Belmont Club

America as Jackie Chan

George Friedman argues that by fighting terrorism with allies — and not just Pakistan — who are themselves part of the terrorist nexus, the U.S. has enmeshed itself in an insoluble contradiction. It has denied itself any chance at victory as the price of having to fight terrorism.  He asks whether America, by the choice of its allies, has implicitly adopted the strategy of not winning, lest it destabilize its friends. Nowhere was the problem more evident, Friedman said, than in Pakistan.  Pakistan objectively supports terrorism for both domestic political reasons and to use as a weapon against India. But it also needed American help for domestic economic reasons and as a weapon against India, so it lied to everybody to get what it wanted.

The Pakistani solution was to appear to be doing everything possible to support the United States in Afghanistan, with a quiet limit on what that support would entail. That limit on support set by Islamabad was largely defined as avoiding actions that would trigger a major uprising in Pakistan that could threaten the regime. Pakistanis were prepared to accept a degree of unrest in supporting the war but not to push things to the point of endangering the regime. …

Nothing in the capture of bin Laden changes the geopolitical realities. So long as the United States wants to wage — or end — a war in Afghanistan, it must have the support of Pakistan to the extent that Pakistan is prepared to provide support. …

This is the ultimate contradiction in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and even the so-called war on terror as a whole. …  Broadly fighting terrorism requires the cooperation of the Muslim world, as U.S. intelligence and power is inherently limited. …

The United States must either develop the force and intelligence to wage war without any assistance — which is difficult to imagine given the size of the Muslim world and the size of the U.S. military — or it will have to accept half-hearted support and duplicity. Alternatively, it could accept that it will not win in Afghanistan and will not be able simply to eliminate terrorism. These are difficult choices, but the reality of Pakistan drives home that these, in fact, are the choices.

Both sides are fighting in a manner that recalls the Jackie Chan movie in which our hero must fight multiple bad guys while preserving a museum full of priceless Ming vases. The question Friedman never answers completely is whether the choices of accepting “half-hearted support and duplicity” and “that it will not win in Afghanistan and will not be able simply to eliminate terrorism” are equivalent.  Whether they amount to the same thing. In other words, whether it is, in the president’s favorite phrase, “a false choice”: heads you win, tails I lose.

The desire not to have to make a choice may account for why the Obama administration wants less — and not more — authority from Congress to prosecute the war it denies exists. The Danger Room describes the administration’s contradictory desire to both expand the war while simultaneously limiting its authority to do so.

The so-called “Chairman’s Mark” of the bill, currently before the House Armed Services Committee, wants to update the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, to reflect that the al-Qaida of the present day is way different than the organization that attacked the U.S. on 9/11.

While the original Authorization tethered the war to those directly or indirectly responsible for 9/11, the new language authorizes “an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces,” as “those entities continue to pose a threat to the United States and its citizens.”

To its supporters, the proposal catches Congress up to the reality of today’s war. There aren’t many al-Qaida members in Afghanistan, but the war there rages onward. Meanwhile, the Obama administration wages a series of secret wars against al-Qaida entities in Pakistan and Yemen. Since last fall, Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the committee, has argued that Congress, which hasn’t voted on the war in a decade, needs to go on record approving or disapproving of the 2011-era war. Essentially, his proposal would bring the secret wars in from the cold….

The proposal is a big expansion of executive authority, giving the president the ability to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against those terrorist groups he decides are U.S. enemies. So it’s an additional irony that the Obama administration isn’t wild about it.

Like Islamabad, Washington would very much prefer to lie to everybody. At a time when it is doing exactly what the the congressional authorization specifies — expanding the war to Pakistan and perhaps to Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, while remaining in part in Afghanistan and Iraq — it doesn’t want to be held to the mission of defeating terrorism decisively. It only wants to proceed insofar as it doesn’t upset the rest of the apple cart. It needs to fight the bad guys, but it doesn’t want to break any vases.

In order to do this, it has to sever the last links between the traditional concept of decisive warfare and the current spate of kinetic military activity. That includes minimizing its origins in congressional authorization. This is necessary because it has to keep fighting without any intention of winning. Winning would destabilize Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and the truth is that nobody could afford that.

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