New Afghanistan Strategy Essentially the Max Power Theory Of Counter-Terrorism

(I’m going to try, but probably unsuccessfully, to ignore the grotesque spectacle of a deeply unpopular President, aided in his minority-of-voters election win by both the remnants of slave power and of a foreign power, sending more soldiers off to die. That’s America, baby. I’ll even try to leave personal animosity out, with a discussion of his unique pathologies only as relevant to the strategy. Which are very relevant. Basically, I’ll leave out his talking about unity a day before he pardons Joe Arapio, using soldiers as a way to stifle dissent, and how you can’t talk about Arlington the same week you praise Lee. Christ, this guy.)

In case you can’t see the above clip, or for some reason don’t have the context for it, it’s a Simpsons episode where Homer wants more respect, and so changes his name to “Max Power”.  If memory serves, he got it from a hair dryer. That leads to this exchange, where he’s talking about the new Max Power experience.

Homer: There’s three ways of doing things: there’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way.

Bart: Isn’t that the wrong way?

Homer: Yeah, but faster.

To me, this has always been as perfect a summation of US foreign policy as there can be. The need to “do something” in order to “show leadership” and “set a clear standard” is always a disaster, with the idea of reputation being more important than success. In other words, it is somehow better for our reputation as a superpower to invade somewhere and fail than to not intervene at all. It’s the Max Power way.

But never, I think, have I seen a more clear example of this than in President Trump’s Afghanistan speech last night. The strategy is to focus entirely on counter-terrorism, sending in more troops (though it is unclear how many more) in order to fight ISIL, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and sundry other baddies on both sides of the Durand Line, it seems. We’ll also be training the Afghan army to fight on its own.

This could be an interesting strategy, except that a) that’s essentially what we’ve been doing since most of the soldiers now fighting and dying were toddling around in short pants, and b) it is, by design, divorced from political and diplomatic realities on the ground.

Trump said time and time again that we aren’t there to nation build, and we aren’t there to play nice. He gave lip service to making sure the government was viable, but considering we don’t yet have an ambassador, it seems like lip service is all we’re going to get. That basically means that we’re going to be bombing Afghanistan and will be there as a force dedicated to killing, and not, say, helping young girls get to school.

And I get that! It’s tough. No more pussyfooting around, snowflake. Let’s let our boys do what they do best. Kill people and break shit. Right?

Right. Except that in no way has that ever helped stop militancy, and certainly never stopped terrorism. The history of the last 16 years has taught us that. There’s no doubt a lot of people will die, many of them “bad guys”. There will also be a lot of civilians that die, many more with a looser combat conduct code. (US-led attacks on ISIS in Raqqa have killed 100 civilians this week.)

This acceleration of less-discriminate violence will be playing out without a strong political component, which to me makes it madness. It is our Yemen strategy on PCP. It’s doing the wrong thing, but faster, and with the volume turned up on Ride of the Valkyries. I’d say it is doomed to failure, but our Afghanistan policies probably have been from the start, through multiple administrations. This will just make the failure bloodier and costlier.

That isn’t to say there is no political component. Trump spent plenty of time threatening Pakistan and cajoling India to pay more. Neither of these are bad on their face, of course. The problem is that he is treating India like a responsible grown-up partner, Pakistan like a vassal state, and Afghanistan like a colonial battleground. This is part of the weird retrograde foreign policy that has formed within the Adminstration, a combination of the British East India Company and a cult of personality.

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The world here is essentially America’s to do with what she wants, and what she wants is for Donald Trump to make deals. Unilateral if possible, but the deal is this: you do what we say. It’s colonial and personal, and ultimately absurd. It’s clear that Trump is not a good negotiator, and this is compounded (and predicated by) his ignorance of everything in the world. So he likes to say big things, act tough, and then hope that no one notices when things fall apart. It’s how he’s always done things, but now there is nowhere to hide. Even the smart people around him can’t avoid getting sucked into the black hole or his detached malevolence.

