Kerry in Afghanistan; “Right time” for USARPAC’s four-star; Bagram be gone; WTF, Iraq? What happens in Syria; F-35 meta-conspiracy; and more.
- By Kevin Baron
Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge.
By Kevin Baron
Afghanistan takes control of detention center. Overnight and with little fanfare or early warning, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) finally relinquished full control of the U.S. Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP) — formerly known as the Bagram prison — to the government of Afghanistan. The facility’s new name is Afghan National Detention Facility at Parwan (ANDF-P). Yes, they even gave themselves an unnecessary acronym.
Take my Bagram, please. After sparring over the handoff for months, the Americans agreed to let Afghans take the watch over the final several dozen prisoners considered most dangerous, after the Afghans reportedly promised to provide a tougher review before setting any of them free. Gen. Joseph Dunford, Afghanistan war commander, said, "The transfer of the detention facility is an important part of the overall transition of security lead to Afghan National Security Forces." But the U.S. will still provide transition teams and cough up another $39 million to help run the facility. So far, the U.S. has spent more than $250 million on two detention centers, USFOR-A said.
Kerry in Afghanistan. Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Afghanistan just hours ago for an unannounced visit. Kerry has hopped from Iraq, back to Jordan to meet Pakistan’s Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and now into Afghanistan on his first trip there since taking over the State Department.
You asked for it, North Korea. U.S. Army Pacific set to hand keys up to new, four-star commander. The reason the Pentagon elevated the U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) commander from a three-star job to a four-star job, even though it would create yet another top general officer billet during a time of downsizing, is simple: North Korea. According to a former USARPAC commander, it was the Pentagon’s belief that war on the Korean Peninsula has become increasingly likely which led to the decision that a four-star commander should run the show. Given the renewed bluster from Pyongyang, the Pentagon may have gotten this one right.
Welcome to Monday’s edition of Situation Report, where we hope you all are reading this on Spring Break in Florida, as 2-4 inches of depressing late season snow blanket the Washington region. Don’t adjust that dial, kids, the byline is correct. Gordon Lubold is on vacation, so I’m in the driver’s seat all week. Mwah ha ha! Follow me @FPBaron. Or hit me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I’ll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. If we can get it in, we will. Candy? Why, yes, thank you for sending news from your hooch, the military weird, strange trends, odd sightings, personnel changes or genuinely serious tales of DOD VIP SNAFUs.
U.S., ROK sign new in-case-of-war action plan. The ascension of Lt. Gen. Vincent Brooks at USARPAC is expected within weeks, and follows news this weekend that the U.S. and South Korea signed a new response plan to defend the peninsula, giving operational control (OPCON) to the Koreans for limited "provocations." Is this the real OPCON transfer we’ve been waiting for? U.S. officials weren’t talking immediately, several outlets reported this weekend.
For decades the 8th Army on the Korean Peninsula was commanded by a 3-star. That unit was the Army’s service component for Korea. But they also were responsible for the command and control of all Army forces, and the Army’s support to all other services, known as "Title 10 support," on the peninsula.
The Pentagon has instead shifted those latter duties and responsibilities up to USARPAC, based in Honolulu, which is getting a new headquarters. USARPAC now controls the required flow of troops to and from Korea in case of war, while the 8th Army is freer to focus on its expected land role as the 8th Field Army.
"It’s an absolute right decision at the right time," explained retired Lt. Gen. Benjamin "Randy" Mixon, in an interview. "It made sense because in the event of hostilities in Korea, forces would move — not only move directly through and onto the peninsula, but they would move through Japan and other places where U.S. Army Pacific was already in command control of Army forces."
Because North Korea is being scarier than usual. "I think it’s a very serious situation. It appears to be, to me, from my experience over there, something that we just can’t treat as normal behavior," Mixon said of North Korea.
Because in Asia, rank is currency. The bump to four stars also gives the Army commander the rank many felt was overdue. Mixon said while the U.S. historically considered the Pacific theatre one for the Navy and Air Force, most Asian nations consider their armies their premier forces and want Army training. Mixon traveled from California to India as a three-star general often meeting with four-star counterparts during constant multinational exercises. He never had a problem with access, but Asia wants more training, and this shows the Army is serious about the Pacific — and the Obama administration’s pivot. "Across the board, we are seeing growth over the last three or five years or so [in exercises], and with this ongoing change on the Korean Peninsula, it makes perfect sense to move that to a four-star position."
"We had a very spirited discussion on the subject of the overflights." Or so said John Kerry, on Sunday, after the unannounced visit to Baghdad that preceded his unannounced visit to Afghanistan. Kerry told the Iraqis the U.S. did not appreciate Iranian arms reaching Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad’s hands via Iraqi airspace. "I also made it clear to him that there are members of Congress and people in America who increasingly are watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful — how that country can be, in fact, doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals, the goal expressed by the prime minister with respect to Syria and President Assad."
