Thinking Aloud: America’s Much-Needed Syria Policy Rethink

Oct. 4, 2015 by Darius 

Five days ago, the Russian air force began conducting airstrikes in Syria. Those under falling Russian bombs were not ISIS, as the Russians claimed, but moderate rebels, including some trained by the United States. At the same time, hundreds of Iranian soldiers (not advisers, soldiers) arrived in Syria in preparation for a major regime ground offensive. It is clear: everyone with a stake in Bashar Assad’s regime is going all in. Everyone but the US, that is.

I have avoided criticizing general US policy towards Syria in the past because I shared many of the Obama administration’s reservations about weapons falling into the hands of extremists, no clear goals, insufficient intelligence on rebel groups, and generally muddling up a bad situation. However, events in Syria have changed. Almost all of the “worst-case scenarios” of US intervention have already happened: other outside powers have gotten involved, terrorists control huge swathes of territory and have captured hundreds of US vehicles and countless other armaments, and thousands of civilians are still dying.

It is clear that US policy, whatever it is, is not working. It still isn’t clear what success in Syria looks like, but it is painfully clear what failure looks like: the present reality. The US needs to fundamentally revisit its Syria policy and commit to a much more active military stance, not necessarily to promote regime change (which Turkey and the Gulf States want and Russia and Iran oppose) but to finally protect Syrians. This should include the establishment of “safe havens,” areas currently controlled by moderate opposition, which should be enforced by US air power, directly targeting Syrian regime forces and their supporters if necessary. No-fly zones should accompany these safe havens. It is true that no-fly zones remain as difficult to implement and unpalatable as they were two years ago, but, short of continuing to sit it out, the US has tried and run out of alternatives.

Part of the long-standing problem with US policy in Syria has been a lack of clear objectives and clear allies. The US would have liked for Assad to leave power and be replaced with a broad-minded coalition of moderate, pro-Western pluralists, but that ship sailed long ago. The US would still like Assad to leave power, but having no clear what-next plan and Libya fresh in mind, US calls for his ouster (by whom? in favor of whom?) have become more feeble. Moreover, US interests and ambitions are not necessarily the same as Turkish or Gulf State interests and ambitions. They had their own reasons, political and religious, for wanting to topple Assad when the opportunity seemed to present itself.

To start afresh, the US should make “a stable Syria for Syrians” the cornerstone of its policy, instead of focusing on regime change, and then see where the chips fall.

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News You Really Need To See: “U.S. Financing Fails to Sustain Foreign Forces”

“U.S. Financing Fails to Sustain Foreign Forces”

The New York Times, October 4, 2015, p.A1

With alarming frequency in recent years, thousands of American-trained security forces in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia have collapsed, stalled or defected, calling into question the effectiveness of the tens of billions of dollars spent by the United States on foreign military training programs, as well as a central tenet of the Obama administration’s approach to combating insurgencies.  The setbacks have been most pronounced in three countries that present the administration with some of its biggest challenges.  The Pentagon-trained army and police in Iraq’s Anbar Province, the heartland of the Islamic State militant group, have barely engaged its forces, while several thousand American-backed government forces and militiamen in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province were forced to retreat last week when attacked by several hundred Taliban fighters.  And in Syria, a $500 million Defense Department program to train local rebels to fight the Islamic State has produced only a handful of soldiers. American-trained forces face different problems in each place, some of which are out of the United States’ control.  But what many of them have in common, American military and counterterrorism officials say, is poor leadership, a lack of will and the need to function in the face of intractable political problems with little support.  Without their American advisers, many local forces have repeatedly shown an inability to fight. … In northwest Africa, the United States has spent more than $600 million to combat Islamist militancy, with training programs stretching from Morocco to Chad.  American officials once heralded Mali’s military as an exemplary partner.  But in 2012, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya to rout the military, including units trained by United States Special Forces.  That defeat, followed by a coup led by an American-trained officer, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, astounded and embarrassed American commanders.  French, United Nations and European Union forces now carry out training and security missions in Mali.  In Yemen, American-trained troops and counterterrorism forces largely disbanded when Houthi rebels overran the capital last year and forced the government into exile.  The United States is now relying largely on a Saudi-led air campaign that has caused more than 1,000 civilian casualties.”

