Afghan Forces NATO Forces Politicians

Irony isn’t dead: Blumenthal drafts soldiers in Afghanistan for re-election campaign

Senator Richard Blumenthal wants to be re-elected so badly he’s getting US troops in Afghanistan do it for him.

More than 40 days into its most orange presidency, the United States needs a bridge across troubled golden waters. Someone who sees the truth the way John Miller does. Enter Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, blessed with Dean Acheson’s gravitas, Michael Bolton’s tan, and Stephanie Meyer’s storytelling, a unifying force that people like John Miller can understand.

Senator Richard Blumenthal and the rest of the CODEL in Afghanistan a while back. He’s the one with the soft shoe profile. Or for those of you who, like Blumenthal, had to exaggerate your military service, he’s the one dressed like your dad at a Memorial Day BBQ.

Because John Miller and the Exaggerator-in Chief-should love Blumenthal’s tales from Vietnam, even though Blumenthal had as many draft deferments as John McCain had years in a North Vietnamese prison. Alternative facts about Dick Blumenthal running toy drives in the rice paddies of Washington aside, what’s not fake news is that the senator cares a lot: about Syria, Connecticut jobs, American troops, and votes.

So the next time you’re in a Denny’s, order a Blumenthal, because he just hit a grand slam: canceled orders for Russian choppers in Afghanistan in protest over atrocities in Syria mean that jobs come back to Connecticut, votes go to Blumenthal, and US troops in Afghanistan pick up the slack.

It takes a big Dick to make American soldiers work harder so you can pick up votes down at the Sikorsky plant. Because Dick Blumenthal learned one thing from dodging the draft: it’s better when someone else does the dangerous work. So long as that work means the senator keeps his job. 

Let’s (Un)Make a Deal

Back in 2013, when the US had a basketball player instead of a basketball in the White House, Senator Blumenthal and his colleagues were against the war in Syria. And because Russia was arming the Syrian government, Blumenthal and Friends wanted to stop sending American cash to Rosoboronexport, the Russian government’s armaments company. And there was a lot of US money going to Moscow to buy Russian helicopters for the Afghan Air Force (AAF).

The Americans and their coalition partners in 2013 were rebuilding the Afghan Air Force from the ground up. There were plans in place to transition to airframes like the CH-47 Chinook, but the US wanted to provide the AAF with helicopters the Afghans knew already in order to get the air force off the ground. Since the Afghans had worked with the Russian Mi-17 before, the plan was to buy helicopters from Moscow for Kabul.

Cue Blumenthal’s first attempt to embargo the AAF deal and force the Pentagon to supply the Afghans with helicopters made by Sikorsky, one of the main defense employers in Connecticut. Blumenthal called the Russian deal an “abomination,” and told a crowd at Sikorsky’s Stratford plant that stopping it was “agenda item number one” when he returned to Washington. At the time Connecticut was projected to lose 3,000 defense industry jobs due to sequestration cuts.

If Blumenthal could block the Russian helicopter deal and convince Washington to provide the AAF with Blackhawks instead, that would mean more jobs for Connecticut. And since people with jobs like to vote for people who kept those jobs, it also would mean more votes for Blumenthal. So he went back to Washington, and in 2016, Blumenthal got his embargo.

By November 2016, the deal to buy Russian helicopters for Afghanistan was dead, and the Americans would give Blackhawks to Afghanistan. Calling the Russian helicopter deal a “travesty that will now be stopped,” Blumenthal said the change was “good news for Connecticut’s economy and jobs, and equally good for our national security.”

He’d kept his 2013 promise to Stratford.

Instead of getting Mi-17s today, the Afghans would be getting UH-60 Blackhawks tomorrow. And “tomorrow” would mean “approximately 21 months” according to General John W. Nicholson, commander of all coalition forces in Afghanistan. In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Nicholson said that the Blackhawks wouldn’t be available until the 2019 campaign. And that’s if the funding were already approved, which it’s not. That’s a problem, because the Afghans are running out of helicopters already.

In its bi-annual report to Congress in December 2016 on how the war’s going in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense said that “at the current attrition and flying hour rates, the number of AAF Mi-17s available for 2017 will be significantly diminished, and the MI-17 fleet will become unsustainable by mid-2018, virtually eliminating the AAFs vertical transport and lift capability.”

Since the Afghans are going to run out of choppers about a year before American replacements arrive, the short term solution means more work for US forces. As Nicholson told the Senate, American aviation troops would have to help “bridge the gap” a move that “puts attainment of our campaign objective at serious risk.” So American troops are going to work even harder so that Blumenthal can bring this Sikorsky jobs back home.

And this is how Blumenthal’s going to bridge the gap between blue states and orange ones. Because Blumenthal, like Trump, doesn’t care about consequences. What both of them care about (besides a good story) is making it look like something good  great is happening, and it’s going to be big huge.

Fly Away With Me

In a perfect world, what happens next is that cooler heads prevail. Because a deal done in November can be redone once a new administration takes over. Assuming the new administration can behave like responsible adults.

Except that changing the deal now would be political suicide for a president who’s perfected the art of Twitter seppuku. Thanks to Mike and Jeff’s Excellent Russian Adventures, any deal that appears to favor Russia over an American defense company would be jumped on by Blumenthal, the Democrats, and more than a few Republicans.

I’m not advocating for supplying Russian equipment to the Afghans indefinitely. Because American defense interests will always trump the interests of just about everything else, it makes sense to transition the AAF toward American products. That’s already happened with some success with MD-530F gunships and the US/Brazilian partnership delivering A-29 Tucano close air support aircraft to Afghanistan.

But the Afghans need functional helicopters today. Some of the attrition listed in the DoD report is due to overuse, because the Afghans tend to rely on that single airframe instead of using all the other assets at their disposal. But most of it is due to a lack of parts and an aging Mi-17 fleet.

It makes sense to buy helicopters the Afghans already know from the Russians. That takes the pressure off American troops who have to bridge the gap until the UH-60s come online. And despite Blumenthal’s posturing about Syria, that’s a deal he would probably sign, so long as Sikorsky choppers end up in the Afghan inventory in the future. There is a way to get this done, and that means working with India.

Hope You Like Curry

New Delhi is a major regional partner for both the Afghans and the Americans. The Indians have a vested interest in stabilizing Afghanistan, and have already provided equipment to Afghan forces. Last year they sent four Mi-25 Hind gunships to the Afghans, and have also sent light transport helicopters to the AAF.

The Indians spend a lot of defense dollars on both American and Russian equipment. And there is nothing stopping Washington from incentivizing New Delhi to provide the Afghans with more Russian equipment. That’s a deal that could happen without direct American involvement.

Which is something that needs to happen in the region anyway. American influence without overt American pressure is something everyone wants. And the current political climate between Moscow and Washington means that the Kremlin is working to expand its own influence in the graveyard of reasonable intervention.

Now What, Hotshot?

What’s good for Connecticut is bad for Kabul. There’s time to change the deal so that Afghans have the helicopters they need now, and still get American helicopters in the future. Instead, a senator’s re-election campaign is putting American lives at risk.

Blumenthal’s jobs campaign means more work for American soldiers already fighting a difficult war. Having other people fight his wars is something the senator’s done since Vietnam, so that’s not new. Still, Dick probably doesn’t want to be the senator from Connecticut who used US troops to get votes. The deal means more jobs and more votes. Hopefully that deal changes, before it means more dead Americans.