Electrical separation

On Monday, the Lugansk Electricity Union, which provides electricity in Lugansk province in Ukraine, announced that it would no longer supply rebel-held areas of the province with power. According to the Union’s director, Vladimir Gritsai, this follows the receipt of instructions from Ukraine’s Fuel and Energy Minister Igor Nasalik.

The decision is just the latest step in the Ukrainian government’s efforts to blockade the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR & LPR). In March this year, the government confirmed that it would no longer purchase coal from the DPR and LPR. And last week, sources suggested that Ukraine might also stop buying coal from Russia, to prevent the Russians from exporting to Ukraine supplies which they had purchased from the DPR and LPR.

The strategy, in so far as there is one, appears to be to try to impoverish the rebel republics and undermine their leaderships’ legitimacy in the eyes of their people, hopefully thereby at some point persuading the people to abandon their rebellion. At the same time, the blockade imposes costs upon the Russian Federation, which might serve to persuade it to stop supporting the DPR and LPR.

If this is a conscious strategy rather than merely the product of domestic political pressures, most notably from the far right and the volunteer battalions, it isn’t very well thought out. For sure, the blockade is imposing costs on Russia, but it seems that those are costs which Russia is quite willing to bear. The Russian government announced today that if Ukraine did stop supplying electricity to Lugansk, it would step in to provide it instead.  The effect of Ukraine’s action will thus not be to assist the re-integration of the DPR and LPR into Ukraine, but rather to accelerate the process of their separation from Ukraine and their integration with Russia. As Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it, Ukraine’s action ‘is one more step on Ukraine’s path of tearing the territories away from itself.’

From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian government has shown a consistent preference for a solution which sees Donbass remain within Ukraine but with some form of autonomy. Russian leaders have repeatedly made it clear that this is only possible if the Ukrainian government negotiates a settlement directly with the rebels. Russian policy has in part been oriented towards coercing Ukraine into accepting this reality. This policy has, however, failed. Ukraine still refuses absolutely to speak to the DPR and LPR. This has placed Russia in an awkward position. It cannot abandon the rebels, both because that would be unacceptable to domestic public opinion and because it would mean losing whatever strategic leverage it still has over Ukraine. But supporting the DPR and LPR is expensive. The optimal policy thus involves supporting the republics, but keeping the costs low.

Because of this, it initially suited Russia to keep the rebels integrated as much as possible with Ukraine – if Ukraine could pay for pensions etc, and support the rebel economies by trading with them, Russia’s costs would be lower. The Ukrainian blockade has rendered this policy impractical. Russia has to step in to provide what the Ukrainians won’t. At the same time, it has become necessary to maximize the rebels’ own sources of income. This in turn has meant that it has become necessary to further sever economic ties with Ukraine by placing major industrial enterprises under so-called ‘external management’, stripping the Ukrainian owners’ of their management rights and forcing the enterprises to pay taxes to the DPR and LPR.

In this way, bit by bit, as a result of the Ukrainian blockade and the Russian and rebel responses to it, the DPR and LPR are turning into de-facto independent states without any substantial economic ties to Ukraine. The longer this goes on and the deeper the process the goes, the harder it will be to reverse it. As the process continues, a side effect will be that the state institutions of the DPR and LPR will become stronger. In an interview yesterday with Izvestiia, DPR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko commented that,

There are natural problems in constructing a new state. In first place is the problem of personnel. And it’s not just a matter of many specialists having left the republic when combat operations were going on. Turning a region of a unitary state into an independent country requires a large number of new specialists. We are doing everything we can to prepare new personnel. We are opening educational institutions, and new faculties within existing institutions in those subjects which are needed in the management of the state and the national economy. And so we are resolving this problem, albeit not quickly.

As time goes on, Ukraine and everybody else will find that they are no longer dealing with a rebellion but with fully fledged state formations. This will inevitably change the political dynamic as the new states will demand recognition as such, if not de jure then at least de facto. As Zakharchenko told Izvestiia, when asked if he would accept reintegration in Ukraine on the basis of federalization:

That train has already left the station. We were willing to speak to Kiev about federalization in spring 2014 until Kiev began to shoot us from tanks, guns, and combat aircraft. Now we are willing to engage in dialogue with Ukraine only on the basis of equal rights, as an independent state. … Perhaps, as an independent state we will be willing to negotiate with Ukraine about co-existence on a confederal basis. But this will only be possible once not only those in power in Kiev, but the entire ruling elite, is changed.

