Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
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This article, by Simon Tisdall, was originally published in The Guardian, September 7, 2009
Afghanistan's election debacle has increased the crushing weight of intractable problems besetting western policymakers
Hopes that a successful Afghan presidential election would assist western efforts to secure, stabilise and develop the country recede with every percentage point that is added to Hamid Karzai's tally. Karzai is said to have obtained 48.6% of the vote against 31.7% for his nearest rival with about 25% of ballots still to count. Only a small miracle or a massive counter-fraud can now stop him surpassing the 50% threshold required for re-election.
Karzai's looming "victory" is viewed with gloom in western capitals. It is believed, and not only by his opponents, to have been achieved via blatant, systematic, indefensible vote-rigging, bribery and intimidation. It was already tainted by pre-poll pacts between Karzai and notorious warlords and drug-traffickers. It was facilitated by the collusion of corrupt provincial officials afraid of losing their jobs. And it followed US and British failure to find a viable alternative candidate, or to install an Afghan "chief executive" or a western diplomatic satrap, to curb Karzai's powers.
The election debacle has thus increased, rather than eased, the crushing weight of intractable problems besetting western policymakers and soldiers struggling to make sense of Afghanistan. These difficulties are approaching critical mass as civilian deaths continue, western casualties mount and public support slides. Notwithstanding Gordon Brown's Afghan plan, enunciated last Friday, pressing decisions about what to do next, and how, will be made in the Oval Office, not Downing Street.
Barack Obama faces no shortage of advice, primarily from his top Afghan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who has been reviewing strategy. McChrystal's broad conclusions – giving priority to protecting the Afghan people and enhancing government and civilian capacity – have already been leaked. Decisions on more specific proposals, such as raising US troop levels by 40-45,000 to well over 100,000 and pushing for more Nato troops, too, are now imminent.
Raising force levels again (he already sent an extra 21,000 earlier this year) represents an enormous political risk for Obama and one he is not in particularly good shape to take. His approval ratings have fallen faster than any first term president since Gerald Ford, he faces increasing resistance to his domestic agenda, notably healthcare reform, and the Afghan imbroglio is being recast by conservatives as Obama's "war of choice" rather than the "war of necessity" that he describes.
As in Britain, there is no consensus over war aims: is it self-defence, is it democracy promotion, is it nation-building, or is it about smashing the heroin trade? Few seem to agree. Among US allies there is diminishing appetite for the fight; it has become a divisive election issue in Germany while Japan's new government has pledged to end its involvement. On top of that, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs, and defence secretary Robert Gates freely admit time is running short to turn things around. Congressional Democrats, mindful of next year's mid-term polls, heartily agree.
Speaking last week, Mullen suggested the worsening security situation in Afghanistan must be reversed within the next 12 to 18 months or else the game would be up. "I think it is serious and it is deteriorating and I've said over the last couple of years that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated," Mullen said. He spoke after a Washington Post-ABC News poll found most Americans felt the war was not worth fighting. Yet another international conference on Afghanistan, as proposed by Brown and Germany's Angela Merkel, is unlikely to change this dynamic.
Amid myriad solicited and unsolicited suggestions, Obama's choice boils down to two options: take full ownership of the war and dig in for the long haul, or lower one's sights and walk away as quick as is decent.
Opinions about which way he should jump vary hugely. George Will, honorary archdeacon of American conservative columnists, surprised his fans last week by advocating retreat. Washington should wash its hands of a country where travelling around is "like walking through the Old Testament", he said. "Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively reviewed policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500 mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters."
Will's offshore strategy ignored the fact that Afghanistan is landlocked – but it was clear what he meant.
Others urge Obama to roll his sleeves up and get stuck in. "Is winning in Afghanistan in the US vital national interest? I believe it is," said Thomas McClanahan in the Kansas City Star. "Pulling out would hand the jihadists a triumph and once again open up Afghanistan as a launching pad for terrorist strikes." Bruce Riedel, an Obama adviser, and Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution were at pains in the Wall Street Journal to emphasise western achievements, including economic growth and falling support for the Taliban, that they said should not be lightly squandered.
Just how high Afghanistan still stands in American consciousness, and why, was illustrated by a timely Chicago Tribune editorial. It complained Obama had not "spent enough time reminding Americans that an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaida would regain its role as a terrorism hatchery". September would be crucial for the US debate on what to do, it added. "As that plays out, none of us should forget how that lawless country tolerated the development of one particularly heinous terror plot. It came to fruition eight years ago this week, on the 11th of the month."
This article, by Gareth Porter, was posted to Alternet, March 26, 2009
WASHINGTON, Mar 25 (IPS) -- Despite President Barack Obama’s statement at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina Feb. 27 that he had "chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months," a number of Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), which have been the basic U.S. Army combat unit in Iraq for six years, will remain in Iraq after that date under a new non-combat label.
A spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Lt. Col. Patrick S. Ryder, told IPS Tuesday that "several advisory and assistance brigades" would be part of a U.S. command in Iraq that will be "re-designated" as a "transition force headquarters" after August 2010.
But the "advisory and assistance brigades" to remain in Iraq after that date will in fact be the same as BCTs, except for the addition of a few dozen officers who would carry out the advice and assistance missions, according to military officials involved in the planning process.
Gates has hinted that the withdrawal of combat brigades will be accomplished through an administrative sleight of hand rather than by actually withdrawing all the combat brigade teams. Appearing on "Meet the Press" Mar. 1, Gates said the "transition force" would have "a very different kind of mission," and that the units remaining in Iraq "will be characterized differently."
"They will be called advisory and assistance brigades," said Gates. "They won't be called combat brigades."
