Stop the Momentum, Stop IS

When I took my first management course, we called companies or businesses that have to keep moving to stay alive ‘bicycle’ organisations. They have to be in continual motion not just for the sake of growth, but for sheer survival. Stop pedalling and everyone will simply fall off. I believe that the so-called Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL, is like this. Without momentum it will lose its key attraction. Without movement it will, if not die, certainly shrink and, with luck, lose its appeal to our young men and women.

We were right to degrade IS’s capabilities from the air and to arm its natural enemies, such as the Kurds of Northern Iraq. Our efforts forced IS to lose towns in both Iraq and Syria, but the dangerous and clever men who run IS knew they had to keep moving and keep the images of their vehicles storming into new territory with their black flags flying. They capitalised on the Iraqi Army’s lack of leadership, balance and motivation and retook the Sunni heartland’s capital, Ramadi. They then saw the empty desert between them and Palmyra and crashed mercilessly into that ancient city, once again making a mockery of international borders.

Thus, we must deny IS their momentum, and ‘we’ means ‘us,’ for this is our war in a way in which Iraq never was. This matters to both the USA and to Europe, not only due to the overt threat of returning jihadists carrying violence back to their home countries, but now because of the flood of refugees risking the seas from Libya, Syria and elsewhere, however flimsy their boats might be. The high number of refugees raises the threat of not all of them wanting to make a better life for themselves and their families. Some, like the occupants of the Trojan Horse, want to wreak havoc wherever they land. The threat of dangerous militants posing as refugees in order to cross borders is a credible concern.

So, this matters to a curiously disengaged USA and a Europe, as ever, divided among itself as to what can, should, or will be done. This is our war, but still one we must not fight on the ground if we are not to repeat the lessons of the hubristic invasion of Iraq and the ill-conceived toppling of Colonel Qaddafi in Libya. The Middle East, as The Economist said on June 5th, is in turmoil, largely following our actions. Tunisia may be going well, but Egypt is going back to the future after the disastrous Mohammad Mursi government; Saudi Arabia’s new ailing king is more concerned about the succession and is embroiled in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, which, like Libya is in the throes of civil war. Lebanese and Jordanian societies are becoming overwhelmed by incredible, unabsorbable numbers of refugees and Iraq and Syria are breaking apart into their Ottoman Empire components. There is danger and uncertainty everywhere, and this goes without even mentioning the situation in Afghanistan.

President Obama seems disengaged, perhaps deliberately so, reflecting the mood of his fellow citizens against more overseas wars. Ever since he failed to respond to the Assad regime crossing his 2012 ‘red line’ with 1,000 deaths from nerve gas in August 2013, Obama has stood back and done little. I still believe he and we were right not to intervene in Syria after this appalling breach of humanity’s norms. It is easy now to look back and say we should have armed the ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels. It was harder to see them in 2013, and we would surely have ended up arming non-moderates – even those who became adherents of IS. No fly zones were the best and only option we had, but we chose not to do that.

The critics say that Obama has become fixated on the nuclear deal with Iran and does not want anything to jeopardise it. If it works, it will be an important achievement. However, it should have been combined with more forcefulness, or even just forceful rhetoric, about other regional issues. Iran thinks it has a free hand in Iraq, where the irony of the modern world places the US, Europe and Iran on the same side, in the short term at least. This is also true to a large extent in Yemen, where it is difficult to see any good outcome for the majority of the hapless Yemenis. Certainly in Iraq, the government of Al-Abadi seems as dependent on Iran from the military point of view as the previous government of Al-Maliki became from the political point of view. Yet another consequence of Obama’s putative inaction is the worsening relations with the United States’ closest regional ally, Israel.

But if it all does matter, the United States’ growing energy self-sufficiency notwithstanding, where should the United States go from here?

We must stop IS’s momentum with continued degradation of its capability through air strikes. We must continue to arm those we trust and train those we trust more. While it is hard to see the Sunni monarchies combining on the ground with Al Abadi’s Shia’a government and army, especially now that it is almost led by Iranian commanders, we must press for regional military action. IS’s brand of Sunni extremism threatens even the Sunni fundamentalist state of Saudi Arabia, as we have seen by the attacks on Shia’a targets in the oil rich Eastern Province. The reaction of the government in Riyadh has been unimpressive, as they are undoubtedly too concerned with Yemen. These states must be encouraged to aid Al-Abadi’s government in return for the greater inclusivity in Iraq which he promised, even if that aid does not extend to Gulf Sunni troops fighting alongside Iraq and Iranian Shia’a.

If we can find a moderate opposition in Syria, and I am not sure how we do that, then we should support it before another Iranian military support effort succeeds in stiffening the pro-Assad army. We should ease our distaste at the anti-democratic government in Cairo and begin to improve relations with it. Egypt is still the pivotal country in the region in terms of size, military capability, Islamic tradition and cultural influence.

Finally, Obama would do well to grit his teeth and improve relations with Israel, rather than leave this as the first Middle East policy initiative of whoever his successor will be. Israel, under Netanyahu, does itself no favours by sticking to its linear model of its ‘enemies’ and by refusing to see the difference between capability, threat, intention and effectiveness in the complex, nonlinear, mosaic that the Middle East has become. Despite all this, Israel is a strong, traditional ally and deserves to be defended, encouraged and cajoled.

These are not startling insights, and they echo the recommendations from the Washington Institute for Near East policy, but I do believe they represent the only viable way forward, a way to kill the momentum of IS and others. For if we do not, the lesson surely is that things will only get worse in terms of the threat to our well- being, security and prosperity. We had little time a year ago, and we have even less now.

David Handley.

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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