Thursday, September 29, 2011

Analysis Of Gen. James N. Mattis' Shultz Lecture

In August I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Gen. James N. Mattis (USMC), commander of U.S. Central Command, address the Marines Memorial Club as part of its George P. Shultz Lecture Series.  You can watch a video recording of his lecture online. If it seems like waiting over a month to post a review is a long time, bear with me.  I was waiting for another geopolitical shoe to drop, and that shoe recently landed. 

Gen. Mattis' remarks were quite substantial.  He noted that Iraq lacked an Arab Spring uprising.  I wonder whether that is because the Muslim Brotherhood has no Iraqi chapter that can instigate one or if Iraqis are just so sick of unrest that they can't muster any enthusiasm for further social disruption.  I wanted to hear more details about Iranian Quds force units operating in Iraq and whether they've penetrated Muqtada al-Sadr's organization.  The General mentioned they're operating in Syria too and are the only thing keeping the Assad regime in power.  I think Gen. Mattis' assessment of Syria gives Iran too much credit; the Assad family has plenty of support among Syria's business class, it has successfully isolated or co-opted many of the regime's opponents, and defections from the Syrian military have not significantly degraded its combat power. 

As an aside, Iran's ability to manipulate events in the Arab world will always be circumscribed by its Shiite and Persian identity, no matter how many rockets it ships to Hezbollah or how many special operators it can send to Iraq and Syria.  Did Iran send Quds operators to Bahrain during its Arab Spring unrest?  It has claimed that country as historically Iranian but couldn't influence the outcome there thanks to the GCC's deployment of the Peninsula Shield Force.  Score that as a Saudi victory over Iran in their never-ending contest for leadership of the Islamic world.  Anyway, back to the lecture. 

Gen. Mattis' summary of progress in Afghanistan is spot-on.  IMHO the American military has finally internalized the successful COIN approaches that stabilized Central America in the 1980s.  The military effort in Afghanistan is now facilitating Taliban defections provided those defectors renounce violence and support the Afghan government.  Requiring them to break ties with Al Qaeda is probably unnecessary IMHO.  The U.S. has mostly defeated Al Qaeda and is now threatened by other terrorist networks that regenerate in Pakistan (more on that below). 

The General was distinctly proud of CENTCOM's military-to-military contacts in support of diplomacy in the region.  Hey folks, that's DIME at work, and the military is very willing to play ball with the other elements of national power.  The Egyptian military seems eager to hold elections and turn over power, but IMHO we all may regret the lack of formal organization in Egyptian politics.  The Muslim Brotherhood is the most well-organized political actor in Egypt and will easily play a leading role in an elected government.  Islamic thinkers are fond of using the "democracy as train station" metaphor, meaning democracy is merely a way station enabling Islamists who can seize power and enact Sharia law.  Egypt under Sharia would pose a major threat to Israel's security, but neither I nor Gen. Mattis are capable of speculating on whether that outcome is probable. 

Now, about that other shoe I mentioned up front.  Gen. Mattis' comments on Pakistan were very circumspect, mentioning that they fear India but have moved troops into their west to help the U.S.  The U.S. military is traditionally very restrained in public comments that may contradict the government's publicly stated diplomatic positions; once again, we do DIME quite well, thank you very much.  The U.S. government's diplomatic position on Pakistan is subtly shifting.  Adm. Michael Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently excoriated Pakistan's ISI for aiding and abetting the Haqqani network's recent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.  It is not clear whether uniformed ISI officials exercised C2 over the attacking cell, but the support the ISI provides to Haqqani fighters has long been clear.  It was safe for Adm. Mullen to vent because he is about to leave government service, so he has no reason to fear career repercussions for his candor.  It is becoming safer for others in the military to pick up an anti-Pakistan line now that the rest of the U.S. government is turning against Pakistan's proxies.  The Treasury Department has recently sanctioned some Haqqani Network leaders.  I believe it is a matter of time before the rest of the network will be formally sanctioned.  That will make them fair game for the full range of U.S. offensive action, including covert disruption of their supporters. 

