Tonight, President Obama will address a joint session of Congress for the first time since taking office last month. Although the President’s speech is expected to focus on the economy, this state of the union-style address will also serve as a sober reminder of the many other critical challenges we face as a nation.
Apart from the economy, there is a long list of challenges and pressing issues that will require bipartisan, decisive action in the coming weeks and months. Chief among these are foreign policy, defense and homeland security concerns. Moving forward, it is critical that we understand the national security environment that is being inherited from the previous Administration and the formidable challenges faced in charting a new direction.
Challenges to Addressing the Terrorist Threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Al-Qaeda terrorists operating out of safe havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan pose an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland. In the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), our intelligence community assessed that al-Qaeda’s central organization had effectively regenerated its core capabilities and secured a new safe haven in the tribal region of Pakistan. According to the NIE, “Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities.” This June, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that any future terrorist attack against the United States would likely originate from the tribal regions of Pakistan.
A comprehensive strategy for defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan was not implemented by the previous Administration. In April 2008, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that “the United States has not met its national security goals to destroy the terrorist threat and close the safe haven in Pakistan’s FATA region,” and that “no comprehensive plan for meeting U.S. national security goals in the FATA has been developed” – the very area that our intelligence community says al Qaeda has rebuilt its organization and is actively plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland.
Our intelligence community assessed last year that Pakistan is “on the edge” and lacks the capacity to address an intensifying terrorist threat. According to a McClatchy news report, officials involved in drafting the classified October 2008 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that the situation in Pakistan is “very bad,” “very bleak,” and “on the edge.” McClatchy also reported that “The estimate says that the Islamist insurgency based in the Federally Administered Tribal Area bordering Afghanistan, the suspected safe haven of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants is intensifying.”
The previous Administration acknowledged the lack of success of its 8-year strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; its internal review called on the Obama Administration to develop a new approach. In December, the New York Times reported that”The Bush Administration is preparing to present President-elect Barack Obama with a lengthy, classified strategy review aimed at reversing the gains that militants have made in destabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan.”Officials involved in drafting the classified assessment have reportedly concluded that the Administration’s $10 billion military aid program to Pakistan has failed to address the Taliban and al-Qaeda threat along the Afghan-Pakistan border and needs to be “reversed.”
Challenges to Rebuilding Afghanistan
Late last year, our intelligence community assessed that the situation in Afghanistan is in a downward spiral. According to a New York Times report, the classified October 2008 NIE found that “Afghanistan is in a ‘downward spiral’ and casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban’s influence there.”
Taliban forces secured a presence in nearly three quarters of the country. According to analysis at the end of 2008 from the International Council on Security and Development, a Paris-based think tank, “the Taliban has been experiencing a renaissance that has gained momentum since 2005,” reporting that the “Taliban now has a permanent presence in 72% of Afghanistan…up from 54% in November 2007.” The group warned that “Until external actors expand their focus beyond the military dimensions, by targeting needs at grassroots level and thus restoring its previous levels of support, there is danger that Afghanistan will be lost for at least another generation.”
Admiral Mullen warned that the situation in Afghanistan was likely to get worse in 2009. In October 2008, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that “The trends across the board are not going in the right direction… It’s been very, very tough fighting this year and it will be tougher next year unless we [develop] a way to get at all aspects of the challenge. It’s the full spectrum – the political piece, the diplomatic piece, the economic piece, in addition to the security piece – that’s got to improve dramatically.”
Challenges to Restoring America’s Moral Authority and Winning the Battle of Ideas in the War on Terrorism
America’s leverage around the world was on the decline during the previous Administration. Many policies implemented over the past eight years in the name of national security have violated fundamental American values and failed to uphold our commitment to international law. These policies, including preventive war in Iraq, the use of secret prisons, military tribunals, rendition practices, harsh interrogation techniques, and warrantless domestic wiretapping have undercut America’s image as a beacon of democracy and undermined our moral authority around the world.
