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‘A strategic failure’ – POLITICO


With help from Ryan Heath and Jonathan Custodio.

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“A strategic failure.” That’s how the nation’s most senior military officer, Gen. MARK MILLEY, described the end of America’s longest war Tuesday morning, when he appeared alongside Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN and U.S. Central Command head Gen. FRANK MCKENZIE at a feisty hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

It was one of several blunt appraisals from the Pentagon’s top leaders, as they sought to explain to angry lawmakers why the U.S.-trained Afghan security forces collapsed so quickly and how the Taliban’s insurgents were able to capture Kabul long before American officials had anticipated.

“We helped build a state … but we could not forge a nation,” Austin acknowledged in his opening statement before the panel. “The fact that the Afghan army that we and our partners trained simply melted away — in many cases without firing a shot — took us all by surprise. And it would be dishonest to claim otherwise.”

In another interesting moment from the tense question-and-answer session, the two testifying generals appeared to contradict their commander in chief. McKenzie told senators he had counseled President JOE BIDEN earlier this year to maintain a small force of about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. Milley added that he had agreed, and Austin said their advice was conveyed to the White House. Biden, however, told ABC News in an August interview that he couldn’t recall any of his advisers making such a recommendation. (We’ll get into that a bit more below.)

But keeping U.S. boots on the ground past Aug. 31 — and bolstering the American fighting force “to go to war again with the Taliban” on Sept. 1 — “would have resulted in significant casualties in the U.S. side, and it would have placed American citizens that are still there at greater risk,” Milley said. That’s why he and other generals, on Aug. 25, unanimously proposed to the president that the United States “transition to a diplomatic option” at the end of the month, even though the embassy shuttered and few American diplomats remained on the ground.

White House press secretary JEN PSAKI chimed in on Twitter later Tuesday afternoon, attempting to clear up the confusion: “As @POTUS told ABC, ending the war in Afghanistan was in our national interest. He said advice was split, but consensus of top military advisors was 2500 troops staying meant escalation due to deal by the previous admin. @SecDef, the Chairman, and GEN McKenzie all reiterated.”

Finally, amid Republican fury over his two phone calls with a Chinese general, Milley fessed up to being interviewed for three books on the Trump administration’s final days — including those by The Washington Post’s BOB WOODWARD and ROBERT COSTA, the Post’s CAROL LEONNIG and PHILIP RUCKER, and The Wall Street Journal’s MICHAEL BENDER. Was he represented accurately in those accounts? The Joint Chiefs chair replied: “I haven’t read any of the books, so I don’t know.”

This hearing will by no means end the rancor over the administration’s Afghanistan withdrawal. Republicans want to use Afghanistan to doom Democrats in the midterms next year and possibly sink Biden’s reelection bid. Partisan clips of McKenzie’s comments about wanting 2,500 troops to remain in Afghanistan and Milley’s dismal assessment of the war’s finale are already appearing.

In the classified session, congressional staffers said their bosses are interested in digging into the administration’s counterterrorism plans for Afghanistan, as well as America’s late August strikes. Austin, Milley and McKenzie will face the House Armed Services Committee tomorrow.

FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY –– NEW POLL SHOWS AMERICANS DON’T WANT NATION BUILDING: About 62 percent of Americans say the biggest lesson from Afghanistan is that the U.S. shouldn’t be involved in nation building and that troops should only be sent in harm’s way when “vital national interests are threatened.”

The poll, conducted by the pro-restraint Eurasia Group Foundation (EGF) and released in a new report obtained by NatSec Daily, is yet another showing the American public is tired after 20 years of war in Afghanistan and persistent military engagements around the world.

In one telling statistic, nearly 26 percent of Republicans oppose both military primacy and diplomacy, institutions and trade — leading EGF to dub these people “genuine isolationists.” In another, 76 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “unless the country is under attack, the president of the United States should be required to seek approval from Congress before ordering military action overseas.”