In January 2015, I remarked that:

Kiev is now pinning its hopes on turning its own territory into a zone of good government and prosperity while blockading the DPR and LPR so that they face economic and social collapse, thereby in the long term convincing the population of Eastern Ukraine to rejoin the rest of the country. Should the leaders of the DPR and LPR succeed in consolidating their republics, this strategy will fail.

Two years later, we can conclude that this strategy has indeed failed. Indeed, it has been thoroughly counterproductive, as the policy of blockade has actually encouraged and enabled the process of state consolidation. It has also given the rebels’ Russian backers no option other than to promote total independence. Things are now so far gone that there is almost certainly no way back. The DPR and LPR will complete the process of state formation and their economies will become fully integrated with that of the Russian Federation, while both entities will remain officially unrecognized. This isn’t what anybody wants, and it is a thoroughly unsatisfactory outcome. But I no longer see how it can be avoided. Rather than pursuing futile dreams of re-integration with Ukraine via the Minsk process, it would make more sense, therefore, for all concerned to recognize this reality (even if only in private) and to focus instead on how to bring about a lasting ceasefire, so that both Ukraine and its lost territories can go their separate ways in peace.

Some good advice

Given the hysterical level of Russophobic rhetoric in Washington at present, it is rare for anybody to raise their heads up above the parapet and say that better relations between America and Russia might be a good thing. The prevailing belief is that the worse relations are the better: Russia is an aggressive and dictatorial nation with which it is impossible to reason; attempts at dialogue or to forge compromise will merely be interpreted as weakness and encourage further aggression; the only viable policy is to show strength at every opportunity.

It’s good, therefore, to see the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank which has historically had close ties to the American government and is generally considered representative of the American establishment, publishing a report entitled Reducing Tensions Between Russia and NATO. The report, written by Kimberly Marten of Barnard College, makes a number of quite sensible suggestions and demonstrates that traditional Realists haven’t entirely abandoned the foreign policy community.

As might be expected, Marten talks of Russian ‘aggression’ and raises the spectre that ‘Russia may seek to break the NATO alliance or even expand at NATO’s expense – to reconquer lost Soviet territory, to attain regional hegemony in Eurasia, or allow Putin to go down in history as the man who re-established Russia’s great power status’. She lays out scenarios which may lead to a military clash between Russia and NATO, including a Russian attack on the Baltic states. And she says that ‘many analysts consider Putin’s crackdowns on Russian media and civil society and his recentralization of state control over the Russian economy as the start of a re-Sovietization of Russian life.’

Marten isn’t, therefore, any type of Putinversteher. That would doubtless be too much to expect, and would in any case just cast her as ‘not serious’ in the policy community. But, in line with other Realists such as John Mearsheimer, she doesn’t think that current US-Russian tensions are entirely the Russians’ fault. She accepts that American policies, including NATO expansion, have generated real fears among Russian officials, and that Russian acts are as much a reaction to those fears as a product of aggressive, imperial ambitions. NATO’s decision to counter with military means what it sees as the Russian threat runs the risk of escalating tensions still further, reinforcing the Russian leadership’s sense of paranoia, and even producing a war between Russia and the West if there were to be something like a repeat of the occasion when Turkey shot down a Russian airplane.

This danger makes Professor Marten believe that improving relations with Russia is very much in America’s interests, and she adds that there are positive steps which the USA can take to reassure Russia that America doesn’t threaten it.

To this end, Marten proposes a two-pronged strategy; deterrence and reassurance. ‘First’, she says, ‘the Trump administration should continue to work with its NATO allies to deter Russia from threatening or undermining any NATO member.’ She comments that ‘To condemn NATO allies to face a potential new Russian threat on their own would irreparably harm the United States’ reputation for reliability and integrity, permanently damaging its ability to exert influence abroad.’

