Focal Points Blog

Picture Obama Authorizing a Nuclear Attack

Since the end of the Cold War, the circumstances under which a U.S. president might authorize the launch of nuclear weapons have changed. First, it bears mentioning that, even though he or she is always accompanied by the “nuclear football,”* a president’s ability to exercise complete command over the response to a nuclear attack has long been overrated. Back in 2004, Global Zero Co-Coordinator and President of the World Security Institute Bruce Blair wrote:

“. . . the president’s supporting command system is not actually geared to withhold retaliation in the event of enemy missile attack, real or apparent. [Nuclear commanders] knew full well that the U.S. nuclear command system would collapse under the weight of . . . a Soviet first strike, and that their ability to [retaliate depended] on not waiting more than a few minutes before initiating a large-scale counterattack. [Thus the] bias in favor of launch on electronic warning is so powerful that it would take enormously more presidential will to withhold an attack than to authorize it.”

Today, however, a nuclear attack is less likely to be the result of another state dropping bombs from above or launching missiles than a non-state actor (terrorist group) detonating a weapon without warning on American soil. If there’s an upside to such an occurrence, it’s that it allows a president time to consider his response.

Most assume that a nuclear attack is automatically met by nuclear retaliation. But that might prove equally uncalled for and unfeasible. Andrew Krepinevich, director of defense think tank the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, makes that clear in his 2009 book 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century (Bantam Books).

The second of Krepinevich’s seven eye-opening and plausible scenarios is titled “War Comes to America.” In 2011, a Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapon is detonated in San Antonio, home to several major Air Force bases and an intelligence center. Krepinevich writes:

“Strategic Command’s nuclear forces are placed on high alert . . . military specialists pore over incoming satellite imagery to determine if they somehow missed a missile launch indication . . . and to detect any additional missile launches that would indicate a follow-on strike. … That evening President David Reynolds . . . informs the American public that [they've found] no indication that the weapon was delivered by any kind of missile or aircraft. Simply stated, the bomb was prepositioned in the city covertly and then detonated, perhaps remotely.”

Thus neither was it possible to initiate a retaliatory strike at the time nor mount an attack in the aftermath. For better or worse, the situation rendered launch on warning and hair-trigger alerts useless. Still, even though it’s a different kettle of fish from the Cold War, nuclear forensics reveals that it’s a Soviet weapon. But the Russians disavow the attack, though they concede that the weapon was stolen from them. They vow to track down the guilty parties, which they soon locate among rogue elements of their military and the Russian mafia and military. Krepinevich again:

“‘Intensive interrogation’ (that is to say, torture) of these individuals reveals that nine Soviet-designed atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) have been sold on the black market to Islamic militants. … but no group has presented compelling evidence that it is the true source of the attacks.”

As you can imagine, the American people “want the perpetrators identified and destroyed. Around-the-clock news coverage, along with intense blogosphere activity, keeps the public’s anger and fear at a high level.” But retaliation is still just a gleam in generals’ eyes because 1. the attackers have yet to be identified and 2. even when they are, since they don’t inhabit a state per se, they don’t present a ready target.

Two more nuked cities (sayonara San Diego and Chicago) and a total of 60,000 dead later, various Islamist groups now claim responsibility. Worse, two stolen Soviet weapons are still outstanding.

By this point, Krepinevich writes, “Many Americans would welcome a broad attack on Arab states like Syria and Lebanon and the occupation of Persian Gulf oil fields as a means of providing reparations to the United States for the attacks.” (Can we do that second one now? Kidding, of course.) “With no indications from the president that he’s inclined to either course of action, his “public support . . . has now plummeted. Most Americans see his efforts as weak and ineffectual.”

