Security Issues in the Run-up to the U.S. Election

(Article originally published by the Carnegie Council)

Selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as the Republican Vice Presidential Candidate and the Republican Convention

The Republican convention in Florida had as bookends two hurricanes—Isaac and Eastwood. Isaac threatened the actual conduct of the event and raised anxieties in the Republican leadership that the American people would focus their attention on the unfolding tragedy in the Gulf region rather than the speeches in Tampa. The second “hurricane” raised concerns that the most talked-about speech at the convention would not be Governor Mitt Romney’s, the party’s presidential nominee, but rather an awkward one by 82-year-old actor Clint Eastwood. Still, after several days of speeches and pageantry, the convention nominated Governor Romney and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) as the party’s candidates for president and vice president.

Paul Ryan was a somewhat surprising choice for vice president. He is most well-known for his chairmanship of the House Budgetary Committee and proposals for federal spending reductions. His acceptance speech was well-received, but revealed little about his thoughts on foreign or defense policy. Overall, when it comes to these issues, Ryan has a very limited record from his time in Congress. A few days after the announcement that he would serve as Governor Romney’s running mate, Ryan delivered a speech in New Hampshire in which he remarked that, for him, “overseas . . . means Lake Superior.”

Clearly, he supports traditional Republican Party positions—robust defense spending and opposition to many of President Obama’s foreign policy proposals. It is believed that Ryan accepts advice from experts at the American Enterprise Institute who argue that a reduction in federal entitlement programs is required to insure adequate funds are available for defense. This is also in line with Governor Romney’s proposals that Pentagon spending should be set at 4 percent of the nation’s GDP. In a statement on government spending relating to the Republican Party’s federal budget proposal, Ryan called for, over the next decade, restoring half of the $487 billion in defense spending reductions announced by President Obama in January.

Ryan, like Governor Romney, has criticized Obama for his policies on Afghanistan. Both argue that the president has made decisions on the war based more on politics than military necessity, but they have provided few details so far on how they would prosecute the war differently. Ryan voted in favor of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as supporting military intervention in Libya. He also voted against the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy that barred gay men and women from serving openly in the U.S. military. Finally, like Governor Romney, Ryan has also frequently voiced his strong support for Israel.

In his acceptance speech at the convention, Governor Romney also did little to reveal the direction his administration might take in foreign affairs or defense policy outside of the issues already mentioned. He has previously endorsed the plan to link the Pentagon’s base budget to the nation’s GDP and to provide 4 percent of GDP annually for defense. The Pentagon’s current base budget (absent the costs for the war in Afghanistan) for 2013 stands at about 3.5 percent of GDP and an increase to 4 percent would mean roughly $100 billion more in defense spending. Some experts have calculated that the Romney proposal would amount to $2.1 trillion in increased spending for defense over the next decade based on projections for the American economy. Clearly, the governor’s proposals for defense spending, when coupled with additional tax cuts and a cap of 20 percent overall on federal spending, would lead to a dramatic reordering of the nation’s fiscal priorities. Furthermore, few economists believe that these plans could lead to dramatic reductions in the nation’s deficits in the next decade.

Governor Romney mentioned Iran three times in his speech and reiterated his previously stated view that Russia poses a major threat to American interests in future. He never mentioned Iraq and also failed to discuss the war in Afghanistan at all in his remarks. This was truly surprising. It might be the first time in the nation’s history that, when receiving the nomination for president, a major party nominee ignored an ongoing war that was taking the life of one American soldier daily. One can only imagine that he and his advisors believe that the American people have become largely disconnected from the conflict and, consequently, remarks about the war were unlikely to attract additional support for his candidacy. Still, it would seem appropriate for the nation to know how the next chief executive would manage this conflict, which he will certainly inherit.

At this point, it appears clear that the Republican leadership do not envision foreign and defense policy as being major issues in the November election. They appear little concerned that, as one observer noted, the Romney-Ryan team has the least foreign policy experience of any ticket since Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren in 1948. The only speech at the convention that focused on these issues was delivered by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. She only mentioned Iraq in passing and also failed to mention Afghanistan, but still attempted to make a case for a robust American defense and foreign policy. But in interviews following her speech, she was unable to find any major disagreement with the decisions taken by President Obama.

