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As Tensions Rise in the South China Sea: The Philippines' Military Modernizes

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The Government of the Republic of the Philippines is presently engaged in a concerted effort to modernize its military into a force capable of projecting a posture of credible external deterrence. The overarching goal of that transformation is to equip the Armed Forces of the Philippines with the necessary capabilities to protect the territorial integrity of the state, offset evolving foreign defense challenges, and ensure the attainment of Manila’s strategic maritime interests—particularly as they relate to claims in the South China Sea (SCS). To that end, three central innovations have been emphasized in the short-to-medium term.

First is the establishment of “appropriate strategic response forces,” developed in all branches of the military, to undertake integrated defensive missions and deter potential external threats that could harm the country’s core national security interests.

Second is the creation of an enhanced C4ISR system to support the joint command and control of strategic defense operations and improve situational awareness through the faster collection, structural fusion, analysis and dissemination of shared information.

Third is the development of a modern, space-based satellite communications network to work alongside improved C4ISR platforms in availing nationwide coverage for Philippine sovereignty surveillance and reconnaissance.

Two factors, in particular, have been instrumental in driving the reform process:

- A more benign domestic security environment due to diminished (though not entirely absent) threats from Communist-inspired insurgency, Moro Muslim ethno-religious separatism and Islamist jihadi terrorism.

- Heightened territorial competitiveness in the SCS, where China has adopted an increasingly forward-leaning posture to enforce its self-proclaimed historic jurisdiction over the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank.


President Benigno Aquino III has sought to address Beijing’s claims in the SCS by reorienting defense expenditure away from internal to external security. Problematically, his administration’s planned upgrades are unlikely to be enough to credibly deter PRC assertiveness in the short term. And the government has yet to articulate a viable strategy for overcoming the fiscal constraints that a complete re-modeling of the Philippine military would require over the medium term.

One viable solution to that predicament is to revisit current and future procurement plans for advanced aircraft, ship and intelligence capabilities and instead concentrate available national resources on creating an effective land-based system of anti-ship missiles (ASMs). Establishing an integrated network of this sort would be far cheaper than attempting to institute a complete process of defense transformation. It could also be put into service relatively quickly and if properly configured should be able to provide adequate coverage of Manila’s claims in the Spratlys and possibly even the Scarborough Shoal.

The United States has a vested interest in supporting the Philippine government’s current defense transformation plans—not least because it could help to counter Beijing’s assumed intent to exert uncontested sovereignty over the SCS. But actively assisting Manila in procuring advanced aviation, naval and communication platforms in the numbers required to credibly offset China’s own growing military prowess would be both expensive and potentially dangerous in terms of further straining what is already a stressed political relationship between Washington and Beijing. Helping with the establishment of a mobile coastal defense system would be far cheaper and much less contentious. Just as importantly, it would help to engender a capable and self-reliant partner more readily positioned to resist undue pressure from Beijing.

Now that the Philippines has reoriented its defense priorities from internal to external security, should Australia realign its own aid package—which has traditionally prioritized law enforcement capacity building—to a more concerted focus on promoting military force projection? The answer is no, for at least two reasons.

First, the Philippine police and judicial system remains weak, continuing to confront an array of difficulties that include corruption, inefficient case management, intra-agency competition, inadequate investigative skills and intelligence stove piping. Prematurely terminating ongoing Australian initiatives to address those problems would represent a significant waste of resources and could lead to a domestic enforcement void that once again allows internal threat actors to assume prominence.

Second, it could exacerbate tensions with Canberra’s main economic partner—China. Adopting an explicit posture of military support for Philippine claims in the SCS would likely reinforce a perception in Beijing that the current Abbott administration is fully committed to working with Washington in strategically containing the PRC in the Asia-Pacific. At best, that could complicate the consolidation of future economic/trade agreements; at worst, it could encourage China to search for new (non-Australian) sources of energy resources and alternative markets for its exports.

Peter Chalk is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. This post is a summary of Peter’s latest ASPI Special Report, Rebuilding while performing: military modernization in the Philippines, available for download for free here. This article was originally posted on ASPI’s The Strategist Blog here

Image Credit: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsSouth China Sea

Iran’s Power Play in Iraq: Will Shia Militias Save Maliki?

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The territorial advances from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over the past week, including the swift capture of Mosul, Tikrit, and Tel Afar, has caught every nation with a stake in Iraq’s stability by surprise.  Virtually no one anticipated that the Iraqi security forces deployed in the northern, largely Sunni-dominated areas of the country would collapse as quickly as they did, without virtually a fight.  The fact that tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers deserted their posts, shed their uniforms, and left their heavy weapons behind is not only a demonstration of the ISF’s failure as a cohesive, reliable fighting force, but a notable political embarrassment for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

While it is difficult to estimate how many fighters ISIL possesses in its ranks, the militant group appears determined to sweep southwards towards the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, most likely with the goal of reigniting the type of sectarian fighting that the city experienced in 2006-2007 (the group does not have the numbers to take, let alone hold, Baghdad completely).  Prime Minister Maliki, despite public statements attempting to reassure the Iraqi public that government forces retain the capacity to defend Baghdad and recapture the swaths of Anbar, Salahaddin, Nineveh, and Diyala provinces that have been lost, he no doubt understands the severity of the situation.  Baghdad is simply too important a prize for Iraqi stability and Maliki’s own political future to assume that the city’s security will easily maintained.

