Small Wars

This Week at War: Heading for a Bad Breakup

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

What happens when the U.S. and Pakistan split up?

How close is the U.S.-Pakistan security relationship to a break-up? Self-interest, not affection, seems to keep the partnership going. That’s fine until a better arrangement for one side comes along or emotion overrides logic. An even larger U.S. military expedition in Afghanistan will be at the mercy of this fragile bond.

The reasons for cooperation are well-known. The United States could not prosecute its war in Afghanistan without access through Pakistan. Washington hopes the Pakistani government will deliver up more al Qaeda terror suspects to join Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The U.S. engages Pakistan on a variety of levels to keep Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpile under control. Indeed, notable U.S. analysts such as Stephen Biddle and Steve Coll believe that stabilizing Pakistan is the best justification for continuing the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.

For its part, Pakistan counts on the United States to moderate its friction with India. More recently Pakistan has exploited its intelligence and military connection to the U.S. to target the Islamists at war with Pakistan’s government. But Pakistan’s enduring interest in America seems mostly to be about money.

On Nov. 15 the Los Angeles Times reported on the hundreds of millions of dollars the Central Intelligence Agency has paid Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — Pakistan’s powerful internal intelligence agency — since 2001. The article reported that in addition to "bankrolling the ISI’s budget," the CIA paid the agency $10 million for high-ranking al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah and $25 million for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. According to the article, U.S. intelligence officers delivered many more briefcases stuffed with money to ISI officials in exchange for lower-ranking al Qaeda personnel.

These sums are little more than a rounding error for the U.S. intelligence community and most Americans would consider it money well spent. But it makes one wonder what kind of an ally Pakistan really is. Would a CIA officer need to deliver a thick cash-stuffed briefcase to a British, Canadian, Australian, or South Korean intelligence officer in order to gain custody of a terror suspect?

The article also discusses another well-known aspect of the ISI, namely that there are really two such agencies. The first eagerly cooperates with the CIA when the targets are the Pakistani Taliban who are fighting the ISI and the rest of the Pakistani government. Meanwhile the other ISI, off-limits to the CIA, supports the Afghan Taliban in its fight against U.S. troops.

In spite of the mutual dependence, the countries seem one step from a divorce. In her recent visit to Pakistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly said what most Americans are thinking, that it is "hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they [al Qaeda’s top leaders] are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to." Is Pakistan deliberately keeping the al Qaeda issue unresolved and the Afghan Taliban in the field in order to keep the U.S. aid pipeline open? Whether valid or not, such a perception risks a relationship-ending backlash.

On the other side, the United States is intensely unpopular in Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari‘s popularity has collapsed over concerns about corruption, ineffectiveness, and the view that he cooperates too eagerly with U.S. policies. 

Despite the anger and lack of trust on both sides, the relationship struggles on. Neither side wants to end things. But neither side controls all of the emotions in play. Something to consider as more U.S. soldiers fly over Pakistan into Afghanistan.


America’s Asian allies examine their options

This week the world focused on Asia as leaders from the Americas and Asia attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Singapore. President Barack Obama‘s three-day tour of China, plus a stop in South Korea, followed.

Obama began his trip in Japan, leaving the dispute over where to base U.S. Marine Corps helicopters on Okinawa unresolved. The dispute only worsened after Obama departed when Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama declared the working group appointed to resolve the dispute "meaningless."

Obama and Hatoyama both described the U.S.-Japan defense alliance as crucial. The arrangement has permitted Japan to spend less than 1 percent of its economic output on defense and to require a similarly trivial military manpower commitment from its population. A good deal for Japan, requiring only that its leaders occasionally tamp down grumbling from those Japanese who have to endure living next to U.S. military bases.

What would happen to Japanese defense planning if domestic politics no longer permit this arrangement? Japan would need to formulate alternative defense strategies if its relationship with the U.S. were to wither in the years ahead.

Perhaps Japanese defense planners are already thinking ahead. On Nov. 9 India’s defense minister arrived in Tokyo for a three day meeting on defense cooperation. The ministers focused on maritime security and the defense of sea lines of communication. There was no mention of any input from the U.S. Navy.

In May 2009, the Australian government released a defense white paper that described its planning assumptions through the year 2030. Chapter Four of the white paper acknowledged the necessity of the U.S.-Australian defense alliance. Yet the chapter also portrayed a future with the United States diminished and distracted and China becoming "the strongest Asian military power, by a considerable margin." The white paper recommended a very costly build-up in Australia’s military power and much more direct military coordination with other powers in the region.

Finally, just to make sure all of its positions are fully hedged, India just completed a two-day meeting with Iran’s foreign minister to arrange joint army training, a naval patrol exercise in the Arabian Gulf, and cooperation on space satellite launches.

In the past, security planning in the Pacific region functioned on a "hub and spoke" system, with the hub being U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii and the spokes being America’s defense relationships throughout the region. The United States has usually encouraged a more Europe-like multilateral security arrangement in Asia. This will very likely happen, but in ways that could leave the U.S. on the outside looking in.

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