It will take years for the consequences of 24 February to play out, but there is still much the west can do to help Ukrainians
By The Guardian•
Why do we always make the same mistake? Oh, that’s only trouble in the Balkans, we say – and then an assassination in Sarajevo sparks the first world war. Oh, Adolf Hitler’s threat to Czechoslovakia is “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing” – and then we find ourselves in the second world war. Oh, Joseph Stalin’s takeover of distant Poland after 1945 is none of our business – and soon enough we have the cold war. Now we have done it again, not waking up until it is too late to the full implications of Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. And so, on Thursday 24 February 2022, we stand here again, clothed in nothing but the shreds of our lost illusions.
At such moments we need courage and resolution but also wisdom. That includes care in our use of words. This is not the third world war. It is, however, already something much more serious than the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The five wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s were terrible, but the larger international dangers that flowed from them were not on this scale. There were brave resistance fighters in Budapest in 1956, but in Ukraine today we have an entire independent, sovereign state with a large army and a people who declare themselves determined to resist. If they don’t resist, at scale, this will be an occupation. If they do, this could be the largest war in Europe since 1945.
Against them is arrayed the overwhelming force of one of the strongest military powers in the world, with well-trained and equipped conventional forces and some 6,000 nuclear weapons. Russia is now the world’s largest rogue state. It is commanded by a president who, to judge from his hysterical rants this week, has departed the realm of rational calculation – as isolated dictators tend to do, sooner or later. To be clear: when, in his declaration of war on Thursday morning, he threatened anyone “who tries to stand in our way” with “consequences you have never encountered in your history”, he was threatening us with nuclear war.
There will be a time to reflect on all our past mistakes. If, starting in 2014, we had got serious about helping to build up Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself, reduced European energy dependence on Russia, purged the sewage lakes of Russian dirty money swilling around London and imposed more sanctions on the Putin regime, we might be in a better place. But we have to start from where we are.
In the early fog of a war that is just beginning, I see four things Europe and the rest of the west need to do. First, we need to secure the defence of every inch of Nato territory, especially at its eastern frontiers with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, against all possible forms of attack, including cyber and hybrid ones. For 70 years, the security of west European countries including Britain has ultimately depended on the credibility of the “one for all and all for one” promise of article 5 of the Nato treaty. Like it or not, the longtime security of London is now inextricably intertwined with that of the Estonian city of Narva; that of Berlin with Białystok in Poland; that of Rome with that of Cluj-Napoca in Romania.
Second, we have to offer all the support that we can to the Ukrainians, short of breaching the threshold that would bring the west into a direct war with Russia. Those Ukrainians who choose to stay and to resist will be fighting by military and civilian means to defend the freedom of their country, as they have every possible right in law and conscience to do, and as we would do for our own countries. Inevitably, the limited scope of our response will lead to bitter disappointment among them. Emails from Ukrainian friends speak, for example, of the west imposing a no-fly zone, denying Ukrainian airspace to Russian planes. Nato is not going to do that. Like the Czechs in 1938, like the Poles in 1945, like Hungarians in 1956, Ukrainians will say: “You, our fellow Europeans, have abandoned us.”
But there are still things we can do. We can continue to supply weapons, communications and other equipment to those who are entirely legitimately resisting armed force with armed force. As important in the medium term, we can help those who will be using the well-tried techniques of civil resistance against a Russian occupation and any attempt to impose a puppet government. We must also stand ready to assist the many Ukrainians who will flee westward.
Third, the sanctions we impose on Russia should go beyond what has already been prepared. Beside comprehensive economic measures, there should be expulsions of Russians in any way connected with the Putin regime. Putin, with his war chest of more than $600bn, and his hand on the gas tap to Europe, has prepared for this, so sanctions will take time to have their full effect.
In the end, it will have to be the Russians themselves who turn round and say: “Enough. Not in our name.” Many of them, including the Nobel prizewinner Dmitry Muratov, already express their horror at this war. Likewise, the Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumanyuk has written movingly of a Russian journalist crying on the telephone with her as the Russian tanks moved in. That horror will only increase when the corpses of young Russian men return in body bags – and as the full economic and reputational impact becomes apparent at home in Russia. Russians will be the first and last victims of Vladimir Putin.
