The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by John Robb. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is John Robb. John’s been on the show a couple of times. He’s our go-to guy on military stuff, intelligence stuff and strategic stuff. And today, we’re going to talk about that most amazing intersection of all the above, the current mess and how we got there in Afghanistan. And by the way, those who want to know more about John and his thinking, check him out on Patreon, John Robb at Patreon. I’ve been a subscriber I think since you put the damn thing up and it’s been well worth the five bucks a month or whatever it is I pay to get your insights. So, John, Afghanistan, let’s start with, before we get into deeper issues and you’ve been doing some interesting thinking about this, what’s the current news out of Afghanistan to the best of your knowledge?
John: The US military has a relatively small presence in Kabul, and there are tens of thousands of Afghanis as well as US and international citizens that are still trying to get out. The international section of the airport at Kabul airport is shut down and the military is doing all the evacuations now.
Jim: So all the airlines have stopped.Right. And they’re trying to do one flight an hour, and that can range between a couple of hundred people in a smaller plane to five, 600 in some of the larger ones.
Jim: Big C5 or something, right?
John: Right. Yeah. So it’s precarious. I mean, we’re right on the edge of maybe pulling it off or landing in a military catastrophe. I mean, you never want to be in a situation where you’re completely surrounded and unable to fully respond and at the mercy of the Taliban. I call it the Blanche DuBois strategy, right? Where she says in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers.” And so we’re relying on the kindness of the Taliban to let us complete this mission.
Jim: And as you and I both know, two mortars is all it would take to shut the airport down because they’re right there, right? So two shitty ass 82 millimeter Russian mortars, airport closed. So clearly, it’s at the sufferance of the Taliban. I don’t know if we threatened them or bribed them or what, but at least so far, they haven’t turned this thing into the total humiliation that they could.
John: Oh, they’re still maneuvering. They’re still moving up forces. There have been a couple incidents that, particularly that C5 departure from a couple of days ago where you had all that video footage of people running along with the C5, trying to climb up in the gear, getting crushed underneath the wheels and then eventually being dropped out of the landing gear. The C5 landed and they found people dead obviously inside the landing gear and shut down the plane. So horrible circumstance, traumatic for the crews obviously and the people involved. And it was a big black mark against the US operation and the thinking. They just didn’t have control of the airport.
Jim: Yep. And again, maybe this with the cooperation of the US, apparently the Taliban are now blocking access to the airport at least on the ground and they’re not letting people walk onto the airport grounds anymore. And they may be doing it for their own reasons or frankly, it’s possible they’re being done at the request of the US.
John: Well, they’re controlling the flow, right? So they control the civilian side of the airport, which is on the other side. So part of the US thinking was that they were going to let the civilian airlines run a good portion of the evacuation. Well, that’s gone. That’s over. That’s not happening anymore. And that now the Taliban can decide when to send crowds in.
Jim: As you said, it’s at their sufferance. They can send crowds in. The simplest ordinance could shut the airport right down. You can’t operate an airport under artillery fire and we do know that the Taliban have plenty of light weapons like mortars and RPGs and what have you. So they’re clearly allowing it to proceed for their own purposes.
John: Right? I mean, there’s thousands of US military troops. They can respond with incredible amounts of violence, but here’s the situation is that the Taliban are now in a city amongst five million inhabitants, heavy populated city and any kind of response that we have against Taliban mortars or anything, it would end up leveling the city or killing thousands of Afghan citizens in the process.
Jim: Yeah. They’ve got us. They’ve got us. So the question will be, will they let us go in peace or not, right? And they don’t have to so it’s interesting. The US has frozen billions of dollars of Afghani assets. Would be interesting to see if that ends up being a negotiation. We’ll let you guys escape un-skinned in return for our assets. That’s a possibility.
John: Oh, that’s clearly going on behind the scenes right now and the progress on that negotiation being declared a sovereign entity, being taken off the terrorist watch list, both as individuals as well as a group and all the restrictions associated with that in terms of blocking their trade and then access to all the assets of the Afghan national bank and being able to claw back all the money that was stolen by the people inside the government [inaudible 00:05:08].
