Small Wars

This Week at War: Pakistan Is Winning the War in Afghanistan

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

Pakistan's Game

Of all the players in the Afghan game, Pakistan is running up the highest score. For several decades, Pakistan's policy toward Afghanistan has remained largely unchanged, regardless of who was running the country. That policy is to support Afghanistan's Pashtuns in their seemingly genetic resistance to outside control (outside in this case extends to any government located in Kabul). By supporting Pashtun autonomy, Pakistan establishes for itself a security buffer zone on its northwest frontier, which comes with a friendly auxiliary army -- the Afghan Taliban -- as a bonus.

For nearly nine years, U.S. officials have pleaded with Pakistan to suspend support for the Afghan Taliban and allow Afghanistan to unite under a central government. Pakistani officials have provided a variety of verbal responses to these entreaties but have not changed their policies toward the Afghan Taliban, whose military capability inside Afghanistan only seems to grow.

The United States cannot achieve its goals in Afghanistan while the Afghan Taliban's sanctuaries in Pakistan remain open. The Pakistani government refuses to close or even isolate those sanctuaries. Yet the massive U.S. foreign-assistance pipeline to Pakistan remains open. Why?

U.S. policymakers have seemingly concluded that they have more options and less risk by engaging Pakistan. They tried isolating Pakistan and found that course was neither wise nor sustainable. As a result, the Washington has opted to shower Pakistan with aid and hope that persistent persuasion will eventually result in greater Pakistani action against the Afghan Taliban.

The result has been a spectacular strategic success for Pakistan. Development aid from the United States has never been greater. The United States will deliver long-embargoed F-16 fighters to Pakistan and is providing other upgrades to Pakistan's armed forces. Along with this has come a de facto U.S. security guarantee against the perceived threat from India. Pakistan's diplomatic leverage over the United States has given it a free hand to work with China to upgrade its nuclear complex. Meanwhile, Pakistan's proxy forces in southeast Afghanistan are successfully defending the security buffer zone. Pakistan's dominant position has forced Afghan President Hamid Karzai to virtually sue for peace. This could result in an ethnic partition of Afghanistan that would secure Pakistan's main objective in the conflict.

With its winning position, Pakistan's current task is to arrange a stable end-state that avoids a backlash from the losers. Pakistan and the United States are in a largely zero-sum relationship over Afghanistan. Pakistan's leaders must fashion a settlement (however temporary) that allows the United States to save face, that maintains the U.S. aid pipeline, and that keeps the de facto security guarantee in place. U.S. officials should hope that Pakistan manages the endgame as well as it has managed the rest of the match.

Are overseas bases worth the risk?

As a country with global security responsibilities, the United States depends on an archipelago of overseas military bases to assert its presence and project power. Having benefited for so many decades from the access these bases have provided, U.S. military planners have established design specifications for weapon systems and fashioned military strategies under the assumption that access to these bases is hardly in doubt. But are these assumptions wise? Over the past two decades, political disputes have forced the Pentagon to retreat from many overseas bases, resulting in greater concentration and risk attached to those bases that remain. More closures at critical but politically vulnerable facilities cannot be ruled out. The potential for disruptions to the remaining basing archipelago calls into question the Pentagon's foresight regarding the weapons it plans to buy and its plans to project power without the base access it has become accustomed to.

The Defense Department has a long history of adjusting its overseas basing posture. Changes since the end of the Cold War have been particularly dramatic. Some have been intentional. The vast drawdown of Army and Air Force units in Europe has resulted in the closure of scores of installations. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld deliberately shifted or brought home many units to make them usable for global rather than just regional contingencies.

The Pentagon has coped with involuntary ejections from overseas bases with varying degrees of success. U.S. Southern Command adjusted to its removal from Panama and Vieques, Puerto Rico by moving to Florida and building up relationships elsewhere in Central America. More recently, Ecuador tossed out a United States counternarcotic patrol base and the United States responded with an expanded presence in Colombia.

By contrast, the expulsion of the U.S. Air Force and Navy from their large bases in the Philippines has resulted in heightened risk due to greater reliance on the remaining large bases on Okinawa and Guam. And in spite of the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama over his mishandling of the Futenma base dispute, the local population's opposition to U.S. bases on Okinawa continues to boil. Defense planners cannot rule out the possibility that local political pressure will remove U.S. forces from the Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, opening a huge hole in the Pentagon's Pacific defense plans.

Writing at the Stimson Center’s Budget Insight blog, Alexander Cooley, an associate professor at Columbia University, discussed some political strategies U.S. diplomats can employ to ward off local political opposition to U.S. overseas bases, especially in frontier developing countries. Cooley recommends extending U.S. diplomatic outreach to include a variety of domestic actors and sectors and not just top central government and military officials. Cooley notes that this is the technique Chinese diplomats are successfully using as they gradually expand their relationships around the globe.

The Pentagon could gain control over its own fate if it reduced its spending on weapons that require vulnerable overseas bases and increased spending on naval power and global long-range strike capabilities. For example, it could cut by half the planned purchase of short-range F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and redirect the $100 billion or more in savings on accelerating and expanding the Air Force's Next Generation Bomber program and the Navy's long-range carrier-based strike drone project. Directing the Marine Corps to refocus on the amphibious assault mission -- a power projection capability less dependent on overseas bases - would in some cases provide a hedge against the potential closure or disruption of overseas Air Force and Army bases.

