A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

As Washington decides whether to intervene more assertively in Syria, the civil war there has once again spilled across the country’s borders. Last week, armed groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army clashed with an Iraqi army convoy that was defending Syrian government troops near the Rabia-Yaarabiya border crossing. The result was 62 Syrian and nine Iraqi soldiers killed or wounded along with six members of the FSA.

In response to these events, the Iraqi government announced the formation of a new Iraqi Army unit in the city of Sinjar located along the areas disputed by Arabs and Kurds in Nineveh province bordering Syria. The Iraqi government justified this deployment due to fears of further infiltration of Iraq’s borders by Syrian opposition forces allied with Jabhat Al-Nusra. These developments further escalated tensions between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government in the disputed territories that have been simmering since November when confrontations near Kirkuk resulted in the deaths of 11 people. These events show how the crisis in Syria is simultaneous serving to further destabilize the situation in Iraq.

Somehow amidst these developments, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki found time to host Egyptian Prime Minister Kandil and discuss economic and energy issues, despite the Muslim Brotherhood led government’s support of the rebels in Syria. Further complicating the situation are upcoming Iraqi provincial elections on April 20th, along with continued protests in Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas against the authoritarian nature of the Iraqi central government.

So what are we to conclude from all of these simultaneous events? 1) Iraq feels incredibly vulnerable to the effects of a destabilized Syria – so much so, that it is reluctantly being pushed further into the Iranian orbit. Washington should capitalize on this insecurity and help its “strategic partner” reintegrate with the GCC and the Sunni Arab world instead. Iraq’s recent hosting of the Arab League Summit and its high level talks with Egypt make for good starting points. 2) Any decision Washington makes regarding the level of support it decides to provide the Syrian rebels should take into account conclusion number one above. 3) Finally, Iraq is not immune to the Arab Awakening. Maliki’s heavy handed moves to quell the Sunni protests and consolidate power at the expense of the country’s independent institutions have not gone unnoticed. Iraq is dangerously close to no longer choosing to “solve” its problems through the political process instead of through violence as the U.S. has touted since the withdrawal of its military forces.

The Obama administration’s rush to declare Iraq a success and shift to other policy priorities in the Middle East such as Syria and Egypt ignores the fact that all three are interrelated. Washington is wise to resist military escalation in the region, but this is no excuse to bury its head in the sand and ignore how the internal politics in one country can spillover into the wider region.

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.


More Reasons Not to Arm the Syrian Opposition

As my colleague Ian descibed last week, the Obama administration’s Syria policy again came under fire after outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta revealed that top level administration support in favor of arming the Syrian opposition was overruled by the President and the White House. Critics of the President’s handling of the Syrian conflict seized on this as another example of him leading from behind and being overly cautious when it comes to using U.S. power to influence events and outcomes during the Arab uprisings. Some commentators even went as far as to say that the Obama administration had over learned the lessons of the Iraq war to a point of paralysis, and that the time to arm the Syrian rebels is now.

While the Obama administration has been criticized for its lack of action in Syria, there is little argument against the administration’s stated policy objective of ending the Assad regime through a transition to a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic Syria, where the rights of all Syrians are protected.  What is unclear, however, is how a strategy of arming and supporting one faction in Syria’s civil war would somehow achieve this stated objective.  Such a strategy would resemble the one currently being employed by Iran as it continues to arm and equip Shiite and Alawite proxy forces. This strategy makes sense for the Iranians because it supports their objective of keeping Syria divided in order to maintain influence once the regime falls and keep open its gateway to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Similarly, Turkish and Qatari support for the Syrian opposition forces has also resulted in keeping Syria divided, most recently in the country’s northeast where opposition and Kurdish forces have engaged in repeated clashes.

Contrary to what proponents of intervention say, the interference of neighboring countries in Syria’s internal affairs very much resembles what happened during Iraq’s civil war, and the U.S. would be wise not to repeat its same mistakes.  The U.S. should not militarily assist another group of exiles from a majority sect take power from an oppressive regime controlled by a minority sect.

If the Obama administration’s goal is to convince Alawites, Christians, Kurds, and Shiites to unite against the Assad regime, it does not make sense to arm the Syrian opposition who these groups view as the biggest threat to their future in a post-Assad Syria. A more logical strategy is the encouragement of reconciliation between the factions, which is precisely what the administration did last week when Vice-President Biden endorsed Syrian opposition leader Moaz Al-Khatib’s overture toward Assad to enter into conditional negotiations. While there are many obstacles precluding a successful agreement, it is better to continue to try to hammer out those issues now while all sides still have an incentive to compromise and pursue some level of national reconciliation.

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.