Jim: They may get some of that back, they may not. [inaudible 00:05:11] the thieves were. I was just checking the news wires and apparently there was a spokesman for the US government saying that they have no evacuation plans for those outside of Kabul, including US citizens, maybe as many as 10,000.
John: Exactly. Or we don’t have any plans for getting people who are trapped inside of Kabul that are on the other side of the line. They can’t even get across the city and into the US occupied area.
Jim: Now, they were flying helicopters from some residential areas and from the embassy. They still do that?
John: I haven’t seen anything recently. I mean, very specific US facilities, sure. But not to get out the private security folks and different groups that were actually operating in areas of Kabul that were taking over.
Jim: Yeah. So this could turn much worse for the Americans. It’s already a shit show for the Afghanis, but 10,000 Americans are taken hostage by the Taliban, that would not be good.
John: It’s very close to becoming a siege. So we’re in this evacuation mode and if the Taliban wanted, they could turn it into a siege where tens of thousands of people, thousands of US military are trapped inside the city with no exit.
Jim: Yeah. And as you say, probably some behind the scenes negotiations to see if that couldn’t be avoided.
John: Correct. And of course the demands on the Taliban side are going to be substantial.
Jim: Yeah. If I was MIB, using the fuck out of my leverage before it goes away. Interesting. Well, let’s do as we like to do on the show, we update on the facts. But let’s get to the underlying dynamics and let’s start with sort of the most obvious one, what the hell kind of intelligence failure was involved here or lying or both, right? Just a month ago or less, the administration was saying, oh, this is a well armed, well trained military outfit. Yeah. Who knows how it’s going to all play out, but nothing’s going to happen rapidly. And then [inaudible 00:07:03] in 10 days, collapse. I mean, that’s an intelligence fiasco or conscious lies of prodigious proportion.
John: Yeah. There’s been decision-making failures at all levels. The top level would be the White House allocating responsibility or command of this withdrawal, this exit to the diplomacy folks, to the state department and giving them authority over it, and basically declaring that the military portion of the operation is over, it’s done, and not really paying any attention to that. And not switching when it was apparent that the conditions were changing, that we were moving towards a military operation. And then you have kind of the operational level. We have the military not seeing what was going on or not recognizing what was going on in the Afghan military, in the Afghan government, something that virtually everybody had been seeing and reporting on who had been stationed there, troops and civilian personnel that rotated in and out had all reporting that the morale was low, the corruption was pervasive. They just would not stand and fight.
John: Even if individuals in the Afghan military were brave and willing to stand, if you’re not surrounded by people willing to do the same, it’s just suicide to do so. And we didn’t see that. We were fighting a guerrilla war and we didn’t treat it like a guerrilla war. And the victory in this guerrilla war would be the collapse of the Afghan military and the Afghan government. They weren’t going after the morale of the US military per se, that wasn’t the primary target. And so we didn’t detect that. And then there was this specific elements on the tactical side in terms of the evacuation. It was clear maybe a week ago, a little bit more that Kabul was going to be taken shortly. There was no resistance from the Afghan military. It was just dominoes, it was just going, going, going. Deals cut in the background, threats being made over telephone, mobile phone. Taliban had done their work.
John: They had lists, they knew who to talk to to cause it to collapse very quickly and that the US military didn’t make any contingency plans and they didn’t react to the evolving situation. In particular, they relied specifically on getting everybody out through the Kabul International Airport. Just a single runway, high altitude. Civilian side is right in the middle of a five to six million person city, completely indefensible. And they thought that they could get everyone out through that, even if they were in an occupied city. What they should have done and what should have been kind of act upon almost immediately was that they should have opened up other alternatives on the evacuation. Bagram was the primary military base. It’s north of Kabul, a short helicopter flight away. You can even run convoys to it if you needed to.
John: It’s a defensible location, okay? You could make it so that anyone who’s around it is a target, not in the middle of a five million person city. And that had a runway, a major runway plus a taxiway that could be turned into a runway and all the facilities. Now that airport, that the air base was evacuated a while ago and it was still in the hands of the Afghan army up until Saturday night. So they could have potentially retaken it and then they would have two options of getting out and you could still run the planes in and out at a much accelerated rate and they wouldn’t be all relying on this one airport. So the Taliban took it on Saturday night. They released the 5,000 prisoners that were being held there and retaking it is tough. It would be tough at this point and probably a bulk of the operation to retake it would actually have to be launched out of the forces already in Kabul.
