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Double Trouble: American Strategic Options Regarding ISIS

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On September 10, President Barak Obama announced that he had ordered the United States military to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State (known as ISIS and ISIL).  He said, “Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy…  That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”  Many well-known former US officials, both Democrat and Republican, were quick to share their opinions regarding how the President’s plan might be adjusted to ensure success.  The recommendations offered by a number of these senior officials, however, exposes a troubling lack of understanding of critical on-the-ground fundamentals and an almost disregard for a decade’s worth of physical evidence.  If this advice were to be acted upon in the future, the current bad situation could deteriorate into disaster.

One week after the speech, former Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced his disapproval of the President’s vow that the mission would not result in American “boots on the ground.”  The reality, he said on CBS This Morning, is that “they're not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own…  So there will be boots on the ground if there's to be any hope of success in the strategy.”  Former Democratic President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, shared a very different opinion about the use of ground troops.

On September 23 he told a CNN audience he believed the mission would require “an extended involvement with air power and with providing intelligence and other institutional support to the people who are fighting ISIS… I actually think in this case the…strategy has a chance to succeed…  We don't need to be there on the ground and I don't think it means a land war in Iraq."  There was one important point on which both men agreed: both maintained the mission could succeed if President Obama would only follow their advice.  Current conditions in the region and an analysis of numerous wars and battles over the past two decades, however, suggest that both are wrong.

Consider a few critical facts regarding the situation with ISIS before US airstrikes began.  Many of the members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have a decade or more experience in fighting insurgent and guerilla warfare.  As most know, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has fought against the US in Iraq since 2003.  al-Baghdadi and his men are well acquainted with the capabilities and limitations of American air power, and critically, how to survive it by burrowing deeper into civilian areas.

Further, and of greater significance to the current situation, since 9/11 there has been no location in the world where modern air power – even when complemented with hundreds of thousands of ground troops – has militarily defeated a committed insurgent enemy.  The list is long and painful: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and others.

Many in recent months have argued that the 2007 surge in Iraq “set the conditions” for success in Iraq, but the Obama Administration’s inability to keep 10,000 US troops there after 2011 was, as former Army General Jack Keane recently said, “an absolute strategic failure.” Such claims, however, do not stand up to examination.  An analysis of the 2007 Iraq surge and scrutiny of the current situation in Afghanistan explains why this claim is dubious at best.

In combination with the tactical cooperation of Sunni tribes, the 2007 Iraq surge succeeded in reducing the violence by the near-destruction of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  But as has been well chronicled in recent weeks, AQI wasn’t destroyed.  It merely limped off to reform itself, learned from its mistakes, and renamed itself Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).  In 2013 ISI moved across the border into Syria to fight in the civil war, changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by February of this year launched an offensive, eventually capturing large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

As I explained in a 2010 analysis, however, it wasn’t primarily the 20,000 additional ground troops the US sent to Baghdad that dramatically reduced the violence.  Then-Colonel Sean MacFarland was the commander of 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division said, “I give huge credit to the Iraqis who stood up to al-Qaida. Maybe 75 to 80 percent of the credit for the success of the counterinsurgency fight in Ramadi goes to the Iraqi people who stood up to al-Qaida and joined us in common cause… But if the Iraqi Sunnis had remained allied with al-Qaida against us, we would not have been able to achieve anything lasting or of strategic consequence.”

Even as most Western eyes were riveted on events in Iraq this summer, the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated rapidly.  In a 1 October 2014 report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman assessed the current situation in Afghanistan:  “Afghanistan is still the forgotten war at a time when the Taliban is making steady gains, civilian casualties are rising, the Afghan economy is in crisis, and there still are no clear plans for any post-2014 aspect of transition,” he wrote.  “The current realities on the ground strongly indicate that the present US approach to Transition in Afghanistan will fail at the military, political, economic, and governance levels.”

The Taliban has made these troubling gains despite the fact that, according to official NATO figures, as of September 3 there were still 28,970 American troops in Afghanistan (and a total of 41,124 NATO troops).  It is unclear upon what logic some claim that 10,000 Americans in Baghdad would have prevented ISIS from rising, when over 40,000 NATO troops and approximately 350,000 Afghan National Army troops have proven unable to prevent the Taliban from rising.

So long as an insurgent force is willing to die for their cause and the population is unwilling to turn against them, it could take more than a decade before one side or the other – or both – are exhausted to the point a negotiated settlement ends the fighting.  The ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria still has yet to reach even stasis, as illustrated by recent gains in northern Syria at Kobani and in eastern Iraq to the outskirts of Baghdad.  This extension of territory has come despite now weeks of US and allied airpower.  These gains provide stark evidence of why former President Clinton’s strategic advice of using indigenous ground troops with allied air power cannot succeed: whether it’s been the rebels in Syria, the Peshmerga in Kurdish areas, or Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq, all have proven incapable of standing firm.

