National Security

Hagel remembers the ‘jarring gong’; Sequester a day away; Ooh-rah, Hoo-ah: the Marines, Army draw down quicker than expected; Why is the Air Force going old school? Farewell to Mike Evans, and a little more.

John Kerry announced this morning that the Syrian opposition will receive direct aid from the U.S. for the first time. CBS: "U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that the Syrian Opposition Coalition was the "legitimate voice of the Syrian people," and for the first time will receive direct, non-lethal support from Washington. He warned that Syria's long-time dictator, President Bashar Assad, was an individual "out of time, and who must be out of power."

Sequester is but a day away. The inevitability of it all -- big cuts totaling $46 billion between now and October -- has beset the Pentagon as defense officials, including Chuck Hagel, scramble to figure out how to deal with it all. For months, there was no plan as the Obama administration assumed this manufactured crisis would never happen. But despite a big meeting at the White House tomorrow between President Barack Obama and top congressional leaders, it's increasingly likely sequestration will hit, especially now that the Hill has begun to see the Pentagon doomdayers as Chicken Littles, a significant development with long-term implications beyond Pentagon budget cuts. Nevertheless, from decreased carrier operations in the Gulf to fewer burials at Arlington, the military has begun to prepare for the worst. Some Pentagon officials liken the last few weeks to watching a car wreck happen in slow motion: you can see it happening and you have time to do something about it, but you can't. Hagel may have been sent to the Pentagon for a specific reason -- to oversee cuts to the military -- whether through sequestration or otherwise. As a former sergeant, he may be seen as the man with the credibility to cut fat and even, in some cases, the muscle, as needed.

At the all-hands meeting in the Pentagon auditorium yesterday, Hagel told defense employees: "If there's one thing America has stood for more than any one thing, is that we are a force for good. We make mistakes. We've made mistakes. We'll continue to make mistakes. But we are a force for good. And we should never, ever forget that, and we should always keep that out in front as much as any one thing that drives us every day. As difficult as our jobs are with the budget and sequestration -- I don't need to dwell on all the good news there -- that's a reality. We need to figure this out. You are doing that. You have been doing that. We need to deal with this reality."

Interesting: Politico this morning prints the e-mails  between Bob Woodward and White House Economic Adviser Gene Sperling about "the orgins of sequester."

Welcome to Thursday's edition of Situation Report, where we welcome the debut of a Dick Tracy "smartwatch" since it means we'd be notified every time our readers told us what's really happening -- or sent us candy. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. 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. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings and whatnot.

The new Pentagon chief made a stop at the building's 9/11 memorial. The E-Ring's Kevin Baron reports that yesterday morning, Hagel's first day, he stopped by the memorial on the building's west side, where he remembered where he was on that day in 2001. "That was a ‘jarring gong,' that event," Hagel said during his remarks at the auditorium, invoking Winston Churchill, "that set in motion dynamics that we are living with today."

George Little is staying. Pentagon press secretary George Little will stay on as Chuck Hagel's spokesman and head of the Pentagon's massive press operation, at least for now, according to Kevin this morning. Baron: "Hagel began his tenure on Wednesday and the ex-senator arrived with few staffers in tow looking for top slots - including a spokesman. But Little and Hagel appear to have bonded well already, and plans remain on the table to expand the Pentagon press shop under Little's guidance as head of public affairs."

Hagel doesn't own a walnut farm. It's not clear where the new secretary of defense gets his R&R, but unlike his predecessor, Leon Panetta, Hagel doesn't own a walnut farm in California and won't be returning to it each weekend. Hagel lives in Northern Virginia, we're told. Hagel, who yesterday looked tanned, ready and rested, recently returned from an undisclosed "warm, sunny winter" destination with his family, we're told.

The ground services are so far beating their own targets when it comes to drawdown. The Army and Marine Corps are in the midst of drawing down their so-called end strength to get to a more appropriate force size in this "post-war" world. The Army, for example, is contracting from about 570,000 troops to about 490,000 by fiscal year 2017, and the Marines are decreasing from 202,100 to 182,100 by the end of fiscal 2016. So far, both services are doing better than they expected, voluntarily separating Marines and soldiers at a faster rate than their plans called for. The Corps, for example, is about 195,200 Marines strong, and is more than on target for reaching its goal at the end of this fiscal year of 193,500. In fact, the Corps may drop another 1,000 Marines below that goal, Situation Report is told. Likewise, the Army is ahead of track, losing personnel through normal attrition. It's current end-strength sits at about 541,000. But Congress has stipulated that no service can draw down much faster than its goals, dipping no less than .5 percent or Congress will send them a nasty-gram.

