Sunday, November 5, 2017
Casualty estimates for day one of a war with North Korea in the millions are predicated on a set of assumptions that are not explored in public debate. Central to this thesis is the assumption that the US and its allies are unable to defeat that threat posed to Seoul from artillery and missile systems numbering as high as 8000 platforms. This estimate presupposes 100% readiness on the part of the North and an inability of allied conventional weapons systems from successfully striking so many targets on day one.
Military experts will acknowledge that high states of readiness are hard to maintain and decline rapidly with inaction. The weapon to target ratio issue is very significant, but it’s not impossible to drive down the risk. Small yield nuclear weapons can be deployed in ways that target only Northern military capabilities, located in remote mountainous regions away from population centers, with no threat of fallout, and with sufficiently wide coverage to drastically reduce the threat to Seoul. The weapon to delivery platform ratio the US can bring to bear in the small yield scenario does not eliminate the threat to Seoul – the North might always be able to launch a lone retaliatory missile – but that risk is nothing like the millions cited in public discussions. Crucially, the North’s testing of missiles and nuclear warheads demonstrates that they are still unable to marry the two technologies along with requisite reentry, intelligence and targeting technologies required to field an operational capability. Therefore, there is a limited window of opportunity to act. The question for decision makers is this: risk retaliation on Seoul today or accept the risk of a thermonuclear detonation on an allied capitol or an American city tomorrow. This assessment explores the risks inherent to both options and outlines both military and normative challenges presented by the DPRK threat. It shows that this administration will likely do exactly what every administration before it has done, namely, be held hostage to the invisible threshold game where a trigger threshold is never reached as fear of the consequences of action spur inevitable inaction. In an ironic twist, this assessment estimates that South Korea, Japan and possibly others in the Asia Pacific region will follow North Korea’s strategy of nuclear proliferation for exactly the same reasons – namely to safeguard the territorial integrity of the state against great powers. The impetus for this radical shift in regional security is the inevitable outcome of America’s withdrawal from the world scene and the requirement to find a cost-effective means to deter the provocative rising nationalist power in the region – the People’s Republic of China.
4 September 2017
This moment is decades in the making. Administrations over the years have refused to act when thresholds have been crossed. There are military options for the DPRK threat. The North has the South in check, but not checkmate. It is possible for the US and its allies to minimize the stranglehold on Seoul, but not eliminate it entirely. There is no such thing as a casualty-free war as America has re-learned over the past 16 years in hot and cold wars spread across the globe. The question is what level of pain the US and its allies are willing to endure for the status quo option, vice, the pain it’s willing to take for the counter-DPRK threat option? Regardless of rhetoric, history and recent events suggest that the lesser of the status quo has been the only option all along. Bluff, sometimes mixed with reward for bad behavior, has characterized US policy since the DPRK started down the road to WMD which it knows is essential for regime survival. The Kim family has taken serious risks over the years, including torpedoing a Republic of Korea (ROK) destroyer and shelling civilians on islands owned by the South, and essentially nothing happened. Peace, even at the risk of outright acts of war, was deemed the cost of doing business in NE Asia while the major powers grew ever deeper trade ties. The US has accepted the fait accompli of the reality of the DPRK becoming a nuclear power. Were that not the case, not acting before now is irresponsible in the extreme because advantage lies to the counter-proliferator at the early part of the nuclear weapons development cycle. This strategic assessment will explore the remaining military options with an eye to the pros and cons of action and inaction. The bottom line assessment is that unless the US is willing to use small yield nuclear weapons against the key threat to Seoul then mainstream nuclear deterrence against an accepted DPRK capability is the inevitable future.
America has got caught in what might be called the invisible threshold game in its approach to the DPRK over the years. Each observable step in the nuclear weapon development cycle heralds a decision-point that policy makers eventually rationalize as insufficient to trigger military action. It used to be that development of a small nuclear warhead was unacceptable. That followed the successful step of a true ICBM-range missile. Yet recently, these thresholds were superseded at least in public debate, by the observation that a functional re-entry vehicle had not yet been perfected, which seemed to be used by the commentariate as sufficient doubt to continue to wait before action to defend against a nuclear threat to CONUS. Given past performance, we can expect a future ‘shock’ that a re-entry vehicle has been accomplished, months if not years in advance of intelligence estimates. Then the next question will be just how effectively Kim Jong Un (KJU) can target US installations in Guam, Hawaii or the mainland. Then one day it will be announced that all of the necessary systems, technical and human, are in place and America will just have to learn to live with a Korean bomb.
Were it not for the fact that Seoul is held hostage by the North’s artillery and missile systems, the world would not be faced with this dilemma. North Korea would have ceased to exist a long time ago (and the regime knows it – always has). KJU, like his father and grandfather, is perfectly rational. He is doing exactly what he needs to do to stay in power. For a small weak state that has nothing to offer the world, nuclear weapons guarantee territorial integrity and provides a platform to make a lot of noise untouched by superpower preferences for how the people in that territory should live (read: democracy and capitalism – which equals regime change). The dirty little secret of nuclear counter-proliferation is that a state bent on developing nuclear weapons quite simply cannot be topped – the best that can be hoped for is delay. Only the weapon developing state can decide to stop its programs – short of invasion and occupation – if there are sufficient resources and the will to weaponize a state will eventually get there. The second, even dirtier, little secret is that giving up nukes is the worse thing that a state can do. Just ask Ukraine.
Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees that were geographically next to impossible for the guarantors to deliver. Had Ukraine kept even a small deterrent, Putin would have been given sufficient pause before invading and annexing Crimea and the eastern region of Ukraine. Had he been around to be interviewed, Colonel Gaddaffi might have had a few worth-while observations on the costs of giving up the security buffer nukes offer. He made a choice at the time that not giving up WMDs might tempt America to extend its Afghanistan and Iraq policies to Libya – which in that unique context might have been the best course of action at the time. KJU will never willingly give up his only tool to keep himself in and keep America out.
China’s national interests are served by the status quo in multiple ways. First, the buffer provided by the North is one of its most vital interests. The last thing it can afford is the South and by proxy the US sharing a land border with the middle kingdom. Second, the more attention KJU generates for himself, the more distracted Washington DC becomes, thereby allowing the PRC to quietly build islands in the SC Sea, develop its ‘belt and road’ infrastructure/trade program, and shore up its periphery with the related Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an influence architecture that enables and multiplies China’s reach as far afield as Europe. Third, China benefits is the global narrative war when America thrashes against the prevailing winds and tides in the Pacific while China extends a helping hand through carious mechanisms like the Asian Development Bank. When America’s closest ally in the region ignored warnings from Washington and was the first to sign up to be a member of the bank, and thus in for the inevitable gold rush, America completely missed the significance of the move, When Australia abandons you for China, you have a huge soft power crisis on your hands. The idea that China is somehow going to abandon its smart economic diplomacy and be a pro-US envoy to Pyongyang all because President Xi said some nice things at Mar-a-largo is simply absurd. Beijing has America right where it wants it and plaintive tweets from the White House merely reinforce America’s true weakness relative to the Asian power-house. Finally, where did all these new missile systems come from? For a long time North Korean missile systems literally failed to launch. The New York Times and other outlets have reported the reason being that the US had a successful clandestine program that ensured mission failure. A fantastic delaying tactic and worth doing, but recent initiatives and the appearance of wholly new systems, in particular the sudden appearance of solid fuel rockets and a brand new submarine launched ballistic missile that looks several stages ahead of where there were just 12 months ago, suggests that KJU got some help. It’s not hard to imagine who might benefit if Kim’s programs resume. Let’s face it; he’s not going to target Beijing (or Moscow).
