Small Wars

This Week at War: Gates's China Syndrome

The U.S. secretary of defense believes that better military relations with Beijing can help avoid an arms race. But is that what the Chinese want?

View a slide show of China's growing military power

Will China listen to Gates?

On Jan. 9, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will leave on a three day visit to China, where he will meet with his counterparts in the Chinese government. According to Gates's spokesperson, the trip is "aimed at improving our mutual understanding and reducing the risk of miscalculation." Achieving a sustained military-to-military relationship between the United States and China has long been a goal of Gates. For the secretary, the ultimate purpose of such a relationship is to avoid a wasteful and potentially dangerous arms race between the two powers. What remains to be seen is whether Gates's hosts have the same view and whether they currently have much incentive to listen to their guest.

As a trained historian and former Cold Warrior, Gates is well aware of the costs and dangers of military competitions among great powers. Now in the eleventh hour of what will presumably be his last tour of public service, Gates is hoping that a system of regular contact between U.S. and Chinese defense officials will increase transparency, reduce suspicion, and ease the pressure that would otherwise push for greater military preparation on both sides. Gates is now deeply immersed in defense budget planning and feels the pressure smaller budgets will place on U.S. forces. Should Gates be able to avert an arms race with China, he would achieve a success that would eclipse those he may yet achieve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Gates, the U.S.-China military relationship benefits both sides and should logically be a high priority for both countries. Unfortunately, Chinese behavior on this issue does not support that view. In recent years, China has viewed Gates's desire for the relationship as mostly a U.S. interest, which Beijing has alternately granted and then withdrawn as a bargaining chip. The most recent such power play occurred a year ago after the Obama administration approved a weapon sale package to Taiwan. After much pleading from Gates in 2010, Beijing agreed to restart the meetings. With the Chinese having broken off the relationship in the past, another flare-up seems likely to cause a new shutdown in the channel. It seems clear that Gates and his Chinese counterparts assign different values to the military-to-military relationship.

If the United States is to avoid an arms race with China, it may need a different approach than merely assuming that the Chinese also want to avoid that race. Chinese policymakers may have concluded that the coming decade is no time for China to restrain its military production. Important new Chinese systems such as an anti-ship ballistic missile, a fifth-generation stealth fighter, new submarine models, and an aircraft carrier are completing their research and development phases. By contrast, the U.S. government is under severe financial strain and will have to impose more cuts in weapons procurement. It did not help Gates's negotiating leverage when, just prior to his departure for Beijing, photographs of tests of China's new stealth fighter appeared in the media and Adm. Robert Willard, Gates's commander in the Pacific, announced that China's medium range anti-ship ballistic missile -- the so-called "aircraft carrier killer" -- had achieved "initial operational capability." Gates, by contrast, held a press conference at the Pentagon three days before his departure to Beijing where he announced more spending cuts.

Gates continues to hope that a sustained military-to-military relationship between the United States and China will allow both sides to discuss their intentions and thus avoid dangerous misunderstandings. But he and other U.S. policymakers have to reckon with the possibility that China intends to use the upcoming period of retrenchment at the Pentagon to close the gap with U.S. military power in the region. If that's the case, U.S. policymakers will need to rethink their assumptions.

Can an army fighting a drug war stay clean?

A batch of State Department cables recently released by WikiLeaks described the darkening mood among top officials in the Mexican government. In late 2009, the United States ambassador to Mexico reported that some of these officials concluded they were losing control of parts of the country to the drug cartels and that they had little time remaining to salvage the situation. Cartel violence subsequently intensified in 2010. Now, officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border are calling on their military forces to restore order. Officers on both sides have good reasons to be wary of these calls to duty.

In October 2009, Carlos Pascual, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, reported in a cable about a conversation he had with Geronimo Gutierrez, a deputy minister in charge of Mexico's domestic security. According to Pascual's cable, Gutierrez expressed a concern that the government could lose control over several regions. Gutierrez estimated that the Mexican government had just 18 months to show progress against the drug violence if the government's campaign against the cartels was to be sustained.