A critical element of Maliki’s defense strategy in the capital has been, and will remain, the enlisting of fighters—preferably members of the Shia Muslim community thought to have more of a reason to preserve Iraq’s current government—outside of the official Iraqi military chain of command.  In addition to seeking a national state of emergency from the Iraqi parliament immediately after the seizure of Mosul from ISIS, Maliki called upon Iraqis across the country to form their own armed self-defense groups in order to guard their neighborhoods, families, and homes.  The establishment of self-defense groups would also allow government forces the time that they need to execute a well-planned and effective counteroffensive in the north.  Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential ayatollah in all of Shia Islam (certainly in Iraq) and a man who has historically called for calm and dialogue, has provided Maliki with critical religious justification for this measure—calling on all Iraqis, regardless of sect, to defend themselves and the country from Sunni jihadists.  Thousands of young Shia Iraqis have heeded the call by signing up for service in Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf.

As the region’s paramount Shia Muslim power, the Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to play an instrumental role in any Iraqi Government counterattack.  The continuation of a friendly and pliant Shia-dominated ally next door is simply too important an objective for Iran to sit back and allow the writ of the Iraqi Government to further dwindle.  Tehran also possesses a sense of moral duty to prevent Shia civilians from being massacred at the hands of the same Sunni jihadists who a national security threat to Iran’s own borders. 

Although some reports suggest that 1,500 to 2,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards-Quds force operatives have entered Iraq to assist Maliki with security, Iran’s real contribution will be in the shadows: that is, fully remobilizing the Shia militias that were once a critical instigator of sectarian violence between and among Iraqis.  Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, the Abu Fadl al-Abbas brigades (currently fighting in Syria for the regime of Bashar al-Assad), and potentially Lebanese Hezbollah will all be encouraged, funded, and perhaps armed by Tehran to contribute to the defense of both Iraq’s Shia holy sites and Baghdad’s counteroffensive more broadly.  There are indications that IRGC-QF intelligence operatives are organizing Shia Muslims for precisely this effect.

Assuming that Prime Minister Maliki is eventually able to muster the strength to roll back ISIL gains in the north and the west, the Iraqi Government will find itself even more dependent on Iran than it already is.  A far greater challenge for Baghdad in the short term, however, will be convincing the very same militias they have asked for assistance to demobilize and return to their previous lives once the current violence subsides. 

If Prime Minister Maliki has any chance at forming another coalition government and extending his time in the prime minister’s office, he needs to demonstrate to the Iraqi people—and in particular, the Shia constituency that he kept him in power for the past eight years—that he successfully saved Iraq from a predatory Sunni jihadist movement.  Unfortunately, making these assurances will do nothing to bring the Sunni Muslim community into Iraqi political system as equal partners—the one thing that virtually every serious analyst of the country argues is the ultimate cure to the disease that is rampaging Iraq today.  

Image: Office of the President, Iran

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

Beyond the Environment: Obama's Big Pacific Ocean Move

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The Obama administration yesterday announced its intention to designate a vast portion of U.S.-controlled areas of the Pacific Ocean as a nature preserve.  Although packaged as part of the president’s second-term push to enact environmental regulations using his executive powers, the plans also have sizable implications for U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Specifically, Obama is considering expanding the existing boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (MNM), a marine reserve created by George W. Bush just days before leaving office in January 2009.  At most, Obama could extend the marine reserve’s boundaries up to 200 nautical miles from the coastline of the U.S. islands contained within the conservation zone: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, the Johnston Atoll, the Palmyra Atoll and Wake Island.  Doing so would make the Pacific Remote Islands MNM the biggest marine reserve in the world.

Protecting ocean environments is argued to be essential for the long-term health of the planet.  Few dispute this, although in the past MNMs have been lambasted for being mere “paper parks” in which fishing can still take place in practice—more intended for public consumption than true environmental conservation.  Instead, criticism of the plans has focused upon the administration’s use of executive powers.  Republican law-maker John Fleming, for example, already has accused Obama of acting like an “imperial president” for refusing to go through Congress.