Obama’s decision to go along with the military proposal for a "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops thus represents a complete abandonment of his own original policy of combat troop withdrawal and an acceptance of what the military wanted all along -- the continued presence of several combat brigades in Iraq well beyond mid-2010.
National Security Council officials declined to comment on the question of whether combat brigades were actually going to be left in Iraq beyond August 2010 under the policy announced by Obama Feb. 27.
The term that has been used internally within the Army to designate the units that will form a large part of the "transition force" is not "Advisory and Assistance Brigades" but "Brigades Enhanced for Stability Operations" (BESO).
Lt. Col. Gary Tallman, a spokesman for the Joint Staff, confirmed Monday that BESO will be the Army unit deployed to Iraq for the purpose of the transition force. Tallman said the decision-making process now underway involving CENTCOM and the Army is to determine "the exact composition of the BESO".
But the U.S. Army has already been developing the outlines of the BESO for the past few months. The only change to the existing BCT structure that is being planned is the addition of advisory and assistance skills rather than any reduction in its combat power. The BCT is organized around two or three battalions of motorized infantry but also includes all the support elements, including its own artillery support, needed to sustain the full spectrum of military operations.
Those are permanent features of all variants of the BCT, which will not be altered in the new version to be deployed under a "transition force," according to specialists on the BCT.
They say the only issue on which the Army is still engaged in discussions with field commanders is what standard augmentation a BCT will need for its new mission.
Maj. Larry Burns of the Army Combined Arms Centre at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, told IPS that Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey directed the Combined Arms Centre, which specialises in Army mission and doctrine, to work on giving the BCTs the capability to carry out a training and advisory assistance mission.
The essence of the BESO variant of the BCTs, according to Burns, is that the Military Transition Teams working directly with Iraqi military units will no longer operate independently but will be integrated into the BCTs.
That development would continue a trend already begun in Iraq in which the BCTs have gradually acquired operational control over the previously independent Military Transition Teams, according to Maj. Robert Thornton of the Joint Center for International and Security Force Assistance at Fort Leavenworth.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command, has issued Planning Guidance calling for further refinement of the BESO. After further work on the additional personnel requirements, Casey was briefed on the proposed enhancement of the BCT for the second time in a month at a conference of four-star generals on Feb. 18, according to Burns.
Other names for the new variant that were used in recent months but eventually dropped made it explicitly clear that it is simply a slightly augmented BCT. Those names, according to Burns, included "Brigade Combat Team-Security Force Assistance" and "Brigade Combat Team for Stability Operations."
The plan to deploy several augmented BCTs represents the culmination of the strategy of "relabeling" or "remissioning" of BCTs in Iraq that was developed by U.S. military leaders in the wake of the surge of candidate Barack Obama to near-certain victory in the presidential election last year.
Late last year, Gen. David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, were unhappy with Obama’s pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat brigades within 16 months. But military planners quickly hit on the relabeling scheme as a way of avoiding the complete withdrawal of BCTs in an Obama administration.
The New York Times revealed Dec. 4 that Pentagon planners were talking about "relabeling" of U.S. combat units as "training and support" units in a Dec. 4 story, but provided no details. Pentagon planners were projecting that as many as 70,000 U.S. troops would be maintained in Iraq "for a substantial time even beyond 2011".
That report suggested that the strategy envisioned keeping the bulk of the existing BCTs in Iraq as under a new label indicating an advisory and support mission.
Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen discussed a plan to re-designate U.S. combat troops as support troops at a meeting with Obama in Chicago on Dec. 15, according a report in the Times three days later.
Gates and Mullen reportedly speculated at the meeting on whether Iraqis would permit such "re-labeled" combat forces to remain in Iraqi cities and towns after next June, despite the fact that the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement signed in November 2008 called for all U.S. combat forces to be withdrawn from populated areas by the end of June 2010.
That report suggests that Obama was well aware that giving the Petraeus and Odierno a free hand to determine the composition of a "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops meant that most combat brigades would remain in Iraq rather than being withdrawn, as he ostensibly promised the U.S. public on Feb. 27.
This article, by Robert Burns, was published by the Associated Press, Februuary 23, 2009
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faces split opinions within the military on whether to make the speedy withdrawal from Iraq he championed on the campaign trail.
Obama’s top generals in Baghdad are pressing for an elongated timetable, while some influential senior advisers inside the Pentagon are more amenable to a quicker pullout.
Although Obama has yet to decide the matter, his announcement last week that he’s sending thousands more combat troops to Afghanistan implies a drawdown of at least two brigades from Iraq by summer.
But that does not answer the question that has been dangling over Iraq since he took office in January: Will Obama stick to his stated goal of a 16-month pullout or opt for a slower, less risky approac
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Baghdad, favors a longer timetable for leaving Iraq. He sees 2009 as a pivotal year, with parliamentary elections set to be held in December; he doesn’t want to lose more than two of the 14 combat brigades that are now in Iraq before the end of the year. And he believes the U.S. military will need to remain engaged in Iraq, to some degree, for years to come.
Odierno’s boss at U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, leans toward Odierno’s view.
Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has steered clear of the debate over withdrawing from Iraq, but he sees his battlefield as an increasingly urgent priority — not just for additional combat troops but also for Iraq-focused surveillance aircraft and more civilian support.
There are now about 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, compared with 38,000 in Afghanistan. Obama has directed 17,000 more to head to Afghanistan, including Marines and soldiers who had been in line for Iraq duty.
At the Pentagon, a more mixed view prevails. The uniformed service chiefs see Iraq as a strain on their troops and, more broadly, a drain on their resources. The Marines, in particular, are in the tough position of having a foothold in both major U.S. wars — Iraq and Afghanistan. As a relatively small service, they would prefer to concentrate more fully on Afghanistan, if only they could get out of Iraq.
