Friday, June 29, 2007

Understanding the Surge, Pt. 2

Much has been written about "the surge" in US troops that began these past few months. Pundits on both sides weigh in arguing that the surge is or isn't working. Investor's Business Daily provides a nice example of the former position, arguing that most domestic media are not reporting the successes in Iraq:

This year, for instance, the U.S. has killed roughly 650 terrorists a month, according to published reports and Defense Department estimates. That compares with about 37 U.S. combat deaths per month, through May.

The ratio, thus, is about 18 terrorists killed in combat for every allied soldier killed. And that doesn't include the current offensive in Diayala Province, Operation Arrowhead Ripper, which dispatched 159 enemy combatants in just the first five days.

Since the war began, we've lost about 70 troops a month. This compares with 526 a month in Vietnam, more than 900 a month in Korea and 6,639 a month during World War II.

In other words, by any meaningful metric employed, the U.S. is winning this war. But it will never be reported that way.

On the other position, for example, is my co-columnist at The Internationalist, Una Hardester who argues that:

The “surge” is not working. Violence is going up, not down. Every day brings news of another bomb in a marketplace, another dozen bodies found. Attacks on places of worship continue, and sectarian death squads roam the streets of Iraq’s cities, killing their victims with medieval brutality and instilling terror in the civilian population.
Neither argument, nor the larger arguments for which each is a proxy, is sustainable and largely for the same reasons: Both lack any theoretical framework in which to assess the surge and rely only on casualties as their critical metric.

It is clearly wrong to look at enemy body counts, as does IBD, and conclude that the US is winning. Just as that was not the way to judge progress and success in Vietnam, it is not sufficient in Iraq today. This is not a traditional war; what matters is not how many of the enemy our forces kill, but who controls the political situation on the ground, and that can't be measured with body counts.

Nor can one point to the recurring violence against either Iraqi civilians or US troops as evidence of the surge's failure. It is simply to easy too kill large numbers of civilians. True, the violence might be a symptom of a larger problem that indicates that surge isn't working (more on this later), but the numbers don't provide that in and of themselves.

So, how to judge the surge? Two of our most esteemed military analysts discussed this issue this week before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Affairs (and a former professor of mine at Georgetown) and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute testified on how to judge the surge.

In his testimony, Cordesman focused on the connection between the tactical and strategic goals of the surge, arguing that "it is all too clear that the US, its Coalition allies, and the Iraqi government cannot win any form of security and stability if insurgent movements can keep large areas of Iraq unstable and constantly provoke Iraq’s civil conflicts." While the current surge may be working tactically, Cordesman warns that "there are serious serious issues regarding its strategic value," largely because, as he sees it, there's not as much progress on the strategic front: "none of this matters unless the Iraqis can move towards political conciliation – or at least a relatively stable form of coexistence."

What needs to happen? According to Cordesman, "giving tactical victories lasting meaning requires the following additional elements:"

  1. Iraqi Army forces must begin to take over meaning operations without US embeds and US partner units, and dependence on US reinforcement and support. There does seem to be increasing Iraqi Army capability here, but Coalition reporting does not provide a meaningful picture of progress – merely grossly inflated figures on areas of responsibility and total numbers of battalions in the lead.

  1. Iraqi police and local security forces must establishing a lasting security presence in the areas where tactical victories are won, and do so credibly in ways that give ordinary Iraqis security. There can be no “win” without “hold.” So far, the US has made claim after claim to have secured cities after winning tactical battles to control them, and has never actually established lasting security in even one of them. The most critical problem has been the lack of active, combat-capable police, without corruption and sectarian and ethnic ties. Falluja and Samara are only the most obvious cases of such failures.

Coalition reporting so far talks about the number of police posts established or with US embeds. It has not said a word about the ability provide lasting security using Iraqi police in parts of Baghdad or anywhere else. It also has not talked about the ability to support police efforts with an effective local criminal justice and court system or to screen detainees in ways that do not breed local hostility.

The Coalition also needs to start talking about who actually does provide local security, and stop treating militias, local security forces, and police hired locally without Coalition training, as if it was always hostile or did not exist. In the real world, these forces and not the “trained and equipped” police are the real local security force in most of Iraq. There has to be a credible plan to use, absorb, or contain them.

  1. The Iraqi government must follow-up security with a meaningful presence and by providing steady improvements in services. “Winning hearts and minds” doesn’t come from public information campaigns and propaganda. It comes from providing real security for ordinary Iraqis, and showing the government cares, is present, and can steadily improve services. Once again, promise after promise has been made in past campaigns, and the central government has not yet shown it can follow up in even a single case. If this is happening even in the “secured” areas of Baghdad, no one has yet said so. How it can happen in Diyala or other high threat areas is even unclear.

