But it is rather the beginning: what will be the new Government, how the political establishment will find the proper dialogue with Moscow, how the relationship with Romania - seriously deteriorated in the last month - will evolve, what economic and human resources will be able to cope the deep crisis of the Moldavian society?
Friday, July 31, 2009
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Georgia and Ukraine partly answered questions over how U.S.-Russian talks went during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Russia in early July. That Biden’s visit took place at all reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the principle that Russia does not have the right to a sphere of influence in these countries or anywhere in the former Soviet Union. The Americans’ willingness to confront the Russians on an issue of fundamental national interest to Russia therefore requires some explanation, as on the surface it seems a high-risk maneuver. Biden provided insights into the analytic framework of the Obama administration on Russia in a July 26 interview with The Wall Street Journal. In it, Biden said the United States “vastly” underestimates its hand. He added that “Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.”
U.S. Policy Continuity
The Russians have accused the United States of supporting pro-American forces in Ukraine, Georgia and other countries of the former Soviet Union under the cover of supporting democracy. They see the U.S. goal as surrounding the Soviet Union with pro-American states to put the future of the Russian Federation at risk. The summer 2008 Russian military action in Georgia was intended to deliver a message to the United States and the countries of the former Soviet Union that Russia was not prepared to tolerate such developments but was prepared to reverse them by force of arms if need be. Following his July summit, Obama sent Biden to the two most sensitive countries in the former Soviet Union — Ukraine and Georgia — to let the Russians know that the United States was not backing off its strategy in spite of Russian military superiority in the immediate region. In the long run, the United States is much more powerful than the Russians, and Biden was correct when he explicitly noted Russia’s failing demographics as a principle factor in Moscow’s long-term decline. But to paraphrase a noted economist, we don’t live in the long run. Right now, the Russian correlation of forces along Russia’s frontiers clearly favors the Russians, and the major U.S. deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan would prevent the Americans from intervening should the Russians choose to challenge pro-American governments in the former Soviet Union directly. Even so, Biden’s visit and interview show the Obama administration is maintaining the U.S. stance on Russia that has been in place since the Reagan years. Reagan saw the economy as Russia’s basic weakness. He felt that the greater the pressure on the Russian economy, the more forthcoming the Russians would be on geopolitical matters. The more concessions they made on geopolitical matters, the weaker their hold on Eastern Europe. And if Reagan’s demand that Russia “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev” was met, the Soviets would collapse. Ever since the Reagan administration, the idee fixe of not only the United States, but also NATO, China and Japan has been that the weakness of the Russian economy made it impossible for the Russians to play a significant regional role, let alone a global one. Therefore, regardless of Russian wishes, the West was free to forge whatever relations it wanted among Russian allies like Serbia and within the former Soviet Union. And certainly during the 1990s, Russia was paralyzed. Biden, however, is saying that whatever the current temporary regional advantage the Russians might have, in the end, their economy is crippled and Russia is not a country to be taken seriously. He went on publicly to point out that this should not be pointed out publicly, as there is no value in embarrassing Russia. The Russians certainly now understand what it means to hit the reset button Obama had referred to: The reset is back to the 1980s and 1990s.
Reset to the 1980s and 90s
To calculate the Russian response, it is important to consider how someone like Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin views the events of the 1980s and 1990s. After all, Putin was a KGB officer under Yuri Andropov, the former head of the KGB and later Chairman of the Communist Party for a short time — and the architect of glasnost and perestroika. It was the KGB that realized first that the Soviet Union was failing, which made sense because only the KGB had a comprehensive sense of the state of the Soviet Union. Andropov’s strategy was to shift from technology transfer through espionage — apparently Putin’s mission as a junior intelligence officer in Dresden in the former East Germany — to a more formal process of technology transfer. To induce the West to transfer technology and to invest in the Soviet Union, Moscow had to make substantial concessions in the area in which the West cared the most: geopolitics. To get what it needed, the Soviets had to dial back on the Cold War. Glasnost, or openness, had as its price reducing the threat to the West. But the greater part of the puzzle was perestroika, or the restructuring of the Soviet economy. This was where the greatest risk came, since the entire social and political structure of the Soviet Union was built around a command economy. But that economy was no longer functioning, and without perestroika, all of the investment and technology transfer would be meaningless. The Soviet Union could not metabolize it. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a communist, as we seem to forget, and a follower of Andropov. He was not a liberalizer because he saw liberalization as a virtue; rather, he saw it as a means to an end. And that end was saving the Communist Party, and with it the Soviet state. Gorbachev also understood that the twin challenge of concessions to the West geopolitically and a top-down revolution in Russia economically — simultaneously—risked massive destabilization. This is what Reagan was counting on, and what Gorbachev was trying to prevent. Gorbachev lost Andropov’s gamble. The Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the Communist Party. What followed was a decade of economic horror, at least as most Russians viewed it. From the West’s point of view, collapse looked like liberalization. From the Russian point of view, Russia went from a superpower that was poor to an even poorer geopolitical cripple. For the Russians, the experiment was a double failure. Not only did the Russian Empire retreat to the borders of the 18th century, but the economy became even more dysfunctional, except for a handful of oligarchs and some of their Western associates who stole whatever wasn’t nailed down. The Russians, and particularly Putin, took away a different lesson than the West did. The West assumed that economic dysfunction caused the Soviet Union to fail. Putin and his colleagues took away the idea that it was the attempt to repair economic dysfunction through wholesale reforms that caused Russia to fail. From Putin’s point of view, economic well-being and national power do not necessarily work in tandem where Russia is concerned.