Yet beyond these debates about technicality about procedure there are other implications of vast marine protection zones that warrant consideration.  Symbolically, the creation of environmental protection zones in the Central and Western Pacific is a powerful signal of America’s long-term commitment and presence as a Pacific power.  While not as provocative as China’s designation of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, Washington’s marine protected areas do fulfill a similar—albeit non-military—purpose by pronouncing, formalizing and entrenching U.S. territorial pre-eminence in the world’s biggest ocean.

Moreover, it should be noted that many of the islands contained with the MNM system are current or former military bases: Wake Island and the Johnson Atoll both rest within the existing boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands MNM, while other MNMs cover Midway Island (the Papahānaumokuākea MNM) and Guam (the Mariana Trench MNM).  The Pacific conservation zones thus have military implications.  Active bases are given an additional layer of seclusion while mothballed installations are guarded against conversion to civilian use.

This logic of military conservation works on land as well as at sea.  Wildlife refuges cover 17.5 percent of Guam and all of Midway Island, for example.  Written into the environmental regulations are provisions that, should protected land ever be required for military purposes, then the security interests of the U.S. will predominate and the Pentagon will be given authorization to (re)convert territory for military use.  This is currently salient in the case of Guam, which stands to receive thousands of additional U.S. troops owing to the downsizing of bases in Okinawa and thus will likely need to reclaim refuge overlay in order to house the influx of personnel.  Other (former) U.S. bases on Midway, Wake and the Johnston Atoll could similarly be resurrected in the event of a worsening geostrategic environment in the Asia-Pacific.

Whatever the environmental benefits of establishing marine protected areas in the Pacific, then, there are several political and military implications that are worth considering.  That President Obama can even consider 782,000 square miles of ocean into a conservation zone is testament to how expansive and deep is the U.S. presence in that part of the globe; that so many current, former and future military installations operationally benefit from the conservation is a reminder that only one country boasts the real estate to establish effective maritime control there.

America’s marine national monuments are monuments to the country’s gargantuan geopolitical and territorial standing in the Central and Western Pacific as much as anything else.

Image Credit: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsPacific Ocean

If a War Exploded in Asia, What Would Japan Do?

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Big things are afoot in Tokyo, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government nears a milestone in its attempts to make Japan a more normal country on national defense. Abe wants to allow Japan limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense, through reinterpretation of country’s pacifist constitution. His party, the LDP, is in intensive discussions with its coalition partner, New Komeito, in order to get a final deal approved by 22 June. The United States will accept and support whatever results from Japan’s sovereign democratic process—especially as any progress on the long-time sticking point of collective self-defense is better than none. But in a disappointing development, the LDP appears to have made a concession that forecloses an immense opportunity to advance the US–Japan alliance to new levels of coordination, interoperability and, ultimately, efficacy.

At issue is what is called ‘integration with the use of force’ in situations where Japan hasn’t come under direct attack. The question is whether, in a regional contingency—think Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, or even a Malacca Strait crisis—the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) could operate in support of US forces conducting combat operations. Current laws and regulations limit the JSDF to providing ‘rear area support,’ such as replenishment, refueling, and data sharing, only in non-combat zones; as soon as shooting starts, the JSDF must steam away. Abe sought to extend the provision of rear area support to combat zones as well, but he appears for the moment to have given up on this particular point, with the exception of search and rescue operations. Keeping the JSDF almost completely out of contested spaces might make political sense to get New Komeito’s buy-in on this and other important issues, but it foregoes a potential operational windfall for the US–Japan alliance as a whole.

To be clear, no one is talking about the JSDF firing shots after the initiation of hostilities to which Japan isn’t a party. Moreover, the JSDF might yet be able to bring serious capabilities, including minesweeping in international sea lanes, to bear in coalition efforts. But legal walls are preventing the alliance from integrating Japan’s formidable capabilities in a more effective way. In particular, should the Abe government’s ambitious December 2013 defense budget stick, it’ll mean significant upgrades to critical C4ISR capabilities that are by and large interoperable with US forces: the JSF, Aegis destroyers, Global Hawk drones, new or upgraded AWACS and airborne early warning aircraft, and so on. Were the JSDF permitted to support US forces in contested spaces, it could integrate its ‘seers’ into American operations, freeing up US assets to go be ‘shooters.’ Beyond targeting, the JSDF could play an important role in supplementing US capacity for lift, sustainment, replenishment, and repair. That’s particularly important at a time when sequestration threatens future US Navy and Air Force procurements.

The LDP’s combat zone concession to New Komeito likely scuppers any such arrangements during the once-in-a-generation review of the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines, scheduled to end this year. In return, Abe appears to have gotten compromise on streamlined coordination between the national command authority, the Japan Coast Guard, and the Maritime Self-Defense Forces to respond to ‘gray zone’ events, encroachments on Japan’s interests that stay below the military threshold. While that would help to address China’s tailored coercion strategy in the East China Sea, giving up ‘combat zone’ support means relinquishing serious enhancements to joint alliance capabilities.

