Friday, July 29, 2005

Lessons from the Mt. Igman Road

I cut my teeth in national security on one of the ugliest, most complicated, flawed, yet ultimately successful international challenges of recent memory: bringing peace to Bosnia. From the dark days of feckless UN ineffectiveness (1993) until the dark days of the ad-hoc airstrikes over Serbia (2000), Bosnia was my focus and education. My boss at the Pentagon died for Bosnia (on Mt. Igman -- "the most dangerous road in Europe" as Dick Holbrooke called it). And I invested most of my public service to its cause. As far as I can tell, few others worked the issue for such length and intensity so perhaps my lessons learned are relevant.

As many of you recall, when Yugoslavia crumbled into pieces just after the Cold War, Bosnia was the one that fell squarely in the crap. Slobo Milosevic (genius dictator) decided that Serb nationalist domination was a good replacement for Communism and surprise, surprise, all the non-Serb Republics went running for Europe. Slovenia escaped without a scratch. Croatia got mostly free in a short tussle. So Milosevic sent in the Serb army (with deathsquad garnish) to ensure the multiethnic Bosnia didn’t get off so easy. And it didn’t.

Four years of brutal civil war and international hand-wringing over the crisis had produced genocidal slaughters, flood of refugees to Europe, an embarrassment for UN peacekeeping, and a growing division in NATO about how to respond to aggression and genocide in Europe.

Critics on both right and left attack Clinton’s Bonia policy for doing to little or too much for humanitarian reasons. In reality, humanitarian concerns were always a secondary factor behind geopolitics. The decision to launch proximity talks in Spring 1995 and the resulting mission in Bosnia was still internally driven by national interests not human rights considerations (although the public case was much more driven by human rights as it tends to be).

Many remained insistent that this was not a mess the US should jump into, most notably the Pentagon (still focused on “real wars” like the Gulf War). But the Europeans were desperate for NATO help and NATO essentially meant the US. The war was hemmoraging human values and the credibility and unity of NATO in a delicate time of Western integration of the former Soviet Bloc states. The geopolitical case was now as profound as the humanitarian case… we could now do the right thing for cool calculated national security interests.

Now many liberals pissed at the Bush Administration for lying about Iraq don’t realize that foreign policy spin was a Clinton Adminstration vice as well. The problem is that honesty about geopolitical ambitions or concessions doesn’t sell like tyranny and alarm. So the Bosnia mission was described not as a geopolitical necessity for Western cohesion during a period of CEE integration, but as a humanitarian savior of the poor Muslims from the evil Serbs. Similarly, the Clinton team decided that concerns about quagmire might be easily deflected by confidently assuring all we’d be gone in 12 months (off by about 100 months).

We did NOT promise that we’d be met with open arms as liberators. In fact, there was a lot of anticipation of broad resistance by extremist groups, militias, or even the Dayton signatories themselves (particularly the Serbs). Wes Clark and George Joulwan deserve great credit for devising a military annex to Dayton and an IFOR plan that effectively killed armed resistance to the NATO mission.

Those who though that arming and supporting the Bosniaks was the moral policy (“Lift and Strike”) typically fail to acknowledge or recognize that this policy was politically impossible without creating broad damage to our European security agenda. Again, national interests trumped humanitarian considerations. Even if you remain convinced it was the right thing to do, its naive or dishonest to raise the issue without acknowledging the radioactivity it was with the Europeans and the huge slate of issues we had going with Europe to bring the CEE states into the Western sphere.

Finally, the Dayton agreements best endorsement come in the form of its near equal criticism from both sides of the question about whether Bosnia should be divided or reintegrated. Idealists (and Bosniak sympathizers) believe the inter-entity boundary and the slow return of refugees reflects a failure of Dayton to live up to its own ideals. Realists (and Serb/Croat sympathizers) believe Dayton’s overly idealistic provisions of long term integration into a multi-ethnic state confuse and delay acceptance of new boundaries. In fact, Dayton achieved that balance and ambiguity needed to close the gap between unreconcileable deeply held divisions sewn in war. We Americans (and military thinkers particularly) tend to look for solutions to problems… preferably solutions with clarity and finality. Yet desires for solution, clarity, and finality are often the worst enemies of peace whereas process, ambiguity, and delay can be peace’s greatest friend. Thanks to former boss and mentor Jock Covey for best explaining to me this maxim of diplomacy.

The implementation of Dayton offers a whole different set of lessons, many covered in my earlier post Dirty Secrets of War. The most profound was the total disconnect between the military and civilian sides of implementation. That divide has remained largely unbridged since then and was relived in a similar form in Iraq. The failures of Phase IV in OIF have finally created some serious efforts to address this flaw. No doubt we will just get it right in time for major war with China.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The GWOT and the DOG

The motivation and strategy behind war is often misrepresented or misunderstood, and OIF (now regrettably termed Operation Iraqi F*&%@-Up) is no exception. From the link to 9/11 to finding WMD to an Exxon-House of Saud oil conspiracy, the motives for OIF have been consistently miscast by both the right and left with the convenient and compelling rather than the accurate.

