By Gordon Lubold
Biden is pushing again for the "zero option" -- or something awfully close to it. . Vice President Joe Biden is behind a fresh push to withdraw most if not all American troops from Afghanistan, leaving the military and other Afghan hands who think sustaining some military presence there after 2014 will avoid squandering the losses over more than 12 years of war. National security officials discussed Afghanistan at the White House yesterday. The WSJ's Dion Nissenbaum, Julian Barnes and Carol Lee: "The White House convened a meeting of top national-security officials on Thursday to discuss the war and the future of the U.S. troop presence. Mr. Biden has lost previous debates on Afghanistan, but his arguments for a smaller force, likely of 2,000 to 3,000 troops, have gained traction within an administration increasingly frustrated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai has refused to sign a security agreement allowing American forces to remain in small numbers after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission there formally ends this year. Some U.S. defense officials, preferring a remaining post-2014 U.S. force of 9,000-12,000, are skeptical of the smaller troop presence Mr. Biden and others advocate. Such a force would be so limited that a full pullout would make more military sense, the officials said."
A military official to the WSJ: "We are coming to grips with the potential for zero."
Nissenbaum, Barnes and Lee: "The resumption of the administration debate and the push by Mr. Biden and his allies in the administration for a limited force concerns members of groups who advocate for continued U.S. engagement. They fear a debate focused on a small force would offer little appeal to the Afghan government, prompting Mr. Karzai to refuse to sign the security agreement and the Obama administration to withdraw all U.S. forces."
U.S. Institute of Peace's Andrew Wilder: "Pulling the rug out from under Afghanistan really risks collapse... We're in the endgame with Karzai, hopefully, and we really risk blowing it by announcing a 'zero option' based on our frustrations with negotiating with a president who should soon be gone." Read the rest here.
Here's another reason why the U.S. is sending a message to Karzai: The new fiscal 2014 omnibus bill unveiled this week and passed by the Senate last night, includes a 50 percent cut in the civilian assistance budget for Afghanistan, from $2.1 billion to $1.12 billion, Situation Report has confirmed. That leaves about $900 million for USAID and the balance for other civilian assistance programs. Many fear that the U.S. runs the risk of being seen as breaking its promises to Afghanistan, and maybe even fail to honor financial commitments to assistance made in Tokyo. That could make it that much harder to get the Karzai government to sign on the dotted line of the bilateral security agreement, or BSA.
Writing for the NYT's op-ed page, the International Crisis Group's Graeme Smith: "'The Taliban are still here,' a pharmacist who sells medicine to remote villages in the southeast told me last month in this shabby frontier town. 'People are anxious about 2014 because the troops are leaving.'
After his customers started to understand recently that the United States and its allies will pull out most of their forces this year, he said, his sales of medication for anxiety, depression and insomnia increased 30-fold. Fear of a Taliban resurgence is so widespread that it is hurting property prices and the value of Afghanistan's currency, scaring investors away and impelling Afghans to seek foreign asylum. Worries about the year ahead are a kind of pathology here. Yet if Afghans are too scared about the withdrawal of American troops, the United States government may not be scared enough. In its latest report to Congress, the Pentagon said that fighting had eased in 2013, reporting a 12 percent drop in security incidents over the previous summer.
Kicker: "There is no other option, according to a local journalist in Gardez. 'Fighting in Afghanistan is like grabbing a wolf's tail,' he said. 'While you hold on, you're worried it will bite you. But if you let go, you are sure it will bite you.'" Read the rest here.
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Obama speech: Intel agencies will require intel agencies to obtain permission from a secret court before they can tap into a "vast trove of telephone data," report the NYT's Mark Landler and Peter Baker: "... [Obama] will leave the data in the hands of the government for now, an administration official said. Mr. Obama, in a much-anticipated speech on Friday morning, plans to pull back the government's wide net of surveillance at home and abroad, staking out a middle ground between the far-reaching proposals of his own advisers and the concerns of the nation's intelligence agencies. At the heart of the changes, prompted by the disclosure of surveillance practices by a former National Security Agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, will be an overhaul of a bulk data collection program that has swept up many millions of records of Americans' telephone calls, though not their content." More here.
Obama's speech will amount to an overhaul of the NSA program: Reuters' Steve Holland and Mark Hosenball: "President Barack Obama will announce on Friday a major overhaul of a controversial National Security Agency program that collects vast amounts of basic telephone call data on foreigners and Americans, a senior Obama administration official said. In an 11 a.m. (1600 GMT) speech at the Justice Department, Obama will say he is ordering a transition that will significantly change the handling of what is known as the telephone 'metadata' program from the way the NSA currently handles it. Obama's move is aimed at restoring Americans' confidence in U.S. intelligence practices and caps months of reviews by the White House in the wake of damaging disclosures about U.S. surveillance tactics from former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden. In a nod to privacy advocates, Obama will say he has decided that the government should not hold the bulk telephone metadata, a decision that could frustrate some intelligence officials." More here.
