the early 90s and promoted  by Senator McCain, among others, in the early maneuvering to keep defense spending high despite the collapse of the Soviet Union. (That maneuvering succeeded, because as the chart below shows, the post-cold war budgets never dropped low the levels of the Eisenhower Administration during the height of the Cold War.)  McCain's maneuvering also led to the law mandating the Quadrennial Defense Review, which to date has produced a series of totally useless reports (for reasons explained here and here) but nevertheless provided rhetorical justifications for continuing Cold War boondoggles like missile defense, the Virginia class nuclear attack submarine, the Army's future combat system, and that turkey of turkeys, the Joint Strike Fighter.  

McCain's China gambit did not take root in the early-to-mid 1990s, but fortuitously the civil wars in Yugoslavia, together with Madeline Albright closely-related theory of the U.S. being the world's indispensable power, intervened to help keep the defense budget from plummeting in 1990s.  This was followed by the wars on terror in the first decade of this century, which, triggered by 9-11, provided cover for continuing cold war business as usual in the Pentagon's base budget (remember, the war itself was funded off line via 'emergency' supplemental appropriations).  But now, with the emotive power of Iraq and Afghan distractions winding down, the China threat is rising again, like a Phoenix, to fill the vacuum, thanks in part to the networking skills of Marshall and his proteges, as detailed by Jaffe.  

The China pivot is crucial to the MICC's plan to turn Mr. Obama into the biggest base-budget spender since Ronald Reagan, as shown in the figure below (the effects of inflation have been removed):

Source: Pentagon Comptroller

In contrast to Viet Nam and Korea, the so-called war on terror has been funded by supplemental appropriations (added to the base (i.e., non-war) budget. These supplementals are depicted by the lightly shaded areas above the solid bars, which represent based budget totals).  In terms of base budgets only, this chart shows that Obama's four past base budgets plus the next four years of his planned base budgets would exceed those of any president, including George W. Bush (who to be fair, paved the way for the Obama cornucopia), with the sole exception of President Reagan.  

Justifying far higher budgets than those averaged the Cold War is the central function of the China pivot. 

Jaffe's report provides a good window into how a network of inside-the-beltway interests among players in the Pentagon, Congress, and so-called think tanks that have already convinced the ever malleable Mr. Obama into falling for the China Pivot. The next steps will be hype the politics of fear to sell it to the American people by inflating the China threat to convince them to  pay for the Revolution in Military Affairs by sacrificing a big part of their social safety net, because many the same people are telling us that uncontrolled federal spending is also threatening to destroy the United States.  

12 January 2013

A Letter from an Afghan Patriot Raises a Question for the Next Secretary of Defense:

Why Do Domestic Politics Trump Foreign Policy?

Note: A version of this essay appeared in the Counterpunch (Weekend Edition 11-13 January 2013) and in Time (Battleland, 14 January 2013)

Introduction and Background

I have an Afghan friend, Hashim, who lives in Europe.  We correspond frequently on the situation in Afghanistan.  He comes from an old distinguished Pashtun family; he has multiple degrees from the UK’s finest universities, knows Afghan (and world) history; and he admires the United States immensely, having lived here for a number of years as a young man.  

Hashim is an Afghan patriot, and while he is a realist, he understandably tends to see things in a hopeful light for his beloved country.  This is especially true with regard to his hope that President Obama will correct the gross errors of his predecessor.  Hashim recently sent me an email (see below) describing his reactions to  two closely related wire service reports issued on 9 January1, in which U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes revealed that the White House was considering an option for a total withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end 2014.  

Rhodes said the White House was considering the so-called ‘zero option’  in addition to the more widely reported options for maintaining a limited troop presence 3,000 and 9,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.  In contrast, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is lobbying for an enduring presence 6,000 to 15,000. There are currently about 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  With one year to go, it is therefore clear that big changes are coming.