What happens in Syria…is anyone’s guess. With so few Western reporters on the ground inside Syria, it’s always been unclear exactly what’s going down between the regime and rebels. Rumors of something as big as President Bashar al-Assad being assassinated this weekend had the Associated Press scratching their heads for a while.
Except for this woman. She’s been there. Elizabeth O’Bagy, senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, wins some sort of "nice timing" award for releasing today her detailed 50-page report on rebel life, "The Free Syrian Army." What they need, she writes in a copy provided to Situation Report, is "an operational level headquarters that can designate campaign priorities" and then task and fund them. The rebels finally have a Supreme Military Command, but the body rules from the bottom-up, not top-down.
Now, they need more arms. O’Bagy argues that worrying about loose arms is no reason to withhold them from the good guys. "The current policy of inaction carries much more risk. This pol
icy has not prevented extremists from acquiring arms. Instead, it has prevented more moderate forces from acquiring arms and consolidating their authority while allowing the extremist forces to develop their own independent sources of support that are less easily monitored."
He pays attention to the F-35 conspiracy, so you don’t have to. In Winslow Wheeler’s latest FP article, the defense watchdog asks if the GAO is in the bag for DOD. It’s a significant allegation, even for Wheeler, who is expected to look at the Pentagon’s most expensive weapon ever with a sharp eye — he worked at GAO for nearly a decade.
The F-35 story only seems to be getting worse. "In 2013, the pace of negative events and reports has only increased," Wheeler writes. The aircraft have been grounded twice in three months and received back-to-back negative DOD reports. "The first four F-35 production contracts have overrun their targets by $1.2 billion; above that, the F-35s built before 2016 will need an additional $1.7 billion to fix the problems uncovered, so far, by testing. In addition, the amount needed to sustain the F-35 will climb to almost $14 billion in 2018," Wheeler argues.
Has GAO gone soft on F-35? But what’s new this time, Wheeler warns, is that a GAO report last week appeared to suddenly start believing DOD claims of "progress" on F-35 issues. "GAO simply regurgitated the assurance in its report." Wheeler’s proof why we should worry about the GAO finding: Lockheed liked it.
CENTCOM Ch-ch-ch changes. The flag was passed at Central Command, on Friday, as Army Gen. Lloyd Austin took command from retiring Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis. With the new boss comes a decidedly new focus, as CENTCOM leaves a dozen years of major ground warfare behind and enters an end-of-combat period for Afghanistan and expanded counterterrorism across the rest of the region. Read highlights of the ceremony, including a reminder of why Mattis hid from the press during his tenure, as Mad Dog gave us one final "Mattisism" for the road, in The E-Ring.
Please invent a cooler way to change command. P.S.: We love and respect many a military tradition. But one of the lamest has to be when a four-star commander stoically hands a flagpole to the defense secretary, who then hands the flag to the new commander. That’s it? That’s the whole sh’bang? Not even a flyby? Think about it, is all we’re asking. Just no more Dionne Warwick. (We’re looking at you, AFRICOM.)
Speaking of which… In the month and a half since President Obama nominated and the Senate confirmed Lt. Gen. Vincent Brooks to become the first four-star U.S. Army Pacific commander, North Korea has rattled its saber enough to convince the Pentagon to increase its ballistic missile defenses. So how quickly will he actually assume command? The command isn’t talking, which is ironic since Brooks was once famous as the "smooth mouthpiece" for the Army in Central Command, in the early days of the Iraq war.
Contractors cashing in at LanPac. If you’re still not convinced the Army is serious about Asia, don’t take our word for it, just follow the money. The Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) next month is holding an inaugural land warfare conference right in Honolulu. Mixon is heading back to his old stomping grounds, this time to see what the Army may like to buy from General Dynamics, where he now works.
Longform picks of the week. Every weekend, the FP staff round up some of the best long-form reading on the web. In this week’s corral, with a natsec flair, is an interview with Jordan’s King Abdullah II by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg; Richard Engel talks about his kidnapping in Syria; and a profile of murdered prolific sniper Chris Kyle, who said of his targets, "They’re just targets."
- Miami Herald: Blue Angels perform last show for awhile
- Reuters: Stop-gap spending measure funds MEADS missile defense
- Boston Globe: B-52s should remain strategy relics
Gay Marriage Day in Court
- CNN: Marriage and the Supreme Court: Five things to watch
- The Hill: High court takes up gay marriage at key moment in rights debate
- Politico: Republicans see cash opportunity in gay marriage shift
- WaPo: Syrian opposition falls into disarray
- Christian Science Monitor: Hard times for Syria’s rebels; top commander injured, PM rejected