The First Openly Gay Military Officer is Promoted to General 
Colonel Tammy Smith was promoted to brigadier general (BG) and became the first openly gay person to attain flag rank in the U.S. military. This occurred roughly one year after the military ended the DADT policy. Many experts have been surprised how smoothly this transition has occurred. A number of problems that some foresaw have failed to occur. There has not been a significant reduction in recruiting nor a large number of serving officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) announcing that they were departing the military due to this change in policy. No major incident has been reported that involved attacks on gays by members of the military.

Furthermore, it is interesting to consider that the military and the Department of Defense have made a number of efforts to recognize and support the efforts of gay service personnel. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivered a speech in which he underscored the efforts of gay service members during the nation’s wars. The Pentagon organized a gay pride event in June and further allowed service members to wear their uniforms during a gay rights parade in July.

BG Smith married her partner shortly after the end of the DADT policy in a ceremony in Washington. She was promoted by her spouse who is active in the gay rights effort. Smith attempted to downplay the significance of her promotion. Those who have served with BG Smith appeared uniform in their belief that she was a high quality officer who was now being recognized for her efforts throughout a long career and potential for future service. Any observer would have to conclude that, with over 20 years of service, BG Smith had overcome several barriers in her career. When she entered the military in the early 1980’s, women were a clear minority, and the number of positions in which they could serve were limited. Today over 25 percent of the U.S. military are women, but it is important to point out that they are not as well-represented in the ranks of general officer.


Developments in Afghanistan
The situation in Afghanistan remains serious and problematic to many as the United States plans to reduce the overall number of its troops to 68,000 by the end of September. This comes at the same time as changes in the senior leadership of the Afghan government, as well as continued so-called “green on blue” attacks by members of the Afghan security forces against American and NATO troops. These have killed a number of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers.

In early August, Afghanistan’s parliament, in a session that was aired on national television, voted to sack its two top security ministers, Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister General Besmillah Mohammadi, for failing to respond to rocket shelling from Pakistan. The men will stay in their posts until replacements are announced and, at this time, it appears that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in no hurry to do this. The Pakistani military has shelled Afghanistan several times this year, which has enraged Afghan authorities.

The vote to dismiss occurred shortly after the 2,000th American was killed in action. It is interesting to consider that American forces fought in Afghanistan for nine years before suffering their 1,000th casualty. The second 1,000 fell during the following 27 months, which is a gruesome testimony to the intensity of fighting following President Obama’s decision to send 33,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2010.

During August, there were a number of attacks by members of the Afghan security forces against NATO troops. Three Americans were killed in a single attack by an Afghan working with U.S. forces during the training of Afghan Local Police (ALP) in Helmand province. This was the 20th such attack in 2012. In all, these attackes have resulted in the deaths of over 30 American and NATO troops, accounting for roughly 13 percent of all ISAF casualties during the current year. This compares with 11 such attacks during the entirety of 2011. Furthermore, 75 percent of these “green on blue” shootings have occurred since 2011. They have also occurred throughout Afghanistan, as opposed to being primarily in one or two provinces. August ended with three Australian soldiers killed in an attack by an ALP member.

These attacks are clearly a significant concern to the Obama administration as America reduces its number of troops. Secretary Panetta phoned President Karzai in early August to discuss the problem. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later flew to Afghanistan to get an update on progress in the war and to also speak to American, NATO, and Afghan leaders about these attacks. American leaders must be concerned that if such attacks continue, the dwindling support for the war among the American people could more dissipate even more rapidly. It would also seem to undermine the suggested strategy post-2014 that calls for a dramatically reduced American military presence in Afghanistan mainly focused on the continued training and support to Afghan forces. Such a strategy would place a much larger percentage of that force in daily direct contact with Afghan units.

