Newsletter

The Bunker: The Way Things Were Before the War

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 morning: In Afghanistan, watching 20 years of a U.S.-initiated stalemate slide into what’s increasingly looking like defeat; the value of having outsiders when the military drags its feet on saving lives; Pierre Sprey’s legacy; & more.

AFGHANISTAN

The status quo ante bellum

When it comes to international relations, the Latin phrase status quo antebellum often pops up. If you’re not a general or a diplomat, it simply means “the way things were before the war.” Like in Afghanistan, for example. After spending 20 years, 2,400 lives (out of more than 800,000 U.S. troops who served there) and $2 trillion, the U.S. effort to remake Afghanistan is turning into a rout. The so-called “graveyard of empires” is reverting to the state it was in when the Taliban ran things and sheltered Osama bin Laden before 9/11: status quo ante bellum.

It was only two weeks ago that The Bunkernoted Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took solace in the fact, “as of today,” the Taliban had yet to seize any of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. That changed August 6, when the insurgents took over Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province in southwestern Afghanistan, bordering Iran. Four other capitals quickly fell. The U.S. embassy in Kabul complained August 7 that the Taliban isn’t playing fair, and urged U.S. citizens still in Afghanistan to flee “immediately.”

A clear-eyed assessment would have to conclude that the U.S. seems to have squandered $83 billion building the Afghan, um, military.

“The armed forces of the United States have plainly failed in Afghanistan,” Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army officer and bracing critic of recent U.S. military endeavors, writes. “In Afghanistan, through ignorance and arrogance, compounded by an unwillingness to face facts when victory proved elusive, the world’s self-proclaimed sole superpower bit off way more than it could chew.”

Of course, that’s not quite how things look from inside the Pentagon. The Biden administration has recently approved air strikes targeting the Taliban, and they may continue if the insurgents appear to be on the verge of conquering Kabul or a handful of other major Afghan cities.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said July 21 that the U.S. has set up such “over-the-horizon” capabilities. The U.S. government and the Defense Department “remain committed to helping the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government going forward,” he added. But lacking bases in Afghanistan, the punch that U.S. B-52s, AC-130 gunships and other warplanes can deliver is puny.

The U.S. government won’t tell you that trying to halt the Taliban’s advances with air strikes is like trying to stop the tide with a chain-link fence.

The Bunker just did.

PROPS TO CONGRESS

Outside pressure can help save lives

They never had a chance. Cruising at 20,000 feet above Mississippi, an engine aboard their C-130H flung a propeller blade that flew into the cargo plane like an aluminum-alloy dagger. The blade’s impact rocked the plane so hard that another full propeller was flung from the other wing. It sheared into the right side of the C-130H before bouncing off and shredding much of its tail. Within seconds, the plane broke into three sections, “which explosively disintegrated into multiple pieces,” the resulting inquiry(PDF) found.

All 15 Marines and one sailor perished in the 2017 crash, triggered by old, rotting hardware and sloppy work on the ground that allowed a corroded blade to remain on the plane. The Air Force says it has fixed the sloppy work, but the hardware—aging propellers—continue to spin, to the dismay of some lawmakers. The House Armed Services Committee groused that it “is once again disappointed with the amount of time it has taken for the Air Force to address a safety of flight issue with the legacy propeller system of the C-130H,” it said July 27 (PDF). “Procurement of new composite propeller blades is the obvious solution to this serious safety of flight and readiness issue.”

This is a pattern The Bunker has witnessed repeatedly over the past 40 years. Too often, it takes outside pressure to get a military service to do the right thing. Sometimes it involves hardware, and sometimes it involves training, as a recent Government Accountability Office report into military-vehicle accidents highlighted. But all of it involves money. And lives. A military spending $750 billion annually has plenty of cash on hand to deal with such issues, expeditiously.

It’s one thing to die valiantly in a battle. It’s quite another to die vainly in a bureaucracy.

PIERRE SPREY

Legendary warplane maven escapes the surly bonds

Pentagon thorn Pierre Sprey died August 5, at 84. He was a prime mover in the development of both the A-10 attack plane and the F-16 fighter, warplanes the Air Force didn’t particularly want. He was also a heat-seeking missile targeting the F-35 fighter that the Air Force had hoped would replace both. But, like the A-10—a warplane beloved by grunts on the ground for its ability to save their lives—Sprey was irreplaceable.

The Project On Government Oversight worked closely with him over the years, sharing his view that when it came to weapons, costly and complex would lose to cheap and effective every time. Working with the so-called Fighter Mafia—people like John Boyd and Chuck Spinney—Sprey & Co. did their best a generation ago to upend business-as-usual inside the Pentagon. Sprey began his aeronautical-design career at Grumman in 1961 before moving over to the Pentagon five years later as one of Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids.” Over the next 20 years, he played key roles in the development of both the A-10 and F-16, before leaving the government in 1986 to focus on recording jazz. A gospel track he recorded would later be sampled by Kanye West, in the Grammy Award-winner “Jesus Walks.” Sprey told the Washington Post that the royalties he made from Kanye’s success were enough to “to support 30 of my money-losing jazz albums.”

But his musical gig didn't signal the end of Sprey’s interest in military matters. Instead, he spent his final years railing against the F-35 fighter, saying it was larded with too much technology that did little other than drive up its cost. “His work in the military was devoted to making the military more effective, lives of soldiers and sailors safer, and the taxpayers better served,” Spinney told The Bunker. “He saved the taxpayers billions.” As well as untold lives.

That is a legacy. 1937-2021. R.I.P.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

“No money down!”

The U.S. is the world’s largest arms exporter by far; between 2016 and 2020, it accounted(PDF) for 37% of such sales. Russia, at No. 2, was far behind, with only 20%. Apparently, that’s not good enough for the Pentagon. So it’s “considering novel ways for cash-strapped allies and partners to finance” U.S. arms, Theresa Hitchens at Breaking Defense reported August 6. “With a lot of partners, they’re asked us to provide funding up front before we actually can execute the contract,” a top Pentagon arms seller says. That’s because a lot of U.S. arms customers are pretty much broke. Well, as an old Bunker colleague used to say: “Lack of money to buy weapons is the root of all evil.”

A poison in the system?

Nearly one in four women in the U.S. military has been sexually assaulted. Melinda Wenner Moyer tries to figure out why the military prosecutes this plague so poorly in an August 3 New York Times piece.

Drone downside

The U.S. killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani via an MQ-9 Reaper drone in January 2020 was supposed to blunt the impact of Tehran-backed militias inside Iraq. But, like so many military misadventures, it didn’t turn out that way, Simona Foltyn wrote in Politico August 4.

Double feature

The New York Times has a fascinating pair of profiles August 9 on a pair of U.S. reporters at the dawn of the nuclear age. Charles H. Loeb was a Black World War II correspondent, whose work was distributed to Black-owned newspapers. Loeb detailed how deadly radiation poisoning could be to those who survived the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Pentagon didn’t like that kind of reporting, and it got William “Atomic Bill” Laurence, a heralded science reporter at the Times, to go along. “The superstar became not only an apologist for the American military but also a serial defier of journalism’s mores,” writes William J. Broad, author of both pieces. Long overdue credit, and ignominy.

Clay doughboys

The U.S. troops who fought in World War I—known as “doughboys”—are at long last getting their own memorial in Washington. Michael E. Ruane talks to sculptor Sabin Howard about what he’s trying to capture as he crafts the soldiers out of clay in the August 9 Washington Post.

The Bunker bids you adieu until next week. Thanks for reading, and please forward on to your friends and acquaintances if you’d like to tick them off.