Streetwise Professor

August 20, 2021

Embrace the Suck

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 12:46 pm

Apparently the Biden administration is betting that the American people will indeed embrace it:

President Joe Biden is brushing off criticism of his administration’s chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal because he and his aides believe the political fallout at home will be limited, according to White House allies and administration officials.

Biden and his top aides argue they are managing an evacuation mission as well as could be expected given the faster-than-anticipated takeover of the country by Taliban insurgents, and are seeking to draw attention back to the choice to get U.S. troops out of the country.

The strategy is based on internal and public polling that shows the Afghanistan withdrawal had been by far the most popular decision Biden has made, even though the issue was not central for most voters.

The condescension here is palpable: Howdy Doody Biden and his various Charlie McCarthys believe that you are too stupid to be able to distinguish between a reasonable decision to exit and a catastrophically bundled way of doing it, or too apathetic to care.

This is so Soviet. Pretty much the same PR strategy the Soviets employed during Chernobyl and other assorted disasters: lie, deny, suppress, and depend on an apathetic populace to acquiesce meekly to the barrage of lies.

Speaking of the Soviets, during a “press conference” today, Biden did a great late-70s Brezhnev impersonation. He needs to put on some weight to give the full effect, but in terms of senescent befuddlement and denial of reality, he’s got it down pat. Among his most pathetic denials: no American is having problems getting to HKIA. Apparently their Uber apps are working great! He also blew off reports that diplomats on the ground had sent warnings about an impending disaster. His reply: Hey, I get cables all the time. I went with the consensus view. The consensus isn’t always wrong, but it usually is, especially in bureaucracies built on groupthink and ass kissing.

We can also expect to see a ramping up of Soviet-like distraction operations. Most notably: look for a barrage of COVID hysteria–directed at Republican governors in particular–and a focus on various domestic issues, notably voting legislation and massive stimulus bills (aka turning the US into an economic Afghanistan, except that we won’t grow our own opium.)

America’s Back, Baby!

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 12:12 pm

Those of you not in a memory care facility (so this perhaps does not apply to Joe Biden) remember the hysteria over Trump’s treatment of Nato. Yes, Trump rhetorically bashed Nato nations repeatedly for their utter failure to live up to their commitments on defense spending, and their perpetual free riding on the US. Yeah–I’m looking at you, Germany. How are those broomsticks working? But even though he spoke truth, truth was apparently undiplomatic. And we can’t have that! So one of the “elite’s” key briefs against Trump was his disrespect for our allies: Biden, they assured us, would treat them with respect and that would advance our collective interests.

When Biden won, he went about preening that “America is back” and that he would restore the alliances Trump had allegedly ruptured. The Europeans panted for a Biden presidency, and rejoiced at its arrival.

How’s that working out for you?

When shit got real and the chips were down, Biden totally shtupped Nato allies, whom you might know have suffered over 1,100 KIA in Afghanistan over the years (about 1/2 of US military personnel losses).

He failed to inform Nato allies what he was doing. In particular, the UK–the US’s most reliable and longstanding ally–was completely left out of the loop. When UK PM Boris Johnson frantically attempted to reach Biden, Joe didn’t answer the phone. Maybe he was washing his hair (plugs).

Even now, when coordination on the ground with allies in Afghanistan is paramount, there is precious little of it.

Joe decided to bug out–and not tell anybody about it, most notably the allies that he had so sanctimoniously claimed to have rescued from the clutches of the demon Trump.

How’s that for respect?

Deeds, not words, matter. A western elite that clutched pearls and collapsed on fainting couches over mean tweets that happened to drop truth bombs got exactly what it asked for. A man who mouthed meaningless pieties and cut and ran and left the elite in the lurch when it mattered.

The ranks of the soi disant elite is a target rich environment, but a few stand out. One is alleged conservative Bill Kristol. Search Twitter “@BillKristol trump nato” and you will find numerous tweets by this fat tub of goo armchair warrior excoriating Trump for being a meanie to Nato. This is my favorite:

Chaotically. Oh the irony is too much. You had no idea about what true chaos is, you neocon (emphasis on the “con”) knob. We’re seeing it now–because we got what you and so many of your “elite” ilk begged for.

The elite sowed the wind with their hysteria over Trump’s bumptiousness with American allies. They are reaping the whirlwind with their boy Biden’s utter betrayal of selfsame allies.

Actually, all of us are reaping the whirlwind–including those (unlike Bill Kristol et al) who realized that Biden was an incompetent and amoral windbag who would wreak havoc, like some evil version of Mr. Magoo.

