Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata (Ret.) on His New Book and Ukraine
Below is my interview with Brigadier General Anthony Tata (Retired) where we discussed everything from the release of his new book to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for brevity, is below.
Your new novel, Total Empire, was just released. What can you tell my readers about the premise?
In Total Empire, I explore an ascendant China seeking global hegemony while protagonist General Garrett Sinclair confronts the perennial dilemma of “mission versus men.” With patriotism decaying amidst the American societal backdrop, the warrior code of fighting for your buddies has become more absolute. Sinclair and his Dagger Team must, without support, stop China from employing nuclear hypersonic glide vehicles, which have no ballistic signature that can be tracked, against the United States. I’m fortunate to be writing with MacMillan/St. Martin’s Press and supported by its great team.
Given your background and that many of your peers venture into writing military histories, what compelled you to write Total Empire?
Total Empire is my 15th novel and the second in the popular General Garrett Sinclair series. My motivation for writing this story was inspired in part by the shattered veteran community in the wake of the botched Afghanistan withdrawal. Many former soldiers called me asking, “was it worth it?” My introspection on that question led to my centering the “mission versus men” dilemma in this story, including Sinclair’s goddaughter, the daughter of his KIA command sergeant major. Soldiers and their families are one big family.
What Afghanistan showed many with whom I served is that we must take care of one another because, sadly, history shows no one else will. It was painful to explore the betrayal many of my troops felt coming out of Afghanistan, but I imagine it was not dissimilar from many other veterans from other wars. Building a high-tempo plot around that was the challenge, but the reviews are great and Publisher’s Weekly calls it “an impressive sequel” to 2021’s Chasing the Lion.
Your service in the U.S. Army began in 1981. Considering the rise of China and a more belligerent Russia, would it be fair to describe the 1980s as more predictable?
Well, I was a lieutenant and captain and focused on my troops, but everything during the Cold War did seem more predictable with the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, which brought marginal conflict through client states (Grenada), and the stifling threat of nuclear war (Cuba). After the Berlin Wall fell and freedom broke out across Europe, centuries-old grudges were unleashed in Eastern Europe, especially in the Balkans where Serbia attacked and brutalized Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. President Clinton and General Wesley Clark did a great job of finding a diplomatic solution that stabilized that region. That kind of diplomacy is lacking today.
The Afghan pullout was messy, chaotic, and poorly handled. During your time in the country as Deputy Commanding General of the 10th Mountain Division in 2006, and from your interactions with senior Afghan officials, did you see a point where the Afghan military could have prevented a Taliban takeover?
While it was important to deny sanctuary to extremists in Afghanistan that could plan to do our citizens harm, I never saw a path to a stabilized Afghanistan for a few reasons:
No reliable partner in the tribal regions of Pakistan. With the Taliban and Al Qaeda (and now ISIS-Khorasan) operating from sanctuary it was impossible to defeat, much less destroy the enemy.
By creating a “federalized” Afghan Army, despite tribal affiliations, we attempted to create a sense of patriotism that wasn’t universally resident in Afghan nationals. AWOL rates in the Afghan defense forces ran between 20-30% for many different reasons, cash payment chief among them. The troops would leave and take their money home, which would take days. We implemented direct deposit, but it was a struggle.
The Bush administration never fully resourced the war and treated it as a minor supporting effort as they focused on Iraq. This strategic error led to our 20-year grind in Afghanistan and our politically incompetent exit, as opposed to a full-up 18th Airborne Corps mission on 9/12/2001 where we relentlessly killed/captured Al Qaeda and eventually bin Laden, then left. Instead, we created a Shia majority in Iraq, helping Iran’s hegemonic drive in Southwest Asia, and built two of the largest nation-building efforts since the Marshall Plan, both of which cannot be considered successful.
You weren’t involved in the negotiations with the Taliban during the Trump administration, but from your perspective, why wasn’t there more of a push to have the Taliban disarm prior to the U.S. exit?
The Taliban should have been disarmed prior to our exit. That said, it would have been a nearly impossible, but important, task to undertake. As an example, I led operations to disarm the National Liberation Army in Kosovo when I was the 101st Airborne Division’s Strike Brigade commander in Kosovo and Macedonia. It was a Herculean task, but it created a strategic pause to help peace negotiations take hold. With the corporate media ridiculing every step of the Trump administration, the Taliban simply waited out the process until after the election.
The Afghanistan exit and the Biden administration’s accompanying callousness toward the generation of veterans and families who poured blood, sweat, and tears into that mission, are unforgivable. To this day, the corporate media has given the administration a pass on one of the most damaging military operations in our history. Without a media willing to shine sunlight on poor decision-making and execution, our leaders will believe their own press releases and think they are above accountability, inevitably repeating the same mistakes.
While the Biden administration has had some foreign policy failures, how would you rate its handling of Ukraine?
