C.I.A. under Pompeo to join Defense Department in endless, pointless war against Taliban in Afghanistan

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Afghan soldiers on patrol in 2011 (DoD photo)

The New York Times reported Sunday that the C.I.A. broadened its Afghanistan mission from hunting al-Qaida and developing Afghan intelligence capability to fighting the Taliban. The piece explained the significance best:

“The C.I.A. has traditionally been resistant to an open-ended campaign against the Taliban, the primary militant group in Afghanistan, believing it was a waste of the agency’s time and money and would put officers at greater risk as they embark more frequently on missions.”

The CIA has a complex history in Afghanistan. From 1979 to 1989, it provided weapons and financial assistance to Islamic fighters with ties to Pakistan during Operation Cyclone. The program was portrayed in the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks.

After the Islamic fighters, or mujahideen (literally those who commit jihad), defeated the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in 1992, the C.I.A. mostly abandoned the country until the 2001 invasion in retaliation for the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on September 11th.

With the help of a handful of special operations troops, the C.I.A. allied itself with a group of fighters in Afghanistan called “The Northern Alliance,” to overthrow the Taliban government. The Pakistan-backed Taliban took power in 1996 after a bloody civil war as a partial result of the C.I.A.’s involvement in the 1980s.

Then, the C.I.A. let the conventional military begin what has become known as the forever war: dozens of rotations of military officers and units fighting in 6-14 month deployments in Afghanistan with less than ideal continuity between them. After a decade and a half of this, with troop numbers ranging from a few thousand to 100 thousand, the Taliban implausibly controls more territory now than it has since 2001.

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Afghan and U.S. soldiers on patrol in 2010 (DoD photo)

But now under the leadership of Director Mike Pompeo, the former Congressional Representative from Kansas, appointed by Trump, the C.I.A. is back in the Taliban fighting game.

Pompeo is not known for his wisdom or restraint. As a Congressman, he said many foolish things on national security. Whether he was making the point that saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism” was the key to our success overseas, or lying about the support of American Muslims for domestic terrorists, he developed a reputation for deplorable brashness.

Most recently, he was caught boldly lying about the agency’s conclusions on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and saying the C.I.A., shamed by revelations of torture in the past decade, should be “more vicious.”

So, the agency’s counter-terrorism direction under Pompeo may not come as a surprise to some. But it is important to understand that whether the C.I.A. kills more Taliban or not, clandestinely killing militants is not a strategy. The United States and Afghanistan governments both plan on fighting Taliban years from now.

If the U.S. wants to bring peace to Afghanistan — a prospect it pays lip service to, but there are few signs this is a true policy objective —  the only way forward is via political settlement with the Taliban. Merely doing away with deadlines to signal to the Taliban that they cannot wait the U.S. out, as the top general in Afghanistan recently told NPR, will not work.

The U.S. cannot wait out the Taliban. Endlessly prolonging combat is not a strategy to defeat the Taliban, let alone bring peace to Afghanistan. Yet, the only public strategy from U.S. officials is: stay forever, kill terrorists (and Taliban). The Taliban are not considered terrorists under the State Departments Foreign Terrorist Organization list, but the distinction seems moot at the moment since they are getting the same treatment.

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Delta Force and C.I.A. officers in Tora Bora in 2001 (Wikimedia Commons photo)

To bring peace to Afghanistan, the Taliban must be invited into the political process. They will not stop attacking coalition forces — whom they consider foreign “invaders” and “crusaders” — or the U.S.-backed government in Kabul until they have a political stake in it.

A model for this kind of absorption of an armed insurgency into the government as a political party exists in South Africa, Lebanon, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland, among others. The Taliban is unlikely to come to the bargaining table while the C.I.A. are on patrols killing their fighters. After all, killing Afghan soldiers and C.I.A. officers has been much more effective for them so far.

