Freitag, 10. Januar 2014

Counterinsurgency in Crisis


Counterinsurgency is not a subject particularly popular these days. Its a subject in which only a fraction of scholars and military analysts is interested in and of those only a small part believes that it actually works. In fact, following the debate on counterinsurgency, one cannot help but notice that the only thing still being debated is why it does not work—some reject it in principle, partly because they do not believe in military interventions in the first place and partly because it is too complicated an effort. Others reject it because counterinsurgency requires a persistence and patience that modern democracies can hardly ever muster—to them its simply not a sort of warfare that is suited to present times. Take as exhibit A a recent article by Karl Eikenberry in Foreign Affairs. Eikenberry, who held top positions in the fight against the Taleban and the attempt to rebuild Afghanistan, argued that counterinsurgency failed. Clearly, the proponents of the strategy, the COINdinistas, are in retreat.

Against this background, taking stock of the actual counterinsurgency efforts is not a small effort and demands respect. David H. Ucko and Robert Egnell have done exactly that and published the first comparative account of the British counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan's Helmand and Iraq's Basra provinces. The fundamental background of their study is easy to grasp: Given the British experience in small wars and the fundamental attention counterinsurgency enjoyed in British military writing, the British had always bragged about a unique capability in taking on this kind of warfare. No other army, it seemed in the early 2000s, was as equipped and as experienced for the kind of effort necessary in Afghanistan and later on in Iraq. What Egnell and Ucko found, however, is that the British were just as clueless as any other ally in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They start off by looking at how the British armed forces responded to the end of the Cold War and—no surprise here really—that the British drew roughly the same conclusion as did the United States and other European allies: After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact there was a peace dividend waiting to be cashed in on. Territorial conflicts in Europe appeared increasingly unlikely and whatever warfare would remain was largely perceived as a targeting exercise, as Egnell and Ucko write, demonstrated mostly in the hype around the Revolution of Military Affairs (RMA). The experiences in counterinsurgency, particularly those in Malaya and Northern Ireland, had little impact on the planning done in the 1990s and there was little institutional memory for these more difficult expeditionary campaigns. When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan called for a counterinsurgency strategy, past experiences were looked at, but that effort was largely too little, too late and it was never done thoroughly anyway. Even though, both authors maintain that counterinsurgency is just a collection of insights, but not a strategy itself. Instead of developing such a strategy, policymakers simply used catchphrases like population security, doing no harm, etc. And at least this might sound familiar to anyone following the debate in Germany.

Ucko and Egnell take it a step further and dissect the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq separately. Along the way, the also find nuggets that explain why the Iraq counterinsurgency effort was more successful than the effort in Afghanistan, where the Obama administration had initially hoped to recreate the success of the Iraqi surge. While the allies in Iraq managed to create the ink spots necessary to create population security and turned former adversaries into allies, such efforts went nowhere in Afghanistan. There is a number of reasons for this that the book, unfortunately I might add, does not explore at all: the differences in population densities, the difference between sectarian and tribal splits that offer different rooms for manoeuvre. A real comparison of the two efforts has still to be written and what Ucko and Egnell demonstrate, probably without intending to do so, is how superficial our understanding of the war efforts still is. But needless to say, this book is not only a damning account of British efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which lays to rest any myth about a special liking for counterinsurgency operations by the British armed forces, it is also one of the finest accounts thus far.

But before choosing closing remarks, it is important to note that what Ucko and Egnell assert with regard to the British experience is largely true for the German experience in Afghanistan as well. There is a certain similarity to the German attitude going into the Afghanistan mission back in 2001. Berlin was touting its soft approach to state building, build on its legacy on the Balkans in the 1990s, and used it to contrast its approach with the U.S. approach that Berlin assumed relied too heavily on military force. Nation-building, Berlin believed, was a German speciality, which is why it volunteered to spearhead the effort in Afghanistan and invited all international and Afghan players to Bonn. It has become a bit of a fashion in Germany to scold the United States for the nation-building effort in Afghanistan, which many German observers now blame on U.S. naivety. But the truth is that it was Berlin that was pushing for something more than just the obliteration of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. To fully understand the fate of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan Ucko and Egnell's fine book would have to be complemented by similar studies covering German and U.S. efforts. 

Dienstag, 17. September 2013

Classics in Modern War and Warfare


From time to time I review books on this blog, mostly books on military history and war studies. Today's book review is no different. I've spent the weekend reading Victor Davis Hanson's Savior Generals, a fine and short book. Hanson is controversial in the United States, where he is sometimes seen as a neoconservative. This label is a bit misleading, for he is by profession a historian and does not dive into the theoretical schools political science has established for decades now, though he is certainly not avoiding politics as a subject. This has led to a scholarly canon that most political scientists sometimes find discomforting, simply because he does not subscribe to any particular modern school of political thought. Moreover, his interest in military history spawns centuries and Savior Generals adequately reflects that—the first of the five case studies deals with Themistocles at Salamis, 48o B.C., the last is focused on David Petraeus and his Surge in Iraq. His earlier books on war and warfare do not always span quite such a period of time, but they too take a longue durée approach to military history nonetheless.

But in contrast to some modern historians, who are interested not in particular historical epochs but rather with the way mankind takes over the doorstep from one epoch to the other—from European absolutism to the period of modern history, which most historians date with the French revolution, Hanson is interested in what does not change. And some of the continuity he is looking for he finds in the general principles that determine war and warfare. This makes him largely suspicious of anyone who claims that a totally new era of war is approaching. And in the context of sheer endless debates on drones, robotics, swarming and a revolution in military affairs, his approach is—somewhat ironically—refreshing. Having said that, its rather unusual to look for this continuity by focusing on personalities and not structures. But he makes his case eloquently and illuminates five military leaders, which have turned the tide of wars. Methodologically that approach is not easy to defend and Hanson's only explanation is that all things being equal the wars these military leaders got involved in, would have ended differently had it not been for them. Based on these criteria, this book makes a compelling read.

