A joust between two schools of American military theory

One aspect of the Afghanistan War is an improvement over the Iraq War:  while in its early states in terms of the build-up (although not by time, since we’re in the 9th year of fighting there) there is debate about the nature and goals of the war.  This shows that America is not totally brain-dead.

Here three experts discuss the war.  I recommend reading these in full.  Personally, I consider the comments by Bacevich and Lang to be incisive — and Nagl’s reply to be little more than asserting “Must Do and Can Do!”  On the other hand, these interviews are a difficult forum in which to discuss such complex matters.


  1. Transcript of discussion by Andrew Bacevich and John Nagl
  2. Comment by Pat Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired)
  3. Archives of links to works by Bacevich and Nagl
  4. Afterword and sources for more information

(1)  Andrew Bacevich and John Nagl discuss the Afghanistan War

Excerpt from the transcript of “White House Hones its Strategy in Two-Front War“, PBS Online Newshour, 6 May 2009.  The presentations of each have been consolidated for brevity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two countries, one war, and the U.S. strategy. Joining us are two retired Army colonels, now scholars, Boston University history Professor Andrew Bacevich. His latest book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. And John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank, and author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.


I think the big question is, what’s the appropriate role for the United States to be playing? In the wake of 9/11, the idea somehow got planted that we’re called upon to determine the fate of nations in the greater Middle East. I think, based on the evidence of the past seven-and-a-half years, that’s not a good idea. We lack the capacity, the power, the wisdom to do so, and so it baffles me why this new president at the beginning of his term persists in thinking that we can determine the fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

… My problem is that the Obama administration seems to think that further militarizing U.S. policy in Afghanistan is going to produce results that are much different from the results achieved by the Bush administration, and those results were not very impressive.

… At the end of the day, the people of Pakistan are going to decide their own fate. There are some problems that the United States of America is incapable of solving. And, you know, it ought not necessarily to be unpatriotic to acknowledge that.

Pam Constable said that the people of Pakistan, seeing what the Taliban actually have on offer, are becoming more serious about addressing that problem. It seems to me that’s the good news.

The question is whether or not our actions in Pakistan actually impede or encourage that recognition of the Taliban threat. And I’d argue that the program of targeted assassinations that we have been conducting in Pakistan with our UAV attacks probably actually encourages anti-Americanism and plays into the hands of the Taliban, so our policy — the principle number one with regard to the U.S. and Pakistan — is do no harm. And I would argue that much of what we have been doing in Pakistan over the past couple of years is simply doing harm.


The place where we’re conducting counterinsurgency directly vise Pakistan, where we have to conduct counterinsurgency very indirectly. We have to rely on the Pakistanis to do that.

I would agree with Professor Bacevich that the Bush administration’s campaign in Afghanistan was not particularly successful. After early successes, when the Taliban was toppled, when al-Qaida was ejected from Afghanistan, settling across the Durand Line in Pakistan, President Karzai was installed, and we had an awful lot of momentum.

But we then, quite frankly, took our eye off the ball. We decided to fight another war in Iraq, and we didn’t mobilize the United States for war. We didn’t have enough resources to fight two wars at once, and so we stopped focusing on Afghanistan and put all of our resources into Iraq.

And while we were focused on Iraq, the Taliban regained its strength across the border in Pakistan, Pakistan ignored the threat, and the Taliban came back across the border and gained strength in Afghanistan, and threatened the government of President Karzai, who I’ll agree with Professor Bacevich is not a particularly impressive leader.

That doesn’t mean the fact that we have neglected Afghanistan for the past eight years, that we have not put the resources into that counterinsurgency campaign that would be required to win does not mean that, if we do put those resources in, that we can’t succeed.

… The threat to Pakistan’s government is very real. The Taliban, allied in some ways with al-Qaida, has the potential to do real damage to the government of Pakistan, conceivably to seize control of at least some of the nuclear weapons inside Pakistan, and that is really the $64 million question. That is what keeps strategists up at night.