Detainee policies established in recent years have violated American values and empowered our enemies. In December 2008, the Senate Armed Services Committee released the conclusions of its bipartisan “Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody,” which found that “The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”
There has been no fair, effective system in place to bring alleged terrorists to justice. In the seven years since 9/11, just two terrorist suspects have been convicted under the military commissions program. Hundreds of detainees, including high level al Qaeda operatives and architects of the 9/11 attacks remain in legal limbo in Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Prison and other detention sites.
Anti-American sentiment had reached unprecedented levels – particularly in the Muslim World. During the previous Administration, approval ratings of the United States fell to record lows. The 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Project reported overwhelmingly negative views of the United States in much of the Muslim World, with the majority of the population in most countries – including Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco – holding unfavorable views toward America.
Challenges to Securing and Stabilizing Iraq
The previous Administration failed to achieve national political reconciliation – the key to stability and security. In its latest quarterly report to Congress, Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, the Department of Defense reported that, despite the improved security situation, “the underlying sources of instability in Iraq have yet to be resolved. Iraq remains fragile because its major power brokers do not share a unified national vision. They disagree on the nature of the state and are reluctant to share power and resources.”
The reconstruction work carried out by the previous Administration was disastrous. Earlier this month, the Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) released a book, “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience.” As outlined by the Washington Post, it “concludes that the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq was a failure, largely because there was no overall strategy behind it. Goals shifted from ‘liberation’ and an early military exit to massive, ill-conceived and expensive building projects under the Coalition Provisional Authority of 2003 and 2004. Many of those projects – over budget, poorly executed or, often, barely begun – were abandoned as security worsened.”
A refugee crisis threatened internal and regional stability. According to the United National Human Rights Agency (UNHCR), an estimated 2.7 million Iraqis have been internally displaced and another two million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries.
Challenges to Rolling Back the Threat of North Korea
Experts believe that North Korea acquired enough plutonium to manufacture as many as ten nuclear weapons over the last several years. In 2000, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities were in check: Pyongyang had enough materials to manufacture just 1-2 nuclear weapons, and its plutonium production program remained frozen under the terms of the 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States. Today, the situation is markedly different. North Korea has withdrawn from Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, tested a nuclear weapon and, according to experts, possesses material sufficient to build ten nuclear weapons. Diplomatic efforts by the end of last year were at an impasse.
North Korea became emboldened and posed an increased threat to global security. Since 2001, North Korea has achieved strategic gains and become a greater danger to the international community. As its nuclear advancements, missile tests, and defiance of treaty obligations have gone unpunished and the previous Administration’s rhetoric proven empty, Pyongyang became emboldened. Troubling reports have warned that North Korea may have sold nuclear materials and expertise to our adversaries – including Syria and Iran. Further, a number of experts have suggested that it is not implausible that weapons or related materials could leak from North Korea to terrorist groups.
Challenges to Securing our Homeland
We remained vulnerable to the threat of nuclear terrorism. As the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism reported at the end of the previous Administration, U.S. policy and strategy “have not kept pace with the growing risks” and failed to take the measures necessary to prevent nuclear proliferation and undercut terrorist threats. Experts warn that “unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by 2013.” Similarly, the Task Force on DoD Nuclear Weapons Management recently reported that it “found widespread fragmentation, dispersal of responsibility, and weakening of authorities in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s (OSD) management of the nuclear mission and the nuclear weapons mission area. The decline in management attention to nuclear matters is evidenced by a dramatically reduced workforce, fragmentation of nuclear policy and guidance responsibility across the office, dilution of organizational focus because of proliferating missions, and relegation of nuclear-focused organizations to positions of lower authority.”
Dangerous gaps persisted in our homeland defenses and national preparedness. In a recent report, the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies catalogued numerous threats to our homeland security that have gone unmet for the past several years. The study warned that “the terrorist threat has not abated…Nor has the risk of natural disasters diminished…Moreover, U.S. vulnerabilities to terrorist threats persist. There is insufficient control of the border. Illegal immigrants and drugs, even some nuclear material, continue to stream across the U.S. borders. We do not agree on the best way to secure cargo…We are not prepared for even known biological risks, like pandemic flu, let alone deliberate attacks. And chemical facilities are only just beginning to improve protection against possible attacks.”
