The Military Cliff
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has his plate full. He is currently leading the implementation of defense spending cuts ordered by President Obama last year, and is facing the prospects of sequestration which will bring another $50 billion in cuts. How to do this while winding down the Afghan War and the repositioning of American power to Southeast Asia?
Oh, and lest we forget, the election is over and the Iran option is again possible. What about Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and the eternal Israeli-Arab conflict? How can we cut defense with all this sitting out there?
Secretary Panetta seems eminently qualified for this task. His ego is well contained. His personal interests appear not to include a publicist. No autobiography are on the horizon for Leon. My guess is that Secretary Panetta can see which steps need to take place first before he clearly see the next best direction.
Step one should be to end the military involvement in Afghanistan. That means no further military missions to engage the enemy or for the purposes of nation building. If the Afghan government cannot provide security, or should fall under Taliban pressure, so be it. The US has already spent enough in lives and dollars. It’s time to fold this hand.
Panetta’s Step One has a question of what size “residual force” should remain. In the best of all worlds, the answer is zero. But these are not the best of times and the world is very complicated. So it will become very important to clearly state the mission of any residual force.
Is it for further training of the Afghan forces? Is it for a backstop should the Afghan military stumble and need help fighting the Taliban? Is it “just in case” there are problems in Pakistan or Iran? Or, is it part of the overall “repositioning” of US assets into the Southeast region?
Whether there is a residual force or what its purpose should be are critical questions the Defense Department needs to be told. The new mission is a political decision.
There are many reasons offered when war breaks out. Buried in whatever any country claims as its reason are always economic interests. Conflict areas usually represent potential customers, raw material suppliers (think oil, water, or precious minerals), commercial rivals, or strategic geographies such as ports, rivers, or key trade routes. In other words, wars are usually fought for money and not some noble reason.
In the past decade we have seen the advent of “asymmetrical” warfare. Suicide bombers, 9/11 type attacks, and non-uniformed fighters have changed the face of war. Cyber attacks are predicted to lie ahead. What can soldiers, tanks, fighter jets, aircraft carriers do against these new menaces?
The Obama Administration has a big job. The world still has a lot of bad guys. Drones, computer viruses, and financial sanctions are alternative tools which may prove effective in some cases. Committing US ground forces (and all the support effort that goes with them) seems more and more like something we cannot afford, something that is less likely to accomplish any goals we might have, and something we should do only on rare occasions.
If Secretary Panetta allows the Generals to delay troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, the US will be heading for a “military cliff”. Ground wars are not the path to achieving America’s national interests, and are out of step with solutions to the nation’s fiscal cliff.