Rhodes made clear that Obama’s final decision will not be made for several months, and he emphasized will be based on the twin U.S. security objectives of (1) denying the so-called counterterrorism strategy of denying a safe haven to al Qaeda (read: a continuing targeted assassination strategy by special forces and drones) and (2) ensuring that Afghan forces are trained and equipped to maintain internal security (read: ensuring that Afghan forces can neutralize the Taliban). 

Rhodes’s words, predictably (perhaps deliberately), created a firestorm of reaction among the neocons and advocates of empire in the U.S. as well as among those in Afghanistan who have benefitted from the U.S. presence. Members of the Afghan government, in harmony with the despairing cries of the neocon armchair warriors in the U.S., predicted that the zero option would be equivalent to a U.S. admission of defeat; that it would precipitate another a civil war, like that of the 1990s; and that it would leave the 350,000 man ill-trained Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) unable to provide internal security. While the Taliban had no comment, a spokesman reiterated its 5 January call for the immediate removal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.

Hashim’s Take on the Zero Option

My Afghan friend did not think much of these reactions.  On 10 Jan 2013, he wrote:

“This [i.e. Rhodes’ zero option] is more to do with negotiating with the insurgency leaders than it is about ensuring the future survival of the despised Karzai criminal clique — a smart strategy, and an appropriate answer to thugs who say, ‘You need U.S. more than we need you.’”

“The foundations of normal U.S.-Afghan relations are finally being laid by people concerned with the U.S.’s national interests, rather than by dubious. armchair warriors, rabid ideologues, and self-serving vested interests – long may it continue!”
“The cries of fear and despair, from the less than 1% of Afghans who’ve grown obscenely rich, courtesy of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, are to be expected – they are the supporters of the thugs who thought that the U.S. could be blackmailed into expending blood and treasure ad infinitum, no matter what these gangsters said or did, because of their ‘you need U.S. more than we need you’ mantra.”

“The statements will be welcomed by the young village-based insurgent commanders inside the country, but will leave the ‘old’ Taliban leaders who still have  political ambitions in a quandary: No one will accept their leadership if they agree to join the Karzai criminal cooperative, nor will they continue the fight until the ‘Islamic Emirate’ is re-installed in Kabul.  What the majority of the insurgents want is an end to the ‘occupation,' and a truly representative government of competent ‘good Muslims’ in Kabul.”

“Similarly, Karzai and his gang have been put on notice, that they’re not the ‘indispensable’ puppets they had assumed themselves to be. Moreover, the U.S. statements will cause the ranks of their supporters to diminish dramatically, and decrease their ability to act as rejectionists or spoilers of any agreement reached with the Taliban insurgency.”

“Doubtless, matters will come into better focus in coming weeks. So, my comments are really ‘hazarded guesses.’”

While Hashim’s analysis makes sense and suggests a realistic sense of foresight on the part of the U.S. government, it triggered uncertainties in my mind about what other political factors might be driving our foreign policy in Afghanistan. 

Here is My Response

Dear Hashim ... I hope  you are right, and as usual, you certainly raise insightful issues.  But that said, I think there are several very powerful domestic political factors also in play, and these factors may well be taking precedence in the decisions shaping our Afghan policy. Consider please the following:

In the U.S., as in most countries, the exigencies of domestic politics almost always trump the logical needs of foreign policy. This is particularly the case when a government is changing policy direction, as is the case of Afghanistan today.  A good, if somewhat dated, general introduction to the history of how the exigencies of domestic politics influence  American foreign policy can be found in Robert Dallek’s, The American Style of Foreign Policy: Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs. 