Regrettably, 2010 turned out to be the worst year yet for Mexico's drug war, with more than 13,000 killed, up from an estimated toll of 9,600 in 2009. Gutierrez's fears may now be coming to pass. A battle in Ciudad Juarez between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels for control over a smuggling route through El Paso, Texas, is turning the city's noncombatants into war refugees. Since the battle began in 2008, estimates of 110,000 to 230,000 of Ciudad Juarez's pre-drug war population of 1.4 million have fled the city. A small number of these refugees have arrived in El Paso, some setting up the businesses they abandoned south of the border. Some 6,000 Ciudad Juarez businesses closed in 2010, a year that saw over 3,000 murders in the city, a body-count that made the city one of the most dangerous places on earth. In Juarez, as with many other places in Mexico, Gutierrez's ministry did not achieve the turnaround in 2010 he had hoped for.

With local police forces thoroughly corrupted by cartel money, the Mexican government has turned to its army to restore order. Juarez reportedly now has 10,000 soldiers patrolling its streets. But according to the leaked cables, Mexico's army appears in many cases to be a reluctant enlistee in the war against the cartels. The cables describe the army as hesitant to share information with the police or to cooperate with them on operations. U.S. diplomats also fault the Mexican army for being ponderous and risk-averse.

The leadership of the Mexican army had good reasons, at least initially, for their hesitation in working with the police. The army was one of the most respected institutions in Mexican society. Institutions with such a status are naturally reluctant to risk their reputations, especially with an activity like domestic policing that is so fraught with risk. Cooperation with the police must have been a non-starter, given that many police officers were known employees of the cartels. Of greatest concern for Mexican army officers must be the very great fear that their organization will be similarly corrupted by drug money.

Officials in the United States may now end up subjecting the National Guard to the same risk of drug-money corruption. Last summer, the Obama administration deployed 1,200 Guardsmen to the border to fend off illegal migrants. Congressmen from both parties want to give authority to border state governors to deploy thousands more for a variety of missions, including drug enforcement.

Guardsmen currently deployed to the border are restricted to observing and reporting, leaving actual contact with migrants and smuggling suspects to the Border Patrol and local police. This policy should please Guard officers as much as it does civil rights advocates concerned about a creeping militarization of policing. Given the pressures on both sides, one wonders how long U.S. officials will be able to keep the military away from the messy and corrupting drug war. As for Mexico's army, its officers should accept that they are across their Rubicon; their reputation is now in play so they might as well try their best to win.

Small Wars

This Week at War: Could North Korea be the next Afghanistan?

East Asia on the brink of small war.

A different kind of small war in Korea?

This week, South Korea's government took steps to prepare the country for a military confrontation with North Korea. Artillery batteries practiced their gunnery and the country had its first serious civil defense drill in decades. Within the next few days, the South promised another artillery exercise from Yeonpyeong Island, the island the North shelled for an hour on Nov. 23. Should the South carry through with this exercise, Pyongyang made its own promise, a riposte "deadlier than what was made on Nov. 23." The mood in the South has hardened -- another round of six-party talks is out, military preparation and air raid drills are in.

After two unanswered provocations by the North -- the attack on Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the warship Cheonan -- the South's political leaders have concluded that it now pays to be tough and have promised retaliatory airstrikes for future Northern attacks. This change in attitude has consequences for Obama administration officials, who would surely prefer not to be drawn into an armed skirmish. U.S. officials likely agree in principle with a tougher policy toward the North. Much less agreeable to them is letting the South Korean government determine by itself how to retaliate after the next provocation. The United States will want to demonstrate that it is a reliable ally, while also maintaining control over its own fate. How the U.S. government manages this dilemma during a fast-moving crisis remains to be seen.