Negotiations aren’t over until they’re over, but if present reports are accurate, the question then becomes: so what? In the Big Fight—the nightmare scenario involving a certain Asian continental power to the west, which no one wants to see—those distinctions may become irrelevant, as ‘some countries’’ military strategies necessitate attacks against US operational nodes residing on Japanese soil. Or, because the US is unlikely to initiate hostilities in the Asia-Pacific, a hypothetical initial attack against US forces could generate an emergency request for JSDF assistance that may be allowed under the reinterpreted rules. Either way, Japan enters the fray. And as long as Abe can demonstrate some new ability to assist US forces in emergencies, he’ll achieve his goal of demonstrating Japan’s resolve and political commitment to Washington and the alliance.

But the way one plans to fight affects the way one plans and trains, and the demonstration effects thereof: if the US and Japan increase practicing to fight not merely in adjacent areas, but rather in a truly integrated manner, it’ll enhance the deterrent power of the alliance overall. Why should Tokyo take half measures when it can take full ones?

New Komeito and its allies’ commitment to peace is admirable but short-sighted. The common refrain in such quarters is that preparing for war invites war. Still, that approach might be insufficient. Japan’s return to normalcy will and should be incremental. But China’s military modernization is incremental too, only those increments might be much larger (PDF). At the risk of being sententious, Japan might not be interested in war, but war could be interested in Japan.

Alexander Sullivan is a research associate in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His views are his and his alone, along with any errors of fact or omission. This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist website here

Image Credit: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsJapan

China's Self Made Security Disaster in Asia

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A simple question about what China has been doing to its neighbors keeps recurring: How is that smart?

The question came up in dozens of conversations at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific roundtable in Kuala Lumpur. The puzzle of China’s behavior has shaped the previous columns on Shinzo Abe’s "we’re back in Asia security" speech, the differing security doctrines coming from China and the United States, the Australian Defense Minister’s musings on Asia’s potentially catastrophic situation, the loss of regional confidence, and the impact of all this on the nascent Asian security system that has served China so well.

Consider the responses China has produced or helped validate:

1. Japan’s asserting its right to a bigger security role in Asia in ways not heard in 70 years—and this is being warmly welcomed by Australia and Southeast Asia. In a few weeks, Shinzo Abe will come to address the Australian Parliament just as President Obama did in November 2011. That was Obama’s pivot speech, announcing that as president he’d “made a deliberate and strategic decision—as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends.” Abe will use the same stage—Australia’s House of Representatives—to offer his own version of that strategic decision.

2. The US President went to Japan in April and stated that the US security treaty with Japan covers the Senkaku Islands. China has pushed so hard over some barren islands occupied by goats that it has produced a specific promise from Obama that the US is ready to go to war with China to ensure that the goats remain Japanese.

3. Traditional fence sitters such as Malaysia and Vietnam are doing exactly what theory says they must do—balance against China by nestling closer to the US. America now proclaims  “comprehensive partnerships” with Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam’s Defense Minister is happily ruminating about the American Navy coming back to use Cam Ranh Bay.

4. The rusty US alliance with the Philippines has a fresh coat of paint and Manila is desperate to add muscle to the rebalance. 

5. For Asia, the US rebalance is central and vital. No explanation is needed for why it matters and why it must be made to work. The only question is about the level of US commitment. Some mordant comfort is taken from the fact that all US military planning now assumes China as the default enemy. Asia is rushing to give new love to the US hub-and-spokes alliance system, with some supporting partnerships added.

How is it in any way smart for China to have done anything to produce such outcomes? As observed by a bearded Canadian strategist who has been cruising Asia for decades: “The principal architect of the success of the US rebalance is Beijing.”

When you talk to Chinese officials, officers and strategists, the standard line is that China is the victim. China isn’t the actor, it’s being acted on. China’s only responding to the provocation of others. China’s being pushed around and has to push back. It’s a strange rendering of the way things look to the number two economy in the world and Asia’s pre-eminent power. China’s reaching for its prerogatives as a great power and feeding the fires of its own nationalism while adopting the tone of a put-upon teenager.

One of the best descriptions of this dynamic was given by Rodolfo Severino, the former Philippines diplomat and secretary-general of ASEAN. Now head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Severino told me:

“Although secretly the US is welcome here, publicly one cannot say that because that would be unfashionable. That’s where I think the Chinese are making a mistake. They think that the Philippines and Vietnam are under the thumb of the Americans and it’s not so. By doing what they are doing they are giving the US another reason to be around. So I think it’s a mistake, but one cannot assume that the Chinese have access to the best minds. Although they are very smart but sometimes they don’t think things through.”