China’s vital national interests stop short of provoking Washington into war. However, it is possible to see that perhaps Beijing has overplayed its hand by giving KJU a little too much leverage. The tensions between the PRC and its client state are well known and as much as it would like to think it has control, Beijing is no doubt frustrated with the current state of play. KJU has gone too far. Statements out of Washington that all trade with the US will be cut off if China does not force the DPRK to stop its nuclear weapons program will only encourage the Chinese to push the limits yet further because such threats are empty.
This leaves the US with really bad options. Either it has to go to war or back down, neither of which leave the US in a strong position.
So what are the military options? How can the US remove the threat against Seoul? Can it eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program by the use of force? One thing is certain. The US cannot eliminate the North’s nuclear programs with diplomacy or sanctions.
According to various press reports around 8000 artillery pieces are within range of Seoul. Beyond that, the next layer in the North’s defensive ring is its missile systems that are road-mobile and very hard to target (remember the so-called SCUD hunt in the Gulf War?) The North is known to have chemical warheads for both artillery and missiles. They may also have biological warheads, which are an order of magnitude worse than chemical weapons. Its navy and air force are not much to worry about, but that does not mean that it poses no threat to allied air power. Even without the S-400 systems recently offered by Putin, the DPRK is believed to have a robust integrated air defense system. This is not insurmountable for the US but it adds to the complexity of air operations against the prime threats to the South Korean capital.
Ideally, a bolt-from-the-blue attack on the North during a period of low tensions and at a suitable point in their training cycle, would offer the highest chances for success. As happened before the Gulf War, there was excessive over-estimation of the enemy, which shared dome of the same features of the extant threat pointed south on the peninsula. It’s a fact of military life that not all 8000 systems will be fully manned with the highest quality troops and combat ready at all times. Of course, even a 50% readiness would still pose a terrible threat and a possibly unacceptable risk. Undertaking such an attack even if the conditions permit, which they most certainly do not (currently), would pose all sorts of diplomatic and moral questions. The status of armistice, the endless threats of war by the North, and the very real threat that exists to the South and the US, might justify a bolt-from-the-blue attack, but memories of Pearl Harbor and the self-imposed junction against surprise attack all point to the US never taking this action. Something the DPRK has taken to the bank, year after year.
In a situation of escalated tensions, any move to shore up or pre-position the requisite forces for an attack would clearly signal to Pyongyang and especially Beijing that military action was immanent and would therefore trigger one or the other or both shooting first. China has stated that it will remain neutral if the North shoots first but will extend a nuclear umbrella to KJU if the US takes the initiative (more on that below). In short, with the impossibility of strategic surprise, and only marginal opportunities for operational or tactical surprise, the options available to the US are extremely limited. Remember that the key criteria fir action is to minimize as much as is practicable, the damage the North is able to inflict on Seoul. (For the history buffs, I did deliberately paraphrase Lee’s instructions for Gettysburg for artistic effect.)
Under these circumstances, the best way to maximize surprise and to limit the North’s counterpunch is to use small yield nuclear weapons against the artillery positions in the mountains near Seoul. Via various techniques, including the vector/azimuth of attack, the elevation of detonation, and the yield deployed, it would be possible to use the mountains as a shield to reflect the blast effect back into the North and to minimize fallout. These weapons and their delivery systems would give the allies very good coverage of the threat , certainly compared to trying to achieve the same effect with conventional weapons, which would require more sorties, and a dramatically higher risk of a substantial number of DPRK systems surviving sufficiently intact to mount the famed ‘sea of fire’ threat against Seoul.
At the same time, all known missile launcher lagers north of the DMZ would need to be hit simultaneously. Again, for maximum effect nuclear weapons would be preferable for this mission and plausible as most of these targets are away from major population centers. Conventional weapons could also be used, but for the same reasons as stated above, would pose disadvantages with the added risk of the targets being located deep behind the air defense perimeter, thus posing much higher risks to allied airmen and women. The risk of Northern counterattack from forces that survive an allied first strike with conventional weapons, demands the low yield nuclear solution to minimize that risk.
In this scenario (or as a stand alone mission) the question of regime change and a decapitation strike are often raised. US Policy rejects the nuclear targeting of cites (as opposed to military industrial targets that may be adjacent to cities) and it also rejects assassination. Wiping out Pyongyang with a nuclear weapon in the hope of a collateral hit on KJU is the moral equivalent of the North’s ‘sea of fire’ threat against Seoul. It’s very hard to see that as a viable option. The use of Special Operations Forces in a targeted mission against KJU is theoretically within US capabilities; however the operational reality of such a mission is challenging to say the least. The North is a completely closed society, with people spying on one another. KJU is known to move about on a daily basis, precisely because of the assassination threat. Such a raid would be better mounted by ROK Special Forces but would almost certainly be a suicide mission even for men culturally similar, but not the same as, DPRK security.
The loyalty of DPRK forces and especially, key leadership is not well known outside the system and not much better understood within, as widespread executions of leaders suggests. Attempting to establish and maintain contacts within the Hermit Kingdom among those who might be an alternative powerbase seems to have been mounted by the PRC as an insurance policy. KJU’s elder brother, recently assassinated by VX in Malaysia, may be evidence that the regime discovered China was keeping the elder Kim up their sleeve in case an opportunity arose to install a more Beijing-friendly North Korean leader. How deep the PRCs links go remains to be seen, but as China is the predominant military and economic partner, it’s safe to assume that they have spent their time and intelligence resources wisely. It is unknown what programs of this kind the ROK or the US has, but without dependency, let alone a network, there are next to no HUMINT vectors for the allies, compared to the PRC.
Were it possible to eliminate Kim, a whole new set of challenges would unfold. Most likely, there would be a new strongman to take his place. The DPRK is so deeply enmeshed in the Kim family and related ideologies, the chances are that a single power base arises is low. More likely, a fracturing would occur, resulting in internal turmoil. The key question is, how will the North Korean people react? We simply don’t know. If experts tell you otherwise, think back to all of the flowers and candy that greeted the US forces in Iraq. The public may genuinely be brainwashed. They may pretend to be brainwashed but in fact hate the regime. They may welcome regime change or resist it. Will a change be followed by foreign occupation or will the North be left to sort it out for itself? Most likely, China will send ‘peacekeepers’ and ‘humanitarian relief’, while excluding ROK and allied assistance so as to ensure the territorial integrity of their highly prized buffer with the West.
With or without leader elimination, the limited nuclear option does not guarantee that Seoul will be untouched. But it would vastly reduce the threat and consequent damage. Media estimates of millions killed as a result of a conventional allied strike against the North are exaggerated, notwithstanding the admittedly heavy population density numbering in the millions within range of Northern military systems. Assuming the use of Northern WMD makes those estimates much more realistic. That is what makes the use of small yield nuclear weapons by the US essential to minimize casualties. Unfortunately, even that proposal could not guarantee any outcome. It becomes a question of risk. The risk would be driven right down but a single chemical or nuclear warhead getting through would result in tens of thousands dying. That assumes of course that the North is ready and its WMD systems are at the highest operational capability and readiness.
In judging the risks of the aforementioned options, intelligence is essential. Accurate and actionable intelligence is always hard to come by despite the abundance of capabilities and resources on the allied side. A plan similar to the one above would have to be incredibly confident of its intelligence assessments. For example, if I were the Commander of the US Forces Korea would want a daily assessment if readiness if the forces that threaten Seoul – which is why a bolt-from-the-blue attack in a non-escalated environment would be so much more preferable to what is possible under the current, strained, and thus alert, environment.
