November 30, 2018

President George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) - my one interaction

The author at an air base in Kuwait - 1991

I was saddened to hear of the passing of President George H.W. Bush tonight. I have always regarded him as a key leader in a time of questionable leadership from both parties in Washington. His conduct of the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 was one of the better chapters of post-World War II American history. A clear mission, a well-resourced military to execute it, and the confidence in his generals to get the job done. I was proud to be a part of it.

I only met President Bush one time. In the fall of 1990, he requested from U.S. Central Command's General Norman Schwarzkopf a briefing on a plan to liberate Kuwait. Prior to this, the mission of the American force deployed to the Persian Gulf was the defense of key ally Saudi Arabia. Now the goal posts had been shifted to eject Iraqi forces from what they regarded as part of Iraq.

I was part of the briefing team sent to Washington to brief the senior military leaders on the plan. As we prepared to leave Riyadh for Washington, General Schwarzkopf admonished the four team members that we were going to Washington to present his proposal and his analysis, and that none of us were to offer our own opinions. Actually, his tone was a bit more strident, but I will just let it go at that.

This is an except from Chapter 5 of my book, Ally to Adversary-An Eyewitness Account of Iraq's Fall from Grace (Naval Institute Press, 1991). You can pick up a used copy on Amazon for $2.00.

5. Washington

We waited in the briefing room while Secretary of State James Baker, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, his deputy Bob Gates, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, and Vice President Dan Quayle gathered and traded good-natured jibes.

After a few minutes, President Bush strode in purposely and asked Cheney, “What have you got for me?”

Cheney explained that General Powell had brought a briefing team from CENTCOM headquarters in Riyadh representing General Schwarzkopf. Bush nodded at Powell and walked over to the team standing in the rear of the crowded room.

Powell introduced us to the president and told him that I would begin the briefing with the intelligence picture. My portion of the briefing was to set the stage for the presentation of the air campaign and ground-battle plans. It was the least controversial presentation and thus should draw the fewest questions.

Easy, I thought. After all, I had successfully briefed a much tougher audience in the tank the day before—the country’s five senior general officers (including the chief of my parent service) made for a much more nerve-wracking experience.

No sooner had I started than an aide came in and whispered something to the president, after which he excused himself for a few minutes. When he returned, he appeared to be a bit distracted and apologized, explaining that he had been on the telephone to French president Mitterand.

As he turned his attention back to the briefing, I described in detail the construction of the Iraqi defensive lines. When I moved on to the next topic, which was Iraqi command and control of forces in the region, Bush stopped me and asked me to repeat the description of the Iraqi defenses.

In the ensuing questions and answers with the president (his questions, my answers), I mentioned that I had been in Iraqi trenches and defensive positions around al-Basrah during the Iran-Iraq War.

Bush looked inquiringly at Cheney and Powell. Cheney shook his head as if to say, “Don’t pursue this, Mr. President.” It appeared that the military cooperation with Iraq that had seemed such a good idea in 1987 and 1988 might come back to haunt us politically.

At the completion of my portion of the briefing, I asked the president if there were any additional questions. He asked about morale of the Iraqi troops in Kuwait. I said that all our indications were that morale was low, but this was based on interrogations of the very few deserters available at that time.

He asked if, based on my experience with the Iraqis, it was my opinion that they would fight. Remembering the admonishment from General Schwarzkopf about voicing personal opinions, and the fact that our plans were based on the CENTCOM assumption that the Iraqis would fight if attacked, I hesitated.

General Powell, aware of Schwarzkopf’s proscription on giving our personal opinions, sensed my predicament. In a gesture that I will always appreciate, Powell leaned forward into my line of sight and nodded.

I told the president that based on what I had seen in the defense of Al-Basrah in 1987, the Iraqis would probably not fight hard to defend Kuwait from a coalition attack. However, once we had pressed the attack into Iraq, we should plan for stiff resistance, especially if we approached the major population center of Al-Basrah.

President Bush nodded and thanked me, and I sat down.


It was a pretty heady moment for an Air Force major. The President was gracious and appeared to actually listen to what I had to say.

I will always remember him fondly.

November 28, 2018

Afghanistan is a disaster

I was supposed to be on CNN today, but was pre-empted. This is what I would have said.

Afghanistan is a disaster, one which we partially created. You can blame both the Bush 43 and Obama 44 administrations for getting us where we are. That said, after two years of the Trump 45 Administration, we see no improvement, just more of the same claims of progress, improvement, etc. Yet, no one has claimed "victory."