The Corps has a number of authorities and measures in place to use to achieve a successful drawdown, from temporary early retirement authority to time in grade waivers, all with the understanding that the Corps will maintain "faith" with its Marines, manpower officials tell Situation Report. The Army is achieving its draw down through normal attrition, but multiple sources have said it will take a new approach on drawing down since using only normal attrition as a way to reduce the force is considered an ineffective approach since it can allow good personnel to get out even when the Army wants to keep them. 

By the way: The current Air Force end-strength is about 329,400, which represents a reduction of about 3,300 airmen from fiscal 2012. The Air Force hasn't been specific about what size it will be in the future, but has said it will be a smaller force. Only the Navy is growing -- the service's end-strength sits at 318,000 and must grow to 322,700 sailors by October 1.

But the big fear among the services: additional troop cuts. Although personnel costs dominate the service's budgets -- more than 60 percent for the Marine Corps and somewhat less for the Army -- few want to cut below the existing goals of 490,000 soldiers and 182,100 Marines. But depending on what happens with sequester or with other mandatory budget cuts, depending, they may have to. A report co-authored by former CNO Gary Roughead and Hoover Institution fellow Kori Schake calls for a further reduction of the military's size, arguing in part that the Marine Corps could shrink by another 10,000 Marines. But Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead, who heads the Marines' manpower division, said he doesn't see it. "There's no lack of opinion in this town, especially by former flag officers that are now wearing a suit," Milstead told the Marine Corps Times' Dan Lamothe after testifying on the Hill yesterday. "That's his opinion, and he's certainly entitled to it.... If someone really wants to say that it could be 10,000 less, show me the beef. Show me the beef. Where's the analysis?"

Farewell to Mike Evans of the Times of London. The reporter is returning to the U.K. after three years covering the Pentagon here in Washington. He classed up the joint -- we wish him well.

The Air Force went old school. The service just bought 20 propeller-driven attack planes, the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, the first such planes the Air Force has bought in decades, Killer Apps' John Reed reports. But they're not for the Air Force, he tells us: "Why on Earth is the Air Force buying planes that strongly resemble World War II fighters equipped with modern bombs and cockpit displays? Because it plans on turning them over to the nascent Afghan air force to fight the Taliban. The logic goes like this: the Afghans don't need and certainly can't afford to buy, operate, and maintain modern jet fighters (some of which burn more fuel on takeoff than the Super Tucano would use in an hour). Instead, the Afghan military needs a simple, rugged plane that can carry lots of bullets and bombs and stay over targets for long periods of time."

Noting

  • Fox opinion (Eaglen): Will Obama, Pentagon do the right thing on sequester?
  • Wonkblog: Absent a deal, sequester must begin at 11:59pm tomorrow.
  • AFP/Global Post: U.S. military may take over part of CIA drone war. 
  • NYT: $60 million in aid for Syria.  
  • Al-Monitor: No end in sight for Iraq oil dispute.
  • Afghan Analysts Network: Controlling the uncontrolled: the NSC's decision on Wardak.
  • Iran Primer: Iran talks: Is new momentum enough?    
  • Dawn: APC calls for immediate peace talks with Pakistani Taliban.
  • Haaretz: What's troubling Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah?

 

 

National Security

The man in the Pentagon Hagel most wants to meet; Hagel’s Job One; Dunford, Karzai, meet over Wardak; U.S. may give direct aid to Syrian rebels; Why “Women-in-Combat” could be a misnomer, and more.

By Gordon Lubold

After yesterday's vote, Chuck Hagel strode through the Pentagon's E-Ring looking for the man he most wanted to meet. The Hagel camp had hoped for more than the 58 Senate votes it picked up -- marking the slimmest confirmation margin ever for a defense secretary -- but, as one senior defense official told Situation Report: "A win is a win."

