Situation Report

ISAF Reduces Op-Tempo with Afghans

The red phone with China, Gates goes off, and more.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of Foreign Policy’s Situation Report. Follow me @glubold or e-mail me at Sign up for Situation Report here: 

By Gordon Lubold

Is the U.S. military suspending operations with its Afghan partner? Some reports indicate the U.S. military has halted most joint field operations with Afghan forces because so many Americans are being killed by the very men they are training. Any sustained suspension would undercut the Obama administration’s strategy to exit Afghanistan by 2014, which relies heavily on partnership with the Afghans. "The order suspends ‘until further notice’ most operations in which U.S. and Afghan forces operate side-by-side," according to CBS’ David Martin.

But early this morning, ISAF attempted to clarify its position, saying recent reporting is "not accurate." ISAF, a press release said, "remains absolutely committed to partnering with, training, advising and assisting our ANSF counterparts." However, due to the anti-Muslim video now having an impact in Afghanistan, "operational tempo has been reduced," ISAF said, and force protection increased. "We’ve done this before in other high tension periods and it’s worked well."

Meanwhile, Panetta’s bid to open the military relationship with China may come down to a special phone. Panetta is in China meeting with his counterpart, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, to calm tensions over a territorial dispute with Japan, but more broadly to encourage a more productive, open relationship with China. In many ways, it comes down to the special telephone link between the two militaries created in 2008 under Defense Secretary Robert Gates that remains a metaphor for greater communication between the two powers.

"Just trying to get the Chinese comfortable with the idea that there is a defense telephone link and that it is a way for defense leaders to talk to each other is an important objective," a former administration official told Situation Report.

"There are some indications they may be starting to buy into the logic of the mil-to-mil relationship, but whether or not they will fully buy into it is an open question," the former official said, adding that, even if there is a small chance of success, "it is worth making the effort."

The Pentagon had created the line in the wake of some high-profile incidents between the two militaries. Officials at the time lamented the fact that the military-to-military relationship was so crude they literally didn’t know who to call when there was a problem. And even after establishing the line, some American officials joked about whether anyone would actually pick up the other end when the Americans did call. Pentagon officials now say the phone has been used several times since it was established.

Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used it to call his counterpart more than a year ago, and Gates had also used it. It’s unclear, however, if the Chinese have ever had the urge to reach out.

There is much the U.S. doesn’t know about the PLA, says the former official. For example, while the 2nd Artillery Corps controls China’s land-based missiles, the Corps’ relationship, if there is one at all, with China’s naval forces remains unclear. Unnerving in a crisis situation, the former administration official said.

Many believe it’s in China’s interest to be more open on military issues, but other analysts disagree. Mike Mazza of the American Enterprise Institute calls transparency a "false issue" because Mazza doesn’t believe the Chinese want anything but for the U.S. to withdraw from the region. "I think the mil-to-mil relationship has not really gone very far over the last decade or so because the Chinese don’t really have any interest in it going any further," Mazza says.

But at least this week, the Chinese appear to be on board. "Better communications… are very helpful, useful, for mutual understanding of our respective positions and stances," Liang said during a news conference with Panetta. "It will also help reduce suspicions [and] build trust."

China is making bolder moves in the East China Sea. Amid the rhetoric over the islands in the East China Sea, the territorial dispute between China and Japan has grown more ominous with a quiet assertion by the Chinese of a legal framework to formally demarcate its territorial waters, writes Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt on FP. This is a change in approach for China, which normally maintains "calculated ambiguity" when it comes to such territorial issues. To back up the move, China sent six surveillance vessels into the waters and plans to patrol the waters and protect some 1,000 Chinese fishing boats.

Dempsey is in Ankara, but he’s not talking safe-zones. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey is visiting Turkey, where he is meeting with Turkish officials, including Gen. Necdet Ozel, chief of the Turkish General Staff. Dempsey was expected to talk about the Syrian crisis and its impact inside Turkey as tens of thousands stream across the border. Turkey wants NATO to create safe zones inside Syria, but NATO has dismissed the idea. But the issue has not come up specifically, said Col. David Lapan, chief spokesman for Dempsey.

"The issue of a humanitarian zone inside Syria wasn’t raised in any of General Dempsey’s meetings in Ankara," Lapan told Situation Report. Lapan said the safe-zone option appeared on a PowerPoint briefing slide during one briefing but there was no discussion of it.

"There was a general discussion of cooperative planning on humanitarian issues, on [chemical and biological weapons] and on air defense," Lapan wrote from Turkey. "There was extensive discussion on sharing lessons learned about intelligence and operations fusion related to their fight against the PKK."

Tricky software and bad relationships are the biggest challenges facing the F-35 Joint Strike fighter, according to the Air Force two-star general helping to run the program, reports Killer Apps’ John Reed from the Air Force Association convention at a hotel outside Washington. "The relationship between Lockheed Martin, the [joint program office] and the stakeholders is the worst I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been in some bad ones," said Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, deputy F-35 program director yesterday. "I guarantee you: we will not succeed on this program if we do not get past that." He dropped that quote and a whole lot more yesterday.

Bob Gates took the gloves off. Appearing with Mike Mullen at CSIS on a high-level forum on the national debt, Gates declared himself fed-up with the national debt and the political intransigence that has done little to address it. Gates, speaking by video teleconference, didn’t blame either party for the debt crisis, but noted a political system that creates "safe districts" for both Republicans and Democrats, elections that allow one party or another to sweep into office with "ideological zeal," and the decline of "congressional powerbrokers, particularly committee chairs, who could make deals and enforce them." He also blamed a "24/7 digital media environment" that amounts to a "coarsening and dumbing down of the national political dialogue."

But it’s the political center that cannot hold, he said. "The moderate center, the foundation of our modern political system, is not holding."

Mullen, who has long argued that the national debt is the nation’s number one national security problem, said his "urgent appeal" is to "get to the higher ground and to do something sooner rather than later."

Great. So now what should they do? "Chain themselves to the Capitol dome," said one longtime Washington observer.

FP’s own movie mad man Kevin Baron of FP’s E-Ring seized on the line Gates used from "Blazing Saddles" for sequestration. Gates: "Sequestration reminds me of the scene in Blazing Saddles, where the sheriff holds a gun to his own head and warns the crowd not to make him shoot," Gates said via satellite to the CSIS event. "This is no way to run government." Baron deconstructs the scene and the meaning:

Blowing up

The Pivot

Eleven Years and Counting


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