The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was launched in October 2001 to be nearly two decades long. Russia’s military operation in Syria was launched in September 2015, and it has been going on for six years. Both powers justified their interventions by the need to combat international terrorism: while the U.S. was fighting against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (terrorist organizations banned in Russia), Russia has fought against ISIS (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) and associated radical groups of the Syrian opposition.
It is difficult to compare Moscow and Washington’s campaigns as they are very different in scale, in their objectives and, particularly, in the specifics of their warfare. The U.S. operation in Afghanistan involved large numbers of American marines as well as military units of different sizes from several dozen U.S. allies and partners. Russia’s presence in Syria mostly involved its Aerospace Forces (the VKS) and a relatively small contingent of military police units.
The irrecoverable losses of the international coalition in Afghanistan have totaled over 3,000 people, with Americans accounting for about 80% of these; in the meantime, Russia’s losses in Syria have been smaller by an order of magnitude.
Money down the drain…
The U.S.-waged 20-year Afghanistan campaign is estimated to have cost an astronomical sum, something in between USD 1 and 2 tn. Various estimates put the cost of Russia’s six-year Syrian operation at USD 10 to 15 bn, which is significantly less than the American outlays as well as less than those of many of the U.S. junior partners in coalition (for instance, Germany alone spent some USD 50 bn in Afghanistan over the two decades).
These whopping outlays did not help the U.S. Although Al-Qaeda’s strongpoints in Afghanistan were largely eliminated in the course of the first three months of the military intervention as the surviving Taliban fighters were pushed out into the neighboring Pakistan within approximately the same time, the U.S. and its allies ultimately came to suffer a crushing defeat. Set by the U.S. leadership 20 years ago, the objectives have not been achieved, and the international coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan had essentially degenerated into a rather rushed and ill-designed evacuation.
At the same time, even Moscow’s most intransigent opponents admit that Russia was victorious in Syria. At the moment, at least, it is certainly a winner.
Russia did not have any fundamental military-technical or geographical advantages as compared to the U.S. On the contrary, the U.S. had a major advantage over Russia in transport accessibility and related logistics. Moscow only had two full-fledged bases in Syria—the naval base in Tartus and the airbase at Khmeimim. The Americans, though, not only used the military infrastructure of Afghanistan (including the infrastructure built by the USSR during its ten-year presence in the country) but also established bases in Central Asia, as well as many transport corridors via Pakistan, the South Caucasus, Central Asian states and Russia.
Two Military Operation Model
Why did Washington ultimately lose when Moscow succeeded?
First, although both the U.S. and Russia proclaimed the aim of combating international terrorism, the two operations had, in fact, quite different objectives.
In 2015, by saving President Assad and his inner circle, Moscow was saving Syria’s statehood; Russia was, therefore, defending Syria’s status quo.
Back in 2001, the U.S. intended to radically change the status quo in Afghanistan by installing a new political regime and implementing an ambitious plan for building a modern secular state. Clearly, the latter objective proved far more difficult than the former, especially since the country lacked the objective premises for successful state-building.
Second, Russia’s partners in Syria were Iran and Turkey, the region’s two leading actors. Each had—and still has—its own vital interests in Syria. Although these interests do not always coincide with those of Russia, the trilateral Astana format has demonstrated its effectiveness and stability. It was not destroyed even by such acute crises as the escalation in Idlib in early 2020.
Some fifty U.S. partners in Afghanistan mostly included current and potential members of NATO, ranging from the UK and Turkey to Georgia and Ukraine. Most of these nations had no vital interests to pursue in Afghanistan, and their involvement largely stemmed from their desire to demonstrate loyalty to the U.S. and support America’s well-meaning undertaking. Especially since America’s plans for Afghanistan, unlike its subsequent intervention in Iraq in 2003, were fully approved by the UN Security Council. It turned out, however, that values- rather than interests-based solidarity is not a particularly reliable foundation for an operation lasting many years.
Third, Russia was mostly opposed by international terrorist groups in Syria that ultimately viewed the country’s territory as merely one of the possible springboards for their operations. Today, they are fighting in Syria—tomorrow, they could move to the neighboring Iraq, or to Libya, or the countries of the Sahel, or any other place in the world with a situation most favorable for them.
The Taliban is a purely Afghan movement. Its fighters have nowhere else to go; they fought for their country and continue to do so. Even when, in the early 2000s, the international coalition pushed Taliban militants into Pakistan, they tried to get back home, sooner or later and at any cost. Islamic “globalists” and Islamic “nationalists” are motivated somewhat differently; figuratively speaking, the former have legs, the latter have roots.
Fourth, to all appearances, Russia’s operation in Syria was simply prepared much better than the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Russian Arabists, diplomats, military personnel and intelligence deserve credit for their understanding of the situation in Syria and the surrounding states.
