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Limits of offshore balancing

The New America Foundation convened a conference this week to showcase the work of Robert Pape, in the hopes that his policy prescriptions will be picked up as an alternative to our current strategy in Afghanistan. This would be a terrible idea. 

Pape's research shows that the majority of suicide bomb attacks occur in places occupied by U.S. military forces; from this he concludes that we should adopt a strategy of "offshore balancing." By which he means to remove U.S. forces and rely on military strikes into the countries, along with more effective political and economic engagement. Neither the research nor the prescriptions are sound bases for policy.

To say that attacks occur where U.S. forces are deployed is to say no more than Willy Sutton, who robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Pape's approach ignores the context in which deployment and stationing of U.S. forces occurs. We send troops to advance our interests, protect our allies, and contest the political and geographic space that groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban are operating in. Of course the attacks will stop if we cede those political objectives. But the troops are not the point, the political objectives are the point.

The second important context Pape glosses over is that suicide attacks do not occur wherever in the world U.S. troops are deployed. Troops stationed in Germany, Japan, or South Korea are not at risk of suicide attacks from the people of those countries. This is not just about U.S. troops, but also about the societies we are operating in. It is about a radical and violent interpretation of Islam that we are using military force to contest.

The policy prescriptions Pape advances are also problematic. An offshore balancing approach means that we will not be engaged with military forces on the ground, and yet what we have learned in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan is that we achieve our objectives most fully when indigenous forces are partnered with us and made able to take over the work of U.S. forces in the fight. They have greater legitimacy, local knowledge, and make the outcome most durable. That was the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, and it is the purported approach of the Obama administration in Afghanistan. Pape's policies have no way to achieve that improvement in the capacity of partner forces.

An offshore balancing approach is also inherently retaliatory and has been shown to increase the resistance of affected populations to supporting our objectives. We threaten to use force from the safe confines of distance; that use of force may have pinpoint accuracy but will often be less precise and cause more civilian casualties than forces on the ground, which will again feed into public attitudes about whether to support U.S. goals. Instead of working with the people most affected and helping build their capacity to protect themselves, offshore balancing does little to change the problem in positive ways.

Except for the "improved" political and economic activity. How that will be undertaken in a deteriorating security environment is mysterious. Moreover, if we could do any better at the provision of political and economic engagement, we'd already be doing that.

Convincing allies the U.S. will commit itself to fight unless we have troops stationed where we expect the fight to occur has always been difficult. The history of the Cold War is replete with transatlantic discussion of extended deterrence: would the United States really send the boys back over if Germany were attacked? Would the United States really use nuclear weapons when our own homeland would be at risk of retaliation? It seems unlikely those concerns would be attenuated in societies we are less politically and culturally similar to than we are to Europeans.

In short, Robert Pape's "offshore balancing" approach would reduce violence by giving our enemies what they want: our disengagement, the ability to terrorize with impunity the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places where the battle of ideas about Muslim modernity is engaged.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

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