I have served a total of four combat deployments in my career.  In 2009 I served as a military trainer for an Iraqi border battalion, and in 2011 on the ground throughout Afghanistan.  It is my opinion, based on all the available evidence and my own experience that if the United States follows the recommendations of either President Clinton or Secretary Gates, mission failure is the most likely outcome.

If using American air power in conjunction with unsuccessful and untrained ground fighters is likely to fail, and sending in highly trained US ground troops would likely result in a long term, bloody, and ultimately inclusive outcome, what options exist?

It is paramount that the United States set strategic objectives that can be reasonably attained.  In this current messy environment, I would recommend that the US repurpose its allied airpower to the establishment of a no-go zone some number of kilometers around all ISIS-controlled areas for the purpose of isolating ISIS and pinning it to its current territory; any ISIS forces or military vehicles that enter the zone without permission would be destroyed.  This no-go zone would be established via coordination with the US, Baghdad, and Ankara.  The Syrian regime would be informed of the location of the no-go zone in the northeastern part of their country and warned to keep their air force and ground troops from interfering or suffer a blistering coalition attack.

We would put diplomatic pressure on all the nations that border ISIS areas to effectively, aggressively control all effective logistic routes into and out of ISIS territory.  If there is a theoretical danger to the United States of ISIS-sponsored terror strikes, it is important to note the nations in and around ISIS territory face a far greater, direct threat.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular should deploy considerable numbers of ground troops at their borders to seal it so ISIS is unable to get sufficient amounts of the war-making material they need.  We might also encourage Baghdad and Riyadh to consider bolstering Iraqi troops with limited Saudi ground forces if it appears Iraq cannot adequately defend its capital city with its own troops.

Part of our diplomatic efforts should center on requiring the regional nations with the most to lose by a successful ISIS to put more skin in the game.  It appears some nations are content to let the United States expend its resources, spill its blood, in the defense of their national and regional interests.  The United States can provide the leadership and spearhead the establishment of the no-go zone, but we should insist the regional powers provide the ground troops necessary to enforce the zone and stabilize the current forward lines of contact."

Furthermore, we should increase our economic pressure on ISIS by aggressively seeking out all who do business with them and place uncomfortable pressure, if necessary, on such entities to sever ties with it.

As President Obama has already pledged, we should combine an aggressive and honest counter-social media campaign with robust Arab-led humanitarian support for all civil populations under ISIS domination for the purpose of demonstrating our support for the people.

At the same time, the United States should do more than merely ask Baghdad to form a more inclusive government; we must insist upon it.  If the United States is willing to expend its treasure, resources, and potentially blood in defense of Iraqi sovereignty (again), we must condition support on specified political developments; if ever the Sunni population in occupied areas are to turn against ISIS, they will have to be convinced Baghdad would not again abuse and marginalize them.

The ISIS fighters and leadership, meanwhile, will be denied the ability to fight their opponents on their terms.  Instead, if they venture out into the no-go zones, they will be destroyed on our terms.  As has already begun to occur, in time ISIS itself will so alienate the people under their domination – as well as some among their own group – that they lose the support or acquiescence of the local populations.  If ISIS loses the security of a pliant population and the people concurrently begin to believe their legitimate government is genuinely going to look out for their interests and give them freedoms and protections promised, ISIS’ support will eventually collapse.

It is crucial that the United States and regional nations not merely “service targets” from the air but actively seek to reduce the underlying causes of instability.  If we fail to do so, then even if by some miracle we eventually succeeded in militarily destroying ISIS, it would be a pyric victory: there would be no shortage of other groups ready and willing to take their place.  We must end the cycle of violence by applying comprehensive political, diplomatic, economic and social measures; military power has a role to play, but if the intent is to resolve the instability, military must take a subordinate role.

There has been so much damage, so many deaths, so much anguish suffered by so many, over such a long time that at this point even the best solution would require years of consistent application to bring general stability to Iraq and the Middle East at large.  But we must avoid choosing courses of action that analysis and evidence clearly indicate will likely fail.

Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the US Army.  He has deployed into combat zones four times, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm, and in 2012 was awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling. You can follow him on Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.

The opinions contained in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Army.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East

Nuclear North Korea's Next Nightmare: A Succession Crisis?

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Kim’s back on deck, albeit walking with a cane. His reappearance recently brought to an end a 40-day absence from public view, during which speculation ran rampant about what might have caused it. In response to his reappearance, international media seem to have set aside half-wishful thoughts that he might have been overthrown and returned to a theme of all’s-well-that-ends-well in Pyongyang. But it’s worth unpacking the issue of the missing Kim just a little more. True, no regime change occurred. Still, the absence was so poorly handled by the North there might well be other issues in play here besides Kim Jong-un’s health. Perhaps future absences beckon. In any event, Kim’s health matters—it’s tied up with both his authority in North Korea and the broader issue of the post-Kim North Korea.

