The False START Debate

The critics and the boosters are both wrong: Obama's nuke treaty with Russia is a huge nothingburger. But Republicans should vote to ratify it anyway.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and its allies on the left would have us believe that the Senate's failure to ratify a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia before the end of the year will significantly damage the security of the United States. "There is no higher national security priority for the lame-duck session of Congress. The stakes for American national security are clear, and they are high," Obama intoned last week.

Meanwhile, some on the right are arguing that ratification of New START would put the United States at a disadvantage in its strategic relationship with Russia, lead to a surge in nuclear proliferation, and empower rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea.

Neither side is correct. New START is a rather meaningless arms-control agreement notable more for what it fails to do than what it achieves.

Obama hoped to accomplish much more in his negotiations with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. When he laid out his goal of a world without nuclear weapons in Prague in April 2009, he described New START as a concrete step toward achieving his vision. "To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year," he said. "And this will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear-weapons states in this endeavor."

By the time the treaty was signed a year after that speech, it had largely been stripped of these lofty goals. After months of tortuous negotiations, it became evident that Russia had no interest in drastically reducing its nuclear stockpile, which currently stands at roughly 1,700 warheads. In fact, Russia is already technically in compliance with the treaty's new limits on deployed delivery systems -- 700 -- even before New START has been ratified.

As Obama struggles to get his first step toward a nuclear-weapons-free world past the Senate, the further cuts he promised in Prague also look increasingly unlikely. The Russians have made clear that they will only discuss cuts to their tactical nuclear forces -- estimated at as many as 2,000 operational weapons, many of which sit across the border from America's NATO allies -- if the United States withdraws its much smaller number of tactical weapons from Europe, which is certain to be a nonstarter for Washington and its allies in Central Europe.

Much of the criticism from the president's Republican critics about New START has been well intentioned but exaggerated. The fact of the matter is that New START could have been much worse. If anything is worth criticizing, it is the president's singular focus on a fanciful vision of nuclear disarmament. This has come at the expense of serious action on efforts to prevent and halt proliferation, distracting him from real challenges such as North Korea, which just revealed a new uranium-enrichment facility, and Iran, which despite problems with its centrifuges at Natanz, continues to make steady progress toward a nuclear-weapons capability.

Setting aside the limited nature of the actual cuts, conservative critics have raised some valid concerns about New START. Early statements from the Obama administration and Russian officials on the relevance of missile defense to New START were contradictory and confusing. The Kremlin issued a statement implying that further U.S. development of its missile defense systems "quantitatively or qualitatively" would be grounds for Russian withdrawal from the treaty. But the ratification resolution approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and subsequent statements by administration officials make clear that New START does not limit America's ability to deploy a robust missile defense system. Other important questions about possible limitations on U.S. plans to develop a conventional prompt global strike capability, which will be all the more important as the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal, also are addressed by the ratification resolution.

New START has been the centerpiece of the president's much vaunted "reset" with Russia. Now that the administration has overplayed its hand by making promises to the Russians about a ratification timeline that it cannot keep, it has undermined its credibility with Moscow. Republicans should rightly criticize the administration's willingness to forgo serious criticism of Russia's abysmal human rights record, its increased stifling of freedom of expression, and its continued occupation of Georgia (a future NATO ally), but in time, the "reset" will collapse whether or not New START is ratified.

There remains serious criticism of New START's merits on the right, and it is troubling that the administration is attempting to argue that Republicans such as Sen. Jon Kyl are interested only in killing the treaty. Kyl and a majority of his colleagues are just asking for more time to explore their concerns about the treaty and continue discussions with administration officials about funding levels for modernization of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

From the rhetoric of the administration and its surrogates, one would believe that if New START is not ratified by the end of the year, nuclear weapons will suddenly fall into the hands of terrorists. Last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry warned that a failure to ratify the treaty would mean that U.S. inspectors would continue to be unable to confirm the safety of Russia's nuclear stockpile, resulting in "no American boots on the ground in Russia able to protect American interests."

Kerry is correct to say that since the 1994 START agreement expired in December 2009, START inspections of Russian and U.S. nuclear sites have not occurred. But ironically, New START, unlike the agreement it replaces, would not have U.S. monitors at Russia's mobile missile-production facility at Votkinsk. If this was an overwhelming concern, the Obama administration and Russia could have agreed to continue inspections without a new treaty.

It is also ridiculous to argue that such inspections really provide that much knowledge about Russia's activities or somehow prevent Russian nukes from falling into terrorist hands. Like most similar arms-control measures, they are confidence-building measures. The United States relies on a variety of other means, including intelligence gained via methods other than arms-control agreements, to actually monitor Russia's stockpile. Through initiatives such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the United States also works with Russia on nuclear-security issues, cooperation that proceeds regardless of what happens with New START.

