2011 May


Gates Makes the Case for American Hard Power

by Richard Cleary

At the University of Notre Dame’s commencement yesterday morning, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reflected on the place of our military in securing peace: “Make no mistake, the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is hard power—the size, strength and global reach of the United States military.” Arguing for a strong military against the backdrop of President Obama’s proposed cuts to the Pentagon, the secretary sought to address the issue of strategic solvency: “in this place and at this time.” Gates reminded listeners that “indispensable” though we may be, our place as guarantor of the international system is the product of the sacrifice of successive generations, and not something to be “taken for granted.”

The outgoing Secretary closed with the warning that “if America declines to lead the world, others will not.” What the secretary left unsaid is that the “others” most likely to replace us would almost certainly be less altruistic and equitable in their use of power than we have been. A decline in America’s global role would, in short, be to the detriment not only of Americans—including those of us who have led placid and uninterrupted lives while an all-volunteer force fights on our behalf—but also to the world at large.

Secretary Gates will be visiting the American Enterprise Institute this Tuesday, May 24, to discuss “America in the World.” Few are better equipped to reflect on the past and consider the future, and, in keeping with his Notre Dame address above, the secretary’s speech will doubtless thoughtful and broad-ranged. AEI’s Center for Defense Studies has been busy looking at the current policy battle over the ends, ways, and means of American power. Check out the work of our Defending Defense project (a joint effort of AEI, the Heritage Foundation, and the Foreign Policy Initiative), and read up before the secretary speaks: “Setting the Record Straight on U.S. Military Requirements” and “China’s Military Build-up: Implications for U.S. Defense Spending.”

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.

(DOD photo/D. Myles Cullen)


Was Gates at Notre Dame Prologue?

by Gary Schmitt

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ commencement address this past weekend at the University of Notre Dame was one of a series of farewell speeches he will be giving as he steps down as Pentagon head next month. It will be the swan song not only for his tenure as secretary of defense but also for his four decades of public service in numerous administrations, Democrat and Republican.

The speech at South Bend was both remarkable and not-so-remarkable. It was not remarkable in the sense that it was fully in line with America’s post-World War II view of the place of military might in the country’s grand strategy.  Gates took note of the many threats and security concerns we face today—Afghanistan, the Middle East, new rising powers, Iran and North Korea, and terrorism—and the value of “hard power” as “the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th,” and the role of the United States as “the indispensable” nation in keeping peace and sustaining the international order. Although these points were succinctly and well put, the speech itself was one that any number of previous defense secretaries might have given.

What was remarkable about the address, however, is that it comes at a time when there are calls from both the Left and the Right, in Gates’ words, “to shrink America’s role in the world.” And even more remarkable is Secretary Gates’ willingness (albeit obliquely) to push back against the Obama administration’s decision to cut defense spending even more deeply than it already has, with the result of backing us into a lessened role in the world and forgoing benefits that accrue to having a military second-to-none. And while the secretary says that “all of these things happen mostly out of sight and out of mind to the average American, and thus are taken for granted,” he could just as easily be pointing the finger at the White House itself.

To be sure, Gates appears to have been of two minds when it comes to calls for defense cuts. Last year at this time, in a speech at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, the secretary said that the past decade had “opened up gusher in defense spending” and argued that the military had a surfeit especially of air and naval power. But then, just six months later, in November, when the chairmen of the president’s deficit commission put forward the idea of cutting $100 billion from the defense budget by 2015, he argued that even a 10 percent cut would do little to alleviate the problem of the federal deficit but would in fact be “catastrophic” to the military. One can’t help but think that, with those remarks and his address at Notre Dame, there is a bit of Gates’ attempting to close the barn door [to cutting defense] after that horse has already left.

Tomorrow, the secretary will be here at AEI. And the question is: was the Notre Dame address the prologue to a more detailed critique of what further cuts to defense will do to the nation’s security and its global role? Or will the secretary let his speech at South Bend stand as his final statement on the defense debate—useful, no doubt, but not explicit enough to be memorable.

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.

