Archive for the ‘Special Operations’ Category

Metrics for the Struggle Against Islamic Terrorism

February 2, 2010

The American Security Project, a Washington-based policy institute, issued an annual report in December of last year that assesses global efforts to combat Islamic terrorism; the report is titled Are We Winning?: Measuring Progress in the Struggle Against Al Qaeda and Associated Movements.   The authors, Bernard Finel and Christine Bartolf, use the following 10 metrics to judge success or failure based on changes from the previous year:

1. The number of terrorist incidents.

2. The state of the Al Qaeda leadership.

3. Terrorist financing.

4. The activities of Al Qaeda Associated Movements (AQAM)

5. The amount of ungoverned spaces in the world where terrorists can thrive.

6. International cooperation in fighting terrorism.

7. State sponsorship of terrorism.

8. Public attitudes in the Muslim world.

9. Public attitudes in the US.

10. Levels of economic prosperity and political freedom in the Muslim world.

The authors conclude that there has been progress in the following areas: diminishing the strength of Al Qaeda’s leadership, enhancing international cooperation against terrorism, dissuading states from sponsoring terrorism, and improving economic prosperity and political conditions in the Muslim world.

The report states that there have been setbacks in terms of the number of terrorist attacks and the abundance of territory in which terrorists can find safe haven.  It also says that progress has been mixed or uncertain when it comes to inhibiting the financing of terrorism, combating AQAM, changing public attitudes in the Muslim world, and American fears about the terrorist threat.

The authors’ key finding is that although the number of terrorist incidents has increased over the past year, Al Qaeda’s strength has diminished, in large part due to US drone strikes against Al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan and an overall reduction in public support for Al Qaeda among Muslims.

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Walter Russell Mead Classifies Obama

January 27, 2010

In a cover article for Foreign Policy magazine, international affairs analyst Walter Russell Mead discusses President Obama’s strategic worldview and warns that the president may suffer the same fate as Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was brought down largely by foreign policy mishaps. 

Mr. Mead says that there are essentially four philosophical archetypes that US presidents can embody when it comes to determining America’s role in international affairs: Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Wilsonian and Jacksonian.

1. Hamiltonians are foreign policy realists who believe the a strong US government should actively pursue its strategic and economic interests at home and abroad.

2.  Jeffersonians want to limit America’s foreign policy commitments and focus on improving living conditions in the US.

3. Wilsonians are idealists who believe America should actively promote democratic values and human rights at home and abroad even if it means acting against its narrower strategic interests.

4. Jacksonians are conservative populists who distrust political/economic/social elites but tend to strongly support confrontation and the use of force when it comes to security policy.

Mr. Mead argues that the president is a schizophrenic Jeffersonian-Wilsonian.  However, an examination of his polices indicates that he is more of a Hamiltonian.  It is difficult to see how someone who bailed out the banks, enacted a huge economic stimulus package, tripled the US troop commitment in Afghanistan, ramped up the drone airstrike campaign in Pakistan, increased the military budget, downplayed China’s human rights violations and tried to diplomatically engage hostile authoritatian states like Iran and North Korea can be considered a Jeffersonian-Wilsonian.  I am not suggesting that all of the aforementioned policies are misguided (some of them are wise); I am merely disagreeing with Mr. Mead’s categorization.

Overwhelmed By Drone Videos

January 11, 2010

In an article published today in the New York Times, Christopher Drew discusses America’s use of drone aircraft to gather intelligence data.  Last year, Predator and Reaper drones recorded 210,240 hours of video feed.  In the coming years, the number of drones in operation is expected to increase dramatically, as are the number of cameras mounted on each platform; as a result, the amount of video footage that intelligence analysts must sift through will skyrocket, which might make it more difficult for the Air Force and other organizations to exploit the information that they receive for operational and strategic purposes.  The military and the CIA have reportedly had success in using live video to combat terrorists and insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but intelligence agencies have done little in terms of analyzing prerecorded video for useful information, largely because there is so much of it and too few personnel to examine it.

Ironically, the US government must worry about having too much intelligence.  Those monitoring video footage could be overwhelmed by the inflow of data and miss critical feeds that they might have otherwise seen.  If analysts can only focus on a small percentage of what is gathered, they must ignore most of it, which means they have to figure out a way to select which data is most important before they can see it with their own eyes.  The NSA faces a similiar issue with regard to communications intercepts, and it has been widely reported that they use computers to scan conversations for keywords that might signify a threat.  Perhaps the intelligence community will be able to harness technology to mitigate the problem posed by the exponential rise in video recordings, but they will not be able to solve it.  Intelligence officials and procurement officers must weigh the pros and cons of having more intelligence data but less ability to examine the bulk of it before they develop and deploy more drones.

Iran’s Underground Tunnels

January 6, 2010

Iran has constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels to shield its nuclear facilities from attack, according to Western and Iranian officials.  The US and Israel have raised the possibility that they will bomb Iran’s atomic sites if the Islamic Republic does not reach a diplomatic agreement with the West that would inhibit the country’s ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels; although Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated publicly that airstrikes would only set back Iran’s nuclear program one to three years, and it appears that President Obama will not pursue a military solution to the impasse even though he has not ruled it out.  Western officials believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge that Iranian leaders deny. 

