Blogs: The Skeptics

Why the Battle for Mosul Could Become a Total Disaster

The Skeptics

The long anticipated battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul has now officially begun. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is already declaring that his country will “celebrate victory as one" because “Today I declare the start of these victorious operations to free you from the violence and terrorism of Daesh (ISIS).”  While his enthusiasm is understandable, early signs outside of Mosul already augur some troubling problems.

I traveled to the Peshmerga front lines on the eastern approaches to Mosul two months ago and have written on the considerable military challenges facing the combined liberating forces. Yet even before any of the hard fighting has begun, the political and diplomatic challenges facing the anti-ISIS coalition have risen to dangerous levels. These challenges may ultimately prove more formidable than the street fighting within the city itself.

United Nations and other aid agencies continue to warn of potential catastrophe for civilians that are expected to flee as the fighting escalates in the coming weeks and months. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien said there is presently only space for 60,000 displaced persons. They are in the process of constructing facilities to accommodate a total of 250,000.

The UN only has enough food on the ground, however, to feed 220,000 and depending on the severity of the fighting, O’Brien said, “as many as one million people may be forced to flee their homes in a worst-case scenario, …(yet) funding has been insufficient to prepare fully for the worst-case scenario.” It appears Iraqi officials are trying to mitigate the humanitarian crisis by showering Mosul residents with leaflets imploring them not to flee, but shelter in place; perversely, ISIS has likewise ordered civilians not to flee. How the government expects those citizens to get adequate food, water, and medical help in the event of a protracted fight was not explained.

Aside from the continuing potential for a humanitarian catastrophe, challenges among the anti-ISIS coalition and other residents outside of Mosul continue to mount. Without Kurdish Peshmerga attacking Mosul from the east, Iraqi forces would have little chance of defeating ISIS. Yet Kurdish leaders have not been shy about declaring that whatever territory they liberate from ISIS in and around Mosul will remain part of Kurdistan. In response Abadi warned the Kurds against such ambitions.

Also necessary for coalition success are the many Shiite militia, generally known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Many PMU leaders, however, have publicly warned that not only will they not work with the American military, some outright advocated killing US troops.

Mid-East news service Al-Monitor reported earlier this month that “Hassan al-Kaabi, a member of the PMU backing up the Iraqi government forces, rejects the presence of US troops in the battle for Mosul (and said) ‘I will fight them wherever they are.’”

In addition, Al-Monitor reported, “Qais al-Khazali, the general secretary of the prominent PMU faction Khazali Network, also has threatened to kill US troops in the battle for Mosul.”  Yet the most serious situation involves the Turkish Armed Forces.

There was a dustup between the governments of Turkey and Iraq on October 1st when the Turkish parliament voted to extend their troops’ stay in Iraq.   The Iraqi parliament immediately condemned the vote, accusing Turkish troops of being occupation forces. Abadi demanded Ankara withdraw its troops.  Turkish President Recep Erdogan refused. He insulted the Iraqi leader in the process, declaring Abadi is “not on my level.”  Turkey is also demanding a role in the liberation of Mosul.  Abadi has said no. He warned that if Turkey doesn’t withdraw they risk “regional war.”  On Monday, however, statements by Erdogan served to increase the potential for a clash between two American allies.

Ebil-based news agency Kurdistan24 reported that the Turkish President, “invoked on Monday an early 20th-century irredentist document that claimed the Iraqi city of Mosul as Turkish soil.” The document Erdogan referred to, Kurdistan24 explained, “referred to an Ottoman Parliament-sealed, 1920 pact that designates Kirkuk and Mosul as parts of Turkey… ‘They say Turkey should not enter Mosul,’” Erdogan was quoted as saying, “‘Come on! How do I not enter?”

These threats should not be casually dismissed. A look at a map of the region reflecting the 1920 document to which Erdogan referred shows most of northern Iraq – including not only Mosul but also Erbil – as lying with Turkish territory. Last Sunday Turkey’s Minister of Defense, Fikri Işık, said Ankara was going to push their military control of northern Syria, currently 20 kilometers (km) deep along a 90 km of the border, “even further, by 45 kilometers. We will create a security zone in northern Syria, and thus we will eliminate the threat to our territory.”  How much territorial ambition Ankara has beyond their expanding positions within Syria and Iraq is as yet unknown.