Quickie analysis:  A damning narrative of the Obama administration’s worldwide failure to buy effective counterterrorism forces.  As it turns out, military aid, training, and toys aren’t substitutes for morale and good governance.

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Thinking Aloud: “The ISIS Apocalypse”

Sept. 30, 2015 by Darius 

Earlier this month, I saw Brookings fellow Will McCants talk about “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.” As always, McCants provided new insights into ISIS and what will be required to stop it.

According to McCants, ISIS’s formula for success is based on three pillars. The first is that ISIS, unlike other jihadi groups, has attempted to build a state now rather than in the vague future. The second is its constant apocalyptic rhetoric. Claiming that the apocalypse is imminent has become a major recruiting tool for ISIS, especially among foreign fighters. Not only does it differentiate ISIS from other jihadi groups operating in Syria, which do not rely on apocalyptic language, ISIS’s apocalyptic rhetoric adds a level of urgency to recruits: the apocalypse is happening now – come and be a part of it. The final pillar of ISIS’s formula is the extreme brutality and violence with which it wages both insurgency and governance in areas it controls.

However, as McCants recounted, today’s ISIS is not the first time ISIS has made a play at regional power using this formula. Its first attempt, when ISIS was known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, was disastrous. By insisting on being called a state without actually controlling any territory, ISIS became a laughingstock in the jihadi community. Instead of attracting recruits, the apocalyptic beliefs of ISIS’s leaders led them to make questionable decisions. One element of ISIS’s early strategy was successful: by 2004, ISIS’s leader at the time, Abu Zarqawi, articulated a policy of targeting Shias. Zarqawi argued that such a strategy would either eliminate Shias, which was good because ISIS considers Shias apostates and a “fifth column” within Islam, or it would provoke a backlash by Iraq’s Shia majority against Sunnis, who would then turn to ISIS as protectors. ISIS has managed to claim the mantle of the protector of Sunnis in countries like Iraq and Syria today.

According to McCants, it has been a changing political context that has allowed ISIS to conjure success out of failure. The first time ISIS challenged for power, the central governments of Syria and Iraq were comparatively strong. Today, these governments are concerned only with maintaining their grip on the centers of power, leaving ISIS free to operate on the Sunni peripheries. This lack of central government focus has allowed ISIS to genuinely control territory and build a protostate. Having a protostate allowed ISIS to declare a caliphate, which has helped recruitment significantly. Moreover, ISIS’s brutal violence has given them a strong grip on power throughout their territory because there is no outside force stopping them. In ISIS’s first incarnation, the Iraqi government and the United States military gave substantial armed support to local Sunni tribes, who rebelled against ISIS. This time around, though, no outside power is willing and able to support locals opposed to ISIS. McCants felt that it was likely that ISIS will be able to crush rebellions indefinitely in the territory it holds if no other power intervenes.

According to McCants, ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a suave operator who has demonstrated an ability to work with many different factions. For example, Baghdadi managed to befriend both Baathists and radicals while in a US detention center. Many Baathists are important members of ISIS today. McCants said the roots of Baathists joining ISIS goes back to the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein made a conscious effort to increase the religious fervor of the Sunni officer corps. Many of these Baathists were radicalized in US custody and came through jihadi ranks at the same time as Baghdadi. According to McCants, it would be a mistake to assume that the Baathists working with ISIS are not true believers in the jihadi cause.

McCants worried that other groups will rise to emulate ISIS. McCants reiterated the importance of social media for facilitating jihadi recruitment: a personal Twitter exchange is much more secure and user-friendly than previous jihadi chat rooms, where there was a great deal of concern about intelligence officers posing as jihadists. He also noted that ISIS’s recruitment success stems in part from the fact that ISIS will take almost anyone, in marked contrast to groups like the Nusra Front, which vet their recruits much more carefully. McCants pointed out that this recruiting policy reflects the fact that Nusra is still trying to win the hearts and minds of locals, whereas ISIS doesn’t care. However, McCants felt that foreign fighters can potentially be turned into anti-ISIS propaganda tools: many fighters are disillusioned and leave ISIS. Publicizing their stories of what the caliphate is really like, as opposed to what ISIS says the caliphate is like, could stop other potential recruits from joining ISIS.

