Thursday, January 18, 2018

The core problem in this Trump mess

This is my understanding of the core issue.

But before I get into that -  let me talk of a different time - a time when I was growing up and learning about the hard nature of national security problems.

In the early 80s in India, Jarnail Singh Bhindran (a ka "Bhindranwale") had a larger than life presence on the national scene. His influence on the Damdami Takshal (a powerful Sikh religious school) was vast. In the minds of many Sikhs, Bhindranwale personified all the teachings of the Sikh Gurus*. However the Govt of India was convinced that he was committing treason. They tried at various levels to engage him in a constructive dialogue, but Bhindranwale came across as being disinterested or (worse) dishonest. A trust deficit built up between GoI and Bhindranwale. Eventually Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi decided that she was done talking to him. She ordered his arrest (regardless within reasonable limits of the human cost). We all know that the plan to capture him failed, the Indian intelligence services attempted to seize him using their allies inside the Golden Temple and when that attempt was defeated, the Indian Army has to attack the Golden Temple. The carnage that followed ignited the civil war that lasted for well over a decade afterwards. In the immediate aftermath of Operation Bluestar (which resulted in the death of Bhindranwale and his closest supporters), the Indian Army faced several defections in its ranks as Sikh soldiers and officers simply left their companies and joined the side of the militants. As the ranks of the militants swelled with police and military defectors, the Army had to launch the extremely brutal Operation Woodrose which resulted in the deaths of thousands. This further fanned the flames of a separatist rebellion and in the decade that followed tens of thousands of people lost their lives.

So - now - coming back to the Trump shithole we are all in right now.

We are facing a similar problem with Trump. It is increasingly clear that Trump has committed treason. Trump has been able to create a cult like following. If an attempt is made to arrest him, his cult which has penetrated the police departments and the military will attempt to protect him. This will create a situation exactly analogous to the Punjab situation and we will see very similar dynamics defection and betrayal as brother is ordered to fire on brother.

The Trumpers are as deluded and disconnected from reality as Bhindranwale's cultists were decades ago. Also like Bhindranwale's followers they are armed to the teeth and a very bloody confrontation is inevitable. Whatever we see of their views - the racism, the neo-Nazi sympathies etc... these are outward manifestations of a kind of moral dissonance with the current age and its egalitarian zeitgeist. This is very similar to extremely broad ranging issues that Bhindranwale followers asserted with the way India was being run back in 1980. Most of those grievances were rooted in political and economic realities of the time, but the broad desire expressed by Bhindranwale cultists was for a sweeping and essentially unsustainable change. This sounds extremely similar to what one hears from Trumpers. Frankly this is all extremely wearily familiar.

If my analysis is correct - the US is currently suffering from the same disease that ran through Indian Punjab in the 80s and it will go through similar pain and suffering. I do not know if I can call Trump the Bhindranwale of America yet. Bhindranwale was a very fit looking young man with a history of religious and upright conduct. Trump really isn't any of those things. That said both are very similar in the manner in which they can inspire people with their words**. In time I am sure the equivalence between them might become more obvious.

I cannot know exactly what is going through the minds of the current crop of US national security senior staff, but I do have a sense of what went through the Indian national security setup's mind in the Khalistan days.

There was a sense of failure in the intelligence community - the attempts to turn Jarnail Singh Bhindran into a productive national security asset had failed. There was a sense of desperation to find ways to limit the damage caused by this failure. In my opinion the options explored in this desperation were poorly thought out and these miracle cures and palliatives all proved in the final reckoning to be worse than the disease. Perhaps the only (unanticipated) benefit that came out of this was that as Indian intelligence scrambled to infiltrate the movement, they increased the incentive for criminals to participate in the Sikh movement. This criminal infiltration eventually degraded the standing of the movement in the eyes of the Sikh people and ultimately allowed the Govt of India to claim a sense of moral superiority. I doubt the Indian intelligence community did this in some grand strategic anticipation, it is IMHO just a weird and fortuitously beneficial side effect. They were able to salvage this situation by coupling the Khalistan militancy to a commercial insurgency tied to control over India bound drug trafficking routes from Pakistan and they got lucky in that regard. There were significant downsides as thousands of innocents were murdered. I doubt senior national security personalities were happy about what happened or even satisfied with the outcome. I (an outsider to all this) for one - am glad this dark chapter in India's history is over.