During the leader’s absence from public view, North Korean media suggested that Kim was undergoing a course of medical treatment and had been experiencing “discomfort.” Speculation about the source of that discomfort ran thick and fast, including gout, diabetes, strained tendons, and ankle injuries. But given the unusual political circumstances of North Korea—Kim’s a young dictator trying to lock down his succession in a country about whose inner-circle politics we know almost nothing—it’s not entirely surprising that other, more sinister, explanations also received an airing. It’s probably true that if Kim Jong-un’s going to be toppled, that’ll occur while he’s still settling into the job—because if he makes it through the early years he’ll probably be there for decades. So any unexplained absence of the leader is bound to draw attention—hence the occasional bursts of black humor that Kim’s discomfort might have been caused by a “nine-millimeter headache.”

But there was always a large element of wishful thinking in believing that a regime change had unfolded in North Korea without anyone noticing. And throughout Kim’s absence, as Susan Rice, the US National Security Adviser said at the weekend, there was no actual evidence that he’d been deposed: no signs of a power struggle; no tanks in the streets of Pyongyang. Even the short-notice visit of a high-powered delegation to Seoul suggested that someone was in control and making the principal decisions.

But Kim’s absence matters in ways that go beyond the simple possibility of regime change. So far the image Kim Jong-un’s been building is of an energetic, youthful leader—a decisive personality able to wait out his enemies both foreign and domestic. Tennyson said that authority forgets a dying king, so it’s reasonable to conclude that it has at least some short-term memory lapses about a debilitated one. A prolonged absence—or repeated absences—will do more than feed international speculation about whether dark deeds have been perpetrated by Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick. It’ll paint inside North Korea the picture of a vulnerable leader. That’d be a problem for Kim—and not especially helpful for the rest of us hoping to see clear North Korean decisions in relation to a resumption of talks about the North’s nuclear program and a “grand bargain” about the program’s dismantlement.

Moreover, we shouldn’t overlook the bigger questions concerning the future of leadership in North Korea. Here, I would recommend readers have a look at Scott Snyder’s excellent post. Kim’s young: he has no heir in the traditional line of succession, and won’t have one for at least a couple of decades. During his absence, media tended to focus a little more upon his sister, Kim Yo Jong. But most of her influence probably derives from her brother. In short, for many years to come Kim’s going to be staring down the barrel of a succession crisis, with no obvious successor.

Kim’s recent absence is a potent reminder of the political difficulties that a dictatorship like North Korea confronts. And yes, we’re talking here about the future leadership of a nuclear-armed country. The issue’s a serious and multi-layered one: thinking about Kim’s absence in the “Where’s Wally?” framework doesn’t quite capture it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist where this piece first appeared

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

The Air War Against ISIS: The Deciding Factor

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On the first night of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, U.S. warplanes were not alone. They were accompanied by several others in the anti-ISIS coalition, including fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is a big deal.

Over several decades, the United States has provided advanced equipment and world-class training for partner nations, including the five mentioned above. These investments have been controversial at times, but now they are having significant payoffs. The continued participation of Middle Eastern states in anti-ISIS operations is crucial for their long-term success, and it has far-reaching implications for U.S. leadership throughout the world.

With U.S. help, these air forces have made tremendous progress. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have purchased very capable aircraft from the United States. UAE F-16s, for example, are superior in many respects to the United States’ legacy F-16s. In addition to providing advanced equipment, the United States has encouraged participation in the most realistic training exercises, including the flagship Red Flag exercise in Nevada (where I had the opportunity to observe U.A.E. training personally).

Another major development is the Gulf Air Warfare Center in U.A.E., which has grown steadily since its establishment in 2000 to become a leader in tactical training. Its “Iron Falcon”exercise comes complete with dedicated aircraft that act as the enemy, excellent planning and briefing facilities, and tracking and debriefing technology that allows the participants to visualize how the battle unfolded—and identify what they could do better.

The payoff for these investments came last month when Middle Eastern air forces participated in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. As a U.S. Air Force weapons and tactics instructor, I have helped to plan numerous raids and strikes similar to this one. Prior to my experiences with partner nations at Red Flag, I would have argued against having them participate on a first-night strike where precise execution is critical for both safety and mission accomplishment. I simply would not have trusted the Middle Eastern air forces to be where they were supposed to be.

My opinion of them changed as I watched their growth in realistic training scenarios. These air forces prepared well in peacetime, and when war came, they were ready. They have acquitted themselves well against ISIS, and their performance shows how much progress they have made since partnering with the United States.

Solid tactics cannot win wars in the absence of good strategy; this is another reason why these nations’ participation is critical. If we are to “destroy” ISIS, it will not be accomplished with military power. Instead, the ideology that fuels ISIS must be soundly rejected by people around the world, and most importantly, it must be disavowed by Sunnis in the Middle East. Having adherents of Sunni Islam participate in attacking ISIS sends a powerful message to the rest of the Sunni world that the teachings of ISIS are flat wrong. It also sent a message to others that Middle Eastern countries are willing to stand against ISIS, making it much more palatable to join a coalition that has now grown to over forty members.