The U.S. operation in Afghanistan had the appearance of a not-entirely-successful improvisation; the U.S. vision of this country was formed throughout the confrontation with the Soviet Union back in the 1980s, and they proved far removed from reality.
The Kremlin succeeded in making its limited presence in Syria stable, financially affordable and generally acceptable to the Russian public. The White House failed to do the same in Afghanistan.
Russia’s success in Syria is particularly impressive as—unlike the out-of-power Afghan leadership—Assad was (and still is) under U.S. and EU sanctions, and the West has not recognized the outcome of the recent presidential elections in Syria (although there were quite a few problems with the latest Afghan elections as well). Additionally, Syria has so far failed to regain full membership in the community of Arab states. Even so, Assad can be certain that he will wake up in his palace on January 1, 2022, as Syria’s president. At the same time, the political biography of Ashraf Ghani, who had spent the greater part of his life in the U.S. and had long held U.S. citizenship, has already come to an inglorious end…
Appropriate and inappropriate debates
Of course, Russia’s victory in Syria can only be claimed with significant qualifications. The country’s territorial integrity has not been fully restored as Turkey still controls the Idlib province in the West, the North is controlled by Kurdish units beyond the control of Damascus, while the Golan Heights in the South have been annexed by Israel. The danger of a new escalation remains in Syria while the ventures of post-conflict restoration are pushed further into the future. It is not entirely clear when and under what circumstances Russia’s military operation in Syria will end or whether Moscow has a detailed withdrawal strategy.
Nonetheless, whereas the long-term outcome of Russia’s operation in Syria can still be debated, the outcome of the Afghan campaign is in no doubt: the U.S. and its allies have suffered an obvious and extremely painful defeat. Today, it is a matter of downplaying the humiliation of this defeat as much as possible and preventing the American public from developing an “Afghanistan syndrome” as was the case with the “Vietnam syndrome” half a century ago. If the Republicans succeed in transforming the subject of “the Democrats stealing our victory in Afghanistan” into an item on America’s domestic agenda, debates on this matter might even affect the outcome of the 2024 presidential elections.
Russia’s operation in Syria has significantly bolstered Moscow’s standing in the Arab world and increased Russia’s prestige throughout the Middle East, where high reliability as well as consistent and predictable policies have always been in value.
Washington’s reliability as a strategic partner and security guarantor has once again been cast into doubt. NATO’s ability to conduct successful operations far from their traditional area of operation is in even greater doubt. Certainly, the defeat in Afghanistan will have a rather detrimental effect on the morale of the U.S. military.
It should be mentioned that Afghanistan merely is the most graphic illustration of the American military presence shrinking throughout the world. The Pentagon will now have to more actively prepare to conduct autonomous operations, without relying on the existing military infrastructure of its allies and partners.
What lessons can we learn for the future from this brief comparison of the two interventions of the early 21st century?
First: victory cannot be guaranteed by an overwhelming military superiority over the adversary or virtually unlimited financial resources or broad international support or even readiness to maintain an occupation for decades. Attempts to impose a specific socioeconomic and political system on a nation that, for whatever reason, is not ready for it will inevitably end in failure.
No matter what we think of Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad, we can but recognize that he enjoys the support of, at least, a part of the Syrian society. No matter what we think of the Taliban, this movement clearly reflects, in some manner, the interests of large groups of the Afghan population.
Political settlement in Syria is inconceivable without the participation of the present leadership in Damascus. On the contrary, over the 20 years of international occupation, Afghanistan failed to develop an efficient central authority, strong political and state institutions as well as resolve the problems of corruption, nepotism and clan loyalty. In 2021, just as back in 2001, significant portions of the Afghan population, especially in the provinces, have no access to many basic social and economic services.
Syria certainly has many pressing socioeconomic problems similar to those of Afghanistan. Certainly, the efficiency of its state governance is also somewhat dubious. Yet, the stability of the state in Syria has proved to be far greater than that of the Afghan state.
Besides, both in Syria and in Afghanistan, victory in state-building is impossible without active collaboration with regional actors. No international coalition founded on shared democratic values and loyalty to the leader will be substitute for cooperation with the neighboring states. In the case of Syria, Iran and Turkey turned out to be just such irreplaceable neighbors. In the case of Afghanistan, these are primarily Pakistan, China, Iran, Central Asian states, Russia and, possibly, India. The rich Persian Gulf nations may also take part in Afghanistan’s economic restoration, as may the European Union under certain circumstances.
Nonetheless, Beijing and Islamabad will be the main external actors taking part in determining Afghanistan’s future. Beijing is on the list because China will inevitably become the country’s principal foreign investor and trade partner. The Taliban’s official representatives have already hastened to say that they welcome China’s economic presence in Afghanistan. Islamabad is on the list as well because Pakistan has the broadest range of means to influence the Taliban. To some degree, it is fair to say that the Taliban’s military victory is also a victory for Pakistan. At the same time, it would be a major mistake to consider the Taliban a mere puppet in Islamabad’s skillful hands: the Afghan movement, for instance, actively keeps in touch with separatists among the radical Pashtun movements in Pakistan.