Russian Power, With or Without Prosperity
Russia has been an economic wreck for most of its history, both under the czars and under the Soviets. The geography of Russia has a range of weaknesses, as we have explored. Russia’s geography, daunting infrastructural challenges and demographic structure all conspire against it. But the strategic power of Russia was never synchronized to its economic well-being. Certainly, following World War II the Russian economy was shattered and never quite came back together. Yet Russian global power was still enormous. A look at the crushing poverty — but undeniable power — of Russia during broad swaths of time from 1600 until Andropov arrived on the scene certainly gives credence to Putin’s view. The problems of the 1980s had as much to do with the weakening and corruption of the Communist Party under former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev as it had to do with intrinsic economic weakness. To put it differently, the Soviet Union was an economic wreck under Joseph Stalin as well. The Germans made a massive mistake in confusing Soviet economic weakness with military weakness. During the Cold War, the United States did not make that mistake. It understood that Soviet economic weakness did not track with Russian strategic power. Moscow might not be able to house its people, but its military power was not to be dismissed. What made an economic cripple into a military giant was political power. Both the czar and the Communist Party maintained a ruthless degree of control over society. That meant Moscow could divert resources from consumption to the military and suppress resistance. In a state run by terror, dissatisfaction with the state of the economy does not translate into either policy shifts or military weakness — and certainly not in the short term. Huge percentages of gross domestic product can be devoted to military purposes, even if used inefficiently there. Repression and terror smooth over public opinion. The czar used repression widely, and it was not until the army itself rebelled in World War I that the regime collapsed. Under Stalin, even at the worst moments of World War II, the army did not rebel. In both regimes, economic dysfunction was accepted as the inevitable price of strategic power. And dissent — even the hint of dissent — was dealt with by the only truly efficient state enterprise: the security apparatus, whether called the Okhraina, Cheka, NKVD, MGB or KGB. From the point of view of Putin, who has called the Soviet collapse the greatest tragedy of our time, the problem was not economic dysfunction. Rather, it was the attempt to completely overhaul the Soviet Union’s foreign and domestic policies simultaneously that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. And that collapse did not lead to an economic renaissance. Biden might not have meant to gloat, but he drove home the point that Putin believes. For Putin, the West, and particularly the United States, engineered the fall of the Soviet Union by policies crafted by the Reagan administration — and that same policy remains in place under the Obama administration. It is not clear that Putin and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev disagree with Biden’s analysis — the Russian economy truly is “withering” — except in one sense. Given the policies Putin has pursued, the Russian prime minister must believe he has a way to cope with that. In the short run, Putin might well have such a coping mechanism, and this is the temporary window of opportunity Biden alluded to. But in the long run, the solution is not improving the economy — that would be difficult, if not outright impossible, for a country as large and lightly populated as Russia. Rather, the solution is accepting that Russia’s economic weakness is endemic and creating a regime that allows Russia to be a great power in spite of that. Such a regime is the one that can create military power in the face of broad poverty, something we will call the “Chekist state.” This state uses its security apparatus, now known as the FSB, to control the public through repression, freeing the state to allocate resources to the military as needed. In other words, this is Putin coming full circle to his KGB roots, but without the teachings of an Andropov or Gorbachev to confuse the issue. This is not an ideological stance; it applies to the Romanovs and to the Bolsheviks. It is an operational principle embedded in Russian geopolitics and history. Counting on Russian strategic power to track Russian economic power is risky. Certainly, it did in the 1980s and 1990s, but Putin has worked to decouple the two. On the surface, it might seem a futile gesture, but in Russian history, this decoupling is the norm. Obama seems to understand this to the extent that he has tried to play off Medvedev (who appears less traditional) from Putin (who appears to be the more traditional), but we do not think this is a viable strategy — this is not a matter of Russian political personalities but of Russian geopolitical necessity. Biden seems to be saying that the Reagan strategy can play itself out permanently. Our view is that it plays itself out only so long as the Russian regime doesn’t reassert itself with the full power of the security apparatus and doesn’t decouple economic and military growth. Biden’s strategy works so long as this doesn’t happen. But in Russian history, this decoupling is the norm and the past 20 years is the exception. A strategy that assumes the Russians will once again decouple economic and military power requires a different response than ongoing, subcritical pressure. It requires that the window of opportunity the United States has handed Russia by its wars in the Islamic world be closed, and that the pressure on Russia be dramatically increased before the Russians move toward full repression and rapid rearmament. Ironically, in the very long run of the next couple of generations, it probably doesn’t matter whether the West heads off Russia at the pass because of another factor Biden mentioned: Russia’s shrinking demographics. Russian demography has been steadily worsening since World War I, particularly because birth rates have fallen. This slow-motion degradation turned into collapse during the 1990s. Russia’s birth rates are now well below starkly higher death rates; Russia already has more citizens in their 50s than in their teens. Russia can be a major power without a solid economy, but no one can be a major power without people. But even with demographics as poor as Russia’s, demographics do not change a country overnight. This is Russia’s moment, and the generation or so it will take demography to grind Russia down can be made very painful for the Americans. Biden has stated the American strategy: squeeze the Russians and let nature take its course. We suspect the Russians will squeeze back hard before they move off the stage of history.
OSCE Press Release
BISHKEK, 24 July - Kyrgyzstan's presidential election failed to meet key OSCE commitments, despite some positive elements, the OSCE election observation mission concluded in a preliminary statement released today."We are pleased to see some political pluralism and an active civil society, but this was undermined by an overall uneven playing field in which the distinction between the ruling party and the State was blurred," said Senator Consiglio Di Nino, Special Co-ordinator of the OSCE short-term observers and Head of the delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly."Sadly, this election did not show the progress we were hoping for and it again fell short of key standards Kyrgyzstan has committed to as a participating State of the OSCE. The conduct of election day was a disappointment. We hope that our assessment and recommendations will be used constructively as a basis for a serious overhaul of the way elections are organized in Kyrgyzstan in the future," said Radmila Sekerinska, the Head of the election observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
Voters could choose from a number of presidential candidates and civil society played an important role in the election process. But observers also stressed that the incumbent gained an unfair advantage over his opponents through the misuse of administrative resources and bias in the media coverage of the campaign, which did not allow voters to make an informed choice.The observers noted instances of obstruction of opposition campaign events as well as pressure and intimidation of opposition supporters. The shortcomings observed contributed to an atmosphere of distrust and undermined public confidence in holding genuinely democratic elections.Election day was marred by many problems and irregularities, including ballot box stuffing, inaccuracies in the voter lists, and multiple voting. The process further deteriorated during the vote count and the tabulation of results, with observers evaluating this part of the process negatively in more than half of observations.The OSCE election observation mission is a joint undertaking of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
The Economist - Tulips Squashed
China Daily - Agreement with Russia, to be signed this week-end
Newsweek - The Strenghts of the Green Revolution
BBC - Neda Memorial, witnesses
The Telegraph - Ahmadinejad denies rift with the clerical establishment
BBC - Clinton urges Iran to free prisoners
BBC - Neda Memorial, witnesses
The Telegraph - Ahmadinejad denies rift with the clerical establishment
BBC - Clinton urges Iran to free prisoners
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Scott Stewart and Fred Burton
On the morning of July 17, a guest at the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta came down to the lobby and began walking toward the lounge with his roll-aboard suitcase in tow and a backpack slung across his chest. Sensing something odd about the fellow, alert security officers approached him and asked him if he required assistance. The guest responded that he needed to deliver the backpack to his boss and proceeded to the lounge, accompanied by one of the security guards. Shortly after entering the lounge, the guest activated the improvised explosive device (IED) contained in the backpack, killing himself and five others. Minutes later, an accomplice detonated a second IED in a restaurant at the adjacent Ritz-Carlton hotel, killing himself and two other victims, bringing the death toll from the operation to nine — including six foreigners.
The twin bombings in Jakarta underscore two tactical trends that STRATFOR has been following for several years now, namely, the targeting of hotels in terrorist attacks and the use of smaller suicide devices to circumvent physical security measures. The Jakarta attacks also highlight the challenges associated with protecting soft targets such as hotels against such attacks.
Hotels as Targets
During the 1970s the iconic terrorist target became the international airliner. But as airline security increased in response to terrorist incidents, it became more difficult to hijack or bomb aircraft, and this difficulty resulted in a shift in targeting. By the mid-1980s, while there were still some incidents involving aircraft, the iconic terrorist target had become the embassy. But attacks against embassies have also provoked a security response, resulting in embassy security programs that have produced things like the American “Inman buildings”, which some have labeled “fortress America” buildings due to their foreboding presence and their robust construction designed to withstand rocket and large IED attacks. Due to these changes, it became far more difficult to attack embassies, many of which have become, for the most part in our post-9/11 world, hard targets. (This is certainly not universal, and there are still vulnerable embassies in many places. In fact, some countries locate their embassies inside commercial office buildings or hotels.) Overall, however, this trend of making embassies hard targets has caused yet another shift in the terrorist paradigm.
