The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.
MURKY ON THE BOUNTY
Fragmentary intel on Russian plot to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan
So did the Russians pay its allies in Afghanistan to kill U.S. troops there, as The New York Times reported June 26? It’s amazing how quickly such shadowy intelligence can cleave opinion into two warring camps.
On one side, there are those who don’t care for President Trump, or Moscow, so they’ve come together in an alliance of convenience and believe Russia did it and the White House averted its gaze. Devastating, if true. But that’s a big “if.” The fact that President Trump is chummy with Russia President Vladimir Putin all but makes it the crack cocaine of conspiracies. On the other side are those a bit more leery of intelligence reports, U.S. or otherwise. They want more evidence before making up their minds—and such evidence may never be forthcoming.
It’s amazing how many embrace the purported U.S. intelligence, given the U.S. intelligence community’s crackerjack reporting on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, how it missed the collapse of Russia’s progenitor, the Soviet Union, and a list of other bum reports too lengthy to detail. And, speaking of Iraq, it’s also surprising how many waving the Times’piece seem to have forgotten the same newspaper’s infamous reporting—basically serving as court stenographer for President George W. Bush—that pushed the U.S. to invade that country in 2003 under false pretenses.
This wouldn’t be the first time Russia and the United States confronted each other in Afghanistan. The U.S. secretly supplied Afghan rebels with U.S.-made FIM-92 Stinger® anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Soviet helicopters after Moscow invaded Afghanistan in 1979. A U.S. Army report said the missiles downed 269 choppers, but most believe the total downed was far less. Nonetheless, there is Russian blood on American hands in Afghanistan. Putin worked for the KGB, including a stint in counter-intelligence, during the decade the Soviet Union lost 15,000 troops in that country.
After a flurry of sketchy reports over the weekend, this much is clear: the intelligence is less than ironclad. First of all, the Times’ original article says “American intelligence officials have concluded” that it happened, which is a long way from saying that it did. In other words, it’s apparently a deduction, which is cousin to a conjecture. Secondly, the purported payer of the alleged bounties is a “Russian military intelligence unit,” which paid the money to “Taliban-linked militants.” That’s a term that can fairly be applied to half the country.
Finally, the Taliban have been at war with the United States since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 to overthrow them. The notion that someone needs to be paid to kill an invader after nearly 20 years of war doesn’t quite add up. The Times’ original piece hinted that some of 24 U.S. troops killed in combat in Afghanistan since January 2019 might have been killed by bounty-hunters, but that still leaves 2,425 American troops killed without Russian payments.
On Sunday, the Times reported in a second story that U.S. intelligence believed “at least one U.S. troop death was the result of the bounties.” On Monday, the Associated Press said that bounties may have been paid in connection with a bombing that killed three Marines. On Tuesday, the Times reported that Trump received a “written briefing” on the matter in late February. A senior Pentagon official told NBC that “there was no evidence that any bounty was actually paid.” The Pentagon declared that it has found “no corroborating evidence” of such bounties being paid.
So, at this point, it all sounds like a definite maybe.
Separating fact from fiction
The Bunker grew up in Rhode Island, not far from the historic Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut. It was years before it realized that the kids whose folks worked at EB seemed to be the ones with big boats sailing on Narragansett Bay. A decade later, The Bunker found itself in Washington, D.C., covering the production of the Fort Worth-built F-16 for its readers at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. It didn’t take long to realize in both cases that the folks on the line, understandably, fretted only about next year’s defense budget to the degree it meant they would have a job, or not.
Those memories resurfaced last week following President Trump’s visit to the Italian-owned Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisconsin. No matter what poppycock he spewed, they cheered anything suggesting that more money might be coming to their shipyard. Nothing wrong with a hometown crowd doing that.
But there was something wrong with the president’s boast that “one of the big factors” in the Navy’s April decision to award the yard a $5.5 billion contract for 10 new frigates was “your location in Wisconsin.” (Marinette was tapped for the job over competitors in Alabama, Maine and Mississippi—far less critical to Trump’s re-election bid.) And it was wrong when Trump spun figments that had nothing to do with reality. There has been no “colossal rebuilding” of the “totally depleted” U.S. military he inherited (presidents Bush 43 and Obama both spent more). The Pentagon’s “greatest missiles…greatest rockets…greatest ships… the greatest equipment” were rolling off the production line long before he became president. “We have the strongest military in the world, by far,” implying he had something to do with it. The U.S. has had the strongest military in the world since World War II.
