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Donald Trump

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Afghanistan: Endless War

In 2010, Barack Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, vowed that the United States would be “totally out” of Afghanistan “come hell or high water, by 2014.” In 2014 Obama said that he would leave about 8,000 US troops there after all, and made an agreement with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, that extended their stay “until the end of 2024 and beyond.”

Donald Trump wasn’t having any of that. Back in 2013 he tweeted “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” But it looks like the generals have now got to him with what passes for military wisdom.

On Monday Trump announced that he would be sending more US troops to Afghanistan – probably around 4,000 – and that they would stay as long as necessary. He has a clever new strategy, too: “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” (I bet George W. Bush and Barack Obama wish they had thought of that.)

There is a strong temptation at this point to haul out the hoary old line: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Trump is, indeed, proposing to do the same old things again, ostensibly in the hope of achieving different results.

Peak US troop strength in Afghanistan was 100,000 in 2010-11. If that did not deliver victory then, how likely is it that boosting US troop numbers from 8,500 to 12,500 will do it now?

Neither the Soviet Union nor the British empire at the height of its power were able to overcome Afghan resistance to a foreign military presence, and we now have sixteen years of evidence that the United States cannot do it either.

Both the British and the Russians were able to maintain a military presence in the country as long as they were willing to take the casualties that involved, but in neither case did the regimes they installed long survive their departure. Whatever their merits, those regimes were fatally tainted by their foreign sponsorship.

The United States now finds itself in precisely the same situation. Ashraf Ghani’s government is certainly not the worst that Afghanistan has had to endure, but it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of Afghan nationalists because it depends on foreign troops and foreign money.

Since those foreign troops dwindled from 140,000 in 2011 (including non-American troops from a dozen other Western countries) to only 13,400 now, the Afghan government has lost control of about 40 percent of the country. And the process is accelerating: one-third of that territory was lost in just the past year.

Helmand province, which Western troops took from from the Taliban in 2006-2010 at the cost of almost 600 deaths, is almost entirely back under Taliban control, and Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces are next. Even the capital, Kabul, for so long a bubble of safety, is now regularly targeted by suicide bombers: at least 150 killed in a massive blast in May, 20 more at a funeral in June, 35 more in a bus bombing in July.

So what would happen if the foreign troops all left and the Taliban became the government again, as they were in 1996-2001? Would the country become a breeding ground for terrorism? Would more plots like the 9/11 attacks be hatched there? Probably not.

The Taliban are essentially a nationalist group. Their extremely conservative take on Islam was not seen as a problem by Washington when they were fighting the Russians, and most rural Afghan males do not see it as a problem now. (Nobody asks the women.)

Most urban, educated Afghans are terrified of the Taliban’s return, of course, but they are a small fraction of the population. And many foreigners see the Taliban as the least bad alternative to the US-backed regime. As Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special envoy to Afghanistan, said in early 2016: “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.”

What he meant was that the Taliban aren’t interested in foreign affairs at all. They do not dream of a world Islamic empire; they just want to run Afghanistan. Indeed, they are the main military rivals to the jihadis of Islamic State and al-Qaeda who are currently trying to establish a foothold in the country – and by and large they are winning those little private wars.

But what about 9/11? There is good reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden and his mostly Arab companions of al-Qaeda, then guests of the Taliban, did not warn their hosts before they carried out that atrocity, since it would clearly lead to a US invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

Obviously, few of these considerations will have occurred to Donald Trump, but does that mean he really thinks he can win in Afghanistan? Not necessarily.

Maybe, like Obama, Trump has simply decided that he doesn’t want the inevitable collapse of the Western-backed regime in Afghanistan to happen on his watch. He’s just committing enough American troops to the country to kick it down the road a bit.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“Helmand…July”; and “The Taliban…women”)

Terrorism – A Sense of Proportion

London in March: five dead. Stockholm in April: another five dead. Manchester in May: 22 dead. London again in June, this time on London Bridge: eight dead. Barcelona in August: fourteen dead. Five mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Europe in six months, and all but one (Manchester) carried out using rental trucks. Is it safe to go to Europe any more?