When the highest ranking officer in the country, US Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declares in an international forum that the "Taliban are not losing," you have a problem. "Not losing" can mean two things: they're winning, or this is a stalemate.

Up until this summer, I was willing to give the Pentagon the benefit of the doubt about who was winning, but after the debacle in Ghazni that required a substantial intervention with American combat forces, I would say the Taliban now have the upper hand.

Why? Why after 17 years are we still involved in a small war thousands of miles from home, against an inconsequential adversary?

The answer is simple - we left the fight.

There never was much real interest in Afghanistan other than the removal of al-Qa'idah and the killing/capture of Usamah bin Ladin. That required the defeat of the Taliban government (great job by the US military and CIA), but we made the ridiculous "agreement" with the US-allied Northern Alliance at Tora Bora on the Pakistan border where we basically allowed Usamah bin Ladin to escape to Pakistan. After that mistake, there was no real role for a continued US military presence in Afghanistan.

But no, we have to "nation build," hoping that American style democracy would catch on in the country. Naivete on steroids. We tried anyway, to no avail.

In 2014, President Obama told the Taliban what date the US was ending its combat mission in the country and withdrawing the bulk of our forces. (We did the same thing in Iraq.) The message: "We're leaving, its all yours if you are willing to just wait." This is the folly of telling your enemy when you are leaving and going home.

During that misguided calculation, someone realized that we can't abandon the fledgling - and failing - Afghan government to the easily-predicted and totally-expected resurgence of the Taliban.

We spent massive amounts of money creating and training the Afghan army and security forces, but it hasn't worked. After years of training and billions of dollars - not to mention our most precious asset, the continued bloodshed by American troops - it is a dismal failure.

News flash - the Afghans just don't function well in Western-style military formations. Compare that to the Afghan mujahdin we trained in the 1980's, and to the Taliban, created by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - light guerrilla forces that are very effective.

Over the past year, the Taliban has retaken from the Afghan army much of the territory that American forces originally took from them, often at great cost. I am not sure pouring more American blood and treasure will make a difference. Yet, it gets worse - the deteriorating situation has allowed al-Qai'dah to return to the country, as well an increasing ISIS presence. The country is fast becoming "radical Islamist central."

The Afghan military and security forces are not going to be able to defeat these Islamist forces. Unfortunately, if the defeat of these groups is our policy (and I am not sure that it really is), it will require US (and NATO/other allies, but the bulk of it will be American) combat troops directly engaging them, not by troops tasked with "training and advising" the Afghans. It seems we are averse to actually winning wars anymore, instead opting to seek political objectives or "outcomes."

Now that the Bush and Obama administrations have gotten us here, I'd like to know what the Trump Administration has in mind, because what we're doing now is not working.

Since you asked: How do you pronounce the name Khashoggi?

جمال أحمد خاشقجي

The murder of U.S.-based political columnist Jamal Khashoggi continues to dominate the news cycle. We have all heard reporters, analysts, and pundits providing their comments using a variety of pronunciations of the name Khashoggi.

I was recently asked, “Rick, you speak Arabic. So, how do you correctly pronounce the name Khashoggi? I hear it different ways on different networks.”

Actually there are several “correct” pronunciations. It depends on which language you are talking about. The name Khashoggi is originally Turkish: Kaşıkçı, pronounced kha-SHIQ-jeh, and meaning “spoon maker.” (Listen to an audio file here.)

The Khashoggi family became prominent in Saudi Arabia in the early 20th Century.

So, what in Turkish is Cemal Ahmed Kaşıkçı becomes in Arabic جمال أحمد خاشقجي‎, or Jamal Ahmad Khashuqji, pronounced kha-SHUQ-jee. (Listen to an audio file here.)

For practical purposes, I suggest we all use the commonly accepted Western pronunciation of Jamal Khashoggi, kha-SHOW-gee.

For the trivia buffs:

- Jamal’s uncle was high-profile Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi (‘Adnan Khashuqji), known for his part in the Iran–Contra scandal, and was one of the richest men in the world at the time.

- Jamal was also a first cousin of Dodi Fayed (Dudi al-Fayid), who was dating Diana, Princess of Wales, when the two were killed in a car crash in Paris.

- Jamal’s grandfather, Muhammad Khashoggi (Muhammad Khashuqji), was the personal physician to King ‘Abd al-’Aziz Al Sa’ud, founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.