Threat assessment is always difficult. Charles Lindberg and the original America First crowd didn’t see Hitler and the Nazis as much of a threat. They were over there. That was none of our business – and Hitler had made Germany prosperous once again, and as for those Fascists down in Italy, at least Mussolini made the trains run on time. These weren’t bad people – but they were. Oops. These things happen. Years later, long after the war, France couldn’t hold onto French Indochina, or perhaps France decided they didn’t really want to hold onto that place. Algeria, much closer to home, was more of a threat, an immediate problem. But America saw a threat. America saw dominos, friendly but weak governments falling one by one to the communists, everywhere. America, with the UN, had stopped that in Korea. Now it was time to do the same in Vietnam. We went in to end what we had assessed to be a real threat to everything we were – but of course nothing is that simple.
There were those Pentagon Papers. Robert McNamara had commissioned a “secret history” of the Vietnam War. The Rand Corporatism compiled one. Daniel Ellsberg stole a copy and made copies for the New York Times and the Washington Post. They printed what they could. The Nixon administration told them to stop, and asked for a cease-and-desist order. The courts say no, they didn’t have to stop. And then everyone knew the whole thing had been nonsense all along. The threat was minimal. The threat was nonexistent. Everyone had known that all along, and then the public pretended that they had known that all along. Those scruffy long-haired hippie kids had been right.
America had learned its lesson. Don’t go to war in a foreign land unless you’re sure there’s a massive and verifiable threat right there, right now. And then America forgot its lesson. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We were there eight years and now Iraq is becoming a client state of Iran. We’re still in Afghanistan, seventeen years later, and about to hand the place back to the Taliban and leave, on the promise that they’ll be nice to the actual Afghan government there. And we’re pulling our two thousand troops out of Syria. President Trump has said there’s no threat there now, thanks to him. President Trump also said there’s no threat from North Korea, now, thanks to him.
That’s his threat assessment, but of course he has to compete with the yearly “National Threat Assessment” that the heads of the FBI and CIA and NSA and all the rest deliver to Congress in open session. Threat assessment is always difficult:
President Trump pushed back on Wednesday against his intelligence chiefs’ national security assessments, saying that “the Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran,” and defended his own, more positive appraisals of the threats North Korea and the Islamic State pose to the United States.
“Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter.
They may have all those “assets” (spies) everywhere, and their amazing satellites and all the rest, but he knows better:
In a series of posts the day after senior American intelligence officials briefed Congress and directly contradicted some of Mr. Trump’s rosier estimations, the president reasserted his own conclusions and trumpeted his accomplishments on critical national security matters. He said that the Islamic State’s control in parts of Iraq and Syria “will soon be destroyed” and that there was a “decent chance of Denuclearization” in North Korea.
On Tuesday, top intelligence officials described a different Iran than the president has, one that is not currently trying to make a nuclear bomb and appears to be complying with a 2015 nuclear agreement, even after Mr. Trump promised last year to withdraw from it.
On Syria, intelligence officials said the Islamic State would go on “to stoke violence” with thousands of fighters there and in Iraq, and with 12 networks around the world. They also said North Korea was not likely to permanently shed its nuclear weapons – contradicting a prediction Mr. Trump has made based on what he has called the “best” relationship the two nations have ever had.
This won’t do:
Mr. Trump announced in December a plan to withdraw American troops from Syria after concluding that “we have won” against the Islamic State. Prominent members of his own party have denounced what Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, on Tuesday called “a precipitous withdrawal” of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
And now Trump is really angry:
President Donald Trump seethed Wednesday morning as he watched the highlights of his intelligence chiefs testifying on Capitol Hill and singled out Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats by name during his morning rant, two people with knowledge of the outburst tell CNN.
The President didn’t see Coats’ full testimony in front of lawmakers that took place on Tuesday, but he was furious Wednesday as he watched television chyrons blare that the officials had contradicted him. The snippets of Coats saying that North Korea had “halted its provocative behavior related to its WMD program” but was unlikely to “completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities” angered him…
Trump made his displeasure with the intelligence team clear on Twitter just after 6 a.m. Wednesday, but he didn’t single Coats out in his tweets like he did verbally.
This leak, from two people with knowledge of the outburst, may be those two saying look, he does have some self-control. He didn’t fire Dan Coats on the spot. But threat assessment is still hard. Tim Hume covers that:
Donald Trump gave a cautiously optimistic take on Afghanistan Wednesday, saying negotiations with the Taliban were “proceeding well.”
“Fighting continues, but the people of Afghanistan want peace in this never-ending war,” Trump said. “We will soon see if talks will be successful.”
His comments followed a breakthrough announcement by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad Monday that talks between American and Taliban representatives in Qatar had yielded an agreement – in principle – on the framework of a peace deal.
We’ll leave, because there is no threat there now, but something is wrong here:
The framework faces obvious hurdles to reaching a lasting peace deal, experts said, most glaringly the Taliban’s refusal to sit down directly with the Afghan government, which it views as illegitimate. Others worry this peace deal isn’t really about peace at all.
“The actual aim is to provide the United States with a means of escape,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. “All that Washington cares about at this point is getting out, without having to admit defeat.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani warned in a televised address Monday that a deal without his government’s involvement could trigger a repeat of the catastrophic bloodshed that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Now add this:
Even if the Taliban changes course and agrees to negotiate with the Afghan government, there are legitimate questions over whether the militant group can be trusted to follow through on their commitments.