A small yield nuclear attack on military targets that threaten Seoul is the best military option available to the allies. It has the highest chance that it will destroy most but not all of the road-mobile missile systems deep inside Northern integrated air defenses. Casualties in the South would range from 10,000 to 200,000 assuming that no Northern WMD makes it through. Without nuclear weapon use by the allies, casualty estimates would likely be as much as an order of magnitude higher.
The North Korean military would be dealt a death blow and the shock factor if US nuclear use would most likely break the back of the Army.
It would likely not be necessary to use nuclear weapons against massed land formations but that option would have to be available. In either case, the allies had better have thought past the phase of major combat operations and have a series if contingencies to cope with the wide number if postwar scenarios that might develop. As noted above, the PRC is most likely to drive deep into the North in an effort to maintain their buffer and in many ways it might be preferable that Beijing, with its strong finances and abundant personnel, picks up the postwar challenges in the North.
Given that KJU has not yet fielded operational ICBMs with thermonuclear warheads capable of surviving re-entry, now is the last best chance to act. Indeed, it has been left quite late, but one thing is for sure: very soon it will be too late. So if the US is going to strike, it must do so now, while accepting the risks outlined above.
Failure to act now will result in the North solidifying its status as a rogue nuclear power and all the risks that poses to the security of its avowed enemy, the United States. The terrible reality is this: Does America risk tens of thousands in Seoul today, or possibly many more in Seattle or LA in a few months time?
Accepting North Korea as a nuclear power capable of attacking the United States is viable if you believe in the deterrent effect of assured destruction. Note the word mutual is missing. North Korea is by far the weaker actor in this scenario. On launch the US and its allies with Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) destroyers at sea adjacent to the peninsula, have their first opportunity to attempt to shoot down a missile as it gathers speed in the boost phase, heading for space. The sensor-shooter loop is pretty tight and, providing ships are on station and ready to shoot, there is a good probability that a single missile (or missiles in single digits) would suffer some degree of loss. Exactly how much is hard to say. There may also be options in cyberspace prior to launch but the more exotic the option, the higher the risk something will fail.
A US BMD destroyer has already demonstrated its capacity to destroy a target in space. So in the second layer of defense after the boost phase, the orbit in space is also vulnerable. Again, it’s a question of readiness, available shooters at sea and on land, and a numbers game – how many incoming targets, and the ratio of defenders to targets. Destruction in the boost phase is highly desirable because the warhead and other debris will fall either on the North or into the sea. A space intercept creates huge problems, including, but not limited to, orbital debris fields, the possibility of electromagnetic pulse, and nuclear detonation, all of which are not conducive to satellite operations. Intercept in the re-entry phase is the hardest and most dangerous, due to the speed if the warheads, upwards of twelve times the speed of sound, and again, debris that would rain down on Earth. If the hardware survives re-entry, in the terminal phase even a hammer moving at Mach 12 would create incredible damage.
Beyond military options against a launch, the US would face some very difficult policy questions. In order to male its deterrent credible, the US would be required to retaliate. Successful intercept of an incoming missile would seriously challenge international political and moral norms, in that some, maybe many, would question the proportionality of assured destruction of all of North Korea in response to a missile launch that failed – by way of intercept. Would shooting the same number of missiles or warheads back be proportional when we know that the enemy is unable to intercept them and thus would guarantee mass death, especially in the case where the US suffered little to no casualties? Failure to retaliate would be viewed as exceptional restraint in civilized societies, but phenomenal weakness by America’s ever-multiplying enemies, both state and non-state. Such weakness in the past has invited ever more damaging attacks. Scholars of global jihad point to the US withdrawal from Lebanon (and Somalia) as key turning points in the thinking of bin Laden and his ilk, prompting them to go larger and go hard against the far enemy which had hitherto seemed so powerful as to be untouchable. Pulling out weakened deterrence.
This dynamic raises the resolve dilemma. Part of the justification for staying so long and at such cost in Vietnam was the important message it sent Western European allies about American resolve. In the nuclear North Korea shooting war scenario, even if the missile is intercepted, if the US shows too much restraint then it will be seen as lacking resolve, thus inviting ever more significant attacks (in scale or number).
The resolve dilemma gets even more complicated if an American territory or an ally is the target. Would the US kill millions of oppressed North Korean men, women, and children, who have had to suffer under the tyranny or the Kim jackboot, all because our military base at Guam suffered a hit? One of the surprises of the recent crisis was China’s implicit offer of a nuclear umbrella to North Korea. If not implicit, then certainly sufficiently ambiguous as to make Washington think carefully about any reaction to provocation from Pyongyang. This is the first time the PRC has offered a nuclear umbrella to a satellite (and a signal of how seriously it takes the buffer question, something Washington should heed in its calculations). America believes that it convinced its allies not to develop nuclear weapons because Washington promised to retaliate against an aggressor who used WMDS on its allies. This is a basic proposition of non-proliferation; the fewer who have access to these difficult and terrible weapons, the safer the world will be from accident, inadvertent or deliberate use. Many countries trusted in this system (or could not afford to do otherwise); some, like Britain and France, did not. The idea that America would risk New York or Miami (and, post escalation, the entire US) in response to a hit on Canberra (for example) was absurd. The Chinese offer has to be seen in the same light.
This leads to one of the only viable solutions outside of the short term horizon. It is self evidently clear that the national interests of South Korea and Japan would be best served by withdrawing from the NPT (which would send a much more powerful signal than any White House tweet to both Pyongyang and Beijing), and develop their own nuclear deterrent. American leadership in the region notwithstanding, the only guarantee of putting KJU in check-mate is for Seoul and Tokyo to protect themselves. To this end, it is quite telling that public opinion polling in South Korea for the first time shows a majority in favor of developing an independent nuclear deterrent. No doubt Britain and France are relieved that they have the final guarantor against Putin’s Russia that seems hell-bent on making as much trouble for the West as a broke economy, two-bit kleptocracy can. (Further, it’s remarkable how successful it has been with its low-cost clandestine methods against the fragile US polity – Thankfully, NATO and the EU have proven more robust than the American Republic.) Likewise, against the immediate threat from the DPRK it the long term regional encirclement by the PRC, American allies in Asia may well come to see their vital national interests served by the only weapon that will make China stop at the border.
Proliferation is a terrible prospect. No one would advocate it if they knew the terrible costs and risks involved. But as American leadership and resolve shift to the service of America First, which so far in practice is largely unclear due to a lack of ideological vice pragmatic (and thus contradictory) impulses, our allies will get the message if they have not already. Large scale conventional military forces, especially at the high technological end of the spectrum, are rapidly becoming too expensive for even wealthy countries to field. Witness the NATO debate over the 2% (which they can afford). But the long term trends are there. If protection against invasion is the primary motivation, a nuclear deterrent combined with effective special operations forces, cyber. Drones, propaganda, and spies, is a low cost effective way to achieve many (if not all) contemporary objectives in international security.
It worked for North Korea… why not South Korea?
Friday, November 3, 2017
25 September 2017
So, you want to be a senior strategic advisor to the Secretary of Defense or the President of the United States of America? Wouldn’t it be useful and interesting to know what you might be getting into ahead of time? Read on…
Context: An unpopular President, controversy swirling around their foreign and domestic policies; tensions between the White House and the Department of Justice, eventually culminating in the resignations or firing of Attorneys General; all during the country’s longest, most unpopular, and failing war of choice in which the other side is winning.