New START should be ratified, but only once the Senate has done its due diligence to take into account the strategic posture of the United States, including its need for a viable nuclear arsenal. Several more months will not change the strategic situation, nor should it lessen Russia's support for U.S. efforts on Iran or its (limited) support for U.S. and coalition efforts in Afghanistan. Russian nukes will remain secure and U.S. security unthreatened by at least this potential avenue of attack.

By claiming otherwise, the Obama administration and its critics are doing the United States a disservice and engaging in a very unserious debate about U.S. national security.



Tanks, But No Tanks

Why heavy armor won't save Afghanistan.

"You ask us to stand up to the Talibs while you hide in your tanks from their bombs," one elderly Afghan man said incredulously as dozens of other wizened elders from the powerful Afghan Mangal tribe nodded in agreement. The group was sitting in a semicircle on an oversized rug in front of several bowls of dates and nuts in a concrete community building that doubled as a school, police station, and meeting hall. Most of the men had a mixture of shotguns, old British Enfield rifles, or AK-47s slung over their shoulders, and several were better equipped than the Afghan National Army soldiers who accompanied us. A number of the elders were also leaders of the Mangal's arbakai, or tribal militia, that protected tribal interests. They mostly stood stone-faced as their spokesman recounted a long history of the Mangal's support for the Afghan government and then chastised me for the Afghan Army and coalition's lack of support for his tribe and our lack of presence in his valley.

As we discovered last summer during my Special Forces unit's multiday patrol into the Mangal areas, the two most populated Mangal valleys in eastern Afghanistan had not seen a coalition or Afghan Army patrol in nearly two years -- roughly since the introduction of the U.S. military's lumbering MRAP (mine-resistant ambush-protected) vehicles, which are incapable of traversing the passes leading to their lands. (As a specialized unit, we were allowed to conduct the patrol in Humvees instead of the MRAP).

The few elders brave enough to speak with us explained that many had been targeted by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network and intimidated into submission over the previous 18 months, a situation that left their lands a hotbed of insurgent activity replete with large training camps and manufacturing centers for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One district center, a symbol of the Afghan government's authority, had been destroyed -- twice -- and another was regularly besieged. To make matters worse, we received consistent reports of insurgent commanders bragging to Mangal villagers that the Americans were "too scared" to bring their "wheeled tanks" (the Afghan term for the MRAP and other armored vehicles such as the Stryker infantry carrier) up into the mountains, while pressing villagers to provide young men to the insurgency or face retribution.

Throughout the patrol, many of the Mangal were pleased to see us, but repeatedly asked us why we had abandoned them despite their support for the Afghan government. The Mangal occupied a strategic mountain range that separated Khost, a remote eastern province along the Pakistani border, from the rest of Afghanistan. "If we have lost the Mangal, we could lose Khost, just as the Russians did," I thought as I listened at each shura, or gathering of tribal elders. My intelligence analysts had been perplexed about why many of the IEDs plaguing the area surrounding the provincial capital were emanating from the Mangal tribal lands. Our rare patrol through these lands taught us why. Our focus on more armor, force protection, and reducing casualties had ceded the initiative and the terrain to the insurgents and cost us our credibility with one of eastern Afghanistan's largest tribes.

The MRAP, with its V-shaped hull that deflects IEDs, has undoubtedly proved itself to be very effective at saving American lives and is incredibly effective at missions like clearing routes and escorting supply convoys. The problem is, however, that the MRAP was developed for the cities and highways of Iraq, not the mountains and mud trails of Afghanistan. As the 20-ton, 10-foot-tall vehicle at times rolled over in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan and often collapsed its poor mountain roads, the Pentagon has worked to deploy the newer, MRAP-All Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV), with its lower center of gravity, to Afghanistan in record numbers and in record time.  

Although the rollover problem has been largely resolved by the M-ATV, both vehicles are still too wide, tall, and cumbersome to pass through many Afghan villages or navigate the country's notorious mountain roads and narrow wadis in the heavily forested "green zones." The vehicles can really only traverse paved or well-developed roads which are, frankly, rare in the fourth-poorest country in the world. 

To be clear, fault does not lie with the MRAP, MATV, or any other armored vehicle. It lies with how commanders are using the vehicles due to their aversion to risk and their attempts to minimize coalition injuries at the expense of the broader counterinsurgency mission. The vehicles' size would not be a hindrance to that mission if junior coalition commanders were also authorized to use other smaller vehicles to access the difficult areas of Afghanistan. For example, if a unit needed to access a village that was only accessible by pickup truck or Humvee, then that is what they would use.

