Thursday, July 15, 2010

Some days, being the Pentagon spokesman really sucks

I pick on Geoff Morrell from time to time, and it's probably unfair. The man is passing up what must be some pretty lucrative opportunities in the media to serve his country in the Defense Department, and for that at the very least he's deserving of our thanks. To be honest about it, I think he has damned near the worst job in Washington: he has to get up there and talk his way around subjects on which he's not an expert, and to defend policies that he probably hasn't played a key role in determining. He has to cover his bosses while giving the media enough to keep them pliant, all the while spouting enough cliches and boilerplate to keep anyone from paying terribly close attention to the substance behind all this style.

No, seriously. It's a bad job.

Yesterday illustrated just exactly how terrible this gig can be sometimes. Usually Morrell's press conferences cover half a dozen or more discrete subjects, but yesterday's pretty much just drilled down on two: upcoming U.S.-South Korean naval exercises, and the announcement that the Karzai government has approved ISAF's initial plans to build up some kind of community defense initiatives.

The latter subject is the one that's getting all the press, and with good reason. I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on this, but suffice it to say that Morrell's discomfort with the specifics of the issue seem to reveal a certain lack of clarity in the Department about exactly how this whole "local community policing" thing is going to go. The individuals are going to be locals, we're told. But they're going to be responsible to the government, and they're going to have uniforms. But no, NO!, they're not going to be militias -- they answer to the government, not a warlord.

This particular question and answer sequence really highlights what a difficult time Morrell had explaining this whole deal:
Q So this is going to be similar to the awakening councils in Anbar province in Iraq?

MR. MORRELL: Well, the difference -- the -- but, Joe, the difference between awakening councils, the awakening councils were militias. These were local tribal leaders who hired guns, you know, hired, you know, their guys to provide for their security and that of their families and their communities.

They were eventually, under General Petraeus's leadership, transitioned into a -- into a government force. You remember, the hiring of the Sons of Iraq was such a big issue. This initiative is one where it starts off housed within a government function. It is working for the government; it is not working for any local tribal leader. So I think there's a real distinction between what the Sons of Iraq started off as versus what he's proposing in this situation.
But also, the government isn't going to give them much of anything. Like, you know, guns, or training, or anything like that. (Morrell suggests that a whole lot of training is probably unneccessary, "in this culture at least, because there's such a prevalence of weapons.") So basically this amounts to handing out a bunch of uniforms and crossing our fingers that these fighters will observe some kind of innate loyalty to the GIRoA. Or something.

Like I said, I'm not gonna spend a whole ton of time on that subject, because I think the other one, while lower-profile, is even more interesting.

Since the end of the Korean War, the U.S. and South Korean governments have operated under an agreement that in the case of renewed hostilities, Korean forces would fall under the operational control (OPCON) of the American Combined Forces Command (CFC, a combo of ROK forces and the extant U.S. command in the peninsula, U.S. Forces-Korea (USFK, aka the 8th Army plus USAFK, MARFORK, and CNFK)). If you're unfamiliar with this subject, YES, you're reading that correctly: if a second Korean War broke out, U.S. officers would command both U.S. and South Korean forces in opposition to the North Koreans. [*While I'm in the business of editing for clarity, let me add this: U.S. officers wouldn't command Korean formations, like with American Army captains commanding Korean companies, or anything like that. But the entire Korean force would be placed under overall American command, much the same as allied units come under NATO command in ISAF.]

In recent years, changes in the security environment, U.S. force posture, and warming North-South relations helped spur the U.S. and its Korean ally to plan for the transfer of OPCON back to the Koreans, and the two sides agreed that this would take place in 2012. There were and are a lot of good reasons why this should happen, but I'm not going to get into the details. (Look here.) But then... To be brief and simple about it, one can fairly say that some in South Korea were starting to get nervous as that date approached. ROK forces have definitely improved when it comes to individual and unit capacity, as well as interoperability with U.S. forces, and Korea has an extremely advanced defense industry. Some concerns still remain over leadership, doctrine, and operational planning, the sort of "high end" things that armies master last.

Anyway, everybody got nervous enough that the deadline got changed just a couple of weeks ago (this in spite of the fact that successive CGs of USFK have been saying for years, "yep, right on track, OPCON transfer in 2012, everybody's gonna be ready, no problem!). Like I said before, things had been moving in that direction for a little while, but the sinking of the South Korean ship in March and the consequent Chinese and North Korean intransigence probably helped drive the nails in the coffin. So now the OPCON transfer is on for 2015.

I tell you all of this as prelude to yesterday's press conference, in which Morrell was put in the very uncomfortable spot of trying to explain how this had nothing at all to do with the Koreans' preparedness to take OPCON, but rather with a whole bunch of stuff that has basically nothing to do with that. Just watch:

Q Yes. Why is it that -- on the North Korean and South Korean issue right now, why do you feel that it’s productive to go forward with these and -- the main question -- I’m sorry -- is, what specifically do you feel the U.S. needs to work with north -- with South Korea on in -- during this delay in -- on transfer? What are some of the specific weaknesses that you see that they indicate they would not be ready at
the original date?