Bruised, battered but undeterred after the vote, Hagel and some key aides were walking the halls of the E-Ring when Hagel decided to look for the man he knew he should meet as defense secretary: Ray Chandler. "The first person I want to meet in the Pentagon is the Sergeant Major of the Army," Hagel quipped, as he dodged into Chandler's outer office. Hagel, the former sergeant and Vietnam vet, knew that the Army's top enlisted man is a man you always want to make happy. But Hagel created an unscripted moment in the hyper-scripted world of the defense secretary: Chandler wasn't home. We're guessing the two will meet soon.

Hagel watched the vote on C-SPAN. While yesterday's vote was being taken, Hagel sat in his transition office on the Pentagon's third deck, surrounded by the key aides who had helped him get through the last several weeks: Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Liz King, Acting Chief of Staff Marcel Lettre, Special Assistant Aaron Dowd, cyber guru Eric Rosenbach, policy guru Eric Lynn, speechwriter Jacob Freedman, Press Secretary George Little, Assistant Press Secretary Carl Woog, and a few others. After the vote, Hagel and company clapped, he smiled, and walked back into his office to get to work.

Hagel's Job One. Hagel survived a nasty confirmation fight and will need to mend fences with some of the people in Congress who are on record saying they don't think he'll make a strong defense secretary. And, of course, sequester looms large. Assuming it goes through on Friday, the new Pentagon chief will have to contend with a $46 billion cut of its budget, furloughs for more than 800,000 defense civilians, and cuts to maintenance, training and operations across the department. Hagel will also have to get into the weeds with the budget problem Pentagon officials worry about even more: the threat of continuing to operate without a real budget and instead deal with a Continuing Resolution that hamstrings the Pentagon in myriad ways. People close to him and watching from afar say Hagel will hit the ground running on these issues.

But perhaps most important thing he'll do is build credibility within the Pentagon. Although he has the credibility of a sergeant and a combat veteran, he will need to reach out to the uniforms quickly. "The number one challenge he'll have to take forward is to establish links with and trust with the military," said one former government official to Situation Report. "I don't think he starts from square one; he starts as someone with a history in the military. There is going to be respect for his service. He is going to be credible. But I think anybody comes in new to the building, they have a set of relationships that they need to establish. I think he is experienced enough and savvy enough to recognize that."

One way he can do that is by proving to the uniforms that he is serious about taking care of the veterans who are returning and those already home. That will show, in a big way, that he wants to work with the building's senior officers in a genuine way and that he won't just pay lip service to helping wounded warriors transition home. Indeed, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, another Army veteran, was one of the first people to call Hagel after he was confirmed, and the two agreed to meet soon, defense officials said.

The former government official: "In this town, every day is a new day. If he comes in understanding that and moving forward proactively, he can either let the situation hamstring him, or he can define his own parameters. He's now a confirmed secretary of defense. So day one starts now."

Welcome to Wednesday's edition of Situation Report. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. 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. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings and whatnot.

Hagel's day. Hagel walked into the Pentagon this morning at 7:30 and was sworn in at 8:15 by the "Mayor of the Pentagon" Mike Rhodes, director of administration and management. He'll be surrounded by his wife and senior aides in a private swearing-in ceremony. He will then host his first "Daily Senior Staff Update," with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, Vice Chairman Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, and other top uniforms. And at 10:30 he'll speak to Pentagon officials and employees in the Pentagon auditorium, laying out his priorities for the department. Later, he'll meet with the service secretaries and then go to the White House for meetings with national security officials.

Of course, Hagel has to find ways to fix his relationships with much of the Senate and the rest of a doubting Congress. But Sen. Carl Levin, the Democrat from Michigan who chairs the Armed Services Committee and helped shepherd Hagel through the tortuous process, said yesterday that Hagel will find a way to work with Congress and that Congress will find a way to work with Hagel. The Cable's Josh Rogin quoted Levin yesterday: "He's a professional. We're professionals. We've all served together; we've all been through the rough and tumble of politics. Frankly, we're friends. Even those who voted against him would count themselves as friends," Levin said. "Everybody here who has worked with Senator Hagel realizes that he's not the kind of person who carries grudges ... I don't see any negative effect on his capability to run the Defense Department."

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, said he had to "up his game." Graham: "I think he will be entering weak based on his performance. That's his challenge: to prove to Congress that he's capable of doing his job. I hope he will." And Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told Rogin that Hagel can fix it if he tries. "There's no question that this process has been very damaging to him. There's no question this has not been a positive thing for him," Corker said. "My guess is that after this thing is over he's going to need to really go to work and show that he can and will be a tremendous leader at the Defense Department."