That brings me to a final, vital point: we must be prepared for a long struggle. It will take years, probably decades, for all the consequences of 24 February to be played out. In the short term, the prospects for Ukraine are desperately bleak. But I think at this moment of the wonderful title of a book about the Hungarian revolution of 1956: Victory of a Defeat. Almost everyone in the west has now woken up to the fact that Ukraine is a European country being attacked and dismembered by a dictator. Kyiv today is a city full of journalists from all over the world. This experience will shape their views of Ukraine for ever. We had forgotten, in the years of our post-cold war illusions, that this is how nations write themselves on to the mental map of Europe: in blood, sweat and tears.
The confusion over providing fighter jets to Ukraine underscores a dangerous reality: NATO has no end-game and no off-ramps for this war.
A remarkable exchange took place earlier this week between the United States and Poland, which shares a long border with Ukraine and likely would be first to get hit by Russian forces if the war expands beyond Ukrainian territory. The exchange was not only embarrassing, highlighting the U.S. State Department’s incompetence, but it underscores what can only be described as a complete absence of strategy among the NATO allies, which appear to have no end-game and no off-ramps in mind for Ukraine and Russia.
Here’s what happened. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Sunday that Poland has a “green light” to provide fighter jets to the Ukrainian air force, adding that the U.S. was working with Poland to find a way to replace MiG-29 jets (which Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly and fight) that might be sent to Ukraine with American F-16s.https://d26db64193801a286bbefe4cc520e1de.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
News quickly spread on Monday that the U.S. and Poland had reached such a deal, and that dozens of Polish MiG-29s were in fact going to supplement Ukraine’s war effort. If true, that would have been a shocking escalation on the part of NATO. It’s easy to see how Russia could then claim that Poland, by putting its own warplanes in the fight, was now a belligerent in the conflict, and then justify expanding the war into Eastern Europe.
But it wasn’t true — not quite. Poland, acutely aware of what Moscow’s likely response would be if dozens of Polish warplanes flown by Ukrainian pilots crossed from Poland into Ukraine and started hitting Russian targets, issued a curious statement on Tuesday. The Polish Foreign Ministry said it was ready to deploy, free of charge, all their MiG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, “and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America.”
The statement went on to request that the U.S. “provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities. Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes. The Polish Government also requests other NATO Allies — owners of MIG-29 jets — to act in the same vein.”
This move by Poland apparently caught the U.S. State Department completely off-guard. Later on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby responded to the Polish proposal, which he said, “shows just some of the complexities this issue presents.”
The prospect of fighter jets “at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America” departing from a U.S./NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance. It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it. We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one.
What can we conclude from this bizarre back-and-forth? First, that Blinken’s “green light” comment Sunday was made without consulting Poland or our other NATO allies. Second, that Poland’s statement Tuesday was a not-too-subtle attempt to shift the responsibility for the entire scheme to the United States. Essentially, Poland was saying that if the U.S. government wants to aide Ukraine by giving it warplanes, Poland would not be the one to transfer or even facilitate the transfer of those aircraft onto the battlefield. They would have to come from a U.S. air base, not Poland.
Lastly, the U.S. response reveals that despite Blinken’s reckless comment, the U.S. has not thought seriously about how any of this would work, and what might or might not give Moscow a casus belli to attack Polish or NATO targets in Eastern Europe.
In other words, there is no NATO strategy, either to assist Ukraine in a way that would turn the tide of the war or to imagine an end-game that’s something less than a total Russian defeat. Last week, Blinken articulated what can best be described as a maximalist policy for the war: “We have to sustain this until it stops, until the war is over, Russian forces leave, the Ukrainian people regain their independence, their sovereignty, their territorial integrity. We’re committed to doing that.”
So the apparent position of the U.S. government is that it must help Ukraine to bring about a complete humiliating Russian withdrawal, something like the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 — or the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, for that matter. If the NATO allies are worried that Russia will widen the war over a couple dozen Polish MiG-29s, what do they think the Kremlin will do to avoid the kind of defeat that Blinken has laid out? Have they thought about the possibility that Russia would use tactical nuclear weapons to avoid that kind of defeat? It sure doesn’t seem like it.
