Archive for January, 2010

A Defenseless Budget Freeze

Posted in Afghanistan, U.S. defense budget, Uncategorized, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , on January 31, 2010 by whatafteriraq

As part of its election-year attempt to appear fiscally responsible, the Obama administration announced recently a proposal to freeze discretionary spending in part of the federal budget. The term “discretionary” spending refers to those parts of the budget that must be appropriated annually for the government to spend them, hence the Congress has discretion about whether to spend them or not. These items are also known as “controllable” budget items, since they are controlled by annual budgetary decisions. The other part of the budget is non-discretionary (or uncontrollable), and encompasses those budget items that are automatically spent unless the Congress take specific action in a given session to alter or cancel them. Entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare are uncontrollable or non-dicretionary, although some increases in entitlements occasionally fall into the discretionary category.

Most of the federal budget is non-discretionary. The largest uncontrollable item categories are in entitlements and service (paying the interest) on the national debt, a rapidly growing item. Collectively, these two items (especially if one includes payments to veterans) makes up about two-thirds of the federal budget, and uncontrollable items in other budgets push the non-discretionary part of the budget up to around three-fourths of federal spending. That leaves a very small percentage of federal spending that is actually subject to meaningful Congressional or executive branch control. When annual budget battles rage rhetorically about control of federal spending, it is well to keep in mind that these fights are over a fairly small slice of the federal pie.

The largest single location of discretionary spending in the federal budget is in the defense budget. Historically, about two-thirds of defense spending used to be discretionary, although that figure is probably down some after eight years of two wars. The government is reluctant to tote up and publicize exactly how much money the U.S. spends annually on defense.  The official basis of equivocation depends on exactly how one defines defines defense spending–a distinction reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s questioninig what the meaning of “is” is. Is, for instance, spending on veteran’s medical care and pensions a defense or a social services entitlement expenditure? Officially it is the latter, meaning that spending does not show up in defense outlays.

The defense outlay of the United States is now push one trillion dollars a year. Official estimates are somewhat smaller–for the next fiscal year, for instance about $650 billion for the Department of Defense (DOD) budget, and an additional two hundred billion or so Iraq and Afghanistan. If one dug under enough budgetary rocks, one could probably unearth another $150 billion or so to reach the round $1 trillion mark.

This brings us to the budget freeze. The problem, of course, is that the government is spending increasingly more than it is taking in, a situation everyone agrees is not good and about which something should be done. Freezing the growth in discretionary spending speaks somewhat to that problem, especially if ALL federal discretionary spending is included. At that, it would not solve the problem and bring outlays in line with receipts, but the proposal is indeed “defenseless”–defense spending (the largest discretionary category, remember!) is exempted. The result is a spending freeze on a relatively small portion of a  very small portion of federal spending. Now that is bold thinking!

Why is defense spending exempt? The answer, of course, is wrapped tightly in the U.S. flag: We are at war (two wars), and protecting the United States is our highest priority, beside which all other concerns pale. Thus an exemption for defense spending, and a conundrum for the country: do we want to keep spending at current levels and run up additional debt? or do we want to cut spending enough to bring government receipts back in line with expenditures? If one believes, as Dwight Esienhower famously did, that national security depends on a strong economy and that the deficits undermine that economy, it is a serious question.

There are, of course, two ways to right the fiscal ship of state: spending less, or gathering in more. One can politically dismiss the likelihood of the latter, which would involve substantial increases in taxes, possibly even doing something as radical as reintroducing a meaningfully progressive tax structure on income (perish forbid!). The other is drastically to reduce spending.

