With help from Bryan Bender
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Twenty years after 9/11, some of the leading architects of the United States’ war on terror, both at home and abroad, can breathe a sigh of relief that there has not been another large-scale strike on American soil.
But as our colleagues BRYAN BENDER and DANIEL LIPPMAN reported in POLITICO Magazine’s anniversary coverage, they also have real regrets about some of the key decisions they shaped in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.
Iraq on their minds: JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, the acting CIA director at the time, said the “theory of the case, from their point of view, was that if you could go into Iraq, take down SADDAM HUSSEIN, demonstrate in a major Arab country democracy could take root, that it would be contagious in the Middle East.
“In 2011, when the Arab Spring unfolded, some people might have said: ‘Oh, it’s working.’ Of course, the Arab Spring didn’t take root anywhere except Tunisia. And it led, in turn, to the civil war in Syria, the collapse of order in Libya. And the civil war in Syria, of course, turbo-charged the Islamic State. … Things have gotten worse.”
Mission creep: “Maybe it was a step too far, as you look back, in terms of all of the costs,” said former Sen. JOE LIEBERMAN of the post-9/11 wars.
PAUL WOLFOWITZ, the deputy secretary of Defense and a leading architect of the Iraq invasion, put it this way: “I think we did sort of creep into nation-building as somehow part of our mission, with a certain logic I admit I probably was guilty of espousing, as well. Part of what we were dealing with was a Muslim world that was failing, [and] that failure was allowing extremist Muslims to succeed.”
Anger at Pakistan: “We should have been pushing Pakistan much harder,” said FRAN TOWNSEND, who was deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism and White House homeland security adviser in the Bush years. “It was clear for a whole host of reasons to me that the Pakistanis said they were our allies, but when it came to operationalizing that and intelligence-sharing, not so much. I do fault the Pakistanis for the continuing strength … of the Taliban.”
Wolfowitz was more blunt: “I really believe that, to this day, we’re letting Pakistan get away with murder.”
Drone wars: “We overly relied on drones in the effort in western Pakistan in 2009 to 2011,” said retired Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS, the former CIA director who commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. “If you’re using them with the frequency that we were and the numbers [of civilians] that were being hit, you inevitably violate the most important question that should be on the wall of your operations center: ‘Will this operation take more bad guys off the street then it creates by its conduct?’”
Over-reliance on the military: “We were in a world where every problem was a military problem, and I don’t think in either one of those conflicts [Iraq and Afghanistan] that’s true,” said former Joint Chiefs Chair and retired Air Force Gen. RICHARD MYERS. “The military has to play a role, but it may not be the central role. And we kept trying to make it the central role.”
Read Bender and Lippman’s full piece here.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — AFGHANISTAN LESSONS LEARNED: The pro-restraint Defense Priorities think tank will post an expert symposium of lessons from the war in Afghanistan on Friday. Featuring commentary from the University of Chicago’s ROBERT PAPE, former U.S. official for Afghanistan BARNETT RUBIN and U.S. Naval War College’s JACQUELINE HAZELTON, the symposium shows there’s a strong belief among some analysts that the war exposed America’s limits.
“In Afghanistan, the United States and its partners tried to create a strong centralized modern democracy, with the military in the lead. But foreign militaries cannot build stable democracies. Indeed, the democratization process is likely to include political violence,” Hazelton said.
“The lesson is not that wars should never be fought; it is that no country should enter a war without clear and feasible objectives and a well-planned exit strategy. As we have seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other recent conflicts, any other approach is a recipe for disaster,” declared Harvard University’s STEPHEN WALT.
Most of the Afghanistan coverage of Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal has been negative — mainly because of the fatal chaos at Kabul’s airport. But poll after poll shows Americans wanted out of the war and, across party lines, are skeptical of another big intervention abroad. The views espoused by these experts are more in sync with the public than the opinions that have been put forth by many of Washington’s professional talking heads.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — STATE’S INTERNAL COVID REVIEW: The State Department has internally released the findings of an interim review of its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Our own NAHAL TOOSI obtained the sensitive but unclassified report’s list of proposals. Here are some of its key recommendations:
— Enhance crisis planning, including by having the department’s very top officials “actively participate in crisis management preparedness.”
— Improve crisis information distribution with a central hub for helpful documents.