(Defense Department photo/Cherie Cullen)

Press the Advantage

by Gary Schmitt

When you are in a fight and have your opponent down on the pavement with your boot on his neck, the last thing you want to do is step off. You keep the boot firmly planted, pressing even harder, until he yields. Otherwise it’s a certainty that he’ll get back up, start throwing punches again, and drag out a fight that should have been settled sooner.

Such is the case in Afghanistan with the American-led counterinsurgency against the Taliban and its jihadist allies. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we have the boot on our opponent’s neck. First, there was the killing of Osama bin Laden. While not directly related to the insurgency, the raid on Abbottabad did eliminate the most notable figure tied to the original reason for invading Afghanistan and deposing the Taliban regime.

Second, as each day goes by, there are more signs that the surge of troops into Afghanistan has reversed the momentum of the insurgency. So far, the Taliban’s spring offensive has amounted to attacks designed more as publicity stunts than as operationally serious counteroffensives. In the past 90 days alone, the allied effort has killed or captured some 500 insurgent leaders, while taking 2,700 lower-level fighters off the battlefield as well. Over the past half-year, with the surge fully in place, the coalition has seized more weapons caches than in the previous two years combined. Faced with this mounting pressure, it’s no surprise that reports from the field are full of accounts of local Taliban and Taliban sympathizers attempting to cut deals to save their skins.

Instead of using this momentum to finish the job, however, there are persistent rumors that the White House wants to use the success of the surge to reduce force levels this July more than commanders in the field desire. Bolstered by the usual voices on Capitol Hill, the White House may also use the opportunity to call for further cuts at year’s end, and promise more rapid withdrawals over the following year as we head into the presidential campaign season.

To be fair, President Obama has twice added a substantial number of U.S. troops to the Afghan theater, bringing the total number of American forces to around 100,000. But a precipitous withdrawal of those forces, just as they have gained the initiative, will only prolong the conflict. Our European allies will use the announcement of cuts to make their own. The Taliban will be bolstered by believing that time is on their side. Both the Afghan and Pakistani governments will increase their self-dealing and Machiavellian scheming. And the general population of Afghanistan will once again go back to fence-sitting, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

There is a simple truth about counterinsurgencies: If resourced properly, and if the strategy of “clear, hold, and build” is carried out consistently, success is very likely. Final victory may take awhile. But the cost of securing that victory decreases fairly rapidly once the population views the insurgents as more of an irritant than a potential victor. Since these conflicts often occur in the messiest and most uninviting of places, however, democracies typically under-resource their effort and do all they can to get out as quickly as possible. All of which is politically understandable—but strategically self-defeating.

We should not kid ourselves that the number of troops we have deployed to Afghanistan gives us the kind of flexibility that would allow for a significant drawdown. In late 2009, when General Stanley McChrystal spelled out his plans for what was required to turn around Afghanistan, he said the minimum number of troops needed was 40,000. The president gave him 30,000. The Afghan war is resourced at a level that allows the military to simply “get by” with its campaign plans. It’s a credit to the American and coalition troops that the anti-Taliban campaign has been as successful as it has been over the past year. But one would be hard pressed to find anyone on the ground in Afghanistan who thinks the effort is flush with soldiers.

One could make the argument that a politically astute White House would build upon this recent success to shore up the president’s commander in chief credentials and help neutralize the GOP’s traditional advantage when it comes to national security. But, given the close attention the administration pays to poll numbers and the apparent decline in support for the war in Afghanistan, it seems just as probable that the White House will see promises of substantial cuts in our forces there as good politics. That would be a terrible mistake.

Choosing a course of premature withdrawal will be the equivalent of taking America’s boot off the Taliban’s neck. And it will make it even more difficult to bring this conflict to a successful conclusion.

Cross-posted from May 23 issue of the Weekly Standard.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo/Cpl. Colby Brown)


A Vulcan Becomes Diogenes

by Tom Donnelly

In a Foreign Policy article, “Confessions of a Vulcan,” Dov Zakheim puts himself and his former Bush-era “Vulcan” colleagues in his analytical crosshairs, in particular on the subject of Afghanistan and the larger issue of “nation building,” or, as Zakheim more correctly and precisely defines it, state building.

