The growing rift between the Bush Administration and Pakistan’s new government over how to deal with militants operating in tribal areas along the Afghan border is a reminder that America’s global war against terrorists depends heavily on the forbearance of host nations. If Pakistan decides it has had enough of America’s presence in the region, conducting military operations in Afghanistan will become much harder. Not only would U.S. forces be unable to reach the landlocked country from the Indian Ocean — the only alternative to crossing Pakistan is to transit Iran — but Pakistan’s loosely ruled tribal areas could become a permanent sanctuary for Taliban insurgents.
Fortunately, Afghanistan is a unique case: every other country presenting a major challenge to U.S. strategy is directly accessible from the sea. But the Bush Administration has not thought through how it can use naval forces to influence the behavior of bellicose littoral powers such as Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. It conducts presence missions with surface warships and collects electronic intelligence with submarines, but plans for employing the Navy in more subtle ways to shape developments ashore are incomplete at best — especially if the goal is to avoid hostilities. The absence of a framework for applying naval power in circumstances short of war is strange, because U.S. warships control the seas near places like Iran and are capable of sustaining operations in the absence of access to nearby land bases.
Iran is a useful case study of how the Navy might be employed more imaginatively. The challenge Iran presents to U.S. interests is well known: it sits athwart the Strait of Hormuz, potentially exerting a stranglehold over outside access to Persian Gulf oil; it provides arms and training to anti-western militias in Iraq and Palestine; and it continues to pursue the development of nuclear weapons, including ballistic missiles suitable for their delivery against distant targets. But Iran is not a particularly strong or unified country. It is a Shiite theocracy in a sea of Sunnis. Its economy is a state-controlled basket case heavily dependent on oil exports. Its political culture is riven with ethnic and ideological divisions.
And then there is Iran’s coastline, stretching a thousand miles from the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the eastern Gulf of Oman. That coastline, dotted with military bases, looks to Pentagon planners like a dagger poised to sever the jugular of an oil-driven global economy. But it probably looks a lot different to the Teheran regime, because it enables U.S. naval forces to reach virtually any target in Iran with cruise missiles or carrier-based strike aircraft. A single Aegis warship equipped with anti-ballistic interceptors and deployed in the Persian Gulf could undercut the credibility of any Iranian nuclear threat. And the same U.S. submarines that now listen in on Iranian communications could also be used to land special forces at dozens of locations along the coastline.
So Iran’s coastline presents a potential avenue of attack for any foreign power with the capability to project force into the country’s interior. Conducting such littoral operations in support of force-projection missions has become the centerpiece of U.S. Navy thinking since the cold war ended. However, the goal of U.S. strategy is not to fight a war with Iran. The goal is to dissuade Iran’s government from impeding the flow of oil, developing nuclear weapons, or destabilizing neighboring countries. Whoever replaces President Bush needs to analyze much more thoughtfully how the Navy and U.S. intelligence agencies can collaborate to influence the behavior of Teheran’s leaders, because Iran is one place where “boots on the ground” doesn’t look like a feasible option.
Find Archived Articles: