According to The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe the USNS Comfort Will Not Be Deployed

Washington Post reporter Dan Lamothe has broken some interesting news: the USNS Comfort will not be deployed to Puerto Rico. Here are the details:

And here’s Lamothe non twitter reporting on the topic at WaPo.

Today’s Independence Referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan

As you read this Iraqi Kurds are voting on whether to declare independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. While a number of analysts, including me, have been forecasting and predicting that Iraq’s Kurds would declare independence over whatever areas where under their control after the fight against ISIS is completed, today’s vote is not the same thing. The fight against ISIS is not complete. Holding the referendum now is somewhere between provocative and naive. Here’s what Masoud Barzani, the President of the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan, had to say in a recent interview:

A long time ago I reached this conclusion that it was necessary to hold a referendum and let our people decide, and for a long time I have held the belief that Baghdad is not accepting real, meaningful partnership with us. We don’t want to accept being their subordinate. This is in order to prevent a bigger problem, to prevent a bloody war, and the deterioration of the security of the whole region.

That’s why we want to have this referendum — to ask our people what they want. This will help us prevent any possible future instability or bloody fighting that will follow if the situation continues. You know what the security situation in this area is like. When the people decide in this referendum, we expect all the other parties to respect the wishes and peaceful democratic decisions of the people of Kurdistan.

To answer your question why now, previously also at many stages we wanted to hold it. But because of the overall situation, the context in the area, because of other developments, we have been postponing it. But if we postpone this longer it’s not going to beneficial to our people, it will have a negative impact on the destiny of our people. So that’s why the timing right now is the best for holding this referendum.

One of the major issues in play here is who controls Kirkuk. When my teammates and I conducted our tribal study and social history in 2008, with in depth interviews of over 50 sheikhs, imams, political, and business leaders in central Iraq (predominantly from Mada’ain Qada, but also including interviewees from across Baghdad Province, and a few from Diyala and Wassit Provinces) Kurdish independence was only brought up by about five or six of our interview subjects. But when it was brought up we were told that any attempt to declare an independent Kurdistan, especially if the attempt included taking Kirkuk, would be unacceptable. We were specifically told be several sheikhs that this was one issue that would unite Sunni and Shi’a Iraqi Arabs and could lead to an Iraqi-Arab versus Iraqi-Kurdish civil war.

Another important issue is going to be Turkey’s response. Erdogan, as everyone one of his predecessors was, has been adamant that an independent Kurdistan on his border is unacceptable. In order to shore up his own internal politics, as well as to prevent Turkey’s Kurdish minority from trying to break away and unite with their Iraqi cousins, Erdogan will have to take action if an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is declared. This will further strain Turkey’s relationship with NATO, as well as complicate the fight against ISIS.

So who benefits here? In the short to medium term ISIS benefits. Any action taken by a member of the host country nation/local force partners of the US led coalition that strains that coalition benefits ISIS. In this case the potential effect is that today’s referendum could splinter the local forces that the US led coalition is partnering with in a “by, with, and through” strategy to defeat ISIS. The potential effects of today’s referendum have the ability to provide ISIS with the time and space to regroup, which is, perhaps, what they need more than anything right now.

The second major beneficiary is the Russians. Russia has been making false claims about its activities against ISIS for months; essentially taking credit for the successes of the local forces that the US led coalition is partnered with and the US led coalition. Moreover, they have been actively and aggressively working to establish greater ties with the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan. Including a petroleum exploitation agreement between Gazprom, the sanctioned Rosneft, and Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan.

On Friday The NY Times reported that Paul Manafort had been engaged as an external consultant on the referendum by the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan. They could not, however, verify who is paying Manafort. Given Manafort’s long history of working against US interests abroad; his involvement with planning and orchestrating an attack on US Marines at a NATO exercise in Ukraine in 2006 on behalf of his Russian backed and connected client; and his reported connections to both Russian intelligence and Russian oligarchs to whom he is deeply in debt; Manafort’s involvement should give everyone pause as to who is ultimately behind this referendum being held now. Russia’s interests in the region are bolstered and advanced if the US led coalition’s local partners are stressed, let alone if the independence referendum splinters them along Iraqi Arab versus Iraqi Kurdish lines and sucks Turkey into the dispute. Manafort’s involvement raises more questions than we have answers to right now, but it is possible that today’s referendum is just another front being opened in the Russian active measures campaign against the US and its NATO allies.


