Dr. Adullah Abdullah’s withdrawal from the Afghan presidential runoff confirms that the Obama administration will be forced to work for the foreseeable future with Hamid Karzai, about whom they have consistently voiced serious doubts (to put it mildly). And although Karzai may have lost the opportunity to affirm his legitimacy in a second, untainted contest — as the administration had insisted he must — there may be a silver lining here. As David Sanger reports today in The New York Times:
Now, administration officials argue that Mr. Karzai will have to regain that legitimacy by changing the way he governs, at a moment when he is politically weaker than at any time since 2001. “We’re going to know in the next three to six months whether he’s doing anything differently – whether he can seriously address the corruption, whether he can raise an army that ultimately can take over from us and that doesn’t lose troops as fast as we train them,” one of Mr. Obama’s senior aides said.
More so than fraud-free elections, these are exactly the steps by which Karzai best stands to demonstrate and earn credibility among Afghans — and they also represent the metrics by which we should judge the quality and commitment of our partner government. As I’ve argued here before, for the average citizen of Afghanistan, the government’s legitimacy is determined primarily by its ability to provide security and a just resolution to civil disputes. A U.S. strategy of engagement with the Afghan government which emphasizes the issues laid out by the official quoted above would thus be step in the right direction.
Yesterday Barack Obama signed the first defense authorization bill of his presidency. Signing speeches for the bill tend to be pro-forma occasions — though the addition of a “hate-crimes” provision made this one attractive to a very different, non-defense, Demcoratic consitutency — but for that reason often can be revealing. Talking points do matter (and in Washington usually pass for ideas). Let’s listen in to the president (and to my peanut-gallery comments interspersed):
“I have always rejected the notion that we have to waste billions of dollars of taxpayer money to keep this nation secure. In fact, I think that wasting these dollars makes us less secure.”
Has there ever been a Security-Through-Waste lobby or caucus? Complaints about “waste, fraud and abuse” — of which there is an irreducible minimum in human behavior, and a higher but still irreducible minimum when governments get involved — are too often the signs of know-nothing-ism in military affairs. Occasionally, good men try to lower the level of misdirected defense investment (think David Packard), but defense procurement reforms most often make things worse than they were.
“Now, at the outset, let me just say that this effort would not have been possible without an extraordinary Secretary of Defense. And so I want to thank publicly Bob Gates for his service to our nation. (Applause.) Having served under eight Presidents of both parties, this is a man who understands that our defense budget isn’t about politics, it’s about the security of our country, and who knows that every dollar wasted is a dollar we can’t spend to care for our troops or protect the homeland. And over the last several months, he took that fight to Congress. He challenged conventional thinking, and he emerged with several critical victories. So on behalf of the American people, I want to thank you, Bob, for your extraordinary efforts. (Applause.)”
Secretary Gates has indeed carried an immense amount of water for the president in accomplishing a significant reduction in defense spending and canceling programs. And he did face down congressional defense advocates, though that’s hardly the task it once was: defense-minded, “Harry Truman” Democrats are fewer and farther between (or have, like Sen. Joe Lieberman, left the party), and the Republican congressional leadership has higher priorities too. The man who might have made some difference, Sen. John McCain, is, alas, terminally infected with the defense reform bug.
Next year, there may be a tougher fight. Obama has singled out the Pentagon for cuts while spending without restraint on everything else. Regardless of his Afghanistan decisions, cutting military budgets while fighting two wars is a political risk. The forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review and 2011 budget will also provoke congressional resistance. And Gates, too, is said to be having second thoughts about further cuts.
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) recently released an important report (prepared by Northrop Grumman) on China’s cyber warfare capabilities. While most media coverage of the report focuses on the example of China’s cyber espionage against a U.S. company profiled in the report, the section on the People’s Liberation Army’s Information Warfare (IW) strategy is much more valuable. Unlike the panicky warnings of Chinese infiltrations of U.S. infrastructure or defense projects that usually appear in the news, by thoroughly examining the PLA’s writings on computer network operations (CNO; also frequently called “cyber warfare”) (consisting of both computer network attacks and defense) and IW, the report’s authors were able to present a clear case as to the likelihood that the PRC will conduct cyber warfare in future conflicts, while providing a relatively detailed picture of the PLA’s approach to IW — something previous public discussions have not effectively done.
