Small Wars

This Week at War: The Next Afghan War

Could there be a hot war between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Rather than winding down with the planned departure of NATO troops by 2014, the war in Afghanistan may just be undergoing a metamorphosis, as has happened many times since strife began there in the late 1960s. A slowly escalating old-fashioned war between Afghanistan and Pakistan may soon emerge, joining the internal insurgencies both of those governments are attempting to smother and pitting one state against the other. Cross-border sanctuaries and Islamabad's covert support to the Taliban are well-known features of the current violence. But as the Western military presence inside Afghanistan draws down, the trends leading to direct military escalation between Afghanistan and Pakistan are likely to continue.

The Afghan government will face an increasingly difficult security situation after 2014 and will need a new strategy if it is to survive. The number one security problem from Kabul's perspective is the continued presence of Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan, and the support the Afghan Taliban continues to receive from Pakistan's intelligence service. For a decade, U.S. and Afghan officials have pleaded with the Pakistani government to halt this support, to no avail. For Islamabad, groups like the Haqqani Network -- which specializes in periodic raids in downtown Kabul -- are proxy forces that Pakistan can use to keep Afghanistan weak and pliant.

After 2014, the Afghan army and police will bear nearly the full burden fending off the Haqqanis and other cross-border Taliban forces. Afghan military leaders are likely to conclude that they cannot reach a stable end-state by only parrying the Taliban's attacks. The only hope of ending the war on favorable terms is through offensive action against the Taliban's sanctuaries in Pakistan or action that inflicts pain on the leadership in Islamabad. If Kabul hopes to negotiate a settlement with Islamabad and the Taliban, it will have to acquire some leverage first. And that will come only after it has demonstrated a capacity to threaten the Taliban's sanctuaries and other assets inside Pakistan.

Initial trials of such incursions may have begun. Last week, the Pakistani government accused the Afghan National Army of a cross-border raid into the Upper Kurram District. Two Pakistani tribesmen were killed during a 90-minute gun battle. Although this particular incident may be more a case of hot pursuit rather than a deliberate attack, it also shows the Afghan army's willingness to step up its aggressiveness.

The Afghan government may also find it useful to employ the same tactics that Islamabad is using against Afghanistan. Pakistan has its own problem with Taliban insurgents, with these rebels using the Afghan side of the border as a sanctuary from Pakistani security forces. Indeed, in June, a Pakistani Taliban raiding party crossed from its Afghan sanctuary into Pakistan, captured 18 Pakistani soldiers, and videotaped the severed heads of 17 of these prisoners. Pakistan's army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani subsequently complained to U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the coalition commander, and urged him to take action to control the Taliban sanctuaries inside Afghanistan.

It seems doubtful that the Pakistani Taliban finding haven in Afghanistan are agents of Afghanistan's intelligence service. But the Afghan government has likely concluded that it needs to obtain leverage over Pakistan if it is to obtain a satisfactory settlement to the war. If the Pakistani Taliban lurking in Afghanistan are a potential source of that leverage, it might be only a matter of time before Kabul makes contact with the Pakistani rebels.

Kayani probably realizes that there is as little chance of him getting a positive response from Allen and Karzai as there is of Pakistan doing anything meaningful about the Taliban problem that runs from east to west. That would explain why the Pakistani Army is taking matters into its own hands the old-fashioned way. Beginning in March, it fired a series of cross-border rocket barrages targeted at suspected Pakistani Taliban base camps in Afghanistan's Kunar province, resulting in the deaths of four civilians.

The Haqqani attacks in Kabul and against U.S. targets in eastern Afghanistan have compelled U.S. officials to consider cross-border special operations raids against Haqqani camps inside Pakistan. Given the military hardware currently in place, the intelligence on the Haqqanis the United States has developed, and the experience its special operations raiders have accumulated, U.S. forces are unlikely to ever get a better opportunity to hit the Haqqani Network and thereby create some incentives for a settlement. But the White House currently has a higher priority, namely disengaging from the conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's apology to Pakistan for a cross-border "friendly fire" incident last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers has reopened the supply lines from Afghanistan to the port at Karachi, which the United States will need to extract its mountain of equipment by the end of 2014. The requirements of an orderly withdrawal trumped the risks of widening the war and further angering Islamabad.