The article, though not long, resists simple summarizing, but a number of highlights serve as an encouragement for a serious reader. To begin with, Zakheim admits that his own appointment as coordinator for Afghanistan reconstruction – on top of his day job as Pentagon comptroller – in 2002 was a reflection of the Bush administration’s lack of a serious policy: “The decision to appoint me reflected not only the administration’s preoccupation with Iraq but its seeming loss of interest in following through on support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.” This is not the kind of confession Washington power elites – and make no mistake, Zakheim’s status as a “Vulcan” was well merited – are in the habit of making.

A second sign of intellectual honesty in the article is Zakheim’s confession about the tasks of state building and the U.S. government’s capabilities to undertake it. The Bush team of Vulcans led by former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were notorious for their skepticism of Clinton-era “nation building,” believing it to be a misuse of U.S. military power, and preaching a realist’s “humility” in strategy making. Thus it is less than surprising that the Bush administration operated at cross-purposes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Zakheim sketches the story briefly:

I came into the Bush administration believing that the United States was terrible at nation building (again, really state building). Events after 2001, during my stint in the Department of Defense, initially led me to conclude that I had been wrong. During the period when I was DoD’s civilian coordinator for Afghanistan, I openly conceded to my friends and colleagues that events in Afghanistan were disproving my belief that the United States was incapable of nation building.

Zakheim writes that he’s gone back and forth on the issue since – again evidence of a further, nearly unprecedented level of candor from a former public official. But his concluding confession is notable for its mature humility, both about the need for American power and on the part of those who wield it:

As long as the United States remains a superpower with global interests, it will find those interests threatened somewhere in the world. It cannot turn away from those threats; “Fortress America” is an inviting concept that became obsolete at the turn of the twentieth century, as the isolationists of the 1930s discovered by the end of that decade. It is of course impossible to foretell where America’s next war will take place. No one expected to go to war with Saddam Hussein in 1991, just a few years after the United States sided with him in his decade-long conflict with Iran. Amply predicted in intelligence circles though it was, no one in policy circles really expected post-Tito Yugoslavia to break apart. No one expected America to engage in a decade-long (and counting) war in Afghanistan. And not even the most rabid neocons expected that “mission accomplished” would take the better part of a decade to be realized in Iraq. That another war will take place is a certainty, however. And when it comes, whether against a so-called “rogue” state or another major power, the United States will need to be able both to make policy and to implement it.

The fact that policy during much of the Bush administration was made by people whose egos and dreams were outsized even by Washington standards undermined efforts to implement an effective followup to the initial military operations. An endless stream of journalistic accounts has documented the stubborn refusal of leading American actors in the Iraq drama to address the cultural, political, and religious realities that governed Iraqi society. Less well documented but no less important is the pernicious impact of a similar combination of blindness, obstinacy, and illusion regarding the implementation of American policy objectives in Afghanistan.

Real leadership is not only about setting directions. It also has to encompass a management style that can see efforts through to successful completion. In fact, it is not the management style itself that matters, it is the awareness that management matters. The details will not “take care of themselves.” It is all well and good to be a Vulcan, or to be a member of some future exclusive crowd of would-be public servants. Someone, however, has to know how to get the job done.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(flickr/user bhamlucas)


Gates at AEI: Tuesday May 24

by Tom Donnelly

The Obama Administration is coming to a point of deflection.  The killing of Osama bin Laden casts its approach to Afghanistan in a new light, particularly in regard to the planned reduction of forces in July and with Gen. David Petraeus scheduled to depart Kabul for Langley, Va., to become Director of Central Intelligence.  The hour of decision in Iraq has also arrived: Will the White House take up the offer from Baghdad to retain a cadre of US troops after 2011?  And how will Obama pursue his “lead-from-behind” strategy for Libya?

But while the administration finds itself as deeply engaged as any of its predecessors by America’s role as the ultimate guarantor of international security, it faces an unprecedented domestic fiscal crisis, one that threatens further cuts to an overstretched and undercapitalized US military; indeed, the president himself has proposed the deepest defense budget cuts.

