Has the Pentagon Taken Over US Foreign Policy in Afghanistan? (1/2)
TRNN Senior Editor Paul Jay asks Col. Lawrence Wilkerson if arms manufacturers are driving foreign policy and if Trump’s strategy for the war in Afghanistan could lead to a dangerous military confrontation between Pakistan, India, and China
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Live. We’re continuing our discussion, an analysis of the new policy, I should put quotation marks around “new,” I don’t think most of it’s new, of the US foreign policy, military policy in Afghanistan that was announced by President Trump a few days ago.
So much attention has been on Donald Trump the man, especially after his speech in Phoenix. Is he fit for office and so on. This policy has been attributed to Trump. Steve Bannon and Breitbart News have been denouncing this new Afghan policy. But I think it seems rather clear that the policy in Afghanistan is on the whole being directed by the Pentagon. I think that’s the case with Trump. I think it would be the case if there was a President Pence, and I doubt it would be all that much different if there was a President Clinton, but I guess that’s a matter of some speculation.
We’re going to take a look at again some of the pieces of the speech that Trump made when he announced this policy, and we’re going to have a broader conversation about the consequences and possible outcomes of this policy, and it’s all rather dangerous. I was just saying to our guest before we started, and our guest, as you may know, is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, that when you do the analysis of this whole thing it scares the bejesus out of you because this is filled with great danger, and the mainstream media’s blabbering on about Trump this and Trump that. In so many areas of life, so many areas of government, dangerous things are happening, but this foreign policy gambit is fraught with danger to the level of nuclear danger, and there’s practically no conversation going about this on mainstream media. But anyway, we’re not mainstream media.
So now joining us is our guest from Falls Church, Virginia, Larry Wilkerson. Larry is a former chief of staff for US Secretary of State Colin Powell and currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary and a regular on The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.
PAUL JAY: Let me ask this first question, and then we’ll start getting into bits of the speech. Everyone who’s watching, we will be taking questions later on, so if you want to start sending your questions in, you can do it on Facebook comments, on YouTube comments, or at The Real News comments because we’re live on all those platforms at the same time.
It seems to me that while Obama went along with the overriding or underlying assumptions of US foreign policy, meaning the United States must remain the hegemon, there was some pushback from the Obama administration on what to do in Iraq, what to do in Afghanistan. You could say there was a push-pull there, but civilian administration at least had some of its own mind and agenda about this. This Afghan policy seems to be, and also given that Trump has surrounded himself with generals, that the Pentagon’s really taken over the policy in Afghanistan and perhaps other places. What do you make of that idea?
LARRY WILKERSON: Paul, I saw this same thing happen with the Bush administration post-9/11, perhaps more understandably so given the impact of 9/11 on the American people. He turned essentially Afghanistan and then Iraq over to the generals, over to Secretary Rumsfeld in particular in terms of civilian control, and of course you always had Dick Cheney looking over their shoulders. But basically, the generals were running it. And we saw what happened there.
What we just saw in Afghanistan is an illustration of 5,000 years of military history’s most egregious mistake by military commanders — generals, admirals of the fleet, and so forth — and that is to reinforce strategic failure. That is the first desire of military officers in the field when they’re losing is to say, “Give me more troops, and I will win.” Rarely do they win. What they do is they commit that incredible error of reinforcing strategic failure and thus deepening that failure. So we can have every expectation that with the Pentagon running Afghanistan, and for that matter everything else we’re doing right now militarily, we will deepen the failure, and we’ll be even in worse trouble than we are now.
PAUL JAY: When we say the Pentagon running things, and while I’m quite persuaded there are some very serious people in the Pentagon who are doing their best, and while I don’t agree with their frame of reference and underlying assumptions, I think there’s some serious honest people in the military leadership who are concerned about the fate of the world and so on. But there’s a whole lot of people in the Pentagon that are just waiting to get into Lockheed Martin and Boeing and are just waiting to cash in on this bonanza of money that’s hitting the industrial-military complex. So when we’re saying Pentagon’s running the policy, it also means the military-industrial complex is running that policy. Do you agree with that?
LARRY WILKERSON: I do agree with that to a certain extent and particularly for the high-level civilians in the Pentagon and the high-level starred individuals, that is the admirals and the generals. That is an underlying if not an overwhelming motivation for some of them now as they go out the revolving door and get six- and seven-figure salaries with Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and others.