No, of course not. It isn’t safe to live anywhere. You can get killed by a vehicle driven by a non-terrorist, or by falling down the stairs, or even by drowning in the bath. Indeed, you are far likelier to die from any of those causes than from terrorist attacks no matter where you live in the world. But in those other cases your death will not be “news”.

The only part of the world where Islamist terrorism really is a serious threat to people’s lives is the greater Middle East (including Pakistan). There is a kind of civil war between modernisers and cultural conservatives going on in many Muslim-majority countries, and the terrorist threat to ordinary citizens’ lives is ten or twenty times higher than it is in the West. But even there it is far smaller than it looks.

What makes the “terrorist threat” look big in the West is the natural human tendency to be fascinated by violence. The mass media know their audience, and they cannot resist catering to this appetite: that’s why thousands of fictional characters die violently on television and in movies every week.

Violence in real life is even more interesting – especially if there is some possibility, however remote, that it might affect the viewer. So the media reflexively, instinctively inflate the threat, and to people who don’t understand statistics (i.e. almost everybody), terrorism starts to look like a very big deal.

There is no way to avoid this without imposing official controls on media coverage, and it’s not worth paying that price, so we’ll just have to live with the media’s hype. We will also have to live with the terrorism itself, even though it’s generally considered to be political suicide to say this in public.

That’s why Donald Trump thought he could discredit London’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, after the London Bridge attack by tweeting “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’”

Trump was deliberately distorting the mayor’s message: Sadiq Khan had actually told Londoners not to be alarmed by “an increased police presence.” But Khan wouldn’t have been wrong if he had told them not get their knickers in a twist because of the occasional terrorist attack. Like most Londoners, he really knows that the attacks will continue for quite a while, and that they are not going to do a lot of damage.

After all, it’s obvious that we’re not going to run out of Islamist extremists any time soon, and that the security services cannot prevent wannabe terrorists from getting their hands on trucks or vans (or knives). So there will probably be lots more low-tech terrorist attacks over the next decade.

Don’t panic. The entire European Union has lost just 62 killed in terrorist attacks so far this year, which is about one person in every eight million. The loss ratio is even lower in the United States: eleven killed in four terrorist attacks so far this year. Four times as many Americans are killed every day in ordinary murders.

So the right response to low-tech terrorism in every Western country is to keep calm and carry on, even knowing that the attacks will probably continue until the present generation of jihadis ages out. (Generational turn-over is what really ends most ideological fashions.)

In the meantime, the priority is not to turn against Muslim communities in the West – because it’s wrong to blame millions of people for the actions of a few hundred gullible, attention-seeking young men, but also because that’s exactly what the Islamic State propagandists want people in the West to do.

Ten or fifteen years ago, Islamist attacks on Western countries had a specific strategic goal: to lure the West into invading Muslim countries, thereby radicalising the local populations and driving them into the arms of the Islamist revolutionaries. The ultimate goal of those revolutionaries was to gain power in their own countries, not to “bring the West to its knees” or some such drivel.

That game is pretty much played out now: the Islamists cannot hope to sucker the West into doing any more large-scale invasions. So why carry on encouraging terrorist attacks in the West?

Because it’s dirt cheap, it promotes the brand, and it might, if they get lucky, cause huge internal conflicts in Western countries with large Muslim populations. So far, to the immense credit of both the majority communities and the Muslim minorities themselves, this has not come to pass.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“That’s…damage”)

Reservoir Dogs in the White House2

NB: THIS IS AN UPDATE OF THE ARTICLE THAT MOVED EARLY MONDAY MORNING, TAKING ACCOUNT OF ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI’S DISMISSAL.

AS I MENTIONED IN THE EARLIER VERSION, SCARAMOUCHE OFTEN ENDS UP DECAPITATED.