Iran will most likely be the third member of the leaders’ trio as it holds long-standing and solid positions in the West of Afghanistan. Iran’s relations with the Taliban have always been complicated, with frequent conflicts—but given Tehran’s pragmatic foreign policy, there is no doubt they will reach some kind of compromise with the victorious Taliban.
Russia and Afghanistan
Unlike Syria, where Moscow plays a largely central role as a guarantor of the country’s stability and territorial integrity, Russia is not a major league player in Afghanistan so far. Moscow has neither Beijing’s economic capabilities nor Islamabad’s political tools; unlike Iran, it does not share a long border with Afghanistan.
There, however, remains a lingering “Afghanistan syndrome,” and the Russian public is strongly opposed to any form of military involvement by Russia in Afghanistan.
In the late 1990s, Moscow did actively collaborate with Uzbek and Tajik groups united in the so-called Northern Alliance in the North of Afghanistan. Following the international occupation of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance was disbanded to see some of its leaders join the team of then-president Hamid Karzai. Even though there is talk today of the Northern Alliance being revived, this has not yet had any effect on the battlefield balance of power and has not provided Moscow with any additional capabilities.
The tasks Moscow is setting itself today in Afghanistan are fairly modest, more so than those set for the Russian military in Syria in 2015.
First, it is important to prevent the military and political instability in Afghanistan from spilling across the borders of Russia’s allies in Central Asia and to prevent flows of refugees and forced migrants. Over 2.5 million Afghan refugees, or maybe even double this figure, are already dispersed throughout the world.
Second, Moscow needs to prevent international terrorist groups, like Al-Qaeda or ISIS, from transforming Afghanistan into a springboard for their operations in Central Asia or, for that matter, in Russia. In this respect, Afghanistan is potentially an even greater threat than was Syria prior to Russia’s operation. The estimates of international terrorist group presence in Afghanistan vary widely; some sources claim there are at least 3,000 ISIS militants in Afghanistan with no fewer than nine military bases.
There are also claims that ISIS and the Taliban are engaged in secret talks, which presupposes the Taliban’s consent to ISIS being present in Afghanistan—provided they refrain from interfering in the country’s domestic affairs. It is hard to say how well-founded these claims are; they may be just attempts to discredit the Taliban in the eyes of regional actors.
Third, it is in Moscow’s interests to cut drug trafficking from Afghanistan into Russia and the neighboring states as much as possible. In the first years under the international occupation, poppy plantations in Afghanistan expanded from 2,000 hectares to 30,000 hectares. There are reasons to suspect international coalition members of condoning the unprecedented flourishing of Afghan drug trafficking and of being involved—directly or indirectly—in this lucrative business. The Taliban, for their part, actively began combatting drugs back in the late 1990s, since Islam decisively prohibits drugs. The future will show whether there will be any success in countering production and export of Afghan drugs in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.
Much will depend on the perception of Afghanistan’s changing political landscape in the eyes of the U.S. and Europe. If Russia has to compete in Afghanistan with the EU and the U.S., Russia’s capabilities, which are modest as things stand, will prove even more limited. If the West decides to steer a course toward Afghanistan’s international isolation, any government in Kabul will have additional incentives to expand cooperation with Russia to at least somehow reduce its inevitable dependence on China.
Certainly, Moscow will have to sidestep—carefully—around many hidden pitfalls. For instance, how can possible complications with India, which has its own views of and approaches to Afghanistan, be avoided? What is to be done about the activities of Turkey, which claims an independent role in Afghanistan? What should be the response to Washington’s desire to preserve a residual military presence in the region by using the relevant infrastructure in Central Asia? Yet, no matter how important these and other questions might be, they should not distract Moscow’s attention from strategic collaboration with the principal regional actors in Afghanistan. The preliminary results achieved by Russia in Syria give us grounds to hope that the Kremlin might well succeed in avoiding obvious miscalculations in Afghanistan.
From our partner RIAC
AUKUS: Human-made disaster
AUKUS is a new military alliance that emerged recently, among Australia, UK, and The US. Under this alliance, it has been declared that Australia will be equipped with nuclear submarines. There exists a panic in the region as Australia was not a declared nuclear state and if equipped with a nuclear submarine, whether or not, it is safe? Scholars and intellectuals have various opinions, but, agreed on one point that it will promote a nuclear race in the region. I believe, the spread of nuclear weapons, especially those who have no experience of handling nuclear submarines, maybe not be safe. It can be mishandled or accidentally, can cause any incident of disaster not only for Australia but for the whole region. Keeping nuclear weapons, need special safeguards and different temperament. To be a mature and responsible state is a prerequisite for having nuclear weapons, it also needs different ethics and principles to be equipped with such lethal weapons.