This is fairly typical stuff, and reflects the unhealthy obsession American elites have with their ‘reputation’. Precisely why Russia needs deterring isn’t fully explained beyond a reference to uncertainty. It just seems to be taken for granted that Russia is potential aggressive. This segment of the report, therefore, isn’t particularly novel or interesting, except for one section where Marten talks about ‘deterrence by denial’. In this segment, she writes:

President Trump and the State Department should use formal and informal discussions to encourage Estonia and Latvia to better integrate their Russian populations. Both countries have made real progress in this respect over the past decades, partly in response to international pressure. But more could be done, both by offering unconditional citizenship to a greater share of stateless residents born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and by expanding employment opportunities and empathetic community policing efforts.

This is an entirely sensible suggestion. It is often said that Russia might exploit discontent among Russian-speakers in Estonia and Latvia to cause trouble there and even justify an invasion. Rather than sending troops to the Baltic States, it would make more sense simply to remove the cause of discontent. Given that NATO members have committed to defending Estonia and Latvia, the rights of the Russian speaking populations of those countries have become their security concern, and they should do more to ensure that those rights are granted.

After having dealt with deterrence, Marten moves on to the theme of reassurance. ‘The Trump administration’, she says, ‘should take reasonable actions alongside its NATO allies to reassure Russian political and military officials and the Russian public that the United States and NATO have defensive intentions and do not threaten Russian territory.’ To this end, Marten makes a number of specific recommendations, including that the Unites States should:

  • ‘Treat Russian leaders and the Russian state with respect’ – no more comparing Putin to Hitler.
  • ‘Formally reaffirm President Trump’s message that the United States does not seek to impose “regime change” on Russia.’
  • ‘Publicly state that the United States believes that Ukraine does not currently meet NATO membership standards and has a long way to go.’
  • ‘Explicitly tie the planned deployment of US interceptor missiles at the land-based Aegis BMD system in Poland to Iran’s behavior in fulfilling its commitments to the nuclear non-proliferation deal reached in 2015. … To demonstrate that this BMD system is indeed designed against a threat from Iran and not Russia, the United States should reach an agreement with Poland that the missiles will be stored on US territory and deployed to Poland only if Iran appears to be violating the terms of the agreement.’

Marten also comments that, ‘policy decisions should be based on consistent, transparent, rule-based criteria wherever possible. Law-abiding behavior will deflect Russian accusations of hypocrisy.’

The proposal about BMD is quite interesting. Russians, as far as I can tell, simply don’t believe that the BMD system is designed against Iran, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as an Iranian nuclear ballistic missile nor is there any indication that there is every likely to be. Because of this (in my view entirely accurate assessment of the Iranian threat), it would be much better simply to scrap the European missile defence system. But given how much money and how many careers have been invested in it, one must recognize that the Americans are not going to admit that they were wrong and get rid of the whole thing. Marten’s proposal would at least allow them to keep investing in the program without annoying the Russians.

Overall, I would say that Marten’s recommendations suffer from a couple of weaknesses. First, they probably don’t go far enough to provide genuine reassurance – e.g. saying that Ukraine is far from reaching NATO standards isn’t at all the same as saying that Ukraine will never join NATO. Second, saying that US policy should abide by international law ‘wherever possible’ gives an awful lot of wriggle room and isn’t a very firm commitment. The problem isn’t ‘Russian accusations of hypocrisy’; it’s actual hypocrisy. The reputation on which Marten places so much important has been hugely damaged by America’s repeated breaches of international law. What is needed is a wholesale change in attitude, including a full-scale repudiation of ‘regime change’, ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the like. And third, it may all be too late. The Russians have by now lost so much trust in the USA that a few gestures of reassurance may no longer be enough to repair relations, and if coupled with a simultaneous policy of ‘deterrence’, these gestures may well be dismissed as entirely meaningless.

In short, Marten’s proposals are possibly too little too late. Still, they represent a significant step forward compared with most of the suggestions nowadays coming out of Washington, and among them are some specific proposals which are definitely worth pursuing. It is probable that Marten’s recommendations represent more or the less the outer limit of what is presently acceptable, and for that reason her report is definitely welcome. Having said all that, in the current climate the chances of anybody in power actually paying any attention are probably fairly small.

The paradox of power and fear

Diplomat Magazine, which is produced here in Ottawa, has just published its latest edition, which includes several articles on the subject of Russia. One of these, on ‘Repairing Canada-Russia Relations’, is written by me. You can read it here. In addition, there are articles by the Royal Military College’s Pierre Jolicoeur and Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman. It’s the last of these, entitled ‘Trump and Putin: a troubling high stakes relationship’ which I want to talk about here.