I'll focus on the last three case studies – Sherman (Civil War), Ridgway (Korean War) and Petraeus (Iraq). I am not an expert on the American Civil War, though the Sherman chapter is the strongest in my view. Ridgway was particularly interesting for his legacy, while the Petraeus chapter hit me as being the weakest, not because Petraeus' impact has been smaller than Hanson argued (it hasn't), but largely because Hanson does not fully succeed in describing the minutiae of the changes Petraeus adopted (there is a lot more to counterinsurgency than protecting the population, while going after the bad guys at the same time). Overall, all cases underline a major point Hanson is making. The nature of war and warfare is not changing and the tide of the battle can still be turned by whoever is the most adaptive, open-minded and risk-taking strategist on the battlefield, no matter what weapon is being employed.

Freitag, 13. September 2013

The Syria Deal That is Bringing Down Obama and not Assad.


I really do not want to crush the party. But since many view the current developments in the diplomatic game surrounding Syria as promising and I remain somewhat sceptical, I felt it was time to jump into the debate yet again. That's simply because the basic problems will persist, Russia still wants Assad to stay in power and the U.S. wants Assad to go. And there is a lot more to it than that. President Obama just squandered a huge amount of his remaining political capital in a way that leaves me wondering whether this is simply poor leadership or an administration bend on its own demise. Even when leaving aside for a moment that the president just used a nationally televised speech to ask for, well, nothing and that he has just put a good junk of his foreign policy legacy into the hands of Vladimir Putin. Even despite all that it still looks that there is something odd about this.

One of the reasons is that this entire deal, provided it actually materialises, is not in the least bit about ending the bloodshed in Syria. One has to wonder why Vladimir Putin, who does not only have opposite interests in Syria, but also cannot be expected to be a fellow with an unwavering desire to help President Obama out of difficult pickle, volunteered to bring chemical weapons out of Syria. After all President Obama's attempt to get Congressional approval for his military strikes was headed toward a resounding defeat. In reality, Putin's strategy is easy to see through. On the one hand, it removes the spectre of U.S. military action (and there is a sigh of relieve from the White House and Congress over that). And in the absence of U.S. military action, Assad can continue his slaughters without having to worry about consequences, he killed thousands and used chemical weapons and is now going to get away with it. Loosing his chemical weapons arsenal (or some portion of it), might diminish his battlefield capabilities, one would think. Only that he will be amply compensated for that by conventional weapons systems that Russia will deliver and there are already reports that the Kremlin is stepping these deliveries up. Since these weapons are more useful anyway, Assad might not only survive this, but might even be in better shape than before he crossed the red line. And if he were to use chemical weapons again – nobody believes that all his stockpiles can be removed in less than a year or that we even know how much he has got under his control – he could now always point at the opposition, after all, had he not just turned them over? If this is the outcome of U.S. strategy, it is leaving me flabbergasted.

Barack Obama is making a poor leader these days. Sure enough, the decision to use military force is never an easy one and rightly so. But he has taken the world on a ride through his conflicted mind for months now and the world, adequately reflecting the president's thinking, is confused. He used a televised speech to ask for nothing and tried to reinforce a red line by first sending his Secretary of Sate out to make the case for war, only to undermine him the next day and go to Congress. Letting people like Michelle Bachmann decide whether to go to war sets a dangerous precedent, since, after all, he is the Commander in Chief (and Bachmann a bit in the nutty corner). But it also demonstrated that right after John Kerry came out and made the case for war, the President took all the urgency out of it, declaring his intent to punish the person who started the barfight, while declaring an intention not to act.

It is, I am afraid, complete nonsense to argue, as the President did in his address, that the U.S. military does not do, to use the president's terminology, “pinpricks”. To the contrary, the U.S. military does what it is ordered to do and if the Commander in Chief orders pinpricks, you better believe the military can deliver that. I am pretty sure that the strikes that Clinton ordered in 1998 as a response to the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam would qualify. By the way, these certainly did not deter al-Qaeda, as we would all learn three years later.

There is also a technical problem, nobody knows for certain how big the CW arsenal of the Syrians really is. Its certainly among the larger remaining stocks in the world and dismantling that might be incredibly difficult. And I would not bet on the Russians insisting to get all of it out, after all this is a costly and time-intensive endeavour and though Syria is a Russian ally, even if the Russians were to insist to get all the weaponry out (which I doubt), Syria might not comply. In any event, the process will take many months and not a couple of weeks. 

Freitag, 30. August 2013

The Shot Across About the Bow: The Problem With Syria


I really do not need any convincing: the situation in Syria is appalling and it is high-time the world does something about it. And if it comes to regime change, well, count me in. I've argued elsewhere, why an intervention is necessary. However, I am deeply troubled by what the Obama administration is currently coming up with.

Military violence is a means to a political end. And as such, there needs to be at least an idea of a political end before military violence is employed. There is, however, a massive disconnect between the political ends the Obama administration has thus far outlined and the way an intervention is being set up right now. Basically, president Obama has articulated two political objectives, Assad's ouster and an end to the use of chemical weapons. The problem now is that the intervention, as it is being prepared at the moment, will with certainty achieve neither of these aims. Which, awkwardly enough, is part of the rallying cry by this administration: look, its not going to be regime change and hey, we'll not rely on a vulnerable presentation of intelligence findings to the Security Council. Which begs the question, what then is an intervention assumed to achieve?

The administration argues that this is primarily about showing resolve and punish those that use chemical weapons. I am very much in favour of making that clear, but since Assad used those weapons before, even a successful purely punitive campaign is not going to demonstrate that. What it would demonstrate is that the use of chemical weapons at a certain scale will have consequences. And that ain't the message the better part of the international community wants to send, is it?

The unfortunate truth is this: punishment for the use of chemical weapons cannot easily be disconnected from other political objectives, since these objectives are often, as in this case, informed by the conduct of the party it thinks needs punishment. Which is to say that a dictator willing to utilise such weapons should be brought to justice, or at least taken away from such weaponry. And that brings the strategic conundrum full circle. The political end would have to be to deny Assad the use of such weaponry permanently and since air-strikes cannot target chemical weapons directly, the narrowest way to achieve this would be to decapitate the Assad regime. Instead, the current strategy seems to be purely symbolic. As such it might end up not as a symbol for resolve but the bungled approach the Obama administration is taking towards security and foreign policy.  

