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Pay Afghanistan, Boost Drone Strikes In Pakistan, Experts Tell House

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


CAPITOL HILL: The US must not go ahead with planned cuts to the Afghan National Army and police, a panel of experts urged the House Armed Services Committee today. Instead, we must keep spending $6 billion a year to support 350,000 Afghan security personnel, go slowly on drawing down our own forces — and escalate the drone war in Pakistan by striking Taliban sanctuaries previously off-limits.

Most of today’s hearing by the HASC subcommittee for oversight and investigations focused on US support for the Afghan National Security Forces, the ANSF. But unremarked by the legislators, two of the three panelists — Savage Wars of Peace author Max Boot and retired Vice Chief of Army Staff Gen. Jack Keane — called for drone strikes against the suspected Taliban leadership base in Quetta. That’s the capital of Balochistan, a province of Pakistan proper, whereas the drone strikes to date have been confined to the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), a largely lawless region where the Pakistani government and its British predecessors themselves have always relied more on punitive strikes than permanent control. (In US terms, the difference is a bit like that between the 50 states and Guam — if Guam were ruled by traditional Guamian tribal law administered by AK-47-wielding elders).

Approached by Breaking Defense after the hearing, both Boot and Keane confirmed that they were calling for an escalation. The third witness, the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon, was more cautious but agreed a strike on Quetta could be worth the insult to Pakistani sovereignty for the right target.

Striking Quetta might be provocative, Boot acknowledged, but “it’s hard to imagine what could be more provocative” than what Pakistan is already doing by sheltering Taliban commanders responsible for the deaths of US troops. Boot had earlier told the committee to cut all US aid to the Pakistani military.

Gen. Keane had a more nuanced approach: “We should lay out some conditions down initially,” he told Breaking Defense, making it clear to the Pakistanis that they no longer enjoy the full support the US gives an ally and that they must take action against the Taliban leadership in Quetta — and if they don’t, we will, with lethal force.

Said O’Hanlon, “If you could do a drone strike in Quetta that killed ten leaders in one place, it would be hard to say no.” While the Pakistani government would certainly object to this new violation of their sovereignty, he noted, “they’re helping take American lives in a country beyond their own borders” and thus have little moral standing to complain about US actions against the Taliban in Quetta. But US strikes beyond the FATA into Pakistan proper would have to meet a high threshold for the value of the target, the accuracy of the intelligence, and the avoidance of civiian casuaties, he went on “something like the Bin Laden raid.” (Osama bin Laden was killed at his compound in Abbottabad in the North-West Frontier Province, just outside the FATA). “I wouldn’t rule things out categorically,” he said. “It has to be intelligence-based.”

Where all three witnesses agreed absolutely was in their appeal to continue paying the full $6 billion a year required to keep the Afghan security forces at their full strength, 350,000, instead of cutting funding to $4 billion after 2014 and reducing the force to 230,000, which is the administration’s current plan. That $2 billion savings is nothing to sneeze at in a tight budget environment, but it’s still a fraction of what the US has already invested in the Afghan war — and a fraction of what it expects to save from drawing down its own forces, which are much more expensive per man than local soldiers.

Indeed, it might be cheaper to pay Afghans than to fight them, said Boot. Neither Afghanistan’s economy nor its security situation can easily handle 120,000 men laid off from the security forces: “It’s far from clear where these 120,000 would find gainful and legal employment,” he said, and many might end up working for drug lords, warlords, and militias.

Nor is it just a question of cutting the Afghan security forces by a third. “Right now we have more than 400,000 combined forces” — US, NATO allies, and Afghans — said O’Hanlon. Since the US and NATO will (largely) withdraw after 2014, leaving the Afghans (largely) on their own, that’s a more than 40% cut in the total forces fighting the Taliban. The administration’s proposed figure for Afghan forces came from internal US planning that looked at a range of possible scenarios, with 230,000 being the low-end option for the best-case security conditions, O’Hanlon said: “It was supposed to be an option or a scenario, now it’s become a default plan.”

In military terms, “it makes no sense,” agreed Gen. Keane, who has made four visits to Afghanistan in the last four months to assess conditions for US commanders there.

While the Afghans have impressive foot troops and human intelligence sources, they lack almost everything else — air support, medical evacuation, logistics, electronic eavesdropping gear, even equipment to clear routes of roadside bombs — and will need the Americans’ help for years to come. That means a sizable US support force, not just a handful of special operators and advisors, will be required in Afghanistan after 2014.

Boot cited an estimate from the Center for New American Security that said the post-2014 force should be 23,500 to 35,000 Americans strong, at an annual cost of $25 to $35 billion. In that context, spending an extra $2 billion to keep 120,000 more Afghan fighters on the payroll — which might allow a smaller, cheaper US force — sure seems like a bargain.

What do you think?