Zero Dark Accountability

The Oscar nominated movie Zero Dark Thirty, a fictional account of the events leading up to the targeted killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, has generated a lot of debate about the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques.  The controversy stems from whether the film’s opening scene depicting the interrogation of an Al Qaeda detainee at a CIA “black site” suggests that coercive techniques yielded information that led to discovery of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. 

Opinions have varied widely on the question of whether enhanced interrogations have produced useful intelligence.  Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Diane Feinstein recently described the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques at secret prisons as “terrible mistakes, while former CIA Director Michael Hayden has publicly defended the agency’s use of waterboarding and other techniques claiming that they produced valuable intelligence in the hunt for Bin Laden.

While senior officials and commentators disagree over the effectiveness of coercive interrogation techniques, they are almost uniform in their belief that the CIA’s use of these techniques was completely separate from the more cruel, humiliating, and sadistic behavior, also portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, that occurred at U.S. military detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.  Supporters and critics alike have acknowledged that CIA approved techniques differed widely from those that were used by U.S. military personnel in those facilities, such as extreme instances of forced nudity and humiliating detainees by walking them around in dog collars.

But a closer look at how interrogation policy was crafted shortly after 9/11 shows a remarkable similarity between the evolution of the military’s program and what is known about how the CIA’s interrogation policy developed. According to a 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report, CIA General Counsel John Rizzo and Chief Counsel to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, Jonathon Fredman, both visited DOD personnel at Guantanamo Bay in the fall of 2002 to discuss “legal authorities applicable to interrogations (p. 53-4).” While commenting on the techniques the military proposed for use at Guantanamo, Fredman stated that the CIA decided internally on the approval of most of the techniques and relied on approval from the DOJ for the harshest of the techniques they were proposing (SASC Report p. 56).  Essentially the CIA was telling the DOD how far it could go in the conduct of coercive interrogations according to its own interpretation of current law. Chillingly, Friedman was reported to have said that “It is basically subject to perception. If the detainee dies you’re doing it wrong (SASC Report p. XVII).”

The eventual spread of coercive interrogation techniques from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib has been well documented, most thoroughly by Seymour Hersh in his 2004 book Chain of Command.  The fact that the military consulted the CIA along the way is less well known. Quoting from the report of MG Antonio Taguba that investigated the abuses at Abu Ghraib Hersh writes, “Army intelligence officers, CIA agents, and private contractors ‘actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogations’ (Chain of Command p.29).” This is not to suggest that the CIA is responsible for what happened at Abu Ghraib, but rather to caution against accounts suggesting that the CIA detention program had absolutely no bearing on what took place there.

The way the U.S. is perceived internationally for its treatment of detainees strongly impacts its national security. Whether the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty are accurate or not, the CIA should not be able to continue to use Abu Ghraib as a shield against the scrutiny it rightly deserves.

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.

From Newtown to Panjwai

On December 18th, the PBS Newshour aired a segment featuring several residents from Newtown, Connecticut reflecting on the horrors of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting that resulted in the deaths of 26 people, including 20 children. The people interviewed stated that they all felt a sense of helplessness and expressed a responsibility as a community to help and “to do something.” For the rest of the interview the various respondents suggested ways that civil society could affect positive change through political advocacy on issues such as gun control and school security, and by using their platform to start a serious national discussion if Washington remained locked in political gridlock.

That same day the U.S. Army announced it would seek the death penalty for SSG Robert Bale’s alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children in two villages outside Kandahar.  Local Afghans interviewed about those horrible events last spring expressed a desire to see that justice would be done through a legitimate legal process.  But aside from seeking retribution against the perpetrator, there has been little coverage in the Western media of how the tragedy has affected the Afghan people, and what means are available for Afghan civil society to address the broader political and social issues raised by the killings, namely the constant insecurity of the Afghan civilian population.

Sandy Hook and Panjwai may not be perfect parallels, but the stark contrast between the civil society outlets available to Afghans and Americans highlights one of the negative aspects of scaling back U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. What little progress the Afghan government has made on protecting human rights and providing good governance has largely been a result of international pressure.  Usually this has amounted to little more than lengthy paper decrees issued from Kabul that provided the Afghan population with few measurable improvements.  Afghan civil society organizations have had some success in organizing, but are still a long way from having influential voices in public policy discussions and are vulnerable to government reprisals when they become too controversial.

While the U.S. certainly can’t fix all the problems facing Afghan civil society, there is no reason to pretend that conditions for the Afghan population are somehow going to improve post-2014. Newtown might have shaken the American public to its core, but for Afghans what happened at Panjwai was sadly just another day.