Using biometric data, measures have been taken to better vet recruits for the Afghan Army, National Police, and Local Police. Currently, U.S. forces maintain a database of over 1 million Afghans in terms of biometric data. Each recruit is supposed to be certified by the elders of his village or tribe prior to enlistment, and so-called Afghan “guardian angels” or bodyguards have been provided to some American and NATO troops involved in advising or training Afghan units. General John Allen, ISAF commander, has also directed that American troops serving closely with Afghan forces carry a loaded weapon at all times. Despite all of these efforts, the number of “green on blue” attacks has continued to rise.

At the end of August, ISAF announced a suspension in the training of the ALP as a number of the “green on blue” attacks had been initiated by members of the police force. The creation of the ALP had been a strong recommendation of General David Petraeus and followed a similar approach that had been successful in Iraq. It was not widely supported by the Karzai government, who feared that it would result in weapons and training either being lost to the Taliban or local warlords. It calls for the training and equipping of local police in villages throughout the country. This also means that these forces are the most likely to be infiltrated or intimidated by the Taliban.

There are several reasons that might explain this dramatic increase in attacks. First, this may be due, in part, to the fact that a larger percentage of ISAF troops present in the country are now directly involved with the training, organizing, or equipping of Afghan security forces. Consequently, they are in more direct daily contact with their Afghan counterparts.

Second, a number of these attacks are clearly in response to individual differences between lone Afghans and their American counterparts that may be further exacerbated by particular incidents, such as the burning of the Koran or the killing of Afghan civilians by an American non-commissioned officer earlier this year.

General Allen, ISAF commander, also stated his belief that the fact that Ramadan occurred during August may also be a contributing factor. The combination of fasting and a high level of operations during the month may have exacerbated tensions in some cases.

Finally, the Taliban announced a new strategy to either infiltrate the Afghan security forces or persuade those already in uniform to support their cause. Taliban leader Mullah Omar even released a video in which he claimed the success of the Taliban strategy with these attacks. In each case, the Taliban have been quick to take credit for the attacks, though in some cases investigations suggest that they may not have been involved. ISAF leaders have stated that they believe roughly one-quarter of the attacks are due to Taliban infiltration.

It would actually be better in many ways if, in fact, the Taliban were truly behind the majority of these attacks. This would imply that the problem can be addressed through better vetting of recruits and counterintelligence efforts. If not, then American forces and their NATO partners may be faced with a more serious issue, which is the result of the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan for over a decade and perhaps a growing impatience among the Afghan population. This could significantly undermine the president’s strategy that calls for not only the removal of the vast majority of forces by the end of 2014, but also the creation of a smaller residual force that would remain in Afghanistan for a number of years working closely with indigenous forces.

The number of American and allied forces in Afghanistan continues to shrink. The coalition has now closed 202 bases in the country as part of the drawdown of forces and transferred a number of them to Afghan control. These bases ranged from very small isolated checkpoints to larger one that housed hundreds of soldiers or Marines. Overall, NATO and U.S. forces now operate about half as many bases in Afghanistan as in October 2011, when they manned roughly 800.

Finally, it was reported that Badruddin Haqqani, a senior leader of the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group, had been killed in a drone attack in North Waziristan. He was thought to be the deputy to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the group’s operational commander and was believed to be a member of the ruling council for one of the four Taliban regional commands. He had been added to the U.S. list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists for his ties to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Badruddin was also believed to be in charge of kidnapping for the Haqqani network and had overseen the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in June 2011. This was one of five drone attacks that occurred over a few days in this remote portion of Pakistan. Another one resulted in the death of the emir of the Turkistan Islamic Party.

Since arriving in office, the Obama administration has placed an enormous emphasis on the use of drone attacks to combat insurgent networks in Pakistan. Over 200 drone attacks have been launched since 2008, as compared to only about 50 during the entirety of the Bush administration. Some experts suggest over 2,000 Taliban fighters have been killed in these attacks, with the majority occurring against targets in North Waziristan. Roughly one-quarter of all these attacks have been against the Haqqani network.

Continued Crisis in Syria
The conflict in Syria drags on and the casualties continue to mount. August was the bloodiest month yet in this 23-month-long conflict. Syrian opposition groups claim that over 5,000 people were killed in August, which is more than one-fifth of the roughly 23,000 that have been killed since this conflict began. This is now clearly a civil war and any suggestion to the contrary is totally misplaced.