  1. There must also be effective local government. The liberation of various areas often has seen the emergence of local leaders willing to work with the Coalition – although often with little faith in, or ties to, the central government. In most cases, however, they have become targets, and the effort has broken down in local faction disputes or because of a lack of effective government support and problems in Coalition civil affairs efforts. Once again, if there is progress in creating stable, survivable, effective local government; none of the details are clear.

  1. There has to be economic aid and progress. Iraqis have to give priority to physical security and key services, but unemployment , underemployment, and shut or failed businesses affect some 60% or more of Iraqis nationally and the figures are even higher in high threat and combat areas. The strategy President Bush advanced in January 2007 advanced proposals for accomplishing such an effort in Baghdad. Once again, there has been no meaningful Coalition reporting on broad progress in such efforts in the secured areas of Baghdad, and past promises such aid would be provided in “liberated” cities like Samara and Falluja were not kept.

  1. There must be an end to sectarian and ethnic cleansing and displacement. There is no near and perhaps midterm answer to suicide bombings and atrocities, to attacks on sacred shrines and critical facilities. No mix of security forces can stop even small cadres of extremists from occasional successes. No tactical victory has meaning, however, unless Iraqis can be secure in neighborhoods and areas where they are in the minority, and can reach across ethnic and sectarian lines and barriers in ordinary life.

One of the greatest single failures of the current approach to fighting in Iraq is that it does not track sectarian and ethnic separation and displacement and make ending this on a local and national level at least as important as halting major attacks and killings. It may take years to make Iraqis secure from Islamist extremists and the worst elements of Shi’ite gangs and militias. There can be no meaningful tactical success, however, unless Iraqis can be safe from their own neighbors and begin to lead ordinary lives in their own neighborhoods.

Regardless, Cordesman warns that it is far too early to judge the surge: "both the media and outside analysts need to focus far more on the full range of actions it takes to win, and do so with patience and objectivity. No strategy or campaign could possibly achieve significant success in all of these elements by this fall, or even ensure a successful start." Furthermore, "The odds are bad enough given the problems in Iraq; they are hopeless if the political environment in the US offers no hope of the necessary time and bipartisanship."

Kagan makes a similar argument, claiming that while "the early signs are positive in a number of respects, difficulties and challenges clearly remain. But it is too soon to evaluate the outcome of an operation that is just moving into the first of several phases intended to produce significant positive change in the situation overall." Kagan focuses on the surge itself, describing its aims and goals:

This new approach focuses on establishing security in Baghdad and its immediate environs as the prerequisite for political progress. It recognizes that American forces must be in the lead in many (but not all) areas, and that they will have to remain in areas that have been cleared for some time in order to ensure that security becomes permanent. The aim of the security strategy is to buy space and time for the political process in Iraq to work, and for the Iraqi Security Forces to mature and grow to the point where they can maintain the dramatically improved security situation our forces will have helped them to establish.


The purpose [of the first phase] was instead to establish positions within those key areas and to develop both intelligence about the enemy and trust relationships with the local communities that would make possible decisive clear-and-hold operations subsequently. During this phase of the operation, additional Iraqi Security Forces deployed to Baghdad in accord with a plan developed jointly by the U.S. and Iraqi military commands.


The purpose of [the second phase] operation—Phantom Thunder—is to disrupt terrorist and militia networks and bases outside of Baghdad that have been feeding the violence within the city. Most of the car bomb and suicide bomb networks that have been supporting the al Qaeda surge since January are based in these belt areas, and American commanders have rightly recognized that they cannot establish stable security in the capital without disrupting these networks and their bases.

But even this operation—the largest coordinated combat operation the U.S. has undertaken since the invasion in 2003—is not the decisive phase of the current strategy. It is an operation designed to set the preconditions for a successful clear-and-hold operation that will probably begin in late July or early August within Baghdad itself. That is the operation that is designed to bring security to Iraq’s capital in a lasting way that will create the space for political progress that we all desire.

The U.S. has not undertaken a multi-phased operation on such a large scale since 2003, and it is not surprising therefore that many commentators have become confused about how to evaluate what is going on and how to report it. Sectarian deaths in Baghdad dropped significantly as soon as the new strategy was announced in January, and remain at less than half their former levels. Spectacular attacks rose as al Qaeda conducted a counter-surge of its own, but have recently begun falling again. Violence is down tremendously in Anbar province, where the Sunni tribes have turned against al Qaeda and are actively cooperating with U.S. forces for the first time. This process has spread from Anbar into Babil, Salah-ad-Din, and even Diyala provinces, and echoes of it have even spread into one of the worst neighborhoods in BaghdadAmeriyah, formerly an al Qaeda stronghold. Violence has risen naturally in areas that the enemy had long controlled but in which U.S. forces are now actively fighting for the first time in many years, and the downward spiral in Diyala that began in mid-2006 continued (which is not surprising, since the Baghdad Security Plan does not aim to establish security in Diyala).