Setting all that aside, though, the U.S. and our NATO allies have just demonstrated to Russia and the entire world that we have no plan to provide Ukraine with warplanes, let alone tanks or troops or other advanced weapon systems. The NATO allies obviously don’t even agree on how that might be done in theory, and they apparently are not talking to one another about it behind closed doors but issuing embarrassing and contradictory statements in public.
As my colleague Eddie Scarry notes, all of this blows up the polite fiction that President Joe Biden is providing strong NATO leadership, and that the alliance is solid and united in confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It also blows up the notion, increasingly popular among neocons in the corporate press and in Washington, that NATO is able to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine and can be pressured into doing so. If the Poles won’t even allow its MiG-29s to be transferred to Ukraine via Polish airspace, why would they agree to send sorties out from Poland to engage and shoot down Russian warplanes? Why would smaller NATO allies in the Baltics?
They won’t — and they shouldn’t, because doing so would be an act of war that would pull the entire NATO alliance into an armed conflict with Russia. Likewise, funneling warplanes and other heavy weapons into Ukraine will bring NATO right up to and arguably well past the line of belligerence. To paraphrase the Pentagon, the proposal is not a tenable one.
The weakness and incompetence of the Biden administration was irresistible to a tyrant like Vladimir Putin. And it may be to more tyrants, like Xi Jinping.
here is a plethora of misinformation in corporate media on the potential World War III. Shocking, I know. Let’s clear a few things up: Vladimir Putin hasn’t lost. The West did not pull together under Joe Biden’s “leadership.” But Ukraine has most definitely won the propaganda war.
The weakness and incompetence of the Biden administration was irresistible to a tyrant like Putin. That left Ukraine pretty much on its own as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and United States were essentially irrelevant. The Ukrainian forces have exceeded expectations, but thus far Putin has not gone full Golden Horde on them. There is also a lot of smoke and mirrors in play, and as noted information warfare strategists Chuck D and Flavor Flav have advised, “Don’t believe the hype.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is no longer a former comedian, he’s a World War III rock star. When pictures of him in full battle rattle out with the troops were published, apparently the United States offered to whisk him to safety. His response was famously, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammo.”
Add that to the Snake Island defenders telling a Russian warship threatening them to “Go f-ck yourselves” right before the shells started raining down. Then throw in a squad of supermodels carrying Kalashnikovs and 80-year-old guys showing up to fight with a couple of sandwiches and a bad attitude.
That is a tremendous narrative of the plucky patriots fighting for their families and freedom. Those stories are all true, or maybe not. Zelensky is confirmed to have made his request for ammo, but the Snake Island heroes were captured, not killed. The supermodels are at least real on Instagram, and the same with the old guy and his lunch.
At some level, perception is reality, and Ukraine has done a brilliant job of getting its message out. Now they are getting support based on the combination of information warfare and actual battlefield action.
They seem to have stopped the Russian blitzkrieg. Kyiv has not fallen and the Russian advance appears to have stalled. There are also reports of major Russian casualties and destruction of equipment.
But reports are not reality, and it’s worth examining them. Many came from the notoriously reliable interwebz and have run the gamut from unverified to happened seven years ago to absolute B.S.
Information warfare is important in the modern social media battlespace, but it means less than the truth on the ground, which is far from certain. A few pictures of Russian vehicles abandoned by the road can be a sign their logistics aren’t up to snuff. Or show that when 10,000-plus vehicles are rolling through enemy territory, some break down or get ahead of fuel convoys.
Video of Spetsnaz looting food from a store can show their troops are starving. Or it’s a reminder that Spetsnaz are commandos who operate well ahead of the chow wagons in the rear. It is clear that Ukraine was not toppled in a weekend, but that does not mean it couldn’t still be or that was even the goal.
It has been my belief all along that Putin never wanted to own and occupy Ukraine. Assuming he does topple the government, and I think it’s premature to say he couldn’t, then he will face a massive insurgency. He was around for Afghanistan, and I can’t see why he would take that on again.