Most experts now believe that neither the sudden departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, nor the collapse of his regime would end the conflict. The absence of a coherent rebel “government” implies that many of the groups fighting the regime now might turn on each other even if government forces ceased their attacks. Furthermore, the minority Alawite sect that supports President Assad would likely continue the struggle even in his absence, as they would calculate that any new government that would emerge would wreak vengeance upon them. At this juncture, it appears that the government and the rebels are deadlocked with neither having sufficient combat power to assure victory.

The number of refugees fleeing to Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon continues to mount. UN officials estimate that over 100,000 Syrians fled their country in August and thousands more are internally displaced. The total number of refugees that have fled Syria is now believed to exceed 250,000. This raises the fear that, if the war continues, it could eventually spread and involve other nations in the region. Most experts also appear to believe that absent a large-scale intervention, the war could drag on for a number of years.

Russia and China continue to block any attempt by Western countries to seek greater action by the UN. Many observers have ascribed Moscow’s opposition to its desire to continue to sell military equipment to Syria and maintain its naval presence at the port of Tartus. Russian military sales to Damascus, however, were reported to have only amounted to roughly $6.5 billion since 2005. Most of these purchases were for the Syrian air force and air defense network. It has also been recently revealed that Russia had suspended its delivery of the advance S-300 mobile air defense missile system to Syria. The Russian navy’s logistical facility at Tartus is also relatively small. This facility consists of two floating moorings, a couple of warehouses, barracks, and a few buildings. It is estimated that no more than 50 Russian sailors are deployed at the base and it may actually have a greater symbolic that military value.

Consequently, many experts now appear to believe that Moscow’s opposition to any UN-sponsored intervention is largely due to a fear that, not only would it mean the loss of a client and ally, but it would also be a further demonstration of Russia’s weakening status as a major power. It also may be due to an increasing concern that the Arab Spring has further served to destabilize the region and raised the possibility of renewed terrorism or insurgent attacks in the North Caucasus.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon selected Lakhdar Brahimi as the new UN special envoy for Syria following the resignation of Kofi Annan. Brahimi is also the representative of the Arab League. The mandate for the UN observer mission in Syria was ended in mid-August, but a liaison office to support efforts for a political solution was retained in Syria. Still, even Brahimi has publicly admitted that the possibility of any type of a solution is increasingly unlikely with each passing day.

Ongoing Crisis With Iran 
The “slow-moving crisis” with Iran continues as the recently enacted oil sanctions against Tehran begin to take a toll on that nation’s economy. Recent statements by Israeli leaders have caused some in Washington to believe that the possibility of an Israeli attack against Tehran prior to the U.S. elections is “50-50.” In response to, at least, this increased level of rhetoric, the Saudi government has publicly stated that it would shoot down any Israeli aircraft over its territory en route to or returning from a mission over Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he may not notify Washington before launching an attack against Tehran. Many Israeli defense experts are openly worried that Iran continues to reprocess nuclear material and to move more of its efforts into hardened facilities near the holy city of Qum. They argue that Tehran will soon enter a “zone of invulnerability,” and the military option for Israel will disappear. Clearly, such an attack could further destabilize a region that is already beset with a large conflict in Syria, which has pitted many of the Gulf States against both Syria and Iran. Such an attack could also have a dramatic impact on the American presidential elections and thrust foreign and defense policy to the forefront.

Media Security Issues

Murder Trial in China 
The trial and conviction of Gu Kailai in Beijing for the alleged murder of a British businessman drew significant media attention. She is alleged to have killed her business partner who was assisting her in a series of criminal business ventures involving graft and corruption. Gu is the wife of Bo Xilai, who was a senior member of the communist Chinese inner circle and believed by many to be destined for eventual membership on the Politburo. The trial has revealed the extent to which senior Chinese officials have used their positions for personal financial gain as well as assisting in the advancement of their family members in Chinese society.