To say that the current plan has failed is simply incorrect. It might fail, of course, as any military/political plan might fail. Indications on the military side strongly suggest that success—in the form of dramatically reduced violence by the end of this year—is quite likely. Indications on the political side are more mixed, but are also less meaningful at this early stage before security has been established.

Both analysts see that the surge is producing tactical results. The real question is whether the tactical successes can be connected to the larger strategic victory. It's clearly far to early to determine whether the strategic picture is coming together, but the bits and pieces we do see are mixed. What is clear is that more time is needed to let the surge continue to improve security around the country.

The US is an impatient country. We like our results quick and clearly decisive, like the invasion of Iraq. But the rebuilding of the country will not be like that at all. But rash and uninformed judgments from either side of the argument do not help matters. We shouldn't put blind faith in the Bush Administration to get it right. Hardly. But nor should we simply assume things are doomed to fail. We need to sit back and think carefully about what constitutes success, and then determine whether US military and political operations are creating those conditions. And, above all, we need to be patient.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Understanding the Surge

Over at Small Wars Journal, David Kilcullen has a very interesting post on "Understanding Current Operations in Iraq." Why should we listen to Kilcullen? Because he is the Senior Counter-Insurgency Adviser to the Multi-National Forces in Iraq.

According to Kilcullen:

This post is not about whether current ops are “working” — for us, here on the ground, time will tell, though some observers elsewhere seem to have already made up their minds (on the basis of what evidence, I’m not really sure). But for professional counterinsurgency operators such as our SWJ community, the thing to understand at this point is the intention and concept behind current ops in Iraq: if you grasp this, you can tell for yourself how the operations are going, without relying on armchair pundits. So in the interests of self-education (and cutting out the commentariat middlemen—sorry, guys) here is a field perspective on current operations.


These operations are qualitatively different from what we have done before. Our concept is to knock over several insurgent safe havens simultaneously, in order to prevent terrorists relocating their infrastructure from one to another, and to create an operational synergy between what we're doing in Baghdad and what's happening outside. Unlike on previous occasions, we don't plan to leave these areas once they’re secured. These ops will run over months, and the key activity is to stand up viable local security forces in partnership with Iraqi Army and Police, as well as political and economic programs, to permanently secure them. The really decisive activity will be police work, registration of the population and counterintelligence in these areas, to comb out the insurgent sleeper cells and political cells that have "gone quiet" as we moved in, but which will try to survive through the op and emerge later. This will take operational patience, and it will be intelligence-led, and Iraqi government-led. It will probably not make the news (the really important stuff rarely does) but it will be the truly decisive action.


Personally, I think we are doing reasonably well and casualties have been lower so far than I feared. Every single loss is a tragedy. But so far, thank God, the loss rate has not been too terrible: casualties are up in absolute terms, but down as a proportion of troops deployed (in the fourth quarter of 2006 we had about 100,000 troops in country and casualties averaged 90 deaths a month; now we have almost 160,000 troops in country but deaths are under 120 per month, much less than a proportionate increase, which would have been around 150 a month). And last year we patrolled rarely, mainly in vehicles, and got hit almost every time we went out. Now we patrol all the time, on foot, by day and night with Iraqi units normally present as partners, and the chances of getting hit are much lower on each patrol. We are finally coming out of the "defensive crouch" with which we used to approach the environment, and it is starting to pay off.
I'll follow up today or tomorrow with some thoughts of my own on the surge.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Israel v. the US

Imagine that you're on the highway, driving in to a major city, like New York. All of sudden, traffic comes to a complete standstill. Nothing moving at all. You tune your radio to the news to find out what's causing the jam and hear the police chief of NYC announcing that there is solid evidence that a terrorist is heading into NYC and that all roads have been blocked off and the city closed to impede the terrorist's access to the city. The police officer announces that helicopters will bring in water and be capable of extracting anyone in need of medical care, but that because the terrorist may already be on the road, no one is allowed to pull off of the highway so that each car may be examined and searched.

It's hard to know what would happen first: A mass panic or a lawsuit from the ACLU. This is but one of the critical differences between the US and the Israeli approaches to the problem each faces from terrorism.

Without question, Israel is subjected to a more regular threat. While things are relatively quiet now, largely due to the construction of the security fence around the West Bank, the withdrawal from Gaza, and the infighting between Hamas and Fatah, there were 135 (according to my count) suicide bombings in Israel between the outbreak of the second intifida in November 2000 and the Gaza pullout. It boggles the mind to think what would happen in the US if there were even four or five suicide bombings a year, let alone 44 like Israel suffered in 2002.

