It is dismaying but hardly surprising to read on the front page of the New York Times today that the “Obama administration is discussing whether to reduce American forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has now reached the point of diminishing returns.” If this article is to be believed–and I have no reason to doubt it: it is a typical Washington trial balloon that no doubt reflects actual options under consideration even if it doesn’t give a complete picture of the deliberations and likely course of action–the key difference in the White House is between Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, who wants to pull out “only” 20,000 troops by June 2013 and Vice President Biden, who of course, would like to pull out far more.
The view of our veteran representatives in Kabul–General John Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker–is rather different. They have made clear they need to keep at least 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, the level which the U.S. force will reach in September after the current drawdown is done, at least through the end of the next campaigning season in 2013–meaning until the end of 2013. But what do their views matter? They’re only the men on the front lines having to cope with a potent insurgency that threatens American interests. The White House has its own calculations which, one suspects, are guided less by the imperatives on the ground and more by the imperative to tell the voters prior to the November election that this president ended one war in Iraq and is ending another in Afghanistan. Certainly the views of our military commanders counted for little last summer when President Obama made the decision to pull out 33,000 surge troops faster than General David Petraeus had recommended–and Petraeus, keep in mind, has considerably greater influence in Washington than does his impressive but lower profile successor, General Allen. If the administration felt free to ignore Petraeus’s advice, there is is scant cause to think it will listen more carefully to Allen, who no doubt has told policymakers that drastic drawdowns imperil his ability to leave a stable Afghanistan behind by 2014.
The actions of a U.S. army staff sergeant who went door-to-door in a village in the district of Panjwai outside Kandahar, killing nine children and seven adults, are heinous, horrific, and inexplicable–as many expressions of pure evil often are. If the facts are as reported, he will no doubt be dealt with by the efficient U.S. military justice system; he will be lucky to avoid the death penalty. It is hard to say anything else about this terrible event with any certainty. It is likely to impair the U.S. mission in Afghanistan–and will certainly make it harder to win the trust of the villagers whose friends and neighbors were just massacred–but how much damage it will do remains unclear. So far, the expression of outrage in Afghanistan has been muted–more so than after the Koran burnings. It should count for something that the sergeant’s actions were in no way sanctioned by the high command; in fact it was a U.S. unit that captured him and American prosecutors and judges who will bring him to justice. Even Seymour Hersh will have a hard time depicting these abhorrent acts as expressions of official American policy.
It would be a tragedy if some of the collateral damage from this rampage were to fall on the Village Stability Platform of which the sergeant was a part. This is a program run by the Special Forces, with help from some conventional soldiers (such as the sergeant), to stand up an auxiliary security force known as the Afghan Local Police in various locations around Afghanistan where there is not a major presence of U.S. troops. I have visited a couple of these sites duringthe past couple of years and have found them making real progress though also facing real challenges, primarily having to do with the need to understand local dynamics and not inadvertently empower the wrong actors when security forces are set up.
Marc Lynch, a blogger and professor of Middle Eastern studies, has penned a lengthy policy brief about Syria for the Center for a New American Security. It is comprised of two parts that appear to be at war with one another. The first part lays out all the reasons why the West must do something about the escalating violence in Syria.
He warns that Syria is descending into a full-blown “internal war” that “could shatter the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Syria and reverberate across the region.” He even says “Syria could replicate Lebanon of the 1980s, on steroids.” “Beyond these strategic concerns,” he continues, “there is a humanitarian imperative to help the Syrian people. The horrifying evidence of massacres and regime brutality make it difficult – and wrong – for the world to avert its gaze.”
Could the Obama administration make it any clearer that it has little regard or respect for the men and women who make the world safe so that the president can indulge so happily in the rich man’s game, and his wife and family can gallivant so luxuriously around the globe?
Bill Gertz at the Washington Free Beacon reported yesterday on some strong opposition from the VFW, the Military Officers Association of America, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon to the Pentagon’s plan to lay some of its budget cutting squarely on the backs of military personnel by raising their healthcare fees.