I go back to your comment about the sincere people in the Pentagon. I don’t dispute that a bit. I was one of them. I will say this, though. The professional predilection of military … Remember, I was one for 31 years, schooled, educated, and trained, and experienced to be one. The professional predilection is to keep the war going, not to end it because that’s where you get your rank, that’s where you get your progression, your notoriety, your fame, your fortune, and so forth. So it hasn’t changed in 5,000 years, Paul. It’s just gotten a little more sophisticated. That’s where you make yourself. So there is this professional predilection for war. It can be selective, and with Mattis and McMaster and Kelly, it will be selective because they don’t want to break the bank as it were. But it will still be a predilection for war.
In the White House while Obama was still president, I sat in front of him and Secretary Kerry, and President Obama said to me that he had learned something while he had been in the White House. His sentence was this, and I quote it directly, “There is a bias in this town towards war.” That president had figured it out, and at that moment in his administration was fighting, fighting hard not to put troops on the ground seriously in Syria. Well, it took him a long time to figure that out, but he figured it out. This president has no inclination whatsoever to even attempt to figure that out. He’s turned it all over to those people who have a predilection, a professional predilection for war.
PAUL JAY: And I think he has himself, and not only him, I think most presidents … I do think Obama was somewhat the exception, although he made plenty of war himself. But given the situation he was in, he did mitigate it some. I had a chance to get to know Gore Vidal pretty well, and Gore told me … And Gore knew John F. Kennedy pretty well. He was in and out of the White House because he and Jackie Kennedy shared a step-father I believe it was. I asked him why did Kennedy go into Vietnam, and he said it was everyone remembers a wartime president. Nobody remembers one who’s not. This predilection for war is very deep and of course very deep in the economy. The whole economy is so militarized.
A lot of talk’s been about how Trump, as he said himself, is non-interventionist and he was against the Iraq War, which really wasn’t true. But it was very clear how in favor he was of an intervention in Libya, which gives you a better sense of his mindset. So here’s what he said at the time of the intervention in Libya.
DONALD TRUMP: We should do on a humanitarian basis immediately go into Libya, knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically, very effectively and save the lives. After it’s all done, we go to the protestors who end up running the country. They’re going to like us a lot better than they will if we don’t do it. More importantly, we’re going to save lives, and we should then say, “By the way, from all of your oil, we want reimbursement.”
PAUL JAY: There’s actually a little more of that clip. Do you have it? He actually says in that clip we have troops all over the region, and we should bring them all to Libya. So it’s not like Trump is this big interventionist, so he is handing things over to the guys with a predilection for war, a whole militarized economy with a predilection for war. So it’s pretty damn dangerous, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: I don’t disagree. I don’t disagree at all, and I think it’s been very dangerous ever since Eisenhower left the White House. It’s gotten worse and worse and worse. Of course, Vietnam was its first manifestation. Ten years of bloody war, millions of casualties on the Vietnamese side, hundreds of thousands on our side, and nothing, absolutely nothing. Vietnam today is far better off with what it had in the beginning, and had we not intervened it would have probably reached the state its reached today but without such things as thousands of casualties from landmines and unexploded ordinance and so forth and so on. So Vietnam was a total waste of time and effort, blood and treasure on both sides, and yet we did it. And Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and all the rest of this mess that looks like it could blossom at any moment, it’s all from the same warp and woof of the national security state, which you might as well call a warfare state.
PAUL JAY: Right. Okay, let’s take a look at some of the speech he gave on the Afghan strategy and talk about some sections of it. We’re going to play clip number one, guys. You can roll it.
DONALD TRUMP: A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military options. We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.
PAUL JAY: I was reading some of the Pakistani press, not that I speak the language, but some of the newspapers are in English, and this whole thing’s kind of a joke that the enemies can never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. Of course they know they can wait us out. All the Pakistani press I read are all saying everyone knows eventually the United States has to leave, and everyone knows the Taliban forces are going to still be there. So saying they can’t wait us out and pretending as if you’re not going to let people your actions, it’s kind of silly. I guess it’s for a domestic audience that doesn’t know the situation, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: I think that’s part of it. It’s for an apathetic and no-skin-in-the-game audience, so why should they care? And it titillates his base, which is growing smaller every day, so they shouldn’t care either. Let me just say one thing, though. I’ve been saying for a long time that I think the Pentagon, and the Pentagon is the only strategic think tank in the United States, period. No one else thinks strategically. They do. They think that way with a military orientation, but they nonetheless think strategically. I’ve been saying for a long time, and this defies what you just intimated that we have to leave, that we won’t leave, that what we’re seeing right now is a beginning of the new Great Game, that it involves China, it involves Russia, and it involves the United States, and all those people who get in the way in Central Asia.