The following is a confession of a Dept. of Defense (DOD) Strategic Advisor with the diplomatic rank of Lt General (3 stars), who has worked alongside all the top generals, civilian leaders, counterinsurgency experts (COIN), diplomats, National Security Council (NSC) leaders, academics and allied partners. This advisor is no armchair observer; he started his career as a Marine Infantry Rifle Company Commander, earned a Master’s degree and PhD in Economics at Harvard specializing in decision making. Thereafter, think-tank work and various consultancies led him to the E-ring of the Pentagon where he became special assistant to a 4 star leader. Hand-picked by the country’s top COIN expert, the advisor deployed on a two-year tour of observation and analysis wearing a helmet and carrying his AR-15, going deep behind enemy lines to observe the challenges facing American ground forces at forward operating bases (FOBs) and among the people.
Author of an NSC review midway through this very long war, he asks the United States Government to provide department-by-department assessments of the progress of the war and prognosis for the best courses of action to win the war. The government is split down the middle. The optimists, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JOS), the Combatant Command in charge of the region, and sometimes the relevant Bureau inside State; face off against CIA, OSD, INR (State’s intel arm), and the majority of government and think tank analysts, who see no end in sight and no way to win in any meaningful sense of the term. Even the optimists are not enthusiastic, the Combatant Command assesses:
Three fourths of battles are at the enemy’s choice of time, place, type, and duration. ..Less than one percent of nearly two million allied small unit operations in the last two years resulted in contact with the enemy. The enemy basically controls both sides’ casualty rates. (p. 240)
That TOP SECRET assessment merely served to illustrate the many problems America was facing fighting a war on the other side of the world with a weak local partner and an adversary with a fanatic will to win. Suicide attacks, women and children as human shields, threatening local towns and villages to support the insurgency at the risk of beheadings, stolen crops, and violent intimidation; low tech solutions to counter the high tech war mounted by Washington that was running the coffers dry and stirring resentment at home; this reality prompted the following insight:
“What I saw as the major lesson [of the war] was the impact on policy failures of internal practices of lying to superiors, tacitly encouraged by those superiors, but resulting in a cognitive failure at the presidential level to recognize realities. This was part of a broader cognitive failure of the bureaucracy I had come to suspect. There were situations in which the US government, starting ignorant, did not, would not, learn…” There “[were] institutional ‘anti-learning’ mechanisms working to preserve and guarantee un-adaptive and unsuccessful behavior. There was the fast turn-over in personnel [fighting a 1 year war 7 times]. Lack of institutional memory at any level… A general failure to study history or to analyze or even record operational experiences, especially mistakes. Above all, effective pressures for optimistically false reporting at every level for describing ‘progress’ rather than problems or failure, concealed the very need for change in approach or for learning. (pp. 185-6)
On his return to Washington after 2 years downrange, the advisor returns as a consultant to the NSC, hired by the National Security Advisor himself, to conduct the aforementioned TS assessment.
The war? Vietnam. But it just as easily could have been Iraq or Afghanistan. That should be something that concerns strategic thinkers. The strategic analyst? Daniel Ellsberg. Reading Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002), an important book that somehow evaded MI’s desk until recently, has been a fascinating experience. Ellsberg is not some fringe recalcitrant who was seeking publicity by spilling secrets. Whatever one makes of his decision to release the Pentagon Papers – he will always be a traitor to some and a freedom fighter to others – that’s the inevitable outcome of whistleblowing on this scale – Ellsberg can’t be dismissed as a beatnik professor. Far from it. Secrets is exceptionally well-written, insightful, balanced (yes, really), written by someone who was a product of what today might be fashionably referred to as the ‘deep state’.
Ellsberg’s PhD advisors included Thomas Schelling; he worked for and often directly engaged Robert McNamara; he regularly engaged Bill Bundy (State), Walt Rostow (NSC), Averell Harriman (Ambassador at Large since FDR), and Clark Clifford (advisor to president from FDR onwards); and was hired by Henry Kissinger to produce the incoming Nixon administration’s scene-setting NSSM-1 (National Security Study Memoranda #1). That was the first if hundreds of studies commissioned by Kissinger to help him control the organs of state. Indeed, Ellsberg and Kissinger had crossed paths surprisingly frequently, starting back in 1959 when Kissinger invited Ellsberg to deliver a lecture series to his graduate students on “The Art of Coercion”, which included classes on “Theory and Practice of Blackmail” and the “Political Uses of Madness”, both based on Hitler’s techniques in dealing with Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1937/8. At a lunch attended by Kissinger, Alexander Haig, and Ellsberg at President Nixon’s home in San Clemente in August of 1970, Kissinger praises Ellsberg to Haig as the source of the strategic thinking behind the Cambodia invasion – Namely Nixon’s intent to be unpredictable as a means to get the Vietnamese to the negation table. The parallels to Trump’s statements on North Korea are straight out of the same playbook. Readers can judge which President was effective using this strategy, laid out to Kissinger’s class by Ellsberg in 1959.
During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy relied on the EXCOM or Executive Committee formed specially to manage the crisis. Ellsberg’s first major break in DC comes with his appointment to the EXCOM staff due to his research record on nuclear issues and decision making.
His first experience with the divergence between official and public information occurred when the fall 1961 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) revealed the missile gap was completely wrong. Prior NIEs on the subject of Soviet capabilities estimated that they had 120 missiles (June 1961), while Strategic Air Command’s estimate was 1000. The reality was the United States in fact had a 10:1 superiority of missiles to the Soviets, the Fall 61 NIE counted 40 Atlas and Titans in the US arsenal, compared to just 4 Soviet ss-6 ICBMs. Leading Ellsberg to observe:
Each side had grossly misunderstood the other, wrongly estimated its behavior, failed to understand the actions of the other as responses to interpretations od the combination of their own words and actions. There had been ‘failures of communication’ of the sort risking the most dangerous of consequences. (pp. 33-34)
Following the crisis, Walt Rostow, Policy Planning Chair at State, convened an inter-agency panel of deputies to sponsor a study of past crises to assist the President in enhancing his control over the bureaucracy and the machinery of government’s interactions with Soviet counterparts to reduce the likelihood of disaster. The study’s lead was Daniel Ellsberg.
From there Ellsberg is hired as the senior advisor to John T McNaughton, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security affairs, Ellsberg’s portfolio was restricted to one topic alone: the war in Vietnam. The book provides a fly-on-the-wall account of what it was like to be at the top of OSD. Indeed, his very first day at work was consumed by FLASH traffic from a US Navy destroyer off the coast of North Vietnam that reported it was under torpedo attack. Messages continued to stream in from the USS MADDOX as the play-by-play of the attack unfolded. Ellsberg’s role was to filter the traffic upwards for Secretary McNamara via McNaughton. Toward the end of a long and confusing engagement the ship’s CO recommends restraint before jumping to conclusions. The CO was starting to have doubts about what had really happened during the nighttime action in the South China Sea. It turns out his creeping caution was justified, the multiple torpedo attacks that were passing right by the hull of the MADDOX appeared in hindsight as the result of a very excited sonar man listening to the MADDOX’s own screws churning up the black waters, While some large caliber machine gun fire had made it’s mark on the superstructure, it soon appeared to inside experts that the whole thing was blown out if proportion, as often happens with initial reports of action at moments of high tension.
