Monday, September 29, 2014

Lenin, ISIS, and the State as a Revolutionary Instrument

Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy contains an interesting account of Marx’s reaction to the failures of the European Revolutions of 1848 (or OG “Spring of Nations”). Marx decried the ultimate failure of the proletariat to take advantage of the situation by exclaiming, “they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” and “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. Vladimir Lenin understood that that the nightmare must be expunged with extreme prejudice, taking into consideration the failure of more moderate (and less centralized) political factions to integrate into the legitimate political systems of Europe. It’s an interesting thought exercise then to briefly consider how the failures of the Arab Spring have informed ISIS’s strategy and how the US and its coalition partners really face a brand new strategic problem in ISIS that has a distant flavor of revolutions long past.
The nexus of ISIS’s regional success so far, at least in the strategic sense, has been to understand that control of territory and politics must be centralized in order to complete the wider ideological objective. The caliphate is the starting point for all revolutionary change. This differs greatly from a rough amalgamation of Al-Qaeda’s philosophy and strategy, which features a myriad of objectives but ultimately views the establishment of a caliphate as the end goal, the ultimate measure of success in a long struggle. The willingness of ISIS to immediately establish the caliphate parallels Lenin’s goal (according to Freedman) of making “the Party” the vehicle for revolution. Ultimately, once a serious political apparatus is in place, dealing with those who threaten the party or state is a lot more expedient than arguing about how to best implement the wraith of ideology. States also include an exclusive tool box of coercive measures that insurgent organizations are unable to wield, particularly to kill large numbers of people in the way you please, when you please, because they exist in your domain.  ISIS can affect political change rapidly and, ostensibly, unimpeded. Al – Qaeda must settle for staggered attacks and the unlikely nature of operational success in an environment rife with the type of friction that is incumbent upon terrorist cell operations in “foreign territory”.

Lenin’s stress on the importance of “the Party” to revolution was located in the same type of historical experience that drives ISIS. It is possible that ISIS views past revolutionary non-starts in the region as an illustration of the failure to locate the schwerpunkt of the adversary and carry out a decisive action. The schwerpunkt in a revolution is the ruling party’s political apparatus and the demographics that support its efficient and legitimate operation. It’s the liquidation of these entities that is the goal of the successful revolutionary state, especially for those who have watched the failure of attempts that operated under a more inclusive and civil strategy of transition that reverts to conservative or reactionary government (examples given by Freedman are the failures in multiple states in 1848 Europe and in France in 1871, a modern example would be Egypt). The violent suppression of the Syrian revolution (and other uprisings in the region), and the chaos that it bred, was the final miscarriage in the type of gradual processes that characterized civil disobedience and broad appeals for political reform in the early days of the Arab Spring.
ISIS is not a terrorist cell, it is a revolutionary state and the long-term strategy and tactics of the “War on Terror” will be just as ineffective as the half-hearted attempts at snuffing out the Russian Revolution were. It appears, at the moment, that the Obama Administration’s strategy doesn't differ significantly from past operations against perceived threats, an insight into how the White House interprets the success of its past military interventions and how it views ISIS. It might be that the US and its allies have not quite grasped what they are up against in ISIS and what it will take to dislodge them from the region. The US’s lack of strategic fit to ISIS’s presentation of its thought processes and political goals might be a signal of the US’s ambivalence towards the endeavor as a whole, and is noted by regional powers. It could also be the White House understands that the complex nature of the regional struggle is unintelligible, and is only comfortable making adjustments to its position at the margins. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Shaping or Responding?

On Monday of this week the United States, along with a coalition of Arab states, began launching airstrikes in Syria for the first time. Coordinating and working with a coalition is certainly a good thing for the U.S., as America has already faced criticism for often choosing to act unilaterally. Additionally, having an alliance that is willing to fight together against ISIS lends more credibility to the mission, instead of appearing to merely being a U.S. intervention. And with many Americans growing tired of being in a constant state of war, it becomes particularly important for the Arab countries to help deal with the problems in their own region.

However, while talk of the use of airstrikes had been swirling around for a while, what surprised some was the fact that the U.S. not only attacked ISIS, but also hit Khorasan. It is important to note that while Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all contributed in some sort of fashion to airstrikes against ISIS, the U.S. was alone in its pursuit of destroying Khorasan. This then begs the question: why did the U.S.-Arab coalition only go so far as to attack ISIS? Why did the partnership stop when it came to hitting Khorasan targets? Is Khorasan some sort of a personal vendetta for the U.S., or is it simply not well-known enough yet to draw attention from Arabs and others? Did the Arab nations even know about Khorasan or America's intent to strike them? Or, were the Khorasan attacks an attempt by President Obama to shape, rather than respond, to the situation in the Middle East?

