Small Wars

This Week at War: The Pakistan Veto

Islamabad now has final say on U.S. military policy.

Pakistan shows who's the boss

In apparent retaliation for a NATO helicopter attack on a Pakistani border outpost this week, Pakistan has closed the Torkham border crossing into Afghanistan to convoys supplying NATO forces. An International Security Assistance Force statement claimed the helicopter attack was a response to an attempted insurgent attack on a coalition base in Afghanistan. Pakistan claimed that the helicopter strike killed three soldiers in its Frontier Corps.

Trucks and tankers bound for NATO bases in Afghanistan are now stuck on the road outside Peshawar. Although this dispute will likely be resolved quickly, it shows that Pakistan has a veto over President Barack Obama's military strategy in Afghanistan. Specifically, Pakistan has now vetoed the possibility of a U.S. military campaign into the Afghan Taliban's sanctuaries inside Pakistan. Such a veto is understandable from Pakistan's perspective, but not so much from those of the NATO and Afghan soldiers who would like to get at the stubborn enemy finding sanctuary inside Pakistan. In a strange irony, the more the United States has built up its forces in Afghanistan, the stronger Pakistan's veto power over U.S. military decisions has become.

The Sept. 30 helicopter attack that prompted the border closing was the last in a string of such attacks that began a week ago. On Sept. 24, NATO helicopters responded to an attack on a combat outpost near the Pakistan border by firing on insurgents inside Pakistan. Helicopters returned on two following days, were fired on again from Pakistan, and again returned fire.

NATO commanders apparently view these cross-border helicopter strikes as incidents of "hot pursuit" and actions of self-defense while under fire. Pakistani officials, by contrast, no doubt view this string of attacks as a case of NATO probing to see what it can get away with. For Pakistani officials, it became one slice of the salami too much. These officials have accustomed themselves to the CIA's drone campaign inside Pakistan, a campaign that accelerated sharply in September. If U.S. policymakers thought they could get Pakistani officials to get accustomed to ever more aggressive air raids into the sanctuaries, Pakistan's closure of the border is designed to bring those thoughts to an end.

According to Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin, the Obama administration continues to place Pakistan at the center of its Afghan strategy. The issue for U.S. officials is how to persuade Pakistan's government to align its behavior with U.S. interests. According to Rogin, the Obama administration has opted for rewards rather than pressure, rejecting the advice of former National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair to conduct airstrikes and raids inside Pakistan as the United States would see fit.

It is sensible to try a strategy of persuasion and rewards first before resorting to pressure and coercion. However, Pakistan's closure of the Torkham crossing has revealed that the large buildup of U.S. and coalition forces inside Afghanistan has removed the option of applying pressure on Pakistan. Although the United States has negotiated with Russia to obtain an additional supply line into Afghanistan from the north, the tripling of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since Obama took office means that there is no escaping Pakistan's strong leverage, amounting to a veto, over U.S. military operations. Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars, describes how National Security Advisor James Jones threatened Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari with a strong military response (airstrikes on 150 suspected terrorist camps inside Pakistan) should there be a spectacular terrorist attack inside the United States sourced from Pakistan. Jones's threat is an empty bluff, or at least it has become one now that there are 100,000 U.S. troops dependent on a fragile supply line through Pakistan.

Pakistan's closure of the Torkham crossing shows that it will allow NATO to execute any military operations it wants just as long as these operations don't serious threaten the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan's invaluable proxy ally. Obama and his generals would no doubt like to wield the leverage that Pakistan wields over them. But creating such a reversal of fortune would require a military strategy that doesn't require endless daily supply convoys snaking through Pakistani territory.

Can Britain resist becoming an American auxiliary?