Although the United States can withdraw from Afghanistan, the Afghans, at least the vast majority of them, cannot. They are stuck with the Haqqanis, Pakistan's intelligence service, and Islamabad's long-term interest in a weak Afghanistan. The only path to a reasonable settlement lies through offensive action inside Pakistan. Afghans will have to be willing to go where the U.S. military (drones excepted) have feared to tread.

Until the Afghan military can develop greater offensive punch, it will have to turn to proxy forces such as the Pakistani Taliban as tools to gain leverage over Islamabad. Should such proxies fail, Kabul will have to turn to an outside power to support its development of helicopter mobility and artillery and air support, essential elements of a capability to directly attack the sanctuaries and other objectives inside Pakistan.

When he signed the strategic partnership agreement pledging support to Afghanistan through 2024, it is unlikely that President Barack Obama had such a war in mind. But once Kabul becomes solely responsible for Afghanistan's security, it will undoubtedly turn to the United States first to help it develop the offensive capability it believes it will need. Should Washington demur, Kabul will call New Delhi, which could be eager to help.

After 2014, Pakistan should see the wisdom in wrapping up the remainder of al Qaeda and settling the conflict with Afghanistan. NATO's withdrawal will actually reduce Islamabad's leverage and expose it to more forms of pressure. Continuing the conflict will only encourage outside intervention.

If Islamabad decides to fight on after 2014, we should expect to see a messy, multi-level conflict much like the 18th century French and Indian War. That war featured insurgencies, proxy armies, old-fashioned nation-state war, and great power intervention from the far side of the world. A similarly complicated scenario may be headed for the Durand Line. The Afghan war may be about to mutate again -- policymakers should get ready for the change.

A Majeed/AFP/GettyImages

Small Wars

This Week at War: 7 Habits of Highly Effective Austerity Planners

How the Pentagon should prepare for the lean years to come.

The reality of defense budget "sequestration" -- the threat of an across-the-board 10 percent cut to most of the Pentagon's spending accounts -- is now beginning to rattle policymakers in Washington. This week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called on defense contractors to issue hundreds of thousands of layoff notices to their workers, as a statute requires them to do 60 days before plant closings occur. Graham's openly expressed intent was to create political pressure on Congress to avert sequestration. Pentagon officials, who have so far refused to discuss any details concerning sequestration, may now be starting to open up a little. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has recently met with defense industry executives to discuss their plans for sequestration.

In a recent column, I discussed one effort to cope with defense cuts triple the size of those that have already been imposed. That analysis attempted to fashion a rational balance among cuts to force structure, modernization, readiness, and research spending.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a defense think tank, recently submitted its own advice to struggling policymakers, "Strategy in Austerity," which examines two case studies of leading global powers coping with relative decline while facing a rapidly rising competitor. At the turn of the twentieth century, the British Empire was passing its peak just as Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany was rapidly ascending and asserting its strength. And in the 1970s, the United States had to deal with its failure in Southeast Asia and political and economic turmoil at home just as Soviet military power was swelling. The authors extract seven strategies policymakers in these two cases used to cope with the geostrategic challenges they faced.

The seven strategies include not only defense reforms but also diplomatic gambits and calculated risk-taking. How might the current generation of U.S. policymakers apply each of these strategies?

In the decades before World War I, Britain employed a new diplomatic strategy that outsourced a portion of its security burden to new allies and partners. France and Russia, formerly long-time rivals, became Britain's partners in an attempt to match Germany's growing power. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter developed an increasingly deep relationship with China in an effort to balance the Soviet Union and complicate its defense planning. Today, U.S. policymakers hope that a deepening relationship with India will offset China's growing influence and also help stabilize Afghanistan during the second half of the decade. U.S. policymakers are also counting on America's extensive network of alliances and partners in the western Pacific to share the security burden and provide diplomatic synergy against possible Chinese assertions.

In the 1970s, the United States negotiated with its principal rival, the Soviet Union, in an attempt to stabilize a strategic nuclear arms race. The resulting agreements on offensive nuclear forces and missile defenses possibly freed up some resources the Pentagon might have otherwise been forced to spend keeping up with expanding Soviet missile arsenals. If so, the United States benefited from these negotiations by having more funding for research on stealth aircraft technology and precision-guided munitions, which would later become substantial U.S. advantages. The United States and China might, in theory, find it economical to negotiate a halt to the escalating Pacific arms race. Regrettably, the track record of such attempts is poor, most often because one side sees a comparative advantage in weapons production.