Challenges to Building a 21st Century Military
Our military became dangerously overstretched and under strain. Repeated and extended deployments put in place by the previous Administration and critical equipment shortfalls caused a readiness crisis in both our active-duty and National Guard and Reserve forces. Military leaders warn that the escalating crisis is compromising the quality of force training, weakening our strategic deterrence, and limiting the ability of our forces to quickly respond to domestic disasters and contingencies around the globe. Last February, General George Casey testified that “The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance, consumed by the current fight and unable to do the things we know we need to do to properly sustain our all-volunteer force and restore our flexibility for an uncertain future.”
· Our active-duty ground forces faced critical equipment shortfalls that required tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to overcome. Last year, roughly 30 percent of Marine Corps’ ground equipment and 50 percent of Army equipment was in Iraq or Afghanistan. Experts anticipated that the Marines would need $15.6 billion for reset (they have received $10 billion of to date) while the Army stated it would need $12-13 billion each year for the duration of the war in Iraq and at least two years beyond the war’s end to reset their force.
· Non-deployed Army National Guard units had just 65 percent of the equipment they needed to respond to crises at home. According to a report last year, “By as early as 2005, Army National Guard units had transferred over 100,000 pieces of equipment from non-deploying units to fill gaps in deploying units. This widespread practice of cross-leveling – cannibalizing personnel and equipment from units back home to fill out units deploying overseas – further degrades the readiness of non-deployed units in the United States. Such transfers also hamper the ability of National Guard units to respond to disasters at home.
Recruitment standards were significantly compromised to meet deployment demands of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past several years extraordinary measures were taken to meet yearly military recruitment goals: waivers for misdemeanor or felony charges for Army recruits more than doubled; the percentage of new recruits with high school diplomas fell below the Army’s standard of 90 percent; the maximum enlistment age of Army recruits was raised from 35 to 42; while the Army continued to rely on stop-loss to meet deployment schedules.
Challenges to Honoring the Service of Our Troops and Veterans
Soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan faced increased levels of combat stress: an estimated one in five veterans suffer from post-combat stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. Last year, RAND reported that “Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan – 300,000 in all – report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment.” In addition, researchers found about 19 percent of returning service members report that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury while deployed, with 7 percent reporting both a probable brain injury and current PTSD or major depression.”
Service members and veterans struggled to get the benefits and care that they deserve. In recent years, many veterans have faced substandard conditions at Department of Defense and VA medical facilities, endured long lines and bureaucratic delays in accessing medical care and other services, and had to fight for many of the benefits they have earned.
· The 2007 Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health concluded that the military’s mental health care system was failing to meet the needs of our troops. In June 2007, the congressionally-commissioned task force reported that, “The Military Health System lacks the fiscal resources and fully-trained personnel to fulfill its mission to support psychological health in peacetime or fulfill the enhanced requirements imposed during times of conflict. The mission of caring for psychological health has fundamentally changed and the current system must be restructured to reflect these changes.”
· Many veterans received ‘minimally adequate’ treatment for PTSD. “But even among those who do seek help for PTSD or major depression, only about half receive treatment that researchers consider ‘minimally adequate’ for their illnesses. In the first analysis of its kind, researchers estimate that PTSD and depression among returning service members will cost the nation as much as $6.2 billion in the two years following deployment – an amount that includes both direct medical care and costs for lost productivity and suicide. Investing in more high-quality treatment could save close to $2 billion within two years by substantially reducing those indirect costs, the 500-page study concludes.”
 National Intelligence Estimate, 7/17/07.
 New York Times, 12/7/08
 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 7/22/08; American Security Project, 9/08
 Testimony of General George W. Casey, Jr, Senate Armed Services Committee, 2/26/08.