The British government's drastic spending cuts have created a moment of truth for the country's future strategic role in the world. The new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government that came to power in May ordered a broad strategic defense review. But the country's fiscal crisis has converted that effort into a budget-slashing exercise with a Treasury-imposed 20 percent reduction in defense spending now possible. At stake is whether Britain will be able to exercise an independent foreign and security policy or whether it should instead accept a merger of its foreign and security policy with either the United States or the European Union.

This week, the Daily Telegraph published a previously confidential letter from Defense Secretary Liam Fox to Prime Minister David Cameron. In the letter, Fox warns that the budget cuts the Treasury contemplates will force Britain to withdraw surface naval forces from the Indian Ocean, Caribbean, or Persian Gulf; sharply limit its ability to conduct amphibious operations; and put at risk other maritime operations such as its ability to reinforce the Falkland Islands or conduct some counterterrorism missions. Fox's warning implies that the price of maintaining a British nuclear deterrent (a new generation of nuclear missile submarines) and a British Army able to contribute to missions like Afghanistan is a permanent hollowing-out of Britain's other maritime capabilities and its ability to maintain much of a global military presence.

If the top priority for British policymakers was maintaining Britain's ability to formulate its own policies and resist intimidation from any direction, the top defense priorities would be the nuclear missile submarine deterrent fleet; more naval forces to protect those submarines, British territory and interests, and air power to do the same. British land power, valued by coalition partners like the United States, would be less important if policy independence were key.

U.S. defense officials are growing increasingly alarmed by the developments in London. Washington would no doubt prefer to see the British maintain its army and special operations forces, along with some of its surface warships. British participation in U.S.-led counterinsurgency and stabilization campaigns has added some international legitimacy to those efforts and has spread the burden on ground force deployments. By contrast, U.S. officials (perhaps the Obama administration in particular) might silently prefer the British to scrap its nuclear deterrent. U.S. officials would see such a move as a boost to the cause of nuclear nonproliferation (which favors U.S. conventional military superiority) and would increase Britain's dependence on the United States for its security.

Becoming mostly a land-power auxiliary of the Pentagon would create tremendous savings for the British Treasury; Britain's nuclear missile submarine and aircraft carrier programs are hugely expensive. But it would be very surprising if Cameron and his government went this way. U.S. officials are right to be worried. If, as is likely, Britain opts for austerity and policy independence, that won't leave much left over for more land campaigns alongside the Yanks.


Small Wars

This Week at War: Obama vs. Team Surge

The president is going to regret putting off an inevitable showdown with Gates, Mullen, and Petraeus over Afghanistan.

A collision between Obama and the Afghan surge faction is inevitable

Of the many revelations in early previews of Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars, the most corrosive is the obstinacy President Barack Obama faced from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and then Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus. According to the Washington Post's reporting of the book, Obama repeatedly pressed his military advisors for an exit plan from Afghanistan. "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars," Obama said. Yet according to the Post, Gates, Mullen, and Petraeus -- whom I will term the Afghan surge faction -- essentially barred from consideration any plan that did not involve a counterinsurgency strategy requiring at least 30,000 more U.S. troops. In spite of their resistance to his wishes, Obama chose not to confront the surge faction, opting instead to accommodate their policy inside a muddled compromise. But the compromise will only delay an inevitable clash.

Woodward's book strongly reinforces the impression that Obama's paramount goal in Afghanistan is to find the exit. Gates, Petraeus, and others have attempted to dilute the harmful effect of Obama's July 2011 deadline by explaining that any U.S. withdrawal will be very gradual and "conditions-based." Woodward's exposition of Obama's restless eagerness to get out wipes away those efforts.

If one purpose of the surge was to achieve negotiating leverage over the Taliban, Woodward's book will instead reinforce their determination to hang on and fight. Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal, it is U.S. commanders who are downgrading their expectations for military progress. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is now likely to redouble his efforts to make a separate peace with Pakistan and the Taliban, a chilling prospect for many of Afghanistan's non-Pashtun ethnic groups.

