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Afghanistan: ‘A Decent Interval’

There is movement towards peace in Afghanistan – or at least towards an end to the American military ordeal there, which has lasted for almost eighteen years.

US officials and representatives of the Taliban insurgents have held seven rounds of direct talks in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar since last October, and they are getting close to a deal. During a visit to Afghanistan last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration hoped for “a peace deal before September 1st.”

This prospect is not getting much attention because everybody is worried that Trump is about to blunder his way into a new and much bigger war with next-door Iran, but it really could happen. American troops could all be gone from Afghanistan eighteen months from now.

The real question is: how long after that will it be before the Taliban are back in power?

When a great power loses a war with a much weaker enemy in a very much poorer country, it can’t actually admit defeat. That’s just too humiliating. So the local victors often have to let the great-power loser save face by giving it a “decent interval” (in Henry Kissinger’s deathless phrase) after the great power’s troops pull out before they collect their winnings.

How long is a ‘decent interval’? Generally around three years. That’s how long North Vietnam waited after US troops left South Vietnam (1972) before overrunning the South (1975). It’s how long it took after Russian troops left Afghanistan (1989) before their puppet government in Kabul was destroyed (1992) – although a civil war between rival Islamist groups prevented the Taliban from occupying the capital until four years later.

And it’s probably about how long the Taliban will have to wait after US troops leave Afghanistan this time (say late 2020, just before the US election), before they are formally back in power in Kabul (2023?).

There’s still a lot of killing going on in Afghanistan – around twenty civilians killed or wounded on the average day, at least twice that number of government troops, and large numbers of Taliban too – but the Taliban have won.

Even with huge US air support, the more-or-less elected government that the United States created in Kabul has lost control of one-third of Afghanistan since American and other Western troops pulled out of ground combat roles in 2014. Another third of the country is government-controlled by day, Taliban-run at night.

If the remaining 14,000 US troops and their associated air power leave, it’s game over for President Ashraf Ghani’s ‘puppet’ government (as the Taliban call it). The US implicity recognises this reality, because it’s only American diplomats, not official Afghan government representatives, who are negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar.

A few Afghan officials were allowed to be present at the last round of the Qatar peace talks ‘in a personal capacity’, but they weren’t negotiating anything. Ghani’s government will have to accept whatever deal the United States makes, knowing perfectly well that they are being abandoned. After that they will have no options left except to steal as much as they can, and then get out before the roof falls in.

And how will the White House justify selling out its Afghan allies and dependants to itself? Without any great difficulty, if the ‘Nixon Tapes’ are any guide.

The key conversation between President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, in August 1972, when they were deciding to rat on South Vietnam, was recorded on the White House system and subsequently made public during the ‘Watergate’ scandal.

Nixon: “Can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That’s the real question.”

Kissinger: “(Yes), if it looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say, within a three- to four-month period, we have pushed (them) over the brink…it won’t help us all that much.

“So we’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two… after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74 no one will give a damn.”

It worked for Nixon and Kissinger, and it can work for Trump and Pompeo too. They may not be as clever or as cunning, but they are just as ruthless. The pull-out won’t come back to bite them politically, either, because the Taliban were never interested in attacking the United States. (That was al-Qaeda.)

The only losers in the settlement will be the Afghans, who have to live under Taliban rule again. But that was always going to happen in the end.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“This…now”; and “A few…falls in”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Real Refugee Problem

Every once in a while a photograph of a migrant’s tragic death (usually that of a child) catches the public’s imagination.

The image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, fleeing from the Syrian civil war, dead face down in the surf on a Turkish beach in 2015, triggered a wave of sympathy that ended with Germany opening its borders to 900,000 refugees that year – and Hungary building a border fence to keep them out.

Here we go again. A picture of 23-month-old Valeria Martinez, tucked into her father Oscar’s T-shirt, both dead face down on the banks of the Rio Grande, has unleashed a similar wave of sympathy in the United States, although it certainly hasn’t reached the White House. And once again most of the migrants are claiming to be refugees.

In fact, few of the migrants fit the legal definition of refugees in either case. The Arabs and Afghans trying to get into Europe had fled genuine wars, but they were already in Turkey, which is quite safe. They just wanted to move on to somewhere with better job opportunities and a higher standard of living. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t give you right of asylum as a refugee.

The same applies to the migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, even though thousands of them are drowning in the attempt. They are fleeing poverty, or dictatorial regimes, or even climate change, but they are not fleeing war.

Neither do they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. (My italics.) That is the language of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, so they don’t qualify as refugees. You may feel sorry for them, but there is no legal duty to let them in.

