U.S. needs to align war strategy with spending

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 22, 2011

By Matthew Leatherman
For the Salisbury Post
This evening President Obama will address the nation on the pace of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Within days of that announcement the Pentagon will deliver its recommendation for managing a budget reduction of $400 billion over 12 years, and Leon Panetta will replace Robert Gates as defense secretary. This extraordinary coincidence creates the opportunity to improve U.S. national security at a reduced cost. First and most vital among the administrationís tasks is to align war strategy and spending.
The U.S. has won the victories in Afghanistan and Iraq that we set out to achieve. Our troops and our diplomats pulled Iraq back from the chaotic collapse of 2006 and delivered it to the doorstep of democracy. Only Iraqis themselves can decide whether to walk through that door. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan our forces have obliterated Al-Qaedaís physical infrastructure, meticulously deconstructed its central organization and killed or captured many of its leaders, now including bin Laden himself. Together, this will powerfully deter the Taliban from again nurturing such a poisonous organization.
Successive administrations anticipated these successes and built our strategies around them. With only months left in his term, George W. Bush negotiated an agreement with the Iraqi government that our forces would fully depart by December of this year. Just over a year later, in December 2009, Barack Obama surged forces into Afghanistan to lay the groundwork for a transition starting next month.
Following through on these strategies would acknowledge that our military work in these countries is narrowing, lift much of the weighty burden our forces are carrying and ease the Pentagonís efforts to accommodate the fiscal discipline our country requires. From a $159 billion war tab this year, we could come in below the administrationís $118 billion request for next year and even hit the projection of $50 billion in 2013. Additionally, the Pentagon could begin rolling back counterinsurgency investments in the non-war budget, chiefly by restoring our ground forces to their pre-2007 size, since we are very unlikely to choose another such campaign soon.
Yet some of our national security leaders would forgo this path, attractive and responsible though is, in favor of doubling down in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Secretary Gates and leading members of the Senate Armed Services Committee like John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) are leaning heavily on Iraqís government for an invitation to keep thousands of forces in the country past the agreed deadline. They question the governmentís commitment to orderly democracy and the capability of its security forces. And for obvious reason ó sectarianism and corruption still tear at Iraqís seams.
Fault lines within the administration on Afghanistan strategy simultaneously are reopening. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency and is widely expected to press that mission by suggesting only token withdrawals this summer. Alongside Ryan Crocker, incoming ambassador to Kabul, he seeks to further centralize the Afghan state and to ensure that international terrorists never again find sanctuary there ó both noble ideals.
The assumption behind these positions is that the U.S. can create political consensus in Iraq and modernity in Afghanistan. We cannot, and it is not in our interest to try. Indeed, these efforts aggravate local tensions and undermine our success. The specter of prolonged occupation has bought Muqtada al-Sadr and his Madhi Army back into the streets of Baghdad and motivates local resistance throughout Afghanistan.
Extending our campaigns also comes at great cost back home. Our military forces have fought through nearly 11 years of war, including the last eight when the fights overlapped. And our war spending projection in 2013 ó $50 billion ó does not correspond to such unrestrained ambition. Going this route would trade todayís opportunity of strategic and fiscal responsibility for tomorrowís costs of mission creep and unanticipated debt.
The decision is stark but not easy. Holding the reins of U.S. power, itís extremely difficult to choose imperfect victory over ambitious ideals. Secretary-designate Panetta was pulled by temptation in his confirmation hearing, testifying that the U.S. should extend our mission in Iraq if its government offered the invitation. But he did not fully give in to it, offering considerably more circumspect comments about Afghanistan.
President Obama, the Congress and especially Leon Panetta must steel their nerve as these choices approach. On day one in the new job, Panettaís team will have to deal with strategy for Afghanistan and for slowing Pentagon spending. Aligning war strategy and spending is the first step toward improved national security at reduced cost. The window of opportunity to seize success in these campaigns, relieve our long-burdened forces and dodge tens of billions in looming debt is real but narrow.

Former Salisbury resident Matthew Leatherman is a research associate with the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.