Saideman’s article is in many respects a fairly typical piece of Russia scaremongering, although it seems a little out of date already following Donald Trump’s decision to bomb Syria, the regular denunciations of Russia by the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and the apparent lack of achievements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. Writing before any of that happened, Saideman claims that:

Trump’s admiration of Putin … is revolutionary. This relationship raises doubts about the future of NATO. … Simply put, Trump’s relationship with Putin puts a great deal of the post-Second World War order at risk. Trump’s stances on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and Ukraine all present grave threats. The risks in the years ahead are mighty high.

‘The future of NATO is at stake’, Saideman continues, ‘the alliance truly is in danger.’ The Baltic States don’t know if NATO will come to their defence if attacked by Russia, and ‘If Putin were to trigger a crisis and the United States does not act as it has promised for 70 years, the alliance might well fall apart.’ One might wonder why Russia would suddenly attack Latvia, but Saideman warns that that is exactly the sort of thing that aggressive states do when they spot weakness: ‘One of the basic findings in the study of war is that wars occur when there is uncertainty about alliances.’ With Putin currently carrying out ‘an assault on the European Union’, the situation is rife with danger. Unless we stand firm, Saideman implies, NATO, the EU, and the entire international system will come crashing down.

Such doom-laden predictions are pretty common nowadays. But they are not very accurate. They assume that the Western world is some paper tiger, held together by only the tiniest thread, and that it requires only the slightest push from a weak outside power for it to disintegrate entirely. This is a rather bizarre description of the strongest and wealthiest countries in the world, which have maintained the same collective institutions for many decades in the face of threats far greater than modern Russia.

To give just a brief view of the relative power of NATO and Russia, here is a chart showing their comparative defence spending as a share of the global total:

global defence spending

As you can see, NATO has nothing to fear from Russia militarily. It also has nothing to fear economically. The wealth of the United States and Western Europe is far greater than that of Russia. Compared to the West, Russia is a minnow.

The question I want to ask, then, is why the Saidemans of the world are so scared of it.

The answer, I think, lies in the realm of the moral rather than the physical. Two psychological processes are at play. The first relates to matters of honour; the second to issues of psychological reassurance.

As far as the first is concerned, in his 2011 book Why Nations Fight, Richard Ned Lebow examined the causes of all the wars fought in the modern era and determined that the most common reason for war was what he termed ‘standing’ – in other words, wars were not primarily about material resources, territory, security, or so on, but rather about relative status. This certainly fits with my own findings, as laid out in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War.  To a quite surprising extent, international relations is about questions of honour. What spurs politicians into action is concerns about status, prestige, credibility, and the various virtues on which they think that their honour depends – strength, resolve and the like.

This is especially true of powerful states and alliances. In the eyes of the doom-mongers, NATO has no will. It is morally weak. As such it risks losing status and credibility, and once it loses those, it will surely collapse.

A key to understanding this dynamic can be found in Desmond Morris’s 1969 classic The Human Zoo. In chapter 2 of this book, entitled ‘Status and Super Status’, Morris describes how alpha baboons have to behave if they want to maintain their dominant status. The problem these baboons face is that their number one position is always under threat. Their position is inherently unstable, and they can only go down. As a result, they have to be hypervigilant. Any threat must be stamped on with utmost violence to deter others. But not only actual threats – even the mere threat of a threat, the slightest hint of imagined rebellion, must be met with an aggressive reaction.

Paradoxically, therefore, the stronger one is, the more afraid one is too. The dominant baboon believes that his position rests upon his prestige and his credibility and so is perpetually on guard to threats to his honour. He cannot rest. He must always be afraid. And so he inevitably exaggerates the threats around him. The United States, and its NATO allies, may be compared with Morris’s dominant baboons. Their very dominance makes them paranoid. This is why Saideman and co. are so scared.

Studies of the psychology of risk point to a second factor. According to such studies, humans evolved to be afraid of the dangers which lurked in their natural habitat. They expect danger, and so when they can’t identify it, they get very twitchy. Their instincts tell them that there must a danger there somewhere, and the fact that they can’t spot it is a matter of deep concern. They don’t know what to do. Finding a threat is thus reassuring. For once the threat has been found, they can work out a plan for dealing with it. They have target for their action.

