The U.S. military will have withdrawn 90,000 troops from Iraq during the Obama administration, leaving 50,000 in place, by the end of August. U.S. troops have retreated from many forward bases, leaving it with the job of protecting U.S. interests and training and supporting Iraqi forces in the region. A status of forces agreement expires in 2011, and if no new deal is reached by then, in theory, we have a legal obligation to leave.
We are out of the combat business in Iraq and U.S. troop fatalities reflect that fact. We are down to several U.S. troop fatalities a month there from several dozen a month during the active period of U.S. operations there.
The wind down frees up U.S. counterinsurgency group troop resources for Afghanistan.
The prospects of a full U.S. withdrawal or reduction of the U.S. garrison to a significantly smaller one, however, depends upon the Iraq civilian government being able to choose a prime minster and form a cabinet (the process is called "forming a government" in parliamentary terms, but that phrase is confusing in America English). The Iraqi elections last spring were reasonably free and fair, but no one party has even a majority of the seats and the Iraqi constitution requires a supermajority to elect a prime minister and cabinet that there isn't enough political consensus to secure.
It doesn't help that the Iraqi government is young enough, and its civilian civil service is new enough, that running on autopilot for a prolonged period isn't a good option. The bureaucracy needs guidance to do its work and laws need to be passed to fit a radically changing society and the civilian members of parliament simply aren't capable of doing it in a timely fashion with the rules that they have to work with, which I noted were overambitious when I first read the Iraqi constitution shortly after it was passed. But for the occupation of the country by U.S. troops, the military would have probably swept in with coup imposing a temporary dictatorship and establishing a more workable constitution.
The problems Iraq has now resemble those faced by the early American government under the Articles of Confederation that set too high a bar of consensus for meaningful federal action, but the Iraqis don't have an indigenous George Washington with enough clout to convince everyone that a new set of rules are needed and a big enough reservoir of trust to convince all factions that the new powers won't be abused.
If we want to end the Iraq war cleanly and get out, we need someone in the State Department to step up to the plate and broker a deal. But, it isn't clear that the State Department sees what is needed, believes that it has a responsibility to act, or has identified anyone else who can step in and get the Iraqi political system functioning.
F-35 Progress Report
The F-35 joint strike fighter program is stumbling along.
The systems development and demonstration phase is about 80 percent complete, he said. Of the 19 planned test aircraft, 15 have been delivered; only 13 will actually fly, the others are for structural tests. Nine of the “flyers” have so far completed a total of 136 test flights: the F-35A has flown 56 times; the F-35B short-takeoff and landing version has flown 74 times: and the carrier variant F-35C has flown six times.
While the 74 test flights of the F-35B might look impressive, its actually behind schedule; it was supposed to have flown 95 times by now, Stevens said. “Higher than predicted” failure rates of component parts have grounded some F-35B test aircraft.
Another 31 planes are in the process of being built, despite the fact that testing is not done and there are still kinks being worked out in that process. So, those planes will probably go through the equivalent of a recall and repair process multiple times before they are even delivered.
Congress continues to want to fund two engine designs for the F-35 program, as pork, even though a winner of the competition has been chosen.
Another problem: The F-35B and MV-22 engine exhaust is so hot that it was melting the steel on aircraft carrier and amphibious ship decks, and in the case of the F-35B, melting the asphalt on runways, so expensive fixes have had to be devised.
[W]hen you compare the Harrier engine with those on the V-22 and F-35B, you can easily see that there is a lot more heat coming out of the two more recent aircraft. Someone should have done the math before it became a real problem.
In any event, inexpensive solutions were found, sort of. For the MV-22, the navy developed portable heat shield mats, that deck crew could drag into place under the exhausts of the MV-22s, if these aircraft were expected to be sitting in one place for a while.
For the F-35B, the heat shield mats don't work as well (the F-35B engines put out more heat), so the exhaust nozzle on the F-35B engine is being redesigned, to spread the exhaust over a larger area, thus lowering the peak heat build up to the deck plates. This would also help solve the problem of the F-35B turning asphalt surfaces to a liquid state.
Other Procurement News
BAE is proposing a next generation tank, with a hybrid drive and lots of bells and whistles. The bare vehicle would be 53 tons with an option to add 22 tons of modular armor and storage.
The Air Force remains dead set against a new, inexpensive, low tech, light counterinsurgency aircraft to support ground troops.
A commission that was supposed to look at the future of the American military has called for more of everything with a bigger defense budget, thereby avoiding any serious effort to make the tough choices that really need to be made to reduce defense expenditures and better fit the way our nation spends its defense funds to its actual defense needs.
The British meanwhile, are gearing up for a 10%-20% defense budget cut unrivaled in recent memory, despite the fact that the Tories are in the ruling coalition.
Middle East Arms Race
Saudi Arabia will be buying 84 F-15 fighter aircraft and 72 UH-60 Blackhawk military helicopters from U.S. firms, continue a long process of large, high technology arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This does not make Israel happy.
Pentagon sources told us the sale had been held up at the State Department by concerns over maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) over its Arab neighbors. The Obama administration wants to sell advanced military hardware to the Saudis to counter Iran’s growing power. Since U.S. military aid to Israel is specifically intended to maintain that QME, and since the U.S. is also such a large supplier to the Saudis, it’s always a political dance when making sales to either countries
The official Obama administration explanation about countering Iran is questionable. Even if there was an air war with Iran or there were strike raids to be carried out there, it is hard to see a U.S. interest in having Saudi Arabia carry them out. It is also worth noting that "State Department" means Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a key member of the Administration who was brought into to heal wounds from the Obama-Clinton Democratic Presidential primary battle in 2008; Clinton took a more overtly pro-Israel position in that race.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak reputedly wants F-35s and financial support for its missile defense system in exchange for refraining from protesting the sale.