The bottom line is that the United States is presently basing its hopes on ending the war in Iraq against ISIS on:

· an Iraqi military partially rebuilt after its destruction in 2014;

· Kurdish Peshmerga that intends on keeping any territory they win;

· Shiite militias that hate the Sunni militias and civilians and has threatened to kill Americans;

· Sunni militias that have still unresolved issues with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad;

· and a NATO ally that has occupied territory in two neighboring states and is threatening to crash the Mosul-liberation party while the Iraqi PM threatens war against Turkey.

This unstable plan and volatile coalition formed to wrest control of Mosul from ISIS is the result of a stubborn Washington reliance on a foreign policy that seeks to feature military power to compel others to our will and a never-ending attempt to find quick answers to complex and multi-dimensional problems. Predictably, such a method of conducting foreign policy succeeds only in the continual degradation of the problems we seek to solve and the diminution of American national security.

The United States is going to have to abandon interventionist proclivities and adopt a more restrained use of military power. May that transition occur quickly.

Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.

Image Credit: Creative Commons License/Flickr User Contando Estrelas. 

Trump vs. Hillary (Round 3): It’s Time to Substantively Debate National Security

The Skeptics

A significant majority of the recent Presidential debate was consumed with candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump dousing one another with buckets of mud.  What the candidates didn’t share – and pointedly, what neither of the debate moderators asked – were matters which have existential ramifications for the United States.

Trump and Clinton each want to become America’s next commander in chief.  Yet both were silent on what they would do about the significant deterioration in relations between the US and the world’s other two major powers, or of America’s several hot wars. These are no trifling matters as the next occupant of the Oval Office is likely to face a number of crucial decisions about the China, Russia, not to mention several battlefronts throughout the Middle East.

Chris Wallace of FOX News, who will moderate the final debate Wednesday, must insist the candidates set aside blasting one another for at least part of the evening and instead share their visions for how they would handle these deteriorating international situations.

Wallace announced this past Tuesday that “foreign hot spots” was one of six subjects about which he will query the candidates. Here are three critical questions he might pose:

1. When one of you takes office in January 2017, the US will still be deeply embroiled in the Syrian civil war. Washington’s relations with Moscow have notably soured this year over the two country’s clashes in responding to the crisis.  Please tell the voters what you believe America’s vital national interests are in Syria and would you be willing to risk a major breach of relations with Russia in order to defend them?

America’s involvement in the Syria civil war has illustrated, perhaps better than even the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, that military power should never have been used there and has harmed American interests and security, not enhanced them.

When the President announced in September 2014 that he had authorized the use of air strikes in Syria, the only military objective he specified was an that he would “take action against targets” in order to “confront the threat posed by” the Islamic State (ISIS).  All the action succeeded in doing was to increase the suffering of the local population – and more ominously – helped usher in the overt involvement of the Russian Federation.

Since Russia began launching airstrikes of their own earlier this year, several events have caused tensions between Washington and Moscow to deteriorate significantly.  In retaliation in part because of events between the two powers in Syria and also owing to US deployment of ground forces in Central Europe, Russian Vladimir Putin has taken several actions antithetical to US interests.

He’s withdrawn from key nuclear reduction treaties, began conducting aggressive aerial patrols over US and NATO assets, and is considering reintroducing military forces in Cuba and other locations nearer to the US homeland. The situation in Syria is convoluted with literally hundreds of different and competing local and regional entities. It cannot be solved militarily. There is almost no outcome on the ground that could threaten US vital national interests. Deteriorating relations with Moscow, however, puts American interests at risk. Nothing in Syria is worth damaged relations with Russia.

2. In 2011 the United States announced a “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, ostensibly to influence the Asia Pacific’s “norms and rules.” Yet since that time the Chinese have significantly increased muscular naval actions there, and increased naval and other military cooperation with Russia.  What will you do as President to reduce increasing tensions with China while ensuring freedom of navigation for American commerce?

The United States has substantial commerce in the Asia Pacific region and has a definite interest in a peaceful region in which trade between nations can continue without interference.  This objective is most effectively attained by the intelligent use of diplomatic and economic assets. Had the President announced an economic pivot to the region and backed it up with substantial bilateral and multilateral diplomatic initiatives designed to foster effective trade and security relations among all states, the move might have been applauded, even in Beijing.

