How will the U.S. military cope without its facilities in Afghanistan?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In his May 1 speech from Bagram Air Base, where he announced a new long-term strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, President Barack Obama vowed that the United States "will not build permanent bases in this country." This declaration would seem to imply that the Obama administration does not envision Afghanistan becoming a permanent hub for U.S. military operations throughout Central and South Asia. Indeed, the agreement itself states that "[t]he United States further pledges not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks on other countries."

Does this clause rule out using the air bases at Bagram, Kandahar, and Jalalabad for Predator drone strikes against Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan?  Or stealth drone reconnaissance over Iran? Or even special operations raids against al Qaeda safe houses, as happened a year ago against Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan?

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, declared that the agreement will absolutely not constrain the United States: "There is nothing in this agreement that precludes the right of self-defense for either party and if there are attacks from the territory of any state aimed at us we have the inherent right of self-defense and will employ it," he said.

After nearly 11 years as the dominant force in a weak country, U.S. officials have become used to doing what they want from these Afghan bases. But the impending drawdown of Western troops, the strategic partnership agreement, and the U.S. interest in supporting Afghan sovereignty will lead to changes in the status and license of those U.S. troops that will remain.

Crocker and other U.S. leaders will defend cross-border operations from Afghanistan by invoking the right of self-defense. They may also note that strikes on al Qaeda and the Taliban are attacks on lawless non-state actors and not "attacks on other countries." But U.S. officials should not be surprised to learn that almost no one else in the region will agree with those views. Pakistan views the bin Laden raid, drone strikes on the Taliban in Pakistan, and cross-border clashes like the one that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November as clear violations of its sovereignty. Iran is now pressuring Afghanistan to abandon the new agreement with the United States, a response to both the U.S. stealth drone surveillance of its nuclear program and a general fear of growing U.S. military power in the region. Afghanistan’s anti-American neighbors such as Pakistan and Iran will undoubtedly view the long-term positioning of U.S. forces in the country as a threat and will apply pressure on Kabul to neutralize that threat.

A future dispute between the United States and Afghanistan over the cross-border operations of U.S. forces would seem highly likely. Future Afghan governments, bracketed by stronger neighbors, will come under great pressure to cut off cross-border operations by U.S. forces. U.S. military planners should not assume that they will be able to use U.S. bases in Afghanistan to achieve their security objectives throughout the region.

In his Bagram speech, Obama boiled down the ultimate U.S. goal in Afghanistan to simply "destroy al Qaeda." Will the United States be able to achieve this goal over the long run in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region if its troops and aircraft in Afghanistan are not permitted to conduct operations beyond the border?

For now, there are other bases near the Persian Gulf from which the U.S. military can sustain some of these operations. But these bases have their own political and strategic vulnerabilities. The larger point is that as the distance to a target increases, the capacity of U.S. forces to sustain operations over such targets declines precipitously. The existing inventory of U.S. military aircraft is stacked heavily with relatively short-range tactical systems, with long-range systems neglected. In addition, the armed drones the United States now relies on to attack al Qaeda are not stealthy and can easily be shot down. The Pentagon’s long-term aircraft procurement plan makes only modest efforts to correct these shortcomings. This neglect could result in problems not only in Afghanistan’s neighborhood, but also elsewhere in the world.

The U.S. government now counts on systems like the MQ-9 Reaper drone (a successor to the MQ-1 Predator) to watch over and occasionally strike the badlands of Pakistan and Yemen. The Air Force lists the Reaper’s range at 1,150 miles, a seemingly conservative estimate given the Reaper’s ability to fly 27 hour missions at a cruise speed of 230 miles per hour. Operating from bases around the Persian Gulf, the U.S. military can use Reapers and maintain its drone surveillance of Pakistan.

But that plan assumes that Pakistan will not object more strongly to the U.S. drone campaign and pressure the countries around the Persian Gulf into no longer hosting U.S. drones. In addition, a future government in Pakistan might simply shoot down the non-stealthy and vulnerable Reapers. We should recall that the U.S. opted to use its stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel drone to observe Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. It did so because it did not trust Islamabad with its suspicions over the compound or with its plans for the subsequent raid. Relations between the two countries have only worsened since then. Pakistan can end the Reaper surveillance at any time, which would leave few effective options for continuing the campaign against al Qaeda in the area.

For Iran’s nuclear program, Obama is counting on ample strategic warning should Iran’s leaders decide to actually assemble nuclear weapons. We can presume that much of the intelligence that would provide such warning will be provided by the RQ-170s, one of which crashed in Iran last December. The small and thus relatively short-range RQ-170 is known to operate from the busy air field at Kandahar. If it also operates from bases around the Persian Gulf near Iran, the U.S. government is managing to keep that secret better than its presence in Afghanistan. More likely these countries have prohibited such flights out of fear of antagonizing Iran. Should the RQ-170 base in Afghanistan be lost, the United States will have to take much greater risks to get the strategic warning Obama and his team are assuming. Should they lose the use of the bases in Afghanistan, U.S. commanders will need ways to operate over Iran and Pakistan with stealth and at greater range.

The Israeli government has similarly concluded that it needs to upgrade its capacity to conduct military operations at much greater range. Its military is creating a "depth corps" to execute multi-service special operations far from Israel’s borders. The creation of this corps is no doubt motivated by the realization that Iran, with its long-range ballistic missiles and emerging nuclear capabilities, is now Israel’s greatest threat, even though Tehran is 1,000 miles from Jerusalem. Israel’s air combat power, composed of short range tactical fighter-bombers, barely has the ability to reach Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israeli planners apparently envision building the capability to conduct special operations ground raids at similarly long distances. Israeli commanders will need to upgrade tactics and equipment if they are to make the "depth corps" a real capability.

Meanwhile, policymakers in Washington should ponder how they would keep a terror group like al Qaeda under surveillance and suppressed if that group is protected by a state’s air defenses and operating thousands of miles from usable bases. Similarly, these policymakers will continue to demand high-quality and sustained intelligence on proliferation threats that will increasingly be protected by air defenses, better deception efforts, and perhaps great range from friendly bases. Both of these missions will require long-range stealthy drones that can survive in hostile air space, provide continuous observation, and have the ability to strike targets on short notice. This drone will not be an exotic niche capability, but an "everyday player" in what today passes for peacetime.

Regrettably, the Pentagon’s latest 30-year aviation funding plan does not prioritize such a capability. The plan continues to purchase the non-stealthy and vulnerable Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk drones, with a planned 45 percent increase to 645 of such aircraft by 2022. The short range F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will continue to be the Pentagon’s most costly procurement program, even though the plane will require nearby bases to be useful. Meanwhile, Air Force and Navy plans to expand long-range reconnaissance and strike systems received a modest verbal upgrade in the latest report — but these plans remain vague and pushed well into the next decade.

Future U.S. leaders will maintain a strong interest in suppressing terror groups and proliferation challenges. But adversaries are adapting to the current measures employed against them, such as the Reaper drone. U.S. commanders will thus find their tactics increasingly less effective. At longer ranges and protected by air defenses, adversaries could effectively reestablish sanctuaries against U.S. interference.

Pentagon officials need to do more to prepare for these changing circumstances. If they don’t, they could find themselves out of options when called on by policymakers to fix these problems. Avoiding that awkward moment will mean changing some priorities inside the Pentagon’s aviation funding plan. Some contractors won’t like that. But they too will have to adapt.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.
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