Situation Report

SecDef in Kabul

SecDef in Kabul

Panetta got a wake-up call from the North Koreans. A senior aide awakened Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at 4 a.m. in his room at the Hotel Safir in Kuwait City to alert him to the North Korean missile launch. It was just hours before he was scheduled to speak with troops assigned to the U.S. mission in Kuwait about the importance of what they do. The moment reflected in a small way what the U.S. is trying to do in a big way: pivot to Asia while not taking its eye off the ball in the Middle East. "That continental dilemma is exactly what the rebalance is all about — walking and chewing gum at the same time," an official told Situation Report. "We have to make sure we can do both."

NORAD confirmed the launch, saying U.S. missile warning systems detected and tracked it at 7:49 p.m. EST and that initial indications show that the first stage of the missile fell into the Yellow Sea and the second into the Philippine Sea. "Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit," according to a statement from U.S. Northern Command, suggesting a satellite had been deployed. "At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America."

One take: The biggest reason for North Korea’s successful missile launch, compared to the inauspicious attempt earlier this year, can be summed up in one word, John Park, a Stanton Junior Faculty Fellow at MIT, tells Situation Report: Iran. The improved cooperation between the two means North Korea will be taken more seriously on the world stage — and perhaps mocked less on late night comedy. Park: "Their September 2012 bilateral ‘scientific and technological cooperation’ agreement signed in Tehran provides cover for more institutional cooperation — something that now appears to have translated into significant improvement in DPRK’s missile development program. Prior interactions were sporadic."

"With this institutionalized Iran-DPRK cooperation agreement and what is shaping up to be a successful launch, were the North Koreans able to access this proven Russian technological know-how through the Iranians? I think we just saw the answer to that question," Park told us by e-mail.

Now for the U.S., he says, the test makes "strategic patience" largely obsolete. "However, increased sanctions are unlikely to have a material impact. The next steps for the U.S. point to more robust missile defense in the region."

Meanwhile, Panetta left Kuwait and is now in Kabul, visiting troops and getting operational updates on the war from Gen. John Allen and company.

Look who came to dinner with Panetta: After a one-hour meeting with Allen and other top commanders here, Panetta sat down for dinner with Maj. Gen. Thomas (Special Operations Joint Task Force); Maj. Gen. Mayville (RC-East); Lt. Gen. Bolger (NATO Training Mission, Afghanistan); Maj. Gen. Abrams (RC-South); Maj. Gen. Nicholson (Ops chief, ISAF’s IJC); Lt. Gen. Huber (Task Force 435); Maj. Gen. Dahl (deputy commander of U.S. Forces, Afghanistan); Lt. Gen. Waldhauser (Panetta’s senior military assistant); and Maj. Gen. Polumbo (Army Corps of Engineers). Others included two Pentagon officials accompanying Panetta, David Sedney and Derek Chollet.

Panetta told them he was in Afghanistan to see the situation on the ground and to "try to tee up" the decisions the president has to make on troop levels in the future. 

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of Situation Report, where we are now in Toyota Town (also known as Kabul) with Panetta and the dress code for civilians accompanying him is "rugged casual." Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. And sign up for Situation Report here: http://bit.ly/NCN9uN or just send me an e-mail and I’ll put you on the list. And if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease.

Larry Nicholson says the U.S. is in a "tough love" phase when it comes to partnering with Afghans. Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the U.S. Marine who is the deputy chief of staff for operations for ISAF, told reporters traveling with Panetta that ISAF is in a period of "unpartnering" with the Afghans as ISAF pushes them to do more. "There is a lot of tough love going out there in theater," he told reporters traveling with Panetta during a briefing we sat in on at Camp Eggers in Kabul. Nicholson said the infantry kandaks, or battalions, are not his main concern. What is, he said, is making sure the Afghans can sustain themselves beginning in 2015 when the ISAF force will no longer have a major role in Afghanistan and the force of about 68,000 Americans will have shrunk to as little as 6,000.

The three things Afghans can’t do for themselves: Afghans still need support to do ground and air fire, engineering (including explosive ordnance disposal and route clearance), and medical evacuation. "Those are what we are providing the Afghans today," Nicholson said. But ISAF is "pushing them to failure" to get them to better solve their own problems. The one thing the Afghans won’t be able to do after 2015, Nicholson said, is close air support.

Other issues with the ANSF: Attrition is still too high, but it’s coming down, from 31 percent last year to 27 percent today. The goal: 17 percent.

