Trump’s turn on Afghanistan

Trump is expected to announce more US troops for Afghanistan tonight.
Trump set to announce more US troops for Afghanistan tonight.


There is no military solution in Afghanistan, at least not one the United States can impose without incurring tremendous cost, both in human and in more prosaic monetary terms.

In fact the war there has already cost the lives of nearly 2,2000 American service men and women along with nearly 2,000 civilian contractors. More than 20,000 Americans have been wounded in Afghanistan in the 16 years we’ve been fighting there.

And we’ve already spent something north of $800 billion in direct appropriations to fund the ongoing Afghan war. War-related spending, including for construction, weapons procurement, and medical care, amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars more.

So what policy solution will President Trump unveil tonight when he makes his address to the American people? He is expected to announce the deployment of an additional 4,000 US troops to Afghanistan, but to what end?

This won’t tip the military balance, though it may help to forestall a complete collapse on the part of Afghan government forces and delay a return to power by the Taliban.

A negotiated solution would seem the only answer here, but no agreement is viable without the backing of the neighboring Pakistanis, and they will inevitably insist on a power-sharing arrangement that includes the Taliban in some new post-conflict scheme for governing Afghanistan. This is something that the United States is far from keen on but which Pakistan sees as vital to protecting its own interests.

There’s no indication that the Trump administration is prepared to enter into negotiations on terms that Pakistan would accept, let alone the Afghans themselves.

As Paul Waldman points out this afternoon at the Washington Post, Trump is now the third president to face the very same dilemma with the same array of choices before him. And he’s likely to come to the same conclusion as the others:

The status quo stinks.

There is no better way forward.

Let the next guy figure it out.

Whatever he announces, one thing is for sure. Trump’s the president. That makes it his war now.

China knows the game

(NYTimes cartoon)
(NYTimes cartoon)


While President Trump’s bombastic and alliterative threats against North Korea appear to be credibility-free bloviating, and North Korea’s are specific enough to be worrying even if doubt remains about their capability, there’s one player in this escalating exchange of warnings who seems to really understand how its done.

That would be China.

The marker was laid down in an editorial published yesterday in China’s state-run newspaper the Global Times:

[I]f North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.

I will admit answering with decided skepticism when others have asked me whether I think China would enter a new Korean War on the side of Pyongyang. But as in so much of international affairs, context and circumstance matter.

As much as China might want to shake up the East Asian regional order to tilt the balance away from the United States and more in its favor, when it comes to the Korean Peninsula, China is a decidedly status quo power.

As national security analyst John Schindler reminds us in his latest column at the Observer:

Beijing regards Pyongyang as a troublesome client whose antics cause annoyances and worse. However, for Beijing, the continuing existence of North Korea—as long as they don’t cause an atomic holocaust in Northeast Asia—is better than all the other options. A bumptious client state across the Yalu river beats having a united Republic of Korea, a close U.S. ally, on China’s border.

Hence the very clear warning issued to both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.

Kim is on notice that if he starts something he’s on his own. China will not have his back.  And Trump is on notice that China will go to war, just like it did in 1950, to ensure the survival of its client if the US makes the first move unprovoked.

The threats are in. I know which one I believe.

Mercenaries for Afghanistan?

Erik Prince, future Viceroy of Afghanistan?
Blackwater’s Erik Prince, future Viceroy of Afghanistan?


The Trump administration is bandying about the idea of hiring a mercenary army to conquer and pacify Afghanistan on behalf of the United States.

Sounds like a cockamamie idea, but no, the drafters of the plan and the White House officials (Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner) shopping it around are absolutely serious. As Sean McFate, himself a former mercenary (more politely referred to as a private military contractor) writes at The Atlantic:

Not surprisingly, the private-military industry is behind this proposal. Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private military company Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the giant military contractor DynCorp International, each see a role for themselves in this future. Their proposal was offered at the request of Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, according to people briefed on the conversations.

Prince, the brother of Trump cabinet member Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, apparently envisions himself in the role of Viceroy of Afghanistan, concentrating power in his own hands while cutting those meddlesome bureaucrats and politicians back in Washington out of the picture.

As Prince acknowledged in an interview with NPR, the proposal is modeled on the British East India Company, whose private army made possible the imperial conquest of India and then for centuries controlled and exploited it on behalf of the crown. Except, as McFate points out, when the British government had to bail the company out of financial ruin in 1770 and then take over for it entirely in 1874.

As McFate points out, there are obvious pitfalls in turning to mercenaries to solve your military problems. The key one, of course, is that their loyalty is for sale to the highest bidder. So what happens when your rivals offer them a better contract?

