The first speaker described the insecurity plaguing the Middle East. Her factual descriptions of conditions in the region were impeccable. The story of ISIS's rise from the remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front in Syria is well-documented. The Assad regime's brutal suppression of its own people was a factor the West must acknowledge. ISIS captured billions in wealth from looting Iraqi assets in Mosul and draws fighters from around the world. Disproportionate numbers of wanna-be jihadis are coming from Tunisia, Morocco, and Lebanon.
I disagree with expert assessments of ISIS's tactical and operational prowess. Photos of their "technical" gun trucks with anti-aircraft weapons hastily placed in pickup trucks show an amateurish approach to fire support. The gunners in the truck beds aim wildly without even using iron sights. They exhibit no evidence of combined arms maneuver despite claims of capturing US-made Iraqi armored vehicles and aircraft. I have seen no evidence in open sources of a logistics system ISIS uses to sustain its captured materiel. Terror tactics work against Iraqi forces with no ideological cohesion or nationalist sentiment of their own.
I do agree with our NWCF speaker that ISIS excels at information operations. Erasing the Iraq-Syria border signals Arab rejection of Sykes-Picot colonialism. Executing POWs wearing orange jumpsuits symbolizes revenge for the perceived US humiliation of Muslim prisoners at Gitmo.
Syrian refugees have been straining civil society in Jordan and Lebanon for several years. Sunni Arab states may be turning against ISIS, at least among the Gulf sheikdoms. Turkey and Saudi Arabia could easily be decisive against ISIS if they act. Saudi Arabia just committed more air and ground forces to fight the Houthis in Yemen than they ever committed against ISIS. The kingdom obviously believes Iranian influence to its south is a bigger threat than barbarians to its north. The NWCF speaker astutely observed that the Sunni states tolerated ISIS's expansion as a way to pressure Iran.
Sunni ISIS fighters obviously target Shia. I don't buy the argument that ISIS represents an existential threat to Iran that justifies Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Tehran's threat of a nuclear program is more valuable as a strategic deterrent to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. I also don't buy arguments that ISIS cannot be destroyed with military force. They have a strategic-level center of gravity in Raqaa that a ground campaign can destroy. They also have financial channels from oil revenue and donations that the US can interdict.
Our speaker noted that ISIS's logistics system includes smuggling routes across Turkey's southern border. The anti-ISIS coalition's effort to retake Kobane makes decent strategic sense in that context. The coalition's failure to counter ISIS propaganda makes no sense; ISIS's narrative of romance, revenge, honor, and adventure appeals to disaffected youth.
The second NWCF speaker described recent tension between North Korea and South Korea over the Northern Limit Line (NLL). He recapped recent Hermit Kingdom antics as a reminder that the country's "Byungjin line" requires a dual track of economic development and nuclear weapons. The world still cannot confirm whether the DPRK has installed a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.
The Korean War Armistice left the two Koreas' western maritime boundary undefined. The North has tested the US and ROK commitments to uphold the NLL several times. North Korea appears to have three aims: maintaining economic rights to fishing and crabbing waters; retaining Haeju's port access to save shipping costs on its maritime route with China; and maintaining the ease of dropping SOF on islands close to the ROK.
North Korea has zero interest in submitting its NLL objections to international mediation. Its KPA Navy is too weak to seize disputed islands outright from the ROK. The Cheonan sinking incident was the North's way of testing how much the US and ROK are willing to escalate after an obvious provocation. I am unclear on whether the NLL represents an airspace boundary as well as a maritime one. I do not know whether the ROK has an identification friend or foe (IFF) system compatible with US aircraft but common sense dictates that they should. South Korea's declared ADIZ clearly extends beyond the NLL, so any North Korean air-sea operation in the NLL's vicinity would demand a military response.
I attended a separate lunch discussion with a senior expert who shared his impressions of the Middle East from several tours. I was not surprised when he said the US underestimated the Sunni/Shia divide in Iraq. I figured that out during my own tour, when it was obvious that Sunnis and Shias would not return to formerly mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad. A similar sectarian fragmentation is not currently evident in Afghanistan. That's the good news, provided the US can keep a token force there long enough to ensure there is no fragmentation. The senior official's best success metrics in both Iraq and Afghanistan were not the number of successful troops in contact (TIC) reports or KIA counts. He valued statistics on local recruitment of military and security forces, along with school enrollment. Those successes proved that tribal leaders in either country accepted their government's legitimacy.
The third NWCF lecturer addressed the future of urban warfare. The most recent Israeli-Hamas war showed how targeting insurgents in cities often destroys infrastructure. The US learned that the hard way in Iraq; just watch the many YouTube videos of JTACs calling for CAS on some building. We also learned that occupying forces end up owning government services, a lesson learned and forgotten in WWII.
Africa is rapidly becoming a laboratory where urban violence tests tribal and sectarian fault lines. Boko Haram's objective is larger than seizing Maiduguri. Their Islamist application of Sharia law appeals to people in corrupt parts of northern Nigeria who have grievances against Nigerian institutions. The larger story of how Chad and Niger carried the fight against Boko Haram must include Nigerian forces' failure to reinforce liberated towns. Al-Shabaab's resurgence is another story the West must hear, because that terror group still has a strong hold on Somalia and is now threatening Western malls after its Kenya mall attack.