That’s why this “policy” is what it is. It is a reality show, Let’s be Forceful, but without any substance behind it. That it is real, and real human being, American and Afghan, will die with piteous cries or in a blinding instant of non-being, makes it even more loathsome. There is no chance at success, but there is a chance at holding up some head or another for cameras and preening about how toughness leads to victory.

You can tell it is nonsense because Trump spent a long time saying how he wasn’t going to tell our enemies when we’re going to attack, a reference to how he thinks Obama did so. This is a reference, I think, to Mosul, a battle for which Trump took credit, even though he spent all fall complaining that the war for the city wasn’t a sneak attack.

To me, this shows that he still knows nothing. He really thinks it is possible to take a city without first massing troops. He’s so cable-news addicted he thinks that we actually announce attacks, and that he’s the first guy to say we shouldn’t. He’s so self-absorbed that he bases his statements on being tougher-sounding than Obama. He wants to project toughness without actually backing it up. He wants cheap and easy victories without caring about the long-term problems. He wants to do the wrong thing as quickly as possible. It’s the Max Power way.

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Life in a Sebastian Gorka Moment

 

Sebastian Gorka is pictured.

Don’t be fooled by his “thinking face”. It’s uh…a bit misleading

In his classic obituary of Richard Nixon, the late and lamented Hunter S. Thompson said that Watergate read “like a textbook on human treachery.”  Of the Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s Veep, he wrote:

 

He was a flat-out, knee-crawling thug with the morals of a weasel on speed. But he was Nixon’s vice president for five years, and he only resigned when he was caught red-handed taking cash bribes across his desk in the White House.

Agnew was the Joey Buttafuoco of the Nixon administration, and Hoover was its Caligula. They were brutal, brain-damaged degenerates worse than any hit man out of The Godfather, yet they were the men Richard Nixon trusted most. Together they defined his Presidency.

Not having been alive during that time period, that was always my impression. Nixon, a snake and a crook, a classic paranoid, and a deeply human monster, surrounded himself with people like him. They brought out the worst in him, but his own personal pathologies empowered thuggish neo-fascists like Haldeman and Tex Colson and G. Gordon Liddy. It was a wholly criminal administration, and that starts at the top.

The Current Occupant has all of Nixon’s terrible tendencies, but absolutely zero of his redeeming qualities. Nixon worked his way up from the bottom, and certainly seemed to think that government existed for a reason. Nixon was also smart, and paid attention to the world, and thought about how to maneuver America as a superpower.

Don’t get me wrong: all of Nixon’s instincts were cheap and cruel, and his adminstration gleefully perpatrated war crimes throughout the world. I also don’t buy the glassy “Nixon would be too liberal for Republicans today!” nonsense.  He’d be leading every Blue Lives Matter March.

He was venal, but he wasn’t an idiot. Trump is a venal idiot. And with like attracting like, he’s surrounded by venal idiots, crawling out of the lowest rungs of American public life. Few embody that more than “Dr.” Sebastian Gorka.

As someone on the fringe of the counter-terrorism community for a while, back in my Yemen days, the name Gorka would float across the radar now and then. I was not in the upper echelon, and far from it. This isn’t pulling rank. But holy cow: everybody knew how dumb this guy was. He was a joke. Nothing he said made sense, and literally no one took him seriously as a counter-terrorism thinker.

Please don’t think this was because Gorka was a “conservative” or even because he is a bigot and an absolute Islamophobe. It was because he didn’t know anything. His ideas were half-baked talk radio nonsense, without any actual knowledge of the subject, the region, the religion, anything. He couldn’t answer basic questions.

This wasn’t a liberal field, anyway. Sure, maybe in our idiotic politics the idea that we should understand the actual causes of terrorism, and maybe try to figure out what is happening in the areas where it thrives, is seen as “liberal”, but that’s nonsense. It’s a field filled with ex-military types, warrior scholars, people who spend their whole lives trying to stop AQ and ISIS and other militant groups. They are people who take things seriously. Gorka spoke apocalyptically, but never, ever seriously.

