The Taliban Mark Ten Years of War with the US

by Ahmad Majidyar

To mark the tenth anniversary of the Afghanistan war, President Obama said on Friday that the United States was “responsibly ending” the war in Afghanistan. “We’ve pushed the Taliban out of its key strongholds, Afghan security forces are growing stronger, and the Afghan people have a new chance to forge their own future.”

In Afghanistan, however, the Taliban marked the anniversary differently. In a statement, they claimed to be defeating and driving out the U.S. and its allies. “The mujahedeen gradually strengthened jihad operations and used different war tactics against the enemy, which resulted in a number of casualties that led the invader enemy to think about withdrawing from this country.”

The insurgents also launched coordinated attacks on several U.S. military outposts near the Pakistani border, which seemed to be timed to mark the anniversary and were the latest in a series of suicide bombings and assassinations by the insurgents that have wreaked havoc on the Afghan population and have renewed the fears of a civil war after the departure of foreign troops by 2014.

Leaders of Northern Alliance, the group that helped the U.S. overthrow the Taliban ten years ago, have already begun mobilizing forces in fear of a Taliban comeback as foreign troops withdraw. Last month’s assassination of their leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, who also chaired Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, has increased their fear and urgency to rearm.

“If the majority of American troops withdraw … the ground will be suitable for the Taliban to return and another civil war will erupt in Afghanistan,” said Ahmad Zia Massoud, Karzai’s former vice president and brother of anti-Soviet resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Ismail Khan, another key Northern Alliance leader and former governor of Herat province, said he warned Karzai of a “new crisis” if political assassinations continue.

Over the past ten years, there has been tremendous progress in Afghanistan in the spheres of education, economic development, democracy, human rights, and women’s participation in socio-political affairs. Al-Qaeda’s operations have been severely degraded in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and many of its leaders, including Osama bin Laden, have been killed. The Taliban regime, which provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda, was ousted from power and the group’s influence today is limited to only small parts of Afghanistan. Despite the Karzai government’s failures, a majority of Afghans continue to support democracy and the current system over the insurgent groups.

But these achievements are fragile and reversible. A premature withdrawal from Afghanistan is a recipe for failure with disastrous consequences for the United States and world security. The endgame in Afghanistan should not be disengagement from the country; it should be to leave behind sufficient, sustainable stability that would prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists yet again.

Cross-posted from the National Review Online.

(Pajhwok News/Pajhwok reporter)

Win This War

by Richard Cleary and Thomas Donnelly

Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s rejection of talks with the Taliban has, it seems, tossed water on the prospects of a “political solution” between Kabul and the insurgents. Karzai’s decision, coupled with the recent statement of Admiral Mike Mullen about the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence’s enabling of the Taliban, has created an opening and a need for a political success of another kind: a renewal, within the United States, of support for the ISAF effort in Afghanistan.

For Americans, the double rejection of the Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors should put in perspective the slim prospect of reaching some well crafted diplomatic solution—a “peace with honor”—in the war against the Taliban. It’s also a reminder of the broader geopolitical context of the “war on terror.”

Mullen has it right: Reaching a secure Afghanistan is not just the product of disrupting and degrading the Taliban, it involves finding the right balance with Pakistan. This last order may be the tallest, not least because it involves a willingness to reconsider unsuccessful diplomatic practices.

With the pathway to a political agreement with the Taliban closed, victory in Afghanistan lies with leaving a viable government in Kabul. At the center of any effort to build an independent Afghan state is Hamid Karzai, who is much maligned for a realpolitik approach to statecraft, ties to corruption, and a changeable personality. But however correct these critiques may be, it is also true that Karzai is the product of a particular political system, a man with clear interests and largely predictable behavior and, crucially, whose political objects largely align with our own in the region.

