Regional Security

Yellow Sea: The Military Uncertainty

In his weekly column in New Europe, EWI Vice President Greg Austin discusses the heightened U.S. and Japanese military presence in the Yellow Sea in light of the recent conflict between North and South Korea.

The United States and Japan have this past week assembled a naval force that would easily defeat the Chinese navy as it is today. This is the largest joint naval force ever assembled by the two allies. Their forces will be physically concentrated in and around the Sea of Japan, to the west of the country, separating it from Russia and the east coast of the Korean Peninsula. China does not border this sea. For China, the Yellow Sea (sitting between the Korean Peninsula and China), is the more sensitive of the two.

One reason for the joint exercise is to mark the 50th anniversary of the security treaty between the United States and Japan signed in 1960. The military forces have been brought together for an annual exercise called “Keen Sword”. This year’s exercise, unprecedented in scale compared with previous years, was planned well before the most recent attack by North Korea on its southern neighbor on 23 November. The bigger reason why this force is so large however is that North Korea attacked a South Korean navy ship in March, at a time when the North is going through a political transition from the“Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-un, now named “Brilliant Comrade”, who is of course grandson to the “Great Leader”, Kim Il-sung

The “Brilliant Comrade”, not even 30 years old, is already a General of the armed forces and Vice-Chairman of the country’s National Military Commission. His 39-year old half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who was once heir apparent but now lives in Macao, has reportedly told a Japanese journalist that he opposes dynastic succession.

This political transition in the dictatorship in North Korea, with the armed forces of South Korea on high military alert already because of the recent attack, in a region with the highest concentration of conventional and nuclear military forces anywhere in the world, creates both high uncertainty and high risk that there may be a military miscalculation.

Newspapers in some countries are running reports from experts that war is unlikely. But from a military or political intelligence point of view, that is a nonsensical conclusion. If we know so little about the North’s thinking and since its forces are already on high alert, there is clearly no basis for a judgment that “war is unlikely”.  Analysts are interpreting the situation in an indefensible way. They are proceeding from the certainty that “we have seen military provocations in the last three decades by North Korea and they have not led to war” to the conclusion that “a provocation by North Korea can never lead to war”. On this occasion, Vladimir Putin’s assessment is a more reliable one. The situation is “acute and disturbing”.

There is an explicit presumption in much of the commentary, including by Putin, that China has “influence” over North Korea and can restrain it. This is a dangerous assumption. Political influence of one country over another is one of the most mis-understood and over-rated processes in global security affairs, not least in situations of leadership transition and high levels of military mobilization. An assessment of what is likely to happen next must be rooted exclusively in knowledge of the intentions and political dispositions of the “Brilliant Comrade”, the “Dear Leader” and their military forces.

Since so little is known about any of these, then the only prudent response is to stay on military alert until there is an un-mistakable signal of stand-down by North Korea. Since North Korea has only recently revealed the existence of a new nuclear reactor, and it has nuclear weapons, we have to plan for heightened military tensions. The Yellow Sea, very much China’s front yard bordering the Korean peninsula is likely to see heightened military activities in coming months. 

Pakistan: Runaway Horse Looking for a Rider

Anticipating possible midterm elections, EWI board member Ikram Sehgal analyzes Pakistan’s current political regime and its history of corruption in his weekly editorial for The News.

For Sehgal, Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s current president and co-chairman of the ruling party Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP), “qualifies as perhaps the craftiest politician of his time.”  Sehgal writes that Zardari, who has a reputation of corruption, has done little to improve the political regime in Pakistan aside from maintaining a vague semblance of democracy and a decent relationship with the U.S.

Sehgal argues that Zardari's predecessor Musharraf was no better, but that he could be the “Comeback Kid," pointing out that Musharraf did make some positive progress during his first two to three years as president.

Mian Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister of Pakistan and head of the conservative political group Pakistan Muslim League (PML), is “unpalatable for the West,” states Sehgal . “Sharif is considered ‘dangerous’ even by our friends.”  Similarly his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, was a successful leader when Mian Sharif was prime minister, but lost his strength when his brother lost power.

With his failure to differentiate between the Taliban and terrorist groups, Imran Khan is unable to “translate his popularity into votes,” writes Sehgal. “Such views are not acceptable to even those who genuinely like him,” explains Sehgal.