Neither Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, nor Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said publicly whether he supports a 16-month withdrawal timeline. But they have their own perspective — an obligation to consider the full spectrum of threats and potential threats to U.S. national security.
“There’s a very clear understanding of what is at stake here,” Mullen said Feb. 10.
“And it’s very natural for Gen. Odierno to want to go slower and to hang onto capability as long as possible,” he added. “That’s not unusual. It’s very natural for Gen. McKiernan to say, ‘I need more.’ And so that’s the tension. We don’t have an infinite pot (of resources and deployable forces). We have to make hard decisions about where to accept risk.”
In internal discussions, the emphasis appears to be on getting out responsibly rather than quickly, several officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.
Obama must weigh an array of hard-to-figure tradeoffs in security and politics. And he must reconcile his conviction that the combat phase of U.S. involvement in Iraq must end with his commanders’ concern in Baghdad that hard-fought gains could be squandered.
It boils down to this: How much more effort is the Iraq war worth? What is the risk of leaving too soon?
Is the 16-month timetable too short, given the uncertain state of stability and political reconciliation in Iraq and the potential cost of seeing the country slide back into widespread sectarian war?
And is anything substantially beyond 16 months too long, given the call for still more troops in Afghanistan, where Obama himself has said the battle against extremists is going in the wrong direction?
Obama is still considering his options, which officials say includes a less hurried, 23-month withdrawal. The deadline he inherited from the Bush administration is Dec. 31, 2011, the date set in a security agreement with Baghdad that says all U.S. troops, not just combat forces, must be gone by then.
One clue to some of the thinking inside the White House might lie with the views of Obama’s national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James Jones. Jones co-chaired a study published in January 2008 on the way ahead in Afghanistan. The group endorsed the idea of providing more military support for Afghanistan, including resources that become available as combat forces are withdrawn from Iraq.
The president has an additional factor to weigh: the political cost of backing off the 16-month pullout timetable that was a prominent feature of his campaign. Although he has said he thinks 16 months is a reasonable timetable, he also has assured military leaders that he will consider their advice.
Notably absent, at least so far, is even a whiff of public pressure from fellow Democrats to stick to a 16-month timeline. That suggests Obama’s party might be satisfied so long as he makes early and clear steps in the direction of ending U.S. combat involvement in Iraq, even if on a somewhat longer timeline.
Obama campaigned for the White House on a promise that he would end the war and get U.S. commanders moving immediately on a transition to Iraqi control of their own security. He said military experts believe combat troops can be pulled out safely at a rate of one to two brigades a month, meaning all 14 combat brigades there now could be gone within 16 months, which equates to mid-2010.
Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who was the executive officer for Petraeus when the general was in Baghdad overseeing the “surge” of U.S. forces in 2007-08, said he thinks it likely that Obama will pull at least four combat brigades out of Iraq by the end of this year. But he hopes the president does not insist on getting all 14 brigades out within 16 months.
“If the president orders it, the military can do it, but whether it’s advisable or not is a different story,” he said in a telephone interview. “Quite frankly, I don’t think it is, given the risk you would incur to potentially upsetting the political situation” inside Iraq.
This article, by Gareth Porter, was published by IPS, February 2, 2009
WASHINGTON, Feb 2 (IPS) - CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, supported by Defence Secretary Robert Gates, tried to convince President Barack Obama that he had to back down from his campaign pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months at an Oval Office meeting Jan. 21.
But Obama informed Gates, Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen that he wasn't convinced and that he wanted Gates and the military leaders to come back quickly with a detailed 16-month plan, according to two sources who have talked with participants in the meeting.
Obama's decision to override Petraeus's recommendation has not ended the conflict between the president and senior military officers over troop withdrawal, however. There are indications that Petraeus and his allies in the military and the Pentagon, including Gen. Ray Odierno, now the top commander in Iraq, have already begun to try to pressure Obama to change his withdrawal policy.
A network of senior military officers is also reported to be preparing to support Petraeus and Odierno by mobilising public opinion against Obama's decision.
Petraeus was visibly unhappy when he left the Oval Office, according to one of the sources. A White House staffer present at the meeting was quoted by the source as saying, "Petraeus made the mistake of thinking he was still dealing with George Bush instead of with Barack Obama."
Petraeus, Gates and Odierno had hoped to sell Obama on a plan that they formulated in the final months of the Bush administration that aimed at getting around a key provision of the U.S.-Iraqi withdrawal agreement signed envisioned re-categorising large numbers of combat troops as support troops. That subterfuge was by the United States last November while ostensibly allowing Obama to deliver on his campaign promise.
Gates and Mullen had discussed the relabeling scheme with Obama as part of the Petraeus-Odierno plan for withdrawal they had presented to him in mid-December, according to a Dec. 18 New York Times story.
Obama decided against making any public reference to his order to the military to draft a detailed 16-month combat troop withdrawal policy, apparently so that he can announce his decision only after consulting with his field commanders and the Pentagon.
The first clear indication of the intention of Petraeus, Odierno and their allies to try to get Obama to amend his decision came on Jan. 29 when the New York Times published an interview with Odierno, ostensibly based on the premise that Obama had indicated that he was "open to alternatives".
The Times reported that Odierno had "developed a plan that would move slower than Mr. Obama's campaign timetable" and had suggested in an interview "it might take the rest of the year to determine exactly when United States forces could be drawn down significantly".
The opening argument by the Petraeus-Odierno faction against Obama's withdrawal policy was revealed the evening of the Jan. 21 meeting when retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, one of the authors of the Bush troop surge policy and a close political ally and mentor of Gen. Petraeus, appeared on the Lehrer News Hour to comment on Obama's pledge on Iraq combat troop withdrawal.