“It really depends on how much you can trust the Taliban when they make these commitments,” said Aaditya Dave, a research analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
Experts have warned that a U.S. withdrawal could be disastrous for Afghanistan.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under President Barack Obama, predicted that the Taliban would retake the country if the U.S. withdraws in the next 18 months.
And then it’s all for nothing, and David Rohde adds a bit more to that:
For now, leaders across the region are also embracing the talks. After years of thwarting American efforts, Pakistan’s military, at the request of the United States, recently released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a founder of the Taliban, and allowed him to lead the peace talks with American diplomats in Qatar. Iran, Russia, and China, meanwhile, see a chance to achieve a long-running goal: getting American forces out of their back yard. And the Taliban, who are militarily strong but unpopular in Afghanistan’s cities, may sense an opportunity as well.
That’s good news:
The news sparked surprise – and applause – from American diplomats who have tried and failed to negotiate with the Taliban in the past. “I think this is the beginning of a credible process for the first time in ten years,” Dan Feldman, who served as the Obama Administration’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me.
And then there’s bad news:
Former diplomats warn that confusing and contradictory messaging from Trump will derail the talks. Last month, the President tweeted, without having informed America’s allies, that he was withdrawing all U.S. forces from Syria. Days later, news leaked that the White House had ordered the Pentagon to withdraw half of the fourteen thousand troops currently serving in Afghanistan. But the Syria announcement – which provoked the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis – was later walked back. And this week Pentagon officials said that they have received no orders to withdraw the seven thousand troops from Afghanistan.
They have received no orders, but there are tweets:
Trump, in publicly telegraphing his desire to pull out all American troops, Feldman told me, weakens the hands of American negotiators. The Taliban may, in fact, conclude that they could simply wait for U.S. forces to withdraw and then take control of the country. “The Taliban recognize that the U.S. commitment is waning,” Feldman said. “By announcing that precipitously, you take off the table our best leverage.”
That is what tweets do, and Max Boot adds this:
President Trump is already pulling U.S. troops out of Syria and is likely to pull them out of Afghanistan, too, assuming that a tentative peace deal with the Taliban is finalized. Although Trump initially claimed that the United States had won in Syria, the real impetus for both moves is a widespread sense, shared by Trump supporters and critics alike, that not only aren’t we winning, but that also we can’t possibly win these “forever wars,” no matter how long we stay.
“There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy,” wrote strategist and travel writer Robert D. Kaplan in the New York Times. Veteran diplomats Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, meanwhile, wrote for NPR that “ISIS isn’t Germany or Japan, where the U.S. and its allies broke those regimes’ will to fight, destroyed all their war-making capacity, eradicated their fascist state ideologies and helped reshape a new environment for two democratic countries. For the U.S. to achieve that goal in Syria is mission impossible.”
That’s cold hard realism, but Boot prefers this alternative to that sort of thing:
James Dobbins, a former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his colleagues at Rand are closer to the mark when they write: “Winning may not be an available option, but losing certainly is. A precipitous departure, no matter how rationalized, will mean choosing to lose. The result would be a blow to American credibility, the weakening of deterrence and the value of U.S. reassurance elsewhere, an increased terrorist threat emanating from the Afghan region, and the distinct possibility of a necessary return there under worse conditions.”
Boot prefers that sort of realism:
In fighting these insurgents, the United States needs to eschew its big-war mind-set. Yes, there will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri. But even victory in World War II would have been squandered as readily as victory in World War I if the United States hadn’t kept troops in Europe and Asia for 73 years and counting. The longer U.S. troops stay anywhere, the greater their chances of achieving our objectives. When U.S. troops pull out, the consequences are usually costly, whether it’s the communist takeover of Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam in 1975 or the rise of the Islamic State after 2011. And, while the Viet Cong weren’t trying to attack the American homeland, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are. The New York Times reports that U.S. intelligence has warned that “a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would lead to an attack on the United States within two years.”
So there may be only one choice here:
Advocates of retreat will argue that an open-ended deployment is not sustainable. But that’s not true. U.S. troops are volunteers. As long as they aren’t taking many casualties, the public isn’t opposed to their deployment. U.S. forces have suffered six fatalities in Syria and 66 in Afghanistan since 2015 — an average of 18 a year. Those losses are tragic, but in 2017 the U.S. military lost 80 service personnel in training accidents. Training is now four times deadlier for U.S. forces than combat. Nor are these conflicts financially ruinous: The war in Afghanistan accounts for less than 10 percent of the defense budget. If Trump chooses to pull out, it will be his choice. Unlike Richard Nixon in Vietnam, he will not have been compelled to exit by public pressure. There are no antiwar protests in the streets.
That’s cold, but that may be necessary:
Just as the police aren’t trying to eliminate crime, so troops are not trying to eliminate terrorism but, instead, to keep it below a critical threshold that threatens the United States and our allies. This isn’t as satisfactory as pursuing unconditional surrender, but, as we may discover before long, it beats the alternative.
And it beats this:
Trump is not ending, much less winning the wars in Syria or Afghanistan. The Taliban’s promises of good behavior are worthless, and the Islamic State doesn’t make any promises at all. If Trump brings U.S. troops home, he is choosing to lose – and to squander the military’s sacrifices since 2001.
But that’s his choice, no one else’s. And that’s the problem. President Trump might not be doing threat assessment at all. That’s too hard and he’s too angry, angry at those who have thought about this and have made him look shallow and stupid, and dangerous. This only makes him more dangerous.