Archive for March, 2009

North Korea Plans Missile Launch

March 31, 2009

North Korea recently announced that it will launch a rocket between Apr. 4 and 8.  The North Korean government claims that it is putting a satellite into orbit, but the effort has clear military implications because a rocket capable of taking a satellite into space could also be used to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  American officials believe that such an ICBM could reach Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the west coast of the continental US.  North Korea is believed to have tested a nuclear device in 2006, so deploying an ICBM could enable the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name) to strike the US with a nuclear warhead, assuming that North Korean scientists could successfully fuse the two technologies.


On Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “I don’t know anyone at the senior level of American government who does not believe this technology is intended as a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile.”


Launching the rocket would violate a UN Security Council resolution that bars North Korea from testing missiles.  American, Japanese and South Korean officials have condemned the North’s decision, but they have no intention of taking military action to prevent the launch or to shoot down the missile in flight unless it appears that all or part of it is heading towards their territory.  Aegis radar-equipped destroyers from all three countries are moving into place to track the missile.


The North Koreans have taken other provocative actions at a time when the Obama administration has demonstrated a willingness to engage with the isolated regime.  On March 17, two American journalists were captured in North Korea and are still being held there.  Yesterday, a South Korean worker at a border town was arrested and charged with “denouncing the North’s political system and corrupting North Korean female workers in a plot to persuade them to defect to the South,” according to a spokesman from South Korea’s Unification Ministry.


Some believe that North Korea’s belligerent behavior is an attempt to improve its bargaining position before possible negotiations with the US and its allies.  However, such actions could backfire if it convinces other powers that the North will continue to be hostile and violate international agreements.  It is difficult to know if the Kim Jong-Il regime is simply out of touch with the rest of the world, or if it trying to appear unreasonable and thereby dissuade other countries from attacking it or harming it in some other way.


At this point, the international community can do little to punish North Korea besides imposing additional economic sanctions on the communist state, but Kim Jong-Il has demonstrated that he is fairly unconcerned with the economic welfare of his people so it is unlikely that further sanctions will affect his behavior.  The US and its partners can offer diplomatic and economic incentives to the North in hopes that such things will modify that nation’s policies and improve the security situation in East Asia, but it is uncertain if Kim Jong-Il’s regime will adhere to any agreements in the long term. 


The Obama administration has no good options right now, but it appears that engaging the DPRK is the only policy that has any chance of success.  Efforts to isolate and pressure North Korea have repeatedly failed and would likely fail in the future.  There are reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects of any effort to work with the North Koreans, but the costs of engagement are relatively minor so it is worth trying.

The Limits of Territorial Denial

March 30, 2009

During the last few years, Saudi Arabia has pursued what many believe to be a successful counterterrorism strategy.  After a series of attacks in the kingdom between 2003 and 2005, the government acknowledged that it had a domestic terrorism problem and began cracking down on militants.  Officers in the security apparatus who were sympathetic to Islamic extremists were purged.  More SWAT teams were created and put on 24 hour standby, and regular police personnel now receive one month of counterterrorism training each year.  Radical clerics were suppressed and 218 jihadists were sent to “rehabilitation camps” where officials tried to put an end to their violent tendencies (14 of them later continued their illicit activities).


All of the 85 people on the “most wanted” list of terrorist suspects are no longer in Saudi Arabia, which suggests that the anti-terrorism campaign has been very successfully.   However, many of the jihadists have simply moved to Yemen and Afghanistan from whence they continue to launch attacks against the Saudis as well as Afghans and Americans.  Those jihadists have declared their intention to overthrow the Saudi government.  Although the odds of that happening are low, the terrorists can still create instability in the strategically important oil kingdom.


The Saudi situation demonstrates that territorial denial, which can be beneficial to some extent, has its limits in terms of curbing terrorist threats.  This is especially relevant with regard to the US mission in Afghanistan, the goal of which is preventing Al Qaeda from regaining a sanctuary in Afghanistan according to the new strategy revealed last week by the Obama administration.  While preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist state is important, doing so will not solve the problem in Pakistan where Al Qaeda currently has a sanctuary that will probably not be eliminated anytime soon.  American and Pakistani officials recently acknowledged that elements in the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, have provided money, military supplies and strategic advice to Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents.  As long as the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to destroy America’s terrorist foes in Pakistan, US efforts to deny the militants a base in Afghanistan will only have a limited effect in terms of weakening Al Qaeda.

Another Long-Distance Israeli Airstrike

March 27, 2009

American intelligence officials recently disclosed that Israeli warplanes attacked a truck convey traveling across Sudan earlier this year.  The trucks were reportedly carrying illegal arms destined for the Gaza Strip where Palestinian militants were fighting Israeli soldiers.  Seventeen trucks and 39 people perished in the attack.   Israel refused to confirm or deny the reports, adhering to its general policy on such matters.


Iran is believed to be the source of the weapons.  In the past the Islamic Republic has supplied anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah with a variety of arms.  Hamas smuggles weapons into Gaza from Egypt using a series of underground tunnels.  The targeted convoy was near the Egyptian border when it was destroyed.


This is not the first time Israel has carried out a long-distance airstrike.  In 1981, Israeli warplanes flew 700 miles to take out a nuclear reactor in Iraq.  In 2007, a similar attack was carried out against a suspected nuclear site in Syria.  Last year, during a training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, Israeli jets flew 900 miles and simulated a raid on an enemy target. 


The destruction of the truck convoy in Sudan further demonstrates Israeli’s capability to successfully execute long-range air attacks.  The distance flown by the Israeli fighter-bombers during the Sudan assault and the Mediterranean war game was roughly equal to the distance between Israel and the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in Iran.  Israel’s history of attacking nuclear sites in hostile countries could indicate that Israel is willing to strike similar targets in Iran if it believes its security is imperiled by Iran’s nuclear program.


Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities are understandable given the history between the two nations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  Iran has been a primary sponsor of Hamas and Hezbollah, the two militant groups that most seriously threaten the Jewish state.  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent statement that Israel should be “wiped off the map” certainly did not assuage Israeli fears.  However, if Israel were to attack Iran it would have disastrous consequences for the US and its ally.  Such an assault would enrage the Muslim world and be a major boon for the recruiting efforts of Islamic militant groups that want to attack Americans and Israelis.  Iran could further destabilize Iraq just as the US is trying to withdrawal its troops and hand over security responsibilities to the untested Iraqi army and police.  American and Israeli embassies and expatriates around the world would likely be targeted by Hezbollah and other militants sympathetic to Iran.  The inevitable increase in attacks by Hamas against Israel would make it virtually impossible to move the Middle East peace process forward anytime in the foreseeable future.  Moreover, it is unclear if Israel would actually gain anything by carrying out such an air raid.  Intelligence officials believe that many of Iran’s nuclear sites are hidden, and therefore it is uncertain how much Iran’s nuclear program would be set back if the Natanz plant were destroyed.  Perhaps most importantly, Israel has a strong nuclear deterrent which would dissuade any foreign leader that is not completely insane and suicidal from using nuclear weapons against the Jewish state.

Netanyahu’s Hollow Promises

March 25, 2009

On Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the next prime minister of Israel, said that he would be a “partner for peace” in the Middle East.  “This means I will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority” he added.


Palestinian negotiator Saeb Eraket responded to Netanyahu’s comments by saying “Any Israeli government that accepts the two-state solution, negotiates with us on all core issues without exception and agrees to stop settlement activity will be a partner.”


Netanyahu’s promises are likely to prove hollow.  He has never agreed with the concept a two-state solution which is a prerequisite for any serious peace negotiation.  He has long been a hawk and his Likud party has been a strong promoter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, an area where the Palestinians are the majority and which will almost certainly be part of any future Palestinian state.


The prime minister-designate is also influenced by other right-wing parties such as the ultra-Orthodox Shas and the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, both of which are part of his governing coalition.  Many conservatives in Israel, especially religious ones, think that all of Palestine should belong to Israel in accordance with what they believe to be a mandate from God, a concept of territorial consolidation often referred to as “Greater Israel” or “Land of Israel.”  It would be difficult for a rightist politician to overcome their opposition to a two-state solution and its implications even if Netanyahu were inclined to make such a concession. 


Further complicating the peace process is the fact that it is unclear if the Palestinian Authority is in a position to negotiate an acceptable peace agreement with the Israelis.  The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is led by the Fatah party, which is relatively moderate in Palestinian politics, but Gaza, the other major Palestinian territory, is governed by Hamas, an extremist group that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.  It is difficult to know if Hamas would abide by a Fatah-negotiated agreement.  In recent years, Hamas has been more popular than Fatah, so if Hamas is opposed to a peace treaty that is subject to a public referendum the Palestinian people might vote against it.


The most likely scenario that would lead to a lasting peace is if there were a liberal government in Israel and moderate ones in both territories of Palestine at a time when conservative forces in those areas were politically weak.  The current situation clearly does not meet that criteria, which makes the prospects of peace in the foreseeable future seem bleak.

Iraqi Government Fails to Integrate Sunni Fighters

March 24, 2009

Over the past two years, Sunni fighters who were waging an insurgency against the American military and the Iraqi government have turned against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, their former allies.  This phenomenon is known as the “Sunni Awakening,” and it is widely considered to be partly, if not mostly, responsible for the significant decline in violence in Iraq since the “surge” of US troops in the country. 


Under an agreement made between the Shiite-dominated government and the Sunni Awakening Councils, the Sunni militiamen who took on Al Qaeda were supposed to be integrated into the security forces and other parts of the government.  Thus far, the administration of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has failed to fulfill its promise to bring 20 percent of the militants into the police force and the rest into other ministries.  Of the 94,000 Awakening members, only 5,000, approximately five percent, have joined the security apparatus.


Leaders of the Awakening Councils also complain that large numbers of fighters have been arrested despite promises of amnesty, and that others have not been paid on time.


After decades of being dominated by Sunnis and years of being targeted by Sunni militiamen, the Shiite-controlled government is wary of the Sunni combatants, which could explain its hesitance to integrate them into the security forces.  Another factor contributing to the slow process is the sharp drop in tax revenue due to the fall of oil prices since the beginning of the current global financial crisis.  The government now has less money with which to hire new employees.


American officials worry that disgruntled Sunnis might realign with Al Qaeda if they continue to feel marginalized and financially desperate. 


Adil al-Mashadani, an Awakening Council leader in Baghdad, said “When the government does not even pay them enough to stay alive, Qaeda and armed groups are ready to pay them generously.”


Awakening members currently make $250 to $300 a month, whereas police officers and soldiers earn $600 and $750 a month, respectively.


On an editorial note, the US should continue to pay fighters and leaders of the Awakening movement as American military units are withdrawn from Iraq.  Given that the US has already spent roughly $1 trillion on the war, the cost of funding the Sunni groups seems negligible.  Keeping the Sunnis from rejoining the insurgency would greatly contribute to the effort to stabilize Iraq.  The practice of buying off the Sunnis does not have to continue indefinitely, although the annual provision of billions of dollars worth of financial assistance to the Egyptian and Israeli governments since the American-brokered Peace Accords between the two countries could be a model for Iraq if the Shiites fails to sufficiently integrate the Sunnis into the organs of state.