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National security on the brink: What Congress and the public need to know

Today and tomorrow, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees will hear from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman Army General Mark Milley and Central Command boss Marine General Frank McKenzie.  

The main event will be a grilling by Republicans and Democrats of these three defense officials over the Afghan withdrawal debacle. That will be accompanied by the cross-questioning of Gen. Milley as to whether he committed treason or other misdeeds in conferring with his Chinese military counterpart as reported in “Peril,” a blockbuster book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.  

Milley is quoted in two phone calls with General Li Zuocheng, first reiterating that despite Chinese intelligence to the contrary the U.S. was not preparing to attack. Then in early January 2021, Milley reportedly told Li that he would forewarn China if any U.S. attack were even contemplated. Most of the initial criticism arose from commentators who had not read the book. I have. If the reporting is accurate, there would seem to be no grounds to question Milley’s actions.

No doubt, the Afghan withdrawal and the conduct of the JCS chairman are very important. But the Afghan miscues do not need much investigation. Presidents err. Kennedy had his Bay of Pigs. LBJ had the Tonkin Gulf incident that launched us into the Vietnam War. Reagan sent 241 U.S. servicemen to Beirut in 1983 and their deaths in the terrorist bombing of their barracks.

President Biden knew exactly what he was doing with his orders to exit Afghanistan by Aug. 31. His senior civilian and uniform officials warned about the consequences. An investigation will add little to what is known. But politics will not allow either Afghanistan or Milley to escape intense examination.  

That said, what questions should both committees be asking that neither will? First, while the National Defense Strategy (NDS) is undergoing review, the current one mandates that the Department of Defense “contain, deter and, if war comes, defeat” a number of adversaries topped by China, the “pacing threat,” and Russia. But neither the Trump administration nor Biden administration has defined what is required to “contain, deter and defeat” any adversary and how each of those tasks is to be accomplished even spending about $750 billion on defense this year.

Second, no matter how much is spent on defense, since the Vietnam War, two realities have emerged. The U.S. military has become highly adept at winning battles. And the U.S. has become highly inept at winning wars. Why has that happened? What is being done to correct this imbalance? And what does this contradiction tell us about future U.S. uses of force?

Some argue that we won the first Iraq war. But the U.S. did not start that war as it did in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq the second time. It was less a war than a campaign, and its well-defined and limited goal of driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and eviscerating the Iraqi army was achievable with nearly 50 allies, including major Arab states, as part of the coalition.

The idea that the U.S. could defeat China or Russia in a war in which thermonuclear weapons may be used is madness. On more practical grounds, how does the U.S. intend to contain or deter China and Russia? How will “Belt and Road” military modernization and “wolf warrior” diplomacy be contained or deterred as well as Russian “active measures” and its annexation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine? Until answers are given, the strategy is at best questionable.

One can bet, however, that neither of these questions will be raised by either committee. That absence of inquisitiveness illustrates the inability of the U.S. to implement effective and affordable national security and defense strategies. If first principle issues are not addressed, how then will the nation know whether or not these policies will protect or endanger America and its friends and allies?

Indeed, this failure to test basic assumptions was manifested in the bungled retreat from Afghanistan and the AUKUS (Australia-UK-U.S.) nuclear submarine agreement that replaced the French contract. As my last column in The Hill predicted, the chances that Australia will ever acquire a nuclear submarine are very remote.

What can be done? The obvious answer is the one most unlikely to arise: a root and branch assessment of our defense needs to ensure we will win both battles and wars. But don’t count on it.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is United Press International’s Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, due out this year, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World.” 

Tags Afghan Taliban afghan withdrawal Afghanistan Afghanistan War China Defense Department Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Mark Milley Presidency of Joe Biden Russia

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