The U.S. is slowly but surely distancing itself from Pakistan due to that country's increasingly public tilt toward China as a benefactor and its profound lack of cooperation with U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.  The rupture will not be complete until the bulk of U.S. combat forces have departed Afghanistan because those forces need a line of communication through Pakistan for support. 

This Shultz Lecture Series is a big treat for geopolitical junkies and Marines Memorial Club members like yours truly. The Life Membership I paid for ten years ago has paid off many times over.  It was even cool to see George Shultz himself get up and about at the venue.  The guy just doesn't know how to slow down. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Analysis Of Eric Schmitt, "Inside The War On Terror"

Tonight I attended a lecture at the Marines Memorial Club by Eric Schmitt entitled "Inside The War On Terror," co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Northern California (as so many of these fine intellectual shin-digs are these days.  Mr. Schmitt was promoting his book Counterstrike: The Untold Story Of America's Secret Campaign Against Al-Qaeda.  Get ready for my thumbnail, stream-of-consciousness impressions.

His discussion of the tricks U.S. intelligence operatives used to root out terrorist activity show that innovation is alive and well within the U.S. government.  We can be proud that America's operatives are using open-source websites to attract jihadi followers who disclose their intentions, and that American linguists posing as jihadists on the same sites are intellectually agile enough to sow doubt and confusion among jihadis.  God bless the U.S.A.

Mr. Schmitt fielded some audience questions on the effectiveness of the homeland security apparatus erected since the 9/11 attacks.  It is obvious, at least to yours truly, that the vast amounts of national treasure wasted on security theater like airport X-rays are a victory for Osama Bin Laden's strategy of forcing us into bankruptcy out of fear.  Mr. Schmitt endorsed the British and Israeli approaches to resilience, where the government teaches the population to bounce back from expected attacks rather than cower in fear of the unknown.  The main difficulty I see with such an effort in America is that it would require unwinding much of the internal security bureaucracy we've built over a decade.  Try telling defense contractors that their subcontracted services are no longer required and watch that effort die on the vine as campaign contributions dry up. 

Mr. Schmitt noted his astonishment that some educational institutions offer degrees in "homeland security" as a serious academic discipline.  I didn't get the chance to explain this phenomenon after the lecture.  You see, online diploma mills have begun offering homeland security majors to veterans looking to spend their generous G.I. Bill educational benefits.  Their hook is that a degree in homeland security is a gateway to hiring by Uncle Sam's myriad alphabet soup agencies.  I've seen some anecdotal evidence that agencies are beginning to buy into this line too, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-funding cottage industry in education.  God bless the U.S.A.

Mr. Schmitt's most important revelation was that terrorism can be deterred, provided the U.S. can locate radical Islam's centers of gravity.  I was waiting for him to use the phrase "information operations" even though he described its principles accurately.  Arab notions of pride, honor, and manhood are viable targets for information operations.  He noted a few success stories from Iraq.  In one story, a terrorist fighter with a bounty on his head was hard to locate.  The U.S. lowered the bounty to make him seem like a nobody, wounding the guy's pride.  When he used a cell phone to complain about his lowered status to fellow jihadis, the U.S. located him and rolled him up.  Another story was the plight of a teenage Iraqi girl forced to wear a suicide vest.  When the U.S. caught her and turned her, she became a local media phenomenon for hosting some kind of Oprah-like call-in show that brought shame to would-be suicide bombers.  Suicide attacks then dropped dramatically before the U.S. 1st Armored Division vacated that particular sector of Iraq. 

IMHO, Mr. Schmitt and other observers show us that the U.S. can win the war on radical Islam by fighting smarter with information operations in the lead and kinetic efforts used sparingly in support.  If we had gone that route after the initial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, our combat footprint in each country would have been lighter, the wars would have been shorter, and our casualties much lower.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.  God bless the U.S.A.

Analysis of Peter Tomsen, "Rethinking American Policy In Afghanistan"

I recently had the privilege of hearing a lecture at the World Affairs Council of Northern California from Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. diplomat and expert on Afghanistan.  His lecture covered a wide swath of Afghan history and linked the U.S. counterinsurgency effort to the historical experiences of other empires that entered Afghanistan.  He did of course plug his book The Wars Of Afghanistan, but his lecture was far more than a summary of the book's chapters.