Samstag, 24. August 2013

What the US is Doing in Syria, and What It Isn't Doing


There is a lot of talk now about a possible US intervention in Syria following what looks like a devastating and heinous attack in which the government used Chemical Weapons (CW). The common notion is that these attacks have not yet been independently verified (though even the Iranians seem to be accepting that they were employed), while some already scream that the United States is pushing for war. To which I really want to reply: stay calm, carry on and consider some of the following thoughts:
Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

No, the United States has not yet decided to intervene. No, seriously, it has not. So far, President Obama has only said that the attack is of grave concern. Whatever this means, he stopped short of calling for military action. If there is any movement at all, it's that the White House is beginning to take the issue seriously, simply because further inaction is now going to cast a shadow over Obama's foreign policy legacy. Take the military side of the issue. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are still adamantly opposed to any intervention, its Chairman, Martin Dempsey, has time and again stated that there is no real ally in the country and that the opposition is too weak to establish any order, even if Assad were forced out. This is the classic Colin Powell tactic of delivering assessments that are so bleak that no military options really remain – you might remember Madeleine Albright going ballistic on Colin Powell during the Bosnia war, asking him what good it was to have the finest military in the world, if you are not prepared to use it. (On a different note, why is the White House relying on a Pentagon assessment of what at least to me sounds like a job for the intelligence services and the State Department?) Which is why I would add a second note of caution: No, the United States is not preparing for an intervention, at least not yet. There is always significant confusion over this in the press, but there are two different steps in preparations. The first is to draw up contingency plans, which is what is happening. This is by and large a paper exercise (though a useful one), in which the Pentagon is beginning to crunch numbers and looking at available assets to figure out what resources could be mobilised to meet certain objectives. Its basically an exercise in what could be done. This is not the same as mobilising to implement a contingency plan, which is only happening once a principal decision has been reached, which the White House insists has not been made. What the US is doing is delaying the return of the USS Mahan, a destroyer with some guided missiles. Leaving it in place in the Med is not exactly the same as a massive build-up of forces.

Which would be surprising in any event. After all, the basic calculus of the Obama administration remains the same: No intervention on any foreign soil if that is at all avoidable. This has been a basic Obama rationale and should be kept in mind when talking Syria today. The president has been going to some lengths to avoid interventions, he was pressed into doing Libya and when he actually is ordering military operations, its usually of the smallest footprint possible. Drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan and some special forces to haunt down Joseph Kony and the LRA in Central Africa. Apparently he has a liking for small-scale precision missions with narrow political objectives. With regard to Syria, this probably means that any intervention in Syria would not be Kosovo 2.0, as some have argued, but rather a version of Clinton's 1998 bombing following the attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. Which is why I remain overall hesitant to predict that any sort of intervention is going to be mounted. If Obama is prepared to only go in a really tiny little step, someone better advises him to stop – you cannot get involved in wars and hope to extract a win by staging what isn't even a half-measure.

The basic conundrum for Obama is this: by not acting in Syria—despite having drawn a pretty clear red-line—he has allowed for US credibility to be lost. Assad would not have crossed this line yet again, would he really think the president is prepared to regain his credibility by staging an intervention. This whole CW attack was a sort of in your face move by Assad. If the US were to conduct missile strikes and nothing more, Assad might still survive and would then have defeated not only the opposition but also escaped US air-strikes and punishment for killing thousands. And if you think dealing with him now is a nightmare, wait for what happens if he does win. But US credibility would then be lost permanently. By the way, the war in Syria has now claimed more lives than the entire civil war in Iraq following the 2003 ouster of Saddam. If that doesn't give you pause, I don't know what will and if there is a red-line where President Obama should consider an intervention its this.

Sonntag, 11. August 2013

Obamas Zweite Amtszeit Gießener Gespräch


Apologies, this short piece is in German (simply because the video is): Die Gießener Gespräche sind schon eine Weile her, aber ich habe vor einer Weile etwas zur zweiten Amtszeit Obamas gesagt, was so allgemein natürlich immer noch gilt.


Donnerstag, 8. August 2013

Of History and Revolutions: the Arab Spring, the French Revolution and the Insularity of Political Science


Recently, the unthinkable happened. I was having a delicious dinner with friends and colleagues after a long conference in Western Africa on the crisis in the Sahel. It was a beautiful night close to the beaches of Cotonou, Benin and a post-conference ease disorder had set in. But such dinners are also a place were one trades the wisdom previously gathered. I was involved in a little exchange on the insularity of political science, when another colleague chimed in to ask this (I paraphrase, though not that much): “The French revolution doesn't tell you anything about the Arab Spring. What is it you want to learn from the French revolution for today, anyway? Or from history?”

My colleague, I hasten to say, is not an expert of revolutionary change. But in these few sentences she made the case for the insularity of political science in quite a remarkable fashion. I had to admit that this attitude was both monumentally ignorant (and I am afraid that still falls in the category of sugar-coding it). The extent of the ignorance on display was unique, the sentiment behind it, however, was not.

This is partly due to the way political scientists approach their subject. As a subject political science relies heavily upon data sets, even though political scientists are usually very well aware that compiling data for data sets is more than just a bit tricky. Its part of a constant effort to consolidate the empirical base from which science tries to gain conclusions. This is by and large a laudable effort and particularly in conflict and war studies, it might help dampen the surge in ideologically driven research paradigms. Abu Muqawama had a lovely entry a little while ago, where he dissects General Mattis' take on history, who poignantly argued that there is nothing new under the sun.