As STRATFOR has noted since 2004, hotels have become the iconic terrorist target of the post-9/11 era. Indeed, by striking an international hotel in a capital city, militants can make the same type of statement against Western imperialism and decadence that they can make by striking an embassy. Hotels are often full of Western businessmen, diplomats and intelligence officers, providing militants with a target-rich environment where they can kill Westerners and gain international media attention without having to penetrate the extreme security of a modern embassy. Our 2004 observation about the trend toward attacking hotels has been borne out since that time by attacks against hotels in several parts of the world, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, India and Egypt. In addition to attacks against single hotels, in the attacks in Mumbai, Amman, Sharm el-Sheikh — and now Jakarta — militants staged coordinated attacks in which they hit more than one hotel. Hotels have taken measures to improve security, and hotel security overall is better today than it was in 2004.
In fact, security measures in place at several hotels, such as the Marriott in Islamabad, have saved lives on more than one occasion. However, due to the very nature of hotels, they remain vulnerable to attacks. Unlike an embassy, a hotel is a commercial venture and is intended to make money. In order to make money, the hotel needs to maintain a steady flow of customers who stay in its rooms; visitors who eat at its restaurants, drink at its bars and rent its banquet and conference facilities; and merchants who rent out its shop space.
On any given day a large five-star hotel can have hundreds of guests staying there, hundreds of other visitors attending conferences or dinner events and scores of other people eating in the restaurants, using the health club or shopping at the luxury stores commonly found inside such hotels. Such amenities are often difficult to find outside of such hotels in cities like Peshawar or Kabul, and therefore these hotels also become gathering places for foreign businessmen, diplomats and journalists residing in the city, as well as for wealthy natives. It is fairly easy for a militant operative to conduct surveillance of the inside of a hotel by posing as a restaurant patron or by shopping in its stores. Of course, the staff required to run such a huge facility can also number in the hundreds, with clerks, cooks, housekeepers, waiters, bellboys, busboys, valets, florists, gardeners, maintenance men, security personnel, etc. These hotels are like little cities with activities that run 24 hours a day, with people, luggage, food and goods coming and going at all hours.
There are emerging reports that one of the suicide bombers in the Jakarta attack was a florist at one of the hotels and it is possible that he used his position to smuggle IED components into the facility among floral supplies. If true, the long-term placement of militant operatives within the hotel staff will pose daunting challenges to corporate security directors. Such an inside placement could also explain how the cell responsible for the attack was able to conduct the detailed surveillance required for the operation without being detected.
Quite simply, it is extremely expensive to provide a hotel with the same level of physical security afforded to an embassy. Land to provide standoff distance is very expensive in many capital cities and heavy reinforced-concrete construction to withstand attacks is far more expensive than regular commercial construction. Such costs must be weighed against the corporate bottom line. Moreover, security procedures at an embassy such as screening 100 percent of the visitors and their belongings are deemed far too intrusive by many hotel managers, and there is a constant tension between hotel security managers and hotel guest-relations managers over how much security is required in a particular hotel in a specific city. In fact, this debate over security is very similar to the tension that exists between diplomats and security personnel at the U.S. Department of State.
And the longer the period between successful attacks (there had not been a successful terrorist attack in Jakarta since September 2004 and in Indonesia since October 2005), the harder it is to justify the added expense — and inconvenience — of security measures at hotels. (Of course, in very dangerous places such as Baghdad, Islamabad and Kabul heavy security is far easier to justify, and some hotels in such locations have been heavily fortified following attacks on other hotels in those cities.) In many places, hotel guests are subjected to less security scrutiny than visitors to the hotel, as the hotel staff seeks to make them feel welcomed, and it is not surprising that militants in places like Mumbai (and perhaps Jakarta) have been able to smuggle weapons and IED components into a hotel concealed inside their luggage.
We have received a report from a credible source indicating that one of the Jakarta attackers had indeed been checked into the JW Marriott hotel. The source says the attacker, posing as a guest, was an Indonesian but was likely from a remote area because he did not appear to be familiar with how to use modern conveniences such as the room’s Western-style toilet. That the attackers were Indonesians supports the theory the attack was conducted by the Southeast Asian group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) or a JI splinter group. JI has conducted (or is a suspect in) every high-profile terror attack in Indonesia in recent years. Sources advise that significant similarities exist between the unexploded device discovered in the attacker’s hotel room in the JW Marriott and known JI explosive devices used in past attacks and recovered in police raids. This is another strong indication JI was involved.
One other important lesson that travelers should take from this string of hotel attacks is that, while they should pay attention to the level of security provided at hotels, and stay at hotels with better security, they should not rely exclusively on hotel security to keep them safe. There are some simple personal security measures that should also be taken to help mitigate the risk of staying at a hotel.
Size is Not Everything
As STRATFOR has noted since 2005, the counterterrorism tactic of erecting barricades around particularly vulnerable targets — including government buildings such as embassies and softer targets such as hotels — has forced militants to rethink their attack strategies and adapt. Instead of building bigger and bigger bombs that could possibly penetrate more secure areas, operational planners are instead thinking small — and mobile. In fact it was the October 2005 triple-bomb attacks against restaurants in Bali, Indonesia, by JI and the November 2005 triple suicide-bombing attacks against three Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, that really focused our attention on this trend. Like the July 7, 2005, London bombings, these two attacks in Jakarta and Amman used smaller-scale explosive devices to bypass security and target areas where people congregate. Such attacks demonstrated an evolution in militant tactics away from large and bulky explosives and toward smaller, more portable devices that can be used in a wider variety of situations. Flexibility provides many options, and in the case of the operative who attacked the JW Marriott on July 17, it appears that he was able to approach a meeting of foreign businessmen being held in the lobby lounge and attack them as a target of opportunity. A vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) detonated in front of the hotel would not likely have been able to target such a group so selectively on the fly.
Of course, this trend does not mean that large VBIEDs will never again be employed any more than the trend to attack hotels means aircraft and embassies will never be attacked. Rather, the intent here is to point out that as security has been increased around targets, militants have adapted to security measures designed to stop them and they have changed their tactics. At first glance, it would seem logical that the shift from large VBIEDs would cause casualty counts to drop, but in the case of JI attacks in Indonesia, the shift to smaller devices has, in fact, caused higher casualty counts. The August 2003 attack against the JW Marriott in Jakarta used a VBIED and left 12 people dead. Likewise, the September 2004 attack against the Australian embassy in Jakarta used a VBIED and killed 10 people. The use of three smaller IEDs in the 2005 Bali attacks killed 23, more than JI’s 2003 and 2004 VBIED attacks combined. Additionally, the 2005 attacks killed five foreigners as opposed to only one in the 2003 attack and none in the 2004 attacks. The operatives behind the July 17 attacks surpassed the 2005 Bali attacks by managing to kill six foreigners. The reason that smaller is proving to be more effective at killing foreigners is that the rule for explosives is much like real estate — the three most important factors are location, location and location.
