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The Bunker: Afghanistan Down the Drain

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.

This week in The Bunker: Afghanistan falls apart; a civil war inside the Military-Industrial Complex; let’s spend more on all-seeing eyes for enemy missiles; the arms shows that have become the Walmarts of war; & more.


The F-16s that mowed down the Taliban outside Kabul will never remember. The armored vehicles that protected U.S. troops near Kandahar don’t have the foggiest recollection. The AC-130 gunships that turned the enemy into pink mist have no memory. The only ones who remember—and will never forget—are the more than 800,000 U.S. troops who fought to save Afghanistan from the Taliban. The veterans among them are proud of their honorable discharges, but not the dishonorable way their war ended.

“What we’re actually seeing is the reversal of morality,” says H.R. McMaster, the retired Army three-star general and Afghan vet who served as one of President Trump’s six national security advisers. His comment stings because in 1997 McMaster wrote, as an active-duty Army officer, Dereliction of Duty, a highly-regarded history of how the U.S. government lost the war in Vietnam. No word yet if McMaster plans to write Dereliction of Duty 2.0.

When Afghanistan started going down the drain a month ago, senior U.S. officials blamed the Afghans’ lack of will and leadership for their poor showing. After all, it came on the heels of an $83 billion U.S. investment into their weapons and training. “The two most important combat multipliers actually is will and leadership,” Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said July 21. “This is going to be a test now of the will and leadership of the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces and the government of Afghanistan.”

But the same can be said of the U.S. politicians and generals who sent U.S. troops off to an endless, undeclared war lacking clear, achievable objectives. The U.S. public should have demanded a congressional vote on a declaration of war, as spelled out in the Constitution. Instead, they were told to go shopping.

This kind of leadership will do far more to hurt U.S. military recruiting than the bugaboos of the sexual orientation of who serves in uniform, COVID-19 shots in arms, or cuts in budgets. It just became far more challenging for parents and grandparents to urge their offspring to put on a U.S. military uniform. While 69% of Americans polled in April supported bringing the troops home, that fell to 49% amid the Taliban’s chaotic return to power. Allies have suddenly become more leery of U.S. military might—might, as in maybe.

Each president played a role in the war’s dismal endgame. George W. Bush turned what should have been a six-month 9/11 vengeance attack into a nation-building exercise. Barack Obama sent 30,000 extra U.S. troops to fight on an 18-month leash. Donald Trump (author of 1987’s The Art of the Deal) struck a craven deal with the Taliban calling for a 2021 U.S. pullout. Unlike the Taliban, Biden basically accepted the terms of that weak pact. “I’m now the fourth American president to preside over war in Afghanistan,” he said August 16. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president. Yet the U.S. military keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea following a 1953 armistice that paused the Korean war. U.S. troops have since preserved that uneasy truce through 13 U.S. presidencies. And there’s no excuse for the Biden Pentagon’s failure to avert the chaos that erupted in recent days.

The troops are ticked, and who can blame them? Former Army Ranger Tom Amenta said he’s “angry, really angry” over the war’s waste. “Why did my friend get blown up?” he asked, referring to fellow Ranger Jay Blessing, killed by an IED in 2003. Amenta, now 40, recalled his friend’s goofiness to the Washington Post: “He put hot sauce on ice cream.” He was 23.

The only ones more upset than the troops are the more than 2,000 families who sacrificed a loved one in 2001. Or 2002. Or 2003. Or 2004. Or 2005. Or 2006. Or 2007. Or 2008. Or 2009. Or 2010. Or 2011. Or 2012. Or 2013. Or 2014. Or 2015. Or 2016. Or 2017. Or 2018. Or 2019. Or 2020.

They all did their duty. It’s a shame their so-called leaders couldn’t do theirs.


The Navy fires a broadside

When it comes to the Military-Industrial Complex, who do you root for: the Military, or the Industrial? Tough call, to be sure. But the Navy’s top admiral has declared that his service’s plans to remake itself are being sabotaged by its contractors. His words were just as important as his audience: he was speaking at the Navy League’s annual 2021 Sea Air Space exposition, basically the U.S. Navy’s biggest annual arms bazaar that is always crammed with contractors.

“Although it’s in industry’s best interest–and I just saw your second-quarter reports and I know it’s a happy audience out there for the most part—building the ships that you want to build, lagging on repairs(PDF) to ships and to submarines, lobbying Congress to buy aircraft that we don’t need that are excess to need,” Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday said August 2. “It’s not helpful.”

His zinger about buying “aircraft that we don’t need” sounds better than it is: the Navy wants to stop buying Boeing F-18 Super Hornets so it can develop its new top-secret Next Generation Air Dominance warplane. But Boeing, allied with lawmakers whose constituents build the F-18, wants the Navy to spend nearly $1 billion for 12 new ones. Congress will make the final decision.

Just like the Washington powerbrokers who always praise the troops in the trenches, former Navy secretary Richard Spencer said Gilday’s criticism isn’t aimed at the “patriots” on the assembly lines. “This is a message for the executive management and the Board Directors of those companies contributing to the problem outlined by Admiral Gilday,” he responded a week after the Navy chief’s salvo.