This would be little more than garden-variety crazy for this administration except that it comes at a time when President Trump is reportedly angry and frustrated about the what he sees as the failure of his advisers to craft a strategy for “winning” in Afghanistan. As NBC News reported a few days ago, the president’s ire spilled out in classically Trumpian style:

Over nearly two hours in the situation room … Trump complained about NATO allies, inquired about the United States getting a piece of Afghan’s mineral wealth and repeatedly said the top U.S. general there should be fired. He also startled the room with a story that seemed to compare their advice to that of a paid consultant who cost a tony New York restaurateur profits by offering bad advice.

Given this backdrop, it’s no wonder some in the president’s inner circle, and perhaps Trump himself, might be keen to outsource the Afghan war and subsequent occupation.

Outsourcing is, of course, old hat to a business guy like Trump. And using mercenaries instead of American troops would also allow the president to indulge in one of his favorite business practices: stiffing the contractors.

Madam President’s foreign policy: US-Russia relations


This is the first of what will be several posts over the next week or two speculating on what might have been different for US foreign policy and international affairs had Hillary Clinton won the presidency. This first piece focuses on US-Russia relations. 

After 188 days of the Trump presidency and counting, we have a pretty good idea of what his foreign policy is like. Simply put, it ain’t pretty

But what would foreign policy have looked like with Hillary Clinton in the White House? At least one analyst suggests it might not have been all that different. Let me suggest otherwise.

It is also true, however, that some developments would have unfolded more or less in the same way that they have under President Trump. Any American president has only limited influence on the ebb and flow of global relations, and so some problems which we might be tempted to lay at Trump’s feet likely would have happened anyway, regardless of who is in the White House. I’m looking at you, North Korea.

With that disclaimer in place, here we go:

Given the unfolding revelations of the extent of Russian efforts to tip the 2016 election to Donald Trump, US-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War. Russian Ambassador Sergy Kislyak, who was accused of coordinating secret contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence operatives, announced his retirement and immediate return to Moscow. The Clinton Administration had privately warned the Kremlin that Kislyak and other Russian diplomats would be formally expelled if Kislyak did not voluntarily step down.

Clinton has also warned that the United States will not hesitate to retaliate should Moscow attempt to undermine the 2018 midterm elections.

The Justice Department has announced the creation of a special task force targeting suspected Russian money laundering operations involving real estate transactions in New York and south Florida. The task force is headed up by New York US Attorney Preet Bharra.

Sanctions against Russia put in place by the Obama Administration immediately after the election remain in place, and President Clinton has vowed to impose even tougher sanctions, though she faces opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress which accuses her of targeting Russia and the former Trump campaign to distract attention from new congressional investigations into the Clinton Foundation’s ties to foreign interests and her handling of classified information as Secretary of State.

The Putin government has responded by expelling 30 US diplomats, closing the offices of American news agencies, expelling US journalists, and intensifying a crackdown on civil society, pro-democracy, and human rights organizations which the Kremlin accuse of serving as agents of Western provocation. It has also openly increased its support for and assistance to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Large-scale Russian military exercises in Belarus have been scheduled for September and, given Moscow’s tendency to “train exactly as they intend to fight,” are widely understood to be a dry run for military action against NATO.

The Kremlin has also ended all cooperation with and coordination between Russian military forces supporting the Assad regime in Syria and US forces supporting anti-Assad groups fighting ISIS, warning the United States that it would not be responsible for any “mishaps” that could occur between US and Russian forces operating in the Syrian battlespace.

At the NATO summit in May, President Clinton reiterated America’s commitment to the alliance and the principle of collective security expressed in Article 5 of the NATO Charter. She was responding both to criticism that the Obama Administration had been insufficiently forceful in standing for the defense of Europe, and seeking to calm fears raised in Europe by a presidential campaign in which NATO often served as Donald Trump’s punching bag.

In a tough speech at the dedication of the 9/11 and Article 5 Memorials at NATO headquarters, Clinton warned Putin against engaging in “dangerous military adventurism” in the Baltic States or Central Europe, proclaiming: “There will be no more Crimeas on my watch.”

Clinton also announced what she called “Cyber Article 5,” declaring that the principle of collective security must extend to the cyber arena. She called on NATO to expand the capabilities and scope of responsibilities of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, stating that cyber intrusion or interference in the electoral systems or democratic process in any NATO member must be met with combined cyber countermeasures from the rest of the alliance.

At the G-20 summit meeting earlier this month in Hamburg, Clinton joined 18 other heads of state, dubbed the G-19 by the news media, in issuing a joint declaration denouncing interference in the domestic politics of any democratic state. Russian President Putin conspicuously declined to attach his name to the statement.

To summarize, under President Clinton relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest point in decades. Putin’s longstanding hatred of Clinton, coupled with her administration’s forceful response to Russian efforts to elect Donald Trump, have set in motion a 21st century Cold War.

¹The hyperlink will take you to a special issue of Foreign Affairs with links to a series of articles by highly regarded foreign policy analysts and scholars. The title of the project, “Present at the Destruction,” gives you some advance idea of what you’ll read there.