Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. military

Partisan Gridlock Could “Devastate” Troops

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is absolutely right when he says of the looming defense “sequester”–$500 billion in defense cuts to be implemented during the next ten years, with $55 billion to be cut on Jan. 1, 2013—that it would “ have devastating effects on our readiness and our workforce, and disrupt thousands of contracts and programs.”

And those devastating cuts would not stop at the water’s edge. Even troops in combat would be hurt. The Pentagon has just admitted that Overseas Contingency Operations funds which are used to fund operations in Afghanistan would be cut, too. That would probably mean a cut of approximately 15 percent, or $13 billion, in supplemental funding of $88.5 billion for the next fiscal year. It is hard to imagine how U.S. troops or their Afghan allies could continue to operate at planned levels with 15 percent less in funding. It may be possible to cut support personnel here and there, but a lot of that has already been done on that score to accommodate the president’s caps on the number of troops permitted in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the preponderance of support personnel among U.S. troops in Afghanistan (or in any other theater), this will have a direct impact on combat capacity. There are scheduled to be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after September. If 15 percent less funding translates into 15 percent less troops (most likely the case) it would mean a cut of another 10,000 troops, the equivalent of two Brigade Combat Teams. Given the scarcity of combat personnel already being felt in Afghanistan, as commanders scramble to comply with the White House’s drawdown timetable, this could have serious consequences for the ability of NATO forces to maintain the progress made during the past two years.

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Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is absolutely right when he says of the looming defense “sequester”–$500 billion in defense cuts to be implemented during the next ten years, with $55 billion to be cut on Jan. 1, 2013—that it would “ have devastating effects on our readiness and our workforce, and disrupt thousands of contracts and programs.”

And those devastating cuts would not stop at the water’s edge. Even troops in combat would be hurt. The Pentagon has just admitted that Overseas Contingency Operations funds which are used to fund operations in Afghanistan would be cut, too. That would probably mean a cut of approximately 15 percent, or $13 billion, in supplemental funding of $88.5 billion for the next fiscal year. It is hard to imagine how U.S. troops or their Afghan allies could continue to operate at planned levels with 15 percent less in funding. It may be possible to cut support personnel here and there, but a lot of that has already been done on that score to accommodate the president’s caps on the number of troops permitted in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the preponderance of support personnel among U.S. troops in Afghanistan (or in any other theater), this will have a direct impact on combat capacity. There are scheduled to be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after September. If 15 percent less funding translates into 15 percent less troops (most likely the case) it would mean a cut of another 10,000 troops, the equivalent of two Brigade Combat Teams. Given the scarcity of combat personnel already being felt in Afghanistan, as commanders scramble to comply with the White House’s drawdown timetable, this could have serious consequences for the ability of NATO forces to maintain the progress made during the past two years.

Moreover, the contingency funds are also used to support Afghan security forces. A 15 percent cut in their ranks—soon to be 350,000—could result in the layoff of 52,000 soldiers and police. That is a huge number and could tilt the balance of power in favor of the Taliban in critical areas even as Afghan security forces are being asked to step into the lead. One consequence would be that the remaining U.S. troops still in Afghanistan would be in greater danger and could suffer higher casualties.

It is hard to imagine a more ill-advised idea than cutting funds for troops in combat—yet that is what will happen unless Congress can somehow agree on an alternative before Dec. 31. That seems increasingly unlikely to happen, however, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems intent on extracting big tax increases from Republicans in return for turning off the sequester. Partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, therefore, has the potential to “devastate” our fighting men and women even as they are on the frontlines.

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Brothers Get a Second Chance

When Army Spc. John Thorne arrived at the hospital in Germany, he was taken into a room with a Navy Major chaplain and two military liaisons.

“We want to prepare you for what you’re about to see,” the chaplain told him.

John replied, “Sir, I’ve seen this shit before.” He’d been in the Army for three years at this point, and had seen combat. In fact, he’d been serving in Iraq when he received the news two days earlier that his younger brother, Army Spc. James Thorne, had stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. He thought he knew what to expect, but didn’t know how bad it would be.

When John got to his brother’s hospital room, it was pitch black. He put on a gown and gloves and a hat – obligatory when visiting burn victims – and walked in.

James was lying in the bed with a neck brace, hooked to a breathing tube and an array of monitors. His right leg all the way up to his pelvis was in an external fixator, which is like a metal cage with pins through it to hold the bones in place. He was suffering from tissue, ligament and muscle damage, as well as mild traumatic brain injury.

“I walk up in there and the only thing that’s covered is his groin area. And he’s just laying there, lifeless,” said John. “I walk up to the bed and I just broke down in tears. I tried to hold myself together.” He grabbed his unconscious brother’s hand, and says he felt him clench back.

James had a 35 percent chance of living, and John was terrified of losing him.

“I felt responsible for raising him, in a way,” John told me. “Because my parents were always working, they weren’t around.”

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When Army Spc. John Thorne arrived at the hospital in Germany, he was taken into a room with a Navy Major chaplain and two military liaisons.

“We want to prepare you for what you’re about to see,” the chaplain told him.

John replied, “Sir, I’ve seen this shit before.” He’d been in the Army for three years at this point, and had seen combat. In fact, he’d been serving in Iraq when he received the news two days earlier that his younger brother, Army Spc. James Thorne, had stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. He thought he knew what to expect, but didn’t know how bad it would be.

When John got to his brother’s hospital room, it was pitch black. He put on a gown and gloves and a hat – obligatory when visiting burn victims – and walked in.

James was lying in the bed with a neck brace, hooked to a breathing tube and an array of monitors. His right leg all the way up to his pelvis was in an external fixator, which is like a metal cage with pins through it to hold the bones in place. He was suffering from tissue, ligament and muscle damage, as well as mild traumatic brain injury.

“I walk up in there and the only thing that’s covered is his groin area. And he’s just laying there, lifeless,” said John. “I walk up to the bed and I just broke down in tears. I tried to hold myself together.” He grabbed his unconscious brother’s hand, and says he felt him clench back.

James had a 35 percent chance of living, and John was terrified of losing him.

“I felt responsible for raising him, in a way,” John told me. “Because my parents were always working, they weren’t around.”