And now he’s some kind of security advisor (though no one really knows what he does). He is somehow talking about North Korea and nuclear exchanges, and perhaps influencing the President of the United States on matters of life and death. He has the gall to pull rank on the Secretary of State, and then blame the fake news for quoting him.

He’s all over the news. Earlier this week he decided to drop some knowledge of the idea of lone wolf terrorists.

“There’s no such thing as a lone wolf,” Gorka said.

“That was a phrase invented by the last administration to make Americans stupid … There has never been a serious attack or a serious plot that was unconnected from ISIS or al Qaeda,” he continued.

“At least through the ideology and the TTPs, the tactics, the training, the techniques and the procedures that they supply through the internet.”

This is perfect Gorka. A lot of CT Twitter and the internet has disproven the idea that there haven’t been any lone wolf attacks, but that’s sort of beside the point. Absolutely  no one claims that attacks happen in complete isolation. No one would imply that people wake up and decide to kill in the name of ISIS without ever having heard of ISIS. Everyone agrees that ISIS deliberately inspires people to become radicalized, taking advantage of people lost in our weird dissolved modernity. That’s their goal. They’re really good at it.

But that doesn’t mean these are all coordinated attacks. Very few are! The term “lone wolf” is inelegant and misleading and probably stupid, but Gorka is arguing against a point of view that doesn’t exist. But he doesn’t care. I don’t even think he is deliberately lying. I think he just doesn’t really understand the issues, and doesn’t know how to think about them, except through the narrowest fake tough-guy lenses.

I don’t even think he’s lying when he says the last administration invented the term to “make Americans stupid.” I think he actually believes that. Maybe because, in his specific case, it worked? I don’t want to delve into that.

My point is, Trump empowers these guys. There are very hawkish CT figures who I disagree with, but who are serious thinkers. Trump isn’t bringing them on. He’s brought on the worst of Fox News cannibals and Breitbart culture warriors who think every issue is entirely about liberals. He’s filling his administration with every sexless geek and vicious carny in the world of American bigotry. It’s an administration perfectly in his image.

And because of that, they are all over the news. Puffed up bigot and know-nothing dope Gorka gets to go on TV and be called doctor while spouting his nonsense. We’re in a timeline where nuclear war with North Korea and all fates depend partly, even slightly, even infinitesimally, on Sebastian Gorka. That’s enough for impeachment to me.

NATO is “No Longer Obsolete”. Trump Still Doesn’t Understand What NATO Is

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One of these men is the most powerful in the world. 

Yesterday, during a news conference in which he said that he wouldn’t label China a currency manipulator, Donald Trump also claimed that he had fixed NATO’s terrorism problems.

At a joint press conference with Mr Stoltenberg, Mr Trump said: “The secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more Nato can do in the fight against terrorism.

“I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism.

“I said it [Nato] was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”

It’s actually pretty breathtaking. Because NATO countries were always fighting terrorism, from before September 11th, of course, but certainly after, when it invoked, for the first time ever Chapter 5, a mutual defense agreement. But it’s a neat trick, complaining that something already happening should happen, and then taking credit when it still is. Temporally, it’s sort of the mirror image of the great Mitch Hedberg line: “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.”

It’s the same thing with the Chinese currency manipulation (they haven’t been artificially devaluing Renmimbi for three years, by all accounts, in fact, the opposite). That Trump was accusing them of manipulation was correct, if he was talking about years ago. Chances are he didn’t know that, and didn’t care. But now that they are no longer doing so, he can claim it was his tough talk. It’s like saying “I’ve been telling people for years we should draw heat from earth’s yellow sun, and now people are saying, ‘you’re right, you’re so right, we should’. A lot of people are saying that, and now we are.”

(And it is terrible for Stoltenberg, who has to stand there, and can’t immediately call Trump out for being such a doughy liar. It’s a classic weak-fingered power move by someone steeped in the artifical world of real estate and failed casinos.)

