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

Small Wars

This Week at War: Bombs vs. Shovels

The escalating arms race between the Pentagon's bombmakers and Tehran's tunnel diggers.

Hard targets require big bombs. Big bombs need big airplanes

This week, Bloomberg News reported that in September the U.S. Air Force began receiving the first deliveries of a new 30,000-pound bunker-busting bomb. Called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), the new bomb is six times heavier than the 5,000-pounder that was previously the Air Force's most-powerful non-nuclear munition. According to Bloomberg, the Air Force's intercontinental B-2 stealth bomber has been equipped to deliver the MOP.

Development of the MOP began in 2004 in response to a request from the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which develops programs for countering enemy weapons of mass destruction. Potential adversaries have increasingly turned to underground bunkers and tunnels to protect their most valuable assets. Iran's underground uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom are quintessential "hardened and deeply-buried targets," a focus of DTRA's attention. North Korea has decades of experience digging tunnels and bunkers for its weapons and military storage facilities. China may have thousands of miles of tunnels set aside for military purposes, the exact nature of which remain a mystery.

In July 2009, the U.S. Central and Pacific commands made an urgent request to accelerate the MOP's development, and the bomb was delivered to the Air Force three years earlier than planned. This request was presumably in response to the discovery of new hardened targets these commanders might be asked to strike and which were too deep for the 5,000-pound bomb to defeat.

There is an arms race underway between the diggers and the bombers. Iran's vast Natanz uranium enrichment plant was built underground to protect it against an air attack. The U.S. Air Force's 5,000-pound bunker-busting bomb may be enough to defeat Natanz's reinforced ceilings. Iran then searched for another site for uranium enrichment and found one in the tunnel system near Qom, which may be under almost 300 feet of rock. MOP's accelerated development may have been in response to the discovery of the Qom facility. The Air Force claims that MOP penetrates 200 feet into the earth before exploding. Whether that would be enough to defeat the Qom facility is unclear. In any case, research on even more powerful conventional earth-penetrating weapons goes on, as U.S. policymakers anticipate that the diggers will keep going ever deeper.

What remains to be seen is whether the Pentagon will find money to maintain this deep-attack capability well into the future. The B-2 (of which the Air Force has just 20) is the only airplane that can deliver the MOP against defended targets; the Pentagon's other stealthy aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35, are too small to carry the 30,000-pound bomb. Nor do these fighters have the intercontinental range of the B-2. The United States is thus likely the only country that can attack (with a conventional munition) very deep bunkers that are also protected with sophisticated air defense systems.

A top Air Force priority is its next-generation bomber, which would preserve its ability to attack deep bunkers after the B-2 is eventually retired. In an era of defense budget austerity, many analysts have criticized the new bomber program as a niche capability that the Pentagon can't afford.

Military commanders don't like leaving adversaries with untouchable sanctuaries, be they insurgent base camps in Waziristan or tunnels in Iran and North Korea. Strategy in an age of austerity means choosing which risks one is willing to live with. Sustaining a capability to attack the underground world will not be cheap. The alternative is ceding these sanctuaries to an adversary. Pentagon strategists will have to decide whether they are willing to live with that risk.

Will the U.S. base in Australia encourage free riding

U.S. President Barack Obama declared in a speech to the Australian parliament on Thursday that the "United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay." He reassured his audience that "reductions in U.S. defense spending will not -- I repeat, will not -- come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific." While policymakers in the region wait on that promise, Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the permanent basing of up to 2,500 U.S. Marines near Darwin on Australia's north coast. Although a seemingly symbolic move, both the United States and Australia will get some valuable indirect benefits from this agreement.

The U.S. and Australian governments revealed their intention to deepen their military relationship in September. At that time, the discussion centered on greater U.S. access to Australian facilities, not permanent basing of forces. Since then, U.S. officials may have concluded that a more affirmative basing agreement was needed in order to back up Obama's renewed security commitment to the region. But the move starts with just 200 Marines and is no closer to the South China Sea than existing U.S. bases in Guam and Japan. So why bother?

Although initially tiny, relative to U.S. military power in the region, the new U.S. base near Darwin will likely grow to provide important benefits. Over time, the U.S. and Australian funding could expand to fund port and airbase facilities in the area, making the Darwin base a logistics hub supporting larger naval and air operations in the region. The new hub will diversify regional basing options for U.S. commanders, reducing operational risk during crises. The Marine Corps and other U.S. services will gain access to additional training ranges which will improve their readiness. The future hub could develop into a regular location for joint training with other partners from the region, deepening U.S. security relationships. Finally, the Marine Corps commitment to Australia will give its commanders a leadership role in the region, an important asset as the Corps defends its turf back in Washington.

For little cost and risk, Australia gets a boost to the security guarantee provided by its alliance with the United States. Australia's military forces will enjoy the benefits of working with a partner on the leading edge of military doctrine and tactical techniques. In many cases, U.S. and Australian forces will operate similar equipment; a persistent training relationship will deepen interoperability between these forces and improve Australia's military readiness.

In 2009, the Australian defense ministry issued a white paper discussing the country's long-term security interests and challenges. The paper cautiously expressed doubts about whether the United States would be able to fulfill its security guarantee over the long term. As a result, the paper proposed a substantial buildup in Australia's military power, with a focus on pricey naval and air systems, such as a new and expanded submarine force and a large fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

Whether Australia will be able to afford this military investment over the long haul is an open question. The now-expanded military alliance with the United States may give it the option to defer having to answer this question. Should Australia decide to proceed with the white paper's proposed buildup, it may now have the option of stretching out its implementation, and spreading out the expense.

This is not the response U.S. policymakers want to see from allies in the region. The Obama administration does not want its renewed commitment to the region to induce complacency among those receiving the U.S. security guarantee. Regrettably, no one has yet figured out an answer to the problems caused by moral hazard -- insurance policies inevitably subsidize both free-riding and risky behavior. Obama has sought to reassure U.S. partners in the region. But he also wants them to step up their own defense efforts. The perennial trick for any American president is how to do both.

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