Brig. General Zack Forrest tells it like it is...
The next couple of days were a mix of business and pleasure. Brigadier General Zeke Forrest and Chuck Longstreet were overnight visitors.
Chuck joined the campaign earlier in the month. Technically, he was the campaign's Director of Security; in actuality he had become one of Tyler's most trusted confidants.
Zeke was in Tyler's unit in Iraq during the First Gulf War when he, Rad and Tyler were wounded. He was built solid as a tank and though now in his late forties, his demanding exercise regimen kept him fit as he was twenty years earlier.
Zeke loved what he did and was damn good at it. Though he was a soldier's soldier, he had learned to successfully navigate the treacherous political waters of the armchair military bureaucracy. Tyler had always wondered how Zeke, an outspoken, blunt and often profane warrior could tolerate, much less survive in the bastion of political correctness the Pentagon was becoming. However, Zeke not only survived, he had gotten a star on his shoulder. Zeke's promotion gave Tyler some confidence that at least somebody in the Pentagon knew what the hell they were doing.
Zeke's last overseas assignment was as liaison to the Iraqi Army's developing Special Operations units. His efforts were critical in acquiring and maintaining the funding and support needed to transform the Iraqis into a professional outfit.
Forrest returned to the states in March 2009, working in the Pentagon until April 2011. He was promoted to his current rank and assigned to Fort Bragg. Exactly what Zeke did, Tyler didn't know and hadn't asked.
Zeke hopped a military flight from Fort Bragg to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, rented a car and made the quick sixty-five mile drive down I-95 to Saint Simons. Zeke, Chuck, Ashley and Tyler, with the ubiquitous Secret Service detail close by, dined on shrimp, grouper and fresh vegetables and drank beer long into the evening telling war stories.
Ashley hoped most of the stories were lies. Certainly Tyler, Chuck and Zeke hadn't done all that stuff?
After some trout fishing in the marsh early next morning, the three men got down to business around noon. Tyler was concerned about the impact on readiness of defense spending cuts. He wanted to know the actual military situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, Tyler was very concerned about rumors of political infiltration of the Pentagon's policy-making and strategic planning processes. If anyone knew the truth and would tell it, it was Zack.
"What are the defense budget cuts doing to us, Zack?" Tyler asked.
In a West Tennessee drawl deeper and slower than Tyler's South Georgia accent, Zeke was his typical direct, no-nonsense self.
"It's hurting us. As always, the first things to suffer is the stuff that isn't obvious…training, maintenance and upgrades. We have tanks that won't run, airplanes that won't fly and electronics that are broken. Our readiness has deteriorated tremendously. My guess its 30 percent off where it was in 2008.
"We're still getting good people; a shitty economy always boosts recruitment. But the training budgets have been cut to the bone. We've got everything from infantry recruits who don't have bullets and grenades for live fire exercises to pilots whose training is stalled because the simulators are broken to sailors who ain't sailing because the ships don't have fuel.
"It's a mess guys. We're still developing and buying the new electronic toys, but we ain't going to have anyone who knows how to use them. In my humble opinion, the Administration keeps the sexy stuff they can talk to the press about, but we're rusting away from the inside."
Tyler didn't comment, and then asked, "What about Iraq and Afghanistan?"
"Two totally different situations, Tyler. It's going to take more time and money, but the Iraqis can take care of themselves militarily, certainly in a conventional conflict. Iranian nukes, that's a whole different question. I've got a theory no one in Washington was interested in; probably means it makes sense."
All three men laughed.
"I don't think Iran's going to screw around with Israel, but I do think they're scared as hell of Iraq. There's too much good going on there. Shit, simple things. They have beer, TV, can get a job, go to the movies. Their politicians are like all politicians, but generally not too corrupt; they're not screaming fanatics and can actually have their asses booted out of office if the people get pissed."
"You ought to use that in a campaign ad, Tyler" added Zeke.