But James did end up making it. I met both him and John at an event for wounded warriors in Las Vegas, sponsored by the Palazzo Hotel and organized by the Armed Forces Foundation. At first it was hard to believe they were brothers. John, 25, is broad-shouldered and expressive, barreling from one emotion to the other and dominating the conversation. James, 24, spends a lot of time sitting back and listening to his older brother talk. He’s wiry and has a neck tattoo (music notes) and wears a t-shirt advertising some hardcore metal band. His left leg was amputated, and he uses a wheelchair to get around. The first time I saw the resemblance was when they laughed – both tilt their heads back slightly and open their mouths into half-moon smiles. That, and when they finished each other’s sentences.

James was leading a foot patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED. He doesn’t remember much after the blast, except for his platoon sergeant yelling “lay on your stomach” and one of his friends calling out for him.

“All I hear is my buddy,” said James. “He’s just screaming out, ‘where are you buddy?’ and I’m screaming out ‘I’m here!’ That’s it.”

There is a lot James doesn’t remember because he was barely conscious for the first two months after his injury. Even when he began talking and asking for his family, his recollection of their visits is hazy.

“I was hallucinating so much,” he said. “I was thinking people were in the ceiling.” He said sometimes he saw Taliban up there.

Though John had joined the Army first, he was still anxious when his younger brother decided to follow him into it two years later.

“He’s always been the crazy one,” explained John. When they were kids in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it would snow five or six feet, John said his younger brother was always the one who wanted to jump off the cliff in the backyard. “I said ‘if you jump, I’m not going after you.’ He took a running start and off he went.”

James always landed fine. But Afghanistan was different.

“A lot of people look at me and think ‘oh, you just lost a leg, it’s not that big of a deal,’” James told me. “I have worse injuries than it looks like.”

Because of his injuries, James has to wear colostomy and urostomy bags. “I can’t use the bathroom. That sucks,” he said bluntly. “A lot of guys I see…they lose two legs, but they don’t have as bad an injury as I do. I’d rather have that any day.”

When James left the hospital, he was given a Purple Heart for his valor and extraordinary sacrifice. But his brother, John, was appalled by the medal. “For me, he deserves so much more than a Purple Heart,” he said. “I started looking at it, and I thought, man, this isn’t worth it.”

James has a more subdued take on the honor.

“Medals don’t mean much to me, I was just doing my job,” he told me. “What means more to me is that I’m still alive. I have a second chance to do what I want.”

What he wants to do is music – anything involving it. James plays guitar and piano, and his favorite genre is underground metal. He plans to go to college for it, and wants to end up working somewhere in the industry.

“It’s just something I’ve always had a passion for,” he said. “It’s like a drug. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do with my life. If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t be here right now, honestly.”

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Meet Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead

At the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, 20-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead is trying to explain a feeling he calls “the beast mode,” which is how he describes the rush of adrenaline he felt in combat.

“We always joke around whenever we’re really just getting it. You know, like trucking. Like, if we’re all in a Hawk or something, and somebody’s like…” he trails off. “I don’t really know how to explain it. Just beast mode.”

That rush is one thing Trent seems to look back fondly on about his time in Afghanistan, the country where he spent three months in 2010 and lost his right leg.

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At the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, 20-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead is trying to explain a feeling he calls “the beast mode,” which is how he describes the rush of adrenaline he felt in combat.

“We always joke around whenever we’re really just getting it. You know, like trucking. Like, if we’re all in a Hawk or something, and somebody’s like…” he trails off. “I don’t really know how to explain it. Just beast mode.”

That rush is one thing Trent seems to look back fondly on about his time in Afghanistan, the country where he spent three months in 2010 and lost his right leg.

I met Trent last week, at a Salute the Troops event sponsored by the Palazzo Hotel and organized by the Armed Forces Foundation. At around 5’5″ and lean, he doesn’t match the image of the stereotypical burly Marine. He has a heavy Alabama accent, and does a great impression of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the movie Sling Blade. He also has a prosthetic leg, though his one complaint is that he can’t wear boots with it.

Trent had no legal will when he arrived in Afghanistan in 2010. He’d joined the Marines right out of high school the year before, and, as he says, “I didn’t really have anything.” So when he got there, he just took out a notebook and wrote his parents a letter:

“Hey Mom and Dad, I just want you to know I love you. And if you’re reading this and I’m not there, I want you to know that you all did an awesome job raising me. I couldn’t complain about anything.”

He told me that this mentality of preparing for death is common among new Marines.

“It’s always a constant thought that the next step you’re going to take is going to be your last,” he said. “Because I guess if you believe that and really believe and wholeheartedly accept that fact that you’re not going to make it, it makes it a whole lot easier.”

Fortunately, Trent’s letter never had to be sent. But three months later, he did suffer a severe hit on a foot patrol when he stepped on a six-pound IED.

“Once the ringing stopped…I was kind of confused as to why I was laying on the ground,” he recalled. “The adrenaline lasted just a few seconds and then the pain started setting in.”

Initially, he didn’t realize his right leg below the knee was destroyed in the blast. He tried to tell the other guys he could walk it off. But that was obviously out of the question. To keep him calm and get him onto the medical chopper, his squad leader told him that he’d only lost a couple of toes. The IED had blown off Trent’s right foot and mangled his shin and calf. He had a broken arm, an abrasion on his eyelid and 50 percent hearing loss in one ear.

The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital in Germany. “I see my left foot sticking up, but nothing sticking up on my right side.”

His initial thought?  “I thought it was kind of badass, to be honest,” he said.

The more difficult part, Trent added, was seeing the worry and stress of his parents, who he’s very close to. Another challenge of coming home with an injury was dealing with the guilt of not being in Afghanistan to help his guys as they finished the remaining three months of their deployment.

“The hardest part had to be because my guys were still there and still going to be there for another three months — hearing about other guys getting injured and killed,” Trent explained. “‘Why did I only lose one leg and I’m still alive?’ That kind of guilt. ‘Why am I so privileged?’”

These are questions Trent said he’s asked himself a lot. But he’s also trying to plan the next step of his life. He’s interning at a Texas company that designs outdoor water features, and is planning to start college soon for graphic design. So far, Trent says he hasn’t run into the employment challenges that many young veterans have. “There’s so many opportunities it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’ve walked into stores with shorts on and had people say ‘Are you a combat wounded veteran? Here’s my card, here’s what I do.’…It’s crazy the support we have right now.”

I asked Trent if he feels that his sacrifice was for something good, and he pauses for a moment.