Keane, who had certainly been briefed by Petraeus on the outcome of the Oval Office meeting, argued that implementing such a withdrawal of combat troops would "increase the risk rather dramatically over the 16 months". He asserted that it would jeopardise the "stable political situation in Iraq" and called that risk "not acceptable".
The assertion that Obama's withdrawal policy threatens the gains allegedly won by the Bush surge and Petraeus's strategy in Iraq will apparently be the theme of the campaign that military opponents are now planning.
Keane, the Army Vice-Chief of Staff from 1999 to 2003, has ties to a network of active and retired four-star Army generals, and since Obama's Jan. 21 order on the 16-month withdrawal plan, some of the retired four-star generals in that network have begun discussing a campaign to blame Obama's troop withdrawal from Iraq for the ultimate collapse of the political "stability" that they expect to follow U.S. withdrawal, according to a military source familiar with the network's plans.
The source says the network, which includes senior active duty officers in the Pentagon, will begin making the argument to journalists covering the Pentagon that Obama's withdrawal policy risks an eventual collapse in Iraq. That would raise the political cost to Obama of sticking to his withdrawal policy.
If Obama does not change the policy, according to the source, they hope to have planted the seeds of a future political narrative blaming his withdrawal policy for the "collapse" they expect in an Iraq without U.S. troops.
That line seems likely to appeal to reporters covering the Iraq troop withdrawal issue. Ever since Obama's inauguration, media coverage of the issue has treated Obama' s 16-month withdrawal proposal as a concession to anti-war sentiment which will have to be adjusted to the "realities" as defined by the advice to Obama from Gates, Petreaus and Odierno.
Ever since he began working on the troop surge, Keane has been the central figure manipulating policy in order to keep as many U.S. troops in Iraq as possible. It was Keane who got Vice President Dick Cheney to push for Petraeus as top commander in Iraq in late 2006 when the existing commander, Gen. George W. Casey, did not support the troop surge.
It was Keane who protected Petraeus's interests in ensuring the maximum number of troops in Iraq against the efforts by other military leaders to accelerate troop withdrawal in 2007 and 2008. As Bob Woodward reported in "The War Within", Keane persuaded President George W. Bush to override the concerns of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the stress of prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq on the U.S. Army and Marine Corps as well its impact on the worsening situation in Afghanistan.
Bush agreed in September 2007 to guarantee that Petraeus would have as many troops as he needed for as long as wanted, according to Woodward's account.
Keane had also prevailed on Gates in April 2008 to make Petraeus the new commander of CENTCOM. Keane argued that keeping Petraeus in the field was the best insurance against a Democratic administration reversing the Bush policy toward Iraq.
Keane had operated on the assumption that a Democratic president would probably not take the political risk of rejecting Petraeus's recommendation on the pace of troop withdrawal from Iraq. Woodward quotes Keane as telling Gates, "Let's assume we have a Democratic administration and they want to pull this thing out quickly, and now they have to deal with General Petraeus and General Odierno. There will be a price to be paid to override them."
Obama told Petraeus in Baghdad last July that, if elected, he would regard the overall health of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps and the situation in Afghanistan as more important than Petraeus's obvious interest in maximising U.S. troop strength in Iraq, according to Time magazine's Joe Klein.
But judging from Petraeus's shock at Obama's Jan. 21 decision, he had not taken Obama's previous rejection of his arguments seriously. That miscalculation suggests that Petraeus had begun to accept Keane's assertion that a newly-elected Democratic president would not dare to override his policy recommendation on troops in Iraq.
This article, by Joby Warrick and R. Jeffrey Smith, was published by the Washington Post, February 12, 2009
Tens of thousands of assault rifles and other firearms in Afghanistan are at risk of being stolen because U.S. officials have lost track of them, according to a congressionally ordered audit that warns that some weapons may already be in Taliban hands.
The audit by the Government Accountability Office found that inventory controls were lacking for more than a third of the 242,000 light weapons donated to Afghan forces by the United States -- a stockpile that includes thousands of AK-47 assault rifles as well as mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
There were no reliable records showing what ultimately happened to an additional 135,000 weapons donated by other NATO countries, the report said. Many of the weapons, supplied between 2004 and 2008, were left in the care of Afghan-run military depots with a history of desertion, theft and sub-par security systems that sometimes consist of a wooden door and a padlock, the report said.
The lax controls extended even to such sensitive equipment as night-vision goggles, which have long given U.S. troops a critical edge in fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan's rugged terrain, the GAO found. Basic accounting procedures such as recording serial numbers were routinely skipped, placing millions of dollars of weapons "at serious risk of theft or loss," said the GAO report, which is expected to be presented today to a House oversight panel. A copy of the report was obtained by The Washington Post.
Lawmakers have begun pressing the Pentagon for explanations in advance of the report's official release. Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) said the failures could lead to American soldiers being killed by insurgents using a weapon purchased by U.S. taxpayers.
"That's what we risk if we were to have tens of thousands of weapons we provided washing around Afghanistan, off the books," Tierney said in a written statement.
A Defense Department spokesman had no immediate response to the report yesterday.
The problems found in Afghanistan mirror those discovered during a similar audit two years ago in Iraq. There, at least 190,000 AK-47s and pistols imported into the country by the United States could not be accounted for, the GAO said in July 2007. That figure represented roughly 30 percent of all the small arms imported into Iraq for use by local forces in 2004 and 2005.