“Some of the big trends we’ve been seeing in foreign policy opinion are continuing to hold: Americans are increasingly skeptical of ambitious, nation-building style intervention overseas, and would like to see other countries step up in terms of military spending and defense contributions,” said the Atlantic Council’s EMMA ASHFORD, who also got a copy of the polling. “All of this suggests that Biden’s approach to foreign policy — at least so far — is actually pretty much in line with public sentiment.”

“This is not surprising given the track record of the last couple of decades,” said STEPHEN WALT, an international relations professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

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It’s also not clear Americans would support coming to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked it. Only 42.2 percent said “yes” to the U.S. military engaging in the conflict, 16.2 percent said no, and 41.6 percent said “not sure.”

There’s some interesting generational data in the polling. About 60 percent of respondents aged 18-29 said the U.S. is “not an exceptional nation,” with nearly 49 percent of people aged 30-44 agreeing. Older people were more likely to think of the U.S. as an exceptional nation.

This is the fourth annual edition of EGF’s survey, and the first one during the Biden administration.

INSIDE THE DECISION TO LEAVE BAGRAM: Our own LARA SELIGMAN has a remarkable story on how and why the administration shuttered Bagram Air Base, leading the U.S. military to scramble to safeguard Kabul’s international airport.

After Biden made the decision to withdraw all U.S. troops by Sept. 11, “the Pentagon embraced as quick a withdrawal as possible, including from Bagram. And the Pentagon stuck to that approach through the beginning of July, regardless of the conditions on the ground,” she reported.

“At every stage of the withdrawal, the White House went along with the Pentagon’s recommendations, accepting a timetable that ended up going faster than Biden laid out in the spring. When the Taliban started to sweep through northern Afghanistan in the summer, different plans were discussed but never altered. The priority for the Pentagon was to protect U.S. troops and pull them out, even as diplomats and Afghan allies stayed behind,” she continued. “By early August, when it was clear Kabul would fall sooner than expected, the American military presence was down to fewer than 1,000 troops. It was too late to reverse course.”

And here’s a very important point: Not one of the civilian officials briefed on the Defense Department’s rapid drawdown plan questioned it. That included national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN, CIA Director WILLIAM BURNS and U.N. Ambassador LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD.

NORTH KOREA MISSILE TEST: North Korea fired a short-range missile eastward into the sea, with Japanese Prime Minister YOSHIHIDE SUGA saying the weapon could have been a ballistic missile. The launch came as North Korea’s United Nations representative spoke in New York about the U.S. ending hostilities, and days after leader KIM JONG UN’s sister, KIM YO JONG, said Pyongyang was open to considering an end-of-war declaration.

The Biden administration hasn’t really reacted to North Korea’s increased pace of tests this month. It seems like they’ve implicitly adopted former President DONALD TRUMP’s policy not to significantly escalate tensions unless Pyongyang launches an intercontinental ballistic missile, experts have told NatSec Daily.

A senior administration official pushed back on this premise.

“The Biden administration condemns the DPRK’s ballistic missile launches and we have very clearly and consistently denounced them as a threat to the region and the international community. Any suggestion that we may be comfortable with launches is flat-out a wrong analysis of our policy,” the official said, using an acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.

“These launches violate UN Security Council resolutions, which is why we continue to work through the UN to enforce some of the most stringent sanctions in the world. We continuously coordinate closely with allies and partners, including around each launch. We will continue to speak out and take actions alongside our allies and partners in opposition to these launches, which destabilize the region,” the official continued.

Still, if you’re Kim, you know that you effectively have a green light to keep testing most weapons up to an ICBM with little to no extra reprimands. Though in fairness, Trump was personally more open to shorter-range tests by North Korea than is Biden.

IT’S TUESDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.

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TALIBAN WANT NEW U.N. REP: MOHAMMED SUHAIL SHAHEEN, the Taliban’s pick to represent Afghanistan at the U.N., sent a message to a WhatsApp group of reporters urging that he be recognized by the global body.

