Friday News Roundup — February 15, 2019: Afghanistan Peace Talks, Pentagon Priorities Paradox, Establishment Clause Blues, plus News You May Have Missed
Greetings from Washington, where it appears that we’ve managed to avoid a government shutdown that almost neither side wanted — though questions remain on border security and immigration, especially now that the president is reportedly getting ready to declare a national emergency at the southern border. Government will remain open, but a court battle and a debate over the balance of Executive and Legislative powers looms.
Looking beyond that in this week’s roundup, Dan covers the latest on peace talks with the Taliban and what the historical lessons from Vietnam tell us; Michael covers the bind that the Pentagon is in as it must find the resources to maintain existing systems while modernizing for the future; Chris covers the controversy over the Supreme Court’s decision to deny a death row inmate in Alabama his clergy member of choice; and as always, we wrap with stories that you may have missed.
“Peace with Honor” in Afghanistan?
With negotiations possibly resuming between U.S. and Taliban representatives to bring about an end to the War in Afghanistan, we are beginning to see the emerging shape of a framework for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Already our nation’s longest war, the situation on the ground reflects the limits of military power in shaping the political environment for stability in Afghanistan.
In The Atlantic, the always sagacious Kori Schake lays out how achieving peace will require acceptance of what was once considered unthinkable at the beginning of the war—Taliban control over significant portions of Afghan territory and Taliban participation in the Afghan political system. There has long been a debate as to whether the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun nationalist organization or a transnational jihadist one. They are promising the former, but many in Afghanistan fear that they remain the latter. Certainly, the Taliban are willing to say that they will not host Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or other terrorist groups that seek to attack the West, but, of course, they would be making that promise to achieve their main goal—the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces.
When watching Ken Burns’s PBS documentary on the Vietnam War (also available on Netflix), it is easy to see the historical parallels with that conflict’s end stages. Just as in Vietnam, we are reaching a point at which it becomes necessary to evaluate what political objectives in Afghanistan we are willing to sacrifice to achieve the domestic political objective of troop withdrawal. It appears that we have reached a limit in what U.S. military force can achieve based on the commitment the American people are willing to make, and it is time for a different approach to Afghanistan. That said, we must consider the stability of Afghanistan and just how we approach the eventual “peace.” Again, the parallels with Vietnam are important to consider. Just as the U.S. accepted the presence of North Vietnamese forces on South Vietnamese soil, how long will the Afghan government and security forces we have supported endure with significant swaths under Taliban control.
First, there is the matter of the Afghan economy, which is in shambles after decades of insecurity and largely reliant on foreign largesse. Similarly, as U.S. forces withdrew from South Vietnam, that nation’s fragile economy was strained by the reduction in spending by U.S. forces and the collapse of a black market that had developed around foreign military spending. Once the security burden was placed solely on Saigon’s shoulders, the South Vietnamese economy suffered from hyperinflation as Saigon threw resources at its ultimately futile defense against North Vietnam. Already, we have seen a preview of what will happen to the Afghan economy, as the reduction in forces in 2013–14 significantly harmed the Afghan economy. As U.S. and international forces are withdrawn, and the environment becomes even more tenuous for international aid efforts, the impact on the Afghan economy must be considered.
Beyond the economic, there is the humanitarian. Afghans who work with U.S. forces and for the government in Kabul already face reprisals from the Taliban. What will be their fate following a peace deal? The experience in Vietnam already tells us of the plight of those who worked for the Saigon government and the experience of the refugee “boat people.” Already, the Trump administration has given us little hope for a humane and honorable approach to those who have served alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. This administration has even gone so far as to raise doubts about the fate of those Vietnamese who resettled in the United States.
Finally, there are the geopolitical decisions of the withdrawal. The collapse of South Vietnam coincided with broader concerns about the U.S. position in the Cold War. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was little in the way of U.S. or international support for Afghanistan itself, and the rise of the Taliban and the eventual presence of Al-Qaeda entered the vacuum. Afghanistan became a jockeying ground for proxies in Indo-Pakistani competition, and that competition will likely resume. Similar to the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, or the conundrum now faced with the order to withdraw forces from Syria, there are questions that have to be answered about what geopolitical leverage the United States is ceding and what message it sends to allies and adversaries.
Just as with Vietnam, the time has come for the United States to wind down its military effort. However, without careful planning for what comes after—and leverage over what the Taliban does in the absence of U.S. and allied forces—we will find that just like Vietnam, “Peace with Honor” brought neither peace nor honor.