August 18, 2021

Kabul on the Potomac

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:25 pm

Early this afternoon I tweeted that if I could do Photoshop I’d do a have-you-seen-me? milk carton with Lloyd Austin’s picture on it. Shortly thereafter, lo and behold, he and his sidekick General Mark Milley emerged for a press conference. Punxsutawney Lloyd should have stayed in his den.

His deer-in-the-headlights performance hardly inspired confidence. To paraphrase: “the Taliban have us by the balls and my plan is to hope they don’t squeeze too hard.” He flatly admitted that the US does not have the ability to bring Americans to the airport from Kabul and environs: their ability to get there is dependent on the goodwill of the Taliban. (“Goodwill of the Taliban.” That’s a phrase I never imagined writing non-ironically.) The State Department is advising said civilians to “make their way to Kabul Airport.” Great! Thanks! Well unless they’re in a convoy led by Mad Max good luck with that.

If anything, Milley was worse. He was mainly interested in defending himself, but every explanation/excuse only condemned him all the more. There were several appalling moments, but this was probably the worst:

Napoleon said that “In war, the moral is to the physical as ten to one.” Will and leadership ARE capability/capacity. Evaluating those should have been Milley’s primary focus. The best equipped force is worthless if morale is low and leadership is poor and lacks the will to fight (cf. the collapse of the Iraqi Army before ISIS–so it’s not as if this should not have been in Milley’s mind). To think that counting noses and rifles and vehicles is the key to evaluating combat capability is beyond amateurish. And it is not as if the morale and leadership problems are news. The Afghanistan Papers make it crystal clear that the problems are of longstanding, and were well known.

This is a confession of utter incompetence. He made other confessions, but this was the worst.

The saddest thing is that he clearly doesn’t realize that he confessed to all the world his abject incapacity for command. The fact that this man has not resigned staggers the imagination. Same goes for Austin. Same goes for Biden.

Honor is dead.

The immediate problem is that the US perimeter is, well, the perimeter of the airport. Which is in an urban area making it impossible to protect with airstrikes. Further, all of the Americans looking to get out of Afghanistan are outside the perimeter, and the Taliban controls every inch of ground they need to cover to get to the airport.

Any attempt to expand the perimeter would lead to a fight in which the enemy has all the advantages. Numbers. Fighting the US in urban terrain where the US cannot rely on armor and airpower as it did in say Fallujah or Mosul. A perimeter so small that relatively modest weapons (e.g., mortars) can reach everything within it–which would basically put a stop to air operations while the fight is ongoing.

Not to mention that the Taliban have thousands of potential hostages. So even if we dared the odds the objective of saving Americans would be compromised, not advanced.

Today questions were raised to the pathetic duo regarding the evacuation of the Bagram Airbase. It is more defensible, not being in urban terrain. So a much larger perimeter could be defended by fires, mainly from over-the-horizon via B52/B2/B1/AC130 airstrikes (and even carrier air a la 2001/2002), but also from Apaches at Bagram itself. It has two runways, not one.

Could Bagram be retaken, Milley was asked. “Great question!” he said. Then he weaseled and replied that he was not going to comment on “branches and sequels off our current operation.” That kind of argle bargle is exactly why the American military was ridiculed and disrespected in Vietnam.

Bagram is in Taliban hands (having been gifted to them some weeks ago). It could not be retaken without a major fight . . . and again, the Taliban have thousands of potential hostages.

It’s worth noting that the airbase was abandoned at the recommendation of CENTCOM commander Kenneth McKenzie, and Milley approved the decision. The “logic” was that Kabul International and Bagram were equally vulnerable (probably not true, but whatever), but that only one had to be chosen because the troops committed were limited to 600-700:

In other words, the mission was sized to fit the (pitiful) force allotted, rather than sizing the force to meet the mission.

(I also suspect this explanation is a lie: no doubt choosing KIA was done in deference to Afghan political sensitivities.)

But even the question of Bagram vs. KIA doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. The US should have been gathering its citizens and moving them out or at least staging them to a place they could be defended before moving them out. Like I said yesterday: move the soft stuff out first. It didn’t happen.

And this is where we are as a result.

I predict that the Taliban will magnanimously allow a large fraction of the Americans, other foreigners, and even some Afghans to leave, thereby achieving propaganda victories. But they will retain many, many hostages. Hell, the US doesn’t even know–within +/- 5000–how many Americans are in Afghanistan. So how would we even know if the Taliban have hostages, or how many?

So the current situation is like Mogadishu plus Benghazi multiplied many times over, plus Iran 1979, also likely multiplied many times over. With hostage takers that make the mullahs and their henchmen look placid and sane by comparison.

In other words, Kabul 2021 is a concatenation of America’s biggest military disasters of the past 42 years, times a large number.

So what is this going to be called? Operation Shitshow? Operation Anklegrab? Operation Clusterfuck?

