This Week at War: Pakistan Loses the Upper Hand

With bin Laden dead, Islamabad's leverage over Washington may also be gone.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Bin Laden's death will change Washington -- and Pakistan won't like it

Bin Laden’s death will change Washington — and Pakistan won’t like it

The day after U.S. special operations forces dramatically raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan seemed to invite an investigation into whether elements of the Pakistani government were complicit in sheltering bin Laden. During a briefing, Brennan asserted, "I think it’s inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time. I am not going to speculate about what type of support he might have had on an official basis inside of Pakistan … I think people are raising a number of questions, and understandably so."

But a day later, the administration seemed more eager to limit the damage the raid might cause to its relationship with Islamabad. The Pentagon and the Pakistani military issued a joint statement reaffirming their cooperation against terrorism. And according to the Wall Street Journal, senior administration officials urged restraint in blaming Pakistan’s leaders for the embarrassing presence of bin Laden and his family within a few hundred meters of Pakistan’s army academy and in the same neighborhood as many retired army officers.

From this perspective, the bin Laden raid is now a matter for historians to ponder: serious policymakers on both sides should focus on the future and on those practical interests shared by the United States and Pakistan. From this point of view, the raid didn’t change the interests each side seeks or the leverage each side can deploy against the other and the United States still needs Pakistan’s cooperation against terror networks that threaten the West. The U.S. also needs Pakistani support to move supply convoys through Pakistan to its forward operating bases in Afghanistan. For its part, Islamabad still seeks to maintain its connections to the West, to retain its diplomatic options, and to receive financial assistance from Washington and elsewhere. The death of bin Laden hasn’t changed any of these facts.

This view may be correct for now but it is not likely to hold. First, with the bin Laden raid such a spectacular success, Obama will likely come under increasing pressure to repeat its success. Previous U.S. direct action incursions into Pakistan were met with harsh reactions from Islamabad, including the temporary shutdown of the supply pipeline through the Khyber Pass. But with the raid’s success and the now nearly universal assumption that the Pakistani government is not a trustworthy partner, there will be growing political pressure inside the United States for Obama to treat Pakistan as an "open range" for military operations against terrorist targets.

Second, political pressure will mount on Obama to wind down the war in Afghanistan, something that the president seems willing to accommodate. Bin Laden’s death will deliver finality to many in the U.S. electorate. The sense of an end to the 9/11 story will clash with calls to continue the costly counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan’s villages. Should Obama accede to an accelerated departure from Afghanistan, it would be another demonstration that the "post-Gates" era has arrived, a point my FP colleague Peter Feaver mentioned this week.

The more forces the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, the more leverage it gains over Pakistan; fewer forces in Afghanistan mean less reliance on the supply line through Pakistan. The bin Laden raid set a precedent for U.S. ground operations inside Pakistan, which Obama will now come under increasing pressure to repeat. It is true that the bin Laden raid didn’t change for now the fundamental interests and leverage in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. But the raid did set in motion political forces inside the United States that won’t please Pakistan.

Are the Navy’s big aircraft carriers too risky?

In my March 18 column, I discussed how China’s rapidly growing inventories of ballistic and cruise missiles will threaten the existing U.S. defense strategy in the western Pacific. The latest issue of Proceedings, the journal of the United States Naval Institute, contained an article written by two Pentagon strategists that argued for the gradual phasing out of the Navy’s large aircraft carrier fleet. The arguments against the supercarriers go back decades and regularly recur, especially when money gets tight. But this time, the authors argue, the missile threat is too serious to ignore. They argue for a new fleet design. And in doing so, they expose how some of the other defense-cut proposals recently floated in Washington were not thought through.

In "Twilight of the $UPERfluous Carrier," Navy Captain Henry Hendrix and retired Marine Lt. Col. J. Noel Williams explain why the growing anti-ship missile threat makes it too risky for the Navy to continue to rely on a handful of large aircraft carriers to control the sea and project power ashore. Hendrix and Williams instead recommend distributing naval air power over a larger number of smaller carriers which would reduce risk and complicate an adversary’s planning. The authors call for retaining the current fleet of large carriers but not building any more. The existing carriers would gradually phase out over the next 50 years. To replace them, the authors recommend expanding purchases of an amphibious assault ship currently being produced for the Marine Corps. This ship is an aircraft carrier about half the size of the Navy’s largest carriers, but at one-third the cost.

But in order to make the Hendrix and Williams proposal work, the Pentagon would have to make its full planned purchase of the troubled Marine Corps version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B, which does not need the large carrier’s catapults to get into the air. The F-35B has been a favorite target lately of defense reformers and those hoping to make further cuts to the defense budget. Hendrix and Williams also foresee the Navy’s future unmanned drone jets operating from the small carrier, as well as the full range of helicopters, Marines, special forces personnel, and more.

In addition to reducing risk and complicating an adversary’s planning, employing a much larger fleet of small carriers would make it easier for the United States to maintain a forward presence, show the flag, engage with foreign partners, and deter conflicts. The small carriers can also perform a much greater variety of missions than can the large carriers. In the meantime, over the next 50 years the large aircraft carriers would transition to a mobile reserve, for contingencies requiring heavy power projection capability.

The Hendrix and Williams proposal is a sharp contrast to the other recently released defense reform proposals. Proposals from the president’s Fiscal Commission, the Dominici-Rivlin panel, and Gordon Adams at the Stimson Center all go in the opposite direction. They would cancel the F-35B but apparently retain the Navy’s plans for maintaining indefinitely its fleet of large aircraft carriers. The result of these plans would be the concentration of all of the Navy and Marine Corps strike aircraft at sea on a handful of increasingly vulnerable ships.

The other plans targeted the F-35, the Osprey aircraft, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and other programs that have been hobbled with cost overruns. By comparison, the Navy’s large aircraft carrier program seems much less troubled. But picking program winners and losers by these criteria and not in the context of mission requirements, adversary capabilities, and combat risk could be a recipe for disaster when contractor efficiency is disconnected from combat requirements. Hendrix and Williams have proposed a fleet design with the future battlefield in mind. How the defense contractors measure up delivering that fleet, they leave to others.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.
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