One of the current arguments made by supporters of the war is that Iraq is a key part of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). This key points of this argument are:
- Saddam Hussein was a state sponsor of terrorism (weak case although not completely false)
- Toppling Hussein will spur a reformist movement throughout the Middle East necessary to end state support for terrorism (naively ambitious and weak case, although not completely dismissible… see below)
- OIF now serves as a “flypaper” attracting jihadists to fight our forces in Iraq rather than prosecuting terrorism in New York or London… er… New York (the flies must be going to Iraq via Edgeware Road and Kings Cross).

But this justification is equally convenient and strategically inept as the earlier claims. Consider:

We know that neocons had been talking about toppling Saddam Hussein long before 9/11 (Johns Hopkins students tell me then Dean Wolfowitz was talking about invading Iraq in the mid-90s.). The rationale was to end the unique threat represented by Saddam Hussein, create a beachhead for moderate governance in the Middle East, and create a demonstrable example of will and determination (a la Reagan) that would promote reform and American interests in the region more broadly. I call this the neocons Democratization of the Globe (DOG) agenda that featured similar arguments for more aggressively separating the Baltics from the Russian grip in the early-mid 90s by Democratic neocons.

The notion that the motive is tied to GWOT is a clever twisting of the original intent (and this leads to the strategic ineptness part). Oh, and don’t say this was all terrorism driven because the Bush team downgraded al Queda and the Middle East as issues coming in, focusing instead on China and Latin America (remember our best friend Vincente Fox?). Only 9/11 sparked the terror connection. Defining the GWOT as the modernization and reform of the Middle East, then you have bought into a serious case of mission creep (and loss of focus).

Why strategically inept? If you are making the reasonable case that the combination extremist Islamic ideology and political tyranny in the Middle East are seeding anti-US terrorism (and other nastiness like war, instability, human misery), then there are more effective and less risky ways to promote reform while simultaneously not igniting a firestorm of anti-Americanism across the region. For example, the most obvious steps are making progress on Israel-Palestine, reducing US oil dependence, supporting reformist movements, funding opposition groups, building political and economic pressures, etc.) We had already knocked off a hard line regime to make way for moderates (Afghanistan) so no “demonstration” was needed. I like the cost-benefit/risk-reward analysis for these other opportunities far more. Doesn't mean there isn't some potential upside to Iraq, but the rationale gets obliterated when you consider the nearer term risks that came to roost: massive political, military, resource distraction, huge rise in anti-Americanism, fracturing of Western alliance, and so forth.

Consider also that the War on Terrorism is an effective political term, not a feasible campaign. You can't wage war on terrorism any more than you can wage war on poverty or disease or war itself. You can wage wars on countries, groups, organizations (see Zbig Brzezinski's op-ed on this).

In military parlance, the center of gravity is where the battle (or campaign) will be won or lost. The center of gravity of the US war on terror is the disruption and destruction of al Queda and its affiliated network of groups, supporters, financiers, etc. There is no reasonable argument that Iraq was the center of gravity for the al queda campaign or ANY of the other significant campaigns. Look to Iran, Syria, or even Saudia Arabia for the leading state sponsors. You may call this the view of "critics" but it is also the view of the CIA, non-partisan Middle East and terror professionals, and lots of people who supported the war in Iraq.

In contrast, there is a good case that al Queda has successfully exploited the US overreaction in Iraq to bolster the expansion of its network and the fracturing of the Western unity (“are the latest terror attacks because of Iraq?”).

In short, Iraq remains an ambitious neocon DOG that has gone awry. It is now more of a distraction and unhelpful distortion of the GWOT than the campaign’s center. I do think we need to succeed and it could still turn out to be a positive development long term, albeit at much great human, financial, political, and opportunity cost than the Administration imagined.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

London Attacks

Today's London Tube bombings are sobering. First, we think of friends and family and unknown innocent strangers in London. For me, though, the chill is not so much because of the casualties today (it appears killed and wounded will be about the same as a typical week of London traffic accidents), but the demonstration of the vulnerability and the potential of casualties if it was a WMD attack.*

Strategically, I can think of two key questions:

1) How will the British and European public (and left) react to the attack. Will they see it as the Spanish did in response to the Madrid train bombing -- not a validation of the global threat of terror but an incident linked to a misguided Iraq policy? The answer is important in determining how effectively the attack may mobilize further transatlantic cooperation on the issue. Many Americans are unaware how much cooperation already exists between the US and EU states on terrorism and homeland security and yet the top level political rift has prevented much more.

