Small Wars

This Week at War: You Can't Always Pick Your Afghan Friends

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal

Why would ‘American officials' expose their own intelligence source?

On Oct. 27, the New York Times reported that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid Karzai and a major power broker in Kandahar, was a paid intelligence asset of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Times's sources for this allegation included "current and former American officials" including a former CIA officer and perhaps a senior U.S. military officer in Kabul. Karzai acknowledged aiding U.S. efforts but denied receiving any payments from the CIA.

The piece asserted that Karzai's alleged connections to Afghanistan's drug trade created deep frustrations with senior political and military officials in both the Obama and Bush administrations.

Did frustration and moral outrage with Karzai's illicit activities lead U.S. officials to expose him as a paid CIA asset? It would certainly be understandable, for these officials may have a low opinion of him and perhaps by association his brother the president. But this collective outburst is folly and will make a nearly impossible task for the United States in Afghanistan only that much harder.

The U.S. officials who exposed Karzai are likely hoping that with his status now public, he will no longer be useful to the CIA. Perhaps they are hoping that the CIA will be too embarrassed to continue paying him. As the Times piece discusses, some officials believe that if the U.S. really wants better governance in Afghanistan, it must begin by getting rid of types like him. They have concluded that for a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy to succeed, clean Afghan governance needs to occur concurrently, not later. By continuing to work with the president's brother, the CIA was not cooperating with this view. Those objecting to the CIA's alleged connection with Karzai appear to have used the New York Times in an attempt to resolve this interagency dispute.

Regardless of which strategy President Obama chooses for Afghanistan, executing that strategy will require extensive cooperation with all levels of Afghan society. U.S. officials have to deal with Afghanistan society as it is, not as they wish it might be. With no history of a successful strong central government, and not much prospect of establishing it anytime soon, U.S. officials have to deal with local strongmen. If, perhaps like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the local strongman is both very powerful and equally unsavory, U.S. military, State Department, and CIA field officers will have to weigh the feasible alternatives, if any can be found. If there are no alternatives, U.S. officials will have to quietly decide whether the mission is worth the moral consequences.

By contrast, the very public exposure of Ahmed Wali Karzai revealed some U.S. officials to be petulant and self-destructive. As a result of his exposure, Karzai may now provide less help to the Americans and more help for the Taliban and the drug barons. The CIA had hoped to recruit other local strongmen or Taliban leaders into its employ. The prospects for that, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, must now be considerably lower. In fact, any measure of American reliability, so crucial for the success of a counterinsurgency campaign, has been damaged. And if some hoped that embarrassing the Karzai family would boost Abdullah Abdullah into the presidency, such an outcome would only boost the ferocity of Pashtun resistance.

A subtext of the New York Times story was the moral complexity of Afghan culture. But it is also a story of America's culture, which simply may not be suited for military-social engineering campaigns such as that envisioned for Afghanistan.

U.S.-India military cooperation: some rare good news in Asia

Oct. 27 was the final day of Exercise Yudh Abyhas 2009, where a mechanized infantry battalion of the Indian Army hosted a similar unit from the U.S. Army for two weeks of combined training. The exercise concluded with a complex live-fire assault involving tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and helicopter-borne infantry. According to Lt. Gen. A.S. Sekhon of the Indian Army, this training exercise was the largest the Indian Army has ever done with a foreign army.

This was the fifth annual iteration of Exercise Yudh Abyhas. In previous years Indian soldiers have trained in Alaska and Hawaii while U.S. soldiers have trained at India's counterinsurgency and jungle warfare school.

It is not only the U.S. Army that is developing a relationship with India. The U.S. and Indian air forces recently completed their fourth annual installment of Exercise Cope India. Malabar 2009, an annual U.S.-India naval training exercise, occurred in April, and added Japanese naval forces to the event. Previous Malabar exercises have involved U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups and U.S. Marine Corps amphibious assault forces.

Although hardly trouble-free, the rapid expansion in the defense relationship between the United States and India contrasts sharply with the troubled security relationships the U.S. has with China and Pakistan. After much pleading, this week the Chinese government finally sent Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It was the first meeting at this level the U.S. has had with China since 2006. Admiral Timothy Keating, the recently departed commander of U.S. Pacific Command, fared no better engaging with his Chinese counterparts. In an interview with the Financial Times, Keating remarked, "I don't have their [senior Chinese military officials'] phone number. I can't pick up the phone and wish them happy birthday. I don't mean to be glib about it . . . [But] we don't enjoy the sort of communication that I have with almost every other military leader in Asia.

The U.S. security relationship with Pakistan has its own troubles. According to the Pew Research Center, only 16 percent of Pakistanis surveyed have a favorable view of the United States and 13 percent have confidence in President Barack Obama. On Oct. 28 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Pakistan and received an angry reception over perceived U.S. infringements of Pakistan's sovereignty and blame for the Taliban's bombing campaign in Pakistan's cities.