“I call on [the] international community, particularly the United Nations, to give [the] Afghanistan seat to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” he said. “By getting [a] UN seat, we can easily deliver humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people in coordination with the international community.”

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name the Taliban give the country, “is the only and real representative of the Afghans, ground realities have proven it.”

NatSec Daily passed this message along to POLITICO’s RYAN HEATH, our U.N. expert and host of the “Global Insider” podcast, prompting him to speak with a senior U.N. diplomat.

The official told him the Taliban case for recognition is much stronger than the case made by Myanmar’s military junta. “I don’t think this is something we can dismiss,” the person said. “In Myanmar you’ve got two different sides [that] can say we are the rightful government. Whereas in Afghanistan, no one [else] is claiming” to represent the country.

“If you’re asking me which of them is more likely to be converted to the seat … I would have to give it to the Taliban.”

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Such a decision by the U.N., if it happens, would put extra pressure on the U.S. and its allies to formally recognize the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan, even though it clearly hasn’t meant basic democratic standards demanded of them by Western nations.

FLAKE TO PUSH TURKEY ON S-400: Our own JONATHAN CUSTODIO reports that former Arizona Republican Sen. JEFF FLAKE criticized Turkish President RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN’s purchase and test firing of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on four of Biden’s ambassadorial nominees, saying “any purchase of additional Russian weapons will result in additional CAATSA sanctions.”

“If confirmed, I will consistently reiterate that disposing of this system is the path to removing CAATSA sanctions,” Flake said, referring to the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act that imposes sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia. “I will also warn Turkey that any future purchase of Russian weapons risks triggering further CAATSA sanctions, in addition to those already imposed.” Flake, who is the president’s nominee for ambassador to Turkey, also encouraged defense trade with the long-time NATO member.

But Sen. BOB MENENDEZ (D-N.J.), the committee chair, said he sees no arms sales to going to Turkey unless there is a shift in its position stance on its to purchase the S-400 missile defense systems. “I see no arm sales going to Turkey unless there is a dramatic change around, on the S-400 and moving forward,” said Menendez.

U.S.-E.U. TRADE AND TECH COUNCIL: The European Union and the United States will hold the inaugural meeting of the U.S.-E.U. Trade and Technology Council tomorrow in Pittsburgh. The gathering was nearly derailed by the AUKUS deal that left France fuming and European allies questioning America’s commitment to transatlantic consultations.

“Biden and European Commission President URSULA VON DER LEYEN agreed at a June summit to establish the council, which will tackle issues such as supply chain resilience, export controls, investment limits, and regulation of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies,” the Washington Post’s DAVID J. LYNCH reported. “But dominating the allied venture will be shared concerns over the competitive threat posed by ‘ nonmarket economies,’ a diplomatic euphemism for China.”

Today, Sens. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D-N.H.) and ROB PORTMAN (R-Ohio) — both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — introduced legislation that would authorize the U.S. Development Finance Corporation to provide financing to European allies to strengthen their 5G networks and digital infrastructure. The goal is to safeguard European telecommunications from growing threats emanating from China and Russia.

But it’s not clear the Europeans are on the same page headed into the meeting. “[A] meeting of ambassadors from EU countries today failed to reach consensus on a statement about what the objectives of the working groups in Pittsburgh should be, raising doubts about how much can be achieved without all-out support from the 27 EU member countries,” POLITICO’s BARBARA MOENS and JACOPO BARIGAZZI reported.

SPACE FORCE AWARDS $88M FOR LAUNCH: The Space Force awarded four separate contracts totalling $88 million for next-generation rocket capabilities, Defense News’ NATHAN STROUT reported.

“The contracts were awarded as part of the National Security Space Launch program, which secures heavy launches for Department of Defense and intelligence community payloads. Only two companies — SpaceX and United Launch Alliance — were awarded contracts as part of Phase 2, which covers an expected 34 launches over a five-year period from 2022 to 2027. That competition was designed in response to a congressional mandate to eliminate the use of Russian-built RD-180 rocket engines,” he wrote.