Whatever it’s called, it is a debacle. And one that could have been prevented by better leadership. No, not in Afghanistan–in DC (or should I call it Kabul on the Potomac?).

August 16, 2021

Joe Biden’s Mendacious Defense of the Indefensible

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:43 pm

This afternoon Joe Biden delivered an angry, bitter, and defensive speech in an attempt to quell the uproar over the fiasco in Afghanistan. It was a pathetic attempt at misdirection–rhetorical three card monte by a man with slow hands, therefore fooling no one who does not want to be fooled.

The bulk of the speech was a strident defense of his decision to withdraw. Ironically, I agree with many of the points he raised: indeed, I raised them in earlier posts. Further ironically, I am sure that Donald Trump would have delivered the same speech to justify a withdrawal. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

But that’s not the point right now. The issue isn’t whether withdrawal is wise: it is whether the handling of the withdrawal was executed with any competence at all, or was instead a historical debacle with few parallels in American history. On this fundamental question, Biden had little to say–and what he did say stood in stark contrast with what he said a little more than a month ago.

Biden heaped blame on the Afghan army and government. And there is much blame to heap–again, I agree with his points. But the harder he pushes that argument the more he demonstrates the cataclysmic failure in planning.

The defects Biden highlighted were common knowledge. For years. Meaning that any planning to withdraw had to take into account the manifest deficiencies in the Afghan army and government.

But if anything, the reverse was true. The WSJ reports that the American military told the Afghan president that the dispersion of his forces throughout Afghanistan in penny packets made them extremely vulnerable, but that Ghani said it would be “political suicide” to withdraw from isolated areas and concentrate. So he decided to commit military suicide instead–and the US conceded.

Further, the US eliminated all air support for the Afghans, and withdrew US maintenance personnel for Afghan aircraft. This was a recipe for catastrophe. Patton once wrote in his diary: “[French general] de Langres said the poorer the infantry is the more artillery it needs.” Well, (a) the Afghan infantry was about as poor as one could imagine, and (b) airpower is effectively artillery. So there should be no surprise that isolated and dispersed Afghan units crumbled when the US yanked the airpower crutch it so desperately needed. (Eerily reminiscent of 1975 Vietnam, by the way.)

So not only did the withdrawal “plan” fail to account adequately for the well-known deficiencies in the Afghan army and ameliorate them–it exacerbated them.

Moreover, according to the NYT, Biden was on notice that the Afghan army would collapse:

In late March, Mr. Austin and General Milley made a last-ditch effort with the president by forecasting dire outcomes in which the Afghan military folded in an aggressive advance by the Taliban. They drew comparisons to how the Iraqi military was overrun by the Islamic State in 2014 after American combat troops left Iraq, prompting Mr. Obama to send American forces back.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Mr. Austin told Mr. Biden, according to officials with knowledge of the meetings.

Withdrawal in the face of an aggressive enemy is one of the hardest military tasks, but the basic steps are clear. Get out the soft stuff first. Concentrate around decisive points. Defend those points with fires while troops exit.

The approach implemented violated all these principles. The soft stuff–notably upwards of 10,000 American civilians, not to mention those of other nations–remained in place while the situation went to hell in a handbasket. Which is a major reason for the chaos at the Kabul airport.

Biden alluded to this in his speech, when he said that the Afghan government opposed the withdrawal of civilians because it would send a bad signal. That is understandable. It certainly would have been a sign of no confidence in the Afghan government. But we had no confidence in the Afghan government–Biden said as much. So deal with the reality and do what is necessary when you can’t rely on the locals. Get out the civilians while the getting is good.

Besides, evacuation of civilians would not have told the Taliban anything that they didn’t know–that the Afghan government and army were teetering on the brink. Would the Taliban have acted any differently if civilians had been evacuated? Ha!

As for concentration, as noted above the Afghan forces remained dispersed, vulnerable to being picked off unit by unit–as they were. And realizing that they were isolated and unsupported, decided that discretion was the better part of valor and either ran or surrendered. The military planning by the US should have attempted to counterbalance that, and further, it was another reason to accelerate removal of civilians.

As for firepower, again as noted, the US deliberately withheld that even though that has long been the American comparative advantage and that our military knew that the Afghans were desperately dependent on it.

Withdrawal before the enemy requires exquisite sequencing, but the US “plan,” such as it apparently was, had its sequencing completely out of whack, in large part because of deference to and undercutting of a government that Biden excoriated today for its incompetence and unreliability.

Biden’s speech also proved his mendacity, and that of Milley and Austin. As I posted yesterday, on 8 July Biden gave a stirring defense of the Afghan army and concluded that there was no way it would fold before the Taliban. Then, Biden said that this would not happen because of the army’s numbers and equipment: today he said that it happened despite its numbers and equipment. But Milley and Austin supposedly (per NYT) told Biden this would happen. Nonetheless, he adamantly opposed any changes to his plans.