Here is what I think is now happening -- to be sure what follows is speculation, but it is based over thirty years of experience of closely observing the pathological machinations of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex, hereafter referred to as the MICC:

1. It is pretty clear Obama wants out of Afghanistan.  My own suspicion is that Mr. Obama understands he was railroaded into approving the fatally flawed surge by the MICC and cabal of neocons in 2009. Whether or not this is indeed the case, and it is not clear whether Generals Petraeus and McChrystal “played” Obama or Obama was a willing part of the game; one thing is clear: Mr. Obama set himself up to become enmeshed in the Afghan quagmire via opportunistic political maneuvering during the 2008 election campaign to contrast Afghanistan as a “good war” as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq.  His obvious intent was the usual Democratic effort to protect his right flank from being attacked by Republicans as being soft on defense.  So, consciously or not, Obama entrapped himself in a quagmire by succumbing to the exigencies of domestic politics in a foreign policy question of supreme importance.  Now, like all politicians, he does not want to look like a fool as he walks along the exit tightrope from the Afghan debacle.  Score 1 for domestic politics trumping foreign policy.

2. More importantly, Obama’s opportunistic behavior is a symptom of  deeper problems created by more powerful domestic political exigencies:  It is now clear the MICC also wants out of Afghanistan, but the MICC’s players also must walk a tightrope: Its players must extricate themselves from the Afghan quagmire without jeopardizing their future budget prospects.  

The MICC’s players — in the Pentagon, in industry, and in the Congress —  are terrified of a so-called “peace dividend,” and the potential for cutbacks is looming, either in the form of a loss of $80 billion annually in supplemental budgets to cover projected war spending, or the loss of $50 billion through a budget sequester or some kind of fiscal deal, or some combination of both. The brass hats in the military also know they are losing the Afghan war, and they probably fear that sooner or later their defeat will become understood by the voters and create a PR problems that could adversely affect their future budgets for an extended period.  To date, the military has dodged that bullet, but how long will that last?  The generals and defense industrialists must therefore understand that time is not on their side. 

The generals and politicians also know that a larger majority of Americans now oppose the Afghan war than opposed the Vietnam war.  To be sure, it is now clear ending the draft and “professionalizing” the military has successfully has muted popular opposition to the war.  Ending the draft successfully prepared the ground for a mercenary U.S. military and the entire MICC to engage in constant war so long as its intensity does not breach certain thresholds.  But how long will the public indifference to the pain of war last, particularly if, as is now likely, there are cut backs in spending for social safety net programs during a sluggish recovery and/or the austerity economics trigger another recession?  

The bottom line is that the political economy of the MICC is beginning to gag on Afghanistan.  In its structural and logical aspects, this has created a political situation not unlike that faced by President Nixon in 1969, although political emotions are still far more muted today.

Now, with this background in mind, consider the White House’s so-called exit strategy.  It is based on the reported personnel options ranging from complete withdrawal (the zero option) to keeping 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, with their responsibilities divided up between a counter-terrorist operations (read targeted assassination with drones and special forces and all that implies) and the self-evidently absurd idea that there is still enough time remaining for a tiny cohort of U.S. trainers to solve the intractable training problem posed by the ineffectiveness of the hugely corrupt 350,000 man Afghan army.  Nixon’s Vietnamization policy was far more substantial than that being proposed by the White House, but it is the same game: Afghanizing the war is more designed for domestic consumption in the U.S., in the hope that the President can preserve his credibility by spinning what is really retreat and defeat into an achievement of objectives.  The real aim, of course, is to protect business as usual in the MICC and stave off the domestic opponents of empire  in both parties.  Score 2 for domestic politics trumping foreign policy.

3.  Consider how the ‘porkbarrelling’ stage is being set to ease the pain of any budgetary reductions accompanying the Afghan exit strategy.  Obama is easing the pain to defense contractors by unleashing foreign military sales (FMS) of U.S. first line weapons to third world nations rich enough to pay for them.  This is exactly what President Nixon did when he announced the so-called Nixon Doctrine in summer of 1969 as being at center of his Vietnam exit strategy. Obama has already played his first big card in this game by sharply ramping up FMS to record levels of at least $68 billion2 in Fiscal Year 2012 (which began in October 2011) -- that is, in the year leading up to his re-election in November 2012.  Score 3 for the exigencies of domestic politics trumping the rational needs of a foreign policy.

