The Iraq War is finally winding down. A new status of forces treaty with the Iraqi government takes effect tomorrow. Security contractors (a.k.a. mercenaries) will be more tightly regulated, U.S. troops will be subject to the Iraqi criminal justice system for certain off duty misconduct, Iraqi's are supposed to call the shots in joint operations, and by July, U.S. troops are supposed to cease operating in Iraqi cities. An ultimate withdrawal deadline has also been set.
President-Elect Obama campaigned on winding down and ending the Iraq War, and it looks as if it may go out with a whimper, winding down in 2009, and ending in 2010, in time for all but a bare bones force to be out of Iraq by the time voters head to the polls at the next election. Almost all of our allies in the Iraq War have already withdrawn or are well on their way to doing so.
The civilian government in Iraq is weak. Provincial elections are scheduled, but are still months away. The prospect of strong regional governments emerging is still a distinct constitutional possibility. Refugees aren't headed home. The Iraqi military, police forces and government officials still all lean heavily on the U.S. military. The fighting has died down compared to earlier periods in the conflict, but there are still regular brutally violent attacks by insurgents, and there are still major unresolved political puzzles like the government of Kirkut.
After a period of high tension, Iran is drifting away from the spotlight as a nuclear threat and alleged mastermind of insurgents who act as their proxies in Iraq. Iran has even joined the U.S., the U.K., China, and just about every other navy under the sun in joining an ad hoc coalition of naval forces fighting pirates based in Somolia, which remains lawless, despite Ethiopian military efforts to impose some kind of law and order on the warlord ruled failed state.
Afghanistan, meanwhile seems to be heating up. After hitting a low point, Taliban insurgents there seem to be gaining strength. Recent strikes have hit government offices in the capital of Kabul. As many as 20,000-30,000 of the soldiers leaving Iraq may head to Afghanistan to roughly double the scope of U.S. involvement there. The U.S. involvement in the Afgan War is just entering its seventh year, making it one of the longest foreign wars in U.S. history. President-Elect Obama pledged in his campaign to devote more attention to this war.
The good news is that the war in Afghanistan has not caused the entire middle class to flee the country. The bad news is that this is because they all left two or three decades ago and have never come back. Afghanistan has been one of the world's leading sources of refugees for most of my life. Decades of war have left an entire generation uneducated in anything but war making. The leading export crop remains the poppy; Afghanistan dominates the world heroin supply, and the theocratic insurgents appear to be fine with sharing power with narcotics entrapeneurs.
Rather than primarily consisting of urban patrols, air strikes and artillery fire, as well as convoy ambushes seem to characterize the Afghanistan campaign militarily. Like Vietnam and Iraq, this war has been since very early on in the U.S. involvement, a counterinsurgency. The civilian government, made up of a coalition of warlords who were united in providing the last whisp of resistance to Taliban rule before the U.S. intervened in the civil war for control of the country, was initally stronger than the virtually built from scratch regime in Iraq. As a result, the U.S. military presence in the country has been smaller, and U.S. casualties have been lower.
Of course, the main reason the U.S. got involved in the conflict in Afghanistan in the first place had almost nothing to do with the dispute over whether the Taliban or some other coalition should serve as the legitimate government of Iraq. While the international consensus was that the Taliban (who have their roots in Saudi Arabian Islamists) maintained one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, the U.S. intervened because the 9-11 terrorists were based there. Now, those terrorists have largely relocated to parts of Pakistan only loosely controlled by the central government.
Pakistan lacks the means, and perhaps also the will, to close in on and eliminate these terrorist groups themselves, but unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, they have a large enough military complete with nuclear weapons, to prevent the U.S. from simply forcing regime change or acting unilaterally. Meanwhile, groups based in Pakistan and believed to have links to covert operations by the Pakistani government, have launched the Thanksgiving terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India, and have kept a war in Kashmir, and ongoing campaigns of terrorism in India, going for decades.
Beyond the thicket of all of these conflicts, and related ones in which the U.S. military is more tangentially involved, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, and the Ethiopian involvement in Somolia, there are also at least three other major potential military threats out there.
One is the resurgence of the Russian military, currently copying techniques previously put in the history books by the Americans, by sending its navy on a world tour, involving itself in military conflicts near its borders, and espousing increasingly bellicose rhetoric.
Another is the growing importance of the Chinese military, which provides a conservative and nationalist counterpoint to the long term trend towards economic development and an quasi-capitalist economic regime there. It remains to be seen whether China will evolve into an ally before the next major Chinese military operation begins, or will become an adversary.
Finally, there is imploding North Korea, which is the most heavily militarized society on Earth, has rudimentary nuclear weapons and medium range missiles, has a leadership vacuum in the face of a seriously ill leader, and appears to be rushing headlong into another silent tragedy of mass starvation. China sees North Korea as an area of its influence, but is also frequently ill treated by North Korea itself.
It is in the face of this world situation that the Obama administration will have to make decisions on the guns v. butter military funding and procurement decisions of the Department of Defense. While Obama will be retaining the current Secretary of Defense for a while longer, his administration clearly has some ideas for changes in priorities.
The U.S. military will be fighting counterinsurgencies for the forseeable future, and has only developed those capabilities on an ad hoc and emergency basis, so it seems likely that one development will be to make a more focused effort to develop military capabilities appropriate to those conflicts. This means fewer military systems aimed at high tech adversaries with major military equipment, and more focus on contending with light irregulars and upon learning how to win hearts and minds in the general population.
So long as North Korea, China and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, and countries like Iran seem interested in some day having them, it seems likely that some sort of missile defense system aimed at stopping small numbers of missiles from emerging nuclear states will continue to be developed, although not all parts of this multi-service hydra seem likely to survive. The Navy's program has been the most successful in producing results, so it seems most likely to survive.
Our military response to China and Russia are immensely important from a defense budget perspective, but are also sufficiently in flux diplomatically, that it is hard to know how best to respond. These two countries drive the force structure of the Air Force and Navy, as well as important parts of the U.S. Army, because they are the most militarily powerful potential adversaries of the United States. But, U.S. efforts to date seem more focused on containment than upon attacking them. If relations with these countries can be calmed, there is room for major defense budget cuts that our national budget would find very helpful. But, if these nations grow more bellicose, we could be starting a new Cold War.