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March 19, 2009
Notes from the Pentagon

Afghanistan debate
The Obama administration has conducted a vigorous internal debate over its new strategy for Afghanistan, expected to be unveiled by the president in a speech Friday.

According to two U.S. government sources close to the issue, senior policymakers were divided over how comprehensive to make the strategy, involving an initial boost of 17,000 U.S. troops.

On the one side were Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, who argued in closed-door meetings for a minimal strategy of stabilizing Afghanistan that one source described as a "lowest common denominator" approach.

The goal of these advocates was to limit civilian and other nonmilitary efforts in Afghanistan and focus on a main military objective of denying safe haven to the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists.

The other side of the debate was led by Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy for the region, who along with U.S. Central Command leader Gen. David H. Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton fought for a major nation-building effort.

The Holbrooke-Petraeus-Clinton faction, according to the sources, prevailed. The result is expected to be a major, long-term military and civilian program to reinvent Afghanistan from one of the most backward, least developed nations to a relatively prosperous democratic state.

According to one defense official close to the debate, the key to success in Afghanistan remains eliminating terrorist safe havens and training camps, which are no longer in Afghanistan but in Pakistan.

"However, all of our actions are oriented on four lines of operation - security to set conditions for governance, development, rule of law with information operations and counternarcotics cross-cutting efforts," the official said.

The key to any strategy remains Pakistan and its border regions, which remain terror safe havens, said the official, who, like the other sources, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Additionally, Gen. Petraeus made sure the Afghan strategy sought to borrow from the successful counterinsurgency strategy and tactics used in Iraq. According to one official in Afghanistan, many of the Afghans are not "hateful against the West."

A White House spokesman and an aide to Mr. Holbrooke declined to comment on the strategy or the debate over it.

North Korea launch
New satellite photos reveal North Korea is getting closer to launching its long-range Taepodong-2 missile, which Pyongyang has said will put a satellite in orbit.

Jane's Intelligence Review, the British publication, obtained recent DigitalGlobe imagery of the Musudan launch site that shows the missile erected on a launch pad.

The magazine's editor, Christian Le Miere, stated that based on a review of satellite photos from March 11 and 16, "it is evident that the upper stage of the umbilical tower is open and possible delineations to aid emplacement have been placed on the pad to center each stage of the [space launch vehicle] as it is constructed."

Another key indicator of imminent launch is that a crane is visible in the March 16 photo and was moved over the launch pad, suggesting preparations for launch are nearly complete.

Jane's accepted North Korean claims that the rocket is a space launcher, dubbed Unha-2 by Pyongyang, that will attempt to place a communications satellite in orbit.

North Korea has notified international air- and sea-control authorities that it plans to conduct a space launch between April 4 and 8.

A defense official familiar with intelligence reports said the launcher was assessed to be a Taepodong-2 long-range missile but that North Korea's government is following Iran's lead in publicly asserting that its long-range missile program is a civilian space-launch effort.

By labeling the missile a space launcher, Pyongyang hopes to avoid further international sanctions, such as those imposed after its missile launches in July 2006, including a failed Taepodong-2 test. Additionally, by declaring the missile a space launcher, North Korea is seeking to complicate the use of U.S. missile defenses, which U.S. military commanders have said could be used to shoot down the latest missile if it is tracked as heading toward U.S. or allied territory.

China military report
China's military tried unsuccessfully to halt the Pentagon's publication of its latest annual report to Congress on Chinese military power.

Maj. Gen. Qian Lihua, director of the Chinese Defense Ministry Foreign Affairs Office, was quoted in a state-run press report as saying: "Under the present situation of the momentum of positive development of Sino-U.S. relations, the U.S. Department of Defense will only do new damage to military relations between the two countries by insisting on publishing the report."

"This will only have a negative impact on military relations," said Gen. Qian, who headed the Chinese military delegation to recent talks in Beijing with Pentagon officials.

Asked about the Chinese general's remarks, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stu Upton declined to comment.

"The Pentagon's report is an annual requirement based on the provisions of the fiscal year 2000 National Defense Authorization Act," he said. "The report is intended to be factual, descriptive and analytical. It is intended to let the facts speak for themselves."

The 66-page report, released Wednesday, says China is developing a range of high-tech military capabilities.

Opposition to the report comes after Chinese complaints about U.S. Navy survey ships operating in international waters claimed by China as economic zones. Several confrontations have occurred between the U.S. ships and Chinese naval vessels, including the harassment of the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea on March 7.

Rumsfeld critic
Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a main architect of the war on terror, has been lambasted in many quarters for his stewardship of Iraq.

Still, it is difficult to find a more complete condemnation of his stewardship than a speech this month by Anthony H. Cordesman at the National Defense University in Washington, special correspondent Rowan Scarborough reports.

Mr. Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, had unkind words for President George W. Bush's entire national security team, including Vice President Dick Cheney.

"We have gone into two wars with no clear plan for conflict termination or for stability operations," he said. "We have then tried to manage wars through supplementals in the absence of long-term plans, tried to decouple military operations from nation building, and been so slow to react to the growth of the threat in Afghanistan that we are now losing a war we once thought we had decisively won.

"Some of this can be blamed on what may have been the worst national security team of the postwar era. As someone who thought [Kennedy and Johnson Defense Secretary] Robert McNamara represented the nadir in defense leadership, I have to give Donald Rumsfeld credit for being the epitome of a micromanaging bully who scattered snowflakes like dandruff, and with about as much effect. I also have a horrifying sense of deja vu when I compare [Kennedy and Johnson National Security Adviser] McGeorge Bundy and [Johnson special assistant Walt W. Rostow and undersecretary of state Eugene V. Rostow] to Cheney and our recent national-security advisers. There is far too little difference between the 'neoconservatives' of Iraq and Afghanistan and the 'neoliberals' of Vietnam."


Inside the Ring contacted Larry Di Rita, former close Rumsfeld aide, about this complete denunciation.

Mr. Cordesman, Mr. Di Rita said, is "a gasbag who ought to roll his sleeves up and go to work rather than sit in his airtight room and criticize everyone. He's a boor."

THAAD test update
An item that appeared in the March 19 column incorrectly reported the number of missiles used in the test of the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). Two THAAD interceptor missiles were fired at a single-target ballistic missile.

After the first interceptor hit the target, range safety officers destroyed the second interceptor, not the target.a

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

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