The Changing Scene at the Pentagon: What Does It Mean for the Region?
by Ramtanu Maitra on 14 May 2011 7 Comments

On April 28, a few days before the US Navy Seals personnel flew into Pakistan under presidential order to kill Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama announced a number of personnel changes in the nation’s security apparatus at the highest levels. These nominees require US Senate confirmation before they assume their respective jobs.


Obama has named the present CIA chief Leon Panetta to replace Robert Gates, who has already made known that his last workday as Secretary of Defense is June 30. General David Petreaus has been named to succeed Panetta as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (D-CIA); and Gen. John Allen will replace Petreaus as commander of forces in Afghanistan. Ryan Crocker will follow Karl Eikenberry as ambassador to Afghanistan. Eikenberry, of course, has been left twisting slowly in the air.


President Obama, whose words consistently overwhelm his deeds, seems to be making the best of the departure of Secretary Gates. It is not simply an occasion to rearrange the chairs on the deck, but it also provides the American president an opportunity to accomplish something he has been planning, but that has so far met with not-so-silent resistance.


To begin with, Leon Panetta - who, besides being the D-CIA, is a former California congressman, President Clinton’s White House chief of staff and ardent walnut farmer - is a lightweight as a secretary of defense. He would also find Bob Gates’ shoes too big to fit. Those who like Panetta will at least have the satisfaction of finding him more often in Washington once he is confirmed. While acting as the D-CIA, Panetta spent most of his time in Monterey, California, attending his walnut groves.


Gen. Petreaus, often described as a thinking man’s general, has been taken out of Afghanistan just when the almost 150,000 International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and their comrades-in-arms, another 200,000 or more members of the Afghan National Army (ANA), are getting ready to withstand the summer onslaught by the Taliban and other insurgents targeting the US-NATO-ANA combine. One may recall that Gen. Petreaus, and the now-forgotten Gen. McChrystal, were the key individuals pushing the White House for a surge of American troops in Afghanistan to match the might of an increasingly powerful group of insurgents. If so much is really at stake in Afghanistan this summer, without casting any aspersion on the ability of Gen. Allen, one may ask why was it necessary to remove Gen. Petreaus at this critical juncture? Herein, perhaps, hangs a tale.


Timing Was of the Essence


President Obama is all set to launch his re-election bid. Prior to the killing of bin Laden, polls indicated that his popularity was running at an all-time low. It was so low that one American comedian said on network TV that Kenyans are now very happy to find out once and for all that Pres. Obama was indeed born in Hawaii, and not in Kenya. That aside, during his Afghan war review last December, the US president made a solemn promise that beginning in July 2011 he would start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan. It was never clear why he then sent in another 30,000 troops last year, if all that he wanted was to withdraw troops. Nonetheless, that was the promise he made. Very few associated with the Afghan war thought it was a good idea. For instance, both Bob Gates and David Petreaus made clear that it was not the time to talk about withdrawing [??] troops.


Following a meeting with British Defense Secretary Liam Fox on April 26, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates insisted that not only was no decision made on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but Gen. David Petreaus hadn’t even submitted his recommendations yet. “I expect that will be coming in the not-too-distant future,” Gates stated. The US has around 95,000-100,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is the vast majority of NATO’s overall war effort in the nation.


In mid-March Gen. Petreaus made his first visit to Washington after assuming his duties last June. During this visit, he testified before the US Senate Armed Services Committee. In the March 15 testimony, Gen. Petreaus made clear to the Senators that he is not comfortable with Pres. Obama’s earlier decision to draw down troops from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011. “We need to focus not just on the year ahead, but increasingly on the goal agreed to at Lisbon of having Afghan forces in the lead throughout Afghanistan by the end of 2014,” stated Petreaus.


Having launched his re-election bid with his popularity at its nadir, Pres. Obama has no option but to ensure to the American people that he is not going to renege on his promise of winding down the Afghan war and bringing back some American boys and girls in the summer of July 2011. According to his re-election handlers, it would give his popularity a much-needed boost. Needless to point out, the withdrawal decision had [has?] nothing to do with either the actual realities on the ground in Afghanistan or with Washington’s future policy to resolve its self-created Afghan crisis.


Withdrawal of Troops: Obama’s Promise


With Bob Gates having finalized his date of departure, one dissenter was clearly out of the American president’s way. It remained to remove the second dissenter. So Gen. Petreaus will be moved from his post as the commander of the ISAF and commander of US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and brought back to Washington to run the CIA. Now that both dissenters are out of the way, Pres. Obama will also need support within the Cabinet. Elevating Leon Panetta, a lightweight, to the high-valued job of Secretary of Defense could be expected to result in a prompt endorsement of the troop withdrawal proposal, whether the brass in the Pentagon like it or not.


Last January, Secretary Gates called for cut in Pentagon budget over the next five years. In fact, it was really not a cut. As Gates explained at a press conference later, it was a reduction from the sum that the military had planned on spending over the next five years. Gates, however, did not define where these reductions would take place. It is likely that the naming of Leon Panetta as the new US Secretary of Defense is less important from the Af-Pak perspective.