That difference has produced a big difference in reactions. First, Israel doesn't have time or the resources to waste on efforts that assuage public fears but accomplish little in actual security. So, security on El Al, the Israeli national airline, doesn't bother making you pack teeny bottles of liquids in plastic bags. Rather, as you stand in line to check in, someone walks up and down swabbing bags and people for explosives. Profiling is used as well. Not the blunt kind, but a more common sense kind. When I was on the way back to the US in Ben Gurion Airport, one of my colleagues on the trip caused a minor kerfuffle when he revealed that he had not received his commemorative book bag in the US with the rest of us, but rather in Israel (he had gone to Israel a few days before the group...the rest of us got our bags in the Newark Airport). After a security manager looked at his bag and asked a few questions, he became convinced everything was fine, no doubt because he wasn't worried about a group of academics from the States.

Armed guards stand at the entrance to nearly every restaurant or public place, like shopping malls, and stop everyone entering and inspect their bags. Restaurants are, in fact, allowed by law to charge a security surcharge, which is optional and can be refused (but no one does).

These are merely the tactical differences. One key strategic difference is that Israel does not have a national strategy or policy for combating terror; rather it makes and changes policies as needed. Not having a formal strategy enables Israel to be more flexible; it encourages free thinking among the various agencies and operatives responsible for protecting the country. The US, on the other hand, has, among other ponderous and platitudinous documents, a National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. But reading it doesn't provide any guidance on how to actually deal with the problem of terror, and it certainly doesn't ask the question of what is the nature of the threat to the US posed by global terrorism. And it doesn't explain how Old MacDonald's Petting Zoo or the Amish Country Popcorn Factory get on a federal list of potential terror targets, or how Indiana is ranked as nearly having more potential terror targets (8,591) than New York (5,687) and California (3,212) combined.

Israel even has a saner legal strategy for dealing with terror. Israel has one of most activist court systems in the western world, and terror subjects, or those defending them, often have direct access to the Supreme Court. Furthermore, while Israel uses the "unlawful combatant" designation, as does the US (this is done to prevent suspected terrorist from having access to the traditional civilian justice system, which Israel has deemed inadequate for dealing with questions of terror). However, anyone designated as an unlawful combatant is given counsel and brought before a judge for the opportunity to challenge that designation, and the suspect has the right to appeal the judge's decision. As I mentioned in an earlier post, any use of coercive force during an interrogation must be authorized by the Army's legal department and the Attorney General's office.

Now, it's true that Israel has been dealing with the problem of terror longer than has the US, and has had more time to develop a rational and effective policy, as well as more opportunities to use trial and error to implement good policies. But the fact remains that Israel approaches the problem much more rationally and effectively than does the US. Too much of American counter-terror efforts, at least those seen by the public, are reactive and primarily for show. How else to explain full-page ads in the New York Times explaining how people can prepare a room in their house in case of a chemical or biological attack? [I can't find a link to these ads...but I saw 'em!!] Benjamin Friedman has a devastating critique [RR] of the Department of Homeland Security, arguing that the US counter-terror response is more about responding to, and creating, fear than it is about providing real and meaningful security.

The threats faced by Israel are different than those faced by the US. As are the political systems and the public's willingness to tolerate restrictions of freedoms. In some ways, Israel is more aggressive in its fight against terror, as with the constant presence of security guards. That reflects a rational response to the type of threat faced. In other ways, Israel is more relaxed than is the US, for example, in its willingness to give every "unlawful combatant" a chance to challenge that designation, something that the Bush Administration is unwilling to do. That reflects the recognition that terror, and even high levels of terrorism, can be borne without the collapse of society.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Notes From An Israeli Prison

One of the most interesting parts of my recent fellowship in Israel was the visit to an Israeli maximum security prison (for security reasons, I can say which one). I had never been inside a prison before, and wasn't sure what to expect, with my only experience with one coming from television. Well, the prison was nothing like what I was expecting. The warden, an Israeli Arab, does not believe in rehabilitation and makes no effort to convert the prisoners, the vast majority of whom are convicted terrorists ("regular" criminals are housed in separate facilities from the "security" prisoners), to non-violence or pacifism. Instead, the prisoners are free to associate with whomever, read and watch on TV whatever they want. Materials that incite violence are forbidden, but that's about the only limitation.

The prisoners live in cells of 8, which open into a yard where they can exercise and socialize with others. Each cell block holds, if I remember correctly (we weren't allowed to make any notes) 120 prisoners, and 60 are allowed into the yard at one time (except on Friday, when everyone is allowed to attend a communal prayer session). The prisoners are allowed regular visits from their families, have little electric stoves and teak kettles in their cells, are allowed fresh fruits and vegetables, and have televisions with access to Arab TV channels, including al Jazeera and Saudi, Jordanian, and Egyptian channels. When the prisoners step out of line, they lose their privileges date, however, the warden stated that there hadn't been more than a handful of serious problems.

From what I know of prisons in America (and again, what I know pretty much comes from TV and reading), if I'm going to be sent to a maximum security prison, I'll take one in Israel, thank you very much.