Though the report’s scope was limited to open source materials (as directed by the USCC), and while it does not predict the exact circumstances in which the PRC will use cyber warfare, the report does make it clear that as a conflict begins, so too will the PLA’s implementation of its IW strategies. According to the report, “Achieving information dominance is one of the key goals for the PLA at the strategic and campaign level” and it is considered “a prerequisite for seizing air and naval superiority” (p. 11). In other words, IW will be the first step of any PLA campaign, intended to disable (perhaps temporarily) the enemy in order to allow a window of opportunity for the PLA to obtain its objectives. This strategy is part of a conceptual framework called “Integrated Network Electronic Warfare,” which is a simultaneous use of computer attack and defense, along with traditional electronic warfare in an attempt to cripple enemy command networks. “The objective [of network warfare] is to deny an enemy access to information essential for continued combat operations. The adoption of this strategy suggests that the PLA is developing specific roles for CNO during wartime and possibly peacetime as well.” (p. 13).
Michael Forsythe discussed China’s aircraft carrier program last week in The New York Times. While the article focuses on China’s refurbishment of a Soviet carrier to serve as a training platform, it is Forsythe’s discussion of the program’s implications for the Sino-U.S. military balance — in particular his relating of comments by Robert Ross — that is striking:
“While China’s commission of an aircraft carrier may cause consternation in Washington, it will not change the military balance between the nations because of the U.S. lead in numbers of carrier battle groups and platforms such as ultra-silent cruise-missile-carrying nuclear submarines, says Robert Ross, a professor at Boston College in Massachusetts who specializes in U.S.-China relations.
That reality may be lost amid alarm in Congress and among allies, including the Philippines, which came to the brink of conflict with China in 1995 over Chinese military installations on a South China Sea reef and will look for reassurance from Washington that defense ties remain strong.”
In one sense, Ross is correct; one Chinese aircraft carrier will not significantly alter the U.S.-China military balance. But Ross’s stated “reality,” as Forsythe describes it, really misses the point. China’s intention is not to commission just one carrier. Rather, reports indicate that China plans to build four — two conventional, two nuclear-powered — over the next 15 years, and that is something to worry about. China appears to be intent on whittling away at the U.S. Navy’s numerical superiority. The Navy is certain to maintain its qualitative edge, but it has not had to face a (potential) adversary with multiple carriers afloat since World War II. It will take time for China’s carriers to become operationally effective, but they will undoubtedly provide a boon to the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) power projection capability.
Speaking at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station yesterday, President Obama — in addition to insisting he wouldn’t be rushed into a decision about strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan — told the assembled sailors, “To make sure you can meet the missions we ask of you, we’re increasing the defense budget.”
This may — repeat, may – be more than a recycling of propaganda from this spring, when the administration shifted $10 billion from planned wartime supplemental spending into the baseline defense budget and called in an increase. Word coming out of the Pentagon indicates that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has told the White House that the defense topline for 2011, roughly $550 billion, won’t be enough. The early betting is, too, that Gates, who previously has been a can-do front-man for Obama’s cuts in Pentagon spending, will be able to convince the White House, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, ultimately to agree.
One can only wish that Gates had done this a year ago. But in a year when, as the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, the budget for the Education Department rose by 209 — yes, 209 — percent and for the Environmental Protection Agency by 146 percent, it’s been the Defense Department forced to make “tough choices” like canceling the F-22 and Future Combat Systems programs or doing little to increase the size of, and thereby lessen the strains on, the Army and Marine Corps.
So perhaps the president’s promise was more than a feel-good, throwaway line before a military audience. And maybe Gates, who has given the administration a military gravitas that it would otherwise lack, will stand firm. Certainly, the coming budget year, coming in the wake of the president’s decision on Afghanistan and accompanied by the release of the Quadrennial Defense Review, is shaping up as a watershed moment, not just for this government but for the nation and our role in the world.