Then Boston is struck and during a “U.S. Coast Guard boarding of a cargo ship approaching U.S. territorial waters, a nuclear weapon . . . believed to be the final weapon . . . detonates.” The national nightmare seems to be coming to an end. The “president announces that the United States will work with its allies and partners . . . to pressure those states suspected of supporting radical Islamist elements to cease all such activities. In the interim the United States is intensifying its worldwide military operations to locate and destroy radical Islamist groups with the cooperation” of other countries. [But the] response to the president’s address is lukewarm at best. [His] approval ratings sink below 20 percent [and soon] the House of Representatives begins hearings to determine if the president should be impeached.”

Finally, a radical Islamist group provides irrefutable proof to the CIA that it perpetrated the attacks. Just when it feels like the United States can at last put a name to its pain, the Director of National Intelligence delivers the punch line: “Mr. President, they inform us that they have other nuclear weapons in the United States and will begin using them within a week unless we meet their demands, which are as follows . . .”

Scenario 2, were it to come to pass, would be our second object lesson in that unique way nuclear weapons have of fast-tracking us into crisis mode while leaving us without the means to retrace our steps back to a steady state. The first, of course, was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Krepinevich’s President Reynolds might have been intended as a hybrid of President Obama, attributing to him a reluctance to use nuclear weapons, and President John F. Kennedy, who finally became obstinate in his refusal to resort to nuclear weapons. Of Reynolds, Krepinevich writes: “Privately, he tells those closest to him that he is willing to suffer public disapproval in order to spare the country the dangers of a full-scale war.”

In fact, the pressure Kennedy faced from the military to use nuclear weapons was much stronger than that which Obama has thus far faced about remaining in Afghanistan or, for that matter, dialing down our nuclear-industrial complex. Kennedy, however, had proved his intestinal fortitude during World War II with PT-109. (Revisit that incident: his heroism bordered on a death wish.) Besides, in those days, bold initiatives were expected from leaders, unlike today, when consensus rules at the executive level in business and government.

Returning to Krepinevich’s scenario, even Kennedy might have nuked a host state after hearing about the additional bombs. Obama, I regret to report, unlike President Reynolds, might have succumbed to pressure to authorize a nuclear attack after the initial attacks.

*The nuclear football is an industrial-strength briefcase containing retaliatory options, site locations, and authorization codes.

Speaking of authorization codes, here’s one for Technorati to verify our blog: Q7N2EXJ85J9R

The Red Mosque Was Pakistan’s Waco

Ghazi, Pakistan's David Koresh“Pakistani authorities now believe a dangerous new militant group [the Ghazi Force], out to avenge a deadly army assault on a mosque in Islamabad three years ago, has carried out several major bombings in the capital previously blamed on the Taliban,” reports Kathy Gannon for the Associated Press.

“The emergence of the Ghazi Force was part of the outrage among many deeply religious Pakistani Muslims over the July 2007 attack by security forces against the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, a stronghold of Islamic militants. … The new group is made up of relatives of students who died in the Red Mosque assault. It is named after the students’ leader, Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was also killed.”

Last June I hosted a FireDogLake book salon for Nicholas Schmidle, the author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan. Before the attack, he visited Lal Masjid and interviewed Ghazi, who, along with his brother, inherited its leadership from his father, who was assassinated there. Of the three only Ghazi’s brother, who, you may recall, escaped dressed as a woman in a burqua, was spared that fate. (Later caught, he was recently released from prison. Guess Pakistan’s prison system is still a swinging door for jihadis.) The first mosque built in Islamabad, Lal Masjid once served an exclusive neighborhood of Islamabad.

Ghazi impressed Schmidle with his genial nature — in appearance, he reminded the author of Jerry Garcia! Gannon again:

A former senior official [said] that the police wanted to storm the mosque and end the siege at its outset [and] send the students home . . . until tempers cooled. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf refused, the official said, even though police knew that members of [an al-Qaida] affiliate organization . . . were bringing in weapons for the students. Musharraf relented and ordered the assault after militants kidnapped several Chinese nationals running a massage parlor in Islamabad, accusing them of prostitution.