The United States will probably be in Afghanistan, I’ve said repeatedly, for the next 50-plus years because it is the only place geographically speaking in that region from which the United States with military power, hard power can affect China’s OBOR, its One Belt One Road excursion through the old Silk Road into the soft underbelly of Europe, if you will, and to economically supplant both Russia and the United States in terms of supplying key commodities and oil and gas and so forth to Europe, those 400 million people who can afford to buy it. So this is a new game, and I don’t for a moment think that the smarter strategic thinkers in the Pentagon don’t see the outlines of this game and aren’t ready to stay in Afghanistan as we’ve stayed in Germany and in Korea and in Japan for a half a century or longer, and it has nothing to do with terrorism.
Secondarily, they are right next door to the most dangerous nuclear situation in the world, that between Pakistan and India, and they are right next door to the most dangerous component of that formula, Pakistan. So being there where you can move swiftly and with major hard power to corral as it were Pakistan’s nuclear weapons should they suddenly become, let’s say, dangerous to the extent that we had to do that, that’s a very important strategic objective, too. So not for a moment do I not think that the generals in the Pentagon are thinking that way.
PAUL JAY: So part of this strategy … And I agree with what you just said. I guess I would just caveat what I had said that I think the Taliban believe they can outwait them.
LARRY WILKERSON: Yes, absolutely.
PAUL JAY: But I think what you’re saying-
LARRY WILKERSON: Just as the Vietnamese did.
PAUL JAY: Yeah. But I think you’re quite right. There’s no plans to get out, and this is the policy of forcing the Taliban into negotiations and supposedly winning this in a honorable, enduring way. It’s all a bunch of rhetoric. I think what you said is the real strategy. But part of this strategy, and maybe this is something that’s new in the strategy, at least the way it’s being articulated, is actually openly inviting India to come into Pakistan. And this is clip number four, guys. This is a threat to Pakistan and then an invitation to India. So start with four.
DONALD TRUMP: The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan. We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists. In the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner. Our militaries have worked together against common enemies. The Pakistani people have suffered greatly from terrorism and extremism. We recognize those contributions and those sacrifices, but Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.
PAUL JAY: So it seems to me as much as I don’t agree with most of what Trump says about most things, what he’s saying here is accurate. Pakistan has been playing this kind of double role. Why did the Obama administration not be more forceful about Pakistan’s role in terms of supporting the Taliban and even elements of the Pakistani intelligence services, ISI and military, having even direct connections with al-Qaeda? Obama administration did say some things but nothing at the level of this, especially not threatening the military.
LARRY WILKERSON: With regard to Pakistan and its relationship with India and with the United States and with China, you go all the way back to Nixon, and you can find blame everywhere. Let’s look at the situation again from a strategic point of view. First of all, Pakistan is China’s ally as much as it is the US’ ally. From time to time, Pakistan loves to play this balance off and go heavier towards China or heavier towards Washington, whichever is conducive to its interests. Clearly understandable. It’s a state just like any other state.
Right now, you have a rather difficult situation on India’s eastern border up in the mountains by Bhutan where the Chinese and the Indians are facing each other at about 100-meter standoff with artillery wheel to wheel and other assets of military power tending to be in a place where their proximity alone might start something any moment. At the same time on the other side of India, if you will, on the western side, you have the Chinese having developed an economic corridor through Kashmir that looks a lot like it is tending towards Pakistan, which means that sort of says a statement, from China at least, tacitly, that maybe Kashmir ought to be Pakistan’s and not India’s. This is a casus belli for India, too.
So you’ve got a strategic situation developing right now that probably Trump is utterly ignorant of that’s extremely dangerous between two nuclear powers, and he’s pontificating about one of them and driving it even further into Beijing’s camp. So this is not a very smart thing to be doing. Again, we need to lift ourselves up above the terrorist issue, the Taliban issue. By the way, the Taliban has been just as ruthless with regard to Pakistan as they have Afghanistan. So that’s a crazy argument. It has some truth to it, but it has truth based on the ISS and incompetence more than it does a published secret policy.
PAUL JAY: But if we’re correct that this policy’s mostly driven by the Pentagon who, as you said, are really are most on the whole strategic thinkers, if this really isn’t Trump who’s ignorant, this is a policy that the Pentagon supports, one would assume. What’s their logic here except when you bring in how much the Pentagon is connected to the arms sales and manufacturers, this kind of volatility is great for business.