In other words, he shamelessly lied a month ago about the reliability of the Afghan army, and lied today when he said that the collapse of that army came as a shock.

Milley is no better. He also stated categorically in public that the Afghan army would not fold–but this was not what he told the president. He should not have lied in public, and if he felt compelled to do so he should have resigned.

As for Austin–who knows? He’s like Major Major Major from Catch 22. Is he on vacation with Jen Psaki? Searching for extremists and vetting CRT training materials? Got me. He responded to an emailed question about whether he would resign by saying no. Other than that, he’s been personus not aroundus.

In sum, all of the factors that Biden emphasized in his speech do not justify how the withdrawal was planned and executed. In fact, they do the reverse. They emphasize the additional challenges facing an inherently fraught military operation–withdrawal before an aggressive enemy–which were not remotely adequately addressed, and were in fact aggravated.

Getting out makes sense for the reasons Biden stated. The way of the getting out makes no sense–and Biden provided no reasons for it. And it is for that getting out–bugging out, more precisely–that Joe Biden’s name will live in infamy and ignominy in American military and political annals.

August 15, 2021

Dizzy With Success, Biden Administration Version

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 4:59 pm

As I suggested in my previous post, the “who lost Afghanistan?” debate is in full swing. And again I say: this is the wrong question. Everyone loses the un-winnable, and Afghanistan was un-winnable if one defines victory as the establishment and maintenance of a stable, centralized civil government. Believe me: the Taliban will fail at this too.

It all comes down to timing. When would the US choose to reap the whirlwind? When, not if.

The possibilities frontier does not, did not, and never will include a stable centralized civil government, let alone one that proudly flies the pride flag–or lets women out of the house. The US basically had two choices: bug out and let the Taliban run rampant, followed by another Afghan civil war or stay in and play Whac-a-Mole year after year after year after year after . . .

The “optimal” choice depends on the carrying cost and how heavily one discounts the future. The carrying cost ran into many tens of billions of dollars per year, and at least tens of American lives, and in some years many more. One has to discount the future fairly heavily to justify incurring such a cost.

Politicians discount the future very heavily. They do not personally bear the carrying costs, and are willing to pay a lot to defer disaster until after they leave office.

Politicians also tend to take the past into account, when they should not: as Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break noted in the comments, the sunk cost fallacy is a fallacy, but one that people fall for over and over and over–and politicians more than most.

So the incentive structure is perverse, and leads to procrastination and doubling down on un-winnable bets. And this is why the US stayed long past the time that it was clear that the war could not be “won.”

It’s plausible that the speed of the rout would actually have been slower, had the US bugged out in 2005 or 2011 rather than 2021. The US succeeded in keeping the Taliban at bay, but their strength actually increased over time during the resulting stalemate while the Afghan government and army treaded water at best and in fact probably regressed because of the moral hazard created by American protection and insurance.

The Biden administration and its myriad lackeys are trying to blame Trump. Well, if Trump had been reelected and followed through on his plan to withdraw, it’s certain that the outcome would have been the same. But the Biden administration chose to withdraw. If the Trump plan was so flawed, why did Biden follow through with it? After all, he’s had no reservation about reversing every other Trump policy (e.g., the border). So the choice to pull the plug is Biden’s and Biden’s alone. So he owns this.

The military and “intelligence” communities are covered in ignominy for their failure to predict this outcome, although their ability to prevent it was minimal or non-existent.

Ultimately the fundamental problem was the failure to develop an effective Afghan army despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars. The US should have spent money on speed bumps: they would have slowed down the Taliban advance far more effectively than the Afghan army on which the US lavished so much money and effort, and at much lower cost.

And why? Culture. As The Pilot noted in a comment, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Read John Keegan’s A History of Warfare: he emphasizes the cultural dimension of warfare It’s obviously not that Afghans are not warlike. They are obviously one of the most warlike people on the planet. It is that their cultural mode of warfare is guerrilla, tribal conflict, not regular battalions like a Roman legion or an American airborne outfit.

The United States attempted to create the simulacrum of a regular, western army, and failed miserably. This tweet is illuminating:

Can you imagine being one of the trainers?

I could go on and on about the underlying reasons. But the main question is why are the guerrillas so tough, and the regulars so pathetic?

