Only a few hours remain for policymakers to make their list of resolutions for the New Year. If Defense Secretary Robert Gates is still pondering his list, I offer up a few suggestions. Rumor has it that Gates will soon retire. Perhaps he might not be making any resolutions for 2011. In that case, his successor could retroactively adopt these resolutions after he takes office.
1. Make an honest appraisal of America's relationship with Pakistan. No serious observer of the war in Afghanistan doubts that the success or failure of that project depends critically on what happens in Pakistan. Indeed, for many strategists, the whole point of the war in Afghanistan is to prevent deterioration inside Pakistan. Since 2001, U.S. policy toward Pakistan has been premised on the view that the U.S. can't accomplish anything in Afghanistan without a positive relationship with Pakistan. A further assumption is that the U.S. stands a better chance of achieving its goals through a cooperative relationship with Pakistan rather than an adversarial one.
Gates's own relationship with Pakistan extends back to at least the 1980s, when he was Deputy Director of the CIA. Then, in one of the greatest ironies of our age, his task was to work with Pakistan to promote sanctuaries for insurgents who were opposing a superpower's military intervention in Afghanistan. Gates's efforts at sanctuary-building were so successful and so enduring that his current relationship with Pakistani officials has done very little to reverse his previous success. Likewise, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen (another short-timer) has made countless visits to Pakistan in an effort to establish relationships with Pakistan's generals. Perhaps he has succeeded. But neither Gates, nor Mullen, nor the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was able to make a favorable strategic change inside Pakistan, a change that materially improved the outlook for U.S. goals.
U.S. policy toward Pakistan is above the pay grade of the defense secretary. But the defense secretary will be one of the first people the President consults for advice. The number in Washington who believes the current policy is working must be diminishing every day. The tragic passing of Holbrooke, combined with the imminent retirements of Gates and Mullen, present President Obama with an opportunity for a much-needed reappraisal. And if Gates is going to stick around longer than thought, he should get this resolution on his list.
2. Redesign the United States defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. The United States currently backs up its alliances and diplomacy in the region with forward-deployed military forces. These forces rely on major fixed air and naval bases in South Korea, mainland Japan, Okinawa, and Guam, along with smaller facilities in the region to which the U.S. has access. U.S. forces operate at the end of long supply lines and rely on space-based networks for communication, navigation, and targeting. China is building naval, air, space, and computer network capabilities that are specifically designed to take advantage of the vulnerable points in the U.S. defense strategy in the region. Since China has a cost advantage with manufacturing and is closing the military technology gap with the United States, the U.S. will not be able to out-build China's military. Instead, the U.S. needs a new strategy, new platforms, and new tactics.
U.S. defense planners, not least Gates and Mullen, are well aware of these issues. What has been lacking is top-level urgency and energy addressing the problem. Some analysts are comforted by the perception that China is many years, perhaps more than a decade, from having competitive military power. If true, that only matches the time it will take for the Pentagon to reshape and re-equip its defense strategy for the region. There is little time to waste. Adverse strategic trends in the region threaten to undermine U.S. diplomacy and its economic interests. The future years defense plan needs a serious reappraisal to assess whether it is relevant for the challenges ahead.
3. Assess the entire government's policy for security force assistance. In recent years, the security force assistance/foreign internal defense/ train-and-equip missions that have received the most attention have been in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now with an al Qaeda threat emanating from Yemen, the vastly-expanded effort there is in the news.
But this is a much broader issue, extending across the federal government and bearing on much of the nation's global foreign policy. In addition to countering insurgents in Afghanistan and terrorists in Yemen and Iraq, U.S. security force assistance programs will be part of the toolbox for the U.S. security strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, its approach to the Middle East peace process, the containment of Iran's nuclear program, the battle against transnational criminal organizations in Latin America, and many other issues.
Writing in the May/June 2010 edition of Foreign Affairs, Gates promoted the importance of "building partner capacity" while he also described the haphazard, improvised assortment of security assistance programs currently in place. He has called for government-wide reform of security force assistance policy and programs, emphasizing a partnership between the Pentagon and the State Department. Even before he attempts to sort out such issues with the State Department, the defense secretary will have to resolve numerous security force assistance turf wars within his own building. We should hope that Gates's successor will continue with the reforms Gates has called for.
Many defense policies are stagnating, going obsolete, or breaking down before policymakers get around to reforming them. It is time for some fresh appraisals at the Pentagon, starting either tomorrow or with the next leadership team.