But it appears the first pages of this exact same chapter are now being penned in US history. Unless I am wrong, I appear to be cursed to see the same thing repeat over and over again in my life.

* This linkage to the teaching of the Sikh Gurus is important because a substantial fraction of what they said pertained to the corrupt and venal nature of Mughal administration. The Sikh Gurus objected to the misguided application of Islamic ideas and for that kind of dissonance with the rulers, the Gurus paid with their lives. By linking their martyrdom to the moral conflicts of political systems, the teachings of the Gurus formed a powerful template for many subsequent religious figures in the Haryana-Punjab belt to challenge local political structures. Bhindranwale was not outside the norm on these matters, what made him exceptional was the sheer strength of his appeal. This link to the teachings (and interpretation thereof) of the Sikh Gurus is what makes Bhindranwale a powerful figure in Punjab today. This is why you still see his face hanging from the walls of stores and restaurants around the Golden Temple Complex even today.

** I grew up fearing Bhindranwale and the ideas he espoused. I recall how influential he was, and how his words could even sway the judgement of seasoned undercover police officers detailed to spy on his gatherings. I also remember the manner in which high ranking GoI representatives would deferentially sit by his feet trying to prove Madam Gandhi's sincerity and willingness to enter into a political concord with him! The behavior of police officers and GOP political figures around Trump evokes similar imagery in my mind.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Trump's poll numbers trend upwards

As 538 notes - Trump's approval rating is up. The trend in the polls seems to have reversed around mid-December. I think this may reflect an unusual but interesting dynamic in political groups facing extinction pressures.

Bearing in mind that there is a reporting delay of about a week or more between when a poll reports its results and when it actually polls the people in the survey, the opinion trend like goes back to the beginning of the hype cycle on the "tax cut" that Trump passed.

The "Tax Cut" that Trump passed is very problematic because if you actually read the draft that was passed, there are too many contradictions but a majority of the people only head the hype driven bylines that the Trump media managers sought to push out on major news channels. This raised Trump's profile as someone who could get "something" done.  This contrasts with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell's profile as people who can only obstruct.

However the hype cycle was dominated by two extreme countervailing forces. The Trump supporters who alleged that this tax bill would cause Jesus to walk on earth again, and Anti-Trump groups who pointed out that sort of thing is only supposed to happen just after the apocalypse.

In this environment I suspect Trumpers and "moderate" GOPer alike felt a kind of political extinction pressure and I feel that might be bringing them together.

I have only seen this happen once before - in Pakistan. When the GoI applied coercive pressure to Pakistan (usually in response to some Pakistan sponsored terrorist acts) - externally one would see a fission between the Jihadi Tanzeems and the Pakistan Army. However if one looked in detail at what was going on - on the ground - the external pressure increased the collaboration and coordination between the Jihadi groups and the Pakistan Army as the Army had to give them detailed instructions to how to avoid the Indian response. This kind of close coordination strengthened the Pakistan Army - Jihadi Group relationship. It was extremely challenging to come up with ideas that actually amplified the fissiparous tendencies between these groups.

These kind of "somehow alive at the edge of death" moves typically come with a high cost. One can eyeball the cost of this current converge at atleast 1.3 Trillion USD (i.e. the deficit introduced by the Tax Cut) and I am unsure if this is really sustainable.

The "feelings" of Trumpers and their friendly neighborhood GOP mainstream may have less and less to do with the reality of the evolving situation. Their feelings are important but this is at its core a national security crisis of unimaginable proportions.

It seems that the GOP doesn't really think support Trump against the IC is sustainable as they are finding remarkably large blue shifts in recent elections in districts Trump won by a large majority. I think the GOP is drawing closer to the idea of hanging Trump out to dry.