Thoughts on the President’s Remarks to the UN General Assembly

I originally did this as a comment to BettyC’s post, but decided I wanted to elevate it to the front page, make a tweak or two, and add a couple of additional points.

The President’s remarks today are clearly a Stephen Miller authored speech. With the exception of the Rocket Man quip. It is Miller channeling all of his own naive, arrested development sense of entitlement, paranoia, pettiness, grievances, anger, rage, and woeful ignorance of foreign and national security policy and strategy, the global system and how it works, and any state and society other than the US. It is also Miller channeling the President’s naive sense of entitlement, paranoia, pettiness, grievances, anger, rage, and woeful ignorance of foreign and national security policy and strategy, the global system and how it works, and any state and society other than the US. The ego fluffing bits about how great things are in the US under the President are Miller making sure his boss’s ego is stroked.

This would have been bad enough and inappropriate at a campaign rally, it is even worse at the UN General Assembly. Threatening to abrogate the P5+1 agreement with Iran is only going to make dealing with the DPRK worse. What Kim really wants is an assurance that the US will 1) not remove him and 2) will negotiate with him in good faith over whatever it is that Kim wants other than reassurance he won’t be removed. The threat to abrogate the agreement with Iran makes that virtually impossible. Moreover, it makes it almost virtually impossible to negotiate anything with any other state or supranational entity as no one will now believe that the US will live up to its commitments under the current administration and president. The President holds a mistaken belief that every agreement the US has entered into that he has not negotiated are bad for the US; should never have been entered into; and as a result should be abrogated. This just happens to be every single one as he and his administration haven’t negotiated any agreements since taking office in January. It demonstrates how little he and Miller understand how any of this works. If I was the governors of Alaska, Louisiana, and Arkansas I would be very worried that their states are going to be handed back to Russia and France respectively. Governor Abbot should also begin learning how to ask President Nieto for things once we give Texas back to Mexico as well. As should Governor Ducey of Arizona and Governor Martinez of New Mexico.

Kori Schake, who has held appointments at the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the Department of State, and is currently at the Hoover Institution at Stanford has written an excellent essay explaining just what total destruction means in light of the President’s remarks regarding the DPRK.

President Trump took the exact opposite course in his speech today. Moreover, before the entire world, he threatened the destruction of an entire country. Not only does that draw a red line that will be difficult to walk back from; it is also a much less credible and ethical threat than a pledge to more narrowly target the Kim regime. Waging war against people already enslaved by an authoritarian government punishes them unjustly—that would have been an easy point score in front of a UN audience.

While I highly recommend the whole essay, I want to focus on this portion. When campaign plans are developed there are a list of action words that the planners and those pulled into the operational planning teams (OPTs) use. Total destruction is not one of them. What the President is potentially calling for here is the complete reduction of the DPRK. Reduction of an enemy is a tactical term (Chapter 6, paragraph 18):

The reduction of an encircled enemy force continues without interruption, using the maximum concentration of forces and fires, until the encircled enemy force’s complete destruction or surrender.

There is no way to totally destroy (reduce) the DPRK as a state without destroying the DPRK as a society. This means destroying the North Koreans who make up the DPRK as both state and society. Total destruction doesn’t refer to a strategic strike to decapitate the leadership of the government and the military. Nor was it qualified as a strategic strike to solely and specifically reduce the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, as well as its offensive military capabilities that could be directed at its neighbors. It was a warning that the President of the United States has considered and is willing to authorize the DPRK’s “complete destruction or surrender”. Given that it is unlikely that Kim would surrender… And none of this seems to account for the damage and destruction to the Republic of Korea, Japan, Guam, and the tremendous loss of life that war on the Korean peninsula would engender.

This speech is a good example of the limits of the abilities of the reasonable advisors and staffers to constrain and contain the President, his worst impulses, and the worst impulses of his advisors such as Miller. I think it is highly likely that there was originally a draft speech prepared and vetted through the Interagency with inputs from Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson, LTG McMaster, Ambassador Haley, Gary Cohn, and others which was then handed to Stephen Miller by the President with instructions to MAGA it up. And MAGA it up he did. Eventually the bad reviews will filter up to the President’s attention, whether tonight when he’s back in the residence this evening on his own watching cable TV or tomorrow morning when he’s watching Morning Joe. At that point expect the usual tweetstorm.

