As expected, Afghanistan and Iraq featured prominently in briefings and discussions. Progress continues to be made in stabilizing Afghanistan: new Provincial Reconstruction Teams are being established, preparations for parliamentary elections are proceeding, the Taliban remnants are increasingly marginalized, and a variety of measures are being taken to address the narcotics problem. Narcotics production and trafficking remains a serious threat to the long-term stability of the country, but most officials and experts were optimistic about the general progress Afghanistan continues to make. Several officials that the committee met with believe that it is now appropriate to consider integrating the NATO-led ISAF operation and the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom into a single command.
Most officials expected the security situation in Iraq to improve after the January 30 election and to continue to improve as the democratic process moves forward. However, external observers cautioned against excessive optimism noting that the security situation remained fraught with problems and there was little relief on the horizon for coalition forces.
Government officials and non-governmental experts noted the recent efforts of the Bush Administration to improve transatlantic relations. The first foreign visitor to the White House following President Bush’s re-election was NATO’s Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a sign of the president’s priorities in his second term. The forthcoming NATO and EU summits are being seen in Washington as an opportunity to strengthen transatlantic ties following the rifts over Iraq. The President, it was said, was coming in “listening mode” and much would depend on what he heard. Likewise, some observers suggested that a new approach to Alliance consultation would have to go beyond simple explanation.
Despite the evident desire to work more closely with Allies, speakers from both the administration and Congress voiced serious concerns about two issues that could re-exacerbate transatlantic tensions. The first of these concerned “national caveats” - restrictions placed on forces and personnel assigned to NATO missions. This is not a new issue—such caveats caused operation difficulties in Kosovo—but the problem has resurfaced in a potentially more damaging fashion over NATO’s activities in Iraq. Although the Alliance agreed to the training mission in Iraq, certain nations are preventing their personnel assigned to NATO multinational staffs from participating in this mission. Defense Department officials pointed out that this not only affects the mission in Iraq but, more important for the long-term, runs counter to the spirit of multi-nationality that underpins NATO's military structure and to the principle of consensus itself.
Another issue threatening to cloud the horizon is the prospect that the European Union will lift its embargo on arms sales to China. Several EU members are working to lift this ban imposed 15 years ago following China’s crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square. The United States is concerned that this would allow China to purchase European weapons systems and increase its ability to threaten the independence of Taiwan. Strength of feeling on the issue varied, but given the heavy presence of US forces in the Pacific, many US officials were alarmed at the prospect that European weapons might be used against American forces in the event of a conflict between the US and China. The most restrained view was that transatlantic defence-industrial co-operation would be far more problematic if the ban were lifted. However, one Senator said that it was difficult to see how a nation that sold arms to China could be an ally of the United States.
The DSC meeting in the United States concluded with visits to United States Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois and to the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the home of America’s B-2 Spirit “stealth” bomber fleet. Both provided vivid illustrations of United States technological and military prowess, and the truly global nature of its operations. The visit was hosted by Rep. John Shimkus, and accompanied by several members of Congress.