WASHINGTON: Two years ago, the Obama administration announced its “Pacific Pivot” (hastily renamed a “rebalance”), but crises keep yanking US attention back from a rising China to the unstable cradle of civilization (as we predicted at the time): Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil traffic, Syria disintegrated into an increasingly sectarian civil war, al-Qaeda revived as a fighting force, and now several key cities in the Iraqi province of al-Anbar appear to have fallen again into the hands of al Qaeda, undermining stability that thousands of Americans died to build.
That strategic tension was painfully evident today when the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, spoke at the National Press Club. The most newsworthy thing the service did today was to announce the deployment of a combat battalion to South Korea, a move Odierno confirmed would be a permanent reinforcement of US forces in the dangerous peninsula. But that topic only came up at the end (and only because I’d submitted the question in advance), after Odierno had been bombarded by questions about things the Army could no longer change.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing to all of us to see the deterioration of security inside of Iraq. I spent a lot of my life over there,” said Odierno, whose own son was wounded in Iraq. “I believe we left it in a place where it was capable to move forward,” with rising oil revenues and a nascent democracy — but a lot has changed since the US pulled out in 2011.
“We have a very small element” in Iraq today, Odierno noted, namely a team working out of the US embassy to advise the Iraqi security forces. “This is certainly not the time to put American troops on the ground; it’s time for them” — the Iraqis — “to step up.” Whether they can, of course, will loom large as an omen for Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai is bedeviling negotiations on what kind of US presence, if any, will remain to shore up Afghan forces.
“This is not just about Iraq,” Odierno added, noting the ever more bitter sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Lebanon and Syria. (Indeed, the revived al-Qaeda franchise in the region calls itself “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” operating in both countries, while Iran backs Shia factions from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad). The greatest threat is that “ungoverned spaces” become sanctuaries from which terrorists can “export” violence around the world, Odierno said.
The problem Odierno didn’t address is that there’s precious little we can actually do about that threat as long as the Obama administration, the general public, and the military itself remain deeply reluctant to risk American lives in the Middle East — reluctant for the very good reason that even if we did intervene forcefully, it might be another disaster.
By contrast, Odierno is committed to the administration strategy of using troops freed up from Iraq and Afghanistan to reengage elsewhere around the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific. The Army has always had tens of thousands of troops assigned to Pacific Command, but for the last decade, “many of those soldiers that were assigned to PACOM were off in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Odierno said. “Last year we stopped that, so they are all back in the Pacific region.”
That Pacific “rebalance” is also the context for the Korea deployment announced this morning. 800 soldiers with heavy weapons and armored vehicles — what the Army calls a combined arms battalion — will deploy from Texas to Korea in February. The battalion will return to the US after nine months, which has become the standard length of tours in Afghanistan, but then another battalion will deploy to replace it, Odierno confirmed at the Press Club: “We will continue to rotate those units in and out of Korea,” he said.
Reinforcing Korea is part of the general rebalance to the Pacific, not a response to a specific crisis. “This is something that we’ve planned for a while, it’s something that we’re [just] executing now,” Odierno said.
The near-term goal is simply to boost the last Army combat brigade left in Korea from its current strength of two combined arms battalions to the new Army model of three per brigade. (The Army is consolidating its combat brigades into a smaller number of more powerful units). Now the brigade will have one US-based battalion on hand at any given time in addition to the two permanently based in Korea.
In the longer term, however, the Army wants to put the whole brigade and many other units in Korea on a rotational basis, sending troops from the US on regular deployments rather than basing them permanently on the peninsula. “We’re working our way towards that, we’re not there yet,” Odierno told me when I ambushed him on his way out of the Press Club event. “Not everybody” in Korea will be on short-term deployments, he said — they’re still working the details — but the vast majority of the US presence on the peninsula will come and go on the same kind of rotations that became standard in Iraq.
The first unanswered question is whether this new presence will reassure the chronically nervous South Koreans, who are so unsure of US commitment and their own capabilities that they keep slow-rolling US attempts to give them full command.
The second unanswered question is whether the Army will have enough brigades fully manned, trained, equipped, and ready to rotate through Korea — or anywhere else — if the budget cuts known as sequestration go ahead. December’s budget deal put sequester mostly on hold for 2014 and 2015, but it just postpones the cuts rather than getting rid of them.
“The bipartisan budget agreement helps us significantly in ’14,” Odierno told the Press Club audience. “It gives us monies to buy back some of the readiness — ’15 is a lower number– [and] I’m thankful that we’ve gotten that money, but if we don’t sustain it we’re going to go right back to where we were.
The Army’s already shedding 20,000 active-duty soldiers a year, Odierno said, accelerating a planned drawdown from its wartime peak of 570,000 to a new normal of 490,000 — but sequestration will force them to go further. So while the sequester bill has been paid so far largely out of training, leaving only two to four brigades fully combat ready (depending on how you count), the long-term cost will be a smaller Army.
“Up until 2020, it’s a readiness issue,” said Odierno. “After 2020, it’s a size issue.”