Dunford and Karzai met in Kabul. The new ISAF commander, Gen. Joe Dunford, met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the "security concerns" in Wardak province after Karzai's government over the weekend ordered U.S. Special Forces out of the province following what the Afghan government characterized as unaddressed complaints about alleged torture, beatings, killings and disappearances of Afghan civilians. ISAF and the Afghan government have formed a joint commission to investigate the claims, but a previous investigation conducted by ISAF has not validated any of the issues the government raised. At today's meeting, Dunford "used the opportunity to reaffirm the coalition's commitment to protecting the safety and ensuring the security of Afghan citizens," ISAF said in a statement this morning.

Yesterday, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little wouldn't say how long the commission will take to do its work and said he didn't want to speak for the ISAF commander as to whether the Pentagon was pushing to keep the Special Forces units in Wardak. Little: "I think we have to let the process work in Kabul, and that process hasn't begun in earnest yet, so we are working with the Afghans and consulting with them to understand the specific concerns and then to arrive at a way ahead." ISAF officials so far have declined to say what the status of the forces are in Wardak or if they are packing up yet to leave.

Consider this from the Department of Messaging: It's not "Women-in-Combat," which is seen by some as a misnomer and does nothing to acknowledge and honor what women have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade. Some uniforms believe the best way to describe integrating women into combat roles should be referred to as "Women-in-Combat Arms."

Mistakes were made. The Pentagon acknowledged yesterday that a mistake was made in that data tracking the number of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. AP's Bob Burns reported that ISAF in Kabul incorrectly reported the decline in attacks last year by seven percentage points. That means the claim made in January that Taliban attacks were down by 7 percent had to be revised altogether, and that in fact there had been no change in the number of attacks. Burns: "The corrected numbers - from the original reports of a 7 percent decline to one of no change - could undercut the narrative promoted by the international coalition and the Obama administration of an insurgency in steep decline. A coalition spokesman, Jamie Graybeal, attributed the miscounting to clerical errors and said the problem does not change officials' basic assessment of the war."

Pentagon pressec George Little reiterated yesterday at a briefing yesterday that the revision to the reporting did not change the fundamental narrative about Afghanistan. Little: "This is a regrettable error in our database systems that was discovered during a routine quality check. We are making the appropriate adjustments. In spite of the stated adjustment, our assessment of the fundamentals of progress in Afghanistan remains positive. The fact that 80 percent of the violence has been taking place in areas where less than 20 percent of the Afghan population lives remains unchanged. As we have said repeatedly, we have pushed the Taliban out of the population centers, and they have failed to retake any of the areas they lost during the surge, and this remains true."

U.S. Aid for Syria? After months of refusing to provide direct, public aid to Syrian rebels, the U.S. may be considering a major change in its approach. Frustrated that the Assad regime remains in power, the Obama administration is considering providing rebel with equipment such as body armor and armored vehicles, as well as training and other assistance. The WaPo: "The administration has not provided direct aid to the military or political side of the opposition throughout the two-year-old conflict, and U.S. officials remain opposed to providing weapons to the rebels. Elements of the proposed policy, which officials cautioned have not yet been finalized, are being discussed by Secretary of State John F. Kerry in meetings this week and next with allies in Europe and the Middle East as part of a coordinated effort to end the bloody stalemate, which has claimed about 70,000 lives."

Noting

  • The Duffel Blog: Facing mass layoffs, the Taliban protest U.S. sequester.
  • The Atlantic: The Taliban's new, more terrifying cousin. 
  • AP: Israel: Mortar shell from Syria lands in Golan.
  • NYT: "Honor Betrayed:" Attacked at 19 by an Air Force trainer and speaking out. 
  • The New Yorker: (Coll): Are we still fighting al-Qaida? 
  • AlJazeera: Iran nuclear talks end without breakthrough. 
  • LAT: 10 hurt in Afghanistan suicide attack. 
  • Small Wars: The role of ideology in negotiation and conflict resolution during the Tuareg rebellions. 
  • U.S. News: New report on al-Qaida: Terrorism more about ‘Bloods and Crips' than ‘Koran and Hadith.'