William Arkin’s farewell memo

In his farewell memo, NBC military analyst William Arkin writes:

When the attacks of 9/11 came, I was called back to NBC. I spent weeks on and off the air talking about al Qaeda and the various wars we were rushing into, arguing that airpower and drones would be the centerpiece not troops. In the new martial environment where only one war cry was sanctioned I was out of sync then as well. I retreated somewhat to writing a column for the Los Angeles Times, but even there I had to fight editors who couldn’t believe that there would be a war in Iraq. And I spoke up about the absence of any sort of strategy for actually defeating terrorism, annoying the increasing gaggles of those who seemed to accept that a state of perpetual war was a necessity.

I thought then that there was great danger in the embrace of process and officialdom over values and public longing, and I wrote about the increasing power of the national security community. Long before Trump and “deep state” became an expression, I produced one ginormous investigation — Top Secret America — for the Washington Post and I wrote a nasty book — American Coup — about the creeping fascism of homeland security.

Looking back now they were both harbingers for what President Obama (and then Trump) faced in terms of largely failing to make enduring change.

Somewhere in all of that, and particularly as the social media wave began, it was clear that NBC (like the rest of the news media) could no longer keep up with the world. Added to that was the intellectual challenge of how to report our new kind of wars when there were no real fronts and no actual measures of success. To me there is also a larger problem: though they produce nothing that resembles actual safety and security, the national security leaders and generals we have are allowed to do their thing unmolested. Despite being at “war,” no great wartime leaders or visionaries are emerging. There is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict. And though there might be the beloved perfumed princes in the form of the Petraeus’ and Wes Clarks’, or the so-called warrior monks like Mattis and McMaster, we’ve had more than a generation of national security leaders who sadly and fraudulently have done little of consequence. And yet we (and others) embrace them, even the highly partisan formers who masquerade as “analysts”. We do so ignoring the empirical truth of what they have wrought: There is not one county in the Middle East that is safer today than it was 18 years ago. Indeed the world becomes ever more polarized and dangerous.

As perpetual war has become accepted as a given in our lives, I’m proud to say that I’ve never deviated in my argument at NBC (or at my newspaper gigs) that terrorists will never be defeated until we better understand why they are driven to fighting. And I have maintained my central view that airpower (in its broadest sense including space and cyber) is not just the future but the enabler and the tool of war today.

Seeking refuge in its political horse race roots, NBC (and others) meanwhile report the story of war as one of Rumsfeld vs. the Generals, as Wolfowitz vs. Shinseki, as the CIA vs. Cheney, as the bad torturers vs. the more refined, about numbers of troops and number of deaths, and even then Obama vs. the Congress, poor Obama who couldn’t close Guantanamo or reduce nuclear weapons or stand up to Putin because it was just so difficult. We have contributed to turning the world national security into this sort of political story. I find it disheartening that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting. [Continue reading…]

Time to get out of Afghanistan

Robert D. Kaplan writes:

The decision by President Trump to withdraw 7,000 of the roughly 14,000 American troops left in Afghanistan, possibly by summer, has raised new concerns about his impulsive behavior, especially given his nearly simultaneous decision to pull out all American forces from Syria against the advice of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But the downsizing of the Afghan mission was probably inevitable. Indeed, it may soon be time for the United States to get out of the country altogether.

No other country in the world symbolizes the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan. There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy — facts that Washington’s policy community has mostly been unable to accept.

While many American troops stay behind steel-reinforced concrete walls to protect themselves from the very population they are supposed to help, it is striking how little discussion Afghanistan has generated in government and media circles in Washington. When it comes to Afghanistan, Washington has been a city hiding behind its own walls of shame and frustration. [Continue reading…]

Trump gives no timetable for Syria exit, wants to protect Kurds

Reuters reports:

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday the United States would get out of Syria “over a period of time” and wants to protect the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in the country as Washington draws down troops.

Trump did not provide a timetable for the planned military exit from Syria, which he announced last month against the advice of top national security aides and without consulting lawmakers or U.S. allies participating in anti-Islamic State operations.

The decision prompted Defence Secretary Jim Mattis to resign.

During a Cabinet meeting at the White House in front of reporters, Trump said he had never discussed a reported four-month timetable for the withdrawal of 2,000 American troops stationed in Syria amid a battle against Islamic State militants.

