Permissible Arms

Cutting defense spending, for reals? (Updated)

Posted in us congress, us defense, us military, us politics by Abbie on 1 July 2010

Hi all. Karaka has graciously invited me to post links and observations while she enjoys some time off. I promise not to rant too much since she called me “delightful.” Well played, KP.

Cmd Salamander has an interesting thread going on a proposal from U.S. Representative Barney Frank and others about a “Strategy of Restraint” for federal defense spending (h/t Starbuck). Federal budgets and appropriations are my thing–it’s part of my day job–and I’ve learned over the years to take proposals like this one with a grain of salt. I doubt this proposal, like so many that have come before it, will come to fruition.

But, for the first time since I began working in DC, I’m hearing serious discussion on Capitol Hill–and perhaps more importantly, from DoD–about making real cuts to federal defense funding in the FY11 budget and beyond. To save face, I’m blatantly ignoring the Emergency Supplemental currently being debated on the Hill that would provide funding for Afghanistan, among other things. For those who don’t obsess over the ridiculousness of the federal budget and appropriations process like I do, “emergency” funds fall outside the confines of the congressional budget. (That is to say, when Congress has passed a budget, unlike this year.)

Here’s my point: Is it simply a reaction to the economy that is allowing Congress to willingly gut-check the American purse on defense spending during a midterm election year…while we’re at war? Of course not. But what does it mean for DoD, State, etc. and their efforts domestically and internationally in the coming years?

It’s fair to note that DoD is by no means a solitary target. In fact, President Obama’s FY11 budget request calls for a spending freeze in all non-security discretionary spending. It was Secretary Gates who insisted his Department find considerable savings over the next five years.

Gates said he wants contracts scrutinized more closely for inefficiencies and unneeded overhead. He said the savings could be shifted to support U.S. troops around the globe. Pentagon officials said they’re looking for annual savings in the $400 billion spent on goods and services.

I believe all federal agencies can and should do a better job of using taxpayer dollars responsibly. But this shift in congressional rhetoric on defense spending from both sides of the aisle–albeit stronger on the left–strikes me as telling. Election outcomes aside, where should DoD focus their spending and where should they cut?

As always, Small Wars Journal has some fascinating debate about defense spending and politics generally in their threads. Check it out! (And, as this blog’s host has suggested, send them some money while you’re at it. They’re good people!)

Update: Robert Haddick has authored an excellent article entitled “The Pentagon’s entitlement spending problem” that touches much more saliently than I could ever hope to on some of the issues DoD’s budget is facing now and will continue to face in the future. Well worth the read.

Anti-COIN, the equivalent of a Kinks song.

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, united states by Karaka on 29 June 2010

Madhu pointed me to Thomas Rid’s take at KOW on the Douthat op-ed I rallied on yesterday. It’s definitely a different perspective on the same piece, and while I disagree with some of his conclusions–namely his too-faithful idea that there is any kind of consensus on continued presence vs. withdrawal in Afghanistan, and the idea that those in favor of COIN as a strategy are particularly optimistic or hopeful about it–the post is definitely a counterweight to my own.

Andrew Exum, who seems to be visiting the rolling mountain landscape of my childhood at the moment, has gotten quite a robust comment thread going on at Counterinsurgency Under the Microscope; Carl Prine’s comments in particular are intelligent and strong. (You’ll have to scroll down, the software that powers that blog sucketh for giving comment-specific data.) The discussion is on-going.

Aaron Ellis takes on the same Bacevich op-ed, as well as Bernard Finel’s similar position, in his post today on “RollingStan and civil-military relations” that speaks to a lot of my own thoughts on the subject. I hadn’t really waded into the civilian-military accusations that flew about as soon as the McC flap broke, because I honestly didn’t consider it to be the most significant aspect of the story–though clearly a lot of the internet disagreed with me on that. Finel responded to the Thinking Strategically post, in a manner that kind of baffles me–he refutes the claims, but inasmuch as I’ve been reading him recently, I find Ellis’s points to be apropos. Both Bacevich and Finel have inflated the controversy surrounding Rollingstan to the point of hyperbole, and don’t seem to acknowledge that the matter is, effectively, closed. M4 is out, P4 is in; the counterinsurgency policy stays the same; Obama exerted his executive authority, and everyone seems entirely happy with P4 as his choice. What more is there to hack away at, here?