The most important aspect of any lasting “political solution” is security.  That remains foremost in the minds of Afghans—and also Iraqis.  We cannot “kill our way to peace,” but neither can we expect peace when our enemies would rather kill than talk. Americans do seem ready to talk—about what we should do in Afghanistan. The Republican primary has returned the war to a prominent place in the national debate, and has given an opportunity to candidates to voice their differences with the president on more than just domestic policy.  The Republicans have a chance to offer a choice—win this war, don’t just end it.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(U.S. Army photo/Spc. Phil Kernisan)

Afghan President Karzai Suspends Taliban Talks

by Ahmad Majidyar

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday announced a major review of his government’s peace strategy, saying that he would no longer talk to the Taliban and instead would negotiate directly with Pakistan.[i] The real authority to negotiate with is “governments, not their proxies,” he said, adding that he would soon convene a Loya Jirga, a traditional assembly, to decide on how to bring about peace in the country.[ii]

The policy shift comes after last month’s assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president who chaired the High Peace Council, and reflects Karzai’s frustration at not being able to persuade the Taliban to join the peace process. The council has made little headway since its creation a year ago as the Taliban leadership has rejected talks and responded with violence to Kabul’s “one-sided” concessions, such as releasing prisoners and offering senior positions in the government. Last fall, a purported senior Taliban leader in talks with NATO and Karzai turned out to be an imposter,[iii] and earlier this year, U.S. talks with a Taliban representative stalled when the latter went missing after his name was leaked to the media.

Rabbani’s death has also strained ties between Kabul and Islamabad. Afghan officials say the assassin was a Pakistani national[iv] and accuses Pakistan’s intelligence agency—the ISI—of complicity.  Afghan and U.S. officials have also accused the ISI of aiding last month’s attack against the U.S. embassy in Kabul—allegations Pakistan denies. On Tuesday, Afghanistan’s acting intelligence chief told the parliament that fifteen ISI-supported insurgent groups were operating against the Afghan government.[v] To step up pressure on Islamabad and in a sign of a shift in regional realignments, Karzai on Tuesday inked a strategic pact with New Delhi, which involves training and equipping Afghanistan’s security forces and will arouse more ire of Pakistani leaders who see increasing Indian role in their backyard with suspicion.

The shift is also a move by the embattled Afghan president to mollify former Northern Alliance leaders who resent Karzai’s one-sided peace efforts with the Taliban, especially after Rabbani’s killing. Atta Muhammad Noor, the influential governor of northern Balkh Province, said peace with the Taliban was “meaningless”[vi] and called on supporters to “stay united and take revenge.”[vii] If the government fails to change its Taliban policy, he warned, “we will use the mujahedeen who have experience of war against the Soviets and the Taliban.”[viii] Other Northern Alliance leaders issued similar ultimatums.

Newspapers in Kabul welcomed cancelation of peace talks with the Taliban. Afghanistan Daily wrote that the government wasted a lot of energy and time in trying to talk to the Taliban although the insurgents’ response has been increasing violence and murder. Sarnawesht Daily predicted that Karzai’s “brotherly policy” toward Pakistan would change. Mandagar, another Afghan daily, argued that Karzai’s policy shift was meant to avert the formation of a strong anti-government opposition alliance.[ix]

Rabbani’s killing, the latest in a series of high-profile assassinations this year, and souring relations between Kabul and Islamabad mean that a political solution to end the decade-long conflict is not in the offing.  As the U.S. and NATO forces are rushing for an exit, regional countries have stepped up jockeying to fill the vacuum, and inside Afghanistan, there is an increasing fear of a return to the 1990s civil war and a Taliban comeback—prompting many former Northern Alliance commanders to rearm militias and stockpile weapons.

Only a long-term commitment by the U.S. and NATO allies would help sustain gains of the past decade and guarantee the country’s stability in the future. A premature abandonment of Afghanistan will turn the country into a battlefield for proxy wars by competing neighbors, which would further destabilize the region and benefit the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Cross-posted from the Critical Threats Project.