MR. MORRELL: Yeah. I mean, obviously, we think, from an -- from a warfighting control perspective, that the ROK military would be capable of taking over operational control at the original date, in 2012. That’s in terms of their development as a -- as a military force.

That said, we agree that there is utility in pushing this to the right -- further by about three years. And by doing so, we would be able to sort of broaden the scope of the -- of the -- of what is transferred, and we would be able to better synchronize sort of those transformation efforts.

So, for example, while they would be capable in 2012 of assuming operational control of the war -- of warfighting, should that -- should that become necessary, we will now work on, in the additional three years we have, force management, defense reform, ground operations -- their -- the ground operations command. There’s some movement and consolidation of bases and so forth. All of these things can be worked on during that time, so that more than just operational control of the warfighting responsibilities is transferred come 2015.

This will allow us to make sure that we are all synced up and, as a result, ultimately be stronger as an alliance for having taken the time to do so.

Q So U.S. will renegotiate with South Korea 2 plus 2 meeting in wartime command and control?

MR. MORRELL: We will renegotiate, you said?

Q Yes.

MR. MORRELL: I don’t think there’s a renegotiation. I mean, the president has made -- the two presidents have agreed to adjust the operational control transfer schedule from it commencing on 2012 to 2015. That’s been agreed to.

Obviously, when the two secretaries get together with their counterparts, they will talk about a range of alliance issues, beyond just this very limited who is actually running a war effort should one -- should war break out on the peninsula again, heaven forbid. So they’ll talk about a range of things. It will not be a negotiation about op-con transfer. That fundamentally has -- decided.

Obviously now this provides us with the opportunity to delve into a range of other things that can be transferred and moved along over the course of those additional three years. And those are things that will be brought up as well.

Um, riiiiiight.

Being mostly comprised of native English speakers with IQs over 60, the press corps didn't give up on this line of questioning. Later:
Q One more on this area. Last fall Secretary Gates said that he was pleased with the progress of the plan so far in terms of the transfer of OPCON. So what changed between then and -- (off mike) -- these other elements for consideration?

MR. MORRELL: Well, I think he’s still fundamentally pleased with the development of the Korean military, particularly when it comes not just to their fighting ability but to their warfighting management capabilities as well. And that’s evidenced by the fact that he believes fundamentally that they are in a position or will be in a position to assume those responsibilities on the original time schedule, the 2012 time schedule.

That said, the two presidents have come to an agreement that they’re -- that it is worth adjusting that timeline, pushing it three years to the right, to 2015, so that we can work on other issues as well, just beyond the day-to-day management of a conflict on the peninsula. And that’s what I referenced in my answer to Viola, that there are other areas that we are now going to focus on -- and those are just a few, and we can get you more, and more specificity -- in the additional time that we now have afforded to us.

Q (Off mike) -- added since then.


Q (Off mike) -- since then.

MR. MORRELL: I’m not sure they’ve been added since then.

I think they are things that we are now going to take advantage of the additional time we have to deal with, rather than do OPCON transfer with regards to this narrow, limited function in terms of managing the day-to-day warfighting. And we’re going to do a broader transfer that involves a host of other areas, as well, is my understanding of it.
So let's see if we've got this straight: Korean forces are ready to take OPCON from an operational, warfighting perspective, which, after all, is what OPCON is all about, right? But there's a "whole host" of other stuff that we can use that extra three years to get up to speed on, like.... umm, well, we don't seem to be sure what other stuff. Or how the advancement of that other stuff is going to be facilitated by a three year delay in OPCON transfer. Oh, wait, no: force management, defense reform, and, uh, movement and consolidation of bases.

[After press conference, off mike] "I can't believe you guys sent me out there with this thin-ass explanation about moving bases and teaching them force management! WTF does any of that have to do with operational control of forces?! Jesus, this job sucks sometimes!"*

Seriously though, is there any reasonable explanation for this beyond capability? I know we want to express our confidence in the warfighting and command and control abilities of our close ally, but man, this is a pretty spare justification. I don't know how it would play in the media or with the regional power dynamics, but would it really be the end of the world to say something like "with the way the security situation has gotten a little more tense recently in the wake of the unprovoked sinking of our close ally's ship, both the American and Korean governments feel more comfortable retaining for the time being the OPCON arrangement we've functioned under for half a century. Hopefully tensions will relax and the North and South can return to a constructive path toward better relations; at such time we and our Korean allies will again engage in a conversation about the appropriate time to transfer OPCON"?

Instead, Morrell had to get up there and dance around the reality that everyone recognizes, which is that this has absolutely nothing to do with "force management, defense reform, and base consolidation" or whatever other nonsense he had to mumble about.

*Ok, he didn't really say any of that. As far as we know.


  1. FYI, USFK =/= 8th Army.

    Yeah, you're obviously right. I don't know why I wrote "aka," because they're not the same thing. The 8th Army is the Army component of USFK, which also includes U.S. Air Forces Korea (USAFK), Marine Forces Korea (MARFORK), and U.S. Naval Forces Korea (CNFK).

    The 8th Army makes up about two-third of the total personnel numbers, if I remember correctly.

  2. Thanks for catching that, Richard. Edited.


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