America’s Broken Response to Pakistan

The ability for the United States to project power abroad - to protect its national security interests - is broken.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

The scale of Pakistan’s flooding disaster is beyond imagination:

More people have been affected by Pakistan’s catastrophic floods than any other natural disaster on record — over 20 million and counting. That’s more than were affected by the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and this year’s earthquake in Haiti combined.  As millions of dislocated Pakistanis search for shelter and food and as health conditions deteriorate and disease spreads, the need for an immediate, large-scale humanitarian response is urgent.  And this is just the beginning.  Once the floodwaters subside from Pakistan’s swollen rivers, the task of rebuilding will be staggering – with a price tag in the billions, and lasting for years to come.

From a humanitarian standpoint, the disaster should be a fierce call to action like nothing else in our lifetime. But that’s not the primary US concern in foreign policy, is it? Charity and human decency are great, but we care about terrorism, security, and American dominance:

The effectiveness of the response to these relief and rebuilding challenges will have serious implications for the wellbeing of the country’s citizens, for the peace and stability of Pakistan and the entire South Asian region, and for U.S. national security.

There’s no way around it, this is a national security issue for the United States. Galrahn explains over at Information Dissemination:

There is a long history of natural disaster playing a significant role in the global security condition, or influencing war, or having a significant and generational impact on nations. When considering the scope and geography of this disaster, it would be difficult to suggest that the monsoon floods of 2010 won’t have a huge impact on the security of Pakistan, or a significant impact in influencing the war in Afghanistan, or a huge generational impact on Pakistan. […]

Pakistani people know the United States unmanned drone very well thanks to their newspapers and our actions in that country against Al Qaeda and affiliates. Here is a chance to put a positive visible symbol of US power over Pakistan at a time the need far exceeds local capacity – and we can’t do it why?

Actually, we know why we can’t do it. We’ve known for years. Remember 2006?

Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a “thin green line” that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon.

Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency. He also suggested that the Pentagon’s decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended.

Of course, the military didn’t “snap.” That’s not how it works, as Hilary Bok wrote on Obsidian Wings at the time:

It’s not as though one day we will hear a loud snap and find the Army broken in two. We will not get up one morning, flip a switch, and discover that the Army doesn’t work any more. We will not have to hire a tow truck to drag it off to war. Whatever goes wrong with the Army, it won’t be like that.

For one thing, there is no sharp, discontinuous transition between an “unbroken” Army and a “broken” one: the kind that happens when a plate shatters, a fuse blows, or a motor finally gives out. For another, a “broken” Army will still be able to function, more or less.[…]

What we are doing to the Army is less like breaking something, and more like slowly degrading its ability to perform its tasks to an unacceptable level. It’s a gradual process, one that does not provide us with clear points at which we can look at the Army and say: well, now it is well and truly broken.

To be clear, these reports were specific to the US Army, and Bok focused mostly on the recruitment and stability of the officer corps, but it isn’t hard to extrapolate out to the other military branches, or to US foreign service as a whole. Is the Air Force any less preoccupied with Afghanistan? The Marines? State? Hardly.

After all, on Pakistan’s independence day, as 20% of the country lay under water, this was the American priority:

The US carried out its first Predator airstrike inside Pakistan’s tribal areas in almost three weeks. Twelve “rebels” were reported killed in the airstrike in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan.

The strike took place today in the village of Issori, just outside of Miramshah, the main town in North Waziristan. One missile fired from either a Predator or the more more deadly Reaper struck a compound thought to be sheltering Taliban or al Qaeda operatives.

That’s not all the US did, to be sure. We have US marines on the ground in Pakistan, and we’re conducting rescue and relief operations by air. But that’s still not enough, and might as well be nothing at all compared to the enormous scale of the disaster. And that was Bok’s point about the Army breaking, that it isn’t a binary state, fixed or broken, but rather a process of degradation. We can send helicopters to Pakistan, but is it effective? Are we accomplishing anything close to what we’d like to?

I realize this analysis is a bit odd. Normally when the issue of an over-stretched and ineffective military is discussed, we think of it in terms of being defenseless against enemies. If we’re attacked, we’ll be defenseless because of our broken military. TIME magazine had this in 2003:

Deep inside the Pentagon, where young colonels arrive before dawn to revise once more the short list of available combat units ready to deploy overseas, a nightmare scenario hangs in the air, unmentioned but unmistakable. With 140,000 U.S. troops tied down stabilizing Iraq, 34,000 in Kuwait, 10,000 in Afghanistan and 5,000 in the Balkans, what good options would George W. Bush have if, say sometime next spring, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il decided to test the resilience of the relatively small “trip-wire” force of 37,000 American troops in South Korea? Where would the Pentagon turn if it had to rush additional combat troops to the 38th parallel? Might a lack of ready reinforcements force Washington to consider using nuclear weapons to save South Korea from defeat?

But that’s not really realistic, is it? North Korea isn’t about to roll across the 38th parallel any more than Putin is about to rear his head over Alaskan airspace. Those aren’t the kinds of national security threats we face in 2010 (or 2003 for what it’s worth). What we have to deal with now are natural disasters, collapsing states, massive displaced populations, terrorism and radical militancy, narcotics and organized crime, captured, corrupt, or oppressive governments – all of which converge in Pakistan.

Well, this is it folks. These are the consequences of a decade of military adventurism, occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. This is why no matter what it is that the US is sending to Pakistan, it will not be enough. We just don’t have enough to give.

It’s not only the military breaking, or the State department, or the White House, or Congress, or the media, or the apathy of the American public – it’s all of these things adding up to a slow, incompetent, ineffective response to the threats we face. The ability for the United States to project power abroad – to protect its national security interests – is broken.

The so-called battle for hearts and minds in Pakistan, the battle against anti-Americanism, radicalism, and militancy in the tribal regions, the battle for a secure and stable Central Asia – this is the war that America will lose because of our occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is what we are defenseless against, helpless to stop.

This is quite possibly more dangerous than any of the other tragic consequences of our wars. It has wreaked havoc on the American budget and deficit, sapped us of funds for basic social services, and dramatically raised the threat of terrorism both here and overseas. But we’ve let all this happen with at least the illusion that we were still the most powerful country, capable of defeating any threat. But it’s not true. We are so tied down in our wars that when a real threat appears – not Kim Jong-Il in North Korea, but floods in Pakistan – we’re defenseless.

We have to end our reckless, bloody and expensive occupation in Afghanistan. Not only because we can’t afford it domestically, but along with Iraq it has catastrophically weakened our ability to protect our country and our interests abroad. We don’t know yet what horrors will be unleashed, for generations to come, thanks to our failure in Pakistan, and this is only one disaster. How many more will there be while we’re wasting away in Afghanistan?

We must use the upcoming elections as our opportunity to take control of our foreign policy, our national security. Demand that your representative, your senator, your candidate stand up against the war. Our security is at stake. We can’t afford the disaster in Pakistan, and we certainly can’t afford any more. Quite frankly, if we don’t end the war in Afghanistan, it could be the end of us.

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