[i] “Karzai addresses the nation,” Tolo News, October 3, 2011. Available: http://tolonews.com/en/miscellaneous-videos/4094-karzai-addresses-the-nation [ii] “Karzai: ba zoodi loya Jirga sunati raa faraa mekhwanam [Karzai: I will soon convene a traditional Loya Jirga],” BBC Farsi, October 3, 2011. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/afghanistan/2011/10/111003_l09_karzai_gerga_peace_talks.shtml [iii] Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall, “Taliban Leader in Secret Talks Was an Impostor,” New York Times, November 22, 2010. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/23/world/asia/23kabul.html?pagewanted=all [iv] Mir Agha Samimi, “Islamabad asked to extradite Rabbani’s killers,” Pajhwok News Agency, October 2, 2011. Available: http://www.pajhwok.com/en/2011/10/02/islamabad-asked-extradite-rabbanis-killers [v]ISI-backed groups active against Afghan govt: Nabil,” Pajhwok, News Agency, October 4, 2011. Available: http://www.pajhwok.com/en/subscription-required?destination=node%2F158252 [vi] “Aks ul amal hai gostarda dakheli dar mawrod-e shahadat-e Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani [Extensive domestic reactions to martyrdom of Burhanuddin Rabbani],” Payam-e Mojahed. Available: http://www.payamemojahed.com/index.php/site/more/3900/ [vii] “Wali Balkh khwasta-e barasee rahbord hokomat dar barabar Taliban shod [Balkh governor demands review of government’s policy toward the Taliban],” Tolo News, September 26, 2011. Available: http://tolonews.com/fa/afghanistan/4015-balkh-governor-noor-demands-government-reviews-its-taliban-policy- [viii] “Baa salah yaa be salah; dar sorat pasokh manfee dawlat ba mojahedin rejo mekonem [With or without arms, we will refer to the mujahedeen if the government’s response is negative],” Afghan Paper, September 25, 2011. Available: http://www.afghanpaper.com/nbody.php?id=27336 [ix] Round up of Kabul newspapers in BBC Farsi, October 3, 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/afghanistan/2011/10/111003_k02-kabul-press.shtml

(flickr/user nznationalparty)

In the long-term, it’s unclear precisely what President Karzai’s termination of talks with the Taliban means for the ISAF effort in Afghanistan. But with Karzai’s decision coming on the heels of Admiral Mullen’s criticism of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence for its role in facilitating the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, it seems likely that this could be a decisive moment in the Afghan War, one where America can recommit itself to the government in Kabul, to defeating the Taliban insurgency and to— in Bismarckian fashion—applying pressure on Pakistan to reach some more lasting, and candid, agreement.

Exploiting this opening—and ensuring the security conditions for political development– will be crucial to securing the vast U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan. And while most arguments regarding the American commitment in Afghanistan focus for good reason on the Taliban’s harboring of Al Qaeda, American leaders would do well to emphasize the larger strategic value of having a strong partner in Kabul.

Ensuring that the government in Kabul, in the words of General Petraeus, “develop(s) sufficient capabilities to secure and govern itself” is important not only for preventing the return of Al Qaeda, but also for injecting stability into a region that is likely to remain problematic for the foreseeable future. A strong, pro-American government in Afghanistan hedges against Iran—encircling Tehran with pro-western regimes– and provides assurances for a fragile Pakistani state next door. While American intervention in Afghanistan was never intended as a part of a grand, “great game” strategy, the devolving situation in Pakistan, in particular, has added importance to the ISAF mission.

A viable Afghan state, it should be said, turns for now on one man: Hamid Karzai. While Karzai might not be the ideal partner, he is more reliable—and more predictable—than often depicted. Karzai is guided above all by a sense of self-interest, a self-interest which largely intersects with American interests in the region. He seeks an independent Afghanistan and understands acutely the formula for achieving it: cobbling together an ethnic coalition of Tajiks, Hazari and Uzbek and a critical mass of Pashto. It is also true that, however much we may wish it were not so, any other Afghan political leader would be subject to political pressures similar to those that Karzai feels today, and likely act in similar ways.

As the political arena expands to include the views of Republican presidential candidates, Afghanistan has returned to a prominent role in the public debate. This is a prime opportunity for those who see vital American interests at stake in the Afghan War to speak up.