He does want ownership of the two Russian-speaking provinces on his border with Ukraine in the west and official recognition of Crimea. Making a larger assault gives him bargaining chips to ensure he can trade a promise to not destroy the infrastructure for land deeds and removal of sanctions.
There is talk of peace talks. Also, as if to punctuate his previous threat, Putin put his “defensive” nuclear forces on alert. However, talk is cheap until a deal turns into tanks rolling back to Mother Russia or at least back to the newer additions.
But we can’t ignore that for the first time in decades mass formations of tanks rolled in Europe and the leader of a major power threatened nuclear attack. The damage and danger to Ukraine are huge. The return of nuclear brinksmanship is the real loss for the whole world.
The failure to simply roll into Kyiv as the Russians thought they would is a major blow to their military morale and Putin’s image as the strong man. While the wins for Ukraine are not a bad thing, a wannabe tough guy with wounded pride could be.
Putin now has to salvage something he can call a win and at a minimum now he needs to have Russian vehicles rolling in the streets of Kyiv. Even if he doesn’t topple the regime, that visual may be enough to salve his ego. But that means the gloves are all the way off and civilians are in the crosshairs. There are already credible reports of cluster munitions in built-up areas.
We also must consider that Vlad wants a legacy worthy of his exalted image of himself as a major force in Russian history. Until now, he has done nothing worthy of that. Losing the Ukraine scrap is not an option for him. If it starts looking really bad, his inner megalomaniac may dominate. Making Russia the first country other than the United States to use a nuke in battle would certainly cement his spot in world history.
You would have to go back to the fall of the Soviet Union for the last time there was a real concern that a rogue faction would grab nukes and use them. But this is the rightful(ish) leader threatening to use them against us or anyone else who intervenes. You can’t un-ring that bell.
Neither the United State nor NATO was a serious threat to Putin’s plans, which is a problem. He can do a lot of damage without ever directly encroaching on a NATO country and triggering, theoretically, a response. And while Germany claiming they will spend 100 million euros on their military is a welcome sign, what if they had done so when President Trump pressured them to? Maybe a little peace through strength would have been an actual deterrent.
Now we confront the worst-case scenario of a Dragon/Bear alliance between Russia and China. Xi and Putin met during the Olympics and Xi likely told Vlad. “Just hold off until after the closing ceremonies.” Then they made an energy deal to ensure Vlad had an outlet to replace Nordstream2.
Love him or not, Donald Trump kept Putin, Xi, and even Kim Jong Un from causing major problems. He kept the Russians engaged and far from partnering up with the Communist Chinese. He put all of them on their back feet wondering kind of a deal might be possible but also worried what he might do if they stepped over the line.
Biden can barely be certain what decade this is, let alone present a worthy adversary for these world-class tyrants. They are stealing Joe’s (and the world’s) lunch money while he wonders if today is butterscotch or chocolate pudding.
This was mildly amusing during the campaign, but has gotten progressively more horrifying until now we approach a nuclear showdown. Sadly, the vision of Biden as Slim Pickens riding the nuke like a cowboy in Dr. Strangelove seems an actual possibility.
What happens when Xi decides Taiwan and all its chip factories are perfectly ripe for the picking with no one even marginally competent to be found in the U.S. leadership? One year and one month have led us to the point where World War III is not a joke; it may have already started. That hype you can believe and the only thing we can do is “Fight the Power.”
I don’t mean get ourselves in a war or even a skirmish at this point. We have to fight the woke left’s fundamental transformation of the United States into a toothless, doddering mirror image of Biden they can operate like a puppet. While the left is having a momentary spasm of bellicose fantasy, it is not real and will quickly pass. Their nature is to be subservient, and that is what they want America to be.
We must fight against their view of America as the soy-latte sipping, artisanal arugula-nibbling, one nation among many. That means peace through strength, which just happens to be the best way to avoid getting drawn into anybody’s wars.
But first we need to hope Biden doesn’t somehow throw more gas on this potential nuclear barbecue. Elections have consequences.
No one who has been paying attention can honestly say they were surprised the Russians invaded Ukraine. Oh, it’s possible to have been shocked by the timing or because what is currently unfolding is on a larger scale than most people predicted but surprised? No.
