About Ian Garner

Ian Garner is the Mediterranean Research Associate at the NESA Center. His research interests include insurgency and state building, democratization, energy, and Islamic social movements.

Soldiers of Cinema

After a long bout with cancer Roger Ebert passed away this week. His wit and humanism will be greatly missed, as will his capacity to bring films one would not otherwise have heard of to light and a greater audience. Much of this blog looks at problems throughout the world and strives for insight and solutions into these problems. Art and film have the capacity to bring us together and step over boundaries that all too often keep us apart. So, in honor of Mr. Ebert, this week I’m taking the time to talk about some of my favorite movies from the Near East and South Asia region that I have had the privilege to view. Perhaps a viewing can encourage us to approach old ideas in new ways or even bring forth wholly new modes of thought.

To begin with a classic, The Battle of Algiers takes us into the world of the Algerian War of Independence. Like many of the wars occurring today, the Battle of Algiers was not a clean fight. It was a war of café bombs and brutal reprisals. This film portrays both the French counter-insurgency effort as well as the revolutionaries with an unparalleled vision. In this type of war no one gets out cleanly. From the perspective of the counter-insurgency, Colonel Mathieu presents the stark choices for those involved in intervention, “Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer “yes,” then you must accept all the necessary consequences.” And the consequences are severe. Ben M’Hidi explains the rationale for terror, “And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.” This film is both a technical and thematic triumph and a must see for anyone interested in the intricacies of terrorism and insurgency.   

Keeping with the theme of insurgency, but moving to the present, the Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers documents the difficulties in conducting war against non-conventional foes. Interviews with all the surviving members of Shin Bet form the bulk of the film. The film takes us into the underworld of Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians as the Shin Bet regales us with tales of cell phone bombs and surgical air strikes. However, it also shows us the lack of strategic planning that hinders any movement beyond military actions. In the view of the interviewees, all too often the means are the ends. For a more thorough review, check out my previous post on the film.

Lebanon explores the minds of a tank crew sent to fight in southern Lebanon in 1982. Almost all of the action takes place within the tight confines of single tank as soldiers struggle to figure out why they are there and where they are going. Perspective on war is examined in depth here. The view from the tanks camera serves as a metaphor of the soldier’s view as the war continues. While the view from the tank is initially pristine, it slowly becomes corroded and cracked as the vicissitudes of war take their toll on both the soldiers and us, the viewers. War may start out with clean objectives, but it very rarely maintains that clarity of vision over the course of the conflict. One can see this difficulty in American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan only too well.

Incendies, while French made, gets a mention here as it explores the fallout of the Lebanese Civil War for two siblings as they search to find the real story behind their origins. It is difficult to speak too much without giving away too much of the film, but the effect on the survivors of war is on clear display here. Even those who were not directly party to the conflict suffer damages that confuse their identity. This is a true exploration of the human effects of conflict.

As a final look at war, we turn to Waltz with Bashir. In Bashir, the director explores his memories of the Lebanon war via interviews with his compatriots who fought alongside him. The primary questions surround the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Who knew what was going on? Was there any way to stop it? What is the connection between those two? Yes, war isn’t pretty, but this movie explores how facts change on the ground based on your position and location at a given time. However, while perspectives change, the bodies remain.

Moving away from the Middle East we turn our eyes towards Afghanistan. Osama was the first film to be created in Afghanistan since 1996. It represents the first Afghan attempt to explore the country in the era of the Taliban. Specifically, the tale centers around the life of a young girl who tries to pass as a young boy named Osama in order to provide for herself and her mother who are no longer allowed to work under the strict gender regulations of the Taliban. The façade begins to fall apart when Osama is recruited by the Taliban and taken to an all-boys school. The film provides a window into the torturous life Afghans, particularly women, suffered under the Taliban.

The confusion wrought by modern borders is explored in Marooned in Iraq. An Iranian Kurdish film, the plot centers on musicians (Kurds from the Iranian side of the border) searching for the bandleader’s first wife in 1991 as thousands of Kurds poured across the border into Iran fleeing the conflict next door. Although the film has a serious subtext, it uses comedy to achieve its goals. The motley crew winding their way through the mountainous border region bickers and continues the search for family, both new and old, in the ruins of Iraq.

