Warner Todd Huston
Obama's new war priorities deceiving, maybe wrongheaded
By Warner Todd Huston
May 14, 2009

Some may look at Obama's defense funding request coming in at about $144.6 billion as a welcome reduction over the 2008 budget of $186 billion. Some may also be tempted to claim that Obama is ramping down America's war efforts. But that would be a hasty conclusion because the numbers are a bit deceiving. On top of that some of the areas that Obama wants to shift the money to shows that the president is heading down the wrong path to a successful conclusion of our Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts and that he is perhaps foolishly expecting Pakistan to follow his lead when it is already plain that she won't, maybe even can't.


Obama's negotiation team had already gotten a "rude shock" last month when Richard Holbrooke and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen were rebuffed by Pakistan when the pair proposed a joint operation against al Qaeda and the Taliban in her violence wracked tribal regions.

At that time, Pakistan also demanded that Obama hand over the hardware and technology of the Predator drone system to them and demanded that the U.S. stop operations of future missions. Pakistan claimed that the drones only fueled extremism.

Regardless, Obama is requesting large increases in funding for operations to battle extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While increases may be good, Obama has spent no time whatever actually creating the political will in either Congress or Pakistan to support this ramped up battle.

Senator Carl Levin (D, Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for instance, expressed concern over the hike in funds saying that he saw only "ambivalent evidence" that there was any political will in Pakistan to support Obama's goals.

Regardless of Pakistan's ire Obama has proposed large increases in the Predator drone programs. Certainly he is right that upgrades in the overtaxed systems is needed, but there is a fear that he may come to rely too heavily on air power and technological superiority imagining that these capabilities alone will win the day. This might become a dangerous reflection of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's "small force" theory that imagined that a smaller, lighter force would give the U.S. the edge because our technology was superior to the enemy's capabilities. Granted Rumsfeld was merely reflecting the recommendations of most of our Military brass at the time, but we soon found out in Iraq that this idea was disastrous for our success there. If Obama imagines that Predator drones can easily replace boots on the ground, he will be sorely mistaken.

Troops Strength

As to boots on the ground, it is also easy to say that his increase in men to be sent to the theater in Afghanistan is the answer to the fear I voice above. But this may also be misleading.

During the campaign for the White House, Obama criticized the overuse of National Guard troops in the war effort saying he'd stop the practice. On August 18, 2008, candidate Obama told Stars And Stripes that he wanted to get the National Guard out of the war effort. "I think it's also important that we return our National Guard and reserve to its traditional mission, which is primarily one of homeland security," he said. He also claimed at that time that the National Guard was not ready for a national disaster in our own country because all its equipment was "back in Iraq" and not here for use. This was simply not true, but in any case his point about what he perceived as a "misuse" of Guard forces was plain. At the time Obama was praised by Veterans for America for his stance on the misuse of the National Guard in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet, with this budget, Obama is increasing by $1.1 billion the personnel costs for Army Reserves and the Army National Guard forces. This does not speak to a ramping down of the "misuse" of Guard forces in our two wars but an increase. At the same time, Obama is reducing the personnel costs for the regular Army, falling by about $2 billion, forcing the war effort to continue to rely on Army National Guard forces for the foreseeable future.

Of course, Obama was well known to feel that President Bush's surge policy in Iraq was a failure even as it continued its success month after month. In light of that, it is wildly hypocritical of him to claim that the only way to win in Afghanistan is through a surge of his own. But that is a discussion for another time.

Operations and Maintenance

Along with his supposed ramping up of action in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has made no corresponding increase in the funds for operations and maintenance of our current forces. The new budget funds O&M at $91.6 billion a small reduction from the $93.5 billion from the 2008 budget.

In one area Obama is increasing the O&M budget. He is increasing by $2.5 billion the budget for Special Forces Operations Command (SOCOM) signaling that he intends to make greater use of Special Forces units. I find this troubling because it shows that Obama did not learn the "clear and hold" lesson of Iraq. If Obama imagines that roving bands of Special Forces can win the day, he is mistaken because that will leave the cleared areas free and open for enemy forces to simply come right back in after U.S. forces have gone. This, as we have learned in Iraq, leaves a populace unwilling to help us for fear that the returning enemy will punish them severely.

Unfortunately, he is cutting the funds for training and maintaining Iraq's fledgling security forces many of which are just starting to show promise. It is not a good idea to abandon these forces that are only just at the cusp of coming into their own. However, his increase in funds for the same purpose in Afghanistan is a welcome change.


One thing worries me greatly with procurement budgeting. Obama is slashing the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) program — falling from the 2008 budgeted amount of $16.8 billion to a new level of $12.4 billion. There is no reason to expect that we will need fewer MRAPs as we ramp up our effort in Afghanistan adding that need to what we are already seeing in Iraq but Obama is cutting funds regardless. I find this a troubling move for sure.

Otherwise, there doesn't seem to be much difference in procurement since the previous budget had included a lot of new spending that is likely not used up at this time (these funds do not have to be spent up year-to-year and can sit unused for up to three years. This is unlike most federal budgeting processes).

The Key

The key to Afghanistan currently runs through Pakistan, though. Unfortunately, that troubled nation is in no way prepared to assist the U.S. in eliminating Taliban, al Qaeda and other extremist forces. For one thing she is wracked with internal divisions, some that support the Pakistani government and large numbers of powerful factions that support the terrorists. There simply is not enough political will in Pakistan to destroy these terror organizations. Thus far, Obama has not succeeded in convincing Pakistan to give us her support.

Obama's ramping up of the war effort in Afghanistan may die still born if he is unsuccessful in convincing Pakistan to truly join us in the fight against terror. in the meantime, his abandonment of fledgling success in Iraq may just yet allow extremists and unrest to return there to upset the delicate balance currently existing.

Obama may be setting up the worst of both worlds.

© Warner Todd Huston


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Warner Todd Huston

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