Though a larger quantity of explosives will create a larger explosion, the impact of an explosion is determined solely by placement. If a bomber can carry a smaller explosive into the center of a heavily packed crowd — such as a wedding reception or hotel lobby — it will cause more damage than a larger device detonated farther away from its intended target. These smaller devices can also be used to target a specific person, as seen in the December 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto . A person carrying explosives in a bag or concealed under clothing is much more fluid and can thus maneuver into the best possible position before detonating. In essence, a suicide bomber is a very sophisticated form of “smart” munition that can work its way through gaps in security and successfully seek its target. This type of guidance appears to have worked very effectively in the July 17 Jakarta attacks. As noted above, of the seven victims in this attack (the nine total deaths included the bombers), six were foreigners. JI has received criticism from the Islamist community in Indonesia for killing innocent bystanders (and Muslims) and such targeted attacks will help mute such criticism. In addition to being more efficient, smaller IEDs also are cheaper to make.
In an environment where explosive material is difficult to obtain, it is far easier to assemble the material for two or three small devices than the hundreds of pounds required for a large VBIED. An attack like the July 17 Jakarta attack could have been conducted at a very low cost, probably not more than a few thousand dollars. The three devices employed in that attack (as noted above, there was a third device left in the hotel room that did not explode) likely did not require much more than 60 pounds of explosive material. This economical approach to terrorism is a distinct advantage for a militant group like Noordin Mohammad Top’s faction of JI, Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad.
Due to the Indonesian government’s crackdown on JI and its factions, the Indonesian militants simply do not have the external funding and freedom of action they enjoyed prior to the October 2002 Bali attack. This means that, at the present time, it would be very difficult for JI to purchase or otherwise procure the hundreds of pounds of explosive material required for a large VBIED — coming up with 60 pounds is far easier. Even though JI is fragmented and its abilities have been degraded since the 2002 Bali attack, a cell like the one headed by Top certainly maintains the ability and the expertise to conduct low-cost, carefully targeted attacks like the July 17 Jakarta bombings. Such attacks are easily sustainable, and the only real limiter on the group’s ability to conduct similar attacks in the future is finding attackers willing to kill themselves in the process.
Perhaps a more significant limiter on their operational tempo will be the law enforcement response to the attack, which could force the cell to go underground until the heat is off. It might also be difficult to move operatives and IEDs from safe houses to targets when there is more scrutiny of potential JI militants. Increased security at potential targets could also cause the cell to wait until complacency sets in before attacking a less wary — and softer — target. Of course, the group’s operational ability will also be affected should the Indonesian government capture or kill key operatives like Top and his lieutenants. From the standpoint of security, the challenges of balancing security with guest comfort and customer service at large hotels will continue to be a vexing problem, though certainly it would not be surprising to see an increase in the use of magnetometers and X-ray machines to screen guests and visitors at vulnerable facilities. This may also include such measures as random bomb-dog searches and sweeps in areas where dogs are not a cultural taboo. Additionally, in light of the threat of suicide bombers using smaller devices or posing as guests, or even placing operatives on the hotel staff, much more effort will be made to implement proactive security measures such as protective intelligence and countersurveillance, which focus more on identifying potential attackers than on his or her weapons. Hotel staff members also need to be taught that security is not just the role of the designated security department. Security officers are not omnipresent; they require other people on the hotel staff who have interactions with the guests and visitors to be their eyes and ears and to alert them to individuals who have made it through security and into the hotel and appear to be potential threats.
Of course, the traveling public also has a responsibility not only to look out for their own personal security but to maintain a heightened state of situational awareness and notify hotel security of any unusual activity.
At Friday prayers July 17 at Tehran University, the influential cleric and former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gave his first sermon since Iran’s disputed presidential election and the subsequent demonstrations. The crowd listening to Rafsanjani inside the mosque was filled with Ahmadinejad supporters who chanted, among other things, “Death to America” and “Death to China.” Outside the university common grounds, anti-Ahmadinejad elements — many of whom were blocked by Basij militiamen and police from entering the mosque — persistently chanted “Death to Russia.” Death to America is an old staple in Iran. Death to China had to do with the demonstrations in Xinjiang and the death of Uighurs at the hands of the Chinese. Death to Russia, however, stood out. Clearly, its use was planned before the protesters took to the streets. The meaning of this must be uncovered. To begin to do that, we must consider the political configuration in Iran at the moment.
The Iranian Political Configuration
There are two factions claiming to speak for the people. Rafsanjani represents the first faction. During his sermon, he spoke for the tradition of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who took power during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Rafjsanjani argued that Khomeini wanted an Islamic republic faithful to the will of the people, albeit within the confines of Islamic law. Rafsanjani argued that he was the true heir to the Islamic revolution. He added that Khomeini’s successor — the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — had violated the principles of the revolution when he accepted that Rafsanjani’s archenemy, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had won Iran’s recent presidential election. (There is enormous irony in foreigners describing Rafsanjani as a moderate reformer who supports greater liberalization. Though he has long cultivated this image in the West, in 30 years of public political life it is hard to see a time when has supported Western-style liberal democracy.) The other faction is led by Ahmadinejad, who takes the position that Rafsanjani in particular — along with the generation of leaders who ascended to power during the first phase of the Islamic republic — has betrayed the Iranian people. Rather than serving the people, Ahmadinejad claims they have used their positions to become so wealthy that they dominate the Iranian economy and have made the reforms needed to revitalize the Iranian economy impossible. According to Ahmadinejad’s charges, these elements now blame Ahmadinejad for Iran’s economic failings when the root of these failings is their own corruption. Ahmadinejad claims that the recent presidential election represents a national rejection of the status quo. He adds that claims of fraud represent attempts by Rafsanjani — who he portrays as defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi’s sponsor — and his ilk to protect their positions from Ahmadinejad. Iran is therefore experiencing a generational dispute, with each side claiming to speak both for the people and for the Khomeini tradition. There is the older generation — symbolized by Rafsanjani — that has prospered during the last 30 years. Having worked with Khomeini, this generation sees itself as his true heir. Then, there is the younger generation. Known as “students” during the revolution, this group did the demonstrating and bore the brunt of the shah’s security force counterattacks. It argues that Khomeini would be appalled at what Rafsanjani and his generation have done to Iran. This debate is, of course, more complex than this. Khamenei, a key associate of Khomeini, appears to support Ahmadinejad’s position. And Ahmadinejad hardly speaks for all of the poor as he would like to claim. The lines of political disputes are never drawn as neatly as we would like. Ultimately, Rafsanjani’s opposition to the recent election did not have as much to do with concerns (valid or not) over voter fraud. It had everything to do with the fact that the outcome threatened his personal position. Which brings us back to the question of why Rafsanjani’s followers were chanting “Death to Russia?”
