The Back of Beyond
One of the more obvious unasked questions implicit in all those "adult" proposals to empty Iraq of forces and shift them to Afghanistan is how they would be supplied. Afghanistan is landlocked and, apart from the highly limited airlift mode, requires cooperation from neighboring countries to ship in supplies. In particular, Afghanistan is bordered to the east and southeast by Pakistan, the west by Iran, and to the north by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikstan. The nearest ocean is 275 due south.
Today, the American Forces Press Service reported that contingency plans are being prepared to supply coalition forces in Afghanistan if Pakistan is lost.
Nov. 14, 2007 – The U.S. military is examining different contingencies for supplying American troops in Afghanistan if supplies can no longer be shipped through Pakistan, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said today.
Morrell said at a Pentagon news conference that the supply line issue “is a very real area of concern for our commanders in Afghanistan, because 75 percent of all of our supplies for our troops in Afghanistan flow either through or over Pakistan.” This includes about 40 percent of the fuel shipped to U.S. forces, which comes directly from Pakistani refineries. No ammunition goes through Pakistan, the press secretary said.
The center of gravity of the Afghan/Pakistani theater (which should conceptually be regarded as a single, complex battlefield) is now in Pakistan. The basic strategic dilemma of this theater is that a) US forces cannot directly attack the enemy center of gravity in Pakistan. They can only fight it indirectly from Afghanistan; but b) any reinforcement of Afghanistan enlarges the forces that have to be supplied through Pakistan. That in turn means more forces will be cut off if Pakistan is lost. Basically America is fighting an enemy which is in its logistical rear without really being able to fight it.
The obvious strategic choices that are open to the US are: a) to enlarge the battlefield to include the direct military occupation of Pakistan; b) to limit operations in Afghanistan to forces which can be realistically supplied in the event of Pakistan's loss. My guess is that the Option B is the only realistically available option. This means that Afghanistan will only ever be a holding action. It will never become the decisive area of operations. That dubious honor is reserved for Pakistan, where the battle against al-Qaeda will have to be prosecuted by indirect means. This implies a greater covert, diplomatic and advisory effort in an unstable country which possess nuclear weapons.
Victory in this theater will require developing new unconventional warfighting capabilities. If anything, it will be harder to do than the campaign in Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Pakistan has become similar to an inoperable cancer and it may be helpful to address it in those terms.
Such cancers are treated with non-invasive therapies such as drugs which disrupt the metabolic pathways of the cancer cells or alter their DNA into self-destructive patterns. Although al-Qaeda cells are present in Pakistani sanctuaries, their roots go back to the Middle East, whence they receive funding and theological support. In this regard, the recent defeats al-Qaeda has suffered in Iraq may have done much to weaken its legitimacy in its own backyard. But the blow inflicted in Iraq is unlikely to be fatal.
Many more centers of metastasis, with which al-Qaeda interacts, are present in Western Europe, Central Asia and the subcontinent. Recently, Gordon Brown announced plans to create a "Fortress Britain" to try and reduce the malignancy of their Muslim ghettoes. Although I have my doubts about how effective that strategy will be it seems clear that the radical Islamic threat is so widely distributed now that the application of direct military action must be subordinated to a far wider plan of action.