Mr. Donald J. Trump held his first cabinet meeting of the year on 2 January.  In keeping with his reality show background, the meeting was televised.  The meeting was really a 90 minute monologue on just about everything that Mr. Trump stewed about over the holidays.  There were many newsworthy elements to be found in the transcript ranging from the border wall to the economy.  Many of the statements were provably wrong or misleading.  The list of falsehoods is too long to go through here.

Among the many untruths from the meeting perhaps the most troubling, at least in terms of asking oneself “where the heck did that come from?” were his comments on Afghanistan.  In a discussion about a continued U.S. military presence there, he launched into a bizarre statement full of previously unknown “facts”.  In addition to slandering our allies that have fought and died alongside US troops there he said,

“Russia is there.  Russia used to be the Soviet Union.  Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan.  Russia.  So you take a look at other countries.  Pakistan is there; they should be fighting.  But Russia should be fighting.

The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia.  They were right to be there.  The problem is it was a tough fight.  And literally, they went bankrupt.  They went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union.  You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer a part of Russia because of Afghanistan.”

No one.  No one, on the left, the right or the respective wing nuts of either side have ever said or believed that the Russians went into Afghanistan to fight terrorists or because they had a “right” to invade them.  Bipartisan efforts during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush worked to isolate and punish the USSR for that invasion.

The real reason the Soviets invaded was the Brezhnev Doctrine.  In 1968 Leonid Brezhnev as leader of the Soviet Union put forth as a basic tenet of Soviet foreign policy the right to interfere in the affairs of any communist country anywhere in the world.  The Afghan government was communist when the Soviets invaded in 1979 and they occupied the country until their withdrawal in 1989.  While true that the occupation was a drain on the Soviet military and the occupation became unpopular with the Soviet people, it did not bankrupt them or otherwise lead to the fall of the Iron Curtain.  There were numerous reasons for the fall, but Afghanistan was more of a symptom of all that was wrong with the Soviet system rather than the cause.  They definitely did not enter Afghanistan to fight “terrorists.”

Only one person is pushing the narrative that the Soviet Union had a “right” to invade Afghanistan to stop “terrorism.”  That one person is Vladimir Putin.  He is pushing a new revisionist history that is pure propaganda and is designed to restore his view of the glory of the Soviet empire in order to stoke nationalist sentiment in Russia, entrench his own power, and provide the basis for his adventurism in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and elsewhere in the hope of restoring that empire.

And now I guess there are two people pushing that line, one of which is the President of the United States.

As the Wall Street Journal put it in part in an editorial,

“Right to be there? We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with three divisions in December 1979 to prop up a fellow communist government.

The invasion was condemned throughout the non-communist world. The Soviets justified the invasion as an extension of the Brezhnev Doctrine, asserting their right to prevent countries from leaving the communist sphere. They stayed until 1989.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a defining event in the Cold War, making clear to all serious people the reality of the communist Kremlin’s threat. Mr. Trump’s cracked history can’t alter that reality.”

Is the president ignorant of history or is someone feeding him propaganda that he willingly repeats?  I am not a conspiracy theorist, but this should raise alarm bells.  Either the president really is ignorant of important world events that continue to shape international relations today, or he is willingly repeating Mr. Putin’s revisionist history meant to restore the luster of the former Soviet Union.  Either answer is deeply troubling.

What are we to make of this?  In the continued chaos of this administration it is easy to lose track of the multitude of “absurd” statements and actions coming out of the White House.  However, given the president’s propensity to support and defend all things Putin, one must ask again, “what is going on?”  The answer may be even more troubling than we can imagine.

The Curious Case of Sergeant Bergdahl

For those that may be unfamiliar with Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, United States Army, he is the soldier that was held captive by the Taliban for five years, probably in a remote area of Pakistan.  He was returned to U.S. Special Forces on Saturday 31 May in exchange for five senior Taliban held in Guantanamo Cuba as terrorists.  From where I sit, there are a number of strange aspects to this case so perhaps we have yet to hear the full story.  However, as it has unfolded thus far, I am troubled by certain aspects of it.

First and foremost I am happy for the Bergdahl family.  As their only son (reportedly he has an older sister), I can only imagine the heartache this family went through and the joy that they now feel as he starts his journey home to Idaho.  For the Bergdahl family, this was a major success for U.S. diplomacy.

On the policy level, I am not sure that we made the right call.  I disagree with the reasons given by some politicians that are critical of the trade, but I do agree that the Obama administration may have set a bad precedent.

