By Emile Simpson
Best Defense White House correspondent
I thought President Obama's speech at NDU on Thursday was a conceptual car crash -- a collision between two incompatible desires to aggregate, or disaggregate, threats.
He spent half the speech saying he wants to end a war, not have endless conflict, and not blur boundaries. But he spent the other half of the speech veering from identifying the enemy as al Qaeda, then its franchises, then just terrorists in general, and saying these terrorists hide at the ends of the earth.
Seems to me completely muddled: If you want to target networks and disaggregate threats, fine, I agree with that, but one would be forgiven for thinking any jihadist under the sun is still the enemy here, which is plainly aggregating threats to the extent that one will never narrow an enemy down enough to defeat militarily, so cannot therefore "end" the war.
For me this wasn't a speech about drones, but about war, and despite, ironically, agreeing with what I think Obama was trying to say (i.e. disaggregate threats, move away from endless war), the way in which the concept of war here is (mis)applied seems to me to do the opposite.
The reality is that the administration is locked in to using the concept of war as a legal idea to justify the use of force in self defense, but that the legal concept of war today doesn't match the military concept.
It just seems to me that it simply does not make sense for Obama to want to move away from a global war on terror, and then describe what he wants to do as an alternative precisely as a war against terrorists all over the world.
And this is in the major counterterrorism speech of the second term, regarding a conflict whose conceptual deficiency has been glaringly clear for 10 years, and yet nothing changes. Really quite disappointing.
Emile Simpson served in the British Army as an infantry officer in the Gurkhas from 2006 to 2012. He deployed to southern Afghanistan three times and is the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (Columbia, 2012).
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By Joel Wing
Best Defense officer of Iraqi statistical analysis
Iraq recently saw a huge increase in the number of attacks and casualties in April 2013. Iraq Body Count recorded 561 deaths for the month, the highest since August 2009, while the United Nations reported 712 killed, the most since June 2008. That caused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to go on national TV to call for calm, and warn against the rise of sectarianism and violence. (3) The cause of the deterioration in security is the combination of an ongoing offensive by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and retaliatory attacks by other insurgent groups for the government raiding a protest site in the town of Hawija in Kirkuk province. The former will eventually end, while the latter could lead to increased support for militants. Either way, it appears that talk of a renewed civil war is premature. Yes, militants are becoming more active in the country, but they are for the most part isolated in certain areas; Shiites are relying upon the government to respond to them rather than militias, and the majority of the population is going about their business.
Al Qaeda in Iraq launched its latest offensive in December 2012. That was marked by increased casualty rates, high profile, mass casualty attacks, and bombings in southern parts of the country. On April 29, for instance, two car bombs went off in central Karbala, two more detonated in Amarah in Maysan governorate, followed by another vehicle-based device exploding in Diwaniya the next day. Operations in southern Iraq are a hallmark of AQI's offensives, and take advanced planning, intelligence gathering, and the stocking of supplies, because they take place outside of where the group usually works. Recently, al Qaeda has been able to launch larger offensives and sustain them for longer, because they have witnessed an increase in fighters, and a lack of resistance by the Iraqi security forces. After the U.S. withdrew in 2011, it emptied its prisons leading to many detainees going right back to fighting. The Iraqi army and police also no longer carry out counterinsurgency operations after the exit of the Americans, and are more of a reactive force now carrying out raids and mass arrests, which cannot prevent attacks, and cause resentment against those areas that are targeted. This campaign will eventually end, likely in a month or two, as AQI runs out of supplies and has to restock. That will cause a decrease in deaths, until it ramps up again in the summer as it has during the last few years. The media usually misses this ebb and flow in insurgent operations, focusing instead upon the monthly casualty totals, rather than analyzing the larger trends.
Another source of increased instability is the reaction to the government's raid upon a protest site in the town of Hawija. On April 23, Iraqi security forces moved into the camp looking for assailants who had attacked a nearby checkpoint, which killed one soldier and left three wounded. The demonstrators had been given an ultimatum to turn over the attackers, but did not respond. The organizers were also connected to the Baathist Naqshibandi Army insurgent group, providing another impetus for the government to act. Following the raid, protesters and militants carried out a series of retaliatory strikes across Anbar, Salahaddin, Diyala, Ninewa, and Tamim provinces, while several activists said they were giving up peaceful protests and taking up armed opposition to Baghdad. This is far more dangerous than the al Qaeda in Iraq offensive because it could mark a sea change in public opinion amongst some Sunnis. Some protest leaders like Sheikh Abu Risha of the Awakening Movement in Ramadi have called for moderation since the Hawija incident, but the vast majority is pushing for arming themselves, at least in self-defense, if not outright opposition to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This could turn many young Sunni men towards militancy, and give groups like the Naqshibandi and the Islamic Army of Iraq a new source of support and recruitment. These organizations have a much broader appeal to Iraqis than al Qaeda, because they have presented themselves as nationalist groups out to protect Sunnis from the Shiite government, rather than being part of a global jihad against the West. If the insurgents are able to make headway with the demonstrators, that could increase violence over the long-term.
Still, the combination of al Qaeda in Iraq's offensives and growing support for the wider insurgency does not mean that Iraq is heading towards a new civil war. First, most operations by militants are in specific cities, and even then only affect a small percentage of the population. (10) Even cities like Baghdad, that have the largest number of deaths, might only have 100-150 per month out of population of over 7 million. Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar can see a steady stream of dead and wounded each month, while Haditha and Rutba hardly have any throughout the entire year. This localized nature of violence means that the vast majority of Iraqis are not affected unless they live in certain areas or neighborhoods. Second, the Iraqi civil war from 2005-2008 was marked by Sunni insurgents being met by Shiite militias. So far, the Shiite community is relying upon the government to take care of security rather than taking matters into their own hands. This is despite constant efforts by al Qaeda in Iraq to incite them by bombing every religious holiday and event. All together that means that Iraq is in for a rough immediate future with casualty figures likely going up, but it is nothing like the peak of violence when Sunnis and Shiites were at each others' throats and large swaths of the country were being cleansed. The real problem in Iraq is not the activities of the insurgency, but rather the political deadlock in Baghdad. That's likely to take a generation to resolve, and should get a lot more attention than the daily images of bombings and shootings in the country.
Joel Wing is an Iraq analyst at the Musings On Iraq blog.
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There is no question, I think, that catching one of the Boston bombers alive was a good thing. Even so, this note, from a smart Special Operator, gave me pause:
... the cops did not approach this well. It was a strategic mistake to shut down the city, but then they did a cordon and search model on homes in the area by getting everyone out by gunpoint. For one guy, not one with a nuke, or a bio weapon, or anything like that and took people out of their homes by gunpoint. Poor decision.