In that country as well, the U.S. military failed to set and follow appropriate accountability standards, the GAO said. Some of the arms, such as Glock automatic pistols, subsequently fell into the hands of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, based partly in the country's north, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union have labeled a terrorist group. Turkey complained to the Pentagon in 2006 and 2007 that arms diverted from Iraq were being used in crimes and assassinations inside its borders.
For the Afghanistan report, a GAO team toured the country last August and attempted to track various lots of weapons delivered to the war-torn country over a period of four years. The auditors found that inventory controls routinely used to track U.S. weapons were not applied in Afghanistan, in part because of manpower shortages and a lack of direction from the Pentagon, the report said. As a result, U.S. officials "cannot be certain that weapons intended for [Afghanistan's army] have reached those forces," it said.
U.S. military teams began attempting to correct the problems last June, shortly before the auditors arrived, the GAO noted.
A separate report by the Pentagon in October provides much of the explanation for the vulnerability of Afghanistan's donated weapons stocks: It said U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan had basically ignored their mandate to ensure the "accountability, control and physical security" of the arms given to Afghan forces under the $11.7 billion aid program, and in particular had neglected to record the weapons' serial numbers so that they could be monitored.
The inspector general's report, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen, blamed the U.S. Central Command for failing to set appropriate standards and procedures for handling weapons imported into Afghanistan.
The report also criticized commanders of the U.S.-led unit charged with training Afghan police and military forces for failing to issue appropriate directives to training teams and mentors.
It said further that the local U.S. office charged with overseeing the $7.4 billion foreign military sales program to Afghanistan is too small and that its personnel lack sufficient rank, skills and experience to monitor whether associated arms are being diverted. Just nine people, led by an Army major, were assigned to oversee a program that disbursed more than $1.7 billion in 2007, in contrast to a team of 77 led by a major general that oversaw a similar program in Saudi Arabia that disbursed 60 percent less money.
None of the nine officers in Afghanistan had prior foreign military sales experience, a circumstance the report called improper "given the strategic importance to the United States military effort" of cultivating adequately armed Afghan forces.
The lack of adequate U.S. oversight left a gaping hole because Afghan security forces lack the capability to monitor the flow of military equipment, the Pentagon's inspectors found during their visits in October 2007 and April 2008. The head of the Afghan army's logistics unit told them he had no idea what arms units had already received, when supplies were arriving or who was sending them.
In an official response to the Pentagon report, Ellen E. McCarthy, a senior security official in the office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, acknowledged that "the theft, sabotage, exploitation or misuse" of arms and explosives in Afghanistan would "gravely jeopardize the safety and security of personnel and installations worldwide." She also agreed that the U.S. Central Command needed to attach a higher priority to the problem.
This article, by Helene Cooper, was published by the New York Times, February 11, 2009
WASHINGTON — President Obama is facing a choice on whether to grant commanders’ requests for additional troops in Afghanistan before he has decided on his new strategy there.
While the decision is expected to be the first significant military move of his presidency, defense officials said that Mr. Obama could choose a middle ground, deploying several thousand more troops there in the coming months but postponing a more difficult judgment on a much larger increase in personnel until after the administration completes a review of Afghanistan policy.
The officials said that Mr. Obama may deploy one or two additional brigades, between 3,500 and 7,000 soldiers.
But he has other options, and several administration officials said it was also possible — though less likely — that he could postpone any deployments until after his review was complete. Such a move would not find much favor with commanders in Afghanistan, who have a standing request for an additional three brigades, or more than 10,000 soldiers.
It is also possible that Mr. Obama will fill the request for all three brigades, administration officials said.
Mr. Obama’s military commanders want additional brigades in place by late spring or early summer as part of an effort to counter growing violence and chaos in Afghanistan, particularly before presidential elections that are expected to take place there in August.
Robert M. Gates, the defense secretary, said Tuesday that he had presented options to Mr. Obama that “give him several ways of going forward,” and added that he expected a determination “in the course of the next few days.”
Referring to the additional brigades being sought by commanders, Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said Mr. Obama “could make a decision about none, one, two or all of them.”
“There are clearly people asking, ‘Do we need to make a decision on all of them now, or can we wait until we’ve decided on our new strategy?’ ” he said. “However, there does need to be a decision made about a couple of brigades sooner rather than later if you want them on the ground in time to make a difference in the security situation for the national election in late August.”
Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Wednesday with Mr. Obama at the White House, but a senior administration official said no decisions had been made.
Mr. Obama made clear during the presidential campaign that he intended to increase troop levels in Afghanistan and reduce them in Iraq. But while still reviewing Afghanistan strategy, he also has not announced a decision on the pace of troop withdrawals from Iraq.
Defense officials say that Mr. Obama cannot satisfy the request from Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top American commander in Afghanistan, for an additional 30,000 troops there without withdrawing a substantial number of those forces directly from Iraq. But they said Mr. Obama did have the latitude to deploy to Afghanistan at least two more brigades, and possibly more, before he decided on Iraq.
“This is the first time that this president has been asked to deploy large numbers of troops overseas,” Mr. Gates said Tuesday. “And it seems to me a thoughtful and deliberative approach to that decision is entirely appropriate.”
The determination on the troop deployment took on even more importance on Wednesday after Taliban suicide bombers struck government buildings at three sites in Kabul, killing at least 20 people.
Coming on the eve of a scheduled visit to Kabul by Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the attack underscored the deteriorating security in Afghanistan.
“Obviously, we are reminded today of the brutal tactics that extremists like the Taliban wish to employ,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman. “It hardens our resolve.”
“But,” Mr. Gibbs said, “it also hardens our resolve to get the next steps in Afghanistan right.” He called it “imperative that we get the review process done correctly.”
The Obama administration has been distancing itself from Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, with officials complaining that he has not done enough to crack down on corruption and the drug trade that has fueled the Taliban insurgency.