A final factor shaping this moment of administration transition is a shift in key leaders: not only is Petraeus set to take on new duties, but, come September, there will be a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But perhaps the biggest change of all is the retirement of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the overseer of the successful “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan and the architect of much adaptation and innovation at the Pentagon.

Next Tuesday, May 24, in a speech at AEI, Gates will reflect on his tenure and look ahead at America’s future role. The secretary’s address will serve as a benchmark of the sweeping changes in store.

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.

(DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Inevitably, many in the media pounced on the killing of bin Laden as justification for pulling out of Afghanistan and treating the struggle against jihadi terrorism as a policing operation.

Eugene Robinson, writing in yesterday’s Washington Post (“Now that he’s dead, let’s end bin Laden’s grip on us”), argues that “it’s hard to overstate the significance of bin Laden’s killing.” But Robinson does just that: “Years from now, I believe, we will look back and say the elimination of Osama bin Laden changed everything.”

To Robinson, bin Laden was the reason Al Qaeda still looked to attack the United States, using his charisma and couriers to shape Al Qaeda strategy. Younger leaders are far more interested in attacking domestic targets. Bin Laden also caused the United States to react recklessly, stretching our military thin and precipitating paranoia among the American populace. Now, a relieved Robinson believes, we can all think more clearly, and reconsider our mission in Afghanistan.

The Boston Globe editorial board takes a similar stance, urging an end to the idea of a global war on terror now that OBL is gone. To them, terrorism is merely a “tactical threat to be met with aggressive policing.” The most effective way, says the Globe, to remove the threat of terrorism is to support the Arab Spring rebellions. Terrorist groups that don’t attack America should be left for local governments to fight.

This argument, predicated on the notion that without bin Laden international terrorism will flounder and shift its focus from America, is flawed on a number of levels.

First of all, history shows that terrorist sanctuaries, either in supportive countries or lawless regions, are extremely important to terrorist groups (Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, AQAP in Yemen, PLO in Lebanon, Al-Shabaab in Somalia). Policing and intelligence-sharing with local governments are simply not an adequate solution, especially when local governments are too weak or sympathetic to combat the groups operating from their territory.

Second, as Fred and Kim Kagan explain in The Weekly Standard, OBL’s death has no effect on our mission in Afghanistan, our troop levels, or for our timetable. “George W. Bush sent forces into Afghanistan not to kill bin Laden, but to oust al Qaeda from its safe haven there, defeat that organization, and create political conditions that would preclude its return to Afghanistan.” In other words, we will not look back at Operation Geronimo as the event that changed everything. The conditions in Afghanistan have not changed, and a chaotic Afghanistan would undoubtedly serve as a fertile home for terrorist groups to find shelter and adherents, including groups fleeing Pakistan if a government crackdown ever comes.

Third, Al Qaeda is not the only group promoting global Jihad. As AEI’s Ahmad Majidyar pointed out, the Afghan Taliban’s leadership is not a local nationalist movement, but is a terrorist group with a global agenda. “If the American occupiers and their allies think that the martyrdom of Sheikh Osama bin Laden, peace be upon him, will weaken the authority and morale of the mujahedin in Afghanistan or in other occupied Islamic countries, this will be their big mistake,” read the official Taliban statement on OBL’s death, “The Islamic Emirate believes that the martyrdom of Sheikh Osama bin Laden, peace be upon him, will give new life to the ongoing jihad against the occupiers at this critical juncture. The jihadist movement will become stronger.” Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, has targeted the United States in increasingly brazen attacks as well. They attacked NATO convoys in 2008, killed U.S. soldiers in February 2010, attacked the Peshawar U.S. Consulate in April of the same year, and claimed responsibility for the failed Times Square car bomb a year ago.

Terrorism is a global problem. It takes more than policing and intelligence sharing, especially when many governments whose help we need are less than eager to provide it. Terrorist groups flock to failed states, and threaten to bring down governments and disrupt trade in the Middle East and Africa. Bin Laden’s death changed none of that, and it is revealing that commentators would use Osama’s demise as a pretense to push for the end of a war they have been uncomfortable with from the beginning.