In it, Abu M tried to explain why he believes in data sets and not sloppy historical analogies. Which is why I want to make some general remarks on the value of history off the cuff. Whether its all been here before or not, is a mute question. History does not repeat itself, but it has patterns and those have been here before, as Richard Holbrooke used to say its like jazz, an improvisation of a constant theme [I owe this nugget to Vali Nasr's book]. And historical sciences have tried to come to terms with those patterns. Take, for example, the concept of Sattelzeit, a concept developed by German historian Reinhart Koselleck, whose work has greatly influenced yours truly and who is certainly among the ten most important German historians of the twentieth century. Or take the Annales school of French historians who tried to conceptualise history over what they called a longue durée [and just in case you haven't read Fernand Braudel, now is the time to do so], with which the interdependence of geography, political systems and finally culture was highlighted.

The bottom line is this. Historical analogies can be a tempting trap and their bad reputation stems from a sloppy use, among historians but first and foremost among journalists. Like the myriad of journalists who argued that Afghanistan is sort of like Vietnam. This sort of analogy is sure to land you in the graveyard of stupidity and since that's a rather crowded place, it ought to be avoided. In seeking historical explanations an analogy is a starting point, not in itself already an analysis. The analogy can be useful, however, if it is used to a specific end. Some similarities should be warranted before going any further with an analogy. For good measure, there are some of these between the current struggle in Afghanistan and the long and bloody war in Vietnam, the most noted being that both are somehow forms of irregular or asymmetric warfare and that the enemy cannot be defeated on the battlefield alone [In fact, David Petraeus drew some important lessons from Vietnam that he incorporated in his Iraq strategy years later, pdf]. But, an analogy is useless if it stops right there. The more interesting questions regard the differences and looking for those is what most journalists do not do. Neither is Afghanistan divided (unless you really really want to renegotiate the Durand Line), nor is the enemy as unified as the Vietcong. And though much of the tactics finally employed by the allies, such as counterinsurgency, have been tested in Vietnam, the war is less deadly, I mean far less deadly. And that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the differences. The whole point is not to make an analogy, but making an informed comparison. In order to learn from history, the differences between the cases put into an analogy are far more important than superficial similarities.

Take the case of the Arab Spring and the French revolution. Too many scientists and pundits regard revolution simply as the product of social upheavel, asking when people are so disenchanted or angry with their government that they choose to attack it. Many early analyses of the Arab Spring went something like this: Social problems + unemployment = angry people, i.e. revolution. That's certainly the most simplistic approach one can possibly take towards such a complex situation as a revolution and, though it should be needless to say so, people are angry at their governments all the time. So there must be a little more to it.

Speaking of the French Revolution, the similarities to the Arab Spring are so obvious, it takes some effort to miss it. Both had a massive impact not only on the country in which they first unfolded, but on their respective regions. Had political scientists heeded the lessons of history, a respected political scientist such as Stephen Walt would never have thought of arguing that the revolution would be confined to Tunisia in early 2011. Unfortunately, he did not look at history before making his argument. In fact, the Arab Spring is a reminder that there are historical concepts that should be reviewed in light of the Arab Spring. Theda Skocpol's analysis of revolutions – centred on the organisation of the means of coercion by the state – is a valuable first step, after all the Egyptian and Tunisian armies were central to the success of the revolutionary movements in 2011. Since its still morning, this is what I'll be doing today.

Samstag, 3. August 2013

Egypt's Coup


Secretary of State John Kerry went all the way to Pakistan to finally clarify – if that's the right word – the US position on the coup in Egypt. He basically said that it wasn't a coup because the ouster of President Morsi was supported by a good deal of people. I really don't know why he would make that assertion in Pakistan of all places, a country that has been plagued with coups and certainly cheers the idea that now any military takeover that is popular in some quarter is now no longer considered a coup, but what Kerry said is bizarre anyway. A military ouster is almost always a coup and whether its popular has nothing to do with it. After all, its about the principle of constitutional order.

Here is what is so bedazzling. The United States is obligated under law not to offer any assistance to a country that has suffered a coup, hence the tussle. But the George W. Bush administration faced a similar dilemma after 9/11 in Pakistan, Musharraf, after all, had come to power through a coup himself. The Bush administration wanted to cooperate and did the only thing it could, it looked for a Congressional waiver, which it received. It upheld the rule of law, did not have to torture the English language and still got to do what it wanted in Pakistan. Why the Obama administration is not doing the same in the case of Egypt is a mystery, since it would almost certainly receive this waiver and naming it a coup would probably even add to the US leverage over Egypt. Anyway, here is my latest piece on Egypt over at the North Africa Post

Freitag, 2. August 2013

A (Very) Short Note on Drones and the Security Scholar's Hypocrisy



The issues security scholars focus on are hardly ever those that drive global security, let alone the conflicts that currently plague the globe. The drone debate is a very good example for an agenda that is driven by research interest and not actual warfare or, for those who pretend to care, its victims. The current issue of Foreign Affairs devotes quite a number of pages to that debate and yours truly got into the debate as well.

Some opponents of drones argue that drones are just a first step towards fully automated warfare. And though they cannot clearly explain what makes a Predator drone different from more old-fashioned artillery systems and thus the first step towards that sort of warfare, there is another issue we tend to forget. Western powers are not the only ones working on remotely operated weapons or weapons that are triggered automatically. A weapon more devastating than drones, more widespread, either remotely controlled or fully automatic and with a high likelihood of proliferation is the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). And yet, IEDs have hardly received scholarly attention.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) just released its latest report on Afghan civilian casualties [pdf]. Remember that many opponents of drones base their case against drones on the exceedingly high number of civilian casualties (though the number of civilian casualties is actually pretty low). But if the concern for civilian casualties would really drive the research agenda, the UNAMA report would gain far more attention. After all, it states that Afghanistan witnessed no less than a 23 percent increase in the number of civilian casualties over the first six months of 2013 compared to last year, 74 percent of those casualties are attributed to anti-government forces, mostly the Taleban. One of the most commonly employed weapon by the Taleban is the IED, which has a pretty indiscriminate impact.

In Tell Me How This Ends, Linda Robinson describes in great detail the impact IEDs had on the Iraqi battlefield and she made some important observations on how insurgents used IEDs, learned to improve them and gained the skill to employ them more effectively. Of particular impact were IEDs made with Iranian support that could pierce even the armour of a modern Bradley tank. These experiences should raise important questions on how these weapons and related techniques are being proliferated, particularly since the costs of acquiring these techniques should be relatively low. I don't have the funding to start that research myself, but given the impact these weapons have, at least some of the bucks spent on drone related research in social sciences in certainly misdirected. 