On the other hand, while NATO is there and Quad was created to specifically counter China, was there any genuine need for creating a new alliance like AUKUS? Is NATO abandoned? How the NATO member state thinks to ward AUKUS, one can imagine. Anyhow, they are hurt and mistrust has been created among NATO and the US. First of all, The US is not at its peak to offend or compel any other country, like EU member states, and on other hand, the US economy is not in such a state, where it can support the luxury of defense expenditure like before. It is right to approach to cut defense expenditures and spend more of the socio-economic welfare of the country, but to create a new alliance is negating such an approach.
Many EU member states are confused and upset and in the days to come, the gap may widen further. First of all, some of the EU countries are in close cooperation with China economically. China has become the largest trading partner and investor for many EU countries. Dependency on the US has reduced considerably.
Especially, France is offended as it was in the advanced stage of negotiations with Australia for a similar deal but suddenly hijacked by the US and UK. France has lost a big opportunity and it’s her right to react and protest. France has called back its Ambassadors from Australia and the US. This is an initial reaction, but, more actions may be seen in the near future.
France, in a reaction, has announced to collaborate with India in a similar manner, which is not welcomed by Asian partners, as it will create a race in the region. Furthermore, India is in the hands of an extremist Hindu political party – RSS. RSS is a fanatic party and can go to any extent, without thinking about the consequences. It is not safe for the region to equip India with nuclear submarines.
This region is highly populous, China with its population of 1.4 billion, India itself is 1.2 billion, and the rest of countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Maldives, collectively constitutes almost half of the world’s population. If any misadventure happened in this region, half of the population of the whole world is under threat.
It will be not a wise decision to promote nuclearization, either by the US, UK, or France. One mistake cannot be compensated for by making another one. It will be a total disaster for humankind.
Humankind needs peace and prosperity. Human-made disasters can be averted and must be averted. It is the right time to take appropriate measures to stop nuclearization and the promotion of the nuclear race in this part of the world or any other part of the world. It is our individual’s responsibility to raise our voice and bring public awareness of such human-made disasters. Collectively we may avert such disasters, all peace-loving nations and individuals must join efforts to neutralize such deals and agreements. Countering China, to take such extreme actions is not justified. The US may review its decisions and avert disaster to humankind.
Presidential Irrationality and Wrongdoing in US Nuclear Command Authority
Abstract: In post-World War II memory, no greater political danger has confronted the United States than the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Endowed with nuclear command authority, this unstable and openly law-violating American leader pointed the United States toward existential harms. Recognizing this threat to the nation’s physical survival, General Mark Milley acted honorably and effectively to protect an imperiled republic. By expanding pertinent safeguards against any presidential abuse of nuclear command authority, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff did what was necessary and proper. The following assessment by Professor Louis René Beres, who has been publishing on nuclear war-related issues for more than half a century, underscores what should never again be allowed to defile America’s national security decision-making. “The safety of the people,” reminds Cicero in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”
“As to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the best protection is not to elect one.”
General Maxwell D. Taylor, from personal letter to the author, 14 March 1976
Meanings of Decisional Irrationality
Strictly speaking, irrationality is not a proper medical or psychiatric term; rather, it is a more-or-less scientific description of human distortion and behavioral disposition. Still, as a convenient shorthand for exploring mental or emotional debility in US presidential decision-making, this colloquial reference is adequate, timely and potentially useful. In essence, though now just retrospective, America’s most senior general officer revealed assorted verifiable grounds for questioning former President Donald J. Trump’s mental stability. Now, looking ahead, it is necessary to take a longer term and generic look at US presidential nuclear authority.
This look must become a task for disciplined strategic thinkers, not politicians.
How to begin? This uniquely critical area of presidential decision-making – one that has remained ambiguous or deliberately “opaque” – concerns both the right and capacity to order a launch of US nuclear weapons. To be tangibly meaningful, these intersecting decisional components must always be examined together. This is the case though any presidential nuclear capacity functioning without correct antecedent authority would be worrisome per se.
By definition, as I have discovered personally over the past half century, these are all complicated intellectual matters. In 1976, then just five years out of Princeton as a newly-minted Ph.D., I began work on an original book about nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. From the start, I focused especially on US presidential prerogatives to order the firing of nuclear weapons. I was most particularly interested in the potentially-plausible prospect of presidential nuclear irrationality and/or wrongdoing.