“I believe in fighting for the country and all that. All the cookie cutter statements and everything,” he said. “But really, just like I’ve more or less surrounded myself with such good-hearted people. I can say I’ve been fighting for my country but, really, I feel like I’m fighting for family.”

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My Week in Vegas With Wounded Troops

Since 2001, there have been 48,083 American service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many Americans hear very little about them. When the national media broaches the issue, it’s often in terms of statistics and connected to some sort of domestic challenge or burden: the high veteran unemployment, the cost of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or the military suicide epidemic.

At times, wounded warriors have been exploited for political agendas; they’re often used as props by the anti-war movement, which has characterized them as victims of imperialist U.S. government foreign policy. And while politicians love to tout their appreciation for veterans, they often gloss over the deeper challenges the wounded face after they return home.

There are a few reasons for the disconnect. For one, the all-volunteer military means that wide swaths of America have little interaction with service members in general, let alone wounded soldiers. And their injuries can sometimes be emotionally difficult to deal with. Wounded warriors represent both the horrors of war and the valor, and when they return home they force us to confront both. It’s impossible to see a 22-year-old confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and hold a romanticized view of war. And it’s impossible to listen to the story of how he got there and not be left humbled by his sacrifice.

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Since 2001, there have been 48,083 American service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many Americans hear very little about them. When the national media broaches the issue, it’s often in terms of statistics and connected to some sort of domestic challenge or burden: the high veteran unemployment, the cost of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or the military suicide epidemic.

At times, wounded warriors have been exploited for political agendas; they’re often used as props by the anti-war movement, which has characterized them as victims of imperialist U.S. government foreign policy. And while politicians love to tout their appreciation for veterans, they often gloss over the deeper challenges the wounded face after they return home.

There are a few reasons for the disconnect. For one, the all-volunteer military means that wide swaths of America have little interaction with service members in general, let alone wounded soldiers. And their injuries can sometimes be emotionally difficult to deal with. Wounded warriors represent both the horrors of war and the valor, and when they return home they force us to confront both. It’s impossible to see a 22-year-old confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and hold a romanticized view of war. And it’s impossible to listen to the story of how he got there and not be left humbled by his sacrifice.

I was able to spend last week with a group of 40 wounded warriors who served in Afghanistan and Iraq at a Salute the Troops event at the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas. What struck me at the beginning was how young some of them looked and how candid they were about their experiences: what it was like to suffer the loss of legs or arms, or permanent control of bladder and bowels; what it felt like to inhale the fire from a suicide bomb or to step on an IED plate; and the sense of guilt some felt because they were unable to go back and continue fighting alongside their friends.

But, for the most part, they didn’t dwell on their injuries. They spent the week hanging out at poolside cabanas, at the hotel sports bar, playing poker and dancing at the nightclubs. They joked around with each other, talked about sports, and commiserated over military hospital bureaucracy.

The four-day event was organized by the Armed Forces Foundation and sponsored by Southwest Airlines, Omaha Steaks and the Palazzo Hotel (which also paid for my trip). Three other bloggers, VodkaPundit, BlackFive’s Bruce McQuain, and Kristle Helmuth, were also on the trip (and I highly recommend reading their coverage as well).

The annual event was the brainchild of AFF founder Patricia Driscoll and billionaire casino mogul and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is someone even prominent politicians have a hard time securing meetings with, but he dropped by for dinner with the wounded warriors every night of the trip, often working the room on his motorized scooter.

“There’s one thing I know,” he told the group in a speech on Friday night. “When you volunteer, you don’t lead from behind. So you guys carry a sense of patriotism that is unbounded…You’re protecting us, and that’s something we can’t thank you enough [for].”

Over this Memorial Day weekend, I will share the stories of three of the wounded warriors I interviewed last week. I hope it will provide some insight into what they experienced in combat and what they’re struggling with and looking forward to as they transition out of military hospitals and return home.

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Obama Ignoring CENTCOM on Iran

When history judges President Obama for the schizophrenic debacle that America’s AfPak strategy has become – and it will – his inability to integrate the advice of military leaders will figure prominently:

The president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”… the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell….

Max’s post from earlier this week outlines how Obama put his “own political calculations front and center in making national security policy,” from ignoring his generals on the Afghan surge to shutting them out totally from withdrawal planning. The president, having pushed Afghanistan as “the good war” during the election to deflect from his Iraq defeatism, had to at least make a token gesture at trying to stabilize the country. That political necessity clashed with his genuine desire to withdraw, and the combination resulted in the worst possible policy: more American troops in harm’s way, but not enough to win.

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When history judges President Obama for the schizophrenic debacle that America’s AfPak strategy has become – and it will – his inability to integrate the advice of military leaders will figure prominently:

The president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”… the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell….

Max’s post from earlier this week outlines how Obama put his “own political calculations front and center in making national security policy,” from ignoring his generals on the Afghan surge to shutting them out totally from withdrawal planning. The president, having pushed Afghanistan as “the good war” during the election to deflect from his Iraq defeatism, had to at least make a token gesture at trying to stabilize the country. That political necessity clashed with his genuine desire to withdraw, and the combination resulted in the worst possible policy: more American troops in harm’s way, but not enough to win.

The same fundamental clash, where the president’s electoral considerations are in tension with his underlying instincts and the result is an incoherent policy, are playing out on Iran. Again, one is tempted to suspect symptomatically, the advice and judgments of military commanders in the field are getting ignored.

Monday the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake exposed strong disagreements between Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, and various figures in the administration. Last January Mattis wanted to respond to Iranian naval provocations by moving a third aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf. He was rebuffed. The incident seems to be a microcosm of broader differences between Mattis and the Obama White House on Iran:

The carrier-group rebuff in January was one of several for the commander responsible for East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Working for the Obama administration, Mattis has often found himself the odd man out—particularly when it comes to Iran… Those who have worked with Mattis say his views when it comes to Iran are more in line with those of America’s allies in the Persian Gulf and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with his own government’s…

The official U.S. national-intelligence estimate on Iran concludes that the country suspended its nuclear weapons work in 2003, but sources close to the general say he believes that Iran has restarted its weapons work and has urged his analysts to disregard the official estimate. While Mattis has largely voiced his dissent about recent U.S. Iran assessments in private, on occasion his displeasure has spilled into the public record.