The answer, of course, is not liking the strategy in the first place; but as Obama’s Rose Garden remarks plainly told, that matter of changing strategy was never up for debate.

Embrace the Frago

This NYT op-ed by Ross Douthat is my pick for read of the day.

Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.

Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.

Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.

This explains why the Obama administration, throughout all its internal debates and strategic reviews, hasn’t been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It’s been choosing between two ways of staying.

Yes. Yes, this. Yes, for a clear explanation of why the whole McChrystal situation was not, and never could be, the Administration’s argument for a change in policy or an argument for withdrawal (I’m looking at you, Mr. Bacevich). By choosing General Petraeus, Obama fully reinforced his commitment to his strategy, because there was no other tenable option. Not for any kind of timetable of withdrawal, even if, as has been suggested, Petraeus is on the side of those who soft-ball the 07-2011 deadline. But setting that aside, any reasonable, high-number withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan is dependent on adhering to a policy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region that account for the problems of counterterrorism+ Douthat outlines in his piece above:

  1. Bargains, especially bargains with people who only desire power and money, fail. And when they fail, they fail hard.
  2. Prioritizing civilian security is a necessity to prevent the genesis of further insurgents. Counterterrorism racks up a higher body count than counterinsurgency, because the priority is the valuing of killing an insurgent (or terrorist) rather than the valuing of civilian lives.
  3. Plan B (counterterrorism+) sucks, because it relies heavily on points 1 and 2 to succeed in order to leverage withdrawal of troops. But points 1 and 2 are unlikely to succeed, which is why the administration went with Plan A (counterinsurgency) in the first place.

And to that list I would add a fourth:

    4. Whatever happens, the US is probably going to retain a presence in Afghanistan for a long, long time, whether the country has been pacified or not. See also: Kuwait, South Korea, Germany, Japan.

That is the real underlying point that generally goes unsaid. The US is unlikely to cede the strategic benefit of staying in Afghanistan, not when it offers access to the Middle East and to China. If you look down the barrel of the M-14 to ten years from now, I am certain there will still be US troops in Afghanistan. Whether they’re still engaged in counterinsurgency or have made the biggest FOB a more permanent home, some strategist in a Pentagon basement has a transition plan that doesn’t include full-scale withdrawal. And that has to be taken into consideration when the squabbling about how best to operate in Afghanistan and the unlikely course of withdrawal is discussed.

Pro Petra

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 24 June 2010

Because Jon Stewart is at least mildly devilish, every single time I read or hear “General Petraeus” my mind is immediately flooded with the Daily Show’s rendition of Iraq Me Dave Petraeus.

It’s very vexing.

Anyway, some commentary:

  • Danger Room thinks on a return to air war.
  • Ackerman (who will soon also be Danger Room) pokes at Petraeus and Pakistan.
  • David Wood, remaining one of my favorite war journalists, has a short but sweet dispatch on Petraeus in Afghanistan: Lost in the furor over the disgraced Gen. Stanley McChrystal is this simple truth: The counterinsurgency strategy championed by his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, works.
  • Gulliver at Ink Spots evaluates the savviness of the Petraeus pick.
  • Dennis Murphy at the Army’s DIME blog weighs in with a strategic critique of RollingStan.
  • In this morning’s At War, Dexter Filkins and John Burns answer commenter queries about McC and Petraeus. While it has not yet gone batshit, I await that inevitability.
  • Tom Ricks’ Washington Post op-ed should be read with the context of Ricks’ close understanding of Petraeus, and also in his reiteration of two key points: first, that Petraeus is very skilled at fostering cohesion within his command, and second, that such cohesion relies to a great degree on effective civilian counterparts (which are in short supply in the region). Several people have chimed in to suggest that ousting McChrystal gives Obama sufficient cause to re-evaluate his civilian personnel as well, which I think it true, but I suspect unlikely. Obama has already assumed the risk of replacing his military command. It would appear to be fickle to replace Eikenberry and Holbrooke in the same house-cleaning, only a year after his strategy is put into place. Now, Eik and Holbrooke weren’t present at the Rose Garden statement yesterday, so it may very well be that their shuffling is on the horizon. Certainly it would be best for Petraeus to go in with people he can count on. But replacing your top three guys in a short period of time will feed a perception of ineffectiveness that may be more harmful than Eik or Holbrooke’s actually ineffectiveness.
  • And Jason Sigger points us all to the prize-winning political cartoon of the week:

I got 99 problems, but a General ain’t one.

Posted in afghanistan, japan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 23 June 2010

Okay. Time to turn to more productive and less hand-wringing matters. It’s done, it’s over, the lady has sung and that song is a Rolling Stones cover.

This afternoon, Secretary McHugh released its review of Wanat.

After careful consideration of the additional information, Campbell concluded that the officers were neither negligent nor derelict in the performance of their duties and that their actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Therefore, he withdrew the adverse administrative actions.

“In every review and study conducted to date, the courage, valor, and discipline of the soldiers who fought at Wanat have been universally praised. These soldiers were well-trained, well-led, and fought bravely to defeat a determined and intense enemy action to overrun their base in Wanat. They persevered in a fashion that deserves broad recognition of their bravery and tenacity,” said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Army chief of staff. “Our hearts go out to the families of the fallen soldiers.”

You can access the public (redacted) files from the CENTCOM investigation here. This is probably for the best, though I’m refraining from saying anything firm until I’ve had a chance to review the CENTCOM files.

Newly affirmed Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has apologized to the Okinawans who live in close proximity to the US bases on the island, in a smart early political move.

“On behalf of all of our people, I apologise for the burden,” Mr Kan said, but added that it was integral to the “peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region.”

“I promise to seriously try all the more to reduce Okinawa’s burden related to the US bases and eliminate the associated dangers.”

Okinawa currently hosts more than half of the 47,000 US soldiers in Japan. Mr Kan was speaking at the ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, in which some 200,000 soldiers and civilians were killed.

He states he will adhere to the 2006 US-Japan agreement, which is what his predecessor finally acceded too; rebuilding Japan’s relationship with the US was a quick follow. Okinawans will likely not be happy, but they weren’t happy before, and at least PM Kan is being honest about the limits of his influence on this issue.

The NYT’s Lens Photojournalism column features photographs from Restrepo’s Tim Hetherington. Some of them are dramatic; others are a study in contrasts.

How does your Afghanistan work tie into what you just said?

I am interested in visually representing something in as many ways as possible, exploiting as many different forms as possible, to reach as many people as possible.

And how did you do that in Afghanistan?

By working across the spectrum, by first saying, “O.K., I’m going to photograph for Vanity Fair.” And that is a platform that has, say, a two or three million readership. Then those images, because I retain the copyright, are syndicated worldwide. They appear in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Great, that’s another valid audience. The image that won World Press Photo gave another spotlight and went global in a way that could lead people to reach my other work. Then I made “Sleeping Soldiers,” which was a digital projection. It was an art piece, meant for galleries – but that’s still a valid audience.

The whole interview is long and meaty and a respite from the many interviews with Hetherington’s colleague, Sebastian Junger, whose FDL Book Salon with David Axe devolved into a tiresome anti-war kabuki with little to do with the actual book. That seems to be more and more where conversations on “War” are heading, and I agree with Axe that Junger might have been better off calling the book “Combat.”

Finally, CFR has an interview with Stephen Biddle on Afghanistan that got promptly buried by RollingStan.

Will there be pressure on the president, when he looks up from the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, to try to be clearer on this whole policy? We’ve had many officials saying, “That July date doesn’t really mean much, it was just a symbolic statement.”

There are a lot of people that want to pin the administration down on this. The hearings in the Senate the last couple of days have been the latest example. The hearings right after the West Point speech were an earlier example. Lots of people are confused and want more clarity. They want more clarity for widely divergent motivation. Typically, progressive Democrats want it made very clear that there’s going to be a big, fast withdrawal. Conservative Republicans want the perception that there’s going to be a big, fast withdrawal to be explicitly denied by the administration in order to increase the likelihood that we’re going to stay. So lots of people want more clarity. My guess is that they may not get it. We’ll see what happens with this upcoming December review [Obama in the speech also said the Afghan policy would be reviewed in December].

All this, and America and England face off for the next round of the World Cup. Independence Day never looked so much like a footie metaphor.

Goodbye, M4, Hello P4

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 23 June 2010

The press conference was quick and dirty–less then ten minutes. Obama was flanked by Biden, Mullen, Gates, and Petraeus. The President announced that he has accepted General McChrystal’s resignation, and has asked General Petraeus to step in as commander of ISAF. McChrystal’s statement was emailed to the media:

This morning the President accepted my resignation as Commander of U.S. and NATO Coalition Forces in Afghanistan. I strongly support the President’s strategy in Afghanistan and am deeply committed to our coalition forces, our partner nations, and the Afghan people. It was out of respect for this commitment — and a desire to see the mission succeed — that I tendered my resignation.

It has been my privilege and honor to lead our nation’s finest.

The word is that he will not be returning to Kabul; his things will be sent to him in the US. He was not present for the press conference.

I’m down with Petraeus–I don’t know many who aren’t–but man, this whole thing sucked. It’s not even been 48 hours since the AP ran news of the RS article, and McChrystal was summarily booted.

I’ll link to the transcript of Obama’s statement (he took no questions) when it’s up, but the general riff is that the war is bigger than any one man; the military is subject to civilian command and must respect that chain of command; the policy put forth in 2009 regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan remains firmly in place; and while Obama takes no personal insult from McChrystal’s comments, neither can he retain in service a man who does not adhere to the highest standards of conduct demanded of him.

That’s all fair. And I can accept the rationale for cashiering McChrystal. But I still think that if Obama wanted to lead from the front, he would have disciplined McChrystal rather than benching him. If you want your strategy to be effective, you don’t change up command a year in. It’s not that I don’t think Petraeus will be effective–I do–but I do not see with clarity how this serves the mission.

But I guess I also don’t see it as a massive failure of civilian-military relations, which perhaps I should.

ETA: Here’s the remarks.

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

My multiple responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief led me to this decision. First, I have a responsibility to the extraordinary men and women who are fighting this war, and to the democratic institutions that I’ve been elected to lead. I’ve got no greater honor than serving as Commander-in-Chief of our men and women in uniform, and it is my duty to ensure that no diversion complicates the vital mission that they are carrying out.

That includes adherence to a strict code of conduct. The strength and greatness of our military is rooted in the fact that this code applies equally to newly enlisted privates and to the general officer who commands them. That allows us to come together as one. That is part of the reason why America has the finest fighting force in the history of the world.

It is also true that our democracy depends upon institutions that are stronger than individuals. That includes strict adherence to the military chain of command, and respect for civilian control over that chain of command. And that’s why, as Commander-in-Chief, I believe this decision is necessary to hold ourselves accountable to standards that are at the core of our democracy.

Second, I have a responsibility to do what is — whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan, and in our broader effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda. I believe that this mission demands unity of effort across our alliance and across my national security team. And I don’t think that we can sustain that unity of effort and achieve our objectives in Afghanistan without making this change. That, too, has guided my decision.

McChrystal is Out.

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 23 June 2010

Press conference is starting late (I’m shocked!) but MSM is already reporting that the President has fired McChrystal and has General Petraeus in mind to replace him.

BREAKING – POTUS to speak in fifteen

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 23 June 2010

We’re all waiting breathlessly for President Obama to let us know which way the wind blows; as it stands, a 1:30 ET press conference has been added to his schedule. You can watch it streaming live in fifteen minutes. I have no doubt that I, and everyone I know, will be tweeting the crap out of this press conference.