Mackenzie Eaglen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Michael O’Hanlon of the liberal Brookings Institution make an important point regarding the looming dangers of sequestration, about which much of Washington seems to be in denial. If nothing is done, in January 2013 the Defense Department will have to start chopping another $500 billion or so from its budget–on top of the nearly $500 billion in cuts already being implemented. The results could be catastrophic, and we don’t have until Dec. 31 to head off this disaster. As Eaglen and O’Hanlon note, Congress must act now to avoid the willy-nilly budget cutting that otherwise will occur in less than a year’s time. They warn:
Sequestration will cause its greatest disruptions immediately in early 2013, when mechanistic and severe cuts have to be imposed overnight. The military can adapt to reductions that it sees coming; for all the inefficiencies of the Department of Defense, it is still one of the world’s most competent planning bureaucracies. But this is a whole different kettle of fish: Because spending would have to decline for 2013 based on cuts taking effect only in January, there would be no opportunity to use natural attrition in the force to cut personnel costs, no opportunity to use the natural annual cycle of working with defense industry to restructure contracts and keep alive those weapons programs that are needed and desired, no realistic way to scale back training carefully in a way that saves money yet keeps the military ready.
Protests have been raging in Afghanistan for the past few days, after the U.S. military reportedly burned Korans – along with other confiscated religious materials – taken from detainees at Bagram Airfield. In an effort to restore peace, Obama sent a note of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai today, assuring him the Koran burning was unintentional:
“I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident,” Obama wrote. “I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.”
The president concludes the letter: “The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible.”
Maybe it’s only because of the holiday weekend (Happy Birthday Abe! You too, George!), but this front-page article from Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has caused curiously little comment. It reveals that the U.S. is developing plans to cut the Afghan Security Forces from 352,000 men today to just 230,000 in 2014 in order to save a few billion dollars in a federal budget of almost $4 trillion. The Afghan Security Forces budget, almost all of it paid for by the U.S., is currently more than $11 billion; the administration would like to reduce that figure to $4.1 billion. While the administration’s desire for cost savings is admirable (were that it extended to domestic programs!), the consequences of this decision, if it’s finalized, are likely to be “catastrophic,” as Afghanistan’s Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak warns.
Keep in mind the Obama administration is also rapidly cutting the number of U.S. troops–32,000 will be withdrawn by September, faster than commanders had recommended. That will leave 68,000 U.S. troops barring further cuts–but more such cuts are likely. The administration appears determined to withdraw all or almost all of the troops by 2014. That places a great burden on the Afghan Security Forces which are still in the process of being stood up. The current figure, of roughly 352,000, is the minimum necessary to police a country of 30 million; Afghanistan would actually be more secure if it had a force the size of the one in Iraq, where the security forces are over 600,0000.
The great myth about our ongoing defense drawdown is it is designed to make possible a “pivot to the Pacific.” This is only true in the sense that the Navy and Air Force–the primary services concerned with a future Pacific conflict–are being cut less than the Army and Marine Corps, upon whom we have depended to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade.
The ground forces are losing more than 100,000 troopers. The air and naval forces are not making such drastic cutbacks, but they are cutting back just the same, as this article in the San Diego Union Tribune notes: “The Navy is cutting nearly 3,000 mid-career troops in a first-of-its-kind layoff this year, made necessary by record-high re-enlistment.” In other words, petty officers who had been looking forward to a 20+-year career, as is standard, are now being sent to the unemployment line after only 10 or so years of service–this at a time of high unemployment. As the article notes, this is part of an ongoing reduction of the Navy’s ranks. In 2006, it had 359,373 personnel; today it has 325,700; by 2014 it is due to be down to 320,000.
The media vetting process on Rick Santorum is kicking into high gear this week, and his comments on women serving in combat are the latest to come under scrutiny:
Mr. Santorum had faced a brief storm of criticism after saying on Thursday in a CNN interview that to put more women in combat roles “could be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved.”
He managed to quell some of the criticism – if not all – by saying later that he was referring to the emotional reactions of male soldiers. “Men have emotions when you see a woman in harm’s way,” he told NBC News on Friday, adding that “the natural inclination” is “to not focus on the mission but to try to be in a position where you might want to protect someone.”
I’m spending the week in frigid Wiesbaden, where the V Corps is preparing to take over the mission in Afghanistan. As is often the case, there is much more learning outside the classroom than inside it. Indeed, there are few organizations in government as dedicated to learning as the U.S. military. The State Department may have its Foreign Service Institute where diplomats can take classes to prepare for new jobs, but in embassies and the State Department, learning does not occur on a day-to-day basis as it does in the military.