The Refugee Convention was incorporated into US law in the Refugee Act of 1980, so few of the people now seeking entry at the Mexican border qualify either. This matters, because while twenty years ago 98% of the people crossing the border were Mexican young men seeking work, more than half are now entire families from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and most of them claim to be refugees.

They are not, and that (not Donald Trump) is why US courts are rejecting at least three-quarters of the applications for refugee status. You may wish that the law took a more generous and humanitarian view, but it does not. And if you think things are bad now, they will be ten times worse in twenty years’ time.

Global heating is starting to bite. We’re still on the learner slopes, but the droughts and the floods, and the crop failures they cause, are multiplying, especially in the tropics and the sub-tropics where temperatures are already high.

In the worst-hit areas (which include the ‘northern triangle’ of Central America) family farms are failing, some people are going hungry, and the number of people on the move is starting to soar. This is precisely what unpublished, in-house government studies were predicting twenty years ago in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Now it’s here.

As the number of migrants goes up, the willingness of host populations to receive them will inevitably go down.

5% new population in a decade will feel disruptive to some people, especially if there are big cultural differences between the old population and the immigrants, but most people will accept and adapt to it. 10% in a decade is definitely pushing it, even though it’s only 1% a year. And 20% new population in a decade would generate a huge political backlash in almost any country on Earth.

That’s human nature. You may deplore it, but it’s not going to change. And behind uncomfortable considerations of what the politics will permit lies the even starker reality that they can’t all come. Twenty years from now there will be far more people who desperately want to move than the destination countries could possibly accommodate.

So the borders will start slamming shut in the countries, mostly in the temperate zone of the planet, where the climate is still tolerable and there is still enough food to eat. And don’t believe the myth that you cannot really shut a border.

You can do so quite easily if you are willing to kill the people who try to cross it illegally, and the governments of the destination countries will probably end up doing just that. Their military and their civil servants, if not their politicians, were already having grim internal debates about it fifteen years ago.

Sorry to spoil your day.
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To shorten to725 words, omit paragraph 12. (“5%…Earth”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Trump, Tariffs and How to Start a War

The best way to deal with Donald Trump, especially if you are a foreign government negotiating trade issues, is to give him a little win. It doesn’t have to be big and important; he’s mainly interested in declaring a triumph, and he’ll supply the hot air to inflate your little concession into an allegedly major defeat free of charge. Just remember to look crest-fallen, and you’re home and dry.

Thus, for example, Trump’s recent ‘triumph’ over Mexico. He threatens escalating tariffs against Mexico, the Mexicans cave in after ten days, and the border problem is solved (until the next time he needs it). Only the nerds notice that the Mexican ‘concessions’ are almost all actions that Mexico had already promised to take in quiet, orderly discussions with the United States between December and March.

The Canadians did even better when renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Trump called it the “the worst deal ever signed,” but several clauses in the old treaty that Ottawa disliked were dropped. The only Canadian concession was to give U.S. dairy producers access to 10% of the Canadian milk market (that’s just 3 million people) – if they can persuade those Canadians to buy their bovine growth hormone-treated milk.

A very small price to pay, but nobody in Canada was so foolish as to crow out loud that they had seen the Americans off. The Canadian negotiators looked suitably hangdog and defeated, and Trump claimed the credit for a “great deal” and a “historic transaction”. Game, set and match to Ottawa.

And so to the grand drama of Trump’s tariff war with China. This one ought to be a no-brainer, because China is in an extremely vulnerable position. Its exports to America are worth almost three times as much as US exports to China, so it really cannot afford to lose the U.S. market. Chinese President Xi Jinping should just give Trump enough to make him happy – he’s easily pleased – and move on to the next problem.

To the extent that Donald Trump calculates his moves beforehand, this would have been his calculation, and it is logically correct. But it didn’t work out that way: after a year of escalation and counter-escalation, the two countries are nearing the point where they will have imposed 25% tariffs on all of each other’s exports. What went wrong?

Trump issued his usual threats and was the first to escalate at every step of the dance, but if the Mexicans and the Canadians can work around his histrionics, why can’t the Chinese?

Maybe it’s just pride: Xi simply can’t abide the vision of Trump capering with joy as he celebrates his victory over the Chinese. Or maybe it’s fear: letting Trump have a victory (and a real one, this time) would so humiliate Xi in the eyes of his own colleagues and rivals that his own position would be in danger.