Ellsberg explains how he soon after discovered that the action, such as it was, by the North Vietnamese was not unprovoked aggression, but a response to a US covert operation (34A OPS) that had earlier shelled a North Vietnamese island. That was on top od regular ‘Desoto’ patrols inside the 12 mile limit designed to provoke the North to illuminate its costal radar for signature collection.
So the origin if the Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ and subsequent Resolution by Congress was all a big misunderstanding. Ellsberg does not rail at this act of falling backwards into war as a big lie or conspiracy, even writing decades later. Indeed, his assessment at the time was full of empathy for decision makers. He gives an example that on just one busy day in the office, China tested its first nukes; Khrushchev was ousted from power; and there was a change of government in London. He wondered, “Can men even as brilliant and adroit as these – for sheer brainpower and energy, the Kennedy crew… could not be bettered – manage safely and wisely so many challenges at once, with so little time to acquire more than a shallow understanding of any one? Can you really run the world this way?” (p. 47) MI has often had cause based on recent observations to wonder the same question.
Reflecting his long incremental intellectual journey, Ellsberg recounts his thinking and reactions during his service in the Pentagon. He was struck, for example, by the fact that both he and his boss seemed to share the same growing reservations about the war and its trajectory. Both wanted out of Vietnam yet “there is scarcely a hint of any of these attitudes in any piece of paper he drafted or signed from 1964 to 1967”… This view was shared by almost all those with whom he interacted just under the top level if government “but not by any of their bosses” (p. 57).
He was not aware at the time of the various highly classified critiques of the war, such as the Ball memo of 1 July 1965 or the Clifford Camp David briefing to Johnson and McNamara, both of which accurately predict the outcome of continued involvement. “To have read even one of these critiques in June 65 would have punctured…the spell of apparent unanimity of support by insiders for what seemed a crazy but consensual policy”. He later came to realize these views were restricted in their circulation in order to protect the President, should the war turn sour, lest critics point to ignored advice as a massive failure of judgement (p. 83).
Ellsberg applies the decision-making scholar’s gaze to events as they unfold and discerns a cognitive dissonance that he tries to explain to himself over the course of his life and, in turn, this book. He goes from trying to understand official decision making to eventually trying to understand his own. This journey of discovery is the core of this book. His principle conundrum extends from his first official work on Kennedy’s EXCOM and builds from there. The curiosity that eventually becomes a torment surrounds example after example, like the aforementioned missile gap ‘data’ and road to war narrative, where official insiders’ understanding of what’s really going on differs so markedly from presidential statements and actions.
Why would every single President from Eisenhower onwards allow the United States to get slowly sucked into involvement in a war that most if not all of their top advisors warn in advance will result in utter failure and ruin for the US? The defense scholar simply cannot understand why rational actors, who are thus forewarned by their smartest and most experienced advisors, would continually choose a path that the best advice relentlessly warns is not just high risk, but almost certainly a path to disaster. General of the Army and later President Eisenhower is no strategic fool. Ellsberg’s faith in the system and in its leaders is so complete, at the outset, that by the time he finally puts the pieces of the puzzle together, it feels like a great betrayal.
The Vietnamese had fought the Chinese for centuries, then, more recently, the Japanese and the French. Kennedy himself had visited Vietnam in 1951 on a CODEL. He spent most of his day with French Général Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, who assured Kennedy of victory. What else would a commanding general of a theatre of war say to a prominent allied lawmaker? Yet that same evening on the roof top deck if the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon, as artillery sounded softly in the distance, JFK had a few quiet drinks with US diplomat Edmund Gullion, who the Senator asked for an assessment. Gullion replied without missing a beat:
In twenty years there will be no more colonies. We’re going nowhere out here. The French have lost. If we come in here and do the same thing, we will lose, too, for the same reason. There’s no will or support for this kind of war back in Paris. The home front is lost. The same thing would happen to us. (p. 197)
Ellsberg observes, “Ask the right person the right question and you could get the picture pretty fast.’ The challenge at the time of making a decision is knowing who the right person is to ask, and what to ask them. It’s all obvious in hindsight bit the role of the analyst is to understand and contextualize all the competing pressures and viewpoints as they present at the time. They bulk of the book shows that Ellsberg gets this all too well. What he was trying to convey is that leaders should have given more weight to not only advice of this kind, but also the track record of the Vietnamese against outsiders.
Ironically enough, Ellsberg’s blind spot, as far as MI can discern, is his faith that the system will act on evidence and realistic advice; he seems to be genuinely shocked that great leaders like Kennedy and Johnson could be swayed by non-rational considerations, by ideological and emotional considerations. Ellsberg’s field is economics, where game theory and mathematics explain behavior – until they don’t. He lacks the historian’s eye for human frailty.
In strategic terms, America in the 1950s was a hormonal teenager newly emerged from Isolation into a cruel world. It had new-found strength in the form of nuclear weapons, wealth, vast natural resources, scientific and technological advantage, radically new industrial processes, and unprecedented moral license found in the lofty ideals of the Declaration and Constitution. For two centuries, Europe had squandered its advantage in wars of conquest that resulted in bankruptcy, financial and moral. America was about to find out what the Great Powers had long known – the compromise required to maintain power, and even more so, control, over a diverse human landscape that was increasingly able to reject that control thanks to changes in technology wrought by war, and to international norms forced on the world by Woodrow Wilson and later FDR (19 points and Atlantic Charter respectively).
Self determination, the international extension of the American Revolution to the world was glorious in principle, until America was a superpower locked in a global struggle with a competing economic, military and ‘moral’ system that in every detail was anathema to the American ideal. Thus reframed, the context of global competition for dominance got caught up in vast complexities, corner cutting, and expediency, where winning mattered more than principle. The exigencies of global leadership forced a Pandora’s Box of non-linear demands on American power. Nor the need to show resolve to Western European allies, by not ‘cutting and running’ from a trivial small war in the third world that had no strategic value to the US, became a matter of great importance ti American statecraft.
Rational cost-benefit analysis alone is insufficient to understand international relations. Statecraft is the continual negotiation between fear, honor, and interests, in the pursuit of comparative advantage in the international system. Try to do that rationally, without contradiction, across all of the pressing global issues a Great Power must control. It’s impossible. This is not to say that abandoning moral principle is necessary in statecraft nor is it an endorsement of US Policy towards Vietnam across the decades from 1948 to 1975. It is merely MI’s attempt to explain why Ellsberg feels unease and later betrayal. He is a gifted strategic thinker. His commitment to understand the cognitive dissonance he was experiencing led him to volunteer for a two-year tour in Vietnam when he could have just as easily become a radical critic from the comfort of his armchair. As one strategic analyst trying to understand another’s personal and professional journey, this seems to be the best explanation for what Ellsberg missed.
In Vietnam, Ellsberg’s growing reputation at the highest levels of government continues with the extraordinary opportunity to work directly for legends in the US COIN world. Ed Lansdale, a retired general and CIA officer, personally insisted on Ellsberg’s participation. The latter went into the field for long stretches at a time, by road, not air, through VC territory, with another legend, John Paul Vann. Luckily for history, Ellsberg recounts directly from his contemporary notes what he learned from Vann as they toured US and SVN outposts. Those who found value in the “Fixing Intel” report by Mike Flynn and his team in Afghanistan will see echoes in Ellsberg’s reporting. The importance of getting outside the wire, knowing the language and people or being with those who do, being able to sort out the people from the enemy and understanding their concerns, needs and interests. Being able to assess how and why policy or operations fit US objectives or accidentally assist the enemy. The list goes on. Reading these chapters in Ellsberg and comparing them to contemporary accounts of war in Afghanistan, in particular, there is a dreaded sense that really nothing has changed. MI has a theory about why this is and it can be summarized in the bumper sticker “Metrics over Meaning”, a theory MI will expand upon at a later date.
