Archive for April, 2009

Engaging with Cuba

April 30, 2009

In a conciliatory gesture, the Obama administration recently eased restrictions on telecommunications with Cuba and now allows unlimited money transfers and travel for people with relatives in one of the few remaining communist states.

Yesterday, Cuban President Raul Castro dismissed the change in US policy as “achieving only the minimum,” and said that his regime would not take any immediate steps to appease the American government.

He put the onus for rapprochement back on Washington, saying “It is not Cuba who has to make gestures.”

Relations between the US and Cuba have been hostile since the early 1960s when Cuban President Fidel Castro allied with the Soviet Union and the Kennedy administration imposed an economic embargo on the island nation and cut off diplomatic ties.  Although there have since been calls in the US for lifting the embargo and establishing normal relations with Cuba, no American administration has been willing to do so, partly out of fear of alienating anti-Castro Cuban-American voters in Florida, a key electoral state.

Now that the Cold War is over, Fidel Castro has relinquished power to his brother, and a younger generation of Cuban-Americans that supports more open relations is politically active, there appears to be less opposition to engaging with the Cuban regime.  The Obama administration, which has championed engagement with hostile regimes as a cornerstone of its foreign policy, might be more amenable than previous administrations to improving relations with Cuba.

Arguments for closer ties argue that the embargo has clearly failed, given that the communists remain in power nearly 50 years after the policy was implemented, and therefore serves no purpose.  Some believe that a greater US presence in the country will undermine the autocratic regime and help usher in democracy.  Pro-engagement partisans point to the US relationship with communist China and say that the US should have a similar relationship with Cuba for economic and political reasons.

Opponents argue such a policy would prop up the communists and enable them to stay in power because the Cuban economy would improve significantly if US dollars start pouring into it.  They also claim that normalizing relations will signal American acquiescence to a brutal dictatorship.

It is unclear if the Obama administraiton will take further steps to improve relations with Cuba.  Its general policy of trying to work with antagonistic regimes suggests that it will, although Cuba is a relatively minor foreign policy problem for a president who has many more pressing issues on his agenda, and therefore Obama might not be willing to expend much time, effort and political capital to deal with it.

Cyberattack Report

April 29, 2009

Earlier today, a panel of scientists and retired military officers assembled by the National Academy of Sciences issued recommendations about US cyberwar policy in a report titled “Technology Policy, Law and Ethics Regarding US Acquisition and Use of Cyberattack Capabilities” (

The panel offers the following definition of a cyberattack:

The use of deliberate actions—perhaps over an extended period of time—to alter, disrupt, deceive, degrade or destroy adversary computer systems or networks or the information and/or programs resident in or transiting these systems or networks. A cyberattack seeks to cause adversary computer systems and networks to be unavailable or untrustworthy and therefore less useful to the adversary.

Cyberattack is distinguished from “cyberexploitation,” which is defined as:

The use of cyberoffensive actions—perhaps over an extended period of time—to support the goals and missions of the party conducting the exploitation, usually for the purpose of obtaining information resident in or transiting through an adversary’s computer systems or networks. Cyberexploitations do not seek to disturb the normal functioning of a computer system or network from the user’s point of view—indeed, the best cyberexploitation is one that such a user never notices.

One of the main findings and recommendations of the report was that US cyberattack plans, procedures and policies have not been subject to significant public debate and therefore are too secretive. The panel believes that public discussion of these issues would be beneficial.

Despite the arguments of the panel, openly discussing these aspects of cyberattacks would jeopardize US national security because it would inform potential adversaries about how the Pentagon might conduct cyberattacks against them in a future conflict. Furthermore, setting public policies about cyber warfare could tie the hands of an administration that has to respond to cyberattacks launched against the US by hostile nations, terrorist groups or individuals seeking to harm American computer systems or networks. It is generally US policy to leave all options on the table when it comes to dealing with foreign policy problems or crises, which is a wise position to take because it offers flexibility and may deter adversaries from taking aggressive actions that would be harmful to US interests.

Clinton Visits Iraq after Deadly Attacks

April 28, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Iraq on Saturday after 150 people were killed and twice that many wounded in suicide bombings on Thursday and Friday.  The targets of the attacks were Shiites who were worshipping at mosques, one of which was the most revered Shiite shrine in Baghdad.  The attacks raised concerns that the security situation in Iraq is beginning to deteriorate as American troops prepare to withdraw.

Secretary Clinton sought to reassure Iraqis that the insurgency was not gaining strength and that the US would continue to lend its support.

She said Iraq is “on the right track” and dismissed the attacks as the last gasp of rejectionists.” 

Her comments are eerily similar to those of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who called the insurgents a relatively small group of “dead-enders,” and to those of former Vice President Dich Cheney who claimed that the insurgency was in its “last throes” in 2006.