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This article originally appeared in ASPI's The Strategist website here

Image Credit: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Siren Song of Missile Diplomacy

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Over at Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko is wondering why discussion in the United States over how to respond to foreign policy crises always seems to center on a familiar choice: whether to bomb another country or else do nothing. Not only are other military options (including “boots on the ground”) routinely taken off the table by politicians and their advisers, but nonmilitary alternatives for dealing with crises are too often given painfully short shrift. “The debate shrinks immediately around whether and how to use the tactic of force,” Zenko laments.


The siren song of missile diplomacy is not new. Two decades ago, the Clinton administration also demonstrated a clear penchant for remote warfare. Twice in the Balkans—Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999—did Clinton authorize airstrikes in the name of humanitarian intervention. In December 1998, cruise missiles and B-52 bombers were used to destroy critical infrastructure in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Earlier that year, missile strikes had been ordered against suspected terrorist facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s attacks in the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.


Why was President Clinton disposed to use airstrikes and long-range missiles instead of other tools of (military) statecraft? Today, why is President Obama similarly inclined—mostly recently as he ponders his response to the advance of ISIS militants across Syria and northern Iraq?


Political scientist Andrew Butfoy argues that, in part, the preoccupation with missile diplomacy is a product of the military affairs (RMA), which by the 1990s had bestowed upon the U.S. a technical ability to strike from afar that was unprecedented in military history. Yet Butfoy is clear that the technological advances of the RMA by themselves are underdetermining. Instead, presidency-specific factors are essential to explaining Clinton’s foreign policy.


After the loss of eighteen U.S. soldiers in the Battle of Mogadishu (1993), for example, Clinton’s appetite for overseas interventions was severely diminished. At the same time, the criticism leveled against the White House for failing to intercede on behalf of Rwanda’s Tutsis in 1994 highlighted the unconscionable limitations of “doing nothing” in response to international crises. In this context, “missile diplomacy” emerged as a way to project power and influence abroad at a relatively low cost to U.S. military personnel and the political establishment.


Obama’s torrid experience of inheriting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars can be seen in a similar light, as creating domestic-political incentives to push ahead with downsizing the U.S. global footprint and rely instead on remote warfare—drones, manned airstrikes, missiles—when there are international threats that cannot be avoided. This was evident in Obama’s policies towards Libya in 2011, Syria in 2013 (even if ultimately aborted), Yemen, Somalia and the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Only the Afghan surge stands out as an anomaly.


Like Clinton before him, President Obama is reluctant to sign-off on large-scale deployments of troops for reasons of domestic politics. Yet as commander-in-chief, no president can afford to ignore perceived international crises. Since the end of the Cold War, the concept of the U.S. national interest has become so stretched in the minds of many domestic actors, including politicians from both parties, such that almost all instances of regional instability and humanitarian catastrophe can be considered worthy of military engagement. For the “indispensable nation” to do nothing while the world suffers could easily be political suicide for a president.


In the final analysis, it is this domestic bias in favor of viewing international instability as intrinsically threatening to U.S. national security that makes the White House predisposed towards answering questions of whether the U.S. should deploy abroad in the affirmative. All that remains is the question of how. For all its military inadequacies and ethical quandaries, then, missile diplomacy remains an attractive political option for those charged with crafting U.S. foreign policy. Rightly or wrongly, this political calculus shows little sign of changing.

TopicsSecurityThe Presidency RegionsIraq

ISIS Challenge in Iraq: Why America Should Work with Iran

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The US should seize the opportunity presented by the Iraq crisis to reach out and engage Iran. The threat posed by ISIS and radical jihadism as well as the potential for further regional instability represent important areas of mutual strategic concern for both countries.  By engaging the Iranians, the US will gain the critical ability to shape the course of events without getting bogged down in the conflict.  It will also help the US build a working relationship with Iran that could ease the current nuclear negotiations forward and lay the groundwork for future cooperation when a successful deal is reached.

First, US engagement will make certain Iraq does not become wholly dependent on Iranian aid and that the US will play an important role in shaping the operational environment.  Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are already in Iraq advising and assisting the government on the military operations.  Iran has openly declared its ability and intent to help Iraq, and it has the recent experience of success in Syria to effectively do so. The current conflict means that Iran’s influence and penetration of Iraq will only increase and become more entrenched than ever before. By assisting the Iraqis and working with the Iranians, the US can create mutual dependencies between the groups and enable the US to influence the operation of the fighting and the political balance between the different parties.

Second, the US will be more effective in trying to reach a political solution to the conflict by engaging Iran.  The current crisis cannot be solved simply through military means; it requires a political solution more importantly.  The increasing monopolization of power by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had alienated the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds and excluded them from governance.  To forge a broader and more inclusive coalition to lead Iraq, the assistance of Iran will be critical as it is an influential power behind the scenes.  By engaging the Iranians, the US can shape the political process necessary for the reformulation of power in Baghdad.

Third, the cooperation between the US and Iran will do much to build confidence between the two countries that would serve to help the current nuclear negotiations.  It would also establish the parameters for a future working relationship between the US and Iran should the negotiations succeed.  A history of mutual hostility and the lack of trust between the countries pose important challenges in the current negotiations.  On the Iranian side, for example, whenever I travel to Tehran, hardliners have repeatedly voiced their suspicions of US willingness to engage them to me and frequently raise the issue of mistrust when discussing the negotiations.  Cooperating on such a mission can do much to dispel these ideas and open the environment for more fruitful decision-making on the nuclear issue.

While detractors may claim that by doing so the US will give Iraq to Iran on a silver platter, the US will actually be strengthening its own position in the country.  By not doing so, Iran will be the sole benefactor of the crisis as it begins to assist Iraq just like Syria.  Of course, the US should be highly cautious of providing direct military assistance to the current Iraqi government so as not to appear to have sided with the Shia in the sectarian conflict.  However, by engaging Iran privately and working with all regional partners in reaching a political and military solution to the crisis, the US will be effective in promoting political stability and greater social inclusion in Iraq.

Payam Mohseni is the Iran Project Director and Fellow for Iran Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at Harvard’s Department of Government where he teaches on Iranian and Middle East politics.

TopicsISIS RegionsIraq

America's Climate Change Challenge

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James Jay Carafano’s June 5th The National Interest column (“Welcome to Obama’s War on Weather”) attempts to take President Obama to task. He suggests that Obama has failed to follow a true grand strategy by substituting a desultory focus on the national security implications of climate change. What Carafano misses, and what the president and many in the foreign policy making community understand, is that responding to climate change will be among the most important challenges the United States will face in the coming decades.

During his address to the graduating cadets at West Point, Obama told the future leaders of the U.S. Army that climate change will be a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters and conflicts over water and food.

This is not merely, in Carafano’s words, fighting “against the weather.” Rather, it is retooling U.S. grand strategy to respond to a world that faces destructive disruption in the critical areas that underpin human prosperity and stability: agriculture, water, energy, and the humanitarian response required when those disruptions overwhelm the capacity of nations around the world.

Fears that climate change is a threat worth planning for are not a peculiar obsession of this president or administration. Rather, the U.S. military and intelligence community have, for the past several years, been concerned that environmental stress may create scenarios of great political risk. In 2008, the National Intelligence Council published its assessment of future risks, listing the scarcity-causing effects of a warming world, especially highlighting the odds that  water scarcity may “lead to increasingly heated interstate recriminations and possibly to low-level armed conflicts.” In recent years, documents such as the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and Threat Assessments from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have echoed those concerns. The 2014 QDR called climate change a “threat multiplier”—a factor that would aggravate state weakness, potentially undermining the legitimacy of governments that failed to respond adequately. Similarly, the most recent Worldwide Threat Assessment discussed how resource scarcity in food and water, exacerbated by climate change, risked being a point of friction for bilateral relations, especially in those cases where critical water resources are shared by multiple nations (China, India, and Pakistan, for example).

What is the role of U.S. grand strategy in these situations?

As President Obama indicated in his speech, American leadership on fashioning international consensus on emissions reductions is essential to avoiding future damage. Concrete American action is necessary, but it is only the first step. Beyond that, assisting other nations, particularly in the developing world, in adapting to the worst of what is to come will be essential.

Such an effort requires the full complement of the U.S. diplomatic and development arsenal—identifying where and how cooperation in building sustainable development makes sense. This is why the U.S. State Department has a Special Envoy for Climate Change and the Department of Energy participates in the  Clean Energy Ministerial and prioritizes cooperative research with the People’s Republic of China.

This sort of planning is not tangential to our national security. When nations fail in their measures to adapt to climate change—when disasters occur, or when governments steadily decline in their ability to handle resource scarcity, and these crises lead to situations of armed conflict—then we may enter the dimension where military solutions will be necessary.

It is here where the U.S. military has already demonstrated its impressive capabilities. Very often, the U.S. military has been called on to respond to natural disasters; ours is unique among the navies of the world in its ability to reach anywhere on the globe in a matter of hours. The U.S. military responded quickly with humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) activities after floods ravaged Pakistan in 2010, and in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. In a world impacted by climate change, the U.S. military and its partner militaries around the world may find themselves reacting more often to more serious disasters.

It is in this context that Admiral Samuel Locklear, III, Commander-in-Chief of Pacific Command (CINC-PACOM), last year told The Boston Globe’s Brian Bender that climate change is the likeliest factor “that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about” and that this concern has driven him to raise it on the agenda with counterpart navies throughout the Pacific. It is why Brigadier General James Linder, commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Africa, considers it among the critical issues taxing the resiliency of partner nations in Africa. “On time-lapse satellite imagery, you literally can watch the desert moving south” he told Eliza Griswold in a New York Times analysis of the U.S. military’s assistance priorities in Africa.