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, it is great for business, but I can see some reason to what they’re saying, and I have to assume they helped, McMaster in particular, write his speech. That’s not to say he adhered to their text. But what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to send signals to everyone simultaneously. To Delhi, to Islamabad, to Beijing, to Kabul and so forth. They’re not necessarily the most sophisticated signals, but then this is the military again, and they don’t write the best speeches in the world, let me tell you.
So we’ve got a strategic rationale that makes some sense. We’ve got some rhetoric that perhaps goes along with that rationale but doesn’t make all that much sense, particularly to people in the region who are trying to figure out exactly what the United States’ intent is. And in that regard, having this president is especially dangerous from that perspective right now because even our enemies don’t know where we’re going. They have no idea what our policies are. Our friends don’t know what our policies are. No one knows what our policies are because this president is as inconsistent as any who has ever sat in the Oval Office. And basically, his 144-character policies confuse everyone.
PAUL JAY: Again, to go back to where the Pentagon’s thinking is on this because as you said, this type of statement, while again I think is mostly correct in terms of the facts of it, it pushes Pakistan closer to China. And in fact, just hours after the Trump speech on Afghanistan, the Chinese Foreign Minister Yi offered his full support for Pakistan and praised Pakistan’s fight against terrorism, and then they have this apparently trilateral, some kind of commission or committee between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which China acts as a mediator. And the Pakistani foreign minister praised this committee and China’s role in it. If the ultimate objective here is to pushback on China, I don’t see how that accomplishes this. And then let me just play one more clip, and then we can talk about it. And then you add to that an invitation to India get even more involved in Afghanistan than it already is, which is the one thing that scares the hell out of Pakistan. So let’s play clip number five here, guys.
DONALD TRUMP: We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development. We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.
PAUL JAY: I’ll go back to what I said earlier. I know it’s kind of banal and people will call it reductionist and simplistic, but boy, if you want to sell guns and big ships and big weapons, increase the tension between India and Pakistan and India and China. And I was reading in some of the military press that the bonanza people are expecting out of arms sales to India.
LARRY WILKERSON: I’m sure that’s probably true, especially with big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin who now have sort of sold out in Russia’s near abroad and sold out on the Korean Peninsula and so forth. There’s hardly anything else they can have that might seep to places. There are so many armaments now. But let’s back up for a moment and look at this from a clear thinking, which I think some of the people in the Pentagon are, military perspective, you’ve got an alliance with India. That’s clear. It’s particularly clear in the maritime services, India’s navy and the US Navy. In fact, I’ve had sailors tells me that the Atlantic is no longer a US priority. It’s now the Indian Ocean, and in that Indian Ocean, India is the principle ally. The navies work together every day, exercising and gaining inter-operability and so forth. This is all aimed ultimately, from Beijing’s perspective, at them, at Beijing.
PAUL JAY: Well, Obama called it the Asia pivot, specifically about China.
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, on the other side-
PAUL JAY: It wasn’t a secret.
LARRY WILKERSON: Yeah. On the other side of Beijing, you’ve got Tokyo and you’ve Seoul and you’ve got the DPRK perturbating that right now. In Pakistan, you’ve got a government whose leader just collapsed under the weight of the Supreme Court and the indictment against him. You’ve got a military that’s very reluctant to go back in and take over yet again, don’t want to at all, nor does the ISI. So you have a void in Islamabad right now in a real sense, but their tendency is to favor the giant next to them rather than the giant a long way away, which is opposite of the usual strategic rationale. And the reason for that is because the United States has handled Pakistan so badly, and the Chinese have moved into that void and handled it rather well.
And if you look at what’s coming down the road, trillions of dollars of development, economic and financial aid and so forth, offered by China with very few strings attached, were I Islamabad, I’d be looking in that direction, too, particularly when the only country in the world that really is going to help me against my main enemy, India now allied with the United States, is China. So this is the Great Game writ large, and frankly I don’t think we’re playing it very well right now. I’m not sure we should be playing it at all, frankly speaking.
PAUL JAY: And playing it with 19th century psychology practically. It’s the-
LARRY WILKERSON: Yeah, in many respects, but with 21st century kill-you-all-very-shortly weapons.
PAUL JAY: Right. There was one piece of that speech which I found a little peculiar, and I haven’t heard many people talk about it. This is clip number seven, guys, where he talks about economic development in Afghanistan is going to help defray the costs. Is this back to the Mexicans paying for the wall or is there more to this? Let’s play the clip.
DONALD TRUMP: In this struggle, the heaviest burden will continue to be borne by the people of Afghanistan and their courageous armed forces. As the prime minister of Afghanistan has promised, we are going to participate in economic development to help defray the cost of this war to us.
