Small Wars

This Week at War: General Casey’s Doubts

This Week at War: General Casey’s Doubts

Afghanistan and some unmentioned strategic risks

Left unmentioned in all the discussion of America’s interests in Afghanistan are several risks that Gen. Stanley McChrystal‘s request for 40,000 additional soldiers, if implemented, would create. McChrystal is asking for a permanent escalation in Afghanistan that would commit U.S. ground forces to a larger open-ended effort. Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, fears that the size and duration of this commitment could eventually break the all-volunteer Army. One strategic risk is that the United States would not have enough ready ground forces for another sustained contingency elsewhere. Finally, the funding that is diverted to sustaining ground-force intensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could be creating risks in the space, air, and naval dimensions that will unpleasantly appear in the next decade and beyond.

The Bush administration’s surge in Iraq was a strategic gamble. The increase from 15 to 20 brigades in Iraq tapped out the last of America’s ground combat power. In addition, the required deployment schedule — 15 months in combat followed by 12 months back home — was considered a temporary, emergency measure. It was for this reason that the Iraq "surge" was a temporary measure — it was not feasible to indefinitely sustain 20 brigades in Iraq.

In these terms, McChrystal’s troop request is not a surge but an escalation. McChrystal’s initial assessment does not define a discrete time period during which he would need the additional troops — the request is open-ended.

In May, prior to the Obama administration’s latest review of Afghan policy and McChrystal’s report, Casey declared the current deployment practice of "12 months deployed, 12 months home" unsustainable. The Army now considers a routine of 12 months deployed, 24 months home sustainable in the long run. The Army believes it can implement this routine if it limits its commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq to no more than 10 brigades.

But according to this open-source estimate of the current U.S. order of battle in Afghanistan, one Marine and six Army brigades are currently serving in Afghanistan. These seven brigades are part of the 68,000 U.S. troops in the country. McChrystal’s 40,000-soldier increase would bring the U.S. brigade count in Afghanistan to at least 11 and probably more.

Assuming the U.S. really does evacuate all of its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, the Army and the Marine Corps would find a way to sustain the larger effort in Afghanistan while also increasing home-station time — assuming that this would be McChrystal’s final escalation of the war.

But the other strategic risks would remain. U.S. ground combat power would be unavailable for another sustained effort elsewhere, unless force generation planners were again willing to risk reducing home-station time down toward 12 months. Casey wants to stop this gamble on the Army’s future.

Second, McChrystal’s open-ended commitment to Afghanistan would mean that ground-force operations, paid for with either regular or supplemental budgets, would continue to divert funds away from space, air, and naval modernization. Given the very long leads times involved with these programs (along with some deteriorating trends I mentioned last week), President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates should ponder what strategic legacy they will leave to their successors and how that measures up to the current effort in Afghanistan.

Gates finds frustration in Tokyo

This week Defense Secretary Robert Gates tended to some business in East Asia. On Oct. 21, he arrived in Japan only to encounter a headache, caused by not by jet lag but by his Japanese interlocutors.

In 2006, after over a decade of negotiations, the United States and Japan reached a deal on restructuring the U.S. military presence in Japan. The deal will shift U.S. forces on Okinawa and Japan’s home islands, close some bases, build new facilities, and move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Now the new government in Tokyo, led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), wants to reopen the deal. Gates refused, adding, "It is time to move on." Just to make sure his Japanese hosts understood, Gates turned down invitations to a welcome ceremony at the Defense Ministry and dinner with Japanese officials.

The new Japanese leaders have their reasons for wanting to reopen the 2006 basing deal. Although Japan has long depended on the presence of U.S. military forces for Japan’s defense, the U.S. presence has become an increasing irritant, especially on Okinawa. Second, now that they are finally in power, DPJ leaders feel they have a strong mandate to scrutinize the commitments made by their Liberal Democratic predecessors. Finally, while facing its own budget burdens, the basing deal requires Japan to pay for most of the new facilities, both on Okinawa and Guam.

From a strategic perspective, Gates and the U.S. military want to get on with a retreat from Okinawa to Guam. In the past, Okinawa, located so close to China’s coast, was an important U.S. outpost, both for intelligence collection and for force projection. However, China’s massive and continuing buildup in short and medium-range ballistic missiles is making it an increasingly risky place to be. The U.S. wants to retain Okinawa as an important forward base, but moving many of the Marines to Guam will reduce friction with Japan and improve the strategic flexibility of Marine forces in the Pacific. Even better for the U.S. if Japan pays for much of the move.

Japan’s new leaders have decided that they do not have to play the diplomatic game with the U.S. the same way Japan played it in the past. Gates will have to develop options or leverage should Japan’s leaders persist with their new-found obstinacy.

Gates may be working on this. Next stop was South Korea, where in a speech to South Korean military leaders, Gates called for the South Korea military to regularly participate in regional and global security missions. Beyond reorienting South Korea away from just the North Korean threat, the U.S. has also been reorienting its military posture in South Korea. Continuing a program begun when Donald Rumsfeld was defense secretary, U.S. ground forces are withdrawing from Korea’s demilitarized zone and repositioning to central South Korea. From there, these and other U.S. forces would have the flexibility to deploy to missions elsewhere in the region. The complex of U.S. bases in central South Korea will become a supplementary option to those the United States uses in Japan.

Japan’s new leaders are attempting to protect Japan’s interests, as they see them. As with any negotiation, they are testing to see which side has more bargaining power. By developing his alternatives, such as those in South Korea, Gates is enhancing his bargaining power with the Japanese. Maybe that’s the best cure for a Japanese headache.