On the plane ride back to DC from Saigon after this incredible insight into the war he never wanted the US to engage in, he is called to the back of the plane and joins another COIN legend Robert Komer and SECDEF McNamara in their debate over the progress of the war. McNamara is arguing that the US is in fact going backwards “we’ve put more than a hundred thousand troops in… and there’s been no improvement… that means the underlying situation is really worse.” Yet an hour later as they land at Andrews AFB McNamara steps off the plane to a set of microphones and says, “I’ve just come back from Vietnam and I’m glad to be able to tell you that we are showing great progress in every dimension of our effort.” (p.142)
That tension between reality and salesmanship drives Ellsberg to eventually understand that not only is the war lost, but that someone has to tell the public.
Yet even then he does not rush to leak classified information. He returns to Rand and writes assessments. He rallies colleagues at Rand to publicly present a critique, which is a morally courageous thing to do given their funding is almost all from DOD contracts. He then speaks at public debates. At one, he re-connects with a fellow speaker, Robert Kennedy, who invites Ellsberg to join him in his limo ride back to the Senate. This culminates in RFK asking Ellsberg to be his Vietnam advisor for the coming election, an opportunity Ellsberg resists so that he can inform all candidates and not be perceived as anyone’s ‘man’. Their exchanges are interesting reading in their own right, RFK insists that JFK would not have escalated or put ground troops into Vietnam. Ellsberg visits RFKs hotel and finds him wandering the halls in a bathrobe before anyone else had awoken for the day and wonders id his security is lacking… it’s just one if the many snippets of this book that shows that Daniel Ellsberg is not some outsider intent on bringing the country down. He genuinely tries all sorts of pathways to power to get his message across. One can only speculate that had RFK lived, how much different things might have been; or, on the contrary, how frustrated Ellsberg might have become as RFK got drawn into the same escalation spiral that consumed all the others before and after him.
His first leak is to RFK who used the information passed him to challenge the conduct of the war. He also shares information with a range of others in Congress. Senator Fulbright later says that had he known the Tonkin evidence at the time he would not have authored the resolution. Ellsberg is hired by Kissinger to author and run the NSSM-1 study after Nixon’s inauguration. He continues to have meetings with Nixon Administration heavyweights including Kissinger, but does not break through.
To his closest friends, he predicts that Nixon will escalate in order to try and find some space to get the North to the negotiation table. Nixon’s “secret plan” was an election trick (which has contemporary echoes in Trump’s claim about a secret plan for ISIS and claims he knew more than the generals, etc.), and eventually Ellsberg decides that the president is the problem.
The fallout of the release of the Pentagon Papers and the connection of that and Ellsberg to Watergate is a subject in its own right and will be treated as such in a coming installment. The parallels with the challenges besetting the Trump Administration are truly remarkable and demand separate treatment.
Daniel Ellsberg’s book is not a hindsight self justification diatribe. It’s and honest portrayal of an ultimate insider at the highest level of government as they struggle with the contradictions and contrivances at the intersection between American ideals and extant global and domestic political exigencies of the day. Two thirds of the book provides readers with an excellent snapshot of what it’s like to be in the room among senior decision-makers when major events happen. Likewise, it also provides an excellent assessment from the ground up of tactical, operational, and strategic mistakes in the war. A former Marine Company Commander, Ellsberg knows what he’s doing as he travels around the country. Veterans of America’s recent wars will no doubt be surprised by the echoes within his pages. In the end, the strategic advisor does want to do all his professional life. Going outside imposed many costs on him, but his conscience allowed him no alternative path. The judgement as to whether it was worth it is up to the reader.
The question of the most effective way to advise a senior leader permeates this fascinating account of American strategic decision making. There are really two choices: provide a consensus viewpoint, or outline both pros and cons. Does the leader want to be given a solution or are they more comfortable engaging in dialectic: thesis, counter thesis, synthesis? It all depends on the leader. Readers might be thinking just about now that any decision-making process that merely provides a solution is deeply flawed, but that would be to forget the sheer volume if decisions senior leaders have to make and the finite time available. Ask any leader in government or the private sector (of a comparable size to a department of state), their most precious resource is not money. It’s not even people. It’s time. When President Obama was presented with the traditional bureaucratic solution of three Courses of Action (COAs), where two were essentially implausible, he hit the roof and demanded that SECDEF Robert Gates and his team go back to the drawing board to develop 3 genuine COAs for Afghanistan. That this shocked an old hand like Gates is telling, given he has served multiple presidents in various capacities since Reagan.
MI’s view is that the only responsible way to advise a senior leader is to engage in dialectic. Most importantly, it has to be via long-form narrative memoranda. PowerPoint is incapable of providing complex rich arguments on highly contested topics of national importance. It was not designed for that purpose, but it has been used for that purpose. PowerPoint is great to illustrate a simple idea, operational design, a map or picture or video, the stock in trade of modern intelligence systems. But decision making about war and the competitive positioning of a superpower in a world teaming with complicated relationships, challenges, and limited resources requires that effort is made to explain assumptions, present evidence, contrast ideas, develop theories for obtaining the objective (indeed defining exactly what that is can be the hardest part) and exploring all the possible challenges to pathways to success, in order to properly see what’s at stake and assess the level of risk that one is willing to take to achieve the objective. Strategy has to be brutally honest and admit when an objective is out of reach.
Strategy takes time and effort. For each COA, a responsible strategist should lay out to the decision maker a series of “branches and sequels” along the pathway. Donald Rumsfeld was roundly criticized for many things, not the least of which was his comment regarding strategic planning. But it was an insightful observation, namely that known unknowns and unknown unknowns vastly complicate thinking through each COAs branch and sequels. [Branch and sequels refers to the choice of a certain COA and what might be expected to happen along that pathway as the war unfolds. It is a very useful technique to thinking through the action-reaction cycle of battle or the larger war. It’s imperfect but it must be attempted in order to better grasp the risks involved in every action so that the strategy selected maximizes opportunity and minimizes risk, while trying to anticipate the same calculus of the other side. MI wonders how often this traditional form of strategic assessment is practiced in DC today. It’s hard, takes time, and a lot of thought. It’s highly contentious. Which means it’s thought-provoking – it’s the opposite of consensus reporting].
The strategist’s job is to anticipate known unknowns and be adaptable enough to accommodate the unknown when it inevitably happens. This is why strategy is an art. It is an art that uses science – correct information is foundational to developing a sound strategy – but as a human endeavor, war requires judgement based in well-reasoned analysis, and that us beyond the simple collection of metrics (which is what science means on the modern battlefield). Metrics without context is a sure fire way to lose a war. For example, what is more important: the number of hours Baghdad has electricity or the perception among the Iraqi people that their liberation has turned into an occupation?
Alert readers will see the correlation between the basic systems of analysis taught at any good university (the dialectic) and how to do strategic intelligence and planning. The 9/11 Commission Report’s top finding was the failure if imagination – this cannot be repeated enough – it remains the core problem today. Yet after that failure, the Report focused on the dire need for better analysis. In management speak, it called for the use of “Red Teaming” and alternative analysis. This has always struck MI as a failure to understand what dialectic is and how it must be used. Thus, by definition, alternatives and branches and sequels, and even unknown unknowns, get compared and contrasted in the strategy making process. MI knows from professional experience in Red Teams within DoD and the IC (the vast majority of which have been killed off or have simply withered) are unpopular because they often confuse their task with merely being contrary or are seen by decision makers as such. If strategic questions before the US are seen as being binary either orthodox or unorthodox… then something very wrong is going on.