So the Taliban gaining strength inside Afghanistan, inside Pakistan, al-Qaida regenerating itself, maintaining a base inside Pakistan, a very weak government in Pakistan, as in Afghanistan, and nuclear weapons, this is the most dangerous brew in the world today for the United States and its interests.

So it is very strongly in America’s national interest to do all that it can to stabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan. I agree with Professor Bacevich that some of the drone strikes may be counterproductive, but overall our efforts should be dedicated to stability inside Pakistan to keep the American people safe.

(3)  Comment by Pat Lang (Colonel, US Army, retired)

AfPak and the Neoconization of Obama“, Sic Semper Tyrannis, 7 May 2009 — Excerpt:

Could the United States re-formulate Afghanistan and Pakistan into something other than what they are and thereby “drain the swamp” of violent jihadism? Certainly. This kind of thing has been dome before, always more or less imperfectly. The neocons argued explicitly and implicitly before March, 2003 that this is exactly what we were going to do in Iraq and that once we accomplished that task the forces of repressed cultural globalization would sweep the Greater Middle East bringing on an earthly paradise somewhat akin to present day Europe. That did not work very well. The local “backward” culture proved to be a stubborn thing willing to defend its familiar “backward” ways. Iraq is a better place now than it was in 2005 but how much different is it, really?

Now we are told that it is American policy to act as a sort of cosmic neighborhood organizer for the “uplift” of these Afghan and Pakistani folks wandering in the wilderness of their own peculiar “backwardnesses.”

Bacevich is right. It is beyond our capacity to do that at any price that we can or should want to pay. I would have thought that would be intuitively obvious.

(3)  Archives of links to works by Bacevich and Nagl

These also contain detailed biographies.

(4)  Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).  Posts over 250 words will have a fold inserted (putting a “more” button in the comment), so make the opening text an interesting summary of your comment.

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about our wars in Afghanistan:

  1. Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?, 31 October 2003
  2. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
  3. Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  4. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
  5. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  6. We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
  7. Roads in Afghanistan, a new weapon to win 4GW’s?, 26 April 2008
  8. A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice, 2 June 2008
  9. Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
  10. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  11. Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
  12. Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  13. Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
  14. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  15. America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I, 9 February 2009

11 thoughts on “A joust between two schools of American military theory”

  1. Any sane strategy, it says here, begins by assessing the facts on the ground. Of primary importance is that the current borders are unviable, and the Pashtun area that straddles them belongs in essence to neither country. It is ungovernable by any modern state unless based there, which neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan is, or ever will be.

    One option would be to colonize and occupy the area. Not viable and will not happen. Another option is to get the two states to essentially sequester that area with our help. More possible, but extremely difficult.

    Given that the current situation does not work, and those two options are very hard, I say we go for the option of declaring those imperial borders obsolete, supporting an independent Pashtun state, with land taken from both, with the Durand Line as its approximate midpoint.

    At that point the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan have governable areas and can, with our help, have essentially no al-Qaeda. We support the new Pashtun state, and make it clear through unofficial channels, that it either adheres to the norms of the modern state and does not allow al-Qaeda to reside there. If they do, we declare conventional war on it and wipe out the terrorists, and occupy it, or turn it to radioactive, mountainous glass.

    As extreme as this may sound, it is arrived at by the method of Sherlock Holmes… it is the only possible way to make it work. When the impossible is eliminated, etc…

  2. Lang’s article on Sic Semper Tyrannis seemed to be cut off in mid-sentence. I’d like to read the full thing, if possible. I’m glad he rejects the idea of “draining the swamp”. Even the metaphor is disgusting.

    How do we explain Obama’s lack of vision, or lack of effectiveness, on this? Is the Pentagon the major player here? Are they that gung-ho? Who is the strategic eminence grise behind this — Brzezynski? Are the neocons, or the Israeli lobby, that influential still? Aside from Pakistan’s nuclear weapons — which I think is a phony issue, partly because the NYT is starting to pitch it — what are we trying to gain in this region? Are we fantasizing some India-America alliance which will defeat the Iran-Russia-China alliance?
    FM reply: It is not cut off in mid-sentence. Click on the link to read the full post (on this site the links are usually the title, which should appear in blue with and underline).

