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Biden vows to 'never politicize' the military, honors Black troops in first Pentagon visit

Matthew Brown and Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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President Joe Biden made his first visit to the Pentagon on Wednesday, joining Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris in an event honoring Black service members.

The president acknowledged the contribution of Black Americans to the armed services during his speech at the Pentagon and the need to better support Americans in the military, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

"Even when their contributions were not always recognized or honored appropriately ... those contributions have nevertheless helped push our country toward greater equality," Biden said of Black troops who have fought in every war in the country's history dating back to the American Revolution.

From left, Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin walk up the steps at the Pentagon, Feb. 10, 2021.
From left, Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin walk up the steps at the Pentagon, Feb. 10, 2021.

"You are unquestionably part of the finest military force in history," Biden said to service members during his speech. "The Biden family is a military family. We learned firsthand what some of what your loved ones experienced when Beau was deployed to Iraq."

Forming a China task force

Biden also announced the establishment of a Pentagon task force on China to assess defense policies and make recommendations on how to address challenges from a principal adversary. The National Defense Strategy, drafted by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, identified China as the military’s top competitor, along with Russia.

That hasn't changed under Austin, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.

The Department of Defense China Task Force will be staffed by as many as 15 civilian and uniformed Pentagon officials, according to the Pentagon. Its director will be Ely Ratner, a special assistant to Austin and the former official at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

The task force’s top priorities will include strategy, deployment of forces and intelligence. It is expected to report its findings and recommendations in four months.

Pentagon priorities

Austin and Biden have identified several immediate challenges at the Pentagon, including the longstanding problem with sexual harassment and assault and the decisions on how many troops to deploy abroad, most critically in war zones.

Austin, the first Black American to lead the Defense Department, faces the challenge of reasserting the military's independence as it grapples with race and domestic extremism within its ranks.

Senior officials had to dissuade former President Donald Trump in the summer from deploying active-duty troops to police American streets during unrest amid mostly peaceful demonstrations by protesters outraged over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other black men and women at the hands of police.

Here are some of Austin's top priorities:

Extremism in the ranks: News that several veterans were among the insurrectionists in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol prompted Austin to take a closer look at ties to militia and extremist groups among active-duty and reserve forces. A dozen National Guard troops were relieved of duty protecting the Capitol before Biden’s inauguration after background checks raised such concerns. Austin has ordered the military to conduct a mandatory review of its policies against extremism within the next two months.

Sexual assault. One Austin’s first acts as secretary was an edict to each of the services to report on its efforts to combat sexual assault and harassment in the ranks. The crimes have bedeviled the military for decades, and despite pledges from senior leaders for reform, problems persist. Last year, the Pentagon reported a 3% increase in assaults in 2019. There were 6,236 reports in 2019, compared with 6,053 in 2018, but experts caution that the crime is underreported.

Troops deployed. The Pentagon is taking part in a review of where its forces are deployed and changes that need to be made in numbers and in location. The most critical, time-sensitive decision for Austin and Biden regards Afghanistan. Negotiations with the Taliban insurgency call for the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops there to be withdrawn by May. The fear is that the Afghan government, despite nearly 20 years of support from the U.S.-led allied coalition there, is not strong or stable enough to prevent the country from descending into civil war. When the Taliban led the country, it gave haven to al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Remnants from Trump's tenure

Biden's first appearance at the Defense Department as commander in chief was also meant as a sign of reassurance for a military battered by instability during the Trump era.

"I will never dishonor you. I will never disrespect you. I will never politicize the work you do," Biden promised during his speech.

Austin inherits a military that has been whipsawed by four years of erratic leadership under Trump, who made snap decisions with little consultation of uniformed leaders on withdrawing troops from the Middle East and changing the Pentagon’s policy on transgender troops.

Trump’s tenure also marked a period of instability at the top of the Pentagon. His first Defense secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned in protest after Trump abruptly announced U.S. troops would exit the fight in Syria against the Islamic State.

Mattis’ departure put the Pentagon on an unstable footing with various acting secretaries, including Patrick Shanahan, who resigned after USA TODAY reported on his turbulent family life, and the sacking of Mark Esper, Trump’s only other Defense secretary to be confirmed by the Senate.

Trump also pardoned U.S. troops and mercenaries who committed war crimes against civilians in Iraq. The high-profile cases led to widespread questioning of the military's ability to discipline vigilantes in its ranks, as well as abuses of power in the armed forces.

Last week, Austin demanded the resignation of hundreds of volunteer advisers to the Pentagon after Trump had stocked the panels in recent months.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden honors Black troops, plans China review in first Pentagon visit