As they participate in operations against ISIS, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE are also sending a very important message to Iran, their neighbor across the Gulf. These countries now have very credible air defenses—in many ways superior to Iran’s—that are interoperable with western countries such as the United States and France, as well as with each other. This creates a powerful balancing effect in the Gulf, one that works to stabilize the world economy.

This success also enhances U.S. credibility with our allies and potential partners. As we look forward to an increasingly interconnected world where instability in far-flung places can have global implications, developing effective partnerships is crucial, because the United States cannot be everywhere all the time. Over years of building partnerships around the globe, we have proven that the U.S. is a good “friend.” This year, U.S. Airmen have helped to increase the capabilities of air forces around the globe, including in exercises such as Max Thunder in Korea, Commando Sling and Pitch Black in Australia, Red Flag-Alaska in the Pacific, and the Tactical Leadership Program in NATO. In addition, the main Red Flag program in Nevada continues to host our partners. These programs have developed positive momentum, and they are working well.

Finally, several press reports highlighted the fact that the UAE flight leader on the first night of airstrikes was female. This brings up a more subtle point: it is not inconsequential that UAE military leaders have watched female fighter pilots from the United States perform on an equal level with their male counterparts in demanding training scenarios. Every time a member of the U.S. military interacts with our partners, it provides an opportunity to influence them for good. Our people provide living examples of how a professional military can show deference to civilian leaders, provide opportunities for its members, and treat all with dignity and respect. This potent combination of hard and soft power works to lift up others, which is both in our self interest and the right thing to do. We need to keep doing it.

Colonel Clint Hinote, U.S. Air Force, is a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He holds a PhD in military strategy, and he recently returned from Korea, where he commanded the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base.  The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Defense in Depth here

TopicsISIS RegionsUnited States

America's Real Pivot: Time For a Treaty Alliance With Vietnam?

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Last week, after the Obama administration’s decision to begin selling Vietnam limited amounts of lethal arms, a shift in the policy that has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War, I noted in a blog post that I believed the administration had made the right move, despite Vietnam’s serious—and worsening—rights abuses. Administration officials note that any further lethal arms sales, and closer relations with Vietnam and the Vietnamese military, will be contingent on Vietnam making progress in tolerating dissent of all types. Indeed, according to a report on the lethal arms sales in the New York Times:

The State Department emphasized that the policy change applied only to maritime surveillance and “security-related” systems and asserted that the decision reflected modest improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record.

I actually don’t think that there is any evidence of improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record at all in recent years; this is just a convenient fiction to placate those in Congress who are opposed to selling lethal arms because of Hanoi’s rights record. Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s own annual country report on Vietnam notes no real improvements in human rights in the past year, and summarizes the situation in Vietnam by saying that “the most significant human rights problems in the country continued to be severe government restrictions on citizens’ political rights, particularly their right to change their government; increased measures to limit citizens’ civil liberties; and corruption in the judicial system and police.”

Still, although I think that overall the administration has badly ignored human rights and democracy promotion in its strategy of re-engagement with Southeast Asia, I think Washington needs to build much closer ties with Vietnam no matter the country’s rights record. I am hardly a realist, but this is one time realpolitik should win out. For one, boosting lethal arms sales may help position the pro-United States faction with the Vietnamese leadership to gain strength vis-à-vis the more pro-China faction in the leadership. Several Vietnamese academics and officials say that the pro-China faction in Vietnam’s leadership is already on its heels, due to increasing China-Vietnam conflict over disputed areas of the South China Sea.

More specifically, the United States should build on its comprehensive partnership with Vietnam and work toward a formal treaty alliance with Hanoi. Besides ending the ban on selling lethal arms to Vietnam, the United States should work toward expanding access for American naval vessels at Cam Ranh Bay, expanding training programs for senior Vietnamese officers, and institutionalizing the annual United States–Vietnam strategic dialogue at a higher level, ensuring that the secretary of defense and his Vietnamese counterpart participates in the strategic dialogue annually.

Working toward a treaty alliance with Vietnam would be central to maintaining the U.S. presence in East Asia, protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and finding new ports and potential forward operating bases for the U.S. military as domestic political concerns in Japan and Thailand threaten military relationships with these states. For Vietnam, closer ties with the United States would allow the Vietnamese military to rapidly upgrade its equipment, would ensure close trade relations with Washington, and would provide the kind of security against an assertive China that, it appears, ASEAN could never offer.