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The other night I went to a preview of Manhunt, a HBO documentary that will air on that network on May 1 and thereafter many times on CNN.
The documentary was like a high-class version of a Frontline episode, filmed and edited well, with expensive touches like music. One of the themes was how many of the analysts who targeted bin Laden were women. Another was how isolated it felt to be in the CIA after 9/11. Overall, I found the film a great document, but too inclined to give the CIA a pass, especially on the issue of torture and on some specifics, such as how the Khost bombing that killed seven CIA officers in December 2009 was allowed to happen.
But what I want to talk about today was the discussion following the film, which was even more interesting. (I took notes, having asked Peter Bergen, the documentary's executive producer, beforehand if I could, and was told yes.) It felt historic, a bit like being in the same room with the D-Day planners.
It also felt a bit like an encounter group. Clearly there had been strong disagreements within the CIA about the course they took:
What I found myself wondering as I listened to all this was a question an Army officer who worked on Guantanamo issues asked me years ago: How can you win a war for your values by using tactics that undermine them?
At the end of the discussion, I turned to the woman standing next to me, who I think had just been identified in the film as the chief bin Laden hunter. "So, are you Jessica Chastain?" I asked, referring to the actress who played that role in Zero Dark Thirty. (Yes, I know, on reflection, it was a stupid way to put it. I have been told that the Chastain character was a composite of several of the CIA women, including Jennifer Matthews, who was killed in the Khost bombing.)
"No," the woman replied, "Jessica Chastain wasn't there." Great answer!
By Christopher Swift
Best Defense bureau of Chechen affairs
I've done fieldwork on the insurgency in Chechnya and Dagestan and have studied the war there for nearly 15 years. I've also interviewed several very prominent rebels.
This would mark the first time Chechens have attacked any sort of U.S. target. Up until now their focus has been on Russia. This is a big deal. And it shows how the conflict in the Caucasus has metastasized into a kind of globalized jihadist theatre, at least in the minds of the young people fighting there.
These guys likely had no connection to the Caucasus Emirate in person; connection would likely have been online. This looks more and more like "resonant effects," rather than something planned and executed by a cadre-level organization.
Chechens I know are completely crushed. Let's hope the FBI gets to the remaining suspect before the Chechen refugee community in Boston does. Boston welcomed and protected Chechen asylum seekers like no other city. Those people will tear these kids to pieces for the harm they've done.
A midday update:
As I'm learning more and more, it looks like most of these "connections" would have been online rather than through working with a terrorist syndicate out in the field. These kids have been out of Russia for more than a decade. And it looks like they've been living highly compartmentalized lives as well.
Based on these facts, I doubt we have a Faisal Shahzad-style situation. The Caucasus Emirate is about two companies in size. Most of these guys are living in tents in the mountains and constantly moving between safe houses. Their reach outside the region is very limited. Even the Kavkaz website is run outside the region.
I've been in that terrain. It's very difficult physicial and sociological ground to traverse, even for a local. So I'd be shocked to see that they were connected directly to the group.
It looks like the bomber was in Russia just last year. If this is true, then we may in fact have a Shahzad-type event on our hands. It's still too soon to know whether this is international or a lone-wolf event based on these new facts.
Christopher Swift is an adjunct professor of national security studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a fellow at the University of Virginia's Center for National Security Law.
Editor's Note: The headline on this post has been changed.
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The estimable Micah Zenko wants a "first draft" of "the Third War." Actually it has been written, and is being published this week. It is The Way of the Knife, by Mark Mazzetti. It has all sorts of interesting details, like that the United States has the ability to remotely turn on a cell phone in Pakistan and then collect the precise coordinates of whoever is carrying it.
Here is an interview I did with the author by e-mail:
Tom Ricks: What are we going to learn from your book that we haven't gotten from others, like those by Peter Bergen?
Mark Mazzetti: Peter's books are absolutely terrific, and a hard act to follow! And, there have certainly been a number of terrific books covering the war on terror. What I've tried to do in my book is tell a story of a secret war, and how that war has changed places like the CIA and parts of the Pentagon. The CIA is now at the center of waging covert wars in places like Pakistan and Yemen. The agency certainly has had a history of far flung military adventures, but then it tried to get out of the killing business -- only to come back at it in a big way since the September 11 attacks. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has become more like the military, sending soldiers into the dark corners of the world on spying missions. There's been a real blurring of the lines between soldiers and spies.
With the "big wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan either over or winding down, I think that these secret wars have become the default way of doing business. And, only now is the pressure growing for the White House to bring greater transparency to the shadow wars.
TR: What was the biggest surprise to you in reporting and writing the book?
MM: I think that the biggest surprise was how much this type of warfare brings various colorful characters to the forefront. When the United States determined it couldn't send the 101st Airborne into a country, it began to rely on private contractors and other types of individuals to do things like gather intelligence on the ground. I spent a chapter on the private spying network run by Duane Clarridge, a former CIA officer and one of the figures in the Iran-Contra scandal. A Pentagon official hired Clarridge's team to gather intelligence in Pakistan because there was a belief that the CIA wasn't up to the task, but the entire operation ended up in recriminations and a Pentagon investigation. It's stories like this that I really tried to highlight in the book.
TR: Why do you think drones have become so controversial only recently in the United States?
MM: That's a good question. I think that up until recently, at least in Washington, you had both Republicans and Democrats uniformly supporting targeted killings and there was no constituency calling for greater transparency and accountability for these kinds of operations. Since the November election, you have seen Democrats become more vocal in challenging the Obama administration on the use of targeted killings. And, of course, there is Rand Paul's now-famous filibuster that captured concerns among Libertarians about secret government operations.
TR: Which of our three wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, and "knife") do you think historians ultimately will find the most significant?
MM: This might sound like I'm avoiding giving a direct answer, but all three wars have impacted each other, and so in some ways I think that some historians will look at this entire post-9/11 period as one that fundamentally changed both U.S. foreign policy and how the United States conducts war. Certainly, the Obama administration has relied on these shadow wars because it considers them cheaper, lower risk, and more effective than the big messy wars of occupation like Iraq and Afghanistan. But, so much of the way that an organization like the Joint Special Operations Command does business is a direct result of its work in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They took parts of what they were doing in those countries and brought outside of the "hot" battlefields.
TR: What do you think are the lessons of this third war?
MM: There's no question that the United States has become dramatically better at manhunting than it was on September 11, 2001. There is better fusion of intelligence, and the Pentagon, CIA, and other intelligence agencies are working more closely together. I think, though, that one of the lessons is that secrecy can be very seductive and that it might be too easy for our government to carry out secret warfare without the normal checks and balances required for going to war. As you well know, as much as the Pentagon can be a lumbering bureaucracy, there is a certain benefit of having a good many layers that operations must pass through in order to get approved. When decisions about life and death are made among a small group of people, and in secret, there are inherent risks.