Since the Chinese had invested hundreds of millions in buiding up the port in Gwadar (on the Arabian Sea), they pressured Musharraf to protect their people in Pakistan. Despite a government clean-up after the attack faster than Ground Zero after 9/11, Schmidle estimates that as many as 1,000 of those inside the Red Mosque were killed.

Meanwhile, news that it wasn’t the Taliban that had committed the string of Islamabad attacks caught many by surprise. In retrospect, though, it was no more surprising than when David Koresh and his Branch Davidians were slaughtered at Waco, Texas in 1993 and, along with Ruby Ridge, became a rallying point of the American militia movement.

Me to Nicholas Schmidle: How is it that the genial, level-headed Ghazi, as you wrote, “morphed from an outspoken extremist with a perma-smirk into a bona fide terrorist”? In other words, how did he wind up becoming Pakistan’s version of David Koresh and backing himself and his followers into an apocalyptic corner?

Schmidle: Ghazi was not a suicidal dude, or at least I didn’t think so. If anyone reads my account of him, you’ll see that he was critical in me getting access to jihadis that would have otherwise been unthinkable. … I felt remarkably safe in his presence.

But I believe that he was a victim of his own personality cult. … He had built up the jihad and built up himself to such a degree, and surrounded himself with some bad-ass fighters from Pakistan’s most elite jihadi organizations, that when it came down to the final showdown, he left no room for himself to back down.

Likewise, apparently, those carrying on his legacy leave no room for themselves to back down — or give no quarter.

Friday Fun: Imams Gone Wild

At Psychology Today, Molly Castelloe points out: “The blogosphere is abuzz with a recent breast-feeding fatwa or religious ruling in the Saudi world.

Sheik Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, a scholar and consultant at Saudi Arabia’s royal court, called for women to give breast milk to their drivers and male coworkers in order to avoid illicit mixing of the sexes. Yes, you heard me. [Emphasis added]

According to conservative Islamic tradition, if a woman breast-feeds a man five times they are considered “relatives” rather than potential lovers. They are therefore allowed to intermingle or be alone together. This milk-relationship permits other familiarities normally forbidden between an unmarried man and woman: the woman can also remove her veil and reveal her hair.

One’s first impulse is to laugh this off because aside from not constituting actual laws or even decrees, fatwas are sometimes issued by lesser clerics. Thus the Sheik’s affiliation with the Saudi Arabian court makes this somewhat troubling. In fact, Ms. Castelloe continues:

Religious and political leaders in the Arab world declare that recent fatwa practices are causing a crisis in Islam because they promote extremist thought and intolerance. … This mammary madness, which fueled a week’s worth of headlines in the oil-rich Saudi kingdom, highlights the challenges some Muslim scholars face as they strive to interpret their faith — while also preserving balance and flexibility in Islamic law.

Incidentally, lest I be accused of bias towards Islam, this kind of arcanery is common to all religions. It’s a men’s sport, of course. I urge Focal Point readers to read the rest of the Psychology Today post and see if you agree (with me, anyway) that the more deeply “theologians” such as the Sheikh explore the recesses of their minds, the farther they move from spirituality. Kindly respond in the comments section.

What Effect Will Resignation of Iran Hard-Liner Have on IAEA?

The International Atomic Energy Agency “said on Thursday its top inspector Olli Heinonen, head of investigations into Iran and Syria, has resigned for personal reasons after nearly 30 years at the Vienna-based organization,” reports Reuters.

Heinonen, 63, is head of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards department which verifies that countries’ nuclear programs are not being diverted for military use. [He] is probably best known for giving a presentation to diplomats on Iran in 2008 which indicated links between projects to process uranium, test explosives and modify a missile cone . . . for a nuclear warhead.

As those in the disarmament community are well aware, the IAEA is wrought with a deep fissure. In autumn of last year, at Arms Control Wonk, Jeffrey Lewis quoted then-journalist Mark Hibbs, famed for busting the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling ring.