(ISAF photo/ USAF SrA Alexandra Hoachlander)

The top ten unicorns of China Policy

by Daniel Blumenthal

A unicorn is a beautiful, make believe creature. But despite overwhelming evidence of its fantastical nature, many people still believe in them. Much of China policy is also underpinned by belief in the fantastical: in this case, soothing but logically inconsistent ideas. But unlike unicorns, our China policy excursions into the realm of make believe could be dangerous. Crafting a better China policy requires us to identify what is imaginary in our thinking about China. Author James Mann captures some in his book.

Here are my own top ten China policy unicorns:

1. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. This is the argument that has the most purchase over our China policy. Treat China like an enemy, the belief goes, and it will become an enemy. Conversely, treat China like a friend and it will become a friend. But three decades of U.S.-China relations should at least cast doubt on this belief. Since the normalization of relations with China the aim of U.S. policy has been to bring China “into the family of nations.” Other than China itself, no nation has done more than the United States to improve the lot of the Chinese people and to welcome China’s rise peacefully. And, rather than increase its deterrence of China — a natural move given the uncertainty attendant to the rise of any great power — the United States has let its Pacific forces erode and will do so further. We may soon go through our third round of defense cuts in as many years. Here is just one example of how unserious we are about China: As China continues to build up its strategic forces, the United States has signed a deal with Russia to cap its strategic forces without so much as mentioning China. Unless Beijing was insulted by this neglect, surely it could take great comfort in an anachronistic U.S. focus on arms control with Russia. But despite our demonstrations of benevolence, China still views the United States as its enemy or, on better days, its rival. Its military programs are designed to fight the United States. The self-fulfilling prophesy is far and away the most fantastical claim about China policy and thus the number one unicorn.

2. Abandoning Taiwan will remove the biggest obstacle to Sino-American relations. Since 2003, when President Bush publicly chided then-Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian on the White House lawn with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at his side, the United States has been gradually severing its close links with Taiwan. President Obama’s Taiwan policy has been the logical dénouement. Arms sales have been stalled, no Cabinet members have visited Taiwan since the Clinton years, and trade talks are nonexistent: there is essentially nothing on the U.S.-Taiwan policy agenda. The reaction from China? Indeed, it has moved on. But rather than bask in the recent warming of its relationship with Taiwan, China has picked fights with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and India. It does not matter what “obstacles” the United States removes, China’s foreign policy has its own internal logic that is hard for the United States to “shape.” Abandoning Taiwan for the sake of better relations is yet another dangerous fantasy.

3. China will inevitably overtake the U.S. and we must manage our decline elegantly. This is a new China policy unicorn. Until a few years ago, most analysts were certain there was no need to worry about China. The new intellectual fad tells us there is nothing we can do about China. Its rise and our decline are inevitable. But inevitability in international affairs should remain the preserve of rigid ideological theorists who still cannot explain why a unified Europe has not posed a problem for the United States, why post-war Japan never really challenged U.S. primacy, or why the rising United States and the declining Britain have not gone to war since 1812. The fact is China has tremendous, seemingly insurmountable problems. It has badly misallocated its capital thanks to a distorted financial system characterized by capital controls and a non-market based currency. It may have a debt to GDP ratio as high as 80 percent thanks again to a badly distorted economy. And it has created a demographic nightmare with a shrinking productive population, senior tsunami, and millions of males who will be unmarriageable (see the pioneering work of my colleague Nick Eberstadt).

The United States also has big problems. But we are debating them vigorously, know what they are and are now looking to elect the leaders to fix them. China’s political structure does not yet allow for fixing big problems.

4. (Related to 3). China is our banker. We cannot anger our banker. In fact, China is more like a depositor. It deposits money in U.S. treasuries because its economy does not allow investors to put it elsewhere. There is nothing else it can do with its surpluses unless it changes its financial system radically (see above). It makes a pittance on its deposits. If the U.S. starts to bring down its debts and deficits China will have even fewer options. China is desperate for U.S. investment, U.S. treasuries, and the U.S. market. The balance of leverage leans towards the United States.

