The expansion of the Pentagon’s presence in American embassies is creating frictions and overlapping missions that could undermine efforts to combat Islamic radicalism, a report by Congressional Republicans has found.
As the Pentagon takes on new roles collecting intelligence, initiating information operations and conducting other “self-assigned missions,” the report found that some embassies have effectively become command posts, with military personnel in those countries all but supplanting the role of ambassadors in conducting American foreign policy.
The report, completed by the Republican staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, concluded that Pentagon “enthusiasm” has blurred chains of command and has the potential to backfire by weakening American relationships abroad and setting back American counterterrorism efforts.
Even with the military strained by long-term deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has been steadily expanding its presence outside of declared war zones, dispatching troops to embassies in remote parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East to conduct counterterrorism missions and to train local militaries.
The military buildup is one of the legacies of Donald H. Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Pentagon. Military officials say that with some embassies reduced to a skeleton crew of civilians, the deployments are necessary to execute America’s top foreign policy priority of dismantling terrorist networks abroad.
The report’s findings were based on interviews in roughly 20 embassies around the world. While the report found that most of the ambassadors had an adequate grasp of the American military activities in their country, three ambassadors “appeared overwhelmed by the growing presence of military personnel” and said they were ill informed of the operations that the Pentagon was conducting there. “In several cases, embassy staff saw their role as limited to a review of choices already made by ‘the military side of the house,’ ” the report said.
The report did not identify the three ambassadors, nor the ambassador heading “a small embassy in Africa” who told Senate staffers that within a year American military personnel might outnumber civilians at the embassy.
State Department officials have long lamented the budgets and staffing levels of embassies compared with overseas military commands, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee often sides with the department in stressing the need for diplomacy over military force in conducting American foreign policy.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who is a professor of international relations at Boston University, said the report provided further evidence that American foreign policy was becoming “progressively militarized.” He said a warning in the report that the secretary of state could lose primacy over American foreign policy decisions in some ways had already come to pass.
“That horse has already escaped from the barn,” he said. “The secretary of state enjoys no such primacy. The Pentagon has the money and calls the shots.”
The Senate report also cites several successes, particularly in Yemen and Thailand, where the ambassador and military officials have developed strong relationships.
But the report warns that military personnel are too often dispatched to embassies on a short-term basis, sometimes lacking cultural or language training for the country.
Several former ambassadors and Central Intelligence Agency station chiefs concurred, saying that the Pentagon’s new activities since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks whether intelligence gathering or public information campaigns could often be counterproductive.
“It duplicated or replicated activity that was already being done by constituent members of the embassy post,” said Edward W. Gnehm, who served as ambassador to Jordan from 2001 to 2004. “It was rather clear to me that this was the Pentagon’s view that you couldn’t trust any other agencies,” he said.
Lt. Col. Karen Finn, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said she had not seen the report and therefore could not comment on it.
One area where the Pentagon has expanded significantly since Sept. 11 is information operations, which are intended to build support for American policies and to marginalize radical factions in Muslim nations.
Since the 2001 attacks, the Pentagon has ratcheted up its information campaigns to fill the vacuum left by the gutting of the State Department’s “public diplomacy” budget at the end of the cold war.
The report details the Pentagon’s efforts to dispatch small teams of three to four people to American embassies to conduct information operations in local populations. Those Military Information Support Teams are currently working in 18 countries, the report says, with Pentagon plans calling for an increase in deployments to 30 countries.
The presence of the teams occasionally creates friction within embassies, according to the report. In Mali, military officials wanted to feature a moderate Muslim cleric in a video produced by the embassy, yet the embassy’s civilian staff argued that showcasing the cleric’s support for the United States would only taint him among the local population.
The report called for a strengthening of the ambassador’s hand, in particular having military personnel in the embassy working directly for the ambassador, rather than for regional military commanders.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company