ROK Korea - Utah Army National Guard training

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.”

Comments

  • Don Bacon

    Let’s get out threats straight–

    Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil traffic

    ….if Iran were attacked, which naturally would be offensive. The US and Israel have threatened to attack Iran, and for no reason — “all options are on the table.”

  • Don Bacon

    Syria disintegrated into an increasingly sectarian civil war

    Actually Syria is not in a civil war — there are many foreign fighters there fighting against Syria, supported by the US and Saudi Arabia.

  • Don Bacon

    Korea doesn’t need any reinforcement, of course, because the ROK army is much stronger than the DPRK army. But the sixty year Korean War, never ended, is the gift that keeps on giving to the MIC, and here the US Army can show how “necessary” it is by sending another battalion to a place where there is so little likelihood of ground combat that it is now an accompanied tour for the Army. Odierno has to do something to try to get some respect for his Army which hopefully will sustain his budget — the real issue here, and not the fact that the Army isn’t really needed anywhere.

    Regarding Iraq “burning,” who cares. It’s not alone.

    • Bob

      Are accompanied tours an indicator of the lack of an expectation for war breaking out?

      • Don Bacon

        The US is still at war with DPRK/China. There is an armistice. SecDef Gates made the decision (unilaterally) in 2008. “I don’t think anybody considers the Republic of Korea today a combat zone,” he said.

        So the US wants it both ways, but who can predict the future as long as war exists and there are provocations on both sides.

  • ELP

    In the interesting of being friendly allies when the battalion goes there can they swap out their tanks for Korean ones?

  • Falcon 78

    There will be no coming century of American prosperity engaged with the Pacific if the problems in the crescent that is the Mediterranean running down through the Red Sea and the Arabian Penninsula are not dealt with, or at least a lid kept on them. This is the foreign and security policy of your Obama Administration now in full view and we “reap the whirlwind …”

    • jgelt

      Falcon 78, What do you believe will happen if the situation is not “dealt with?” What is a solution to that situation?

  • MRMcCaffery

    Let’s be honest, we no longer need their oil and the Israelis and Palestinians are not ready for peace (but they are ready to take more US dollars to make noises about the ‘peace process’). The Middle East is a mess and we have proven that we can’t fix it. A battalion or BCT to Korea is simply a message to Asia that we are serious about this pivot thing. .

  • PolicyWonk

    Anyone who is surprised at the sight of Al Qaida rising again in Iraq simply wasn’t (and hasn’t been) paying attention. The only question, is what took them so long?

    The sectarian violence in Iraq became a problem the instant the US toppled the Iraqi government, and stupidly disbanded the Iraqi army, police, and ousted all the Bath party members from every post whether they had governmental influence or not. And we did this despite the fact that we totally failed to have sufficient troops (MP’s, etc.) to stabilize and secure the country. Gen. Shinseki was ousted for saying we’d need a half a million troops to stabilize the country long before we invaded – and that’s about the number of people we had there (military and mercenaries) at peak.

    As if that wasn’t bad enough, we didn’t even have enough troops to guard the ammo dumps that were all over Iraq, that had millions of tons ordnance that all magically vanished by the time the mercenaries show up the following December to guard.

    The US stupidly altered the balance of power in the Middle East, and caused what most consider the worst national security (and foreign policy) disaster in history.
    We did mange to put a lid on a lot of the violence – but – as soon as we left most of us knew that whatever peace was in Iraq at that time, barring a miracle, wouldn’t last.

    • Don Bacon

      The regional politics have changed recently. Saudi Arabia and the US are supporting Islamic radicals in Syria because Syria is an ally of Iran, an enemy of KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and US. The current US/Iran rapprochement has provided an increased effort to support anti-Iran military action, and Iraq is an Iran ally (thanks to US). So KSA supports AQ in Iraq, with US acquiescence.

      The US is even closer to KSA right now to foster an agreement on Israel/Palestine.

    • Don Bacon

      sectarian violence in Iraq became a problem the instant the US toppled the Iraqi government

      No, sectarian violence didn’t become a significant factor until years later. It was greatly exacerbated by the Samarra mosque bombing on February 22, 2006, in which the US was complicit. Reacting to this attack, on 22 and 23 February 2006, throughout Iraq, assailants attacked at least 184 Sunni mosques with grenades, small arms, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), killing 12 Sunni imams and seven Sunni civilian worshippers, kidnapping 14 Sunni imams, and causing substantial damage to many of the mosques. Subsequently hundreds of Sunni mosques came under attack and a full-fledged civil war was initiated.

      Prior to the US illegal invasion, while Sunni and Shia had their religious differences in Iraq, they lived and worked together and even intermarried.

      • PolicyWonk

        Clearly, the invasion never should’ve happened, and the “leadership” in our government knew it. Hence, the deliberate disinformation campaign to get the nation (and a lazy congress), and the coalition of the coerced on board. But I digress…
        Maybe I should’ve said, shortly after the US toppled the Iraqi government. Whether you liked Saddam or not, he kept a tight lid on Iraq and ran a secular society. Troublemakers were often killed, while extreme troublemakers not only got killed – but so did their entire family.
        Hence – there was a serious disincentive to cause trouble in Iraq.
        Removing the entire security apparatus, and supplying anyone with explosives and weapons (simply by being willing to cart them away from the ordnance dumps) was a recipe for disaster.

        • Don Bacon

          Yes, but a policy against lawlessness doesn’t necessarily indicate that sectarian violence would have occurred without such a policy, and without the US promoting it, as it did.

          Sure Saddam was ruthless but life still went on peacefully for Shia and Sunni, and women were able to get schooled and succeed. Speaking of ruthless, that describes the US military occupation, which ensured that the US military would finally be shown the door.

          Find me an Iraqi who thinks that the situation is better now then it was before April, 2003.

  • Herbert

    This is part of the plan by our Generals to block peace in Korea and to reverse the $13 billion spent to move our forces from the DMZ. This is explained in a recent article in G2mil.com, in the bases to be closed section. Meanwhile, South Korea is cutting the size of its Army and defense budget.

  • marcjay

    As long as there are people, anywhere, that don’t want peace, there won’t be peace.
    It’s just hard to turn your back on what people seem to be so willing to do to one another.
    If the US doesn’t get involved no one else seems to be willing to either.
    Then what?