Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq

Death of Choice – Aymen al-Zawahiri

The US “took the shot” on 31 July that killed Aymen al-Zawahiri, the identified leader of Al-Qaeda.  Zawahiri had been hunted by the US since the 9-11.  It took a decade to find and kill Osama bin Laden.  It took another decade to find and kill Zawahiri.  There was general celebration of this achievement in Washington. 

There’s a good chance this was a good thing to do. It would have been difficult for a president not to follow-through on killing Zawahiri.  Imagine the leaks to the press about the president who had the second person responsible for 9-11 in his drone sites and did not pull the trigger.

Still it is interesting to consider the alternative. It is fundamental to ignore sunk costs in cost-benefit analysis. The objective is to evaluate expected future returns/risks of a potential action. It’s the future that we can affect. 

Presumably someone in the Administration considered the benefits of leaving Zawahiri alive.  Here are a few possible benefits:

  1. Zawahiri was the aging (71) head of a greatly weakened organization.  He had the stature of being the second to al Qaeda founder Usama bin Laden but lacked the organizational skills and charisma of UBL.  In the decade since UBL was killed, he has not been successful in rebuilding Al Qaeda.  Offshoots in Mali, Somalia, and Yemen are more localized, with local leaders and local objectives.  Under Zawahiri the threat to the US homeland has been constrained. 
  2. Removing Zawahiri opens the leadership position to someone who may be more energetic and wanting to make a name by hitting the US directly.  With the US being pressed from many sides, it’s somewhat surprising we have not been hit again. In any case, Zawahiri was a devil we knew and his track record for the last decade is limited.
  3. A new leader will lack the inherited respect accorded to Zawahiri.  A younger leader may seek to demonstrate leadership by re-igniting the war against the far enemy (US) in an effort to rebuild al Qaeda internationally.
  4. The fact that the US killed the titular head of Al-Qaeda makes his death a rallying point for invigorated anti-US activity, beyond the localized threats in Africa and the Gulf.
  5. The US may have solved a key management problem for Al-Qaeda.  It may be that the organization was suffering under old, weak leadership that could not be challenged directly.  The death of Zawahiri could make way for a new more dangerous Al-Qaeda.

This last point could produce some creative theories about how the US located Zawahiri.  Perhaps the stymied young and hungry found salvation by letting the US solve their impatience with aged leadership.  Letting slip location information is certainly possible.  It’s pure speculation, but not useless. 

In any case, it is a certainty that US analysis of the threat posed by Al-Qaeda post-Zawahiri will be written…carefully.  Analysts in the intelligence community would find it awkward to assess that Al Qaeda could now become a greater threat to the US homeland.

An alternative that might have been considered (I have no clue) to create a third option for the president would be to simply release the image of Zawahiri in the crosshairs.  This would communicate a different message, but almost as powerful, i.e. Zawahiri was alive only because the US let him live.  This would weaken him further, block ascension of a more energetic dangerous leader, and, still put the Afghanis on the spot for harboring Al Qaeda leadership.

But that option may also have been impossible in Washington.  In political science it is impossible to ignore sunk costs.  The events of 9-11 are not just “sunk costs”.  It was an attack on the US that the US vowed to avenge—even if it took two decades to find Zawahiri. There are domestic political considerations not least is the debt to those most affected by 9-11.

Moreover, there may have been many other sensitive information of dynamics that made taking the shot inevitable. 

Still it is worth considering the alternatives.  In retrospect, there seems to be mixed views on the wisdom of killing Iranian Quds force leader Major General Qasem Soleimani.  For all Soleimani’s actions against the US, he was also someone with whom there was tacit coordination in fighting the common enemy of ISIS in Iraq (see Michael Gordon’s exquisite new book on the ISIS war, “Degrade and Destroy”.)

Perhaps most important, I hope the president’s staff did their best to preserve his options and not box him in. 

Posted in Intelligence, Iran, Iraq, ISIL, ISIS | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Nuclear Weapons and Alcohol Do Not Mix

Lot’s of analysts are creating analyses of Vladimir Putin.  What drives him? What are his objectives? Is he psycho?  The fact is, no one really knows.  Analysis that was likewise wobbly surrounded Saddam in his day. It was off the mark and a bad basis for making policy decisions.  Unfortunately, the error band on anticipating a particular leader’s intentions or action is very large.  It’s hard to predict behavior of a single person.  

What’s worse is when the consequences of a single decision-maker are huge. 

Consider this.  Martin Indyk  has written a fascinating and very detailed examination of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic history, called “Master of the Game.”  Indyk was a participant in much of what he describes.  And he meticulously sources his content.

In a chapter called DEFCOM-3, he describes the interactions of the various actors during the October 1973 (Yom Kippur) War.  Anwar Sadat’s Egyptian army surprised Israel and the Israeli army was not holding its own.  The superpowers were involved on opposite sides (well Kissinger was playing both Egypt and Israel sides in way).  At a certain delicate point the US raised its nuclear alert level to so-called DEFCON-3[1] to signal the Soviets Washington was committed to not letting Israel lose.  Indyk describes the machinations in Washington in arriving at that decision.  It took place at a bad time for Nixon.  Watergate was blowing up.  The famous “Saturday night massacre” when Nixon fired Special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus took place four days earlier.  It has been well documented that Nixon was in his cups at the time and not part of the decision.

OK, that’s weird and scary that un-elected officials are making nuclear control decisions because the boss is looped.  But Indyk doesn’t stop there.  He’s unearthed documents and interviews from the Soviet side.  It turns out Leonid Brezhnev was also out of the loop!  He mixed “copious quantities” of vodka with sleeping pills that left him unable to think straight.  Consequently his staff was making decisions on his behalf. Not good.

Well, you might take some reassurance that at least the staffers were solid or sober.  But Indyk’s research shows that both sides were acting on incorrect assessments of the other side.

The nuclear balance needs attention.  A lot can go wrong.  The systems including the warning and control elements are old and I suspect of dubious reliability.  The leaders likewise. The systems, physical and procedural need attention.


[1] Defense Condition (DEFCON) levels go from 5 (lowest alert level) to 1 signifying nuclear war is imminent.  DEFCON -3 highest is “peacetime” level and forces need to be ready to mobilize on a very short timeline.  There are large consequences to military posture at each DEFCON level.  Personnel leaves are curtailed, airplane and ship patrols, submarines leave port, are changed, weapons bunkers are adjusted, communications change, satellites change, etc.  It also has implications for NATO and forces deployed overseas. In short, the nuclear structure is a big machine with a lot of moving parts that can signal unintended things.  Going to a higher DEFCON is not to be taken lightly.

Posted in Allies, Intelligence, Lavrov, nuclear weapons, Putin, Ukraine, WMD | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Putin: Lessons from Saddam

Is Lavrov the New Baghdad Bob? Saddam’s

Saddam’s last information minister and a former foreign minister was Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf–better known in Western Press as “Baghdad Bob”. He was ridiculed for his blatant incorrect statements about the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is making statements that have a similar truth quotient. Why? Maybe survival.

One of the good things that came out of the most Iraq war was the detailed recording of the decision processes of the Saddam regime.  We obtained incredible detail on how Saddam made decisions and why.  There are striking similarities between Putin’s regime and Saddam’s. 

This was plainly visible in Putin’s televised Security Council meeting with his advisors.  The image of Putin receiving a series of obsequious bobble heads was a mirror image of Saddam surrounded by his lieutenants at his Revolutionary Command Council.  They were there to reinforce the position of the leader and share the blame and guilt.   

Of course, the big difference is Saddam didn’t have WMD but Putin does.  So this is far worse, but we’ll come back to that.  

Saddam, in his post war debriefings spoke to many of the same problems that we now see in Putin’s regime.  Saddam correctly observed that his access to honest information and judgments was skewed by the fears of the people around him.  They did not want to present bad news.  He belatedly understood the system did not serve him.  Of course, he didn’t quite blame himself for the system.  

Likewise, the coterie around Putin constitutes the same problem. They too, are snared by Putin’s mixture of rewards and fears, and behave accordingly.  No one stood up and said, “Hey boss, this sounds a little wobbly to me…uhhh.”    Saddam’s leadership deliberations prior to invading Kuwait suffered from the distortions of a leader accustomed to few if any constraints and servants with no rights other than those given by the dictator.  Hence, discussions over invading Kuwait had a decidedly muted aura with respect to highlighting the downsides.  The script of Putin’s regarding Ukraine was, if anything, even more limited.   Those who surrounded Saddam accrued wealth and power, but were subject to the fear of sudden demise.  The only difference between Saddam’s inner circle and Putin’s was the inclusion of his family. Otherwise, Saddam’s bubble and Putin’s share similar characteristics in the effect on the leader.

Both leaders have existed in the absence of outside constraints.  No one said, “You can’t do that.”   Saddam’s worldview (as he acknowledged in debriefings) was incorrect and he partially acknowledged this was due to people around him fearing to accurately inform him.   Those around him were handcuffed to Saddam’s visions and illusions.  Saddam thought Iraq deserved be the dominant Arab country in the region.  He was the successor to Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, and Saladin.  It was his destiny to defeat the Persians.  His aides did not constrain their “visionary” leader although some saw faults and dangers on the horizon.  The same seems true regarding Czar Vladimir Putin.