Certainly their remains huge differences on the question of seeking regime change and reform in those states where terrorists live (although I don't think Iraq met that threshold prior to OIF). But more broadly, cooperation on intelligence, communication systems, procedures, finances and political action are critical to stop these cross-border networks. In addition, the Europeans (France, Germany and UK all) bring tremendous experience, skill, and capabilities to the fight. Compromising this cooperation with unnecessary vitriol toward "old Europe" was one of the key errors of the Bush team. A silver lining of London may be the opportunity to seize new opportunities shoulder to shoulder. New leadership in Berlin and Paris will also help.

2) What will be the Homeland Security response to the security of mass transit?

I for one hope that we do NOT see metal detectors and security lines at subway stations or any other public place that doesn't represent a particularly critical vulnerability. Such measures just divert terrorism, they don't stop terrorism. It is impossible to secure every possible terrorist target in a city like London. The aforementioned risk of WMD attack is the only consideration, but a metal detector is not the best tool for that and again, there are too many public gathering spaces and systems to cage them all in.

It is also important to consider that every time we compromise our lifestyle and turn our free democracy into a police state in yet another way, it is a small victory for the terrorists. Terrorism is best stopped through intelligence and police work, not metal detectors. Unfortunately, politicians tend to want very linear responses to terrorist threats. Just as we did over aviation security after 9/11, so will we likely overreact to mass transit security as a result of London.

What might be appropriate measures to consider to better secure our mass transit systems?
- more surveillance with pattern matching to suspicious behavior and facial recognition of suspected terrorists.
- unobtrusive WMD detection systems focused on radiological, biological, chemical agents
- consequences management capabilities and training to minimize damage from attacks
- education and training of mass transit workers and passengers regarding suspicious behavior and possible threats
- survey of mass transit systems to identify points or areas of particular vulnerability to high impact attacks, including combination attacks (e.g. hijack aircraft+crash into building).

Finally, it is my hope that PM Tony Blair exercises a strong and compelling response to the attacks and thereby repair the Iraq-policy damage to his standing in the UK and Europe. Blair remains one of my favorite politicians, possessing that rare combination of optimism, inspiration, and likeability. That delivery combined with his moderate progressive political instincts are exactly what Europe and America need right now.

*WMD includes nuclear, chemical, biological, radiological weapons plus conventional attacks devised in such a way as to cause mass casualties and destruction. The WTC attack qualifies as a WMD attack under this definition.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Defining Victory

Timelines! Metrics! Head in the sand! Weak-kneed liberals! Vietnam-esque! The recent upsurge in insurgent attacks in Iraq have resurfaced doubts among politicians, pundits, and the American people about Iraq. How do we get out?

Withdrawal of troops from a hostile area can only be described in one of two ways: 1) successful accomplishment the mission (victory) 2) retreat (and acceptance of some degree of defeat). It is paramount that policymakers make sure we never send US forces in harms way without the full expectation of withdrawing under condition #1. Of course, if we do find ourselves in a position where we are losing and the prospects for loss (or costs of victory) are too high, then we should consider retreat.

Two bad ideas have been floating around the national security world since Bosnia and are being reapplied to Iraq: withdrawal timetable and exit strategy. Let's knock these out one at a time.

Here is the problem with declaring a timetable for retreat. White House: "Hey bad guys, we think things are going pretty badly for us so we're only going to stick it out another 6 months to see if things get better." Bad guys: "Hey, Zarqawi! The Americans just said on the radio that if we keep killing them for 6 more months, they will leave! Praise Allah!" Our troops: "Hey Joe, if we're pulling the plug in a 6 months, why should I keep getting shot at?" Bottom line: if you want to withdraw, then withdraw -- as quickly as possible.

As for exit strategy, the whole thing smells of a figleaf AND focuses you on the wrong things. There are really two outcomes: success or failure. As Shali said re: Bosnia 1996 (paraphrasing), I'm more interested in a success strategy than an exit strategy.

But when it comes to Iraq, what IS success? What is victory? Obviously we can imagine the rosy scenario: end of the insurgency, a new democratic ally in Iraq, and a force for moderation throughout the region. I'd like an Aston Martin Vanquish too. No, I think we have to focus on the MINIMUM criteria for victory/success, sufficient for withdrawal and future progress absent large military occupation. Anything more is gravy.

Just as I have argued that the only meaningful metric of progress is reduction in violence, the most meaningful criteria for minimum victory is a situation where the new Iraqi government can provide its own security. (hardly radical stuff -- I'm sure most see this the same way -- yet we tend to confuse ourselves with other political, economic and military metrics.) For more on HOW to minimize violence, look at the earlier post "Dirty Secrets of War."

Self-securing Iraq is not the sole minimum criteria, however. All of these must be considered additional criteria:
- denial of Iraq as a safe-haven for al queda, other anti-US terrorists, or global international criminals
- prevention of Iraqi government becoming a radical Shia regime, perhaps with close ties to Tehran
- sufficient government capability to avoid a post-withdrawal backsliding into civil war or anarchy
- some degree of continuing pragmatic cooperation with the US and with international law, institutions, and norms

Any other suggestions?