Let’s drop the false rationale of an improving human rights record in Vietnam and call this relationship what it is: a strategic partnership that could be critical to both countries’ interests in Asia.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

Image: Department of Defense Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Turkey's Crucial Role in America's Campaign against ISIL

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Two months ago, a medium-sized Yazidi village in Iraq called Sinjar was in desperate need of help. Surrounded and besieged by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—a group that explicitly stated its intention to destroy those who practice the Yazidi faith—tens of thousands of men, women and children vacated their homes for a remote, dry and uninhabitable mountain range. Under siege with nowhere to go, thousands of men, women and children were forced to endure the hardship of living without food, water and shelter for days on end. Old men were starving to death, young children were dying of thirst and for the first time in a very long time, there was the possibility of an act of genocide occurring right under the world’s nose.

Thankfully for those Yazidis trapped on Sinjar Mountain, the United States took notice of their dire humanitarian plight. On August 7, in the State Dining Room at the White House, President Barack Obama stepped up to the podium and explained to the American people in a prime-time speech why the United States could not allow such a barbaric group of people to succeed in killing innocent civilians simply because of their faith. “When we face a situation like we do on that mountain—with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help—in this case, a request from the Iraqi government—and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”

The situation was eventually resolved: U.S. air strikes bombarded ISIL positions on the foot of the mountain, opening up a humanitarian corridor that allowed thousands of civilians to escape the horrendous conditions in which they were living. That act would come to represent the opening salvo of a broader and more comprehensive U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State group—as of August 8, over 400 air strikes have hit hundreds of ISIL targets, from artillery pieces and ISIL formations to armed vehicles and anti-aircraft weapons. A broad coalition of European partners has since joined the United States to conduct operations of its own.

If “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State within the borders of Iraq is hard, doing the same in Syria is harder. Unlike in Iraq, where U.S. airpower can be matched with forces on the ground like the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga, allies in Syria are in short supply. It will take an estimated twelve months for the training and equipping program established in Saudi Arabia to churn out the first batch of moderate Syrian fighters (which will number 5,000), and according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby, the vetting hasn’t even begun yet. Elements of the Free Syrian Army who are already on the ground wedged between Assad forces and ISIL are angry and bewildered as to why the United States is not coordinating the air campaign with them. The fact that the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane is about to fall into the hands of ISIL, despite nearly eleven air strikes around the town in a 36-hour period serves as a perfect microcosm to the challenges and inherent flaws in Washington’s counterterrorism strategy in Syria: that is, without allies on the ground that can be trusted and are equipped with the weapons they need, air strikes will be limited to creating breathing space for fighters that are locked into their positions and unable to move.

Blaming America first is easy to do in this context. It is the United States, after all, that effectively drew up the campaign plan against ISIL, assembled the sixty-nation coalition and devoted far more combat aircraft, personnel and military resources to the fight than any other country. But that in and of itself is a significant problem, for it shows that despite claims from the Obama administration about the impressive breadth of the anti-ISIL coalition, its durability is severely tested by nations who are either unable or unwilling to do their share.

Turkey, a country that has the second biggest army in all of NATO, is perhaps the most critical player in the U.S.-led coalition. Yet, instead of President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu doing what they pledged to do publicly, both men are reticent of using Turkish troops and artillery to push ISIL back from their own border. It was Davutoglu himself who declared that Turkey “will do whatever we can so that Kobane does not fall,” and yet the reality is far different: Turkish tanks, standing by, watching ISIL creep even closer to the center of Kobane without doing anything about it. Turkish leaders, like Davutoglu, are also choosing to complain about what is not happening (like a no-fly zone inside Syria), rather than using Turkey’s considerable resources to improve what is. It’s a divergence between words and deeds that is beginning to upset Washington. As one anonymous U.S. official confided to The New York Times, “[t]his isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border.”

What once looked like an air campaign that was effectively diminishing the command-and-control and financial capability of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, now looks like a campaign, two months in, that is impeded by a lack of ground troops in Syria and a set of supposed allies that are not buying into what the United States is trying to accomplish. Every military campaign has its troubles and pitfalls along the way—the question is whether the United States will convince its regional allies, like Turkey, to act on their pledges.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyMilitary Strategy RegionsIraqSyriaUnited StatesTurkey

5 Weapons from Star Trek That America’s Military Wishes It Had

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In Star Trek's vision of the future, humanity has ended poverty, hunger and racism. In fact, all the worst aspects of human existence have been swept away -- except war.

Warfare and weapons have been a prominent theme in Star Trek since the series debuted in 1966. Barrages of phasers and photon torpedoes erupt from starships traveling faster than the speed of light, only to be repelled by deflector shields that block their deadly energies.

Never mind that much of this is fantasy. Traveling faster than light is impossible, as far as we know (though not even the physicists are certain). Space is big, ships are small, and actual space combat would be closer to a game of hide-and-seek than the battle of Jutland or Leyte Gulf (for a fascinating interview I had with a real naval expert, see this).

