Blogs: The Skeptics

Fight Against ISIS Cannot Be Won Militarily

Is Pentagon Spending Really Leading to ‘Failure’ and ‘Regret’?

Is the Pentagon Feeding Obama Bogus Intel on ISIS?

The Skeptics

Is the United States winning or losing the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria?

The question, although simple, cuts to the heart of the matter—one that policymakers in the executive branch, members of Congress and candidates running for president have been asking themselves ever since the U.S. Air Force dropped the first smart-bombs on ISIL targets fifteen months ago. If the answer is “yes,” then the Obama administration doesn’t have to worry about the constant clamor coming from its Republican critics that more U.S. military force—including the deployment of additional U.S. personnel on the ground is required to turn the situation around. If the answer is “no,” President Barack Obama and the National Security Council will need to gather in the Situation Room, reassess what elements of the strategy are working and which are falling short, and brainstorm new ideas in order to plug any shortfalls that may exist.

And yet, none of this is at all possible without honest, forthright, and unvarnished assessments from the men and women of the U.S. intelligence community who are responsible for providing the president, the secretary of defense, the NSC and the State Department with the information they need in order to fix what’s broken and amplify what is successful. Without good information, policymakers tasked with implementing the counter-ISIL strategy are twisting in the wind, carrying out a war plan based on intuition and assumption.

This is exactly why allegations that senior leadership at U.S. Central Command, which overseas the war against the Islamic State, manipulated or changed the assessments of lower-level analysts is so concerning. According to multiple press reports from The New York Times, the Inspector General’s investigation is specifically inquiring whether and to what extent senior CENTCOM intelligence officials spun what would have been more pessimistic reports of the war into a conclusions that were far more positive than the realities of the ground suggested. Assessments that were gloomy were supposedly ignored, sent back down the chain of command for revision or revised at the top levels of the CENTCOM intelligence hierarchy before being passed along to the president and his staff. As Matt Apuzzo, Mark Mazzetti and Michael Schmidt of the Times reported over the weekend, the accusations are so serious that the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Armed Services and Defense Appropriations committees are establishing their own joint investigation alongside the Inspector General.

As concerning as the claims, however, is the fact that at least fifty analysts within CENTCOM have signed up to the formal complaint given to the Inspector General. This case, in other words, is not about a few rogue or disenchanted analysts complaining that the bosses are ignoring their judgments; rather, it is one of the most significant allegations of intelligence tampering since the Saddam Hussein WMD debacle.

Guidance signed by James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, is abundantly clear about how analysts in the intelligence community should act, how they should conduct themselves during the intelligence assessment process and what type of behavior is inappropriate. “Analytic assessments must not be distorted by, nor shaped for, advocacy of a particular audience, agenda, or policy viewpoint,” Clapper’s directive reads. “Analytic judgments must not be influenced by the force of preference for a particular policy.”

Because there is an ongoing investigation from the Inspector General’s office, those on the outside looking in cannot and should not jump to conclusions. Any number of things inside CENTCOM could have happened, including the very real possibility that there was and remains a legitimate disagreement between the analysts and CENTCOM leadership about how well the counter-ISIL strategy is working. And yet the complaints are so serious and potentially damaging to the entire policy against the Islamic State that members of Congress are appropriately launching their own investigations about the claims being put forth.

In ordinary circumstances, congressional committees would wait for the Inspector General to finish the work before making a determination that further investigation is necessary. But at a time when the United States is in the middle of a war and leading a multinational military coalition against the barbarism that ISIL represents, the country has no choice but to ensure that the president is receiving the most accurate and impartial intelligence about the state of the conflict. The United States cannot defeat the Islamic State if its political leadership is not being delivered the best information available—free of political interference, as the Intelligence Community requires.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry are within their rights to look into these allegations. Ranking Members Adam Schiff and Adam Smith should join their Republican colleagues in the pursuit of the truth. Getting the intelligence right and preventing the very same mistakes that occurred before the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and early 2003 is too important is an effort that both Republicans and Democrats can and should support.

Daniel R. DePetris is an analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geostrategic consulting firm, and a freelance researcher. He has also written for, Small Wars Journal and The Diplomat.

Image: Flickr/White House

Marco Rubio Desperately Plays the 'Isolationist' Card

North and South Korea Are All Talk. Should Washington Get Involved?