    As for the source and nature of Obama’s foreign policy vision, its’ a mystery to me. Perhaps the O-team is gung-ho, which I believe means “go with harmony.” In this case, harmony with the neo-cons — not the rest of us.

  3. Hmm. There is also a lot of evidence that this is just simply a geo-strategic push by the US to dominate central Asia for resources and resource (ie oil and gas pipelines, ports) transport. Plus stuff Russia, China and Iran .. the real enemies (in the US elites mind).

    As an aside Nagl’s comments about the Taliban either shows he is totally ignorant about them or he yet another schill pushing a line paid by some interest group. “Do some damage in Pakistan”? The ISI nearly ran the Taliban.

    There is also the issue that both Afghanistan and Iraq were in the firing line .. well before 9/11. That only gave a public rational for a long desired strategy in some, and very influntial, quarters.

    Then there is the usual mix up of strategy and tactis. COIN is a tactic (a tool) to achieve a strategic goal. In these cases the strategic goals are to contain and surpress the people in these countries whose natural desire is to fight against foreign invaders. COIN, well done, can be useful when you have a country that is facing a (essentially) civil war and the State is trying beat the ‘insurgents’. There has actually been a few sucesses (e.g. Chechnia, Sri Lanka, Malasia and Northern Ireland) then again there have been a few failures as well (you all can fill in the blanks, but one starts with the letter ‘V’, another ‘C’ and another ‘R’, despite extensive western backing for the State side in most cases).

    But it does not work very well when there are foreign invaders that try to turn them into a colony. It also does not work when an existing colony (however it is formed) tries to gain its freedom. Heck the British found that out in a far flung country called the US when a bunch of upstarts tried to get their freedom. To be fair what can work is bribery and absolute ruthlessness. Extermination does work, ask the Picts, or the Australian Aboriginies or the US native population. Bribery worked for the British in India for a long time (plus they were totally ruthless there as well).

    But these are new times and the ‘fuzzy wuzzies’ now have AK-47’s and IED’s so the balance of power is not great enough, unless gas, nukes or bio weapons are used (not always though, the UK used gas in Iraq in the 1920’s).

    Re Obama, the Democrats think the overall strategy is just fine, just a quibble or 2 about methods. After all the original strategy was started by the Clinton administration.

    Another thing, that the folks at the Oil Drum cannot get their heads around, the US policy elite (especially the Pentagon) really accept Peak Oil (etc) and have for a long time. Just their idea is to control it and the the flow to favoured others (in return for tribute .. keep up those purchases of Treasuries China).
    Fabius Maximus replies: As to the last point — so far as I can determine, our elites do not believe that global will peak anytime soon. They do fear another nation(s) gaining control of a large fraction of the supply, and gaining geopolitical power.

  4. Good to see you back, Old Skeptic! In your comment above, do you see US agendas diverging from Europe’s? Is the US acting in a particularly roguish way, going it alone in Central Asia and the ME? Usually these big geo-strategic agendas are shared by the whole class of western capital, and the US has for so long been the designated senior partner and policeman of that class that it’s interesting if the partnership is starting to come apart.

  5. Tangential, yes, but also related. Perhaps the best organised counter-imperialist anti-US-Israel organisation right now is Hizbollah. They represent an ‘insurgent’ movement albeit they have not been invaded and occupied to the degree of Afg. and Iraq. Still, the principles are fundamentally the same as Old Skeptic’s fourth from last paragraph.

    Here’s a snippet from a recent public address at a rally in Lebanon: “Speech of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah May 15th, 2009“, posted at Vinyard of the Saker:

    “Thus I address the people of the resistance in Lebanon along with our Arab and Islamic world. Do not feel sorry or sad for all the accusations and abuses you and the resistance fighters in Lebanon, in Palestine or in any other place are charged of. That’s normal. It goes with the struggle and confrontation. That’s normal for a people who stand to defend their rights, dignity and honor. It’s part of the battle that they be accused, abused and cursed as they might be killed, captured, made homeless, displaced or have their homes demolished.

    “The last point in this topic: I tell the campaign wagers in the Egyptian regime and also in more than one place in the Arab world or around the globe: You are wasting your money and efforts in vain. If you believe that the campaign of abuses, curses, falsehoods and accusations might harm us, our will, determination and faith, you are totally mistaken. Let July War be your lesson. For 33 days we were under continuous shelling. The whole world was condemning us: the Security Council, the G8, the decision-making capitals and several Arab countries. Harsh and very fierce legal opinions were taken against us. Accusations and sweeping campaigns were waged from here and there. We were killed and bombarded. Our families, fathers, wives, mothers and children were displaced in Lebanon, Syria and other countries. Still all through that historic battle, our will did not wane, our determination did not fade and our faith was not shaken. We are the people of faith in Allah and the Day of Judgment. We believe in the rightfulness of our cause and the integrity of our path. Consequently don’t imagine that all of that might shake any of the pillars of our will, determination and faith.”

    It is indeed hard to vanquish an indigenous foe that is well organised, has been bloodied, and understands the various levels of conflict they are engaged in from morale to local to international, especially perhaps the former because real faith in the cause tends to strengthen in the face of adversity as he well describes. The only real way to conquer such opposition is to destroy its people and infrastructure, fully occupy the surrendered peoples and then enforce permanent regime change, a la Germany and Japan before and after WW II. We have done neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan in the sense that although we managed to outflank/beat their military and topple the extant rulers, we never truly conquered the people, so secure were we that either they didn’t matter or more likely that they regarded us as their friends and therefore would cooperate. The latter might have been true had we kept faith with that vision. But we didn’t. So now we have occupied territories in which the people have not been bludgeoned sufficiently into abject surrender and who feel they are in the right and representing the majority. In such circumstances, COIN is situationally challenged since surely it works best as an opportunistic/aggressive form of defense, not belated, and incomplete, offense.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I don’t believe the following is not, strictly speaking, correct.

    “It is indeed hard to vanquish an indigenous foe that is well organised, has been bloodied, and understands the various levels of conflict they are engaged…”

    Scores of such “foes” have been defeated, such as the Sri Lanka Tigers. Local governments usually defeat insurgents, often after long conflicts. Foreigners seldom defeat local insurgencies, and very rarely once the insurgency is established.

  6. The US can, at best, veto the local leader of neo-puppet regime, as both Maliki (Iraq) and Karzai (Afghanistan) can be called. In Pakistan, the US chose to NOT veto the election of … the new guy, what’s his name. Who’s not a big US ally, like the prior half-bought general.

    Lang says: “It is beyond our capacity to do that at any price that we can or should want to pay. I would have thought that would be intuitively obvious.”

    Well, I think $100 billion or so per year for the next 10 years is a lot better than leaving and letting the Taliban get nukes. I also think, circa 1973, that sticking with our S. Viet allies would have been a LOT better than stopping the cash, letting the N. Viet commies win, allowing the hundreds of thousands of Viet re-eduction camp victims, displaced victims, boat people … and the commie victorious Killing Fields next door in Cambodia 75-78.
    The real success of the anti-war folk was the real victory of really anti-human rights, torture & murder & genocide accepting commies.

    How much should the US have paid to avoid that?

    Obama and Gates need to do the real hard work that Bush avoided — how to do Nation Building well. I’m certain that micro-loans, free markets, and locally run tribal/ municipal budgets are better than big central gov’t corruption/ waste projects.

    What DID work in Iraq? (Besides the surge.) That’s the key question. Sons of Iraq — buying off local fighters to become local anti-terrorists seems one of the key models. Perhaps not yet available in Afghanistan or Pakistan, so the build up of US troops is to wait for the locals to start stepping up.

