A Strategy for South Asia; Anti Nation-Building

The new President has laid out his “strategy” for Afghanistan. He will increase the number of troops we have on the ground, fight to control the actual territory of Afghanistan, but stop precipitously whenever the battle bumps up against the border with Pakistan, who we will bribe with even more money to continue doing what they have been doing until now.

This battle will, by virtue of taking place on the spot where Usama Bin Laden was when the attacks of 2001 were launched against us, somehow destroy an Al Qaida that is largely living in Pakistan, Somalia, and various other Middle Eastern countries who don’t like us very much. Of course, we will fight with courtly chivalry, never putting a toe over the invisible line in the desert that separates Pakistani wilderness from Afghani wilderness. To do so would be a deadly insult to the “sovereignty” of an “ally” that willfully hosts terrorists who attack India, and cannot control it’s own Northern territories. Both the “sovereignty” and the “ally” status of Pakistan are a joke.

Obama has painted himself into a corner with Afghanistan. For years, the Democrats called for an expeditious withdrawal from Iraq, so that we could focus on the “real” war on terror in Afghanistan. Apparently, Al Qaida are so stupid that they cannot walk a few miles across the Pakistani border to a safe haven there. They have been suffering unending attacks from our troops by hiding in caves inside Afghanistan and just waited for us this whole time. This is contradicted by the Democrats themselves, who rightly pointed out that Al Qaida was turning up in Iraq to fight us there, because that was a good place to find Americans to kill. Not that wiping out Al Qaida members wholesale in Iraq was valuable, nor the humiliation of the local Arabs turning away from them to embrace us and thereby damage their credibility with Muslim Arabs everywhere. No, Al Qaida is smart enough, according to Democrats, to get to Iraq to fight us, but not smart enough to cross a totally uncontrolled border to Pakistan to evade our troops. 

Nevertheless, Obama has been saying again and again that the “real” war is in Afghanistan and if only we had a Democrat in the White House, we would immediately win this war on terror once and for all. Now we do, and now he must increase troop levels in Afghanistan, basically copying the model of the “surge” created for him in Iraq by President Bush and General Petraeus. This, despite the fact that many in the Pentagon are quite critical of the idea that you can simply lift the surge template from Iraq and apply it to a totally different country with totally different problems. Even General David Petraeus has stated that Afghanistan is a different sort of place with different problems, and you cannot simply do exactly what you did in Iraq and hope it will work the same.

One major factor will slowly strangle American efforts in Afghanistan over the next few years, just as certain as falling if you jump from a bridge. We have no reliable way to resupply our troops in Afghanistan. The Russians responded to the new era of hope, change, and a reboot of our relations with them by forcing us out of our critical supply base in Kyrgyzstan, which they know full well will cost us in lives down the line. I for one, am glad to see that Obama is improving our relations with the nations of the World.

Without that supply base, we are totally reliant on Pakistan to resupply our troops. This is the same Pakistan that has been “unable” to stop Taliban and Al Qaida guerillas from attacking our supply convoys inside Pakistani territory before they even get to the “war zone”, yet does not allow us to move armed troops through their territory. The same nation that is “unable” to stop highly connected terrorists from operating from their territory and conducting the largest scale terror attack ever seen against India. This is the same Pakistan that is “unable” to control the Northern provinces of their own state, and therefore simply allowed them “autonomy” even while they were actively hosting guerrillas who move over the borders into Afghanistan on a regular basis to hunt and kill Americans. This is the state that demanded billions of dollars in new military equipment to “help” us in the war on terror, and then spent the money on weapons like F-16s that are very good against the Indian Air Force but totally useless for hunting down rebels in the Northern wilderness. Pakistan, our One Great Hope in the region has absolutely let us down on every single issue we ever needed them to come through on. The only thing we ever got from Pakistan was the ability to fly some supplies over their airspace.

Now, like a strangely predictable replay of the strategic situation in Vietnam, we have a situation in Afghanistan where Obama has set up the US military in a no win situation (with groundwork laid by the Bush Administration of course). In Vietnam, the enemy were using uncontrolled national boundaries to hide behind and we were restricted from chasing them. The Taliban are doing precisely this in North East Pakistan. In Vietnam, the supplies and new troops kept coming from North Vietnam and we refused to actually move ground forces into that state to stop them at the source; thus fighting a war permanently on the strategic defensive. In Afghanistan, Iran is providing new weapons, equipment and training to people killing our soldiers, and we refuse to even mention this in international forums. Likewise, the enemy has a free supply line through Pakistan that the government there wont lift a finger to stop. In Vietnam, we thought that control of villages would add up to a win against an enemy that wasnt largely in the villages, but coming in through the Ho Chi Minh trail and using underground bases. We didn’t have enough troops in the country to keep soldiers in every village, so we ended up taking them at a cost in lives, then leaving them, only to return to take the same area later as the mobile enemy came back. We have repeated this exact pattern in Afghanistan. 