The place of climate change in the headlines may ebb and flow, especially compared to the traditional categories inter- or intrastate violence that mark the Syrian civil war or the offensive by ISIS against the Iraqi government. Over the coming decades, however, it is highly likely that those disruptions that are of such concern to military planners now will only grow in frequency and severity. Responding to those effects will require a coordinated global response. The United States will be well-positioned to avoid persistent instability in the international system if it plans for the strategic implications now.

Neil Bhatiya is a Policy Associate at The Century Foundation, a progressive non-partisan think tank. Follow him on Twitter @NeilBhatiya.

Image Credit: U.S. State Department Flickr. 

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

The Birth of Kurdistan? Not So Fast...

The Buzz

As Iraq slides into the abyss, the Kurds stand to be big winners. On Thursday Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, entered Kirkuk as the Iraqi military melted away in the face of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) advances, paving the way for a decades long dream to control the oil rich city. In other disputed areas with the central government, a rough line that runs from Khanaqin to Mosul, Kurds filled the security gap. Within days the Kurds have solidified their areas of control south of the official borders of the Kurdistan region.

The disputed areas, especially Kirkuk, have long been a potential flashpoint between Iraq and Kurdistan. Several times the two sides have faced off, only to back down after negotiations. Now with the Iraqi Army in disarray and the central government weak and distracted, its difficult to envision the Kurds giving up their gains. This in turn opens up the prospect for future conflict with Baghdad and Kurdish leverage to extract demands from the central government over outstanding differences.

Stable and relatively prosperous, the autonomous Kurdistan region has used the past decade wisely--to build up the institutions of a quasi-state, complete with its own ministries that function independently of Baghdad. This has led to tensions with the central government, particularly over Kurdistan's oil policy.

Indeed, last month Kurdistan began exporting and marketing independent of the central government the first shipment of Kurdish oil through Turkey. Baghdad responded by taking legal action against Turkey and threatening potential buyers of Kurdish oil, upping the ante in a long running game of political brinksmanship between Baghdad and Erbil.

The Kurd's advances and the collapse of Iraqi state authority have created expectations that this historical moment will provide the Kurds with an opportunity to declare independence. The inability or lack of desire by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to meet Sunni demands and instead pursue a sectarian agenda has only encouraged Kurdish aspirations for independence. And as Baghdad mobilizes Shia militias against ISIS and former Baathist regime elements, the Shia-Sunni sectarian bloodletting that will follow will only exacerbate Kurdish desires for independence. As former Kurdistan Regional Government prime minister Barham Salih once said, ''The Kurds will not be the ones who divide Iraq, it will be the Shiite-Sunni power struggle.''

The offıcial Kurdish position has been that they don't seek independence, only their constitutional rights, including a long delayed referendum on Kirkuk's status and the disputed territories. However, as Iraq frays at the center the prospect long-term instability and a Shia south, Sunni center, and independent Kurdistan are rising.

However, it is wishful thinking to predict the Kurds will move towards independence, or that they are ready. Neither a fragmented Iraq, an Islamist controlled border with the KRG, nor a flood of refugees are in Kurdistan's interests. Kurdish institutions are still embryonic, divided between the two dominant parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of KRG President Masoud Barzani and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), each of which control their own peshmerga forces. Rather than a united Kurdistan, a more accurate assessment is that of a KDPstan and PUKstan. Intra-Kurdish rivarly and particularist interests, therefore, militate against independence.

Breaking with Baghdad will also entail huge financial costs to the KRG, which receives—albeit irregularly – a substantial cut from Iraq's oil rich budget. The limits of Kurdistan's financial independence were apparent early this year, when the central government stopped payments to the KRG over oil disputes. In a region where nearly 75 percent of the workforce relies on the government for a paycheck, public sector employees weren't paid for months resulting in widespread public dissatisfaction. As banks experienced a liquidity crisis, the Kurdish owner of Asiacell, the country's largest telecom, was asked to provide $130 million to prevent a financial collapse. At current Kurdistan oil production levels, the KRG will be financially unviable. Assuming they can extract and market oil, at best the Kurds could hope to be financially independent by 2017.

Then there are Kurdistan's neighbours, Turkey and Iran, which have inordinate influence on Kurdish politics. Facing its own Kurdish problem at home, Turkey would be hostile to Kurdish independence, reversing a trend since 2008 which saw a deepening of relations between Ankara and Erbil. While Turkey has developed strong political and economic ties with Kurdistan – including oil deals, 1,200 Turkish firms in Kurdistan, and $8 billion in trade – part of this strategy was to integrate the KRG with Turkey and curb-cum-control Kurdistan's ambitions for independence. On the other hand, Iran has no interest in seeing the Shia government in Baghdad fall, nor the emergence of a Sunni insurgency on its border. Iran has influence over Sulaymaniyah province and the dominant political parties, Gorran and PUK, while Turkey purview extends over Erbil and Dohuk, the KDP's zone of control. Ultimately, sovereignty comes from outside recognition and neither of Kurdistan's neighbours, nor the US with its ''one Iraq'' policy and international powers will recognize a Kurdish state.