A perhaps more well-known film, Persepolis, tells the story of a young girl growing up in revolutionary-era Tehran. The complexities of the revolution are laid bare through the idiosyncratic view of a teenage girl struggling to find her own identity. There is no love lost here for the Pahlavis, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Opposition groups and their members continue to disappear and the Iran-Iraq War continues to rage as young Marjane searches for the latest rock-and-roll bootlegs from the United States. The film shifts focus as Marjane is sent by her family to Vienna for study. Over time Marjane finds it difficult to fit in either in her native Iran or newfound Europe. Indeed, we can never go home again.

On a lighter note, one cannot look at the cinema of the Near East and South Asia without mentioning Bollywood. While I am far from an expert on the intricacies of Indian cinema, were I to offer an introductory piece it would be Lagaan. In the time of the Raj, a small village is being destroyed by the burdensome taxes imposed by a truly mustache-twirling British Captain. In response, the villagers challenge the Raj to a game of cricket in order to avoid the taxes. If you have no idea how cricket is played, as was I before watching the film, you will certainly understand it after watching Lagaan. The performances are all wonderful, the songs are excellent, and the simple plot provides a window into a utopic vision of Indian unity. A lot of the films I have discussed here are weighty and at times difficult to watch. Not so with Lagaan whose airy tones provide an excellent counterpoint and proof that not all great cinema be ponderous and dark.

On the other hand, if we want to experience the darker side of India we need look no further than Salaam Bombay!. The poverty of India’s underclasses is on full display here, without the storybook ending of the more well-known British film Slumdog Millionaire. A child is abandoned by his parents to the streets of Bombay (the film was made before the name change to Mumbai) and attempts to fend for himself in a world of drug addicts, prostitutes, and police. While there are moments of hope in the film, there are no easy answers provided to what exactly should be done to help. This is a world where you have to take even the smallest of victories and savor it as long as possible before the hammer comes down. Some criticisms of Slumdog focused on its romanticization of poverty. This is not the case here and the film does an incredible job capturing the despair and grime of the slums.

Moving to Egypt, which has a vibrant film scene, we find The Yacoubian Building. Few movies capture the stagnation of Mubarak-era Egypt as this film. There are multiple storylines going on within the confines of the film as we explore the life of an aging libertine, a poor woman seeking to provide for her family, a janitor’s son with dreams of joining the police force, a gay journalist, and corrupt businessmen to name a few. Corruption and the decaying nature of society form the backdrop as each character strives to live the best they can. The portrayal of homosexuality was particularly revolutionary for an Arab film, although one cannot exactly call the film wholly open on the subject. If you want a serious look at the societal malaise that eventually led to the fall of Mubarak, it would be hard to find a better entry point.

A final film, also from Egypt, is Terrorism and Kebab. One of my personal favorite movies, Terrorism and Kebab followed the attempts of Ahmed to change his children’s school district and finds himself frustrated by the intricacies of El Mogamma, Egypt’s massive bureaucratic edifice on Tahrir Square. If you have ever seen the movie Airheads, the plot will seem somewhat familiar. As Ahmed gets more and more frustrated with the bureaucracy’s unwillingness to do anything he gets into a fight with the guards and accidentally gets ahold of one of the guard’s guns. Suddenly, everyone assumes Ahmed is a terrorist and the plot goes from there. An incredibly political comedy that somehow got past the censors in Egypt, Terrorism and Kebab is a comedy that tackles the same issues as The Yacoubian Building, albeit with a more humorous eye. The film stares into the abyss of corruption and decrepit institutions and guffaws its resistance. It may be difficult to find a version outside of Egypt, but if you can it is most definitely a must see.

All the above movies pushed me into the life I lead today. For example, the years I spent living in and ruminating on Egypt were crystallized in the two previous Egyptian films. They even gave me hope for the future – they continue to do so. The existence of some of these films shows a people not content to be stifled by their experience, but instead one aching to tell their story, to be heard. Diplomacy can take many forms and a country’s voice via film can spread very quickly. While I may never get the opportunity to metaphorically share a movie with Mr. Ebert again, I will always be able to look forward to new visions unfolding the world over.

Mr. Ebert was, in the words of Werner Herzog, one of my favorite directors:

The good soldier of cinema. I kept calling him that and he kept calling me that. He saw in me a good soldier in cinema. I said you are even more. He was a wounded soldier. He was ill and struggled and was still plowing on relentlessly. And that was completely and utterly admirable and I love him for that.