Self-selection is the root of the issue. Guerrillas like the Taliban are self-selected, and committed for ideological/religious, tribal, or mercenary motives, or all of the above. Conscripts or those who volunteer for a pittance (much of which is stolen by their commanding officers) are drawn from the left tail of the distribution because their opportunity costs are low: you have to be pretty desperate to want to join the Afghan army. This is especially true in a “nation” that has no national identity and where military service does not generate any social status or prestige: can you imagine any Afghan saying “thank you for your service” to this lot? As for post-military employment, no doubt service in the Afghan army is (was) a negative signal of intelligence, motivation, etc. So the equilibrium is an army consisting primarily of unmotivated misfits who get trounced by steelier if less well-equipped guerrillas.

But it’s not as if this should have been a surprise to the US military in 2002, let alone in 2021. Yet year after year, we pretended to train them, and they pretended to be a military force. And we lied–to ourselves–about the results.

The American model of training indigenous forces to fight in the western fashion has failed over and over again. Vietnamization sort of worked when backed by massive American airpower (as in the Easter Offensive of 1973), but not when that airpower was withdrawn. Elsewhere it has failed time and again (again remember the rout of the American trained and equipped Iraqi army before ISIS).

And as numerous Middle Eastern wars have shown, it’s not an American problem alone: Middle Eastern states have not been able to produce regular western-style forces that can stand up to stalwart opponents (e.g., the Israelis, the US, or local guerrillas).

Again, it’s a cultural thing. And this should have been obvious long ago, and led the US government to conclude that the Afghan army would never be able to stand up to the Taliban on its own. But the overemphasis on the past and the excessive discounting of the future by politicians and the military and intelligence establishments continued to give life to the lie.

Given all this, I really don’t blame the Biden administration. Yes I’m sure they (and the Pentagon) could have been more foresightful and found ways to avoid the avalanche that has occurred–even delaying the withdrawal to the winter would have bought something of a respite, but the difference would have been in the degree (and only slightly) rather than the essence. They haven’t lost Afghanistan: they have chosen to take the inevitable L.

That said, I do find their response to the debacle to be appalling.

Biden’s condescending and cocky July press conference in which he heaped scorn on the prospect of a rapid Taliban victory is one example.

Was he lying? Was he delusional? Was the Pentagon (specifically, JCS Chair Michael Milley) lying to him–and he was too credulous to question them or understand that they were lying?

Doesn’t matter. This will turn out to be the most grimly farcical prediction made by any president in American history. He should have leveled with the country. He didn’t, and deserves the obloquy that his arrogance will engender.

As bad as Biden’s statements before the fact were, the after-the-fact statements of the execrable Secretary of State Anthony Blinken are even worse. Because he doesn’t acknowledge the facts that are obvious to every sentient being (which may, of course, excuse Joe Biden). Instead, he blows sunshine up our asses, which adds insult to injury.

Blinken’s “success” criterion is that the US achieved its objectives in Afghanistan, but not Vietnam. The US objective in Afghanistan was to defeat Al Qaeda, which we did, he says. Well that happened in 2001-2002 (which would mean the success would be Bush’s). So why were we still there in 2021? Was the post-Al Qaeda mission a success? Obviously not.

Stalin’s “Dizzy With Success” apologia for the catastrophe of Soviet collectivization was more tethered to reality than Blinken’s Dizzy With Success characterization of the Afghanistan debacle.

If this is success, dear Lord spare us failure.

Another loathsome individual is Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, whom I’ve detested since his previous stint as Pentagon flack under Obama–although thank God he’s no longer in a Navy uniform, which was a truly nauseating sight.

I guess you have to say that he’s right. It’s not an “imminent” threat environment (which implies something that could happen in the future)–it’s a full on here-and-now threat environment.

Admit the truth. Level with us. Take the L and admit it is an L. Move forward.

August 13, 2021

The Land of Bones, Redux.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:19 pm

Things are going pear-shaped, to put it mildly, in Afghanistan. A Taliban offensive launched on the heels of the American withdrawal has resulted in the fall of 12 provincial capitals, the collapse of the Afghan army, and the likely fall of Kabul within weeks if not days.

No doubt this will be framed as “who lost Afghanistan?” But maybe it should be framed as “should we have lost it later–or sooner?” Because it is likely that the loss was inevitable, and we only had control over the timing.

In 2009, I wrote a post about Afghanistan and my ambivalence about our continued presence there, a mere 8 years after our intervention (not 20). In that post, I suggested it might be best to come home–in 2009, mind. No doubt if we had, what we are seeing now would have been acted out then. Which could have been preferable to having it acted out now.