Khorasan is composed of senior al-Qaeda operatives who have moved into Syria and built a base of operations there. Although practically unheard of until the airstrikes, Khorasan is apparently being monitored by several intelligence agencies, both American and otherwise. While the general public does not have access to any concrete intelligence indicating the threat that Khorasan presents, the Department of Defense, senior administration officials, and the Director of National Intelligence have all made statements about the danger that Khorasan poses. Furthermore, an argument has been made that an attack by Khorasan against the U.S. or its allies was imminent. Various agencies were tracking Khorasan for years, and for several months airstrikes against them were contemplated. Were the strikes against ISIS just an easy way for President Obama to slip in another attack then? Indeed, with ISIS dominating the news, little attention has been given to the attacks on the Khorasan group.

By choosing to unilaterally go after Khorasan, Obama has continued fighting the War on Terror, but he has done so in such a way that he is now playing a role in shaping the landscape of the war. Previously most of his actions were a response to the ongoing situations in the Middle East, but at this point, Obama now appears to be setting the agenda. Some people believe America has always been one step behind terrorists and stopping terrorism, and by acting proactively, Obama may be seeking to stop something before it grows out of control. Some of the locations hit during the strike included training sites, command centers, and facilities where explosives are made. However, with few “boots on the ground”, it is hard to know what was hit, who was killed, and just how crippling the attacks were, or were not. Over the next few days, weeks, months, and maybe even years, more information will become available and as the future unfolds, it will become easier to see if this was the right call and if Khorasan and the fight against it actually changes the political or military environment and if Khorasan really is/was a danger to the American people.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

US and the "IS": Modern-Day Quests of Deterrence and Compellence

As of late September, the “Islamic State” group that formed from the ashes of US campaigns in Iraq has gained control of a considerable amount of territory in Iraq and Syria. Examining their actions and counter actions through Schelling’s lens of threat strategies, we can observe that the US has thus far been attempting to deter the IS, while they have attempted to compel us to into action. With each beheading, the IS attempts to provoke US action (retreat). With the airstrike campaigns of recent days, the US has now also shifted its tactics from deterrence to compellence: the hurt will continue until you desist. This dangerous game continues the deadly war that we are seeing played out daily.

For the United States and its allies, the deterrence goal had been to prevent the IS from killing innocents, establishing a true state and controlling regional resources. The US was able to return control of the Mosul dam to Iraqi forces in August, although “Islamic State” is still obtaining and selling oil to citizens within its controlled territory. In an economic sense, the IS is already functioning as a government by levying taxes. It also generates revenue in oil, extortion and smuggling to fund its control and exert power over people within its territory. Additionally, they have murdered hundreds of people including releasing videos of the beheadings of various kidnapping victims. Among these are 2 American journalists, 1 British aid worker, 1 Iraqi general, and as of 9/24 an Algerian group pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi has executed a French national in similar fashion. For the US and its allies, preventing the murder of our nationals and  deterring such a violent group from establishing statehood was key. Now, with the airstrikes of recent days, we are attempting the compellence tactic of initiating action that will cause enough hurt for them to give in. 


The self-proclaimed Islamic State, meanwhile, wants compel the US to withdraw its continued involvement in what it considers to be the Islamic homeland. It has also threatened other governments. In the video depicting the murder of Steven Sotloff, the IS militant warns: “Back off, and leave our people alone.” This warning was directed at the UK, though in recent days the IS and affiliated groups (Jund al-Khilafa in Algeria) have directed their ire at France and Canada; we can expect that Arab states that have allied with the US in airstrikes can be included in these warnings as well. However, the IS murdered a British national shortly thereafter, and the victimized countries have banded together against IS. Rather than meet their demands, allied countries stand in solidarity with determination to destroy the IS. 

The US sees significant security threats and the undoing of our decade-long infrastructure-building project in Iraq with the emergence of the IS. We are compelled to act to preserve these interests and the lives of our nationals not by initiating retreat, but by retaliating against IS tactics: initiating airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, recruiting Kurdish fighters, assisting Syrian Free Army rebels, and joining with allies including France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan. The IS, meanwhile, beheads victim after victim and encroaches on Iraqi, Kurdish, Syrian and Turkish territory. These governments are threatened and have a stake in the defeat of IS. Thus foreign (especially Western) involvement in the Middle East metastasizes as an indirect result of IS tactics. 