Jim: I mean, the military owns that failure presumably, or where they muscled by the civilian side, do you think?
John: They didn’t switch the leadership when it was clear that if you looked at it from a military theory standpoint, and it’s just great as an example of it, I mean, you had the guerrilla war which was fought in the [inaudible 00:10:58] moral dimension. It was a classic guerrilla war. You’re taking action to kind of weaken the attraction, the strength of the opposing forces’ cohesion, and that worked flawlessly given how quickly the Afghan military and government fell. But it switched to a maneuver war. They switched to rapid movements, rapid transients, changing goals, changing objectives, swarming the country, mobilizing resources, and using those movements to keep US forces on the back heel. Typically, in maneuver warfare, your objective is to damage the decision-making capacity, the psychology of the enemy. Make it impossible for them to make decisions.
John: We should have recognized that shift had occurred and then switched it over to a military control. We were still in this kind of diplomatic control, which is really more in the moral sphere, trying to appeal to the self interest of different groups, trying to appear like you’re morally superior, you’re doing the morally correct thing. We didn’t make that switch. And so all of this last piece has been in the military’s hands and they haven’t really taken control, they haven’t built those options. How do you turn something like this evacuation into a military disaster? This has become kind of a textbook case.
Jim: It only hasn’t turned it into a disaster so far because of the toleration by the Taliban. They can turn it into a disaster whenever they want.
John: Right. Right. And putting it in their hands, and that’s never where you want to be.
Jim: And they got the leverage. As somewhat of a student of military history and strategy, I was impressed by the Taliban. They did this somewhat unexpected by launching a major offensive in the north, which had historically been the seat of resistance to the Taliban. All the Northern cities fell, boom, boom, boom, boom in about 10 days. I said, holy shit, Batman, someone knows what they’re doing because this totally breaks the will of the Afghani government. If you don’t have the north, there’s a redoubt, at least a potential redoubt. Again, a big piece of leverage in terms of negotiating a settlement with the Taliban just went away because for our listeners who don’t remember, it was the Northern Alliance. It was [inaudible 00:13:08] people and the Tajik peoples and other Northern peoples who united and with the US support, overthrew the Taliban back in 2001, 2002.
Jim: And when the Taliban had gutted that potential source of resistance, there was no reason for them to negotiate anymore. They basically had won the strategic victory in terms of the military situation by somewhat an unanticipated marshaling of their resources to take the north before they then turned to Kabul, which I thought was quite brilliant.
John: Yeah. You use your surprise effectively. I mean, you get one chance at surprise and that was it.
Jim: And it destroyed the potential redoubt of the resistance. So there was no reason for them to negotiate. Okay, guys, we took the north. There’s no way to oppose us, right? The Kabul region can’t oppose us. It’s just too easy for us to dominate militarily. The north, kind of hard to dominate militarily, but we took all the cities, people. Sorry, you’re out of luck. You have no place to rally so we’re just going to take over. No negotiation. Brilliant. I think this will go down in the books. Whoever came up with that strategy really thought deeply and didn’t do the obvious thing.
John: Right. The Taliban command did a good job. There’s somebody that’s really smart on that side. But it helps when you’re up against people who are not doing the basics, just failing across the board.
Jim: Again, when this started, didn’t we have advisors who would have told the Afghani army what’s happening here. If old Jim [inaudible 00:14:35], armchair military history boy immediately saw it as a brilliant coup, you would think some of these national war college dudes and West Point grads would have recognized what was going on here and warned the Afghanis, you got to stop here and stop them in some of these cities in north or you’re done.
