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July 10, 2008
Notes from the Pentagon

Policy dispute
Defense officials are criticizing what they say is the failure to capture or kill top al Qaeda leaders because of timidity on the part of policy officials in the Pentagon, diplomats at the State Department and risk-averse bureaucrats within the intelligence community.

Military special operations forces (SOF) commandos are frustrated by the lack of aggressiveness on the part of several policy and intelligence leaders in pursuing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his top henchmen, who are thought to have hidden inside the tribal areas of Pakistan for the past 6 and 1/2 years.

The focus of the commandos' ire, the officials say, is the failure to set up bases inside Pakistan's tribal region, where al Qaeda has regrouped in recent months, setting up training camps where among those being trained are Western-looking terrorists who can pass more easily through security systems. The lawless border region inside Pakistan along the Afghan border remains off-limits to U.S. troops.

The officials say that was not always the case. For a short time, U.S. special operations forces went into the area in 2002 and 2003, when secret Army Delta Force and Navy SEALs worked with Pakistani security forces.

That effort was halted under Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who recently blamed Pakistan for opposing the joint operations. Mr. Armitage, however, also disclosed his diplomatic opposition to the commando operations. Mr. Armitage, an adviser to Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain, told the New York Times last month that the United States feared pressuring Pakistani leaders for commando access and that the Delta Force and SEALs in the tribal region were "pushing them almost to the breaking point."

However, the officials said that without the training and expertise of the U.S. commandos, Pakistani forces took heavy casualties in the region, with about 1,000 troops killed by terrorists and their supporters.

Another major setback for aggressive special operations activities occurred recently with a decision to downgrade the U.S. Special Operations Command. Under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the command in 2004 began to shift its focus from support and training to becoming a front-line command in the covert war to capture and kill terrorists. In May, SOCOM, as the command is called, reverted to its previous coordination and training role, a change that also frustrated many SOF commandos.

Critics in the Pentagon of the failure to more aggressively use the 50,000-strong SOF force say it also is the result of a bias by intelligence officials against special forces, including Pentagon policy-makers such as former CIA officer Michael Vickers, currently assistant defense secretary for special operations; former CIA officer Mary Beth Long, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs; and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a former CIA director. The officials said the bias among intelligence officials against aggressive military special operations is long-standing. As evidence, they note that one of the very few recommendations of the 9/11 commission ignored by President Bush was the panel's call for giving the Pentagon the lead role in paramilitary operations.

The commission report stated that "lead responsibility for directing and executing paramilitary operations, whether clandestine or covert, should shift to the Defense Department." That has not occurred, and the officials said one result is that bin Laden and his deputies remain at large.

Said one Pentagon official: "The reason some Pentagon leaders appear to be so indecisive about President Bush's order to catch Osama bin Laden dead or alive is that they have not unleashed the dogs of war. Too many bureaucrats have blocked ideas from the aggressive U.S. commandos in Afghanistan and at SOCOM headquarters who just want to carry out the president's orders to stop al Qaeda from rebuilding."

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell declined to address any specifics of special operations policies but said he thinks senior commanders do not share the critics' views.

On the hunt for bin Laden, Mr. Morrell said: "No one should question our commitment to bringing Osama bin Laden and the rest of his cowardly lieutenants to justice, one way or another. It will happen. it's just a question of when."

China targets carriers
China is close to deploying a new conventionally armed strategic missile capable of hitting U.S. aircraft carriers and other warships at sea.

A defense intelligence official said a test of the new weapon is expected, but the timing is not known. A second official also said the Chinese anti-carrier ballistic missile effort, including an anticipated test firing, is being watched closely.

Defense officials said the new missile -- a precision guided CSS-5 medium-range missile -- is as great or greater a concern for some military planners as China's new anti-satellite weapon, which was first tested successfully against an orbiting Chinese weather satellite in January 2007.

The reason: The backbone of U.S. plans to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack calls for rushing more than half the U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups to the island in the event Beijing follows through on threats to use force to reunite the island with the mainland. Carrier-killing missiles are viewed as one of the most important strategic weapons in the Beijing arsenal because they will be able to block the rapid deployment of U.S. forces to the region considered vital to any Taiwan defense or defense of other allies in the region.

Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the upcoming test of a medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) would not be China's first. "It would appear that the [People's Liberation Army] may now be developing three types of ASBMs," he said.

Two of the missiles are based on the CSS-5, also known as the DF-21, and Chinese Internet photos reveal what looks like a maneuvering warhead on the missile similar in design to warheads deployed on the U.S. Pershing-2 medium-range missile. The Pershing-2, dismantled in the 1980s, used a radar-digital map guidance system, and Mr. Fisher thinks the new Chinese anti-ship missile could use a combination of active radar and optical or infrared guidance.

A third anti-ship ballistic missile is expected to be a longer-range variant of the CSS-5 first seen in 2006 that may have multiple warheads.

"It is bad enough that these missiles are being developed and can soon target U.S. naval forces from China," Mr. Fisher said. "But we should also expect that China will eventually place these missiles on ships and submarines and sell them to its rogue allies."

"The Ahmadinejads, Castros and Chavezes of the world would love to have these missiles to hold the U.S. Navy at bay," he said, noting that the U.S. needs a similar capability to target China's growing navy.

U.S. Navy missile defense interceptors also should be upgraded to counter the new Chinese carrier killers, he said.

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

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