In technically scientific terms, this did not mean a US president who was “clinically insane” (obviously the most fearsome sort of scenario), but “only” a Head of State who might sometime value some specific preference or combination of preferences more highly than American national survival. Today, at least until General Milley’s revelations, we worry more about leadership irrationality in certain other countries, most conspicuously in North Korea and Iran. Nonetheless, as the JCS Chair recently disclosed, the worst atomic decisional errors could happen here. Even if this were not the case, there could still take place variously unforeseen decisional synergies between (1) a fully rational American president and his irrational negotiating counterparts in Pyongyang or Tehran; or (2) an irrational American president and his expectedly rational counterparts in such conspicuously adversarial states.
In the Beginning
Back “in the early days” of apocalyptic nuclear issues, and with an expressly American decision-making focus in mind, I entered into ongoing communication with then-former JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor. In my last correspondence with the distinguished and decorated general, he responded with a handwritten letter (attached hereto) dated 14 March 1976. As the Taylor response explicitly referenced only the dangers of an “irrational American president,” I could legitimately undertake no automatic extrapolation of his diagnosis to other strategic risks.
Still, there are various related hazards that ought never be disregarded prima facie. For example, we must become better prepared to deal with a US Chief Executive who appears more than irrational. This means a president who was seemingly “crazy,” “insane,” or “mad.”
It is difficult for me to imagine that General Taylor would have hesitated to adapt these characterizations of more advanced decisional “pathology” to the extant subject-matter scope of nuclear decision making. This is the case even though such characterizations could never be seriously scientific. To obtain authentically scientific assessments of nuclear event probability, there must first exist a determinable frequency record of pertinent past events. Unassailably (and fortunately), there has never been a nuclear war from which to draw valid strategic inferences.
There is more. Any US presidential order to launch nuclear weapons would be effectively sui generis. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II did not constitute a nuclear war, but rather the American use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional war. In August 1945 (the month of my own birth in war-torn Europe), there were no other atomic bombs anywhere on earth.
Not a one.
Whether concerned with presidential irrationality or madness, present analytic concern should be focused upon an emotionally or mentally debilitated president. Whichever applies, the truly vital questions going forward will have to do with Constitutional, statutory and other recognizable sources of US war-making authority, especially presidential right to order the use of nuclear weapons.
International Law and US Law
Urgent questions here will relate to assorted and sometimes subtle intersections of international law and US law. From the beginning of the United States, international law has been an integral part of its national law. Early on, Chief Justice John Marshall asserted and reasserted that all international law – whatever its source – had been incorporated into the domestic law of the United States. Before Marshall, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on The Law of England clarified that the “law of nations” is always “a necessary part of the law of the land.”
These Commentaries represent the authoritative foundation of all United States law.
Under current US law, whatever its apparent jurisprudential origins, a president may correctly use military force once Congress has declared a war or after the US (and/or its citizens) have been attacked. As to the permissible kinds of force and levels of force, these operational decisions would have to be determinable according to longstanding laws of war of international law (the comprehensive law of armed conflict or humanitarian international law), and also the municipal law of the United States. In any such foreseeable circumstances, there would exist no clearly identifiable prohibitions against nuclear force per se.
For better or for worse, non-weapon-specific prohibitions would apply broadly, to the extent that any US retaliation or counter-retaliation would violate the always-binding expectations of discrimination (sometimes called “distinction”), proportionality, or military necessity.
Both the US Constitution and the War Powers Act place strict limits on any president’s authority to initiate hostilities with a foreign power, whether by conventional or nuclear means. A significant grey area has to do with the Commander-in- Chief’s right to strike first defensively or preemptively; that is, as a presumptive expression of “anticipatory self-defense. Here, the authorizing component of permissibility must be the perception of any grave danger that is “imminent in point of time.”
Logically, the relevant criteria of “imminence” could not reasonably be the same today as they were back in a pre-nuclear 1837. That was the year of the Caroline, the classic case setting the correct legal standard for all subsequent preemptive national action.
Matters of Chronology and Crisis
What should we have expected from former President Donald Trump if he had sometime reasoned that a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies was “imminent in point of time?” Should we have remained comfortable with leaving such a prospectively existential judgment to his own personal decisional standards of the moment? Or should this eleventh-hour option have been be a matter of more plainly shared or “concurrent authority” with the US Congress?
In actual state practice, applicable questions of law are apt to be subordinated to the overarching and ubiquitous assumption that any president’s final authority in defending the United States should never be challenged during an impending or already-ongoing crisis. This sort of assumption would become especially worrisome in circumstances where an enemy nuclear attack could be contemplated and anticipated. In brief, this means that a verifiably irrational or mad American president would likely have his military commands obeyed, up to and including an order to use nuclear weapons. This reasoning applies also to preemptive American strikes, whether launched in retaliation or counter-retaliation. It also means that while a wide variety of redundant safeguards already exists to prevent unauthorized uses of American nuclear weapons up and down the identifiable nuclear chain of command, no parallel safeguards can exist at the top or apex of this unique decisional hierarchy.