During preparations by the IAEA and the board for a routine board meeting held last month, sources close to the IAEA said that senior officials in two departments, responsible for verification and diplomacy, respectively, had strongly disagreed over whether data obtained by the IAEA concerning alleged nuclear weaponization activities by Iran is authentic. … Officials at . . . the diplomatic arm [known as Expo] of the agency, have raised concerns that evidence may be faked, as Iran has charged. … In recent years the two departments [Expo and verification, the latter headed by Heinonen -- RW] have differed about how to handle sensitive allegations that member states [such as Iran have been guilty of] safeguards violations. …

Since 2003, when the IAEA determined that evidence brought forth by the US suggesting Iraq had resumed nuclear weapons work was fabricated, officials at Expo and [former Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei's office] have been wary that the US has tried to manipulate the IAEA during its investigation of Iran, according to officials from IAEA states.

In other words, Ollie Heinonen was an Iran hard-liner. Whereas Expo and ElBaradei, concerned the West was using Iran’s dodginess about a nuclear weapons program as a pretext for an attack, might have given Iran the benefit of the doubt. (That’s also the source of charges that ElBaradei exceeded the scope of his title.)

No word yet on whether the fissure spurred Heinonen to resign or whether he just wanted to play golf (ElBaradei’s passion, actually). Reuters also reports: “Diplomats said new IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano . . . had said in private there would be changes in the agency’s top staff.”

It’s possible that Amano didn’t want Heinonen leaning on him to lean on Iran. On the other hand, he may have valued Heinonen’s fervor about bringing Iran to task and just sought to replace him with an individual with whom he felt more comfortable. Reuters again: “The IAEA said his position should be filled soon. One of [Heinonen's] deputies is Herman Nackaerts who oversees Iran inspections and holds the position Heinonen had before he was promoted.”

The larger question is whether Amano sees himself and the IAEA as the roadblock of last resort to Western aggression against Iran.

Here We Go With the Pallets of Cash Again (Remember Paul Bremer?)

Kabul corruption“Show me the money, or at least some receipts scribbled on the backs of old envelopes and grocery bags,” wrote Joseph Galloway at Common Dreams in February of 2007. He continued:

“This week, we were treated to the spectacle of the former U.S. civilian overlord of Iraq, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, squirming in the hot seat as he attempted with little success to explain what he did with 363 TONS of newly printed, shrink-wrapped $100 bills he had flown to Baghdad. [He] said that a lot of the cash was delivered to ministries of the Iraqi government to meet payrolls that were patently fraudulent.

The Department of Defense’s special inspector general for Iraq, Stuart Bowen, said that a 2005 audit he conducted found that in some ministries the payroll was padded with up to 90 percent “ghost employees” — people who didn’t really work there or perhaps didn’t really exist. Bremer said that he decided to provide the money to meet those payrolls, even though he knew they were bogus, for fear of starting riots and demonstrations among the Iraqis, real and imagined. …

I can think of no period in American history when we sat idly by while $12 billion just disappeared, poof, without a paper trail; without heads rolling; without someone going to prison.

Remember the sense of vertigo this story induced in you (well, me anyway) when you read it? If you haven’t heard about the latest wrinkle, prepare for your head to spin anew. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Corruption Suspected in Airlift of Billions in Cash From Kabul, Matthew Rosenberg reports:

In Iraq, the brutality displayed by Americans toward Iraqis and Iraqis toward Iraqis was shocking. Many Americans wrote American brutality off to our soldiers put in the impossible position of making hair-trigger decisions about who was an insurgent and who was a civilian. Nor did most of us want any part of responsibility for Iraqi brutality. It may have been an unjustified war, many of us no doubt thought, but at least we gave them their freedom — and look what they did with it.

At least this time, while they can’t expect a Presidential Medal of Freedom to be forthcoming as it was for Bremer (generosity above and beyond the call of duty?), “U.S. and Afghan officials,” the WSJ article continues, “say they are targeting the flows in major anticorruption and drug trafficking investigations because of their size relative to Afghanistan’s small economy and the murkiness of their origins.”

