As the man responsible for the health and strength
of the U.S. military, Pentagon chief Robert Gates is increasingly finding himself
between the devil and the deep blue sea.
On the one hand, there's the devil in his Iraq-obsessed boss, President George
W. Bush, who clearly opposes any move that could risk what gains have been made
in curbing sectarian violence and establishing a semblance of stability over
the past six months.
So when Bush's commander on the ground, Gen. David Petraeus, insists that reducing
U.S. troops strength in Iraq below 130,000 could indeed jeopardize whatever
chances remain of snatching "victory" from defeat there, Gates, who
had previously favored reducing U.S. troops in Iraq to as few as 100,000 by
the end of this year, is forced to defer. He did just that Monday when, after
meeting Petraeus in Baghdad, he announced for the first time that he supported
a "pause" in the ongoing drawdown when pre-surge levels are reached
On the other hand, there's the deep blue sea in the rapidly growing conviction
among top military officers and the national security establishment in general
that U.S. ground forces are already dangerously overstretched and that retaining
as many as 130,000 troops in Iraq is simply not sustainable for any appreciable
length of time.
Indeed, those top military officers, notably the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, and Army Chief Gen. George Casey, have become
increasingly vocal in recent weeks about their concern that Iraq is systematically
transforming the U.S. military into what one expert, former Navy commander Harlan
Ullman, called "a 'hollow force' reminiscent of the post-Vietnam War."
"If this is happening
should we be faced with the choice of staying
in Iraq with 130,000 or so troops or eviscerating our military?" asked
Ullman, who developed the "shock and awe" strategy during his tenure
as professor of strategy at the National War College, in his weekly column in
the Washington Times last week. "Do we put the future of Iraq ahead
of the future of our armed forces?"
That point is being made with growing intensity by the Pentagon brass itself,
albeit it somewhat more diplomatically. "Our service members, in particular
our ground forces and their families, are under significant strain," Mullen
said last week, stressing that current 15-month deployments of U.S. soldiers
and marines are "too long" and must be reduced to 12 months as a matter
of urgency. "The well is deep, but it is not infinite," he warned.
Even his normally reticent predecessor, former Joint Chiefs Chairman and Secretary
of State Colin Powell, who worked closely with Gates during the George H.W.
Bush administration, felt compelled to weigh in. In a television interview Sunday,
he warned that even pre-surge troop levels "can't be kept up indefinitely."
But it is not only the effect on the morale and capabilities of U.S. ground
forces that the experts are concerned about. Mullen, Ullman, and others point
to yet another deep blue sea the growing dangers posed by the Taliban
insurgencies in both Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan to make the
point that Washington may be facing threats greater that those it faces in Iraq.
"We must not allow the challenges of today to keep us from being prepared
for the realities of tomorrow," Mullen said last week. "There is a
risk that we will be unable to rapidly respond to future threats to our vital
national interests," he added in what appears to be the consensus among
the national security elite and one in which Gates no doubt shares.
Indeed, the growing consensus among the national security professionals embraces
the notion that Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly the Pashtun areas along
their common border, have become the "central front" in Bush's "global
war on terror," even if the president himself still believes that that
war will be won or lost in Iraq.
The U.S. intelligence community Gates' home during most of his professional
career has long thought that Iraq was a diversion from the anti-terrorist
campaign, a point it underlined in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) published
The NIE concluded that al-Qaeda has largely rebounded from its eviction from
Afghanistan six years ago and reconstituted both its central organization and
some of its training and operational capacities in the safe haven established
by the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along
the Afghan-Pakistan border.
In remarkable testimony before Congress last week, the director of national
intelligence, retired Adm. Mike McConnell, went even further, stressing that
al-Qaeda has "regenerated its core operational capabilities needed to conduct
attacks" on the U.S. itself.
In his own written testimony to Congress last week, Mullen, Gates' chief military
adviser, reiterated that point, noting that he believed the next terrorist attack
on the U.S. would probably originate with al-Qaeda operating out of FATA.
He was on his way at the time to Pakistan for meetings with President Pervez
Musharraf and army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, reportedly to impress on
them Washington's worries about the spread of the Taliban insurgency and to
reiterate recent U.S. offers not only to sharply increase intelligence military
aid, training, and advisers to Pakistani forces, but to engage in "joint
operations" on the Pakistani side of the border.
His visit was the latest in a string of top-level U.S. delegations indicative
of how central the national security bureaucracy sees southwest Asia dispatched
by Gates and the intelligence community to Islamabad in just the past month.
They have included McConnell; the head of the Central Intelligence Agency,
Gen. Michael Hayden; the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Adm.
Eric Olsen; and the chief of the U.S. Central Command (CentCom), Adm. William
"Fox" Fallon, who has reportedly clashed repeatedly with Petraeus
over the relative importance of Iraq vis-à-vis the larger regional situation,
particularly in Southwest Asia.
Despite his tentative siding with Petraeus on the question of "pausing"
before considering further withdrawals from Iraq after July, Gates himself suggested
on the way to his meeting this weekend with other NATO defense ministers in
Munich that Bush's devilish obsession with Iraq carried serious diplomatic and
military costs both for the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda and for the
future of the NATO alliance.
"I worry that for many Europeans the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan
are confused," he told reporters, explaining why Washington's NATO allies
were reluctant to send more troops to Afghanistan despite Gates' increasingly
urgent appeals. "Many of them, I think, have a problem with our involvement
in Iraq and project that to Afghanistan, and do not understand the very different
kind of threat."
(Inter Press Service)