Instead, it was first and foremost a military pivot, including considerable and open discussions among those in the US Air Force and Navy about how to counter “A2/AD” measures (anti access and area denial measures) by certain unnamed states - China being the only one with such capabilities.  As a result of our military pivot (as well as previously mentioned conflicts in Syria), Russia has continued a re-focus to Asia Pacific itself, and more alarmingly, continued to deepen its military relations with China, including a number of increasingly complex naval exercises.

Again, these developments are not in the US national interest. It is paramount that the next Administration rebalance its efforts, not geographically, but conceptually by pivoting from a reliance on military forces to compel competitors and adversaries to behave according to our preferences, to one based on the advancement of shared mutual interests, focused on a win-win mentality. Such a move would be very difficult to pull off now because of the damage already done – and hardening positions of the military establishments within both the United States and China. But in the interest of the preservation of US security and economic interests, the change must be made quickly.

3. The US is presently fighting in one form or another seven wars in the Middle East and North Africa, many of which for more than a decade: Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan. The fighting in Iraq is currently making some tactical progress, but the battles in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen are markedly deteriorating.  As President, would you continue these wars, expand them, or end them?  Please explain the American vital national interest at stake in each location that you believe justifies using the instrument of war to defend?

Here’s the bottom line: the war in Syria is damaging US national security; the air strikes being conducted in Libya extend the suffering of the civil population but does not tip the tactical balance among the many combatants; the fight against ISIS in Iraq may only be a prelude to renewed civil war between the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds; Kabul and the US is slowly but unambiguously losing in Afghanistan; and our semi-covert contributions to conflicts in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are adding to the violence while contributing nothing towards any lasting solution.

For decades American military policy has been on something like auto-pilot. American Administrations and Pentagon leaders alike have made an industry out of applying short term, tactical band aids to nearly every diplomatic symptom that raises its head in areas where the US has interests abroad. It is hard to fathom, but there is almost no strategic thought to what these tactics are intended to accomplish.

Predictably, the symptomatic fires never seem to go out. If the next Administration does not make a sea change in how the military is used, it is likely US security interests will continue to suffer. It is also increasingly possible that the status-quo policy drift may one-day result in damage to our vital national interests.

Despite the Constitutional obligation to do so, the Congress has neither debated nor specifically authorized any of the numerous wars the United States is currently fighting. Polls show that by overwhelming majorities the American people do not approve of fighting these wars and do not wish to see new ones start, most especially ones that might pit the country against modern, nuclear-armed enemies. Before voting for either candidate next month,  voters should hear directly from the candidates about their stands on these war and peace issues.  

Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.

Image Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr User Gage Skidmore.

How U.S.-Saudi Relations Got So Twisted

The Skeptics

There is something rotten in U.S.-Saudi relations. It was probably unreasonable to think that a hereditary monarchy founded on a very conservative interpretation of Islam would regularly make common cause with a constitutional republic committed to secularism and individual liberty. But an always-awkward relationship has grown testy over the past fifteen years, and taken an even more ugly turn over the last two or three.

The latest tensions can be traced to sharp differences between the Saudis and the Obama administration over dealings in the Middle East, from how to handle the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to different responses to the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. And then there is the Obama administration’s attempt to mend fences with Iran—Saudi Arabia’s bitter rival.

There is a lingering sense that the House of Saud’s decades-long funding of an extreme interpretation of Islam throughout the world has contributed to the rise of Islamic extremism, and even violence. And yet, the roots of actual terrorists’ rage and resentment, to say nothing of their theology, rarely trace directly to Saudi-funded imams or mosques, as the New York Times’ Scott Shane has reported. Meanwhile, the Saudis have battled both Al Qaeda and ISIS. The awkward fact that ISIS had adopted some of its ideas and practices from the Saudis elicited regret from a former imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

So it would be wrong to blame the Saudis for ISIS. It does seem likely, however, that the Saudis, by promulgating their particular interpretation of Islam, have subtly shifted Muslim thought and teachings away from the liberalizing and tolerant brand that once flourished in most of the world—even, arguably, in the kingdom itself. According to Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer, “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism.” Another expert, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, noted that an English-language version of the Quran distributed by the Saudis over the years included disparaging parenthetical references to Christians and Jews that were “a complete heresy, with no basis in Islamic tradition.”