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
When a series of 12 bombings rocked Mumbai in March 1993 -- blasts that killed over 250 people and left more than 700 others injured -- one member of India's Bomb Detection and Disposal Squad (BDDS) was heralded as savior, a golden lab called Zanjeer. And now, two decades later, Zanjeer's photo and his story are making the Internet rounds once again, this time in memorandum.
Zanjeer's first find during those fateful days came on March 15, when he gave his signature three-bark alert on a bomb-laden scooter parked on Dhanji Street, a mere "stone's throw away" from BDDS headquarters. In the days that followed he reportedly saved thousands more lives by finding explosives in "unclaimed suitcases" discovered at the Siddhivinayak temple and then again a few days later at the Zaveri Bazaar. All in all, Zanjeer helped members of the BDDS find, as reported by Reuters, "more than 3,329 kgs of the explosive RDX, 600 detonators, 249 hand grenades and 6406 rounds of live ammunition."
Zanjeer, named after a 1973 Hindi action film about a lone honest cop who perseveres in a world overrun by corruption, was trained in Pune and joined the officers of India's BDDS in 1992 at just one years old. The much beloved and lauded dog went on to have an illustrious and astoundingly productive eight-year career, during which he was credited with uncovering: "11 military bombs, 57 country-made bombs, 175 petrol bombs, and 600 detonators." These finds coming after the March bombings in 1993.
When Zanjeer died of bone cancer (other reports say lung failure) in November of 2000, his fellow officers gave him full honors during a ceremony and memorial service -- as seen in this photo as a senior official places flowers over Zanjeer's body. And while the world is remembering this dog 20 years later, citizens of Mumbai are said to have commemorated the anniversary of Zanjeer's death yearly.
According to Zanjeer's obituary, "The cops grew so dependent on Zanjeer that there were occasions when they would bring only Zanjeer and no equipment." The chief of BDDS during Zanjeer's tenure, Nandkumar Choughule, said that the dog was "god sent" and that when men were not able to track down the explosives, it was Zanjeer who found them.
Crist: I agree on the notion of the tendency of the U.S. military. In Vietnam, they used to call it the "Little Brown Man Syndrome," which is: The Americans come in and show you how to really fight your war. But I think with Afghanistan the fundamental problem is a lack of a long-term strategy. What do we want Afghanistan to do? And I see we sort of evolved into it without a lot of thinking.
The initial force went in; we got enamored with the idea of SOF [special operations forces], light footprint, using the Northern Alliance -- in fact we probably should have had more conventional forces. We missed a lot of opportunities as these guys skirted across Pakistan, and we, frankly, allowed them to do it because the Afghans wouldn't go after them. If they wanted to sit up in the hills, the Northern Alliance was more than happy to let them sit in the mountains, and we didn't have that capability.
Then the problem is, as we slowly evolve with, frankly, not a lot of thought -- if you look at the force incrementally increasing, it's not a well-articulated strategy. Then it comes to the point where, well, we have the force, we need to start doing this ourselves, and we sort of fall back on our natural patterns and tendencies and things that are comfortable with an effective military that likes to solve problems. So I lay it on the long-term strategy that went in in 2001.
Jabouri: Let me say something from my experience: I think American forces focus just on the enemy, on al Qaeda, and they forget about the people.
I think if you want to win the war against al Qaeda, you should protect the people first. The American forces always, in the beginning, in Iraq, they put their eyes on al Qaeda, and they don't care about the people. I think the security forces can't create the security without the long-term forces. If you now go to Kurdistan in Iraq, if you see the images, Kurdistan has very good security, but they do not have many checkpoints or forces. The people have, and the government has the security forces to keep the security. They are the people in other parts of Iraq, the people not interested in the security forces of Iraq because they do not have to create the security.
Ricks: This seems to go to Phil Mudd's question of space versus targeting, but it seems to me also to Colonel Alford's comments because one of the answers to reconciling space and targeting is to have local forces occupy the space, not American forces that alienate locals.
Dubik: But a strategy, correctly or not, a strategy that emphasizes local forces, building local conditions, is de facto a long-term strategy. It gets right back to the question of -- we backed into both these wars.
Ricks: Not unlike in Vietnam, where we put in ground troops originally to protect the air bases.
Dubik: And it sucked us in. We just backed ourselves into the problem we faced, and had we thought that the solution was going to be a 10- or 15-year solution, we certainly would not have committed. We would have changed many of the decisions that we made, but we didn't adopt the indigenous force because we thought we could solve it and leave.
Fastabend: I think the reason we do that consistently is, as I hinted at in my question (I really liked your question; I'll explain to you why), is because we think strategy and we keep strategy, and our theory of strategy is the linkage of ends, ways, and means, which is how I got here, which is how I'll do my job tomorrow.
It is pablum; it is a way to avoid making a real choice, so no one in or out of the government ever said to themselves, "Let's decide what we're going to do. Are we going to target individuals regardless of space, or are we going to go in there and have space?" No, what we said is, "We need a stable government in Iraq, so therefore, you need a stable government in Iraq." Deductive logic tells you that you need to control everywhere in Iraq. And then you have to worry about the security forces; you've got to make sure they've got border patrols. And we never went back to the fundamental choice about what do we really need to do. We hide choices. We never talk about choices because choices are hard and choices mean making a decision. Choices mean taking responsibility for who makes the choice and which choice they take -- and that, in my view, is the biggest flaw we have institutionally in this country, is we've got very shallow theory and doctrine about what strategy really is.
Ricks: This is a great comment.
(Much more to come)
Here is the first part of a transcript of a conversation held at the Washington offices of Foreign Policy magazine in January of this year. A shorter version, with full IDs of the participants, appears in the current issue of the magazine. This is the full deal, edited just slightly for clarity and ease of reading, mainly by deleting repetitions and a couple of digressions into jokes about the F-35 and such.
I had asked each participant to bring one big question about the conduct of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I began. We began with those.
Thomas E. Ricks: One of my favorite singers is Rosanne Cash, a country singer who is Johnny Cash's daughter, who has a great line in one of her songs: "I‘m not looking for the answers-- just to know the questions is good enough for me." And I think that is the beginning of strategic wisdom: Rather than start with trying to figure out the answers, start with a few good questions.
So what I'd like to start by doing is just go around the table with a brief statement -- "I'm so-and-so, and here's my question." So, to give you the example: I'm Tom Ricks, and my question is, "Are we letting the military get away with the belief that it basically did the best it could over the last 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that civilians in the government screwed things up?"