This was the precise conclusion reached in General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 letter to me (attached hereto) on nuclear command authority.
There is more. It remains possible, of course, and even potentially desirable, that a presidential order to use nuclear weapons would be disobeyed at one or another recognizable level of implementation. Strictly speaking, however, as any such expression of disobedience would be “illegal,” it is not sufficiently probable or reliable in extremis atomicum. The staggering irony of actually having to hope for certain high-level instances of disobedience or chain-of-command failures ought not be too casually set aside.
Prima facie, this irony reveals that extant US nuclear-decision safeguards are sorely and overwhelmingly inadequate.
The Best Protection Lies with the American Voter
Is the US nuclear presidential authority dilemma remediable in any still-promising ways? “The best protection,” I learned from General Maxwell Taylor almost fifty years ago, is “not to elect” an irrational president. But now, as such straightforward advice cannot be acted upon retroactively, the residually “best protection” must lie elsewhere Among potentially gainful sources, this suggests more vigilant statutory oversight by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor and certain select others. This oversight also includes a more predictably reliable willingness – either singly or in appropriate collaboration with the others – to disobey any presumptively irrational or insane presidential nuclear command.
Such willingness could be correctly defended as law-enforcing under those universally binding Nuremberg Principles (1946) that obligate all persons (especially senior government officials everywhere) to resist “crimes of state.” Because war and crimes against humanity are not mutually exclusive, compliance with overriding Nuremberg Principles could become necessary not only to limit aggression, but also to prevent genocide.
Ultimately, America’s best chance of avoiding or surviving such a grievous threat could depend less upon any codified law or tangible institutions than the last-minute or impromptu courage of a handful of senior officials. Though any such estimation must be less than ideal or optimal, it may simply be “realistic.” To wit, it was the courage and insight of a single senior decision-maker, JCS Chair Mark Milley, that firmed up necessary Constitutional protections against a severely debilitated commander-in-chief.
Buttressed by national and international law, it is incumbent upon voting American citizens to act upon General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 warning. That earlier alarm, which cautioned “not to elect” a potentially “irrational” American president, should be extended to include even a potentially “insane” Commander-in-Chief. In the final analysis, however, we may not be able to rely upon prudential and law-oriented voters to effectively save the United States from itself – that is, from prospectively aberrant nuclear decision-making. In that intolerable case, all narrowly statutory or technical directions on nuclear decision making would be overtaken by visceral expectations of American “mass.”
Then it would be too late.
American democracy owes a sincere debt to US General Mark Milley. In the sycophancy-driven Trump world, a world of determined anti-reason, Milley’s reliance upon law and virtue was much more than merely acceptable. For US national integrity and survival, it was indispensable.
But what should we do now?
 For informed accounts by this author of nuclear attack effects, see: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy ((Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1984); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016; 2nd ed., 2018).
 This expansion included urgent consultations with chiefs of the armed forces and conversations with foreign leaders concerned about Trump-induced US instabilities.
 These publications have been both strategic and legal in focus.
 General Taylor was an earlier Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. His handwritten letter to Professor Beres follows this article and the author’s bio. On August 18, 2017, Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill to the US House of Representatives that would have required President Donald Trump to undergo a mental health examination to determine if he is emotionally stable enough to remain in office. The proposed legislation expressly invoked the 25th Amendment, a rarely-used Constitutional provision allowing the vice-president and members of the Cabinet to remove a president from office. Rep. Lofgren’s bill did not become law.
 “Science,” says 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis, ” by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual – is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation…. the latter is not possible without the former.”
 This book was published by the University of Chicago Press as Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980).
Irrational adversaries would likely not be deterred by the same threats directed at presumptively rational foes. On pertinent errors of correct deterrence reasoning (here regarding Iran in particular) see: Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?” The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog). February 23, 2012. General Chain (USAF/ret.) served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).
 Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different or overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).
 Nuclear risks threatening US security could form an intricately interconnected network. Capable assessments of such risk must eventually include a patient search for synergies, and also for possible cascades of failures that would represent one especially serious iteration of synergy. Other risk properties that will warrant careful assessment within this genre include contagion potential and persistence.
 One such generally ignored risk is “playing to the audience,” that is, seeking personal popularity at the expense of national security. Accordingly, see Sophocles, Antigone, Speech of Creon, King of Thebes: “I hold despicable and always have…. anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”
 Donald Trump’s presidency brings to mind those fragments of Euripides that concern tragic endings. Here we may learn from the classical playwright, “Whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad.” Inter alia, Greek tragedy explores the wider civil harms that any deranged “sovereign” mind can produce. Looking at the United States today, struggling with rampant “plague” and with extraordinary domestic instability, there is a still-discoverable wisdom in classical Greek tragedy.