Let’s all be good soldiers of cinema. I’ll see you at the movies.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


The President Goes to Jerusalem

The overall opinion of President Obama’s tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories seems to agree that the President unleashed a “corker” of a speech. We are led to understand that, by acknowledging Israeli’s fears and humanizing the Palestinians, the President has done an excellent job at recasting the situation and rising above the leadership of the respective parties. Essentially, Obama took his argument to the Israeli people, recognizing the “futility” of hoping for progress with Netanyahu.

However, this speech may be much less of a success than it appears. In fact, this speech signals a significant defeat for the President. In his first term, Obama tried to maintain that halting the construction of new settlements was of paramount importance to getting negotiations to move forward. While the current talk certainly disparages settlements, it no longer views them as an impediment to negotiations:

What I shared with President Abbas, and I’ll share it with the Palestinian people: if the expectation is we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point in the negotiations.

Chalk one up for Bibi. As has been mentioned before in this blog, the new Israeli coalition is likely to be inward looking. Any attempts at peacemaking will put incredible strains on the coalition. However, now that the settlement issue has been removed from the table as a precondition for talks the government the new Housing Minister, Uri Ariel, may freely pursue his policy of enhanced settlement construction. While Obama may be correct that there need be no need for preconditions for negotiations to commence, this move will be deeply disappointing to Palestinians.

The thought that keeps pushing through is that, as great as this speech is, it would have been even more excellent had it taken place in January, before Israeli elections. The time to encourage a people to influence their people is before an election, not after. While public opinion is always relevant in a democracy, it is incredibly more so in the lead up to an election.

The other issue here, mentioned above, is Palestinian disappointment. To quote from a pro-Fatah Palestinian newspaper:

What did Obama do? He repeated his previous positions and announced them in Israel and Palestine. He therefore does not oppose a Palestinian state but he did not say how such a state can be established. Furthermore, he did not demand from Israel that it stops settlement activity in order to have successful negotiations.

Whereas in Israel Obama was greeted by children cheering, his reception in the Territories was glum.

Unfortunately it looks as if Obama may have made an excellent speech that will have little to no effect on the ground. Of course, I would love to be proved wrong.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Bibi Returns?

In my last post I discussed Israel’s lack of a true strategic dimension in policy thought and mentioned the difficulties Netanyahu faced gathering a government together. It now seems that Bibi has managed to cobble together an alliance of sorts that will allow him to head a government finally. Notably missing from the coalition are religious parties, such as Shas, that have often been necessary to any attempt at forming a workable coalition. However, the current group does not bode well for an evolution towards a more strategically minded Israeli policy.

The new coalition will be, broadly speaking, between four parties – Netanyahu’s Likud, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi, and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. While this coalition does give Bibi the votes necessary to govern the Knesset, it is an alliance that will be very difficult to contain. Of key importance will be the push and pull between Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi. Lapid has, in the past, made his preferences known that he prefers negotiations with the Palestinians towards the goal of a two-state solution. Bennett, while not explicitly turning against a two-state solution, has proposed full annexation of the parts of the Occupied Territories termed “Area C” by the Oslo accords. If this plan went ahead, a map of the Occupied territories would look something like this:


This plan does not leave the Palestinians with an effective territorial basis within which to form a state (although Bennett does propose naturalizing those Palestinians resident in “Area C” in order to avoid charges of apartheid). While Lapid does favor maintaining control of most settlements, this plan is far outside of what he has proffered in the past.

Suffice it to say this is a major difference of opinion. While Bennett’s suggestion is unlikely to ever come to fruition anytime soon, any attempt to wade into solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nearly certain to raise significant strains in the current government. Both Livni and Lapid favor new negotiations, Bennett is less so inclined. For the time being, priorities will likely lie on the domestic front, tackling issues such as fiscal responsibility and lowering the cost of living.

However, some analysts have suggested that the Palestinians may be headed for a new intifada. If such a struggle breaks out it may be impossible for the Israeli government to avoid dealing with the Palestinian issue.