Mittwoch, 31. Juli 2013

Still Indispensable? Vali Nasr's Take of All Things Falling Apart


Vali Nasr's latest book landed on my desk primarily because it made quite a splash when it was first released. I had read an advance excerpt in Foreign Policy and was positively intrigued. Vali Nasr had worked for the late Richard Holbrooke, a seasoned diplomat who was asked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to come in and try to fix AfPak, the buzzword for the insurmountable security complex of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Foreign Policy excerpt made a rather interesting read and that preview stirred quite a controversy. He argued, after all, that President Obama was keeping the Secretary of State sidelined and rested his foreign policies primarily on the take of the Pentagon, making diplomacy no less but more difficult than it had been under his predecessor George W. Bush. Poignantly summed up in a small anecdote that had Hillary Clinton asking for larger binders than her counterpart at the Pentagon, Robert Gates, had available.

Thus adequately intrigued, I took to reading the book right away. And Vali Nasr is not pulling his punches. He accuses the administration of having fumbled the war in Afghanistan, a war that President Barack Obama, after all, had called the “war of necessity” during his first election campaign in 2008. Since Nasr had some insights and Afghanistan was supposed to be a priority for the administration, the book should have been an interesting read. Unfortunately, however, Afghanistan is covered only in a single chapter, the rest of the book is just a broad outline of the problems the Obama administration is facing across the globe. And in these areas, Nasr is more an academic than a policy practitioner.

Now, being an academic is all the more reason to write a book. Its just that this wasn't the book I was hoping for. Moreover, for someone who has worked in diplomacy the book is rather disappointing, if not outright naïve. He spends a lot of ink on Iran and he is right in asserting that Iran and the US could be allies. But not, as Nasr implies, by changing US policies. There is, after all, a reason that Iran is at loggerheads with the rest of the world and its not US intransigence – at times one is tempted to cry out when reading Nasr's one-sided analysis: its Iran that is maintaining a nuclear programme that it covered up for more than a decade and in all probability this clandestine effort wasn't made to cover medical research. 

However, I share his disenchantment with the Obama administration, except I was never really enchanted – I had hoped John McCain would win 2008. But Nasr is right in asserting that the Obama administration dropped the ball on Iraq. He rightly argues that there was no reason Iraq should be lost in 2011, in fact loosing Iraq was a choice, as he calls it, a choice, moreover, the world could not afford. Yet, its the choice the Obama administration made. That is regrettable and will cast a long shadow over the Obama legacy. And he is right in arguing that Obama was never really interested in the promotion of democracy abroad. In Obama's worldview, the US in an important superpower, but its no longer an indispensable nation, which Nasr summarises in an aptly phrased paragraph:

Obama had turned Bush's Iraq policy on its head. America went into Iraq to build democracy, but left building an authoritarian state as an exit strategy. It is obvious now that—talk about democracy in his Cairo speech notwithstanding—Obama was not really committed to democracy in the Middle East. We did not know it then, but Iraq in 2009 and 2010 was a preview of how the Obama administration would react to the Arab Spring in 2011, and a window onto his thinking about the Middle East.” (p. 148).

Notably absent in a book that Zbigniew Brzezinski characterised as a tour d'horizon (always a good indicator that you might be wasting your time), is Vali Nasr's ultimate boss during his stay in Foggy Bottom: Hillary Clinton. She is mentioned a couple of times, usually in passing and it is clear that Nasr holds her in high regard and he frequently excuses her lack of focus by pointing to her many duties. However, it is Vali Nasr himself who argues that Clinton went to great length to carve AfPak out as the one area, where her department was going to be in the lead. It is flummoxing that she allowed for that area to go without direction and ultimate purpose. And her often media-driven policy style clearly stood in the way of diplomatic accomplishments. That was won her praise from msnbc, it has not allowed her to make inroads in the many protracted conflicts the West is currently facing. But if her record is reflected in the number of times, she is mentioned in the book, its not that much of a record.

Dienstag, 30. Juli 2013

A Vision for Europe


A little more than a year ago, the good people of the Atlantic Council of the United States (ACUS) called me into the Young Atlanticist Working Group. Its been a tremendous experience and the programme has offered plenty of new contacts. Together with four colleagues from Slovenia, the UK and Portugal, I penned a paper that was more than a bit daring. We aptly called it the Europe We'd Like to Inherit and the Atlantic Council has just published it, the report is available here

Montag, 29. Juli 2013

Egypt: Its a Dangerous Coup


It is true, Egypt presents a particular difficult challenge. One the one hand, the first democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was hardly a dedicated democrat. On the other hand, his ouster through a military coup d'etat does not bode well for the chances of this crucial Middle Eastern country to become a fully democratic state any time soon. And I fully admit that I have trouble in picking sides in this particular situation – and picking sides, after all, is what a pundit is usually being paid for.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the Obama-administration and its European allies find it equally difficult to square this particular circle. I've been to Egypt recently, to Cairo, to be more precise, and it is gut-wrenching to watch the reports of Egyptians killing and torturing each other.

The way in which the Obama-administration is handling the situation in Egypt, however, is bizarre, to say the least. Following the coup on July 3rd the administration was quick to urge Egyptians to unite and form a government of national unity, yet it could not bring itself to condemn the coup. In fact, it could not even bring itself to call it a coup. Anyone who has been reading the State Department press briefings over the past couple of weeks could feel the frustration journalists had when trying to understand the administration's position, if it actually had a position. Since the administration is not calling a coup and insisting its not not calling it a coup either, one wonders how the administration is referring to the events of July 3rd.

