Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave!

The last UK combat troops have left Afghanistan, as have their US counterparts, and debate on this side of the Atlantic is turning to whether UK troops have the capability to intervene now in Syria or Iraq against the Islamic State (IS) and, more acutely, whether we should.

The discussion began after we started the air strikes against IS, and then gave arms and training to the Kurds, and it continued when all the experts said that air strikes alone would not defeat this enemy. But there are a number of questions in this particular confused web, apart from the issue of our boots on the ground. Should we talk to Bashar al Assad about coordinating efforts against the IS? What should we do about Iran, whose aims and objectives in Iraq overlap to some extent with ours? We have seen the hugely ironic coincidence of Syrian, Iraqi and NATO aircraft all flying over Iraq and Syria with the same mission, to degrade the extreme Sunni forces of IS. Iran is giving military advice and support to the Iraqi Shi’a dominated government, as are the US and other NATO allies. So, NATO, Iran and Syria all wish to see the Sunni IS defeated, whilst we are trying to persuade the new and much delayed Shi’a government in Baghdad to include and consider the Iraqi Sunnis, but only the moderates.

And then we have one NATO member, Turkey, moving significant forces to its border with Syria and then doing little, if anything, to help the Syrian Kurds defend their towns and territory against IS. Doing nothing, and seemingly saying that the US and other NATO members could launch air strikes against IS from Turkish air fields, and then changing their mind. There is a little movement in the Turkish position lately in allowing passage to some Kurdish troops across its territory to join the fight against IS. President Erdogan says the clear objective should be the overthrow of the Assad regime in Damascus, and that is why Turkey is standing back, because other NATO members seems to be reinforcing Assad in their fight against IS. Erdogan says little about the more likely driving force behind his inactivity, the age old Turkish fear of the actions and desires of the Turkish Kurdish population, now watching the growing autonomy, if not independence of their brothers and sisters in Iraq and to some extent in Syria. Turkey likes the current nature of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, given its overwhelming need for Kurdish oil and gas and the Iraqi Kurds overwhelming desire for their own dedicated pipeline through Turkey, but Ankara fears and distrusts any moves to a greater Kurdistan.

Finally there is the appalling issue of the hostages taken by IS and whether we should negotiate for their release by offering money or other things such as exchange of prisoners for hostages. Some countries do negotiate and make deals with IS. The UK does not, we never have at government level, although like many other countries we have a flourishing ‘kidnap for ransom’ business sector. Should we stand on our principles whilst our citizens are beheaded, or does the horror of it all make negotiation worth the price of encouraging further kidnappings?

So the strands in the web are clearly visible: our dislike for the Shi’a linked Assad regime in Syria; our suspicion and to some extent fear of the largest Shia’a state Iran, which threatens security in the Persian Gulf, Israel and the security of oil supplies from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Oil, which is still important to the West, even with the growing US home based production;, the need for the Iraqi Shi’a government of Al-Abadi to include Sunni ministers with meaningful portfolios, reform the discredited and poorly led Iraqi Armed Forces and give the Sunni part of the Iraqi population a feeling that their voices will be heard and listened to in Baghdad in way that they never were under the Al Maliki governments; what position should we take towards the future of Iraq, even we defeat IS, if the movements towards Kurdish independence and Sunni autonomy grow stronger, and then, where I began, how do we defeat IS without getting our own troops involved?

A long and difficult list to which I have no certain answers, but only opinions. Air strikes only will not defeat IS, but any troops should be from Iraq and the near region, not from NATO. That will be hard to achieve, given the attitudes of and towards the Sunni governments with money and troops to spare, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar. It is hard to see troops from these states fighting alongside the Shi’a dominated Iraqi Army, to say nothing of whether Iranian troops could be kept away. So, the best option is to encourage, support and train a more inclusive, professionally led Iraqi Army, but immediately. Then the Iraqi Sunnis should feel able to prosper within Iraqi and moderate Sunni leaders must be encouraged to take their place in the Iraqi governmental infrastructure. Most people everywhere just want to live secure and safe lives, working for themselves and their families free from fear and interference, Arabs are no different. We should strive to keep the geography of Iraq as it is today, but a more autonomous federation of Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish regions within a more equitable whole. And we should not negotiate with terrorists, and that is what the IS is, to free our citizens, however dreadful the consequences.

The second part of Sir Walter Scott’s couplet, “oh what a tangled web we weave”, is “when first we practise to deceive” and, given our leading role in creating the flawed state that is post Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and our prevarication over what could or should have been done in Syria 2 years ago, over how to deal with the post Mubarak Egypt and our responsibility for the mess that is Libya today, and over where red lines may or may not be, we should stop deceiving ourselves at least.