Thus, by next summer the United States is likely to face hardened Taliban resolve, a more belligerent Karzai, and an Afghanistan that might be splintering along ethnic lines, trends reinforced by Obama's yearning for the door. If by next summer the counterinsurgency strategy's hoped-for improvements have not arrived, Obama's long-delayed confrontation with the surge faction will very likely occur. Obama is likely to look for a new team to implement the policy he wanted all along. The White House has already probably been preparing for Gates's retirement and the end of Mullen's tour as Joint Chiefs chairman. The termination of Petraeus's command in Kabul would be much more dramatic.

For the United States, there is a strict inverse relationship between the size of a troop commitment to a shooting war and the amount of time the public will allow for clear results. For example, in contrast to the political time pressure Obama feels regarding Afghanistan, the small but successful foreign internal defense missions the United States conducts in Colombia and the Philippines are under no time pressure as they gradually accumulate progress.

When policymakers choose a military strategy that comes with a short fuse, periodic decision-point crises get built into the strategy. According to Woodward, Obama perceived that the American public would give him just two years to do something in Afghanistan. True, but only because of the options forced on him by the Afghan surge faction. One of the crises built into Obama's Afghan strategy was a clash with the promoters of that strategy. Obama might regret not having that clash in 2009, before he committed so much prestige and so many lives to a strategy he never had the resolve to properly see through.

Does the terrorism threat in Yemen warrant a billion-dollar response?

Officials at U.S. Central Command are pushing a six-year $1.2 billion security force assistance program for Yemen. If approved, the program would provide Yemen's military and police with automatic weapons, patrol boats, helicopters, transport aircraft, spare parts, other support equipment, and training. This long-term $200 million per year commitment is a huge change in policy; in 2006, U.S. security assistance to Yemen totaled just $5 million. Centcom's plan does not please everyone. The State Department is resisting, claiming that the program is too big for Yemen and that a six-year commitment forfeits U.S. leverage over Yemen's subsequent behavior. Others are concerned that Yemen's autocratic ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, will use this enhanced military power to battle his domestic opponents rather than al Qaeda. And some wonder whether the pricey attention Yemen is now receiving from U.S. national security officials is simply an overreaction to the al Qaeda presence there.

It is Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric now hiding in Yemen and the spiritual motivator to at least three recent homegrown terrorist plots, who has caused Yemen to rise to the top of the U.S. government's worry chart. The president has already authorized a Hellfire missile for Awlaki's forehead, should someone be able to find him. While that manhunt goes on, U.S. counterterrorism officials now speculate that more small-scale terrorist attacks inside the United States, like those instigated by Awlaki, are likely.

Given a choice between doing less and doing more in Yemen, the political risk calculus for the Obama administration is to overrule the State Department and approve Centcom's big security force assistance program. The virtual absence of terrorist attacks inside the United States since 2001 has burdened the government with maintaining this nearly perfect record indefinitely. A single carbomb or a one-person Mumbai-style shootout will be viewed by many as a dramatic homeland security failure. Homeland security officials seem resigned to the near-impossibility of thwarting all such small-ball attacks in advance. But after such an attack occurs, the public will want to know what the government was doing to suppress the source of the problem in places like Yemen. Thus, from the perspective of political risk management, the administration has a strong incentive to show that it was executing a vigorous counterterrorism program, like that proposed for Yemen.

The U.S. government has another reason to try out Centcom's plan for Yemen. Win or lose in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government will not be attempting any more large-scale, manpower-intensive counterinsurgency and stabilization campaigns anytime soon. Another approach is needed. The new model will be security force assistance and foreign internal defense programs like Centcom's plan. Advocates of this approach will want to demonstrate that in the post-counterinsurgency era, this model can work for a tough case like Yemen.

Some will still object that the plan for Yemen, though a better approach than what's currently in place, is too large, too expensive, and too wasteful. Perhaps, but it is more important now to show that the model can work. After that happens, policymakers can worry about economizing.

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