To return to my point from earlier in the week, all this finagling and inward turning will make it extremely difficult for Israel to formulate any sort of strategy. Not only is the stability of the current coalition dubious, it is highly likely that Israel will retain its tactical approach and eschew any serious strategic rethink.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

On The Gatekeepers

This blog has tended to stay away from delving into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but over the weekend I had the fortune of attending a screening of The Gatekeepers. For those not familiar with the film, it entails interviews with every surviving Director of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security services. While there are many ‘money quotes’ regarding Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, the most important acknowledgment is that Israel has been engaged in “short-term tactics with no long term strategy.”

This insight should be given heightened importance given the current impasse in Israeli electoral politics. While Likud did ‘win’ the recent parliamentary election, obtaining 31 seats (a loss of eleven from the previous Knesset), Netanyahu has so far been unable to create a governing coalition. So far, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi (who came in second and fourth respectively in the elections) have not signed on with Likud to join any coalition. Labor (third place) rejects any Likud partnership. On 2 March 2013 Netanyahu was granted a two week extension to his attempt to forge a coalition. If unsuccessful either another party gets a shot at forming a government or new elections will need to be called.

In such an arduous political climate one must ask how likely it is that Israel will move beyond tactical planning and into a more strategic mindset. The Gatekeepers from the film describe an Israeli state security apparatus that is extremely capable at dealing with threats in the short-term. Tales of taking out radicals with phone bombs or precision aerial strikes abound, but none of them see any strategic direction. While these operations are impressive from a certain standpoint, what is the overall goal? In order to formulate a strategic plan there must be some degree of political will. The ongoing parliamentary horse trading does not bode well for any new strategic process.

There are no easy answers for these questions. While the film does not offer a new strategic framework for Israel, it does suggest a way to lay out the groundwork for creating one. Perhaps one of the most important suggestions coming from the film is a rethink of who is who and what role they can play. Avraham Shalom, Shin Bet Director from 1980-1986 and one of the men on the team that captured Adolph Eichmann, states:

Talk to everyone, even if they answer rudely. So that includes even Ahmadinejad, [Islamic Jihad, Hamas], whoever. I’m always for it. In the State of Israel, it’s too great a luxury not to speak with our enemies…Even if [the] response is insolent, I’m in favor of continuing. There is no alternative. It’s in the nature of the professional intelligence man to talk to everyone. That’s how you get to the bottom of things. I find out that he doesn’t eat glass and he sees that I don’t drink oil.  

Any strategy must take a realistic assessment of the ground. No Israeli strike is going to dislodge Hamas from Gaza. Additionally, no strike will eliminate Iran’s capability to create nuclear weapons; a strike will delay them at most unless we are envisioning a long-term game of whack-a-mole. Dealing with people we don’t want to deal with would be an important first step in creating a new strategic outlook. The last situation Israel wants to find itself in is one in which, in the words of Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet Director from 1995-2000:

“We don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war.”

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

This weekend Egypt is likely to see another verdict handed down relating to the crisis stemming from the Ahly-Masry match riot. The last time a court ruled it caused a mass tumult in the Suez Canal Zone. Given the expected new verdict, a brief follow-up is in order.

The riots in Port Said have continued unabated since the initial ruling came down, just this Tuesday over fifty people were injured. Even if the new ruling is a full acquittal, it is unlikely that the riots will stop (although upholding the sentences could lead to enhanced civil disturbances).  As my previous post on the subject argued, this is more an issue of regime versus periphery rather than Al Masry Ultras versus Al Ahly Ultras. Port Saidis are not happy with their status on the periphery of the regime and want more of a voice; of course this does not solely apply to Port Said or the Suez Canal Zone.

The protests have increasingly focused on the role of the police. Most recently, large protests were held in remembrance of Ahmed Galal, who was killed during clashes with police. The police find themselves in a difficult position. Under Mubarak they were given carte blanche to essentially hand out whatever brand of justice they saw fit to anyone at any time. No one was really watching and no one really cared as long as the police kept society ordered.

After the revolution there has been a focus on the police in terms of abuses committed and lives lost. The police do not quite understand this. They do not even understand what their precise duties are. On 8 March 2013 the police themselves began protesting, demanding “a law to clearly lay down their powers and duties, and…weapons to deal with ongoing political protests.” The police have no one watching them – either for abuses or for successes. In the words of one officer, “We want a law to protect us. They tell us to confront the protesters, then when we do we are put in jail.”