Anthony Zurcher, the BBC’s North America correspondent, nailed it in a report on 27 July. “Where Abraham Lincoln had his famous ‘team of rivals’ in his administration, this is something different,” Zurcher wrote. “Trump White House seems more akin to the final scene in (Quentin Tarantino’s film) Reservoir Dogs, where everyone is yelling and pointing a gun at someone else, and there’s a good chance no one is going to come out unscathed.”

Several walking wounded have limped out of the White House since the shooting started – Sean Spicer, Michael Short, Reince Priebus – but nobody would call them unscathed. The latest to take a bullet is Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, who was appointed only ten days ago.

Scaramucci, who could be a Quentin Tarantino character himself – he seemed to be channeling Steve Buscemi’s role as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs – topped all the other bizarre events in the White House last week by delivering an obscenity-laced rant that forced the resignation of Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus.

And why has the new chief of staff, General John Kelly, now fired Scaramucci? Maybe for being a potty-mouth, but more likely because Scaramucci was insisting that he reported directly to Trump, not through Kelly.

Things are falling apart in the White House much faster than even the keenest observers of Donald Trump’s behaviour would have predicted, and the important part is not the dysfunction. The United States would work just fine – in fact, rather better – if Trump never managed to turn his tweets into reality. What matters is that he is cutting his links with the Republican Party.

Trump was never a real Republican. As a genuine populist, he is ideology-free. If Barack Obama had fallen under a bus and Trump had chosen to run for the presidency in 2008, he could just as easily have sought the Democratic nomination.

Senior Republicans knew this, and they tried quite hard to stop him from winning the Republican nomination last year. After that they were stuck with him, and he did win the White House for them, so they have been in an uncomfortable partnership ever since. That is now coming to an end.

Part of the unwritten deal was that establishment Republicans get senior roles in the Trump White House. Reince Priebus, dismissed last Friday, was the most important of those people. He followed deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, communications director Mike Dubke, press secretary Sean Spicer and press aide Michael Short, all of whom had already been pushed out.

What’s left are alt-right white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, New Yorkers with Democratic leanings like Anthony Scaramucci, Jared Kushner, Dina Powell and Gary Cohn, Trump family members (Donald Jr and Ivanka), ex-businessmen like foreign secretary Rex Tillerson (who may be about to quit), and a triumvirate of generals in high civilian office.

This is a recipe for paralysis, but who cares? Did you really want a White House team that enabled Donald Trump to impose his will (or rather, his whims) on the United States and, to some extent, on the world? Well, no, and neither do senior Republicans – but they do care very much about controlling the White House.

Republicans who think long-term are well aware that the changing demography of the US population is eating away at their core vote. This may be their last chance, with control of both Houses of Congress and (at least in theory) of the presidency, to reshape their image and their policies in ways that will appeal to at least some of the emerging minorities.

They can’t do that if they don’t control the White House, and the only way they could regain control there is for Trump to go and Vice-President Mike Pence (a real Republican) to take over. A successful impeachment could accomplish that.

It would be very hard to engineer such a thing without splitting the Republican Party, even if the current FBI investigation comes up with damning evidence of Trump’s ties with Russia. Nevertheless, the likelihood of an impeachment is rising from almost zero to something quite a bit higher.

It would be a big gamble. The Republicans in Congress couldn’t really get Trump out before November 2018, and the turbulence of an impeachment might cost them their control of Congress in the mid-term elections. In an ideal outcome, however, it would give the Republicans time to go into the the 2020 election with President Pence in charge at the White House and some solid legislative achievements under their belts.

What would Trump do if he faced impeachment? Maybe he would do a kind of plea bargain and resign, but that would be quite out of character. His instinct would be to fight, and he fights mainly by creating diversions. The best diversion is a war, but against whom?

Even Trump would have trouble selling a war against Iran to the American public. Despite all the propaganda, they don’t really feel threatened by Iran. Whereas North Korea says and does things provocative enough to let Trump make a (flimsy) case for attacking it.