The real insight in that post was not mine, but that of a University of Houston colleague, Frank Holt, who wrote Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. I again quote from his 2003 book:

[W]e must acknowledge that the wars waged in Afghanistan by Alexander, Britain, the Soviet Union, and now the United States share some salient features that may not bode well for our future.   For example, all these invasions of Afghanistan went well at first, but so far no superpower has found a workable alternative for the recipe for ruin in Afghanistan:

1. Estimate the time and resources necessary to conquer and control the region.

2. Double all estimates.

3. Repeat as needed.

Afghanistan cannot be subdued by half measures.   Invaders must consider the deadly demands of winter warfare, since all gains from seasonal campaigns are erased at every lull.   Invaders must resolve to hunt down every warlord, for the one exception will surely rot the fruits of all the other victories.   Invaders cannot succeed by avoiding cross-border fighting, since the mobile insurgents can otherwise hide and reinforce with impunity.   Invaders must calculate where to draw the line between killing and conciliation, for too much of either means interminable conflict.   Finally, all invaders so far have had to face one more difficult choice: once mired in a winless situation, they have tried to cut their losses through one of two exit strategies:

1. Retreat, as did the British and the Soviets, with staggering losses.

2. Leave a large army of occupation in the area, as Alexander did.

Neither option seems acceptable to the United States, which must therefore learn from its predecessors’ mistakes and seek another path.   (pp. 18-19).

Ignoring Holt’s injunction, we did not seek another path. We eventually retreated, and though our losses were not as staggering as those suffered by the British or Soviets, they were bad enough, the financial costs were high, and the damage to American reputation great.

Contrary to Holt’s warning, the US attempted to subdue Afghanistan by half measures (which was the main thing I cautioned against in 2009). We ended up “mired in a winless situation,” and eventually chose to exit rather than occupy indefinitely a la Alexander. (Although note that Alexander quickly went on to other things and left the dirty work to his subordinates.)

Holt was very prescient, because he wrote this in 2003 when the glow of the initial routing of the Taliban and al Qaeda brightened many an American cheek. But he saw ahead, by looking back at history. Somewhat later I read him, and agreed with his gloomy assessment.

So I was in the “sooner” camp over a decade ago. In poker, trading, and war, you need to know when to cut your losses, and stop doubling down.

Could we have lost it better, then or now? Perhaps. Rather than withdrawing after a long and rather desultory campaign against the Taliban, as we did, a robust attack on them that seriously degraded their capability immediately prior to withdrawal might have bought the Afghan government and army some time. Might. But the evident abject failure of our enormously expensive and time consuming efforts to create a stable, relatively uncorrupt government and competent military suggests that the end result would have been the same, just delayed by a few months–until next spring, most likely. Those few months would hardly justify the lives and treasure spent in firing such a Parthian shot.

The US track record on third world nation building and third world army building is dismal (recall the utter rout of the American trained and equipped Iraqi army before ISIS). There is no reason to believe a miraculous improvement in the Afghan government and military even given a respite from the Taliban bought by American blood and bombs.

In retrospect, the Colin Powell Pottery Barn assertion (“you broke it, you bought it”–he applied it to Iraq but it is apposite for how we approached Afghanistan as well) was incorrect. Yes, we broke it, and achieved fairly rapidly our objective of dispersing Al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters. But then we went all romantic, believed that we owned it, and thought we could transform Afghanistan into something it has never been: a stable, even moderately peaceful, polity. Remember the purple fingers? Yeah. Good times, good times.

We shoveled trillions down a rathole, lost thousands of American lives and damaged many others, and failed utterly to change Afghanistan in any meaningful way. Nor, realistically speaking, was there any prospect of doing so–nobody has succeeded in doing so in 2300 years. The attempt was hubris, and nemesis has duly arrived.

In retrospect, the appropriate policy would have been to break it in 2001-2002, and leave it in 2003. If a terrorist threat to the US analogous to bin Laden’s had reappeared, go in and break it again. There might have been the political will to do that. But now, the we-broke-it-bought-it-and-didn’t-fix-it policy of the past 20 years has created a situation where the American people have no appetite whatsoever to have anything to do with Afghanistan ever again.

August 6, 2021

Dr. Walensky Blowed Up the Case For Vaccine Mandates Real Good

Filed under: CoronaCrisis,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:29 pm

The whirling COVID dervishes have taken another spin:

Did you catch that? The “anymore” part?

The “anymore” sticks out like a sore thumb. That implies that once upon a time vax could prevent transmission, but now it can’t. So . . . . what has changed to make vax suddenly ineffective against transmission?

I’m guessing “nothing.” If it can’t prevent transmission now (although it can mitigate symptoms), it didn’t before now.

So why the lie? No doubt to try to explain away the turn in the CDC’s mask recommendation. Before: vax, no mask! Now, vax–mask! Because transmission!

Dr. Walensky apparently doesn’t realize that she has now just totally blown up the rationale for vaccine mandates, or any social coercion for vaccination. (Or maybe she does, but figures that she’ll just come up with another BS rationale later in order to spin her way out of this.)