With little seeming to go right with Afghanistan, Pakistan, or China, U.S. policymakers should be pleased with warming U.S.-India defense ties. It is U.S. policy to support China's peaceful and harmonious arrival as a major power. The U.S. is also trying to find a happy ending to its troubles in Afghanistan. But good intentions have little to do with good results. When pondering Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, the U.S.-India defense relationship is something both countries will take comfort in - and may someday need.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: General Casey's Doubts

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Afghanistan and some unmentioned strategic risks

Left unmentioned in all the discussion of America's interests in Afghanistan are several risks that Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional soldiers, if implemented, would create. McChrystal is asking for a permanent escalation in Afghanistan that would commit U.S. ground forces to a larger open-ended effort. Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, fears that the size and duration of this commitment could eventually break the all-volunteer Army. One strategic risk is that the United States would not have enough ready ground forces for another sustained contingency elsewhere. Finally, the funding that is diverted to sustaining ground-force intensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could be creating risks in the space, air, and naval dimensions that will unpleasantly appear in the next decade and beyond.

The Bush administration's surge in Iraq was a strategic gamble. The increase from 15 to 20 brigades in Iraq tapped out the last of America's ground combat power. In addition, the required deployment schedule -- 15 months in combat followed by 12 months back home -- was considered a temporary, emergency measure. It was for this reason that the Iraq "surge" was a temporary measure -- it was not feasible to indefinitely sustain 20 brigades in Iraq.

In these terms, McChrystal's troop request is not a surge but an escalation. McChrystal's initial assessment does not define a discrete time period during which he would need the additional troops -- the request is open-ended.

In May, prior to the Obama administration's latest review of Afghan policy and McChrystal's report, Casey declared the current deployment practice of "12 months deployed, 12 months home" unsustainable. The Army now considers a routine of 12 months deployed, 24 months home sustainable in the long run. The Army believes it can implement this routine if it limits its commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq to no more than 10 brigades.

But according to this open-source estimate of the current U.S. order of battle in Afghanistan, one Marine and six Army brigades are currently serving in Afghanistan. These seven brigades are part of the 68,000 U.S. troops in the country. McChrystal's 40,000-soldier increase would bring the U.S. brigade count in Afghanistan to at least 11 and probably more.

Assuming the U.S. really does evacuate all of its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, the Army and the Marine Corps would find a way to sustain the larger effort in Afghanistan while also increasing home-station time -- assuming that this would be McChrystal's final escalation of the war.

But the other strategic risks would remain. U.S. ground combat power would be unavailable for another sustained effort elsewhere, unless force generation planners were again willing to risk reducing home-station time down toward 12 months. Casey wants to stop this gamble on the Army's future.

Second, McChrystal's open-ended commitment to Afghanistan would mean that ground-force operations, paid for with either regular or supplemental budgets, would continue to divert funds away from space, air, and naval modernization. Given the very long leads times involved with these programs (along with some deteriorating trends I mentioned last week), President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates should ponder what strategic legacy they will leave to their successors and how that measures up to the current effort in Afghanistan.

Gates finds frustration in Tokyo

This week Defense Secretary Robert Gates tended to some business in East Asia. On Oct. 21, he arrived in Japan only to encounter a headache, caused by not by jet lag but by his Japanese interlocutors.

In 2006, after over a decade of negotiations, the United States and Japan reached a deal on restructuring the U.S. military presence in Japan. The deal will shift U.S. forces on Okinawa and Japan's home islands, close some bases, build new facilities, and move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Now the new government in Tokyo, led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), wants to reopen the deal. Gates refused, adding, "It is time to move on." Just to make sure his Japanese hosts understood, Gates turned down invitations to a welcome ceremony at the Defense Ministry and dinner with Japanese officials.

The new Japanese leaders have their reasons for wanting to reopen the 2006 basing deal. Although Japan has long depended on the presence of U.S. military forces for Japan's defense, the U.S. presence has become an increasing irritant, especially on Okinawa. Second, now that they are finally in power, DPJ leaders feel they have a strong mandate to scrutinize the commitments made by their Liberal Democratic predecessors. Finally, while facing its own budget burdens, the basing deal requires Japan to pay for most of the new facilities, both on Okinawa and Guam.

From a strategic perspective, Gates and the U.S. military want to get on with a retreat from Okinawa to Guam. In the past, Okinawa, located so close to China's coast, was an important U.S. outpost, both for intelligence collection and for force projection. However, China's massive and continuing buildup in short and medium-range ballistic missiles is making it an increasingly risky place to be. The U.S. wants to retain Okinawa as an important forward base, but moving many of the Marines to Guam will reduce friction with Japan and improve the strategic flexibility of Marine forces in the Pacific. Even better for the U.S. if Japan pays for much of the move.

Japan's new leaders have decided that they do not have to play the diplomatic game with the U.S. the same way Japan played it in the past. Gates will have to develop options or leverage should Japan's leaders persist with their new-found obstinacy.

Gates may be working on this. Next stop was South Korea, where in a speech to South Korean military leaders, Gates called for the South Korea military to regularly participate in regional and global security missions. Beyond reorienting South Korea away from just the North Korean threat, the U.S. has also been reorienting its military posture in South Korea. Continuing a program begun when Donald Rumsfeld was defense secretary, U.S. ground forces are withdrawing from Korea's demilitarized zone and repositioning to central South Korea. From there, these and other U.S. forces would have the flexibility to deploy to missions elsewhere in the region. The complex of U.S. bases in central South Korea will become a supplementary option to those the United States uses in Japan.

Japan's new leaders are attempting to protect Japan's interests, as they see them. As with any negotiation, they are testing to see which side has more bargaining power. By developing his alternatives, such as those in South Korea, Gates is enhancing his bargaining power with the Japanese. Maybe that's the best cure for a Japanese headache.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images