Examining the Anomalous Chant
For months prior to the election, Ahmadinejad’s allies warned that the United States was planning a “color” revolution. Color revolutions, like the one in Ukraine, occurred widely in the former Soviet Union after its collapse, and these revolutions followed certain steps. An opposition political party was organized to mount an electoral challenge the establishment. Then, an election occurred that was either fraudulent or claimed by the opposition as having been fraudulent. Next, widespread peaceful protests against the regime (all using a national color as the symbol of the revolution) took place, followed by the collapse of the government through a variety of paths. Ultimately, the opposition — which was invariably pro-Western and particularly pro-American — took power. Moscow openly claimed that Western intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, organized and funded the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. These agencies allegedly used nongovernmental organizations (human rights groups, pro-democracy groups, etc.) to delegitimize the existing regime, repudiate the outcome of election regardless of its validity and impose what the Russians regarded as a pro-American puppet regime. The Russians saw Ukraine’s Orange Revolution as the breakpoint in their relationship with the West, with the creation of a pro-American, pro-NATO regime in Ukraine representing a direct attack on Russian national security. The Americans argued that to the contrary, they had done nothing but facilitate a democratic movement that opposed the existing regime for its own reasons, demanding that rigged elections be repudiated. In warning that the United States was planning a color revolution in Iran, Ahmadinejad took the Russian position. Namely, he was arguing that behind the cover of national self-determination, human rights and commitment to democratic institutions, the United States was funding an Iranian opposition movement on the order of those active in the former Soviet Union. Regardless of whether the opposition actually had more votes, this opposition movement would immediately regard an Ahmadinejad win as the result of fraud. Large demonstrations would ensue, and if left unopposed, the Islamic republic would come under threat. In doing this, Ahmadinejad’s faction positioned itself against the actuality that such a rising would occur. If it did, Ahmadinejad could claim that the demonstrators were — wittingly or not — operating on behalf of the United States, thus delegitimizing the demonstrators. In so doing, he could discredit supporters of the demonstrators as not tough enough on the United States, a useful charge against Rafsanjani, whom the West long has held up as an Iranian moderate.
Interestingly, while demonstrations were at their height, Ahmadinejad chose to attend — albeit a day late — a multinational Shanghai Cooperation Organization conference in Moscow on the Tuesday after the election. It was very odd that he would leave Iran at the time of the greatest unrest; we assumed that he had decided to demonstrate to Iranians that he didn’t take the demonstrations seriously. The charge that seems to be emerging on the Rafsanjani side is that Ahmadinejad’s fears of a color revolution were not simply political, but were encouraged by the Russians. It was the Russians who had been talking to Ahmadinejad and his lieutenants on a host of issues, who warned him about the possibility of a color revolution. More important, the Russians helped prepare Ahmadinejad for the unrest that would come — and given the Russian experience, how to manage it.
Though we speculate here, if this theory is correct, it could explain some of the efficiency with which Ahmadinejad shut down cell phone and other communications during the postelection unrest, as he may have had Russian advisers. Rafsanjani’s followers were not shouting “Death to Russia” without a reason, at least in their own minds. They are certainly charging that Ahmadinejad took advice from the Russians, and went to Russia in the midst of political unrest for consultations. Rafsanjani’s charge may or may not be true. Either way, there is no question that Ahmadinejad did claim that the United States was planning a color revolution in Iran. If he believed that charge, it would have been irrational not to reach out to the Russians. But whether or not the CIA was involved, the Russians might well have provided Ahmadinejad with intelligence of such a plot and helped shape his response, and thereby may have created a closer relationship with him.
How Iran’s internal struggle will work itself out remains unclear. But one dimension is shaping up: Ahmadinejad is trying to position Rafsanjani as leading a pro-American faction intent on a color revolution, while Rafsanjani is trying to position Ahmadinejad as part of a pro-Russian faction. In this argument, the claim that Ahmadinejad had some degree of advice or collaboration with the Russians is credible, just as the claim that Rafsanjani maintained some channels with the Americans is credible. And this makes an internal dispute geopolitically significant.
The Iranian Struggle in Geopolitical Context
At the moment, Ahmadinejad appears to have the upper hand. Khamenei has certified his re-election. The crowds have dissipated; nothing even close to the numbers of the first few days have since materialized. For Ahmadinejad to lose, Rafsanjani would have to mobilize much of the clergy — many of whom are seemingly content to let Rafsanjani be the brunt of Ahmadinejad’s attacks — in return for leaving their own interests and fortunes intact. There are things that could bring Ahmadinejad down and put Rafsanjani in control, but all of them would require Khamenei to endorse social and political instability, which he will not do.
If the Russians have in fact have intervened in Iran to the extent of providing intelligence to Ahmadinejad and advice to him during his visit on how to handle the postelection unrest (as the chants suggest), then Russian influence in Iran is not surging — it has surged. In some measure, Ahmadinejad would owe his position to Russian warnings and advice. There is little gratitude in the world of international affairs, but Ahmadinejad has enemies, and the Russians would have proven their utility in helping contain those enemies. From the Russian point of view, Ahmadinejad would be a superb asset — even if not truly under their control. His very existence focuses American attention on Iran, not on Russia. It follows, then, that Russia would have made a strategic decision to involve itself in the postelection unrest, and that for the purposes of its own negotiations with Washington, Moscow will follow through to protect the Iranian state to the extent possible. The Russians have already denied U.S. requests for assistance on Iran. But if Moscow has intervened in Iran to help safeguard Ahmadinejad’s position, then the potential increases for Russia to provide Iran with the S-300 strategic air defense systems that it has been dangling in front of Tehran for more than a decade.
If the United States perceives an entente between Moscow and Tehran emerging, then the entire dynamic of the region shifts and the United States must change its game. The threat to Washington’s interests becomes more intense as the potential of a Russian S-300 sale to Iran increases, and the need to disrupt the Russian-Iranian entente would become all the more important. U.S. influence in Iran already has declined substantially, and Ahmadinejad is more distrustful and hostile than ever of the United States after having to deal with the postelection unrest. If a Russian-Iranian entente emerges out of all this — which at the moment is merely a possibility, not an imminent reality — then the United States would have some serious strategic problems on its hands.
Revisiting Assumptions on Iran
For the past few years, STRATFOR has assumed that a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran was unlikely. Iran was not as advanced in its nuclear program as some claimed, and the complexities of any attack were greater than assumed. The threat of an attack was thus a U.S. bargaining chip, much as Iran’s nuclear program itself was an Iranian bargaining chip for use in achieving Tehran’s objectives in Iraq and the wider region. To this point, our net assessment has been accurate. At this point, however, we need to stop and reconsider. If Iran and Russia begin serious cooperation, Washington’s existing dilemma with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its ongoing standoff with the Russians would fuse to become a single, integrated problem. This is something the United States would find difficult to manage. Washington’s primary goal would become preventing this from happening. Ahmadinejad has long argued that the United States was never about to attack Iran, and that charges by Rafsanjani and others that he has pursued a reckless foreign policy were groundless. But with the “Death to Russia” chants and signaling of increased Russian support for Iran, the United States may begin to reconsider its approach to the region. Iran’s clerical elite does not want to go to war. They therefore can only view with alarm the recent ostentatious transiting of the Suez Canal into the Red Sea by Israeli submarines and corvettes.
