On September 1st, the Washington Post’s George Will put a voice behind an increasingly popular alternative strategy for Afghanistan: “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters”. Naval blogger Galrahn points out that Will is advocating the strategy of offshore balancing. The problem is that offshore balancing in Afghanistan cannot produce victory, only prevent defeat.

In a 2008 Newsweek article, the father of offshore balancing, international relations scholar John Mearsheimer, laid out the concept:

“As an offshore balancer, the United States would keep its military forces—especially its ground and air forces—outside the Middle East, not smack in the center of it. Hence the term ‘offshore.’ As for ‘balancing,’ that would mean relying on regional powers like Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to check each other. Washington would remain diplomatically engaged, and when necessary would assist the weaker side in a conflict. It would also use its air and naval power to signal a continued U.S. commitment to the region and would retain the capacity to respond quickly to unexpected threats, like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.”

Offshore balancing is cheap, requiring at least one carrier group in the Arabian Sea and increased land-based air assets in Diego Garcia and perhaps Iraq. These forces could conduct airstrikes on Taliban targets to assist Afghan government units. Offshore balancing is also not new. In 1999, NATO forces flew 38,000 combat missions against Yugoslav troops, forcing them out of Kosovo. However, the trillion dollar question is this: what would an offshore balancing victory in Afghanistan look like?

In 1999, NATO airpower did not defeat Milošević, it only drove him to the bargaining table. This result is unlikely to be repeated in Afghanistan. Years of airstrikes — essentially offshore balancing — against the Taliban and their allies in Pakistan’s tribal region have yet to force Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar to negotiate. Even if they did offer to negotiate like Milošević, is this a victory the US public would accept? Not a chance.

The strategic use of airpower is about coercion, not victory. Despite all the advances in technology, victory still requires boots on the ground. Granted they do not have to be American boots, but victory is far more likely if they are. Offshore balancing can prevent the Taliban from defeating the Afghan government, by bombing the villages they are staying in and the roads they are driving on. But, preventing defeat is not victory. Airpower can force the Taliban to keep one eye on the sky, but not to give up the fight. Victory in Afghanistan requires reliable, sustainable, and capable ground forces to protect and win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and through their support, a stable state. Ironically, the losers in offshore balancing would be the Afghan people, trapped between the brutal Taliban, the undisciplined Afghan Army, and the American cruise missile.

Posted by Christopher Albon in Air Force, Aviation, Foreign Policy, Navy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Mike M.

    Depends on how you define ‘victory’.

    If you mean trying to establish a democratic government, complete with the cultural underpinnings that make it work, ‘victory’ will take years of occupation, a protracted counterinsurgency campaign, and decades of education.

    If, on the other hand, the objective is to simply dissuade other nations from attacking the United States – or harboring those who do – then a remote smash-and-leave policy will work.

    But it’s not “strategic balancing”. It’s classic gunboat diplomacy. Leave us alone or we’ll dismantle your country.

    It’s a strategy that suits the American national psyche a lot better than what we’ve been doing.

  • jim

    Not to quibble, but “off-shore balancing” is more a strategy for competition between large and medium power states — and isn’t really about fighting actual wars with off-shore strikes.

    The idea is to keep the balance of power in a region (Europe, Asia, Middle East) so a regional hegemon cannot rise up and threaten America. We stay the global #1 by making sure all the lesser powers are busy fighting each other for regional power. The off-shore part is so we don’t get permanently tied to one faction or another — by being off-shore we can switch support to whoever is losing.

    The hard-core realists who propose off-shore balancing want, ideally, never ending power conflicts everywhere outside the Western Hemisphere. The goal is to keep any potential rivals exhausted and focused on their neighbors.

  • Mike M.

    It’s an interesting concept – and one which the British used quite successfully in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    I think the real issue is figuring out how to disengage from the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns without suffering a catastrophic loss of credibility.

    And then fighting the long, hard struggle to crack the Goldwater-Nichols logjam. You can’t rebalance DOD for a post-post-Cold War world when you are shackled to a force balance that is 20 years out of date.