As for the aides, their fate is difficult to disconnect from the leader. A limited few escaped Saddam’s fate at the end. Those who left early did better. Putin’s inner circle confronts a similar dilemma.  They may see a looming disaster, but may not be able to affect it or escape it. They are chained to the decisions of Putin.  They may wishfully think Putin’s vision for a greater Russia will succeed. Those with younger children who have been schooled in the West and who anticipate a future beyond Putin’s life span or reign must harbor some gnawing doubts.

At the same time their options to affect their futures will shrink.  They are the frogs in the slowly heating pan of water.  It is a classic problem, realized too late by too many.   The fate of dictators soldiers is not good.

Years ago, a friend told me of advice shared between Saddam’s daughter and Qaddafi’s son during the uprising in Libya.  Reportedly she said, you have to get out now, while you can. Things will only get worse and end badly.  This was good advice.  The same may apply to those around Putin—but it may be too late.  Putin’s coterie has diminishing options to do things to improve their own and/or their family’s future.  

So what?   Why should we care?  The reason we must care comes back to the one essential difference between Saddam and Putin—nuclear weapons.  Putin knows the calculus of nuclear war.  The cold war period of his youth seems to be the world he wants to rebuild.    The “balance of terror” of nuclear weapons poses the insoluble dilemma that allows a fundamentally weaker nation to stand up to a larger more successful nation.  Putin can demonstrate that he is willing to risk far more than the US and its allies to achieve his objectives.  The old Cold War question resurfaces, “Will you trade New York for Paris?”  If Putin assumes the role of irrational actor plays chicken wearing a blindfold, we have an existential problem.  

Many have forgotten the complexity and delicacy of nuclear retaliatory response forces.   It is a global system of satellites, radars, warning systems communications, airborne command systems, submarines, missiles, etc. The safety and security systems for nuclear weapons are rightfully extraordinary.  To raise their alert levels is a major step.  Ultimately, the trigger pull at higher alert levels becomes extremely delicate.  If our sensors detect a long range ballistic missile launch, it must be seen and rapidly categorized in terms of type and impact prediction.  A threat judgment must be made and communicated to the President so that a response decision can be made—within the flight time of the missile and Washington—roughly 30 minutes.  Things can go badly wrong and nearly have in the past.  The potential for error in such complicated systems is not trivial.   The Administration postponed a regular test flight of an unarmed ICBM, presumably to reduce the risk of sending an inadvertent signal that could be misinterpreted by Moscow.  

In the past, some near calamities (besides the Cuban missile crisis) have occurred when intelligence, either technical or human, provided indications that were misinterpreted as threats.  In these cases, humans made judgments that a nuclear response wrong. 

For this reason, individuals in the chain of command or in a position to influence the command authority can be vital.   If Putin believes his supernatural boldness can restore the position of the former Soviet Union by risking a nuclear exchange, we may need those around Putin.  Those individuals may be extremely important—sooner rather than later.  They need to know that their interests and global security interests align.  We need to message those around Putin as well as Putin.

Posted in Allies, Intelligence, Iraq, Lavrov, NATO, nuclear weapons, Putin, Russia, Ukraine, WMD | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Pity the Putin Lieutenants? Or, Did Putin Graduate from the Saddam School of Management?

Being close to Putin has its rewards for sure.  But, like other autocrats (my closest experience was dissecting Saddam’s coterie), there are also some severe risks with proximity to the Boss and his decisions.

If Putin finds his Ukraine venture a success, then the lieutenants will continue to do well in the Putin ecosystem (setting aside the effects of any sanctions by the West).  However, if the Ukraine strategy does not go well, blame will be apportioned appropriately (but downward from Putin).  The top advisors must be pretty nervous.  The most visible example is foreign intelligence chief Sergey Naryshkin.  (https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-europe-60485967

During the hour and a half long televised Security Council meeting Monday 21 February 2022, Naryshkin was visibly shaking and clearly lost his command of the script.  Putin appeared to play with him like a cat with a captured mouse.  Of course, Naryshkin’s turn at the podium was at 1 hour and 18 minutes of the hour and a half meeting that had multiple participants, including Putin looking at their watches. Putin may have been bored and just twisting him for amusement.  Nevertheless, Naryshkin looked painfully nervous.  As though he had just dropped a document for a foreign service and was worried that Putin’s counter-intelligence chief (Bortnikov) may have had him under surveillance. 