On Dec. 13, the South Korean army sent its artillery forces into the field for a workout, conducting gunnery exercises at 27 sites. Much more important was a nation-wide civil defense drill on Dec. 15, the first such serious drill in decades. 300,000 police and Civil Defense Corps members mobilized for the 20-minute exercise, herding pedestrians and schoolchildren into bombs shelters and subway stations while South Korean fighter jets buzzed overhead. Eleven million South Koreans participated in the exercise. In addition, the government plans to spend $45 million next year on new bomb shelters. Given Seoul's vulnerability to North Korean artillery fire, a South Korean threat of retaliation previously lacked credibility. Seoul's renewed commitment to civil defense has bolstered the credibility of its new retaliatory policy.

Stress in Pyongyang is undoubtedly on the rise. The United States, South Korea, and Japan seem likely to hold firm with their rejection of new six-party talks, which means the North will not receive a payoff from those negotiations like it has in the past. There is likely to be increased global surveillance of the North's weapons proliferation transactions, the interdiction of which could cut the North's future cash flows. Finally, China's leaders will increasingly conclude that they need to get a rope around the North before Pyongyang does any more damage to China's interests. 

With the rules of the game having changed and with internal and external pressure mounting, North Korea's leaders might conclude that doubling down on their previous tactics is their only choice. Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence and former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, predicted "a military confrontation at lower levels" between the South and North. Such a confrontation could come in the form of sporadic artillery duels or naval skirmishes with the North attempting to create intimidation and the South attempting to show resolve. The first such duel could occur this weekend, should the South follow through with its artillery exercise on Yeonpyeong Island.

Like the other "small war" in Afghanistan, such a conflict in Korea would be a contest for influence over the South Korean population as a means of coercing political leaders in the South and in the United States. Like Afghanistan, a conflict would play out in the global media and would involve a test of wills among top decision makers. But instead of rifles and roadside bombs, the weapons would be big cannons and warships, which means the costs could go way up.

Two intelligence reports mean more Afghan headaches for Obama

The Obama administration's December review of its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy delivered just what administration officials had previously promised: a progress report on the current strategy, not a recalculation of that strategy. The review reported progress against al Qaeda and the Taliban and with the effort to build Afghanistan's security forces. It also took note of unresolved obstacles, such as governmental corruption and the persistence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The review reaffirms a policy that resulted from both the 2009 strategy review and the recent NATO summit meeting in Lisbon. Under the current policy, the United States and NATO will transfer responsibility for the war over to large and competent Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. In the meantime, a gradual and conditions-based withdrawal of U.S. forces will begin in July 2011. According to the December review, there has been enough progress to warrant sustaining this policy.

However, the arrival of two ominous national intelligence estimates, one each on Afghanistan and Pakistan, provide trouble for the current strategy. The estimates, which are the consensus of the entire U.S. intelligence community, conclude that the persistence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan is a serious obstacle to ultimate success of the Afghan campaign. This conclusion was recently confirmed by both a U.S. brigade commander operating near Kandahar and a recently retired U.S. diplomat who served in the city.

By next summer, the president will have to decide what weight to give the intelligence estimates. One possibility is to simply dismiss them as wrong. There are grounds for such a view. In 2006, the top U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer in Anbar Province, Iraq produced an intelligence report that concluded that the war effort in the region was doomed. He signed off on this report at the very moment that the Awakening, the Sunni tribal rebellion in Anbar against al Qaeda, was forming. Another example is the 2007 national intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program which has since been discredited and which many dismissed at the time it was released.

Alternatively, Obama could accept the new intelligence estimates as accurate but irrelevant to U.S. policy. By this view, it does not matter for policy that the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan will persist; the U.S. program is to build up Afghanistan's security forces to continue the war by themselves after 2014.

But this implies an acceptance of the sanctuaries and thus, that the war will go on indefinitely. And that leads to another assumption, namely that the Afghan government can build, and indefinitely sustain, large and competent security forces without a break in the war against the Taliban.

The new intelligence estimates do not torpedo Obama's Afghan policy. But they do make it harder to defend. The president will have wave away the advice of his intelligence community while he defends an increasingly unpopular policy. That will take more than a little moral courage.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images