Okay, Americans are notorious for tuning out the violence committed by our government and military in our names. But why didn’t Americans react more strongly to the visceral image of cold hard cash — shorn of the discretion of checks or wire transfers — stacked on pallets sent to a corrupt government? If one of those pallets were stacked with just singles, it would be enough to provide any one of us with income for life.

More to the point, do Focal Points readers think this new story from Afghanistan, on the heels of McChrystal’s faux pas, as well as his fatalism about our mission there, could gain traction and convince Americans once and for all that there’s nothing to be gained from our presence in Afghanistan? Kindly respond in the comments section.

A Confirmation for Petraeus Is a Confirmation of the Surge Narrative

Petraeus, the SurgeTwo nominees walk into the capital for their confirmation hearings on Tuesday morning. One is a war hero. The other, a lawyer. They meet under the great rotunda to give each other a little pep talk before what promises to be a long day. “I’m sick and tired of hearing about my lack of judicial experience,” the lawyer confesses. “No, problem,” says the war hero. “I have enough experience for the both of us. Take some of mine,” and he sprinkles a little of his experience dust over the top of her head. “Damn it,” says the lawyer, “Now I have a record.”

This conversation is, of course, imaginary. But it does illuminate a real difference between the issue of experience in the hearings to confirm Elena Kagan as Supreme Court justice and David Petraeus as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Kagan has never served as a judge. For this reason, Republican critics have argued that she simply isn’t qualified for the job. But Kagan’s hearings would likely be more heated if she had judicial experience. The very same critics would pore over her record to support their claim that she is just another liberal activist cloaked in a judge’s robe. Thus, experience can be a double-edged sword.

But this isn’t the case for the war hero. The widespread support for Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement has revolved in large part around the general’s experience in Iraq. Echoing the news reports, in his opening remarks at the confirmation hearings, Senator Carl Levin underscored Petraeus’ “highly experienced leadership.” Other members of the committee followed suit. While several of them asked challenging questions about the current strategy in Afghanistan, nobody critiqued Petraeus’ experience in Iraq.

Experience is not a double-edged sword for Petraeus because of the bi-partisan consensus that the war in Iraq was ultimately a success, if not a victory. This consensus has emerged out of the surge narrative that has become so dominant in discussions of the Iraq War. According to this narrative, when Petraeus took over the war in 2007, he led a strategic revolution in Anbar province, where the Sunni insurgency was strongest. As a result of the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by Petraeus, the insurgency was persuaded to turn against Al Qaeda and throw its lot in with the U.S. The Anbar Awakening, as it is called, was a pivotal turning point in the war, after which the insurgency increasingly lost traction and momentum. Even Obama, who had been a sharp critic of the war in Iraq, has called the surge a success.

Ever since the surge narrative took root, there has been little public debate about the situation in Iraq. Thus, it is no surprise that, instead of an ongoing conflict, Iraq figured into the hearings as an historical event. It mattered only insofar as its success could be applied to Afghanistan. Along these lines, a few senators asked whether there might have been more popular support for the U.S. in Anbar province than in Marja, Afghanistan. But none of them asked whether the success in Anbar has led to long-term stability or effective governance in Iraq. If they had probed into the more recent history of Anbar, they would find a province wracked by political infighting that constantly threatens to self-destruct. The Awakening Party, whose members led the turnaround in 2007, has been accused of intimidation and corruption, and was unable to command the popular vote in last February’s election. Meanwhile, multinational companies are scrambling to get a piece of Anbar’s future oil and gas production, leaving it unclear whether and how the local population will actually benefit. While violence is down, it is far from certain that the Clear-Hold-Build strategy has had lasting success in the region.