Secretary Clinton said that the bombings were not an indicator that a new wave of large-scale sectarian violence was underway nor were they a sign that jihadists are making a comeback.

However, there are reasons to believe that her claims are erroneous.  A major suicide bombing at a Shiite shrine in Samarra in 2006 unleashed a torrent of sectarian attacks that led to the highest levels of violence in Iraq since the American invasion.  Sunni fighters, especially those who became knows as the “Sons of Iraq” as they battled with Islamic extremists, are angry that they have not been given positions in the Iraqi security forces and there is a significant possibility that they will rejoin the insurgency if they are not accomodated soon.

Jihadists may be resurgent as well.  The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization of militants which includes Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, announced in March that it was launching a new terrorism campaign.  The group has claimed responsibility for many recent bombings.  There have been 18 major attacks in Iraq so far this month.

A surge in violence in Iraq could complicate, or perhaps delay, the American pullout that is supposed to begin in June and end in 2011.  Many, including members of the Iraqi security forces, do not believe that the Iraqi police and army are capable of establishing order once the US withdraws.  Although President Obama has said that all American combat  troops will leave Iraq soon, it is unclear what he would do if Iraq descends into chaos as the US exits.

The Taliban Expands Its Reach Within Pakistan

April 24, 2009

During the past few days, several hundred Taliban insurgents have advanced from the Swat Valley into the Buner district of Pakistan, which is a mere 70 miles from Islamabad, the nation’s capital.  The militants have also appeared in neighboring Mansehra, where the Tarbela Dam, a critical source of electricity for central Pakistan, is located.  Some have moved into Shangla and towns near the borders between Buner and other provinces such as Mardan and Swabi. 


On Friday, Taliban leaders announced that Islamic courts will be established in Buner during the next three days.  The Taliban hope to ultimately establish Shariah law throughout Pakistan as they have already done in the tribal areas of the country.  Shariah is widely considered to be a harsh and oppressive social system.


American officials are gravely concerned about the deteriorating situation in Pakistan.  On Friday, Gen. David Patraeus, the top military commander in the region, told members of the House of Representatives that Islamic insurgents threaten “Pakistan’s very existence.”


Earlier this month, David Kilcullen, a top adviser to Gen. Patraeus, warned that “Within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state.”


On Friday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the situation in Pakistan is in “constant, steady decline” and “definitely worse than it was two weeks ago.”


US officials are pressuring Pakistani leaders to fight the Taliban more aggressively, but thus far they have been reluctant to do so.  The bulk of the army is stationed on the border between Pakistan and archrival India, and most of the military has only been trained for conventional warfare and has shown itself to be inept at counterinsurgency missions.  When the security forces have confronted the Taliban in the past their heavy-handed tactics have alienated the local population that they were trying to protect from the militants.  The civilian leadership is very weak and appears unable or unwilling to force the army to take on the insurgents.  The Pakistanis may not be willing to make a major effort to go after the Islamic extremists unless the capital is seriously threatened and they are compelled to take action.

Shutting Down Guantanamo

April 23, 2009

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to order the closing of the controversial US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba by January of next year.  The prison and the harsh interrogation policies used against terrorist suspects, which many have described as torture, have elicited widespread criticism from the international community and many Americans.  US leaders realize the deleterious effect that the existence of the facility and the indefinite detentions of prisoners there have had on America’s image abroad.  But shutting down Guantanamo poses several problems for the Obama administration.


The US has essentially three options for dealing with the detainees.  One is to ship them back to their countries of origin.  However, many of those nations have refused to accept the men because they fear that they will cause violence and instability.  Some governments, such as that in Yemen, are weak and American officials are concerned that they will be unable to keep the suspected militants locked up or rehabilitate them; the escape of dozens of Al Qaeda members from a Yemeni prison last year validate these fears.  Releasing the prisoners also poses the risk that some of them will resume jihadist activities and threaten American lives and interests.


A second option is to try the suspects in civilian courts.  Doing so would require government prosecutors to compile enough evidence to convict the accused, which may be difficult given the nature of their capture and the higher standard that must be met in civilian courts vis-à-vis military tribunals.  Open trials could also reveal sources and methods used by US intelligence agencies and put informants in jeopardy.  In addition, many Americans do not want Al Qaeda members in their communities even if they are behind bars, a political issue that may dissuade elected officials from pursuing that course of action.


A third option is to keep Guantanamo open and detain the prisoners there until a better solution than the ones proposed is devised.  It appears unlikely that the Obama administration would be willing to consider a policy that would require it to reverse its position and thereby alienate the international community and a large segment of the American electorate.


There are no good options when it comes to the problem posed by the detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo.  The administration will therefore have to choose the least bad option, which may be to return some of the detainees to their home countries and try others in US courts.