This transiting did not happen without U.S. approval. Moreover, in spite of U.S. opposition to expanded Israeli settlements and Israeli refusals to comply with this opposition, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will be visiting Israel in two weeks. The Israelis have said that there must be a deadline on negotiations with Iran over the nuclear program when the next G-8 meeting takes place in September; a deadline that the G-8 has already approved. The consequences if Iran ignores the deadline were left open-ended. All of this can fit into our old model of psychological warfare, as representing a bid to manipulate Iranian politics by making Ahmadinejad’s leadership look too risky. It could also be the United States signaling the Russians that stakes in the region are rising. It is not clear that the United States has reconsidered its strategy on Iran in the wake of the postelection demonstrations. But if Rafsanjani’s claim of Russian support for Ahmadinejad is true, a massive re-evaluation of U.S. policy could ensue, assuming one hasn’t already started — prompting a reconsideration of the military option.
All of this assumes that there is substance behind a mob chanting “Death to Russia.” There appears to be, but of course, Ahmadinejad’s enemies would want to magnify that substance to its limits and beyond. This is why we are not ready to simply abandon our previous net assessment of Iran, even though it is definitely time to rethink it.
Scott Stewart and Fred Burton
On June 23, 2009, Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta learned of a highly compartmentalized program to assassinate al Qaeda operatives that was launched by the CIA in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. When Panetta found out that the covert program had not been disclosed to Congress, he canceled it and then called an emergency meeting June 24 to brief congressional oversight committees on the program. Over the past week, many details of the program have been leaked to the press and the issue has received extensive media coverage. That a program existed to assassinate al Qaeda leaders should certainly come as no surprise to anyone. It has been well-publicized that the Clinton administration had launched military operations and attempted to use covert programs to strike the al Qaeda leadership in the wake of the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings.
In fact, the Clinton administration has come under strong criticism for not doing more to decapitate al Qaeda prior to 2001. Furthermore, since 2002, the CIA has conducted scores of strikes against al Qaeda targets in Pakistan using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the MQ-1 Predator and the larger MQ-9 Reaper. These strikes have dramatically increased over the past two years and the pace did not slacken when the Obama administration came to power in January. So far in 2009 there have been more than two dozen UAV strikes in Pakistan alone. In November 2002, the CIA also employed a UAV to kill Abu Ali al-Harithi, a senior al Qaeda leader suspected of planning the October 2000 attack against the USS Cole. The U.S. government has also attacked al Qaeda leaders at other times and in other places, such as the May 1, 2008, attack against al Qaeda-linked figures in Somalia using an AC-130 gunship.
As early as Oct. 28, 2001, The Washington Post ran a story discussing the Clinton-era presidential finding authorizing operations to capture or kill al Qaeda targets. The Oct. 28 Washington Post story also provided details of a finding signed by President George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks that reportedly provided authorization to strike a larger cross section of al Qaeda targets, including those who are not in the Afghan theater of operations. Such presidential findings are used to authorize covert actions, but in this case the finding would also provide permission to contravene Executive Order 12333, which prohibits assassinations. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Bush and the members of his administration were very clear that they sought to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and the members of the al Qaeda organization. During the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections in the United States, every major candidate, including Barack Obama, stated that they would seek to kill bin Laden and destroy al Qaeda. Indeed, on the campaign trail, Obama was quite vocal in his criticism of the Bush administration for not doing more to go after al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan. This means that, regardless of who is in the White House, it is U.S. policy to go after individual al Qaeda members as well as the al Qaeda organization. In light of these facts, it would appear that there was nothing particularly controversial about the covert assassination program itself, and the controversy that has arisen over it has more to do with the failure to report covert activities to Congress. The political uproar and the manner in which the program was canceled, however, will likely have a negative impact on CIA morale and U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
As noted above, that the U.S. government has attempted to locate and kill al Qaeda members is not shocking. Bush’s signing of a classified finding authorizing the assassination of al Qaeda members has been a poorly kept secret for many years now, and the U.S. government has succeeded in killing al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. While Hellfire missiles are quite effective at hitting trucks in Yemen and AC-130 gunships are great for striking walled compounds in the Somali badlands, there are many places in the world where it is simply not possible to use such tools against militants. One cannot launch a hellfire from a UAV at a target in Milan or use an AC-130 to attack a target in Doha. Furthermore, there are certain parts of the world — including some countries considered to be U.S. allies — where it is very difficult for the United States to conduct counterterrorism operations at all. These difficulties have been seen in past cases where the governments have refused U.S. requests to detain terrorist suspects or have alerted the suspects to the U.S. interest in them, compromising U.S. intelligence efforts and allowing the suspects to flee.
A prime example of this occurred in 1996, when the United States asked the government of Qatar for assistance in capturing al Qaeda operational mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was living openly in Qatar and even working for the Qatari government as a project engineer. Mohammed was tipped off to American intentions by the Qatari authorities and fled to Pakistan. According to the 9/11 commission report, Mohammed was closely associated with Sheikh Abdullah bin Khalid al-Thani, who was then the Qatari minister of religious affairs. After fleeing Doha, Mohammed went on to plan several al Qaeda attacks against the United States, including the 9/11 operation. Given these realities, it appears that the recently disclosed assassination program was intended to provide the United States with a far more subtle and surgical tool to use in attacks against al Qaeda leaders in locations where Hellfire missiles are not appropriate and where host government assistance is unlikely to be provided. Some media reports indicate that the program was never fully developed and deployed; others indicate that it may have conducted a limited number of operations.
Unlike UAV strikes, where pilots fly the vehicles by satellite link and can actually be located a half a world away, or the very tough and resilient airframe of an AC-130, which can fly thousands of feet above a target, a surgical assassination capability means that the CIA would have to put boots on the ground in hostile territory where operatives, by their very presence, would be violating the laws of the sovereign country in which they were operating. Such operatives, under nonofficial cover by necessity, would be at risk of arrest if they were detected. Also, because of the nature of such a program, a higher level of operational security is required than in the program to strike al Qaeda targets using UAVs. It is far more complex to move officers and weapons into hostile territory in a stealthy manner to strike a target without warning and with plausible deniability. Once a target is struck with a barrage of Hellfire missiles, it is fairly hard to deny what happened. There is ample physical evidence tying the attack to American UAVs. When a person is struck by a sniper’s bullet or a small IED, the perpetrator and sponsor have far more deniability. By its very nature, and by operational necessity, such a program must be extremely covert. Even with the cooperation of the host government, conducting an extraordinary rendition in a friendly country like Italy has proved to be politically controversial and personally risky for CIA officers, who can be threatened with arrest and trial. Conducting assassination operations in a country that is not so friendly is a far riskier undertaking.