Nicholson, when asked if his assessment means the White House could keep a small force on the ground:  "All I know is what my mission is. Our mission right now is to make the Afghans as self-sufficient as we can, and we’re pushing them and we’re pushing them pretty hard. And in many cases they are responding magnificently. I’m more than optimistic. Once you get to 2015, it will be imperfect, it will be flawed, it will have warts, but it’s going to work. This army, this police force will be able to sustain itself, take care of itself and function. I am confident of that. You guys know me, I’m not a guy to blow smoke. I’m not here to spin, I’m not here to deceive, I’m telling you the truth. These guys are going to be right."

But: Nicholson also said he thought commanders in the past were "disingenuous" when they talked about the U.S. and Afghans working shoulder-to-shoulder – shona ba shona. At the time, "we were mugging for the cameras, I put my arm around my Afghan counterparts, here we are, shoulder-to-shoulder, brother-to-brother, but it was a little disingenuous, I mean it was a little bit cosmetic." Now, he said, it really is different as Afghans are doing the majority of the operations even if they do require some support.

Back at home, Jay Paxton will become the 33rd AC-MACK. Lt. Gen. Jay Paxton, confirmed now as the next assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, will assume office after ceremonies at the Marine Barracks Dec. 15. That officially frees Gen. Joe Dunford to head to Afghanistan to be ISAF commander, sometime in the coming month or so.

Rules of the road in Kabul:  Don’t ask a soldier where the "head" is — that’s more of a Marine term. You gotta say "latrine" or he’ll just look at you blankly.

Remember Kuwait? About 13,500 troops are still there, and earlier today, Panetta spoke with them in a large hangar near some of the bombed-out bunkers in which Saddam used to store his fighter jets during the Gulf War. They asked Panetta about sequestration, the fiscal cliff, how cuts could affect the size of the American military, and what budget constraints might do to the financial welfare of military personnel.

Then a master sergeant asked about Afghanistan: "Can we expect that five to 10 years from now, our children will still be serving in that region of the world to maintain stability?"

Panetta answered that the drawdown, ending in 2014, would lead to the agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan about the size of the force after 2014. "At that time, the agreement is that we’ll have an enduring presence that will continue in Afghanistan. The size of that enduring presence is something that the president is going to be considering over these next few weeks to determine exactly what that will be. But I would assume that enduring presence, whatever the size that is, will be there for a longer period of time."

What Panetta said when he first got to the podium at Ali Al Salem: "It’s a great honor to have a chance to come out here in the middle of nowhere to say ‘Merry Christmas, guys!’"

"Oooooooooooh!"sound troops in Kuwait made after at least two of them accidentally dropped their challenge coins on the cement floor at Ali Al Salem.

Number of coins Panetta presented to troops there: about 400.

Situation Report wanted to pet one of the guard dogs at the Kuwait troop event, but the dog’s handler, wearing a blue Izod polo, said no. But when Panetta went over to greet the dog, the handler didn’t seem to have a problem with it. Here’s the pic plus other images from Panetta event in Kuwait. http://bit.ly/VVgo5b

Didn’t see that coming: On hand in Kuwait was Lt. Gen. Vince Brooks, commander of Third Army, U.S. Army Central, who Situation Report reported yesterday is expected to head to the Army’s command in the Pacific.

Behind the music - Panetta stayed at the Hotel Safir in Kuwait City then rode in a black Suburban the hour or so to Ali Al Salem with his motorcade in tow. Panetta then boarded a C-17 cargo jet and stepped into the "silver bullet" — basically an Airstream trailer without wheels — strapped down inside the plane. Staff, security personnel, reporters and other members of Panetta’s entourage sat along the sides of the plane for the 3 ½-hour trip to Kabul. Although the plane is loud and the amenities crude, it’s a welcome change from the cramped Doomsday plane Panetta travels in overseas. Passengers get up and mill around, eating, drinking coffee, and talking about the next stop. But the C-17 Air Force crew are still cautious: about an hour before landing in Kabul, a crewman told everybody on board that we were in Afghan air space and thus a war zone and that we should sit down (prompting jokes about the Taliban’s non-existent fleet of fighter jets).

Joining reporters on a plane: CNN’s Erin Burnett and crew. Panetta interview with "Out Front" coming soon on CNN.

The evening before in Kuwait, Panetta met with Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait. Panetta expressed "strong confidence" in the U.S.-Kuwaiti defense relationship and in the two countries’ ability to work together to address "common security challenges" in the region. They also discussed the crisis in Syria, cyber threats, Kuwait’s recent parliamentary elections, and the "on-going commitment to the rule of law," according to the official readout of the meeting. "The secretary underscored the importance the U.S. defense strategy places on the Middle East, and he commended the emir for Kuwait’s leadership role in fostering peace and security in the region."