— Reinforce airlift flexibilities, including for repatriation flights.
— Expand staffing capacity by establishing, for example, a repository of employees who can quickly staff task forces.
— Clarify the repatriation policy by determining exactly when the department will bring home U.S. citizens stuck abroad.
— Safeguard consular funding, so the money for U.S. citizen services, in particular, is protected from external factors.
One observation about these recommendations? They could just as easily apply to the Afghanistan crisis as they do to the pandemic response.
ANOTHER FLIGHT LEAVES KABUL: A second Qatar Airways charter flight departed Hamid Karzai International Airport on Friday, NatSec Daily confirmed and the White House later announced, about 24 hours after the first plane left the Afghan capital since the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
National Security Council spokesperson EMILY HORNE said in a statement that the flight carried 19 American citizens. The United States also facilitated the overland travel of two U.S. citizens and 11 lawful permanent residents out of Afghanistan and into a neighboring country, Horne said.
State Department spokesperson JALINA PORTER added in a news briefing that 44 U.S. citizens were “offered seats” to leave Afghanistan on Friday, but “not all of them chose to travel.” Porter would not say how many people turned down the government’s offer and reported that roughly 100 Americans still remained in the country — the same figure administration officials have given in recent days.
The latest departures are another piece of good news for the Biden administration, which continues to insist the diplomacy-led evacuation mission can get out all those left behind. However, the Taliban is still stopping some flights from leaving, most notably chartered planes waiting to take off from Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport in northern Afghanistan. The administration says it’s continuing to work with the militant group to ensure all those who want to leave the country can do so.
44 AFGHAN EVACUEES POSE POSSIBLE SECURITY RISKS: The Department of Homeland Security flagged 44 Afghans as potential national security risks during the administration’s robust vetting process, per The Washington Post’s NICK MIROFF.
That number, which featured in a DHS vetting document Miroff reviewed, is quite small considering that roughly 60,000 evacuees have arrived in the United States since Aug. 17. The administration plans to resettle about 95,000 people in total.
During a Wednesday roundtable, Homeland Security Secretary ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS told NatSec Daily and other reporters that he didn’t have a particular number of those Afghan evacuees pinged for security concerns. But he did say at the time that the figure was “extraordinarily de minimis.”
DRINKS WITH NATSEC DAILY: At the end of every long, hard week, we’re going to highlight how a prominent member of Washington’s national security scene likes to unwind with a drink.
Today, we’re featuring Rep. DON BACON (R-Neb.), a retired Air Force brigadier general and House Armed Services Committee member. Bacon says he has two favorite watering holes, one in Washington and the other back home in the Cornhusker State. In the nation’s capital, the three-term lawmaker kicks back with a Kölsch beer at Café Berlin. And when he’s in Omaha, Bacon enjoys downing a Harp beer at the Dubliner.
It’s good to see Bacon doing his part to keep transatlantic relations strong.
IT’S FRIDAY. WELCOME TO THE WEEKEND: 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.
While you’re at it, follow the rest of POLITICO’s national security team: @nahaltoosi, @woodruffbets, @politicoryan, @PhelimKine, @BryanDBender, @laraseligman, @connorobrienNH, @paulmccleary, @leehudson, @AndrewDesiderio and @JonnyCustodio.
PYONGYANG GROWS MORE PUZZLING: It was only two years ago that former President DONALD TRUMP met with North Korean leader KIM JONG UN in Vietnam, a historic encounter during which the despot took a question from an American reporter. And new images this week of a svelte Kim and a missile-less parade featuring horses and dogs were another reminder that the regime is still functioning.
Today, however — at least for the most part — Pyongyang has returned to the semi-mysterious posture the hermit kingdom has long been known for.
“North Korea sealed its borders shut in the pandemic, even to its major trade partner, China, a move that the U.N. human rights watchdog said exacerbated shortages of food and medical supplies. But the harsh measure has also led to a loss of firsthand insights on the country that helped policymakers connect the dots about internal pressures and trends that inform U.S. policy toward the nuclear-armed regime,” reported The Washington Post’s MICHELLE YE HEE LEE.
That’s a problematic development, since the deleterious conditions have prompted foreigners to leave the country. “Their accounts helped inform policymakers on decisions about how to negotiate and engage with North Korea to curb its ever-growing nuclear ambitions, and about how to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics that guide the totalitarian leader’s political calculations,” Lee wrote.