The Skeptics

On Thanksgiving the two Koreas had a chat at Panmunjun, the truce village within the Demilitarized Zone. They reached an agreement. To talk some more on Friday.

That’s the way it usually is. When there’s a specific issue that must be resolved, real results sometimes are reached. Last August tensions were rising and the two found a way to dampen the warlike rhetoric. Despite periodic disputes the two governments have kept the Kaesong industrial park going.

But promises of future talks usually fall short. Two years ago the two Koreas agreed to hold top-level discussions: the North pulled out the day before. There have been other, more limited discussions, such as those in February 2014 which led to family reunions. Wide-ranging high-level pow-wows have been rare, however.

Will this time be any different? Before setting off for Panmunjun Kim Ki-Woong, a top official at South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU), said “We will do our best.” The result was at most a modest success by its own terms. The two sides scheduled talks with vice ministers for December at the industrial park in Kaesong, where many South Korean firms employ North Koreans. Observers had been expecting ministerial-level talks in either Seoul or Pyongyang. Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute criticized both governments’ “lack of will for dialogue and flexibility.”

Even if the discussions actually occur, the agenda remains unclear. The joint statement pointed to “issues that will improve relations between the South and the North.” Fair ‘nuff. But those issues, of which there are many, rarely have been susceptible to settlement via negotiation. Most problems on the peninsula grow out of the North Korean regime’s determined misbehavior.

Topping the list for the South was family reunions, or “divided families,” according to MOU spokesman Jung Joon-hee. Visits are a fine humanitarian gesture for those separated by the war more than six decades ago, but irrelevant to the larger geopolitical conflict. They should be easy: let people travel. But the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea strictly limits the process, hand picking only the most politically reliable.

Jung said at their Thanksgiving meeting the North focused on restarting tours of its Mount Kumgang resort. But these visits were suspended years ago after a North Korean guard shot and killed a tourist who wandered into a forbidden area. Pyongyang never apologized, let alone changed its policy. Thus, the Republic of Korea has no incentive to comply.

Although it went unmentioned at the Thanksgiving meeting, North Korea also desires a resumption of aid, which was suspended (the “May 24 measures,” as they oft have been called) after the sinking of a South Korean warship and bombardment of a South Korean island in 2010. But the DPRK never accepted responsibility for the first and justified the second as defensive. Indeed, as his father’s heir apparent Kim Jong-un was said to have been involved in staging the North’s two acts of war.

There also could be discussion of reunification, but no serious person believes it is possible with the current regime in Pyongyang. Even when I visited the DPRK more than two decades ago my hosts expressed fears of being “swallowed” after watching the German experience. The only way to preserve their “social system,” as they put it, is to preserve a separate North Korean state. If voluntary unification is unlikely, then the only chance is for a violent collapse of the North, in which case there is nothing to discuss.

Conventional arms control would be a logical topic, since the DPRK has positioned its forces near the border to maximize their threatening effect, especially on Seoul, which lies within artillery and Scud missile range. But so far the North has seen little reason to drop its threats. And without a dramatic change in policy, it is hard to imagine the Kim regime living up to any promises it made to do so, which could easily be reversed at any time.

The most important issue, of course, is Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. It has been treated as an international question but most affects the South. However, to believe that Kim Jong-un, whose hold on power may not be as secure as he’d like, is prepared to negotiate away the military’s most important and expensive weapon is to believe in the Tooth Fairy or Great Pumpkin. Indeed, even a small nuclear arsenal provides multiple benefits: defense against the U.S.-ROK axis, a tool for extorting neighbors and evidence of international relevance. Without nukes, no one other than its immediate neighbors would pay much attention to the impoverished, starving, isolated dictatorship seeming locked in another era.

Still, talks are better than no talks. As Winston Churchill observed, better to “jaw-jaw” than “war-war.” Perhaps the best policy is to seek to expand North Korean contacts with the West. That should include Washington getting involved, though not simply tossing money at the Kim regime. Rather, a goal should be to expand official contacts and encourage more private encounters.

First, there is no reason to think the Kim monarchy (with Communist characteristics) is likely to disappear. The regime has withstood famine, poverty and the death of two dominant dictators. The youngest Kim has attempted to cement his control by killing some 400 officials, including his uncle, since taking power four years ago. Even if he is ousted, regime elites have a lot a stake in preserving the system if not the specific leader.