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February 19, 2009
Notes from the Pentagon

China blinks
China's government and military have blinked in the standoff over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, with the People's Liberation Army lifting its ban on Pentagon talks and visits without an end to weapons sales to the island.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told Inside the Ring that the resumption of military exchanges will go forward without the Pentagon's agreement to China's demand that no exchanges be held until the $6.5 billion U.S. arms package to the island is canceled.

Asked about the status of the arms package and China's demand, Mr. Whitman said in a statement that "the U.S. policy on arms sales to Taiwan remains unchanged," repeating comments by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday.

China's military invited Pentagon officials to Beijing for Feb. 27 discussions as part of this year's annual Defense Policy Coordination Talks. The U.S. delegation will be headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Sedney, a former official at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

"Overall, we take this as a positive signal that the Chinese are prepared to begin working to resume regular military-to-military exchanges," Mr. Whitman said. "This year's talks will address the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship, challenges to regional and global security, and potential areas for expanding cooperation between the two militaries."

The talks "represent an opportunity for us to further dialogue with the PRC on areas of shared interest and mutual benefit," he said.

China cut off military exchanges in October to protest the Taiwan arms package, and a Chinese general later said the talks would not resume until the arms sales - including attack helicopters, missile-defense systems and other missiles - were canceled.

The Pentagon, after successive U.S. administrations, has taken the position that selling defensive arms to Taiwan is required under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which provided for Taiwan's defense after the U.S. recognition of the Beijing government.

Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Hu Changming told the state-run China Daily newspaper on Monday that the dialogue will be "informal."

Afghanistan troops
President Obama's announcement Tuesday that 17,000 additional U.S. troops will deploy to Afghanistan is part of a larger Iraq-style troop surge that is expected to involve dispatching a total of 30,000 U.S. troops and, it is hoped, additional allied troops to the embattled Southwest Asian state over the coming 12 months, military officials said.

The troop deployment is the most visible element of the administration's initiative, which is adapted from the successful troop surge in Iraq.

More than just sending U.S. troops, military planners and policymakers are hoping the additional U.S. forces will spur European allies to increase the numbers of their troops operating in Afghanistan. "Hopefully, the allies will pick up their levels, too," one military officer said. "That is what is expected."

A second major focus of the surge will be bolstering Afghan government forces and implementing a nationwide program to develop a civilian infrastructure.

The deployment was announced as special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke makes the rounds of countries in the region. Officials said all governments in the region view Mr. Holbrooke as a "tough player" who "understands the big picture and is learning more."

Mr. Holbrooke is focusing his efforts on resolving the problem of Pakistan - or, more accurately, "Pashtunistan," the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan inhabited by ethnic Pashtuns, and the ungoverned areas the Taliban and al Qaeda militants are using as staging areas for attacks.

Missile defense battle
Defense officials say an internal political battle is under way over plans first announced in 2006 to build a $2 billion missile-defense interceptor site in Poland and the Czech Republic. The site is to have 10 interceptors in Poland and related radar in the Czech Republic designed to counter Iranian missiles. Both governments are fighting domestic political opponents of the defense system.

Some in the Obama administration want to cancel the deployment over concerns that it will upset arms-control talks with Moscow, which are planned to try to foster cooperation with Russia despite the Russian invasion of Georgia last summer, which soured ties.

Those in the Pentagon who favor missile defense told Inside the Ring that cutting the European missile-defense deployment would pose diplomatic and security problems. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the policy dispute, said that cancellation would undermine U.S. efforts to persuade NATO allies to do more to defend Europe against Iranian missiles. NATO unanimously approved the site.

Second, they said, it would undermine the governments in Poland and the Czech Republic, two of America's newest and closest allies. "Those governments will fall" if the missile-defense site is scrapped, said one senior official close to the debate.

A key advocate is Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who first made the decision to go ahead with the site shortly after taking office in 2006. He also took part in a series of unsuccessful talks with the Russians that sought to dispel Moscow's opposition. Russia insists that the missile defense in Europe is aimed at it, not Iran, and has offered an alternative site in southern Russia.

The U.S. officials said Mr. Gates, who considers himself a "team player," may back down. That would leave Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a key policymaker with a voice in the debate. Mrs. Clinton said Feb. 10 that the United States would reconsider plans for the missile-defense site in Europe if Iran halted its push for nuclear weapons.

Another major player in the debate is Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has called for a more cooperative relationship with Russia. Comments made by Mr. Biden at a recent security conference in Munich were viewed by missile-defense advocates as a signal that the administration is prepared to cancel the European site despite the anticipated diplomatic costs.

Pakistan drone base
CIA and Pentagon officials are upset by the public confirmation last week by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, that U.S. unmanned aerial-vehicle (UAV) attacks against Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists are being launched from a U.S. base in Pakistan.

Mrs. Feinstein revealed during a Feb. 12 hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence with retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence, that a U.S. base in Pakistan is being used to launch UAV strikes on militants in Pakistan's tribal areas. The comments were made in the context of Pakistani leaders' frequent public comments criticizing the U.S. drone attacks.

"The comments were puzzling, to say the least," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told Inside the Ring.

Mrs. Feinstein asked Adm. Blair about Pakistani government criticism in meetings with regional special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, referring to U.S. Predator drone attacks in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas. "And yet as I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base," she said.

Several Pakistani press accounts of her remarks criticized the Islamabad government for several days. In addition, Iran's official news service, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), used the comments for a propaganda broadside against Pakistan's government, stating that the Islamabad government is "responsible for killing its own people" by allowing the Predator strikes.

Phil LaVelle, a spokesman for Mrs. Feinstein, said that regarding public discussion of the UAV base, Mrs. Feinstein "was referring to a front-page story in The [Washington] Post on March 27, [2008]." The report quoted U.S. officials as saying that Predator strikes were being stepped up and were carried out from bases near Islamabad and Jacobabad in Pakistan.

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at

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