Ahead of today's Obama speech on surveillance and the White House's review of "signals intelligence," The Guardian pubs a story saying the NSA collects almost 200 million text messages a day. James Ball: "The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details, according to top-secret documents. The untargeted collection and storage of SMS messages - including their contacts - is revealed in a joint investigation between the Guardian and the UK's Channel 4 News based on material provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The documents also reveal the UK spy agency GCHQ has made use of the NSA database to search the metadata of 'untargeted and unwarranted' communications belonging to people in the UK. The NSA program, codenamed Dishfire, collects 'pretty much everything it can', according to GCHQ documents, rather than merely storing the communications of existing surveillance targets. The NSA has made extensive use of its vast text message database to extract information on people's travel plans, contact books, financial transactions and more - including of individuals under no suspicion of illegal activity." Read the rest here.
Below the fold: Will the U.S. Army be able to do all its missions with 420,000 soldiers? The U.S. Army, already reeling from the beginning of a round of cuts that will drop from its peak of 570,000 to about 490,000, was just told that those cuts don't begin to cut it. Now the Army has begun planning to plan to shrink even more: to a force of about 420,000.
The writing was on the wall. With Iraq now a distant memory and Afghanistan winding down by the end of the year, the Army had expected to drop in size. But to some, this means "cutting into bone," as one officer observed, and that raises a question about what a smaller Army can do -- and what it can't. The Army leadership have framed almost any cuts to end strength as draconian. Speaking before a December budget deal that softens some of the blow, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno attempted to make the case that a smaller Army couldn't do what it was supposed to do.
"If Congress does not act to mitigate the magnitude, method and speed of the reductions under the Budget Control Act with sequestration, the Army will be forced to make significant reductions in force structure and end strength, adding: "Such reductions will not allow us to execute the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, and will make it very difficult to conduct even one sustained major combat operation."
But that's not quite right, defense experts say. A smaller Army can conduct any kind of small operation -- training indigenous forces in Africa, say, or sending a peacekeeping force into Syria. And it can do anything big, too like conducting an 'MTW' - a major theater war -- just not for long...
Experts say it's all in the way the service does the cutting that matters. A smaller force can achieve a lot of what it needs to if it has the right balance: If the Army has too many combat forces and not enough "enabling" forces for certain kinds of operations, it'll be incapable of performing much of what it's asked to do, said former Army officer Nate Freier. On the other hand, if it doesn't have forces at the ready to move quickly it could be left out. "One of the real risks is getting the balance inside the numbers wrong," said Freier, now a research professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "The number itself isn't nearly as important as how it's broken down inside of that."
Maren Leed, a former senior adviser to Odierno, to Situation Report: "Whether or not we get involved is so dependent on the political circumstances of the day and no one can predict that in advance," said Maren Leed, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former adviser to Odierno.
But, she said, "I go back to Trotsky: We may be done with war, but war may not be done with us." Read the rest of our piece here.
Meanwhile, Duncan Hunter takes issue with Odierno over his characterization of the National Guard and Reserve. In the continuing kerfuffle between the active-duty Army and the National Guard, Reps. Tim Walz (D-MN), and Duncan Hunter (R-CA) took Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno to task for how he recently described the Reserve components at a National Press Club event in Washington. From Hunter's letter to Odierno and National Guard Bureau's Gen. Frank Grass, provided to Situation Report: "As the Army completes its force structure review, it is extremely important to note that final troop levels will be decided by Congress, and any proposal by the Army should be reviewed thoroughly to ensure that it does not in any way disparage or diminish the capabilities of one component over the other," Hunter wrote. "We're not advocating for the Reserve component to take over the Active; however, there are certain truths in capabilities provided and costs saved with the Reserve components. For instance, it is extremely disingenuous to say that Guard and Reserve units only train for 39 days out of the year while the Active component trains full-time. From our personal experiences, we know for a fact that while 39 days may be the minimum that individuals will train, there are significant other training activities that take place that put the total number of training days upwards of 90 to 100 days in some cases. Conversely, we know that Active components are not training full-time all year round, but actually train closer to 200 days or so a year."
Then Hunter, not exactly Odierno's BFF, slams the numbers: He says he Army's annual cost to maintain readiness for an Active component infantry brigade combat team in dwell time is $277 million; the cost to prepare the unit, Hunter says, for deployment is $8 million - for a total cost of $285 million. The annual cost to maintain readiness for a National Guard infantry brigade combat team is $66 million and to prepare the unit to deploy is $97 million - for a total cost of $163 million. Of course, there are some apples-to-oranges comparisons going on here, but Hunter is trying to make a point. "It is irresponsible to suggest that the Army National Guard and Reserve forces are not interchangeable and less capable to accomplish our national security objectives abroad." Read the whole letter here.