Again, therefore, we confront a paradox. Being strong makes one safe. But safety makes one paranoid. By contrast, having an enemy actually makes one feel better. And this is the West’s current problem. By historical standards, it is remarkably safe. It hasn’t fought any major internal wars for 70 years. Terrorism in the West is near an all-time low. NATO enjoys military and economic dominance. And yet, many can’t help feeling that it’s all about to come crashing down. And because they feel that way, they feel also a need to identify the threat which will cause the collapse, so that they can come up with a plan to do something about it.

And that, in brief, is why Russophobia is enjoying such a comeback. It gives the West an enemy. And by giving it an enemy, it also, strangely enough, gives it a sense of reassurance, allowing it to flex its muscles and so feel that its status is safe, at least for now.

Evidence not needed

A report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) of the British House of Commons is causing a stir today. According to the headline in The Guardian: ‘Brexit: Foreign states may have interfered in vote, report says’. And The Independent announces: ‘Foreign hackers may have hit voter registration site days before EU referendum, say MPs’.

The report in question is entitled Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum and contains a short section concerning the crash of the British voter registration website on the last day of registration for the Brexit referendum. In this section, the report mentions in passing Russia and China. It is this which had led to the breathless headlines seeming to blame Russia and China for interfering in the Brexit vote.

Contrary to the headlines, however, the report doesn’t actually make a positive statement that Russia and China may have been behind the voter registration website’s crash. All it actually says is ‘PACAC does not rule out the possibility that the crash may have been caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets.’ So it doesn’t actually rule it in, it just doesn’t rule it out. And, in any case, it doesn’t in fact blame the DDOS on ‘foreign states’. It doesn’t say anywhere who might have carried it out, assuming that it even was a DDOS. The only mention of Russia and China is a sentence a little later, saying

Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear. PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.

This really doesn’t add up to much. Nevertheless, committee chairman Bernard Jenkin sought to stir the pot, telling The Independent that ‘it would have been “entirely in character” for “the Russians and Chinese” ’ to do such a thing.

And what is his evidence? It turns out that he doesn’t have any. The report itself comments that:

Although the Committee has no direct evidence, it considers that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in elections or referendums. The report on lessons learned from the website crash described it as ‘technical in nature, gaps in technical ownership and risk management contributed to the problem, and prevented it from being mitigated in advance.’

So, it turns out that the committee ‘has no direct evidence’ that Russia and China had anything to do with this, and it turns out also that the specialists who looked into the crash considered it ‘technical in nature’ and didn’t blame on it outside attack. As John Rentoul points out in The Independent, Jenkin’s insinuations are the ‘the purest baloney. The website crashed because lots of people left it to the last minute to register and whoever built the site failed to provide another capacity for the surge.’

Mr Jenkin, however, is unperturbed. ‘We’ve seen this happen in other countries’, he said, without saying which those countries were, and adding, ‘Our own Government has made it clear to us that they don’t think there was anything, but you don’t necessarily find any direct evidence.’

So even the British government doesn’t think the story is true. But never mind. When it comes to blaming the Russians, who needs evidence anyway? Just make something up and then say how concerned you are. Because, you know, it’s ‘entirely in character’, and what more proof do you need? Just make sure to insinuate something salacious, and you can then rely on The Guardian and The Independent to pick it up, exaggerate it even further, and spread your baseless allegation far and wide.

Selection and maintenance of the aim

Strategy, Clausewitz said, is about applying means to achieve ends. It follows that good strategy requires one first to select sensible and achievable ends, and second to ensure that one actually apply one’s resources in such a way as to advance towards those ends. This is what one might call ‘instrumental rationality’. Selecting objectives which don’t benefit you, or deliberately acting in a way which undermines your own objectives, is not instrumentally rational.

For good reason, therefore, the first ‘principle of war’ as taught to British and Canadian military officers is ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’. Pick a bad aim, or fail to maintain a good aim and instead get sidetracked into pursuing something else, and failure will almost certainly ensue.

This is pretty obvious stuff, but what is remarkable is how bad Western leaders are at putting it into practice.