The Space Force will continue to order more prototypes to no longer rely on Russian systems: “Space Systems Command expects to award more prototype projects in early fiscal 2022, with a focus on orbital transfer and maneuver,” Strout wrote.

TOP DEMS URGE END TO LETHAL FORCE OUTSIDE WARZONES: Two top Democrats sent a letter to Biden requesting he end authorization for the use of lethal force outside of places where the U.S. isn’t officially at war.

“It is long past time to make a decisive shift away from lethal force policies and legal interpretations that erode fundamental human rights and America’s moral standing, perpetuate endless conflict, and routinely cause tragedies,” Sens. DICK DURBIN (D-Ill.) and PATRICK LEAHY (D-Vt.) wrote.

They continued: “As your administration rightfully seeks to end the endless wars of the last two decades and restore American leadership on human rights, it should take immediate steps to end war-based lethal force policies outside of armed conflict; prevent lethal strikes from causing civilian casualties; and, where such casualties do tragically occur, ensure appropriate transparency, accountability, and redress.”

The letter was prompted after top Pentagon officials admitted they had mistaken an aid worker in Afghanistan for an ISIS-K terrorist, killing him and nine other civilians in a strike.

It’s already receiving praise from activists.

“We deeply appreciate Senators Durbin and Leahy’s leadership in urging President Biden to end lethal strikes that have devastated so many lives and the rule of law. For 20 years, Republican and Democratic presidents alike have carried out this program of secretive, unlawful, and unaccountable killing of people outside of recognized battlefields in multiple parts of the world. It needs to end,” HINA SHAMSI, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, told NatSec Daily.

“PRESIDENT BIDEN LIED”: Hill Republicans have started to seize on Gen. McKenzie’s comment that he recommended the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

“President Biden lied when he told the American people that nobody urged him to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. Today, under oath, General McKenzie flatly contradicted the President. This is the worst American foreign policy disaster in a generation and the President is trying to cover his ass with political spin,” Sen. BEN SASSE (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

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Whether “Biden lied” is murky here. Sasse points to the president’s interview with ABC News’ GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS last month in which Biden claimed “no one said” he should keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. But just before that, Biden had offered more context: “It was split,” he said, indicating some wanted U.S. service members to remain and others didn’t.

It has long been known that top military and defense officials, including CJCS Milley and SecDef Austin, advocated for a continued military presence in Afghanistan during the administration’s long policy debate.

— The president plans to nominate JOHN N. NKENGASONG as ambassador-at-large and coordinator of United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS Globally at the State Department, according to the White House. Nkengasong is currently director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention at the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

ELENI Z. GABRE-MADHIN is the new chief innovation officer within the United Nations Development Programme’s Regional Bureau for Africa, UNDP announced. Gabre-Madhin has served as chief happiness officer of blueMoon and chief executive officer of eleni LLC, and she is the founder and first CEO of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange.

— HASAN ALI, The Nation:Pakistani Women Are Leading the Struggle for Human Rights

— CHRISTOPH KOETTL, EVAN HILL, MATTHIEU AIKINS, JIM HUYLEBROEK, AINARA TIEFENTHÄLER, DMITRIY KHAVIN and ERIC SCHMITT, The New York Times:The U.S. Military Said It Was an ISIS Safe House. We Found an Afghan Family Home.

— RUPAM JAIN, Reuters:The Taliban vowed no revenge. One Afghan family tells a different story

— The Lowy Institute, 3 a.m.:Aiding the Pacific’s economic recovery — with ALEXANDRE DAYANT

— Chatham House, 5 a.m.: Japan-Europe Forum 2021: The post-pandemic outlook in Japan and Europe

— The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 8 a.m.:Adelphi Book Launch: Asia’s New Geopolitics: Military Power and Regional Order — with LUCIE BÉRAUD-SUDREAU, TIM HUXLEY, LYNN KUOK, JEFFREY MAZO, C. RAJA MOHAN, BRENDAN TAYLOR

— The Istituto Affari Internazionali, 8:30 a.m.: Germany Voted. What Are the Consequences for the Country and for Europe?

