Journalists Getting Suckered by Ass-Covering Sources on Afghanistan

Rather than explaining why the government didn’t know that Ashraf Ghani was going to flee the country, allegedly with bags of cash, national security sources are busy suckering journalists to report that they warned of the quick demise of the Afghan military.

A positively egregious example is this piece from WSJ’s Vivian Salama. What it reports is that 23 people in the State Department concerned about the rapid collapse of the Afghan government warned that the collapse would happen after August 31 — that is, still eleven days in the future from today. It also reports that the Biden Administration was already hastening efforts to get allies out of Afghanistan the day after those 23 people warned Tony Blinken (meaning, State was already aware of and working on the urgency).

The cable was sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director of Policy Planning Salman Ahmed. Mr. Blinken received the cable and reviewed it shortly after receipt, according to the person familiar with the exchange, who added that contingency planning was already under way when it was received, and that Mr. Blinken welcomed their feedback.

[snip]

The signatories of the dissent channel cable urged the State Department to begin registering and collecting personal data in advance for all Afghans who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas, aimed at those who worked as translators or interpreters; locally employed embassy staff; and for those eligible for other U.S. refugee programs while there was still six weeks left before the withdrawal deadline.

It also urged the administration to begin evacuation flights no later than Aug. 1, the people said.

On July 14, a day after the cable was sent, the White House announced Operation Allies Refuge to support the relocation of interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their immediate families who supported the U.S. government for the special immigrant visas. Evacuations didn’t kick into high gear until last week and have been complicated by the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Sunday.

Several other actions that have since been taken by the administration were consistent with some of the requests and recommendations in the cable, the person familiar with the cable exchange said. [my emphasis]

In other words, the story should be about how top Biden officials were already ahead of where the 23 people who signed this dissent cable were, and where they weren’t, they integrated the recommendations of the cable.

The story should be about how the process worked. The story should be about how, even these 23 people who were really alarmed about the fragile state of the Afghan government were still too optimistic about how long it could survive.

The story probably should also be about how, after Biden made comments on July 8 (which the article quotes) that were far too rosy about the state of the Afghan government, someone got him to stop.

That’s not what the story is about though. The paragraph describing how contingency planning was already underway is the seventh paragraph in the story; the paragraphs describing how the White House had already prepared an attempt to accelerate SIV evacuations appear at paragraphs 16 to 19.

In paragraph two, meanwhile, the story uses the word “imminent” to suggest days when it really means weeks.

The classified cable represents the clearest evidence yet that the administration had been warned by its own officials on the ground that the Taliban’s advance was imminent and Afghanistan’s military may be unable to stop it.

And the headline doesn’t note that the cable’s warning was, like all other warnings, too optimistic about the state of the Afghan government.

Internal State Department Cable Warned of Kabul Collapse

I get that such stories — suggesting that Biden ignored warnings and so owns this collapse — will drive a lot of traffic. Biden does own this collapse, along with Trump, Obama, and (especially) George Bush. But he owns it because of stupid decisions made 18 months and 18 years ago, not the efforts he made in July to mitigate the aftermath of those earlier decisions.

A far more urgent, and honest, story is the explanation for why, thus far, zero anonymous sources have claimed to have an explanation why no one knew that Ghani was going to flee. Another urgent story is to understand what forces helped the Taliban succeed so wildly, and how such efforts were able to so thoroughly evade our intelligence collection. Another interesting story is why Afghan veteran Christopher Miller, who was promoted way outside of his expertise level and was surrounded by flunkies fiercely loyal to the President, is making shit up about what was the real plan he was hired to implement.

Every story claiming prescience published thus far has in fact revealed that the people claiming prescience didn’t know this would happen either. It’s time to stop pretending they did and starting figuring out why they didn’t.

There May Well Have Been an Intelligence Failure in Afghanistan

Almost as quickly as Republicans and Democrats rushed to blame the other for the humiliating fall of Afghanistan, and as quickly as bipartisan NeoCons and bipartisan anti-Imperialists blamed the other for victory of the Taliban, the Intelligence Community and DOD have rushed to blame each other.

This story is just one example, but there are many.

In 2019, U.S. spy agencies delivered a sweeping assessment known as a National Intelligence Estimate of the conflict that warned many of America’s often-stated objectives were in jeopardy even with a continued U.S. military presence, and without direct American backing all but destined to collapse.

“We would run into really serious battles with the Pentagon, which would say, ‘We’ve got boots on the ground, we know the truth,’ ” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

The diverging views on the war were a reflection of the institutional predispositions of military planners groomed to accept even the most daunting missions and find ways to deliver results.

In Afghanistan, “you had good people who tried mightily believing they could do it,” the former intelligence official said. “And in the end are forced to face the reality that they couldn’t.”

One thing all these parties are fighting over is whether there was an intelligence failure.

Mike Morell, like many of the spooks being interviewed, says it wasn’t his fault.

Michael Morell, the former acting and deputy director of the CIA wrote on Twitter: “What is happening in Afghanistan is not the result of an intelligence failure. It is the result of numerous policy failures by multiple administrations. Of all the players over the years, the Intelligence Community by far has seen the situation in Afghanistan most accurately.”

