WASHINGTON — It is challenging enough that the war in Afghanistan has gone on for almost 17 years. But now the Trump administration is raising hackles in Congress by cloaking in official secrecy an unusual amount of data about the longest armed conflict in American history, including, until very recently, the dwindling size of the beleaguered Afghan military.
Information contained in a recently issued government report provides a window into what the Pentagon has been keeping secret since last year: The Afghan army has shrunk by 11 percent and insurgents have gained territory, raising questions about whether the Pentagon has been concealing a strategy gone awry.
President Trump, who called the war “a complete waste” as a candidate, announced his plan for keeping up the fight last August, saying he shared the American people’s “frustration” with seemingly endless conflict, but was committed to sending more troops to the area without a timetable for withdrawal.
But just as the Pentagon began sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan, it also began classifying key war metrics it had previously made public. That included ways of measuring the success or failure of America’s mission: training and funding the Afghan military so it can beat back the Taliban and other insurgents.
The latest report by John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction — who objected strongly to the new program of secrecy and pried some of the data out of US military leaders in Afghanistan — contained some worrisome figures.
Afghan troops shrank by about 36,000, to 296,409 from January 2017 to January 2018. Taliban and other insurgents increased their territory from 11 percent to 14.5 percent of the country over the same period. Multiple terror attacks in April killed dozens in Kabul, with the Islamic State claiming credit.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration still is refusing to disclose the number of Afghan military personnel dying in action, or those deciding to leave their jobs. Detailed performance assessments of Afghan troops also remain classified.
“I’m still trying to figure out just exactly what the strategy that we’re implementing is other than what they’ve done before,” said Leon Panetta, who served as secretary of defense, under Barack Obama. “I think sometimes they use the classified approach in order to cover up the fact that they really don’t have a strategy.”
Representative Stephen Lynch, the South Boston Democrat who is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said detailed metrics on the Afghan military are crucial to understanding the success of the mission.
“It’s a canary in the coal mine,’’ Lynch said of attrition and casualty numbers. “It’s an early indicator of how things are going there.”
Lynch also complains that the military is making in-person oversight harder for members of Congress visiting Afghanistan, with greater restrictions on areas soldiers will secure to ensure safe travel.
Lynch has visited Iraq and Afghanistan more than 20 times. On the trips, he visits infrastructure projects the United States is investing heavily in to ensure they are functioning, and questions contractors and members of the military about conditions on the ground.
“We don’t want to go to Iraq or Afghanistan and just get a PowerPoint presentation we could get in Washington — we want to be out there,” Lynch said. “I’m seeing a decidedly more limited ability to do that, to do my work.”
The Pentagon’s secrecy has extended beyond the Afghan military, making it more difficult for the public to find out precisely how many Americans are deployed there.
‘I think sometimes they use the classified approach in order to cover up the fact that they really don’t have a strategy.’— Leon Panetta, former defense secretary
Starting this year, the Pentagon stripped the number of US troops deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria from quarterly reports available online.
Members of the press can ask for the figures from Defense Department officials, but they are no longer publicly posted. The nation currently has about 14,000 military personnel in Afghanistan, according to a Defense Department spokesman, up from 9,000 in 2016.
The Pentagon insists it is not trying to hide bad news out of Afghanistan.
Army General John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has said the Afghan military data was classified at the request of Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani.
Defense Secretary James Mattis brushed off the shrinking Afghan military in testimony to senators last week, saying the United States is focusing on “quality not quantity” of the forces. But the combination of secrecy and the negative numbers that are trickling out are prompting fresh questions about the Trump administration’s strategy.
Trump, like George W. Bush and Obama before him, is confronted with what his own commanders have called a stalemate in the region, where Taliban fighters continue to defy the Afghan government despite Washington pouring tens of billions of dollars into a reconstruction effort to prop up the local military.
Obama increased US troop levels to more than 100,000 in a surge in 2010 and 2011, and cut them to less than 10,000 before he left office. The Taliban were beaten back to rural areas but successfully waited out the surge.
It’s unclear how Trump’s sending a far more modest surge of a few thousand more troops now is expected to change the tide.
The current strategy is to force the Taliban to the negotiating table, through training the Afghan military to the point of self-reliance and persuading Pakistan to crack down on insurgents. The Afghan government is in control of territory where 65 percent of the country’s population lives. The US military has set a goal of bumping that to 80 percent by the end of 2019.
Representative Walter Jones, a Republican from North Carolina and a longtime member of the Armed Services Committee, said he feels as if he is hearing the same story in classified briefings from the Pentagon on Afghanistan that he did five years ago.
