In his May 1 speech from Bagram Air Base, where he announced a new long-term strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, President Barack Obama vowed that the United States "will not build permanent bases in this country." This declaration would seem to imply that the Obama administration does not envision Afghanistan becoming a permanent hub for U.S. military operations throughout Central and South Asia. Indeed, the agreement itself states that "[t]he United States further pledges not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks on other countries."
Does this clause rule out using the air bases at Bagram, Kandahar, and Jalalabad for Predator drone strikes against Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan? Or stealth drone reconnaissance over Iran? Or even special operations raids against al Qaeda safe houses, as happened a year ago against Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan?
Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, declared that the agreement will absolutely not constrain the United States: "There is nothing in this agreement that precludes the right of self-defense for either party and if there are attacks from the territory of any state aimed at us we have the inherent right of self-defense and will employ it," he said.
After nearly 11 years as the dominant force in a weak country, U.S. officials have become used to doing what they want from these Afghan bases. But the impending drawdown of Western troops, the strategic partnership agreement, and the U.S. interest in supporting Afghan sovereignty will lead to changes in the status and license of those U.S. troops that will remain.
Crocker and other U.S. leaders will defend cross-border operations from Afghanistan by invoking the right of self-defense. They may also note that strikes on al Qaeda and the Taliban are attacks on lawless non-state actors and not "attacks on other countries." But U.S. officials should not be surprised to learn that almost no one else in the region will agree with those views. Pakistan views the bin Laden raid, drone strikes on the Taliban in Pakistan, and cross-border clashes like the one that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November as clear violations of its sovereignty. Iran is now pressuring Afghanistan to abandon the new agreement with the United States, a response to both the U.S. stealth drone surveillance of its nuclear program and a general fear of growing U.S. military power in the region. Afghanistan's anti-American neighbors such as Pakistan and Iran will undoubtedly view the long-term positioning of U.S. forces in the country as a threat and will apply pressure on Kabul to neutralize that threat.
A future dispute between the United States and Afghanistan over the cross-border operations of U.S. forces would seem highly likely. Future Afghan governments, bracketed by stronger neighbors, will come under great pressure to cut off cross-border operations by U.S. forces. U.S. military planners should not assume that they will be able to use U.S. bases in Afghanistan to achieve their security objectives throughout the region.
In his Bagram speech, Obama boiled down the ultimate U.S. goal in Afghanistan to simply "destroy al Qaeda." Will the United States be able to achieve this goal over the long run in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region if its troops and aircraft in Afghanistan are not permitted to conduct operations beyond the border?
For now, there are other bases near the Persian Gulf from which the U.S. military can sustain some of these operations. But these bases have their own political and strategic vulnerabilities. The larger point is that as the distance to a target increases, the capacity of U.S. forces to sustain operations over such targets declines precipitously. The existing inventory of U.S. military aircraft is stacked heavily with relatively short-range tactical systems, with long-range systems neglected. In addition, the armed drones the United States now relies on to attack al Qaeda are not stealthy and can easily be shot down. The Pentagon's long-term aircraft procurement plan makes only modest efforts to correct these shortcomings. This neglect could result in problems not only in Afghanistan's neighborhood, but also elsewhere in the world.
The U.S. government now counts on systems like the MQ-9 Reaper drone (a successor to the MQ-1 Predator) to watch over and occasionally strike the badlands of Pakistan and Yemen. The Air Force lists the Reaper's range at 1,150 miles, a seemingly conservative estimate given the Reaper's ability to fly 27 hour missions at a cruise speed of 230 miles per hour. Operating from bases around the Persian Gulf, the U.S. military can use Reapers and maintain its drone surveillance of Pakistan.