Which brings me to the issue of Bannon's fantastic stunts of yesterday. Trump has visibly obstructed Bannon's testimony at HPSCI and Bannon is currently facing a contempt charge for refusing to obey the subpoena. Bannon's only route to salvation now lies in complete surrender to OSC Mueller. Talking directly to Mueller is troublesome for a freewheeling professional liar like Bannon - if he says one thing that cannot be corroborated, it will be used against him. So the mere act of reaching out to Mueller will IMHO induce Trump to shut Bannon up permanently (if you get my drift). I am not sure if Bannon can get into some kind of WitSec  program but in the interests of national security it may be a good idea to provide him some.

If either the GOP loses the 2018 elections or decides that it can no longer afford to carry Trump baggage - Trump's position is gravely compromised. With the WH doctor saying that he is fully mental competence mounting, the insanity defense is out (not that you can really claim that in an Nat Sec matter but still Trump fundamentally doesn't grasp how different his situation is from the usual legal BS he gets into).

With the Bannon fiasco - Trump now faces a treason charge and I assure you OSC Mueller will knock on the WH door soon.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The looming US government shutdown

So it appears that despite the GOP having a super-majority - they can't actually get the debt increase passed. Trump is railing at the Democratic Party on twitter but the truth is that several GOPers having been screwed by Trump and the GOP leadership on the Tax Cuts are asking for their pound of flesh now that its time to raise the debt limit. A shutdown looms and there is no clarity where this will ead us.

GOPer reluctance seems to be taking many forms, some want Trump to actually do something specific on immigration, others want him to do something on trade, still others want to cut social security and medicaid, still others want to see sops for their specific constituencies so that their path i 2018 gets easier.

To top this off - the GOP seems to be dragging its feet on actually killing the Russia inquiry. Gowdy has resigned from the Ethics committee. Bannon and Hicks have been brought before various committees. The rumors spilling out of the Congress and Senate committees are that not only is OSC Mueller going after Trump over his ties to Russia, he is also going after Trump for ties to organized crime, money laundering and basically everything that involves being Trump.

As the true scale of corruption embodied by the Trump enterprise becomes clear, Trump supporters will find it impossible to continue claiming that this is "corruption as usual" - especially as Trump's USP was supposed to be that "he is an outsider, not like those thieving bastard politicians in DC!". The way it is looking like right now - Trump is a lot more than just a common DC thief!

Against this backdrop - Trump was driven to play his usual race card. The "shithole" comments provokes a predictable response among the Coulter-Spencer-David Duke community but it is unclear how much this move actually moved the needle with his supremacist supporters. Among soft-core racists there does not appear to have been any motion at all, especially as Trump appears to be largely pedaling in place over the DACA issue.

As the numbers start to come in on the jobs and outsourcing to China side of things, Trump's numbers are looking a lot worse than anyone before him. The Chinese are making money hand over fist and now that it is becoming increasingly clear to everyone that the "Anbang Investment" has paid off - Trump is talking big about "sticking it to China". Outside of the botnets he pays for and then retweets - it is unclear who believes him.

Last week - aside of the dubious victory of shoring up support in the 10 or so dickheads on Twitter who still support him - Trump scored a spectacular own goal. By listing a large number of African countries in the "Shithole" category - Trump spectacularly fucked himself in the ass.

For the Trumperally challenged, let me spell that out. African countries have large resources that routinely raped by developed nations. A combination of cruel local despots and unscrupulous (and racist) corporations usually facilitate that rape. When all is said and done, the money that the local despots earn is usually squirreled out of the African country and put into things like Trump condos. A case in point is Haiti's former dictator Papa Doc Duvalier. Papa Doc stole a ton of money from Haiti and bought Trump Condos with it. Now Haiti has gone off and made all the documents of its own legal investigations into Papa Doc and his money laundering public. Other African republics seem to be asking pointed questions - South Africa is doing it openly. Once those nations open their files to public, OSC Mueller will not need to dig very deep to find where Trump and his friends have buried the bodies. This may be why Trump has reversed his gleeful posture on the "shithole" comments today.