  7. To the Bacevich point about assassinations: if they are done in cooperation with a local leader, taking out that local leader’s competitors, they will likely be successful — in creating a stronger, more stable, local leader.

    Killing “known murderers” might well work as well, but the locals have to know it more than the US trigger pullers.

  8. “Local governments usually defeat insurgents, often after long conflicts. Foreigners seldom defeat local insurgencies, and very rarely once the insurgency is established.”

    Yup, that seems to be the key thing: Counter-insurgency by established local government usually succeeds, counter-insurgency by foreign invaders usually fails. Imho, I don’t think the same term should be used for what are essentially almost opposite situations. Strictly speaking, resistance against a foreign occupier is not ‘insurgency’. The Taliban, for example, whose weakness might well be that they are a sort of local resistance sort of foreign influence (by way of Pakistani-sponsored organisation) but who are nevertheless now involved in a counter-occupation campaign, frequently cite in interviews how time is on their side, that the longer it goes on and the more civilians are impacted, the stronger they become and the weaker (at least that is their hope) their adversaries become. If the US dollar tanks this summer, the Taliban will be looking much stronger, for example, as the US military machine becomes increasingly hard to fund with loans from foreign sources.

  9. senecal Europe’s position is complex.

    You have the UK, the old ‘master of the World’, who’s elites still have wet dreams about getting back there by being the ‘sophisticated partners’ to the US, translated the power behind the throne. Unfortunately they are just suckers.

    Germany, and let us all thank God for that, has no wish to get involved at all in anything. Yes, they, finally, at last, have learned their lesson and are arguably the most rational about this thing than anyone else. Unlike Japan which worries me at times, but that is another story.

    France, to a large extent, ditto, but they still have a bit of the British disease, which sometimes makes their decisions downright silly (oh can we get Lebanon back).

    Eastern Europe, nearly all nut jobs frankly. The generation that threw off the Soviet Yoke have some sort of daft belief that the US yoke is preferable and their, well deserved, anti Soviet bias distorts their vision (Russia now is not the Soviet Union and never will be). Interestingly their populations (e.g. in Poland, etc) are far more skeptical than the politicians. Poland for example, backing the AMD. Then when Russia, logically, moves a pawn to match a pawn announces that it will move mobile tactical nukes close to the border, Poland then want Patriot’s … which don’t work very well (unlike the S-400 system). Poor old Poland, lions (great people) led by donkeys.

    So the great EU coalition tries to deal with all that (usually badly), plus the NATO expansion issue.

    The NATO expansion, pushed by the US and aided so well (?) by the UK is amazing. Started by Clinton (remember) it broke its own constitution and international law and agreements .. and continues to do so today. Nato’s own constitution means that it is not supposed to invade another country unless the UN Security Council approves. Clinton took care of that and the rest is history.

    So how will it end? UK is so beyond bankrupt that it is amazing they can actually afford bullets for their troops. Germany, finally, will bail out most of Europe while cementing every closer relations with Russia. France, at it did in the Great Depression, will do pretty well and will concentrate on ensuring the Germany does not become a military power again. The eastern European nations will eventually be brought into line by Germany and France (though not without stuffing some things up badly), as will .. finally the UK. In the end, barring some sort of carzy disaster the EU will evolve a pretty conservative foreign policy, based on trade rather than guns. As for a break up of the EU, the only real possibility would be the UK leaving, but that won’t happen as the US wont pay them for it. The others will come into the EU line because of German and French money.

    In the end it all comes down to money, so NATO (as we know it now) is dead, a carcase just rotting. It will still have some capacity to kill ‘fuzzy wuzzies’ for a while, but it will just melt away in the end, bit by little bit.

  10. The other things is simplicity, which a lot of COIN theory ignores.

    Put yourself in the the place of an ordinary person. You, me, FM.

    Your country is invaded (the reasons are irrelevent). The stated reasons are you had a bad Govt. OK. You, who works and has a family and is basically a decent person never liked the Govt. OK, now go and “thanks for all the the fish”. But they dont. They set up roadblocks, invade houses, steal money, kill people, kill women, kill children. Business collapses. People are poor. Foreigners get all the jobs.