Nonetheless, Star Trek and Star Wars have shaped popular perceptions of space warfare. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. But either way,  some of those Star Trek weapons would make the Pentagon's day. Consider these:

Cloaking Device:

Stealth has become the overriding design feature of America's most advanced warplanes, such as the F-22, F-35 and B-2. But invisibility -- the ultimate stealth -- was portrayed as a tactical system back in 1966, when Captain Kirk and the Enterprise first encountered the Romulan cloaking device in the episode "Balance of Terror.”

An invisible warship has enormous flexibility, not just as a weapons system but also as a transport or reconnaissance vessel. It can get close to a target, or evade enemy weapons. Because adversaries can never be sure of detecting a cloaked ship, they must work on the assumption that hidden ships may attack or are spying on them at any moment, thus creating a force multiplier effect far out of proportion to the actual battlefield capabilities of the invisibility screen.

At least that's how it works in theory. "Balance of Terror" is a perfect allegory for the worst fears about America's stealth aircraft. Remember that while the Romulan ship was cloaked, it could still be tracked well enough for the Enterprise to fire at it. Not with pinpoint accuracy, but well enough to damage the Bird of Prey. The Romulan ship also sacrifices much in capability to retain stealth, notably the fact that the cloaking device consumes so much power that it must uncloak to fire its weapons.

Critics say the F-35's stealth can be defeated, and that it has given up so many capabilities in the name of stealth that it will be a lackluster fighter at best. Perhaps the designers should have talked to the Romulans first.

Transporter Beam:

The Pentagon is spending billions to develop a Prompt Global Strike missile that can land anywhere in the world within one hour. But how about dropping a bomb instantaneously? That's exactly what the Star Trek transporter could do. An instantaneous delivery system that should be able to dispatch bombs as easily as people and cargo.

It would also seem to be a useful device for scattering mines in front of enemy ships moving at interstellar speeds. Curiously, Star Trek ships don't really scatter mines as tactical weapons on TV and the movies, though the ships in the Star Fleet Command computer and Star Fleet Battles paper wargame use mines quite readily.

Perhaps the people who would most love the transporter would be the Special Operations commandos, for whom just getting to a remote or heavily defended location is half the battle. Instead of slogging through the jungle or hoping some jihadi with a rifle doesn't shoot down your helicopter, wouldn't it be nice to have Scotty beam you down into the Al Qaeda base?

On the other hand, if Al Qaeda has transporters, the Department of Homeland Security's job becomes much more interesting.

Plasma Torpedo:

"Balance of Terror” was perhaps the most influential TV episode for space warfare. Not only did it unveil the cloaking device, but the Romulan plasma torpedo as well.

The plasma torpedo seems like a cross between those big Chinese missiles designed to kill aircraft carriers, and the massive U.S. bunker-buster bombs like the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). Except that where the MOP destroys bunkers and tunnels, the plasma torpedo could disintegrate not just a Federation outpost dug a mile deep under an asteroid, but the entire asteroid as well.

Spock describes the torpedo as an "enveloping energy plasma, forcing an implosion." Its technical details aren't discussed in detail, but it obviously has a guidance system and faster-than-light capability to chase the Enterprise at warp speed. It does appear to be a short-ranged weapon (at least by interstellar standards); by the time it hits a fleeing Enterprise, enough of its energy has dissipated to allow the ship to survive.

Borg Cube:

The Borg Cube is in many ways the perfect weapon. Not only does it destroy enemy ships. It assimilates them and their crews, thus enhancing Borg military resources while reducing the enemy's. In that sense, it is not just a conventional warship. It is a psychological operations (Psyops) system, except that instead of converting the enemy through propaganda, the Borg convert them by implanting control units in their brains.

In a way, the Borg way of war harkens back to the days of Earth's Thirty Years War of the 17th Century, as well as Napoleon's armies. Those soldiers lived off the land by plundering supplies from farms and villages, preferably -- though not always -- in enemy territory. By assimilating the people and machines of their enemies, the Borg can essentially supply themselves indefinitely.

Doomsday Machine:

The most awesome and most insane of Star Trek weapons, the Doomsday Machine was a giant robotic ship built by a race in another galaxy. It was supposed to destroy enemy planets and then digest them for fuel, thus giving it infinite range. Unfortunately, it also destroyed the planets of the race that built it.

A 1967 allegory for the Cold War nuclear arms race, the Doomsday Machine was an example of a weapon too powerful for its own good. In this case, the capacity for destruction became the capacity for self-destruction.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for Waris Boring. Follow him on Twitter:@Mipeck1.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0/Flickr/ Robert Young from the UK. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Iran: A Bigger and Badder Threat than ISIS?

The Buzz

Once alerted to the menace posed by brutal terrorists in Iraq and Syria, the world has swung into action with vigor and resolve—and enough potent military hardware to make even the most hardened terrorist think twice. Already ISIL’s decentralizing its main force elements to hide amidst innocent women and children. Truly, atrocity and cowardice are bedfellows.

But focusing excessively on ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria can distract from broader strategic priorities. Highlighting one dilemma can diminish our international peripheral vision, to the point where other pressing issues seem to have abated or disappeared.