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

Iraq on the Brink of War (Again)

Buried beneath the headlines of Egypt’s constitutional crisis and Syria’s potential implosion another flashpoint in the region has quietly been escalating. A standoff in the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk between Iraqi army and police forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish Peshmerga forces under the command of Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani has threatened to erupt into a full scale war.

This latest confrontation between Baghdad and the KRG stems from a November incident in the town of Tuz Kharmato approximately 45 miles south of Kirkuk where one person was killed and ten wounded when Iraqi police attempted to arrest a Kurdish businessman accused of smuggling oil. Since then both sides have made provacative statements accusing the other of further escalating the conflict. During the past two days attacks in Kirkuk have resulted in the deaths of 11 people and two bombings in Tuz Kharmato killed five and wounded 24.

In the past, the U.S. military had helped ease tensions in Iraq’s disputed northern territories that separate the semi-autonomous Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq. In 2009, the U.S. set-up a “Combined Security Mechanism” that placed an equal amount of Peshmerga, Iraqi Army, and U.S. soldiers at checkpoints along the green line that marks the border of the disputed territories to prevent miscommunications from turning into confrontations. But Kirkuk in particular was deemed too divisive to adhere to this arrangement, and U.S. troops manned the checkpoints along with local Iraqi police not beholden to either Baghdad or the KRG.

This past July, with U.S. troops long gone from Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki formed a new Tigris Operations Command that placed Kirkuk under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi army for the first time. The KRG responded by unilaterally moving Peshmerga troops to Kirkuk’s northern edge. The U.S. has again tried to help mediate between the two sides by brokering talks led by Lt. General Bob Caslen, commander of what remains of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, known as the Office of Security Cooperation. But in Iraq’s current political climate, Iranian led efforts to diffuse the crisis may now hold more sway with officials in Baghdad and Erbil.

Most analysts view this latest crisis as simply political posturing ahead of provincial elections set to take place in April 2013. Prime Minister Maliki may be seeking to burnish his image as an Iraqi nationalist to appeal to Iraqi Sunnis who view Kurdish incursions into the disputed territories as an affront to Iraqi sovereignty. But even if Iraq manages again to avoid a return to full scale violence, the underlying issue of Kirkuk and the disputed territories is not going away anytime soon. Unfortunately, the announcement today that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani may be in critical condition after suffering a stroke removes one of the leading voices of moderation from the conflict.

The latest events in Kirkuk reveal just how little national reconciliation has taken hold in Iraq almost five years after the U.S. troop surge supposedly provided the Iraqis space to hammer out their toughest political divisions. Until these underlying issues are somehow resolved Iraq will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis teetering on the brink of a return to 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.

Cyber Will Change the World?

Yesterday the National Intelligence Council published the fifth installment of its global trends series which seeks to provide a framework for thinking about possible future strategic challenges and their implications. Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds outlines several “megatrends” already present today that are expected to accelerate over the next 15-20 years and other potential “game-changers” that represent critical changes to key features of the existing global system.  The intersection between the “megatrends” and the “game-changers” results in four potential “alternative worlds” that attempt to describe what the global environment might look like in the future.

It is not surprising that cyber related issues figure prominently in the report to help explain the way the world is currently trending and the most dangerous threats it could potentially face. The report lists cyber as a contributor to the potential for increased conflict and as one of four key technology areas “that will shape global economic, social, and military developments as well as the world community’s actions pertaining to the environment by 2030.”  The report even goes as far to list the increased threat of non-state actors conducting a cyber attack as having the potential “to cause the greatest disruptive impact” to the future global environment.

While cyber security and the threat of cyber attacks are certainly issues policymakers must grapple with, will cyber really become a driver of geopolitical change in the relatively near future? Some might argue that it already has, but not according to research conducted by Brandon Valeriano of the University of Glasgow and Ryan Maness from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In a recent article published by Foreign Affairs, Valeriano and Maness argue that the warnings about the increased threat posed by potential cyber attacks does match the actual pace and magnitude of such attacks, and that cyber attacks will not change foreign policy calculations anytime soon.

They point out that cyber attacks such as Stuxnet, Flame, or the Russian cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 resulted in nothing more than tactical level disruptions that did little to affect the strategic plans of the governments that were targeted.  The ease at which a cyber weapon can be copied and redeployed against the aggressor state coupled with the relative weakness of cyber defenses, makes the principle of deterrence likely to continue to hold up in the near future.

Concerning the potential future rise in non-state cyber attacks, Valeriano and Maness cite that the substantial resources, infrastructure, and money needed for successful execution will continue to limit rogue operations by individual groups to relatively benign levels such as those conducted by Anonymous. 

 In these times of budget austerity, pouring a little cold water on the potential “game-changing” effects posed by cyber might be worth considering.

Please note that the views expressed in this post do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or United States Government