It is fantastically stupid to make enemies when the most powerful investigative agency in the world is crawling up your ass with a microscope.

But logic is not the world Trump lives in. He was certain that Mueller would deliver an exoneration by Christmas. But nothing of the sort has happened, and lo and behold Trumpers seem to have forgotten all about his claims on that issue too.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Chandan Nandy's Quint Article

I am sure most of you have seen this article which has now been withdrawn citing issues with the sources. Shivam Vij has come out with an article attacking Chandan Nandy's credibility. [1]

As both these events add a kind of dark credibility to Chandan's article, I want to focus on some of the issues that were raised in the article.

A few people have indicated that this article by Chandan will serve Pakistan's agenda and make the case that Jadhav is an R&AW agent. I feel this is jumping the gun. It is possible he will be executed by Pakistan, but Pakistan appears to be aware that such an act will really vitiate the atmosphere. It is unfortunate that both India and Pakistan need to spy on each other. Given that background, it will be best if that spying is kept to a civilized level.

In my earlier post on the Jadhav affair, I had indicated that per usual R&AW practice it was extremely unlikely that Jadhav, a navy officer would be hired to be an illegal agent inside Pakistan. The R&AW adheres to the CIA/MI6/DGSE norms of never posting a military officer in a cross border intelligence role in a hostile nation. This is disfavored because it can be misinterpreted as  declaration of war.

As the Chandan Nandy article indicated Prime Minister I K Gujral had called the R&AW's "offensive" operations inside Pakistan to an end. This decision was most likely taken because the costs associated with these operations outweighed the benefits. When Prime Minister Gujral made the decision he would have consulted various stakeholders but his decision did not sit well with a section of the R&AW who felt that this reduced their leverage vis-a-vis Pakistan.  B Raman who at the time was quite influential in such matters publicly stated his disagreement with Prime Minister Gujral, but it was clear from Sri. Raman's writings that no government since then choose to take that barrier off. This barrier laid into the structure of R&AW operations by India's Prime Ministers effectively prevented the R&AW from "doing a Bangladesh" again.

I feel Prime Minister Gujral's idea came under attack at various points. Most notably after 26/11 - there was a lot of rethinking. It was an extremely bad idea to burn down Mr. Tata's house. Surely the Pakistanis could understand there would be serious repercussions of that. I do not know for certain if the barrier was ever moved in Sri. Manmohan Singh's time as PM but I doubt it. The quality of surveillance was raised but I doubt he would agree to another Partition. Having seen the effects of one Partition, I am quite certain he would never approve another.

Of Modi and his clan, I cannot speak as I do not know what truly runs in their minds.

It is clear from Chandan's article that Jadhav appointment was pushed forward during Director Alok Joshi's time. We do not understand why this was done in violation of R&AW standard practices. But absent a clarification on this issue, it is natural to question whether the intention behind hiring Commander Jadhav was to breach the barrier set by Prime Minister I K Gujral? 

The answer to the question is obviously NO. Chandan's report indicates this was a series of organizational errors inside the R&AW and there is no implicit or explicit desire to cause the partition of Pakistan.

That being said there is obviously an environment of mistrust to contend with here. It is unclear if Pakistan will be willing to accept that assurance from the R&AW.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Trump Tweets at Pakistan - Is there a way to salvage the situation?

By now most of you are aware, things are bleeding away. I worry that if sane people do not step in to stop the bleeding - we are going to have a very serious mess on our hands.

The US is going to cut financial aid to Pakistan. The details of the cuts are awaited but it seems that the cuts are being gated with more performance on the counter-terrorism front. There is a rumor doing rounds that the US wants Sirja's and Haibutullah's head on a pike, but I don't know if that will prevent the cuts from actually kicking in. Pakistan for its part has the option of engineering a drivers' strike on the trucks that transport US cargo to AFG from Port Qasim. This should allow the Pakistanis to effectively raise the price of the transport contracts and be compensated for their losses on the Siraj/Haibatullah front.