Part of the challenge with ISIL is to degrade and contain it, while not constraining the international community’s broader focus. Admittedly, ISIL casts a long and fearful shadow, but there are potentially worse—albeit quieter—threats lurking, which also demand urgent attention.

They include the maverick trifecta of Iran, Russia and North Korea. Unlike ISIL, each of those international “problem-states” comes disproportionately better armed, including a ready-made or emerging nuclear capability, accompanied by an unpredictable senior leadership.

The first unresolved problem confronting the world is what exactly to do about Iran. The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran would dwarf that which is posed by ISIL, whose mayhem and carnage a coalition of nations is now working to suppress. For almost a decade, since September 2006, Iran has steadfastly and with contempt thumbed its nose at the international community, by remaining deliberately in breach of its nuclear arms control obligations.

It has taken that sustained and obdurate stance for three reasons. First, because of the prestige, power and authority which Iran believes such weapons would give it, both regionally and beyond. In some Iranian eyes it would be a much stronger player to be feared by all parties; even an equal to Israel. Second, Iran’s strategic leadership remains fundamentally and violently opposed to a world order in which both the United States and Israel continue to retain disproportionate influence. And, third, Iran probably interprets longstanding international inaction on their nuclear weapons program to date as a strong indicator of longer-term vacillation and weakness.

The issues of ISIL and Iran overlap in at least two ways. The international community’s focus on the former gives Iran more time and enhanced cover to develop its thinly veiled nuclear capability. And depending on how current to mid-term events unfold in the Middle East, Tehran might see a pretext, or reason, to initiate military action against ISIL in its own right, at least to further extend or expand proxy-military actions against the West.

Doubtless, those sensitivities and threats are well appreciated by the war’s principal leaders; including ISIS/ISIL’s own twisted hierarchy. But what’s perhaps less acknowledged, at least publicly, is the growing need now for ISIL to be degraded and contained, concurrent with a broad and holistic internationally agreed approach to Iran.

By having put Iran on the backburner for the last decade—for obvious and understandable reasons called Iraq and Afghanistan—the world, and especially the West, has forfeited the opportunity of solving the problems separately.

Now, the issues of both ISIL and Iran must be confronted and resolved closer together. At the least, it’s time for the international community to engage and agree upon an effective strategy to contain Iran.
Almost certainly, such a strategy will include multiple and complementary lines of engagement across the international community and with Iran itself. Those will embrace the broad sweep from diplomacy, to international consensus and coalition building, to economic sanctions, and in extremis, the possibility of military action.

By default, the US, as it has done with ISIL, must inevitably lead the way, notwithstanding its inherent national war-weariness. But whichever combination of the above is agreed, the time for action on Iran is now much closer than it has ever been.

The wider world was finally roused to the true menace of ISIL by its evil mix of malevolent atrocity exported by social media. But replace the ghastly specter of ISIL’s severed heads and slain thousands, with an Iranian nuclear device used somewhere in the Middle East—and the mind is concentrated wonderfully, about the broader potential for a worse crisis.
It’s time the international community took Iran off the backburner.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here. 

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsISIS RegionsIran

America's Secret Weapon in Space?: Behold the X-37B

The Buzz

Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the US has lacked its own vehicle for launching astronauts. This hasn't stopped America from launching its own mini-shuttle without a crew.

The X-37B spacecraft is roughly the size of a small car. It has flown in space three times on classified missions. After roughly 22 months in space, it seems that the latest mission is preparing to come home.

What is this mysterious vehicle doing? Nobody really knows, and that's quite remarkable in these times. Legions of amateur analysts track classified satellite launches. They can usually work out the true nature of a mission by studying its orbit and assembling other pieces of evidence. Thus satellites that are designed to act as secretive eyes in the sky are normally unmasked quickly.

The X-37B is different. We know it is an experimental space plane that was originally owned by NASA before it was transferred to the US Air Force. We also suspect that there's something secret underneath the clamshell doors of its small payload bay. But we don't know exactly what it is or what it is doing. Open sources and technical analysis doesn't yield many clues. There has also been no 'leakage' of secrets through whispers and gossip.

There's obviously a lot of technical wizardry at work with this spacecraft, but the absolutely hermetic nature of the program is also remarkable. When so many secrets have been leaked in recent times, this is one program that remains steadfastly under wraps.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Kim Jong-un’s Vanishing Act: The Scary Reality if He Dies

The Buzz

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public for over one month, failing to participate in a major Supreme People’s Assembly gathering and anniversary commemorations of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. These are the same sorts of events that his father, Kim Jong-il, failed to attend six years ago following a stroke from which it took months for him to recover. North Korea’s official media has publicly acknowledged Kim’s “discomfort.”