Watching this Administration’s foreign policy efforts is like sitting in the passenger seat of a car on the freeway, with the driver blindfolded and unwilling to take advice. You know a crash is going to come and you know it is going to hurt, but you don’t know when.

Basically then, we cannot simply repeat the formula for Vietnam, with the added bonus of not being able to dock a supply ship at Saigon, and of having our logistics efforts choked by not being allowed to defend our overland convoys in Pakistan. What should we do?

One interesting idea is anti-nation building. 
It has been bandied about mostly in a joking manner by pundits who comment that we are in a game of trying to hold and keep Afghanistan while the Taliban make it ungovernable for us. It would be much easier to simply let them try to hang on to it while we make it ungovernable for them. 

If you think about it, this strategy actually has something to it. In discussions with other foreign policy wonks as an Argov Fellow, I spoke of this same concept. At the time, I titled it “nation breaking” as opposed to “nation building”, a term that the public has at last come to grips with after almost a decade in Iraq.

It works like this; we have a military that is necessarily equipped, largely trained, and basically geared around the biggest threat that our nation faces. This threat is another major nation state and the army such a state can field. Do not let the media confuse you on this; nation states are still the biggest threat out there. So far, there aren’t any non state actors with nuclear capabilities. 

Unfortunately, this necessity to gear up for the biggest threat means that our military is not very well suited to nation building. We can do it. As proven by Iraq recently, we can even be pretty good at it if we have to. We simply are not temperamentally, organizationally, or financially equipped to make nation building a favored play in our playbook.

Instead, we should consider nation breaking. It works like this; Nation X does something that threatens us, like provides a safe haven for terrorists. We warn Nation X that they cannot continue to do this. They refuse, and we gear up just like we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. We deploy a mix of conventional and nonconventional assets to neutralize their command and control, dominate their airspace, overrun their positions on the ground, and use all the “shock and awe” at our disposal. Just as happens every time we have engaged in a conventional military offensive since World War II, we overrun them easily. That is the end of the similarity between what we did in Iraq and what I am suggesting. 

Now, having defeated our opponent in the field, having punished the regime for harboring terrorists, we simply pack up our troops and tanks and put them on standby in some nearby location from which they can be quickly sailed back to nation X in a short time. We announce that in our magnanimous generosity, we have decided to give nation X another chance. We state the obvious to them. It is expensive for us to continue an occupation that nobody wants. They now have two options, they can rebuild their government in such a way that they are not friendly to our enemies, or they can reinstate what we just knocked over. If they do the latter, we will return. They do not want us to return. 

They may test us. In this instance, we would, indeed, “break” the regime again, and just as before, we would retreat like the tide. Now, at some point, no matter how stubborn the leaders of nation X are, they are going to have to realize that they cannot win, and the people will realize that we truly do not want their land, but it is their own leaders bringing this on them. They will do what they have to (and we can spread some illicit weapons to opposition types if it helps) and get rid of the leaders who brought this on them. 

Statistically speaking, you knock over a regime enough times and it is bound to regenerate as one that is more friendly to you. Is this mathematically and geopolitically sound? Yes. Is this politically correct? Um… do I have to answer that?

Critics will say “yes, but what if you just break the state altogether and end up with Somalia?” To which I say “so what if you do?” What is so much more bad about Somalia than Taliban era Afghanistan? At least the pirates in Somalia are out for economic gain, have no organized international support, have limited use to international terrorists, print no passports and use no diplomatic pouches that can be used to smuggle bombs (as Iran has done for example). We can go in at any time to destroy the Somali pirates and gangs, and we have even had success in using Ethiopia as a proxy to keep control over Mogadishu for a time. The only reason we do not bother to engage in any major actions there is because of the nuisance value of the Somali radicals, pirates and terrorists. Honestly, they are not formidable if Ethiopia can chase the gangs and warlords out of their capitol at will.

Obviously, nation breaking (or “anti-nation building” for the less gastronomically strong out there) wouldn’t be a cure-all that can be applied in all (or even most) cases. Yet I am sure that in some cases, it would be a better option than long term and expensive nation building efforts. For states that simply aren’t valuable enough for us to commit a massive force to for decades on end, keeping a rapid reaction force in the region would be sufficient. As a side benefit, though it would inevitably lead to all sorts of criticism from bleeding hearts, it would boost our deterrence capability every time we even talked about using it. Do not forget the massive diplomatic triumphs that came shortly in the wake of our demonstration of nation breaking in Iraq, nor the loss of most of that gained ground as our will and treasure was bled away in a long war.

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~ by Jubal Biggs on March 28, 2009.

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