With the killing of Osama bin Laden, the press has been filled with stories that individuals within the White House and on Capitol Hill want to use his death as “cover” to begin an even more substantial drawdown in Afghanistan this July than commanders in the field are recommending.  What the strategic logic is leading from the one to the other is of course left totally opaque— suggesting that in the final analysis that these calls for troop reductions are really about domestic politics, declining poll numbers for the war here at home, and the initial soundings associated with the upcoming presidential campaign season.

But before we rush off to cut troop numbers precipitously, two points are worth considering.  The first is that, even as things stand now, we have too few boots on the ground in Afghanistan to conduct a full-scale counterinsurgency.  This is a point I have covered before http://www.aei.org/article/102547 but is picked up most recently in a piece by Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Dan Green in Armed Forces Journal, “Getting it Right: 10 Problems with the Afghan Campaign” http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2011/05/6151477.  The first problem Green identifies is that there are “not enough troops” as is:

The dominant narrative of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., is that there are enough troops to undertake a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign. However, the difference between the rhetoric of troop increases and the reality is still quite stark. Many areas of the country have sufficient troops to undertake a population protection strategy whereas others are COIN-lite and some have few, if any troops at all. This rationing of the war, where some areas receive a great deal of attention and others are economies of force, will prove insufficient to prevail against the Taliban. The Key Terrain District (KTD) program wherein coalition operations are focused in more than 80 districts represents this reduction of expectations. Each KTD is supposed to have a synchronized delivery of population-protection, good governance and reconstruction/development efforts. We are already not meeting these reduced expectations, and as we squeeze the insurgency in some areas with a counterinsurgency approach it is manifesting itself in others where sufficient resources are absent. It is an open secret in Kabul that senior ISAF leaders want more troops. President Obama’s authorization of an additional 1,400 U.S. Marines in January was further evidence that there aren’t enough troops to undertake the tasks required under a population-centric campaign and that his support for 30,000 troops was insufficient.

The second point about cutting back on American forces is that our allies in Afghanistan will be taking their cues from what the administration decides.  Given how little support there is among most of our allies’ population for being in Afghanistan, it will be impossible for them to not react with deep reductions of their own—multiplying the problem of having too few (or, at best, just enough) troops in theater.  As The Telegraph is reporting, David Cameron, the UK prime minister, is already pushing to start bringing British troops home in conjunction with the Obama set timeline of July as well.  Cameron is doing so in face of his defense chiefs arguing against on the grounds that a reduction in the “force density” of troops in central Helmand where the Brits are deployed will put in jeopardy their counterinsurgency efforts.  And, I can say from my own discussions in other allied capitals, each is looking to see what the administration does in July and what it announces for the future as a signal for what they in turn will do. In short, if the administration is not careful about its decision on troop reductions, it could well instigate a mass rush to the door, undermining the very hard fought progress that has been made in Afghanistan over the past year.  What a waste of resources, effort and, most of all, lives that will be.

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.

(flickr/ISAF Media)

Once again, Muqtada al Sadr may help the United States snatch success from the jaws of defeat in Iraq.

Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki’s announcement that he will “meet with Iraqi political leaders by the end of the month to get their opinions on whether some U.S troops should remain in the country after December” shows, by Iraqi standards, remarkable foresight and advanced planning. Normally, major Iraqi political negotiations begin at the eleventh hour and last well beyond any deadline.

While it’s a fool’s game to try to predict an outcome, there is one fact which binds Maliki’s “mainstream” Shiites, Iyad Alawi’s Sunni bloc, and the Kurdish factions together: fear and loathing of the rabble-rousing Sadr. Upon returning from several years of “self-imposed” exile in Iran – which the “firebrand” cleric chose after two uprisings by his Mahdi Army militia were badly defeated – Sadr declared, “We are still fighters,” and has threatened attacks if U.S. forces remain in Iraq past 2011. In April, Sadrists took to the streets in Baghdad and Najaf. Sadr also improved his standing by ostentatiously devoting himself to acquiring greater religious authority by studying, during his exile, at Qom. And Sadr seems to have bettered his relations with Iraq’s leading cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, though by how much is difficult to measure.