That bit about developing nuclear weapons undermines the administration’s coordinated media campaign and leakfest on Iran, which is designed to preemptively scapegoat Israel for overreacting and getting Americans killed. It appears to be one of many places where the generals in the field disagree with the president. Given the ineptitude with which this White House has handled Iraq and Afghanistan, the dynamic is far from encouraging.

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“Afghan Good Enough”

Earlier today, I blogged about the revelation in the New York Times that, in the words of one of the president’s advisers, in Afghanistan, “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.” Meaning that the military wanted to pursue a wide-ranging counterinsurgency strategy and Obama didn’t.

This has been accompanied by numerous leaks about how the administration was redefining success downward, the mantra being the condescending formulation,”Afghan good enough.” The president’s own national security adviser told reporters on the record: “The goal is to have an Afghanistan again that has a degree of stability such that forces like al-Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe haven unimpeded, which could threaten the region and threaten U.S. and other interests in the world.” (Does that mean that “impeded” safe havens would be ok?)

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Earlier today, I blogged about the revelation in the New York Times that, in the words of one of the president’s advisers, in Afghanistan, “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.” Meaning that the military wanted to pursue a wide-ranging counterinsurgency strategy and Obama didn’t.

This has been accompanied by numerous leaks about how the administration was redefining success downward, the mantra being the condescending formulation,”Afghan good enough.” The president’s own national security adviser told reporters on the record: “The goal is to have an Afghanistan again that has a degree of stability such that forces like al-Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe haven unimpeded, which could threaten the region and threaten U.S. and other interests in the world.” (Does that mean that “impeded” safe havens would be ok?)

All of this is worth keeping in mind if you take the trouble to read the official Chicago Summit Declaration issued by all the heads of state attending the NATO summit. Look at paragraphs 8 and 9 in particular:

8. We reiterate the importance Allies attach to seeing tangible progress by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan regarding its commitments made at the Bonn Conference on 5 December 2011 to a democratic society, based on the rule of law and good governance, including progress in the fight against corruption, where the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the equality of men and women and the active participation of both in Afghan society, are respected.  …

9. We also underscore the importance of our shared understanding with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan regarding the full participation of all Afghan women in the reconstruction, political, peace and reconciliation processes in Afghanistan and the need to respect the institutional arrangements protecting their rights. We recognize also the need for the protection of children from the damaging effects of armed conflict.

So which is it: Are we committed to minimal goals, primarily focused on leaving Afghanistan as quickly as possible and not leaving behind “unimpeded” al-Qaeda safe havens, or are we committed to establishing “the rule of law and good governance,” including guaranteeing the rights “of all Afghan women”? This discrepancy is hard to understand or explain. It can only mean one thing: Either the president isn’t leveling with us when he says we will pursue minimalist goals or he isn’t leveling with us when he signs a summit declaration that commits us to maximalist goals.

If the armed forces are confused about what our mission is, they are not alone. It is hard to see any clarity from such conflicting statements of our aims.

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“Military All In But Obama Wasn’t”

Back in late 2009, when President Obama announced that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but only for 18 months, many conservatives were highly critical of his decision, arguing that the president did not have the temperament to wage a war successfully and that he was only going to throw away troops’ lives needlessly without trying to achieve victory. I was not one of them. I was willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and I supported the president’s move as a way to arrest the decline in Afghanistan. Having sent more troops and first-rate commanders—first Stanley McChrystal, then David Petraeus, now John Allen—I thought that Obama was committed to a successful outcome  and could not risk backing down without calling one of his major commitments into question.

I still think the surge was the right thing to do because it arrested the Taliban’s momentum in southern Afghanistan and at least gives breathing room for the development of Afghan National Security Forces. But in retrospect, it is obvious that the president’s critics were more right than wrong. For evidence look no further than this excerpt from New York Times reporter David Sanger’s new book, which, as Jonathan discussed yesterday, appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times. It quotes an unnamed Obama adviser as follows: “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”

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Back in late 2009, when President Obama announced that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but only for 18 months, many conservatives were highly critical of his decision, arguing that the president did not have the temperament to wage a war successfully and that he was only going to throw away troops’ lives needlessly without trying to achieve victory. I was not one of them. I was willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and I supported the president’s move as a way to arrest the decline in Afghanistan. Having sent more troops and first-rate commanders—first Stanley McChrystal, then David Petraeus, now John Allen—I thought that Obama was committed to a successful outcome  and could not risk backing down without calling one of his major commitments into question.

I still think the surge was the right thing to do because it arrested the Taliban’s momentum in southern Afghanistan and at least gives breathing room for the development of Afghan National Security Forces. But in retrospect, it is obvious that the president’s critics were more right than wrong. For evidence look no further than this excerpt from New York Times reporter David Sanger’s new book, which, as Jonathan discussed yesterday, appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times. It quotes an unnamed Obama adviser as follows: “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”

Then Sanger writes that “by early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exist from Afghanistan.” The critical decisions about drawing down troops—with 32,000 departing by the end of September 2012—were apparently made by political aides in the White House without consulting General Petraeus in Afghanistan or other generals or, until the very end, Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton.

This is breathtaking. Commanders on the ground and senior officials at the Department of Defense are not always right, and their recommendations do not always have to be followed by a president. But the commander-in-chief at least has an obligation to solicit their views and take them into careful consideration. Apparently Obama didn’t do that because he wanted to avoid the leaks that attended his previous decision-making process on Afghanistan in the fall of 2009. So he decided to end the surge in September 2012, which Sanger erroneously describes as “after the summer fighting season” (the fighting season actually lasts until late October or early November) and accurately describes as “before the election.” Meaning, of course, our presidential election.

This confirms the worst suspicions of Obama’s critics—namely that he was never committed to victory in Afghanistan and was instead committed to bringing troops home early so as to position himself advantageously for his own reelection. These revelations raise serious questions in my mind about the morality of the entire surge—about the morality of risking troops’ lives and limbs for a goal that is not worthy of their sacrifice.

Rest assured that if George W. Bush had so nakedly put his own political calculations front and center in making national security policy, he would have been flayed by the news media. Indeed, he was flayed for the “Mission Accomplished” banner and for supposedly invoking 9/11 for partisan advantage—and, most ironically of all, for supposedly disregarding the advice of senior generals by sending too few troops to Iraq. But Obama, it seems, is getting a pass for not even bothering to consult the very generals he appointed.