John: Yeah. It looks like the entire command was operating under the assumption. And it was a closely held assumption that this was all going to be resolved through diplomacy, that it had already been negotiated. It was all just done and they didn’t have to. And to a certain extent, I think a lot of the senior leadership tried to stay away from this exit. I mean, career-wise, they just didn’t want to be associated with the tarnish associated with leaving Afghanistan. So they stayed away from the planning, they stayed away from the operational details. And when the Taliban went to this maneuver phase, started really taking over the country very, very quickly, something happened. I was calling it OODA [inaudible 00:15:34]. OODA is Boyd’s decision-making loop; observe, orient, decide, act.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s tell the audience what it is, which is observe, orient, decide and act, which is a framework developed by John Boyd who was a fighter pilot, I think in Korea. Is that correct or was it after Korea? And he came up with this extraordinarily interesting doctrine which is applicable to all kinds of things that show the efficacy of your ability to maneuver, let’s say in battle, because that’s what it was developed for originally, but it works in business too. I always engineered by companies to execute faster, OODA loops. And if you can run faster OODA loops than the other guys, you have a gigantic strategic and sustainable advantage.
John: Right. Well, in this case, the assumptions that the commands that OODA loop was based on had changed and altered, and they didn’t have a way to actually start a new one. They were unwilling to start a new one and it’s kind of a disbelief, an inability to shift.
Jim: So what part of the loop broke? Because we have observe, we have orient, we have decide, and we have act.
John: I think it’s orientation. Orientation is the most important part. It had broken in a very deep way.
Jim: And orient essentially means make sense of the situation, essentially.
John: Correct. They failed to make sense. And orient is pointed in the general direction of a solution. And if you’re pointed over here-
John: Right? Diplomacy, and it starts to move over here, if you can’t shift or you’re unwilling to shift or unwilling to admit that it needs to shift, you’re going to be stuck trying to solve a problem that actually can’t be solved in that direction.
Jim: Again, once the Taliban started taking the north, diplomacy went away as an option or at least potentially did. So that’s the point when someone should have shifted their OODA loop to a maneuver OODA loop, as you’re saying, and of course the real shame is the US army was designed to fight battles of maneuver, right? We have that capability in spades. We’re the best maneuver fighters in the world, probably, except maybe the Israelis.
John: I mean, last week they were trying to negotiate with the Taliban to slow down, right? And the intelligence assessment that the leadership was using the [inaudible 00:17:34] about six days ago, seven days ago, was that the Afghan government may possibly collapse within 90 days, right? I mean, here Kabul is falling and that assessment’s still there. I mean, granted there are people inside the organization trying to update it, but that was the thing that they were still working on. It was so out of step and the whole organization just wasn’t prepared to make that kind of shift.
Jim: Yeah. When you’re in a position that is going to fall in 10 days, you should be operating a very rapid OODA loop and presumably reacting violently where necessary to buy yourself more time and space.
John: Oh yeah. It should have been clear on the ground. I mean, here you are in this kind of landlocked city. I mean, all of the surrounding countries are relatively hostile or non-permissive and you can’t launch kind of air support missions out of those countries to support you going to 200 mile missions. All you can do is fly your missions from bases a thousand miles away or more. And you’re in the city and you’re cut off and disconnected to a large degree and that you should adapt your plans when the conditions change and you have to adapt them very quickly. You have to come up with ways to kind of minimize the chance that you’re going to actually be completely isolated.
Jim: What would you have done? Say 10 days ago, two weeks ago, once it became clear that the situation was evolving very rapidly, what could have been done?
John: Well, I would have opened up Bagram. I would have retaken it, set up a perimeter there. Had that serve as the primary base of exfil. And then I would have started running operations to bring people in using helicopter primarily, mostly the visa holders and accelerated that process. So people who had the potential to be visa holders, I would have brought them and put them on the base. And so it would be separated, physically separated from the rest of the city and those people outside the fence would probably go up with cars and other things would still be outside the fence. And that it was a defensible position and the problem with making decisions like that is that you’ve got to do some of that, but you can’t get the rest of the government to follow through, especially if they’re caught in this OODA [inaudible 00:19:41], they’re unable to kind of shift, but you can give them options.
Jim: I’m trying to think about this. What really happened was the tempo changed and nobody picked up on it.
John: Yeah. I mean, guerrilla warfares are very long and drawn out.
Jim: Yeah. Move slowly. But suddenly when it switched to maneuver and clearly they were doing extremely well at maneuver, and two weeks ago, again, once the north started to fall, it became clear to me that this 90 days was just horse shit. Could easily happen in two weeks. And if you’re in a position where we’re no longer in the long game of guerrilla warfare, but rather in the short game of maneuver and the other guys maneuvering well, you should have switched the tempo of your OODA loop to much faster.