In other words, we now all understand North Korea a little less than we used to — a troublesome realization as the nation further boosts its nuclear program.
STOP SAYING “CYBER 9/11”: During your host’s former life in the think tank world, he often heard the expression “Cyber 9/11” — a wonky, D.C. turn of phrase for “a cyberattack that does tremendous, historic damage to America.” Do a quick Google search and you’ll see dozens of news articles and government reports with the term right in the title.
But cybersecurity experts are pleading with neophytes to no longer use the catchy line. “The best you can say for the analogy is the intent was to raise awareness and get people to focus on cybersecurity. But it didn’t really end up raising awareness,” CHRIS PAINTER, the State Department’s top cyber official in the Obama administration, told The Washington Post’s JOSEPH MARKS.
LEON PANETTA, the former Pentagon chief and CIA director, coined the term “cyber Pearl Harbor” in a 2012 speech, conceiving of an event that “could be as destructive as the terrorist attack of 9/11.” Today, Panetta realizes that descriptor has passed its sell-by date, but he told Marks: “Using that language is basically, you know, a club across the head when you’re dealing with that jackass who won’t pay attention.”
The stakes of cybersecurity are far more complex than waiting for The Big One. There’s ransomware, IP theft and plenty of other threats to worry about — including smaller problems that could eventually add up to larger ones. And apart from being hyperbolic, the phrase also is unhelpful in persuading the American public to focus on the right things. So stop saying it, people. Thank you.
THE AIR FORCE’S DIVERSITY PROBLEMS: Air Force Times’ RACHEL COHEN notes that a new report from the Air Force inspector general shows minorities and women in the service face more advancement challenges than many of their colleagues.
“We have made some progress, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Air Force Secretary FRANK KENDALL told reporters Thursday. “There are a lot of disparities within the Air Force, in a number of facets of the Air Force experience.”
The IG’s team, through interviews and requests for written testimony, “discovered discrepancies in how minority and female airmen are treated in charting out their careers, on a daily basis at work, when being considered for key assignments and promotions, and by the military justice system, Kendall said,” per Cohen.
As of June 30, the active-duty Air Force was 71 percent white, 15 percent Black or African American, 4.3 percent Asian American, 1.2 percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and less than 1 percent American Indian or Native Alaskan. Roughly 16 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, while women comprise about 21 percent of the force.
HOUSE OVERSIGHT LEADERS ASK SIGAR FOR AFGHANISTAN REVIEW: House Oversight Chair CAROLYN MALONEY (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Rep. JAMES COMER (R-Ky.) — plus Subcommittee on National Security Chair STEPHEN LYNCH (D-Mass.) and Rep. GLENN GROTHMAN (R-Wis.), that panel’s top Republican — sent a letter Friday to JOHN SOPKO, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, requesting that his office probe “the underlying causes that contributed to the collapse of the government of Afghanistan and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces … as well as the ramifications of the Taliban’s return to power for U.S. national security and the people of Afghanistan.”
“Given two decades of U.S. and Coalition investments in Afghanistan’s future, it is crucial that the [SIGAR] continue its important work on behalf of Congress and the American people to document the relative successes and failures of our reconstruction mission in Afghanistan, particularly in light of the Afghan government’s capitulation to the Taliban in a matter of weeks, culminating with the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021,” the lawmakers wrote.
Sopko most recently briefed Oversight committee members on Aug. 31 — the day after the end of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan — and he released a memorable watchdog report last month that savaged the hubris of the two-decade American war effort.
MAYDAY FOR ZALMAY: The knives have been out for ZALMAY KHALILZAD, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, ever since he failed to broker a deal between the Taliban and the former Western-backed government in Kabul.
“How does he still have a job?” a U.S. official asked during an interview with Reuters’ IDREES ALI, HUMEYRA PAMUK and PHIL STEWART. “There is no longer any Afghan reconciliation left.” Khalilzad also was the one who finalized the deal between the Taliban and the Trump administration to kick off the American withdrawal process.
NatSec Daily has heard the same rumblings about Khalilzad’s imperiled job prospects. However, we’ve seen no real movement to push him out of the Biden administration. If anything, officials we’ve talked to say he’s the diplomat with the best Taliban contacts — a helpful asset as the United States works with the militants to evacuate the remaining Americans and at-risk Afghans.