But where can large spending cuts come? The answer is defense spending. Two areas stand out. One is the cost of maintaining the current military structure the United States has. The all-volunteer force (AVF) has been in place since 1972, and it has produced a fine, very capable force. It has also, however, produced a relatively small force, and one that is very expensive, particularly because it requires paying military members competitively and having to contract many formerly military tasks to private contractors–at very high costs. There are cheaper alternatives like a return to a force that contains conscripts, although such a force is politically unacceptable. The other source of spending would be to shut down the wars the United States is waging. Both Afghanistan and Iraq are arguably strategically marginal operations, but they are expensive. Does anyone seriously believe that the return the United States will reap from these wars will even approximate the costs? Shut them both down and then look at the deficits (they don’t disappear, but they certainly shrink).

The Obama proposed spending freeze is not an inherently bad idea, and it will save more money than its absence would have yielded. At the same time, it represents little more than a symbolic gesture if the serious intent is to reduce or eliminate federal deficits and thus additions to the federal debt. Doing so requires far deeper cuts in federal spending (and inevitably “revenue emhancement” for those who cannot say taxes) that cover a much wider range of the discretionary budget–in other words, freezes and reductions that are not defenseless.

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Bombing Al Qaeda

Posted in Afghanistan, Global War on Terror, International Terrorism, Pakistan, Yemen with tags , , , , , , , on January 24, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The contest against Al Qaeda (the “war on terror”) has moved to Yemen, where a franchise of the original organization, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has set up shop and is organizing and dispatching terrorist missions against the United States (Ft. Hood, the Christmas underwear bomber) and apparently Great Britain, resulting in their upgrading of their terrorist alert level to the American equialvent of an “orange” alert. The question is, what to do about it?

In one sense,as noted last week, this is not an entirely new problem: Al Qaeda has been present in Yemen for awhile, and the United States and others have been investing in helping the Yemenis to beef up their capability to deal with this sort of problem. They have done so without great apparent enthusiasm, since anti-Americanism is alive and quite healthy in the desert country. Moreover, Yemen is geographically one great big Badlands of deserts and barren mountains, both of which provide protection for AQAP activities.

The first reaction by some Americans, of course, has been to send in the Marines (or Army), but our forces are more than occupied in those other “fronts” of the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, so there really aren’t any spare troops just lying around waiting to be deployed. Sending assets to aid in Haitian relief only empties the availability of forces reservoir a bit more. Conterterrorism and antiterrorism efforts continue quietly by the intelligence and law enforcement assets of the U.S. (the CIA, FBI, and ICE), but those efforts are below the public radar. What can be done dramatically to address the situation?

The likely American response, in the U.S. tradition for half a  century or more, is to bomb them. Traditionally, of course, that meant dispatching the Air Force from friendly bases in the region (such as they exist) or launching airplanes or cruise missiles from aircraft carriers floating around the region. Increasingly, of course, the weapon of choice, available both to the military and the CIA, is the use of pilotless Predator drones armed with precision munitions.

Is this a good idea? Certainly, it has its attractions. For one thing, it is something we can do, and the simple fact of responding has a certain feel-good aspect to it. Second, it is an action that can be undertaken without engaging and thus further stressing American ground assets, who are not involved in such actions (other than the occasional use of Special Forces as spotters). Third, while overflying Yemen (or anywhere else) violates the sovereignty of the air space through which we fly, the violation is nowhere nearly as great as if ground forces are involved. Granted, the Pakistanis have complained so much that the United States no longer officially attacks Al Qaeda targets in the frontier areas any more, and the Yemenis have politely informed the U.S. not to send Predators over their soil, as they prefer attacking AQAP themselves (they would not mind being sold or given a few Predators of their own to do this). Nonetheless, the option is at least partially available. Finally, Predator air strikes are comparatively cheap, certainly more so than ground forces.

There are, however, some problems. First, it is not at all clear how effective these attacks are against the opponent. The United States has, after all, been trying to kill Usama bin Laden for nine years this way, and we have yet to succeed. Second, it is not clear that such attacks do not make matters worse rather than better. Whenever the U.S. has attacked supposed hostile targets in the region in the past (including Pakistan and Afghanistan), the result has been fairly considerable (depending on whose accounts one believes) collateral damage: the killing of innocent civilians who just happen to be in the area under attack.

