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The Bunker: A Creaky Pile of Circumstantial Evidence

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.


In The Bunker this week: Plumbing General Milley’s motives; the latest deadly U.S. military snafu; why accountability is MIA at the Pentagon; and more.

YOUR MILLEY-AGE MAY VARY

Is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs a hero or hooligan?

The U.S. military’s job is to prevent war. For generations, we’ve been told the only way to do that is to spend tons of money to keep the world’s threats at bay. The Bunker agrees with the first statement, but not the second. That’s why he’s giving Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a pass on his reported conversations with his Chinese counterpart in the waning days of the Trump administration.

According to Peril, a book published September 21 by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of the Washington Post, Milley assured General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army that President Trump would not attack China in his final days in office. But even if Trump did so, Milley said he would have secretly alerted the Chinese military leader in advance, according to the book. Beijing was reportedly concerned about Trump’s mental state (as were many folks inside the Pentagon, some of whom were in on the calls). Milley was acting as a guardrail to calm Chinese jitters. He made similar calls to military leaders in several other nations. He also reportedly told U.S. military officers to make sure he was in the loop if Trump started talking about nuclear weapons (while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the principal military adviser to the president, he is not a link in any warfighting chain of command).

The Bunker spent years milling along the corridors at defense ministries around the globe, where top U.S. military leaders were chatting with bemedaled equals behind closed doors. Such confabs are “perfectly within the duties and responsibilities” of his job, Milley said September 17. One would hope they could candidly discuss their challenges without being accused of contemplating “a treasonous leak of classified information,” as Senator Marco Rubio said in a September 14 letter to President Biden. The Florida Republican urged the commander-in-chief to “dismiss him immediately.” Biden publicly declined to do so the next day, saying he had “great confidence” in Milley.

Frankly, the chairman’s actions are in keeping with the Pentagon ethos of piling on—which is why Defense Department wags sometimes call the place the Department of Redundancy Department. After all, it has four air forces; a nuclear triad of bombers, submarines, and ICBMs; two armies (counting the Marines); multi-layered missile-defense systems; and oodles of other belt-and-suspenders redundancies. They’re vital, the Pentagon avers, to prevent war. But Milley’s method, unlike those others, is cheap.

Milley’s fretting over nuclear weapons raises another important issue. The issue isn’t insubordination, it’s idiocy: why, in this day and age, is the ability to launch a nuclear war basically invested in the single finger of a single person? “Rather than criticizing the general, we need to change the policy that put him in an impossible spot,” Tom Z. Collina of the Ploughshares Fund maintains. “By now, it should be clear that no one person should have the unilateral power to end our civilization. Such unchecked authority is undemocratic, unnecessary and extremely dangerous.” Such a policy was dubious even during the Cold War. Thirty years after it ended it is insane. Collina wants Congress to play a role in any decision to use nuclear weapons—and for the U.S. to declare it will not use them first. Those would be a pair of lines so bright and shining that even a U.S. president couldn’t miss them.

ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN

But when it comes to the U.S. military, they happen too often

Neither General Milley nor the rest of the U.S. military can be excused for the mistaken August 29 Kabul drone attack as the U.S. military fled Afghanistan. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs initially called the Hellfire missile strike “righteous,” a tactless choice of language (it and “righteousness” appear 540 times in the Bible). But two weeks later, following a devastating New York Times video investigation, righteousness had curdled into travesty. “This is a horrible tragedy of war and it’s heart wrenching,” Milley said September 17. Instead of suspected terrorists in a white Toyota packed with explosives, those killed were innocents, most of them kids, apparently carrying water bottles. “I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in that strike,” Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, overseeing the Afghan withdrawal, added.