Philip Mudd: I guess my question is: "Why do we keep talking about Afghanistan when we went in 12 years ago, we talked about a target, al Qaeda. How did that conversation separate?"
Maj. Gen. David Fastabend (U.S. Army, ret.): My name is David Fastabend, and my question is: "Do what we think, our theory and doctrine, about strategy -- is that right? Could we not do a lot better?"
Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, got a lot of questions. I suppose one among them would be, "How did the execution of our civilian-military policies so badly divert on the ground at a time, at least over the past couple of years, when there was supposed to be a greater commonality of interests in Washington?"
Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik (U.S. Army, ret.): I'm Jim Dubik, and my question's related to Rajiv's and Tom's: "How do we conduct a civil-military discourse in a way that increases the probability of more effective strategic integration in decisions?"
Shawn Brimley: Shawn Brimley. I have a lot of questions, but one that keeps coming to mind, being halfway through Fred Kaplan's book, is: "How did we, collectively, screw up rotation policy so badly that we never provided our military leaders the chance to fully understand the reality on the ground before they had to rapidly transition to a new colonel, a new brigadier, a new four-star?"
Maj. Gen. Najim Abed al-Jabouri (Iraqi Air Force, ret.): My name is al-Jabouri. As an Iraqi, I have a different view of 2003. I was a general in the Iraqi Air Force, so I wanted to shoot down your airplanes. After 2003, I was a police chief and a mayor, so I wanted your help to build my country. In the last 10 years I have learned that America has a great military power. It can target and destroy almost anything.
However, I have also learned that it is very difficult for America to clean up a mess it makes. Leaving a mess in someone else's country can cause more problems than you had at the beginning. Military operations in Muslim countries are like working with glass. If you do it right, it can be beautiful and great, but if you break it, it is difficult to repair or replace. My question is: "Do American strategy planners understand the consequences of breaking the glass, and if so, do they know what it will take to repair or replace the broken glass?" Thank you.
Col. J.D. Alford, USMC: My name is Dale Alford. I too have many questions, I guess, but I'm going to stay a little bit in my lane and I'm going to talk about the military. My question would be: "Can a foreign army, particularly with a vastly different culture, be a successful counterinsurgent? And if not, why haven't we switched and put more focus on the Afghan security forces?"
David Crist: My name is David Crist, and a bunch of people had very similar lines of thought to what I was going to use, so I'll take a common complaint that James Mattis says all the time and frame that into a question: "Do our commanders have time to think? Think about the issues and the information -- in some ways they have to be their own action officer. Do they have time to sit back and think about the issues with the op tempo going on and just the information flow?"
Michèle Flournoy: I have two, and I can't decide which one.
Ricks: You get both.
Flournoy: I get a twofer? So the very broad, strategic question is: "How do we ensure that we have a political strategy that takes advantage of the security and space that a military effort in counterinsurgency can create? How do we ensure that the focus remains primarily there while we resource that aspect?" Kind of a Clausewitzian question.
Second is a much more narrow question, and we have the right people in the room to reflect on this, which is: "What have we learned about how to build indigenous security forces in a way that's effective and sustainable?" I mean, this is a classic case where we reinvent the wheel, we pretend like we've never done it before, we pretend like there aren't lessons learned and good ways -- and less effective ways -- to do this. So: "Can we capture what we know about how to build indigenous security forces?"
Susan B. Glasser: I have a question of my own that's particularly for the people with a military background in this room, which is: "In September 2001, if you had told us that in 2013 we are going to be in Afghanistan with 65,000 American troops and debating what we accomplished there and how quickly we can get out, how many more years and how many billions of dollars we'd have to pay to sustain this operation, my strong sense is that there would have been an overwhelming view in the U.S. military -- and among the U.S. people more broadly -- that that was an unacceptable outcome. So, if we can all agree that 13 years was not what we wanted when we went into Afghanistan, what did we miss along the way?"
(more to come...)
By Emile Simpson
Best Defense terrorism movie reviewer
Yemeni security forces recently fired on protesters in the southern Yemeni city of Aden, apparently wounding up to 30 of them. In the Hands of al Qaeda hydrates such headlines: In this gripping documentary film, released last year, Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul Ahad unpacks the complex dynamics of the conflict. At its core, this is a film about the fight between al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Yemeni Government -- government versus insurgents -- but this polarized dynamic is situated within broader kaleidoscopic elements: How many south Yemenis see the security forces as northern occupiers? Why do some tribes support AQAP and others fight them? This provides a nice illustration of the erosion of the boundary between the military and political domain in contemporary armed conflict.
The centerpiece of the film is Ghaith Abdul Ahad's coverage of the AQAP heartland east of Aden, at the centre of the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen. For example, in Ja'ar we encounter a city of 100,000 fully controlled by AQAP. This is truly fascinating; the tension of the documentary at this point is palpable. Since Ja'ar was retaken by Yemeni forces in the summer of 2012, this film offers a rare glimpse into what ground-holding by the international jihadis of AQAP looked like: While we see an extreme form of sharia law practiced, so too is there an active print and internet media operation, and real efforts to gain local support by AQAP water and electricity projects.
AQAP's carrot and stick approach during their overt, ground-holding phase does not seem so distant from COIN doctrine, albeit in a far more brutal form (an example of mirror imaging?). The film draws out the contrast with the no carrot, big stick, U.S. drone approach that appears to strike fear not just into AQAP, but also into the civilians who live under the drones' gaze: Much of the local population's political support is lost, but U.S. objectives against the AQAP leadership nonetheless appear to be met. Whether this represents campaign success more broadly presumably would depend on how one conceptualizes the conflict -- are you fighting physical networks or an idea? Perhaps too the film illustrates in Yemen a U.S. move back to a more conventional understanding of military effect against an enemy, for better or worse. While the film is not about COIN or drones per se, and is indeed admirable in its objectivity, a viewing would no doubt form an excellent basis for discussion of the pros and cons of these approaches.
In the Hands of Al Qaeda (2012)
Executive Producer: Tracey ‘H' Doran-Carter
Producer: Jamie Doran
Director: Safa Al Ahmad
Emile Simpson served in the British Army as an infantry officer in the Gurkhas from 2006 to 2012. He deployed to southern Afghanistan three times and is the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (Columbia, 2012).
By Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, U.S. Army
Best Defense department of war movie reviews
Torture has once again become a matter of noisy public debate. This time (thank goodness!), the reason has nothing to do with new revelations of U.S. servicemembers or CIA employees going amuck on prisoners. Instead, the cause de célèbre is a movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Critics of the movie say that it promotes the use of torture by linking torture to a piece of evidence that proved indispensable in America's search for bin Laden. This, critics like Senators McCain, Feinstein, and Levin say, is a dangerous fiction not rooted in historical reality.