Mr. Obama spoke Monday at a news conference about the urgent need to seek out fighters for Al Qaeda and the Taliban in their havens across the border with Pakistan. On Wednesday, he called Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, and they discussed counterterrorism and economic development, the White House said in a statement.
Administration officials have indicated that they may seek to refocus United States military efforts in Afghanistan on counterinsurgency. But the administration has not come up with a plan yet for how to coordinate the rest of its Afghanistan strategy with European allies and NATO.
Russia Might Add to Aid
MOSCOW — Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said Wednesday that Russia would consider expanding its assistance to NATO in Afghanistan.
Russia already delivers nonmilitary cargo to Afghanistan to help NATO, and in response to a question at a news conference about whether Russia would be open to shipping weaponry, Mr. Lavrov did not reject the idea.
“Additional steps are possible,” he said, without offering details. He noted, “Last April and May, we discussed the possibility of using Russian military cargo planes to deliver supplies to coalition forces with our NATO colleagues.”
This article, by Kim Sengupta and Raymond Whitaker, was published in The Independent, January 25, 2009
President Barack Obama is facing warnings that the US risks repeating some of its errors in Iraq as the new administration turns its focus to Afghanistan, where Nato forces are engaged in a conflict which has already lasted longer than the Second World War.
Having received a briefing on his first day in office from General David Petraeus, the top US commander in the region, Mr Obama is preparing to meet his military chiefs to decide on the size and shape of the Afghanistan reinforcements he promised during his election campaign. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, said just before Christmas that up to 30,000 more troops could be sent by summer, nearly doubling the size of the US force in the country. Britain, the next largest contributor in the 41-nation international force, has fewer than 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, which means American dominance of the campaign against the Taliban is set to increase.
"There are fears that this could become a US war rather than a Nato one," said Christopher Langton, senior fellow for conflict at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. "With other Nato members already planning to scale back, the US could find itself isolated. Rather than being an international operation, it would become another 'coalition of the willing', as in Iraq – though with the crucial difference that the Afghan mission has had a United Nations mandate throughout."
Paul Smyth, head of the operational studies programme at London's Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), pointed out that several Nato countries, including Canada, Germany and France, had significantly increased their troop commitments in percentage terms during 2008. But in the past week the French Defence Minister, Hervé Morin, said considering further reinforcements was "out of the question for now". And Jan Peter Balkenende, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, another important contributor of troops, indicated that it would reduce its force by the end of next year.
Mr Smyth said the international coalition in Afghanistan was wider and more committed than that in Iraq, but in some ways faced a tougher task. Although improved security in Iraq would benefit the Afghan mission, Iraqi insurgents had never had as much of a "safe haven" across the border in Iran as the Taliban enjoyed in the lawless frontier areas of Pakistan. "The scale is entirely different," Mr Smyth said.
Emphasising that the Obama administration was not simply planning a military "surge", one American official said: "We have to come up with fresh, innovative ideas on counter-insurgency, counter-narcotics, governance, development." But many of the proposals are already mired in controversy and confusion, particularly the plan to form local militias on the pattern of Iraq, where Gen Petraeus armed Sunni groups against the al-Qa'ida-linked insurgency.
In Afghanistan, where warlords were enlisted to overthrow the Taliban and still control large parts of the country, it is feared that creating yet more private armies would simply worsen chronic lawlessness. Two years ago, a similar scheme to form an "auxiliary" police force had to be shelved. As soon as they were issued a uniform and a weapon, many recruits began preying on local people. A pilot scheme in Wardak province, south of Kabul, has become bogged down in arguments over who will control the militias, who will pay them and how they should be armed. William Wood, the US ambassador, is adamant that Washington will provide training and uniforms, but not arms. The Interior Ministry suggested that the men might be issued with repaired "old and broken guns", while Mohammed Masoom Stanekazi, vice-chairman of the country's official disarmament organisation, has argued that the militias should provide their own weapons.
"None of this," said Robert Emerson, a security analyst who is producing an academic paper on the Petraeus campaign in Iraq, "suggests fighting units to take on insurgents, like the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, but armed men who have the scope to get up to mischief if they get authority."
Combating Afghanistan's drugs trade, which supplies 93 per cent of the world's heroin, is another likely source of discord, both with President Hamid Karzai's government and among Nato members. Under American pressure, Nato recently decided to play a much more direct role in counter-narcotics operations. But reservations among some of the 26 Nato countries contributing troops led to the insertion of a caveat allowing dissenting nations to opt out of operations.
Britain has supported the initiative, but military commanders and diplomats fear many of the Nato contributors will steer clear of drugs operations, just as they have avoided frontline action. The already stretched British force could have to carry out more than its share of counter-narcotics missions.
But the arrival of American reinforcements in southern Afghanistan is likely to mean that, as in Iraq, the British will play a more subordinate role. Since they arrived three years ago in Helmand, the country's largest province and main heroin producer, British troops have never been deployed in sufficient numbers to gain control of more than a small central area around the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. Now the main British base, Camp Bastion, is preparing to receive an influx of US troops.
Command of Afghanistan's southern military region used to rotate among Britain, Canada and the Netherlands. But with the arrival of some 20,000 US troops, doubling the present international deployment, an American major-general will take over a tighter command structure. US officers regard the current situation as a stalemate, with Nato forces until now having been too thinly spread to do more than hold their ground. They expect that to change once the reinforcements are in place.
Mr Langton of the IISS said some British officers welcomed a more unified command structure, in which they would work more closely with American commanders, but it could appear to the public at home that the British force had not succeeded in its mission. This he blamed on the Ministry of Defence, which he said had made no effort to explain what British troops were doing in Afghanistan, "when in fact this is a positive development which could have a dramatic effect on the counter-insurgency campaign".