Mr. Tomsen argued that the U.S.'s entry into Afghanistan, like that of empires before, ignored the history of Afghanistan as a primarily tribal nation with a weak central government astride the "high ground" of Central Asia.  High ground is usually more valuable in a tactical sense than a strategic one, but the rationale for a foreign presence in Afghanistan is more nuanced.  The country was a waystation on the Silk Road trade routes between China and the West, and the Khyber Pass has long been the gateway for imperial invasions (first Indian, then British) into Central Asia. 

Afghanistan's only real period of regional hegemony, the Durrani Empire, existed in the interregnum between the decline of India's Mogul empire and the rise of Britain and Russia.  I found it interesting that Mr. Tomsen didn't mention that Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President since the American invasion, is from a tribe that traces its lineage to the Durrani ruling family.  That is doubtless one of the sources for his legitimacy.   

At any rate, Mr. Tomsen dropped some interesting tidbits:
- U.S. outsourcing its Afghan policy to Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal was a big mistake. 
- All three major Taliban fronts in Afghanistan - the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's faction - are run by the Pakistani ISI
- Over 80% of the suicide bombers in Afghanistan are Pakistani!
- Iran meddles in Afghanistan; it seeks a broader regional role to counter potential encirclement by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.
- China likes using Pakistan as a hedge against India and would not necessarily endorse any U.S. containment of Pakistani Islamic militancy, even if that risked stirring up Islamic separatists in its own "East Turkestan."

His take on Pakistan's perception of Afghanistan as a source of strategic depth in a potential fight against India is an invaluable insight for Americans trying to understand the "Af-Pak" equation.  Pakistan viewed India's diplomatic opening to Afghanistan with suspicion; this in turn stoked further Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan to thwart encirclement by India.  I have a pet thesis that compares Pakistan to Prussia in light of a major strategic similarity:  Both countries' militarized elites exported instability into their respective "greater abroads" to compensate for their lack of internal unity. 

My interpretation of Mr. Tomsen's arguments includes the following:
- The American emphasis on building strong national Afghan institutions like a central government and modern army has upset the historical equilibrium between Kabul and the countryside.
- Leaning hard on Pakistan to clean up its act and pursue terrorists is impossible as long as the primary line of communication (LOC) for NATO/ISAF's force runs through Karachi.  The so-called "northern corridor" through the 'stans is insufficient for handling military logistics due to the different rail gauges in use.  NATO and the U.S. thus have little alternative but to rely upon ground logistics delivered from the port of Karachi through Pakistan by road, with all the pilferage and bribery that entails. 
- Iran's dispatch of warships through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean was more than a strategic breakout directed against Israel.  It could also have sent a message to Central Asian rivals. 
- Pakistan will keep playing the U.S. for a fool as long as it has China as a back-up hegemon.  The only thing that would radically change this equation in the U.S.'s favor would be a clear strategic tilt toward India.  A shift on that scale would really spook Beijing but would only be viable after a large U.S. drawdown eliminates the need for a LOC through Pakistan. 

Mr. Tomsen eventually argued for taking a long-term view in American foreign policy toward the region.  I'll offer my own proposed policy approach.  A stable Afghanistan would be open for business in both continental trade and local resource exploration.  It remains to be seen whether the U.S. estimates of trillion-dollar metal deposits are recoverable, as the aerial electromagnetic surveys used to derive those estimates are not nearly as accurate as multiple drill core samples from likely veins.  Stepping back from involvement in Kabul-centric nation-building will help restore Afghanistan's traditional equilibrium and give us more flexibility in dealing with the country's regional power-brokers (read "warlords" if you will, but that's how business gets done with the leading tribes).  If the U.S. wants to forestall Chinese dominance of Afghan mineral resources, we must make deals now with tribal and regional leaders who will be around regardless of who governs in Kabul. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Analysis of Joel Brinkley, "Israel And The Arab Spring"

I attended a lecture today at the Commonwealth Club of California by Joel Brinkley, Pulitzer Prize winner and experienced journalist.  His lecture "Israel And The Arab Spring" spent remarkably little time on the Arab Spring's causes and its effects on Israel.  Audience questions drove him to frame everything in terms of the stalled Middle East peace process, which showed the audience's pro-Palestinian bias and covered little new ground.