This, however, was not the case during my most recent tour in southeastern Afghanistan, which ended in February of this year. What I found is that commanders were mandating the use of MRAPs only. If a unit did not have MRAPs or some other type of armored vehicle, then troopers were not allowed to leave the base at all.

This sounds like a minor tactical issue, but its consequences are having strategic effects on how we conduct the war and our ability to access the population. As one frustrated company commander told me after the directive, "If an MRAP can't get there, we don't go there. I need the flexibility to decide what type of vehicle to use."

Another commander, looking up at the hills and mountains surrounding his camp, lamented that he was now unable to access more than 70 percent of his assigned districts. "My men can only walk so far with their body armor on," he said as we chatted near the line of Humvees he could no longer use. To make matters worse, there was an additional requirement of a minimum of four vehicles in order to leave the wire even when a unit didn't have enough working MRAPs to meet the requirement.

This seemingly cautious approach not only contradicts the principles behind our counterinsurgency strategy, but it is actually reckless: It will end up causing more casualties in the long run than it prevents in the short run. Using only these behemoth vehicles prevents U.S. troops from accessing large portions of the populace and allows insurgent IED cells to flourish in areas relatively easy to reach by other means. We cannot protect a populace we do not allow ourselves to access.

It also sends a terrible message to our partnered Afghan security forces, with which we should be sharing risks, and to the Afghan people we are trying to win over as we peer at them through 6 inches of plate glass and armor. And because we are not accessing areas lacking developed roads or within walking distance of a base, neither are the Afghan Army or civilian aid agencies, which are unlikely to tread where the U.S. military won't.

One has to wonder why the insurgents have more than doubled their use of IEDs despite the introduction of mine-resistant vehicles. Asked another way, if the vehicles have been so effective, why do the Taliban and other insurgent networks continue to rely on the IED as a key weapon? One reason is simply that the Taliban have discovered how to make the bombs large enough to destroy the vehicles. Another is that by making use of armored vehicles mandatory and therefore sticking to roads traversable only by armored vehicles, we narrow the field of fire for the enemy, allowing them to focus their efforts and literally lace those roads with bombs every few hundred feet.

Ultimately, the IEDs prevent us from going where the insurgents do not want us to go. Many people fail to realize that causing casualties is only a side benefit of the IED. The true prize for the insurgent commander is separating the coalition and Afghan security forces from the populace. Every time we add another layer of armor in response to casualties, we are playing right into their hands.

Since 2003, I have watched the evolution of how coalition forces traverse the battlefield in Afghanistan, from pickup trucks, to Humvees, to up-armored Humvees, to MRAPs and now MATVs -- while the Taliban escalate their IED campaign by simply building bigger bombs. So I was not surprised when I read recently that the U.S. Marines would now deploy the 70-ton M1A1 tank to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. 

A countryside littered with Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers is evidence enough that this armor vs. explosives escalation is a fool's game. While the Abrams tank will be able to deliver precision firepower at great distances, insurgents will easily be able to predict the few roads it can travel (lest we decide to demolish farmers' fields and irrigation canals) along with myriad lightly-skinned fuelers and maintenance vehicles the tank requires for sustainment.

When I raised such points in planning meetings, my coalition colleagues often asked how then I proposed to "defeat" the IED. My initial response was that the question was wrong: We should not be trying to defeat the IED. Rather, we should be working to defeat the insurgency that plants them.

It may be counterintuitive, but we actually need less armor, and we need to be more flexible and unpredictable. Instead of dictating that no unit can leave its base unless in an MRAP or MATV, we must allow them to use Humvees, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, and ruggedized pickup trucks when appropriate. Knowing their movements are being watched at all times, units need to use deception, such as varying the time of day and night they move, their routes of travel, and the types of vehicles in which they conduct missions, to keep the insurgents constantly guessing. Insurgents cannot possibly booby-trap and watch every road, trail, and wadi in Afghanistan, but they can and do hammer us on the few roads that will support armored vehicles.

This is a very unconventional war being waged in the most difficult terrain possible, and we are responding very conventionally. Instead of allowing such ingenuity and its associated risk, the coalition's default response has been to add more armor and widgets to ever larger vehicles that are the very antithesis of basic counterinsurgency operations.

We may not be able to "defeat" the IED, but we can make it irrelevant. To do so will require us to rely upon the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the junior leaders who are most in tune with the local dynamics and terrain, not on technology or defensive-minded mandates designed to prevent casualties at all costs. Marginalizing the IED will also require higher commanders to accept greater risk and allow their subordinates to sometimes make mistakes -- even deadly ones. But that's the only way to start connecting with the Afghan people, who are the ones who will defeat the Taliban in the end. It's time to start playing to win instead of trying to avoid losing.

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