Khalilzad also is well-positioned to serve as an intermediary between the new Afghan government and Washington, and replacing him would require another envoy to build that rapport all over again. Still, Washington is a city where rumors quickly can become reality, so Khalilzad and his camp can’t be happy to see such stories and hear such whispers.
A BRIDGE TOO FAR: The most D.C. of mini-scandals is happening right now: A think tank is hosting a book event for a former Trump administration national security official who tweeted support for those questioning the 2020 election results.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has invited ELBRIDGE COLBY, author of “The Strategy of Denial,” to join a Sept. 15 panel to discuss his work and U.S. policy toward China.
The backlash has been fierce. “I continue to be disappointed in how the foreign policy community polices its own on a number of fronts, but particularly when it comes to attacks on democracy in the United States. We can do better,” tweeted LOREN DEJONGE SCHULMAN, a former NSC official in the Obama administration.
“This is disappointing, especially from an organization with a strong track record of working on and supporting the development of democracy,” added JON WOLFSTHAL, a nonresident scholar at Carnegie and former Obama NSC official.
Bridge, as those who know Colby call him, is a prominent voice advocating for a tougher policy against Beijing. He clearly has the respect of many folks in Washington, based on the who’s who of endorsers of his book. But since his tweet about the election challenges, Colby’s reputation has taken a hit in town, especially among Democrats. And the negative response to the Carnegie event demonstrates that anger against him hasn’t subsided. Neither Carnegie nor Colby responded to NatSec Daily’s request for comment.
— JARED SUMMERS has joined the Fort Bragg-based XVIII Airborne Corps as a civilian executive technology expert. Summers previously was the chief digital officer for ExxonMobil and spent time at the Pentagon’s office of the deputy assistant secretary of Defense. “It is a great honor to serve in America’s Contingency Corps where I hope to advance the Corps’ technological and innovative efforts across all units and echelons,” he said in a statement released by the Corps.
— KENZI ABOU-SABE, YASMINE SALAM and KATE SNOW, NBC News: “‘I feel betrayed’: Some 9/11 responders still face major health care obstacles”
— GARRETT M. GRAFF, POLITICO Magazine: “The World Trade Towers Collapsed on Will Jimeno. How Did He Survive?”
— THEODORE B. OLSON, The Washington Post: “Opinion: The tragic price of forgetting 9/11”
— The Royal United Services Institute, 5 a.m.: “Security in the Black Sea Region: The Role of the UK and Romania — with SIMONA COJOCARU”
— The Atlantic Council, 8 a.m.: “The new normal: Assessing the Abraham Accords one year on — with EBTESAM AL-KETBI, CARMIEL ARBIT, ABDULLA BIN TOUQ AL MARRI, UDI DEKEL and WILLIAM WECHSLER”
— The Institute of International and European Affairs, 9:15 a.m.: “The EU’s Strategy for Environmental Recovery — with VIRGINIJUS SINKEVIČIUS”
— Chatham House, 10 a.m.: “Protests in Latin America — with KATRIN HANSING, CHRISTOPHER SABATINI and TAMARA TARACIUK BRONER”
— The Intelligence and National Security Alliance, 11:30 a.m.: “2021 Intelligence and National Security Summit: Day One — with RITA BUSH, CURT COPLEY, AVRIL HAINES, JACKY HARDY, ROSANNA RODGERS, MARLISA SMITH and more”
— New America, 12:30 p.m.: “Future Security Forum 2021: Day One — with GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY, DUSTIN GARD-WEISS, JOHN RAYMOND, GREG A. SMITH and more”
— The Brookings Institution, 2 p.m.: “A conversation with Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General JOHN E. HYTEN — with MICHAEL E. O’HANLON”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 p.m.: “Haiti in Crisis: What Role Can the International Community Play? — with JACQUELINE CHARLES, PAMELA WHITE, DANIEL F. RUNDE and DANIELLE SAINT-LÔT”
— The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 10 p.m.: “The road from 9/11: The evolution of counterterrorism and extremism — with KAREN ANDREWS, RAIHAN ISMAIL, PETER JENNINGS, ROGER NOBLE and KATJA THEODORAKIS”
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.
Thanks to Ben Pauker, our personal drill sergeant, for his edits.
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