The 2007 Counterinsurgency Manual (Army FM 3-24, Marine Warfighting Document 3-33.5) warns specifically about the problems this creates (Appendix E-5): “Bombing…can cause unintended civilian casualties. Effective leaders weight the benefits of every air strike against its risks. An air strike can cause collateral damage the turns people against the host-nation (HN) government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory.” In addition, the survivors of these attacks often become prime recruitment targets of the survivors. There is little reason to believe that aerial bombardment kills more Al Qaeda than the recruits it creates.

What to do about AQAP–and wherever the next Al Qaeda cell pops up–is not an easy task. “Bombing them back to the stone age,” in Curt LeMay’s charming entreaty, may sound macho and feel good, but it is not clear that it does not do more harm than it causes. Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail as an anti-AQAP response is honed.

Yemen, Anyone?

Posted in Global War on Terror, International Terrorism, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace, War on Terror, Yemen with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The revelations that the Ft. Hood massacre committed by US Army Major Nidal Malik Hassan and the Christmas underwear bombing attempt by Nigerian Umar Frouk Abdulmutallab may have been inspired by the rhetoric of an expatriate American living in Yemen (Anwar al-Maliki) placed that poor country on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula in the cross-hairs of the American war on terror. Yemen, we quickly learned, is the ancestoral ground from which Usama bin Laden came, and suddenly we began to talk about yet another Hydra-head of Al Qaeda, this time Al Qaeda in Yemen.

The question is that the United States should do about the situation in Yemen. To begin with, although the discovery of radical, terrorist actions emitting from the desert country may have come as a revelation to average Americans, it was certainly no secret to the U.S. government. Even a casual recollection reveals that one of the most notable pre-9/11 terrorist attacks against the U.S. occurred in a Yemeni port (the USS Cole), and one of the first successful drone attacks against Al Qaeda occurred there when a CIA-operated Predator took out some leading members of the terrorist organization. The forbidding, barren mountains of interior Yemen have long been a “badlands” in which radicals have set up shop and have been an inviting hiding place for some time. The government of Yemen has, without many Americans noticing, been receiving military anti-terrorist training support from the US government: this past year, it received $74 million in such aid, second only to that dispensed to Pakistan. Yemen may not have been on your radar or mine,  but it ceratinly has been under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam.

Given this history and the apparent rise of activism in Yemen, what is the United States to do? The first, knee jerk reaction was to ask if the American military should be sent. If one thinks the military problem of dealing with the mountainous regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan straddling the Durand Line are, to put it mildly, challenging, one should contemplate military operations in the undefined, largely uninhabited, and extremely harsh mountainous desert of Yemen. The Tora Bora is a lush and inviting landscape by comparison! Moreover, given American military overcommitment in the area generally, it is not clear where any military assets could be found. These realities, of course, have not still or even slowed down right-wing screeds against the Obama administration for alleged lack of due diligence. They have, however, quieted more analytic minds.

Right now, there is very little the United States can do about Yemen. A few more American trainers may be possible to insert, although anti-American sentiment is great in the country, so it must be very low-profile. The United States can share aerial intelligence (satellites, overflights) with the Yemeni armed forces (which we are doing), but it is probably best that any American strikes against targets in Yemen be adequately clandestine that the Yemenis themselves can claim the credit (if the attacks work). It is also probably possible to improve American intelligence abot who comes and goes to and from the country, thereby enhancing our potential ability to identify more terrorists being trained in Yemen and then dispensed to the United States (or elsewhere) to carry out their deadly missions. Beyond these kinds of actions, it is difficult to imagine other actions that would either work or not make the situation worse.