“Nothing has changed since 2001 and all they’re trying to do is to keep the truth from the American people, and I think that’s wrong,” Jones said.
Jones, once a gung-ho supporter of the war who led the charge to rename french fries “Freedom Fries” in the House cafeteria after France opposed the Iraq War, has since had a radical change of heart and is a vocal opponent of the continuing presence in Afghanistan. He has unsuccessfully pushed for the House to have a debate about withdrawal.
“Congress just sits by like Nero watching Rome burn,” Jones said.
Trump tweeted repeatedly before becoming president that the United States should get out of the war in Afghanistan, which he characterized as a “total disaster.” But once in office, his national security team presented him with the bleak prospect of withdrawing from the area and then watching the Taliban declare victory and endanger US allies.
The many years of the US military engagement, the nearly $900 billion spent, and the lives lost — more than 2,400 American fatalities since 2001 — would look more like a tragic squander than the necessary response to the Sept. 11 attacks it was at the start.
The chokehold on detailed Afghanistan information reflects Trump’s penchant for surprise in warfare.
He refused to say how many additional troops he was sending to Afghanistan in August, saying “America’s enemies must never know our plans” and criticizing Obama for allowing the Taliban to wait him out by setting a withdrawal date of 2017 in advance.
Even lawmakers were initially in the dark about the new plan. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, held up key Defense Department nominations to pressure the Pentagon to release more information about their Afghanistan strategy last fall. He relented after Mattis held a private briefing for senators.
The new strategy’s one year anniversary is approaching this summer, at which point restive lawmakers are likely to clamor for updates and assurances from the administration that progress is being made and a potential exit plan is laid out.
“How long is this war going to go on with no resolution in sight?” said Representative Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont who is also on the Oversight Committee.
Under occasionally pointed questioning last week in the Senate, Mattis conceded the mission of training Afghan troops under the mini-surge would take a while.
“It’s going to take time, senator,” he said. “And I don’t refute this has been a long fight.”
Everybody knows that artificial intelligence is an exceptionally weaponizable technology. So it’s no mystery why militaries everywhere are racing to exploit AI to its maximum potential.
Autonomous vehicles, for example, will become the most formidable weapon systems humanity has ever developed. AI gives them the ability to see, hear, sense, and adjust real-time strategies far better and faster than most humans. AI will orchestrate fleets of unmanned tanks, artillery, reconnaissance and supply vehicles. It will almost certainly produce casualty counts in future battles that are staggering and lopsided, especially when one side is almost entirely composed of AI-powered intelligent weapons systems equipped with phalanxes of 3-D camera, millimeter-wave radar, biochemical detectors and other ambient sensors.
There’s no point in dancing around a huge and growing controversy in the AI industry: the appropriateness of tech vendors such as Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Amazon Web Services Inc. assisting the U.S. Department of Defense in developing AI technologies not just for offensive purposes, but also for defensive and back-office applications that can sustain this country’s war-making bureaucracy. All the “AI safety” guardrails on Earth can’t protect us from applications of this technology that are explicitly designed to project deadly force, even when that force is exercised in what one might regard as a “just war.”
As with recent privacy protection and “fake news” controversies, the issue of AI’s weaponization is revealing Silicon Valley’s very strong cultural bias toward libertarian and left-wing causes. Whatever your ideological slant, recent protests by Google employees over that firm’s AI research and development subcontract with the DoD call attention to yet another political crossroads that this firm, and its closest rivals, face in pursuing new avenues for making money from their AI expertise.
In early April, Google employees signed a letter objecting to the company’s involvement in a Pentagon pilot program that uses AI to flag drone-captured video images for more efficient human review. The technology could easily be applied to offensive purposes such as targeting drone strikes for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism uses. Google responded that its work is intended for “nonoffensive” uses, such as improving identification of innocent civilians to reduce the likelihood of becoming casualties of war. Both Google and DoD stated that the AI being developed would not be for drones or other autonomous weapons systems that could be activated without human guidance.
But that’s cold comfort, considering that it could easily be repurposed by other projects — perhaps not involving Google — for just such applications. No “ground rules” for commercial AI vendors’ engagement with the military can realistically stop the underlying approaches from being used in weapon systems for offensive purposes. In fact, the likelihood of that possibility is underlined by the fact that the project’s underlying AI technology — TensorFlow, open-source object recognition software and unclassified image data — is available to anyone.