 Significantly, neither the irrational/rational nor insane/sane distinction is narrowly dichotomous. There are, rather, multiple or “continuous” variations of each pairing, an indisputable fact that makes any more far-reaching psychological or legal analysis of these already-complex nuclear decision-making issues even more problematic.
 See also “Supremacy Clause” of the US Constitution (Article VI); The Paquette Habana, 175 US 677,700 (1900); and Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726, F.2d. 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) per curiam).
 For the crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the UN General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974. U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 UN GAOR, Supp. (No. 31), 142, UN Doc A/9631 (1975) reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).
 See, on such issues: Summary of the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion), 1996.
 The principle of proportionality has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, the law of exact retaliation. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah, or Biblical Pentateuch.
 The principle of “military necessity” is defined authoritatively as follows: “Only that degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required for the partial or complete submission of the enemy with a minimum expenditure of time, life, and physical resources may be applied.” See: United States, Department of the Navy, jointly with Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps; and Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M, Norfolk, Virginia, October 1995, p. 5-1.
 Long before the nuclear age, Swiss scholar Emmerich de Vattel took a position in strong favor of anticipatory self-defense. Vattel concludes The Law of Nations (1758) as follows: “The safest plan is to prevent evil, where that is possible. A nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.” (See Vattel, “The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations,” reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust 1916 (1758). Vattel, in the conspicuously earlier fashion of Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius, (The Law of War and Peace, 1625) drew widely upon ancient Hebrew Scripture and Jewish law.
 The Caroline concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally been sufficient in law to justify certain appropriate militarily defensive actions. In a formal exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then US Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for national self-defense that did not require antecedent attack. Accordingly, the authoritative jurisprudential framework now permitted a military response to threat as long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Naturally, this standard could sometimes be more easily met in our time-compressed and prospectively apocalyptic nuclear age.
 Reflecting this second point-of-view, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D, LA County) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D, Massachusetts) introduced H.R. 669 (Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017) back on 24 January 2017. Although this proposed legislation would have prohibited the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a Congressional Declaration of War, it’s not clear that it could also have dealt satisfactorily with the irrationality/insanity issues herein under discussion. Moreover, the proposed legislation seemed to make no meaningful distinction between a nuclear first-strike and a nuclear first-use. https://lieu.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/congressman-lieu-senator-markey-introduce-restricting-first-use-0
 In part, at least, this implicitly core assumption is rooted in our continuously-anarchic system of international relations, a decentralized structure often referred to by the professors as “Westphalian.” The reference here is to the landmark Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty-Years War and created the still-extant state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two major agreements comprise the historic “Peace of Westphalia.”
 See Affirmation of the Principles of International Law Recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, Adopted by the UN General Assembly, 11 December 1946. Inter alia, these Principles underscore the formal jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between states. This peremptory expectation, known in formal law as a jus cogens assumption, was already evident in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 The Law of War and Peace (1625; Chapter 20); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations (1758; Chapter 19).
 See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948; Entered into force, 12 January 1951.
 “The safety of the people,” Cicero warns prophetically in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”
 The “mass-man,” we may learn from 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset The Revolt of the Masses, “learns only in his own flesh.” Seem, also, by Professor Beres, at Yale: Louis Rene Beres, https://archive-yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/call-intellect-and-courage; and at Princeton: Louis Rene Beres: https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/02/emptiness-and-consciousness
 There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”
American Weaponry in the Hands of the Taliban
The hasty withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan attests to both the indifference of the U.S. administration as regards the future of Afghanistan as a state and the neglect for its obligations to its allies. Besides, Washington has clearly violated the current UN Security Council sanctions regime against the Taliban, which was established in accordance with Resolution 1988 (2011).
Paragraph 1, subparagraph (c), of the Resolution calls on all countries to “prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of arms and related material of all types including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts” to the Taliban and other individual groups, undertakings and entities associated with them .
Washington faced serious backlash for violating the UN sanctions regime upon abandoning weaponry and ammunition during an abrupt evacuation of troops from the country—such as when U.S. troops left Bagram, the largest airbase in Afghanistan, without warning the local Afghan army in early July, 2021. General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, the new commander of Bagram Air Base, stated that Afghan soldiers only later learned of the Americans having departed, once they had all “disappeared into the night.” This is important as this proves that the Americans did not transfer weaponry and ammunition to the Afghan army through official channels. Since U.S. troops had turned off electricity at the airbase, looters soon found their way in, with barracks and storage tents ransacked. Among the “trophies” left by the Americans were hundreds of armored vehicles and ammunition, all of which ended up in the hands of the Taliban, either that very night or after Bagram being taken over (see image 1).
Image 1: Armored vehicles (left) and ammunition (right) deserted by the Americans at Bagram Airbase.