And this points out what struck me the most from my visit: the differences in the way that Israel and the US treat those arrested in the struggle against global terrorism. Where the US detains its suspects in military prisons, often in solitary confinement, Israel puts those convicted of killing in Israelis in open prisons, where they have contact with the outside world and their families.

Israel is on the front-line in the war on terror in a way that the US is not. Yes, the US suffered the worst terror attack of all-time on 9/11, and there have been reports of a few attacks that have been broken up, like the recent plot against JFK airport or the plot to blow up numerous flights between the UK and the US. But Israel has been under near-constant attack since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in Oslo in 1993. Here's a list of just the suicide attacks in that time period. And yet, Israel has responded much more soberly and carefully than has the US.

I have long gone back and forth on where I stand vis-a-vis the US response to 9/11. On one hand, I realize the threat that terrorism poses to a democratic polity. A state that cannot protect its people cannot function, and terrorism preys on that fact, seeking both to undermine the nature of its opponent as well as exploit its openness. The public must believe that the government is on top of the situation and doing what it can to preserve the peace; this is what explains so many of the visible, yet likely ineffective, security measures, like the restriction on liquids on planes (something that security-crazed El Al doesn't bother with, mind you).

On the other hand, the civil libertarian in me believes that the threat has been overstated. I see the danger in undermining our freedoms with wiretappings or the suspension of habeas corpus for suspected terrorists.

If my trip to Israel did anything, it reinforced the latter of these beliefs. Terrorism is a threat to democratic states. But that threat can be managed. And it can be managed in a way that doesn't undermine the very nature of our democracy. There is a price to paid for living in a democracy. Yes, our freedoms make it easier for terrorists to attack us so we must be vigilant. But the US has much to learn from Israel on how to balance the fight against terror with the need to preserve a normal, democratic life. In my next post, tomorrow or Friday, I'll go into more detail on the Israeli response to terror. Israel isn't perfect, but much of its response make a lot more sense than that of the US.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Civil War In Gaza

It seems as if Hamas has all but destroyed Fatah in the Gaza Strip. Yesterday, Hamas gunmen ransacked the house of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of Fatah and chased the remnants of Arafat's former movement into the West Bank. In response, Abbas has dissolved the Palestinian government and replaced the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, and replaced him with Fatah-based former Minister of Finance Salam Fayyad. Meanwhile, the US, the EU, and Israel are moving to release frozen tax revenues to Abbas in an effort to bolster Fatah against Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised the move by Abbas to reform the Palestinian government, while Hamas lacks the power in the West Bank to challenge Abbas there.

The plan of the US and its allies assumes that "that strengthening Abbas, and reviving the peace process through him in the West Bank, would serve to marginalize Hamas and increase Fatah's chances of winning any future elections." The New York Times editorializes today that the Hamas victory in Gaza is a defeat for Palestinians, Israel, and the US, and that Abbas should be offered concessions such as "a total freeze on settlement building and expansion, a prompt easing of the onerous, humiliating and economically strangulating blockades on Palestinian movements within the West Bank, and the swift release to Mr. Abbas’s office of all tax revenues rightfully belonging to the Palestinians but still in Israeli hands," while "Hamas’s future diplomatic treatment should depend strictly on its own behavior. If it is ever willing to stop engaging in terrorism and live up to the standards expected of law-abiding governments, there will be something for Israeli and American officials to discuss with it."

The logic of these suggestions and strategies is that since Fatah accepts Israel's right to exist and the previous negotiations while Hamas does not, Fatah represents the horse to bet on, and Abbas should be supported, while Hamas should be ignored until it comes around. All good the short run. However, in the long run, the bolstering of Fatah against Hamas will at best undermine future chances of a negotiated settlement, and at worst lead to an even bloodier civil war.

The problem is the monopoly of violence in the Palestinian territories, or lack thereof. I've written about this several times, but the fact remains: So long as significant military force rests with the various militias (Fatah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, etc.) rather than with the government, whomever that may be at any given time, there will be no peace process. While one side negotiates, other sides are free to use their military capabilities to improve their own position, enhance their credentials as hard-liners by continuing to fight, and undermine the political positioning of their rivals. All sides are guilty of this. Just as Hamas used suicide bombings and Qassam rocket attacks to undermine on-going negotiations between Fatah and Israel, so did Fatah use its own militia to weaken Hamas' power in Gaza.

If there is ever to be a solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem, if the Palestinians are to ever be given the stable and credible government that they deserve, then force must be controlled by the government. The current strategy of supporting Fatah may assuage those worried about the radical ideology and violence of Hamas, but it won't solve the problem.