In response to the police protest the chief of the Central Security Forces was sacked, but this does not address the root of the problem. The police should be there to protect society, but with no one watching them or laws to guide their behavior, they fall into patterns of abuse.

Unfortunately, rather than deal with the problem of police training and the legal strictures that guide their behavior, the government has decided to ditch the police in favor of the military. The police have been withdrawn from Port Said and replaced with the military. While this made the protestors ecstatic, and I am certain the military loves to burnish their image of an untarnished, uncorrupted institution, the military simply will not function permanently as a police force. Also, if the rioting in Port Said continues the military will be hard pressed to maintain its ‘impartiality.’

 A serious effort must be put in place to reform the police system in Egypt. Security is a primary concern in post-revolutionary Egypt and it will not get better without, amongst other things, an effective police force. The police have a long way to go towards earning any sort of trust from the Egyptian people – being the front line of the Mubarak era’s repressive force has severely damaged their reputation. But this trust must be regained. Providing a clear legal framework for their duties and effective training in those duties would be a good place to start. Indeed, who watches the watchmen?

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Please Sir, Could I Have Some MANPADS?

A few weeks ago I argued the United States should not be arming Syrian rebels. This week the United States stepped up its aid to the rebels, but maintained the non-lethal nature of said aid. The rebels, unsurprisingly, are not happy about this. A spokesman for the Syrian National Council, Mohammad Sarmini, states:

“This has become embarrassing and degrading. The regime’s escalation has rendered even our unmet pleas foolish. We used to beg for antiaircraft missiles. What do you ask for to counter Scuds?”

The same article mentions that Gulf States are already in the process of providing rebels with small arms. We need to be clear about what the rebels are asking for. They are not asking for more AKs or ammunition for small arms, they are asking for advanced and dangerous weapons systems. Sarmini’s quote indicates a desire for weapons designed to counter Scuds and antiaircraft weapons. While it appears that Syrian rebels have managed to get their hands on a few Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, they are not in wide circulation as of yet. Regardless, there are serious issues with deciding to supply the rebels with this type of weaponry.

Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) hold a particular danger for proliferation. MANPADS falling into the wrong hands would most emphatically not be desirable. One of the most famous uses of MANPADS was in 1994 when a plane carrying the leaders of Burundi and Rwanda was shot down – triggering the Rwandan genocide. Of course, not all attacks need lead to genocide, but there have been other instances of attacks on civilian airliners. For example, in 2002, Al Qaeda fired a few shots at an Israeli civilian aircraft in Kenya (they missed). Suffice it to say, a few well fired missiles at civilian airliners could have dramatic economic effects, not to mention the significant loss of life.

Sarmini’s mentioning of arms for countering Scuds is also problematic. Patriot missile systems, or something similar, are incredibly complex and it is very unlikely that, even were the rebels to receive them, they would be able to operate them. Even the Patriot systems in Turkey are operated by NATO troops, not Turkish forces. It is also highly unlikely the United States would send NATO troops into Syria to operate advanced anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology, let alone directly giving them to the rebels. At that point, intervention would be necessary to at least protect the troops operating the weapons systems. An intervention in Syria is clearly not palatable for the United States.

The proliferation concerns here should not be downplayed. While they do not make up the majority of Syrian rebel forces, Jabhat Al Nusra is gaining strength. Some estimate them as making up around a quarter of rebel forces. The same report notes that this Al Qaeda-affiliated group, generally held to be a direct descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has attempted to sponsor cross-border attacks in Jordan. The United States simply should not be giving advanced weapons systems like MANPADS or ABMs to rebels when potentially a quarter of those rebels are affiliated with Al Qaeda. 

Small arms are already being taken care of by our allies in the region. Given that fact, it is better for the United States to focus on being ‘above the fray’ as much as possible so as to be able to produce a solution acceptable to all players. As described by my colleague Mr. Presto, siding fully with the rebels will make it much less likely the United States will be able to broker a deal with all sectors of Syrian society. So, sending small arms does not add to what is already being sent. This type of weaponry also presents serious proliferation concerns, especially if these arms fall into Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters or spread outside the borders of Syria. The more serious, advanced weapons systems being discussed above, ABMs and MANPADS, either also hold too great a danger of proliferation or are too complex to be usable in the shifting sands of Syria’s rebellion.