"Another worrisome thing is that the White House is calling the shots on the Iraqi counterterrorism efforts, micromanaging the hell out of it. Most of the problems over there are on the Iranian border; lots of bad guys and material coming across. The Iraqi Special Ops guys are excellent at interdiction, but if we let them cross the border for preemptive raids, a lot of lives would be saved. Hell, you can stand on a Coca-Cola crate and see the bastards' staging areas with a good pair of binoculars. I still have good contacts over there, and the Iraqis are getting very frustrated.
"Afghanistan is like chasing cockroaches. You know you'll never get rid of them, but you have to keep them on the move so they won't eat your saltines. We could put a million troops n the mountains and never catch the Al Qaeda bastards; it ain't going to happen. We hurt 'em bad in 05, 06 and 07. But we didn't have enough assets to keep 'em underground. And we have fewer assets there now than we did in 09.
"Trust me Tyler, Al Qaeda pretty much kept their heads down the last couple of years but it's not because we were on their asses. Another guess is they are up to something big. We have intel that says they are busy training and deploying in Africa and South America. Thorpe and his pals are telling everybody we've whipped them. It ain't so. We have just enough people on the ground over there now to protect ourselves. We aren't out in the countryside or in the mountains. We haven't heard the last of Al Qaeda."
Tyler asked for details, and Zeke provided them. He was the kind of guy who didn't tell you something unless he could back it up.
Later that evening and with no beer flowing, Tyler broached the subject of political influence at the Pentagon. Zeke went off like a bottle rocket.
"Tyler, if I hadn't been in the middle of it and seen it for myself, I wouldn't believe what's going on. Do you remember, right after Thorpe took office, there was a little publicity about some civilian political hack who was appointed to an Assistant Secretary job or something?"
"I recall," said Tyler, but don't remember hearing anything more about it."
"I'm sure you didn't. But he was the first of dozens Thorpe sent to the Pentagon. Their purpose is obvious because they don't know shit about anything even remotely related to national defense. They've spread themselves out like a bunch of rats, crawling in every nook and cranny to find out what's going on. I was in a few meetings with some of them; they hardly open their mouths, just took notes. When they open their mouths, they all start their sentences with the same thing: 'The Administration believes…' We called 'em TABs.
"Their shit works when they're in low level meetings. Captains, Majors and DoD civilians are scared as hell of them. At least as of last April, most senior officers tell 'em to go pound sand. In either case, when the TABs make a report to whoever the hell they report to, some good people find their asses in a bind the very next day.
"Let me tell you how bad it's become. The TABs scoured computer meeting announcements to find out what's going on. Then they'd show up, take notes and/or pull the TAB routine. After a while, the military people just stopped using computer meeting notices and set them up by phone. The damn TABs caught on and would roam the halls looking for meetings and invite themselves in. Some of them have very high security clearances and can go damn near anywhere they want.
"I'll tell you this Tyler, more national defense business is being done on the road, in homes and Arlington bars and restaurants than in the Pentagon. Military people are discreet, but they're taking security risks they believe are necessary to do their jobs."
"What's Secretary Pickett's stance on this?" asked Tyler.
"I think she's doing the best she can. I think she takes a lot of shit from the White House and buffers the good guys. On a couple of occasions, the TABs said or did something particularly outrageous, don't know what it was, and Pickett read them the riot act in public. There are rumors she took IDs from three TABs who walked into a videoconference with Centcom and the theatre commanders in Afghanistan. I believe it could have happened. There's scuttlebutt Pickett told Security to shoot the bastards if they came back on Pentagon property. Probably not true, but fun to think about anyway.
"But, seriously, guys, this chicken shit is not helping us keep our eye on the ball. When you have generals running around to find secret meeting places, they ain't doing what they should be doing. And, for sure, the Secretary shouldn't be a referee or spend her time keeping the Administration's flunkies off the backs of people trying keep the bad guys from blowing all our assess up."