Despite trends militating against Kurdish independence, the recent chaos in Iraq has worked towards the Kurd's advantage. Even if the Sunni Islamist gains are reversed, the Kurds will still maintain the newly captured territory and will want nothing to do with a Sunni-Shia civil war. Kurdistan will only fight ISIS, and possibly the central government, to maintain territory it has captured in the past week. If Baghdad gets back on its feet--probably with Iranian backing--it will ultimately have to compromise on Kurdish demands, especially over oil and payments, if it wants Kurdish support. And in the worse case scenario, the end of Iraq as a state, the Kurds can bide their time, continuing to build institutions until conditions are ripe for independence.

Chase Winter is a journalist based in Sulaimani in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He holds a BA in international studies and MA in Middle East studies from the University of Washington.

Image Credit: Wikicommon/ C.C. 2.0 License. 

TopicsKurdistan RegionsMiddle East

America: Stay Out of Iraq

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President Obama said today he would essentially take the weekend to decide whether to use the U.S. military to help Iraq’s government repel Sunni Islamist rebels—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—who recently took Mosul and swaths of other territory in northern and central Iraq. Obama ruled out using U.S. ground forces, but drone strikes and traditional air support remain on the table. The usual Congressional hawks are outraged that has not happened already.

The major reason using force to defend Iraq’s government is a bad idea is that it always was. Advocates of going into Iraq, like advocates of staying in Iraq in past years, tend to employ sunk costs logic, where the pursuit of a dumb idea before somehow makes it sensible now. Invocations of dead and wounded Americans’ sacrifice give such thinking added resonance but do not make it sensible.

Surge mythology notwithstanding, our efforts to reorder Iraq have always been misguided. The goal - a multiethnic, democratic, stable Iraq- was a nice idea but never vital to U.S. national security or worth thousands of U.S. lives and vast stores of our wealth. Our presence there did not stabilize Iraq, let alone the region, or keep oil prices down. Nor is regional stability or oil production worth much U.S. effort.

The idea that we need to fight ISIS because of its potential to use terrorism against the United States suffers similar flaws. During the Iraq War, hawks constantly warned that leaving Iraq would allow terrorist havens to form there. Their mental model was 1990s Afghanistan. They ignored the fact that al Qaeda (the original group that attacked Americans) came from particular conflicts, rather than being some kind of plant that grew in failed states. And even in Afghanistan, the problem was more that the government – the Taliban – allied with al Qaeda, rather than the absence of government. And hawks forgot that U.S. gains in drones and surveillance technology since the 1990s had destroyed havens—now those were easy targets.

Today, we are repeatedly told that ISIS is more brutal than al Qaeda and thus a bigger danger to Americans. But that logic confuses an insurgency with a group focused on attacking Americans. ISIS is a nasty organization fond of terrorist violence, radical Islam, and Islamic caliphates, but not an obvious threat to Americans. Conflating morally noxious Islamists with those bent on killing Americans is one of the errors keeping us at endless war.

A second reason to stay out of Iraq’s turmoil is its increasingly sectarian nature. President Obama today repeated the claim that we building a multiethnic military in Iraq. But, as Barry Posen pointed out at Cato yesterday (1:02 here), that has been revealed as a sham, just like the claims made over the years by our political and military leaders that we were making progress toward building an effective Iraqi military. The effective part of Iraqi military that can hold Baghdad, we hope, is its Shiite core. The reality is that we’re talking about protecting a Shiite regime against Sunni rebels, not restoring a multiethnic state.

And the sectarian conflict is not confined to Iraq. Iran’s government said yesterday that it had dispatched Revolutionary Guards units to Iraq to fight ISIS. That’s because Iraq is governed by a Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite regime and because ISIS is already troubling Iran’s major state ally across the border in Syria. So what the President is really considering is joining those three regimes in their fights against Sunni rebellions. Why should we do that? What is victory in that fight worth to Americans?

The third reason to stay out is that we know how hard getting out is. Bombing ISIS on behalf of the Iraqi government may not change the balance of power in Iraq very much. If we again prop up a weak government, we may simply delay the day when Iraq develops a political system that matches its domestic balance of power. That seems likely to be a long, violent process that our participation may only delay.

In a way, the President is now a victim of his own exit strategy. As with Afghanistan lately, he tended to claim that we could leave Iraq because of the success of the state we were building. Staying out may require surrendering that pretense. Better to admit that Iraq is worth far too little to us to justify the sort of effort required to repair it and that we don’t know how to do that anyway.

Benjamin H. Friedman is a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the CATO Institute

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsSecurity RegionsIraq