The issue isn't new. The U.S. has been selling immense quantities of arms and providing military aid to Saudi Arabia and Egypt for decades to balance U.S. military support for Israel and for securing foreign policy stances towards Israel from them that are more moderate than they would be otherwise.
But, the result is that we now have very unreliable allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are armed to the teeth in the Middle East, have enhanced Israel's need for military expenditures which we help finance, and have set the stage for an epic and deadly in the Middle East to rival the conventional Arab-Israeli wars that have come before it. Low level conventional warfare between Israel and its neighbors to the North remain a fact of recent history. Realistically, the fact that all out conventional wars haven't happened probably has more to do with Israel's possession of nuclear weapons than it does with U.S. supplied military equipment. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, and it shows every intent of gaining maximum advantage from the possibility that it might despite the threat of international sanctions, that shaky status quo balance of power could be upset.
Recall that most of the 9-11 bombers were Saudi Arabians as were many of the particularly deadly foreign fighters in the Iraq War. The Taliban that we are now at war with in Afghanistan and Pakistan is movement that was funded by Saudi Arabians, advances a religious agenda in line with Saudi Arabia's state religion, and were essentially a proxy group by which Saudi Arabia extended its influence in Afghanistan.
Egypt, meanwhile, really has nothing to recommend it over Casto's Cuba with which we have a continuing embargo. Both are in substance repressive one party regimes with many political prisoners.
By taking down the regimes of Iraq and Afghanistan, and by encouraging Pakistan's involvement in a regional civil war in its Northwest, the U.S. has also effectively eliminated the need of Iran to worry about hostile neighbors, so it can reposition its military might as potential threats to the Persian Gulf oil trade and Israel that can be used to gain international advantage, and on controlling its own people.
Amphibious Operations In Africa?
A faction in the U.S. military represented in a publication by a warrant officers publishing in a defense journal argues that "[i]ncreased training should be provided for worldwide amphibious operations, with a focus on Africa."
The nature of those amphibious operations isn't entirely clear. Is this about Somolia and Yemen? About Liberia and the Ivory Coast? About U.S. intervention in the Congo?
The War On Terrorism and in Afghanistan
The Obama Administration has failed to live up to a campaign promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp within a year, and more generally, has clung to the same enemy combatant doctrines of the Bush Administration. For example, the administration is still trying to try a detainee who was a fifteen year old Canadian child soldier at the time he attacked U.S. forces before a military commission.
A 92,000 page leak of marginally confidential documents at Wikileaks reveals that our allies in Pakistani intelligence in the Pakistani wing of the Afghan war are unreliable. Pakistani intelligence agents have collaborated with both Taliban and U.S. officials, to the point of advising Taliban members on how to conduct suicide bombings.
The Pakistani side of the War on Terrorism is being carried out mostly by the CIA via armed drones and has purported led to the death of thousands of Taliban and terrorist group leaders and operatives, but also to significant numbers of deaths of innocent civilians, particularly family members of targets. The CIA station chief who was supervising this covert war by the CIA, who has a special forces background, has been promoted to run the CIA's covert operations worldwide. The problem is accountability.
For example, high level CIA officers destroyed videotapes of interrogations of terrorism suspects despite pending litigation of which they were aware in what were probably criminal violations, and a number of CIA interrogators went far beyond the scope of even ethically dubious legal guidance from the White House authorizing certain forms of torture in interrogations leaving them exposed to criminal prosecutions as well. But, the Administration does not appear to have disciplined anyone for misconduct in the war on terrorism that has put the nation's national security at risk. The Obama administration continues to struggle to keep secret explosive photographic accounts of abuse of detainees by federal government officials in these cases.
Lack of coordination between CIA operations and military operations in Afghanistan has been a problem.
In Afghanistan, U.S. troops have surged into the country, particularly those where the Taliban's hold has been strongest. Casualties have been high there, reaching record levels in the almost nine year old war this summer.
The good news is that the whole of Afghanistan is not against us; the provinces where the Northern Alliance, whose side we took in the Afghan civil war ruled, or had recently ruled, before the U.S. got involved in 2001 remain comparatively docile. Casualties have been low and the situation on the ground isn't nearly so dismal isn't about half of the country in the North. The bulk of the conflict has been in two Southeast Afghan provinces. But, the result there has been lots of U.S. fatalities and not a whole lot of support from the locals so far. These areas are much were than they were right after we started our involvement. The Taliban is coming back there and we haven't figured out how to stop them from doing that yet.
Also in the good news department is that there is a genuine international coalition, with large British and Canadian components supporting us. But, most of our major coalition partners are taking intense political heat for their involvement and may be forced to get out or greatly reduce their involvement soon. For example, the Canadians are the third largest contingent and are very likely to be politically forced to pull out soon.
U.S. political support for the war is also growing thin. The latest supplemental appropriations bill for the war effort passed, but only with a majority of Democrats including the chair of the appropriations committee, voting against the bill. A significant number of Democrats in Congress have deep doubts about the war in Afghanistan. It is costing a lot in blood and coin and it isn't producing obvious results. It is, or very soon will be, the longest war in United States history (aside from the "Indian Wars").
For most of that period, the war in Afghanistan hasn't been very intense. It isn't the biggest in terms of troops serving, troop-years of deployment, or cost relative to GDP, casualties, or any of a number of other measures that balance magnitude and duration. But, with the President ramping up troop levels by another 30,000 troops in the near future and fighting a parallel war in Pakistan as a covert action (in the same place that was hit with record breaking floods that killed at least 1100 people this past week), it could easily become more significant soon.