The hard work of assembling facts, building a hypothesis, testing it and presenting the findings of that assessment in developing a series of COAs, each with it’s own branches and sequels that attempts to anticipate (as best as imagination allows) what the opponent might do, and thus force the US to do in response, is absolutely vital to doing sound strategic analysis.
Secrets should be read by national security strategists for its insights into decision making within OSD. Written by the ultimate insider, connected professionally to both ground truth (COIN experts) and the highest decision making office in the land – the NSC.
Secrets should be read by anyone interested in undertaking strategic analysis at the highest level in the United States government. The parallels to contemporary challenges is one of the most notable features of this insightful book. The passage of time and a series of reviews (e.g. 911 Commission Report) for how to improve strategic assessments have not resulted in stark improvements in strategic analysis and high level government decision making.
The burden of choosing to be the indispensable nation forces unpleasant choices on leaders that often result in contradictions and expediency that flies in the face of American values as enshrined in foundational documents. Our opponents revel in provoking us to undertake actions that appear hypocritical. Whether for pragmatic or moral reasons, this must be guarded against. The contemporary world is one in which symbolism is meaning – control the narrative and you control the war. Weak states and non-state actors encourage American momentum in directions suited to their objectives, and step aside as America’s sheer size and velocity propels the country down un-advantageous pathways. Dexterous and agile America is not, except in very niche, special capabilities that all too often the USG prefers not to use for fear of exposing an advantage that a thinking enemy may quickly emulate.
The only way to avoid such traps is to creatively outthink the other side. We have the technology. We have very smart people. What we seem to be missing is the creative space vital in open systems to conduct rigorous dialectical analysis that anticipates enemy COAs and tricks them into unforced errors. They are fanatical suicidal neck cutting monsters and we are struggling to win the narrative. That’s a strategic disaster of the first order.
Equally, Russia is a failed state, its sole resource is in the doldrums, and its dictatorship is in reality holding on against a rising awareness among the young that might result in open challenge. Yet it has just bought an American election for pennies on the dollar, using troll armies manned mostly by kids. Reading interviews with these master manipulators of social media there is a clear sense that they never believed that Americans would be dumb enough to actually take their crazy social media postings seriously. Love her or hate her, who in their right minds would honestly think the leader of a major American political party would be running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria? Turns out, quite a lot of people. Including at least one who followed his leader’s suggestion and sought out a way to exercise his second amendment rights to save the nonexistent children.
America is a superpower. It’s behaving like a tin pot dictatorship. It should be mastering social media, the vast bulk of which is American owned, to discredit the insane and desperate antics of terrorists and kleptocrats. Universal human rights reflect ideals enshrined in the constitution and Bill of Rights for a reason. America still has a powerful tool to attract supporters all around the world. Yet our actions repel possible friends and partners. Clear, creative, strategic thinking will not change our position in the world overnight but it will act as a long term guide to the changes we need to make. We are losing multiple narratives to what should be easy marks. We won the Cold War against a global enemy, armed with thousands of nuclear warheads, through patience and often smart choices. Today a bunch of fanatics roaming the world with AK-47s seem powerful. This is ludicrous.
In a refreshing departure from past US policy toward frenemy, Pakistan, President Trump stated before the world the key conundrum in US policy until now: Pakistan has manipulated both terrorist groups and the US for decades, seeking advantage in the tensions between the two parties that are central to Pakistan’s perception of its own security. While reaping billions in US military aid each year which America hoped might make some contribution to Pakistan’s counter-terrorism (CT) programs, the Pakistani military was delighted to modernize its conventional forces for a different enemy entirely, India. The Pakistani military and its intelligence arm, the ISI, have been running terrorist groups since the 1980s, first against the Soviets and thereafter against Indian regional interests, and since 9/11, against American interests in South Asia. Pakistan’s identity and its existence are defined in Islamabad by both elites and the public in opposition to India. Any enhancement of Indian influence in Afghanistan is perceived as a direct threat to Pakistan. With President Trump calling for enhanced Indian engagement in Kabul, Pakistan will feel encircled. The sense of threat will only be enhanced by Washington’s threats that “no place is beyond our reach” and that Pakistan has “much to lose from harboring terrorists”. President Trump may intend to reorder the balance of power in the region away from Pakistan and towards India in order to push Pakistan to comply with US aims in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen whether he has pushed too hard and what second or third order consequences are likely to arise in the wake of this shift. What is clear is sixteen years of soft peddling has resulted in providing Pakistan with opportunity to play America that has perhaps finally backfired.
President Trump did note that Pakistan has fought terrorists within its own borders; something the Pakistanis have long felt is not appreciated in Washington. What is unstated by both sides in this CT point scoring is that Islamabad is paying for the monster it created. They lost control of the beast quite some time ago, a fact that was really not fully understood in Pakistan right up until the Swat Valley fell all those years ago. Until then, all eyes were turned south to India. Today, perhaps some eyes are turned northwest – indeed, in many directions – to the terrorist threat within.
Another surprise in the speech was acknowledgement of the importance of Afghanistan as a footprint from which US forces can mount counter-WMD missions against Pakistan. The possibility that a loose nuke scenario develops across the border from Afghanistan is a genuine concern especially in light of the endless instability in the polity, the civil-military divisions, the rise of radicalism within the Army (and the population generally), and the direct threat posed by terrorists to the continued stability of the state. All of these drivers of instability are underpinned by dire economic indicators. Some Pakistan observers like Tariq Ali acknowledge these factors but dismiss an ‘Arab spring’ in Egypt scenario, leading to a Taliban takeover of the state. They argue that the Army and merchant class elites will muddle through as they have for decades. Yet even Ali’s denunciations of the unthinkable scenario are much less strident than in the past. The new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia (emphasis added) suggests the new Administration is not willing to take the risk that one day Pakistan won’t muddle through and will in fact suffer a wild card event leading to a ‘sum of all fears’ scenario.
The shift to a conditions based approach is militarily sensible and politically genius. You can just imagine Obama’s advisors smacking their foreheads when such a simple solution to the Washington DC game of ‘how many, for how long’ was dispensed with in that simple rhetorical trick. The only way to encourage a political solution is to deny a military solution. Until now, the Taliban won by not losing. Using a conditions based paradigm offers the allies a chance to attrite the enemy all the way to the negation table. The fact is that Congress will have no choice but to get into numbers of troops and costs, but the new signal is American sunk costs are such that we will stay the course to the bitter end. The sooner the other side embraces that commitment the sooner they may seek to negotiate.
This raises one of the tensions in the new policy. Just how far is Washington willing to allow “the Afghan people” to determine their future? Does this mean that America will now negotiate with the Taliban? Will America accept a shift away from democracy? “We will not tell them how to govern themselves” certainly seems to open those doors and more. “We will make common cause with anyone who wants to join us” also suggests the negotiation table awaits the mullahs. It is unclear this is President Trump’s intent, which may cause trouble downstream.