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GOP Seeks to Avert Defense Cuts

I applaud House Republicans for voting to suspend the sequester which threatens to decimate military spending and replacing it with cuts to social welfare programs. But the Republican leadership knows their legislation has little chance of passage in the Senate. They are simply hoping to set the stage for negotiations later this year that would at least suspend the first stage of the sequester which could cut another $500 billion or so from the defense budget on top of $450 billion or cuts already set in motion last summer.

The question is whether those negotiations will succeed. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the answer is yes, but I join Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute in being skeptical of that consensus. She points out that there is no intrinsic reason to think Democrats and Republicans, who couldn’t agree on alternative spending cuts or revenue increases until now, will suddenly find some way to sing “Kumbaya” after the election–especially when the composition of Congress will be exactly what it is today. And there are many reasons to expect that an attempt to stop sequestration will not be a high priority item for Congress also grappling with expiring tax cuts and the need to raise the debt ceiling once again.

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I applaud House Republicans for voting to suspend the sequester which threatens to decimate military spending and replacing it with cuts to social welfare programs. But the Republican leadership knows their legislation has little chance of passage in the Senate. They are simply hoping to set the stage for negotiations later this year that would at least suspend the first stage of the sequester which could cut another $500 billion or so from the defense budget on top of $450 billion or cuts already set in motion last summer.

The question is whether those negotiations will succeed. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the answer is yes, but I join Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute in being skeptical of that consensus. She points out that there is no intrinsic reason to think Democrats and Republicans, who couldn’t agree on alternative spending cuts or revenue increases until now, will suddenly find some way to sing “Kumbaya” after the election–especially when the composition of Congress will be exactly what it is today. And there are many reasons to expect that an attempt to stop sequestration will not be a high priority item for Congress also grappling with expiring tax cuts and the need to raise the debt ceiling once again.

As the sequestration cuts fall disproportionately on defense (half the cuts slash defense spending even though it’s less than 20 percent of the overall federal budget), Democrats have every reason to sit back and allow the cuts to hit–unless Republicans cave on higher taxes, which they are unlikely to do. Thus, the odds grow of a “perfect storm” that will devastate the defense budget.

I am in the process of touring West Coast military installations–I was just in San Diego where I met with Navy SEALs and toured an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, a Navy aviation maintenance plant, and Camp Pendleton, the West Coast home of the Marine Corps. Everywhere I saw what I have come to expect when visiting our military installations–superbly trained and motivated men and women doing incredible, often dangerous, and usually unheralded work to defend our republic. It  would be a tragedy not only for the U.S. but for the entire world if this first-class military, developed over decades and committed to expanding and preserving freedom around the globe, were to be wrecked overnight through a lack of political will in Congress. But that, alas, appears to be increasingly likely.

 

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Fighting for Obama and Country

As Peter pointed out yesterday, “In 2004, when it was politically convenient for him, Obama argued that his religious faith dictated that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Now his faith dictates the opposite. What has changed during the last eight years isn’t the Golden Rule or the words and teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, or the Hebrew Bible; it is what is most politically expedient for a certain politician from Chicago.”

So, it seems that, at least in Obama’s mind, the whole moral basis of the Judeo-Christian tradition serves at the pleasure of the president.

But consider what he also said in his statement: “When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage…”

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As Peter pointed out yesterday, “In 2004, when it was politically convenient for him, Obama argued that his religious faith dictated that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Now his faith dictates the opposite. What has changed during the last eight years isn’t the Golden Rule or the words and teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, or the Hebrew Bible; it is what is most politically expedient for a certain politician from Chicago.”

So, it seems that, at least in Obama’s mind, the whole moral basis of the Judeo-Christian tradition serves at the pleasure of the president.

But consider what he also said in his statement: “When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage…”

Fighting on his behalf? Excuse me? British soldiers fight for Queen and country, but American soldiers fight for the people, who have been sovereign here since a well-known disagreement with the Queen’s great great great great grandfather .

Is there no limit to President Obama’s self-regard? Well, at least he still confines himself to the first person singular rather than employing the first person plural that Mark Twain thought should be used by “kings, editors, and people with tape worms.”

 

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A Case for Tactical Prisoner Releases

I sympathize with conservatives such as Bethany Mandel who are outraged by reports that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been releasing some insurgent commanders from its detention facility–as revealed in a Washington Post article. I too am opposed to unnecessary and counterproductive releases of detainees–based on nothing more than wishful thinking–who could return to the battlefield to kill more Americans or Afghans. But that doesn’t mean all prisoner releases are ill-advised.

In Iraq, one of the key elements that made the “surge” so successful in 2007-2008 was both locking up and releasing lots of detainees: locking them up when they were seen as contributing to instability and releasing them when such releases were seen as furthering stability. Specifically, as Sunnis vowed to turn against al-Qaeda, the release of their kinsmen from American detention was a powerful “carrot” that, along with lucrative contracts for security and other services, could reward and encourage their change of thinking. By some lights this might be seen as negotiating with terrorists–and so it was. Or, more specifically, negotiating with former terrorists. Not all such deals panned out–in some cases dangerous men were released, and they did not live up to their word to stop fighting. But this was a risk that Gen. David Petraeus judged worth taking because he understood that U.S. forces did not have the will or ability to lock up all troublemakers indefinitely. Sooner or later the Americans would leave Iraq. Better to release some insurgent leaders on our terms when it could help to win the battle, rather than wait a few years and see them all released anyway.

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I sympathize with conservatives such as Bethany Mandel who are outraged by reports that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been releasing some insurgent commanders from its detention facility–as revealed in a Washington Post article. I too am opposed to unnecessary and counterproductive releases of detainees–based on nothing more than wishful thinking–who could return to the battlefield to kill more Americans or Afghans. But that doesn’t mean all prisoner releases are ill-advised.

In Iraq, one of the key elements that made the “surge” so successful in 2007-2008 was both locking up and releasing lots of detainees: locking them up when they were seen as contributing to instability and releasing them when such releases were seen as furthering stability. Specifically, as Sunnis vowed to turn against al-Qaeda, the release of their kinsmen from American detention was a powerful “carrot” that, along with lucrative contracts for security and other services, could reward and encourage their change of thinking. By some lights this might be seen as negotiating with terrorists–and so it was. Or, more specifically, negotiating with former terrorists. Not all such deals panned out–in some cases dangerous men were released, and they did not live up to their word to stop fighting. But this was a risk that Gen. David Petraeus judged worth taking because he understood that U.S. forces did not have the will or ability to lock up all troublemakers indefinitely. Sooner or later the Americans would leave Iraq. Better to release some insurgent leaders on our terms when it could help to win the battle, rather than wait a few years and see them all released anyway.

