Small Wars

This Week at War: Powerless in Kabul?

Despite the recent partnership agreement, the United States has less power than it thinks over future events in Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama's sudden appearance in Afghanistan on May 1, a calculated attempt to display his administration's foreign-policy expertise and showcase his plan for ending U.S. involvement in that country's war, was overshadowed by another drama in Beijing, the U.S. Embassy's fumbling of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. The global attention directed on the Chen affair showed that U.S. presidents sometimes have less power than they might presume to dominate the news. Obama and his advisors are similarly assuming that they will have the power to steer Afghanistan toward the slimmed-down objectives that remain for the U.S. campaign there. That assumption may be just as flimsy.

Obama and his advisors believe that a long-term public commitment to Afghanistan, combined with a steady drawdown of U.S. troops, will keep Afghan powerbrokers on their side, convince the Taliban and Pakistan to cooperate, and, perhaps most importantly, show the U.S. public that the troops are on their way home. What remains to be seen is whether Obama and his team will have as much long-term influence over events in the region as they assume they will. There are some reasons to expect that they won't. If that's the case, Afghanistan will remain a burden on the next administration and the U.S. Army for many more years.

While in Afghanistan, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement, which outlines a plan for cooperation through 2024. Although vague and recognizing that future U.S. congresses and policymakers will make their own decisions regarding Afghanistan, the agreement, combined with a commitment of support from NATO at its upcoming summit in Chicago, may influence the calculations of allies and adversaries alike. In addition, U.S. policymakers are haunted by the chaos that descended on Afghanistan after the United States walked away in 1990 in the wake of the mujahedeen triumph over the Soviet army. Obama and his team apparently assume that if they do the opposite, they will also get an opposite, and more favorable, result.

In his speech at Bagram Air Base, Obama attempted to explain how modest, and therefore feasible, his objectives are for a country so famous at spoiling the designs of outsiders. Obama said, "Our goal is not to build a country in America's image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that." But sustaining this seemingly modest objective within Afghanistan's territory would seem to require a functional Afghan national government over the long term. A strong central government is a somewhat alien concept to Afghan history and U.S. plans based on such an assumption may prove fragile.

The success of the agreement is also entirely dependent on the quality of the relationships between the U.S. and Afghan leaders over the next decade. The recent trend in this regard is not encouraging. Karzai's behavior over the past few years reveals a man whose political survival seems dependent on ever-increasing anti-Americanism. Karzai's replacement, assuming the country can find one not objectionable to its ethnic factions, will very likely face the same internal pressure Karzai feels. The United States has other functioning transactional relationships with leaders from viscerally anti-American societies. But Afghanistan is now a higher visibility case inside the United States. The U.S. public and Congress, which will be asked to finance substantial assistance to an erratic and avowedly anti-American leader, may find their patience wearing thin in the years ahead. If Afghanistan's central government weakens or becomes too difficult to support, the strategic framework agreement's value will have expired. At that point, the United States will need a backup plan.

Standing up Afghan security forces has proven to be a tremendous challenge for NATO and the U.S. military. The Pentagon's latest semi-annual report on the Afghan army and national police describes both their achievements and ongoing struggles. Although the size of the Afghan army and national police has expanded rapidly (now numbering over 344,000), quality remains uneven and is especially dodgy among the police. Afghan security forces are responsible for leading security operations for half of Afghanistan's population. But armies and police forces require institutional support. Due to corruption and a lack of trained capacity, Afghanistan's government is far from being able to sustain its security forces on its own.

The long-term burden of keeping the Afghan army and police on their feet will fall most heavily on the U.S. Army (the Marine Corps is moving on to the Pacific). The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan reminded policymakers and planners that a successful exit can happen only as fast as friendly indigenous forces are in place to provide security. Because of its poverty, illiteracy, and ethnic divisions, Afghanistan has been an especially tough mission for the Army's trainers and advisers. The murder of at least 78 coalition trainers since 2007 by their Afghan students has undermined public support for the campaign. The strategic partnership agreement is recognition that this work will not be complete by the end of 2014, even if the rest of NATO's combat troops are gone by that time. The U.S. Army's obligation to security-force assistance, not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere in the world, will remain large for many years.