When General McChrystal was given carte blanche to create a new strategy in Afghanistan, his freedom to drop all extant assumptions stopped at the baseline that the government in Kabul must be protected/maintained. President Trump’s frequent references to “the people of Afghanistan” seems to this author’s ears as a group distinguished from the government, and, as such, hints at the possibility that the structures and institutions that are alien to Afghan history and culture (at least until American intervention) might be up for negotiation. Lack of clarity on that point will inevitably be viewed as an unwelcome ambiguity in this speech.
As a people, Americans are obsessed with metrics and far too often tend to ignore or downplay context. Thus the hoped-for flexibility or nuance of a conditions based approach will quickly be assaulted by demands for definitions of what the conditions are, thereby making metrics out of conditions. To paraphrase the original Clinton campaign, ‘it’s the context, stupid!’ Afghanistan will not be fast or cost free. It never was going to be, and yet, year after year, demands were made ‘to just get out’ regardless of the facts on the ground/ Once a commitment was made, the battle of wills was unleashed – it continues to be an arc described by both sides, the outcome of which remains unknown. That will frustrate many people, but that is the essential nature of war. As the American Civil War reminded us just this past month, there is no end state, there is only the ‘next-state’. The termination of hostilities does not terminate the reinterpretation of identity, grievance, and justice.
The expansion of ‘Afghanistan’ the problem-set to include India and Pakistan was an innovation from the ‘Af-Pak’ prism which was fatally flawed due to its cultural ignorance, born of DoD Combatant Command (India was in Pacific Command’s Area of Responsibility, Pakistan in CENTCOM’s). However the new Administration would do well to acknowledge that ‘Afghanistan’ the problem-set reaches much further in geography and significance. Iran, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, all hot-topic countries in US foreign policy of late, all have key interests in Afghanistan that in some cases rival India and Pakistan. There was no evidence in the speech that the Administration is fully cognizant of the many inter-related connections that only serve to complicate defining the most effective solution. For example, given the new priority placed on the ‘sum of all fears’ Pakistan scenario, why is it that the US has not engaged regional actors in discussions of how such an eventuality might be collectively managed. At a minimum some consideration of deconfliction is essential in order to ensure that national response options do not inadvertently lead to avoidable escalation and conflict. Reports of unfilled positions across the national security system will only serve to exacerbate the policy coordination process that is so vital in complex problems like Afghanistan.
The safe haven issue is one this author has written about at length elsewhere. Still, it is worth reminding readers that many safe havens exist for radical Islamist terrorists. America has been conducting a long covert war all around the world, from Yemen to the Philippines to Syria. Afghanistan remains a safe haven to a certain degree but it is nowhere near as attractive a base as Pakistan, for example. Until this statement, Pakistan was the ultimate safe haven for jihad i’s. If the gloves have truly come off, and the Administration will no longer be inhibited by sovereign boundaries, as was suggested by the comment that “no place is beyond our reach” – then can this speech be read as a soft declaration of war against Pakistan? America, for all its power, cannot invade and occupy Pakistan – it’s simply too big geographically and demographically.
From the jihad i’s perspective, Pakistan is the jewel in the crown – an unstable majority Muslim state with an increasingly radicalized military and, of course, nuclear weapons. Lots of nuclear weapons, including a growing number of ‘small’ weapons that are highly mobile and thus hard to control. The Pakistanis always respond with a hand-wave when questions are raised about the security protocols surrounding their nuclear weapons. The situation today is far improved from just a few short years ago, with permissive action links, personnel screening, and other confidence-building measures. These improvements have to be balanced against the fact that key military installations have been subject to severe terrorist attacks, in some cases with total loss of control of key bases for days. Consider how concerned US policymakers are that Iran might gain nuclear weapons. Consider also the lengths to which world powers are willing to go to prevent Iran from crossing the Nthreshold. Pakistan is already there, has all sorts of political, social, economic, and security problems, and yet it almost seems like no one really cares, at least by comparison to the effort put into Iran. There is one group that cares, the Pakistani Taliban and their fellow travelers. America is on the right track towards a South Asia policy, but it still has a long way to go.
China and Pakistan are old friends. Islamabad is an observer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a fledgling alliance system constructed along the lines of the PRC’s vast infrastructure projects that cross central Asia into Europe. The Asian Development Bank and ring road projects, are all mechanisms Beijing has quietly instituted to foster stability in its supply lines and on its strategic flanks. Indeed, its activity in its interior is possibly more important than its gradual creation of a string of artificial armed islands in the SC Sea - a development that seemed to catch America almost totally by surprise and which has matured to the point that any effort to check its progress carries too high a risk of a shooting war between China and America. China’s rise is not risk free for Pakistan. The Chinese Communist Party is very sensitive to any insurrection or insurgent activity and its western provinces bordering on Pakistan are a key source of the Uyghur problem. To the extent that Pakistan is not doing enough on its side of the border to police radical safe havens from which attacks or full-blown insurgency might be launched against the PRC, Pakistan can expect no mercy in Beijing’s response.
Afghanistan is home to considerable rare-earth mineral deposits and pipeline opportunities, both of which are highly prized by the Chinese. If President Trump really wanted to make a deal, he could do worse than trading Afghanistan for concessions in the SC Sea or perhaps the Korean peninsula. As things stand, President Xi of China seems to be saying all the right things to President Trump, and delivering next to nothing. American diplomacy will have to seriously up its game if it is going to get ahead of Beijing. The key is a focus on what China holds most dear. As the above suggests, there are opportunities aplenty to play the PRC around its periphery, instead of being played by China. Some imagination and risk will be needed in coming years to turn events to America’s advantage. Seeing Pakistan clearly and setting clear boundaries for future relations is a very important first step. Will President Trump turn out to be a modern Bismarck balancing Pakistan and through it, China, or will his efforts to balance merely become a trigger provoking an escalation that an overstretched America can ill afford to service with military force alone.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Thursday, October 27, 2011
ALEXANDRIA, October 27 - As MIL INT reported back in August after the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) [that is also described as the Turkistani Islamic Party (TIP)] launched terrorist attacks in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang province (Western China) killing 18, the Chinese have actively engaged Islamabad on options to address the separatist threat.
The explosions provoked senior government officials in Xinjiang to publicly claim for the first time in recent years that the attackers had been trained in explosives in ETIM/TIP camps run by Chinese separatists in the Waziristan tribal regions of Pakistan. The Chinese allegation was described by many in the diplomatic circles of Islamabad as a clear sign of the growing impatience of Beijing with Islamabad's failure to control radical groups operating within its borders.Pakistani journalist Amir Mir claims in an Asia Times article that "Beijing is ... interested in setting up military bases either in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan or in the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA) that border Xinjiang province." Mir does not directly substantiate that claim but provides considerable background to recent rounds of Sino-Pakistani engagement.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
ALEXANDRIA October 23 - As the first evidence of Gaddafi's ransacking of his country and people comes in from the LA Times
New estimates of the former leader's assets — more than $200 billion — are called 'staggering.' If they prove true, he would rank among the world's most rapacious leaders.
let's not forget how he was treated by the LSE. This blog explains the background but you can jump right to the video of the LSE 'academic' greeting "Brother Muammar" (just the introduction will suffice). Tony Blair did it too I know... but MIL INT is sickened by this video and they way this monster is treated. As argued in the related blog, it was not like his past activities were not well known. MIL INT wonders whether anyone at the LSE feels any shame about their activities here?
Update: SWJ found this gem - a life imitates art story - a video of a 1980s sitcom that guessed Gaddafi would be killed in 2011
Update: SWJ found this gem - a life imitates art story - a video of a 1980s sitcom that guessed Gaddafi would be killed in 2011