Fans of the movie disagree. They argue that the movie portrays this evidence as far less valuable than that obtained by clearly legal means. What is more, they say, the movie performs a service by leaving no doubt in the audience's mind that so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs) were torture, and also by shocking the conscience of these same viewers, causing them to wonder how the U.S. government could so easily surrender founding national values to such little good effect.
I agree with the movie's apologists. The movie does not depict torture as producing indispensable evidence. It shows morally repugnant torture producing a piece of evidence that the CIA already had but had tucked away in a file and forgot about. Seven years of torture, the movie says, produced little if any intelligence that clearly legal methods could have (and did) provide. The real narrative of the movie: A new sheriff (President Obama) comes to town who outlaws torture; subsequent CIA detective work relies exclusively on more cunning, ethical techniques involving, not just humane interrogations, but other intelligence methods; and -- presto! -- in two short years, bin Laden's hideout is found and, a few months later, he is killed. Even if the movie gets many details wrong, it at least gets the basic story right.
But far more important than the movie's historical accuracy is the deeper debate it has resurrected: Does torture work? And, even if it does work, is torture something Americans ought to be using on "hardened" terrorists (or on anyone else for that matter)?
This debate is sorely needed since most opinion polls show Americans' support for torture steadily climbing. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey reported that 53 percent of Americans believe that torture should often (19 percent) or sometimes (34 percent) be used against terrorism suspects to gain information. That marked a steady 10 percent climb from 2004. A recent YouGov poll commissioned by a Stanford University professor indicated that, over a five-year period, the number of Americans approving of torture climbed 14 percent to 41 percent in 2012.
This trend is something that those against "torture as American policy" should be watching carefully. U.S. legislation, military regulations, and Army doctrine -- most notably the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and U.S. Army Field Manual 2-22.3 Human Intelligence Collector Operations -- now enshrine prisoner treatment that is in keeping with international standards and the national values expressed by such principled American leaders as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In our republic, though, all laws are subject to change -- even those in the Constitution -- if enough Americans support this change.
There is no question which side of the torture debate I fall on. First and foremost, it is clear to me that torture fails as a tactic within the most important domain of war, the moral one. It is thus something that we Americans simply ought not to do.
When people see images of torture, most empathize with the tortured rather than the torturer. This is especially true for those who identify strongly with the tortured in the first place because of in-group, out-group bias, say, because the tortured is a fellow Muslim or a fellow Iraqi. The moral judgment that this empathy has naturally generated -- the judgment that those torturing are "cruel," "evil," or worse still, "inhuman" -- has inspired legions of America's enemies to fight us. At the same time, shame has decreased the will to fight of some Americans within the ranks and at home and damaged the political ability of coalition allies to support America's military adventures abroad. Choosing torture as policy is thus rightly seen as a kind of slow moral suicide, strengthening the fighting spirit of our enemies while sapping our own fighting spirit and that of our allies.
It is also clear to me that torture is an extremely poor method for collecting reliable intelligence. This clarity derives in part from military doctrine, training, and professional reading. But it is also rooted in personal experience.
During the summer and fall of 2003, my boss and I managed interrogation operations for Task Force 1st Armored Division (TF 1AD) in Baghdad. My boss was Major Nathan Hoepner, who wrote an email in August 2003 that would one day be quoted by Tom Ricks in Fiasco. When told by the highest command in Iraq that "the gloves are coming off" and that our unit must provide a "wish list" of harsh interrogation techniques, Major Hoepner emailed a passionate rebuttal: "We need to take a deep breath and remember who we are...It comes down to standards of right and wrong -- something we cannot just put aside when we find it inconvenient." He concluded: "BOTTOM LINE: We are American soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on the high ground. We need to stay there."
Tragically, his impassioned plea fell on deaf ears. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez soon signed a policy memo encouraging the use of EITs on prisoners, tactics employed at U.S. military Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion (SERE) schools to teach trainees how to survive torture with honor. Sanchez replaced this memo with another in October that ostensibly required interrogators to obtain his approval for non-doctrinal techniques. However, it actually reinforced the belief of some interrogators that they themselves had the authority to order that clothing, food, shelter, light, and warmth be withheld from detainees. Thus it was that degrading, formally promulgated tactics laid the foundation for more serious crimes at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq.
At the height of the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib, I regularly communicated with an interrogation chief working at the prison. The reason was to press him to have TF 1AD detainees re-interrogated. Despite his team's conducting numerous interrogations for us, we did not receive ANY useful intelligence whatsoever from Abu Ghraib. Sure, they produced reports on our detainees, but invariably, these reports contained either useless information or different versions of the same stories we had already extracted using humane, rapport-based approaches.
I was not alone in my frustration with Abu Ghraib. For example, Kyle Teamey, the S2X (senior human intelligence officer) for 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, in Ramadi at the time, said: "The folks at Abu Ghraib not only failed to provide any intel of value, they turned the entire Sunni population against us. Meanwhile, we were getting actionable intel by giving detainees Skittles and a cup of coffee."
Despite our nation's and military's gross failures at Abu Ghraib and several other detention facilities, most interrogators at Gitmo, Iraq, and Afghanistan did not choose to torture. Why is this the case? One reason is that many shared the idealism expressed by Major Hoepner, which holds that torture is just something that Americans should not do.
But we should not dismiss professional competence as a reason, either. Those interrogators who had done their professional reading were less likely to engage in torture. In a future guest column, "Top 10 Books on U.S. Interrogation," I will provide a list of some of these books. Interrogators had also learned doctrine and conventional wisdom at the military intelligence schoolhouse that taught that torture is an ineffective intelligence tool. This conventional wisdom included the proverb, "The longest list of lies in the world is that given by the tortured." Many interrogators had taken doctrine and such conventional wisdom to heart, before they deployed.
Lieutenant Colonel Douglas A. Pryer is a military intelligence officer who has served in various command and staff positions in Iraq, Kosovo, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and, most recently, Afghanistan. He is the author of the Command and General Staff College Foundation Press's inaugural book, The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 - April 2004. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
It's still there -- and may even be merging with Syria's crisis. Here are headlines yesterday on Aswat al-Iraq:
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Vicki Huddleston, a former U.S. ambassador to Mali, says that the French government paid $17 million to ransom French nationals in recent years. She further alleges that these payments funded al Qaeda-linked operations in Africa.
The French are wrong to do this. Not just mildly wrong, but massively wrong. Not only are they funding terrorism, they are increasing the chances that their people will be nabbed.
I say this as someone who feared getting kidnapped in Baghdad. This was at a time when Iraqi criminals supposedly were nabbing people and then selling them to al Qaeda. I was once in a group of reporters summoned to the Green Zone for a briefing from an American security official. He informed us that Baghdad was the most dangerous city in the world, that we were the most lucrative targets in the city, and that he thought we were nuts. Thanks fella!