And he’s right: Anyone who didn’t know, going back well over a decade, that an Afghan regime would collapse without US backing simply wasn’t paying attention.

That said, just days ago the most dire intelligence predicting that the Afghan government would fall to the Taliban spoke in terms of a month, not a weekend.

The Biden administration is preparing for Afghanistan’s capital to fall far sooner than feared only weeks ago, as a rapid disintegration of security has prompted the revision of an already stark intelligence assessment predicting Kabul could be overrun within six to 12 months of the U.S. military departing, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

One official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity, said Tuesday that the U.S. military now assesses a collapse could occur within 90 days. Others said it could happen within a month. Some officials said that although they were not authorized to discuss the assessment, they see the situation in Afghanistan as more dire than it was in June, when intelligence officials assessed a fall could come as soon as six months after the withdrawal of the U.S. military.

At the same time, spooks saying that they didn’t know the effect that a quick withdrawal would have on the timing, even though others note the timing has always been known — including by the Taliban and our regional adversaries. That is, the IC didn’t fail to warn about how fragile the Afghan government was, but they seem to have been surprised by the snowball effect.

There are discrete decisions that do require accountability, such as the decision — apparently made by Mark Milley — that keeping Bagram running until we exited was not “tactically necessary.”

[Congressman Doug] Lamborn asks if it is “at all possible” for the United States to keep open Bagram Airfield. Gen. Milley responds that it is not tactically necessary.

If things get really bad in the days ahead, it will be because US armed forces rushed in to maintain order while the US evacuates are working at the airport rather than Bagram, which is far easier to secure.

But I do wonder whether there was not, in fact, a really dire intelligence failure having largely to do with how Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan leaders were paid off to cede power.

On top of weakened morale and lack of air support, the best explanation for the Taliban’s quick success has to do with “surrenders” that became the only viable option for Afghan soldiers after Trump’s deal with the Taliban last year.

The spectacular collapse of Afghanistan’s military that allowed Taliban fighters to walk into the Afghan capital Sunday despite 20 years of training and billions of dollars in American aid began with a series of deals brokered in rural villages between the militant group and some of the Afghan government’s lowest-ranking officials.

The deals, initially offered early last year, were often described by Afghan officials as cease-fires, but Taliban leaders were in fact offering money in exchange for government forces to hand over their weapons, according to an Afghan officer and a U.S. official.

Over the next year and a half, the meetings advanced to the district level and then rapidly on to provincial capitals, culminating in a breathtaking series of negotiated surrenders by government forces, according to interviews with more than a dozen Afghan officers, police, special operations troops and other soldiers.

[snip]

The negotiated surrenders to the Taliban slowly gained pace in the months following the Doha deal, according to a U.S. official and an Afghan officer. Then, after President Biden announced in April that U.S. forces would withdraw from Afghanistan this summer without conditions, the capitulations began to snowball.

As the militants expanded their control, government-held districts increasingly fell without a fight. Kunduz, the first key city overrun by the militants, was captured a week ago. Days of negotiations mediated by tribal elders resulted in a surrender deal that handed over the last government-controlled base to the Taliban.

Soon after, negotiations in the western province of Herat yielded the resignation of the governor, top Interior Ministry and intelligence officials and hundreds of troops. The deal was concluded in a single night.

This, too, was obviously known and knowable.

What I wonder is how far up in the Afghan government such discussions went, and if that was also known.

A really worthwhile thread from Afghanistan’s former Central Bank Governor, Ajmal Ahmady, describes rumors that the decision came from higher up.

There were multiple rumors that directions to not fight were somehow coming from above. This has been repeated by Atta Noor and Ismael Khan. Seems difficult to believe, but there remains a suspicion as to why ANSF left posts so quickly. There is something left unexplained

It describes how he kept going to work even while learning that Ghani had fled. 

On Saturday night, my family called to say that most government had already left. I was dumbfounded. A security assessment accurately forecast Taliban arrival to Kabul within 36 hours and its fall within 56 hours I got worried & purchased tickets for Monday as a precaution

[snip]

Saw VP Danish leaving – reportedly for Qatar. By then it was rumored that VP Saleh had left. Ministers + others were waiting for a Fly Dubai & Emirates flights. Both were cancelled I secured a Kam Air flight Sunday 7pm. Then the floor fell: the President had already left

Almost immediately after Ghani fled, Russian news sources reported that he had taken mountains of cash with him.

Russia’s embassy in Kabul said on Monday that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country with four cars and a helicopter full of cash and had to leave some money behind as it would not all fit in, the RIA news agency reported.

That’s not unlikely — it’s just rather curious that Russia was the first to know of it.

Even as and because that happened, a diplomatic effort to negotiate a transitional government failed.

The weeks leading up to Kabul’s collapse saw a flurry of diplomatic activity by the U.S. and its allies in Qatar aimed at heading off exactly the chaotic scenes in the Afghan capital that have so horrified the world and put Joe Biden’s presidency on the defensive.

Among those efforts was a tantalizing agreement that could have guaranteed calm. Afghan and Taliban negotiators tentatively reached a deal in which all sides would declare a two-week cease-fire in exchange for President Ashraf Ghani’s resignation and the start of talks on setting up a transitional government, according to two people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations.

