WASHINGTON: China and Russia, and not Muslim militants, pose the greatest threat to America’s global interests, warned US military chief Gen Mark Milley in a report by the Pentagon on the US defence strategy, released on Tuesday.

Separately, in an interview to a news agency, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper played down the militants’ role in Afghanistan, saying that future troop withdrawals from the country were “not necessarily” linked to a deal with the Taliban.

“Long term, China is the only existential threat to the United States. Russia, with its nuclear arsenal, is the existential threat today,” Gen Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted in the Pentagon report.

The report noted that “internationally, Gen Milley’s horizon is dominated by the return of great power competition”.

Gen Milley has been in the middle of the action especially because of Syria, Turkey, North Korea, Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia ever since he became the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sept 30, succeeding Gen Joe Dunford.

The report claimed that China and Russia were flexing their muscles economically, politically, diplomatically and militarily. “All this is tied together in a hybrid conflict,” the report stated.

Gen Milley believed China and Russia wanted to enhance their regional and global prestige, according to the report, adding that America’s two competitors will use “this whole-of-government coercion to force a revision of the international order”.

The report included another quote from Gen Milley: “It is a dangerous world, and it is better with friends” and urges Washington not to allow China and Russia to eclipse the United States. “We must maintain peace through strength,” he said.

The comments hinted at a possible return to the Cold War days, when the United States formed regional alliances across the globe to counter the former Soviet Union and worked with other nations in places like Afghanistan where Moscow had a troop presence.

On Gen Milley’s list of priorities, as mentioned in the report, North Korea and Iran follow China and Russia as major threats to US interests and extremist groups come after them.

The report noted that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “is in a unique position to view the whole world” and to implement the US national defence strategy.

Troops in Afghanistan

In an interview to Reuters on Monday, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper addressed another issue linked to the US defence strategy: the presence of American and Nato troops in Afghanistan.

Esper suggested that some lowering of force levels in Afghanistan may happen irrespective of a peace deal with the Taliban.

During a Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan last week, US President Donald Trump also spoke of potential troop reductions and said he believed the Taliban insurgency would agree to a ceasefire in the 18-year-old war.

Esper said the Trump administration had been discussing potential reductions in troop levels for some time, both internally and with Nato allies.

“I feel confident that we could reduce our numbers in Afghanistan and still ensure that place doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorists who could attack the United States,” he said without offering a figure.

Asked whether such reductions would necessarily be contingent on some sort of agreement with the Taliban, Esper said: “Not necessarily.”

Currently, about 13,000 US forces are present in Afghanistan as well as thousands of other Nato troops. US officials have said that their troops could drop to 8,600 and still carry out an effective, core counter-terrorism mission.

A draft accord agreed in September before peace talks collapsed would have withdrawn thousands of American troops in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States or its allies.

Esper also said that he had no “new news right now” about the US-Taliban negotiations. Last week, Taliban officials welcomed Trump’s interest in reviving the Afghan peace process but said it was “still early to talk about the resumption of talks.

Trump called off the talks after a Taliban attack killed 12 people, including a US soldier, in Kabul in September.

Since then, he has been insisting that the Taliban declare a ceasefire before the talks resume, a precondition apparently unacceptable to the militants.

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2019