Take, for instance, the so-called ‘War on Terror’. This began in 2001 with an invasion of Afghanistan designed to destroy Al-Qaeda. Having occupied Afghanistan, however, the Americans and their allies decided to shift focus to rebuilding the country, and so became involved in the longest war in American history, fighting an enemy (the Taleban) who don’t pose an obvious threat to the American homeland.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2003, the UK and USA got further distracted and decided to invade Iraq, on the dubious grounds that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein might provide Al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction. Once Iraq had been defeated, the Anglo-American alliance found itself fighting yet another insurgency. This involved not just Iraq’s Sunni minority, but also its Shia majority, which received support from Iran. Attention therefore now shifted yet again, with Iran being seen as the enemy no. 1. Commentators began stirring up fears of the ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Iran through Iraq and into Syria. American security was now associated with defeating those who made up this crescent. This meant undermining Iran and toppling the Assad regime in Syria. In this way, a war on terror originally designed to fight Sunni terrorists morphed into a war against Shia states.

The Arab Spring in 2011 then added yet another objective – democratizing the Middle East. Now the aim became toppling dictatorial regimes wherever they might be, in order to give a boost to the wave of democracy allegedly sweeping the region. Thus, NATO bombed Libya to ensure the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi. This, of course, then enabled Al-Qaeda to spread its influence in north Africa, most notably in Mali.

In short, Western states, especially the USA and UK, have changed the aims of their policies in the ‘war on terror’ multiple times over the past 16 years. And they are changing them backwards and forwards as I write. One day, their focus is on toppling Assad in Syria; the next, it’s defeating ISIS; then it’s back to toppling Assad again. It is no wonder that the Brits and the Americans have made such a hash of things. They are incapable of keeping their eye on the ball. They have no strategy worthy of the name.

The problem derives from their inability to choose achievable objectives in the first place. As they fail to reach each objective, they feel obliged to change their target in an effort to avoid admitting defeat.

This fundamental lack of realism can be seen in the Anglo-American approach to Russia, which is based on the assumption that Russia can be coerced into changing its policies in Ukraine and Syria. Boris Johnson’s efforts this week to drum up support for additional sanctions against Russia are a case in point. Yet to date, the policy of coercion has achieved no success, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any more successful in the future. Russia just isn’t going to abandon Donbass or Assad. It’s not going to happen. Wishing it won’t make it so. Boris can demand regime change in Syria all he wants, but he’s not going to achieve it. Regardless of whether it is desirable, by selecting this goal, he is dooming himself to failure.

So why do Western states persist in selecting unachievable objectives, in putting so much stock in what they would desire as opposed to what they can actually do? The answer, I think, is that they seem to be unwilling to admit that the days of their hegemony are over and that they are not the bearers of universal moral truth. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that they are not able to mould the world to their wishes, they fear the consequences of admitting this more than they fear the consequences of trying and failing. That is because the costs of the latter are borne by their publics and by the people at the receiving end of their interventions, but the former are borne by the politicians in the form of a humiliating reduction in prestige. Unsurprisingly, the politicians choose to transfer the costs onto others, aided and abetted by the media and the military-industrial complex, which have similarly invested in current policies and wish to avoid the backlash which an admission of failure would involve.

Things will only get better when our leaders start selecting sensible aims. When they do so, they will find that they can actually maintain these aims, and so achieve success. But that will only happen when the illusions of military hegemony and moral superiority vanish. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon, due to the psychological distress and political damage it would cause. Alas, therefore, I see no obvious way out of this mess for some time to come.

Goats and boats

Several times in the past, I have drawn attention to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, who audits the $117 billion the United States has spent on economic and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. His reports are a catalogue of waste and incompetence on a quite staggering scale. Among other things, he uncovered the stories of how the US spent $6 million airlifting 9 Italian goats to Afganistan; spent $486 million buying aircraft for the Afghan airforce which were so dangerous to fly that they were never used and ended up being turned into $32,000 of scrap metal; built an entirely unused 64,000 square foot command centre at a cost of $34 million ; spent $150 million building luxury villas to lodge staff of its economic development office; and expended $3 million on building a navy for landlocked Afghanistan, but never actually delivered the boats. Unfortunately, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg, a small part of a chronicle of folly which boggles the mind.

I cannot recommend SIGAR’s reports enough to anybody wanting to understand why America’s campaign to stabilize Afghanistan (and by extension, many other places) is failing. Sopko is in some ways the storyteller of our time, reaching to the heart of the rot in the West’s international policy. Yesterday, he gave a public lecture at the University of Ottawa and provided a number of valuable insights. Below is a brief summary of what he said.

