Small Wars

This Week at War: Is There an Afghanistan Caucus?

The midterms were a signal that time may be running out for the Obama team's war plans.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The midterm election may make the Afghan war an orphan

In sharp contrast to 2006 and 2008, when weariness over the Iraq war boosted the fortunes of Democrats, national security issues played virtually no role in the 2010 U.S. midterm elections. This year, with economic and financial problems paramount, the long war in Afghanistan received nary a mention during the campaign. Adding to the silence over the war is the perception that there exist few substantial differences on Afghan policy; Republican leaders generally endorse President Barack Obama’s "surge" strategy and will watch from the sidelines as Obama ponders his withdrawal options next year.

The conventional wisdom is that even if a more left-wing Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill grumbles at Obama’s Afghan policy, Republicans will provide the administration with the support it needs. This view also holds that the Pentagon will largely get what it wants. Although some new libertarian-leaning Republicans might be mild Pentagon skeptics, the arrival of the new, mostly pro-defense Republican delegation in Washington, combined with the generally bipartisan workings of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, should mean that the Pentagon’s programs and Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan are safe.

Are there any reasons to question this conventional wisdom? Might defense spending come under the knife in spite of the Republican wave? And might Obama be left alone to deal with Afghanistan, without political cover on either flank?

New Republican members will soon receive a test on how serious they are about actually cutting spending. Their election platform pledges to cut $100 billion in domestic discretionary spending during their first year in office. The new majority in the House of Representatives can, in theory, approve such cuts. But getting the Democrat-controlled Senate to agree is another question. If Republicans are actually serious about negotiating a compromise on spending, Senate Democrats are likely to ask for some meaningful contribution from the Pentagon in exchange for deep cuts to domestic programs.

Where in the Pentagon’s budget could appropriators find immediate and meaningful cuts? Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already attempted to get ahead of this process by proposing cuts to his department’s overhead. But he wants any such savings reinvested in weapons purchases, meaning no net reduction of the Pentagon’s budget.

Under this scenario, congressional policymakers may for the first time have to reckon with the financial costs of the Afghan campaign. Just as the newly-elected congressmen and senators were celebrating their victories, Chinese warships, aircraft, and marines were conducting a large live-fire exercise in the increasingly disputed South China Sea. This exercise occurred while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured the region, just prior to the president’s own arrival in Asia.

Very few policymakers from either party will be willing to cut U.S. air and naval spending in the face of China’s military buildup, particularly with policymakers already struggling with perceptions among Asian allies that U.S. military power in East Asia is waning. But due to the ongoing commitment in Afghanistan, Congress can’t cut ground forces either. To the extent that Congress is serious about making a deal on spending cuts and that a political deal will require cuts in both domestic and Pentagon programs, the tradeoff between Afghan war costs and security and alliance relationships in places like East Asia will become increasingly apparent.

In the near-term, the conventional wisdom will be correct: Political gridlock will reinforce the status quo. For now, the new Congress will fully support Pentagon funding, both for Afghanistan and for modernization. As a corollary, little but token domestic spending cuts are likely.

But as the pressure to cut spending clashes with the need to bolster confidence in the U.S. commitment to Asia, the Afghan war may become an orphan. If Democrats push for disengagement (an inclination Obama already shares), it should be no surprise to see few Republicans complain. Least of all those Republicans hoping for Obama’s job in 2012.

Are amphibious assaults obsolete?

Last May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged Navy and Marine Corps leaders to defend the relevancy of amphibious operations against modern, well-armed opponents. Gates urged, "[W]e have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again — especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore."

Recalling the corpse-strewn beaches from the movie Saving Private Ryan, one may wonder why sensible military leaders would spend any time and resources preparing for an opposed beach landing against modern firepower. And if the amphibious assault is obsolete, does the United States even need a 200,000-strong Marine Corps anymore?

Writing in the latest edition of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work and Frank Hoffman, a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, attempt to answer Gates’s question, arguing that the Navy and Marine Corps are adapting their amphibious tactics to modern "hybrid" opponents who will be armed with the latest guided weapons, yet will also hide amongst indigenous urban populations.

Gates noted that advanced, anti-ship, guided-missile systems — "anti-access/area denial" systems — may push U.S. naval forces so far away from an objective that organizing a sea-borne assault would become impractical. Work and Hoffman discuss the temptation among some U.S. military planners to respond to enemy defense systems with long-range aircraft and missiles that would avoid having to directly confront these defenses. The problem with this approach they assert is diplomatic — important allies may live on the wrong side of the anti-access line. To cede this geography to an adversary would imply writing off important relationships, with damaging consequences for U.S. diplomacy.

Next, Work and Hoffman note that amphibious assault capability is an integral part of overall naval and air power. The ability to land ground forces from the sea complicates adversary planning and improves the effectiveness of other U.S. naval and air forces.

So how do Work and Hoffman propose executing amphibious operations against "hybrid" irregular fighters armed with sophisticated guided missiles and who hide in complex urban terrain? First, they assert that such an operation won’t in any way resemble Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach. A long period of "shaping" would occur first, marked by reconnaissance and electronic and physical attacks on an adversary’s command system, supply system, and missiles. When the main Marine force did come ashore, it would land away from the enemy forces. The Marines would use dispersion, or "distributed operations," to reduce their exposure. Finally, the fact that the Marine Corps operates from a mobile sea base further reduces their vulnerability to ground-based enemy action.

Work and Hoffman admit that they don’t have all of the answers to the most sophisticated challenges. But they do make the case that, in order to reassure allies in many regions, the United States will need to retain a convincing ability to support and reinforce those allies with a full range of military options, even under challenging circumstances. In this sense, the Marine Corps makes U.S. diplomacy easier.

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