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Inside the Ring

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2008

Iranians in Iraq

A senior U.S. military commander in Iraq said Iranian surrogates, terrorists and insurgents fighting in southern Iraq have returned to Iran temporarily for more training and resources.

Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of the Multinational Corps, Iraq, told reporters Monday that the number of Iranian-supplied explosively formed projectiles and rockets has declined as the result of uncovering weapons caches.

Gen. Austin said the anti-armor improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have "been absolutely lethal on the battlefield."

"And we've seen a number of rockets that have moved from the southern region up into the Baghdad area, and we saw a lot of those rockets last March," he said.

"In the last several months, we've seen a much-decreased flow of those types of weapons, in part because we've been very successful in finding a number of caches that had large stores of those types of munitions and weapons. We've taken those off the battlefield. And we've also taken a number of people who were using those weapons off the battlefield, and so that's greatly improved the security situation."

Gen. Austin said improved security in places such as Basra and Sadr City has prompted Iranian-backed forces to regroup.

"We saw that the leadership of the special groups, criminal elements, left the country, and we think that they went into Iran for additional training and to be resourced," Gen. Austin said.

"And we expect that those leaders will try to come back at some point in time in the future," he noted. "When they come back, we hope that they'll find a much changed environment, an environment that's a lot more hostile to their types of activities."

The three-star general said that if the Iranian-backed insurgents come back, "we will do everything in our power to pursue them and hopefully interdict their ability to do the same types of things they were doing before."

Iranian officials have denied supporting Iraqi militant groups.

McCain on bin Laden

Sen. John McCain laid down a policy marker on the seven-year hunt for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his recent interview with the Rev. Rick Warren that resonated with several U.S. officials who viewed Mr. McCain's comments as tacit criticism of the Bush administration.

Asked about his view of evil, Mr. McCain, the expected Republican presidential nominee, said on Sunday that "one, if I'm president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice."

"I will do that, and I know how to do it. I will get that guy," he said. "No one, no one should be allowed to take thousands of innocent American lives."

Mr. McCain then offered categorical remarks, in an apparent attempt to play to the conservative audience, that he thinks evil should be vanquished. By contrast, Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was asked the same question earlier by Mr. Warren and provided a more carefully crafted answer, noting that "evil does exist... and I think it has to be confronted." However, he called for "humility" in confronting evil because "you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil."

Mr. McCain's comments echoed similar sentiments of some U.S. special operations commandos who, as reported recently in this space, are frustrated by Bush administration defense and national security leaders for not unleashing the elite U.S. commando forces to do more to get bin Laden and his key deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri.

The Pentagon insists it is doing everything possible to hunt down the al Qaeda leaders, who are thought to be hiding somewhere in the mountainous border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The area has been off-limits to U.S. commandos although there have been attacks on al Qaeda and Taliban leaders from the air.

One soldier who fought in Afghanistan told Inside the Ring that more needs to be done with special forces.

"From what I have seen in southern Afghanistan, there seemed to be a resistance to use special ops," he said.

One of the problems is that Wazirstan, one of the target regions, "is probably the most defended, toughest terrain on the planet," the soldier said.

"The mujahideen always expected the Soviets [in the 1980s] to come into the area and prepared positions in depth. It would take a lot of troops to clear that area."

"It will come down to lives - how much are we willing to spend to get bin Laden? From what I see, it's about zero, so here we sit. Lots of 'specially trained guys' sitting and waiting."

A defense official said Mr. McCain's comment about getting bin Laden suggested that a President McCain might change the current approach.

Michael Vickers, a former CIA officer who is assistant defense secretary for special operations, was quoted recently by one trade newspaper as saying he would like to stay on in the post after the Bush administration as a "holdover" for either a Republican or Democratic administration.

Opacity or Deception?

Pentagon officials are frustrated by the Chinese military's continuing refusal to disclose or even discuss key questions about both its weapons buildup and military strategy with U.S. counterparts.

The stonewalling on U.S. efforts to coax China's military into greater openness and end what is dubbed the lack of transparency is triggering a new debate within the Pentagon. The debate is fueled by some civilian and military officials who want to get tough with China rather than continuing to follow what one official called the use of European "diplospeak" to describe what he said was more akin to Soviet-style strategic deception being used by the Chinese to mask their true military intentions.

There is growing evidence, these officials say, that rather than simply adopting Western-style military secrecy, China's military is engaged in a wider effort at denial and deception: denying the Pentagon even seemingly innocuous information about key Chinese military developments and also putting out false and misleading information to make the Chinese military appear non-threatening.

The key goal of the program, the officials say, is to prevent the United States and its allies in Asia from taking countermeasures to balance China's military buildup.

The military deception is said to be most intense regarding cyber-warfare, space weapons, power projection and strategic nuclear programs.

The Pentagon's latest annual report on China's military power, released in March, discussed China's use of denial and deception, quoting Chinese military writings as saying that strategic deception is "[luring] the other side into developing misperceptions ... and [establishing for oneself] a strategically advantageous position by producing various kinds of false phenomena in an organized and planned manner with the smallest cost in manpower and materials."

The world "has limited knowledge of the motivations, decision-making, and key capabilities supporting China´s military modernization," the report said, noting that "China´s leaders have yet to explain in detail the purposes and objectives" of the expanding Chinese forces.

"The lack of transparency in China´s military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation," the report said.

Asked about Beijing's strategy, one U.S. intelligence official told Inside the Ring: "The Chinese government - like many governments - sometimes uses deception to mask or conceal its true capabilities. It's something people constantly keep in mind when looking at China."

• Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274 or at Inside the Ring.