Thursday, April 26, 2007

Military budgets, priorities and "Al Qaida" in Iraq

Gareth Porter has a couple of pieces out during the past week or so that make some important points about the current politics of war and military spending.

One of the risky aspects of the current moment is that there's a danger that at the same time the Democrats are finding their voice to criticize Bush's Iraq War as the American public is demanding, that they could wind up avoiding a serious look at the Pentagon's budget and the military priorities that should set that budget.

The Coming Push for More Troops - for More and Bigger Iraqs Huffington Post 04/18/07, historian Gareth Porter reminds us the military Establishment and its advocates - not all them conservative, "neo" or otherwise - are pushing for a permanent increase of 100,000 in the Army and Marine ground forces. In fact, Congress just authorized a large increase.

The immediate justification is the strain that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are putting on the active duty military. There's substantial evidence that the strain is real. But reports on those strains have been pretty vague and deserve to be read with a critical eye.

But such an increase provides an opportunity both for permanent-war Republicans and antiwar (for the moment) Democrats to join in spending more money to show they are "pro-military". And, unfortunately, our political culture has come to equate spending more money on the military as "pro-military" and "supporting our troops". And a wide range of interests, from members of Congress to the services themselves to military contractors, have no interest is disturbing that well-established habit of thought in the minds of reporters and political commentators.

But the end-strength increases for the Army and Marines that Congress authorized are not going to provide any short-term relief for the services in Iraq, as the recent extensions of tours of duty there illustrates. And there are real problems in equating "more military spending" to "more effective defense", much less "more appropriate defense".

The rightsizing of the military can't be done without some sense of priorities. For instance, I imagine I were doing one of those "extemporaneous speech" exercises that I did in high school where you're given a topic and then you immediately go to the podium and talk for X number of minutes on it, and that the topic was the changes I would make in the military at the current level of budgeting. My off-the-cuff changes would wind up shifting resources away from the Air Force to the Army and Marine Corps, drastically increasing language instruction in Arabic and other Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and shutting down corporate-welfare boondoggles like the Star Wars program.

But some implicit assumptions about policy priorities would go into that, conscious or not. And what we buy with our military budget dollars should be driven by what we realistically need in pursuit of realistic and sensible defense goals. For instance, Porter writes about the military's pitch for an end-strenght increase of 100,000 Army and Marines soldiers:
That may sound reasonable to many, but only because they haven't stopped to ask what kind of war those troops would wage and in what countries they would fight over the next decade.

It turns out it is very hard to come up with credible answers to those questions. The obvious targets of a big U.S. ground war have all disappeared. For many years, the Army had North Korea and Saddam's Iraq to justify the size of the ground forces. But now South Korea's superior military strength and the détente between North and South Korea have made the North Korean attack scenario irrelevant. What is left is the half-baked idea that U.S. ground troops might have to occupy North Korea if the regime collapsed and disorder loomed. But the military knows perfectly well that there is no possibility of U.S. troops occupying a state on China's border.

Now Saddam and his big but vulnerable conventional army are gone, and the U.S. Army and its army of propagandists have had to invent a new justification for the big war army they want. The answer they are about test market with the media and Congress is that the United States must be prepared to fight more wars like the one in Iraq -- to occupy militarily and "stabilize" one or more major Islamic countries in the face of widespread Islamic-nationalist domestic opposition supported by elements of the former regime.
Congress and the public really need to ask some obvious and basic questions about proposals like this. It's clear to me that the services have put way too much emphasis on preparing for conventional war - the Soviet Red Army pouring through the Fulda Gap in an attack on western Europe - and not enough on counterinsurgency operations.

But I don't want to see the United States looking for more adventures like Iraq, where we go in, take over the whole country and fight a counterinsurgency war for years before enough of the public gets sick of it that the voters eventually put a stop to it. I'm all for having lots of people trained to be fluent in Urdu. But that doesn't mean I think taking over Pakistan and doing the Iraq War routine there is a good idea.

Even on the particular issue of increasing the Army's and Marines' end-strength, there are some real policy questions involved. Is the Army still going to have to rely on the reserves to the extent is has the last four years in case of actual war? What role will private contractors like Halliburton's KBR and Blackwell play in military planning? Does the Army intend to shift it's focus more toward counterinsurgency and all that involves, or is it just planning to train a few ten thousands more in how to fight the Soviet Red Army the way they've done since the Soviet Union collapsed?

And check this out. Via Corrente Wire,
Blackwater Makes It Official: They're Running a Private Army 04/25/07, I see this news report from last year from the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot: Blackwater USA to open facilities in California, Philippines bt Bill Sizemore 05/16/06:
Six weeks ago, Blackwater Vice Chairman Cofer Black said the company is interested in creating a small army for hire - a brigade-size force that could be contracted for peacekeeping and stability operations in troubled regions of the world.
This whole shadow-world of Blackwell and other private-security/mercenary companies is one that should be very much part of military budget discussions, because a large part of their funding comes from the US military and they operate in far too much of a legal gray zone.

Porter's other recent article is
Democrats' Timetable Allows U.S. War in Sunni Region to Go On Inter Press Service 04/26/07. Although the current political jousting is over Cheney and Bush rejecting any restrictions at all, it's not too early to focus on what it means to mandate an end to US participation in sectarian violence in Iraq but to allow continued operations against "Al Qaida". It's a huge conceptual loophole. As Porter writes, this will invite war advocates to make all of its targets into "Al Qaida", whether that's true or not:
A five-page Marine Corps intelligence report on Anbar in September 2006 reflected that view of the situation. It said Anbar province was a "vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq." Media reporting on the province largely conformed to that interpretation. The notion of a two-sided war in the Sunni heartland bolsters the George W. Bush administration's political position that any talk of a timetable for withdrawal is defeatist.

In fact, however, it is far removed from reality. The majority of the important Sunni insurgent organisations represent a second anti-al-Qaeda force that has far greater potential for defeating al-Qaeda than the U.S. military does.
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