Google has no easy avenues to follow, and it alone can’t stand in the way of AI’s spiraling weaponization. If it persists and expands its AI-related work with DoD, it risks alienating many of its deep pool of AI developers, who have plenty of career opportunities in the U.S. and elsewhere. It can take the unlikely move of justifying the work by arguing that withdrawing from this and potential future DoD opportunities would effectively hand this business to competitors such as Microsoft and AWS, both of which are avidly growing their Pentagon business.
In the unlikely scenario that all AI solution providers walk away from projects with the United States’ and other nations’ military establishments, that would still open an opportunity for universities and nonprofit research centers to pick up the work. Considering how much money the military is likely to funnel into such contracts, which would focus on developing highly sophisticated AI tools, that scenario could easily reverse the brain drain that’s been causing the best and brightest AI researchers to leave academia and seek their fortunes in the private sector. Some of these contracts could conceivably go to research hubs in U.S.-allied nations, such as NATO members that are trying to keep their smartest, albeit underappreciated, AI professionals from moving to Northern California.
In the even more unlikely scenario that the DoD develops Oppenheimer-grade pangs of conscience about developing a new generation of AI-fueled superweapons, it can’t turn back. Geopolitical forces would compel the U.S. to carry forward with such R&D, considering that China and other nations — and even U.S. allies such as the U.K. and France — have placed a high priority on developing their national AI competencies. This is a hard fact that Google’s Eric Schmidt, who sits on a DoD advisory board, openly acknowledges, referring to this as a “Sputnik moment” for the U.S. and allies:
In some ways, the Google employee protests are reminiscent of the late 1960s student demonstrations against Dow Chemical’s on-campus recruiting. The bone of contention was that company’s role in developing the napalm incendiary gel for DoD, which was responsible for some of the most horrifying casualties in the Vietnam War.
Those protests didn’t stop development of that or any other weapon. But they put into stark relief the moral dilemmas that some educated people may confront when applying specialized engineering skills to military projects.
I was not aware that veterans had particular animosity or resentment for police, but I can’t say it surprises me if that’s true. Anecdotally, I’ve heard and read comments by veterans that echo those in the T&P piece complaining about how American police treat the public and how it differs from how soldiers treat non-combatants in war zones, particularly regarding the pointing of weapons and the use of force. Moreover, speaking as a civilian gun owner, seeing officers point rifles at peaceful protesters just to use the scope is an appalling violation of the most basic tenets of gun safety.
These comments have led me to wonder whether we’ve misnamed the problem as “police over-militarization” rather than “police pseudo-militarization.” Everything I’ve read about rules of engagement and how military personnel engage non-combatants is far more restrained and respectful than what American police often do. Thus, calling American police behavior “militarization” assigns an unwarranted professionalism and respect to what the American police are doing and simultaneously misrepresents how our servicemen and women treat others abroad.
For more on this I recommend a recently released a short policy paper by R Street’s Arthur Rizer, a veteran and former police officer, suggesting we arm police more like Batman and less like GI Joe. I also recommend a longer economic paper published in 2017 that shows departments that acquire equipment through the 1033 program have more uses of force and, specifically, more fatal officer-involved shootings.
Jonathan Blanks is a Research Associate in Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice and a Writer in Residence at Harvard University’s Fair Punishment Project. His research is focused on law enforcement practices, overcriminalization, and civil liberties.
April 08, 2018—US diplomat briefly held for killing biker in road accident in Islamabad
May 11, 2018–US travel ban on Pak officials, families begins
Pakistan imposes restrictions on movement of US diplomats
May 13, 2018–—US diplomat’s bid to fly out of Pakistan foiled
“The US Air Force C-130 flew into Islamabad at 11.15am from Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Col Hall accompanied by around eight people from the embassy reached the air base around five minutes later for boarding the aircraft.
The FIA officer on duty after finding out that it was Col Hall, held back his passport and sought directions from his high-ups, according to a source. The permission for Col Hall to leave was not granted and the special aircraft returned to Bagram at around 4pm.”
THE killing of a motorcyclist and injuring of another by the reportedly intoxicated Col Joseph Emmanuel, US military attaché to Pakistan, gave one a sense of déjà-vu. In 2013, a speeding US embassy vehicle hit two local residents killing one, and in 2011 another US diplomat similarly killed a motorcyclist in a traffic accident.
We also had the highly publicised Raymond Davis episode, in which an embassy vehicle coming to help Davis killed a local man in a hit-and-run while speeding on the wrong side. There is anger in Pakistan because of the frequency of these killings and public sentiment reflects the view that US officials stationed in Pakistan have little respect for domestic laws or — more alarmingly — the value of human life other than their own.