One of the speakers on my trip to Israel, Meir Litvak of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, agrees with my position. In his view, both Israel and the Palestinians need a stable, unified Palestinian government, even if that government is led by Hamas. He argues, as I have in the past, that when given the choice, Hamas prefers to govern than to fight. If forced with the need for real governance, Hamas will likely become more pragmatic, and do what it needs to do, i.e. negotiate with Israel. And while Hamas would be unlikely to drop its radical ideology, or cease all attacks against Israel, the situation very well might be better than it is now, as Hamas would be forced to behave itself in order to receive international funding, tax revenue, and diplomatic recognition.

But, you argue, Hamas had the opportunity to moderate itself when it won the elections in early 2006 and took over the Palestinian Authorty, and failed to do so. Why would it be any different in the future? Hamas never had a chance to really govern, as Fatah and PIJ did what they could to undermine Hamas' rule. In order for any party to really govern, the Palestinian Authority must have a monopoly of force; it must be able to rein in the militias, fighters, and terrorists of all of the various groups. For this reason, the strategy of supporting Abbas is a very short-sighted one. It does nothing to resolve the real problem in the territories and sets the stage for endless war between the Palestinian political actors.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Don't Count Your Peacekeepers Before They're Deployed

Sudan has finally agreed to allow a joint UN-AU peacekeeping force of nearly 20,000 soldiers into Darfur to monitor the situation and prevent any further genocide. Sort of.

While the announcement by Sudan is being hailed as a "breakthrough moment" by the African Union, it's not so clear that it's time to breath a sigh of relief for Darfur. Apparently, Sudan is insisting that the force be made up almost entirely of Africans, a demand that makes the deployment all but impossible. According to John Prendergast, a Sudan expert who helps lead Enough Project, “the gulf between the rhetoric of acceptance and the reality of deployment is huge,” and the continued haggling over force makeup “is putting a condition on the deployment which ensures its failure.” Similarly, US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad stated that "if [the acceptance] is conditional, as we hear, that there will be only African troops involved and no non-Africans, that is putting a condition on the acceptance, and that would be unacceptable.”

The UN will examine the plan today. Hopefully, if Sudan is still trying to stall and block the deployment by such insistences, the UN will finally decide to act and punish the genocidal regime. While this is welcome news, I'm certainly not holding my breath.

The Logic Of Torture

There are two main reasons that people are opposed to the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. First, the moral argument: Torture is a violation of liberal moral and ethical norms. The use of violence and cruelty by the state betrays our most deeply held values and ideals. Second, the pragmatic argument: Torture doesn't work, so it's not worth the damage to a country's public image. In this argument, a suspect being subjected to torture will say anything and everything to end the ordeal, and therefore evidence procured through torture is useless.

Interestingly, while the first argument may be the most powerful, many anti-torture advocates have moved to the second argument, primarily because the first leaves room for a utilitarian calculus. Yes, torture may be abhorrent to our liberal norms, but if, in extreme circumstances, such as the "ticking time bomb" scenario, the use of torture can prevent a large number of deaths or protect the larger fabric of society, its use may be justified. So, to avoid such leaving open such a possibility, many arguments against torture make the pragmatic argument: Torture doesn't work, and its use is damaging to the soft power of a liberal democratic state (as happened in the Abu Ghraib incident).

I have blogged many times (here, here, and here, for example) about torture and how I do not buy the logic of the pragmatic argument. Simply put: If torture doesn't work, then why is its use even a question? If it's so obvious to everyone that torture produces false confessions and made-up evidence, then why would those tasked with preventing terrorism and protecting their countries even want to use torture? Why would they waste their time pursuing false leads? It simply makes no logical sense. I have much more sympathy for the moral argument, although I also find logic in the argument for allowing the use of coercive interrogation tactics (and no, this is not just a euphemism...I'll explain more about this below) in certain circumstances.

So, I was quite excited for a lecture by Yohai Kitron, the former Chief of Interrogation of the Shabak (the Israeli FBI, more or less, also known as the Shin Bet) entitled The Failed Logic of Torture. At last, I thought, I'd get the real answer as to why torture is ineffective.

Mr. Kitron, however, did not make that argument. First, he differentiated between torture, which is the sadistic use of cruelty, and coercive interrogation, which is the controlled use of violence (or the threat of violence) to further an interrogation by undermining the mental safety and security of the suspect. Mr. Kitron claimed that while coercive interrogation is no more effective than non-coercive methods, it is most certainly faster. Thus, Israel now only uses coercive methods in "ticking bomb" scenarios, for example if a suspected terrorist in custody is believed to have information about a suicide bomber on his way to a target.

In such scenarios, the interrogator does not, under any circumstances, have the authority to use coercive methods on his own account. Rather, the interrogator must seek permission from the Legal Department of the Israeli Army, which is in turn subordinated to the Attorney General's office. Each interrogator bears personal responsibility for any force used; even if the circumstances dictate an ex post justification, such as the claim that there wasn't time to seek authorization, the interrogator will be reprimanded and punished, severely when the use of force cannot be justified (Kitron spoke of two Shin Bet officers sentenced to 8 years in prison for the unauthorized use of coercive interrogation).