That opportunity, which hasn’t been previously reported, was lost when Ghani fled the country, according to the people. Ghani’s decision to leave Afghanistan — he said he did so to avoid a bloodbath — surprised his negotiating team in Doha, American diplomats and even his chief of staff and other top aides, said the people.

This, it seems to me, is where the real intelligence failure begins. Not even Ghani’s own ministers, according to current reports, knew he was going to flee, possibly with a chunk of cash.

And that has repercussions that may explain the rest. In his speech on Afghanistan last night, Biden described Ghani refusing to do any of the things Biden asked for in June and July. Of particular interest, Ghani seems to have refused to engage with the diplomatic effort that was undermined by Ghani’s capitulation.

I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.

So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.

[snip]

When I hosted President Ghani and Chairman Abdullah at the White House in June and again when I spoke by phone to Ghani in July, we had very frank conversations.  We talked about how Afghanistan should prepare to fight their civil wars after the U.S. military departed, to clean up the corruption in government so the government could function for the Afghan people.  We talked extensively about the need for Afghan leaders to unite politically.

They failed to do any of that.

I also urged them to engage in diplomacy, to seek a political settlement with the Taliban.  This advice was flatly refused.  Mr. Ghani insisted the Afghan forces would fight, but obviously he was wrong.

No one can claim to be surprised that the Afghan military folded. That it would has been clear for over a decade.

There are real questions, though, about whether the intelligence community knew how far up the Afghan government the plans to capitulate in exchange for payment went. And that question drives further intelligence questions. Ashraf Ghani has been privy to our Afghan intelligence collection. Hamid Karzai, who is playing a clear broker role but it’s not yet clear with and for whom, likewise was privy to a lot of our intelligence collection. The Taliban have had twenty years to learn how to evade our surveillance. Russia has been stealing key technical data for the last decade, focusing closely on our Afghan operations, and they seem quite chuffed with recent events.

If some or all those people have been working in concert, and may well have been since Trump acceded to this plan last year, it would be child’s play for them to hide from US intelligence how far up the chain of command would cede to the Taliban, if not actively disinform US intelligence. And that, in turn, would make it far easier to take over the country so quickly that the Taliban were even shocked.

If that happened, then it was a real intelligence failure that explains why the US wasn’t better prepared for the collapse of the Afghan government, even without excusing self-serving claims that the Afghan military might have lasted a week or a month or a year longer than they did.

What If the US Had Fought the Saudis Instead of the Taliban?

Poof.

Our twenty year occupation of Afghanistan is ending in humiliating fashion. Jim and I are thinking about re-running every one of his posts cataloging the failures of training Afghans who would — and now have — changed sides when necessary or convenient.

While I’ve got burning questions about how Trump and his hand-picked Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, made this defeat more certain, I’m going to hold off on recriminations for a bit. After all, we have two decades of accountability to demand.

I am, however, interested in how the way in which we’re fleeing Afghanistan will influence how President Biden responds to a demand from the families of the 9/11 victims to declassify more intelligence from the investigation. They have said Biden is not welcome at the memorial if he does not respond to their demand.

Families of 9/11 victims say an FBI offer to release some documents from its investigation into the attack has not gone far enough, and are demanding a comprehensive declassification review of all relevant material, particularly on Saudi Arabia’s role.

The FBI offer on Monday followed a call by some victims’ families and first responders for Joe Biden to stay away from ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the attack next month, if the president failed to honour a campaign pledge to lift the secrecy surrounding the multi-agency investigations.

The families want information on who financed and supported the attacks, and are currently suing the Saudi Arabian government in a federal court in New York. As part of that case, three former Saudi officials were questioned in June by the plaintiffs’ lawyers about their links with two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who spent several months in southern California before the attack. Their testimony cannot be shared with the families under secrecy rules.

Of course, if Biden does respond fully, it will demonstrate that, rather than occupying Afghanistan for two decades, we should have been fighting the Saudis.

And yet, we remained allies with the Saudis, continuing to let Saudis like Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani enter the US without adequate vetting, allowing yet another Saudi-linked terrorist attack on US soil.

We have hidden the role that our “allies” the Saudis had in 9/11 for two decades because if we actually held them accountable, rather than inflicting our need for revenge on the Taliban, their oil could no longer be a cornerstone to our  empire.

We could not hold the Saudis accountable because if we did, we would have had to stop burning oil.

We would have had to replace Saudi oil with renewables, a more modest way of life, and some humility.

We would have, out of necessity, done something about climate change.

We have plenty of time for recriminations about our failures in Afghanistan. But we have no time left to make up for the twenty years we might have spent addressing climate change instead.

19 Years On

Next year it will be twenty years on. A few minutes ago it was exactly 19 years to the minute. The first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 am EST. We now suffer a 9/11 every couple of days in the US thanks to Trump’s bungling of the Coronavirus response.

Fires are decimating some of the most beautiful parts of the country on the west coast. Corona is almost certainly set to rage again with the great “re-opening”.

But let’s take a minute to remember what happened 19 years ago, and how the nation came together and responded then. Imperfectly, and sometimes tragically, from the Bush/Cheney regime. It has all been covered here on these pages. The moment could have created a lasting unity and, instead, was exploited to the opposite. But for a couple of days, it felt different. Let us remember why.