The big deception was to think we could impose pluralist governments in Iraq and elsewhere. We said we would bring democracy, without thinking what that meant. Our push for pluralism merely imposed the dictatorship of the majority over the minority, as it will do again and again in the divided sectarian, tribal and religious driven countries in the region. Iraq is the prime example, but we saw it with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and we see it in Libya. The ballot box does not guarantee democracy, but it can legitimise the dictatorship of the majority.

Democracy is about building institutions, not like ours, but fit for purpose in the the countries concerned, where they can give the population confidence that they can speak freely and that their voices will be heard. That the rule of law applies to all citizens and exists to defend rights not to underpin the well being of the ruling elite. That corruption will be recognised and not denied. The list of things to achieve is long before democracy can be said to exist. Elections and the triumph of this factional party or the other are in many ways the end and not the beginning. Let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that we offer a political example for other countries to follow, but rather do what we can to encourage with an open velvet gloved hand the moderate elements in each place our iron fist has touched.

Social Media’s Role in the Operational Environment

Combined Endeavor 2011Recent years have seen the transition of social media from a source of entertainment, a way to share photos and funny videos with friends and family members, to a powerful tool for change at the regional and national level. The Arab Spring of 2011 witnessed uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, fueled by the use of social media, resulting in the toppling of several governments. More recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) conducted a well-funded, professionally developed social media campaign in its blitz across Iraq, which helped them increase recruitment, raise funds and expand their reach to a widespread audience.

With the move to Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF), ground forces could find themselves deployed across the globe within hours of being alerted. These environments will be dynamic and can rapidly change with the presence of U.S. Forces. It is critical that Commanders have the ability to gain and maintain an understanding of the local population beyond traditional forms of Intelligence.

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The New New Game

The competition between Russia and Britain for control of Central Asia and environs, including Afghanistan, was termed “The Great Game.” It lasted roughly from 1813 to 1907 and beyond. It was waged for national prestige and economic gain – and because India was a jewel in the British Crown. That is, it was about power, real and perceived.

The phrase “New Great Game” has been used more than once. In one instance it was used as shorthand for the competition between Russia, China, and various western powers for political influence and access to the raw materials of Central Asia in the post Soviet era. It has also been used for U.S. involvement in Central Asia during the Soviet and post Soviet eras, especially since 9/11.

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The Role of the SME: Making Military Exercises Relevant and Realistic

After 20 years in the U.S. Army and 30 in the U.S. Foreign Service – including two tours of duty as a U.S. ambassador – I’ve been involved in numerous civil-military exercises since I retired in 2012. In particular, I was asked to help prepare the military to work effectively in a post-Afghanistan environment.

Organizations operate like they train. So, it’s important that training is relevant and realistic to make sure our young men and women, in and out of uniform, are prepared for future challenges. This is especially important for the military after the final withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan – now scheduled for the end of 2016.

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ISIS: Our intelligence and security services have failed, so let’s give them more money

Intelligence has failed us again. 9/11, Bali, Istanbul, Madrid, London, Iraq and its missing weapons of mass destruction, Afghanistan and now ISIS – can all be seen as intelligence failures. ISIS did not come out of nowhere. For 18 months, they have been gathering money and recruits, exploiting social media and developing a clear strategy. All these activities are the daily grind for our intelligence and security agencies, so why did we not know what they were going to do, how quickly they could move or how appealing they would be to young people?

Yes, sometimes failure is complicated. Take 9/11 for example. It was easy in retrospect to identify all the relevant dots of information and draw a line from the Twin Towers to Afghanistan. Not a straight line, but from New York, Washington, New Jersey, Boston, Florida, Germany, Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan. Those responsible were taking flying lessons, renting houses with cash, moving money around from Europe to the U.S. via the Middle East. We also had prior doubts about some of the individuals involved. The clues were there, so where was the intelligence?

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Cyberspace: The New Domain in the Contemporary Operating Environment

cyberwar imageCyberspace – a vast, complex and dynamic environment that has significantly altered the battlespace of the 21st Century.

It is empowering non-state actors, creating new vulnerabilities and combining with other technologies and trends in unpredictable and dangerous ways. The cyber domain offers adversaries the opportunity to gather and share intelligence and data, shape perceptions and affect physical operations.

Cyber is not just a war between computer networks, it is a virtual human world (social media) and a potential weapon or vulnerability that affects every other aspect of warfare and security.

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What the Hell is the “Moderate Syrian Opposition?”

Anthony Russo

Photo courtesy of Anthony Russo in NYT

“The moderate Syrian opposition” is ruining the debate over U.S. policy on Syria. It is an essentially meaningless phrase that has taken the place of any thoughtful consideration. It is useful, though, insofar as it informs the listener that the speaker: a) has no idea what he is talking about, or b) does not want the listener to know what he is talking about.

There is nothing moderate about civilian populations taking up arms against their state. That is an act of total, zealous commitment. So when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in an August 29 New York Times editorial, “We need to support Iraqi forces and the moderate Syrian opposition” against ISIS, what did he mean?

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