What it does suggest is that too many Washington policymakers have been using the Russia issue as a football in a partisan political game that’s gone well into overtime. It’s all well and good to argue about who is to blame – and President Joe Biden, who was also the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine is at the top of the list – and to point fingers but that’s little better than quibbling about who forgot to lock the barn door before the cow was stolen, ground into hamburger, and eaten. The question now, as an influential New York investor of my acquittance liked to say in times of crisis, “Not what are they going to do but what are we going to do?
Finding the right answer is more challenging than some believe it to be. Before we decide what action the freedom-loving democratic nations of the West should take, it is necessary to determine Putin’s intentions. He wants, as many have suggested, to be the one who put the band back together, to consolidate the disparate parts of the former Soviet Union into Muscovite “Greater Russia” that holds sway over two continents if not the entire world.
Putin’s intermediate end game is a matter of conjecture. Is the invasion the first step toward making Ukraine a Russian province? Or will he use pacification (he’s used the word “demilitarization”) and the installation of a puppet government as an excuse to pull his troops back behind the borders as they were before the start of the current conflict?
It’s hard to tell but presume for the moment the former is, at this moment at least, a more likely outcome than the latter. Neither is acceptable, especially if coupled with a move by the Chinese against Taiwan. It would be 1941 all over again, only this time America would be facing a two-front war against Russia and China instead of Germany and Japan, neither of whom could have incinerated the nation’s heartland in under an hour.
America’s victory in that war came only because we had the time to rebuild. Over the succeeding decades, however, we’ve outsourced much of our industrial might to our enemies. The time to rebuild starts now, meaning Congress and the Biden administration must develop and enact a plan to revitalize our manufacturing sector to bring jobs and facilities home.
We must also confront Putin where he’s most vulnerable. Russia has taken steps to insulate its modern-day “nomenklatura” – including its leader and minister of foreign affairs – from the kind of sanctions imposed by President Biden in the hours and days after the invasion began. America must resolve to do more and, in consort with the British, who oversee many of the international financial holdings of Putin and those who influence them, freeze them out and block access to their holdings until such time as Russia’s troops are out of Ukraine.
President Biden must also allow the U.S. energy sector to deviate from the course he set out for them. In the just about 13 months of his presidency, the United States has gone from being a net energy exporter to an energy importer, reliant on nations in the conflict zone – including Russia – to meet its energy needs.
This is unacceptable. The spike in oil prices sparked by Putin’s invasion has been to his country’s financial benefit. Oil and natural gas are among the few things produced in or by Russia that anyone else around the globe wants. America must take the lead in blocking Moscow’s ability to sell energy in the global marketplace directly and through client states like Belarus. That would show Putin we are serious.
Other steps to be taken include the rebuilding of the post-COVID American economy through the continuation of the reforms implemented under his predecessor to reduce marginal tax rates, flatten the tax code, and deregulate industry to make the United States an attractive place for American industry to do business.
By reopening the nation to oil and gas exploration and by pulling back on new regulations that impede fracking, we would lower the price of oil and natural gas on the world market – something that would be to our betterment and Putin’s detriment – until Russia’s capacity to economically support the occupation of Ukraine evaporates. When Ronald Reagan did something similar in the 1980s, the Soviet Union broke into pieces. By most accounts, this was a good thing. One of the few people who didn’t like it was Putin – who is now doing his best to reverse that outcome.
America won the Cold War when it decided to approach it from a position of strength rather than seeking equality and spheres of influence. Putin will not stop with Ukraine. The Baltic countries – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – will be the next to go if something is not done. This will require the forward placement of significant U.S. forces in NATO countries including the aforementioned three so that the Russian leadership knows we are standing by our Article V obligations.
Putin’s ambitions, as revealed by the invasion of Ukraine, bring him into direct conflict with those of the United States. The recognition of that fact should be enough to reunite the internationalist and isolation wings of the American GOP under one banner – a necessary step if we are to confront the threat before us. That must happen before we can move to rebuild the U.S. military, send lethal assistance to Ukraine, develop an energy sector that can meet Europe’s need without having to rely on Moscow’s beneficence, and arm Taiwan with the support it needs to make President Xi Jinping think long and hard about repeating Putin’s mistake.