When the Judiciary Committee asks a Supreme Court nominee to answer for their judicial decisions, it is less an interrogation of individual qualifications than a provocation for debating deeply engrained differences over the principles and values of our political system. Along the same lines, many progressives hoped that the change in command would prompt a discussion not of Petraeus’ qualifications, but rather, of the guiding principles and values of the war in Afghanistan. So far, the more complicated legacy of the surge in Iraq has been left out of that debate. The erasure of the long-term effects of counterinsurgency in Iraq does not bode well for Afghanistan, where corruption, lack of popular support for the government, and sooner or later, a battle over the country’s newly-discovered natural resources, similarly plagues the war effort. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the wake of the Great War, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning.”

Doesn’t a Spy Need, Like, Secrets?

“The only things missing in more than a decade of operation were actual secrets to send home to Moscow,” reports the New York Times about the accused spies for Russia. Which then beggars the question of whether they’re actually spies. In fact, “none of the 11 people accused in the case face charges of espionage, because in all those years they were never caught sending classified information back to Moscow, American officials said.” More . . .

The assignments, described in secret instructions intercepted by the F.B.I., were to collect routine political gossip and policy talk that might have been more efficiently gathered by surfing the Web.

“What in the world do they think they were going to get out of this, in this day and age?” said Richard F. Stolz, a former head of C.I.A. spy operations and onetime Moscow station chief. “The effort is out of proportion to the alleged benefits. I just don’t understand what they expected.”

What do Focal Pointers think the Russians expected? Kindly let us know in the comments section.

The Guns of August in the Middle East?

Pro-Israel rallyDispatches From The Edge

Crazy talk about the Middle East seems to be escalating, backed up by some pretty ominous military deployments. We’ll start with the department of scary statements:

First up, Shabtai Shavit, former chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, speaking June 21 at Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv on why Israel should launch a pre-emptive strike at Iran: “I am of the opinion that, since there is an ongoing war, since the threat is permanent, since the intention of the enemy in this case is to annihilate you, the right doctrine is one of presumption and not retaliation.”

Second up, Uzi Arad, Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security advisor, speaking before the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem June 22 on his belief that the “international community” would support an Israeli strike at Iran: “I don’t see anyone who questions the legality of this or the legitimacy.”

Third up, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi speaking to reporters at the G-8 meeting in Toronto June 26: “Iran is not guaranteeing a peaceful production of nuclear power [so] the members of the G-8 are worried and believe absolutely that Israel will probably react preemptively.”

Fourth up, Central Intelligence Director Leon Panetta predicting on ABC’s “This Week” program June 27 that Iran could have two nuclear weapons by 2012: “We think they [Iran] have enough low-enriched uranium for two weapons…and while there is continuing debate [within Iran] right now about whether or not they ought to proceed with a bomb…they clearly are developing their nuclear capacity.” He went on to say that the U.S. is sharing intelligence with Israelis and that Tel Aviv is “willing to give us the room to be able to try to change Iran diplomatically and culturally and politically.”

A few points:
1) Iran and Israel are not at war, a fact Shavit seems confused about.
2) Since the recent rounds of sanctions aimed at Iran would have lost in the United Nations General Assembly, it unclear who Arad thinks is the “international community.”
3) Berlusconi is a bit of a loose cannon, but he is tight with the Israelis.
4) An Iran that is different “diplomatically and culturally and politically” sounds an awful lot like “regime change.” Is that the “room” Panetta is talking about?

And it isn’t all talk.

Following up the London Times report that Saudi Arabia had given Israel permission to fly through Saudi airspace to attack Iran, the Jerusalem Post, the Islam Times and the Iranian news agency Fars report that the Israeli air force has stockpiled equipment in the Saudi desert near Jordan.

According to the Post, supplies were unloaded June 18 and 19 outside the Saudi city of Tabuk, and all civilian flights into the area were canceled during the two day period. The Post said that an “anonymous American defense official” claimed that Mossad chief Meir Dagan was the contact man with Saudi Arabia and had briefed Netanyahu on the plans.

