Uncle Sam [doesn’t actually need] YOU!


Having already promoted war against Syria and Iran (American wars #3 and #4, should they take place), the neo-conservative movement continues to add countries to its list of possible targets. Internal conflict seems to be a key criteria here, as the political crisis in Myanmar recently prompted Bill Kristol to advocate “limited military actions” to “avert the disaster that is unfolding” in that country (war #5, and see my post here). Likewise, Pakistan’s latest conflict over governance has moved American right-wing attitudes to that country from passive defensiveness (General Musharraf is our guy and Pakistan is a key strategic ally, but no, America does not especially need an ambassador there) to alarmed aggressiveness (i.e. war #6). Thus the AEI’s Fred Kagan and Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon in Sunday’s New York Times:

AS the government of Pakistan totters, we must face a fact: the United States simply could not stand by as a nuclear-armed Pakistan descended into the abyss. Nor would it be strategically prudent to withdraw our forces from an improving situation in Iraq to cope with a deteriorating one in Pakistan. We need to think – now – about our feasible military options in Pakistan, should it really come to that.

Ah yes, the feasible military options. As the authors state above, such options certainly don’t include shutting down the Iraq war to move troops to Pakistan. Meanwhile, another option — full-scale occupation — is immediately ruled out:

The task of stabilizing a collapsed Pakistan is beyond the means of the United States and its allies. Rule-of-thumb estimates suggest that a force of more than a million troops would be required for a country of this size.

Now that’s a refreshing dose of realism, isn’t it? But don’t get your hopes up; it doesn’t last. Of the “feasible” options, the first involves teaming up with pro-American Pakistanis in an attempt to capture, collect, and guard all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and materiel:

[We] would have to settle for establishing a remote redoubt within Pakistan, with the nuclear technology guarded by elite Pakistani forces backed up (and watched over) by crack international troops. It is realistic to think that such a mission might be undertaken within days of a decision to act.

Option 2 would use greater numbers of U.S. troops to support the Pakistani military in holding the country together “in the face of an ineffective government, seceding border regions and Al Qaeda and Taliban assassination attempts against the leadership.” But since a million-man occupation force is not in the offing, even this larger engagement (made up of “a sizable combat force” of U.S. and other Western troops) would have limited objectives:

So, if we got a large number of troops into the country, what would they do? The most likely directive would be to help Pakistan’s military and security forces hold the country’s center – primarily the region around the capital, Islamabad, and the populous areas like Punjab Province to its south.

Kagan and O’Hanlon are remarkably optimistic about the capabilities of this limited Western force. Once the centre is stabilized, they suggest, American forces might conceivably go on to win two wars at once:

If a holding operation in the nation’s center was successful, we would probably then seek to establish order in the parts of Pakistan where extremists operate. Beyond propping up the state, this would benefit American efforts in Afghanistan by depriving terrorists of the sanctuaries they have long enjoyed in Pakistan’s tribal and frontier regions. 

So that’s their plan. With the U.S. Army and Marine Corps running themselves into the ground trying to cope with stabilizing two nations of 25 to 30 million people each, these pundits think that somehow the United States can cobble together enough spare forces (along with troops from Western powers who have been hard-pressed to find even an extra brigade for Afghanistan) to successfully intervene in a nation of 160 million. And Options 2’s similarity to Iraq’s Fortress Green Zone strategy is merely one outcome of a line of thought that starts with calling the ever-growing catastrophe in Iraq “an improving situation”. If America is achieving victory in Iraq with only 160,000 troops, apparently it’s logical to conclude that victory in a country six times as populous should be possible with a force a fraction of that size.

Given the self-evident absurdity of this idea, why would ostensibly intelligent analysts propose such a thing? One plausible explanation is that they are caught between two beliefs: first, that the United States faces an existential crisis from Islamic terrorism; second, that American national willpower is liable to collapse if a draft is implemented. Forty-year-old memories of burning draft cards and marching students have seemingly so traumatized the American right-wing that they are willing to risk defeat after defeat — and the creation of failed state after failed state — to avoid calling a draft and risking the growth of a wider-scale anti-war movement.

But there is another explanation: that the belief in an existential threat is not a belief at all, but a pose, an attitude, a political weapon. For World War I — which did not involve an existential threat to America — the United States mobilized a 3.5 million man army from a population of only 100 million. For World War II — Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan being a much more serious threat to the country — the United States mobilized an 8 million man army from a population of 140 million. By the last chapter of the Cold War, with its population passing 225 million in 1980, the United States maintained an army of only 781,000 troops — but then again it relied primarily on its massive nuclear deterrent to keep the peace with the Soviet Union.

Now, facing an enemy that represents, Kagan and O’Hanlon claim, “as much a threat to our basic security as Soviet tanks once were”, the United States has elected to maintain an army of barely half a million soldiers out of a population of 300 million people. This is not the army of a nation facing an existential threat. This is the army of a nation that thinks its wars will be small, quick, and cheap.

If Kagan and O’Hanlon seriously believe that a collapsing Pakistan presents such a threat that a U.S. invasion would be morally and strategically justified, they should be arguing strenuously for that million-man force, rather than summarily ruling it out. In fact, if they had used a rule of thumb at all similar to the calculations that Gen. Eric Shinseki used to estimate the requirement for an occupation force of “several hundred thousand troops” in Iraq, they’d have to advocate an occupation force for Pakistan of roughly 3 million troops.

Could the United States mobilize such a force? Of course it could — see World Wars I & II, above. But is it willing to? Not a chance. And until that changes, you should weigh all the scare-mongering warnings about loose nukes and Iranian bombs and smoking guns and mushroom clouds against the fact that they are being made by people who don’t believe in the threat enough to actually prepare their country to meet it.


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