The Biden administration’s first instinct was to remove Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky from the equation, effectively decapitating the Ukrainian government. Zelensky famously said, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammo.” That the administration was willing to remove the command-and-control apparatus from Ukraine, in effect helping Putin, was the worst of instincts. As Russia began building up forces along the Ukrainian border, there was no diplomacy, no conversation.
Eventually, once the Ukrainians demonstrated competence and capability, the administration changed the narrative to one of supporting Ukraine. This lack of clear-eyed policy is frightening and leaves us as a bystander save the military efforts led by Secretary Austin. The power vacuum is being filled by China, which is flexing its diplomatic and economic muscles to challenge the United States.
Is the administration doing enough to stave off Russia?
The DoD’s movement of rotational combat brigades to NATO nations has been a good flexible deterrent option that shows our commitment to NATO, which is where our national interests lie.
If you were advising Secretary of State Blinken or Defense Secretary Austin, what would you advise the administration to do differently, or do they stay the course?
We need a dialogue that leads toward finding a solution ala Clinton/Clark’s Dayton Peace Accords. We should be focused on reinforcing NATO, making them pay their share, and adjusting NATO troop levels along the border. Russia is a serious threat to European stability, and we must wean NATO nations off Russian oil, get them to take their defense more seriously, and contribute to the diplomatic plan, something akin to the Normandy format.
Remember, the Normandy format helped solve the Crimea crisis when President Obama was in power. The solution was acceptable then. Now, however, we cannot even have a similar conversation without being attacked and accused of being a Putin sympathizer.
By today’s cultish standards, the Obama/Biden administration were “Putin sympathizers” because they didn’t stop the diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis. Of course, that’s not true; they just found peace a better alternative than war in the heart of Europe, as did Clinton and Clark. Putin in 2023 needs to be stopped, just as the Serbs needed to be stopped in 1995. That war was equally brutal, and we found a solution.
Except for Wagner Group, Russia is losing to a better-armed and motivated Ukrainian military. Do Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield speak more of Ukrainian capabilities or Russia’s disastrous planning and execution?
I commanded Ukrainian soldiers in Kosovo. They are very competent and passionate about their country. I’m not surprised they are doing so well, especially with NATO equipment and training beginning to take hold. It’s one thing, however, to defend and conduct local counterattacks. It’s another to reclaim the border and Crimea if that’s what the administration is supporting. I’m hopeful they can, but I’m also a realist.
Do you see a point where Putin would use tactical or strategic nuclear weapons? He hasn’t shown any compunction about committing war crimes and other atrocities.
Putin is a war criminal. I believe he would do whatever he believed to be in his personal best interests, including using strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. The nuclear issue is the major difference between this war and the Serbian attacks in the Balkans. It is also why we need transparency and confidence-building measures, not cultish allegiance to an orthodoxy of “at all costs.”
China’s Xi Jinping was in Moscow for talks with Putin. My perspective is that the Putin-Xi relationship isn’t that of equals but a parent tending to a sick child. Given the number of problems Russia is facing, it needs Chinese financial and military assistance and Beijing knows this. What’s your opinion?
China’s powerful economy supporting Putin’s war machine could create an “inverse Cold War” where instead of Reagan outspending the Soviets and building a large military, the Russia-China pact could cause us to endlessly spend into the Ukrainian abyss if we’re not careful. Our economy is weak, and we do not have the leverage we once had. Our enemies know this. Economic and energy strength equals national security strength. We are lacking both today.
Is Xi squeezing Putin now because he will need Putin’s backing should he invade Taiwan?
I don’t believe Xi cares about Putin’s “backing” as much as he wants to use Putin to pressure the U.S. on the NATO front to give him more freedom of maneuver on the Pacific front. He may try to do a soft takeover of Taiwan ala Hong Kong but at the tip of a bayonet, so to speak.
The administration is putting a lot of resources into the AUKUS security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom. Do you feel this is a wise strategy?
We spent a lot of time, as well, strengthening ties in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Taiwan fight is PhD level and requires allies and partners to successfully execute. The entire battlefield geometry is based on exterior lines of communication over water and air. This is a logistics fight unlike we’ve seen since World War II in the Pacific Theater. It is wise to continue our efforts to strengthen alliances in the IndoPacom theater.
Finally, do you see a point where some semblance of stability will return to the international system or are we past the point of no return with Russia and China on the one side and the United States, NATO, and its allies on the other?
Given the alarming Wall Street Journal poll that showed a greater than 30% decline in U.S. citizens who see patriotism, community involvement, and religion as “important to them,” I believe our enemies see a divided United States focused on domestic issues and perhaps unable to marshal a response to any significant threat.
I hope I’m wrong, but with a declining economy, anemic diplomatic skills, an overwhelmingly apathetic population, an inability to fully recruit to military manning levels, and revanchist Russia and China sharpening their knives, I don’t see a smooth path forward without better leadership in the United States.