The Gulf Daily News reported June 26 that Israel has moved warplanes to Georgia and Azerbaijan, which would greatly shorten the distance Israeli planes would have to fly to attack targets in northern Iran.

The U.S currently has two aircraft carriers—the Truman and the Eisenhower—plus more than a dozen support vessels in the Gulf of Hormuz, the strategic choke point leading into the Gulf of Iran.

The Saudis have vigorously denied the reports they are aiding the Israelis, and Shafeeq Ghabra, president of the American University of Kuwait, says, “It would be impossible for the Saudis to allow an Israeli attack on Iran.”

But Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan, Israel, argues that Saudi Arabia and Israel both fear a nuclear-armed Iran. “This brings us together on a strategic level in that we have common interests. Since the Arab world and Saudi Arabia understand that President Obama is a weak person, maybe they decided to facilitate this happening.” He also said the story might not be true because “I don’t think the Saudis want to burden themselves with this kind of cooperation with Israel.”

According to military historian Martin van Creveld, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “The real fear is that someone will get carried away by his own rhetoric and fear mongering” and start a war. He also thinks, however, that Israel should not take a preemptive strike “off the table.”

Trita Parsi of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington argues that the escalation of rhetoric is dangerous. “When you have that kind of political environment, you are leaving yourself no space to find another solution,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “You may very well end up in a situation where you are propelled to act, even though you understand it is an unwise action, but [do so] for political reasons.”

The rhetoric is getting steamy, the weapons are moving into position, and it is beginning to feel like “The Guns of August”* in the Middle East.

*For those too young to remember, The Guns of August, published in 1962, is a history of the first month of World War I. It earned its author, Barbara Tuchman, a Pulitzer Prize.

Burma’s Junta Built to Last

In the aftermath of the apparent transfer of nuclear technology and know-how from North Korea to Burma, the latter, reports Bertil Lintner at Asia Times Online, could soon be penalized with more international sanctions.

The prospect of that happening — and already deep dissatisfaction over the close relationship with a pariah regime like Pyongyang . . . is reportedly stoking resentment among the Myanmar officer corps. Other officers like Sai Thein Win [who provided the Democratic Voice of Burma with photographs and documents] may therefore be waiting in the wings for an opportunity to defect and shed more light on Myanmar’s deep and dark nuclear secrets. [To them] Myanmar’s experiments with nuclear technology and missiles amount to little more than a waste of money in a country that desperately needs more funds dedicated to public health and education.

But don’t elections scheduled for October offer hope of reform? In a review of a biography of the junta’s leader, Gen. Than Shwe, elsewhere at Asia Times Online, Lintner writes . . .

A new generation of pundits. … believe a hitherto unknown generation of Young Turks and other supposed closet liberals within the military will come to the fore and push the country in a more democratic direction. … In all likelihood, however, foreign pundits will be proven wrong yet again. Benedict Rogers’ highly readable new book [Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant] shows why Myanmar’s military, even with Than Shwe’s imminent retirement, has no intention of giving up power any time soon.

At Irrawaddy, Aung Zaw explains.

In an interview with a US television journalist on April 14, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong predicted that Burma’s ruling generals will not easily give up power. … “If they are out, it’s not just that the country and the government have changed, bu ‘Where do I go and which jail would I be in and [what about] my children and my jewels and my billions?’” he said. … [Than Shwe's] real concern is likely to be the loyalty of young army officers [who] may come to the fore in reshaping Burma as their roles change between being members of the armed forces or parliament. … [He] must ensure that his most trusted lieutenants take over the reins of both the new government and the armed forces so that his family and fortune will be protected.

Lintner sums up. “Whether Myanmar holds elections this year, next year, or never, all the structures he put in place signal that the military is geared to remain in power for the foreseeable future.”

Afghanistan by the Book — THE Book, That Is

It’s no secret that the Obama administration has struggled from the beginning to find a coherent narrative to support the Afghan war it inherited. Or to craft an even remotely coherent strategy. (Other than how to shift the blame when the whole thing implodes.)