Taliban control districts remain unchanged from last year, despite troop increases and heavier C.I.A. involvement. Additionally, Afghan soldiers and police are dying by the thousands. At least 6,785 Afghan soldiers and police died in 2016 and in 2017 casualties remain “shockingly high” according to the United Nations.

However badly the U.S. is performing in Afghanistan, its leaders — some elected by the American people, the rest appointed by those elected — continue to fight on aimlessly overseas. As the New York Times Editorial Board quoted retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich on Sunday, “A collective indifference to war has become an emblem of contemporary America.”

Trump Announces Afghanistan War Strategy, No One Gives a Shit

On Monday, President Donald Trump announced his new Afghanistan strategy, but no one gives a shit. Distancing himself from the war under Obama, Trump proclaimed additional troops and no timelines, but no one gives a shit.

Trump did not mention any key strategic goals besides the defeat of the Taliban, but no one gives a shit. Trump was secretive about how many more troops would be sent to Afghanistan or what exactly they would be doing, but no one gives a shit.

“Retribution will be fast and powerful,” said Trump of the war launched nearly sixteen years ago in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but no one gives a shit. By not defining any standards for success, Trump is likely shielding himself from any political fallout as conditions in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate, but no one gives a shit.

In truth, such ambiguity by the president may not be necessary. The American public does not seem to attribute any political cost to the war. In the three 2016 presidential debates, Afghanistan was mentioned just one time—in passing—but no one gives a shit.

The speech countered what Trump has said about Afghanistan in the past. Tweeting multiple times from 2011 through 2013, Trump said the war in Afghanistan was a mistake and the United States must leave, but no one gives a shit.

As the war in Afghanistan drags on endlessly, new benchmarks are created. In July, the first American soldier to be a toddler during 9/11 was killed, but no one gives a shit.

American troops in Afghanistan are committed to two concurrent missions: training and advising Afghan forces under NATO-led Operation Resolute Support, and destroying Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) under Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, but no one gives a shit.  IS-K did not exist when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Perpetual war destabilized the country enough to allow room for new radical groups to flourish, but no one gives a shit.

Besides IS-K, new troops in Afghanistan will face additional threats. The Department of Defense suggested that Russia is arming the Taliban, but no one gives a shit. The burden will not be carried alone, however. NATO members signaled that they are willing to also increase their troop commitments in Afghanistan, but no one gives a shit.

The speech was welcomed by the Afghan government. Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, Afghan envoy to the U.S., told AP, “We heard exactly what we needed to. The focus on the numbers has taken away the real focus on what should have been: what conditions are required and what kind of support is necessary.” The Afghan budget is 70% dependent on foreign assistance, but no one gives a shit.

Trump is now the third consecutive president to escalate the war in Afghanistan, but no one gives a shit.

The Google Memo and its Implications on National Security

By now, you may have read about the anti-diversity internal memo at Google written by a disgruntled software developer. In the 10-page memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” circulating on Google+ and now virally, the author (a man) argues that Google’s hiring practices are unfair and anti-business.

He writes that the under-representation of women in tech at Google is not due to systemic oppression of women from birth on, but because of natural biological differences between genders that allow men to rise to the top in tech and leadership roles while women are left behind because they value work/life balance and cooperation.

You can read more about his position and the widespread criticism of it elsewhere. Despite his position — both his opinion and role in the company — the author puzzlingly shows little understanding of gender or technology careers.

Nonetheless, what I am interested in is how closely his position imitates the long and on-going debate about the effect of diversity policies on the military. As Dr. Jill S. Russell, professor at the U.S. Army War College, observed on Twitter, the discourse in the national security sphere is eerily similar.

If you are not familiar with why someone would not want women or the LGBTQ+ community serving in uniform, here are a couple of opinions from what might be considered reputable sources. But let’s face it: they are everywhere and often given unasked.

What the Google memo gets wrong, just like the argument against women serving in combat and transgender people in the military generally, is why Google exists. Google exists not to make products, not to code, but to solve problems. The technology they create does not exist for its own sake.