The only inkling of credit that Trump could take is that he drew a spotlight on how member nations need to contribute more of their GDP to national defense, but that was already going up anyway.

But that’s sort of the point. Because you want to ask Trump: what do you mean when you say “NATO wasn’t fighting terrorism”, and that now they are. Do you mean that:

  • None of the member states were doing so? Does that include the UK or Canada? Because they clearly were.
  • Did you mean in Afghanistan? Because NATO member nations, under the auspices of the International Security Assistance Force, have been there since 2001. Granted, not every member nation sent soliders, but most contributed in one way or the other.
  • Do you mean, more vaguely, that they are doing nothing to “fight terrorism” in terms of bombing ISIS, or sending troops into Syria/Iraq? Because that’s not entirely true, nor is it the only way to “Fight terrorism”. Pretty sure that Belgium and France are trying to combat ISIS attacks in their countries.
  • But, more to the point, what changed? How are they “no longer obsolete”? Can you point to any actual differences, other than perhaps raising the percent of GDP spent on defense, which you can’t really take credit for, but more to the point, would not have changed anything tactically?

It’s obvious he couldn’t answer any of these questions, and that gets to the real heart of the matter: Donald Trump still doesn’t know what NATO actually is. He really seems to think it is an independent fighting force instead of a collection of nations who sometimes fight under a more unified banner with a central command (as in Kosovo). But there are no, like, standing NATO forces or NATO air force that these countries are not contributing to.

To say NATO has been obsolete is to say that every member nation refuses to take terrorism seriously, which even Trump couldn’t actually think (or, I guess, he could). He might mean that “NATO” should do more to coerce members to step up, which isn’t how it works. But there is no way to interpret his comments that comports with the reality of NATO.

Member states do, of course, have to contribute to what is NATO overhead, but even that is not the same, and not in the way he thinks. That’s why he embarassed himself when Angela Merkel came to visit. He most likely didn’t actually hand Merkel a bill, but he still tweeted that Germany owes…

To which The Guardian explained

Ultimately, members’ contributions are based on each nation’s capability. Therefore, Nato member nations do not “owe” or have to compensate any other country.

On Saturday Ivo Daalder, who was permanent representative to Nato from 2009 to 2013, respond to Trump in a series of tweets.

“Sorry, Mr President, that’s not how Nato works,” he wrote. “The US decides for itself how much it contributes to defending Nato. This is not a financial transaction, where Nato countries pay the US to defend them. It is part of our treaty commitment.”

But I think the “obsolete” comments go even further. Because there is no NATO except for an agreement between nations, there is nothing to change except for what the nations themselves are doing. And I don’t see any big change since January 20th. Some countries are more aggressive than others in combatting ISIS/AQ, and some have different priorities, but all contribute. It’s always been that way, since that terrible September day, when our strongest allies rallied around a battered and stunned United States, and did so thorugh 15 terrible years and multiple Presidents. It’s still the same, even though Trump refuses to understand that, and continues to take credit for the actions of others.

Yemen’s “Areas of Active Hostilities”: A Tautology for the 21st Century

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Remember that things can somehow always get worse. Image from BBC

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is exploring how to dismantle or bypass Obama-era constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks, commando raids and other counterterrorism missions outside conventional war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations.

Already, President Trump has granted a Pentagon request to declare parts of three provinces of Yemen to be an “area of active hostilities” where looser battlefield rules apply. That opened the door to a Special Operations raid in late January in which several civilians were killed, as well as to the largest-ever series of American airstrikes targeting Yemen-based Qaeda militants, starting nearly two weeks ago, the officials said.

“Areas of active hostilities” is an interesting phrase, one that is both clinical and carries within it a depth of soon-to-be-explored horrors. It’s a holdover from the Obama administration (whose worst legacy will be handing over a set of dangerous tools to a madman), and one that looks to be exploited by Donald Trump and his band.