Tom Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies.
Even as President Obama weighs Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s troop request, another resource question awaits resolution with the administration’s new Afghanistan strategy. In his assessment report, Gen. McChrystal recommended nearly doubling the projected end strength of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) — a plan that the administration at one point reportedly favored, and one which has support from key members of Congress. If, as many have suggested, the development of the ANSF is the key to U.S. forces’ eventual departure from Afghanistan, it’s critical that the Afghan military is properly sized and resourced. Yet it remains to be seen just how the administration will proceed on the issue.
Prior to the release of the Obama administration’s original “Af-Pak” strategy, it was widely expected that the new approach would call for a dramatic expansion in the planned size of the ANSF. In a New York Times story on March 18, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt reported:
“President Obama and his advisers have decided to significantly expand Afghanistan’s security forces in the hope that a much larger professional army and national police force could fill a void left by the central government and do more to promote stability in the country, according to senior administration and Pentagon officials.
A plan awaiting final approval by the president would set a goal of about 400,000 troops and national police officers, more than twice the forces’ current size, and more than three times the size that American officials believed would be adequate for Afghanistan in 2002, when the Taliban and Al Qaeda appeared to have been routed.”
The 400,000 target was significant; it reflected a serious commitment to a strategy that purportedly hinged on partnering with Afghan forces and eventually transferring responsibility for the country’s security to them. It also represented a significant increase from the Bush administration’s goal of building a 134,000-strong force, which had been announced in September 2008.
And yet on March 27, when the president outlined his new strategy, he announced the following:
“We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011 — and increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward.”
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By invading South Waziristan this week, Pakistan may have entered a turning point in the war on terror. Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Deliverance), which began on Sunday, October 17, is the third in a series of anti-militant clearing operations — after Bajaur and Swat — that the Pakistani military has conducted, and aims to scrub South Waziristan of the infrastructure the TTP uses to train terrorists for attacks across Pakistan. Unlike the 2004 incursion into Waziristan and the 2008 Bajaur operation, the Pakistani military is employing a methodical strategy to seize ground with minimal losses, deny propaganda victories to the TTP enemy, and limit civilian casualties.
The operation has proceeded along three fronts: in the north, from Razmak to Makeen; in the west, from Wana to Sherwangi; and in the east, from Jandola to Sararogha. The northern front has moved little, as the Pakistani forces continue to set conditions for an eventual advance upon Makeen, perhaps the most important city in the TTP heartland. Pakistani forces have advanced the greatest distance along the western front, gaining ground while clearing ammunition caches. On the eastern Jandola front, the town of Kotkai has proven the most problematic for Pakistani forces: Kotkai, the hometown of TTP leaders Hakimullah Meshud and Qari Hussain, remains under TTP control despite briefly being seized by Pakistani forces on Monday, October 19.
However, while TTP fighters have shown strong resistance at Kotkai, the Pakistani military has displayed previously unseen patience in operations on the eastern front. Rather than entering and flattening the town as the Pakistanis did on several occasions during the Bajaur campaign, which would mar any government effort to win favor among South Waziristan residents , the Pakistani military has enveloped the town and seized the surrounding strategic heights in an attempt to use the rough terrain against Kotkai’s TTP defenders. During the 2004 Waziristan operation, Pakistani forces did not do this, instead advancing rapidly along valleys, resulting in high losses as insurgents conducted ambushes from surrounding peaks. The Pakistani military has also employed effective route clearance packages during Operation Rah-e-Nijat to limit damage from IEDs, the usage of which the TTP have learned from insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The TTP’s odds of victory may improve if it is able to maintain its current pace of spectacular terrorist attacks across Pakistan: three attacks occurred across Pakistan just this morning, in addition to the assassination of an army officer yesterday and the bombing of the International Islamic University in Islamabad on Wednesday. Such acts may also represent desperate efforts on the part of TTP’s proxies outside Waziristan to erode public support for Rah-e-Nijat, and the TTP almost certainly trained and placed the attackers behind these events before the Waziristan operation. It is not clear how long the TTP would need to regenerate a network of suicide bombers, or if it has infrastructure outside Waziristan to do so. If the attacks this week have expended the TTP’s current reserve capacity and the regeneration rate lasts several weeks the attacks may not continue at their current frequency.