Saddam had equivalent meetings of his Revolutionary Command Council  (we acquired the recordings).  Saddam would sit at one end of a long table surrounded by a dozen or so bobble heads.  It was exactly the same.  More than one of Saddam’s said later that they were very nervous in Saddam’s presence because they sensed that he could somehow deduce what they were thinking.  A sudden fall from grace, sometimes lethal, could ensue.  There may be a little of Saddam in all of us, but Putin seems to have matching DNA.

Speaking of falling of from grace, there are a surprising number of Russian deaths from balcony falls.  A Russian diplomat fell out of an embassy window onto the sidewalk in Berlin in October 2021.  The embassy did not permit an autopsy and declared it a tragic accident.

Russian investigative journalist Maxim Borokin fell from a 50th floor balcony in Yekaterinburg in 2018

Back in the UK, Scott Young, a “fixer” for Russian oligarchs fell out with the government and subsequently fell out of a window in London (ruled a suicide by Scotland Yard).[1]

Of course there are many other sorts of unnatural Russian deaths or near deaths.  Recall polonium poisoning (Litvinenko, 2006, London), nerve agent (Skripal, 2018, Salisbury UK survived), poisoning again, (Bulgarian Emilian Gebrev 2015, survived), nerve agent (Alexei Navalny, Tomsk Russia 2020), gunshots (Khangoshvili, Berlin, 2019),  and the list goes on.

Oh and the US is not a sanctuary.  There is the weird case of Mikhail Lesin, reportedly top media confidante of Putin.   Again, Buzzfeed crisply described the absurd official finding.[2]  Lesin checked into the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Washington in November 5, 2015. Then Lesin supposedly got very drunk and repeatedly fell down causing his own death accidentally by blunt force trauma. A cynic might think some part of USG missed something.

Putin has stated on multiple public occasions that traitors would be punished. The definition of traitor may not be precise.  Traitor to country, traitor to Putin, or framed as a traitor.  There’s room for interpretation and worry. 

So, if I were one of Putin’s guys, I’d be really nervous about the Ukraine campaign.  Like Saddam, Putin is vulnerable not only to his own foibles, but those around him.  In postwar debriefings of Saddam acknowledged that his lieutenants often did not tell him bad news or give candid advice.  Of course, he only acknowledged this after he was in jail and his regime gone.  Things did not end well for most of his aides either.  A few got out early and generally fared better.  But most waited too long and missed the opportunity to escape. 

Putin’s Russia is certainly not Saddam’s Iraq, but there are similarities in the dilemmas faced by the inner circle.  Watching the Putin Security Council meeting and comparing it with Saddam’s equivalent, you can almost match the characters and their roles, e.g. Tariq Aziz for Sergey Lavrov; Tahir Jalil Haboosh for Sergey Naryshkin; Ali Hassan al Majid (“Chemical Ali”) for Sergey Shoigu. 

Putin cannot run the government by himself and his key aides can be a weakness no matter how talented they may be. 

Bear in mind that the US and others may sanction them financially, but Putin can and does sanction Russians permanently.   I would not be surprised to see one or two trying to do the moonwalk out of there.


[1] See Buzzfeed reporting on over a dozen Russian assassinations in the UK. (https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/heidiblake/from-russia-with-blood-14-suspected-hits-on-british-soil)

[2] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jasonleopold/putins-media-czar-was-murdered-just-before-meeting-feds

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Unavoidable Elements of the Ukraine Crisis

Western policy to prevent further Russian aggression in Ukraine is hobbled by a few inescapable problems.

The government in Ukraine is weak from the top down. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is no Vladimir Putin.  While they both stand about 5 foot seven inches tall, Zelensky is not a tough driven individual running a country that is clearly under his control. Zelensky is a former actor and comedian, not a former KGB officer. The government structures under him are wobbly at best.  Ukraine has not yet matured into a cohesive democracy.  Corruption is widespread.  Key institutions—like the security service—have yet to develop into reliable functioning organizations. This does not reflect a lack of will on the part of Ukrainians to defend their independence, but does limit capacity.

If Putin successfully neutralizes the leadership of Ukraine, it will certainly impede our ability to provide aid.  Whose request will we respond to for assistance?  Who will we recognize as the legitimate leader of a disintegrating leadership structure?  Zelensky must be a target of Russian strategy.  He can be undermined, influenced, or removed in a variety of ways.  Russia can find lots of ways of throwing sand in the eyes of its opponents. The West may want to support Ukraine, but if there is no clear leadership this will be a challenge.