The Pentagon will no doubt continue its perennial quest to employ defense resources more efficiently. At the turn of the twentieth century, Britain instituted substantial money-saving reforms to both its navy and army. The Royal Navy retired 150 obsolete ships that institutional interests had previously protected. A new manpower plan retained only skilled sailors on active service and relied on quickly filling unskilled crew positions after wars broke out. After the draining Boer War in South Africa, the British Army saved money by increasing its reliance on a reformed reservist system. Some defense analysts similarly believe the Pentagon could save money by shifting much of its ground combat power, especially tank-heavy units, to the reserves -- since these are the forces least likely to be needed on active duty after the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. As for finding savings in the rest of the Pentagon's sprawling bureaucracy, workers in the building regularly report sightings of waste, but somehow these ghosts always seem to elude the auditors.

Before World War I, the Royal Navy enhanced the effectiveness of its forces by successfully betting on some new technologies that allowed it to sustain its dominance over Germany's rapidly growing fleet. These new technologies included big naval guns, oil-fired turbine engines, submarines, and a global communications system based on undersea cables and radios. Applying these technologies to new warships, the Royal Navy was able to increase its power even while it shrank its ship count and manning. In the 1970s, even in the face of restrained budgets, the Pentagon invested in research that led to stealthy fighter and bomber aircraft, a global satellite-based navigation system, and precision-guided weapons that threatened the Soviet's numerical superiority. Over the past decade, improvements in surveillance drones, other intelligence-gathering techniques, and intelligence analysis software has allowed the United States to improve the effectiveness of its counterterrorism and man-hunting efforts. In the future, troops will be counting on scientists to master directed energy, cyber, and electronic warfare weapons to counter the rapid proliferation of precision-guided weapons in the hands of adversaries.

Some procurement strategies use comparative advantages to impose costs on an adversary. The CSBA authors note that Britain's shipbuilding industry before World War I was superior to Germany's. Germany was foolish to attempt to match Britain's shipbuilding program, but did so anyway. In the 1970s, the United States upgraded its bomber force with investments in long-range cruise missiles and tools to suppress enemy air defenses. These investments forced the Soviet Union to pour more money into its air defense system, which was tasked with defending a 12,000 mile border. Today's drone campaign hopes to force terrorist adversaries to spend all of their resources on survival rather than planning future attacks. As mentioned above, U.S. defense planners hope that advantages in electronic warfare and directed energy weapons will ruin the investments adversaries are making in guided missiles.

During a period of austerity, policymakers will have to take risks and shed low priority commitments. The Royal Navy made a successful gamble on new warship technology, just as did the Pentagon with its bets on stealth aircraft technology and precision-guided weapons. Today, the Pentagon has placed a huge wager on the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which is horribly over budget and very late arriving into service. To cover the unplanned gap until the F-35 is operational, the U.S. Navy wants to continue buying the legacy F-18 fighter-bomber for its aircraft carriers. At the risk of not having enough naval air power for a contingency that occurs over the next few years, the Pentagon could save money by forcing the Navy to wait for the F-35 to arrive later. Beyond that one example, the Pentagon's defense guidance released in January acknowledges numerous other such risks it is accepting with a more austere budget. These risks include insufficient ground combat power later this decade and the inability to cope efficiently with certain combinations of simultaneous crises.

The ultimate risk is a breakdown in deterrence, induced by a perception of weakness brought on by defense austerity. Whether such a perception played a factor in the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979 remains open for debate. There is no question that that move, combined with the Islamist takeover of Iran at the same time, resulted in the beginning of a defense buildup in the United States, begun by President Jimmy Carter and rapidly expanded by the Ronald Reagan administration. That leads to the CSBA's final strategy: increase defense spending as necessary, and impose austerity elsewhere. As U.S. diplomats meet with their counterparts around the world, they will have to assess to what extent U.S. plans for defense austerity are inducing hedging behavior by allies and aggressiveness by adversaries. U.S. defense planners may legitimately believe that a $487 billion cut over 10 years adds only a minimal and acceptable level of risk. But friends and adversaries get their votes and their opportunities to miscalculate. U.S. diplomats and policymakers should pay attention to the responses they hear and ensure that austerity today does not lead to something much more expensive later.