In coming days, we will see the results of this new tactic on our part. With each airstrike, and the deepening of foreign involvement in the region, the IS has retaliated with another beheading. We have attempted deterrence; as we attempt to compel them into action, they may respond with more violence in attempts to compel us.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Global Threats

For the first time ever, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) met to deal with a public health crisis. They ultimately declared the Ebola outbreak to be a “threat to international peace and stability” and the UNSC unanimously passed a resolution urging all countries to do more to control and contain the spread of Ebola, which is overwhelming West Africa. The situation appears so dire, that the Liberian Defense Minister told the UN his country’s very existence is threatened by Ebola.

The first documented case was in December of last year and since then, the world has seen the largest Ebola outbreak in history. According to the World Health Organization, more than 5,000 cases have been reported and the fatality rate is at or above 50%. Although more than 40 previous outbreaks have been recorded, they were all small, isolated, quickly controlled and in remote areas, mostly in Central Africa.

Although there has been concern about the disease, the world seemed unprepared to address such an unprecedented Ebola outbreak. Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN said, “words are meaningless, unless the words today turn into concrete commitments” CDC, USAID, and up to 3,000 U.S. troops are all working to combat this disease, yet criticism and blame is still to be found. Doctors Without Borders has declared that the lack of response in general, and from the U.S., is “incomprehensible.” America has already committed $175 million, with another $88 million requested. Additionally, the Department of Defense intends to spend $500 million in an effort to assist with treatment facilities and supplies. However, the UN says $1 billion is needed simply to bring this outbreak under control. The UNSC heard reports indicating that the international response needed to increase by 20 fold in order to adequately address the disease.

Human trials for an Ebola vaccine are beginning, and 10,000 doses of the currently untested vaccine are already being manufactured but it will be another two to three months before any vaccine will be ready, and even if the vaccine works, there will not be enough vaccines to stop the spread of Ebola.

In the meantime, Sierra Leone ordered a three day quarantine nationwide, with the hope that volunteers will be able to go to each home and talk with residents about the disease, risks, preventive measures, and treatment. However, it is unlikely that this will be enough to contain the spread of Ebola in both the region and the world. If this disease continues to spiral out of control, it will only continue to cross borders and infiltrate other countries and even regions in the world. A disease knows no borders and President Obama and the UNSC have publicly recognized the impact that such an outbreak will have on the international community. The political, economic, and security implications will be widespread. The countries hardest hit are poor and lack proper infrastructure to deal with such a crisis and as people start to panic or act out of fear, social conditions may deteriorate even more. As the Director-General of WHO put it, a health crisis like this has a "magnitude of cascading consequences."

In a speech that he gave on Tuesday, President Obama summed up the threat saying, "This is an epidemic that is not just a threat to regional security. Its a potential threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economies break down, if people panic...That has profound affects on all of us even if we are not directly contracting the disease." As countries and economies become more and more intertwined, events in one place can have a profound impact on others, regardless of geographic distance. It is within America's interest to actively participate in efforts to combat this threat.

Insurgents dragging Israel into Syria's war?

The Nusra Front, a Syrian insurgent group affiliated with Al Qaeda, recently released 45 Fijian peacekeepers that had been held captive for two weeks.  Since their release, the UN has decided to relocate its Golan Heights peacekeepers to the Israeli side of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) buffer zone in hopes of preventing another attack or abduction.  Attacks by Syrian militants on members of UNDOF in the buffer zone between Syria and Israel have been increasing over the last couple weeks.  According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “the situation in UNDOF on the Syrian side and the area of separation has deteriorated severely over the last several days.”

UNDOF’s mandate is up for renewal in October, but it is questionable whether or not soldiers will continue to be sent into this increasingly dangerous area.  With the evacuation of UN peacekeepers from the UNDOF post at the Quneitra Crossing and increasing violence from the Nusra Front, it seems as though Israel is inching closer to becoming a player in the Syrian civil war.  The Syrian army has two divisions responsible for its side of the Golan Heights; however, with more important battles being fought in Aleppo, Damascus and elsewhere, the soldiers in this area have not received supplies for months.  For them, defecting or just laying down their arms is a better option than fighting the insurgents.

