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December 28, 2007
Notes from the Pentagon

Bhutto failure
Pentagon officials said the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto yesterday is a setback for what critics say was a misguided attempt by the State Department to pressure Pakistan's government into adopting greater democratic reforms.

State Department bureaucrats have been directing a behind-the-scenes effort that included the return of Mrs. Bhutto from exile in London in October.

Mrs. Bhutto, a favorite of policy-makers at the State Department, was a key figure in plans for brokering a power-sharing arrangement and democratic reforms in Pakistan, along with exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned in September but who immediately was expelled.

The reality in Pakistan, the defense officials said, is that the country is beset by a small but growing minority of Islamist extremists determined to seize power.

The State Department pressure in Pakistan is likely to fuel further destabilization of the government of President Pervez Musharraf, who recently imposed emergency rule and then lifted it under U.S. pressure, the officials said.

The strategic danger is that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, which includes an estimated two dozen warheads, will fall under the control of Islamist extremists, a worry that has led to special operations forces planning for how to secure the weapons in a crisis.

Defense officials have said they have been frustrated with the Musharraf government over its reluctance to cooperate with U.S. military forces in remote border regions. But the officials said that until more progress is made in the global war on terrorism, the current pro-U.S., military-dominated regime in Islamabad is the best option.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters yesterday that the department favors the idea of Pakistan going ahead with planned elections in the next few weeks "as the best way, as the president said, to honor former Prime Minister Bhutto's memory."

Hurting morale
Marine Corps Cpl. David Goldich, a University of Virginia graduate who spent two tours of duty in Iraq, says Democratic attacks on the war undermined troop morale.

Cpl. Goldich, who returned from Anbar province in November after about 300 combat patrols, stated in a candid account that negative comments by Democrats had "a dramatic effect on morale, especially on troops who are otherwise indifferent and disdainful of politics in general."

"I cannot tell you how many times I have overheard Marines and soldiers talking about various inconsiderate comments made from the likes of [Sen.] John Kerry [Massachusetts Democrat], [Rep. John P.] Murtha [Pennsylvania Democrat], [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [Nevada Democrat], and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi [California Democrat] about how we cannot win, how we should be brought home, etc.," he said.

"The Kerry comments really cemented his reputation with the troops and upset people more than anything else. It is unnerving to volunteer for service during wartime hoping to be deployed and having to listen to a politician explain how the troops need to come home, especially when we clearly have not finished what we started.

"There is a widespread perception amongst the Marines I know, even those uninterested in politics, that the Democratic Party does not want us to win in Iraq for whatever reason. This is true even amongst Democrats who still maintain the party viewpoint on almost every other issue but the war. Morale is always a tricky issue to deal with, and it is difficult to tell a Marine to buck up when he sees important people back home undercutting his primary reason for existing at the moment."

Mr. Kerry came under fire in November 2006 when he joked that soldiers in Iraq were "stuck" there because they did not study hard in school.

Venezuela jet deal
China has offered to sell jet trainers to Venezuela in what U.S. officials say is further evidence of Beijing's efforts to sell weapons and expand its influence among the militaries of Latin America.

According to defense officials, the Chinese trainers were offered to Venezuela during a visit to the country by Chinese military officials. A defense official said the offer was made a few years ago "but we never saw any transaction take place."

Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the offer likely was for China's K-8, which is less complex than the supersonic L-15 trainer.

"The K-8 is a simple low-tech initial trainer powered by a Ukrainian turbofan, though in the past a U.S. Garrett turbofan engine has been used in this trainer," Mr. Fisher said.

Selling the Venezuelans trainers instead of actual fighters would be in line with China's low-key approach to expanding its influence with the leftist government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"It is less provocative than jet fighters, but does create relationships that may allow the later sale of combat aircraft," Mr. Fisher said.

If China were to sell Venezuela the more advanced L-15, that might signal the Chavez regime's interest in later sales of ground-attack jets or a future unmanned combat aircraft China is thought to be developing, he said.

Venezuela currently has Russian-made Su-30s and is reported to be in the market for advanced Su-35s. It also is looking to purchase French submarines as part of a large-scale military buildup that has raised concerns in the Pentagon.

The general in charge of military activities in the region, Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, told Congress last year that China was stepping up military training in Latin America, because of a U.S. law limiting support to regional militaries. Gen. Craddock told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China "has made many offers, and now we are seeing those who formerly would come to the United States going to China."

Mr. Chavez said in October that Venezuela is transforming its armed forces away from the U.S. military model toward preparing to fight "asymmetric wars and wars of resistance." China, too, is restructuring its military for asymmetric warfare, specifically computer and anti-satellite weapons for use against the United States.

Muslim pressure
Pro-Muslim officials at the Pentagon are putting political pressure on one of the U.S. military's most important specialists on Islamist extremism, according to defense officials.

Stephen Coughlin, a specialist on Islamic law on the Joint Staff, met recently with Hasham Islam, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England's close aide. The officials said Mr. Islam, a Muslim who is leading efforts for the Defense Department's outreach to Muslim groups, sought to convince Mr. Coughlin to take a softer line on Islam and Islamic law elements that promote extremism.

There is also evidence that a whispering campaign is under way to try and discredit Mr. Coughlin as a "Christian extremist with a pen" and force him out of the building, according to the officials.

Mr. Coughlin came under fire from pro-Muslim officials after a memorandum he wrote identified several groups that are being courted by Mr. Islam's community outreach program as front organizations for the pro-extremist Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr. Coughlin based the memorandum on documents released as evidence in a federal terrorism trial that he stated "are beginning to define the structure and outline of domestic jihad threat entities, associated nongovernmental organizations and potential terrorist or insurgent support systems."

Mr. Coughlin noted that the documents identified one of the Muslim Brotherhood front groups as the Islamic Society of North America, whose leaders were hosted by Mr. England in April at the Pentagon, raising concerns that the deputy defense secretary does not understand clearly the nature of the Islamist threat he is working against as the No. 2 official.

Mr. England has been a leading advocate of what critics in the Pentagon say is a misguided attempt to reach out to the wrong Muslims, regardless of their views, in an effort to counter Muslim extremism.

That approach has kept military and civilian officials from conducting much-needed assessments of how Muslim extremists are waging war because doing so would involving analysis of Muslim religious tenets, a politically taboo subject area.

A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment on the differences between Mr. Islam and Mr. Coughlin.

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202-636-3274, or at

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