  • The situation in Afghanistan is not getting any better. Afghan security forces are ‘playing a deadly game of whack-a-mole’. They have little mobility or capacity for offensive operations. All they can do ‘is retake major areas after they fall’. They are ‘unable or unwilling to take the fight to the Taleban.’
  • The root of the problem is an ‘insidious combination of poor leadership and corruption.’
  • ‘The donor community contributed mightily to the corruption problem’ by putting in ‘too much money too fast in too small a country’ without considering local conditions. ‘The United States and other donor nations contributed enormously to the corruption explosion in Afghanistan.’
  • The Taleban have stopped providing supplies to many of their troops and instead told their commanders to buy the supplies from the Afghan army because it is cheaper! ‘Fully 50% of the fuel purchased for the Afghans never reaches the intended recipient.’ ‘At the end of the US supply chain in Afghanistan is the Taleban.’
  • ‘The US has spent $8.5 billion in Afghanistan to fight narcotics. Unfortunately, we have little to show for it.’ ‘Afghanistan is continuing to grow poppies at near record levels’, providing the Taleban with the majority of its revenues.
  • The Afghan state is not financially sustainable. Its revenue from domestic sources is a mere $2 billion a year, whereas it spends $4 billion a year on non-security expenditures and $4-6 billion on security. The difference comes from foreign donors. Meanwhile, the state lacks the capacity to manage large sums of money, and once that money is given to Afghans, it ‘becomes incredibly hard to follow’. ‘It may take decades for the Afghan government to achieve success and military and financial sustainability’. ‘Future prospects look bleak.’

Sopko concluded his lecture by saying that ‘It’s been amazing to me how little common sense has been used in our reconstruction effort’. ‘If we don’t change how we do things’, he said, ‘we will almost certainly fail in Afghanistan. … If we keep doing what we did the last 15 years, we’re going to get run over.’

Putting this all together, it seems to me that the basic problem is this:

To fight the Taleban, Western countries have created a huge Afghan military and security system, which is far beyond what Afghanistan can afford. Also, in an effort to bring ‘good governance’, economic development, human rights, and all the rest of it, in the hope that all this will contribute to defeating the insurgency, we have constructed an Afghan state with a large volume of social commitments which again it cannot afford. To make up the massive budget deficit, we have pumped billions of dollars into the country, thereby creating the conditions for corruption on a gigantic scale. This has then fatally undermined the legitimacy and competence of the state we are trying to support.

It’s a sort of vicious circle, or a Catch 22 situation. If we stop supporting the Afghan state, it will collapse. But supporting it on the scale it needs to survive pretty much guarantees that it will fail.

Sopko refused to make any policy recommendations, saying that as an auditor that’s not his job. Personally, I can’t listen to what he says or read his numerous reports, and feel any optimism that we are capable of finding a good way out of this mess. Frankly, we are way too incompetent. On the whole, rather than continuing to invest to recover sunken costs, it probably makes more sense to cut our losses and admit defeat.

Blowback

Speaking about the explosion which killed 11 people in St Petersburg on Monday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that ‘media speculations that the terrorist attack is revenge against Russia for our policy in Syria … are cynical and mean.’ Lavrov’s comment is similar to those made by various Western politicians and political commentators in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in their countries. They have denied that the attacks were ‘blowback’ resulting from military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. They have claimed also that the imputation of blowback somehow justifies or excuses terrorism, and thus should not be made.

This is a poor argument. Explaining is not the same as justifying. Anti-terrorism policy must be judged by whether it is likely to increase or decrease terrorism, not by whether one thinks the terrorists’ reaction to the policy is justified. So if the policy consists of bombing people in other countries in order to kill terrorists there, but the foreseeable side effect is that you radicalize some people who live in your own country and they then bomb you there, then your anti-terrorism policy is a bad policy. It is counterproductive.

I have no idea whether the attack in St Petersburg was blowback from Russia’s military campaign in Syria, but it’s a possibility which deserves serious consideration and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because it’s politically inconvenient. Generally speaking I see no evidence that military intervention in the Middle East or Central Asia has done anything to make the intervening countries more secure. And that applies not only to Western countries, but also to Russia.

Russia, the West, and the world

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