While other Iraqi factions would, in the abstract, also be happy minimizing American military presence, they have no interest in sharing power with Sadr or adopting any of his populist measures for distributing oil revenues. Indeed, the ability of Iraq to attract investment to rebuild its energy economy is inversely proportional to Sadr’s political power. Additionally, Sadr’s ties with Iran don’t make him more attractive to Maliki, Alawi, or the Kurds. These parties have plenty to squabble over without Sadr’s help.

Thus it’s pretty useful to have the United States around to do the dirty work, such as a recent raid Sadrist headquarters in Diyala Province. It will be interesting to see whether the records seized provide evidence of activity in the region by operatives of Iranian Republican Guard Corps.

Sadr’s ambitions also provide an opportunity to the Obama administration, though it’s not clear that they’re in the mood to exploit it, even after pulling off the successful bin Laden raid. But Sadr could put them back in business.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(U.S. Army photo/Spc. Charles Joseph)

China’s Strategic Forces: More Nukes?

by Michael Mazza

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center recently published a paper that Dan Blumenthal and I wrote about China’s strategic forces. We argue that there are a number of factors driving the People’s Republic to rely more heavily on nuclear weapons for its defense, a disconcerting development for the United States and its allies. The crux of our argument is as follows:

While China has been growing its nuclear arsenal and fielding new ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines, Chinese strategists have been engaged in doctrinal debates over how those weapons should be used. As a younger generation of military thinkers has come to the fore, the long-held tenets of China’s nuclear doctrine as originally set forth under Mao–namely, the “no first use” policy and minimum deterrence–are increasingly coming under scrutiny. Indeed, some strategists argue that the People’s Republic should cast these policies aside and adopt a new nuclear doctrine that will grant strategic forces a more prominent role in the country’s defense…

Still, the extent of Beijing’s reliance on nuclear weapons in the future is difficult to predict. Old thinking dies hard, and the People’s Liberation Army would likely prefer to rely on conventional means to defend China. Yet even conventional deterrence can complicate nuclear deterrence relationships. To wit, China’s growing medium-range ballistic missile threat to America’s Pacific bases will force the U.S. to rely on long-range assets for conventional deterrence. Beijing will find this destabilizing and may rely on its nuclear arsenal to deter America’s use of long-range weaponry.

In short, changes in China’s nuclear weapons force planning, posture, and doctrine are likely to complicate both the Sino-American deterrence relationship and the U.S. military’s ability to operate in the Asia-Pacific region. American military and political leaders must watch these developments closely as they consider changes to America’s own strategic force posture in the years ahead.

To deal with the destabilization caused by China’s missile threat, we offer what is, perhaps, a counter-intuitive solution:

In order to avoid further destabilization, China should be invited to accede to the INF Treaty or to sign a new INF treaty, not only with the United States, but with regional states such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan as well. If China refuses, the United States should abrogate the INF Treaty and begin an energetic build-up of short- and medium-range missiles on Guam, in Japan, and in South Korea. Having done so, the U.S. will be in position to barter away weapons it did not truly need when China determines that a missile race in Asia is counter-productive and destabilizing.

A new INF treaty would allow the U.S. and China to rely on tactical aircraft for deterrence and war-fighting and would decrease their need for long-range bombers and a prompt global strike capability. This would ease regional tensions, lessen the possibility of miscalculation, and raise nuclear thresholds. The elimination of the missile threat to South Korea and Japan might also reduce pressure on these U.S. allies to “go nuclear,” thus forestalling wider Asian proliferation and the more complex web of deterrence relationships that would result.

The future of China’s strategic arsenal is difficult to predict, but bears close watching in the coming years. China’s military modernization is already destabilizing the region; a greater emphasis on strategic assets would only serve to accelerate that trend.

(flickr/user digi_shot)