If he thought his presidency was at stake, he certainly would.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 10. (“Scaramucci…Kelly”; and “This…House”)

Reservoir Dogs in the White House

Anthony Zurcher, the BBC’s North America correspondent, nailed it in a report on 27 July. “Where Abraham Lincoln had his famous ‘team of rivals’ in his administration, this is something different,” Zurcher wrote. “Trump White House seems more akin to the final scene in Reservoir Dogs, where everyone is yelling and pointing a gun at someone else, and there’s a good chance no one is going to come out unscathed.”

Several walking wounded have limped out of the White House since then, including ex-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, but nobody would call them unscathed. And in has come Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, who appears to have escaped from the same Quentin Tarantino movie. Maybe Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink.

Fun fact: Scaramuccia (literally “little skirmisher”), also known as Scaramouche, is a stock character of the Italian commedia dell’arte. He combines the roles of a clownish servant and a masked assassin carrying out his master’s will. He often ends up decapitated.

Things are falling apart in the White House much faster than even the keenest observers of Donald Trump’s behaviour would have predicted, and the important part is not the dysfunction. The United States would work just fine – in fact, rather better – if Trump never managed to turn his tweets into reality. What matters is that he is cutting his links with the Republican Party.

Trump was never a real Republican. As a genuine populist, he is ideology-free. If Barack Obama had fallen under a bus and Trump had chosen to run for the presidency in 2008, he could just as easily have sought the Democratic nomination.

Senior Republicans knew this, and they tried quite hard to stop him from winning the Republican nomination last year. After that they were stuck with him, and he did win the White House for them, so they have been in an uncomfortable partnership ever since. That is now coming to an end.

Part of the unwritten deal was that establishment Republicans get senior roles in the Trump White House. Reince Priebus, dismissed last Friday, was the most important of those people. He followed deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, communications director Mike Dubke, press secretary Sean Spicer and press aide Michael Short, all of whom had already been pushed out.

What’s left are alt-right white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, New Yorkers with Democratic leanings like Anthony Scaramucci, Jared Kushner, Dina Powell and Gary Cohn, Trump family members (Donald Jr and Ivanka), ex-businessmen like foreign secretary Rex Tillerson (who may be about to quit), and a triumvirate of generals in high civilian office.

This is a recipe for paralysis, but who cares? Did you really want a White House team that enabled Donald Trump to impose his will (or rather, his whims) on the United States and, to some extent, on the world? Well, no, and neither do senior Republicans – but they do care very much about controlling the White House.

Republicans who think long-term are well aware that the changing demography of the US population is eating away at their core vote. This may be their last chance, with control of both Houses of Congress and (at least in theory) of the presidency, to reshape their image and their policies in ways that will appeal to at least some of the emerging minorities.

They can’t do that if they don’t control the White House, and the only way they could regain control there is for Trump to go and Vice-President Mike Pence (a real Republican) to take over. A successful impeachment could accomplish that.

It would be very hard to engineer such a thing without splitting the Republican Party, even if the current FBI investigation comes up with damning evidence of Trump’s ties with Russia. Nevertheless, the likelihood of an impeachment is rising from almost zero to something quite a bit higher.

It would be a big gamble. The Republicans in Congress couldn’t really get Trump out before November 2018, and the turbulence of an impeachment might cost them their control of Congress in the mid-term elections. In an ideal outcome, however, it would give the Republicans time to go into the the 2020 election with President Pence in charge at the White House and some solid legislative achievements under their belts.

What would Trump do if he faced impeachment? Maybe he would do a kind of plea bargain and resign, but that would be quite out of character. His instinct would be to fight, and he fights mainly by creating diversions. The best diversion is a war, but against whom?

Even Trump would have trouble selling a war against Iran to the American public. Despite all the propaganda, they don’t really feel threatened by Iran. Whereas North Korea says and does things provocative enough to let Trump make a (flimsy) case for attacking it.

If he thought his presidency was at stake, he certainly would.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Fun…decapitated”; and “This…House”)