Is new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel having fun yet?
No sooner does he come into office after a rugged confirmation fight then he finds himself dealing with automatic spending cuts from the budget sequester and, oh yes, looming policy challenges and intense fall-out from the choices of the past.
On Tuesday, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden held meetings with the sultan of Brunei. After that, Obama and Biden met privately with Hagel, just back from Afghanistan and also in on the Brunei meetings.
The U.S. has increased its use of drones as international forces prepare to leave Afghanistan. But every civilian the drones kill by mistake aids the Taliban's recruitment campaign.
Clearly, this was a day intended in large measure for Asia-Pacific pivot geopolitics. (An archive of my pieces related to the pivot.) But trouble at the other end of the pivot was to prove distracting.
Brunei is on the South China Sea -- site of much contention in the region -- and will host key East Asian summitry later this year.
There's plenty of action in the Asia-Pacific region that would garner much more attention were it not for our fateful fixations on the other side of the world. Japan, locked in a feud with China over islands in the East China Sea, is hosting a gathering now in Tokyo with several Southeast Asian nations which also have problems with China, seeking stronger security ties. Chinese naval vessels just drove Vietnamese fishing boats out of waters that most nations regard as international but China claims as its own.
Then there is rising cyber disruption and hacking, which the administration identifies as the biggest security threat of the future. Much of it reportedly emanates from China, and the administration wants it to stop.
Which is not to forget North Korea, which, having set off another successful test of a more advanced nuclear, last week bizarrely threatened a nuclear missile attack on the U.S. While any such attack could probably be shot down by U.S. forces, that's not the sort of thing you want to hear from one of the largest militaries in Asia, especially one that also claims it will no longer respect the decades-old armistice with South Korea.
But Afghanistan flared into deeper crisis over the weekend, coinciding with Hagel's first visit there as defense secretary. He and Obama traveled there together as senators during the 2008 campaign. His visit was marked by Taliban attacks and some seemingly bizarre rhetoric from our man in Kabul -- apologies to Graham Greene -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The trip was still reverberating after Hagel's departure. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday slammed Karzai's claim that the U.S. and Taliban are colluding in Afghanistan. "In fact those bombs," Karzai claimed in a Monday speech, "set off yesterday in the name of the Taliban, were in the service of Americans to keep foreigners longer in Afghanistan."
"Any suggestion the United States is colluding with the Taliban is categorically false," Carney stated angrily in his press briefing. "The United States has spent enormous blood and treasure for the past 12 years supporting the Afghan people and ensuring, in the effort to ensure stability and security in that country. The last thing we would do is support any kind of violence particularly involving innocent civilians."
Karzai charged on Sunday that the U.S. is negotiating rather feverishly with the Taliban, at sessions in the Gulf and in Europe, and leaving him and his administration out of the mix.
Hagel, then in the midst of his Afghan visit, denied that the U.S. is negotiating "unilaterally" with the Taliban. And the Taliban denied that any talks are taking place.
Later in the day, things got worse. First, citing the recent attacks that greeted Hagel's arrival in Afghanistan, Karzai and Hagel canceled a planned joint press conference. After that, the reasons for the cancellation became even clearer.
Karzai attacked the U.S., accusing it of, in effect, collaborating with the Taliban to keep Afghanistan unstable and provide a rationale for a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan following the scheduled 2014 withdrawal.
Then on Monday, two U.S. special forces soldiers were killed, with 10 more wounded in the latest "green-on-blue" attack by an Afghan soldier. An unpleasant reminder of something that seldom occurred in Iraq.
But what led to Karzai's behavior?
Perhaps the U.S. cancellation of the transfer to Afghan control of the prison at Bagram Air Base.
Even after the Afghans gain control of the prison, the U.S. wants some prisoners there to continue to be held without trial. More than 2,000 suspected jihadists are held at the prison.
In February, Karzai charged that personnel trained and coordinated by U.S. special forces in a province outside Kabul were harassing and torturing Afghans. He ordered that the U.S. troops be withdrawn. They were not.
So Karzai, who presides over one of the most corrupt governments on the planet, which is saying something, has some contentious issues to push. They're also of use in public posturing against the unpopular Americans as Karzai looks ahead to the period after the country which installed him power in the first place -- back in those halcyon days when he had weekly video conferences with his friend, President George W. Bush -- pulls out.
Karzai may well have a rough time of it then. What about Afghanistan?
A new Gallup Poll survey of people in the other country which hosted one of our longest running wars indicates that Iraqis feel better off with the Americans gone. They feel better about the security situation, despite the many attacks and bombings that nonetheless still take place as sectarian violence continues. This is contrary to expectations for the many U.S. leaders who wanted a significant ongoing military presence in Iraq.
With controversy accompanying the big recent U.S. troop deployments, the drone has increasingly become a seemingly low-profile substitute. Drone strikes in Afghanistan have gone up sharply. So sharply that data about them has just been removed from public U.S. military databases.
The drone has become a new symbol, and for many, including many in American military ranks, not a very good one. In fact, the backlash against the so-called "drone medal," the recently approved Distinguished Warfare Medal, is so intense that Hagel just ordered a review of the award.
Production of the medal, which had yet to be awarded, has stopped.
What's the controversy about? Many take offense that drone operators, often thousands of miles from any battlefield, can be given a medal that rates higher than the Bronze Star, a frequent combat decoration, and the Purple Heart, which is awarded to those wounded in action.
The irony here is that the Bronze Star is usually awarded not for heroism but for meritorious service or achievement, sometimes also to those nowhere near a battlefield. And there were already several higher-rated medals which have nothing to do with heroism or action in combat.
But there is something about the drone that frightens, and something about the notion of drone operators killing by remote control, that rubs many the wrong way.
So this award is being re-thought.
If only the actual drone program, and the strategic thinking that underlies it, were to undergo the same sort of review as a little contraption of cloth and medal.
As I've written before, a certain point, drone strikes move from being carefully targeted to being a wholesale measure, likely creating more problems than they solve, fomenting widespread antipathy toward the U.S. and creating more recruits for jihadism than would otherwise exist.
That would seem to be more of an issue than a medal.
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