That leaves the question of what, if anything, the U.S. government can do to change the nature and extent of Saudi proselytizing. Calling Saudi-funded Wahhabism “an insidious presence,” Farah Pandith, the former State Department official tasked with outreach to the global Muslim community, implored the world to take action. “We must get serious about destroying the ideological extremist narratives,” she wrote in the New York Times. “If the Saudis do not cease what they are doing, there must be diplomatic, cultural and economic consequences.” Her message may have been intended for nonstate actors and NGOs. After all, many would push back on the suggestion that the U.S. government “create imam training centers in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America that are free of Saudi funding and that offer a diversity of Islamic practices.”

For its part, the 9/11 Commission advised the United States against trying to reshape the theory and practice of a religion. “We must encourage reform, freedom, democracy, and opportunity, even though our own promotion of these messages is limited in its effectiveness simply because we are its carriers. . . . The United States can promote moderation, but cannot ensure its ascendancy. Only Muslims can do this” (see here, pages 375–6).

Here in the United States, public attitudes toward the Saudis, never very warm, have likely grown slightly cooler. The release of the blacked-out twenty-eight pages from a 2002 congressional investigation didn’t show a “smoking gun” of Saudi government complicity in the 9/11 attacks, but likely provided the impetus for the near-unanimous passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). The legislation allows the families of 9/11 victims to directly sue the Saudi government. Where that all ends up is anyone’s guess.

There are limits, however, on how far members of Congress are willing to go in publicly criticizing the Saudis. My Cato colleague Emma Ashford wrote more about this here. And even though both chambers swiftly overrode President Obama’s JASTA veto, the Senate several weeks earlier had blocked a resolution concerning the sale of certain weapons to the Saudis, weapons that are being used with brutal effect in Yemen. The American people might not like the idea of Uncle Sam cozying up to oil-revenue-fueled autocrats, but they like the idea of oil-revenue-fueled genocidal maniacs (i.e., ISIS) and transnational terrorists (AQAP) even less. According to opponents of the resolution, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. and Saudi interests often align.

“The Middle East is a very complicated place,” Graham said. “But . . . Saudi Arabia shared intelligence with us that’s made Americans safe. They have allowed us to use their air bases in time of conflict. They are all-in against ISIS and they are a great ally against the ambitions of the Iranians. To those who wish to sever this relationship, be careful what you wish for.”

In short, Saudi Arabia isn’t America’s best or most reliable ally, but support for maintaining ties with the kingdom remains high. The relationship was “complicated,” President Obama explained to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this year.

It still is.

Christopher A. Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Image: President Barack Obama waves goodbye from the steps of Air Force One as he departs King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Flickr/The White House

ISIL Cannot Win the Battle for Mosul (But They Can Make It Slow and Bloody)

The Skeptics

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abad was defiant. Addressing the Iraqi people in a nationally televised statement, Abadi declared that the military operation to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State has finally begun--and that--inshallah--it will be a quick and relatively bloodless success. "The hour has come and the moment of great victory is near,” Abadi said.

In terms of pure numbers, the Mosul offensive should be a cakewalk for the government. While the figures vary, common estimate are that approximately 30,000 pro-government forces will be matched up against 3,000-4,500 ISIL fighters who are under-equipped, demoralized from past setbacks on the battlefield, and largely isolated from bringing in reinforcements from Syria or other areas of Iraq. The offensive has been building up for weeks; shaping operations forty or fifty miles outside of the city’s limits have enabled the Iraqi army to gradually starve the terrorist group of resources. The capture of the Qayyara airfield was an especially noteworthy development — situated 40 miles south of Mosul, the airfield has seen truckloads of supplies and troop reinforcements shipped up from Baghdad and an influx of 600 additional U.S. advisers who will be responsible for mapping out targets and assisting the Iraqis who will actually be doing the fighting.  