Spencer recalled when Congress demanded answers in 2019 from company officials who poorly managed privately owned housing on military bases. Arms merchants should be no different. “With so much more money and mission at stake, why have they not shown the same level of outrage and public inquisition to those that are underperforming in the mission of national security?” Spencer, the Navy’s top civilian from 2017 to 2019, wrote in Breaking Defense.

C’mon, Mr. Secretary—you know damn well why. Landlords are small fry compared to Lockheeds. There is too much money changing hands—recycling from the Pentagon, to its contractors, to their lawmakers, then back again—to rock the boat…and the ships…and the planes.


New pushes for new missile defenses

Meanwhile, down in Huntsville, Alabama, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was arguing that the U.S. needs to spend more money on missile defense to thwart future threats. “I would like to have overhead sensors that see everything, characterize everything that goes on on this planet, from a missile perspective, all the time, everywhere,” Air Force General John Hyten told the Space and Missile Defense Symposium August 11. “That's the one capability I would like to have because you have to be able to see it to do anything about it. And that's a challenge for hypersonics and cruise missiles; that's a challenge for short range; that's a challenge for ballistics; that's a challenge for everything that we have.”


Hyten revealed that the Pentagon will soon invite contractors to a classified briefing “to help explain capabilities DOD urgently needs from industry,” the Defense Department said. And just because such a system is currently, as Hyten put it, “unobtainium,” he said that is no reason not to spend billions trying to obtain it. Of course, the Pentagon has been unabletanium to design and build a new interceptor for its current ground-based system, despite repeated tries, never mind some All-Seeing Global Space Eye.

But it’s really not such a big technical challenge, Hyten said. “We have to get there, and we should be able to get there quickly because that technology is not difficult,” he said, despite a long history of efforts like this that highlight just how challenging it will be. All the Pentagon has to do, Hyten insisted, is blend its air and missile-defense efforts into a single, seamless package. “In this case,” he added, “it's a bureaucratic challenge more than anything else.”

In that case, we’re toast.


Who sponsors those arms bizarres, anyway?

Defense trade fairs like those mentioned above are regular events where buyers in uniform and civilians in suits spend your money. Many of the convention floor displays are drawing-board wonder weapons that tend to stay that way. The bigger the defense budget, the longer the list of these science-fiction fairs seems to grow.

Humongous convention halls are crammed with the latest shiny military hardware, claiming to give the U.S. military a fighting edge (although apparently not when confronting a peer-competitor like the Taliban). In his younger days, The Bunker attended many such expos, looking for scoops and sources, as well as cool military hardware swag for his two young sons. But tiny plastic jets and ships obviously aren’t where the real money is. The Navy confab says that it offers “numerous networking and business-generating opportunities with policy-makers, purchasing agents and end users. There are “guided VIP tours of the exhibit floor, linking customers directly to suppliers.”

And contractors better not cheat by hanging around and “suitcasing(PDF)—trying to sell their wares outside an official, paid-for booth. Besides, there’s plenty of money to pay for a booth. Last year, “defense-contract spending hit a record high of $447 billion–representing nearly two-thirds of overall federal contract spending,” Bloomberg reported in June. “Pentagon spending surged by $140.6 billion between fiscal 2016 and 2020, with a $42 billion increase in the last year alone.”

Even though attending the sessions can cost as much as $575 per person, these shows also require big-buck business backers. Sponsors for the naval and space expositions included, among many others, the Pentagon’s top five contractors—Boeing ($21.5 billion in defense contracts last year), General Dynamics ($22.6 billion), Lockheed ($74.2 billion), Northrop ($12.7 billion), and Raytheon ($27.4 billion).

Such extravaganzas are the dairies where the Pentagon’s self-licking ice-cream cones are made.


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

Pentagon rut?

The Rand Corp. is wondering if the U.S. military has become so predictable that adversaries can anticipate its moves and try to counter them before they happen. “Overall, the analysis found that increasing Russian and Chinese perceptions of U.S. operational unpredictability to enhance deterrence might be possible but costly,” the August 11 inquiry concluded. “Many of the approaches would require major investments or other changes to U.S. military capabilities.” Now that’s predictable.


Did you know an F-35 helmet takes two days to be fitted to its pilot’s skull—and costs more than a Ferrari? “Small things such as a new haircut or a couple of pounds gained could cause the helmet to not fit correctly,” an Air Force tailor says in this August 11 Task & Purpose piece.

Telling the story

A young female journalist, writing anonymously, tells what it’s like to be reporting from Afghanistan in this August 10 story in The Guardian.

Foretelling the story

Retired Army general Dave Petraeus, who ran the war in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, discusses the current mess in this August 16 Q&A with The Cipher Brief.

A new Pentagon?

President Biden’s national security appointees are more diverse than any in history, Defense News reported August 12. “At the Pentagon alone, 55% of political appointees are women, about 46% are people of color and more than 10% identify as LGBTQ,” Joe Gould reports.

Close Pocket Support

The Air Force upends a longstanding rule barring its members from putting their hands in their pockets while in uniform, Task & Purpose reported August 11. No word yet on what they’re planning to do with all that surplus lint.