Specifically, if vaccination does not affect transmission, there is no “externality” from not being vaxxed. Your impact on others is exactly the same, vaxxed or not. Which implies that the benefits of vaccination are fully internalized, specifically, by reducing the severity of symptoms and the risk of death that you incur. Your decision to get vaxxed, or not, has zero impact on anybody else: the risk you pose to others is independent of your decision. Which means that getting vaxxed should be a completely personal choice even under a strict utilitarian calculus.

It should also be noted that if the vax protects one against severe adverse consequences of infection, the externality argument is weak anyways. Under this hypothetical, you can protect yourself against others by getting vaccinated, so you shouldn’t care what they do. You decide to assume the risk, or not. Either way, others are not imposing an external cost on you, so (a) you shouldn’t care what they do, and (b) you have no business or right demanding that they get vaccinated.

The externality argument is also weak (of course) if the vaccine doesn’t work.

To emphasize: the CDC, before whom we are supposed to cower in unquestioning obeisance, has just decreed that there is no justification whatsoever to mandate, coerce, or even suggest that you get vaccinated in order to protect others. But, no doubt, Dr. Walensky, the rest of the CDC, and the administration, will continue to demand, shrilly, that you get vaccinated, and will inch–or lunge–towards imposing mandates. The only justification for this is absolute paternalism, or (similarly) a belief that your body and soul belong to the state, and not to you.

Arguendo ad externality should always be viewed with skepticism in any event (as any close student of Coase should recognize): the concept is frequently sloppily invoked to justify various coercive policies. But here, there is not even an externality fig leaf for a mandate–by the CDC’s own admission.

Too bad John Candy has passed on. Otherwise he could host another Farm Film Report Celebrity Blow Up, starring Rochelle Walensky. It would have been a good’n.

She did it! She blowed it up good! Real good!

August 4, 2021

Your Property Is Unsafe Because the Executive Never Sleeps

Filed under: CoronaCrisis,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:35 pm

Sometime 19th century judge Gideon John Tucker opined: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.”

Mr. Tucker’s opinion is sadly out of date. Now those things are not safe as long as the executive is in session–which is always.

If you’ve been like Rip Van Winkle, and haven’t noticed this, well the “Biden” administration has given you a wakeup call. The CDC–well known regulator of real estate markets–has extended its moratorium on evictions, for 90 percent of the country anyways. Because Covid.

Isn’t everything?

The Supreme Court has already indicated that this is flatly unconstitutional absent Congressional legislation. Which it clearly is. Though the Supreme Court should go further. Any Congressional legislation remotely similar to the CDC ukase should also be held unconstitutional under the 5th Amendment, which states that no person shall be “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Preventing someone from evicting them from his/her property is clearly depriving that person of his/her property. The defining feature of property is the right to exclude others from the use thereof. If you can’t keep others from using it, it ain’t yours.

Ironic, no, from a government that is ruthlessly pursuing those who trespassed on the Capitol on 6 January?

The CDC is not providing due process–this is a blanket ban. The CDC is not providing compensation. Any “law” that mimics the features of the CDC order would be a blatant infringement on 5th Amendment rights.

The justification for this given by the CDC’s director, Rochelle Walensky (one of the lying Walenskys?) is utterly appalling: “This moratorium is the right thing to do to keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings where COVID-19 spreads.”

Gee, I missed the “right thing to do” clause in the Constitution. I also missed the “congregate settings Covid” exception to the 5th.

It is particularly nauseating to hear this bilge from the “our sacred democracy” crowd. If unilateral expropriation of property with zero process whatsoever, and no compensation whatsoever, is the hallmark of “our sacred democracy” I say hard pass to democracy. Give me autocracy. Autocracy is functionally the same, but doesn’t add the insults of virtue signaling and preening hypocrisy to the injury of theft.

Biden and Walensky essentially caved to the leftist extreme in the Democratic Party, with the utterly loathsome Rep. Cori Bush (D(uh), MO) leading the charge. Go to Twitter to see the “rationale” advanced by the supporters of this. To summarize: Proudhon said it first (“property is theft,” so stealing it back is fine):

One of my followers asked how could someone so stupid get 480,000 followers. I said

Speaking of stupid, Maxine Waters got in the act, ironically channeling Andrew Jackson (or at least a possibly apocryphal statement attributed to him):

“Who is going to stop them?” That is, “the Supreme Court has made its ruling: now let it enforce it.”

Under the CDC/Biden theory, there are no checks on the government’s authority whatsoever. Say the magic word–“COVID”–and anything is possible.

Which, by the way, is precisely why the ruling class is so hell bent on perpetuating the Covid scare. And which is why, when (if) Covid fades away, another “emergency” will be ginned up to take its place.