Bottom line: I felt that my best defense was the U.S. government policy of not paying kidnappers. I still do.
No Pakistani distributor has bought the rights. I imagine that the Taliban and al Qaeda might violently object.
A friend comments on some of the differences between Afghan tribes and those in Iraq:
- Obviously Hierarchical
- Easily Mappable
- Objective Hierarchy
- Not Obviously Hierarchical
- Not Easily Mappable
- Not Necessarily Ordered
- Subjective Hierarchy
Tom again: His interpretation of what this means is that Petraeus got it wrong when he tried to apply Iraq to Afghanistan -- and that al Qaeda got it wrong when it tried to apply Afghanistan to Iraq:
One of the reasons that bin Laden and the other Arab Afghans were able to work their way into the local Pashtu networks is because there the hierarchical power is not transmitted by descent type of kinship arrangements. When these guys tried to export the model to Iraq, specifically in Anbar, but also in Sunni enclaves that were more tribal in other places, all they did was piss off the actual guys with authority -- the sheikhs. And because so much of tribal/familial and religious leadership is combined in Iraq, they managed to piss off two institutions at once: the tribal and the religious leadership at the same time. And there are almost no purely Sunni or Shi'a tribes in Iraq. So the anti-Shi'a message, combined with not understanding the societal dynamics, cost them. It wasn't the only reason that the tribal guys wanted to come in from the cold, but it was a contributing factor.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on March 9, 2011.
MOHAMMAD BASHIR/AFP/Getty Images
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on February 4, 2011.
The fun I had helping a neighbor at Christmastime with the Audubon annual census of birds on our island inspired me to read Sibley's Birding Basics. As I did, I was struck by how you could read some of his instructions as a supplement to David Kilcullen's recommendations on observing insurgents.
--"Watch the edges of the flock and pay special attention to outlying birds or those that act differently; they may be a different species."
--"Consider the time of day."
--"Anticipate the birds' needs."
--"Follow the birds. If you find a number of birds in an area, consider why they might be there. Is there a concentration of food? Is it a warm or cool spot?"
--"Another important point for beginners to understand is that bird identification is not an exact science and often does not involve absolute certainty."
--"Looking at a bird with prejudice, having already determined that it is likely to be one species and leading only to confirm that identification, will lead you into error.… Guard against forming an opinion until all of the evidence is in."
Also, be ready for the unexpected: I was surprised that Sibley lists Central Park, smack in middle of the concrete canyons of New York City, as great bird-watching spot. The reason, he writes, is that migrating birds gravitate toward it, as "the largest patch of natural habitat in the area" -- not unlike, he writes, a desert oasis.
Of course, both bird-watching and dealing with insurgents began by hunting them down and killing them, until those doing the shooting realized there often might be a better approach. With knowledge comes the understanding that hawks act differently from shrikes, and a strong tribe differently from a marginalized one.
Speaking of growing understanding, I finished reading Senator's Son, which takes that as its theme. I enjoyed it enormously. More next week about that.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on February 2, 2009.
A friend who has read this series on the small but deadly battle at Wanat last summer suggested that we should consider one more issue -- that is, what this incident might tell us about the war in Afghanistan.
I think the insights of this infantry veteran, who must remain anonymous because of his position, are important. Let him explain:
We are so very exposed in this land-locked country, with no infrastructure, not nearly enough enablers, not enough transport... it's frightening, really.
. . . [R]emind folks that this is an enemy that may in fact look more like Hezbollah in Lebanon 2006 than al Qaeda in Iraq. This is an enemy that apparently has no problem massing force in space and time, and is tactically proficient at understanding our weaknesses. My own view is that we have to employ a properly resourced COIN mission . . . while simultaneously ensuring that those folks out in the hinterland have all the enablers they need. A tough problem.
Not only are his points important but they get at a key problem that the battle of Wanat highlighted: the ongoing, long-running confusion between a counterterrorism mission and a counterinsurgency one. How do the two fit together? The U.S. military, embroiled in two such wars now simultaneously, in Iraq and Afghanistan, would do well to spend more time on that question.
That's all I have. I am sure there are more lessons here. What else should we understand about Wanat?
U.S. Department of Defense.
By Col. Robert Killebrew, USA (Ret.)
Director, Best Defense office of Market Garden studies
as the war in Afghanistan continues to boil, the defense intellectual crowd has
wandered into an unnecessary and counterproductive debate about whether the
United States can avoid being involved in future counterinsurgency wars. "Unnecessary and counterproductive" is an appropriate
description of a largely contrived argument that distracts brainpower from
focusing on the real issue -- the changing nature of warfare in the emerging
Of course the U.S. is going to be involved in counterinsurgency in the future, just as we will be involved in all kinds of wars, period. Insurgency is one of the oldest forms of warfare -- an uprising against a government. But the terms under which rebellions are put down are changing fast. Until very recently, the Westphalian attitude of the times reinforced the authority of governments to suppress internal rebellions without too much regard to sensitivities or legal restraints; both the American revolution and Napoleon's war on the Iberian Peninsula, for example, featured insurgencies that were brutally suppressed by regular forces, but there was no thought of holding commanders -- much less governments -- responsible for brutal reprisals.
All that is changing as the world is changing. Nuremburg mattered a lot. The WWII Germans felt no need for a counterinsurgency doctrine -- their reaction to resistance in occupied countries was just to round up hostages and shoot them -- but after the war some commanders were held to account despite the argument that they were only obeying orders, a legal landmark. Punishing commanders for massacres was not only simple justice, but an indication that civilians were no longer just an incidental backdrop to a war. Rather individuals began to be regarded as having rights that continued even during warfare, and even when they rise against their rulers. That principle of the universality of human rights in war is a historic change that is now considered applicable even in modern struggles against the medieval brutalities of al Qaeda or the Taliban. In the 21st century, international law is struggling to replace the Westphalian compact as the new firebreak against indiscriminate barbarism.
This is the nub of the challenge of counterinsurgency (or COIN, as it is known by its unfortunate acronym). People may rise in rebellion against their government, or against the government of a conquering power, but the government's reaction can no longer be to slaughter them wholesale -- as is happening now in Syria -- for two reasons. First, sanctions to punish indiscriminate killing are spreading and increasingly effective, as the Syrian leadership will eventually learn. This is the emergence of the new sensibility of human rights, which will accompany widespread political changes in the new century (as we are seeing today in the Arab world). Second, and more practically, killing alone doesn't work against a determined opposition -- never has, in fact. Insurgency, which stems from political dissatisfaction, ultimately requires a political solution, so the greatest part of any successful COIN campaign requires political solutions that address the fundamental issue that started the insurgency in the first place, while security forces -- both military and, increasingly, police -- try to contain violence and drive it down to tolerable levels.