5. We are engaging China. This is a surprising policy unicorn. After all, we do have an engagement policy with China. But we are only engaging a small slice of China: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The party may be large — the largest in the world (it could have some 70 million members). We do need to engage party leaders on matters of high politics and high finance, but China has at least one billion other people. Many are decidedly not part of the CCP. They are lawyers, activists, religious leaders, artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs. Most would rather the CCP go quietly into the night. We do not engage them. Our presidents tend to avoid making their Chinese counterparts uncomfortable by insisting on speaking to a real cross section of Chinese society. Engagement seen through the prism of government-to-government relations keeps us from engaging with the broader Chinese public. Chinese officials come to the United States and meet with whomever they want (usually in carefully controlled settings, and often with groups who are critical of the U.S. government and very friendly to the Chinese government). U.S. leaders are far more cautious in choosing with whom to meet in China. We do not demand reciprocity in meeting with real civil society — underground church leaders, political reformers and so on. China has a successful engagement policy. We do not.

6. Our greatest challenge is managing China’s rise. Actually, our greatest challenge will probably be managing China’s long decline. Unless it enacts substantial reforms, China’s growth model may sputter out soon. There is little if nothing it can do about its demographic disaster (will it enact pro-immigration policy?). And its political system is too risk averse and calcified to make any real reforms.

7. China’s decline will make our lives easier. China’s decline may make the challenge for the United States more difficult for at least a generation. It could play out for a long time even as China grows more aggressive with more lethal weaponry (e.g., what to do with surplus males?). Arguably both Germany and Imperial Japan declined beginning after World War I and continuing through the disaster of World War II. Russia is in decline by all useful metrics. Even so, it invaded a neighbor not too long ago. A declining, nuclear-armed nation with a powerful military can be more problematic than a rising, confident nation.

8. We need to extricate ourselves from the “distractions” of the Middle East and South Asia to focus on China. This is a very popular unicorn among the cognoscenti. But how would this work? As Middle Easterners go through a historic revolution that could lead to the flowering of democracy or the turmoil of more extremism, how do we turn our attention elsewhere? Are we supposed to leave Afghanistan to the not-so-tender mercies of the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence? This view is particularly ironic given China’s increased interests in the Middle East and our need for a partnership with India to deal with China. There is no way to create the kind of order we wish to see in Asia without exerting a great amount of influence over the oil producing states in the Middle East and by allowing India to become tied down in a struggle in South Asia. We are the sole superpower, our foreign policy is interconnected. “Getting Asia right” means “getting the Middle East and South Asia right.”

9. We need China’s help to solve global problems. This is further down on my list because it is not really a fantastical unicorn. It is true. What is a fantasy is that China will be helpful. We do need China to disarm North Korea. They do not want to, and North Korea is now a nuclear power. The same may soon be true with Iran. The best we can get in our diplomacy with China is to stop Beijing from being less helpful. It is a fact that the global problems would be easier to manage with Chinese help. However, China actually contributing to global order is a unicorn.

10. Conflict with China is inevitable. A fair reading of the nine “unicorns” above may lead to the conclusion that we are destined to go to war with China. It may be a fair reading, but it is also an inaccurate one. Sino-American relations will be determined by two main drivers; one we can control, the other we cannot. The first is our ability to deter aggressive Chinese behavior. The second is how politics develop in China. The strategic prize for Washington is democratic reform in China. Democracy will not solve all Sino-American problems. China may be very prickly about sovereignty and very nationalistic. But a true liberal democracy in China in which people are fairly represented is our best hope for peace. The disenfranchised could force their government to focus resources on their manifold problems (corruption, misallocated resources, lack of social safety net). The United States and the rest of Asia will certainly trust an open and transparent China more, and ties would blossom at the level of civil society. Historically, the United States has almost always been on China’s side. It is waiting patiently to do so again.

Cross-posted from Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog.