Rusi's Mr Smyth, who is preparing a study of the Taliban's progress in 2008, said its greatest success had been in "creating the impression it did well". Despite a high rate of attacks, he said it was not "a homogenous, unified group whose ability to cause violence extends across the country".
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's top military officials said Thursday they will make sure he knows the potential downside of any timetable for pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq, including the 16-month deadline Obama set during his presidential campaign.
"Our obligation is to give the president a range of options and the risks associated with each of those options, and he will make the decision," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. He said the 16-month option is one of several. He did not provide a range, nor say which option he himself prefers.
Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are both holdovers from the Bush administration and one-time critics of a swift or deadline-driven withdrawal. Speaking publicly for the first time since Obama took office, both men suggested that the 16-month timeline is not as firm as Obama's campaign rhetoric implied.
"We've certainly heard 16 months for a long time," Mullen told reporters. "We've looked at options, looked at that option, and the risks that are associated with that."
When Obama is ready, Mullen said, "I will advise him accordingly, and then he'll make the decision."
Meanwhile, the U.S. diplomat who has seen Iraq transformed from chaos to relative calm over the past two years said that a hasty departure of U.S. troops would carry severe risks. Al-Qaida might be emboldened and Iraq's security and political gains threatened, Ambassador Ryan Crocker said.
Speaking to reporters a day after he and the top U.S. commander in Iraq briefed Obama by video connection, Crocker declined to say what he and Gen. Ray Odierno told the president.
But he noted that the president was committed to a responsible pullout of the more than 140,000-strong U.S. force.
"A precipitous withdrawal runs some very severe risks," Crocker said in Baghdad.
He said that al-Qaida had been "much weakened" due to setbacks on the battlefield and a loss of support within the Sunni Arab community.
"But as long as they can cling to some handhold here, they are going to keep trying to literally fight their way back," Crocker said.
"And perhaps most important it would have a chilling effect on Iraqis," he said of a quick U.S. departure. "I think the spirit of compromise, of accommodation, of focus on institutional development — all of that would run the risk of getting set aside."
Iraqi officials have said they hope the new administration will stick by the generally longer timeline established in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement which went into effect this month. The deal provides for U.S. combat troops to leave the cities by the end of June, with all U.S. troops gone from the country by 2012.
Military officials said there was no decision made at Wednesday's session in the Situation Room. The meeting on Obama's first full day in office was meant to frame his pledge to quickly end a war he has called misguided and wasteful. He has pledged to turn the nation's focus to what he calls a more pressing conflict in Afghanistan.
Gates called the meeting with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and others just the start of a process to evaluate numerous options for Iraq.
"There was a good give-and-take," Gates said.
"We discussed a deliberate and yet rapid process," Mullen said.
In a statement after the meeting, Obama said he had told the generals and advisers to come up with a plan for a responsible drawdown, but he did not mention the 16-month timeline.
Military commanders say Iraq is much more stable and safe than it was a year ago, and certainly far calmer than in the darkest days of sectarian bloodshed in 2005 and 2006.
American soldiers are still dying in Iraq, but in fewer numbers even as they take greater risks and fewer precautions.
WASHINGTON — President Obama gave his national security team on Wednesday a new mission to end the war in Iraq, nearly six years after United States-led forces invaded, but he held off ordering a troop withdrawal right away to hear concerns and options from his military commanders.
On his first full day in office, Mr. Obama summoned senior civilian and uniformed officials to the White House to begin fulfilling his campaign promise to pull combat forces out of Iraq in 16 months. Among those meeting with Mr. Obama was Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander of American forces in the Middle East, who had not seen him since the Nov. 4 election.
“I asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq,” Mr. Obama said in a written statement after the meeting. He added that he planned to “undertake a full review of the situation in Afghanistan in order to develop a comprehensive policy for the entire region.”
While the economy has overtaken Iraq on Mr. Obama’s agenda, his opposition to the war was the original foundation of his presidential race, and ending it stands as perhaps the most salient test of his commitment to his campaign promises. Yet fulfilling his pledge also could put him at odds from the start with generals who worry that acting too quickly may jeopardize the progress achieved since President Bush sent in more forces and General Petraeus revamped the strategy two years ago.
The meeting on Wednesday served mainly to brief Mr. Obama on the state of affairs in Iraq. He heard from Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of forces in Iraq, who participated by secure videoconference from Baghdad, and the departing United States ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker. The session did not focus on specific withdrawal proposals but instead featured a broad discussion of the political climate and security situation, according to senior officials.
Among the topics were the challenges as Iraq moves through a series of critical elections this year and the required changes to the location, size and mission of the American military force under a new agreement between Washington and Baghdad, the officials said. General Petraeus also weighed in on the regional implications of Iraq.
Military planners have prepared a series of possible withdrawal plans that, in the words of one official, “range from conservative to aggressive.” One of them matches the president’s 16-month timetable, although Mr. Obama always envisioned a substantial “residual force” remaining beyond that to train Iraqi forces and hunt terrorist cells.
Senior officials said another proposal for a more gradual withdrawal was drawn up to meet the terms of the agreement recently sealed by Mr. Bush and Iraqi officials, which requires the United States to pull combat forces out of Iraqi cities by June and to withdraw all troops from the country by the end of 2011.
General Odierno initially favored withdrawing just 2 of the remaining 14 combat brigades by summer or fall, and military planners drew up a faster option only in recent weeks, on the assumption Mr. Obama would ask for it. But a number of senior officers have warned about the risks of a rapid withdrawal, military officials said.