All this can frustrate soldiers when they get tasked to fight insurgents under restrictive rules of engagement and with little backing from the political class. An American military that in the 1990s trained for violent high-tech short wars has been understandably frustrated to find itself bogged down in an inconclusive, decades-long war that its political leadership has either misunderstood or backed away from. The "COIN is dead" school of military thought is a reaction to that frustration -- and to the damage that our protracted focus on counterinsurgency has done to other, essential military capabilities -- but it is wrongheaded for a number of reasons.
First, insurgencies aren't going away, and the United States will fight more of them. For a variety of reasons, populations and individuals today are more empowered than ever before, and governments are under more pressure to meet the expectations of their people. Political dissatisfaction, mass migration, widespread armaments, and crime are producing an international landscape that will challenge weak governments for decades, and often insurgencies will be supported by outside powers hostile to the United States or our friends. Aggression by insurgency is an old strategy that will recur.
Second, because they're hard doesn't mean we can't win them. In fact, insurgencies are more unsuccessful than otherwise. When states react to insurgencies wisely, insurgents are usually defeated. Colombia is in the process of defeating an insurgency that was threatening its survival a decade ago. The once-inevitable revolution in El Salvador is long over. The government of Iraq is consolidating power and looks to be on a success curve. In all cases, political reforms marched hand with increasing military and police capabilities and the collapse of the insurgency's outside sponsor. One significant point for military planners is the degree to which military power must be blended with the state's police and other civil powers, which until recently was contrary to U.S. military tradition and practice. Nothing changes tradition and practice, though, like hard lessons in the field.
Thirdly, American military (and political) planners and doctrine-writers must understand that the U.S. is not, and never will be, the primary COIN force -- our best course will always be to work "by, with, and through" the host country in the lead, with Americans playing a supporting role. This is a profound change for soldiers who are trained to take charge of dangerous situations. Even in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. forces faced the worst-case COIN scenario possible -- the absence of a government to support -- ultimate success has not been, and will not be, possible until the local government shoulders the load. We were far too slow to understand this in these two theaters, and too slow to plan and resource local leaders once we did understand it.
Finally, wars are never fought the same way twice, though armies invariably prepare for the last one. The American military faces a daunting challenge -- to correctly draw lessons out of a decade of experience in two wars that will prepare them for the next one, without falling into the last-war trap that a decade of war has prepared for us. Additionally, the military services know they will be the ones on the ground compensating for weaknesses in the other branches of government. Getting this right in the manuals will be very tough, and may challenge deeply-held Service beliefs and organizational imperatives; a noted COIN authority is fond of reminding his friends "counterinsurgency is more intellectual than a bayonet charge." That is certainly true -- but no reason to walk away from it.
"I think it's an intelligence failure from all over the world," Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani told a London newspaper.
But -- it happened in your backyard, dude. Not in Argentina's nor indeed in ours.
By Col. Gary Anderson (USMC, Ret.)
Best Defense department of modest proposals
We need new thinking in the hunt for Al Qaeda. If you didn't like Iraq and Afghanistan, you are really going to hate Somalia and Yemen. This nation needs a better strategy for fighting terrorists than invading every country where we find them with a force as large as the one that hit the Normandy beaches. Al Qaeda is, after all, a Non Governmental Organization (NGO), albeit a very evil one; and we have to figure out how to deal with it without creating a major regional war every time we uncover an al Qaeda cell.
Failed and failing states are the kind of places that Al Qaeda and its affiliate are looking for. Afghanistan and Iraq are too hot for Al Qaeda to operate in, and Pakistan is becoming that way. It is true that Iraq was never a haven for al Qaeda until our invasion led to a civil war in that country, but al Qaeda operatives saw opportunity in chaos and exploited it. The 9/11 attacks were enabled by the fact that al Qaeda found sanctuary in Afghanistan and used it to launch attacks on the ultimate enemy, the United States. Preventing another 9/11 has been a priority for the last two administrations, but no one has yet articulated a way of dealing with them short of using a sledgehammer to kill the proverbial fly.
Here is an alternative: If al Qaeda is an NGO, we begin to encourage and support "Killer NGOs" to destroy it in the countries that it infests.
If al Qaeda is an NGO, it is a malignant one. But it is like other NGOs that primarily pursue peaceful change in two ways. First, Al Qaeda doesn't answer to any government. Second, it survives on donations. Unlike political parties, it doesn't seek to dominate the people it infects; it desires merely to use them for international ends. The best way to fight an NGO might be with another NGO.
What would an anti-al Qaeda "Killer NGO" look like?
--First, it would have to consist of natives of the region where it operates; its message would be to reject the outside influence of foreign Islamist extremists.
--Second, it would need a competent military component. Militias are a dime a dozen and usually they are predatory. A small cadre of skilled fighters with cohesion and a cause can easily defeat the kind of rabble that al Qaeda pays to act as its muscle in areas that it infests. This is not a mercenary organization such as Blackwater. Mercenaries don't fight for a cause; they fight for money.
--Third, a killer NGO needs a development arm. In a failed or failing state without a social safety net, a local NGO capable of supplying rudimentary medical, educational, and nutritional support is a welcome addition in places where hope is a scarce commodity
--Finally, a killer NGO needs a media arm that will get out its story and discredit that of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. A strong message of local self-reliance and rejection of exploitive foreigners is always a powerful one in the Third World. It has been used against us when we have been a visible presence. The difference here is that we are not a presence in the places most at risk of al Qaeda infestation; nor is it in our interest to be. We are present, and will continue to be in places where we have vital economic or geopolitical interests. Yemen, Somalia, and the southern Philippines don't generally make that list, and that is why they become attractive to al Qaeda and its affiliates.
What happens if a killer NGO goes bad? We stop funding it. Unlike unpopular governmental regimes that do bad things, we are under no treaty obligation to support a NGO that goes bad. There are thousands of NGOs around the world. They are born and die every day. There is no loss of national prestige in withdrawing support to a rogue private entity.
The opposite is always possible. Some of these organizations might succeed wildly and become legitimate political parties with interests aligned to ours and democratic aspirations. We always have the option of reinforcing success.
We should of course retain the alternative of chasing al Qaeda across the world in a lethal game of "Where's Waldo" with Special Forces and drone aircraft, and that option should never be taken off the table. If a particularly dangerous situation arises, we need the capability of direct action. But we need to consider options that are less expensive politically and economically. To make a medical analogy, al Qaeda is an infection. Direct military action is like chemotherapy. It can do nearly as much harm to the infected host as the disease itself. Killer NGO s would be a carefully targeted antibiotic. Chemotherapy is always an option, but it should not be the first choice.