As seen by the Russian officers arrested in Doha after the February 2004 assassination of former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, such operations can generate blowback. The Russian officers responsible for the Yandarbiyev hit were arrested, tortured, tried and sentenced to life in prison (though after several months they were released into Russian custody to serve the remainder of their sentences). Because of the physical risk to the officers involved in such operations, and the political blowback such operations can cause, it is not surprising that the details of such a program would be strictly compartmentalized inside the CIA and not widely disseminated beyond the gates of Langley.
In fact, it is highly doubtful that the details of such a program were even widely known inside the CIA’s counterterrorism center (CTC) — though almost certainly some of the CTC staff suspected that such a covert program existed somewhere. The details regarding such a program were undoubtedly guarded carefully within the clandestine service, with the officer in charge most likely reporting directly to the deputy director of operations, who reports personally to the director of the CIA.
Loose Lips Sink Ships
As trite as this old saying may sound, it is painfully true. In the counterterrorism realm, leaks destroy counterterrorism cases and often allow terrorist suspects to escape and kill again. There have been several leaks of “sources and methods” by congressional sources over the past decade that have disclosed details of sensitive U.S. government programs designed to do things such as intercept al Qaeda satellite phone signals and track al Qaeda financing. A classified appendix to the report of the 2005 Robb-Silberman Commission on Intelligence Capabilities (which incidentally was leaked to the press) discussed several such leaks, noted the costs they impose on the American taxpayers and highlighted the damage they do to intelligence programs. The fear that details of a sensitive program designed to assassinate al Qaeda operatives in foreign countries could be leaked was probably the reason for the Bush administration’s decision to withhold knowledge of the program from the U.S. Congress, even though amendments to the National Security Act of 1947 mandate the reporting of most covert intelligence programs to Congress. Given the imaginative legal guidance provided by Bush administration lawyers regarding subjects such as enhanced interrogation, it would not be surprising to find that White House lawyers focused on loopholes in the National Security Act reporting requirements. The validity of such legal opinions may soon be tested. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, recently said he was considering an investigation into the failure to report the program to Congress, and House Democrats have announced that they want to change the reporting requirements to make them even more inclusive.
Under the current version of the National Security Act, with very few exceptions, the administration is required to report the most sensitive covert activities to, at the very least, the so-called “gang of eight” that includes the chairmen and ranking minority members of the congressional intelligence committees, the speaker and minority leader of the House of Representatives and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate. In the wake of the program’s disclosure, some Democrats would like to expand this minimum reporting requirement to include the entire membership of the congressional intelligence committees, which would increase the absolute minimum number of people to be briefed from eight to 40. Some congressmen argue that presidents, prompted by the CIA, are too loose in their invocation of the “extraordinary circumstances” that allow them to report only to the gang of eight and not the full committees. Yet ironically, the existence of the covert CIA program stayed secret for over seven and a half years, and yet here we are writing about it less than a month after the congressional committees were briefed. The addition of that many additional lips to briefings pertaining to covert actions is not the only thing that will cause great consternation at the CIA.
While legally mandated, disclosing covert programs to Congress has been very problematic. The angst felt at Langley over potential increases in the number of people to be briefed will be compounded by the recent reports that Attorney General Eric Holder may appoint a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogations and ethics reporting. In April we discussed how some of the early actions of the Obama administration were having a chilling effect on U.S. counterterrorism programs and personnel. Expanding the minimum reporting requirements under the National Security Act will serve to turn the thermostat down several additional notches, as did Panetta’s overt killing of the covert program.
It is one thing to quietly kill a controversial program; it is quite another to repudiate the CIA in public. In addition to damaging the already low morale at the agency, Panetta has announced in a very public manner that the United States has taken one important tool entirely out of the counterterrorism toolbox: Al Qaeda no longer has to fear the possibility of clandestine American assassination teams.
U.S. and allied forces began their first major offensive in Afghanistan under the command of U.S. Gen David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal this July.
Inevitably, coalition casualties have begun to mount. Fifteen British soldiers have died within the past 10 days — eight of whom were killed within a 24-hour period — in Helmand province, where the operation is taking place. On July 6, seven U.S. soldiers were killed in separate attacks across Afghanistan within a single day, and on July 12 another four U.S. soldiers were reported killed in Helmand. While the numbers are still relatively low, the reaction, particularly in the United Kingdom, was strong. Afghanistan had long been a war of intermittent casualties, the “other war.” Now it is the prime theater of operations. The United States has changed the rules of the war, and so a great many things now change. The increase in casualties by itself does not tell us much about the success of the operation. If U.S. and NATO forces are successful in finding and attacking Taliban militants, Western casualties inevitably will spike. If the Taliban were prepared for the offensive, and small units were waiting in ambush, coalition casualties also will rise. Overall, however, the casualties remain low for the number of troops involved — and no matter how well the operation is going, it will result in casualties.
Laying the Groundwork for Counterinsurgency
According to the U.S. command, the primary purpose of the operation in Helmand was not to engage Taliban forces. Instead, the purpose was to create a secure zone in hostile territory, staying true to the counterinsurgency principle of winning hearts and minds. In other words, Helmand was to be a platform for winning over the population by securing it against the Taliban, and for demonstrating that the methods used in Iraq — and in successful counterinsurgency in general — would apply to Afghanistan. The U.S. strategy makes a virtue out of the fundamental military problem in counterinsurgency whereby the successful insurgent declines combat when the occupying power has overwhelming force available, withdrawing, dispersing and possibly harassing the main body with hit-and-run operations designed to impose casualties and slow down the operation.
The counterinsurgents’ main advantage is firepower, on the ground and in the air. The insurgents’ main advantage is intelligence. Native to the area, insurgents have networks of informants letting them know not only where enemy troops are, but also providing information about counterinsurgent operations during the operations’ planning phases. Insurgents will have greater say over the time and place of battle. As major operations crank up in one area, the insurgents attack in other areas. And the insurgents have two goals. The first is to wear out the counterinsurgency in endless operations that yield little. The second is to impose a level of casualties disproportionate to the level of success, making the operation either futile or apparently futile. The insurgent cannot defeat the main enemy force in open battle; by definition, that is beyond his reach. What he can do is impose casualties on the counterinsurgent. The asymmetry of this war is the asymmetry of interest. In Vietnam, the interests of the North Vietnamese in the outcome far outweighed the interests of the Americans in the outcome. That meant the North Vietnamese would take the time needed, expend the lives required and run the risks necessary to win the war. U.S. interest in the war was much smaller. A 20-to-1 ratio of Vietnamese to U.S. casualties therefore favored the North Vietnamese. They were fighting for a core issue. The Americans were fighting a peripheral issue.
So long as the North Vietnamese could continue to impose casualties on the Americans, they could push Washington to a political point where the war became not worth fighting for the United States. The insurgent has time on his side. The insurgent is native to the war zone and has the will and patience to exhaust the enemy. The counterinsurgent always will be short of time — especially in a country like Afghanistan, where security and governing institutions will have to be built from scratch. A considerable amount of time must pass before the counterinsurgents’ strategy can yield results, something McChrystal and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have both acknowledged. The more time passes and the more casualties mount for the counterinsurgent, the more likely public support for the counterinsurgent’s war will erode. The counterinsurgency timeline therefore is unlikely to match up with the political timeline at home.