We do not have the full story of prisoner releases in Afghanistan, but based on the evidence presented in the Post article, the program appears to be modeled on the one in Iraq–and to be based, as in Iraq, on a hard-headed calculation by local commanders of what incentives they need to offer to local tribes and factions to come over to the government’s side. The only release actually described in the Post article involved a local leader of Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin in Wardak province whose followers had agreed to start fighting against the Taliban–another insurgent faction. This was precisely the type of “split the insurgency” mentality that made possible the success of the surge in Iraq. Under those circumstances, it would seem reasonable to release a HiG leader as a reward for his cooperation against our mutual enemies.

This type of release, made in return for real cooperation on the ground, is very different from the deal being contemplated by the Obama administration for the release of senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo in return, it would seem, for nothing more than a willingness of the Taliban to engage in peace talks. That would appear to be a one-sided exchange which would signal weakness to our enemies who are far from defeated–and very different from the type of tactical prisoner releases that make sense when erstwhile enemies are prepared to switch sides or stop fighting.

 

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Why Are We Releasing, Not Exchanging, Taliban Prisoners?

Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

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Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

Almost exactly four years ago, in May 0f 2008 during an address before the Israeli Knesset then-candidate Barack Obama stated,

George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president’s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel.

Besides a general easing of tension which this policy is trying to foster, there is one very real concession that the president has seemed to ignore in his concessions to the devil (they’re only called deals if you get something in return, which we have not).

On June 30, 2009, almost three years ago, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho was kidnapped by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. He is the only prisoner of war currently held by the Taliban and recent video releases seem to indicate that he is being kept alive for ransom by the group. A month after his capture the president issued a statement, explaining that he was “heartbroken” over Sgt. Bergdahl’s situation and vowed to bring him home. In three years, this seems to be the only public statement made by the President about Bergdahl.

In December, The Daily Beast was the only outlet to report on a heroic escape attempt by the sergeant. After working for over two years to gain the trust of his captors, Bergdahl jumped out of a first-story window, running into the wilderness. The Daily Beast tells the story,

Mullah Sangin and his brother Mullah Balal, who had been put in charge of the prisoner, organized a search as soon as the escape was discovered. Nevertheless, the sources say, Bergdahl successfully avoided capture for three days and two nights. The searchers finally found him, weak, exhausted, and nearly naked—he had spent three days without food or water—hiding in a shallow trench he had dug with his own hands and covered with leaves.

Even then, he put up a ferocious fight. The two gunmen who found him first were unable to subdue him. “He fought like a boxer,” Hanif was told. It took five more militants to overpower him. Now back in custody, he is kept shackled at night, and his jailers are taking no chances.

This is the caliber of soldier that the United States and its military produces, the American that the president seems to have forgotten about for almost three years.

Shortly before Bergdahl’s kidnapping, the United States was comfortable negotiating the release of terrorists in exchange for British hostages. Andrew McCarthy at National Review made the connection:

And although the administration has attempted to pass off Laith Qazali’s release as a necessary compromise of American national interests for the purportedly greater good of Iraqi reconciliation, the camouflage is thin indeed. Transparently, the terrorist has been freed as a quid pro quo for the release of British hostages. According to the New York Times, Sami al-Askari, another Maliki mouthpiece, told an interviewer:

This is a very sensitive topic because you know the position that the Iraqi government, the U.S. and British governments, and all the governments do not accept the idea of exchanging hostages for prisoners. . . . So we put it in another format, and we told them that if they want to participate in the political process they cannot do so while they are holding hostages. And we mentioned to the American side that they cannot join in the political process and release their hostages while their leaders are behind bars or imprisoned.

In 2008 it was Barack Obama’s policy not to engage with terrorists under any circumstances. In 2009, his administration was comfortable exchanging American prisoners for British hostages. In 2012, it has become clear it was the long-standing policy of the administration to release American-held terrorist prisoners while asking for nothing in exchange, not even an American POW.

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Grisly Pics Will Put U.S. Troops in Jeopardy

If we have learned one thing over the years it is that nothing emboldens our enemies and complicates the job of our troops than the release of grisly images, whether of torture at Abu Ghraib or of Marines urinating on a corpse in Afghanistan. The acts themselves are reprehensible and should be punished. But should the photos of what happened then be published in ways that will undoubtedly enflame passions against our troops and place innocent men and women, who had nothing to do with the acts in question, into greater jeopardy?

The Los Angeles Times apparently believes the answer is “yes”; hence its article this morning printing a series of photos of the grisly remains of Taliban suicide bombers taken in 2010 by a few soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s Second Brigade. As the article itself, by distinguished war correspondent David Zucchino, notes:

U.S. military officials asked the Times not to publish any of the pictures.

Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the conduct depicted “most certainly does not represent the character and the professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan…. Nevertheless, this imagery — more than two years old — now has the potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties.”

The risk of needless casualties is especially great because the very battalion responsible for the picture taking is now deployed once again in southern Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Times decided to publish anyway, explaining its decision as follows: “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

I fail to see what public good is served by publishing the pictures. The same news could have been made public by an unillustrated article. Unfortunately, this publication will unfairly sully the conduct of–and quite possibly jeopardize the lives of–U.S. troops who have, on the whole, conformed to the highest standards of conduct, which is more than can be said for their enemies. In this kind of conflict, I might add–pitting  troops of an established democracy defending a nascent democracy against theocratic savages–”impartiality” in news coverage is hardly the highest ideal. American journalists, who routinely embed with American military units, need to give greater concern to protecting those units against needless attacks.

 

If we have learned one thing over the years it is that nothing emboldens our enemies and complicates the job of our troops than the release of grisly images, whether of torture at Abu Ghraib or of Marines urinating on a corpse in Afghanistan. The acts themselves are reprehensible and should be punished. But should the photos of what happened then be published in ways that will undoubtedly enflame passions against our troops and place innocent men and women, who had nothing to do with the acts in question, into greater jeopardy?