PAUL JAY: So what is it? He’s talking about mineral wealth in Afghanistan?
LARRY WILKERSON: This is what I’ve been hearing ever since we first went into Afghanistan in terms of future prospects, whether it be apricots, opium, copper, or you name it, whatever is … TAPI, the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India contemplated pipeline and so forth and so on.
PAUL JAY: They also say that Afghanistan is the Saudi Arabia of lithium.
LARRY WILKERSON: I think it’s mostly nonsense, and I think it’s nonsense just as he just said about the ANA, the Afghan National Army, is nonsense. My God, Paul, the AWOL rates in the battalions of that army are 30 or 40%. It’s like the Iraqi Army. Remember? We spent billions and trained that Iraqi Army to where it was just great. It could secure its own country and its borders. And as soon as we left a couple of years later, ISIS went in and put them into flight and took all their equipment and gear and made it their own. The same thing would happen in Afghanistan. We can praise that army all day long. It doesn’t change the fact that you have Pashtuns and you have others, and you have a very difficult situation getting anyone motivated to lay down their life for a government in Kabul they consider to be not only illegitimate but utterly corrupt. So this is rhetoric, and the economic and financial rhetoric is just as hollow as the military rhetoric.
PAUL JAY: All right, I’m going to raise one more point from the speech, and then we’ll take some questions. So again, if you want to ask some questions, again, we’re live, Facebook, YouTube, therealnews.com. Just go into the comment sections and we’ll try to take some of your questions. I’m going to play a clip. We’ve numbered this clip eight, guys. But I only want to play the first part of it, which ends after “protect our shared interest.” So roll that.
DONALD TRUMP: But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interest.
PAUL JAY: I know the rhetoric has been about democracies and so on and so on, but you look at the real practice of US intervention, at the very least since the Vietnam War and even before, this isn’t been about nation-building. This has been a policy of nation-destroying.
LARRY WILKERSON: What a farce those remarks were. One minute he’s threatening Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela with military intervention, the next minute he’s saying we don’t do that sort of thing, and the next minute, he’s saying we’re going to stay in Afghanistan with an unknown timetable, an unknown troop level and so forth. And we’re not going to build democracy there? Come on, Mr. Trump, get your act together. Either say the one or the other. Don’t say them both simultaneously.
PAUL JAY: Just let me add to the nation-building, we’re no longer going to nation-build. I was in Afghanistan, as I’ve mentioned before, making a film Return to Kandahar, which I think we’ll probably play over the weekend so people can watch it. We were there in the spring of 2002 for about six weeks. There was no nation-building going on there. They had handed all the relief projects over to Germany, Canada, some of the other NATO countries. On the whole, the Americans were just chasing Taliban around in the hills.
And then later, even when Obama called for this civilian surge because he made a quite correct statement saying that if you don’t deal with the conditions of poverty and health and lack of schools and so on, no military solution’s going to solve this. Well, he said that, except it never really was a civilian surge. One of the reasons for that is that they wouldn’t protect the civilian relief project, and nobody wanted to go and do them. I should say some very brave people did do, and many of them died.
LARRY WILKERSON: Paul, I will tell you that all of that is a product of what we started out with in 2001, too few troops. And as long as we have the all-volunteer force, no conscription, no draft, we will have too few troops. And you can send 200,000 contractors all day long, and they are not going to do the things that you just enumerated. They’re not going to secure a people who are trying to bring democracy, institution-building, rule of law, and so forth to an embattled people. They simply aren’t. So if we’re going to do these things, and I’m not for a moment advocating that we do them, we’re going to need a lot more troops.
PAUL JAY: Let me take issue a bit with that with Afghanistan. I think one, we know that Bush always just wanted to go into Iraq anyway and Afghanistan was just a way to get the ball rolling. Two, but at the time I was in Afghanistan, they didn’t need a lot more troops. In fact, the Taliban were really in disarray and in retreat. We filmed up and down the country. We had no protection. The only thing we needed was to avoid landmines because they were everywhere. If any actual intent on helping the people Afghanistan there was plenty of opportunity to do it and with enough troops they had. That was just never the agenda. It was always the rhetoric. Democracy was never the objective. In fact, if it was, you wouldn’t have put warlords into power who were almost entirely made up of war criminals.
Anyway, that’s a whole nother story. At another time, we’ll talk about this issue of volunteer versus a draft because you’ve made some very important points that if the children of some of the people making these decisions about war actually had to face the draft, it might have some effect on things.