January 18, 2011

Armed Services to Take ‘Wire Brush’ to Afghan Withdrawal Strategy

Featuring Travis Sharp

Source: The Hill

House Republicans will closely examine the White House’s Afghanistan withdrawal plans to determine whether U.S. troops there would be left without key combat systems, according to a new oversight plan.

The plan released this week by the new GOP chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) suggests the panel might butt heads with the Obama administration’s war council on several issues, including U.S. force levels and whether the current counterinsurgency strategy is working.

Rep. Buck McKeon’s (R-Calif.) plan stresses that his panel will closely examine whether U.S. troops in Afghanistan have the weapon systems and other resources they need. Specifically, it mentions systems used to gather intelligence data and conduct reconnaissance missions, as well as platforms designed to combat the makeshift bombs that have plagued coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The new HASC leader plans to “conduct rigorous oversight to ensure that these requirements are not negatively affected by the president’s planned troop draw-downs starting in July 2011,” the proposed plan states.

The full committee is slated to vote on the oversight blueprint and a separate rules package on Wednesday.

Travis Sharp, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said it is increasingly apparent McKeon will be “the tip of the spear in Republican attempts to define their national-security brand prior to 2012.”

On the White House’s Afghanistan plans, the GOP-controlled committee will “look for any gaps between what U.S. commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say they need and what the Obama administration plans to provide in its drawdown strategy,” Sharp said.

One former congressional staffer said a war policy showdown in the House seems likely.

“In 2007, House Democrats held a vigorous floor debate about the Iraq war,” said Stephanie Sanok, a former House aide now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is a Republican HASC saying, ‘We’re going to take the same kind of wire brush to the Afghanistan strategy.’ ”

The oversight plan “puts down a marker” by promising to review if pulling out some U.S. troops will mean fewer assets in theater for remaining forces, Sanok said.

“This seems to suggest the committee wants a clear definition of the strategy — is it disrupt, defeat and dismantle al Qaeda, as the president has said?” she said. “Or is it the troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy being executed” by Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces, “every day in Afghanistan?”

And while the plan uses terms like “monitor” and “examine” when describing the panel’s planned oversight of most threats and military operations, on Iran, it departs from such rhetoric.

“The committee will work to publicize the threat posed by a nuclear Iran,” it states.

Committee aides did not respond to e-mails seeking clarification.

But Sanok, a former HASC policy director, said lawmakers and aides routinely get closed-door briefings on Iran’s illicit weapons program that “have a different tone” from what officials say publicly.

The committee intends to push for more muscular economic sanctions tailored to “make Iran’s rulers choose between nuclear weapons and a functioning economy.”

Finally, one item was missing from the plan that for months has been atop McKeon’s list of potential threats: China’s military buildup.

Just last Sunday, during a television interview, McKeon said: “I look at China and they’re pushing back, all of the anti-access that they’re doing.”

"Anti-access" is a reference to Pentagon parlance for weapons like medium- and long-range missiles and other arms intended to prevent an enemy force from advancing into a country's territory. For several years, China has been developing such systems, according to U.S. officials and analysts.

“I was surprised by one word it didn’t mention: China,” said Sharp, who added that his surprise stems from the HASC chairman’s recent criticism of DoD’s pursuit of a balance between current and future challenges. McKeon has also called for more funding to counter Chinese radar and other systems it would use to defend itself from an attack.



  • Travis Sharp