The Los Angeles Times apparently believes the answer is “yes”; hence its article this morning printing a series of photos of the grisly remains of Taliban suicide bombers taken in 2010 by a few soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s Second Brigade. As the article itself, by distinguished war correspondent David Zucchino, notes:

U.S. military officials asked the Times not to publish any of the pictures.

Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the conduct depicted “most certainly does not represent the character and the professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan…. Nevertheless, this imagery — more than two years old — now has the potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties.”

The risk of needless casualties is especially great because the very battalion responsible for the picture taking is now deployed once again in southern Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Times decided to publish anyway, explaining its decision as follows: “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

I fail to see what public good is served by publishing the pictures. The same news could have been made public by an unillustrated article. Unfortunately, this publication will unfairly sully the conduct of–and quite possibly jeopardize the lives of–U.S. troops who have, on the whole, conformed to the highest standards of conduct, which is more than can be said for their enemies. In this kind of conflict, I might add–pitting  troops of an established democracy defending a nascent democracy against theocratic savages–”impartiality” in news coverage is hardly the highest ideal. American journalists, who routinely embed with American military units, need to give greater concern to protecting those units against needless attacks.

 

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Rep. Ryan Wrong to Question Generals?

The progressive movement – which I seem to remember accusing a certain general of betraying the country in a full-page New York Times ad a few years back – is suddenly apoplectic that Rep. Paul Ryan would dare suggest that Pentagon leadership may not be expressing their full reservations about President Obama’s defense budget cuts.

The Rachel Maddow blog slams Ryan’s “unbridled chutzpah,” and concludes:

And finally, there’s the biggest, most jaw-dropping angle of them all: Paul Ryan, who has never served in the military a day in his life, believes he knows better than the U.S. military leadership what funding levels are needed to “keep people safe.”

Amazing. Just amazing.

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The progressive movement – which I seem to remember accusing a certain general of betraying the country in a full-page New York Times ad a few years back – is suddenly apoplectic that Rep. Paul Ryan would dare suggest that Pentagon leadership may not be expressing their full reservations about President Obama’s defense budget cuts.

The Rachel Maddow blog slams Ryan’s “unbridled chutzpah,” and concludes:

And finally, there’s the biggest, most jaw-dropping angle of them all: Paul Ryan, who has never served in the military a day in his life, believes he knows better than the U.S. military leadership what funding levels are needed to “keep people safe.”

Amazing. Just amazing.

This, from a pundit who just published a book this week premised on the idea the U.S. needs to shrink national defense – and who also has no military experience. Maybe not the best time to be throwing stones.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey disputed Ryan’s remarks, and said he stood by his support for the defense cuts:

“There’s a difference between having someone say they don’t believe what you said versus … calling us, collectively, liars,” Gen. Dempsey told reporters aboard a U.S. military aircraft after a four-day visit to Latin America.  ”My response is: I stand by my testimony. This was very much a strategy-driven process to which we mapped the budget.”

Gen. Dempsey said the budget “was a collaborative effort” among the top officers of the military branches as well as combat leaders.

It didn’t sound like Ryan was calling the generals liars or questioning their integrity, but simply acknowledging that they work at the behest and under the authority of the Commander in Chief. And that could limit what they feel they can say publicly.

The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, who has served in the Pentagon, defends Ryan’s comments:

Why is the brass signing off on this? Well, that’s their job. I know well how this works. I saw it first hand serving in the Pentagon. The Constitution establishes civilian supremacy over the military. The president is commander in chief. He defines strategic requirements, so the way he gets the military leaders to agree is simple: He just lowers the bar of expectations. He dumbs down the requirements.

So when Congress asks the brass, “Do you have enough?” They have no choice but to answer “yes.” It is like telling marathoner who has not had time to train that he only has to run a 5-K race. Sure, he’s ready—unless he actually has to run a marathon.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when the military rubber-stamps the president’s budget. Nor should we be surprised when Congress questions them. That is the job of the Congress.

That doesn’t mean Ryan didn’t make a mistake here. His comment was still poorly-worded, giving his opponents fodder to attack him and distract from the issue. He also put military leaders in an uncomfortable position, forcing them to defend their previous statements on budget cuts to the media. But his broader argument wasn’t necessarily inaccurate.

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Support Grows for Afghan Pullout

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.

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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.

That, incidentally, was initially agreed upon as a deadline for transitioning lead security responsibility to Afghan forces but seems to have been transformed into a deadline for pulling most NATO forces out altogether, leaving the Afghans more or less on their own. Oh, and at the same time, it is probable the the U.S. will reduce funding for the Afghan Security Forces, forcing a considerable reduction in their ranks and further imperiling their ability to grapple on their own with an insurgency with safe havens in Pakistan.

It is little wonder under such circumstances that support for the war effort is falling precipitously among Republicans. Newt Gingrich has already said that we should leave because victory is unobtainable under current conditions; Rick Santorum seems to be moving in the same direction. Mitt Romney, the likely nominee, remains stalwart, but Republican voters, who have been staunchly supportive of the war effort for years, are now evenly split over whether the war is worth fighting and doubts are evident among Republican lawmakers in Washington. More and more Republicans no doubt figure that, if President Obama isn’t serious about winning the war, then why risk more American lives?

It is an understandable impulse and one that the White House will find itself increasingly unable to dispel because it seems more determined to leave than to attain an acceptable outcome. This scuttle for the exits is covered in fig-leafs labeled “Special Operations,” “advisory teams,” and “peace talks.” But none of these options can possibly succeed if we pull out the bulk of our troops before they have done more to stabilize the south and east where the Taliban and Haqqani Network are the strongest–and that now appears to be all but certain.

 

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The Afghan Massacre and the U.S. Mission

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.

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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.

But done right, the Village Stability Platform and the associated Afghan Local Police program have the potential to be major “force multipliers” by creating a lot of problems for the Taliban for relatively little expenditure of U.S. resources. Indeed, this is potentially a model program as U.S. conventional units draw down–although, in dangerous and unstable areas, there is no substitute for the presence of substantial ground-combat forces.

One of the characteristics that makes this program so effective is that it puts small groups of U.S. soldiers in close proximity to Afghan civilians. That allows them to build bonds of trust–bonds which, in at least one place, have just been done grave damage by the actions of an apparent psychotic in uniform. His crimes should not, however, lead to a condemnation of the large program or of the broader counterinsurgency effort. It is only by taking risks–including the risk which no one had considered: of unleashing an American psychopath on innocent villagers–that U.S. troops can drive the Taliban out of their strongholds.