In recent days, Trump appeared to back off from any hasty pullout and stressed that the operation would be slow. “We’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting Isis [Islamic State] remnants,” he said on Twitter on Monday. [Continue reading…]

Child soldiers from Darfur on the front line of the Saudi war in Yemen

The New York Times reports:

The civil war in Darfur robbed Hager Shomo Ahmed of almost any hope. Raiders had stolen his family’s cattle, and a dozen years of bloodshed had left his parents destitute.

Then, around the end of 2016, Saudi Arabia offered a lifeline: The kingdom would pay as much as $10,000 if Hager joined its forces fighting 1,200 miles away in Yemen.

Hager, 14 at the time, could not find Yemen on a map, and his mother was appalled. He had survived one horrific civil war — how could his parents toss him into another? But the family overruled her.

“Families know that the only way their lives will change is if their sons join the war and bring them back money,” Hager said in an interview last week in the capital, Khartoum, a few days after his 16th birthday.

The United Nations has called the war in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. An intermittent blockade by the Saudis and their partners in the United Arab Emirates has pushed as many as 12 million people to the brink of starvation, killing some 85,000 children, according to aid groups. [Continue reading…]

In Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition backed by the U.S. has created the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe

The Washington Post reports:

Three-year-old Abdo Saleh lay on a cot, unable to walk or speak, his tiny body broken by hunger. His face was skeletal, his arms and legs thin as twigs. He weighed 10 pounds.

A few miles away, markets were stocked with all kinds of food. But prices have risen so sharply that his parents cannot afford the milk, fruits and vegetables that are in abundance. “Sometimes, we go two days without food,” said his father, Saleh Abdo Ahmed, sadly squeezing his son’s raisin-size toes.

After four years of conflict, more than 20 million Yemenis — roughly two-thirds of the population — don’t have enough to eat. In most cases, it’s not because food is completely unavailable but because it’s unaffordable, priced out of reach by import restrictions, soaring transport costs due to fuel scarcity, a collapsing currency and other man-made supply disruptions.

Economic measures, largely imposed by a Saudi-led military coalition backed by the United States, have helped produce what the United Nations considers the world’s most severe humanitarian catastrophe.

And over the past year, the hunger crisis has worsened dramatically, with a 60 percent increase in the number of districts now considered to face emergency conditions, according to an analysis released this month by a consortium of aid agencies. More than half now fall in this category. [Continue reading…]

Middle East’s murderous autocrats prepare to celebrate the death of the Arab Spring

The Guardian reports:

Gulf nations are moving to readmit Syria into the Arab League, eight years after Damascus was expelled from the regional bloc over its brutal repression of peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

At some point in the next year it is likely Assad will be welcomed on to a stage to once again take his place among the Arab world’s leaders, sources say. Shoulder to shoulder with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Egypt’s latest autocrat, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the moment will mark the definitive death of the Arab spring, the hopes of the region’s popular revolutions crushed by the newest generation of Middle Eastern strongmen.

Syria was thrown out of the Arab League in 2011 over its violent response to opposition dissent, a move that failed to stem the bloodshed that spiralled into civil war.

Now though, a regional thaw is already under way. Earlier in December, the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria in eight years, a visit widely interpreted as a gesture of friendship on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which has shored up ties with Khartoum in recent years. Pro-government media outlets posted pictures of the two leaders shaking hands and grasping each other’s arms on a red carpet leading from the Russian jet that ferried Bashir to Damascus along with the hashtag “More are yet to come”.

Diplomatic sources have told the Guardian there is a growing consensus among the league’s 22 members that Syria should be readmitted to the alliance of Arab nations, although the US is pressuring both Riyadh and Cairo to hold off on demanding a vote from members. [Continue reading…]

How did Trump find the ‘heel spurs’ that helped him dodge the draft during the Vietnam War?

The New York Times reports:

In the fall of 1968, Donald J. Trump received a timely diagnosis of bone spurs in his heels that led to his medical exemption from the military during Vietnam.

For 50 years, the details of how the exemption came about, and who made the diagnosis, have remained a mystery, with Mr. Trump himself saying during the presidential campaign that he could not recall who had signed off on the medical documentation.

Now a possible explanation has emerged about the documentation. It involves a foot doctor in Queens who rented his office from Mr. Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump, and a suggestion that the diagnosis was granted as a courtesy to the elder Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump, center, during his senior year at the New York Military Academy. He would receive a medical exemption from the draft a few years later.