Unfortunately, despite what some US politicians believe, McCants said that it is very difficult to cut off ISIS’s sources of funding: unlike most other terrorist groups, ISIS is largely self-financing, commanding revenue from the residents in the territory it holds.

McCants said that in his opinion, ISIS will continue to hold its own and even expand until governments in the region make defeating ISIS a top priority, which so far they have not. He advocated for a policy of “sandals on the ground,” where regional governments aggressively support anti-ISIS locals. This doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.


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News You Really Need To See: “Perfect Storm Guts African Food Stocks”

“Perfect Storm Guts African Food Stocks”

The Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2015, p.A14

“Ann Alinga points dejectedly to her family’s smallholding of sorghum and sunflower fields, ravaged by Africa’s worst dry spell in two decades.  Like many in this remote village, the mother of five is now plucking wild fruits in a desperate bid to keep her family alive. … In recent seasons, Ms. Alinga harvested nearly a ton of grains, enough to her feed her children and raise extra cash for the family’s other needs.  But the severity of this year’s drought has written off her sunflower crop and destroyed the harvest across this swath of agricultural land in northern Uganda.  The damage to food production is spreading across the continent: From Angola to Zimbabwe, officials say more than 30 million Africans will need help to survive the looming tropical dry season after the worst droughts since 1992 slashed this year’s harvest of such staples as corn, rice and beans by half.  Those farmers and their customers will look to international agencies and their governments for aid.  But this year’s shortages are being aggravated by an incongruous dynamic: Surging economic growth has diminished many nations’ reliance on foreign donors, leaving them more exposed to the ravages of unexpected droughts and storms.  Increasing independence is mostly a good thing, recognition of Africa’s emergence as one of the fastest-growing corners of the global economy.  But the current shortages show that many countries remain too poor and isolated to ramp up imports when times turn tough. … Global market turmoil in recent weeks has sent many African currencies down more than 20% against the U.S. dollar, making imports to the continent more costly than ever.  That is creating liquidity crunches in Angola, Zimbabwe and South Sudan that are hurting official efforts to supplement poor harvests and driving the prices of staples foodstuffs higher.  Staple grain prices have hit five-year highs, according to U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network. … In the past, donors have provided emergency foodstuffs to the hungry in Karamoja, the swath of flat pastoral plains in northeastern Uganda that includes Ms. Alinga’s village, Akuyam.  But this year, foreign donors are focused on the refugee crisis emanating from Syria and Iraq, making it harder to find funding.”

Quickie analysis:  Africans are going hungry because of an economic slowdown in China, war in the Middle East, and climate change amplified by almost-entirely-non-African carbon emissions.  Doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

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Thinking Aloud: India’s Ire Bringing Nepal to Its Knees

Sept. 29, 2015 by Darius 

A week after adopting its first-ever constitution, Nepal is facing a fuel shortage so severe that the Nepali government has imposed driving restrictions based on the last digit of motorists’ license plates. Why has the constitution led to the fuel shortage? Because India has decided to express its displeasure about the constitution by stopping the flow of supplies across the border into Nepal.

The constitution in Nepal was not met without controversy. In particular, some Nepalis take exception with provisions of the constitution dealing with ethnic minority status. Furthermore, some religious nationalists object to Nepal’s officially enshrined status as a secular state rather than a Hindu one. Protests have been most severe in Nepal’s southern regions, which border India. Many ethnic groups in southern Nepal also live across the border in India. India complained that Nepal’s government moved too quickly in passing and implementing the constitution. The originally protests in Nepal have dissipated, but India, citing ambiguous safety concerns, has blocked the transit of more than 1,000 trucks, including fuel trucks, from crossing into Nepal.

