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August 20, 2009
Notes from the Pentagon

Taliban threat
U.S. military officials are braced for election violence in Afghanistan after Taliban insurgents threatened to unleash 20 suicide bombers in attacks during Thursday's election.

"We expect the election to go off mostly fine, but it may be hairy tomorrow if the Taliban really try to disrupt and discredit the election and government," said a U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

The suicide bombing threat, disclosed by the Taliban to local news media, could begin Thursday morning in an effort to dissuade voters from going to the polls in the election for president, a national parliament and local provincial councils.

The suicide-bombing threat is being taken seriously because of the deadly car bomb blast Tuesday in Kabul that killed at least eight people and wounded more than 55.

Three days earlier, a suicide bomber attacked the gate at NATO headquarters in Kabul, killing seven.

The military official said that bombing took place along a public road by the gate to the International Security Assistance Forces that is very difficult to secure. The attacker in that blast had official ISAF passes that allowed him to drive the car close to the gate, the official said.

The bombing also damaged some of the hardened defenses to the area and is believed to have been the equivalent of 1,100 pounds of high explosives.

ISAF spokesman Australian Maj. Graeme Henley would not directly comment on the Taliban suicide-bombing threat but stated in an e-mail that ISAF's role is to support Afghan security forces in securing the elections.

"The Afghan National Security Forces, supported by ISAF, are postured to respond to attempts by insurgents to disrupt a peaceful and fair election," he said. "These forces will go where they need to operate to secure the elections."

Iraqi sectarianism
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that resolving the differences between Iraqi Arabs and ethnic Kurds in the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk is not the problem for the U.S. military.

"I was just in Kirkuk, and my message to them was they are going to have to solve their own problems because we are leaving," Adm. Mullen said in an interview after a recent visit to Iraq.

The blunt message from the four-star admiral was part of an effort to get the Iraqis to address "political problems," which account for most of the sectarian divisions, he told reporters and editors of The Washington Times earlier this month.

The Arab-Kurd differences represent the "most significant" division in the country, Adm. Mullen said, and "political leaders, the Kurds and Arabs, are going to have to figure out how to resolve that, and move ahead."

"I think probably the biggest threat, long-term, would be the breakout of sectarian violence, and then I would extend that to ... the sectarianism inside the military," he said. "Everybody knows that, and in fact, over the last three or four months, there have been several opportunities, very bad incidents, for sectarianism to raise its ugly head. It didn't happen."

He spoke before the bombings in Baghdad on Wednesday, in which nearly 95 people died and more than 500 were wounded.

The sectarian issue is one that "we're all very focused on, and it was a brutal, brutal teacher to so many of us in Iraq," he said. "And I don't think Iraq has much of a future if that breaks out again."

Adm. Mullen also said U.S. forces in Afghanistan, after years of lacking proper support, are "pressed hard, and they are tired."

McChrystal's new role
Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is adjusting to his new role as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a radical departure from his previous special-operations mission in Iraq, according to defense officials.

Gen. McChrystal has just completed a new civil-military campaign plan that was signed this week by the general and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The plan is in Washington awaiting approval from senior Obama administration officials.

Before taking over Afghanistan forces in June, Gen. McChrystal's last combat command was as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, which he led from 2003 to 2008.

In that post, the officials said, Gen. McChrystal was singularly focused dispatching special-ops commandos to capture and kill al Qaeda terrorists, mainly in Iraq, but in other regions as well. His forces scored major successes, most of which remain unheralded, with the exception of the killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. As the special-ops leader, he controlled the deadliest troops in the U.S. arsenal, the clandestine and covert special operators whose very existence is classified secret. The forces conduct undercover operations against terrorists that, for the most part, have never been revealed.

Those forces, including the Army's famed Delta Force and the Navy's SEAL teams operating in what the military calls the "black" or clandestine arena, had a singular mission to hunt and kill terrorists, and they were largely effective despite the fact that they have yet to get al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his main deputy, Ayman al Zawahri.

Since taking over in June, however, Gen. McChrystal has been forced to come out of the shadows. He is leading the new Obama administration counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which is focused on combining military forces for security with civilian efforts to reconstruct and ultimately stabilize the impoverished and war-torn South Asian state. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that Gen. McChrystal now has access to the best people and resources for the Afghanistan mission.

"His shift on focusing on the Afghan people ... is exactly the right emphasis," Adm. Mullen said.

"I have taken my best people and given them to McChrystal," the admiral said. "He literally has an open book or a blank check to get the best people that we have there on the military side, because this is the top priority."

As of this month, Gen. McChrystal is "just getting the pieces in place" and has both the counterinsurgency strategy and the best counterinsurgency forces in the world, Adm. Mullen said.

Asked about Gen. McChrystal's expected request for more U.S. troops, beyond the 21,000 new troops sent as part of the surge of forces, Adm. Mullen said: "I'm going to wait to see what McChrystal says."

Stratcom's guest
The U.S. Strategic Command, the Nebraska-based command in charge of fighting a nuclear war, recently held a conference on deterrence that included a number of foreign military observers, one of whom was an unusual visitor not seen at any formal nuclear forces facility since allegations of Chinese nuclear-weapons espionage surfaced in the late 1990s.

A Strategic Command spokeswoman identified the Chinese military officer who attended the meeting as Col. Yao Yunzhu. "She is ARMY, but not from the [Second] Artillery Corps," as China's nuclear forces are called, said Air Force Maj. Regina Winchester.

The Strategic Command has extended an open invitation since 2006 to the commander of China's nuclear forces, Gen. Jing Zhiyuan. However, Gen. Jing has not made the visit despite visiting South America in 2006.

The Pentagon has sought to hold talks with China on its secret strategic nuclear buildup, which includes three new nuclear missiles and a new class of nuclear-missile submarines. However, without including the general in charge of nuclear forces, the talks have been limited.

The problem of Chinese intelligence collection during military exchanges prompted Congress in 2000 to block all visiting Chinese military officials from being granted access to sensitive U.S. facilities, including facilities involved in nuclear-weapon and power-projection capabilities.

Col. Yao's visit to an unclassified conference at Stratcom was not part of the official Pentagon military exchange program and thus was deemed not to be a violation of the restrictions.

Maj. Winchester said the background information the command has on Col. Yao indicates that she is a senior research fellow at the Department of World Military Studies within the military's Academy of Military Science.

"She is a director at the China Military Academy, a leading researcher and a postdoctoral tutor," Maj. Winchester said. "She is the first Chinese female doctorate and expert in the field of international military affairs; she has published more than 200 articles and 30 books."

Former State Department China affairs specialist John J. Tkacik Jr. said he suspects that Col. Yao is part of the Chinese military intelligence establishment, known as the Second Department of the People's Liberation Army, or 2PLA.

"She's director of the 'Second Office' of the AMS' World Military Studies Institute, and generally 'second' means intel," Mr. Tkacik said.

According to a 2007 interview published in the Liberation Army Daily, the official military newspaper, Col. Yao once was asked by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger whether China's military views the United States as "the enemy."

Col. Yao replied with a question, the article said, and did not answer: "Excuse me, but at the present time is China strong, or is the United States strong?"

Wang Baodong, a Chinese Embassy spokesman, had no immediate comment.

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