The fight for Mosul, however, is not simply about numbers. This is anything but a conventional fight, and how ISIL will react to tens of thousands of soldiers barreling towards them is anyone’s guess. Speaking to reporters at the State Department, special presidential envoy Brett McGurk didn’t even pretend to know the answer about what kinds of countermeasures ISIL might take to at least stall the Iraqis and make the job of retaking a city of 1-2 million people tougher. Air Force Col. John Dorian, the spokesman for CJTF-Operation Inherent Resolve, was confident enough to say that Mosul will be an “order of magnitude larger than the liberation of battles in cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah, and Sharqat,” where the population was either relatively homogenous in sectarian identity or small enough that the risk of civilian casualties was low.  

There are indeed a lot of unknowns in this operation. The Iraqi security forces, which have been heavily assisted by U.S. airstrikes throughout the counter-ISIL campaign, are now being thrust in the middle of the international spotlight in a city that put Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIL on the map. The multi-ethnic and sectarian nature of the battle could potentially complicate how the offensive unfolds, whether there are hundreds of thousands of refugees who stream out of the city (a worst-case scenario that the U.N. is nonetheless preparing for), and how smoothly the post-liberation phase of the offensive will go once ISIL is extruded.  

The fact that there are so many different entities involved in the same space — Kurdish peshmerga, Shia militias, Iraqi counterterrorism forces, Iraqi national police, and local Sunni fighters — is a recipe for internecine warfare or at least confusion. The establishment of a joint committee overseeing the offensive involving all of these groups, including the United States, is a welcome sign that Washington and Baghdad understand the stakes involved--and recognize that how Mosul is liberated is just as important as whether it’s liberated in the first place. Every entity, nominally fighting on the same side, needs to move according to plan and stay in their respective sectors.

Mosul will be liberated, there is no question. The ISIL of October 2016 is nowhere near the strength, power, or wealth of the ISIL of October 2014, when the group was literally scaring away Iraqi soldiers and police officers just by showing up in their black masks and unkempt beards. The organization’s finances, manpower, morale, territory, and luster as a jihadist movement have all declined precipitously over the past two years.  U.S. airstrikes and U.S. advisers backing up Iraqi army forces and peshmerga units on the ground has proven to be a winning combination, at least so far.  

ISIL cannot win the battle for Mosul, but they can make the battle so slow and bloody that the Iraqi army is worn down, tired, and perhaps humiliated as a fighting force in front of its people. The last thing Baghdad and Irbil need is to make ISIL’s job even easier by failing to cooperate — both during the operation and the equally critical stage of reconstructing a devastated city.

Image: Creative Commons. 

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a freelance researcher and a Middle East analyst at Wikistrat, Inc. He is a frequent contributor to the National Interest and a columnist at the Hill, Rare, and Quartz.

Does America Really Need Overseas Bases?

The Skeptics

In the ongoing debate over U.S. grand strategy, one of the key points of discussion is the strategic utility of permanently stationing American forces abroad. Overseas U.S. bases are often thought to be the frontline forces in any outbreak of conflict. We must continue to maintain an indefinite global military base presence, we are told, so that if conflict erupts in any critical region, our forces can get there quickly to stabilize the situation. But a forward-deployed posture has lost much of its operational value in terms of contingency responsiveness. 

Even during the Cold War, the service rendered by troops in Europe was more about deterrence and to guarantee U.S. involvement in a conflict, not to be particularly useful in battlefield scenarios. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower once commented in reference to the 1958-59 Berlin crisis, “If resort to arms should become necessary, our troops in Berlin would be quickly overrun, and the conflict would almost inevitably be global war. For this type of war, our nuclear forces were more than adequate.”

RAND Corporation report on basing posture reiterates this point for today: “the forces that are forward-deployed are not sufficient of themselves to address conflicts of every scope.” Indeed, “after the initial phase of operations to stabilize or even resolve a situation, the response by the U.S. military to a contingency of any substantial size will come primarily from forces deployed from bases in the United States.”

In other words, forward bases are useful mainly for rapid deployment of lighter forces in emergency situations. Anything beyond minor stabilization missions requires reinforcements from the continental United States. What’s interesting about this insight is that thanks to revolutionary technological advances in military capability, transportation, and communications, according to RAND, “lighter ground forces can deploy by air from the United States almost as quickly as they can from within a region.” So for any contingency that truly warrants U.S. intervention, we should be able to handle both minor and major deployments by relying on bases at home.