Strategic Effects Versus Tactical Realities: Trade Deals

As pretty much anyone who has been paying any attention to the news today is aware it appears that the DPRK has tested a much larger nuclear device. With estimates of yield around the 100 kiloton range. I’m going to leave the technical write up to Cheryl as this is her area of expertise (no pressure…), but I want to talk about some of the strategic issues that we are now facing because of the test. Specifically those involved with trade relations with South Korea.

As I wrote about in regard to NATO and the EU, their real value isn’t at the tactical level, but at the strategic. Yes, the tactical and operational effects of deterring the Soviet Union and post 9-11 anti and counter-terrorism operations are very important. Especially the role they play in running NATO Training Mission Afghanistan. As is the role they’re playing today in attempting to deter Putin’s revanchism. But it is the geo-strategic effect of breaking the cycle of a major war on the European continent every 35 years that demonstrates NATO’s and the EU’s true value. While the US may not always get the best out of the NATO Alliance at the tactical end – though the only time Article V was invoked was after 9-11 on behalf of the US – nor from our trade agreement with the EU, both institutions and our arrangements/agreements with them are strategically priceless. Significant amounts of Americans have not had to go and die on the European continent since 1945. Nor have we had to spend significant financial resources to rebuild the continent a second time.

These important strategic effects are in the US’s interest, and they benefit the US, because the US is either the primary rule maker involved with them or one of the principle rule makers within the global system. This is why, for all its warts – and there were plenty – the Trans-Pacific Partnership made strategic sense. Yes, at the nickel and dime (tactical) level the US, and more specifically Americans, may not have done as well as the other signatories. And yes there were significant challenges to state sovereignty, such as the horrible corporate arbitration rules, but at the strategic level the effect was significant. The US would not only have reinforced its role as primary rule maker within the Asia-Pacific region, but also have blocked the PRC from emerging as a rival rule maker for the foreseeable future. While pulling the US out of the TPP may have made for a good photo-op and good messaging when playing to the domestic political base in the US, it was terrible strategic decision making. The result of the US just walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Peoples Republic of China has begun to assemble its own Asia-Pacific free trade agreement without the US.  The US has ceded the strategic power of economic rule making in the Asia-Pacific region to China because of the President’s America First focused tactical thinking. Which will, in time, have both a negative strategic and tactical effect on the US economy. And other American interests as well.

This is important because the President is considering pulling the US out of another trade agreement this week. Specifically the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

On Saturday, before the nuclear test, senior administration officials confirmed that they were considering withdrawing from a major trade agreement with South Korea over what they believe is Seoul’s pursuit of unfair protectionist policies that have led to huge United States trade deficits.

On trade, the president’s top economic advisers remain deeply divided over a possible withdrawal from the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement, as negotiators from both countries struggle to rewrite the five-year-old deal.

In recent days, a frustrated Mr. Trump has pushed his staff to take bold action against a host of governments, including the one in Seoul, that he has accused of unfair trade practices. But many of his more moderate advisers, including the chairman of the National Economic Council, Gary D. Cohn, believe that such a move could prompt a trade war that could hurt the United States economy.

The possibility of abandoning the agreement has alarmed economists and some members of the president’s own party who fear that such a move would force South Korea to block American manufacturers and farmers from a lucrative market.

While the NY Times and other reporting about what may happen with the US-Korean Trade Agreement largely focuses on the economic issues, specifically the tactical effects felt in both countries’ economies, the bigger concern here is the strategic. The Republic of Korea has a new President who was elected on a platform that included attempting new diplomatic talks with the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. This morning part of the President’s initial flurry of communications about the DPRK’s latest test was to slam President Moon for appeasing Kim Jung-Un.

Unlike the vast majority of the US, until/unless Kim’s engineers and scientists resolve their outstanding missile development technology issues, the ROK is directly threatened by the DPRK’s conventional forces. President Moon’s intent to try to keep a military response from becoming necessary is born out of the very real concern for survival. For all that Kim has threatened Guam or even LA, it is Seoul that is within spitting distance of the Demilitarized Zone. And it is Seoul, the ROK’s military and civilians, the bulk of US Forces Korea, and hundreds of thousands of American and other expatriates working and living in Seoul  that would initially bear the brunt and pay the price for military escalation with the DPRK.