Essentially, declaring an area to be one of active hostility means that there doesn’t need to be a Presidential-level approval for missions, and that the rules of engagement regarding civilians are loosened. The Times described it as “open(ing) the throttle” on counterterrorism activities.

The main problem with this, aside from the increased casualties in civilians and military personnel, is that it essentially becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a tautology. If you declare an area to be actively hostile, and treat it as such, and say, lose a Navy Seal while killing a dozen children, then it becomes more hostile, and the question of whether or not there is conflict becomes self-answering (if the area wasn’t hostile, we wouldn’t have lost a Seal, right?)

In Yemen, this sort of policy will almost certainly be a disaster. Let’s look at the confluence of forces. Many of these came under the Obama administration, and have been exacerbated by Trump.

  • The support for Saudi Arabia’s scorched earth campaign against the Huthis. Expect this support to increase, even vocally, as the administration tries to work a grand bargain of anti-Iran Arab nations (part of its Israel/Palestine plan, led by noted regional expert Jared Kushner).
  • The relentless viewing of Yemen through a strict counterterrorism lens, which leads to more militancy, and a strengthening of AQAP and, to an extent, ISIS (though I think AQAP will prove to be stronger in Yemen).
  • The confluence of Yemen with Iran, never entirely true, and now wildly and dangerously exaggerated.
  • An increase in boots-oriented and civilian-dismissing CT activities, designed so that a know-nothing President can appear tough. I don’t expect US military commanders and personnel to go Kilgore in Yemen, but the loosening of the rules will lead to more conflict, with its higher chances of casualties and civilian deaths. The fact that it is common knowledge that the Administration approves of this only makes America and American intentions look worse.
  • And speaking of American intentions, the hateful illogic of the travel ban solidifies the AQ/ISIS narrative that the West has declared war on Islam, and Islam has to protect itself. That the huffing and bloated face of Islamaphobia is now the face of the nation is an incredible gift to our enemies, and all his actions so far have proven their point.
  • One of his other actions is to gut foreign aid and the State Department. Due to the war, continued drought, and decades of mismanaged resources, Yemen is on the brink of a catastrophic famine. ISIS can’t feed everyone; nor can AQAP. This is an area where the US, and the West, can actually make a difference. But instead, we are going to cut aid, which barely makes a dent on our budget, to appeal to xenophobes.

It’s hard to overstate how crazy that is (not to mention bleakly immoral). Donald Trump and the Republicans are the only people in the world who think there is a purely military solution to radical Islamic terrorism. The idea that on the brink of a hideous humanitarian catastrophe the right course of action is to 1) reduce aid and 2) increase military activity is madness. It’s the best way to ensure that you are seen as the enemy for generations to come.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think sending grain is going to “solve” Yemen. This is a long-term internal issue that partly has to answer the question of what Yemen really is, and whether a unified Yemen is possible or desirable. But the US and the West have a role to play, and the only way to do that is build trust with political and tribal leaders on all sides.

Backing war criminals, demonizing Muslims at home, turning your back on suffering Muslims around the world, ignoring famine, and treating a country entirely as a problem for bombs and guns will is the exact opposite of what we want to do. It guarantees Yemen stays a war zone. The massive human suffering will radiate around the peninsula and across the sea. It’s the best way to make every area actively hostile.

Karen Greenberg’s Counterterrorism Reminder: Being Fearful Is Not Being Smart

 

 

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This might seem like a lot, but it should be noted that a mature democracy shouldn’t have any

 

What we’ve done to “keep us safe” has been not just immoral, but counterproductive. In hot seasons like this, it’s a reminder that our values aren’t to be shrugged off. 

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Thursday Quick Hits: Charlotte and Expressways; The Balance of Capitalism; and the US vs. Saudi Arabia (but only a little)

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A neighborhood set to be destroyed to make the 290 in Chicago. Image from WBEZ

We’re talking about the building of highways is one of the hidden racial histories in the US, and much more.

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