As the situation in Kabul deteriorates, the Biden administration seems increasingly untethered to reality, boasting about an evacuation gone haywire and lying about stranded Americans.
Americans are stranded in Afghanistan. That’s a fact. You don’t have to have special military clearance to know it, or access to classified information, or be in contact with Americans in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan. All you have to do is follow the news.
For days now, reports coming out of Afghanistan have chronicled the dire situation of Americans unable to get to the airport in Kabul, unable to get past Taliban checkpoints outside the airport, and unable to get through the airport gates because of the desperate and sometimes deadly mobs gathered there.
Members of Congress are even sharing information on social media about Americans trapped in Kabul, some of them terrified of being discovered by the Taliban, begging to be rescued before it’s too late.
So when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki “called out” Fox News’s Peter Doocy on Monday for asking about these stranded Americans, and said there are no Americans stranded in Afghanistan, she was lying. And everyone knows it.
This kind of blatant dissimulation has become a disturbing pattern. By any measure, President Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal has devolved into an unprecedented and embarrassing disaster that seems to get worse by the day. But instead of acknowledging what news reports and social media clearly show — Americans stranded, deadly chaos at the airport, Afghans rushing the gates — the Biden administration is displaying an inability or unwillingness to answer questions or even talk about the evacuation in a way that’s tethered to reality.
Psaki and other White House officials are of course trying to claim that because planes are still taking off from Kabul, no one is in fact “stranded” — at least not yet. They will likely keep repeating this incredible line until the very last plane leaves, at which point they will claim there are no Americans still trapped in Afghanistan even if every news outlet is showing the opposite.
There’s something otherworldly about all of this, an echo of the Iraqi information minister, “Baghad Bob,” who during the 2003 invasion of Iraq infamously boasted there were no U.S. tanks in Baghdad even as U.S. tanks rolled through the city just blocks away from the news conference where he was speaking.
Beyond the administration’s bald-faced lies there is the strange and inappropriate braggadocio about the evacuation. According to the warped logic of the White House, the evacuation itself has become a source of pride, even success.
In a bizarre and disjointed press conference on Sunday, President Biden boasted about the evacuation effort: “We are proving we can move thousands of people a day out of Kabul,” he said, noting that some 11,000 people had been airlifted out of the Afghanistan capital in the past 36 hours, and 37,000 since Aug. 14.
He went on to brag about how the U.S. government has hastily established processing centers in a number of countries around the world to receive the thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan — as if the need to cobble together a network of processing centers was a great accomplishment, instead of an admission that the administration had failed to plan for this inevitability months ago.
All these talking points were repeated Monday by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. The chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport — the mobs at the gates, the warning shots and flashbang grenades to hold back the crowds, the babies being lifted over razor wire to U.S. soldiers — are all evidence not of the U.S. government’s gross incompetence, but of its strength.
But the American people can smell a rat. We all know the administration is lying, and as American lives are placed in ever greater danger with each passing day, at some point the lies will become unconscionable, even obscene.
So far, there have been no reports of American deaths, thank God. But that could change quickly. According to Biden’s timeline, U.S. forces have one week to complete their evacuation, a task that seems well-nigh impossible, given the number of people who are trying to leave and the reported conditions on the ground. On Monday, a Taliban spokesman warned on “consequences” if U.S. forces stay beyond the Aug. 31 deadline.
It remains unclear, too, whether the Taliban can retain adequate control over Kabul over the next seven days to prevent attacks on U.S. troops or civilians from other armed groups, including ISIS, which is reportedly in the area.
If they can’t, and Americans are attacked and killed in Kabul or elsewhere, will Psaki stand before the cameras and claim otherwise? Maybe, but it’s more likely she and every other White House official will emphasize how well the evacuation went off, how many people they flew out in however many hours, and what a smashing success, really, this whole thing has been.
Will the government of Afghanistan survive America's retreat?
It’s not just generals who are always prepared to fight the last war. President Biden’s April 14 announcement that U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 has a long and complicated backstory. Biden said his decision will allow America to put this violent and ambiguous past behind it, to retire the frameworks that conditioned its foreign policy for a generation, and to focus its energies on the competition with China.
