The Defense Build-Down is On, But Fantasies Remain

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Marine General John Allen, commander of forces in Afghanistan, is planning for the end – the withdrawal of U.S. forces, expecting to leave behind a small training force, but saddling the U.S. taxpayers with at least $2 billion a year to pay for the Afghan security force.  Better deal than we have now, at roughly $100 billion a year, with not much to show for it.

The State Department, meanwhile, is looking to scale down the U.S. effort to train Iraqi police, because it is not going as planned.  After a year or more of assuming responsibility for remaining U.S. involvement in that country, it seems the Department is seeing reality, or, as Deputy Secretary Tom Nides put it: “I don’t think anything went wrong…The Iraqis don’t believe they need a program of that scale and scope.”

America is retrenching, no doubt about it.

Only a third of the soldiers back from the wars think that the Iraq war ended successfully, and more would leave Afghanistan than continue the military presence there, Reuters reports. Two-thirds of the American public does not think the war is worth the cost.

The American public is prepared to cut the defense budget, even if they think it continues to be a dangerous world out there. And with debt, deficits, and economic troubles continuing to pile up, many think it is about time.  As Kelly Grafton, a retired Army master sergeant who served in Somalia and Iraq put it: “We can’t keep policing the world.”

But not everbody agrees, however.  The world “policers” continue to push for a global constabulary mission, despite the American public’s awareness that this enterprise has backfired and now provides negative returns for U.S. security, as well as 6,300 dead, 33,000 wounded, and hundreds of thousands of victims to PTSD, depression, and traumatic brain injury.

The Special Operations Forces seem to want to keep it up.  The new plan is to create a world-wide network of Special Operations Forces, keying off the NATO SOF headquarters in Belgium.  As Brigadier General Sean Mulholland (Deputy Director of Operations for SOCOM) put it: “Imagine the power a confederation of SOF interests could have.  It could collectively increase its influence and operation reach around the globe.”

And the House Armed Services and defense appropriations subcommittees are busily adding funding to the Administration’s defense budget request, trying to slow down the pace of the ground force build-down, and ensuring continued funding for aircraft, drones, and land equipment the Administration has said are unneeded and no longer consistent with U.S. strategy.

As we enter the heavy lifting part of the U.S. general election, the question of the size and nature of U.S. forward engagement and the role of the military is on the table.  The Administration has proposed a gradual build-down, leaving a defense budget that would still keep up with inflation over the next decade.  And the Republican Party along with presidential candidate Mitt Romney, are arguing for more, to reverse the build-down.

It will be less, not more, because the debt and deficit problems and the nation’s economic woes are the center of attention. And because the public is tired of being globo-cop and weary of the wars.  But between now and that inevitable reality, we will be entertained by the shadow-boxing.