When it comes to killing people, the U.S. military’s intelligence must be as bulletproof as possible. Too often, that’s not the case. The U.S. military’s weapons kill with stunning efficiency. Too bad the brains guiding those bullets and bombs too often fall short, and end up killing innocents in the process. In this case, the U.S. military deduced—“guessed” is another way to put it—that the Toyota was a legitimate target. But the strike killed Zamarai Ahmadi, an aid worker with a U.S.-based group. “Family members in interviews on Saturday expressed no visible animosity toward the U.S. government for killing their loved ones,” the Washington Post reported September 18. “They want compensation from the U.S. government and help in leaving Afghanistan and getting resettled in the United States or another safe country, family members said.”

McKenzie, like too many commanders before him, cited “corroborating” and “conflicting” evidence that led to an “assessment” that the Toyota represented “an imminent threat to U.S. forces at the airport” (a suicide bomber had killed 13 U.S. troops and at least 169 Afghans just outside the airport three days before the ill-aimed strike). But a review of the mea maxima culpa (from the Latin, meaning “through my most grievous fault”) timeline McKenzie recited reveals a rush to capital punishment built atop a creaky pile of circumstantial evidence. The snafu string began when a U.S. drone first spotted Ahmadi’s white Corolla, which then led U.S. officials to view everything that followed through a they-must-be-terrorists lens.

One of the “most recurring” bits of intelligence collected by the Americans, McKenzie said, is that Islamic State terrorists “would utilize a white Toyota Corolla as a key element in the next attack.” He didn’t mention the fact that as of 2015, roughly 90% of the cars in Afghanistan are Toyota Corollas. And the color white? “White is a favorite of buyers because it shows the dirt less, there is a lot of dust here,” an Afghan used-car salesman said in 2013.

The U.S. military first spotted Ahmadi’s car—one of those ubiquitous white Corollas—just before 9 a.m. local time. They destroyed it just before 5 p.m. Pretty much like any other 9-to-5 job. McKenzie pledged tighter procedures to reduce the chances of such tragedies in the future. The Air Force inspector general has also opened a review.

We’ve heard this all before. In 2015, an AC-130 gunship shredded a hospital that it thought was a Taliban outpost in northern Afghanistan, killing 30. In 1999, a B-2 bomber killed three in the Serbian capital of Belgrade when what it thought was a military depot turned out to be the Chinese embassy. In 1994, a pair of F-15 pilots shot down two U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters over northern Iraq, killing 26, including 15 Americans, after concluding they were Iraqi choppers violating a no-fly-zone. In 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian commercial airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing 290, thinking it was a Shah-era U.S. built (oh, the irony!) Iranian F-14.

The Bunker has sat in too many Pentagon briefings where top officials tried to explain what went awry. Each case tends to involve a series of snafus, one stacked atop another. These were all high-profile cases, and compelled the Pentagon to investigate. None of these occurred amid the so-called “fog of war.” Each happened in what might be called the “haze of war,” where one additional check, carried out correctly, should have averted catastrophe. To its credit, the Pentagon has generally done a better job disclosing what went wrong after the fact. It’s been less successful at preventing it from happening in the first place. One can only guess how many remote wedding celebrations, civic gatherings, and neighborhood cookouts have been obliterated outside of public view.

ACCOUNTABILITY MIA

Mum’s the word

The poorly-run Afghan war, the Afghan withdrawal fiasco, and that errant Hellfire missile strike all lead to an obvious question: what U.S. officials, if any, are taken to task for such misadventures? No one has been truly held to account for the fouled-up conduct of the Afghan war. President George W. Bush launched it during his first term, and was re-elected to a second. President Barack Obama sent more troops there during his first term, and was re-elected to a second. President Trump struck a lousy deal to end the war and President Biden then led a lousy retreat.

Nearly all their minions and generals also escaped unscathed. In 2006, Bush fired the late Donald Rumsfeld, who was running the Pentagon when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. But he was cashiered for the poor U.S. performance in Iraq, not Afghanistan. In 2009, defense secretary Robert Gates ousted Army General David McKiernan, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, saying the war needed “fresh thinking”—12 years before it ended. To replace McKiernan, Gates tapped Army Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal—who was fired a year later following an indiscreet article in Rolling Stone.