I know that Trump tweeted without any real thought to this. It is stupid to do things like that, but it is not uncommon to have unexpected things happen in the realm of international relations. I want to ask the question - setting aside everything I feel about Trump, is there any way to use this situation to achieve longer term US goals in the region?

I lay out what the long terms aims of the US in the Af-Pak region are.

1) The US does not want to see the region turn back into a global hub of international terrorism. This situation presented in the region after the dregs of the anti-Soviet jihad loitered in the region and under the encouragement of likeminded ISI officials set up an international murder-for-hire business. The criminal incentive for this kind of thing is too strong and it is not a good idea to have a modern version of the Hashassin cult make itself a home in the Af-Pak region.

2) Sending US troops to pacify the region is problematic as this just puts own forces in the middle of Afghanistan's perpetual civil war and one simply ends up hurting/bearing the physical/psychological costs of being in the middle of that with little to no gain to regional stability. Neither we nor the Afghans get anything long term out of that. There are short term gains but those are eroded by equally sharp short term losses.  As Afghanistan remains a major producer of illicit opiates, corrosion of US-AFG ties does not bode well for US global narcotics control aims.

3) The sustained engagement with Pakistan provides the US with a lever against Pakistan's drop into China's political orbit. Chinese influence on the Pakistani economy is significantly greater than what the US can currently manage. US influence exists over Pakistan's debt servicing situation, but with the Chinese essentially willing to lend Pakistan whatever it needs in exchange for control of its ports and critical infrastructure, the US leverage is greatly diminished.

4) Pakistan remains insecure about its relationship vis-a-vis India. By stating a desire for a long term positive engagement with Pakistan, the US effectively reassures Pakistan and keeps its anxiety vis-a-vis India managed. This peculiar form of reassurance can make Pakistan less ornery with India. Keeping Pakistan's national security establishment on an even emotional keel (what the Indians call "coddling") helps keep the nuclear escalation potential down.

5) Pakistan's nuclear weapons are a proliferation concern. While Pakistan has done a great deal to improve the security of its weapons, there are significant vertical proliferation concerns. This has a huge impact on the global proliferation scenario. It is in the US interest to see Pakistan's arsenal remains at a manageable size and one does not see a repeat of the Soviet situation where the costs associated with the arsenal imposed unacceptable economic costs.

I want to put this out there as an open question - Is there any way to turn Trump's bizarre exercise in public diplomacy into something that is actually productive in terms of the goals described above?

I for one would settle for more limited resolutions - such as a reduction in the local stabilization load on US forces in AFG. This local stabilization operations are not cost effective in the long run and I think it would nice if one would see simple things like a reduction in the number of IEDs that have to be cleared by road opening parties etc... but that is just the way I think. I would even settle for a cap on the IED size or deployment. I am pragmatic enough to take a reduction in the DCBI count as progress.

But what do you guys think?


Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Trump Tweets on Pakistan

It is obvious that Trump has initiated an exercise in public diplomacy vis-a-vis Pakistan without any real consultation with anyone inside USG.

It is not clear what made him focus his attention on Pakistan. Current suspects include a chance conversation at Mar-a-Lago, a year end briefing by the IC and Erik Prince pissing in his ear about how much money he could make in Afghanistan.

It is also not clear what the end point of this exercise is. If this had been done properly there would have been a internal strategic review. The review would have put a head and a tail to this and we would have seen some meaningful statement of the goals of this act and a clear exit. Trump doesn't do that. He thinks he is the only one that counts in the government and everyone else is just taking up space. Trump will likely support my joke proposal for renting space on the 7th floor of the State Department for an indoor urban farm!