Kitron emphasized the difference between an investigation and an interrogation. An investigation has a much longer time line, and is intended to produce information to further counter-terrorism and prevention efforts. An interrogation is when time-sensitive information is sought, such as to prevent an imminent terror attack. Coercive interrogation techniques can and should only be used in interrogations and only when the interrogation is necessary to prevent death. Coercive methods are not likely to be helpful in investigations, as suspects can provide much less specific information that may not be able to be verified and thus are more likely to say anything to end their ordeal.

Kitron was clear that coercive methods are immoral and damaging both to the society and the individual that uses them. Using them too often threatens to undermine democratic norms, damage the public image of the country, and do serious damage to the fabric of a democracy. However, just as the failure to protect individual rights undermines democracy, so does the failure to provide security. In a country that has suffered a sustained campaign of suicide bombings, rocket attacks, kidnappings, and other attacks against its citizens and soldiers, it's not hard to see why a method that might help prevent such attacks would be used, even if it is morally questionable.

However, the US is not Israel. There are few scenarios in which coercive methods would be needed by US security forces. There is no sustained campaign of suicide attacks within this country, no steady rain of rockets on our towns. Most of the time when terror suspects are in custody it is an investigation, not an interrogation. In these cases, as Kitron made clear, a good investigator can get the same, if not better, information using non-coercive, non-violent methods, and thus it's not worth the damage to American democratic norms, liberal ideals, and public image to use violence, coercive methods, or torture.

However, the option needs to be left open in case the scenario presents itself where a terrorist in custody does have knowledge of an imminent attack. This seems to be the result of the anti-torture amendment passed by Congress and signed by the president in December 2006. Torture is not allowed, although coercive interrogation techniques are still on the table. The president needs to realize the damage that even coercive interrogation can do to the US public image, and reserve its use for only the most drastic and critical of situations.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Israel, Hezbollah, and Iran

Matthew from Caffeine Bunker asks whether the Israeli officials and academics with whom I met "regard Iran as seeking a nuclear weapons capability for power balancing and security self-assurance purposes or if they regarded them as more of an impending existential threat and regional expansionist/revolutionary power. What are they anticipating the regional behavior of a nuclear-capable Iran to be like?"

An excellent question, with a not-so-easy answer.

Almost all of the military types, most of whom are now retired and working for think tanks such as the Institute for Counter Terrorism, seemed to be exceedingly worried about Iran and the potential nuclear proliferation. They pointed to last year's war with Hezbollah as a sign that Iran is growing bolder, and argued that the inability of Israel to crush Hezbollah weakened Israeli deterrence vis-a-vis Hezbollah as well as Iran. The recent Qassam attacks by Hamas from Gaza, in this view, are seen as the fruits of that eroding deterrence. Many of them see an Iranian nuclear weapon as a direct and existential threat to Israel, not in the sense of an immediate attack, but in Iran being so emboldened behind its own nuclear deterrent that it would increase the pressure on Israel from Lebanon and Gaza (and soon in the West Bank, where Fatah's dominance is being steadily eroded by Islamists). And with the US bogged down in Iraq likely incapable of mustering political will for a strike as well as the current high price of oil, Iran's foreign policy will, according to these military types, become more aggressive. The Iranian reform movement lacks any real power, and the hard-liners are moving to expand their reach and spread Iranian influence to contain and respond to the growing Sunni/al Qaeda threat. Those who argued Iran represents a fundamental and potentially existential threat see Iran as the engine of global terror, even more than bin Laden or al Qaeda, and fear that the current political climate in the region strongly favors the regime in Tehran.

However, the more academic, non-military (well, all Israelis are military, but not all of them were career officers) types were much more reserved in their assessments of the threat from Iran. Many of them made the case that while Israel certainly didn't win in the second Lebanese War, Hezbollah, and by proxy Iran, came out with the shortest end of the stick as the looming threat of "unleashing Hezbollah" was exposed to be not too great. Remember, Hezbollah launched over 4,000 rockets into Israel and only killed 43 civilians (although much of northern Israel was evacuated). As one of our speakers said [I'm paraphrasing here], "Iran has green-lighted Hezbollah and has green-lighted Hamas, and the threat just isn't that serious."

According to this position, Iran's nuclear program is cause for concern, but not for panic. Israel does have its own nuclear deterrent, and combined with the failure of Hezbollah in the second Lebanese war and the presence of US troops on Iran's doorstep, Iran will find its options more constrained than it would like. Of course it would be better if Iran was weaker than it is, and if it is not able to develop a nuclear weapon, but in this line of thinking, the threat is a manageable one.

