Trump’s Parting Sanctions

All the tumult over a disputed election and the protest march on the Capitol obscure a possibly greater danger overseas. The Trump White House with a foreign policy under the control of the war-fixated neocons has imposed a stream of crippling sanctions on Iran that could lead to a possible military clash before the Democrats take charge.

The White House understandably fears that President Biden will restore the agreement that President Obama made with Iran: a suppression of its nuclear activities in return for a lifting of U.S. sanctions. It was by no means perfect but a way of reducing tensions with Iran, a Middle East power, much the way Trump eased hostilities with nuclear-armed North Korea. As Bob Woodward writes in his none too favorable account of Trump in his book Rage, “…it was not by the Establishment playbook, but as Trump says repeatedly, we had no war. That was an achievement. Diplomacy should always be worth a try.”

But Trump has done the opposite with Iran without apparently noting the contradiction. He has applied sanctions not only to Iran but to companies doing business with Iran. These have been added weekly since November, perhaps a record in economic punishment short of war. Secretary of State Pompeo adds that Iran has joined al-Qaeda as “partners in terrorism,” which is reminiscent of the charge that Iraq was allied with al-Qaeda, a fiction that helped lead to the disastrous U.S. Iraq war.

Iran is of little danger to the U.S. It vies with Israel for power and influence in the Middle East. Israel has nuclear weapons, but Iran does not, and Israel wants it to stay that way. Like other countries – the U.S., Israel, China, Russia, whatever – Iran pursues its national interests. While these can be unsettling, they are not the menace of the fanatical, death-dealing ideologies that imperiled the world for close to a century. We’re dealing with practicalities of statecraft today even if nuclear weapons hover in the background. Containment worked before. It can work again.

Stopping Drugs At Sea

The U.S. Coast Guard may be the least celebrated of the US. military services. It’s a law enforcement member of the intelligence community, but its glamour is limited. It doesn’t take lives, but saves them – those in peril at sea and those who may perish from deadly drugs on their way here. The Coast Guard’s reach is global, but its mission is to protect America. America first but internationally oriented, an enviable combination.

Catching the enemy in the act is not easy. It takes a seamanship that might be admired by a John Paul Jones. First a suspicious vessel has to be sighted among all those at sea. A drug carrier may elude attack by mingling in a congested area near a port the way a drug laden truck squeezes among other vehicles at a land entry. Heavy traffic is the smuggler’s boon. If his boat is farther out, say 300 to 400 miles, it’s pretty clear he has something to hide.

A Coast Guard team approaches the likely suspect and calls for it to stop. It usually does since it’s much harder to run away at sea than on land. There’s seldom violence because the operation follows a pattern understood by both pursued and pursuer. If the boat carries a U.S. flag, the team can board right way once it seems to be safe. If there’s a foreign flag, the team must get approval from headquarters that can be done quickly or may take a few hours.

Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team (US Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)

Then comes the challenge of finding the suspected drugs which can be ingeniously concealed. The Coast Guard must match wits with some of the most inventive criminals on earth. The contraband may be in a secret compartment or under a false floor or in a spare engine on deck. In Miami Lt. Commander Daniel Delgado notes that on one occasion some fresh concrete seemed suspicious. Back in port, a jackhammer cut through the concrete to reveal the profitable cargo below.

Sometimes the trafficker may toss the drugs overboard to avoid detection and arrest. What floats to shore are known as “wash-ups,” debris that is often spotted by beach goers who pick it up and turn it in. It’s not a suitable souvenir.

For obvious reasons there are far fewer drug busts at sea than on land, but each haul is many times larger. The traffickers take their losses in stride. They can easily make these up in the trips that get through. Despite its best efforts, the Coast Guard estimates it only stops abut fifteen per cent of the sea smugglers.

There may be something if not purifying, at least cleansing by water. The Coast Guard is spared the every day scandals of land enforcement. There’s a going rate of $10,000 for a guard who lets a drug laden truck across the Mexican border – a pittance compared to what’s inside. A seagoing Coast Guard team faces no such temptation and can take pride in its accomplishments – not to detract from the heroism of the U.S. border patrol who can face every day violence from the aggressive drug cartels

At some point the U.S. must withdraw from its highly dubious efforts to intervene militarily in nations overseas with an idea of reforming them. Then more attention and budget can be given to the Coast Guard, a prime defender of the U.S. and those who want to come here without, to be sure, drugs.

Afghans Betrayed

U.S. treatment of Afghans in the unending war has been a mixture of confusion and indifference. Friends and enemies may be indistinguishable, the friend today may be the enemy tomorrow in multi-faceted Afghanistan. How is a hapless Washington bureaucrat going to keep up with all of this? That said, Major Mohammed Naiem Asadi was clearly on our side.

A decorated helicopter pilot, he has logged thousands of flight hours and is said to have destroyed more of the enemy than anyone else in the Afghan air force. In response the Taliban have threatened his life on the ground. They told his father hand over your son or we’ll kill your entire family.

Major Mohammed Naiem Asadi

Knowing the threat is serious, Major Asadi asked for asylum in the U.S. and apparently it was granted. But just before he and his wife and daughter were about to board a plane to the U.S., the decision was reversed on Washington orders. The reason? Like so much else in the Afghan war it was unclear. But orders are orders.

Now Asadi is in hiding no less a target of Taliban wrath.

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar was intelligence chief of the Taliban until its leader Mullah Omar had some doubts and demoted him to deputy interior minister, where he still had control of a large police force. When I met him in Kabul on an assignment for Voice of America a year before 9/11, he seemed friendly and hospitable but clearly the voice of the Taliban.

No so. At great personal risk, he was in contact with the CIA and was furnishing not only useful information but plans on how he and other defecting Taliban leaders could link with an anti-Taliban military force and overthrow Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. He told Kathy Gannon, a top reporter covering Afghanistan: “There were people in the Taliban who wanted to work with the international community, who didn’t want the foreign fighters, who wanted them gone. But with no help from the outside, we couldn’t do anything, and then it was too late.”

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar

With the war underway, he offered information on where bin Laden might be found. That too was ignored. Knowing he was now an obvious target of the Taliban, he asked for some protection from the U.S. He was turned down and soon executed by the Taliban in the city of Kandahar.

Mullah Khaksar of the past and Major Asadi of today may serve as bookends for a  war that didn’t have to be, and their plight can symbolize what a beautiful country and proud people have endured.