It’s probably the latter. The negotiations seemed to be going well, with Trump predicting an “epic” deal and praising his dear friend Xi. Then suddenly in early May the White House complained that China was trying to re-negotiate points previously agreed, and the whole thing fell apart. It feels like Xi lost an argument at home – which would imply that he is considerably less secure in power than everybody assumed.

In either case, Xi is making a big mistake. The Chinese economy is not doing well. Factory output is declining, and new car sales fell last year for the first time since 1990. China’s total debt, even on untrustworthy official figures, is nearing three times annual GDP, which is the level where panic usually sets in. In fact, it’s the level at which Japan’s three-decade economic depression began in 1991.

Strip out all the unproductive investment and creative accountancy, and Chinese GDP grew last year by less than 2%. Employment is stagnant, retail sales are falling, the stock market dropped by a quarter last year. This is not an economy in good shape to withstand a prolonged trade war.

The great fear of the Chinese Communist Party is that people will turn against the regime if the economy stalls and living standards stop rising. They certainly don’t love the regime. Why else would they obey it? This theory may be tested to destruction in the next few years.

So if Xi is not free to do a trade deal with the US and the Chinese economy tanks, what must he do to save Communist rule and his own power? He will need a foreign war, or at least the threat of one, in order to get nationalism on his side. Not war with the United States, of course. That would be crazy. But Taiwan would do nicely.

And this is one that you really can’t blame on Trump.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The Canadians…Ottawa”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Iran: An Unwinnable War

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” said Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations. That was back in 2007, and he was talking about the Pentagon’s attempts to come up with a winning strategy for a US war with Iran. No matter how they gamed it, the US lost.

Two years later, in 2009, US Marine General Tony Zinni warned that any attack on Iran would lead inexorably to ‘boots on the ground’. “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added drily, “ you’ll love Iran.” And in 2011 Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.

This was all back in the days when various people in the West were talking far too loosely about war with Iran, because the Iranian president at the time was a loud-mouthed extremist named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then he lost the 2013 election and was replaced by a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani stopped all the aggressive talk, and in 2015 he cut a deal with most of the world’s major powers to put Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if any, on ice for at least fifteen years. Everything then went quiet until another loud-mouthed extremist, Donald Trump, tore up the 2015 agreement and began talking about war with Iran again.

He doesn’t necessarily mean it. What Trump says on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he often recants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (To make matters even more inscrutable, his threat to bring about “the end of Iran” was made last Sunday, and there are no rules for Sundays.) But he is surrounded by people who sound like they really are looking for a fight with Iran.

To be fair, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are probably telling themselves that plausibly terrifying US threats will suffice to make Iran crumble. Only National Security Adviser John Bolton understands that the threats will cause Iranian reactions that can then be used as an excuse for an actual attack (and he’s just fine with that).

So is the scenario of a US attack on Iran, with or without Saudi Arabian and Israeli help, still as hopeless a project as it was ten years ago?

It’s not hopeless at all if you just drop nuclear weapons on the twenty biggest Iranian cities. That’s not enough to cause a nuclear winter, but quite enough to kill between a quarter and a half of Iran’s 80 million people. If you do that (and either the United States or Israel could do it single-handed), the Iranians will never come back for a re-match.

But neither the United States or Israel is going to do that. It would make them literally the enemies of all mankind. And short of doing that, there are no good options for winning a war against Iran, because (as in all ‘asymmetric’ conflicts) the Iranians don’t need a winning strategy. All they have to do is not lose.

The United States could certainly bomb all of Iran’s military and industrial facilities to rubble. But this would not force the Iranians to surrender, nor would it prevent Iran’s sea-skimming missiles, fired from mobile launchers anywhere along 3,000 km of coastline, from stopping all the tankers going into and out of the Persian Gulf. (They carry about 20 percent of the world’s oil.)

So in the end it would have to be ‘boots on the ground’, just as Zinni said – but the ground war is unwinnable too. Iran’s army is about the same size as that of the United States, but it could quickly expand to ten times that size with volunteers, just as it did during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88.

The Iranian volunteers would be poorly armed and they would die in droves, but if only one American soldier died for every ten Iranians, the US public would quickly reach its maximum tolerance level for American casualties. It would be a high-speed replay of the Vietnam war, and the US would lose again.

On Tuesday they wheeled out Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan to say it’s OK. Don’t panic. The grown-ups are still in charge. Our timely threats have deterred the Iranians from doing the evil things they were planning to do (or rather that we said they were planning to do), and so there’s no danger of a war.

I’d really like to believe him. But actually, nobody’s in charge.
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In the course of revising this article, I seem to have shortened it to 775 words. If you still need it shorter, you could omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It’s not…lose”)