John: Yeah. And now the Taliban has switched to kind of attrition or siege warfare, which is mostly kind of a physical wearing down and disconnection. So you try to disconnect the enemy more and more and more from sources of strength to the point where they just can’t operate. And so inevitably, that will end up if they continue pushing along that that line is toward disconnecting the airport, closing it down.
Jim: Or not depending on how much we bribe them.
John: Yeah. I mean, depending on that, but I mean, here’s a group of folks that we’ve spent the last 20 years killing with [inaudible 00:20:56]. I mean, moment we saw them, we killed them, imprisoning them, occasionally torturing them. Of course, those were illegal operations and many of them were prosecuted. I mean, they hate us and rightfully so.
Jim: And they committed their fair share of atrocities too. So this is your classic ugly war, right?
John: Oh yeah, definitely. And so betting that they will let us just leave and that it’s in their best interest, I’ve had plenty of people push back on my thinking on this saying, oh, it’s in the Taliban’s best interest to actually wait until we leave. I mean, their best interest is to humiliate the United States to the extent that is possible so we won’t come back. This isn’t clearly up to that level. Extract as much in terms of concessions as they possibly can. And there may even be kind of, since there was an honor culture element here is gaining things that other than money or other than what we consider important is potentially forcing the US to do an overland retreat. So a convoy of US military and civilians heading out over land out of Kabul, leaving a way out once they’re besieged, once the airport is shut. So they end up having to go to Pakistan and then beg for entry.
Jim: And we could be slaughtered along the way too.
John: Well, yeah. You could slaughter them or not even do it, but the images of it, at least from an honor perspective, from a kind of medieval mindset is classic. It’s more valuable than gold.
Jim: Yeah. It’d be interesting to see, because again, on the one side, there’s a pragmatic argument for letting the US leave, but extract the most in return, such as the freeing of the assets, maybe demand formal recognition, et cetera, or pull a Dien Bien Phu and utterly humiliate the United States.
John: Or when you listen to a lot of jihadis, they have constant reference to historical examples. And the 1842 retreat from Kabul where the Brits and the civilians are trying to get out and they were killed I think down to the last man. One guy survived. Retreating from Kabul all the way to Pakistan through the Khyber passes. That’s the classic. That’s a historical kind of win. It’s part of their pride and if they can recreate that in this instance, that would be a worry for me. I got to think the way they think and if they think that way, yeah, that’s bad news for us.
Jim: Yeah. I’m going to say, I’m not going to make a call on this one. It could go either way. It depends on how much geopolitical maturity the Taliban have developed in their time out of power because if they are actually geo politically mature, humiliating the US, they’ve already done, extracting things of substantial value and then letting them limp out of [inaudible 00:23:44] might actually optimal. But as you point out, 20 years ago, they were clearly a medieval honor culture and it may well be the honor when of total humiliation would be greater than the substantive and positional win for playing geopolitics. So I could go either way. I have the scales on this one, listening to you and thinking about it and I don’t see which way it’ll go. Could go either way, but it’s a goddamn bad news that we put the decision in their hands.
John: Exactly. And they’re not a cohesive entity. So we tend to think of there’s a chain of command. There is to a certain extent, but there are elements within the Taliban, of course, that are doing a lot of the killings that we’re seeing around the country right now, where they’re killing ex-military folks, killing their families, and any one of them could spark this thing off and move it in that direction. So it’s chaotic. I wouldn’t want to be in a situation or put US troops in a situation. This is what made me so angry for the last week and sad and frustrated at the same time, because they’re not taking advantage of the options available. We’re making options available.
Jim: Our military command just didn’t do the job in preserving enough options for themselves. And again, was that vetoed by the civilian side or the military as you say, well, this is a retreat, a loss, a disgrace. In any case, even if it works smoothly, I don’t really want to invest my career credentials in this thing and nobody was home paying attention, perhaps.
John: Oh yeah. You could see the senior leadership just trying to stay away from this. I mean, there’s talk inside the White House that no one even wanted to address this because the tank would be on their political careers and that the folks on the ground were being told by the diplomacy folks and almost assuredly that anything that would retake, like retake Bagram would be seen as an offensive action or would be retreat from the kind of diplomatic process.