At Bagram, Obama once again invited Pakistan to play a positive role in helping Afghanistan achieve stable sovereignty. His plea will again almost certainly fall on deaf ears in Islamabad. As the Pentagon's report mentioned countless times, the existence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan and the support by Pakistani intelligence of groups like the Haqqani network mean there is no foreseeable end to Afghanistan's war. The report notes that violence has declined for several years. But we have no way of knowing whether the Taliban are merely waiting in their sanctuaries for NATO's departure in 2014 before reaccelerating their military operations.

As predicted, the U.S. raid a year ago on Osama bin Laden's compound resulted in the collapse of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. After a mistaken cross-border clash in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, little remains; Pakistan has closed the NATO supply lines into Afghanistan while the United States has suspended its aid to the Pakistani military. Talks to repair the relationship failed this week.

Leaders in both the Bush and Obama administrations have been fully aware of Pakistan's support for the Taliban and its preference for a weak Afghanistan. Yet these policymakers have assumed that they could achieve their goals in spite of these facts. The open-ended slog in Afghanistan reveals the flaw in these assumptions.

Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops by 2014 may be a nod to the intractable nature of both Afghan culture and Pakistan's unflinching obstinacy regarding Afghan sovereignty. If Obama is serious about destroying al Qaeda, the Abbottabad raid showed that U.S. military power will continue to be required. Diplomacy and aid, especially to very dubious partners like Pakistan, will be insufficient and often unwarranted.

Obama and his successors would be wise to double-check their assumptions regarding their relationships with Afghanistan's future leaders, the stability of its national government, and the fragility of its security forces. If any of those assumptions collapses, there won't be much left of the new strategic partnership agreement. If the U.S. government still wants to keep al Qaeda dead, it will then need a whole new plan.

Afghan Presidential Palace via Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: NIMBYs in the South China Sea

Where will the Pentagon put its Pacific marines?

With this week's news that the United States has finally reached an agreement to cut the number of Marines stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa, an ongoing standoff in the South China Sea between a Philippine Coast Guard cutter and a Chinese ocean surveillance ship, which is now in its third week, has taken on added significance.

The incident began in early April when the crew of a small Philippines warship attempted to arrest some Chinese men for illegal fishing near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, 124 miles northwest of Luzon. China quickly dispatched two surveillance ships and blocked the arrest of the men, who slipped away. China later recalled one its ships and Manila replaced its warship with the cutter, which defused the crisis a bit. In Beijing, the Philippine charge d'affaires has twice been summoned to the foreign ministry to receive lectures on why the rocks under dispute fall within China's "inherent territory."

With this as a backdrop, "Balikatan 2012," a 10-day U.S.-Philippine military training exercise, began on April 16. The 28th annual iteration of the exercise this year included a variety of maneuvers, including a simulated capture of an island by Philippine and U.S. Marines, staged in daylight for a large media contingent on Palawan Island, facing the South China Sea. Besides U.S. and Philippine military forces, Balikatan 2012 also included a command post exercise conducted with representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Philippine President Benigno Aquino used the flurry created by these events to warn his country's neighbors over China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea. "They claim this entire body of water practically. Look at what is excluded and what they are claiming," Aquino told reporters as he pointed to a map of the area. "So how can the others not be fearful of what is transpiring?" After the military exercises wrap up, Aquino's foreign minister will be off to Washington for consultations with U.S. officials.

If Aquino and his ASEAN colleagues are to have the confidence to stand up to China, few would dispute that they will require diplomatic support from the United States. Indeed, in 2010, when several members openly pushed back against Beijing at two ASEAN Regional Forum meetings in Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were there to back them up. Since then, Southeast Asian leaders who are attempting to handle China's assertions seem to have warmed up to the idea of a more visible U.S. military presence in the area. For the South China Sea, that would mean a U.S. Navy and Marine presence to support Washington's partners in ASEAN. The challenge for all of these players is how to arrange this supporting presence so that it is credible yet also politically sustainable.