Added bonus for the week is a map, also linked to abvove, of MANPADS attacks in Africa:


Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

In Case You Haven’t Heard Enough About Cyber

Cyber activities were in the news this week as Mandiant released a report claiming that China has been engaged in cyber-attacks on US targets, both private and public. Of course, this must mean that the sky is falling. My colleagues have written two posts on the subject, one detailing China’s potential strategies and one examining potential US strategies for countering cyber-attacks. If I may briefly steal from one of these posts, I will be focusing on the idea that, in the words of former top FBI cyber-attorney Steven Chabinsky,“There is no way we are going to win the cyber security effort on defense. We have to go on the offensive.”  

Chabinsky is correct in his initial statement, but far off on his solution. It is imperative that the United States shift away from the idea that cybercrime can be prevented. Put simply, it cannot. There is no firewall that one can build that will be immune to attack. At best, one can buy a small window of safety until the first crack in the armor is found. The only way to attain safety would be unplugging from the network, which carries with it more costs than rewards. Additionally, protecting from future hacks may be difficult when potential hackers already have access to the system. In other words, hackers from all over the world are already up in your systems, observing your actions. This is not a palatable idea, but it is one to which the world needs to adjust.

It is also important to recognize that China is not the only offender. Everyone is getting in on the game. As far back as 2009 (and likely further, but this is not meant to be a comprehensive post) Russia, as well as China, were believed to have hacked in to US electric grids. But beyond foreign countries, it cannot be ignored that the United States is using cyber weapons offensively as well. There is evidence that the United States was directly involved in the creation and deployment of Stuxnet, and possibly Flame, against Iran in 2010. The cyber world is a veritable free for all. Then there are instances of non-state groups, such as Anonymous taking down the CIA’s web page.

What does all this mean? Does it mean nothing can be done and the world should resign itself to a cyberpocalypse? Emphatically, no. Firstly, it is crucial to distinguish between real threats and those which are not. Anonymous, for example, is simply not a significant threat to states. Taking down the CIA’s homepage may look bad to the world, but in reality it is similar to a teenager tagging a billboard with a can of Krylon. Visible, but not very threatening. Additionally, it is key to recognize organized versus unorganized groups. China, Russia, and the United States are organized states. Anonymous is hardly organized at all. It is a loose group of people who chat on 4chan and other like sites, mostly for the purpose of making extremely off-color jokes and looking at pictures of cats. “Groups” like Anon should not be ignored, but worrying about them to the same degree as state actors is absurd.

What type of system one is dealing with is a critical question as well. Hacking American nuclear facilities is much more dangerous than attacks on the New York Times. It may be possible to enhance obstacles to penetration to some critical infrastructure nodes, but in these specific cases it may be worth working on off-line solutions. Sure, it is entertaining when Iranian nuclear site computers start blasting AC/DC’s classic “Thunderstruck,” but it would not be nearly so entertaining were a hacker to take control remotely of a facility’s operating procedures. That problem is a whole order of magnitude larger than email passwords.  

Beyond recognizing where real threats are, it is also important to enhance cooperation between agencies and businesses. In this way the United States (and others) can more effectively monitor what has been compromised and what has not. While it is wise to operate under the assumption that one has already been penetrated, not everything is being hacked all the time. Tracking intrusions more methodically can allow for better strategic thinking.

Neither of these suggestions offers a “solution” to the problem. They merely allow for better targeting of resources and ways to buy time. In the communications era one should be wary of easy fixes. Returning to Mr. Chabinsky’s comment, offense is not the right path forward. Certainly, offense may serve other policy goals, such as delaying Iranian nuclear progress in the case of Stuxnet, but it holds no solution for hacking attempts against the United States. In the case of China and Russia, an offensive posture will only encourage more of the same – a cyber-arms race if you will. As my colleague, Mr. Payne, states, “China has managed to increase tensions with its neighbors, failed to make strong inroads along its Western borders, and increased the suspicions of the world’s strongest nation.” This is a gain for US strategy and an attack would only level the playing field with dubious returns.

The world is not ending. Communications technology simply brings with it new challenges. The world should respond to these new challenges cautiously until the full dimension of the changes becomes known. Chabinsky is correct that defense is not wholly sufficient, but he is wrong that an offensive posture is the solution.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. 