To the extent that he is conscious, Biden consciously acknowledged that this action is unconstitutional. But he obviously doesn’t care. Or, he cares more about protecting his political flank than about respecting his oath of office.

The purpose of the compensation clause is to force government to put its money where its mouth is: if a rental unit is more valuable in the hands of its current occupant, who is (allegedly) unable to pay, then go through the political process of appropriating money to pay the property owner to allow said occupant to continue to reside there. The idea is to approximate the outcome of voluntary arms length transactions when some transactions cost (e.g., holdup problems) make such voluntary transactions prohibitively expensive. A compensation requirement, properly implemented, helps ensure that property is allocated to its highest value use.

This process is imperfect, but at least it allows for some element of accountability for those who vote for it. Allow a government to take valuable property, without compensation, without process, and by an agency completely insulated from electoral accountability, and you will see it take and take and take and take. Because it pays no price. When someone pays no price, it consumes to satiation. And governments are never satiated.

Today it’s Covid. Tomorrow it will be something else. Legislature in session or no, your property will be unsafe as long as a bureaucrat can conjure up an “emergency” to justify taking it.

Forget the rule of law. We live under the rule of the lawless.

Navy Runs Experiment. Gets Wrong Answer. Chooses to Discriminate.

Filed under: Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:44 pm

In 2020, Navy Secretary Mike Esper (one of Trump’s many, many horrible personnel choices) eliminated photo portraits from Navy promotion files, on the theory that this facilitated discrimination against African Americans. Presumably Esper believed that promotion boards were stacked with racists.

There is a clear testable implication of Esper’s theory of discrimination: elimination of photos should lead to an increase in promotion rates for African Americans.

The Navy ran the test. The results?

Promotion rates for African Americans fell after photos were removed.

Whoops! Hypothesis rejected! Apparently the promotion boards weren’t so racist after all. Or maybe they were.

There is a clear explanation of the results of this experiment: when photos were included, promotion boards favored African Americans. That is, the results are consistent with discrimination, just in the opposite direction hypothesized by Esper.

So what is the Navy (and perhaps the USMC) likely to do? Reinstate photos. So they can discriminate better. In the name of “diversity” and “equity.” Obviously not in the name of military effectiveness.

I predict that in the current environment, African American promotion rates will exceed those achieved when photos were included prior to 2020.

August 1, 2021

Navy Blues–A Coda

Filed under: Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 4:00 pm

A few follow on thoughts.

The Navy had huge race problems especially in the late-Vietnam era. One of Elmo Zumwalt’s biggest challenges was dealing with that issue. He did so, fairly successfully.

Related to the post-Vietnam attempts to address racial tensions,I was a subject (victim?) of what I would characterize as CRT 1.0 when at the Naval Academy. Mids were subjected to various race- and gender-related struggle sessions. During Plebe Summer these were both brigade-wide and at the company level. The latter were rather embarrassing, given that they were led by the company officers who were clearly reading off a script and had instructions to crack down on Wrongthink.

My main memory of that is when a hapless (and remember, 18 year-old) company mate made the mistake of saying something about “Amazons” in reference to women (I groaned as soon as he said it knowing it would not end well), at which the company officer (a bubblehead who later became president of Electric Boat) jumped all over him: “You are a sexist AND a racist!” Why racist my befuddled classmate asked. Because people in the Amazon are dark skinned! (Apparently the lieutenant needed to brush up on Herodotus.)

I can only imagine that things are infinitely worse, and infinitely more cringeworthy and infinitely more Orwellian and oppressive, given the that the leftist march through the institution of the military hadn’t really even begun when I was at Navy, and is all but complete now.

Zumwalt’s reforms had pretty well tamped down the racial tensions by the time I was at Navy. I am convinced that what is going on now will ramp them up.

By way of trying to see the glass as not completely empty, one of the reasons I left the Academy was my experience during Youngster cruise. Seeing the dysfunctions aboard an active USN ship–low morale, heavy drug use (I remember smelling reefer wafting from the crew spaces when I was standing watch on the quarterdeck, and multiple E3’s and E4’s being put on report at morning quarters for having been busted for possession by Norfolk cops), borderline insubordination, and officers that held little sway over the crew–really served to concentrate my mind.

But I can hear you say–hey, I thought you were going to say something optimistic! Well, the optimistic statement is that things turned around dramatically (from what I understand, not from first-hand experience) in the 80s and early 90s. The Reagan defense spending boom and the rebound from post-Vietnam malaise led to considerable improvement on both the hardware and meatware side.

So it is at least possible that current trends can be reversed. That’s my optimistic take. But in order for that to happen, things must change soon. I am not so optimistic about that. The nation has changed dramatically in 30-40 years. But I hope I am wrong.

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