Leon Panetta's first major address as U.S. Defense secretary was clearly designed to be magisterial, the credo of the Free World, still headed by the United States, cognizant of its worldwide responsibilities, albeit with much budgetary belt-tightening.
He didn't mention two wasteful wars that had little to do with defending Western civilization.
The eight-year Iraq war cost a cool $1 trillion and today Iran, a key Iraqi official now in government says, wields more influence in Baghdad than the United States with an embassy staff of 1,400.
The Afghan war, including fiscal 2012, will have cost $557 billion, more than half a trillion dollars. Keeping one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan — the longest war in U.S. history — is running a tad more than $1 million a year.
Billions have vanished into the offshore accounts of U.S. and foreign contractors. In Iraq, an estimated $6.6 billion is unaccounted for.
To power anything at a remote outpost, a gallon of fuel has to be shipped into Karachi, Pakistan, and driven 800 miles in an 18-day trek to Afghanistan on roads that are sometimes little more than improved goat trails.
There are frequent ambushes by Pakistani bandits or Taliban guerrillas who impose "tolls" — and occasionally blow up tankers so others get the message.
In his speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank, in a packed Reagan Center auditorium, Panetta said the Pentagon would save $60 billion over the next five years from general budget efficiencies, which would be added to the $150 billion in cuts decided by his predecessor, Robert Gates.
Some $210 billion in savings doesn't come close to what's really needed.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 will most probably be the last manned jet fighters in the U.S. Air Force. Drones, pilotless bombers, even pilotless fighter aircraft, will be displacing conventional jet aircraft over the next 25 years.
Robotic warfare wasn't mentioned by Panetta. It ushers in a revolutionary change in war fighting. Drones can be launched from below decks in a cargo freighter flying a Panamanian flag. And these ground-hugging war machines could be carrying bubonic plague or any other dread disease, designed to crash into major coastal cities, from Boston to New York, Baltimore, Miami, New Orleans, San Diego, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Seattle.
Looking for savings in defense spending, Afghanistan looms larger than any weapons system. After 10 years of warfare, few noticed that the original objective to destroy al-Qaida morphed seamlessly into a war against the Taliban, which was never the objective of our NATO allies.
A befuddled U.S. public wants out now. But plans to turn the war over to a U.S.-trained Afghan army keep U.S. troops fighting until the end of 2014.
Defying a decade of narcotics suppression, Afghan heroin killed an estimated 10,000 people in NATO countries last year, a senior U.N. drug official said. And Afghanistan, under U.S. tutelage and various eradication experiments, produces more than 90 percent of the world's most dangerous narcotic, heroin.
Afghanistan convinced the NATO allies — spearheaded by France and the United Kingdom, the two largest and strongest military powers among the coalition's European members — to get in and out of the Libyan air campaign as fast as possible. But deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi is still at large.
Geopolitically, Libya's assets — oil and the Mediterranean's last unspoiled coastline — are far more important to NATO's European partners than Afghanistan where they went in the aftermath of 9/11 to punish al-Qaida — not Taliban — under Article 5 of the Atlantic treaty: an attack against one is an attack against all.
The current global economic and financial crisis has convinced editorial writers and a majority of parliamentarians in NATO's European capitals that the time to bring troops home from Afghanistan is now and not wait three more years for Washington's self-imposed deadline of 2014.
Taliban propaganda is beginning to sound like North Vietnam's toward the end of the war in the early 1970s.The Taliban clearly feel victorious.
In a statement to mark the 10th anniversary of Afghanistan's "occupation by the arrogant American colonists," the Taliban propaganda mill said "they have been forced to contemplate leaving this soil by our mujahedin with scarce weapons and equipment amid the growing realization the world over that a prolonged American presence in Afghanistan will add nothing to the end result except more expenditure, failures, casualties, and humiliation."
Leading geopolitical thinker and strategist Anthony Cordesman writes that the Afghan War "has almost dropped out of sight in terms of presidential and congressional attention and seems to have little interest to most Republican candidates. The fact remains, however, that the war's 10th anniversary has come at a time when virtually every aspect of the war, except U.S. and allied tactical victories in the south, are in crisis."
Cordesman, who is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adds: "The U.S. confronts a growing range of challenges if it is to win the Afghan conflict in any meaningful sense, and leave a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan. These include the resilience of the Taliban, Haqqani and Hekmatyar opposition, the continuing weaknesses of the Afghan government and a crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations."
If Congress and public opinion are behind the quest for victory and funds to make it happen, Afghanistan is not a lost cause. But the essential ingredients appear to be missing and the mojo is sputtering.
So far, the GOP's presidential hopefuls have avoided the Afghan war. But men and women are dying there each and every day. And the Vietnam syndrome is ticking.
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