Changing Tack

In France’s efforts to push Al Qaeda out of Northern Mali (AQIM), a notebook was recently discovered containing ideas, remarks, and strategies enumerated by Abdelmalek Droukdel, Emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These notes show an Al Qaeda in flux, one that is not quite as rigid as its forbears in Afghanistan and Somalia. While this book may only be the thoughts of one man, it likely suggests a new adaptability in the Al Qaeda mindset.

In Somalia, Al Shabaab pursued their ideas with a single-mindedness not seen in North Africa. There are, for example, reports that Al Shabaab fighters sought to tear down all English or Somali signage in towns under their administration and replace them with Arabic versions. Of course, most Somalis do not speak Arabic so this new signage would likely be of limited effectiveness. While Al Shabaab are known for their more violent tendencies, this example of signage clearly demonstrates their unwillingness to adapt their movement for local attitudes.

In contrast, Droukdel writes:

“The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs. If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until its stands. Every mistake in this important stage of the life of the baby will be a heavy burden on his shoulders. The larger the mistake, the heavier the burden on his back, and we could end up suffocating him suddenly and causing his death.”

These are the words of a man who understands that wanton cruelty and indifference to local mores will not aid their mission to set up an Islamic theocracy. Droukdel is no moderate, as former explosives expert for the Groupe Islamique Armee (GIA) in Algeria he has been involved with construction of explosive devices that were responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. And he did not slow down as he moved upwards through the ranks until gaining control of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC) – which later became AQIM in 2004. Yet here he is preaching moderation, at least of a relative kind.

We see this moderation in the governance of Northern Mali. Not only have Droukdel’s notes been found, but so have “court” records. One case, from October, shows a man, Muhamad bin Moussa, accused of witchcraft and magic. Where Al Shabaab might resort to a beheading or some other grisly repercussion, AQIM’s courts only sentenced the man to three days in jail. This isn’t to say the courts were always moderate, women were known to be lashed for “mixing with men and the usage of foul language” as well as less gender specific lashings for alcohol use or anything else dubbed un-Islamic. Not to mention the destruction of Sufi shrines and other cultural heritage markers. Put mildly, these were not nice men.

However, there was a fascinating struggle on the part of some leadership elements, including Droukdel, to mitigate these abuses. Droukdel’s notes advise against the destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites and public floggings, saying:

“On the internal front we are not strong… and the fact that you prevented women from going out, and prevented children from playing, and searched the houses of the population. Your officials need to control themselves.

This is not to say the militant’s rule was not brutal. It was. Cases of amputation are far from uncommon. This is not a story of a moderate Islamic group, but of an extremist group with extremist ends attempting to cover its extremist means in a sheen of moderation.

While the end goal remains the same, Al Qaeda is learning that it needs to be seen to moderate its message, or at least alter it to be acceptable in differing cultural zones. This will only make Al Qaeda a more formidable opponent in the future if it allows them to gain more local acceptance than the limited amount extant in past examples.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

A Farewell to Arms

It was revealed this week that Secretaries Clinton and Panetta, joined by then CIA Director Petraeus, all advocated arming Syrian rebels with the goal of overthrowing Bashar Al Assad. However, the White House declined to pursue the recommendation, citing worries that arming the rebels would add to the suffering in Syria.

So, in the words of Chernyshevsky, what is to be done?

Indeed, the Syrian conflict has irrevocably turned into an armed conflict. This week heavy fighting occurred across a wide swath of Syria, including hard fought battles in Damascus. It makes a certain amount of sense that given the extent of the ongoing armed conflict the United States should marshal its capabilities in support of the rebels.

However, the White House’s argument, that arming the rebels will only serve to enhance the conflict and lead to further suffering, has a certain logic as well. After all, if the United States starts providing direct military arms to rebels one can only imagine that Iran (and potentially Russia) will expand their own programs to counter any American influx of weapons. Too many analysts assume that the conflict cannot get any worse – it certainly can.

The history of the United States in arming localized insurgencies and governments in civil wars has a rather dubious history. That mujahideen in Afghanistan spring immediately to mind, but Afghanistan is not the only example of an arms support program going awry, or at least having unforeseen effects. American programs in Nicaragua and Guatemala haven’t led to easy solutions. Arming Chinese nationalists during the Chinese Civil War are another example of the difficulties of using entrance of arms to aid a combatant. Even in situations that could be considered moving in the right direction, as in Colombia, progress often takes decades (and produces debatable results).