Before any exercise, for example, soldiers and sailors study precedents. After -action reviews often take longer than exercises or missions themselves. Non-Commissioned Officers take their roles seriously to ensure that soldiers recognize mistakes and more importantly, learn from them; they have no equivalent in the Foreign Service.
According to the latest poll by The Hill, nearly half of Americans favor U.S. military action against Iran in order to prevent the regime from building nuclear weapons:
Nearly half of likely voters think the United States should be willing to use military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, according to this week’s The Hill Poll.
Forty-nine percent said military force should be used, while 31 percent said it should not and 20 percent were not sure.
Sixty-two percent of likely voters said they were somewhat or very concerned about Iran making a terrorist strike on the United States, while 37 percent said they were not very concerned or not at all concerned about it.
The Obama administration seems to think it can stop American combat operations a year earlier than expected—in 2013—while also downsizing the Afghan Security Forces and still strike a peace deal with the Taliban. Only in some alternative universe is this a winning strategy. In the world we actually inhabit it is a recipe for a slow-motion—or maybe not so slow—catastrophe.
It is hard to know exactly what the announcement that the U.S. is ending combat operations in 2013 means because the dividing line between “combat” and “advising” can be thin to the point of non-existent. But at the very least it signals some pull back of the American commitment. And before long I suspect we are going to hear that the number of U.S. troops—already insufficient—will be cut back some more so as to allow President Obama to run for reelection claiming to have ended one war and to be on his way to ending another. The Afghan Security Forces will be hard-pressed to pick up the slack, because they will need extensive training and support for years to come. The only way they will have any chance of success is if the U.S. maintains a substantial force in Afghanistan after 2014—say at least 40,000 troops. But that is highly unlikely if Obama stays in office. He seems determined to downsize as fast as possible.
A few weeks ago, President Obama released his much ballyhooed strategic blueprint, called “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” It called for a force that would be “agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced,” with “cutting-edge capabilities,” staffed by “the highest-quality, battle-tested professionals,” and with a “global presence emphasizing the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.” Today, the Pentagon unveiled details of the new defense budget which make clear none of these promises will be kept.
The most defensible elements of the new cutbacks are rolling back military pay increases and increasing the cost of Tricare insurance, both of which are generous by civilian standards–even if it does call into question the president’s pledge to “keep faith with our troops, military families, and veterans.” Our faith in those brave men and women is truly strained if not broken altogether by the decision to fire 100,000 of them–80,000 soldiers and 20,000 Marines who are being let go to find jobs in an anemic economy.
Amid the increasingly pointed criticism being leveled by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich against each other, a point of agreement between them is worth noting and celebrating–especially when it comes on the hot-button issue of immigration. In the Tampa debate on Jan. 23, they were asked about the Dream Act, a piece of legislation that would allow immigrants who did not enter the country legally to become permanent, legal residents and ultimately citizens by meeting certain conditions–either attending college for two years or serving in the military for two years and staying out of trouble. Here is what Gingrich had to say:
I would work to get a signable version which would be the military component. I think any young person living in the United States who happened to have been brought here by their parents when they were young should have the same opportunity to join the American military and earn citizenship which they would have had from back home.
We have a clear provision that if you live in a foreign country, and you are prepared to join the American military, you can, in fact, earn the right to citizenship by serving the United States and taking real risk on behalf of the United States. That part of the Dream Act I would support. I would not support the part that simply says everybody who goes to college is automatically waived for having broken the law.
That was a very curious State of the Union address President Obama delivered, at least as it relates to our armed forces. Instead of beginning, as one would expect, with domestic issues, he began with a tribute to the armed forces and used that to segue to his domestic agenda. His words of praise for the armed forces were obviously heartfelt and eloquent: He cited “the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.” To which, one can only say: Amen.
But then his remarks took a curious turn. He said: “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.” In other words, the civilian population should emulate the military. There is something seductive in this appeal, which is why even many on the right (perhaps especially on the right) favor some form of “national service” requirement. And there is virtually universal nostalgia for the days of the Greatest Generation which won World War II and returned to build postwar America. Obama himself tapped into this nostalgic vein when he said: “We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.”