  • This article makes much sense. Are our leaders listening?

  • Byron

    Short term effects or results? Sure, it’ll work…about as good as that “baby milk factory” in the Sudan that Clinton tossed a few Tomahawks at. Anyone remember the firestorm from that one? Or the real good that it did?

    Long term effects or results? Boots on the ground. There are times when you have to stick a gun barrel right in some a$$holes snot locker to convince him that he needs to go away.

    Looks pretty, though, probably be a nice simple Harpoon scenario…

  • G-man

    $6 billion CVN, $10 billion supporting battlegroup, 10,000 personnel, $60 million Super Hornet dropping $25,000 PGM to blow up a mud hut with 3 maybe bad guys. Air power didn’t win WWII, didn’t win Korea, didn’t win VN, didn’t win Serbia/Kosovo, didn’t win Desert Storm 1. It won’t work by itself – unless you drop the big one.

  • Byron

    Silly. Agree it takes boots on the ground. But that CSG is there to make sure that our troops don’t get ambushed by 300 of those other 3 guys we went after in their mud hut.

    Remember, there ain’t nothing better than on-call tac air.

  • G-man

    Agree, but it is – and always has been – there in a supporting role. As the Marines learned in Afghan this week, ROE and uhigher commands hinders the TACAIR or helo support from doing their jobs, not so much for the ROE of the guys getting incoming rounds.

  • Jay

    Better reading on same at (abumuquwama…sorry if spelling not correct): “When people look back on the Afghanistan war, this might be the moment when historians will judge we should have cut the cord on the Afghan government. If we believe Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, and we believe a counterinsurgency campaign to represent our best chance of success in Afghanistan, then we have a big problem. Because if we believe what we ourselves have learned about counterinsurgency campaigns, we understand that we cannot be successful in one if the host nation government is seen as increasingly illegitimate — and that’s what the Karzai government is.”

  • Old Air Force Sarge

    What exactly is the objective in Afghanistan? (Or Iraq for that matter.) One thing the media pundits always seem to howl about is the lack of an “exit strategy”. “Exit strategy” is just a new buzz-phrase for “objective”. Victory is determined by how you define your objective and then whether or not you achieved that objective. Most wars prior to the Korean War had fairly simple objectives: defeat the opponent by the application of superior force and force them to sue for peace. Korea started simply enough, drive the North Koreans back behind the 38th parallel. MacArthur extended that objective by driving to the Yalu River in an attempt to unite the two Koreas under a democratic form of government. Didn’t factor in the Chinese reaction to that. The objective became murky at that point. From that point on I think we started getting into “nation building”. (Militaries are, to put it bluntly, good for killing people and blowing things up. They are neither trained nor equipped to “nation build”. From my read, they still aren’t suitable for that role.) Desert Storm had a clear, attainable objective, drive Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait. The answer as to whether that was enough or not, I think can be answered by the current mess in Iraq. If our objective in Desert Storm had been to drive Saddam out of power, we just would have started today’s mess a decade earlier. What’s lacking at the highest levels of government is a clear, attainable goal. If you can’t do it, then don’t. In my opinion, to paraphrase Frederick the Great, Iraq and Afghanistan together are not worth the blood of a single US Marine.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “In my opinion, to paraphrase Frederick the Great, Iraq and Afghanistan together are not worth the blood of a single US Marine.”

    Provided you buy that Iraq didn’t have any chemical weapons they were willing to peddle to Al Qaeda (or any ambitions for nukes), and Afghanistan was not going to continue to provide funding and safe haven to train AQ….

  • All I can say is, I’m amazed that it’s 9/11 and this blog not only has nothing to commemorate the day, it has nothing for the past two days.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    There was a very eloquent blog written on Wednesday, with some wonderful comments. Not sure I could add to the sentiment.


  • URR, I agree the post on the 6th was fantastic. SJS has an amazing story.

    I just wish it, or something like it, had been the top line story for 9/11. That’s all.