CiC Speaks

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 22 June 2010

From WaPo:

“I think it’s clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed a poor – showed poor judgment,” the president said, surrounded by members of his Cabinet at the close of their meeting. “But I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions.”

As the media were being ushered out of the room quickly, Obama stopped them to make more comments and try to put the focus on the troops.

“I want everybody to keep in mind what our central focus is – and that is success in making sure that al-Qaida and its affiliates cannot attack the United States and its allies,” Obama said.

“And we’ve got young men and women there who are making enormous sacrifices, families back home who are making enormous sacrifices,” he said. “And so whatever decision that I make with respect to Gen. McChrystal – or any other aspect of Afghan policy – is determined entirely on how I can make sure that we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice that those men and women are making over there and that ultimately makes this country safer.”

So there’s a little hurry-up-and-wait for us, but like Gibbs this morning in his briefing, the White House isn’t giving anything away. Here’s one place where Obama’s tendency towards careful consideration works in his favor.

McChrystal and the Gang

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, united states, us military by Karaka on 22 June 2010

As the internet continues to spew forth oil commentary regarding General McChrystal’s running off at the mouth, I find that more and more I’m coming around to the idea that President Obama should choose to retain McChrystal in Afghanistan. I refuse to believe–as someone who does find virtue in a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, a strategy that will not work over months but over years–that disrupting the chain of command, even for a fiasco as belly-floppingly painful as this, will not damage our strategy.

A lot of the commentary, particularly in the throes of SWJ comments, revolves around the idea that “no uniform is irreplaceable,” which is certainly true. But I don’t care about a uniform. I care about the plan, the mission, the strategy, the over-arching thing that we’re doing there, and that is bigger than any one man. It’s bigger than the President.

On the one hand, perhaps replacing McChrystal would buy the administration some time to extend the deadline on Afghanistan. “Here’s a replacement,” they could say, “so we need more time on the clock.” But frankly, my confidence in Mr. Please Everybody in that regard wanes with each passing day. Would the Obama administration actually take that brass ring? Doubtful. Maintaining a deadline, even a soft one, gives Obama some credibility with his detractors on both the left and the right.

But retaining McChrystal is the best thing for these counterinsurgency practices. As the man who largely advocated for them to the President, as the man who has been the boots on the ground for the better part of this first year of work, and as one of only a handful up upper-echelon US officials who can claim a good relationship with Karzai and his government, McChrystal should remain in position. It would be heartbreaking to lose the bigger picture because an old white dude flapped his jaw to the wrong reporter.

According to Spencer’s report on the White House press briefing earlier this morning, it’s hardly clear which way the wind is blowing at the WH.

None of that sounds like a White House that’s ready to scrap its counterinsurgency strategy in the year to go before it begins to shift to a heavier focus on training Afghan forces and withdrawing troops. But McChrystal will have to reiterate his commitment tomorrow to working with the team that, in many ways, signed onto a strategy he himself largely convinced the president to support. “This is bigger than anybody on the military or the civilian side,” Gibbs said. Translation: McChrystal can go or stay, but the strategy has been set. And that may be the greatest irony of the entire McChrystal imbroglio.

And the vocally vocal Senate is as split as the blogosphere on “should he stay or should he go,” with Sen. McCain, Lieberman, and Graham pressing for ousting, and Sens. Levin and Kerry less predisposed to smiting from the Hill.

This was filed only hours before McChrystal is reported to have sent in his resignation (via Joe Klein and some dude from Twitter). That doesn’t mean he’s out of the game. It’s certainly the only reasonable politic move he could make, given the circumstances. But I’m hoping that Obama chooses not to accept the resignation; that instead he demands a higher level of service and imbues Afghanistan with the gravitas it deserves. It’s a serious game we’re playing here, with the well-being of a dozen nations involved. If the President wants to show the American people the war he has backed since March 2009 is worth the effort, he should wipe aside the juvenile bullshit and tell McChrystal to get his ass focused on the mission. Like the Commander in Chief ought to.

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