The American public has lost its desire to wage counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nipping and al Qaeda generated problem in the bud before it becomes a 9/11-type strategic threat is a clear preference. Encouraging and supporting killer NGOs is one more tool that we can add to our strategic kit that is both inexpensive and of low risk to American service personnel.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer. He teaches a class on alternative analysis at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. He currently is on sabbatical in Afghanistan.
Jakub Grygiel is one of the more interesting strategic thinkers around. In the new (Fall 2011) issue of Orbis he has a good piece that looks at why certain decentralized parts of the Roman Empire were better able to counter the barbarian invasions than were others.
The lesson of his inquiry:
The policy of decentralizing security provision by, for instance, building greater capabilities for local police forces, may be the most effective way of responding to such a security environment. Signs already abound that this is exactly what is already happening in the United States, a country that because of a deep tradition of self-reliance and federalism may be well positioned to adapt to the possibility of non-state, small, localized, threats. Other countries, in particular in Europe, where the drive to build a centralized state that arrogates to itself most aspects of social life has been historically longer and more relentless, may face greater challenges.
Proven provider John McCreary observes that the U.S. government and al Qaeda apparently are on the same side in calling for change in Syria:
Syria-al Qaida: Al-Qaida's new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praised anti-regime protestors in Syria in a video released Wednesday claiming the United States is seeking regime change in Damascus, U.S.-based monitors said. Calling the pro-democracy activists 'mujahideen,' or holy warriors, Zawahiri hailed their efforts in "teaching lessons to the aggressor, the oppressor, the traitor, the disloyal, and standing up against his oppression" in a video the SITE Intelligence Group said was posted on extremist online forums.
Comment: For perhaps the only time on record, The US and al Qaida apparently are supporting the same policy end state for Syria: regime change. That bizarre coincidence cannot be good for Israeli security or regional stability.
Zawahari sees the conflict as a Sunni fundamentalist vs. Alawite struggle, not as a movement for plural political rights, women's rights and liberal freedoms against a repressive regime."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Danzig and his co-authors make the essential point: In dealing with these extremist groups and cults, the world is playing Russian roulette: 'Many chambers in the gun prove to be harmless, but some chambers are loaded.' Another bullet was fired last Friday, and we are surely clicking toward more. The surprise is that we're still surprised."
FILES-JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
It seems that Prime Minister Vladmir Putin isn't the only one using dogs to get the upper hand in Russia. And the United States isn't the only country catching on to the how valuable bomb-sniffing dogs are in the field. After the bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport last January, President Dmitry Medvedev has made a big push to get more sniffer dogs on patrol -- and more dogs there will be.
The Russian military is banking on what they're calling "high-tech" bomb-sniffing dogs -- an overstatement perhaps given its rudimentary function. As the BBC reports from a military base outside of Moscow, this elevated technology is really just a remote-controlled dog, consisting of little more than a walkie-talkie and small video camera strapped to the dog's collar.
Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
By Matthew Irvine
Best Defense bureau of keeping your eye on the ball
The Obama administration rolled out the unclassified version of its long-awaited counterterrorism strategy document on Wednesday.
Put simply, this is a war plan against al Qaeda. The document is al Qaeda-centric to the point of being al Qaeda-obsessed. What is striking about the strategy is not so much what it says about al Qaeda or its repeated mentions of killing Osama bin Laden (5 of them), but what it left out about counterterrorism more broadly:
Terrorists who aren't AQ: The document mentions "other terrorist concerns requiring focus and attention" such as Hamas, Hizballah, the FARC, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. However, the document does not address these groups in a substantive way.
State-sponsors of terror: While recognizing that some states (Iran and Syria) support terrorist organizations, the strategy does not spell out what this means for broader foreign policy towards these countries. Pakistan is notably absent from this list despite its established ties to the Haqqani Network, Afghan Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Mexico: The growing violence in Mexico did not make the cut in the new strategy. With more than 35,000 dead over the last five years, including numerous government officials, kidnappings, and car bombings, Mexico is emerging as a principal security question for folks on both sides of the border.
The Internet: Cyberterrorism and the increasingly active use of the internet as a virtual safe haven got only lip-service in the unclassified version of the White House report. As Spencer Ackerman at DangerRoom points out, this is not an adequate treatment of what is a growing problem. Domestic Terrorism: Despite DHS calling attention in 2009 to the resurgence in right wing extremism, the new CT strategy does not address this very distinct threat. You don't have to go too far back in time to see the Unabomber, Tim McVeigh, the rise of right-wing militias as a pre-eminent counterterrorism concern.
Pakistan: The President's counterterrorism advisor John Brennan argued on Wednesday that "there's no alternative to us or to the Pakistanis to ensuring that we continue engaging with them." I'm left asking: What happens if the United States and Pakistan don't make up? The United States and Pakistan suffered a bitter divorce in the 1990s. What's to stop that from happening again?
Lastly, what comes next? Brennan also declared "al Qaeda is in its decline," but went on to warn of an adapting enemy and AQ network that will pose a persistent threat. The 9/11 Commission cited a failure of imagination as one of the primary faults in U.S. counterterrorism thinking ten years ago. After reading the 2011 CT strategy, (and the 2003 and 2007 documents) I am left asking the question: What comes next? What are we missing? What are we failing to imagine?
I think fiction must use a different part of the brain. I wouldn't read an academic analysis of CIA-ISI relations til past midnight, but after a long day of travel, I stayed up hours to finish reading this book.
As it happens, the other day I ran into an American diplomat who is an expert in the Middle East and strongly recommended Ignatius' previous novel, The Increment, about Iran.
So what should foreign policy wonks read on the beach this summer? I'd say the complete works of Ignatius, which amount to a grand tour of the Middle East -- start with Agents of Innocence (Lebanon, and worth the price of admission just for the stomach-churning chapter in the middle about being an Israeli agent in Syria) and work your way with him through the region.
The other day my CNAS colleague Soriana Crisan wandered over to the National Press Club to see what the terrorism big thinkers are thinking. She came back all gloomy, but what did you expect? I think next time we should send her to a Lady Gaga concert.
Here is her report:
By Sorina I. Crisan
Best Defense terrorism punditry bureau
Hey Tom, as you requested, here are some "high points" from the Jamestown Foundation's 4th Annual Terrorism Conference, held on Thursday, Dec. 9.
- Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, kicked off the proceedings by arguing that there is no "understanding of what terrorism strategy is." Today, al Qaeda is a networked transnational movement that is just "a shadow of its former self" but has been able to survive "because it has managed to adapt to a changing environment." He said we should employ a dual strategy of capturing terrorists and breaking the recruitment cycle by better reaching the youth demographic.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.