America, you're not in Kansas anymore: New threats define new security landscape

US pullout from Afghanistan must be seen in light of threats from Iran, Pakistan, North Korea. Going forward, there will be fewer troops, more drones, and a massive contest of wits.

President Obama’s decision to withdraw 33,000 US troops from Afghanistan by September of next year and 68,000 by the end of 2014 must be viewed against the changing backdrop of US security circumstances.

These circumstances are: personnel shifts among top security advisers, acute US budget constraints, realignment of international forces, and the changing face of Al Qaeda.

Ensuing weeks will see Leon Panetta installed as Defense secretary, Gen. David Petraeus as CIA director, and Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Hillary Rodham Clinton says she will leave as Secretary of State next year.

If Mr. Obama wins a second presidential term, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massa­chusetts may well succeed her in that post. If a Repub­lican contender ousts Obama, all four of these positions could be up for grabs. Changing personnel certainly means changes in nuance, and perhaps direction.

The withdrawal of those combat forces will mean substantial savings for the United States at a time when many Americans at home are facing economic hardships. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already offered up some savings in the Pentagon’s budget and warned against more cuts. But the Defense Department can expect cuts, especially given Obama’s expressed intention to limit new foreign military involvement.

Now consider the changing lineup of America’s potential enemies. The days of the cold war are long since over. While the US must be ready for any contingency, a Russian attack on the American homeland is not in the forefront of the Pentagon’s concerns. While China’s increasing military strength is a matter for some uneasiness, it is a confrontation at sea, rather than a Chinese attack on the American homeland, that Pentagon planners worry most about.

Most dangerous nuclear threats to US

The two, possibly three, most dangerous nuclear powers for the US today are Iran, Pakistan, and possibly North Korea.

Iran is unpredictable and wily, almost certainly lying about its commitment to nuclear power only for peaceful purposes. An Iranian nuclear strike against Israel, or the delivery of an Iranian bomb to Islamist terrorists for use against the US, is a possibility any incumbent in the White House must contemplate daily.

Pakistan’s situation is different. It has an arsenal of nuclear weapons, but its government and military assure the US that they are secure. Terrorist penetration of Pakistani military bases and ranks makes such assurances less convincing in Washington.

Over the years, rule in Pakistan has veered between civilian and military, and its stability has been in question. With a pathological fear of India, it has balanced its alliances between the US and China. Internally, it has hedged its bets between pursuit of some terrorist factions and cooperation with others.

Pakistan is concerned that whoever comes out on top in Afghanistan not plunge that country on its western border into tumult. The US shares that concern, but for a slightly different reason: It wants to forestall any chaos in Afghanistan that might destabilize Pakistan and cause its nuclear arsenal to fall into the hands of Islamist extremists.

North Korea is a wild card, but one hopes it understands that delivering a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group for use against the US would probably entail its own obliteration.

Finally, Al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden has an impaired leadership but an extended bunch of franchises in Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere seeking American Islamist sympathizers to conduct terrorist acts against the American homeland.

The kind of warfare America must fight in light of new circumstances is changing, but nonetheless dangerous. There will be fewer battlefields involving thousands of soldiers, many more drones and small-force counterterrorism units, and an enormous contest of wits and intelligence.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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