The Republican Party Is No Longer the Party of Personal Responsibility

In a cynical speech that, if we’re lucky, will be an effort to deescalate militarily by imposing more sanctions on Iran (which is not a good thing but far better than the alternative), Trump just pre-blamed Barack Obama for the failures most experts predict and have correctly predicted will come from Trump’s Iran policy. He suggests, falsely, that the current escalation is the result of Obama’s peace deal, rather than the demonstrable result of his suspension of it.

Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013, and they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash. Instead of saying “thank you” to the United States, they chanted “death to America.” In fact, they chanted “death to America” the day the agreement was signed.

Then, Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration. The regime also greatly tightened the reins on their own country, even recently killing 1,500 people at the many protests that are taking place all throughout Iran.

The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout. Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism. The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China to recognize this reality.

I’ll leave it to others to unpack how dishonest this claim, both with respect to what JCPOA did and what has led to the increase in tension since Trump reversed our commitment to it.

But it exists in a larger context in which the Trump’s supporters are both refusing to take responsibility for their own actions, including but not limited to their support for Trump, but also doing so by pre-blaming Democrats.

This has been going on for the entirety of the Trump Administration (indeed, arguably it has been going on for at least 15 years). But with respect to Iran, it has consisted of:

  • Blaming Obama’s successful peace deal for the effects of Trump’s own rejection of it
  • Claiming Trump couldn’t brief Democrats on the Soleimani assassination because otherwise they would leak
  • Suggesting that Democrats’ past impeachment of Trump will have a future effect on his ability to respond to the crisis he created with the assassination

Let me be clear: I don’t think Trump assassinated Soleimani to distract from impeachment. I think he assassinated Soleimani because he’s a narcissist who responds to slights by lashing out, and his top advisors Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo are committed to Raytheon, Rapture, and a dangerously escalatory Iran policy, and so in this case did not rein in the natural result of arming someone with Trump’s narcissism, which is to use force where diplomacy would be more effective.

But here we are, with a dead Iranian general and fewer allies in the Middle East and few adults running policy, which may well be a recipe for disastrous things to come.

Trump (and his supporters’) refusal to take responsibility for their own actions is particularly toxic in this context because his policies and incompetent implementation of them are highly likely to fail, and the only way Trump can sustain support while presiding over obvious and foreseeable failures is to blame some other entity, which in this case includes Democrats and Iranians. And the only way for him to continue failing policies even while it’s clear they are failing is to pretend they’re not the cause of the failure.

Trump’s excuses for not briefing the Gang of Eight are particularly worrisome. It’s bad enough he didn’t do so, both for Constitutional and practical reasons. Even Richard Burr or Mitch McConnell might have advised Trump to take a more moderate approach. And had Trump briefed Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, or Chuck Schumer, any one of them might have said something to make it clear that if he did this and it blew up in his face, they would make it clear to the public that he had made the decision against their advice. Our system of briefing the Gang of Eight on covert operations is a terrible way to vet military and intelligence operations (not least because you don’t get in those positions unless you’re a hawk). But in this instance, it might have made Trump worry about being shamed if he ignored the advice. It also would have offered Trump the ability — one George Bush used aggressively to survive his scandalous embrace of torture and illegal wiretapping — to claim there was bipartisan awareness of the actions, which might make it more likely to craft a bipartisan response if things do start to go south.

But Trump doesn’t like the humiliation of hearing advice he doesn’t like, and so he didn’t brief  the Gang of Eight beforehand.

He owns this decision, and all its consequences, because he chose to make the decision without following the norm that would allow him to share the blame.

But that raises the stakes for him to find scapegoats. It’s a feedback loop, where his refusal to listen to competent advice increases the likelihood of stupid decision and his defensiveness about admitting all that, thereby raising the stakes on having scapegoats still further.

And that, in turn, raises the aggressiveness he needs to direct at his scapegoats. Democrats (and Iranians and NATO) must not be wrong. They must be disloyal or traitors or Jew-ridden socialist countries or terrorists. Indeed, that’s likely one of the reasons why Trump so readily adopts inflammatory slurs with no basis in fact: because he has to dehumanize his scapegoats, to make sure no one thinks too much about what function that scapegoating plays.

It’s all a recipe for increasing violence.

And at the core, on the Soleimani assassination, the case that Trump is responsible is not just obvious — best embodied by his refusal to brief the Gang of Eight even while telegraphing his attack to his cronies at Mar-a-Lago — but a root cause of why he wants to build his scapegoats in from the start.

Afghanistan: A Trillion Dollars’ Worth Of Lies

Jim here.

This morning, the Washington Post published The Afghanistan Papers, so-named as a tribute to Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers. It’s hardly surprising that what we learn from the collection of documents is that the US has been lying about Afghanistan since the very earliest days of the war:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

Sadly, the war has come at an unfathomable cost:

Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.

/snip/

Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

Those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans.

Left out of these numbers are the lives lost by Afghan civilians and the lives disrupted by those families displaced by 18 years of hostilities.

John Sopko

These documents were obtained by the Post through a three year FOIA effort aimed at getting the raw materials generated by Inspector General John Sopko’s office, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Sopko came into this oversight job in 2012 and he has done incredible work in trying to hold the military and the politicians directing military policy to account for what has been going on in Afghanistan.

Much of my early blogging was centered on Afghanistan, and this false narrative from the military that we were “making progress” despite being in a situation that was clearly unwinnable (and that any check of a history book would have confirmed as an impossible task) was a frequent target. The persistence with which Sopko’s team documented and evaluated material coming from the military was impressive, especially as the military continually developed “new” tools for assessing progress on security and on training of Afghan troops, primarily so that they could make comparisons to previous data irrelevant. Eventually, the military essentially gave up on this approach and decided simply to classify the bulk of this sort of data so that their lack of progress would not be noted every six months as SIGAR came out with their Congressionally-mandated reports.

Around the time of this development, Sopko and his team embarked on a new strategy, interviewing various key figures in the military and in related efforts in Afghanistan to develop a series of “Lessons Learned” reports. The documents being released today are the raw materials from many of these interviews.

Finally, as a result of these materials, we now have extensive documentation that much of what we have been told by officials about Afghanistan is a lie:

Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.

But then, some of us have known that for a long time. Back in 2010, I came across this interesting graphic on how the military engages in military deception. It turns out there’s a well-described process for it:

In the Post article, we learn that, of course, there was no lesson learned from Vietnam:

The specter of Vietnam has hovered over Afghanistan from the start.

On Oct. 11, 2001, a few days after the United States started bombing the Taliban, a reporter asked Bush: “Can you avoid being drawn into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan?”

“We learned some very important lessons in Vietnam,” Bush replied confidently. “People often ask me, ‘How long will this last?’ This particular battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two. But we will prevail.”

In those early days, other U.S. leaders mocked the notion that the nightmare of Vietnam might repeat itself in Afghanistan.

“All together now — quagmire!” Rumsfeld joked at a news conference on Nov. 27, 2001.

But throughout the Afghan war, documents show that U.S. military officials have resorted to an old tactic from Vietnam — manipulating public opinion.

In news conferences and other public appearances, those in charge of the war have followed the same talking points for 18 years. No matter how the war is going — and especially when it is going badly — they emphasize how they are making progress.

And yes, I was seeing that this “We’re making progress” claim was bullshit long ago. Here are posts from 2010, 2013 and 2016 on the futility of our efforts there. But there’s one more side of this that we need to bring front and center to get a feel for one of the primary driving forces for why we would flush a trillion dollars and so many lives down the toilet. Back in 2008, the New York Times documented how the military carried out an “information operation” (which would rely on military deception) on the status of the war in Iraq. A bevy of “military analysts” was rolled out to make pronouncements in the media about how well things were going (despite the reality that they weren’t) and they were described primarily as “retired military”. What wasn’t disclosed in most cases was that these same “analysts” were also lucratively employed by defense contractors.

This report from the Washington Post on lies from the military closes the loop with the report from the Times on lies from analysts in the media. Senior military figures lie about how wars are going. They eventually retire and then get lucrative jobs with defense contractors. From these positions, they sometimes pose as “analysts” to spout similar falsehoods in the media, prolonging futile wars but enriching the contractors. I wonder if the magnitude of the lies told while in the military determines the size of the salary once they are hired by the contractors. The net result, though, is futile wars that can’t be won, but with endless spending on them anyway.

Meanwhile, The Pace Of US War Crimes In Afghanistan Accelerates Dramatically

Jim here.

Some of you might remember that long ago, I used to blog nearly daily on the never-ending US military misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. The issues of torture, night raids, death squads, secret prisons, and then drones all made it obvious to anyone who was paying attention that the senseless crimes carried out under cover of the US “war effort” were creating new enemies faster than our forces were removing them from the battlefield. Spencer Ackerman today noted a new report from Human Rights Watch that gave me a serious flashback to the days of following those issues closely. What I saw there was jarring. It is clear that under Trump, what Obama had tried to pretty up and hide (even though it still went on) came back into more openness than at any time. Human Rights Watch pulls no punches in labeling many of the things they found as war crimes.

In a post nearly ten years ago, I noted, as usual, that things in Afghanistan were going poorly. That post, as I’m sure many of my posts around that time did, linked to one of the most seminal pieces of work describing what was really going on in the war effort their under the Obama Administration: Anand Gopal’s piece describing how the night raids that played such a crucial role in McChrystal’s COIN programs in both Iraq and Afghanistan were hidden by moving them to raiding parties comprised of Special Operations forces often supplemented with private, CIA-trained militias:

The American troops that operate under NATO command have begun to enforce stricter rules of engagement: they may now officially hold detainees for only ninety-six hours before transferring them to the Afghan authorities or freeing them, and Afghan forces must take the lead in house searches. American soldiers, when questioned, bristle at these restrictions–and have ways of circumventing them. “Sometimes we detain people, then, when the ninety-six hours are up, we transfer them to the Afghans,” said one marine who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They rough them up a bit for us and then send them back to us for another ninety-six hours. This keeps going until we get what we want.”