Perhaps so. The risk, however, is that Biden’s fixation on settling old scores has blinded him to contemporary realities, has prevented him from answering the question that will determine the future of both Afghan and U.S. security: Will the democratically elected government of Afghanistan survive American withdrawal?
Behind the official statements of Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken is the assumption that our exit (and that of our NATO allies) won’t jeopardize the existence of the regime based in Kabul. “While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily,” Biden said, “our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue.” Blinken echoed this sentiment at a press availability during his surprise visit to Kabul, when he said that “Even when our troops come home, our partnership with Afghanistan will continue.”
The robust promotion of civil society, counterterrorism, education for women and girls—none of this, we are told, will be interrupted when our soldiers leave. Nor will the enemy of civilization, the Taliban militia whose safe harbor for al-Qaeda was the reason for our intervention in 2001, abandon peace negotiations and impose its theocratic will through military force. “We have an expectation that the Taliban is going to abide by their commitments that they are not going to allow Afghanistan to become a pariah state,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the other day. “That’s our view.”
And a remarkably foolish view it is. You know the Taliban—always looking out for its international reputation. Of course there is no evidence that the Taliban has changed its methods, moderated its ideology, or abandoned its ambition to impose the strictest possible interpretation of shariah law on as many Afghans as it can reach. There is no evidence that the Taliban has ceased its attacks against Afghan security forces or that it has repudiated al Qaeda. Indeed, the very “intelligence community” on which Biden places so much importance says the Taliban will escalate its war on Kabul as soon as the last American is out and that “the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
A big “if.” I do not doubt that—for a time—the aid will continue to flow to Afghan democrats, that weapons will continue to be supplied, and that some degree of overwatch from satellites and drones will continue to be provided. But I am equally certain that our attention will be redirected elsewhere, that neglect will lead to negligence, and that within a few years the Afghans may find themselves on their own. There is no substitute for the forward presence of U.S. forces, who are able to assess conditions on the ground, liaise with friends and neutrals, and deter bad actors of all sorts. On this point the Biden administration agrees with me—which is why, even as it announced the Afghanistan withdrawal, it deployed additional troops to Germany and conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea.
Biden’s argument is that a U.S. military footprint is no longer required in Afghanistan, that we accomplished our main objectives years ago, that the costs of force protection for our remaining 2,500 soldiers outweigh the strategic and tactical benefits they provide, that “the threat has become more dispersed, metastasizing around the globe: al-Shabaab in Somalia; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Nusra in Syria; ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia.”
But Biden is unable to draw the causal connection between America’s involvement in Afghanistan and the “metastasizing” terrorist threat that emanates from places where religious fanatics operate more freely than they do in Afghanistan. Nor does he recognize that the terrorist groups he named in his address are based in exactly those locations where America has opted, for different reasons and to varying degrees, to pursue his policy of “offshore balance” rather than onshore residence. The existence of an allied host government is crucial to our ability to intercept, interrupt, interdict, and preempt terrorists before they strike. Biden’s decision to walk away from Afghanistan puts such a government at risk.
This danger is a fact Biden will not or cannot face. He is more interested in rectifying old errors than in preventing new ones. Both the location and the text of his address referenced the history of U.S. involvement in the Afghan theater. He delivered his remarks from the White House Treaty Room, where George W. Bush announced the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001, less than a month after al-Qaeda struck New York, Washington, and United Flight 93. He mentioned that he had called President Bush in advance of his directive. He recounted his visit to Afghanistan before becoming Barack Obama’s vice president and how it convinced him that the war was needless. “It has been well publicized and published that he opposed the surge back 10 years ago,” Psaki said. “And he was vocal about that in the appropriate manner at the time.”
That’s putting it mildly. Biden was furious. He was convinced that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanding generals had set the terms of the debate to guarantee that Obama would maintain and expand the war. His current determination to remove American troops over the objections of military commanders, including the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Mark Milley, is evidence of his desire to prove retroactively the wisdom of his position in 2009. His rejection of a conditions-based withdrawal underscores his disagreement with the generals. He dismisses the potential adverse consequences of our departure while implicitly conceding that conditions in Afghanistan are about to become worse.