ICYMI: Read Defense News' Paul McLeary's piece about the kerfuffle Jan. 13, here.
Are vets politically expendable? Veteran groups are angry over what they see as the country breaking faith with them. NPR's Melissa Block: "The budget deal making that's made its way through Congress has been hailed as a sign of bipartisan cooperation, extremely rare in Washington, but not everyone is happy. Veterans group have been protesting a cut to military pensions, a key part of the deal that saved $6 billion. We'll hear in a moment why the Pentagon wants the cut. NPR's Quil Lawrence: "The number can seem small inside a trillion spending bill. It's a one percent cut to the cost of living increase for military pensions. But a retired master sergeant, for example, might lose more than $80,000 over his or her lifetime." Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America's Paul Reickhoff: "It may not be a lot of money to a millionaire serving in Congress, but it's a lot of money to our veterans." Lawrence: "Paul Reickhoff with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says politicians who say they support the troops have to show it." Read and hear the rest here.
The Cold War on Pennsylvania Avenue: How New Jersey Dem Bob Menendez became the White House's biggest foreign policy foe. FP's Yochi Dreazen and John Hudson: "Secretary of State John Kerry has spent the last week hopscotching through Europe and the Mideast, seeking to build support for Syria peace talks, but he has also had to carve time out of his packed schedule to revisit an issue he thought was already settled, one reopened by a man who under ordinary circumstances ought to be a reliable ally.
"Sen. Bob Menendez, a fellow Democrat and Kerry's successor as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been pushing a controversial Iran sanctions bill that Barack Obama's administration sees as an existential threat to the current nuclear agreement with Tehran, which was first hammered out by Kerry in November. Kerry, according to a senior U.S. State Department official, has been phoning back to Washington to tell former Senate colleagues on the panel that their current co-worker might well torpedo a once-in-a-generation opportunity to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons." Read the rest here.
Undercover from Overhead: the images that tell the story inside North Korea, on FP. Joel Wit and Jenny Town: "And here we are again: inside the mysterious North Korea, the hermit kingdom that is not so hermit after all.
"On Jan. 14, PBS's Frontline featured the 'Secret State of North Korea,' a documentary that used undercover footage to 'shine light on the hidden world of the North Korean people.' And it did just that -- taking viewers on the streets to meet the country's poorest and most forgotten.
"Though the street images can give us a glimpse of everyday life in North Korea, the satellite images -- orbiting 250,000 feet over Pyongyang's secret installations, where weapons of mass destruction are developed -- tell us a great deal more about what Pyongyang has up its sleeve.
"From research and development facilities to nuclear and missile test sites to plutonium production and uranium enrichment facilities, North Korea's WMD programs demonstrate a five-decade-long, multibillion-dollar commitment comparable to the Manhattan Project. While some pundits argue that the North's program is a bluff designed to squeeze assistance out of the international community, even the most accomplished con artist would find it impossible to fake such a large-scale effort. Moreover, the North may not want to hide everything: Its emerging program has a security mission -- as well as a political one -- to signal to the outside world that it is a force to be reckoned with." Read the rest here.
Rosa Brooks: How many tell-all books have to be written before Obama begins to think maybe he's wrong? Brooks: "Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan wrote the soundtrack to my early childhood. You know the stuff. Seeger, sorrowful and mellifluous: 'Where have all the flowers gone?' Dylan, querulous and un-mellifluous: 'How many times must the cannonball fly?'
"From this you can probably deduce that I was a child of the American Left, of which little is now left. Even so, from time to time I still find myself humming a few bars of a Seeger or Dylan song under my breath. I don't mean to. I don't even want to. It just happens. I had several such moments as I read former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' new memoir, Duty. Maybe that's because Gates -- whom no one would describe as a leftie, past or present -- takes a stance on war that's not so far removed from the one taken by my anti-war parents in the early 1970s. Each time he visited U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Gates recalls, he found himself "enveloped by a sense of misery and danger and loss." American policy, he asserts, has become perilously over-militarized; 'the use of force [is] too easy for presidents.' But viewed up close -- far from the 'antiseptic offices' of the White House or the CIA -- war is never anything but "bloody and horrible," and its costs are measured in "lives ruined and lives lost.' Nodding along as I read, I found myself humming softly to myself. [Cue 'Down by the Riverside.'] Gates ain't gonna stu-dy ... war ... no more. Which is just as well, since President Barack Obama ain't gonna hire Gates no more. While his book is substantially more nuanced than early press accounts acknowledged, he is largely uncomplimentary toward the Obama White House. Gates was repelled by what he saw as the White House's 'aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting' attitude toward the uniformed military. But while much comment on Gates' memoir has understandably focused on his account of the tortured state of civil-military relations, his critique of the president's inner circle in fact goes far deeper." Read the rest of Brooks' piece on FP, "Head in the Sand," here.