Pentagon doubts Obama account of equipment problem
The Pentagon on Friday cast doubt on an account of military equipment shortages mentioned by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama during a debate with rival Hillary Clinton.
During the face-to-face encounter on Thursday evening, Obama said he had heard from an Army captain whose unit had served in Afghanistan without enough ammunition or vehicles. Obama said it was easier for the troops to capture weapons from Taliban militants than it was "to get properly equipped by our current commander in chief," President George W. Bush.
"I find that account pretty hard to imagine," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
Obama's controversial comments during his debate with Hillary Clinton were difficult to comprehend on their face. But additional background from Jake Tapper allows us to deduce what he meant. ABC News Senior National Correspondent Jake Tapper says he has spoken to the Captain himself and says (emphasis mine):
Short answer: He backs up Obama's story. The longer answer is worth telling, though.
The Army captain, a West Point graduate, did a tour in a hot area of eastern Afghanistan from the Summer of 2003 through Spring 2004.
Prior to deployment the Captain -- then a Lieutenant -- took command of a rifle platoon at Fort Drum. When he took command, the platoon had 39 members, but -- in ones and twos -- 15 members of the platoon were re-assigned to other units. He knows of 10 of those 15 for sure who went to Iraq, and he suspects the other five did as well.
The platoon was sent to Afghanistan with 24 men. "We should have deployed with 39," he told me, "we should have gotten replacements. But we didn't. And that was pretty consistent across the battalion."
The Reuters news story correctly points out that platoons are rarely commanded by Captains, but the incident cited by Obama's informant occured when he was a Lieutenant. But one other vital circumstance is being overlooked. Tapper says Obama wanted to convey the point that:
the Iraq war "diverted attention from Afghanistan where Al Qaeda, that killed 3,000 Americans, are stronger now than at any time since 2001."
At the time Obama's informant was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq was taking place (March 18 to May 1, 2003) or was still in progress. So Obama's informant is not talking about some drain on Afghanistan consequent to the Iraqi insurgency but is citing it as evidence against the decision to go to war in Iraq at all.
There were logistical problems in Afghanistan early in the campaign as illustrated by the fact that Special Forces famously pursued the Taliban on horseback at the outset of the campaign. And the anecdote that Obama cites is understandable when it is realized they were made at a period the actual invasion of Iraq made it the priority theater. And there are still logistical problems in Afghanistan -- but mostly to do with NATO forces. But Obama's anecdote isn't proof that US troops in Afghanistan have no weapons, training or ammunition now. It may be true but the case has to be made on other grounds. Obama's anecdote from 2003 says nothing about the state of Afghanistan in 2008.
But we know the state of NATO's forces in Afghanistan today. Recently Robert Gates criticized NATO allies for welshing on its commitments to Afghanistan:
"I am not ready to let NATO off the hook in Afghanistan at this point," Gates told the House Armed Services Committee. Ticking off a list of vital requirements -- about 3,500 more military trainers, 20 helicopters, and three infantry battalions -- Gates voiced "frustration" at "our allies not being able to step up to the plate."
Michael Yon recently told an anecdote describing exactly what Gates referred to.
During my trip, I visited several bases. Steve needed to meet some Danish engineers who were to fly into Tarin Kot the next day by helicopter. When Steve asked an Australian Special Forces officer how to identify which helicopter the Danish engineers would arrive in, the Australian officer grimly answered, “It will be the only helicopter flying alone.”
Recently a British Ministry of Defence report said the British Army was out of machine guns and ammo.
British troops “desperately” need 400 of the jumbo 0.5in calibre heavy machine guns – the weapon most acutely missed. The Army has also run out of the 7.62mm GPMG and Minimis. ...
Generals asked the US to help but were snubbed by the Pentagon – who have dubbed British colleagues “The Borrowers”. The report says: “We are trying to get 400 guns transferred from the US. However, the material was provided by US DoD and they are not prepared to release them. MoD-level engagement is needed to try and get these released.” ...
So Obama is citing a five year old anecdote to prove the 'bad judgment' of the US but doesn't really mention the real crisis of the Afghan mission today. However the problem is really larger than sending more troops and supplies to Southwest Asia. One factor rarely mentioned in describing Afghan logistical problems or considered in relation to Barack Obama's assertion that Afghanistan should have absorbed troops bound for Iraq is that the theater is landlocked and accessible to the sea only through Pakistan and Iran. There are in fact serious concerns that troops in Afghanistan can be cut off should a hostile regime emerge in Pakistan.
WASHINGTON, Nov. 14, 2007 – The U.S. military is examining different contingencies for supplying American troops in Afghanistan if supplies can no longer be shipped through Pakistan, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said today.
Morrell said at a Pentagon news conference that the supply line issue “is a very real area of concern for our commanders in Afghanistan, because 75 percent of all of our supplies for our troops in Afghanistan flow either through or over Pakistan.” This includes about 40 percent of the fuel shipped to U.S. forces, which comes directly from Pakistani refineries. No ammunition goes through Pakistan, the press secretary said.
“Supplies to our troops in Afghanistan continue to flow freely through Pakistan, and for that we are grateful,” he said. “But the U.S. is not taking the passage for granted. Planners are working on contingency supply lines to our troops if it becomes necessary to alter the way we now support our troops.”
Morrell could not say what the contingency plans are, but was confident troops would be supplied if a “Plan B” were needed. “We are a can-do operation,” he said. “They’ll figure out a way to get it done if it needs to get done.”
This context enables us to understand Obama's statements at the debate and to form some idea of their wisdom. Would he redeploy 150,000 men to Afghanistan at the end of an insecure supply line? Would he unilaterally make up for the shortfall in NATO commitments to the war? Does he still believe that US troops in Afghanistan are scrounging weapons from the Taliban? These are fair questions.