Planning for the Long Haul in Afghanistan

by Tim Sullivan

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Walter Pincus reported on the Army’s plans to upgrade airbases and build a series of new special operations facilities across Afghanistan. The story suggests that the construction efforts, due to be completed late next year, represent an investment in the United States’ long-term posture in Afghanistan, and provide further indication that the U.S. mission in the country will continue well beyond the summer of 2011. This is an encouraging development.

The construction plans, focused as they are on enhancing access for special operations forces and expanding intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets (see here and here), also hint at the likely shift in the character of the Afghan mission as conventional U.S. forces are slowly drawn down between next summer and 2014 (the notional deadline set at last month’s Kabul conference for the final withdrawal of foreign troops).

As General Petraeus explained in a recent interview with Wired’s Danger Room, special operations forces currently serve as a critical kinetic component of the population-centric counterinsurgency campaign underway in Afghanistan, countering IED networks and pursuing high-value targets. But as U.S. forces begin to transfer greater responsibility to their Afghan counterparts, counterinsurgency operations slowly wind down, and American lines are increasingly thinned, special operations forces may well represent the primary remaining U.S. presence in the country.

Although a sizeable stability, training, and advisory force—similar to that which now remains in Iraq—would be a preferable alternative, the United States should, at the least, seek to maintain in Afghanistan a series of hubs from which elite forces could continue to conduct counterterrorism operations within the country and regionally. The upgraded bases described in the Post article would seem to fit the bill nicely.

Keeping in mind that this is all a long way off—and there’s a war to win in the meantime—it’s nonetheless good to see that the United States is setting the conditions to allow for a sustained presence in  the perennially troubled and strategically vital region.

(Photo: flickr/The U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Horace Murray)

Iraq: A View From Washington

by Tim Sullivan

Yesterday, Public Radio International collected the thoughts of a handful of Washington analysts, among which I was included, about Iraq’s future. The consensus seemed to be that some of Iraq’s most difficult days may lay ahead, and continued U.S. engagement in the embattled country thus remains critical. Andrew Exum of CNAS also raised an important point about the challenging and under-examined issue of reintegrating Iraqi refugees returning from neighboring countries.

Listen to the segment here.

(flickr/The U.S. Army)

The Mission Continues in Iraq

by Tim Sullivan

The withdrawal of the final U.S. combat forces from Iraq today is indeed a significant milestone. But once again, it is far too soon to declare “mission accomplished.” Now is the time for the United States to begin setting the foundation for a long-term strategic partnership with its new, hard-won ally in the Middle East.

In the coming year, that partnership will take the form of continued U.S. support for the Iraqi Security Forces—through training and advisory efforts, access to weapons and materiel, and joint patrolling and counterterrorism missions. The United States is also preparing to assume a greater civilian and diplomatic role in the country, given that the shaky government in Baghdad remains subject to malign regional influences, and Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian divisions—though largely sublimated for now—will continue to be a source of friction.

But the United States can only make good on its partnership with Iraq in these early, critical years if it commits the necessary resources to do so. Thus it was alarming to discover that Congress last month sheared $550 million from the State Department’s request for supplemental funds in support of its programs in Iraq. The cut has forced State to abandon its plans for the third in a string of “presence posts”—civilian-led outposts situated along Arab-Kurd fault lines—in the city of Baquba, the capital of Iraq’s volatile Diyala province. It’s similarly disturbing to see that Congress plans to halve U.S. support for the Iraqi Security Forces in the coming year.

The progress achieved in Iraq in the years since the “surge” has been remarkable. But continued U.S. assistance and support is vital to preventing it from unraveling. Keeping in mind the high costs the United States has paid over the last seven years in securing and stabilizing the country, it would be tragic if we failed to take the necessary steps to reap the strategic dividends those sacrifices have afforded.

(flickr/DoD photo by Spc. Venessa Hernandez, U.S. Army/Released)

Over at the Enterprise Blog, Gary Schmitt has provided an initial assessment of the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power. One needs only to read the report’s executive summary to get a sense of what Dave Trachtenberg referred to earlier in this space as the seemingly schizophrenic nature of the document. It’s the result, Gary explains, of the administration’s mighty efforts to put lipstick on a pig:

It begins with the fact that China’s economic reforms have resulted in “higher living standards for the Chinese people” but then notes this greater national wealth has also increased “China’s options for using military force to gain diplomatic advantage or resolve disputes in its favor.” And, yes, this new military capability has “allowed the PLA [the Chinese military] to contribute to international peacekeeping efforts” but it has also enabled “the PLA to pursue anti-access and area-denial strategies” aimed principally at the United States. Oh, and yes, relations between Taiwan and the mainland have improved, with “cross-strait economic and cultural ties” progressing. However, during the past year, “military build-up opposite the island continued unabated,” with the result that the “balance … of military forces continues to shift in the mainland’s favor.” And while we have seen “modest improvements in the transparency of China’s military and security affairs,” it remains quite “limited.” And, finally, the summary paragraph ends with a quote from President Obama that it is “not pre-destined” that the United States and China “be adversaries,” but concludes by noting that the Department of Defense “has a special responsibility to monitor China’s military and to deter conflict.” In short, for all the effort that went into putting lipstick on this pig, it remains just a pig. China is a problem—a growing security problem and no “on the one hand, on the other hand” editing can hide that fact.