Jim: And they still believed in the diplomatic process, even though it was no longer operational once the Taliban had taken the north.
Jim: So that’s just pure piss poor performance. Well, let’s change perspectives here and go all the way back. And I will pat myself on the back. Since 2002, I’ve been saying it’s been a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a pluralistic Western democracy. Ain’t going to happen, people. And I said at the time, we should have spent nine months on the ground securing as much as we could for the Northern Alliance, paid them a $2 billion a year stipend to make sure that Al Qaeda is not able to operate at least openly and then just left and don’t really give a shit on how the Northern Alliance did things right? Because Northern Alliance, they were no saints either, but they certainly weren’t as atavistic as the Taliban. And in a place like Afghanistan, the difference between bad and worse is bigger than the difference between good and better. But instead, we just made one of the classic mistakes.
Jim: And of course, those who don’t study history are destined to repeat it. There’s a reason Afghanistan is called the graveyard of empires. The Brits tried twice, got their kicked both times. The Russians got totally humiliated. And in fact, one of the factors leading to the downfall of the Soviet Union, and somehow we think that we can go in there and turn Afghanistan into Belgium or some fucking thing, right?
John: Yeah. I was kind of lucky. I mean, I’ve been opposed to nation building from the get-go, also was able to kind of give my input at a kind of national level. I testified in front of the House Armed Services Committee. Some of the congressmen had read my book and their staff asked me in. And I got on the congressional record saying it’s impossible, it’s an impossible task. Don’t waste time trying to build up the Afghan military or build up the government, just figure out a way to make a hasty retreat, and I gave some options up. But I could see the mindset going into 2000. Post Cold War, there was an assumption that, hey, liberal democracy had won, end of history, it’s inevitable. Globalization, interconnection through the online world too is inevitable. And the only sources of potential danger given 9/11 would be sources of disconnection. Those dark areas in the world.
John: And so all we have to do to kind of fix things is to accelerate their connection, their connectivity and connect them up. And it should be easy because we know the template. We know where they want to end up. What they failed to understand is that nation building, I mean, there isn’t a nation of any size in the world today that didn’t go through incredible trauma. I mean, incredible brutality and in their formation process. Getting rogue groups and different ideas and stamping those out and forcing them into the kind of nation state, modern nation state mindset. We see a little bit of that right now in China, where they’re doing kind of nation building with the Uyghurs, putting a million people in prison, treating Islam as kind of a mental disease and getting them to renounce it, sending a million civil servants to live in the households of the Uyghurs families where the men have been taken out and male civil servants living in households with them.
John: Trying to police them and threatening all sorts of stuff. And then tagging them and using kind of the surveillance state that we have now to kind of watch what they’re doing and listen in to every single conversation and punish those who are not becoming culturally assimilated into the Chinese nation. So that’s what nation building looks like. It’s a brutal, awful process. And there’s nothing in the world that the US would do. We’re clumsy in many, many ways, but we’re not intentionally brutal on that scale.
Jim: It wasn’t our job anyway, right?
John: Right. Yeah.
Jim: One thing to remember is that Afghanistan is one of those relatively few countries that was never colonized by an outside power. So they literally are still in the pre-modern world. Unlike most countries that had at least some number of years experience with, let’s say Western colonial governments, schooling, et cetera. None of happened in Afghanistan. It’s been its own little pocket since the time of Alexander the Great.
John: Oh yeah. Think of it as a three to 400 year process with every nation in the world going from the kind of feudal monarchical system to the kind of modern nation state we have now, and all the trauma that each of these states went through to get there.
Jim: And it’s amazing how clueless the best and the brightest have been. Must have been around 2006, my wife and I had dinner with a guy, it was a group dinner at the Santa Fe Institute with a guy who was the head of the AID office in Afghanistan, which was one of the great leaks of billions and billions of dollars right down the fucking rat hole. And this guy was telling us stuff with a straight face and he still believed in the mission and we’re all rolling our eyes going, what the hell? Isn’t he able to read the signals that we’re just being played for fools and people are stealing, making off with… If five cents on the dollar was actually making it into constructive programs, I’d be surprised, 10 cents on the dollar, maybe.
