Small Wars

This Week at War: Could North Korea be the next Afghanistan?

East Asia on the brink of small war.

A different kind of small war in Korea?

This week, South Korea's government took steps to prepare the country for a military confrontation with North Korea. Artillery batteries practiced their gunnery and the country had its first serious civil defense drill in decades. Within the next few days, the South promised another artillery exercise from Yeonpyeong Island, the island the North shelled for an hour on Nov. 23. Should the South carry through with this exercise, Pyongyang made its own promise, a riposte "deadlier than what was made on Nov. 23." The mood in the South has hardened -- another round of six-party talks is out, military preparation and air raid drills are in.

After two unanswered provocations by the North -- the attack on Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the warship Cheonan -- the South's political leaders have concluded that it now pays to be tough and have promised retaliatory airstrikes for future Northern attacks. This change in attitude has consequences for Obama administration officials, who would surely prefer not to be drawn into an armed skirmish. U.S. officials likely agree in principle with a tougher policy toward the North. Much less agreeable to them is letting the South Korean government determine by itself how to retaliate after the next provocation. The United States will want to demonstrate that it is a reliable ally, while also maintaining control over its own fate. How the U.S. government manages this dilemma during a fast-moving crisis remains to be seen.

On Dec. 13, the South Korean army sent its artillery forces into the field for a workout, conducting gunnery exercises at 27 sites. Much more important was a nation-wide civil defense drill on Dec. 15, the first such serious drill in decades. 300,000 police and Civil Defense Corps members mobilized for the 20-minute exercise, herding pedestrians and schoolchildren into bombs shelters and subway stations while South Korean fighter jets buzzed overhead. Eleven million South Koreans participated in the exercise. In addition, the government plans to spend $45 million next year on new bomb shelters. Given Seoul's vulnerability to North Korean artillery fire, a South Korean threat of retaliation previously lacked credibility. Seoul's renewed commitment to civil defense has bolstered the credibility of its new retaliatory policy.

Stress in Pyongyang is undoubtedly on the rise. The United States, South Korea, and Japan seem likely to hold firm with their rejection of new six-party talks, which means the North will not receive a payoff from those negotiations like it has in the past. There is likely to be increased global surveillance of the North's weapons proliferation transactions, the interdiction of which could cut the North's future cash flows. Finally, China's leaders will increasingly conclude that they need to get a rope around the North before Pyongyang does any more damage to China's interests. 

With the rules of the game having changed and with internal and external pressure mounting, North Korea's leaders might conclude that doubling down on their previous tactics is their only choice. Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence and former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, predicted "a military confrontation at lower levels" between the South and North. Such a confrontation could come in the form of sporadic artillery duels or naval skirmishes with the North attempting to create intimidation and the South attempting to show resolve. The first such duel could occur this weekend, should the South follow through with its artillery exercise on Yeonpyeong Island.

Like the other "small war" in Afghanistan, such a conflict in Korea would be a contest for influence over the South Korean population as a means of coercing political leaders in the South and in the United States. Like Afghanistan, a conflict would play out in the global media and would involve a test of wills among top decision makers. But instead of rifles and roadside bombs, the weapons would be big cannons and warships, which means the costs could go way up.

Two intelligence reports mean more Afghan headaches for Obama

The Obama administration's December review of its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy delivered just what administration officials had previously promised: a progress report on the current strategy, not a recalculation of that strategy. The review reported progress against al Qaeda and the Taliban and with the effort to build Afghanistan's security forces. It also took note of unresolved obstacles, such as governmental corruption and the persistence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The review reaffirms a policy that resulted from both the 2009 strategy review and the recent NATO summit meeting in Lisbon. Under the current policy, the United States and NATO will transfer responsibility for the war over to large and competent Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. In the meantime, a gradual and conditions-based withdrawal of U.S. forces will begin in July 2011. According to the December review, there has been enough progress to warrant sustaining this policy.

However, the arrival of two ominous national intelligence estimates, one each on Afghanistan and Pakistan, provide trouble for the current strategy. The estimates, which are the consensus of the entire U.S. intelligence community, conclude that the persistence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan is a serious obstacle to ultimate success of the Afghan campaign. This conclusion was recently confirmed by both a U.S. brigade commander operating near Kandahar and a recently retired U.S. diplomat who served in the city.

By next summer, the president will have to decide what weight to give the intelligence estimates. One possibility is to simply dismiss them as wrong. There are grounds for such a view. In 2006, the top U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer in Anbar Province, Iraq produced an intelligence report that concluded that the war effort in the region was doomed. He signed off on this report at the very moment that the Awakening, the Sunni tribal rebellion in Anbar against al Qaeda, was forming. Another example is the 2007 national intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program which has since been discredited and which many dismissed at the time it was released.

Alternatively, Obama could accept the new intelligence estimates as accurate but irrelevant to U.S. policy. By this view, it does not matter for policy that the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan will persist; the U.S. program is to build up Afghanistan's security forces to continue the war by themselves after 2014.

But this implies an acceptance of the sanctuaries and thus, that the war will go on indefinitely. And that leads to another assumption, namely that the Afghan government can build, and indefinitely sustain, large and competent security forces without a break in the war against the Taliban.

The new intelligence estimates do not torpedo Obama's Afghan policy. But they do make it harder to defend. The president will have wave away the advice of his intelligence community while he defends an increasingly unpopular policy. That will take more than a little moral courage.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

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