4. There are some differences in the Nixon comparison, but they are also revealing: In 1969, President Nixon did have one “exigency” advantage over Mr. Obama in the domestic politics of catering to the MICC: the Cold War.  Nixon and his successors could refocus the defense budget on the Soviet threat in Europe and the nuclear threat to the United States and hype these threats to pump up the long-term budgetary prospects for the MICC.  

So, while Nixon was reducing the defense budget as he exited Vietnam in the early 1970s, he augmented the political buyoffs of the Nixon Doctrine by planting the seed money to start a large number  of R&D programs (e.g., F-14, F-15, B-1, AV-8B, AWACs, SSN-688 submarine, M-1 tank, etc) for a new generation of even higher cost weapons to be bought in the late 1970s and the 1980s  Like an insurance policy, these R&D programs, coupled with increased FMS, protected and pacified the MICC’s constituencies while building a huge head of programmatic steam.  In the Pentagon the mushrooming costs of all these new programs became known as the "bow wave.”  The bow wave prepared the political ground for the emergence of ‘requirements’ for far larger procurement budgets and the eventual growing of defense budgets in late 1970s and culminated in the explosion of defense budgets under Ronald Reagon.  In retrospect, it is quite clear that the Reagan spending spree was actually launched during the Carter Administration by seeds planted in the Nixon Administration.  A similar bow wave was planted in the aftermath of the Cold War during the last years of the first Bush Administration and the first term of the Clinton Administration — as I explained in my 1996 paper Defense Budget Time Bomb, the budget explosion after 1998 was inevitable.  As well be seen below, Osama bin Laden merely iced the budgetary cake.

President Carter was a prisoner of the bow wave of new programs created by his predecessors’ cynical decisions.3  But Obama may be end up being far more culpable that Carter, because whether Obama knows it or not, he is not repeating Nixon's strategy of refocusing on an existing, if exaggerated, superpower “threat.” Obama is taking the scam one step further: He is laying the seeds for a new and entirely unnecessary Cold War by approving the MICC’s  the reckless plan to "pivot" to a grossly exaggerated, non-superpower threat posed by China.  The China "pivot" will placate the MICC by providing the needed justification to maintain high defense budgets far into the future, backed up, of course, by the budget requirements of Obama’s never ending war on terror.  Score game, set, and match for the exigencies of domestic politics trumping the rationale needs of a foreign policy.

MICC Über Alles

The long-term budget implications of Obama’s “China pivot” are stunningly clear in the following figure: Despite the fact that the United States is exiting Afghanistan and the fact that President has called for cutbacks in so-called entitlement programs while protecting most of Bush’s ill conceived tax give aways in the middle of a so-call fiscal crisis, President Obama is also calling for huge defense budgets into the future as far as the eye can see. The audacity of this hope is mind boggling.

The figure below depicts the Defense Department’s budget authority in terms of the four year totals of each presidential administration, beginning with that of Harry Truman in 1949-1952.  DoD Budget Authority is the new money Congress appropriates each year to fill up the Pentagon’s annual checkbook. The four year totals appropriated during Democratic administrations are portrayed in blue and those for Republican administrations are portrayed in red.  Note that the effects of inflation have been removed from the data portrayed below. 

