Friday, April 11, 2008

On the same page: Gates, Mullen, Powell, Obama

One thread that can be teased out of the runup and reaction to the Petraeus-Crocker Senate briefing on Iraq is the strategic congruence between Obama and the country's best military minds - e.g., Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, and former Secretary of State/Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell. Beyond the implicit consensus that current troop levels in Iraq are unsustainable, all three have also joined Obama in stressing the need to concentrate more force on the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Gates, moreover, notwithstanding his recent protestations to be on the same page as Bush and Petraeus with regard to troop levels, seems basically on the same page as Obama when it comes to defining realistic goals for 'success' in Iraq -- goals that will enable the inevitable drawdown.

Obama is far from unique in arguing that Iraq is a 'huge strategic blunder' that has diverted the U.S. from neutralizing al Qaeda and securing peace in Afghanistan. But he has been more clear and comprehensive than other national figures in detailing the consequences of our enmeshment in Iraq and the need to refocus on Afghanistan, In his landmark speech laying out his foreign policy vision in Fayetteville, NC on March 19, after a series of hammer blows detailing the malign consequences of the Iraq War, he made the core point:
The central front in the war against terror is not Iraq, and it never was. What more could America's enemies ask for than an endless war where they recruit new followers and try out new tactics on a battlefield so far from their base of operations? That is why my presidency will shift our focus. Rather than fight a war that does not need to be fought, we need to start fighting the battles that need to be won on the central front of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This is the area where the 9/11 attacks were planned. This is where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants still hide. This is where extremism poses its greatest threat. Yet in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have pursued flawed strategies that are too distant from the needs of the people, and too timid in pursuit of our common enemies....
It is not too late to prevail in Afghanistan. But we cannot prevail until we reduce our commitment in Iraq, which will allow us to do what I called for last August – providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our efforts in Afghanistan.
Now compare Gates, Mullen and Powell on the need to concentrate more force in Afghanistan and at the same time relieve overall strain on the military.

All three, it must be said first, are wary of precipitous troop withdrawals in Iraq and probably concerned that both Democratic candidates have committed themselves too rigidly to a swift drawdown. But they support the goal; they recognize the greater core strategic importance of success in Afghanistan; and they are more cognizant than anyone of the unsustainable strain on the military caused by the continued huge troop presence in Iraq.

Gates has for the most part, with a few carefully calibrated exceptions, stayed on the same page with the Administration with regard to troop levels in Iraq. But he has also highlighted in public comments the long-term damage to the military of maintaining 100,000+ troops there year after year. At the same time, he has been jawboning NATO allies for months to get them to pony up more troops in Afghanistan. In that effort, he's been at pains to differentiate the Europeans' clear and present interest in success in Afghanistan from their lack of support for the U.S. adventure in Iraq. In the process, he implicitly acknowledged that their rejection of U.S. leadership in Iraq was justified.

Following Petraeus' testimony this week, Gates, at a Defense Dept. news briefing on Friday (April 11), was asked whether his earlier statements projecting troop withdrawals had committed the next President to drawing down troops in Iraq in 2009. His response:

Well, that was clearly an issue that came up before Bucharest, when we were talking about this. And it seems to me -- the two things led to my recommendation along those lines, to make that kind of commitment in principle -- the president was very careful not to say how many troops or when in 2009 they would be forthcoming -- but I made it on two grounds: First, I am confident that we will have a lower number of troops in 2009. Again, I'm not saying when in 2009, but I believe we will have a lower number of troops in Iraq in 2009.
That is: the armed forces simply can't sustain current troop levels any longer. Then this - echoing his earlier comments addressed to the Europeans:
Second, unlike Iraq, there truly is, I think, very broad bipartisan support for being successful in Afghanistan. We were attacked out of Afghanistan. People recognize the consequences of not being successful. And I believe very strongly that whoever is elected president is going to want to be successful in Afghanistan. And just as the French made an additional commitment, it seemed to me, in principle, that it would be important for the president to signal that the United States was going to stay in the fight in Afghanistan as well and do more, assuming we could.
Mullen also suggested the need for a shift in military asset allocation:
Well, I think the available forces that we have in Iraq are the ones that offer -- should reductions continue -- potential to put forces in Afghanistan and also to build dwell time back here for our ground forces. And so there's risk associated very specifically with that. And that's probably in the three pieces that we try to pay a lot of attention to -- our force levels in Iraq, our requirements in Afghanistan which are unmet, as well as balancing the health of the force -- that if we stay at these levels for a significant period of time, which we can do -- I mean, we have the forces to do that, but we continue to press our forces at the levels we have and we would be unable to fill the requirements that we've got in Afghanistan.
Colin Powell, talking to ABC News, April 9, similarly stressed the unsustainable strain on the military and the need for more troops in Afghanistan:
Powell, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the administration of President George H.W. Bush and the first Gulf War, expressed concern over the burden an extended stay in Iraq would put on the troops and the country's military forces.
"It's going to be far more than the 100,000 that Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates was hoping for. It's going to be like 130,000 or 140,000. That is an extremely difficult burden for the United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, to keep up," Powell told "Good Morning America."
Powell also expressed reservations about the two-front combat in which the United States finds itself: surging in Iraq while trying to maintain control in Afghanistan.
"We have responsibilities in Afghanistan. And in some ways, Afghanistan is more difficult than Iraq. You have the tribal problems. You had drug lords running around ... and al Qaeda and the Taliban are making a resurgence," Powell said.
I'll tell you what they're all going to face -- whichever one of them becomes president on Jan. 21 of 2009 -- they will face a military force, a United States military force, that cannot sustain, continue to sustain, 140,000 people deployed in Iraq, and the 20 (to) 25,000 people we have deployed in Afghanistan, and our other deployments," Powell said.
Something's got to give. And what's got to give are troop levels in Iraq. That, as Obama said at the April 8 Petraeus-Crocker hearing, is a matter of consensus. But how to phase a withdrawal that does not trigger a descent to civil war and anarchy? The first step is to define an acceptable outcome that will not require decades of occupation. Here's where Obama added something new, pushing Crocker toward his own definition of an endgame:

OBAMA: And so my final -- and I'll even pose this as a question and I won't -- you don't necessarily have to answer it -- maybe it's a rhetorical question -- if we were able to have the status quo in Iraq right now without U.S. troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success?
It's obviously not perfect. There's still violence, there's still some traces of Al Qaida, Iran has influence more than we would like. But if we had the current status quo, and yet our troops had been drawn down to 30,000, would we consider that a success? Would that meet our criteria, or would that not be good enough and we'd have to devote even more resources to it?
CROCKER: Senator, I can't imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown.
BIDEN: That wasn't the question.
OBAMA: No, no, that wasn't the question. I'm not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I'm trying to get to an endpoint. That's what all of us have been trying to get to.
And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.
If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.
CROCKER: And that's because, Senator, is a -- I mean, I don't like to sound like a broken record, but this is hard and this is complicated.
I think that when Iraq gets to the point that it can carry forward its further development without a major commitment of U.S. forces, with still a lot of problems out there but where they and we would have a fair certitude that, again, they can drive it forward themselves without significant danger of having the whole thing slip away from them again, then, clearly, our profile, our presence diminishes markedly.
But that's not where we are now.

OBAMA: Thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Chairman.
Compare Gates in the April 11 news conference:
It was my hope 16 months ago that I could help forge a bipartisan path forward in our Iraq policy that would sustain a steadily lower, but still adequate and necessary, level of commitment for the years needed to yield an Iraq that is an ally against extremists and can govern and defend itself,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
I continue to harbor this hope for a bipartisan path and will continue to work for it.
Speaking of bipartisan paths, Andrew Sullivan has voiced the hope that if Obama is elected, Gates would stay on. That seems highly unlikely, based on what Gates has said in published interviews. But it would be great for the country if Obama asked him and persuaded him.

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