A simpler way of dancing around the rules is to call in the Special Operations Forces–the Navy SEALs, Green Berets and others–which are not under NATO command and thus not bound by the stricter rules of engagement. These elite troops are behind most of the night raids and detentions in the search for “high-value suspects.” Military officials say in interviews that the new restrictions have not affected the number of raids and detentions at all. The actual change, however, is more subtle: the detention process has shifted almost entirely to areas and actors that can best avoid public scrutiny–small field prisons and Special Operations Forces.

And Gopal shows just what these actions do to the locals:

If night raids and detentions are an unavoidable part of modern counterinsurgency warfare, then so is the resentment they breed. “We were all happy when the Americans first came. We thought they would bring peace and stability,” said Rehmatullah Muhammad. “But now most people in my village want them to leave.” A year after Muhammad was released, his nephew was detained. Two months later, some other residents of Zaiwalat were seized. It has become a predictable pattern in Muhammad’s village: Taliban forces ambush American convoys as they pass through it, and then retreat into the thick fruit orchards nearby. The Americans return at night to pick up suspects. In the past two years, sixteen people have been taken and ten killed in night raids in this single village of about 300, according to villagers. In the same period, they say, the insurgents killed one local and did not take anyone hostage.

The people of Zaiwalat now fear the night raids more than the Taliban. There are nights when Muhammad’s children hear the distant thrum of a helicopter and rush into his room. He consoles them but admits he needs solace himself. “I know I should be too old for it,” he said, “but this war has made me afraid of the dark.”

So that was how, after claiming to have stopped torture and embarking on building a new shiny prison at Bagram Air Base, Obama allowed much of the same activity that bred resentment of the US presence to carry on unabated. But now we have Trump in charge, and the CIA under him was led first by Mike Pompeo and now by Gina Haspel, who first gained notoriety running the most infamous CIA torture site in Thailand under George W. Bush. Trump was not kidding when he said he was going to take of the gloves in Afghanistan.

From the HRW report:

This report documents 14 cases in which CIA-backed Afghan strike forces committed serious abuses between late 2017 and mid-2019. They are illustrative of a larger pattern of serious laws-of-war violations—some amounting to war crimes—that extends to all provinces in Afghanistan where these paramilitary forces operate with impunity.

It continues:

In the course of researching this report, Afghan officials, civil society and human rights activists, Afghan and foreign healthcare workers, journalists, and community elders all described abusive raids and indiscriminate airstrikes as having become a daily fact of life for many communities—often with devastating consequences. Speaking to Human Rights Watch, one diplomat familiar with Afghan strike force operations referred to them as “death squads.”

Afghan paramilitary forces nominally belong to the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country’s primary intelligence agency. However, these forces do not fall under the ordinary chain of command within the NDS, nor under normal Afghan or US military chains of command. They largely have been recruited, trained, equipped, and overseen by the CIA. They often have US special forces personnel deployed alongside them during kill-or-capture operations; these US forces, primarily Army Rangers, have been seconded to the CIA. Afghan paramilitary strike forces generally carry out operations with US logistical support and are dependent on US intelligence and surveillance for targeting.

A big change came when, according to the report, the US in 2017 allowed Afghan special forces to call in their own airstrikes, with devastating consequences due to the lower quality of detailed intelligence on which the strikes were based.

And yes, the report details that these groups have become death squads:

In many cases, paramilitary strike forces summarily executed persons taken into custody or forcibly disappeared them, not telling their families about their fate or whereabouts. In none of the cases Human Rights Watch investigated did the civilians who were killed offer resistance or act in any way that justified the use of force.

Ackerman closed his piece with a quote from John Sifton of Human Rights Watch:

Sifton called on the U.S. to exercise accountability over the paramilitaries it operates alongside in Afghanistan.

“If the U.S. government was functioning properly, Congress and the Department of Justice would be investigating alleged war crimes involving the participation of U.S. forces, and where appropriate prosecuting U.S. personnel implicated in war crimes,” Sifton said. “And Congress would be cutting funding to all abusive forces as it did, for example, with funding for the Contras in the mid-1980s.”

Sifton nails the issue. Our government, of course, has not functioned properly on these issues since the Bush Administration was allowed to turn 9/11 into a vendetta against Muslims. It became unpatriotic to question any part of the war effort or any of the military and civilians in charge of creating the policies surrounding it. Perhaps today there is a glimmer of hope with the House passing the formal vote to authorize the impeachment investigation of Trump, but things have gone so far downhill in those nearly two decades that it will take a long time to restore honor to anything the US does in the Middle East.

Finally, there is one last small detail to show just how bad the situation in Afghanistan has become. I used to await each of the quarterly reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, as they would be packed with data on how many regions in Afghanistan had fallen under Taliban control or wrested back under Coalition control. Also, the vaunted “training” of Afghan forces and the resulting Afghan force size was important to track over time. Yesterday, SIGAR released its 45th (!) quarterly report (the war in Afghanistan had already been long underway before SIGAR started the reports), but the reports now have zero data of this sort. Things are so bad there that SIGAR no longer can report on these distressing statistics. I haven’t checked, but I’m assuming they are now classified, which is what the military has done throughout the Afghanistan war for the most embarrassing information.