This hesitant approach to addressing the China threat stands to have a detrimental impact on the United States’ alliances in the region, where countries are “wondering if the United States will respond adequately and in a timely fashion to the changing balance of power.” The new report, Gary explains, “will give them plenty to worry about—both about the details related to the PLA’s modernization effort and the administration’s obvious hesitancy in wanting to deal with it.”

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones/Released)

Last week, CDS director Tom Donnelly appeared on the PBS NewsHour to discuss Defense Secretary Gates’ plans to close the U.S. Joint Forces Command headquarters as well as his efforts to develop a “culture of savings and restraint” within the Pentagon.

The secretary’s campaign to identify overheard savings and efficiencies “signals that Gates is worried,” Donnelly explained.And he’s right to be worried, because of the political background in which he’s operating.” But “the savings themselves…aren’t going to make that much of a difference.”

Watch the video below, and read the transcript here.


The Post-Gates Defense Budget Outlook is Grim

by Tim Sullivan

With the news yesterday that Defense Secretary Robert Gates intends to leave his post at some point next year, questions are already arising about the fate of his DOD cost-saving efforts, and the implications for the defense budget.

As I was cited arguing here, it is reasonable to expect that Gates’ replacement will seek to continue the SECDEF’s slate of efficiency reforms. It seems unlikely, however, that Gates’ successor could hope to be as successful in preventing an increasingly eager Congress from slashing defense budgets—as Gates has suggested his current efforts are intended to do—given that Gates’ current strategy hinges in large part on the remarkable level of credibility he maintains with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

In short, the defense budget will become even more imperiled with Gates’ departure.

(Photo: flickr/U.S. Department of Defense)

The Defense Department’s annual report on China’s military power has finally been released, though several months past due and at a time when it’s certain to have little impact. Congress is in recess, and the report is too late to have any impact on the 2011 NDAA. Some first impressions:

  • The 2010 NDAA changed the report’s name from “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” to “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” This is—for lack of a better word—silly. China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile is not a military development “involving” China. It is a decision made by China aimed at enhancing China’s military power. Congress should reconsider this ill-advised legislation.
  • OSD completed the report in the spring, and it’s clear that the White House didn’t bother updating it while it held back its release. The report refers to “continued negotiations” on a Taiwan-China economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA); this agreement was, of course, finalized in June. While the report makes note of Chinese claims to sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands, it says nothing about China’s more expansive claims to the entire South China Sea, China’s considering that sea to be one of its “core interests,” or of this summer’s developments in the region. If the administration saw fit to delay the report’s release, it should have at least updated it to reflect more recent developments.
  • The report makes note, as did last year’s, of China’s pursuit of an aircraft carrier and its initiation of a pilot training program for carrier-born aviation, but says nothing about why China is building carriers. To say that China’s development of carriers and nuclear-powered submarines “suggest China is seeking to support additional missions beyond a Taiwan contingency” does not suffice for analysis. The 2009 report suggested that the PLAN’s aircraft carrier development program might be tied to a new Chinese concept called “Far Sea Defense”—a concept that has disappeared from this year’s report. An aircraft carrier is an instrument of power projection; China, as a rising power, is looking to increasingly project power throughout the Asia-Pacific, and perhaps further afield. The new report could make this connection more explicitly.
  • The report mentions—but does not discuss—China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), explaining that it “is intended to provide the PLA the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the Western Pacific.” How far along is the program? Are the Chinese testing? Any estimates on when the system might go operational? None of these questions are addressed. Given the amount that has been written on this topic in unclassified settings, surely more information could be provided here. And not only is there little discussion of the missile itself, but there is no discussion of how it might impact the U.S. Navy’s ability to operate in the Western Pacific. How dangerous is this ASBM? While the 2009 report did not directly address this question, it at least explained that it would have “onboard guidance systems for terminal homing to strike surface ships,” and quoted a Second Artillery Corps article, which stated that “the ASBM could employ ‘terminal-sensitive penetrating sub-munitions’ to ‘destroy the enemy’s carrier-borne planes, the control tower and other easily damaged and vital positions.’” Sounds pretty dangerous—good thing I still have my copy of last year’s report.
  • The report notes that “China is fielding an array of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, ground- and air-launched land-attack cruise missiles…to hold targets at risk throughout the region.” Do those targets include American bases? Is Kadena within range? How about Guam? This is simply far too vague to be useful in informing the public about China’s military power—or rather, about military and security developments involving China.

In short, this year’s report appears to be a more cuddly version of the 2009 edition, with an additional emphasis on U.S.-China military-to-military contacts for extra snuggle (thanks for this too, Congress). More on this in the coming days.