(DoD photo/Staff Sgt Myles Cullen)

As part of an ongoing debate on Tom Ricks’ “Best Defense” blog, Tom Donnelly responds to ” A Gentleman Ranker” on the subject of mission-command tactics and British failure in Southeast Asia:

I’m all for taking Slim as a model, but he was much more the exception to the rule rather than the logical product of the interwar British system of leadership. Remember that the title of his wartime memoir was Defeat Into Victory. It began with an acknowledgment of defeat, and in Slim’s case — for he helped to rescue the remnants of the Indian Army on its retreat through Southeast Asia — something he saw at close hand. Unlike the officers who planned strategy and led British forces in the region, Slim did not underestimate the abilities of the Japanese.

Two further observations. Another way in which Slim differed from the norm of British pre-war officers was his appreciation of the fighting potential of the Indians, Burmese, Malayans — even, occasionally, Australians — who actually comprised the bulk of his force. He was a big proponent and practioner of what we now call “Building Partner Capacity.” His predecessors emphatically were not. Secondly, he knew how to win a long, hard slog. His brilliance was more reflected in perseverance than in lightning maneuver; he did practice a kind of “mission command,” and was, for example, more forgiving of Orde Wingate and his raiders than most British senior officers, but he was in no position to conduct a Guderian-like blitzkrieg, a one-campaign war. Rangoon only fell in May 1945 and the war ended before the campaign to retake Singapore, Operation Zipper, began. The Japanese were ground down, at terrible cost.

And Slim’s actions when he became British chief of staff were to shake up the system. He took over from Bernard Montgomery, who, true to form, used the occasion of the change of command to whine about things. Slim’s response: “What have YOU done?!” A succinct but scathing indictment of the British system of leadership.

See Donnelly’s original post on Auftragstatkik on “Best Defense.”

(wikipedia/Keating G)

The row between the United States and Pakistan continues in the aftermath of declarations by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen that Pakistan’s main spy agency is a key backer of the Haqqani Network, and Pakistan is starting to look mighty short of friends. The Wall Street Journal reported that on Thursday one of China’s largest mining companies was pulling out of an agreement to build coal, power, and chemical plants in southern Pakistan due to security concerns and instability in the country.

The move is significant not just because, at $19 billion, the project promised to be Pakistan’s largest foreign-investment deal ever, but because it is further evidence that the purportedly unshakable foundation on which Sino-Pakistani ties are based may not be so solid after all. Pakistanis are in the habit of waxing poetic about the superlative qualities of China-Pakistan bonhomie; Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has publicly described the friendship as being “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.”

Unfortunately for Islamabad, all evidence points to the relationship being far shallower than it would like to admit. Pakistan hopes to have China replace the United States as its long-term strategic partner in the region. The belief that they are being underwritten by Beijing is one reason why many in Pakistan’s leadership feel they can get away with murder vis-à-vis the United States. What the Pakistanis have not grasped so far, however, is that the Chinese are unenthusiastic about playing anything close to the role the United States does in Pakistan.

China’s response to Pakistani wooing after the bin Laden raid has so far been tepid. In May, Pakistan’s defense minister publicly stated that China had agreed to take over operations at the southern Pakistani port of Gawadar. Embarrassingly, the Chinese replied that they were unaware of any such agreement. Beijing has continued to parry Pakistani urgings for a formalized defense pact, believing that Pakistan is too volatile for such a weighty agreement. The Chinese have, on multiple occasions, publicly blamed militants based inside Pakistan for violence in China’s western Xinjiang region and Chinese workers have been killed or abducted in numerous attacks inside Pakistan. Furthermore, China does not want to undertake moves that would damage its nascent rapprochement with neighboring India or sour its relations with the United States.

The bottom line is, the Chinese are in the business of doing business. They have never been generous donors of aid to Pakistan, and they likely do not want to fill the role the United States currently plays towards Pakistan with billions of dollars of multi-year assistance agreements. China has been looking to expand road and rail links through Pakistan in addition to numerous other investment projects, but it has not been willing to overlook Pakistan’s risky political and security situation.