The podiatrist, Dr. Larry Braunstein, died in 2007. But his daughters say their father often told the story of coming to the aid of a young Mr. Trump during the Vietnam War as a favor to his father.

“I know it was a favor,” said one daughter, Dr. Elysa Braunstein, 56, who along with her sister, Sharon Kessel, 53, shared the family’s account for the first time publicly when contacted by The New York Times.

Elysa Braunstein said the implication from her father was that Mr. Trump did not have a disqualifying foot ailment. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s Syria withdrawal has handed a huge gift to ISIS

Janine di Giovanni writes:

Christmas came early in Syria. Donald Trump’s surprise tweet heralding the withdrawal of US troops neatly indicated the winners and losers in the murderous eight-year Syrian war. While the US never had much leverage in Syria – thanks to Barack Obama’s disastrous 2013 decision not to act following the Ghouta chemical attacks – Trump has managed, in a 16-word message, to embolden Islamic State, Moscow, Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran. In a sense, he has abandoned any western influence over Syria and handed the territory to dictators, murderers and terrorists.

First up is the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who began “engagements” in Syria in 2015 – relentless campaigns that targeted civilians. For Putin, US withdrawal represents a green light to remain in Syria as long as he wishes, to consolidate his power base and pursue his personal Syrian agenda without meddlesome threats from Washington.

For the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, it means more time to finish off a war that began as a peaceful demonstration of people calling for their freedom: a war that now involves gulags, unimaginable torture, ethnic cleansing and the chemical gassing of civilians.

In a strange example of camaraderie, turning a blind eye to grievous human rights violations in Syria is one of the few areas where Trump and Obama meet. Still, having the US involved – even minimally – complicated Assad’s scorched-earth campaign against the Syrian opposition. All he needs now is the north-western city of Idlib and the country is his (except that he has to share it with Russia and Iran). [Continue reading…]

Arms sales to Saudis leave American fingerprints on Yemen’s carnage

The New York Times reports:

When a Saudi F-15 warplane takes off from King Khalid air base in southern Saudi Arabia for a bombing run over Yemen, it is not just the plane and the bombs that are American.

American mechanics service the jet and carry out repairs on the ground. American technicians upgrade the targeting software and other classified technology, which Saudis are not allowed to touch. The pilot has likely been trained by the United States Air Force.

And at a flight operations room in the capital, Riyadh, Saudi commanders sit near American military officials who provide intelligence and tactical advice, mainly aimed at stopping the Saudis from killing Yemeni civilians.

American fingerprints are all over the air war in Yemen, where errant strikes by the Saudi-led coalition have killed more than 4,600 civilians, according to a monitoring group. In Washington, that toll has stoked impassioned debate about the pitfalls of America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who relies on American support to keep his warplanes in the air.

Saudi Arabia entered the war in 2015, allying with the United Arab Emirates and a smattering of Yemeni factions with the goal of ousting the Iran-allied Houthi rebels from northern Yemen. Three years on, they have made little progress. At least 60,000 Yemenis have died in the war, and the country stands on the brink of a calamitous famine.

For American officials, the stalled war has become a strategic and moral quagmire. It has upended the assumptions behind the decades-old policy of selling powerful weapons to a wealthy ally that, until recently, rarely used them. It has raised questions about complicity in possible war crimes. And the civilian toll has posed a troubling dilemma: how to support Saudi allies while keeping the war’s excesses at arm’s length. [Continue reading…]

Syria’s once- teeming prison cells being emptied by mass murder

The Washington Post reports:

As Syria’s government consolidates control after years of civil war, President Bashar al-
Assad’s army is doubling down on executions of political prisoners, with military judges accelerating the pace they issue death sentences, according to survivors of the country’s most notorious prison.

In interviews, more than two dozen Syrians recently released from the Sednaya military prison in Damascus described a government campaign to clear the decks of political detainees. The former inmates said prisoners are being transferred from jails across Syria to join death-row detainees in Sednaya’s basement and then be executed in pre-dawn hangings.

Yet despite these transfers, the population of Sednaya’s once-packed cells — which at their peak held an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 inmates — has dwindled largely because of the unyielding executions, and at least one section of the prison is almost entirely empty, the former detainees said. [Continue reading…]