Our lecturer endorsed US forces training its division-level formations in full-scale urban warfare. I searched Google for "sewer drone" to find tech options US forces can use in urban warfare. Advice from JAGs on ROE and targeting will be integral to urban warfare. Many of the asymmetric advantages the US brings to a conventional fight are negated when defenders have an advantage in urban terrain.
The final NWCF speaker addressed the possibility of a new Cold War in Russian-American relations. Russia has begun targeting military exercises at NATO areas. NATO's response has been to preposition equipment in Eastern Europe and step up Baltic air patrols. Remember, folks, "NATO" has always been the US instrument for influencing Western Europe. Our European friends rarely take action to assert their interests without US leadership. Russian opinion polls show a rapid shift against the US, but not so much against Europe until recently.
Russia's national psyche has always been predisposed to insecurity and paranoia. I recently attended a gathering of Russian emigres in San Francisco. A lot of them truly believed that pedestrian traffic islands around town were some kind of conspiracy to launder money. It would have been funny if this wasn't indicative of multigenerational Russian paranoia about any official pronouncements.
The apotheosis of the "vatnik/vatnost" phenomenon represents how far Russia has regressed from its post-Cold War openness. Search Google for those words to see an Internet meme celebrating the revival of reactionary, anti-intellectual traditions that Western materialism cannot vanquish. I won't link to the vatnost's retrograde image here, so go find it. The West recognizes Russia's new belligerency and so do former members of the Warsaw Pact who resented Russian dominance.
The West must understand why free market shock therapy worked in the Baltics and Poland but not Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus. I suspect the answer lies partly in the US's willingness to extend military cooperation to those successful states but prematurely curtailed Russia's NATO participation. A strong security link to the West would have made Russian-speaking elites feel safer about sticking with free market reforms. I may explore this theory in future blog articles if no one in the US foreign policy community picks it up.
Karen Dawisha's Putin's Kleptocracy explores how Putin expropriated KGB funds. His recent admission that Russian forces invaded Crimea and provoked its secession prove his duplicity. John Schindler's XX Committee discusses the Chekhism of the Siloviki around Putin, providing invaluable insights into Russia's ruling elite. US reluctance to challenge Putin emboldens him despite Russia's obviously diminishing power. The NWCF expert believes Russia's geostrategic pivot is to its east given China's demand for Russian natural resources. He also believes this will lead to a divorce when they can no longer hide their rivalries. I think that divorce will come sooner than anyone expects when China's economy crashes. I also noticed that many of my Russian-speaking friends in the San Francisco area often repeated Russian media narratives about Ukraine's supposed aggression and "Nazi Galitchina" nationalism. Russia definitely won the propaganda war with Russian language media in Ukraine and elsewhere.
All of the NWCF panelists combined for a final panel and took audience questions. Here come the panel's answers, in a stream of consciousness style with no unifying theme. More Middle East nations are at risk of collapse due to poor governance. The West cannot wear down Russia with spending programs like the Strategic Defense Initiative because the US's ballistic missile defense plan just pumps up Russian nationalism. It's hard to assess the US response to North Korea's cyber actions. The ROK's heavy Internet connectivity is very vulnerable to cyber attack. It is very interesting that piracy is more prevalent on Africa's west cost than its east coast (i.e., Somalia and the Horn of Africa). The US still has substantial interests in anti-piracy, stability, and development in the Horn of Africa. The US Navy's Maritime Strategy mentions A2AD as a stalking horse for countering China, with less attention to civil affairs after budget cuts. China sees global hotspots differently than the US, with separatists in Xinjiang and Tibet figuring prominently. The US can slow but not stop Iran's march to acquiring nuclear weapons because Iran plays with the Non-Proliferation Treaty's limits. It will be easy for Iran to get weapons-grade HEU if it can keep enrichment ability. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are likely to follow Iran into a nuclear arms race. Boko Haram's captive schoolgirls have either perished, dispersed, or returned home; many are still held captive. Arabs think the US State Department's information operations campaign against ISIS lacks credibility. ISIS has a heavy Twitter presence with thousands of sympathetic accounts. The human capacity to handle deprivation has postponed resource wars and ingenuity drives more efficient resource use. Russia's economy and demography won't support Putin's planned army expansion. The Obama Administration truly believes its electoral mandate is to avoid foreign relations.
This concludes my synopsis of the Naval War College's 2015 expedition to The City. A lot of black swans lurk in the world. Look at China's tensions with India, a delayed economic crisis over Greece's inevitable exit from the euro, and migrations from Central America to North America that challenge our southern border's security. US war colleges and private think tanks do a pretty good job of training American leaders to solve strategic problems. I will extend my own discussion of strategy here on Third Eye OSINT.
Full disclosure: The opinions I express in this article reflect my own views and do not reflect the official positions of any US Government entity.