With George Will’s call for a drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan, expect to hear many variations on this concept:
“America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”
Will is describing offshore balancing, a strategy principally employed by the British. Up to World War II, the British largely adopted a largely hands-off policy towards the continent, intervening with men and material largely to influence events on the ground and prevent the rise of a continent-wide hegemon able to threaten the British isles. Realists often reference this idea favorably in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. While appealing in theory, offshore balancing does have some significant drawbacks.
NATO airpower, even under the new guidance issued by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has spurred controversy about target selection accuracy and civilian casualties. It is likely that some residual force will remain even in the event of a significant drawdown, but advocates of an offshore balancing approach need to clarify how the US will generate intelligence for targeting and direct action raids. Furthermore, the 2006 Lebanon War and the 1999 Kosovo conflicts are evidence of the unpleasant fact that airstrikes and standoff fires are not necessarily decisive instruments, especially against opponents skilled in the use of camouflage, dispersal, and military deception. Drones have proven more deadly because of their pervasive surveillance of the battlefield, lessening the ranks of al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban commanders. If Will and other advocates of the offshore approach are planning a more expansive covert war on the border with direct action raids the methodology and political aims of such a campaign should be clarified. Offshore raids and airstrikes are not going to prove much more successful than the US’s current campaign without a defined political aim for Pakistan policy.
Drawdown and offshore balancing also lessens the ability of the United States and its allies to exert influence in Afghanistan itself, especially if forces are consolidated into a series of super-Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) or in major cities. A capability for strategic raids may create a deterrent option, but a focus on kinetic deep raids such as the Marine Corps’ Operational Maneuver from the Sea is not currently being emphasized by defense policymakers. Such a weakness may come back to haunt the US should the consequences of drawdown prove dire. “Offshore” balancing without credible forcible entry operations will not work. On the other hand, it is plainly clear that US force has not bought political influence or control even over clients such as the Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
Offshore balancing and drawdown may be the best options for current US strategy, but they must first be developed into viable proposals for action. At present they are just as nebulous as everything else in the current Afghanistan/counterinsurgency debate.