Russian influence operations in Kiev are long standing.  Corruption and weak judiciary are familiar operational territory.  “Facts” are whatever gets repeated enough or are most convenient to believe.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is long-practiced in shaping creative narratives.  He was Russian ambassador to the UN from 1994 to 2004 (I knew him when I was the deputy head of the UN Iraq inspection group UNSCOM in the 1990’s.) Frankly, he was the sharpest (both smart and prickly) ambassador in the UN Security Council.  His presentations could easily confuse droopy members in post-lunch meetings that up is down and left is right.  Coincidentally, Lavrov was the Russian representative who signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 assuring Ukraine that in exchange for giving up its Soviet era nuclear weapons stocks, Russia would not threaten its independence or territorial integrity.  Lavrov would have no problem stating that Russia was in complete compliance with the Budapest agreement according to some convoluted rationale.  It is also important to bear in mind that in the mid-to late 90’s the US and NATO (and especially Madeleine Albright) ran roughshod over Russian concerns raised in the UN when dealing with the conflict in Kosovo.  NATO began bombing without UN Security Council agreement.  Russia was weaker then.  Lavrov has a long memory and, in my opinion, will relish any opportunity to stick it to the US representatives as payback.   

Consider the following:  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s daughter, Ekaterina (bright Columbia University graduate, enjoyed New York during 1990’s), married Alexander Vinokurov, a Cambridge University graduate and very successful Russian businessman.  What do Alexander Vinokurov and President Zelensky have in common?  According to the Pandora financial documents released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, they both have offshore accounts in the British Virgin Islands. 

NATO is an alliance of 30 members.  This is both a source of strength and a weakness. Decisions occur by consensus, including agreement on new members. Even if Ukraine one day meets NATO membership standards, President Putin needs only persuade one member to object and he can block Ukraine NATO membership.  Recall some of the current NATO members: Turkey (which purchased Russian S-400 air defense missiles), Hungary, whose Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, was just warmly received by Putin in Moscow, Montenegro (find that on a map) which has a population of about 600,000 and a GDP (est. $13 B in 2020) that is much less than Mark Zuckerberg is reported to have lost this week ($24B) when Facebook stock dropped, or Iceland, also about 600,000 population and new good friend of China.  Others include Albania, Slovenia, North Macedonia, and Croatia.  It requires no wild stretch of imagination to consider Putin obtaining some confidential commitment to oppose Ukrainian membership.

The best goal for US policy is a solid defense of all NATO members and prepare for a long-lasting, relatively low-level war in Ukraine.  Enough to bleed Russia without causing them to escalate via war widening moves either geographically, or up the escalation ladder.  Russia has sufficient missile capability (conventional as well as tactical nuclear weapons) to threaten targets throughout Europe.[i]  No NATO member wants that to happen.  So designing for an outcome that just sustains an expensive war for Russia may be the best we can realistically accomplish.  Of course, President Putin may make his decisions based avoiding this.

The sad truth is that none of this bodes well for Ukraine.  But if Russia pursues its aggression, it will be clear Moscow has chosen to be an enemy outside the western economic system.  Russian citizens will pay a heavy economic cost for the foreseeable future.  And, those off-shore accounts will be blocked.   China can help Putin, but does he really want to be dependent on Beijing? 

There may not be a “solution” for the Ukraine problem, but some processes and policies are better than others.


[i] Including from the non-contiguous piece of Russia called Kaliningrad that until the end of World War II was Königsberg, Prussia.  The Germans were expelled and Russians imported.  Now it sits nestled in the midst of NATO on the Baltic between Lithuania and Poland.

Posted in Allies, China, NATO, nuclear weapons, Russia, Ukraine, United Nations | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Oops – Human in the Loop

There was a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations last week with Henry Kissinger (former Secretary of State) and Eric Schmidt (former chairman of Google) moderated by Judy Woodruff (PBS NewsHour). The subject was their newly released book, “The Age of AI: And Our Human Future”. An unlikely pairing at first, but their book opens the grave subject of the pending consequences of artificial intelligence for international security. Schmidt certainly has a grasp of the magnitude of this technological leap for human activity (and importantly, non-human activity). Kissinger was a prime mover in conceptualizing the implications of the onset of nuclear weapons for international security after World War II. Together they make a compelling case that there will be critical consequences as AI is incorporated in more decisions, information processing and weapons systems among other things. Indeed, they argue the world needs to begin thinking urgently about the strategy implications and rules of the road as AI evolution is advancing rapidly. Policy will have to catch up.

It was a huge challenge to maintain a global security balance as advancing nuclear weapons filled the arsenals of the US and Soviet Union. Deterrence theory, the mechanisms of delivering weapons, command and control, warning systems, targeting strategies, etc. all seemed to evolve together. Technology did not follow a strategic objective as much as strategy was constructed around technical capability. There were elements of great delicacy–for example, did we have sufficient sensor capabilities (satellites, radars) to detect and assess the intentions of an missile attack against the US? Could we do this in time to launch our forces before the missiles or bombers hit their targets? Could a president have sufficient data and time to make such a decision? Fortunately, we never really found out, but the questions were critical. There was serious attention given to the option of “launching under attack.” Possibly we could have done this, but certainly the Soviet side had to consider this response option should they think about trying a “disarming first-strike”. There were many such scenarios considered in the formulation of US and Soviet strategy.