Under international law, diplomatic agents are entitled to the privileges and immunities associated with their status and are, therefore, exempt from both the civil and criminal jurisdiction of the receiving state. While there exist a few exceptions relating to private immovable property and certain acts relating to private commercial activity, a diplomatic agent, under Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 (VCDR), cannot be prosecuted or punished by a receiving state, nor can orders and regulations of the police be enforced against him.
Public sentiment reflects the view that US officials stationed in Pakistan have little respect for domestic laws.
This, however, does not mean that a diplomatic agent can do as he pleases, because he has a duty to respect the law of the land under Article 41 of the convention as well as a fiduciary duty to represent the sending state in the best light possible. The preamble of the VCDR states that the purpose for complete immunity for diplomats is “to ensure the efficient performance of diplomatic mission as representing states”.
Unlike diplomatic immunity, consular immunity as defined in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963 (VCCR), is not absolute and extends only to acts performed in the exercise of consular function. Consular staff thus only possesses functional immunity and not the personal immunity enjoyed by diplomatic agents. Pakistan has signed both the VCDR and VCCR and has implemented these laws through the promulgation of the Diplomatic and Consular Privileges Act, 1972. Because Col Emmanuel is a diplomatic agent the only reactive action Pakistan can take against him is to declare him persona non grata and require him to leave the country.
In lieu thereof, Pakistan also has a few other arguments. For one, it can request the United States to waive the immunity currently enjoyed by Emmanuel, arguing that he has abused his diplomatic privileges, so that it can exercise jurisdiction over him and/or execute a judgement against him. Sending states — though rarely — do waive diplomatic immunity when sufficient political pressure is exerted by the receiving state or because of reputational loss — or the risk of such loss — in the international community. In 1997, for instance, Georgia waived immunity for one of its diplomats who killed a teenaged girl in Washington, D.C. in a drunk-driving incident.
While not, strictly speaking, a case of waiving diplomatic immunity, the US military, after a series of rapes committed by its servicemen in South Korea, now lets its soldiers stationed there to be tried by South Korean courts. This is a marked change given that it had previously prevented this by arguing that a status of forces agreement between the two nations only allowed US courts to have jurisdiction over its service members in South Korea.
Alternatively, Pakistan can request the US to try Emmanuel for violations of American law in its domestic courts. Vehicular assaults arising out of traffic infractions and drunk driving are serious crimes in the US and diplomats do not enjoy immunity within their own states. In 2002 for example, a Russian diplomat was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Russia for killing a woman in Canada while driving drunk, and even though in 2006 the US did not waive the immunity of a marine stationed at its embassy in Romania for killing a Romanian musician in a drunk-driving accident, it did court martial him — eventually clearing him of negligent homicide, though finding him guilty of lesser crimes.
The law of diplomatic immunity is contentious because of conflicting concerns. At one extreme, its critics view it as a remnant of archaic laws that is no longer equitable today; indeed, cynics argue that it is less a law stricto senso and more an expression of the messy realpolitik that governs international affairs.
For others, however, the view is that diplomats cannot engage in effective diplomacy without the benefit of such protections. Harassment from a hostile host state towards diplomats of a sending state can often bring diplomacy between the two states to a standstill, as has been witnessed between Pakistan and India.
When it comes to vehicular assaults committed by diplomatic personnel, some countries have also found ways to compensate victims without diluting the diplomatic immunity enjoyed by their representatives. For instance, both the US and the UK require all diplomatic vehicles to maintain insurance against third-party risks in order to financially compensate victims for loss of property and/or life.
To further minimise such risks, countries can also attempt to regulate or restrict the movement of diplomats or accept diplomatic appointments and credentials only after making careful assessments of the potential threat posed to civilian life and national security in the host country by the official concerned. Countries might even attempt to enter into a bilateral treaty laying out a framework for reciprocally waiving immunity for diplomatic agents if serious crimes — including vehicular assaults — are involved.
In the present scenario, however, it seems Pakistan will be unlikely to use any of these approaches for holding Emmanuel to account for his criminal recklessness. Recently, the Trump administration has cut aid and threatened punitive measures against Pakistan over its alleged support for the Afghan Taliban insurgency; it has also succeeded in getting Pakistan placed on a global terror-financing watch list in June. From the muted reaction of the Foreign Office, it seems Pakistan does not want to antagonise the US over the killing of 22-year-old Ateeq Baig.
The writer is former legal adviser to Pakistan’s foreign ministry, and faculty, Lums Law School.