    Then your house, or your brother’s or mother’s, house is blown up by a bomb and they are all killed. Or your son is jailed and disappears, or you get him back and he has been tortured and is a wreck.

    Now you will dedicate your life to killing them, those swine that killed/hurt/tortured your children/wife/brother/relative/friend.

    And everyone on this forum would feel and do exactly the same.

    And, that in a nutshell, is what faces COIN ‘groupies’ (not the real experts of course) in simple human terms. If I lost my wife and children to some foreign invader I’d do exactly what everyone here would do, take some of ‘them’ with me.

    Sometimes we all get a bit lost in theory.

    The reason why Germany and Japan did not so this was because, despite everything we treated them well (Britain, broke and under rations itself still gave huge amounts of food) and worked hard to rebuild their societies. Even, after the intial mass rapes, looting and plundering, the USSR actually rebuilt Eastern Europe (not as well as we did, but enough to give hope and a sort of reasonable life). If they and we hadn’t, we would not have been worried about Irish, etc, terrorism, it would have German (and God help us all under that fortunately avoided scenario).

    So why were we so smart (sort of) then .. and we are such idiots now?
    Fabius Maximus replie: I agree with all of this. Another reason Germany and Japan did not have insurgencies is that they were crushed in open war, their regimes totally discredited, many of their citizens leveled, a large fraction of their men dead, their nation occupied by large armies (beyond the size fielded in by any colonial power).

    The factors you describe are not so much ignored in COIN theory as replaced by another narrative: nation-building, the neo-colonial fantasy that we’re there to help. Needless to say, the amount of re-contstruction done in Iraq and Afghanistan while not trivial hardly justifies much colonization. Few people will sell their nation so cheaply. The key to our success in Iraq, such as it is, is that our invasion allowed the Kurds and Shiite Arabs to build nations (and put the Sunni Arabs into opposition until we paid and supported their ethnic militiia).

    Looking more deeply, we have in fact largely ignored COIN theory. It’s a “good American” constuct that hides the nasty forceful actions upon which traditionally rely: massive firepower on civilian areas, search-and-destroy sweeps, and funding Popular Force militias. In Iraq the first (e.g., use of airpower and artillary) seldom appeared in the US press. The 2nd did, usually described gently. The 3rd was described in glowing terms, a surge of ground-level patriotism (“Sons of Iraq”) (needless to say, the media describes private US militia in starkly different terms).

    McChrystal’s appointment suggests increased use in Afghanistan of the second, in additional to the first and thired already in use there. Again, little sign of COIN except as a cloak.

  11. fwliw I agree with OS until he gets to:

    “The reason why Germany and Japan did not so this was because, despite everything we treated them well (Britain, broke and under rations itself still gave huge amounts of food) and worked hard to rebuild their societies.”

    With Germany, you could make a case for this after around 1948, which is three full years after the war’s end. But before then a watered-down Morgenthau plan was put into effect, probably cost Patten his life when he tried to fight it, many more millions of Germans died after the surrender than during the entire war, hundreds of thousands were deliberately starved to death in open fields, etc. etc.

    No, we did not ‘treat them well’. We subjugated them into total surrender through total war and the violation of all ordinary rules therein. To this day they still don’t have a legally constituted, sovereign state.

    Japan is different. But after we dropped two nuclear bombs incinerating two towns, what could they do? Fight on? They had already been trying to surrender and we wouldn’t negotiate. So they accepted the unacceptable. Again, total war.

    As I argued earlier, that is one way to win. But such conventional victory has nothing to do with COIN.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not believe your statement about the cause of Patton’s death is factual. There has been much speculation about the alternative causes of Patton’s death (e.g, politics, his crack-down on black markets), I do not believe there is serious evidence for anything beyond the traffic accident.

    “To this day they still don’t have a legally constituted, sovereign state.”

    Why not?

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