If Mr. Obama’s plan unfolds as predicted, his eight years of defense spending (i.e., in the non-war base budget) will exceed any comparable eight year period (including the wars) of his predecessors except for that of Ronald Reagan.  The chart also makes it clear that, notwithstanding Secretary Panetta’s claims of deep, savage, and arbitrary cuts to the defense budget, the new five year budget totals in the White House’s and Pentagon’s  budget computers project totals out to 2017 that would be much higher-than-average cold war budgets, and would, in effect, outspend President Bush’s FY 2001-08 “base budget” spending spree. And remember, unlike previous wars in Vietnam and Korea, the war on terror has been funded on a pay-as-you-go, add-on basis via the legislative scam of appropriating supplemental budgets. This policy is equivalent to that of a fire department telling the mayor that its annual budget will support its equipment, but it will need extra money if it has to put out fires.  Be careful to note how the figure separates the war budgets since 2001 from the non-war related base budget.  My comparisons do not include the war budgets which are portrayed by lighter shaded boxes on top of the columns 

Note also how this chart depicts the four year total for the future defense budgets Mr. Obama approved for his second term (labeled Obama2 highlighted in yellow) for last February.  This plan has been slightly reduced over the last year, and while the new budget total will not be available until the long range plan is released by Obama in about six weeks, my sources tell me that the much ballyhooed cuts in the new plan will reduce the inflation adjusted four-year budget total only to the level indicated by the point of the yellow arrow on the right. Bear in mind, the chart unrealistically assumes supplementals for the war on terror will cease to exist as of FY 14, which certainly will not the case.

Several other points implicit in the chart are worth pointing out: (1) A level of $1.6-1.7 trillion over 4 years appears  to be a floor to which budgets used to drop, when they declined during the Eisenhower, Ford/Carter, and Clinton periods. This “floor” — which appears quaintly low today — was the level that caused President Eisenhower to warn the nation about the excessive influence of military-industrial complex in the halls of government (note: he actually included “congressional” in his first draft of the speech, but the reference was subsequently dropped). (2) The size of the military combat force supported by these budgets has shrunk sharply over time, but even with today’s high budgets, old equipment is being replaced by new equipment at decreasing rates, and consequently, the average age of our weapons is always increasing, creating a perpetual modernization crisis (as I explained in the Defense Budget Time Bomb paper referenced above). (3) Even if his detailed spending plans unfold perfectly, Obama’s new budget plan projects even more force shrinkage and equipment aging as we move into the future.  The shrinking/aging trends will once again create the conditions for domestic political pressures to shovel more money to the MICC. (4) The Pentagon’s accounting systems are a shambles, making it impossible to sort out where the money is going, much less where it should be going.  Put bluntly, feeding the MICC monster increases its voracity.

Will Chuck Hegel be able to control the domestic political exigencies posed by the MICC and realign its efforts to match the logical requirements of a salutary foreign policy?  Personally, I doubt it.  Superficially, Hegel appears to be a reformer.  He has made some skeptical statements about our stupid foreign policy over the years since 2001.  But as a senator, did he vote in accordance with his vocal skepticism?  Not against Iraq, not against Afghanistan, not against Israel, although to his credit, he did vote against some sanctions in Iran.  Even worse, to my thinking, he called for a ground invasion of Kosovo in 1999, which was exceedingly reckless, because the Serbian Army was little damaged  by the NATO bombing campaign, and was spoiling for a fight, and a ground war was opposed by our own military.   Moreover Hegel's record of supporting  unnecessary and bloated cold-war pork programs like ballistic missile defense suggests he will support the ‘pivot’ and what it  implies for high-tech boondoggles. Also, you must bear in mind the way Washington works: politicians must be "for" something -- and a hyped Chinese threat, like the nonexistent bomber and missile gaps of the Cold War, fills that bill perfectly. 

So, the stage is being set for defense to remain off the budget negotiating table while Obama cuts back on social programs and protects the Bush era tax cuts to the wealthy.

In conclusion, I think domestic politics is poised to trump the entirely reasonable foreign policy hopes raised in your email.  I am afraid we are about to sweep Afghanistan under the rug like we did in Iraq and Vietnam. 

While I see this as yet another immoral evasion of responsibility, given the extent to which we contributed to Afghanistan's misery since the Brzezinski caper in the summer of 1979 (also confirmed in Robert Gates memoir, here) that provoked the Soviets to invade six months later, in December of 1979, it is unfortunately the way American politics has worked ever since Vietnam. 