Mr. Brinkley's opening contention that Israel's foreign policy is the most self-destructive ever was a shocker, depending on your interpretation.  From the perspective of Bay Area idealists who wish Jews and Arabs could lock arms and sign "kumbayah" after forgetting 3000 or so years of tribal conflict, I suppose Israel's heavy-handed approach to cracking down on threats can appear self-destructive.  Mr. Brinkley argued that the Arab Spring's emphasis on nonviolent protest opens a window of opportunity for Israel to engage in dialogue with whomever in the Arab community is leading such protests.  If only life were so simple. 

The Arab Spring has little to do with the Anglo-West's projection of its own pluralistic and humanistic values onto Middle Easterners.  Underemployed Arab youths expressed their anger at largely secular regimes over high food prices and few job opportunities.  There will be precious little diplomatic opportunity for Israel to open dialogue with radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood should they come to power in Egypt.  Some in Israel's political establishment should know this already, as Hamas was created from the Muslim Brotherhood and has never wavered from its goal of destroying Israel.  Mr. Brinkley acknowledged Hamas' intransigence later in his lecture.  We could all use some deep background on the larger story of the Muslim Brotherhood's role in the Arab Spring.

Some of Mr. Brinkley's other observations point to further intractability in the Israeli vs. Palestinian conflict.  He noted that Palestinians evicted from their historic homes in Israel proper don't seem to want to return no matter they're offered.  Perhaps the victim mentality of living in occupied camps is so ingrained now that they can't imagine life outside of a ghetto.  He mentioned that Israel, for its part, won't surrender its fortifications on the Jordanian border to allow for a more secure Palestinian homeland.  This is actually pretty reasonable IMHO.  Israel has been repeatedly invaded by its Arab neighbors and its lack of strategic depth means it must position an early-warning tripwire as far forward as possible. 

The whole Israel/Palestine mess won't be resolved the way our tolerant Bay Area audience at the Commonwealth Club would like.  The ultimate solution is really rather simple and won't look anything like the results of a negotiation.  In all of human history, no two tribes or civilizations have ever been able to simultaneously occupy the same piece of real estate.  The stronger civilization always emerges victorious; it can absorb the weaker civilization demographically; it can forcibly relocate the weaker party; or it can pursue a strategy of annihilation a la Genghis Khan.  The stronger tribe at the moment is Israel, but that advantage may not last longer than another generation given the Palestinians' accelerating birthrate.  The water tables upon which both nations must subsist are declining.  That in itself will force a conflict over who gets to live where.  Mr. Brinkley dismissed the final audience question over demographics as no big deal; he may wish to revisit that stance in the years ahead. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Loose Southern Border Helps U.S. Business And Fed

Here's a stream of consciousness assessment of the U.S.'s southern border policy.  Fiascos like Operation Fast and Furious indicate that USG elements charged with border protection are incompetent at echelons above field ops.  Is the incompetence a result of normal bureaucratic imperatives, or a deliberate choice?  If it is "normal," that can be fixed by firing key agency leaders and replacing them with reformers.  If it is deliberate policy to leave the southern border mostly undefended, then geopolitics suggests explanations.

The U.S. business community relies on low-wage immigrant labor to keep costs down.  Agribusiness in particular depends on migrant labor.  Low-paid Mexican farm workers who remain in the U.S. illegally help ensure American crops are priced competitively in world markets.  The Federal Reserve also welcomes the presence of low-cost labor in the U.S. as it helps limit inflation.  Low wages prevent a wage-price spiral from emerging given the Fed's recent emphasis on quantitative easing. 

There is plenty of reason to believe that keeping the U.S. southern border loosely protected serves the interests of the U.S. business and financial elite.  That is why the USG tolerates the incursion of Mexican federal police across the border, no matter how brief