Small Wars

This Week at War: The Pakistan Equation

Islamabad enjoys significant leverage over Washington, but it won't last forever.

Pakistan flexes its leverage -- while it still can

U.S.-Pakistan relations are once again in a deep freeze after a recent nighttime border clash that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan responded to the death of its soldiers, killed by U.S. airstrikes during the battle, by shutting down the supply lines that run through Pakistan to NATO bases in Afghanistan. Although the United States and Pakistan will likely repair this latest breach, as they have in the past, the nature of the conflict ensures that there will be more such incidents and more periodic breakdowns in the relationship, even after the United States reduces its military presence after 2014.

According to the Washington Post's account of the incident, a joint Afghan-U.S. special operations patrol, attempting to raid a suspected Taliban camp very near the border, came under fire from a nearby Pakistani army outpost. The patrol then called in air strikes. Pakistani officials are upset that the air strikes continued for well over an hour, even after Pakistani officers contacted their NATO counterparts to call them off. Some Afghan officials, frustrated by Pakistan's alleged support for the Afghan Taliban, apparently have scant remorse for the Pakistani casualties.

The 140,000 NATO soldiers in Afghanistan receive 48 percent of their supplies through Pakistan, with the remainder coming from the north through several Central Asian republics or by cargo aircraft. Pakistan's control over its portion of the NATO supply network is its best leverage over the United States; some new assistance package to Pakistan will likely get the trucks rolling again. While the Pakistani routes remain shuttered, Russia did not miss its opportunity to wield leverage of its own. According to the Wall Street Journal, Moscow is now pressing for more concessions on U.S. missile defense plans in exchange for keeping the northern supply routes into Afghanistan open.

Although U.S., Afghan, and Pakistani officials will attempt to improve coordination to prevent a repeat of this incident, more such episodes are inevitable. There will be more fights along the border because that is where the Taliban maintain their camps and assembly areas. Afghan and U.S. commandos believe their raiding tactics against the Taliban are effective and thus will continue to employ them. For their part, Pakistani officials are under political pressure to show that they are protecting Pakistani sovereignty, which will lead to an active defense on its side of the border. Finally, as long as the United States maintains a large force in Afghanistan requiring long supply convoys through Pakistan, Islamabad will perversely have an incentive to maintain a certain level of friction with the United States, since past blow-ups have usually resulted in the arrival of new gifts.

But the pending wind-down of the U.S. role in Afghanistan will change the current structure of these relationships and the leverage available to the players. By 2015, the U.S. military headcount in Afghanistan may be down 80 to 90 percent from its current level. That will reduce U.S. need for supply routes, and with it, Pakistan's leverage over U.S. policies.

By 2015, U.S. policymakers hope that Afghanistan's government and security forces will be leading what remains of the fight against the Taliban. Some Afghan officials, with perhaps an expanded security relationship with India, may prefer a more aggressive strategy than the U.S. has thus far employed against Afghan Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan. The United States will have to adjust to more self-reliant Afghan counterparts and likely a much larger Indian role in the country.

The location of the Taliban's camps and the perverse incentives that result from U.S. dependency on Pakistan ensure that more incidents of this type are likely. But by 2015, the game in Afghanistan will have a new rulebook.

The Marine Corps wants a head start on its future

According to an Associated Press story, the U.S. Marine Corps is planning for a large drawdown of its contingent in Afghanistan. On a Thanksgiving visit to an outpost on the Helmand River, Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps Commandant, called on his men to "savor being out here together, because it's going to be over [soon]."

The Afghan surge that President Obama ordered in December 2009 increased the Marine contribution to Afghanistan to 19,400 troops, 900 of whom are leaving by the end of this month. During his visit, Amos promised that the Marine contingent in Afghanistan will drop "pretty dramatically" in 2012. Obama has ordered 23,000 U.S. troops out by next October, 10,000 of which could be Marines, more than half of the U.S. force in Helmand Province.

Whether Afghan security forces in the province will be ready to pick up the slack remains to be seen. In any case, the Marine Corps, which since the surge has continuously rotated two of its nine infantry regiments to Helmand, will get a head start on the planned 2014 wind-down of America's combat role in the war. Offered Amos: "Am I OK with that? The answer is 'yes.'"

As an institution, the Marine Corps has an interest in getting on with its future. This will mean cutting the Marine Corps to conform to current fiscal realities inside the Pentagon, while simultaneously refocusing the Corps on preparing for crisis response and expeditionary contingencies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Last March, a Marine Corps force structure review group produced a plan for restructuring the Corps after Afghanistan. The plan called for reducing the service's headcount from 202,000 to 186,600 and reducing some of the Corps's infantry, tank, artillery, and fighter-jet squadrons by 10-20 percent. North Carolina's Jacksonville Daily News recently listed some impending cuts to the II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF), the Marine Corps's East Coast establishment, which happens to be located outside the Corps's new Asia-Pacific priority region. Disbanded units in II MEF will include an entire infantry regiment, another regimental headquarters, numerous aircraft squadrons, and a long list of support units. As perhaps the best indication of where II MEF will soon rate compared to its two Asia-Pacific brothers, its commander will be downgraded from a three-star general to only two.

If Amos and his colleagues seem eager to a get a jump-start on the post-Afghanistan future, bureaucratic positioning inside the Pentagon may be a motivation. By seizing the initiative over both its downsizing plan and its future roles and missions, Marine leaders may believe they will have more control over the outcome. If Marine Corps leaders can sell politicians on the Corps's new Asia-Pacific mission and quickly adjust the Marine Corps to that role, these leaders may believe they stand a better chance of fencing off the Marine Corps from further cuts after 2014. The Army, by contrast, may not be so able to control its own fate. Should the Pentagon budget face further downward pressure after 2014, the post-Afghanistan U.S. Army, presumably only then done with fighting, could face the brunt of the cuts.

The Marines also took early exits from Iraq and Vietnam. This time, it has a specific plan to restructure itself to support the Obama administration's explicit "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region. Getting a head start on the future seems like smart maneuvering. But whether it will actually put a hard floor under the Corps's budget cuts over the rest of the decade remains to be seen.

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

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