All too often the United States has a fixation on doing something – be it aid, arms shipments, or direct intervention. To turn Chernyshevsky around, the question should not be what is to be done, but should anything be done?

It is clear that, barring the use of chemical weapons or some sort of black swan event, the United States will not be intervening directly in Syria’s conflict. The memories of Iraq and the continuing mission in Afghanistan are far too potent. Arming rebels does not present a clear path to a rebel victory either. At best it would lead to more of the same, at worst it could lead to even further deterioration, degradation, and destruction.  Aid and humanitarian assistance don’t offer a pathway towards ending the conflict either, but they can mitigate some effects of the fighting on the populace. Diplomacy is another tool that may be helpful, but it is unlikely that Russia or China will change their view in the near term. However, effective diplomacy will prove vital in the event of Assad’s collapse.  

This leaves the United States in the unenviable position of having no effective tools at its disposal to effect rapid change. Sometimes it is best to recognize the limitations of one’s position and choose a more cautious approach. Standing on the sidelines will not lead to any change in the current battles, true. However, by avoiding getting involved with the conflict directly via arms shipments the United States will be more able to play a long game. It will not antagonize Russia, ease the diplomatic struggle, and may make it easier for America to help in later negotiations. The Syrian Civil War has already spiraled well outside of Assad’s ability to control. Assad will go, but until it is known what will replace him it pays to hedge one’s bets.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Regime and Periphery in Egypt

The crisis in Egypt continues unabated. It has gotten so bad that the Egyptian Defense Minister, General  Abdel Fatah Al Sissi, claimed that, “The continuing conflict between political forces and their differences concerning the management of the country could lead to a collapse of the state and threaten future generations.”

Currently, the state is indeed in a, well, state of crisis. What started as a football riot in Port Said has now (after a delay for the courts) degenerated to a situation in which the Suez Canal zone is effectively out of the control of the government. While the Egyptian military is still guaranteeing transit of the canal, Egyptian ports may be all but unusable. The idea of the Republic of Port Said has cropped up as demonstrators in Port Said defy the government mandated curfews and state of emergency. At least 40 have died in protests in Port Said even as the government has been unable to contain the situation. 

And then there is a whole region that seems to have been forgotten about: the Sinai. There, a largely Bedouin population has accumulated enough arms to take advantage of the chaos elsewhere leaving Sinai without state control over large swathes of territory. There have been cross-border attacks into Israel as well as attacks on Egyptian security and military officers.

The situation is also difficult in Cairo. Fires (now contained) were started at the presidential palace as protestors threw Molotov cocktails as they battled police. Protests in Cairo continue. However, there have been negotiations between the Brotherhood and opposition leaders under the auspices of Al Azhar. Perhaps this will lead to a reduction in violence in the capital, but that is as yet far from clear.

These protests are not necessarily related in goal, unlike the 2011 movement that ejected Mubarak from power. While all three areas of concern (Cairo, Suez, Sinai) likely look to President Morsi as a problem, the problem in the Suez and Sinai goes much deeper. The issue here is the almost hyper-centralization of the Egyptian state. The protestors in Port Said or the Bedouin militants in the Sinai do not simply want to rerun elections and obtain a new head of state. They desire a reworking of the innards of the state – and where the largess of that state is distributed.

These areas wish to have more of a role in their own governance and more of a say at the national level instead of a regime-periphery relationship. Port Said and other canal cities view their ports as one of the primary sources of income for the Egyptian state – and they do not feel that they get anything out of the deal. The Bedouin in Sinai suffer a similar problem. While the Sinai coastline has been turned into a tourist haven, the Bedouin who live there have seen little development.  

Talks between Cairene political players at Al Azhar may hold solutions in Cairo, but they are unlikely to bring a lasting solution to the problem of the periphery. The Egyptian state must find a way to be more inclusive of areas and avoid thinking along the lines of regime versus periphery. The talks at Al Azhar will need to be expanded to fully address the developmental and organizational inequities that present in the current state structure. The era of Mubarak is over, and the only way a democratic Egypt can emerge is by integrating the whole of the populace. Unfortunately, Egypt so far has followed the traditional method of declaring a state of emergency and hoping the police take care of business. It is clear this strategy is no longer as effective as it once was.

Al Sissi may have been more right than he realized.


Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.