So even if it were true that women were not as good at coding as men (it is not), it is beside the point.  The problem solving, to be most effective, should be done by the most qualified pool possible. Discouraging women from technology by embracing the status quo severely hamstrings tech companies’ ability to do what they need to do: solve problems.

And that is where the tech word intersects with national security. Not only does the military depend on tech companies, but the military itself is misunderstood in the same way the author misunderstands Google. The military does not exist, as White House National Security Advisor Sebastian Gorka recently argued, to “kill people and break stuff.” That is a product that it offers proudly — you will see variations on that theme on many a morale t-shirt or challenge coin. The purpose of the military is to solve problems, (see Clausewitz, “a continuation of politics by other means” etc.) but it has not in a long time.

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The back of an AC-130 unit morale shirt

The problem the United States has been facing for at least the last decade and a half is how to defend itself and its strategic resources from radical groups operating from mostly failed states without spending more on protection than they are worth. In 2001, the U.S. government decided the military was the only way to solve this problem and since then other avenues of approach, like diplomacy, have been cast aside.

Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not being lost by the combat arms soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen on the ground. And it is not their fault things are not going what one might consider “well” in Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and the rest of the 14 countries where military operations have been conducted under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

The locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy aspect of the military is going swimmingly. Maneuvering to the locations of high value targets, setting up perimeter security, and clearing the building room by room killing bad guys along the way is definitely a “sustain” from the Global War on whatever. They are going great not because they are being done solely by tough men with strong upper bodies, but because this aspect of the military is literally the lowest, most basic skill of soldiering.

Almost anyone can learn to do it. That is why under conscription the vast majority of people snatched right off the street are sent into the infantry. It is why the the ASVAB requirement for infantry is the lowest score you can get and still enlist.

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Living that infantry life (DoD photo)

I say this not to disparage the infantry. After all, I was an infantryman. I joined the infantry after I had served in a support role in a support branch because it just was not as fun and exciting as the infantry. I loved the job, culture, and status.

But we need to realize this status is mostly imagined by infantrymen themselves. Something must explain why they have a job that makes the same amount of money as a logistician safely in an air conditioned trailer while they exist in a meaningless world. Their time in war is spent mostly throwing rocks at each other and walking painfully with more gear than they could ever effectively fight in. The only honorable escape from the brutal monotony is a few seconds of near death experience that they have almost no control over, but can retell with proud agency for the rest of their lives.

This invented culture is then brought to the civilian world through the survivors — whether they were vindicated in combat or not — and then retold in a society where the war is just not going very well.  This hyper-masculine fantasy, of strong men doing what no other could (the inverse of the truth) becomes reality. As Dr. Russell tweeted, this ideal is elevated to the essence of “not just warfare, but War itself.”

Then the idea becomes that if anything disrupts this this violent state-run Männerbund,  the war itself is in danger. We see this time and again in foxhole hypotheticals and fireman carry catastrophizing. (“Could a woman/transgender person lift a 250 lb man with 150 lbs of body armor and ammunition and carry him out of combat?”)

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The soldier carry, the ultimate test of a warrior, apparently (DoD photo)

But it is vital to understand that the firefight is just one small instrument of warfare. If commanders had three choices to destroy a target, room clearing, airstrike, or cyber attack, the explosion would win nearly every time.

We must stop focusing on the details of whether a woman or transgender man can do everything exactly like a cisgender man in combat. Just like at Google, whether a woman can code or be just as apathetic of a co-worker’s feelings as a man is irrelevant. The military, like Google, exists to solve problems. The last thing we need — after 16 years of war with an end forecast sometime to the right of forever — is to scare off over half the pool of qualified thinkers and leaders from the profession of arms with toxic masculinity.

Any other approach is thinking tactically, not strategically. It is bad for business and bad for war.

Both Hillary and Bernie’s Plans for Fighting Islamic State Are Problematic

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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate – ABC/Ida Mae Astute Photo

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have prioritized the threat of Islamic State (IS) in their presidential platforms, yet Clinton has provided much more detail about how she would tackle the IS problem.

In November, Clinton spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations about IS. Recently, she rightly chastised a pivoting Sanders, who dodged a question on his anti-IS strategy by talking about his Iraq invasion voting record. Clinton interjected, saying “a vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.”

Sanders said in the most recent debate that IS was the biggest threat to the United States, over North Korea, Russia, and Iran. But on actual strategy, he has said little, acknowledging that there is no “magic wand” for fixing Syria and that Hillary Clinton has much more experience than him.

Here is how the Democratic candidates’ strategies against IS breakdown:

Hillary Clinton

Goal: “Defeat and destroy” Islamic State by intensifying and accelerating current strategy, but keep American combat troops at home

How? Clinton wants to start a new phase of anti-IS operations that would “deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria.” In Syria, she wants to:

  • Rely on local Sunni troops to engage in infantry combat against IS
  • Increase deployment of special operations forces (SOF) and allow SOF to support allies with air strikes
  • Enforce “coalition” no-fly zones on the Turkish/Syrian border against Assad’s air force in partnership with the Russian air force
  • Lock down the Turkish/Syrian border to prevent refugees from entering Europe
  • Support a Syrian-led democratic transition away from Assad

“We have to try to clear the air of the bombing attacks that are still being carried out to a limited extent by the Syrian military, now supplemented by the Russian air force.”

Hillary Clinton 11/19/15

What about Iraq? In Iraq, Clinton plans to:

  • Allow troops in Iraq training Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to embed in Iraqi units and help target air strikes
  • Arm Sunni and Kurdish forces in Iraq (with or without Baghdad’s approval)

Outcome: A post-Assad democratic Syria and Iraq where IS controls no territory

Bernie Sanders

Goal: Defeat IS while not repeating the mistakes of the war in Iraq using a coalition led by Middle Eastern allies

How? Sanders has made it clear that he thinks the destruction of IS is a “struggle for the soul of Islam” that must be led by Muslim nations with support from global partners. He wants to:

  • Support a Syrian-led democratic transition away from Assad
  • Create a NATO-like international organization to confront the threats of the 21st century and defeat violent extremism
  • Obtain a commitment from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE to make the fight against IS their priority
  • Arm Iraqi Kurdish militias

Outcome: A post-Assad democratic Syria and a Middle East where IS is defeated largely by their own efforts

There are some confusing aspects to Clinton’s IS strategy — namely, her enthusiasm for no-fly zones. She wants to stop the bombing of civilians by both Assad and Russia, but also wants to partner with Russia to enforce this hypothetical no-fly zone (who would thereby be abandoning their number one ally in the Middle East). These no-fly zones would serve to protect refugees, who would not be allowed to leave Syria because in her ideal world the Turkish border is locked down.

“It is more difficult to find flaws in Sanders’ strategy because he has not outlined much of one.”

Additionally, Clinton’s plan to arm and train Sunni and Kurdish militias in Iraq with our without Baghdad’s approval is a bit troubling. After IS is defeated, what incentive do these militias have to disarm and re-enter the Shi’a dominated Iraqi political system?

It is more difficult to find flaws in Sanders’ strategy because he has not outlined much of one. In the last debate he said he agreed with most of Clinton’s strategy, yet hardly elaborated. It is clear that Sanders does not want the US to lead operations against IS and instead would rather pressure other nations to take a more active role in the region. Essentially, his strategy is entirely dependent on external forces.

I find it interesting that he supports arming the Peshmerga in Iraq but no other militias in Iraq or Syria. I wonder if this was simply a matter of misspeaking or if he specifically supports the Peshmerga for some reason.

Clinton seems more prepared to take over Operation Inherent Resolve than Sanders. Unfortunately, whether or not her plan is ultimately more effective than Sanders’ “Can’t someone else do it?” approach will never be tested, because only one of them can become Commander-in-Chief in November — and neither might.