— The Istituto Affari Internazionali, 9 a.m.: Drivers, Patterns and Governance of Mixed Migration in the EU and Its Wider Region: Current Developments and Future Prospects

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9:30 a.m.:The Capital Cable with SYDNEY SEILER — with VICTOR CHA, MARK LIPPERT and SUE MI TERRY

— House Armed Services Committee, 9:30 a.m.: Full Committee Hearing: Ending the U.S. Military Mission in Afghanistan — with LLOYD AUSTIN, FRANK MCKENZIE and MARK MILLEY

— House Homeland Security Committee, 9:30 a.m.:Full Committee Hearing: 20 Years After 9/11: The State of the Transportation Security Administration — with J.M. LOY, PETER NEFFENGER, DAVID PEKOSKE and JOHN S. PISTOLE

— Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 9:30 a.m.:Full Committee Briefing: Update on Administration Efforts Regarding Energy Security Including Nord Stream 2 — with AMOS HOCHSTEIN

— The Brookings Institution, 10 a.m.:The future of Afghanistan and the role of the United States — with MADIHA AFZAL, VANDA FELBAB-BROWN, FAWZIA KOOFI, SUZANNE MALONEY and SAAD MOHSENI

— The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 10 a.m.:The Taliban in Afghanistan: Political and Security Challenges — with AHMED RASHID and AQIL SHAH

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 10 a.m.:A Conversation with Jordanian Finance Minister MOHAMAD AL-ISSISS — with JON B. ALTERMAN

— Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, 10 a.m.:Full Committee Hearing: Addressing the Threat of Worsening Natural Disasters — with JOHN S. BUTLER, JERRY HANCOCK, SIMA MERICK and JENNIFER PIPA

— The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 11 a.m.:A Conversation With The Honorable JAMES A. BAKER, III — with AARON DAVID MILLER

— Chatham House, 11 a.m.:Germany’s Russia Policy in the post-Merkel Era — with RALF FÜCKS, JOHN LOUGH and ORYSIA LUTSEVYCH

— The Royal United Services Institute, 11 a.m.:Russia and the Security of Europe — with JONATHAN EYAL and JONATAN VSEVIOV

— The Atlantic Council, 11:30 a.m.:Europe’s response to the Uyghur genocide — with RAYHAN ASAT, NUSRAT GHANI, GISSOU NIA and DOVILĖ ŠAKALIENĖ

— The Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.:An Emerging G2? Prospects for Transatlantic Tech Cooperation — with TYSON BARKER, THOMAS J. DUESTERBERG, PETER ROUGH and NADIA SCHADLOW

— The Middle East Institute, 1 p.m.: Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse — A Book Talk with CHARIF MAJDALANI — with CHRISTOPHE ABI-NASSIF

— Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 2 p.m.:Full Committee Hearing: Nominations — with SHARON L. CROMER, CLAIRE D. CRONIN, ATUL A. GAWANDE, KENT DOYLE LOGSDON, VIRGINIA E. PALMER, C.B. SULLENBERGER III, HOWARD A. VAN VRANKEN

— Senate Intelligence Committee, 2 p.m.:Closed Briefing: Intelligence Matters

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4 p.m.:Common Prosperity: The Path to Common Poverty in China? — with JOYCE CHANG, JOHN L. HOLDEN, SCOTT KENNEDY and SCOTT ROZELLE

— The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, 11 a.m.: Celebrating 60 Years of FIIA: Finnish Foreign and Security Policy in a Nordic Context — with MIKA AALTOLA, MARIA ANNALA, KRISTIAN FISCHER, PIA HANSSON, MARIE SÖDERBERG and more”

Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.

And thanks to our editor Ben Pauker, whose work always makes this newsletter a strategic success.





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