The Intelligence Problem
The problem of intelligence is the perpetual weakness of the counterinsurgent. The counterinsurgent is operating in a foreign country, and thereby lacks the means to distinguish allies from enemy agents, or valid from invalid information. This makes winning allies among the civilian population key for the counterinsurgent. Unless a solid base is achieved among the residents of Helmand, the coalition’s intelligence problem will remain insurmountable. This explains why the current operation is focusing on holding and securing the area and winning hearts and minds. With a degree of security comes loyalty. With loyalty comes intelligence. If intelligence is the insurgent’s strategic advantage, this is the way to counter it. It strikes at the center of gravity of the insurgent. Intelligence is his strong suit, and if the insurgent loses it, he loses the war. Then there is the issue of counterintelligence.
Every Afghan translator, soldier or government official is a possible breach of security for the counterinsurgent. Most of them — and certainly not all of them — are not in bed with the enemy. But some inevitably will be, and not only does that render counterinsurgent operations insecure, it also creates uncertainty among the counterinsurgents. The insurgents’ ability to gather intelligence on the counterinsurgents is the insurgents’ main strategic advantage. With it, insurgents can evade entrapment and choose the time and place for engagement. Without it, insurgents are blind. With it, the insurgent can fill the counterinsurgents’ intelligence pipeline with misleading information. Without it, the counterinsurgent might see clearly enough to find and destroy the insurgent force.
Counterinsurgency and the al Qaeda Factor
The Afghan counterinsurgency campaign also suffers from a weakness in its strategic rationale. What makes Afghanistan critical to the United States is al Qaeda, the core group of jihadists that demonstrated the ability to launch transcontinental attacks against the West from Afghanistan. The argument has been that without U.S. troops in the country and a pro-American government in Kabul, al Qaeda might return, rebuild and strike again. That makes Afghanistan a strategic interest for the United States But there is a strategic divergence between the war against al Qaeda and the war against the Taliban. Some will argue that al Qaeda remains operational, and that therefore the United States must make the long-term military investment in Afghanistan to deprive the enemy of sanctuary. But while some al Qaeda members remain to issue threatening messages from the region, the group’s ability to meet covertly, recruit talent, funnel money and execute operations from the region has been hampered considerably.
The overall threat value of al Qaeda, in our view, has declined. If this is a war that pivots on intelligence, the mission to block al Qaeda eventually may once again be left to the covert capabilities of U.S. intelligence and Special Operations Command, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere. Widening the war’s objectives to defeating the Taliban insurgency through a resource-intensive hearts-and-minds campaign requires time and patience, both of which lie with the insurgent. If the United States were to draw the conclusion that al Qaeda was no longer functional, and that follow-on organizations may be as likely to organize attacks from Somalia or Pakistan as much as from Afghanistan, then the significance of Afghanistan declines. That creates the asymmetry that made the Vietnam War unsustainable. The Taliban have nowhere else to go. They have fought as an organization since the 1990s, and longer than that as individuals. Their interests in the future of Afghanistan towers over the American interest if it is determined that the al Qaeda-Afghanistan nexus is no longer decisive. If that were to happen, then the willingness of the United States to absorb casualties would decline dramatically.
This is not a question of the American will to fight; it is a question of the American interest in fighting. In Vietnam, the United States fought for many years. At a certain point, the likelihood of a cessation of conflict declined, along with the likelihood of U.S. victory, such that the rational U.S. interest in remaining in Vietnam and taking casualties disappeared. In Vietnam, there was an added strategic consideration: The U.S. military was absorbed in Vietnam while the main threat was from the Soviet Union in Europe. Continuing the war increased the risk in Europe. So the United States terminated the Vietnam War. The Taliban obviously want to create a similar dynamic in Afghanistan — the same dynamic the mujahideen used against the Soviets there.
The imposition of casualties in a war of asymmetric interests inevitably generates political resistance among those not directly committed to the war. The command has a professional interest in the war, the troops have a personal and emotional commitment. They are in the war, and look at the war as a self-contained entity, worth fighting in its own right. Outside of those directly involved in the war, including the public, the landscape becomes more complex. The question of whether the war is worth fighting becomes the question, a question that is not asked — and properly so — in the theater of operations. The higher the casualty count, the more the interests involved in the war are questioned, until at some point, the equation shifts away from the war and toward withdrawal.
Avoiding Asymmetry of Interests
The key for the United States in fighting the war is to avoid asymmetry of interests. If the war is seen as a battle against the resumption of terrorist attacks on the United States, casualties are seen as justified. If the war is seen as having moved beyond al Qaeda, the strategic purpose of the war becomes murky and the equation shifts.
There have been no attacks from al Qaeda on the United States since 2001. If al Qaeda retains some operational capability, it is no longer solely dependent on Afghanistan to wage attacks. Therefore, the strategic rationale becomes tenuous. The probe into Helmand is essentially an intelligence battle between the United States and the Taliban. But what is striking is that even at this low level of casualties, there are already reactions. A number of prominent news media outlets have highlighted the rise in casualties, and the British are reacting strongly to the fact that total British casualties in Afghanistan have now surpassed the number of British troops killed in Iraq. The response has not risen to the level that would be associated with serious calls for a withdrawal, but even so, it does give a measure of the sensitivity of the issue. Petraeus is professionally committed to the war and the troops have shed sweat and blood. For them, this war is of central importance. If they can gain the confidence of the population and if they can switch the dynamics of the intelligence war, the Taliban could wind up on the defensive. But if the Taliban can attack U.S. forces around the country, increasing casualties, the United States will be on the defensive. The war is a contest now between the intelligence war and casualties. The better the intelligence, the fewer the casualties. But it seems to us that the intelligence war will be tougher to win than it will be for the Taliban to impose casualties. U.S. President Barack Obama is in the position Richard Nixon found himself in back in 1969. Having inherited a war he didn’t begin, Nixon had the option of terminating it. He chose instead to continue to fight it. Obama has the same choice. He did not start the Afghan war, and in spite of his campaign rhetoric, he does not have to continue it. After one year in office, Nixon found that Lyndon Johnson’s war had become his war. Obama will experience the same dilemma. The least knowable variable is Obama’s appetite for this war. He will see casualties without any guarantee of success. If he does attempt to negotiate a deal with the Taliban, as Nixon did with the North Vietnamese, any deal is likely to be as temporary as Nixon’s deal proved. The key is the intelligence he is seeing, and whether he has confidence in it. If the intelligence says the war in Afghanistan blocks al Qaeda attacks on the United States, he will have to continue it. If there is no direct link, then he has a serious problem. Obama clearly has given Petraeus a period of time to fight the war. We suspect Obama does not want the Afghan war to become his war. Therefore, there have to be limits on how long Petraeus has. These limits are unlikely to align with the counterinsurgency timeline.
The Taliban, meanwhile, is a sophisticated insurgent group and understands the dynamics of American politics. If they can impose casualties on the United States now, before the intelligence war shifts in Washington’s favor, then they might shift Obama’s calculus. This is what the Afghan war is now about.