The concept of American “forward defense posture,” in use by the Pentagon since the Cold War, has kept major U.S. military units assigned to Europe (mostly Germany) and Asia, with smaller commitments elsewhere as events dictate. It has been estimated that there are several hundred (up to 700, according to the Russians) U.S. military installations of all types currently in existence worldwide. The strategic issue of forward defense is not really arguable; it is the size of each commitment and length of stay that is the real and recurring question. Pertinently, that is the issue with Afghanistan.
Differing arguments have been made for keeping the American military presence in Afghanistan below 10,000 combat and support troops — or, depending on the advocate, above 15,000. It is no longer a matter of defending Afghan territory from Taliban incursions. That supposedly is the Afghan Army’s job. The stated aim instead is to restrict the ability of the radical Islamist groups, e.g. al Qaeda, from regrouping and using areas of Afghanistan as a training ground and operational jumping off point for attacks against international targets.
Many explanations have been given for maintaining a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, but the foregoing are the ones made publicly by the White House and Pentagon. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t work. If Pakistan continues to allow sanctuary to various Islamist individuals and groups, there is no way to prevent their infiltration into Afghanistan. The Russians found that to be the case in their Afghan war, and Taliban operations have been limited but not prevented by more than a decade of heavy American/NATO activity. Turning a problem of how to create a secure democratic state over to the Afghan Army is a charade. It only will be a matter of time before the combination of Pakistani acquiescence and access, as well as radical Islamic desire, puts Afghanistan back in the hands of some form of Taliban control.
U.S. strategists like to believe that as long as the objective is limited and well defined, American special operations can accomplish any task. Nonetheless, taking on the responsibility for a “forward defense” posture in Afghanistan, and thus a portion of South Asia, is one objective too far. The unique character of a multi-faceted tribal culture, traditional internecine conflict, and a social structure built on historical indigenous corruption has prevented — and continues to prevent — any concept of a Western-modeled governance absent a dominant Western military presence. Even for a totalitarian Soviet methodology imposed with a massive Russian armed force, the price was too high.
Necessary forward defense positions must be balanced against the threat perceived. The question therefore must be asked: How important is the maintenance of a defensive strong point in Afghanistan? Al Qaeda has diversified, with numerous fraternal groups in Syria, Libya, Nigeria, and so on is now, diminishing the role of Afghanistan as a sanctuary. In fact, concentrating anti-Islamist efforts in a forward defense posture, such as the one contemplated, could simply encourage covert terrorist development elsewhere.
Basically, Washington must decide whether or not it can afford to disperse highly trained and specialized forces around the globe in an effort to counter an enemy that is within itself competing for domination of an ideology that is construed differently by its various ethnic, national, and political components. The most consistent belief among the various ideological adherents is the agreement that Western religion and belief systems are antipathetic to the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. The role of economics does not have a consistent place in Islamist consideration, though wealth dominance by non-Islamic or even unfaithful Moslems definitely is to be attacked.
When the enemy is considered in this broad and complex manner, it would appear that the establishment of distant defense outposts is at best irrelevant and possibly even counter-productive. It might be better to address each new regional Islamist development as a unique instrument to be dealt with accordingly — whether the response is political, economic, or military. This is how such outbursts were dealt with during past colonial days. Are the revolutionary forces of Islam that much more different today and the regions from which they are born that much more culturally and socio-economically advanced?
What is actually happening is that the Obama administration has taken political action to give the impression it is not abandoning America’s more than decade-long ally, Afghanistan — while at the same time doing exactly that. The American people and Congress clearly no longer want the responsibility of protecting Afghanistan from itself. That’s a legitimate objective — and understandable. But to pretend this retreat is anything but, and then to place the burden on a dwindling number of troops operating under extremely restrictive rules of engagement, cannot be explained away or forgiven. That’s not a forward defense posture. It’s a posture to cover one’s rear end.