The modern tunnel system has been under construction since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and its development has accelerated under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has extensive experience in tunnel building in and out of government.  Iran’s efforts have been assisted by Western engineering firms, including Terratec and Herrenknecht.

The existence of the tunnel system raises two problems for military planners.  One is that it conceals Iran’s nuclear sites and complicates the efforts of intelligence analysts to locate them for targeting purposes; the late discovery of atomic plants in Natanz and Qum, which were largely found as a result of information provided by the National Council of Resistance on Iran, a group of expatriate opponents of the Iranian regime, demonstrates the limits of US intelligence gathering capabilities and the  IAEA monitoring regime .  A second issue is that it makes it very difficult for air forces to destroy the facilities whose positions are known because bombs would have to penetrate thick layers of rock to destroy their targets. 

Pentagon officials are trying to find a solution to the second problem.  They are developing a new “bunker-buster” bomb, which has been named the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, that is 10 times more powerful than current models.  During the Bush administration there was talk of creating penetration weapons that would be armed with nuclear warheads to increase their destructive power.  It is unlikely that the Obama administration or future Democratic ones will pursue that path, but there is a significant possiblity that Republican administrations, which are generally more hawkish, will try to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons.  Some analysts argue that doing so would encourage further nuclear proliferation and undermine global security, but proponents believe it will have the opposite effect because hostile regimes will conclude that their arsenals could not be protected.

There is also a chance that Israel will develop more sophisticated tunnel-destroying bombs, including nuclear ones.  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Iran’s underground facilities cannot be destroyed with the conventional weapons that his country possesses.  Israel, which in the past has attacked nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, might seek more powerful bombs to enhance its preemptive/preventative strike capabilities.  If Israel choses that option it would increase the likelihood that Israel will take what it considers preventative military measures against Iran, which has expressed a desire to wipe out the Jewish state.

The discussion about bunker-buster bombs and preventative war  raises the issue of deterrence.  Some policymakers believe that the Cold War model of deterrence, the basis of which was the threat of nuclear retaliation if foreign powers used atomic weapons against the US, is outdated in a post-Cold War world filled with hostile regimes who seek nuclear weapons and have ties, or might develop ties, with terrorist groups.  Such thinking is flawed because it would be foolish for a government to give terrorists such powerful weapons that could be traced back to their source and precipitate a nuclear counterattack against the offending state; and foreign leaders, who want to stay in power and stay alive, are aware of this.  There is no reason to believe that classical nuclear deterrence is no longer a valid strategy.

A related controversy is missile defense.  Some officials and analysts claim that missile defense systems are needed to deter other nations from building nuclear-tipped missiles and using them against the US or American interests overseas, and they also say that it would be a critical defense capabily in the event of an attack.  Others point out that such technologies are expensive and unproven and the risk of being attacked is minute.  The necessity of a missile defense system designed to thwart nuclear strikes depends on the effectiveness of classical deterrence and the likelihood of a first strike by an adversary.  The odds of an opponent intentionally starting a nuclear war are incredibly low, as is the possiblity of an accidental missile launch, so the usefulness of a national missile defense system for the US is dubious; although theater missile defenses against conventional warheads, which the Obama administration has embraced, could be useful in future conflicts.

The Price of Doing Business

January 5, 2010

Yesterday, ForeignPolicy.com published an article by foreign policy scholar Stephen Walt in which he argues that Islamic terrorism is blowback from US foreign policy decisions that affect the Muslim world and not simply the work of evil men looking for thrill kills.  His blog post comes in the wake of a recent attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an extremist affiliated with Al Qaeda, to blow up an airliner headed for Detroit.

Mr. Walt does not say that America’s foreign policy is wrong (with the exception of America’s virtually unconditional support for Israel); he merely says that living with an increased terrorist threat is “the price of doing business”  for a superpower that interferes in the affairs of other nations around the world.  He claims that most Americans fail to see the connection between terrorism and US attempts to dominate the international arena, and he believes they are overly concerned and unreasonable about their security.

Mr. Walt is right in asserting that Islamic terrorists are motivated by aspects of America’s foreign policy, such as its military presence in the Middle East, civilian casualties resulting from US attacks and America’s unwavering support for Israel in its conflict with Palestinians.  He is also correct in saying that certain elements of US strategy do not necessarily need to be changed in response to the danger posed by Al Qaeda and other militant groups (after all, it would be impractical for America to pull out of the Middle East where the world’s the main oil supply that the global economy relies upon is located).  However, taking precautions when it comes to things like airport security is reasonable, and implementing measures like full body scans for airline passengers is prudent in light of terrorism incidents over the past decade. 

Americans will have to live with the terrorist threat and accept the fact that complete safety is an impossible goal.  The government and the public should try to avoid the opposite pitfalls of overreaction and complacency, and policies will have to be modified when they are too close to either folly.