Defense on the Offense

Michele Flourney manages policy and long-term strategic planning for the Pentagon.

In May, Government Executive Editor at Large Timothy B. Clark and Senior Correspondent Katherine McIntire Peters sat down with Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy to talk about key challenges the department is facing, from the war in Afghanistan to finding the right balance of contractors and federal employees. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion, part of Government Executive's ongoing leader- ship briefing series.

On why we are in Afghanistan, especially given Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent suggestion he might join the Taliban himself:

First, I think that comment was made in a moment of extreme frustration, so I wouldn't put too much emphasis on that. But, the reason we are in Afghanistan is really clear. And that is, we have a vital interest there with regard to combating al Qaeda and its affiliates. Our core goal is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its associates, and deny them a safe haven. If we were to pull out of Afghanistan without building adequate Afghan capacity to enable them to secure their own sovereignty, I have no doubt that at least parts of the country would once again become a safe haven for al Qaeda.

On whether the Afghan people should trust the Karzai government, given reports of widespread corruption:

I think the Afghan government knows that it needs to win the trust and support of the Afghan people by combating corruption, by providing basic services to the people and by ensuring that government actors are there to help the people. Most Afghans, however, experience government at the local level. So, a lot of our revised strategy is really focusing on empowering governance at that local and district level through development projects, through connecting it to our security efforts. This is a traumatized nation that's had 30 years of war, and people are eager for stability and peace. If they see something that is good governance, then they will latch on to it and try to make it work.

On why the United States is in Afghanistan, when al Qaeda has largely moved elsewhere:

I think that you have to look at the Afghan-Pakistan border region as an integrated whole. We are working on both sides in different ways because of different conditions. We are trying to take areas and countries off the map, if you will, for al Qaeda.

The way you do that is not to have a long-term, endless occupation there. It is to degrade the enemy and to build Afghan capacity to the point where the Afghans are able to handle whatever residual threat remains.

On how long we'll be in Afghanistan:

Let me be clear-July 2011 is probably one of the most misunderstood dates in the history of public policy. July 2011 is an inflection point in our military strategy. It is a year after the surge forces will have arrived. That will mark the beginning of a process that President Obama has made very clear will be conditions-based. And, that process will be the beginning of identifying certain provinces in Afghanistan that are ready to be transitioned to Afghan security control. It's not a run for the exits, but it allows you to reallocate your forces. Very importantly, the president has not said anything about how long this is going to take, how fast it's going to go, or what the numbers of troops will be. There is no set timeline.

On whether Defense Secretary Robert Gates' call for an "unsparing review" of defense operations and structure is an indictment of the Quadrennial Defense Review:

Not at all. It's an outgrowth of it. The key themes that emerged from this QDR were the need to balance our portfolio and to reform how we do business. His speech at the Eisenhower Library was really fleshing out what I mean by reform. The QDR looked at a security environment that is extremely challenging. The theme that came out of the QDR was maximum versatility across that range of challenges and conflict. That said, look at our larger economic picture. The Defense Department has continued to enjoy real growth in its defense budget. What Secretary Gates was saying was, we can't count on that to happen indefinitely in this economic environment. And yet, what he wants to see is continued real growth and support of our forces and our capabilities and our operations. The only way he's going to get that is to draw it out of some of the overhead of the department. So he's looking at fundamental changes-acquisition reform, health care reform, for the department. We are the nation's largest consumer of energy. How can we get greater efficiencies so we can plow [resources] back into the force so we can continue the growth we need in light of the security environment?

On whether it is realistic to expect the Pentagon to self-prescribe very painful cuts:

Secretary Gates is not shy about making hard decisions. He's not shy about holding leaders in the building accountable. I think all his component agencies [and] all his direct reports have been put on notice. We're going to start this review for efficiencies with ourselves.

We can't do it without Congress. Secretary Gates will have some far-reaching plans to put on the table. The question is whether he can get the political support on the Hill to actually get them implemented.

On thinning the bureaucracy:

I don't think this is so much about cutting strength, because I actually think he feels we have our forces stretched pretty thin and that we need the people we have today as long as the operational tempo remains as high as it is. I think what he's really getting at is the bureaucratic element of the department-that we have so many layers. And there have got to be ways- particularly borrowing from some of the better business practices and 21st century management-to improve and streamline.

On the optimal federal employee-contractor mix:

There's not a head count or dollar target. What there is, is a sense of we need to sort of go back to first principles of what's an inherently governmental function and what's appropriate to outsource; and what kinds of controls and oversight are necessary to ensure proper execution of the contracts we do have. I know when I came back to policy after being away for 15 years, I found contractors doing functions in offices that would never have been thought of as appropriate for contractors before. And that was because, in an effort to sort of reduce government bureaucracy, a lot of functions had been outsourced. One of the things that's been clear, at least in the policy frame, it's actually much more cost effective, and I think better for the organization in the long term, to build a core of civil servants in the organization than it is to contract so much out and have contractors on the job doing those functions. It's a balance.

On whether or not she's cutting contractors in her own office: Yes. One of the things we've done is, I came in and found that the Iraq and Afghanistan offices were almost entirely temporary employees and a lot of contractors. And I said look, our interest in Iraq isn't going away anytime soon. Our interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan isn't going away, and I need to build up a core of government professionals who are going to be expert in this and will stay with this and contribute to this for a very long time. And so I got the approval to convert a whole bunch of temporary contract employees into civil service positions so that we could build that core capacity within policy, because my judgment is that we were going to need that for many years to come.

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