Somehow both sides accumulated enough mutual understanding and evolved rules of the road for a (wobbly) strategic nuclear balance and, with a sizeable amount of luck, nuclear war was avoided during the cold war.

Kissinger and Schmidt point out that we are on the threshold of a similar disruption of strategy and international balance. They point out that among the many things AI presages is that control and understanding of technical and potentially even policy decisions will be beyond the comprehension of simple humans. AI will have the ability to assimilate data beyond our control and be able to determine consequences and outcomes that the human mind simply can’t understand…but it may be logically correct. Where does that fit in the concept and use of force (military or financial market actions)? If we put a human in the loop it may delay or even disrupt a winning outcome for our side. But if we don’t, do we trust Chinese or Russian AI enabled forces to be similarly constrained? AI on one side is not likely to negotiate with AI on the other…or would it? As Kissinger and Schmidt point out, we need to think through these problems sooner rather than later. And eventually some exchange of concepts with Allies and competitors will be necessary.

It’s unnerving to consider automatic responses based on sensors and computers–as a pre-delegated decision by the president to implement a launch-under-attack option.

However, at the Council on Foreign Relations meeting, I inadvertently made the case for the computers. Members connected via zoom and the tool bar beneath the screen has two adjacent button, one for “chat” (which provided a list of participants) and the second was “raise hand” meaning you wanted to ask a question. Well when Woodruff opened the discussion the moderator said “Our first question will be from Charles Duelfer”. I had no intention of asking a question and simply mumbled that was a mistake. I had hit the “raise hand” button in addition to the “Chat” button without noticing it. Had I been quicker thinking, I would have pointed out that my error was an argument for downside of having a human in the loop (or at least not me in the loop).

Indisputably Kissinger and Schmidt raise a looming problem problem where technology is again way ahead of international policy and politics.

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Taiwan is to Xi Jinping as Ukraine is to Vladimir Putin…

This analogy is too simple, but helps to think about the vise jaws that the Biden Administration now finds itself between. 

The similarities:  Both Xie and Putin have maneuvered to be in power for the foreseeable future.  The duration of “foreseeable” is limited by domestic dynamics not susceptible to outside understanding, much less manipulation.

Both leaders have a desire to rebuild an empire they believe is historically founded.  They both accrue domestic stature/security to the extent they promote national aggrandizement to include territorial gain.  Nationalism is good in their frame of reference.  Both leaders gain more than they lose by diminishing the United States. (Their behavior does not suggest belief in “Win-Win” vice “Zero Sum” in any relevant timeframes.)

Dis-similarities:  Putin cannot afford to be as patient.  He heads an inherently much weaker state, albeit with a lot of nuclear weapons, natural gas and geography. The Russian economy is weak and not strengthening.  This implies a more fragile internal base.  Putin can, however, leverage his military and energy advantages over weaker neighboring states in slices that are small enough to avoid unacceptable penalties.  Nothing has caused a unified “West” led by the United States to make him role back what he as seized by force.  He has the advantage of having less to lose and more to gain.

Xi has a lot to lose. Chinese economic growth and expansion seems to be continuing at a decent pace.  His incremental territorial gains have been achieved on implicit not explicit military dominance.  This has paid off in the South China Sea expansion and Hong Kong—at virtually no cost.  Probably not a Chinese proverb, but slowly boiling the frog seems to be working. Xi could have confidence of success in absorbing Taiwan (a very big economic prize) with the win coming garnished with another rollback of Western dominance.  Probably there is a proverb along the lines of “revenge is a dish best served cold….”

So we are now in circumstances where the apparently weaker United States is vulnerable to internal fractures open to external manipulation.  It’s as though the Chinese and Russians had discovered both the Permian basin in the US and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technology. And Putin is riffing off the Xi lead to his own advantage. 

Even some of our smaller, but strategic Allies see this.  NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made a tough case publicly following a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba at NATO today.  This former Norwegian Prime Minister gave a more potent case than Washington for pushing back against the inherently weak Putin. 

The best way to signal China is by pushing back against Putin.  We need to interrupt their riff.  If Ukraine falls due to limp Western support, Taiwan doesn’t stand a chance. Japan is watching carefully to say nothing of the Gulf States, Africa, Argentina, etc. 