If UNDOF’s mandate is not renewed and soldiers in the Syrian army continue to defect, who will be left to prevent these insurgents from crossing into Israel? The Israeli Defense Forces.  If Israeli forces are dragged into the civil war, will American forces also be necessary to back up our closest Middle Eastern ally?  With the approval of Congress to arm and train Syrian rebels, President Obama insists that U.S.ground troops will not be sent overseas.  Will Obama change his mind if terrorist forces seriously threaten Israel?   Should Israel ask for U.S. help, Israeli lobbyist groups will put pressure on Obama to send Israel the supplies it needs whether that be arms or troops.  However, with a large majority of Americans currently opposed to sending troops abroad to fight in Syria, Obama will feel the same pressure against sending U.S. troops to assist Israel.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Don't Forget Deterrence

The successful test of Russia’s new submarine-launched Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday is being treated as yet more fuel on the already burning Russia-West relationship. Headlines such as “Russia Proves Nuclear Muscle With Ballistic Missile Launch” or “Russia developing new nuclear weapons to counter US, NATO,” as well as statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the linchpin role of a “guaranteed nuclear deterrent” certainly convey the idea of an expanding confrontation. And yet, while events and statements seem to indicate ever-greater danger, it is important to keep in mind the mechanisms of deterrence and implicit bargaining between nations. While conventional escalation and expansion of the current conflict are not out of the question, we do not suddenly now stand on the brink of nuclear conflict.

First and foremost, it is important to keep in mind the extensive lag time involved in the development of equipment such as the ballistic missile. The Bulava – capable of traveling 5,000+ miles and holding 6-10 nuclear warheads – has been in development since the 1990s, and has been undergoing (not terribly successful) testing since at least 2004. In other words, it’s not exactly new. The Russians did not develop an SLBM in response to the Ukraine crisis. Granted, the timing of the test is certainly interesting, coming on the heels of NATO’s announcement of a new “spearhead” rapid reaction force and intentions to pre-position equipment in Eastern Europe. The decision to conduct a test now is most likely (at least in part) a result of the current political climate, rather than despite it.

But it looks like Russia is attempting to reinforce and expand deterrence, rather than literally prepare for a nuclear exchange  – it is trying to dissuade the West from engaging in conventional action by demonstrating its nuclear capability. This is in keeping with statements made by Russian officials last year indicating that Russia could respond to conventional attacks with nuclear weapons.  The message is clear: do not interfere, or you risk nuclear repercussions (you are not promised them – an important distinction). On a fundamental level, the Russian government and military are attempting to influence Western decision-making: they hope to make even the consideration of conventional interference in its affairs too risky. This, as Thomas Schelling notes in his seminal “Arms and Influence,” is what deterrence – and thus nuclear weapons – is all about: influencing an enemy’s actions and intentions.

Furthermore, we have to wonder if Russia would truly be willing to end the “nuclear taboo” over Ukraine, especially given that the latter’s membership prospects in both the European Union and NATO now appear more or less nonexistent (and will remain so for the foreseeable future). 60+ years of non-use (in war) is an impressive record, but it is also part of the power of nuclear weapons. At the end of the day, some argue, the threat of an undetonated nuclear weapon is greater than that of a detonated one. Once you have destroyed a city, that target has no value for your enemy, and you have one less weapon with which to threaten him. And you may have invited nuclear reprisal.

We must also attempt to evaluate some of the more implicit messages Russia is sending, which can be directly linked to their weapons modernization program and even the development of the Bulava missile. First of all, while the 2016-2025 weapons modernization program does include the above-mentioned “guaranteed nuclear deterrent,” it also includes developing high-precision conventional weapons. As Schelling notes, investment in conventional weaponry is itself significant, because it suggests that Russia wants to be sure it can fight a non-nuclear war (by having a sufficient non-nuclear capability). The West (and the U.S. in particular) holds a significant conventional advantage over Russia in terms of both existing capabilities and in the competencies of their defense industries (consider, for instance, Russia’s purchase of French Mistral class vessels). The emphasis on nuclear weapons could almost be interpreted as a rhetorical stopgap measure – a stalling technique, if you will, that must serve until conventional capabilities are built up.

Moreover, the fact that the Bulava missile is submarine-launched is significant. SLBMs are more expensive to build than the land-based ICBMs. If Russia wanted an ability to simply launch a nuclear assault in response to a conventional attack, there are cheaper and more efficient ways to go about this. (Granted, it can get a bit messy here in terms of what is permissible under various arms agreements and related treaties, but the point stands). SLBMs are particularly suited to deterrence specifically because of their survivability. They are second-strike weapons (which is not to say they cannot be used in a first strike, but rather to argue that if Russia anticipated initiating a nuclear exchange they may have chosen to reveal that possibility differently).