Source: RIA Novosti (left) and Haroon Sabawoon – Anadolu Agency (right)
According to The Military Balance, a military journal published annually, Afghan government forces had 640 MSFV armored security vehicles, 200 MaxxPro armored fighting vehicles and several thousand Hummers at their disposal. The Afghan Air Force had 22 EMB-314 Super Tucano (А-29) light attack aircraft (see image 2), four C-130H Hercules transport aircraft, 24 Cessna 208B and 18 turboprop PC-12s. The Army Air Corps boasted 41 MD-530F light turbine helicopters and as many as 30 multi-mission UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters (see image 2).
Image 2: A light attack EMB-314 Super Tucano (А-29) aircraft captured by the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport (left) and a light MD-530 F multi-role helicopter (center); a multi-mission UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter in the sky above Qandahar with what seems to be a person hanged by the Taliban (right).
On August 17, 2021, Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Advisor, confirmed that a significant amount of U.S. weapons had fallen into the hands of the Taliban. “And obviously, we don’t have a sense that they are going to readily hand it over to us at the airport,” he noted, thus confirming that the United States allowed the indirect transfer of weapons to what the UN Security Council has designated a terrorist organization.
This is not the first time that Washington has violated a UN Security Council Resolution. For example, a statement by Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, suggests that the United States released four Taliban members from Guantanamo in 2014, all of whom were on the Security Council sanctions list, to send them to the Middle East.
This was quite in line with the U.S. policy incepted back in 2010 and aimed at engaging in direct dialogue with the Taliban. This led to the UN Security Council Committee—established pursuant to Resolution 1267 on sanctions against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda—breaking up into two independent sanction mechanisms. The UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1988 devised procedures that allow for a more liberal approach to the Taliban list (compared to those involved with Al-Qaeda), excluding those mentioned in consolidated lists of persons, groups and entities subject to restrictions.
Such facts should, in fact, be subject to the scrutiny of the UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1988 (including its Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team), in whose proceedings the Russian Federation takes part and whose mandate implies monitoring compliance with Taliban-related sanctions as well as presenting periodic reports on sanctions measures to the Security Council.
Prospects of the U.S. imposing sanctions against Russia in connection with the Taliban
It is important to recognize that the “Taliban issue” could become somewhat of a scapegoat for Washington, especially in the eyes of its allies, to impose even more anti-Russia sanctions. In addition to the Executive Order on Blocking Property with Respect to Specified Harmful Foreign Activities of the Government of the Russian Federation signed on April 15, 2021, the White House published a Fact Sheet outlining key accusations against Russia, which include reports on rewards for the murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. According to the document, the Biden administration is taking measures following the intelligence reports of Russia having encouraged Taliban attacks on the U.S. and alliance contingent in Afghanistan. Since such allegations directly affect the safety and well-being of U.S. troops, a solution can be found through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.
Biden’s executive decree foresees the introduction of blocking sanctions for attempts to challenge the credibility of elections in the United States and allied countries, malicious hacker activities, spreading corruption internationally, crackdowns on dissidents and journalists, undermining security and stability in countries and regions important for U.S. national security interests, and the violation of international law, including the territorial integrity of states.
The reason for the Biden administration’s concern is likely a story published in The New York Times in June 2020 claiming that Russian military intelligence had offered Taliban-affiliated militia a reward for the murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Sources of the newspaper claimed to have uncovered such information during interrogations of Afghan militia.
As a result, senator Robert Menendez suggested in September 2020 that the U.S. Congress move forward with yet another anti-Russia sanctions package, the Russia Bounty Response Act of 2020. The Act implied freezing assets, visa restrictions for President Vladimir Putin, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and other high-ranking officials, as well as restrictions on defense enterprises. The initiative was supported by Dem. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. In an interview with MSNBC, she emphasized the need to immediately impose sanctions against Russia for “colluding” with the Taliban.
In his turn, however, former President Donald Trump called The New York Times story “a fake,” stating that the article had been ordered for political reasons. Trump went on to state that the U.S. intelligence had acknowledged the information used in the publication was misleading. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said there was no evidence of a “conspiracy” between Russia and Taliban officials. The Taliban also denied information from The New York Times about existing ties with Russia.
One should bear in mind that the United States and Russia are adopting more polarized stances regarding the situation in Afghanistan, which became evident during the UN Security Council meeting on August 30, 2021, when Moscow and Beijing refrained from supporting the West-drafted resolution on Afghanistan. Thus, Washington will look for any excuse to discredit Russia. An effective instrument in counteracting such sanctions, hoaxes and other foul play common for the United States should be that of keeping a meticulous record of Washington’s violations of the UN Security Council sanctions regime against the Taliban to present the findings to the international community.
- The Taliban is a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia under Decision No. 03-116 of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dated February 14, 2003, which entered into force on March 4, 2003.
- Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia under Decision No. 03-116 of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dated February 14, 2003, which entered into force on March 4, 2003.
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