The Pakistanis are treating this like it is the real thing - i.e. an exercise in coercive diplomacy by the US aimed at ousting Pakistan from its monopoly on transit routes to Afghanistan. Most of the US academic community focused on South Asia is inclined to follow suit. This approach makes sense - even if this is just some random nonsense Trump shot out his twitter - it is worthwhile to use this to game a real world coercive exercise. If one approaches it in that fashion, this is actually an ideal opportunity to do this kind of gaming.

The Panjshiris are quite happy, they have had a difficult year with a lot of troubles with Atta Muhammad. They could use a laugh or two. All Afghans could use a bit of a laugh really - the Pakistanis have been dreadful to them.

The Indians frankly couldn't give two shits about this, but because Modi is constantly on the look out for things that make him look successful, he will probably try to get a political rise out of it. I trust the BJP media cell will do the needful (hopefully they won't cock it up like the whole Ishrat Jahan thing. No really - everyone had forgotten who that was until you brought it up again and that too while this Loya thing is still airborne - nice work guys - do they pay you for self goals? or have you crawled so far up Modi+Shah posterior that they actually think you did a good job on that one? - if so hats off to you - you might save India yet!)

For the Indian strategic studies community - I propose this situation is a good way to evaluate the impact of visible friction in US-Pak ties. Opportunities like this are quite rare - so I am sure there is something to be learn here.

For other nations - this may be a good platform to study what happens Trump launches a policy without any warning to elements of his own operation. This kind of a reverse cold-start problem. Again fascinating from the perspective of national policy analysis - not so great if you are stuck on the implementation side.

I am not sure what is going on with the Doval + Pak NSA meeting. Having heard only one side of it, I don't know

1) if l'affaire Jadhav is moving towards a conclusion acceptable to both sides,
2) if Ajit Doval has reassured the Pakistani side about the Saltoro situation. They are publicly hinting at their need for reassurance,
3) if any resolution has been reached on deterrence stability concerns regarding PK "tactical" nukes,
4) if there is any progress on the AIOS issue along the LoC. (if PK stops challenging it, IA will keep "conversations" limited to 50 mm or below)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Trump signs off on the GOP Tax Scam

And just like that Trump has signed off on a tax bill that neither he nor his lawyers nor any of the usual presidential economic surveillance staff have actually read. 

Something called a "Tax Cut" has been passed which on paper sounds good, but the moment you try to get a clear sense of what it actually means you get a set of extremely confusing answers. 

I am quite surprised he signed off on it. I was expecting him to hold back on it to make sure that the GOP killed the Mueller investigation first. He hasn't even waited for Trey Gowdy to shut down the House Russia probe. He just went ahead and signed it. 

I am quite baffled by his desire to give up his leverage like this.

I suspect it has something do with the objections he raised to anti-Russia portions of the NDAA[1]. He has basically said "I am signing this NDAA but I am going ignore parts of it I don't like at any point of time." This is completely bizarre, I have never seen such a disconnect between a President and his own party dominated House and Senate. This whole GOP super majority and GOP President thingy is always a total freakshow, but I feel this NDAA-ignore-whatever-I-dislike is off the charts as shitshows go.

Is this why he gave up his leverage?  He felt he didn't need it? Because keeping his leverage with Russia was more important? Because Putin's ass is in the sling with no end to sanctions and an election looming while the RU reserve fund is depleted? Am I reading this right? 

Bannon and Lewandowski are going up before a separate house committee. Bannon is openly departing with Trump Family (such as Ivanka) [2] and Trump himself - He's indicated he wants to run for President in 2020. My guess is that he found out he would be going to jail as part of Trump's deal with the GOP but Jared and Ivanka would go free. 

Apparently Ivanka and Jared aren't too sure if they are going to jail or not - and think Bannon is out of line for criticizing them (a "f***ing liar" is the phrase she used apparently). [3]

Trouble in Trump's inner circle suggests whatever Trump has just done - he made a difficult choice. A choice where none of his crew know who is going to get thrown to the OSC dogs. 

This decision was taken yesterday. I am guessing that is why so many astrologers claimed it would be unluckiest day of 2017. Either that or those SOBs are dabbling in BTC too much.