This Week at War: Pakistan Is Winning the War in Afghanistan

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Pakistan's Game

Pakistan’s Game

Of all the players in the Afghan game, Pakistan is running up the highest score. For several decades, Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan has remained largely unchanged, regardless of who was running the country. That policy is to support Afghanistan’s Pashtuns in their seemingly genetic resistance to outside control (outside in this case extends to any government located in Kabul). By supporting Pashtun autonomy, Pakistan establishes for itself a security buffer zone on its northwest frontier, which comes with a friendly auxiliary army — the Afghan Taliban — as a bonus.

For nearly nine years, U.S. officials have pleaded with Pakistan to suspend support for the Afghan Taliban and allow Afghanistan to unite under a central government. Pakistani officials have provided a variety of verbal responses to these entreaties but have not changed their policies toward the Afghan Taliban, whose military capability inside Afghanistan only seems to grow.

The United States cannot achieve its goals in Afghanistan while the Afghan Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan remain open. The Pakistani government refuses to close or even isolate those sanctuaries. Yet the massive U.S. foreign-assistance pipeline to Pakistan remains open. Why?

U.S. policymakers have seemingly concluded that they have more options and less risk by engaging Pakistan. They tried isolating Pakistan and found that course was neither wise nor sustainable. As a result, the Washington has opted to shower Pakistan with aid and hope that persistent persuasion will eventually result in greater Pakistani action against the Afghan Taliban.

The result has been a spectacular strategic success for Pakistan. Development aid from the United States has never been greater. The United States will deliver long-embargoed F-16 fighters to Pakistan and is providing other upgrades to Pakistan’s armed forces. Along with this has come a de facto U.S. security guarantee against the perceived threat from India. Pakistan’s diplomatic leverage over the United States has given it a free hand to work with China to upgrade its nuclear complex. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s proxy forces in southeast Afghanistan are successfully defending the security buffer zone. Pakistan’s dominant position has forced Afghan President Hamid Karzai to virtually sue for peace. This could result in an ethnic partition of Afghanistan that would secure Pakistan’s main objective in the conflict.

With its winning position, Pakistan’s current task is to arrange a stable end-state that avoids a backlash from the losers. Pakistan and the United States are in a largely zero-sum relationship over Afghanistan. Pakistan’s leaders must fashion a settlement (however temporary) that allows the United States to save face, that maintains the U.S. aid pipeline, and that keeps the de facto security guarantee in place. U.S. officials should hope that Pakistan manages the endgame as well as it has managed the rest of the match.

Are overseas bases worth the risk?

As a country with global security responsibilities, the United States depends on an archipelago of overseas military bases to assert its presence and project power. Having benefited for so many decades from the access these bases have provided, U.S. military planners have established design specifications for weapon systems and fashioned military strategies under the assumption that access to these bases is hardly in doubt. But are these assumptions wise? Over the past two decades, political disputes have forced the Pentagon to retreat from many overseas bases, resulting in greater concentration and risk attached to those bases that remain. More closures at critical but politically vulnerable facilities cannot be ruled out. The potential for disruptions to the remaining basing archipelago calls into question the Pentagon’s foresight regarding the weapons it plans to buy and its plans to project power without the base access it has become accustomed to.

The Defense Department has a long history of adjusting its overseas basing posture. Changes since the end of the Cold War have been particularly dramatic. Some have been intentional. The vast drawdown of Army and Air Force units in Europe has resulted in the closure of scores of installations. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld deliberately shifted or brought home many units to make them usable for global rather than just regional contingencies.

The Pentagon has coped with involuntary ejections from overseas bases with varying degrees of success. U.S. Southern Command adjusted to its removal from Panama and Vieques, Puerto Rico by moving to Florida and building up relationships elsewhere in Central America. More recently, Ecuador tossed out a United States counternarcotic patrol base and the United States responded with an expanded presence in Colombia.

By contrast, the expulsion of the U.S. Air Force and Navy from their large bases in the Philippines has resulted in heightened risk due to greater reliance on the remaining large bases on Okinawa and Guam. And in spite of the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama over his mishandling of the Futenma base dispute, the local population’s opposition to U.S. bases on Okinawa continues to boil. Defense planners cannot rule out the possibility that local political pressure will remove U.S. forces from the Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, opening a huge hole in the Pentagon’s Pacific defense plans.

Writing at the Stimson Center’s Budget Insight blog, Alexander Cooley, an associate professor at Columbia University, discussed some political strategies U.S. diplomats can employ to ward off local political opposition to U.S. overseas bases, especially in frontier developing countries. Cooley recommends extending U.S. diplomatic outreach to include a variety of domestic actors and sectors and not just top central government and military officials. Cooley notes that this is the technique Chinese diplomats are successfully using as they gradually expand their relationships around the globe.

The Pentagon could gain control over its own fate if it reduced its spending on weapons that require vulnerable overseas bases and increased spending on naval power and global long-range strike capabilities. For example, it could cut by half the planned purchase of short-range F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and redirect the $100 billion or more in savings on accelerating and expanding the Air Force’s Next Generation Bomber program and the Navy’s long-range carrier-based strike drone project. Directing the Marine Corps to refocus on the amphibious assault mission — a power projection capability less dependent on overseas bases – would in some cases provide a hedge against the potential closure or disruption of overseas Air Force and Army bases.

Do Pentagon planners assume that their bases in the western Pacific, Central Asia and around the Persian Gulf will always be there? They undoubtedly have alternate plans on the shelf. But these workarounds could be less risky if weapons systems and strategies were designed from the beginning to be less dependent on these bases.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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