Frederick Kagan is the director of AEI’s Critical Threats Project, Charlie Szrom is the Critical Threats Project program manager, and Reza Jan is a research assistant at AEI.
While most of the conversation and attention during Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to South Korea this week was focused on what was happening over the DMZ in Pyongyang, there was a second gorilla in the room: what to do about the formal command relations between American and South Korean forces. Gates had nothing but praise for the progress to disband the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command and transfer operational control of South Korean Forces from the U.S. to South Korea by 2012. But considering the mounting threat coming from the north, and Seoul’s economic woes, it’s fair to question the wisdom of this move.
The idea behind the transfer of operational control, originally proposed under former, left-wing President Roh Moo-hyun, was that South Korea should gain greater independence from the U.S. and assume more responsibility within the alliance. The proposal, however, was made prior to both North Korean nuclear tests and at a time when anti-Americanism in South Korea was at an all time high. Now, under President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative government, a number of military and civilian officials in South Korea, including President Lee himself, have expressed apprehension about the transition. Even though the transfer is three years away, critics in Seoul have begun launching petition campaigns and making trips to D.C., pleading for its postponement, at least until South Korea is confident that it is prepared.
In the same breath that Gates applauded South Korea’s readiness to take operational control of its troops, he also pointed out that Seoul’s defense spending is inadequate and should be raised to a level “commensurate with the threat [it] faces on the peninsula.” This was not in fact the first time South Korea has come under fire for its defense budget; Gates and other U.S. officials have repeatedly criticized Seoul for slacking on defense spending despite the ever-present threat it faces from the North. To make matters worse, just last month news broke that budget hawks in the Lee administration want to scale back proposed defense spending from 8.9 percent to 3.8 percent, putting the ROK military in an even worse position to bulk up its defenses by 2012.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran over at The Washington Post had an interesting article this morning on the Marines in Helmand province. Chandrasekaran suggests that the Marine’s successes in Nawa, immediately south of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah may be a model for success — one which might be applicable to other districts around Helmand and possibly elsewhere in southern Afghanistan. For those calling for a COIN campaign in Afghanistan, the initial results in Nawa are encouraging.
The Marines in Nawa represent a limited, specific application of a properly executed COIN strategy, and the security situation there has improved dramatically. In October of 2008, the insurgency was thoroughly entrenched in Nawa and closing the five kilometer gap between the district and the provincial capital. Today, after operating in the district for three months, the Marines have managed to establish a remarkably secure environment. Constant foot-patrols, face-to-face interaction with the locals and a proper counterinsurgent-to-population ratio (approximately 1:50) has started to demonstrate results.
The local bazaar is thriving and locals no longer complain about security. Instead, they have shifted their focus to the next critical element of counterinsurgency — education, health, agriculture and rural development. This is a remarkable turnaround of events that hasn’t been the norm in Helmand. To build on the Marine’s initial successes, reconstruction teams and most importantly, local governance structures must begin to deliver. More importantly, they themselves must begin to gain the trust of the local population. This will be the ultimate marker of success in Nawa, Helmand, and the rest of Afghanistan.
For their part, the insurgents have behaved exactly as one would expect. They have relocated elsewhere. While it is not necessary to chase them all over the province, it is necessary to establish Nawa-like results in the myriad critical population centers across the province. U.S. forces need not be everywhere, just everywhere that is critical to the enemy and the coalition. This will ultimately require more U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops practicing population-centric counterinsurgency. In the end, Helmand may prove to be the standard of success for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. But for now, we’ll have to wait and see.
Jeffrey Dressler is a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. He is the author of “Securing Helmand: Understanding and Responding to the Enemy.”