John: Yeah. On the grand strategy level, Afghanistan and Iraq were the worst distractions. I mean, we should have been transitioning to look at China, looking at bringing up Russia and transitioning. Yeah. Well, I mean just at the very moment, like in mid 2000s, just at the very moment there, China was really ramping up. We had bought them into the WTO. We should have been negotiating with them to kind of moderate the kind of trade transfer and the de-industrialization that was going on across the United States, mitigating their rise in a way that allowed them to prosper. But we assumed there was this kind of idea that if we just let the trade do its magic, that China would automatically become a liberal democracy. And spending all this time in the dead ends of the world in Iraq and Afghanistan on these brain dead programs of nation building was the kind of wrong distraction. It just sapped our energy and sapped our focus and we’re paying the consequences right now in terms of our relationship with China and Russia.
Jim: Yeah. That was a really bad assumption, the idea that trade would turn the Chinese into, as you say, liberal democracy, or at least open autocracy, right? [inaudible 00:31:54] or something, but nope. The Chinese are great people, probably the greatest people in world history in some ways. They’ve had a continuity of culture longer than anybody else. And as it turned out, they decided to invent their own kind of hyper fascism and they’ve done an amazingly good job on it if you like that kind of thing, which I don’t, but give them credit for developing state-of-the-art computer and network powered, now cryptocurrency powered and social reputation credit powered super fascism. And that should not have been outside the possible assumptions of trajectories and yet it seemed to have been for a long time.
John: Oh yeah. It was the same kind of optimism, that hyper optimism of the inevitability of liberal democracy and global capitalism and freedoms and the like that we’re all going to be integrated, all interconnected and China was going to do that naturally, and we could accelerate it with these backward countries, these countries that were suffering under dictatorship or medieval value systems. Yeah. No, no. It’s a huge disaster any way you cut it.
Jim: Interesting. And another thing you’ve been talking about a lot, which is very much related to these things is assumption rot. Why don’t you tell us about your idea of assumption rot and how this ties into all these patterns?
John: When I’m looking at all of the different discussions we have over every single disaster that we’ve encountered over the last 20 years and we just don’t talk about the right things associated with those events. There are certain things, certain topics that aren’t talked about, aren’t focused on, and those topics typically are the cause of the event. And I was trying to figure out why we were not doing it and typically the answer would be, oh, it’s too complex, you don’t understand. That’s not a real thing to address, or there are too many people that would be tarnished or damaged by it, institutions would be hurt by it. And what all of those topics had in common is that there were all core assumptions that we’re using to build our society. Assumptions that are made in order to build institutions, assumptions that are used in our systems, what we assume the way things are meant to work.
John: And over time as we become more complex, we build up this huge stack of assumptions, assumptions upon assumptions upon assumptions, and it’s harder and harder to address or go after changes or assumptions that are actually not valid anymore that are lower in that stack. And clearly as the environment changes, those assumptions are going to decay, weaken and rot, and the more they rot, the more they cause problems and making it… We’re incapable of actually solving problems because that assumption rot isn’t addressed.
Jim: Why don’t you give us some examples of what you think are fundamental assumptions that we have allowed to rot in our conduct of our society more broadly, but foreign affairs more specifically?
John: I mean, okay, so take the financial crisis. Now, trying to get out of the current situation, we assumed that at the behavior level, that bankers would not sell crap, stuff that they knew to be crap to pension funds to their customers, would not lie about it, and mass. That there wouldn’t be tens of thousands of bankers willing to do that. And clearly, that’s not the case. Is that there were whole industries all up and down the chain of command in these different banks, different organizations willing to sell CDOs and sell crappy derivatives to pension funds because it was a way to make money. They knew it was crap. They knew it had very little value and they still sold it. And then we assumed also that the ratings agencies would take care of the situation. That we have a market mechanism that created a rating agency that would look into this and raise the flags if there were problems. We assumed they couldn’t be corrupted, that they would do their job.
John: Well, we found out later that they were corrupted across the board and they paid huge settlements afterwards. At a monetary level in Afghanistan, that we had a assumption that diplomacy would be the way out of Afghanistan and we stuck to it. And even though it was rotting away, as the conditions changed, we were unwilling to address it, and that would have been an easy thing to fix and we still wouldn’t talk about it. Even right now in the news and in the discussions, no one’s really putting the pressure on the administration to kind of explain how they get people out if this goes bad. What options are they taking? There’s no pre-positioning, there’s no readying of forces that are large enough to actually extract them if they run into problems. They’re essentially stuck and no one’s putting pressure on the people that could make decisions on this to fix it.