Finally, we cannot ignore the possibility that ongoing Russian efforts to modernize their nuclear capacity are not the result of an unfortunate feedback loop (another issue that Schelling’s book addresses). Remember, for example, that NATO decided it would incorporate former Warsaw Pact states in the 1990s – a choice that likely encouraged the pursuit of improved nuclear capabilities as a formerly hostile alliance approached Russian territory. Additionally, the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and began working towards establishing a missile defense system in Europe. While this system is not directed against Russia, Russia complained (and continues to do so) that such measures are destabilizing in terms of the nuclear strategic balance. Finally, the only way Congress allowed the New Start Treaty to be ratified in 2010 was to attach amendments to the treaty calling on the U.S. to pursue missile-defense and the modernization of the American nuclear complex. These latter two actions would seem to suggest that the U.S. continues to see nuclear weapons as a key element in our military strategy. It should not surprise us that Russia also continues to play up the importance of those weapons. Looking ahead, then, one course of action could very well be to take advantage of this feedback loop and formulate our own policies with an eye towards pushing Russia onto a more preferable path (just as Schelling suggested back in the 1960s).

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Degrade and Destroy

Last night President Obama outlined a four part strategy for action against ISIL. Of note, he started by indicating that he believes ISIL is neither Islamic, nor a state, but instead, it is a terrorist organization and that all those who threaten America will not be able to find a safe haven. With this in mind, he laid out his strategy:

First, the U.S. will “conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.” So while the U.S. has already been conducting airstrikes in Iraq, Obama has now inserted America into Syria as well, despite years of avoiding involvement in Syria. This reversal of policy is not entirely shocking or unexpected, although it is interesting to note that just last year Obama declared that he wanted to work with Congress to repeal the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), but he is now easing away from his promise to move off of a “perpetual wartime footing.”

Second, America will increase its “support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.” What is of importance here is that Obama is repeatedly making it clear that American troops will not be involved in combat on foreign soil. After more than a decade of war, Obama has ended one war in Iraq and brought almost 150,000 troops home – he seems to understand that the American people are tired of war and do not want to become too entangled in the current unrest in the Middle East. Therefore, it is important for Obama’s strategy that Middle Eastern nations fight for themselves and fight against ISIL and the threat that extremists pose.

Despite Obama’s pledge to avoid combat, an additional 475 service members are being sent to Iraq, bringing the known total to around 1,700. However, the declared purpose of the U.S. personnel in Iraq is to support the local Iraqi and Kurdish forces through training, supplying equipment, and gathering intelligence. Additionally, before the President’s speech on Wednesday, the U.S. gave the Iraqi and Kurdish forces $25 million in military aid to help them fight against extremists.

For the third part of his strategy, Obama announced that America will draw on its “counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks.” This point was not fully fleshed out, although Obama indicated again that America would work with partners on this issue. Although not explicitly mentioned in his speech, curbing the financial flow of funds to ISIL is a critical part of stagnating the strength and abilities of ISIL.

Fourth, and finally, the U.S. “will continue providing humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced” or otherwise affected by ISIL. Details regarding any particulars were not listed, but given that the first three parts of the strategy focused on the military aspect of the conflict, highlighting the humanitarian needs and what the U.S. is doing to fulfill them is likely aimed to help bolster the public perception and image of America abroad.

Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in the Middle East and he is seeking to build broader support for the U.S. strategy among the Gulf States and other nations in the region. Of particular importance, Saudi Arabia has already agreed to host a training base for moderate Syrian rebels. Strong international action is needed for Obama’s strategy to be effective. Attempting unilateral action or having a weak and varied international response will not be enough to stem ISIL’s agenda.

No timetable or specifics were given, but Obama appears to be taking a stronger stance on ISIL. Recently he was heavily criticized for appearing to not have a coherent or solid strategy and this speech certainly worked to remedy that. Despite some calls for a vote in Congress, Obama has stated that he has authority to carry out his new strategy and therefore does not need congressional approval,  but he believes it would be beneficial for Congress to stand by him and show that they are united in support. For more on the legal and constitutional implications of Obama’s recent authorization of force against ISIL, read this article.

Ultimately, when it comes to deciding if Obama's strategy will work, only time will tell if it is a success.