Personally, I agree with the second, more pragmatic line of reasoning. I have been arguing for some time that Hezbollah was the biggest loser in the last Lebanese war, as Iran has long held out the threat of "unleashing" Hezbollah as a potential deterrent, and now we know how impotent that threat is. The same with Hamas in Gaza: It's unthinkable, for the time being, that Hamas could launch a serious invasion of Israel, and short of that seems to be limited to Qassam attacks and minor infiltrations. These of course are problematic, but they are tolerable and pose only a limited threat to Israel. Iran is unlikely, even with a nuclear weapon, to launch a convention invasion.

One real different was whether one believes the apocalyptic rhetoric of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and some of the other more radical mullahs. Many of the military types seems to believe that Iran is irrational and undeterrable, and that a nuclear weapon in those hands would create a very serious possibility of use. I find this a difficult argument to sustain, as public rhetoric is one thing, but risking regime survival is another.

The only person who spoke at length about Iran was David Menashri of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. In his view, much of Iran's current strength stems from the weakness of its potential balancers, such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. He sees the nuclear program as a potential threat, but not an immediate one, and recommended a containment-style strategy, designed to slow down the acquisition of NW as well as encourage internal dissent and the possibility of a domestic revolution against the religious regime. He was one of the more moderate voices, as most of the former career military officers suggested, often overtly, that US military action against Iran was absolutely necessary to maintain regional security.

It often felt like the military types were feeding us a line for us to come back and influence public policy here (if only we academics had that much power!!!!). It is telling that the split seemed to lie between the academics and ex-military. Iran most certainly poses a more serious threat to Israel than it does to the US. However, I for one do not see that threat as being an existential one, and I do not see US military force as desirable, necessary, or imminent.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Welcome Back!!

I'd like to welcome everyone back to Security Dilemmas. I've been gone for almost 2 weeks, which in the blogosphere is tantamount to a death sentence, so I hope that everyone's still around.

The trip to Israel was very interesting, and I'll be blogging about it in the days to come. First, I wanted to provide the schedule.

The Phenomenon of Modern Terrorism: Strategy, Operations, and Psychological Warfare, Yoni Fighel

Radical Islams Virtual Community: Propaganda, Recruitment and the Internet, Yoni Fighel

Southeast Asian Terrorism, Shaul Shay

Religious Sources of Islamist Terrorism, Shmuel Bar

The Radical Palestinian Islamist Movements and the P.A., Meir Litvak

Hezbollah and Lebanon, Eyal Zisser

Iran: Domestic Challenges and Regional Implications, David Menashri

Global and Middle Eastern NBC Terrorism, Ely Karmon

Police Special Operations Forces, Dubi Yung

Financing Terrorism, Eytan Azani

Defending India's Democracy from Islamist Terror, Indian Ambassador to Israel Arun Singh

Interrogation and the Failed Logic of Torture, Yohai Kitron

Meeting with the Special Forces of the Israeli Police

Meeting with Taufik Karaman, City Manager of Um El Fahem (an Arab village in Israel)

Visit to Maximum Security Prison and discussion with convicted terrorists

Visit to Beit El (Israeli settlement in the West Bank) and meeting with Yoel Zur (victim of terror attack and former commander of Israeli forces in the Yehuda district).

Visit to the Israeli bomb disposal unit.

Visit to the Israeli Nachson (prisoner escort and transfer) Unit

Meeting with Lt. Col. David Benjamin, Legal Advisor to the Israel Defense Forces

Visit to Ashdod Naval Base.

Visit to the Yahalom (explosive ordnance engineers) Unit.
All in all, it was a very interesting trip. In the next few days, I'll be blogging about some of the more interesting things I learned. But for now, I'll just mention a few of the overarching points:

First, Israel is obsessed with Iran right now. Almost all of the speakers mentioned that Iran is Israel's #1 threat, and that it's the responsibility of the US to deal with Iran, and especially to ensure that Iran is not able to obtain nuclear weapons. One or two of the people we met with did not agree with this assessment, but they were a distinct minority.

Two, Israel has responded to its own terror threat in a much more measured and reasonable manner than has the US. Security measures are serious and tight, but are focused much more on efficacy than public reassurance. No taking off of shoes, ridiculous limits on liquids carried on planes, or inane disbursements of counter-terror funds. Furthermore, Israel, while it's had it's problems, has much more reasonable laws concerning the detention of suspected terrorists; no indefinite detentions or suspension of habeas corpus.

Three, the near-civil war between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza, along with the continued rocketing of the Israeli town of Sderot by Hamas has all but killed the peace process. Meanwhile, the continued construction of the security fence threatens to create a fait accompli on the ground. Both of these things together will make it very difficult to solve the Palestinian problem in the near future.

I'll blog more about these lessons, and other things from the trip, in the next few days. If there's anything from the schedule that you'd like to know more about in particular, let me know and I'll be happy to focus on it.