The difference between John McCain and Barack Obama over foreign policy toward Pakistan has generated much press coverage of late. It was revisited in last week's debates, and has received new vitality this week from video showing Senator McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, agreeing with Obama that U.S. forces should wage attacks against Islamist militants across the Pakistani frontier. McCain's campaign has trumpeted this dispute as exemplary of Obama's inexperience and naïveté, but it is more indicative of McCain's own tone-deafness on and ahistorical sense of foreign policy.
The counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is failing because it is caught in one of the oldest strategic traps in military history. When an insurgent force can exploit the frontier zone between two jurisdictional authorities as a safe haven, it achieves massive leverage over its counterinsurgent opponents. Any student of Chinese history is aware that this pattern played itself out repeatedly through successive eras. A rebel force would lodge itself at the frontier between two or more provinces and nimbly jump back and forth across that boundary. When authorities in one province were mobilized to fight the rebels it would withdraw to the periphery of a neighboring province to replenish and recuperate. Because coordination between provincial authorities was poor, and the peripheral areas of provinces were generally sparsely penetrated by official personnel, rebel groups could survive this way for decades. This strategy was exploited effectively by the Nien (1851-1868) rebels in the late Qing dynasty and again by Communist guerillas against the KMT in the first half of the 20th century, to name just two instances.
It is ironic that John McCain would not recognize this pattern in present-day Afghanistan, because another classic example of the use of this strategy to defeat a counterinsurgency was the war that so shaped McCain's own character and outlook, the Vietnam War. Viet Cong and NVA opponents of the Republic of South Vietnam were free to operate back and forth across the frontiers of Cambodia and North Vietnam, placing U.S. and ARVN counterinsurgent forces at a crippling disadvantage. McCain is fond of repeating U.S. soldiers' pleas to "let us win" in Iraq, making the explicit comparison to Vietnam. He insists, however, that he would tie the hands of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in precisely the manner that insured defeat in Vietnam.
I am not suggesting that the war in Vietnam could have been won had the U.S. adopted a more "hands free" strategy. Such a strategy could not be pursued in Vietnam without risking a global conflict with China and the USSR, which is why the Vietnam War was an intractable strategic task from the outset and should never have been undertaken. Nor is the pursuit of a cross-border strategy along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier without risk. Trespassing upon Pakistani territory by U.S. forces could incite massive hostility from the Pakistani people, and could, in the most extreme scenario, lead to the collapse of the Pakistani state and the onset of a state of anarchy in that large and nuclear-armed nation.
These risks must be weighed against the single stark contrast between the conflict in Afghanistan and those in both Vietnam and Iraq, however. Unlike the latter conflicts, that in Afghanistan is of vital urgency to the security of the U.S. The forces that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 were lodged in Afghanistan and are currently fighting among the insurgents there. The U.S. can no more relinquish this counterinsurgency than it could refrain from retaliating for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Given that the safety and security of the nation is at stake, the U.S. must pursue all necessary means to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan. It therefore has no choice but to treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single operational theater. If Pakistani territory is treated as "off limits" in the prosecution of the counterinsurgency, then the conflict in Afghanistan will end in the same manner as the war in Vietnam. If John McCain does not realize this fact, he is a poor student of history and a poor judge of foreign policy.
The challenges of operating within the Afghan-Pakistani theater are acutely complex. Every tool in the strategic arsenal of the U.S., military, diplomatic, and economic, must be used simultaneously in careful coordination with one-another. The tactical and political consequences of each action must be weighed cautiously. U.S. political and military leaders will have to walk a virtual razor's edge: discovering how they may operate within Pakistani territory without either broadening the conflict or precipitating the collapse of the government in Islamabad. All of these tasks will require the total focus and full resources of the U.S. government, a fact that argues in favor of a leader who understands that the invasion of Iraq was a distraction, and that it must be wound down in order to shift focus to Afghanistan.