American politics continues to repeat the practice of buying domestic power by inflicting misery and destruction on third world nations.  In my view, Obama’s own contribution to statecraft in this regard has been his ability to lobotomize almost the entire Democratic base. The same people who were screaming about Bush’s illegal wars, unconstitutional surveillance, lack of due process, etc., are now silent or singing Obama’s greatness. 

Even when Democrats can see how Mr. Obama has disappointed them, the insanity of Republican politicians provides the Democrats a ready rationale to excuse Obama. (By the way, does anyone notice that if Hagel is confirmed it means two of Obama’s three SecDefs will have been Republicans?)  

The Republican party, with a few exceptions, is so visibly crazy that they have become an indispensable foil that permits Obama to govern as he does.  The conventional wisdom of liberals is that Obama’s heart is in the right place, but he is conflict averse and therefore must govern as a centrist (really a center-rightist), because the GOP is crazy and intransigent. But in reality, Obama actually is a center-rightist who uses his image as a diffident compromiser as a cloak to hide his pro-corporatocracy given aways.  And because most people prefer center-right governance to out-and-out fascism, the GOP plays an essential role as a “bad cop” to the center-right “good cop,” which is why Democrats went along with  Obama’s plan to enshrine the Bush tax cuts for the bottom 99.3%, and a huge giveaway on the estate tax, in perpetuity. My fear is that, in the same way, Democrats will go along with Obama’s inflated defense budgets and his permanent conflict foreign policy. 

Anyway, that is the view of one clapped out retiree from the cheap seats in Versailles on the Potomac.


1 “Afghans say total U.S. pullout would trigger disaster” (Reuters) and “Obama administration considers leaving no US troops in Afghanistan after combat ends in 2014” (AP)
2 The $68 billion understates the size of the foreign market because the FMS category does not include all sales; for example, it does not include the money received in partnering agreements for the development and production of new equipment, like the Joint Strike Fighter.
3 While it would be unfair to blame Jerry Ford for these decisions, he did nothing to undo the pressures created during the Nixon Administration.

03 January 2013

No Guts, No Glory

The Real Challenges Facing the Next Secretary of Defense

This essay appeared in Counterpunch (31 Dec 2012) and Time's Battleland (3 Jan 2013)