The administration, of course, does not want to call the coup a coup because it would than be legally bound to cease granting assistance to Egypt, which after all is its major leverage on the government. The administration, however, is rapidly reaching a point where it has to ask itself what it wants to preserve: the tenuous progress toward democracy or its leverage. It seems to me that at this point in time, it is largely trying to preserve its leverage as an end in itself. Obama and his State Department seem to believe that its influence over the military is the best guarantee that the military is living up to its promise to quickly realise democratic elections. But Robert Springbord is quite right to caution against any expectation that the military, of all actors, will be the watchdog for the country's transition to democracy.

Sonntag, 28. Juli 2013

Acting On Syria

Over the past months, I neglected the blog a bit. Thats largely because I was practically overwhelmed by writing a regular column, finishing my first book and traveling. Needless to say, the world just kept on spinning, so here is my latest take on Syria:

Over at the North Africa Post, you'll find my long argument for intervention. I made the same argument in a nutshell over at the Atlantic Community

Donnerstag, 18. April 2013

The Drones Issue - Where Critics of Drones are Wrong


Recently, a friend of mine challenged me on the issue of drones. We had what must be considered a brisk debate and yet it was a useful one, since it did give me the opportunity to spell out what has troubled me about the debate on drones for quite a while. In a nutshell: The critics of drones tend to make really stupid arguments while failing to recognise what problems might actually exist. What is worse, every argument against drones is usually being carried by at least a single note of hypocrisy, which I am happy to point to. And with that, I'll fire away:

The New Weapons/De-Humanised War-Argument
Let us take a step back at first and reflect for a moment on what a drone actually is. Even an armed drone is nothing else than a plane, carrying a weapon. The difference between a drone and, lets say, a B-2 is that it is being piloted remotely. That in and of itself is not distinction of much consequence. In terms of capabilities it is too often forgotten that the payload of a B-2 or B-52 still is a far more devastating than the Hellfire-missile attached to a Predator drone. A drone is, hence, nothing more than a delivery system and it has been developed to carry a very small weapon into the target area. And that weapon is designed specifically to kill fewer people.

But proponents of this argument believe that since the pilot and weapons-officer of a drone are piloting the plane remotely in front of a computer screen, the Western way of warfare is becoming so de-humanised that the nature of war is about to change in a fundamental way. The only problem with this argument is this: virtually no sophisticated modern weapons-system brings the soldier into direct contact with the enemy, unless of course the soldier is a part of the brave infantry (as yours truly once was). A navy soldier directing a cruise missile from a guided-missile destroyer launches his weapons from an ops-room on that destroyer, sitting in front of—you've guessed it—a computer screen. A submarine launching a ballistic missile or cruise missile is receiving target coordinates, but no officer aboard that ship actually sees the target. Even in the army, it would be difficult to argue that a tank howitzer firing a grenade into a target some thirty or forty kilometres from the howitzer's position is so close to the action that the soldiers are exposed to enemy fire or are in a position to see the target. If they were exposed to enemy fire something would have gone horribly wrong. It is true, drones have increased the distance between operating officer and target, but this is hardly anything of a juncture in military history. Its only one more step in a historical development that has always pointed in this direction. If you're looking for a game-changer here, I would humbly point you to the introduction of artillery onto the modern battlefield.

To the contrary, I am tempted to argue that the increasing distance is a rather positive development in ethical terms. Having to implement a complex set of rules of engagement, who is more likely to implement a firing decision precisely along the lines set forth in the rules of engagement? A drone pilot who is in a position to reflect on the target and the rules and check his notes on a clipboard or the bomber pilot multitasking firing solutions and a modern fighter jet at the same time? It would appear to me that friendly as well as misdirected fire is likely to decrease would drones substitute bombers, which by the way, they have not on a great scale, precisely because their payload is limited.

One final comment here, if I may. I have often been confronted with the argument that the number of civilian casualties is on the rise because drones are being used (I'll pick that apart next), yet the very same people often argue that drones exhibit the sort of “clean” warfare, which they consider a big moral fallacy. All I am saying to my critics here is: you cannot have it both ways. Either more people die and as a consequence the sort of warfare for which drones are being made is less “clean”, or it is in some way “cleaner” but that would have to entail fewer casualties.

The Civilian Casualties and Morality-Argument
Much of the criticism against the use of drones is based on the idea that their use leads to an exceedingly great number of civilian casualties. Yet, many who criticise drones fail to make an important distinction. While it is true that the number of casualties of non-combatants in relation to combatants increases, the overall number of casualties is in fact declining and dramatically so. That is of tremendous importance, since drones are first and foremost instruments – nothing more, nothing less.

In reverse order: Against the background of the public outcry over drones and the number of civilian casualties their payload can inflict, it is important to remind people how few people actually die. I am often being accused of callousness on that account, but as a historical reality it cannot possibly be denied that the war on terror outside Afghanistan has produced practically so few deaths that it has barely qualifies as a war at all. Nobody knows for certain how many people have been killed by the use of drones, but even the greatest critics don't think the number exceeds five thousand. For a global war that lasts for more than a decade that is a historical low. Just to give you a sense of proportion, the Vietnam war left more than four million dead. If this represents a new form of warfare, which I doubt, it would have to be welcomed on moral and ethical terms, that is as long as you believe that killing fewer people in wartime is something good (which a surprising number of pacifists don't).

At the same time the relation between death among combatants and non-combatants among the casualties is in fact changing. Now that might be considered something of a juncture, only that I would caution against that as well. The reason that more non-combatants die in relation to combatants has less, actually nothing to do with the specific military instrument that is being chosen, but with the nature of the target itself. Terrorists don't appear in large infantry formations. By the very nature of their business they hide often enough among civilians. Sometimes they might even deliberately seek the protection of civilians, which is why it is important to remember one thing: We still measure success by how few people we kill, terrorists do the exact opposite. Terrorists could be targeted by other weapons, but any twenty kilo-bomb or cruise missile inevitably would have killed more people. So clearly, its the nature of the enemy that is the problem, not the drone itself.