This is not to say that the two countries will cease to have warm relations or continue to strengthen their military and trade ties, but Pakistan continues to delude itself if it thinks it will ever be able to replicate with China the opportunities the United States has so far been willing to provide. Nationalistic fervor and a sense of wounded pride are swelling in Pakistan in response to the latest fracas with the United States, and calls to break ties with America altogether are growing stronger. But Pakistan’s military and political elite had better be realistic about its impending isolation before they tell the United States “it’s time to see other strategic partners.”

Cross-posted from AEI’s Critical Threats Project.


No More Cuts

by Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly

Among the many shortcomings of the Budget Control Act and its spawn, the “Super Committee,” is that the threat of a sequestration “nuclear option”—in which some $600 billion would be cut automatically from national security accounts if congressmen do not find savings elsewhere—diverts attention from the damage the law has done already to America’s military.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey have been quick off the mark in pointing out that sequestration would be “unacceptable” and “very high risk.” Various military service leaders have said that, if sequestration does come to pass, the country would have to “rethink” its entire military strategy. But the corollary to such criticism has been that the cuts already in law, though painful, can be “managed.” The Air Force’s second-ranking general told the House Armed Services Committee that “we will not go hollow” despite the $400 billion cut provided in the Budget Control Act.

A better understanding of how the military is already being weakened can be found in a memo prepared for House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon. Although most news reports about the memo focused on the deep, indeed shocking, cuts in force structure that may result from sequestration, no less important was the memo’s accounting of the long-term effect on the military of current funding under the Budget Control Act.

The real problem is not the mechanism of sequestration, brutal though it may be. The fact is that the United States has been in an extended “defense drawdown” since the end of the Cold War, reaping substantial “peace dividends” throughout the Clinton years, during the Obama years, and now under the Budget Control Act. Indeed, more than $800 billion has been cut from planned spending in just the past three years. It’s time to say “enough” and to refuse not only sequestration but also a deal that avoids automatic reductions by substituting “just” a couple of hundred billion more in defense cuts. These are “savings” the nation cannot afford.

The McKeon memo does not specify with equal precision the budget’s effects on future weapons programs, but there’s no reason to think such effects won’t be commensurate to the service cuts. The committee is correct to point out that every modernization program is “at risk”; the only real question is the level of risk. We are told that sequestration will create “unacceptable” risk, but because the Pentagon has yet to fully reckon the consequences of the current cuts, or even to reckon their overall size, there’s no way of knowing how much damage has already been done. So the service chiefs’ assurances that all is well should be treated with a heavy dose of skepticism.

Consider the personnel strength of the Army and Marine Corps. Even with 771,400 soldiers and Marines on active duty, both services remain stretched well beyond their limits. Based on current funding, the committee estimates that end-strength will fall to 654,000—smaller than pre-9/11 levels. Similarly, the Navy could slip to something on the order of 260 vessels—more than 50 ships below what the Navy consistently has argued it needs to carry out the country’s national security strategy. As for the Air Force, in 2000, it was flying more than 3,600 fighters; with cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act, that number may drop to less than 1,740.

But there’s good reason to wonder whether this is right. To begin with, the size of the current cut has grown. Last week Reuters reported that the level of defense reductions has increased to $489 billion, after the Obama administration decided to exempt veterans’ benefits from any cuts whatsoever. The White House is making a rather predictable political judgment that cutting Veterans budgets would cause them more pain than gutting defense budgets.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(ISAF photo/ISAF SrA Alexandra Hoachlander)

The killing of al Qaeda leader Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen was a good and important step forward in the war against terrorists.  Combined with the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the subsequent killings of other al Qaeda leaders there, it deals a blow to the movement. The death of Awlaki is particularly important because it weakens al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is emerging as the most effective and dangerous al Qaeda franchise with global aims.

We must not, however, see in these killings a strategy for dismantling and defeating al Qaeda and preventing it from re-establishing itself—the president’s apt exposition of our overall aims in this conflict.

Senior-most leadership is important in this terrorist franchise network, make no mistake. The succession from Bin Laden to Ayman al Zawahiri caused turmoil within al Qaeda and will probably have long-term effects on the shape and development of that movement. Awlaki’s death will likely have somewhat less of an impact on AQAP, since he was neither its founder nor its principal leader, although his spiritual and recruiting functions will be difficult for the group to replace.