One of the most pressing problems facing the incoming Secretary of Defense is posed by our denouement in Afghanistan.  For reasons explained by Paul Sperry in an excellent 30 December op-ed in the New York Post, extricating ourselves from this quagmire is now taking on dangerous overtones, and the need to leave may be approaching at warp speed.  The implications for the nature of the American withdrawal may be ominous, but they should not be unexpected.  It is now virtually certain that managing a coherent withdrawal will present a major challenge for the incoming defense secretary.
President Obama’s 2009 surge strategy for what he and Democrats liked to portray as the “good war” in Afghanistan was premised upon the assumption that the US could quickly build up and train large Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), including army and police forces.  Obama and the Pentagon sold this counterinsurgency strategy to the American people by promising a surge in American forces would quickly weaken the Taliban.  The emasculation of the Taliban would permit a rapid expansion of the Afghan security zones controlled by the Kabul government, while the rapid build up of the ANSF would stabilize and grow these zones even further, and thereby set the stage for a quick exit of US combat forces beginning eighteen months from the date of the surge.
Despite its central premise of quickly building up an effective ANSF, the surge-based counterinsurgency plan produced by the Afghan theater commander General Stanley McChrystal did not provide a realistic analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the existing Afghan army and police forces.  Yet these forces were the foundation for the both the expansion and the promised sequence of developments that would enable our quick withdrawal.
McChrystal’s grotesque oversight became obvious well before the plan’s approval, when his plan was leaked in the early fall of 2009 (as I explained here).    The limitations of this plan were again brought dramatically to the President’s attention by Ambassador Eikenberry in cables that were leaked immediately before the plan’s approval in January 2010 (summarized here).  Nevertheless, the President pressed on and approved the fatally flawed plan after an agonizing public debate during the fall and winter of 2009-10.
General McChrystal’s omission was both logically and empirically unforgivable, especially given (1) the contemporaneously emerging awareness of the counterproductive strategic effects of President Bush’s surge in Iraq, (2) the Soviet’s clear failure to build up an effective Afghan army in the 1980s as part of its exit strategy and (3) our own spectacular failure to build up an effective South Vietnamese army (i.e., Vietnamization), which was a central premise of President Nixon’s Vietnam exit strategy.
While hardly unique in its content, Sperry’s op-ed piece provides an excellent summary of how the easily foreseeable consequences of McChrystal’s oversight are now rapidly coming to a head. The problem is not just a strategic one of extracting our forces with dignity; nor is it a political one of fingering who is to blame, although there is plenty of blame to go around. It stems from deep institutional roots that reveal a need for reform in our military bureaucracies and particularly our leadership selection policies.
That is because the next Secretary of Defense must deal with the consequences of a strategic oversight that was made by and approved at the highest professional levels of the American military establishment — a plan which it then imposed on its weak and insecure political leaders.  This suggests a question: Will the new defense secretary succumb to business as usual by sweeping the dysfunctional institutional causes of the Afghan debacle under the rug or have the courage and wisdom to use this sorry affair as a reason to clean out the Pentagon’s Augean Stables?
If past is prologue, the former is far more probable than the latter.  The Vietnam catastrophe resulted cosmetic reforms, the most lasting of which dealt with improving the military’s capacity to manipulate press coverage to preserve its institutional prerogatives — a capability that became apparent in the First Iraq War, Kosovo, the Second Iraq War, and initially in Afghanistan, and the press’s fawning coverage of these wars.
But managing the Afghan denouement  is not even the largest challenge facing the new defense secretary.
A far more significant challenge will be posed by the need to sort out the programmatic chaos in the Pentagon’s hugely bloated defense budget, which, while not unrelated to the Afghan debacle, is caused primarily by out-of-control institutional prerogatives and bureaucratic game playing.  Notwithstanding its bloat, the current defense budget plan cannot modernize the  military’s weapons inventories on a timely basis; nor can it insure our shrinking, aging equipment will be maintained in a state of combat readiness, while providing sufficient funds for training troops.  Most importantly, the Pentagon’s accounting systems are a shambles.  The Pentagon’s budget and program planning books can not even pass the most basic constitutional requirements for accountability, much less provide the management information needed to fix the aforementioned modernization, force structure, and readiness problems.
As I explained here and here, these dysfunctional problems are connected and have deep behavioral roots.  Fixing these problems will require harmonizing and reining in the disparate factions making up the dysfunctional political-economy of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex — a heretofore intractable problem President Eisenhower first warned America about in his farewell address in January 1961 (note: the reference to Congress was included in the first draft of his speech but subsequently dropped).
What I find depressing is that not one of these pressing issues has been the subject of speculations about the choice of a new defense secretary.  Au contraire, the press has been obsessed with the lobbying concerns of the discredited neocons on the right who helped to create Afghan and Iraqi messes, proponents of continuing American empire in the middle (who are now promoting our intervention in Syria and the budget busting pivot to the Pacific), and gender balancers on the left.
Perhaps such divagations of the public mind are a necessary diversion. After all, reining in the out of control defense program has been declared a non problem by placing it off limits in the hypocritical fiscal cliff negotiations, where the President has chosen put social security payments on the block, even though social security is fully funded by its own earmarked payroll deduction tax (President Obama proposed cutting payments by adopting the chained consumer price index to lower the future inflation adjustments to these payments).
The bottom line, Mr./Ms. Incoming Secretary: SNAFU in Versailles on the Potomac raises the question: Do you want to be part of the problem … or part of a solution?