We Will Not Get Peace from the People Who Dismember Dissidents Alive

In the wake of Trump’s announcement that the US will withdraw from Syria and James Mattis’ subsequent resignation, Jeremy Scahill captured the ambivalence of the moment this way:

I agree with much of what Scahill says: I welcome withdrawing troops from overseas. We should never forget that Mattis earned his name, Mad Dog, nor that he got fired by Obama for being too belligerent. The panicked response of a bunch of warmongers is telling. Trump cannot be trusted.

But I think Scahill is too pat in saying “the chaos presents opportunity,” in part because (as he suggests) there doesn’t yet exist “an alternative vision for US foreign policy.”

And while I appreciate that Scahill really does capture this ambivalence, far too many others welcoming a potential troop withdrawal are not recognizing the complexity of the moment.

While we don’t yet fully understand the complex dynamics that led to it, Trump decided to withdraw from Syria during a phone call with a man who has spent two months embarrassing Trump, Trump’s son-in-law, and the corrupt Saudi prince whose crackdown Trump has enthusiastically backed by releasing details of how that prince lulled an American resident dissident to a third country so he could be chopped up with a bone saw while still breathing. And even while Erdogan was embarrassing Trump with those details about Khashoggi’s assassination, he was pressuring Trump to extend the same favor to him by extraditing Fethullah Gulen so he could be chopped up in some grisly fashion.

It is a mistake to think we will get peace from men who dismember dissidents alive.

All that said, Trump will do what he wants and unless the simmering revolt at DOD changes his mind, he will withdraw from Syria and drawdown in Afghanistan.

And if that happens those who would like peace had damn well be better prepared  for that “opportunity” than by simply hoping a future alternative US foreign policy arises. It will take immediate tactical actions to prevent any withdrawal from creating more chaos and misery both in the US and overseas. After all, Trump says he wants to bring troops home, but he has already come perilously close to violating posse comitatus by deploying troops domestically, and that was even with Mattis pushing back against that campaign stunt.

At a minimum, those who want peace need to answer some of the following questions immediately:

What person would both be willing to work for Trump and pursue a policy of peace?

I could not think of any person who could be confirmed by the Senate — even one where nutjobs like Marsha Blackburn have replaced people like Bob Corker — that would be willing to work for Donald Trump and might pursue some kind of alternative foreign policy.

In fact, the only person I could think of for the job (ruling out Erik Prince for a variety of reasons) would be Tom Cotton.

So job number one, for people who hope to use this as an opportunity, is to start coming up with names of people who could replace Mattis and anyone else who quits along with him.

How to prevent the refugee crisis from getting worse?

Multiple accounts of the events leading up to Trump’s decision make it clear that Erdogan would like to use US withdrawal to massacre the Kurds. It’s possible we’ll see similar massacres in Assad-held Syria and Afghanistan as those left try to consolidate their victory.

For all the years the refugee crisis has been mostly a political prop here in the US, it has posed a real threat to the European Union (indeed, I went to several meetings with EUP members in the weeks before Trump’s election where they said it was the greatest threat to the EU). So we need to start thinking seriously about how to prevent genocide and other massacres and the inevitable refugee crises that would result.

How to counter Trump’s fondness for fossil fuels and arms sales?

No withdrawal is going to lead to “peace” or even a retreat of the US empire so long as Trump exacerbates an already unforgivable US addiction to fossil fuels and reliance on arms sales. Particularly with Saudi Arabia but also with Turkey, Trump has excused his fondness for authoritarianism by pointing to arms sales.

And on these issues, Trump actually agrees with the “war party in DC,” which will make it far harder to counter them. Yes, many of the new Democrats entering Congress — most of all Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — don’t have these horrible habits. So what can you do to make sure her Green New Deal not only isn’t squelched by party leadership, but is seen as the alternative to Trump by centrists?

Nukes. How to prevent Trump from using them?

It’s not that Trump is opposed to violence. He’s opposed to engagement and complexity and long term engagement.

Which means, particularly as more and more so-called adults leave, the chance he’ll turn a tantrum into a nuclear strike skyrocket. Mattis won’t be there to stop him.

How to balance accountability for the mistakes that got us here with accountability for Trump?

The movement that brands itself as “The Resistance” has long made a grave mistake of embracing whatever warmed over anti-Trump centrist wanted to loudly denounce the President.

As a result, the mistakes of many of those people — people like John Brennan and Jim Comey and David Frum and David Brooks — were ignored, even when those mistakes created the vacuum that Trump (and Vladimir Putin) have filled.

Trump would not be President if George Bush had not invaded Iraq, abetted by Frum’s nifty tagline, Axis of Evil. Trump would not be President if the banks that crashed the economy in 2008 had been accountable by people like former Bridgewater Associates executive and HSBC board member then FBI Director Jim Comey.

Again, this is about complexity. But so long as those who would keep Trump accountable ignore what made Trump possible, we will make no progress.

How to preserve democracy long enough to pursue a new foreign policy?

Finally, an increasingly real challenge. Trump sides with Putin and Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi not because it serves US interests (which is the excuse American politicians usually offer for tolerating Saudi and Egyptian authoritarianism). He does so because he genuinely loves their authoritarianism.