But now that General David Petraeus is assuming command, hearts seem suddenly light. There is a sense – or at least a claim – that new leadership in the field will somehow transform an otherwise bleak and worsening situation. This sense is shared across party lines, and it appears likely that Petraeus will be unanimously confirmed in his new role by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

It seems appropriate, therefore, to reread Gen. Petraeus’ seminal work, Field Manual 3-24, to get a sense of how he might undertake this transformation. (FM 3-24 is the counterinsurgency guide for the US military. Along with FM 3-24.2, Tactics In Counterinsurgency, it details what every US soldier, from private to four-star is supposed to know about COIN.)

If Afghanistan is, in fact, a COIN engagement – and we must assume POTUS believes it is, since he has nominated a man perceived to be America’s foremost COIN expert to lead it – then he should be using the best available COIN guidelines to assess it. Presumably that would be FM 3-24, so I’ve taken the liberty of extracting key points to use as metrics. The number and italicized sections below are lifted directly from FM 3-24. The snarky (excuse me, I mean insightful) commentary is mine.

1-4. Long-term success in COIN depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule.

Er . . . then actually having a functioning ‘Host Nation’ government is a necessary precondition for success?

1-10. For the reasons just mentioned, maintaining security in an unstable environment requires vast resources, whether host nation, U.S., or multinational.

You mean vast, as in hundreds of thousands of troops, similar numbers of development personnel and the cash to fund it all?

1-30. Protracted conflicts favor insurgents, and no approach makes better use of that asymmetry than the protracted popular war.

Nine years and counting. Might be a good time to ask which team has the deeper bench.

1-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.

Oh. Whoops.

1-116. Six possible indicators of legitimacy that can be used to analyze threats to stability include the following:

  • The ability to provide security for the populace (including protection from internal and external threats).
  • Selection of leaders at a frequency and in a manner considered just and fair by a substantial majority of the populace.
  • A high level of popular participation in or support for political processes.
  • A culturally acceptable level of corruption.
  • A culturally acceptable level and rate of political, economic, and social development.
  • A high level of regime acceptance by major social institutions.

How many points do you get for ‘none of the above’?

1-121. Unity of effort must be present at every echelon of a COIN operation.

Ah, man, even the VP, those weenies over at State and the National Security Advisor?

1-131. The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian populace.

Right. Remind me how many of those provinces were rated as ‘fully secure’ in the April 2010 review? As I recall, the exact number was, umm . . . is zero a number?

1-134. Insurgencies are protracted by nature. Thus, COIN operations always demand considerable expenditures of time and resources.

Roger that. Just so long as the pull date is before the next election.

Well, shucks. Color me cynical.

In the wildland fire biz we used a quick and dirty little algorithm called TREAT to decide whether to fight or flee. I think it might apply here, too.

  • Time
  • Resources
  • Experience
  • Attitude
  • Training

The rule was, if you had any three or more, it was a good decision to stand and fight. Any fewer, and it was time to remove your crews from danger.

Using that for AfPak, I’d give the US about 1.2. Pretty good on attitude, fair on training (for that specific environment), way short of time, resources and experience.

The US cannot commit to the 10 to 20 year time frame (starting today!) that is likely necessary to actually succeed. Nor can it come close to putting the necessary number of troops in the field. (Estimated at over 1.4 million with the classic troop density of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 population. Yeah, you can count the locals, but at this point, the ANA and ANP are so bad they would have to be subtracted from the total, not added.) And – key point – in terms of experience, the US has yet to win a classical counterinsurgency fight. (Sorry, Iraq doesn’t count. It wasn’t true COIN, and the US did not win. For an explanation, see Fourth Generation Warfare in a Fifth Generation Conflict.)

Bottom line? Time to run.

Excuse me. I mean ‘strategically redeploy’.

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