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Time to End the Killing in Syria

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.”

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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.”

I couldn’t agree more. Where I disagree is in his recommendations for what to do about this calamity which is now unfolding. He argues against military intervention—even against arming the Syrian opposition—in favor of, you guessed it, more robust diplomacy. He proposes to do the following:

First, the international community should present Assad with an ultimatum: Since Assad can no longer participate in a legitimate Syrian government, he, his vice president and a limited group of top regime officials must resign or be referred to the International Criminal Court for War Crimes (ICC). Second, the international community should continue to tighten the economic and financial sanctions against the Assad regime, its senior leaders and the most senior members of the Syrian military. Third, the international community should conduct a sustained and vigorous effort to isolate the Assad regime diplomatically. Fourth, the international community should strengthen the opposition and encourage it to develop a unified political voice. Finally, the United States and its partners should support a strategic communications campaign to publicize the regime’s atrocities, shame those who continue to support the regime and encourage regime members to defect.

All of these steps are worth taking, but they are not very different from what is currently being done—with scant impact. The Assad regime is able to stay in power because it can count on the loyalty of a substantial portion of its security forces and the backing of unsavory regimes such as Russia and Iran. Lynch himself dismisses airy talk from the administration “that the collapse of the Assad regime is only a matter of time.” He notes, rightly, that “Assad’s fall could take a long time. In the interim, many Syrians will die, and the conflict could evolve into an extended regional proxy war that victimizes the Syrian people.” But if that’s the consequence of our current policy, which is focused exclusively on diplomatic efforts to oust Assad, what reason is there to think more diplomacy will make a difference?

Lynch is right to warn that we need to think through the consequences of various military options such as air strikes, no fly zones, safe havens, and arming of the opposition. All of those policies carry potential downsides that need to be carefully considered. But in the end, I don’t find his objections to any military action terribly compelling, because if we don’t act then we are de facto accepting the unacceptable—i.e., a prolongation of the current civil war, which, aside from being a humanitarian disaster, is likely to further atomize Syrian society and provide an opening for extremists.

No one wants more war. But at this point the international community’s best bet (as it was in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999), is to act to end the killing. Yes, there are significant risks in a post-Assad regime, but by playing an active role in helping the opposition, including providing military help, the U.S. and our allies can win influence to shape the future of Syria.

Lynch himself admits that even if we don’t arm the opposition “arms are likely to flood the country if the civil war continues, regardless of U.S. preferences.” What he neglects to mention is where those arms will come from. A likely source: Gulf regimes such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia and radical groups loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda and its ilk, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq. The longer we stay on the sidelines, the more influence they will exert.

There is no ideal option in Syria, and I commend Lynch for warning about the potential pitfalls of military action, but at this point, I don’t see a good alternative.

 

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Obama Supporting the Troops?

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.

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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.

Specifically, if President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta have their way, active duty servicemen and women will have to pay higher co-payments for prescriptions and will no longer get incentives for buying generic drugs.  And military retirees will see 30 percent to 78 percent increases in their annual healthcare premiums for the first year, and after that, five-year increases from 94 percent to 345 percent.

Meanwhile, guess who gets off scot-free in the budget-cutting scheme? Surprise! It’s civilian workers – in the Department of Defense and other agencies – who happen to belong to that last bastion of labor movement power, government employee unions. And just to hedge the president’s bets on another four cushy years in the White House, the increases aren’t scheduled to begin until after the election.

Oh, and, for anyone who still buys Obama’s promise that we’ll be able to keep our current plans if we like them, apparently his administration expects that one of the side benefits of the planned increases will be to push American soldiers, sailors and flyboys (and girls) away from their military healthcare plans and into the waiting arms of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act program.

Hot air about supporting our troops from Mrs. Obama and Dr. (Jill) Biden notwithstanding, it’s pretty obvious where the sympathies of this White House lie.

 

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A Death Knell for American Military Power?

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.

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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.

This could well be the death knell for American military power–or at least a guarantee we will again hit the nadir we last saw in the late 1970s. Congress needs to wake up and act before it’s too late. These cuts will not be averted by wishful thinking; it will require political leadership which, alas, appears to be sorely lacking in Washington at the moment.

 

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Obama Apologizes for Koran Burning

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.”

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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.”

After a fringe pastor in Florida nearly sparked an international security incident by threatening to burn a pile of Korans, you’d think the U.S. military would at least have the proper safeguards in place to ensure this didn’t happen on their bases. As frustrating as it is to indulge the violent tantrums of religious fundamentalists by tiptoeing around their holy laws, if that’s going to be U.S. national security policy then at least make sure it’s carried out properly.

There actually apparently are exceptions under Islamic law permitting Korans to be disposed of through burning, though it’s usually discouraged, reports Slate. Typically, defaced Korans are buried in the ground or in water. I’m not sure how the U.S. military usually does it, though I imagine ritual or water burial aren’t always possible on military bases.

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Afghan Security Forces Cuts Likely to be “Catastrophic,” Warns General

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.

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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.

To then cut the already barely adequate number of troops and police will make it essentially impossible for the Afghan government to control its own territory barring some miraculous decision by the Taliban and Haqqani Network to discontinue their war. But why should they stop fighting when they know that in a few years most U.S. troops will be withdrawn and the Afghan Security Forces will downsize as well?

Moreover, the fighting quality and morale of the remaining Afghan forces, after what is essentially their abandonment by the West, is to be highly doubted. Add in the fact that under this plan the government of Afghanistan will have to lay off 130,000 trained security personnel. Where will they find employment in an economy that is already in rapid decline because of the loss of foreign aid? Many, it seems safe to surmise, may join the other side.

In short, Minister Wardak is not being hyperbolic in warning of catastrophe. Does anyone in Washington notice or care? The answer seems to be no. The political class, led by the president, is so bent on withdrawing from Afghanistan and reducing defense spending that no one seems to be particularly exercised by the fact that this could result in the collapse of all that U.S. troops have fought so hard to accomplish during the past decade, at such great cost to life and limb. I doubt that Lincoln and Washington, who persevered through far costlier and more politically divisive conflicts, would have approved.

 

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