Air Force to Order New-Old Planes to Replace Old-Old Planes
Next month is the beginning of the 2020 budget cycle in Washington (that may be hard to believe because we are still fighting over the 2019 budget, but it’s true). While the President’s Budget Request is not yet public, Pentagon observers expect that the Department of Defense will request between $700–750 billion for its core missions. This is at once a shocking number — more than the next seven countries combined (sort of) — and a shocking indictment of our political leaders because, even with three-quarters of a trillion dollars, the DoD struggles to do everything that we ask of it. A perfect example of this struggle is playing out with regards to the Air Force’s efforts to replace its aging aircraft inventory in order to prepare for the threats posed by advances in Russian and Chinese military technology.
One of the core missions of the Air Force is air superiority: defending the skies over the United States or wherever American forces are deployed. For this mission, the service primarily uses F-15C Eagles, a design that initially entered service in 1979. The planes themselves have gone through several generations of upgrades to take advantage of new technologies, but the cost of sustaining them has continued to rise — a common problem. In order to make room in the budget for new aircraft, most notably the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-15C is likely to be phased out in the coming years. This poses a two-fold problem for the Air Force: there is not a clear successor to the F-15C in the Air Force’s current arsenal and F-35s are not being built fast enough to allow the Air Force to hit its targets for new aircraft acquisition.
Into this conundrum has stepped to F-15X, a proposal for an upgraded version of the F-15 pitched by Boeing. Since the U.S. Air Force last purchased a new F-15 in 2001, Boeing has continued to sell new variants of the plane with upgraded features to South Korea, Israel, Singapore, and others. The proposed X-variant would utilize those advances and, because it is familiar to pilots and maintainers currently operating F-15s in the Air Force, fit more seamlessly into the service. The sticker price might not be substantially lower than that of the F-35, but Boeing argues they would be substantially cheaper to operate and better suited for air patrol missions. Unfortunately, F-15 is, at its heart, an old design. It does not have the stealth capabilities of the F-35 or the F-22 Raptor and would struggle to take the fight to the enemy against an adept foe.
The underlying problem is that the process by which the military acquires new systems is far too long. Lockheed Martin won the contract to build the F-35 in 2001, but it only went into service in 2016, and still cannot be built fast enough for the Air Force’s needs. The F-22 Raptor was cancelled halfway into its production run, but its development started in 1991 and did not enter service until 2005. Over that long a period, needs change. Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates cancelled the F-22 in 2009 because he did not foresee a need for a new, high-end air-superiority fighter, now his successors in the Pentagon do and do not have one. The F-35 was designed to be streets ahead of all its peers, but, over more than a decade, the peers are catching up. The point is not that the Air Force needs to stick to a plan across the decades in order to have the force it needs; the point is that designs need to get off of the drawing board and onto the runway in a period of time such that they can affect the world before the world changes. If the military cannot do that, it will have to rely on stopgap measures that do not have the capabilities the services truly need while the taxpayer continues to fund programs that drag on into the unforeseen future.
The institutional Air Force did not want to buy the F-15X. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson was quite clear on this question last September, but, recently, the official line has changed on the Boeing proposal. This could have something to do with 31-year Boeing veteran, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, taking the reins at the Pentagon, and making his opposition to the Lockheed Martin F-35 known in the building. It is also possible, though, that this has nothing to do with the internal politics of the Defense Department and is a byproduct of two generations of long-dated acquisition programs and nearly 30 years of continuous combat operations that has left the Air Force with too few assets and too many responsibilities. If that is the case, the budget will continue to suffer as the military finds gaps in what it needs to do and has to fill them with the best of what is available, rather than what is truly the best.
The Supreme Court’s Pregnable Wall
The fundamental American understanding of religion is that government has no place in it. As Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists: “…religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” Most assuredly, this means that government may not exercise preferential treatment towards one religious denomination or another, and the Supreme Court has affirmed as much in Larson v. Valente (1982) among others.
Although this may seem like an abstract debate to many Americans, pertaining only to actions far removed from everyday life, such was not the case for Domineque Ray. An inmate on death row in an Alabama prison, Mr. Ray (a Muslim) sought a stay of execution after he was told by the prison’s warden that his imam would not be allowed to accompany him in the execution chamber. Rather, the prison administration insisted that he could have a clergy member at his side, but only if they have been approved by the prison and only Christian clergymen are permitted. After appealing to the Eleventh Circuit, Mr. Ray was granted a stay of execution until the Appeals Court could make a judgement on the merits of the case. On February 7th, however, the Supreme Court of the United States vacated the Eleventh Circuit’s order and the inmate was executed with no spiritual advisor by his side.
Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, dissented from the Court’s judgement. Although the majority had reasoned briefly that Ray had waited too long to file his complaint, Justice Kagan argued that this perspective was willfully ignorant. Mr. Ray was denied the right to Muslim clergy presence on January 23rd, and filed legal action on January 28th. In essence, the State of Alabama argued that Ray’s five day hesitancy was enough to disqualify him from judicial intervention, and the Court’s majority agreed. At the foundation of this legal skirmish are two separate and yet related issues: morality and legality.
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution establishes that the government may not impose penalties that are unduly harsh (“cruel and unusual” in the words of the framers). The Supreme Court has ruled multiple times, most notably in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), that the death penalty does not inherently violate this prohibition. However, consider whether mental anguish is sufficient to classify a method of punishment as cruel and/or unusual. Mr. Ray, a practicing Muslim who sought only to have a spiritual advisor of his own faith by his side at his time of death, was denied this courtesy by the state wherein he resided. He arguably died religiously unfulfilled, lacking the close contact with his God that he desired in his final moments. Anyone, from any religious affiliation or lack thereof, should be able to understand the cruelty of that fact. Further, the aforementioned courtesy is extended to Christian inmates on death row, with the prison’s chaplain attending all executions in which he is requested. This brings us to the question of legality.
In her dissent, Justice Kagan provided a fiery argument against the legality of Mr. Ray’s treatment. Quite literally a matter of life and death, she asserted that his unequal treatment by the prison (and therefore the State of Alabama) violated the Establishment Clause to its core. If Christian ministers are allowed to accompany inmates in their final moments on Earth but Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, or any other clergy members are not, it is difficult to ignore this gross inequality. Justice Kagan also lamented the Court’s unusual haste in vacating a stay of execution from an appellate court. Therein, she noted that the Court is characteristically hesitant to take such action, and questioned the reasoning behind the Court’s decision to do so in this instance. Death is not a matter to be taken lightly, and the moral and legal implications of this particular death are matters to be wrestled with.
Stories You Might Have Missed
The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, announced new tax and loan benefits that will apply to families, as part of a wider strategy on the part of his government to increase the birth rate as a counterweight to immigration from abroad. In addition to raising profound questions of citizen autonomy and egalitarianism, the strategy also sheds light on the core paradox of these immigration debates: many of the countries exhibiting the greatest suspicion of immigrants are also dealing with shrinking and aging workforces. In his state of the nation speech, Orban struck an increasingly familiar nationalistic political refrain, saying “We do not need numbers [of immigrants]. We need Hungarian children.”
Sweden recalled its ambassador to China on February 14th as further developments become evident in the case of a jailed Chinese-born Swedish book seller, Gui Minhai. The Swedish official in question, Anna Lindstedt, allegedly facilitated a meeting between Gui Minhai’s daughter and Chinese businessmen regarding her father’s imprisonment. The vendor’s detention in the first place revolves around his publication of materials unfavorable to the Chinese government during his time in Hong Kong, and was seized last year while accompanied by other Swedish diplomats. Chinese anger has been boiling over recently as western diplomats have taken more of an active interest in the case, and Lindstedt’s recall is no exception.
On February 13th, 27 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were killed in a suicide bombing near the country’s southeastern border with Pakistan.A bus carrying 40 members of the Iranian military was struck by a suicide car bomb, with the terrorist organization Jaish al-Adl later claiming responsibility. The group has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the surrounding regions in the past decade and the Iranian government asserts that it is associated with Jundullah, an allegedly al-Qaeda affiliated group that has skirmished with Iran in the southeast for years.
California’s grand plan to build a high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco has apparently flatlined following Governor Gavin Newsom’s State of the State address. In that speech, he opined that the line, now projected to cost $77 billion by its end, was far too costly and time-consuming. However, his administration plans to complete the first phase of the rail from Bakersfield to Merced, a far more meager plan than originally proposed. Although the measure was championed by former Governors Brown and Schwarzenegger, it has been consistently behind schedule and over budget since its inception in 2015. Now, with $10 billion of Californian tax dollars and $3.5 billion of federal investment, the project goes out with a whimper. In recent years, Spain built approximately 2,000 miles of high speed rail at a cost of $45 billion. California’s attempt would have spent nearly twice that amount on less than a third of the distance.
When NASA’s Opportunity and Spirit rovers landed on the surface of Mars in 2004, they were charged with a mission to last 90 days. Although Spirit ceased operation in 2010, Opportunity (often called “Oppy”) trekked on, surviving 15 years exploring a distant world. On February 13th, however, NASA declared that, after 8 months of lost contact with the rover, they would cease attempts at recovery. Among the many discoveries made by the pair of rovers is the fact that Mars likely contained water, as deposits of gypsum on the planet’s surface would indicate. Oppy boldly went where no rover had gone before and greatly expanded our knowledge of the red planet.