But replace it they will if attacks against them are confined to strikes against the most high-profile and senior-most leadership. A number of al Qaeda franchises and fellow-traveller movements have gone through successful leadership transitions. U.S. forces killed al Qaeda in Iraq founder and leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi in June 2006. He was rapidly replaced by a deputy, Abu Ayyub al Masri, who led the organization into an even more lethal and effective strategy aimed at fomenting sectarian civil war in Iraq in 2006, at which he nearly succeeded. The Haqqani insurgent network has seen the leadership torch passed from its founder and patriarch, Jalaluddin Haqqani, to his son Sirajuddin, and the lethality and effectiveness of that group increased as well. The killing of Tehrik-e Taliban-e Pakistan founder and leader Beitullah Mehsud—who was responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto—has had a more significant effect on that group, which has splintered under the pressure of his death, limited Pakistani operations, and resumed the tribal infighting that Beitullah Mehsud had worked hard to overcome.

The splinters, however, continue to fight both the U.S. and Pakistan, and that group is far from defeated.

The effect of Zawahiri’s succession to the leadership mantle of the core al Qaeda group remains to be seen, but that is the exception that proves the rule. The U.S. and Pakistan have been aggressively and effectively targeting senior- and mid-level leadership of the core al Qaeda group for a decade.

We have removed not only the founder and leader, but numerous operational commanders, facilitators, trainers, and others. In the case of operational commanders, we have killed successors to the successors many times.

Zawahiri thus takes control over a group that has been severely degraded by constant pressure against leadership at all levels, not just the top. His group, moreover, does not control territory within Pakistan any more, leading either a comfortable but hidden existence as bin Laden did, or a more flitting and migratory existence as most of the facilitators do. All of that pressure has been essential to reducing the effectiveness of the core al Qaeda group to its current level, and the killing of bin Laden, important though it was, was just another piece of a robust strategy that denied al Qaeda Central concentrated safe-havens and continually disrupted the network’s leadership at all levels. It is also worth noting that Pakistan has generally been very supportive of U.S. efforts directly focused against al Qaeda, debates over ISI knowledge or ignorance of bin Laden’s hideaway in Abbottabad notwithstanding.

The U.S. is pursuing no such strategy against AQAP.  The group currently has safe-haven within Yemen, and the chaos surrounding the spread of the Arab Spring to Sana’a has allowed it to expand that safe haven. Neither American nor Yemeni forces are seriously challenging the major support areas that AQAP has already established—the fighting in Southern Yemen against AQAP is aimed at limiting its expansion rather than reducing its base. We have not been able to muster the same kind of top-to-bottom pressure on AQAP through targeted strikes, moreover, as we have conducted against al Qaeda central.

We don’t have the bases or intelligence needed to do so in a theater with virtually no U.S. presence and very limited cooperation from local security forces. The prospects for developing that kind of infrastructure in Yemen are very poor.

The notion that the targeted killings of a handful of key leaders of al Qaeda franchises around the world will end the terror threat to the U.S. cheaply, quickly, and efficiently is seductive but wrong. We have far too much evidence to show that committed terrorist organizations can and do replace leaders faster than we can kill them, and that the replacements can lead the movements as well or sometimes better than their deceased predecessors. It takes the kind of sustained, high-tempo, focused operations we have directed against the core al Qaeda group to reduce the threat of such an enemy significantly, but we do not have the capabilities ourselves or the capable partners in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere to repeat that exercise.

Killings of high-profile terrorist leaders are important both symbolically and practically. President Obama and his team are to be congratulated on their recent successes, and may they continue. But we must not confuse those successes with a strategy, or allow these news-grabbing positive events to conceal the reality that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains a virulent organization that will continue to threaten the U.S. directly and indirectly until and unless we can develop, articulate, and implement a more comprehensive strategy to attack and defeat that network than we have yet done.

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.

(wikimedia commons/Muhammad ud-Deen)