The bottom line is that forces can deploy to virtually any region fast enough to be based in the continental United States. An armored brigade combat team can get from Germany to Kuwait in approximately 18 days, only about four days quicker than if it deployed from the east coast of the United States. As the RAND report explains, “The movement and time advantages for moving light and medium [brigade combat teams] from overseas compared with [the U.S.] by air is minor.”

To get a sense of how much things have changed over the years, consider that, “during the first three weeks of the American buildup to the Gulf War,” according to Kent Calder, “the United States moved more troops and equipment than in the first three months of the Korean War.” And that was a quarter century ago. Capabilities have continued to improve mightily since then.

According to the basing expert Robert Harkavy, “the development of longer range aircraft and ships, plus the development of techniques for aerial refueling of planes and at-sea refueling of ships has had the effect of greatly decreasing the number of basing points required by major powers to maintain global access networks.”

Think about our ability to fly bombing missions from a transcontinental distance. In the Gulf War, the U.S. flew B-52s from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to conduct bombing raids against Iraq in round-trip missions that exceeded 10,000 miles and took only 30 hours. In 1999, the U.S. Air Force conducted attacks against Serbian targets from the United States. In the initial operations against Taliban-held Afghanistan in 2001, B-2 stealth bombers based at Whiteman Air Base in Missouri flew 44-hour missions with the help of aerial refueling capabilities “without using any bases in the vicinity of Afghanistan at all,” according to Calder.

Admittedly, U.S.-based deployment would not be as convenient as with a forward posture. The transit time to the Taiwan Strait, for example, for a carrier strike group deployed from Yokosuka, Japan would take 3 to 5 days, whereas deployment from the West Coast would take up to 16 days. However, those transit times can be mitigated with sufficient basing capacity in Hawaii (about 12 days) or in port at the U.S. territory of Guam, which would allow transit times comparable to that of Yokosuka, Japan.

But the loss of any transit time conveniences also has to be balanced against the increased vulnerability of forward-deployed military forces. As technological innovation has made forward-deployed forces less necessary logistically, it has also made them more vulnerable. 

The development of extremely accurate intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, integrated air defense systems, and modern satellite-based sensors, among other innovations, make overseas bases exceedingly susceptible to asymmetric attacks that are very difficult to defend against. China, in particular, has invested heavily in these capabilities, meaning a large percentage of overall U.S. facilities – over 90 percent of U.S. air facilities in Northeast Asia - are within high-threat areas. The People’s Liberation Army’s conventional theater-strike system, the DF-21, “can hit all military facilities along the entire Japanese archipelago.” These weapons and others like them “could cripple an airbase, incapacitate an aircraft carrier, and devastate concentrated ground forces.” 

Not only do anti-access/aerial denial capabilities make overseas U.S. bases more vulnerable, they also undermine the deterrent effect of a forward-deployed posture by weakening the credibility of a rapid response. As RAND Corporation analyst Michael J Mazarr recently wrote, “Primacy is operationally infeasible in an age of A2/AD.”

One of the prominent arguments in favor of maintaining an indefinite overseas military presence for purposes of contingency responsiveness is that it is too difficult and time-consuming to secure permission for access from host governments in the middle of a crisis situation in which U.S. forces are needed. This concern is overstated. To begin with, contingency access is always conditional on host government permission. Basing agreements typically stipulate that the U.S. must consult with host nation governments before conducting any non-routine operations. But more to the point, we have historically not had trouble securing basing access in wartime. Indeed, the U.S. has been able to add new operating facilities overseas for every major conflict over the last 40 years. 

For any contingency important enough to warrant U.S. intervention, forces can be deployed to any region from offshore within a reasonable time frame. And if a crisis situation does require establishing overseas bases, we can do so rather quickly. The reduced ability to consistently engage in military exercises, freedom of navigation operations, or constant drone flights is an acceptable loss of contingency responsiveness given the new vulnerabilities to forward bases and the fact that an offshore posture would benefit overall U.S. interests by encouraging allies to contribute more to their own defense and thus reduce the burden on the U.S. 

John Glaser is a Washington, DC based writer and a graduate student in International Security at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He has been published in CNN, Time, Newsweek, and The Guardian, among other outlets.

Image: U.S. Air Force