What’s dispiriting about this line of cant (pun intended) is that it equates military spending with military strength. While there is a relationship, it is not as linear as those who lavish funding on the Pentagon would want you to think. If we doubled our current level of military spending from $750 billion to $1.5 trillion annually, for example, the U.S. military wouldn’t be twice as strong. It might be marginally stronger, but maybe not—you’d be surprised how much less bang per buck you get with every additional dollar spent. And we’d be a heck of a lot more broke than we already are.
“PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!”
The Pentagon is an edifice not unlike a house of cards. Those running in it, serving in it, and reporting on it all have an interest in preserving the status quo, lest a quick gust topple the thing. That’s what makes Gregory Foster’s heat-seeking missive on the U.S. military-industrial complex so refreshing. Amid COVID-19 and never-ending wars on terror, the West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran and professor at the National Defense University is ready to argue for some fundamental changes to U.S. national security.
“By any measure, the military we have today not only isn’t strategically effective, it isn’t even militarily effective. We don’t win wars. We don’t prevent wars. We certainly don’t eliminate wars. But we do feed escalation, provocation, and mirror imaging,” he writes over at Defense One. “Even if we were to claim a militarily-effective military, we would have no choice but to admit that its defining features are all the things a truly strategically effective military wouldn’t be: disproportionately destructive, indiscriminately lethal, exorbitantly expensive, overly provocative and escalatory, unduly consumptive, largely alienated from society, and environmentally damaging.”
Foster may be a rabble-rouser, but what he writes is a lot more interesting to ponder than yet another endless Pentagon study, or think-tank doorstop, coloring carefully within the lines of U.S. national-security dogma.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
The Pentagon’s atom-bomb makers (which, to confuse the general public, work for the Department of Energy) and a private contractor figured out a way to save a half-billion dollars over five years while operating two nuclear sites. But they’re “not planning to implement the Cost Savings Program—or a variation of it—at other sites,” the Government Accountability Office reported June 24. That’s because they’re “uncertain” if such savings could be realized at DOE’s six other nuclear-production facilities. And why are they uncertain? Because the National Nuclear Security Administration “has not gathered information on nor documented its analysis of the Cost Savings Program.” Perfect: if you don’t know it’s being wasted, you’ll never find the savings.
Three recently-announced resignations by senior women working at the Pentagon are turning the Defense Department into more of a boys’ club than it already is. By the time that trio leaves the building next week, only three of the 60 top Pentagon jobs requiring Senate confirmation will be occupied by women appointed by President Trump, Defense News reported June 24. Math isn’t The Bunker’s strong suit (then again, neither is English) but its calculator suggests that works out to a Pentagon brass that is 63% copper, 32% zinc, and 5% female.
It was written by the late Hunter S. Thompson, pre-gonzo journalist, during his tour as an Air Force public-affairs officer in 1957. Task & Purpose reminded us June 23 of what a good PR read is.
Not only does Congress prohibit the Pentagon from closing any domestic bases (the Defense Department has estimated it has 20% too much real estate), but it is also telling them to keep older weapons in the force. The latest outrage comes from the Senate, where the armed services committee told the Air Force how many older airplanes it must keep flying, Breaking Defense reported June 24.
Not a read, but a watch, as former SECDEF Jim Mattis questions former SECDEF Bob Gates on military matters, and his new book. Good way for defense nerds to waste, um, invest, an hour.
More than 30 years ago, The Bunker wrote a piece about a training accident in West (yes, it was a long time ago) Germany. It was one of the saddest stories ever, a chain of errors that ended in the death of a 20-year-old soldier. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, that story still lives on. That’s how former soldier Mark Flowers stumbled upon it as he worked on a June 28 recollection of that dreadful night three decades later. While both stories are painful to read, what’s gratifying are the comments posted following Mark’s story. Soldiers, it seems, never forget. Politicians, not so much.
God bless Private Jerry L. Westmoreland, and his family.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading The Bunker, and a happy 4th to one and all. Just be sure to stay socially distant from the fireworks.
The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.