Unfortunately for Nepal, India has Nepal by the, er, ball bearings: the earthquake that devastated Nepal less than six months ago destroyed Nepal’s only two border crossings with China. Those crossings have yet to reopen, leaving Nepal solely dependent on supplies coming in from India.

Clearly, you don’t have to be a wealthy, developed country to bully your neighbors.

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News You Really Need To See: “A Hacker’s Back Door to Sabotage Networks”

“A Hacker’s Back Door to Sabotage Networks”

The Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2015, p.B1

On a sweltering summer day in San Jose, Calif., Scott Noteboom launched a cyberattack by exploiting a networking system vulnerability: the cooling system.  An assistant, standing before a collection of networked computer gear plus a cooling fan, plugged a cable into a laptop.  Soon a light on one of the boxes started flashing: The fan was in trouble. It clicked, then stuttered, then moaned to a halt.  The equipment soon would have melted down—literally—had the attack occurred in a real data center.  Mr. Noteboom isn’t a hacker.  He is the founder of Litbit, a startup launched two years ago to address a widespread security threat that generally has gone unrecognized: The underlying equipment that typically supports data-center networks—backup generators, thermostats, air conditioners, and the like—are vulnerable to a cyberattack that would have the potential to take down the entire operation.  These ‘industrial control systems’ are fixtures not only in data centers but in commercial buildings and factories.  While networked computers are upgraded frequently, the equipment in this underlying layer may be on a refresh schedule measured in decades.  They use hoary communication standards that lack basic security features such as password protection.  Information-security personnel don’t expect those industrial systems to be wired to the computer networks they power or cool, yet they are often connected. … A recent survey by the security consultancy WhiteScope found nearly 20,000 such systems—including some for schools, hospitals, retailers and others—accessible through the Internet, no username or password required. … Although few attacks on such equipment have been reported publicly, the problem isn’t just theoretical.  In late 2014, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported an ‘ongoing sophisticated malware campaign’ that had ‘compromised numerous industrial control systems’ from several manufacturers.  Also last year, the German government said hackers had severely damaged a steel plant in that country by causing furnaces to malfunction.  Similar methods were implicated in the 2010 Stuxnet attack, which The Wall Street Journal and others have attributed to U.S. and Israeli spy agencies, that destroyed approximately 1,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant.”

Quickie analysis:  Unfortunately, the entire computing infrastructure was not designed with cyberattacks in mind.  This likely won’t be the last glaring security breach to be discovered.

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Thinking Aloud: Getting Fleeced in Karachi

Sept. 28, 2015 by Darius 

As part of celebrations for the holiday of Eid al-Adha last week, thousands of animals were sacrificed across the Muslim world, including Pakistan. In recent years, though, in Pakistan another seeming holiday tradition has followed the sacrifice of the animals: gunmen belonging to the main political party-cum-mafia in Karachi, the MQM, going door-to-door to forcibly seize tens of thousands of animal hides, which are then sold. The fact that such seizure is illegal has never mattered in the past.

This year, though, this tradition was disrupted. Karachi has been the scene of a political and occasionally literal battle over the last few months as the Sindh Rangers, an elite paramilitary unit under command of the military’s top brass, has attempted to wrest control of Karachi from the MQM. According to Pakistani news outlets, after Eid the Rangers arrested hundreds of the MQM’s goons and seized more than 18,000 animal hides.

The fact that the MQM is being pushed off its turf is not necessarily good news for the actual residents of Karachi. Instead, Pakistan has been the scene of a predatory kind of see-saw in which government and private sector mafias take turns shaking down the populace.

It’s not surprising, then, that Pakistanis are not terribly attached to staying in Pakistan. A recent poll showed that 97% of Pakistanis are willing to work abroad. The average of the 70 countries surveyed in the same poll was only 64% — no small number in itself but a far cry from Pakistan’s level. (In the US, with its comparatively strong economy and fair job market, only a third of respondents were willing to go abroad to work.)

The fact that Pakistan’s people seem to be willing to knuckle under and accept victimization at the hands of their government, as well as at the hands of parallel governments, should not be construed to mean that Pakistanis are happy about it. Eventually, public discontent boils over. That’s a lesson that goes far beyond Pakistan.

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