Effectiveness and productivity or counter-productivity are sobering criteria to apply to Yemen or to other future like situations (which, to the extent the United States is successful in dislodging Al Qaeda from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, are inevitable). What the United States does not know about fighting and “winning” (whatever that means) in Yemen would fill a much larger volume that what we do know. All the military “can do” attitude in the world is hard to extrapolate into a likely success of American military efforts. What such efforts would almost certainly do, however, would be to inflame more anti-Americanism by our presence, thereby effectively taking a leaf from the long-practiced Israeli playbook of taking actions that make situations worse than they already were.

Our culture is activist and has a hard time dealing with situations and conditions which we cannot “fix.” That American can fix almost anything is ingrained in our worldview, but the intractability and inscrutability of the situation in the Middle East should be creating some sense of limitson out enthusiasm and optimism. The answer to “Yemen, Anyone?” should be a polite, but firm, “No thank you.”

Playing “Whack-Em” Ball with Al Qaeda

Posted in Afghanistan, International Terrorism, Middle East Conflict, War on Terror with tags , , , , on January 6, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Connections between the Christmas Underwear Bomber and the Ft. Hood massacre to a radical cleric in Yemen have once again returned that desert country to the center of the ongoing contest against terror and its most notorious emblem, Al Qaeda. It is, of course, not the first time Americans (including much of the media) have scrambled to their Wikipedia or World Almanac to find the country on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula guarding the egress from the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean: a Yemeni port was, after all, where the USS Cole was attacked, and the Yemeni desert was where one of the first and most publicized instances of the CIA using drone-carried Predator missiles against an Al Qaeda target. The desperately poor country (it has no discernible oil) has long been a hotbed of Islamic radicalism and a source of concern with Saudi Arabia, with whom it shares a long and mostly undemarcated border.

The new-old Yemeni problem has, predictably, resulted in a shrill debate over what to do about the threat. At one extreme are those who favor military action and retaliation, although it is not clear what that means beyond dispatching a few more Predator-armed drones into the desert. At the other, the situation seems to indicate the futility of the effort and to call for attempts to better understand and ameliorate the causes of Muslim rage that are directed at this country. Although any real answer probably lies at some undetermined point between the extremes, the situation reminds us that the United States (and everybody else) really has no effective strategy against the terrorist threat, and raises particular questions about the current direction and trajectory of efforts.

As Rick Sanchez suggested yesterday on CNN, the current approach seems to be a variation of the old arcade game, “Whack-Em.” For those too young or sheltered to remember that game, there is a board with holes in it, and the player is given a mallet. Figures surface through the holes, and the object is to whack them with the mallet as a means to subdue them and win the game. The problem, of course, is that as soon as one hits a particular object, another pops up somewhere else on the board, making it very difficult, of not impossible, to subdue the intruder altogether.

U.S. efforts against Al Qaeda do resemble a Whack-Em game in some respects: Al Qaeda emerges somewhere (Afghanistan) or is alleged to (Iraq), and the response is to whack the location with the mallet in the form of American military force. The result is to expend a lot of time, energy, and resources, only to find Al Qaeda popping up somewhere else–in this case, Yemen. Should the U.S. move to whack Al Qaeda in Yemen, is there any doubt that they will pop up somewhere else soon thereafter (Somalia is always a good candidate)?

Those in the terrorism community understand that part of the problem of Al Qaeda (and international religious terrorism generally) is that it is no longer a single, integrated, and centralized entity (to the extent it ever was), but rather a whole series of independent “franchise” operations in countries around the world. Its hydra-headed nature is akin to the “demons” under the Whack-Em board: subdue one and another pops up somewhere else to take its place.

“Whack-Em” as a strategic principle will not work to solve, or even to manage effectively, the problem. Anyone who has ever played the game knows it is fun and even stress-relieving to smash those little devils when they pop up on the board, but doing so ultimately does not solve any problems or provide strategic success.

I do not know the strategic answer to Al Qaeda and terrorism generally, but I do know (or think I know) that Whack-Em, while tempting, is not the solution to the problem.