Potentially much worse. It all depends on whether the Afghan government can fight the Taliban without the guidance of American troops. If it can’t, then over time Afghanistan will revert to the pre-October 2001 status quo of civil war, tribalism, and Taliban dominion. The forces of global jihad will feel empowered. That is what happened after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, from the American withdrawal from Somalia in 1993, from the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Terrorism followed each retreat.
“I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”
No, he won’t. What Biden will pass on instead is the responsibility for cleaning up his mess.
December 7 is a solemn day for the U.S. Navy and in our nation’s history. This year marked the 78th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, when our nation entered a World War with a devastated naval fleet. After Pearl Harbor, and facing a grave threat, our country came together to rebuild the fleet, which ultimately helped win the war. And just as it has throughout history, the Navy continues to defy the odds and innovate in order to remain the most powerful force on the world’s seas.
More than ever, we need to build for the future and invest in new technologies that will support our warfighters, maximize value for taxpayer dollars, and maintain our nation’s global competitive edge. Equipping our troops and sailors with the best, most advanced capabilities to defend our national interests should always be our objective.
It is in this spirit that the second Ford-class aircraft carrier, the John F. Kennedy (CVN 79), was christened on December 7. This is a huge step forward for naval aviation technology and for moving the Navy into the 21st century. Following tradition, Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the ship’s namesake and its sponsor, will break a bottle of American sparkling wine on the carrier’s hull. The ship is a testament to ingenuity and a symbol of American force, but it’s what lies under the hull that truly sets it apart.
The Ford-class carriers are both the most efficient and technologically advanced aircraft carriers ever developed. The Ford-class will save the Navy billions over its lifetime thanks to new technologies and efficiencies. One such technology is the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which is replacing steam catapults on carriers. EMALS is a critical technology leap in modernizing the Fleet to address evolving threats while also meeting the needs of the Navy of the future.
Currently, decades-old steam technology limits the capabilities of our Fleet in terms of which types of aircraft it can launch, and with respect to the integration of future weapons systems. EMALS allows the launch of the full range of aircraft in current and future air wings. Critically, this also includes the ability to launch drones – something our current carriers cannot do, and which could make a life or death difference to troops in harm’s way.
In addition to expanding the types of aircraft that can be launched, EMALS significantly improves the launch rate. With EMALS integrated, the Kennedy and other Ford-class carriers will have a sortie generation rate (the number of aircraft able to be launched per day) improved by a full 33 percent over our existing carriers. In other words, EMALS allows our Navy to launch more aircraft more efficiently.
The new technology on Ford-class carriers isn’t just theoretical. It works. These and other critical new technologies on the Ford-class will help the Navy stay ahead of our competition. As China and Russia continue to invest in their militaries, naval technology is at the forefront of their development. In fact, China is currently in the process of building a carrier using its own electromagnetic aircraft launch technology. We cannot afford to fall behind.
India and France have also shown an interest in these technologies. Adoption of EMALS by our allies will provide greater opportunity for coordination and interoperability between our navies in training exercises, disaster relief, humanitarian aid and military missions.
As we wrap up 2019 by remembering Pearl Harbor and celebrating the christening of the Kennedy, we must also ensure our nation’s leaders remain focused on equipping our military forces with the best technologies and capabilities possible for the years and decades ahead. The costs of not doing so are too great. Instead of trying to keep pace with our adversaries, the focus should be on remaining ahead of the curve and the envy of militaries across the world. Let’s put the future in the hands of the men and women who fight for our freedom every day.
“The great Christmas night raid in 1776 would forever serve as a model of how a special operation – or a conventional mission, for that matter – might be successfully conducted. There are never any guarantees for success on the battlefield; but . . . the dynamics of war can be altered in a single night.”
by W. Thomas Smith, Jr.
Continental Army General George Washington’s celebrated “Crossing of the Delaware” has been dubbed in some military circles, “America’s first special operation.” Though there were certainly many small-unit actions, raids, and Ranger operations during the Colonial Wars – and there was a special Marine landing in Nassau in the early months of the American Revolution – no special mission by America’s first army has been more heralded than that which took place on Christmas night exactly 230 years ago. Continue reading