Since the election, Mr. Obama has reaffirmed his intention to end the war, while leaving room to rethink the details by saying he would listen to his commanders before issuing any orders. In his Inaugural Address on Tuesday, Mr. Obama said, “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people.”
Aides said he was taking a cautious approach to make sure that his promise would be executed effectively and safely for the troops. “This will start a planning process,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said before the meeting.
Some opponents of the war said they intended to hold Mr. Obama to his campaign promise. “I take him at his word,” said Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War, a group opposing the Iraq conflict. “He could not have been clearer as a candidate. There’s no reason for me to believe he will not fulfill that campaign pledge of 16 months.”
At the same time, some veterans of the Bush White House warned against making precipitous moves, or even changing the mission. Peter D. Feaver, a national security aide to Mr. Bush, said a key to the turnaround in Iraq in the past two years was the decision to redefine the mission, focusing it on protecting the civilian population.|
“It may sound like an easy thing to do, and it is certainly the president’s call,” said Mr. Feaver, now a professor at Duke University. “But there are risks associated with changing the mission, so it shouldn’t be done lightly.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Obama and his advisers said it was important to signal a commitment from his presidency’s inception. On the campaign trail last summer, Mr. Obama said, “My first day in office, I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war responsibly and deliberately but decisively.”
In fact, he did not call in the Joint Chiefs, but he did invite their chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser; Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff; and other top advisers. Hillary Rodham Clinton was not confirmed as secretary of state until after the meeting got under way.
Officials said Mr. Obama would meet in the coming days with the rest of the Joint Chiefs, who include the heads of all four services.
This article, by Josh White, was originally published in the Washington Post, July 3, 2008
July 3, 2008 - The nation's top military officer said yesterday that more U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan to tamp down an increasingly violent insurgency, but that the Pentagon does not have sufficient forces to send because they are committed to the war in Iraq.
Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said insurgent Taliban and extremist forces in Afghanistan have become "a very complex problem," one that is tied to the extensive drug trade, a faltering economy and the porous border with Pakistan. Violence in Afghanistan has increased markedly over recent weeks, with June the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the war began in 2001.
"I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq," Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon. "Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there."
Mullen has raised similar concerns over the past several months, but his comments yesterday were more pointed and came amid rising concern at the Pentagon over the situation in Afghanistan, where insurgents have regrouped in the south and east.
Mullen and President Bush also addressed the possibility of a conflict with Iran in separate appearances yesterday, with both saying they favor diplomacy over the use of military force. Asked directly about the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran, Bush, in an appearance in the White House Rose Garden, said: "I have made it very clear to all parties that the first option ought to be solve this problem diplomatically." But he refused to rule out the use of force in the standoff over Iran's effort to develop nuclear weapons.
Bush also promised to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by the end of the year. He acknowledged the increasing violence there, saying that "we're going to increase troops by 2009," but did not offer details.
Mullen said military commanders are looking at the prospects for sending additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009, but only if conditions in Iraq continue to improve over the coming months, which would allow some forces to be withdrawn and reallocated. The war in Iraq has occupied as many as 20 military brigades during the troop buildup over the past year, reducing violence there substantially but convincing many officers and experts that a quick drawdown in Iraq would jeopardize gains.
Recent bleak assessments about the Taliban and a dramatic increase in the number of attacks in Afghanistan have left military commanders with nowhere to turn as they seek more troops. The Army and Marine Corps have been stretched thin by numerous deployments to both war zones, and the administration has been unable to persuade allies to send more troops.
"The Taliban and their supporters have, without question, grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks, as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate," Mullen said. ". . . We all need to be patient. As we have seen in Iraq, counterinsurgency warfare takes time and it takes a certain level of commitment."
In April, Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States was not doing all it should in Afghanistan and that more troops were needed. At a meeting in Fort Lewis, Wash., two weeks ago, Mullen said that he needed at least three more brigades in Afghanistan but that troop constraints were preventing such a move. "We are in a very delicate time," he said.
Members of Congress and critics of the Iraq war have argued for years that Iraq has diverted resources from the fight in Afghanistan. Mullen's comments underscore the effect of keeping roughly 145,000 troops in Iraq. Unlike the critics, however, Mullen sees both wars as vital to creating a stable region and wants to wait for sustained progress in Iraq before trying to shift resources.
About 60,000 troops from 40 nations are in Afghanistan, 32,000 of them from the United States.
"We need to make deeper cuts in Iraq to be able to do Afghanistan at greater strength, but it makes me nervous to accelerate the drawdown in Iraq," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution. "It's dangerous to throw away what you've been able to succeed in doing in one place in the hope that you might help a mission where you're having relative failure elsewhere."
James Jay Carafano, a military expert at the Heritage Foundation, said it is clear that the war in Afghanistan needs more troops. He argued that the only sensible strategy is to hold the line there until brigades can be moved out of Iraq.
"If you want to deal with Afghanistan, you have to deal with Iraq first," he said. Carafano said he thinks the next president could reduce forces in Iraq significantly by 2011, allowing a "responsible force" to be in Afghanistan by that time.
Addressing a potential conflict with Iran, Mullen said he strongly favors diplomacy over military action to deter Tehran from seeking nuclear weapons. Mullen visited Israeli officials last week but declined to provide details on his discussions with them.
"Clearly there is a very broad concern about the overall stability level in the Middle East," Mullen said. For the military, "opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us," he added. "That doesn't mean we don't have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging, and also the consequences of that sometimes are very difficult to predict."
Mullen said he opposes a military strike on Iran by either the United States or Israel.
"My strong preference here is to handle all of this diplomatically with the other powers of governments, ours and many others, as opposed to any kind of strike occurring," Mullen said. "This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don't need it to be more unstable."