I wouldn’t normally respond to a piece by PolitiFact, but because I’m quoted as a source for a recent piece on Mitt Romney, I think it’s worthwhile offering a bit of context. On Tuesday, I got the same email Tom Busciano received from Louis Jacobson at PolitiFact, asking my take on Romney’s recent debate claim the U.S. Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917, and the U.S. Air Force is smaller and older than it’s been since 1947. What struck me about Jacobson’s message was it asked if Romney’s statement was “technically true” and “what context does this ignore,” which carried the clear implication – as I warned Jacobson in my reply – that he’d already decided what he was going to write.
Jacobson responded that he “didn’t mean to look biased; I was simply trying to elicit critical thinking.” Sadly, my trust was misplaced. Jacobson’s piece is critical indeed: full of overheated rhetoric, uncomprehending of basic points, and carrying a “pants on fire” rating. Jacobson sums up Romney’s contention as being: “The U.S. military has been seriously weakened compared to what it was 50 and 100 years ago.” Since the Truman Doctrine of 1947 is as good a marker as any of the moment when the U.S. assumed the global security responsibilities that formerly belonged to Britain, the fact that our Air Force is smaller and older than it has been at any point since that date might give immediately give cause for concern.
While Michael McFaul’s confirmation to be U.S. ambassador to Russia has now passed the Senate, the reason for the holdup remains: The Obama administration appears intent to provide Russia with missile defense secrets. As the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz notes:
In the president’s signing statement issued Saturday in passing into law the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, Mr. Obama said restrictions aimed at protecting top-secret technical data on U.S. Standard Missile-3 velocity burnout parameters might impinge on his constitutional foreign policy authority. As first disclosed in this space several weeks ago, U.S. officials are planning to provide Moscow with the SM-3 data, despite reservations from security officials who say that doing so could compromise the effectiveness of the system by allowing Russian weapons technicians to counter the missile. The weapons are considered some of the most effective high-speed interceptors in the U.S. missile defense arsenal.
There are many salient points to make about President Obama’s terribly unwise plan to cut $500 billion in defense spending during the next decade. But I want to focus on what I think it reveals about the worldview of America’s 44th president.
The one unequivocal area in which the federal government should be involved in is national defense. And our military is the one area which Gallup reports Americans trust more than any other American institution. According to a recent survey, 78 percent of those polled say they have a great deal of confidence in the U.S. military (versus 12 percent for Congress). And that trust is well-earned; the military has performed its tasks with extraordinary skill. And yet it is the military, more than any area in the federal government, that is now being asked to absorb the brunt of budget cuts – even though we’re still a nation at war. It is a striking thing to witness.
In the new COMMENTARY, I write that the coming election will determine the future of America’s defense spending–and hence of our standing as a great power able to shape events around the world in ways conducive to our security interests. Today’s press conference at the Pentagon only makes the choice even more stark. President Obama unveiled a strategy documents whose title I can only assume is ironic: “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” In fact, the $450 billion worth of cuts that will be spelled out in the coming weeks pose a serious threat to America’s ability to sustain our global leadership; if an extra $600 billion or so of cuts is added, as a result of the failure of the sequestration process, then America’s days as a superpower truly will be numbered.
Today’s event was heavy on questionable rhetoric. Obama, for instance, claimed the “tide of war is receding,” something that will be news to soldiers and Marines risking their necks every day in Afghanistan or to Iraqis whose countrymen are being blown up as an indirect result of America’s reckless withdrawal from their country.
The USS John C. Stennis is back in the news as Iran threatens to block its passage back through the Strait of Hormuz, an international waterway through which more than one-third of the world’s oil tankers pass.
For reasons I explain here, Iran’s threats are more bluster than bite. I spent about two weeks aboard the Stennis earlier this year, and there is not an abler ship or admiral. Meanwhile, while Iran perceives weakness in the Oval Office, they should be very careful about what they attempt. After all, not far behind the Stennis is the USS Carl Vinson—last in the headlines after the disposal of Bin Laden’s corpse—which turned around in near record time. The USS Abraham Lincoln is also heading to the Fifth Fleet area of operations. While there is normally only an aircraft carrier or two in the Persian Gulf or Sea of Oman, it seems there is a mini-naval surge ongoing. If Iran wants to pick a fight, they should think twice and then think again.