Several of the criticisms, in my view, are weak.  Among them:

  • We have now put a price on every American’s head and the incidents of kidnapping for exchanges for other terrorists will now be the new normal.  Weak argument.  For many years now there has been a price on American’s heads overseas, especially in the war zones.  Nothing has changed there.  Terrorists all over the world are not for the first time thinking “why didn’t we think of that? Let’s go find us some Americans to trade.”  Nothing new.
  • The Obama Administration was required to give Congress 30 days notice before moving any prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.  This provision is really a political attempt to prevent the administration from closing down Guantanamo Bay and has little to do with this case.  More to the point, the Commander-in-Chief needs the flexibility to act quickly when an opportunity presents itself.  Given the apparent circumstances of the trade, it probably came about quickly and had to be acted upon quickly or the opportunity could be lost. Concern for Sergeant Bergdahl’s health is the stated reason for the quick action.  One could perhaps argue that this was not as urgent as portrayed by the White House, but the President must still be able to act quickly when opportunity arises.
  • The timing was an attempt to divert attention from the problems in the Veterans Administration.  Really?  The Taliban cares about the VA and politically protecting President Obama?  Really?

Likewise, I think that some of the justifications given by the Administration are weak.  Foremost among them:

  • Our military leaves no man or woman behind.  Fair enough and true enough — an honored tradition.  But I am not sure how we would have been leaving him behind if the United States will still have a military presence in Afghanistan until at least 2016.  There have been some unconfirmed reports that our intelligence agencies had an excellent knowledge of his location and that a Special Forces raid was considered to extract him by force.  If this is true, it is more in keeping with the “no one left behind” tradition than is a “prisoner” exchange.
  • We do not and did not negotiate with terrorists.  Disingenuous.  All governments do.  This includes Israel, most often held up as a paradigm for tough actions against terrorists.  The question is how, when and for what, not whether we or other nations do it.  The Obama administration contends that the Qatari government arranged the deal. Okay, so we did not sit down at a table with the Taliban, but who did we think was at the other end of the Qatari discussion?  (Interestingly, the deal may have been finalized at last week’s West Point graduation ceremony where President Obama spoke and the Qatari Emir was present to see the first Qatari graduate from West Point.)
  • Prisoner exchanges are a normal part of warfare.  Perhaps, and they certainly occur, again under the right circumstances.  What were the circumstances in this case that made it so compelling?  We have yet to get the full story.

Similarly, I think the discussion takes a wrong turn when pundits and critics combine our policy for withdrawal from Afghanistan; our trading of the five Taliban for Sergeant Bergdahl; whether the Sergeant deserved (?!) to be rescued because he put himself and others in harm’s way due to his own actions; and the general view of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy as weak.  All of these things are worthy of discussion, but they are all separate issues and should not be rolled up into one big free for all.  They need to be addressed in context and as stand alone issues, even as they are inevitably related.

It seems to me, as others have stated, that the real reason for this exchange is to tidy up loose ends as the war in Afghanistan winds down.  There are certainly humanitarian overtones to the case, and I’m glad that the Sergeant and his family will be reunited.  As a matter of policy, I don’t think we should have sent five Taliban leaders to Qatar in exchange.  They may be under close supervision for the next year, but if they are still alive a year from now, they will most certainly get back in the game and actively work to undermine U.S. interests.

To me it is a finer point than whether or not to “negotiate with terrorists” or discussions over how many Taliban equal one U.S. soldier (in my eyes an American soldier is worth an infinite number of Taliban, but I understand we won’t trade limitless numbers of them, nor should we do so).  It is just a matter of reality that these wars are different and the fact that some of those we have captured will never go home.  Nor should they ever go home.  We totally mischaracterize the nature of this conflict by talking about prisoner exchanges and the like.  This is not World War I or World War II.  There will be no armistice or peace treaties.  There will be no Marshall Plan for the Taliban or for Al Qaeda.

I look forward to someday hearing the rest of the story.  There are many curious aspects to this case and I don’t think we have heard all of it.  Given what we know so far, if we wanted to get Sergeant Bergdahl home, we should have gone and brought him home.

I’m Sorry, But….

On the front page of today’s Washington Post (print edition), there is an article on Army PFC Bradley Manning, who was just convicted of releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents damaging to the United States, revealing that he suffers from gender dysphoria.  In other words, he wishes to live the rest of his life as a woman and is concerned that he may not get the desired treatment in the jail at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Right next to the article on the front page is a picture of an honor guard carrying the remains of Army Master Sergeant George Bannar Jr. upon their arrival at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.  Master Sergeant Bannar was killed during his fifth tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Whether or not PFC Manning is sincere in his desire to become a woman, I cannot say.  It may well be the case.

However, I do know this.  There is no moral equivalency between the alleged suffering that PFC Manning or his family may be going through and that of Master Sergeant Bannar’s family.

I’m sorry, but I hope that we do not hear anything more about PFC Manning.