Now, it might reasonably be asked whether terrorists should be targeted by military means at all. But that is part and parcel of an overall argument on the war on terror and not an argument that can be directed against a specific instrument of warfare. I will make try to make an additional comment here, which is at least indirectly linked to the argument I am picking on. There is a major inconsistency in the arguments that critics of drones usually put forward:

Some have argued that the use of drones is an unlawful execution of suspects, who are entitled to due process. The premise of this argument is that fighting terrorists is a law-enforcement challenge. I still disagree with that premise—which is an altogether different topic—but critics argue in essence that drones are being used in what they consider a police-mission. Yet, it is often the exact same people that argue that in pursuance of the war on terror, the intelligence services operating drones are being militarised. For consistency's sake, please pick a side.

The Threshold to War-Argument
One of the arguments my friend confronted me with is that drones lower the threshold to war. This argument is often being made and particularly within the German debate this has been put forward with deafening repetition, see here and here. (Just one suggestions here, issues of war and warfare is among the areas the church should really shut up about.) In fact, recent publications on that matter by the German churches rather indicate that they have absolutely no clue. Nevertheless the argument has been made and it goes somewhat like this: Because drone strikes do not risk the life of the pilot, the threshold for entering a war is being lowered. There are a number of problems with this hypothesis:

1. The only war currently being fought predominantly with drones is the war on terror or long war, as some prefer to call it. It is important to keep in mind that the onset of this war predates the use of drones. It took a while before drones turned into the instrument of choice in pursuing this war. Drones are a typical example of how warfare can drive innovation, just as the tank was only introduced in World War I after the war started to deal with trench warfare, drones were developed for a particular challenge: the need to limit casualties among non-combatants.

2. For the hypothesis to be true, the threshold for going to war would have had to be lower in the wars the United States or the West were involved in ever since the war on terror began. Now, that certainly is not the case. Neither the war in Iraq, nor the intervention in Libya were launched because drones were available. In fact, both wars were being pursued by and large with the traditional arsenal of modern armies. In response one could limit the argument to saying that drones lowered the threshold in military confrontations that are of a smaller scale, what a little while ago was being dubbed military action other than war. But here again the thesis does not live up to evidence. The U.S. is currently involved in the hunt for warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army in the Central African Republic (CAR), Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Chad. But this military involvement, which was undertaken only after drones became available, is being executed by special forces, not with drones.

3. Finally, everybody with even the slightest idea of war and warfare knows that wars by their very nature are unpredictable and can easily escalate. When NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999 it limited itself to an air campaign, yet the danger of eventually having to go in on the ground loomed large. The same danger of escalation is present in any military confrontation, even if the military action is initially being pursued by limited means only. Its the inherent nature of war that they tend to escalate, or as Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defence of the United States put it in one of his famous rules: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Put differently, any power entering any military scenario needs to be aware that it might not be able to limit the confrontation. And though it might sometimes feel otherwise, most military advisers, and believe it or not, politicians are.

What Critics Fail to See
After having picked on the arguments that are usually being hurled at me by the critics of drones, I feel the need to say that I actually do have problems with the use of drones. Its just that the critics are so bone-headed that they fail to see what the problems with drones are. There are three problems, which I would like to explain in a little more detail:

1. In the war on terror, drones have been used on an ever-increasing scale. The number of drone attacks has increased sharply (somewhat around tenfold) ever since Barack Obama entered office. They have indeed turned into a instrument of choice. Their success in taking out al-Qaeda operatives is so impressive that the U.S. administration felt little need to evaluate the war on terror itself. The result is devastating. While drones can (and should) be an instrument in implementing a strategy against al-Qaeda ad/or radical terrorist networks, they have in fact been used as a substitute for a strategy. This is troubling, since it has allowed the Obama-administration to ignore the most important task of civilian leadership in wartime: setting strategic objectives.

2. Drones have had a troubling impact on intelligence. I have argued elsewhere that the availability of drones has created a bias towards the collection and in fact over-reliance on signal intelligence. Yet the war on terror has demonstrated time and again that what is needed is far more human intelligence, particularly when it comes to designating someone a legitimate target for a drone attack. So far the U.S. administration has done little to rectify this structural bias.

3. Here is a Rumsfeld rule worth knowing: “The secretary of defense is not a super general or admiral. His task is to exercise civilian control over the department for the commander in chief and the country.“ In execution of the war on terror the state of civilian control has been troubling. Executing a decidedly military programme such as the drone programme through the CIA does not strike me as advantageous for the indispensable civilian control. On a cautionary note, however, the administration is trying to rectify that and move the programme to the Department of Defense. And while on matters of national security Senator Rand Paul is often a bit nutty, his recent filibuster demonstrates that it is still the Republican party that is controlled by civilian supremacists.

Even though these problems need further elaboration, it seems pretty clear to me that drones—just like any other weapons-system—have their upsides and downsides. But in pursuing the war on terror it might actually be the right weapon. In politics as in warfare, it is often a question of alternatives.

Mittwoch, 17. April 2013

Freedom in Turkey Is At Stake


What happens in Turkey at the moment is really worrisome. Fazil Say, a pianist, was sentenced to ten month suspended prison time because of, get this, blasphemy. Blasphemy legislation exists in many states and it is still formally on the books in many European countries and my native Germany rather shamefully is amongst these states. Yet, it is also impossible to implement. After all, it always requires someone to judge where freedom of expression ends because of the religious sensitivities of someone else. This can hardly ever be done in any objectively just way. It is also idiotic, since progress and reason always have had to overcome religion and superstition, the confrontation with religious belief is inevitable for anyone seeking scientific and social progress. Blasphemy laws are hence nothing less than a barrier to innovation and even more importantly to freedom of expression, mind and press.

It is needless to say that the West should strongly remind Turkey that this is taking the country in the wrong direction. One can easily imagine the smirk on Erdogan's face when he was asked to comment on this bizarre case. But it is equally worrisome that Western nations are not commenting at all or, when they do, along the lines of the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, who seems to fail grasping the serious consequences of any such sentence.

Donnerstag, 4. April 2013

German Pumas for the US Army?


This is a tiny bit of news from the defence nerd news department. We all know that acquisition processes of new weapons systems are usually a nightmare. Or at least nightmarish. Development takes far too long, introduction is usually bumpy and the military rarely ever receives what it originally had ordered. And when the government took a decision on what the new system should cost it is quite a fair bet to predict its going to be way more expensive. Take the acquisition of the A400M, for instance, the transport plane that is supposed to provide strategic air lift capabilities to Germany and a number of allies. Its way behind schedule and bloody expensive.