It’s Time to Coerce China on North Korea

by Michael Mazza

Here at CDS, I’ve been following developments in Northeast Asia since the March 26th sinking of the Cheonan (see here, here, here, and here). Today, I continue this discussion over at The American, where I argue that China has once again become crucial for curing our North Korean headache:

The question is how to get China to exercise its leverage. The Bush and Obama policy—avoid angering Beijing’s leaders in hopes that they will voluntarily help on North Korea—has proven ineffective. In order to enlist China’s help, the United States must force Beijing to reevaluate its interests. In a cost-benefit analysis of its support for the Pyongyang regime, China should come to see the costs as unacceptably high. It’s time to coerce the People’s Republic.

To find out how to do so, read the rest here.

(Photo: flickr/U.S. Department of State)

Red Menace or Red Herring?

by David J. Trachtenberg

After considerable delay, the Department of Defense’s latest assessment of China’s military power has just been released. It walks a fine line between portraying China as a growing military threat and an increasingly responsible actor in world affairs.

The document quotes President Obama as saying “[the U.S.-China] relationship has not been without disagreement and difficulty. But the notion that we must be adversaries is not pre-destined.”  Perhaps.  But the report seems to pull a few punches in an effort to lend credence to the President’s perspective.  In some areas it seems downright schizophrenic.

Such schizophrenia in the face of a continuing, aggressive Chinese military modernization program is perhaps understandable given the Obama Administration’s overall approach to foreign policy and its clear desire to avoid antagonizing the country that owns the biggest chunk of America’s public debt.  Nevertheless, the report is a must-read for anyone interested in the challenges China poses for U.S. national security decision makers.

For years, certain analysts have asserted that China’s military buildup reflects a regional security focus and is not intended to pose a global challenge to the West.  This year’s report casts doubt on this assertion: “Earlier this decade, China began a new phase of military development by articulating roles and missions for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that go beyond China’s immediate territorial interests.”  This expansion of China’s military role is first described as relatively benign, enabling positive Chinese contributions to global stability by allowing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “to contribute to international peacekeeping efforts, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and counterpiracy operations.”  Indeed, the report notes, “The United States recognizes and welcomes these contributions.”

Only after welcoming these contributions does the report explain that some of China’s military investments may have a less benign purpose by allowing the PLA “to pursue anti-access and area-denial strategies.”  While acknowledging that China is seeking improved capabilities for power-projection, the report reassuringly notes that “China’s ability to sustain military power at a distance, today, remains limited.”  Although the report notes that “China will, by 2020, lay the foundation for a force able to accomplish broader regional and global objectives,” it again seeks to reassure the reader that Beijing’s ability “to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China” is “unlikely…until well into the following decade.”

One aspect of China’s military modernization effort—the development of its offensive strategic capabilities—is particularly worrisome.  The report states, “China has made steady progress in recent years to develop offensive nuclear, space, and cyber warfare capabilities—the only aspects of China’s armed forces that currently could be used to pose a global threat.”  Indeed, China has been linked to multiple cyber attacks on U.S. infrastructure, including at least one cyber attack on the Pentagon’s computer system that disrupted e-mail and reportedly resulted in the theft of what one DoD official called an “amazing amount” of data.  Despite this, discussion of China’s cyber warfare capabilities is anemic and merits only a single paragraph in an 74-page report.

After noting China’s “steady progress” in developing a full range of offensive strategic capabilities, the report suggests Chinese leaders are pursuing this course without a full appreciation of the risks it entails: “There is little evidence, however, that China’s military and civilian leaders have fully thought through the global and systemic effects that would be associated with the employment of these strategic capabilities.”

The notion that perhaps China’s leaders have indeed thought through the consequences of employing these capabilities—and that this itself may help explain Chinese behavior and actions—seems to have been overlooked by the report’s authors.  There has been little, if any, recognizable response to China’s exfiltration of information from cyber warfare; nor any penalty for the Middle Kingdom’s anti-satellite hi-jinks.  Noting that Beijing’s most recent Defense White Paper describes a “self-defensive nuclear strategy,” the report seems to ascribe a similarly defensive purpose to China’s buildup of offensive nuclear potential, arguing that Chinese leaders seek to preserve the capacity to deliver a “damaging retaliatory nuclear strike” if attacked first.

Interestingly, China’s efforts to develop nuclear capabilities that could be useful for launching an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack are not even mentioned, save indirectly in the context of discussion over China’s “no first use” policy.  The report notes there is “some ambiguity” over whether “high altitude bursts would constitute a first strike.”  In other words, the report suggests at least some of China’s military leaders would see its use of a nuclear weapon to conduct an EMP attack on the United States or Taiwan as fully consistent with that country’s pledge not to use nuclear weapons first.  Such a position seems worthy of greater discussion than the oblique reference in the report.

This year’s report contains many other significant findings and conclusions.  For example, it notes that China’s transparency in military matters remains “modest” and “limited,” and concludes with respect to Taiwan that the “balance of cross-Strait military forces continues to shift in the mainland’s favor.”

Despite the balancing act evident in the report, it contains much meat and will likely be picked apart like a turkey on the Thanksgiving dinner table.  Whether it heightens our concern over Chinese motivations, strategy, goals, and capabilities or lulls us into a tryptophan-induced slumber remains to be seen.

David J. Trachtenberg is president and CEO of Shortwaver Consulting and a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, 2001-2003.

(Photo: flickr/olemiswebs)