The President’s tactical focus, whether it is on the nickels and dimes gained or lost through free trade agreements or resources to be taken during military operations, even if that is a strategically and realistically foolish position to hold, is actually heightening the strategic threat. Right now we need the ROK, as well as Japan, the PRC, and our other regional allies and partners to be pulling together. Instead we seem to be actively pulling them apart because the current National Command Authority has lost sight of, or doesn’t understand, the strategically important components of the free trade and security agreements the US enters into (being the rule setter within the global system) while focusing on the tactical minutiae of the financial bottom line. Bellicosity and intimidation may have worked when the President was driving deals, but they don’t work for international diplomacy. And regardless of what the President may think of diplomacy, trying to get one’s allies, partners, and peer competitors to do what you want is diplomacy.

Right now the US needs strategic leadership. As in leadership that understands what is strategically important, clearly articulates the necessary policies, and develops effective strategy to achieve the effects and objectives of those policies. The President and everyone else needs to realize that the DPRK is a nuclear weapon state. Non-proliferation has failed. The US policy, and that of our allies, partners, and peer competitors with whom we have common cause on this issue, such as the PRC, need to shift their focus to containment and deterrence of the DPRK in regard to its potential use of nuclear weapons. How to do this is the strategically important discussion that needs to be had now.

Now more than ever the US needs to live up to its post World War II role as the global rule maker and enforcer, not down to the nativist, isolationist tendencies that seem to seize it every so often. To do that we need a President who thinks strategically, not tactically. And who understands that sometimes one must cede tactical advantage to achieve strategic victory.

Some Labor Day Weekend Planning Tips From Your US Marine Corps


And remember: don’t forget to hydrate!

Late Night Adventure Tales: “I Was a Mercenary. Trust Me: Erik Prince’s Plan Is Garbage”

Sean McFate, at Politico:

For the past year, Erik Prince has been peddling an idea that should alarm anyone who has followed his career: We should replace U.S. troops in Afghanistan with mercenaries, preferably his…

The generals laughed at Prince, and thankfully the president went with the non-mercenary option. But Prince refuses to disappear, excoriating the generals in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, and pushing again for mercenaries, suggesting “it is not too late to alter the course.”

As a former military contractor, I cannot imagine a worse outcome for Afghanistan or the U.S. than handing everything over to mercenaries.

Prince’s argument has lots of problems. He insists contractors should not be stigmatized as “mercenaries,” even though he is proposing armed civilians in conflict zones—the classic definition of a mercenary…

Besides being offensive, Prince’s proposal is unworkable. I know because I’ve done these things. For years, I worked as a private military contractor in Africa and elsewhere. I built armies for clients, dealt with warlords, conducted strategic reconnaissance, worked with armed groups in the Sahara, transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe and even helped prevent a genocide in Central Africa…

When I raised an army in West Africa, under worse conditions, it took more than a handful of contractors at the battalion and company levels to create a professional, fully functioning military. A lot more. The U.S. Army War College asked me to write a monograph on how we did this, and—spoiler alert—it’s more complicated than Prince’s breezy plan. Then again, Prince has never raised a legitimate army.
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The US Surge in Iraq and Other Thoughts on Counterinsurgency

In John’s post earlier today Jim, Foolish Literalist asked a question regarding the US Surge in Iraq, specifically whether if it wasn’t just the US paying off the Sunnis in Anbar. As someone who was assigned as the cultural advisor for a brigade combat team that was part of the Surge in 2008 (the second and final rotation of Surge brigades), I had a front row seat to what the Surge was and was not about. Jim is correct, but…

The US Surge in Iraq had the following components:

  1. A reversal in policy towards the Sunni tribes in Anbar that allowed a change in theater strategy so that US commanders could engage with the Sunni, and eventually some Shi’a, tribes involved in the Awakenings (Sawha).
  2. These engagements would leverage the Sawha and the tribes to create the Sons of Iraq program, where we paid Iraqis to serve as local security forces that were networked throughout each operational environment (OE).
  3. We Surged brigade combat teams (BCTs) into the city of Baghdad, as well as the agricultural areas surrounding the city of Baghdad in order to stop anti-Iraqi Government forces (al Qaeda/al Qaeda in Iraq, Jesh al Mehdi, etc). These are called qadas – the BCT I was assigned to was assigned first to Madai’an Qada, which was south and east of Baghdad and, by late 2008, also to Mahmudiya Qada, which is south and west of Baghdad.
  4. The Surged BCTs within the city of Baghdad were intended to restore order and normalcy after the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad in 2005 and 2006. The reality is that US forces in Baghdad did not so much as pacify the violence and stop the cleansing as stepped in after the cleansing had occurred, consolidated the Iraqi clearing into US forces holding. By doing so we basically blessed off on the results of the inter-sectarian cleansing and made it an irreversible fact on the ground and the de facto reality to this day in Baghdad. The Surged BCTs in the qadas were there to keep anti-Iraqi government forces from entering Baghdad to cause trouble.
  5. By 2008, as the first group of five surge BCTs was preparing to rotate home, and their replacements to rotate in, we began to more fully transition to working with the Iraqis to rebuild. Using counterinsurgency terminology we were moving from clearing and holding to holding and building.
  6. All of this was supposed to be done in a by, with, and through manner. Basically working with our Iraqi military, law enforcement, intelligence, governmental, community, and business partners. (This has worked far better in the fight against ISIS than it ever did prior to 2010. Some of this has to do with the Iraqis really wanting help this time, some of it is we’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years.)

That is pretty much the reality of the Surge. But there’s a few additional caveats I want to make. The first is that we were not really doing counterinsurgency (COIN). Despite all the ink spilled and digits digitized between the COINTras and the COINDinistas from 2007 on, we were not doing COIN in Iraq! What we were doing was adapting concepts from FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency. With the exception of Special Forces and some personnel in joint, multinational patrol bases, US forces in Iraq were not living among the host country population. Sure, we took the real estate we thought made tactical sense, fortified it, built bases on it – from patrol bases (PBs) to combat outposts (COPs) to forward operating bases (FOBs) to camps, and then we would roll off them for missions and return to them to reside. This is not what FM 3-24 means by living among/with the host country populace. The Iraqis could not enter one of our bases without permission, without being screened.

We drove from place to place in heavily fortified vehicles because of the IED threat, dismounted armed and armored, and proceeded to do whatever business we had to do. I’m almost 100% convinced that the first patrol that I and two of my teammates went on through Jisr Diyala’s market in Spring 2008 is etched in the local memories as two security contractors (me and one of my teammates) and an Army patrol escorting a US senator or congressperson through the market (we still tease him about it 9 years later – we love you Larry!). The patrol leader in charge of our security, and properly wary of the bad guys looking to exploit our newness in theater and having improper knowledge, kept us moving through, which partially negated why I wanted to tour the market – to get an idea of how well stocked it was, where the goods were coming from, and who and how many locals were in the market. Technically we were following GEN Petreaus’s oft stated concept, adapted from MG Buford’s own cavalry directives during the Civil War, to move mounted, work dismounted. But it was only a technicality.

Finally, in regard to the US Surge in Iraq, the closest we got to actually doing counterinsurgency was trying to work by, with, and through the Iraqis. This covered everything from training Iraqi security forces to overseeing the Sons of Iraq programs to working with local leaders, elected and traditional tribal and religious leadership. Unfortunately, regardless of all the tactical successes from 2007 through 2009 we had no strategic success. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that a hallmark of a good COIN strategy, working by, with, and through the local population is that while you are working by with and through at the tactical (local) level you also have to do so at the theater strategic (national) level. The idea being that as you’re tactically building with the host country population you then pull that layer up to tether it to national government and attach the two. In Iraq, even when there was an effort to do this, the connection points always missed. This was the result of failures of the national command authority (Bush 43 Administration) in DC and their strategic priority of elections and a SOFA agreement, instead of reconciling the various Iraqi societal elements with each other, to their government, and their government to them. It also resulted from not listening to the Iraqis. Or listening, but not hearing. One of the things my teammates and I discovered after taking five months and doing in depth interviews with sheikhs, imams, and other local leaders, as well as more impromptu engagements with internally displaced Iraqis,* is that the Iraqis still had scores to settle with each other. This was also clear if one paid attention to the news reporting from Anbar and of officials from Maliki’s government between 2006 and 2009. The Iraqis were telling us that inter-sectarian violence was coming once we left. And when we did they proved that they weren’t just being hyperbolic.

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