Since this is hardly a new problem, one is left to wonder why acquisition processes are so difficult to fix. The United States thought the development of single platforms that could be used by all services would be a way out: driving up the number of systems to be acquired thereby driving down costs. That hasn't worked exactly well, as the Joint Strike Fighter Programme demonstrates. Since European countries face stark austerity measures, many European policy-makers think its time to buy “off the shelf”, i.e. acquiring systems that are already developed oftentimes by foreign manufacturers. This has the obvious disadvantage of labour unions hating it and domestic producers pointing to devastating losses in domestic industrial capabilities and knowledge.

Yet, the austerity measures are unprecedented and the number of systems to be acquired has become so small that it hardly makes sense to produce virtually everything domestically. Even the United States are facing similar problems. The CBO has now offered its take on the acquisition of a replacement for the U.S.' ageing fleet of Bradley fighting vehicles [pdf]. It argues that the current programme—the Ground Combat Vehicle—is far too expensive and that alternatives exist. The two alternatives most noteworthy are the Israel Namer and German Puma. And here is the funny thing, if you will. Even though the Puma has less capacity for a platoon than all the alternatives and more vehicles would have to fielded if it were chosen to replace the Bradley, it would still be cheaper than the GCV programme or its alternatives.

Will the United States buy off the shelf? In all probability not. Imagine the Senators and Congressmen from constituencies that produce the Bradley. They will cry foul once they read the CBO's report. And killing a programme once it has commenced—and the GCV is still alive—is incredibly hard. Take for a moment Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte's—herself a Hawk—campaign against the Medium Extended Air Defence System (MEADS), which will be developed fully but in all likelihood not be acquired by the United States. And the other two partners in MEADS have yet to decide when to introduce it and on what scale. So this report might make a lot of sense, but don't get your hopes up. In reality, no one in NATO is ready as of yet to buy off the shelf.

Mittwoch, 12. September 2012

Iran--And Yet Another Step to Becoming Nuclear Power


The Iranian nuclear programme continues to expand. Hardly anyone still doubts that Iran is at least trying to achieve a breakout-capability. A capability that would basically put all pieces into place, so that the construction of a bomb could be finished on short notice. The last report by the IAEA on the implementation of the Safeguard Agreements clearly indicates that Iran is making dramatic progress and the ISIS is arguing that it is time for the Security Council [pdf] to take up the issue again. Its fairly obvious that the crisis does not present a single good option, yet the debate in academia and international relations has shifted considerably over the past few months. More and more analysts seem to perceive the task at hand as one of avoiding war and not avoiding another nuclear power entering the fray. And that is a problem in itself.  

Dienstag, 11. September 2012

Is a Ceasefire With the Taleban Possible?


This RUSI report [pdf] occupied me for the last hour or so and I thought it worth sharing. Now, by and large I have enormous respect for RUSI and most of what is being published there is outstanding. This report, however, is a bit awkward, though not necessarily misguided. It is kind of strange to see four scholars interviewing four Taleban or Taleban-associated players and coming away with some very general, far-reaching conclusions. Basically that it is time to negotiate a ceasefire with the Taleban, a ceasefire, moreover, that would only need Mullah Omar's endorsement to take hold. There are a couple of things that give me pause. On facebook a colleague pointed out how strange it is for a Taleban-associated political player to use a reference to the British Tory-LibDem government to compare the inner workings of the Afghan Taleban. And in fact it is. If its an accurate portrayal of the conversation, the interviewee is probably living in the UK, which raises some questions on which authority he can actually give insight into the inner workings of the organisation. I have argued repeatedly, and so have many other before and after me, that there is actually no Taleban. The Taleban are a highly fractured movement and it remains debatable to what extent Mullah Omar actually is in control. Omar, that much the report does acknowledge, would hardly be in a position to speak for the Haqqani network, operating out of Pakistan. And how a ceasefire would translate to Pakistani politics in the region is an entirely different, though highly important question. Can the Taleban maintain any cohesion once the war comes to a hold, or would it not fracture even more and hence render the ceasefire useless in the first place? This, after all, is a war we find ourselves in, but its not a war that will end with our withdrawal. And the report does not go into detail when it comes to the areas that actually are in control of the Taleban. There, it seems, the group is imposing policies that would take the country right back to the 1990s (and theirs wasn't the good nineties). But even if this report accurately reflects the position of some Taleban figures, it leaves some open questions, all of them hard to untangle. Would the Taleban be willing to demobilise? Probably not. Would the Taleban acknowledge secular law? Surely not. Would the Taleban, if the would allow elections, allow women to vote? Almost certainly not. Would the Taleban allow for non-Muslims to run for office? You want to hold your breath? The bottom line is this: Some negotiations will have to take place and sooner rather than later. But this report reads a little to perfect to be accurate.


Remembering 9/11


Eleven years ago, Salman Rushdie offered one of the best takes on 9/11 and it is always worth re-reading, as Rushdie is in general: "The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love." I find it re-assuring that today more people can enjoy these freedoms than they could eleven years ago. 

Donnerstag, 23. August 2012

On the state of the Romney Campaign and Why Obama might just win


Had Romney called a press conference and called for Congressman Todd Akin to leave the Missouri Senate race immediately and not waited for a reporter to put that question to him, he might have had a little more influence on Akin's calculus to stay in the election. But he did not, which speaks to a more general problem of the Romney campaign. I've been looking for a strategy behind the Romney campaign and I couldn't find one. Normally I would have expected that Romney, like any presidential candidate, would steer to the middle once the primaries came to a close. In order to re-assure his base, he could have picked a real conservative. But Romney did the latter, without doing the first. Which leaves me wondering, is the Romney campaign seriously thinking that they can win without winning the middle? I am just saying, Todd Akin is going to feed the newscycle as long as he remains a viable candidate. And he did not misspeak, his legitimately idiotic views are views he really holds.