My guess is Bill Burns at CIA sees this, but there may be climate change fog elsewhere.  Probably Wall Street realists see this. Watch Wall Street investments in Taiwan.  Betting on an independent Taiwan next year is one thing. But going long on Taiwan companies?  Not so much. 

Just before the Russian invasion of Crimea (shortly after the Olympics in Russia) there was a massive trade from Russian rubles into Japanese Yen. An indication of intentions especially given the absence of firewalls between policy decisions and Putin’s cronies. Watch for same in regarding Ukraine.

There are important differences between Putin and Xi. Putin is more: L’audace, tourjours l’audace. And Xi more: A little impatience will spoil great gains.

Where are we?

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Bill Burns – A Glimmer of Hope

Finally there is some ground for imagining a glimmer of hope in Afghanistan. CIA Director Bill Burns is reported to have met with Taliban leadership in Kabul Monday. Burns is exactly the right person with, hopefully, the right amount of leverage and authority. Regarding the immediate crisis of getting people out of Afghanistan safely, one can imagine a path forward that allows civil evacuation operations (not US military) that might be agreeable to the Taliban. It could be a way to demonstrate the Taliban can operate the airport responsibly and gain some credence internationally and avoid a military crisis at current deadline of 31 August.

Moreover, if the Taliban demonstrate more moderate behavior (akin to their public statements), it might not be delusional to imagine a future where development of relations and business between the US and Kabul is possible. There are demonstrable interests at stake for the US. Consider simply the welfare of the Afghan people, the mineral resources that China clearly expects to inherit, the control of territory that could easily revert to breeding and training Al Qaeda and those who explicitly seek to attack the US at home and abroad.

For all of the despicable acts of the Taliban in the past, it is possible their actions in the future may be moderated. Do they want to be strictly dependent upon China, or seen as a pawn of Russia? In American jargon, they may be the dog that caught the car. Suddenly they have a big country to run—again. They failed last time. Possibly they will recognize they need connections to the international systems for finance, health, education, training, etc. They may find they need the West.

A Taliban government in Afghanistan is certainly not what we hoped for. But we may still be able to avoid some of the worst outcomes. There are an imaginable series of steps where joint interests intersect. Steering toward them and avoiding landmines (including many placed by opponents beyond the Taliban–e.g. Beijing and Moscow) may be possible with much luck and skill.

Bill Burns, with his long practical experience at State department and current position heading an agency where he should be able to operate with discretion and authority is the best reason for hope.

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Afghanistan: Looming Tragedy – Will President Biden Blame Bad Intelligence?

President Biden visited the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Tuesday (27 July).  In his public remarks he praised the Intelligence Community (IC) and promised to never politicize their workSounds promising and clear-cut.  But reality is never that pure.

Not being Trump, one might assume the President asked the IC for assessments on the future of Afghanistan before he decided to pull out quickly.  Did the IC provide analysis that underpinned the President’s calculation that full withdrawal was the way to go? 

Did the IC assess the Taliban would abide by commitments in their negotiations?  How long did the IC or President Biden think the government in Kabul would last?  Did the IC warn that the Taliban would eradicate all associated with the US (and our coalition partners)? 

The Taliban will decimate those Afghanis associated with the US  (interpreters among others). Thousands of Afghani citizens must flee or die.  Fear is more contagious that the Delta Covid variant.  How many will risk their lives (and their families) on the strength of the Afghan army?  How soon will the Afghan Army melt away, leaving abandoned uniforms in trash heaps?  The fall of Saigon is an obvious lesson.  (My mother as a retired teacher in the 70’s spent her time tutoring a Vietnamese family in English. One family of tens of thousands.) 

Will the President blame his policy decisions on lousy intelligence?   Or will his people create some other narrative that the collapse of the government was inevitable?  This could get ugly in many ways.

Possibly the intelligence assessments were bad. But you would think after two decades of total access to the country that there might be some folks in the US government who might have some foreboding insight into the fragility of Kabul absent even symbolic US military presence.  And someone must have warned that the Taliban would be brutal to those left behind. This is not a hard target like Iraq. Before we invaded, sources inside Iraq were scarcer than chicken’s teeth.

As the Afghan drama unfolds it will test the character of all involved.  After all, Biden’s foreign policy leaders are experienced veterans and colleagues from the Obama Administration.  And Biden is the most experienced foreign policy president as any since George H. W. Bush.  He was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before most Foreign Service Officers were born.  He co-sponsored a bill to provide additional humanitarian assistance for South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975.

Of course that experience may give him reason to be skeptical of IC pronouncements—which can be way wrong (sometimes for good reasons).