Do Pentagon planners assume that their bases in the western Pacific, Central Asia and around the Persian Gulf will always be there? They undoubtedly have alternate plans on the shelf. But these workarounds could be less risky if weapons systems and strategies were designed from the beginning to be less dependent on these bases.


Small Wars

This Week at War: China's Foolish Fight Over the Yellow Sea

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

China picks a foolish fight over the Yellow Sea

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived in South Korea on July 21 to display their commitment to that country's defense. In March, a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Last month, South Korea took its case to the U.N. Security Council but was unable to get much satisfaction -- China, with North Korea's stability its paramount concern, blocked the Security Council from explicitly naming North Korea as the perpetrator.

China had hoped that the Cheonan incident would simply disappear, keeping the strategic situation in northeast Asia in the frozen state it prefers. After the Security Council's non-action, Chinese leaders should have anticipated that the United States and South Korea would take their own actions to reinforce deterrence against the North. China's handling of this affair will end up costing it and brings Beijing's judgment into question.

With South Korea's attempt at justice having come up short, the U.S. and South Korean governments have arranged for a showy two-part display of solidarity. Part one was the arrival of Clinton and Gates, with a photo-op at the demilitarized zone and a meeting with their South Korean counterparts. Part two will be a large U.S.-South Korea military training exercise, involving 8,000 troops, 100 aircraft (including the first deployment of F-22s to South Korea), and the USS George Washington carrier strike group.

Having dug itself into a hole by energizing the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, the Chinese government continued digging: On July 21 its Foreign Ministry spokesman warned, "We resolutely oppose any foreign military vessel and planes conducting activities in the Yellow Sea and China's coastal waters that undermine China's security interests."

The U.S. government has made no commitment to send the USS George Washington carrier strike group, the most ostentatious display of U.S. military power, to the Yellow Sea. But with the Chinese government now having thrown down the gauntlet over the U.S. Navy's right to sail in international waters, the United States will have to respond with a significant display. Anything less than a transit of the Yellow Sea within the next few weeks by the George Washington and its escorts will come off as a loss of face by the United States.

This tussle between China and the United States over prestige is alarming. Why has China suddenly decided to pick a fight over the Yellow Sea? The George Washington carrier strike group last made a routine transit of the Yellow Sea in October, which few noticed or cared about. If the Chinese government is interested in stability in northeast Asia, it should have stayed quiet and allowed the Korean training exercises to proceed uneventfully as they have for many decades.

What is disturbing is the newfound lack of judgment by China's decision-makers. China's gauntlet-throwing has given a boost to the U.S. military alliances in the region. And China's troubling misjudgment in this case does not bode well the next time a real crisis in the region occurs.

The Army's next nightmare scenario

After the Cold War ended, Pentagon planners restructured the U.S. military's ground forces to cope with what was considered at the time to be the worst-case scenario -- simultaneous high-intensity wars in the Middle East and Korea. But recent Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs) have drifted away from planning for traditional conventional combat. The 2010 QDR discussed the need for ground forces to prepare for conventional warfare, irregular warfare, stability operations, and disaster assistance. However, the review recommended few significant changes to the military's force structure.

Did the 2010 QDR provide any useful planning guidance to the Army and Marine Corps? Nathan Freier, a retired Army officer and a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, says no. Writing at Small Wars Journal, Freier says the QDR's "more of the same" conclusions failed to provide ground forces with either a long-term threat narrative or a vision about structure, operating concepts, or missions they need to prepare for the future.

What ground-force planning concept does Freier envision? In his essay, Freier describes a worst-case scenario demanding enough to prepare the Army and Marine Corps for a full range of comprehensive and lesser tasks. Freier calls his worst-case scenario "opposed stabilization" and imagines a nuclear-armed state that has collapsed into insurgency and civil war. Freier's scenario portrays Hobbesian chaos with well-armed local, foreign, and criminal groups battling each other as well as outside intervention forces for control of territory and populations. In spite of the distasteful memories of the stabilization missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Freier's scenario sees the United States drawn into this new opposed stabilization mission due the potential for nuclear proliferation, violent ethnosectarian contagion, threats to strategic resources, or the possibility of mass refugee migrations into key allies or the United States itself.

Freier adds to the difficulty by providing no outside or local U.S. allies and no nearby logistics base to support U.S. military operations. Intervention would require a forcible entry by U.S. expeditionary forces and the buildup of combat power and logistics support, presumably over long distances. The U.S. expeditionary force would then have to fight some combatant groups while attempting to form alliances with others. The campaign objective would be to establish minimum essential order with the goal of containing the proliferation, regional instability, ethnosectarian, and migration threats that sparked the intervention.

Freier asserts that if the Army and Marine Corps can prepare for all the tasks required to complete the opposed stabilization mission just described, these services would also be prepared for currently envisioned missions such as conventional combat, counterinsurgency, and security force assistance. It takes little imagination to pick out a few spots on the globe where Freier's scary scenario seems plausible. One wonders whether his worst-case scenario is too demanding for Pentagon planners to care to think about. Alas, no one, least of all staff planners, gets to choose how history plays out.

Cherie Cullen/DOD via Getty Images