When it came to the botched withdrawal, the defense and foreign ministers of the Netherlands have resigned over it. In Britain, the prime minister demoted the foreign secretary. In Washington, “I take responsibility for the decision” Biden said August 31 of the chaotic U.S. pullout.

And when it came to the slaying of 10 innocents, the officer who gave the order to fire came from “the over-the-horizon commander who's forward in the theater,” McKenzie, chief of U.S. Central Command, said. But the CENTCOM boss took to heart what his commander-in-chief had said days before: “I am fully responsible for this strike and its tragic outcome.”

Such cover is vital in a war zone. But one has to wonder how many such errors could be avoided if the burden of making the right call were tilted a little more to those actually pulling the trigger. History suggests that when no one is held responsible—or when the top official assumes that mantle—nothing much changes.

WHAT WE'RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Hey Big Spender! (PDF)

When it comes to U.S. military spending, there are lots of yardsticks used to measure it. Those who want to spend more tend to cite its shrinking share of federal spending, or of the Gross Domestic Product. But those flimflammy figures are irrelevant. The amount spent on the U.S. military should be measured against the threat, not some arbitrary economic stat. That’s why this passage (PDF) caught The Bunker’s eye in a September 20 report: “DOD generally accounts for about two-thirds of federal contracting activity, obligating more than all civilian federal agencies combined.”

Robot killer

Drones can kill from the sky, but they’re easily seen and, once spotted, easily defeated. A remote control sniper rifle hidden on the ground is a whole ‘nother thing, as the New York Times made clear how Israel managed to kill one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists in this gripping September 18 piece.

Kinder, gentler dronenclature?

Whether it’s the names of Navy ships, Army posts or Air Force aircraft, they all reflect changing times. Interesting to note that first-generation Air Force drones sported grim names like Predator® and Reaper (which, for some reason, apparently lacks its very own ®). Now General Atomics, which built both of those, is rolling out newer optionally-armed models dubbed SkyGuardian®, SeaGuardian® and Protector (the British version of the SkyGuardian®). Breaking Defense published a General Atomics press release on the Protector September 15.

“Excessive deference”

Why’d the war in Afghanistan drag on for two decades? “Excessive deference to the military has made Americans less willing to weigh in on public debates where they believe they lack expertise or moral standing,” foreign-policy pros Jessica D. Blankshain and Max Z. Margulies asserted in the September 16 New York Times. This is a real shame. The Bunker knows, from up-close and personal observation dating back to the Carter years, that the U.S. military knows as much about waging war, in strategic terms, as any four Americans sitting in a Formica-topped diner booth anywhere in America. Pass the ketchup or pass the blood. Common sense should prevail in matters of war but too often it doesn’t.

“James Bond, please call the office”

The Air Force C-130 has landed pretty much everywhere: rudimentary airfields, arctic ice sheets—even an aircraft carrier. “Yet, it cannot land on water, which covers about 71% of the planet,” the Air Force pointed out September 14. This is all about China, although the country’s name never surfaced in the service’s release about this desired new capability. No problem—at least until the Navy starts talking about amphibian-aircraft carriers capable of crawling the 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean to Beijing.

All aboard!

The North Koreans appear to be putting some of their ballistic missiles aboard trains. That way, they can be hidden inside tunnels, to pop out only when needed (cool video here). North Korea’s central news agency reported September 16 that the Pyongyang Choo-Choo will “increase the capability for dealing intensive blow to the menacing forces in many places at the same time during necessary military operation and powerfully improve the ability to more actively cope with all sorts of threats as part of establishment of new defence strategy.” The U.S. Air Force considered deploying such a system back in the 1980s. But the service gave up, apparently after reviewing Amtrak’s on-time performance.

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