The Best Defense

My dinner with Gen. George Casey: girding for a long war, and more

The other night CNAS threw a dinner for Gen. George Casey, chief of staff of the U.S. Army. I went but didn't expect much because in my experience Casey has been pretty cautious, even dull, in his public comments. But I guess as he sees the end of his term approaching he is loosening up a bit, because I found the conversation surprisingly forthright. More enlightening than yesterday's interview with Gen. Petraeus, I'd say.

  • He took a pretty hard line on combat incidents such as Wanat, in which the Army has conducted inquiries that faulted front-line commanders. At first he said he couldn't discuss specifics. But he went on to reject the suggestion that such inquiries discourage risk-taking. Rather, he said, the issue, is that some officers were "not executing to standard." He indicated that he has been discussing this with platoon leaders and company commanders, and concluded, "This is something we need to talk about as an Army."
  • He had a provocative line about the future of the U.S. relationship with Iraq. "It's almost, we have to leave to get invited back." By this I take it that he means we have to prove we are going to live up to the SOFA before Iraqi politicians can dare to begin talks about a long term military presence. Which I think there will be, and which I think is a good idea, despite invading Iraq being a terrible idea.     
  • He indicated he believes that President Obama is going to be a war president, like it or not. "We believe this is a long-term ideological struggle," that "this enemy is not going to quit," and that existing global trends are "like to exacerbate" the situation. "We are in for a decade or more of persistent conflict."
  • He thinks future warfare will resemble the fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon in 2006, in which "a non-state actor has the instruments of state power." That means, he said, that the organizing principle for training and educating the force must be "versatility."
  • He conceded that in 2009 more soldiers died of suicide than of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Another Defense official present noted that this is in part because of the decline in combat losses in Iraq.)
  • He says it was clear to him upon becoming Army chief that "the families were the most stretched part of the force" but added that he thinks "that the president and Mrs. Obama are very supportive."
  • He was almost snarky about NATO, saying, twice saying "Good luck" in getting more help from them. But he went out of his way to praise the British army, saying that, "It's nice to have another country that can put a division into the field." (Until I had that, it hadn't occurred to me that division commanders with full headquarters may be one of the world's scarcest resources.) 

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The Best Defense

The latest federal drug report: Very thorough, and not much good news

Here is a report review by a CNAS colleague of mine.

By Jennifer Bernal-Garcia
Best Defense illegal drugs correspondent

I sat down recently with the 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment  NDTA), which came out last month. Bottom line up front: good on thoroughness, bad for your morale.

Some takeaway points:

While the failure of the "war on drugs" is an oft-rehashed theme, the NDTA goes into specifics. The availability of most illegal drugs -- heroin, marijuana, meth and MDMA -- throughout the country is increasing, mostly as a result of ramped-up production in Mexico. Apparently the costs resulting from lost productivity associated with drug abuse, the burden on the justice system, and the environmental impact of drug production are a staggering $215 billion.

There have been cocaine shortages in the American market these past couple of years, but that's about the only good news there is. And that is partly due to decreased production in Colombia, but also partly to the fact the drugs are going elsewhere -- that is, Europeans are using a lot.

A familiar cast of characters is featured in the report. Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) continue to be the "single greatest drug threat" to U.S. security, while all sorts of domestic groups interact extensively to reap the profits of the trade. Since about 2007, domestic criminal gangs (mostly Hispanic, and African-American to a lesser extent) have increasingly taken control of retail distribution, displacing independent dealers and smaller local groups. Unfortunately, the cast is ever-growing because the drug trade is not completely zero-sum. Although currently much smaller, Asian DTOs are becoming much more involved in markets for drugs that do not put them in direct competition with their Mexican counterparts (like MDMA and high-potency marijuana).

Although marijuana sales continue to be the main driver of drug trafficking revenues, heroin is the rising drug of the day. It is available at higher purity levels and lower prices, largely because of ramped up production in Mexico. A lot of the guys trafficking heroin are not the big drug cartels, but independent -- often rural-based -- drug entrepreneurs. Consider the arrest last Thursday of Jose Antonio Medina Reguin, also known as "Don Pepe." Though linked to the Familia Michoacana, it's notable that Reguin's trafficking ring was a) solely focused on heroin and b) largely a personal enterprise. Since 2005, black tar heroin has also spread east of the Mississippi, creating an unlikely link between inhabitants of towns like Xalisco, Nayarit and Charlotte, Ohio, as documented in an interesting story in the LA Times.

The NDTA is a good thing to consider in light of Secretary Clinton's recent trip to Mexico to discuss drug policy with other high level officials. The new Mexico-U.S. counterdrug strategy is supposed to be centered on four "pillars": 1) Disrupting organized criminal groups, 2) institutionalizing Mexico's capacity to sustain the rule of law, 3) creating an effective "21st century border," and 4) building strong and resilient communities. A great -- though not widely publicized -- event at Georgetown University recently brought together academics and officials such as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela and Mexican Ambassador  to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan to discuss the situation in Mexico and where this strategy will lead. It was accurately noted that while the first three tenets of the strategy were basically carried over from the discourse of previous administrations, the fourth item is sort of new. An emphasis on community-level initiatives in Mexico is long overdue: for too long, both governments focused on repressive measures like crop eradication that alienated rural communities, offering no mechanisms to mitigate violence at the local level. In recent years, eradication has been abandoned in favor of direct efforts against DTOs, and it's nice to see that the rhetoric now reflects the need for policies focused on the people, not only on drugs or criminal groups. We'll have to see how this actually translates to implementation

So what can we expect from the next installment? The National Drug  Intelligence Center (NDIC) says the drug threat will not diminish in the near term. In fact, it predicts that disrupting drug trafficking will become increasingly difficult for state and local law enforcement agencies.

Tom again: Speaking of which, Mexican drug gangs are now directly taking on the Mexican army. The LA Times also reports that:

In coordinated attacks, gunmen in armored cars and equipped with   grenade launchers fought army troops this week and attempted to trap some of them in two military bases by cutting off access and blocking highways, a new tactic by Mexico's organized criminals."

And the Univ. of Texas has ordered its students home from Monterrey and cancelled its summer and fall study abroad sessions there. (HT on this last item to John McCreary's nomadic NightWatch)

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