Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stunned everyone with his candid comment yesterday that the Administration was looking to dial down its role in Afghanistan to that of train and assist by 2013. However, coming on the heels of the White House’s decisions to withdraw the surge forces against the advice of theater commanders and the setting of a hard withdrawal date of December 2014, Panetta’s statement should not come as a surprise. In fact, inside the Beltway the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan effectively ended on November 4, 2008 when Barak Obama was elected President.
Obama became a contender for the nomination based first and foremost on his opposition to the war in Iraq. He won the presidential election, again in part, because the nation was war weary. President Obama has been consistent in his efforts to disentangle the United States from the conflicts he inherited. Some observers, me included, have been surprised that he did not withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan earlier. Nevertheless, the reality is that the war in Afghanistan has been over for more than three years.
Before we criticize President Obama too harshly, we should remember that it has not been uncommon for elections to decide national security policy and even how this nation pursues military campaigns. Eisenhower was elected to solve the Korean war stalemate. Nixon campaigned successfully on his secret plan to win Vietnam. In both cases, the wars effectively were over at the time of the election, although it took years of fighting to get all the troops out. Nixon, like Obama, escalated the use of force in order to further the goal of withdrawal. These decisions may have been politically necessary but they also were tragic in terms of lives lost and resources expended.
The new defense strategy makes it clear that in terms of planning and budgeting, Afghanistan is over as far as the Department of Defense is concerned. According to the strategy, the military is done with large-scale stability operations. The Pentagon intends to hold on to the skills developed over the past decade in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. It will grow special operations capabilities. But if we look at the emphasis in procurement and where the Department of Defense took the majority of its force structure cuts, it is clear that we are putting Iraq and Afghanistan behind us and returning to planning for “real” wars.
Unfortunately, this shift leaves the Army out on a limb. Already burdened by the need to cut end-strength and eliminate brigades, the U.S. Army confronts the additional challenges of fighting a war that has been terminated while also restructuring its remaining forces for a very different future. The Army has a nominal advantage over the other services insofar as it spent a lot of money in recent years to procure and modernize its equipment. However, these investments also pose something of a problem. What does the Army do with 30,000 MRAP vehicles that were built for a particular type of conflict that the Pentagon no longer plans to fight? How will the service handle the tens of thousands of items, many of them special, one-off systems acquired over the past decade, for which there is no sustainment plan or funding? What will it do about new programs such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and Ground Combat Vehicle which are designed around the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan? Although painful, the Army has cut end-strength farther and faster in the past. Cutting end-strength may be the least of the Army’s worries.
More important, what does the President, Secretary of Defense and Army/Marine Corps leadership tell the soldiers and marines who will fight and die in Afghanistan over the next two years? Is there a special medal for those warriors who serve as the Forlorn Hope covering our withdrawal? There really should be one.
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