Many experts believe that this has seriously embarrassed the Chinese leadership at a time when they are undergoing a leadership transition. Hu Jintao will step down as president in the near future and will be replaced by Xi Jinping. There is also some concern that this could result in a greater role for the military in Chinese society and national security decision-making.

Suicides in the U.S. Army 
The release of the monthly data on the number of suicides in the army revealed a worrisome increase. The deaths of 26 soldiers in July were listed as “potential suicides.” This raises the total to 116 for 2012 with 26 so far having been confirmed as actual suicides. This compares to a total of 165 for all of 2011. In the National Guard and reserves, there were 71 “potential suicides” for the year as compared to 118 throughout 2011.

Sadly, the number of suicides has continued to climb despite the efforts of army leaders to dramatically increase their efforts to combat this problem over the past several years. A number of reasons have been presented by experts. First, there is stigma for many soldiers who admit behavioral health issues. Second, that after 11 years of war the Army has become a “tired force” that is now beset by increasing concerns in the ranks about reductions in the force, budget cuts, et cetera. Third, soldiers, particularly in the National Guard and reserves, are not immune from the economic woes of the country.

Military Misconduct
Surprisingly, there were a number of stories in the media about official misconduct that affected all of the services. The air force is still reeling from the reports of sexual misconduct by male drill instructors at Lackland Air Force base against female enlisted recruits. Two non-commissioned officers have been convicted, and a significant number of non-commissioned officers await court-martial. The base commander at Lackland was also relieved as part of this scandal.

The Pentagon announced that army General “Kip” Ward, the first commander of AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) was under investigation for misuse of government funds and official travel. The Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General has been conducting this investigation for nearly a year, and its report has allegedly been provided to Secretary Panetta. The investigation is reported to suggest that General Ward had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish travel, hotel accommodations, et cetera for himself and his wife while in command. Ward could be forced to retire as a major general and repay the government for these fraudulent expenses.

The navy revealed that the commanders of 13 ships had been relieved of their commands this year. Six were specifically relieved for misconduct. Commander Michael Ward II of theUSS Pittsburgh, a nuclear attack submarine, was removed from command when it was revealed that he had had an affair while married. The women had become pregnant, and Commander Ward had gotten a friend to try to convince her that he had been killed in combat in an effort to escape the ensuing scandal.

While these transgressions have no clear connection, senior military officers in all of the services must be concerned over the impression this conveys not only to military personnel worldwide, but also to the opinion of the American public. The military continues to enjoy high levels of support among the American people, and incidents like these can only serve to damage this reputation.

General Observations

As we look ahead I would make the following final comments.

The American Elections
Clearly the onset of the American presidential campaign following the Republican and Democratic conventions will command the attention of the nation over the next 60 days. At this juncture, it appears the economy and potentially social issues will be central to the success of either President Obama or Governor Romney. Still, the world does not necessarily operate with clear respect for the American election calendar and events in Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, or even the South China Sea could quickly intrude.

War in Syria 
The war in Syria will continue unabated and any chance for a political settlement seems increasingly remote. The growing refugee crisis and potential for a widening conflict may increase calls for a military intervention by the West. Still, at this juncture it appears unlikely that Russia and China will allow any such effort by the United Nations to sanction the Assad regime. It is also clear that the Obama administration is very unlikely to wish to be embroiled in this conflict prior to the November election. European leaders are also confronted with an array of economic challenges and popular weariness after the long war in Afghanistan and the conflict in Libya that lasted far longer than many experts expected.

Congress will reconvene for a few days in September and has the opportunity to confront the problem of “sequestration,” or the automatic cuts in the defense budget of an additional $500 billion over the next decade that are due to commence in January. Polls indicate that over 70 percent of the American public want this problem addressed. Still, it appears unlikely that Congressional leaders will find the willingness to compromise in the heat of an election campaign. Consequently, this issue is likely to be addressed in a “lame duck Congress” that will convene following the elections.

Possible Attack by Israel Against Iran
It would appear that if Israel is going to conduct airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will do so in September. Waiting until October not only further complicates the mission and provides Tehran more opportunity to harden its sites, but it also would place the attacks so close to the American elections that they could have a clear impact on the result. This might result in a backlash from either candidate once elected.

Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.