It is clear that Panetta’s shift to the Pentagon has more to do with Obama’s plans to significantly reduce defense spending to tackle America’s mounting fiscal deficit. Last month, Obama announced that military spending should be cut by $400bn over 12 years, a goal that demands a serious rethink of US military strategy. Panetta’s earlier experience as former US president Bill Clinton’s first budget director in 1993 is an indicator that he will go along with the White House’s advice on where the reductions are to be made. It is also likely that Panetta, unlike Gates, would appease the White House in implementing further privatization in the defense sector.


The appointment of Gen. Petreaus as the D-CIA means there will now be a greater emphasis on drone attacks on Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Areas to eliminate those who Washington considers need eliminating. Because of his not-so-friendly relations with both President Hamid Karzai and Islamabad/Rawalpindi, Gen. Petreaus will not only utilize the CIA-run drone operations; but he may use them more extensively to achieve what Washington may consider a military success. His appointment as the D-CIA is expected to harden Islamabad’s already-soured relations with the United States on the use of drones and deployment of CIA informers within Pakistan without “official” notification to either Islamabad or Rawalpindi.


Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s appointment is also significant. A fluent Arabic speaker and career diplomat, Crocker served as the United States ambassador to Iraq until 2009. Previously he served as the US ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007; to Syria from 1998 to 2001; to Kuwait from 1994 to 1997; and to Lebanon from 1990 to 1993. Widely acknowledged as a highly-competent diplomat, Crocker will be invaluable when the United States and NATO begin talks, official and unofficial, with the Taliban to work out a post-war scenario for Afghanistan.


What It Means for India


These changes of major players in the US national security apparatus were designed to help the White House gain greater control over the Pentagon. These changes are important in the context of the Obama administration dealing with the Pentagon and Af-Pak. The appointment of Gen. Petreaus as the D-CIA may further increase tension between Washington and Islamabad, but it will have little effect on Washington-New Delhi relations.


India’s decision to opt for European over American warplanes for the world’s biggest fighter-jet aircraft order in 15 years, snubbing the lobbying efforts by Pres. Obama, has disappointed some, if not many, in Washington. The US is “deeply disappointed” after India told it that Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. were not selected for the warplane, the American embassy in New Delhi said in a statement, citing Ambassador Timothy Roemer. But US arms makers are still jockeying for billions of dollars in sales to India, according to reports.


For instance, Boeing says it looks at India as “a long-term investment and a long-term partnership well beyond the fighter competition.” The company is offering its Apache and Chinook rotorcraft in competitions to supply India 22 attack and 15 heavy lift helicopters among other opportunities it is pursuing, said Damien Mills, a spokesman for Boeing’s military aircraft unit.


Lockheed says it is in talks with India about supplying another six C-130Js, in addition to the first six that began to be delivered in February. The company also has several unspecified products beyond its F-16 fighter that are “suitable for India’s security needs,” John Giese, a Lockheed spokesman, told a newsperson.


Joel Johnson, an international aerospace trade expert, says India may have opted for a European fighter because of a history of US sanctions tied to its nuclear program and because of technology transfer constraints. “US contractors may get defeated by politics, but not by quality,” he said. “India is likely to turn to the US again for unique know-how and products.”


Moreover, the White House said on April 28 that the United States is committed to deepening its relationship with New Delhi and will continue to pursue top priorities with India. “President Obama has great respect for the Indian people, a close partnership with Prime Minister (Manmohan) Singh, and views this relationship as an anchor to our approach in Asia and the promise of the 21st century,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told PTI.


On the other hand, the Pentagon also recognizes New Delhi’s desire to maintain its strategic autonomy. And that itself is a constraint on the defense ties with the United States, US Pacific Command Commander Admiral Robert Willard pointed out in his early-April testimony before the US House Armed Services Committee.


“The US-India relationship remains challenged by a degree of suspicion fuelled by Cold War-influenced perceptions, complicated Indian political and bureaucratic processes, and the US-Pakistan relationship,” Willard said on that occasion. “India’s historic leadership of the non-alignment movement and desire to maintain strategic autonomy somewhat constrain cooperation at a level USPACOM (US Pacific Command) desires. To that end, the leadership and staffs of United States Central Command and USPACOM continue to engage in order to ensure a coordinated strategic approach that best meets US interests,” he said.


Pointing to some noteworthy advancement in other areas like counter-terrorism and disaster management, Willard added: “Cooperation is especially noteworthy in the areas of counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and maritime security.”


Last August, in a report to the US Congress, the Pentagon pointed out that China has moved new advanced longer-range CSS-5 missiles close to the borders with India and developed contingency plans to shift airborne forces at short notice to the region. Despite the increased political and economic relationship between India and China, the report said, tensions remain along the Sino-India borders with rising instances of border violation and aggressive border patrolling by Chinese soldiers.


However, a senior Defense Department official told reporters that the US has not observed any anomalous increase in military capabilities along the Sino-India border. “I wouldn’t say that there’s anything in this report that demonstrates a spike or an anomalous increase in military capabilities along the border. It’s [The border’s] something that China’s paying very careful attention to. It’s obviously something that India is paying careful attention to as well,” the same official said.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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