But perhaps what is more notable is that international media seem to “need” Kim Jong-un more than the domestic media, even while deriding North Korean media coverage of Kims pointing at things. The divergence in domestic and international media responses should give pause precisely because it reveals the way that the Kim cult of personality has distracted from our understanding of the underlying state of the North Korean regime: within North Korea, the people feel Kim’s presence even when he is absent; externally, North Korean propaganda has made Kim’s presence so critical that international media regard his absence as disquieting, even in without supporting indicators of instability or upset in Pyongyang. In this way, the cult of personality distorts our focus on the state and relationships among the underlying institutions (the party, the military, the state) as factors likely to influence the stability of the North Korean regime.

Likewise, publicly known international responses to Kim Jong-un’s absence can be grouped into three categories: whistling past the graveyard and alternately worrying or hoping that Kim will find his way into the graveyard. But no state has yet tipped its hand as to what it would do in the event of a real crisis of leadership in North Korea.

Kim Jong-il’s absence in 2008 was significant because his health crisis paralyzed North Korean diplomacy and accelerated succession planning that eventually unveiled and elevated Kim Jong-un as Kim Jong-il’s successor. But it did not ultimately have implications for the viability or continuity of the North Korean state. In contrast, Kim Jong-un’s absence has coincided with a period of unprecedented DPRK diplomatic activity under Kim Jong-un. Although Kim Jong-un’s relative youth mitigates against the likelihood that his health issues will debilitating, he does not have grown children, which underscores the potential complexities of succession and the need for a succession plan should something go wrong. Kim’s absence from public view by itself does not appear likely to shake the regime, but it reveals the vulnerabilities the regime faces as a result of its dependence on the “line of Mount Paekdu” as the overarching source of legitimacy behind Kim rule.

Kim Jong-un does not have a viable successor within his own line and is unlikely to have one for two decades. Moreover, as part of his own succession struggle, Kim Jong-il introduced the thought that “side branches” in the Kim genealogical tree constitute potential threats to legitimacy. But in so doing he introduced constraints on the viability of Kim Jong-un’s siblings (older brothers Kim Jong-chol and even the exiled Kim Jong-nam) or sister Kim Yo-jung (rumored to have already taken a central role in management of state affairs) as potential successors to Kim Jong-un. This circumstance heightens the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s demise could spark a complicated family battle for succession that could upend the viability of the regime. In this respect, the viability of Kim family rule in North Korea may appear more fragile than it has been in decades. Kim Jong-un’s absence points to this fragility.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Which U.S. States Win and Lose Most From Falling Oil Prices?

The Buzz

Oil prices are plunging. Which U.S. states will benefit most – and which are most at risk?

A study that the Council on Foreign Relations published about a year ago looked at exactly this question. The research, by Mine Yucel of the Dallas Fed and Stephen Brown of UNLV, ranked Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Tennessee as the biggest potential winners, and Wyoming, Oklahoma, and North Dakota as those with the most to lose.

Oil prices have fallen by about twenty percent in the last few months. Brown and Yucel combined statistical analysis of the historical relationship between oil prices and employment with current data about state economies to estimate what a twenty-five percent price rise would do jobs. They note that the same analysis can generate insight into the potential impact of a price plunge. This map (also see above), which I’ve created by assuming that an oil price drop is as bad for jobs as an oil price rise is good for employment (Brown and Yucel discuss the value and limits of such an assumption in the paper), shows the results.

Brown and Yucel add some additional insight into the dynamics at work here:

“States like Texas and Louisiana that have downstream oil and gas industries that benefit from falling energy prices such as refining and petrochemicals would be less affected. In addition, states in which natural gas is more prominent than oil are likely to see less harm from falling oil prices. With the recent weakening in the relationship between oil and natural gas prices, a decline in oil prices does not necessarily imply as big a change in natural gas prices as it once did, lessening the effect of an oil price decline.”

They also provide historical perspective:

“When oil prices collapsed to near about eleven dollars per barrel in 1986, the Texas economy went into a deep recession for two years. Economic output contracted 5.6 percent and employment fell 1.1 percent…. Even though oil and gas extraction accounted for 19 percent of the Texas economy in 1981, that share was the second smallest among the eight oil-sensitive states (West Virginia was smallest). As a percentage of state GDP, the oil and gas sector accounted for 49 percent in Alaska, 37 percent in Wyoming, 35 percent in Louisiana, and 20 percent in North Dakota. The 1986 oil price crash also caused a recession in most of these states, with employment declines largest in Wyoming (-5.9 percent) and Alaska (-4.5 percent)—states with the largest oil and gas output shares.”

The historical record – both anecdotal and leveraged using statistics – is far from a perfect guide to the future, particular with massive changes in the U.S. oil and gas industry in recent years. And the fall in prices isn’t yet remotely comparable to 1986. Nonetheless, if you’re looking to see where and how falling prices might help or pinch economically, the Brown and Yucel study is a great place to start.

This piece first appeared in the CFR blog Energy, Security and Climate here.

TopicsEnergy RegionsUnited States

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