John: Again, when the assumptions start going, I mean, it’s everywhere and there are different levels and there are different types of assumptions. I’m just starting to get my head around them completely. I’m starting to kind of flash them out and I’ll be writing some articles and a report on it and I’ll have plenty more examples.
Jim: Yeah. That’s very disturbing. And I don’t know what the answer is, but especially in a world that’s moving as fast as this one is with exponential rates of change in our technical infrastructure and our social institutions being out of sync with our technical infrastructure and our cognitive capabilities, also being out of sync with our technical infrastructure. If we’re allowing our assumptions for sense-making and choice-making to rot, we’re an even worse state than it seems like. It’s a horrible mess.
John: And even in fact science. I mean, you have plenty of studies that serve as kind of a core for a whole body of science and people refer to them as kind of the base case and they build study after study, study references that core study, and it’s not revisited, it’s taken as fact. And then somebody comes back later and says, oh, this is wrong and all of that other stuff is gone and called into question. So people don’t want to address it. We saw it a little bit in the Wuhan lab instance. It was pretty obvious, at least on a common sense level that the Wuhan lab was probably the source of the virus, [inaudible 00:37:55] lightning strike, nature or the guy with the campfire, right? Which one started? If it happened right there, which one’s more likely? Of course, the guy with the campfire, the lab leak, the human error and people just would not look at it.
John: It was assumed that the process was safe and that the methods that they’re using all around the world is safe, that the Chinese wouldn’t lie, [inaudible 00:38:21]. These assumptions are tough. And you could see it in the media and the discussions at the government level, they just will not address it, particularly if they involve core functions of institutions where you’d have to actually go back and fix the institution and fix the structure like, okay, sending people to college in the way we do and extending loans and having everybody go to a four year college-
Jim: At a ridiculous price. In fact, I just put out a podcast episode with Rob Tercek, where we diagnose higher education and we pointed out that at least compared to when I was an undergraduate, it’s now 4X more expensive after controlling for inflation. And if anything, the product is probably worse. The students are taking less credit hours, the courses are easier. What the fuck is going on here? This is madness.
John: Yeah. Assume it’s a good unto itself. It’s not connected to the market. People are assuming that if they spend that money, they’ll get something of value. There’s no disclosure in terms of what it would be worth once they’re finished, depending on the degree. There’s no discussion over whether or not sending all of these people to college is actually good for the economy, good for the people involved. So many assumptions that just aren’t being addressed and can’t be asked. I mean, there’s people criticizing it at the edges, but it’s really not under consideration.
Jim: Yeah. The establishment itself is not reviewing its own assumption. So again, this comes back to assumption rot, the idea that $300,000 for a fancy college degree. Now, if you get one from Harvard, it will probably pay off, but you get one from a couple of levels down in the stack that’s only slightly less expensive, probability of that paying off is a hell of a lot less, and there’s no transparency or honesty about that because there’s these vast bureaucracies of people making good fat middle-class livings selling this scam, basically.
John: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The minimum would be that they would actually disclose what the average graduate with that degree gets and then how much you’re borrowing, how much you’re likely to make, and whether or not you could actually service the loan once you’re out. I mean, here’s these people making the biggest financial decision in their life and they’re being sold a bill of goods, sold swamp land in Florida and saying, you can build a house there when it’s three feet under water.
Jim: Indeed, indeed. Another assumption, assumption rot. The assumption that fancy four-year colleges are absolute good no matter what it costs, right? And nobody has revisited that. Well, John, I want to thank you for an, as always, amazingly interesting survey and analysis. We went deep pretty much into some of the things that are behind this. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned to see if the Taliban decide to utterly humiliate us, which they can, or will we bribe them somehow not to. Not a good place to be.
John: Right. Yeah. I hope my worst fears aren’t realized on this, but yeah.
Jim: But they could be.
John: All the best luck to those guys there.
Jim: Yeah. They are our guys after all, right?
John: Yep. Yep.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.