And as Republicans in the Senate begin to push back against Trump, Democrats in the House try to hold him accountable, and the so-called adults leave his Administration, it raises the chances that Trump will embrace increasingly desperate measures to implement his policies. We can’t just assume that Mueller and SDNY and NY State will prevent a Trump authoritarian power grab, particularly not as he continues to pack the courts.

While numerous State Attorneys General and NGOs are having reasonable success at constraining Trump, thus far, in the courts, eventually we’re going to need a bipartisan commitment in DC to constraining Trump. Eventually we’re going to need to convince a bunch of Republican Senators that Trump is doing permanent damage to this country. That’s going to take building, not severing, relationships with some Republicans, even while finding some means to persuade them that Trump can no longer benefit them.

To some degree, we have no choice but to find answers to these questions, one way or another. It is especially incumbent on those celebrating a withdrawal to acknowledge, and try to answer, them.

Defense Department Rules Data on Failure in Afghanistan Is Not Releasable

Today, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released the 38th quarterly report on the “reconstruction” effort in Afghanistan. We need only read as far as Inspector General Sopko’s cover letter to learn that the Department of Defense has decided that the effort in Afghanistan is failing so badly that a complete lid must be placed on information that provides details that can be used to document that failure:DOD continues to blaze new ground in its efforts to hide its failures. Remember when it tried retroactive classification to hide a report it didn’t like? This is an interesting variation on that play. Now, data that is clearly known to be unclassified, and that SIGAR has been publishing for two years, is suddenly “not releasable”.

Why is it not releasable? That, of course, is because it shows just how badly DOD is failing in Afghanistan. Note that SIGAR tells us “the number of districts controlled or influenced by the government has been falling since SIGAR began reporting on it”. You can bet everything you own that had there been even the slightest improvement on territory held by Afghan forces, DOD would have told SIGAR to release the data and would have had generals on every network touting their resounding success. At the same time, DOD is replaying a previous trick in classifying the actual force size for Afghan forces. I interpret that move to be telling us that Afghan forces are dwindling faster than previously claimed, presumably through the also-classified rates of casualty, attrition and capability metrics.

The ruling prohibiting release of data on the territory held becomes even closer to an attempt at retroactive classification as we move to the next part of Sopko’s cover letter:Just because they don’t want us looking closely at the data from November, here it is:
Granted, this report is from December 15, but let’s take a look at how that claim that “The Afghan Government retains control of Kabul” holds up. In today’s New York Times, we have this:
With Kabul suffering this badly, imagine how bad it must be in the rest of the country. The war in Afgthanistan is now over 16 years old. It’s time for it to take those car keys and drive itself home, because things are going so badly there that DOD is hiding all the data it can.

“Notwithstanding”: How Congress Enabled Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter to Keep Child Rape and Torture from Disrupting Forever War

Back in September of 2015, the New York Times published sickening details on widespread child rape in the Afghan military. The Times’ investigation was centered in part on a victim of child rape who had served as a “tea boy” to Afghan officers and subsequently acquired a weapon. He opened fire inside a base, killing three US Marines.

I had noted at the time that one of the victims, Gregory Buckley, Jr. had told his father just before he was killed that reporting Afghan soldiers for child rape was discouraged because “it’s their culture”. This stood out to me because I had been reporting on the retroactive classification of a DoD report that stated many green on blue killings could be explained by cultural incompatibilities between US troops and the Afghans they were training.

The reports of child rape were so disgusting that Congress commissioned a study by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Recontruction to look into how such widespread abuses were allowed to happen. After all, the “Leahy laws” were aimed at preventing funding of foreign entities known to be committing gross violations of human rights. SIGAR finished their report in June of 2017, but it has only now been declassified and released.

While the report “found no evidence that US forces were told to ignore human rights abuses or child sexual assault”, the end result of actions by Secretaries of Defense Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter leading up to the September 2015 incident are damning in how they result in just that outcome, at least when it comes to using funding that Congress provided.

Here is how SIGAR places the investigation into perspective:

You are excused if, like me, you need to go off and curse a while over the outrageous sums of money we have “invested” in a security force that is failing at this very moment.

But now we have yet another outrage. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided in 2005 that no other law could be used to get in the way of the funding of our sacred war in Afghanistan. Recall that the torture memos were released in late 2004, so Congress rightly feared that much of what we were funding in Afghanistan was illegal and they didn’t want to let those measly laws get in the way of their war.

Just look what DoD had to go through to ignore what the Afghans were doing. Here is Chuck Hagel trying to provide cover in 2014:

This of course looks just fine. We all need a written protocol on how to report human rights abuses. But what happens when abuses are found? Oh, that’s bad. And even though DoD still redacts much of Hagel’s action, it’s clear he was told of abuses but he freed up funds anyway by relying on the “notwithstanding” clause:

It gets even worse. Ash Carter did the same thing, just a few short months before the tea boy attack that killed Buckley and two others:

Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter were fully aware of gross human rights abuses, including both child rape and torture, but elected to use the blunt tool that Congress had given them to ignore these human rights abuses and continue funding the same units within the Afghan military that carried out the abuses. So while official policy was that abuses are to be reported, they then are completely ignored at the Congressional and Cabinet level in order to continue a forever war that is forever failing.

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