Unfortunately, the Pentagon has still not figured out where it will base its Marine Corps units in the Pacific. A work-in-progress since the 1990s, version after version of Marine basing plans have gone down in flames, including a 2010 debacle that took down the prime minister of Japan. U.S. partners around the South China Sea want a stabilizing U.S. presence, something Washington wants to provide. But the Pentagon won't be able to show exactly how it will support that mission until it finally determines where it is going to actually put its Marines.

Planners now agree that the Marine presence on Okinawa will shrink. The 2006 version of the plan would have transferred 8,600 Marines and 9,000 dependents about 1,500 miles southeast to Guam, a move that would have required $21.1 billion in construction costs to complete. The Marine Corps presence on Okinawa has become too politically toxic for the Japanese government. In addition, some military analysts fear that in a shooting war with China, missile strikes could close U.S. air bases and ports on the island, preventing the Marine infantrymen there from getting to where they might be needed. Meanwhile, the bill for the huge buildup on Guam came in much too high and would have concentrated too many assets on one spot. Last year, Senators Carl Levin, John McCain, and James Webb objected to the Guam plan and demanded a rewrite.

The latest plan scales back the Guam move to 4,700 Marines with 2,700 more moving to existing bases in Hawaii. That will reduce the Pentagon's Guam construction bill. However, Levin, McCain, and Webb still want to know how the latest basing proposal, "relates to the broader strategic concept of operations in the region."

Providing a forward presence in places like the South China Sea and reacting to military and humanitarian crises will be the major missions for the Marine Corps in the Pacific. How best to position Marine units to accomplish these tasks remains unsettled.

Aquino seems to welcome a stepped-up U.S. military profile in his neighborhood. But that doesn't mean he wants a return to the large and politically overbearing bases the United States operated in the Philippines until 1992, when a political consensus in the country threw the U.S. forces out. It is likely that a majority on Okinawa would follow suit, if they had the authority to do so.

The political path of least resistance will be to relocate overseas units back to bases in the United States (something almost all congressmen will welcome) and then fly or sail these units back out on relatively short-term deployments and training exercises in partner countries. Darwin, Australia, is already preparing to eventually host up to 2,500 Marines on six-month rotational deployments. The Philippines may soon roll out a similar welcome mat. Other countries in the region may follow.

In addition to reducing the corrosiveness of large foreign bases such as those in Okinawa and formerly in the Philippines, the rotational deployment method has other benefits. It will condition U.S. military forces and planners to an expeditionary mind-set. Logisticians will further improve their already formidable skills at moving military units around the world, skills that will always be handy during crises. Military units will learn to become more nimble, adaptable, and flexible, increasing their usefulness during crises. With deployments as the standard model, U.S. military personnel will become acquainted with a wider variety of foreign partners than they would under a static basing scheme. And when units are not deployed, they will be back at bases in the United States, which will have better training facilities and better family accommodations than those overseas.

The deployment approach has its risks. U.S. naval and air forces face increasing challenges from long-range, anti-ship, and anti-aircraft missiles. The ability of some adversaries to use these missiles to impose "anti-access, area denial" measures against the movement of U.S. reinforcements into crisis areas would be especially troubling for the deployment model. From a diplomatic perspective, some will question whether a U.S. strategy that relies more on distant deployments and less on a permanent forward troop presence will be sufficiently reassuring to partners who might be under stress from a strong nearby neighbor like China.

Under a growing missile threat, field commanders will likely prefer the flexibility afforded by an expeditionary approach compared to the vulnerability of fixed bases -- such as Okinawa -- located within easy range of Chinese missiles. The new slimmed-down relocation plan to Guam will still cost an estimated $8.6 billion, spent on elaborate barracks, family housing, and training ranges. Instead of building up another increasing vulnerable fixed base, the Pentagon should consider using that money to acquire additional Marine amphibious ships and anti-missile destroyers to protect them. That would boost forward presence and flexibility, which should be reassuring to both alliance partners and U.S. commanders in the region.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images