But what were the intelligence assessments that Biden either relied upon or dismissed?  This question will not go away. The press and even Democrat-controlled congressional committees will ask some pointed questions.  The looming disaster of Afghanistan will be a test of how non-political the Administration will treat the IC.  (I suspect an investigation is inevitable and, sadly, will become politically driven.)

CIA director Bill Burns has wisely stayed out of the limelight.  Last week, in a rare interview with National Public Radio he was pressed about Afghanistan.   National Public Radio’s Mary Louise Kelly asked if reports that the IC estimated the Afghan government could fall in as little as 6 months were true.  Burns danced around this inevitable question.  You can see his response tests the balance between candor and avoidance of damage to political leaders.  Remaining completely apolitical is not easy.  

Burns said, “Well, the trend lines that all of us see today are certainly troubling. The Taliban are making significant military advances; they’re probably in the strongest military position that they’ve been in since 2001.” 

Kelly pressed, “But that date, as soon as six months, is that correct?”

“Well, there are a lot of possibilities out there. I mean, what I would say is that the Afghan government retains significant military capabilities. The big question, it seems to me and to all of my colleagues at CIA and across the intelligence community, is whether or not those capabilities can be exercised with the kind of political willpower and unity of leadership that’s absolutely essential to resist the Taliban. So, as I said, the trend lines are certainly troubling. I don’t think that that should lead us to foregone conclusions or a sense of imminence or inevitability, but they really are worrying as well. So the U.S. government, as the president has made clear — and CIA will play a part in this — will continue to be strongly supportive of the Afghan government in every way that we can. And for CIA, we will be sharply focused beyond the withdrawal of the U.S. military and continuing terrorism challenges.”

Burns did a good job parrying Kelly’s question with a question.  But in private, he and his analysts will have made an assessment.  That’s their job.  They can’t simply respond to a president and shrug, “Gee Boss, that’s a good question. We were wondering the same thing.   Seems like a lot of our supporters might have a problem.”  They have to make a judgment, state their confidence level and what data underlies the judgment.

(There is more to the interview and the juggle of candor and political risks.  See: https://www.npr.org/2021/07/22/1017900583/transcript-nprs-full-conversation-with-cia-director-william-burns)

Most tragic is the fate of the Afghani citizens and especially those who supported the US.  The consequence of our withdrawal cannot possibly have been a surprise to anyone familiar with the collapse of South Viet Nam.  The absence of preparation for this knowable tragedy will be tough to explain. The Biden Administration is populated with experienced State and Defense hands.

The government process to deal with so-called special immigrant visas is bureaucratic insanity.  Former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, to his great credit, raised this horror we are bequeathing to those we leave behind.   Crocker testified on 23 June before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee and detailed the appalling bureaucratic process that will last much longer than the collapse of Afghanistan. The 14-step labyrinth (involving bureaucrats with no stake in the outcome and plenty of excuses for doing nothing) can take years.  The loyal supporters of the US will be long dead. Crocker knows this from his Iraq experience.  There were the same issues—but the timelines were less critical.

Unless urgently fixed, this will be a black stain on the US reputation for a long time.  Loyal support downrange is essential in any American or NATO operation.  Loyal support needs to be reciprocated.  (See Crocker’s testimony at: https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/06/23/special-immigrant-visas-for-foreign-interpreters-pub-84831)

It will be hard for Biden and his administration not to own what comes in Afghanistan. Watch those who may wish to run in 2024. There will be many moon-walking away. Afghanistan may be to President Biden, what Iraq was to George W. Bush.  The difference maybe in degree and direction, one going in and one getting out. 

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BYOB? — US and UK F-35s operate from UK Carrier against ISIS

UK and US F-35s have conducted strike missions against ISIS targets from the new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. (https://theaviationist.com/2021/06/21/f-35b-hmsqe-shader/ ) This is good news.  It points to the potency of close allies working together.  We draw strength in many ways from allies.  As difficult as it is to manage coalitions and allied relationships, the joint benefits are substantial.*  Common operating procedures, communications, intelligence and equipment provide great strength.  The absence of this is weakness. 

Hence, the problem posed by the decision of Turkish President Erdogan to purchase Russian S-400 air defense system–a big win for Putin.  First deliveries occurred in 2019 and in response, the US cut Turkey off from the F-35 program.  First test launches came in 2020 and the Trump administration levied sanctions. However, neither Trump nor Biden have been able to convince Erdogan to reconsider this move.  Turkey’s interests and NATO’s interests are complicated to say the least. But having a Putin ally as part of the NATO integrated military can not work.

So, its good to see US aircraft operate from a UK carrier.  No doubt there are complications of coordination, e.g. is it a BYOB (bombs) invitation? But better to have more options than less.

* As Churchill is quoted in 1945, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.”

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