With the midterm elections on the horizon, Sehgal assesses that there is little promise of finding Pakistan’s next great leader this time around.

Click here to read Sehgal’s piece in The News

The Cherub Who Woke the U.S. President

W. Pal Sidhu wrote this piece for

Since assuming the highest US office two years ago, only one issue has warranted rousing President Barack Obama in the middle of the night: North Korea. The first was on 25 May 2009 when he was informed that Pyongyang had just conducted another nuclear test. The second was on 23 November 2010 when he was woken up at 3.55am and told that North Korea had just shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, perhaps the most serious military incident since the end of the Korean war 57 years ago.

The US reaction was predictable: It condemned North Korea’s actions; offered support to the South by dispatching the nuclear-powered and, possibly, nuclear-armed George Washington carrier battle group; and called upon China to reign in the military adventurism of its communist ally. Some US commentators, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security adviser, accused the North Korean regime of “insanity” and lamented that Pyongyang’s “actions are difficult to fathom in rational terms”.

The recent antics of the Kims—who established the world’s first dynastic communist state—can be explained in light of the succession process of Kim Jong-un, the chubby 20-something son of Kim Jong-il, who has been disparagingly referred to as the “cute leader”. The series of provocative acts reportedly carried out by Pyongyang—the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, the preparations for a third nuclear test, the building of a new uranium enrichment plant, and the artillery barrage on the South Korean island—were clearly designed to supplant the cherubic demeanour of the Hermit Kingdom’s youngest anointed heir with one of fiery disposition. The latest exercise in brinkmanship was also aimed at getting concessions from Washington and Seoul.

However, this does not mean there is no justification for North Korea’s paranoia. While the Korean war ended in 1953, it could be rationally argued that in the absence of a formal peace treaty, North Korea still considers itself at war with South Korea and the US. This perspective is manifest in the regular joint exercises, the continued presence of nearly 30,000 US troops and, until recently, nuclear weapons in South Korea. In July, the US and South Korea conducted a naval exercise off the port of Busan to “deter future aggression” by North Korea, which Pyongyang saw as a “provocation aimed to stifle” it. A similar exercise scheduled for October and “meant to send a message to the North Koreans about their behaviour” was cancelled when China loudly protested about the location of the exercise. Even last Tuesday’s barrage coincided with the ongoing US-South Korean Hoguk military exercise and was reportedly provoked by South Korean test-firing from the nearby Baengmyeong Island.

Clearly, the deep hostility is exacerbated by the actions taken by both sides. In this spiral of confrontation, Washington is fast running out of options and may even find itself confronting China. While Obama’s call to China to help curb North Korea is a step in the right direction, Beijing is unlikely to oblige. Chinese observers described the latest escalation as an “accidental occurrence” and the leadership is unable or unwilling to put pressure on North Korea during this crucial period of transition for fear it might lead to the collapse of its ally. In addition, the reported involvement of Chinese companies and agencies in the “ultramodern” North Korean centrifuge plant might also make Beijing reluctant to cooperate too closely with the US. In fact, it is likely to increase tensions between Washington and Beijing. Obama can no longer ignore the North Korean issue and none of the options looks promising. He would do well to work out a cohesive strategy for the next time he is woken up in the middle of the night.

Click here to read Sidhu's article on

How to Stop Global Suicide Terrorism

Robert Pape, author of "Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It" shares his thesis as part of EastWest Institute's Speaker Series



Event Report

Robert Pape is firmly convinced that if the United States relies much less on boots on the ground in hotspots such as Iraq and Afghanistan and more on the strategy he calls “offshore balancing,” the number of suicide bombings will decrease dramatically. The University of Chicago professor and co-author of the new Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism & How to Stop it, spoke at the EastWest Institute on November 11.

Pape, who recently consulted with the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, said that he was struck by the lack of research about suicide terrorism after September 11, prompting him to try to fill that void.

“Suicide terrorism is the lung cancer of terrorism,” Pape explains. “It’s the biggest threat we face.”

Likening his efforts to that of a research pathologist, Pape worked with the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism to compile a searchable database of the 2,200 suicide attacks that occurred between 1980 and 2008. According to Pape, each attack is corroborated by at least two independent sources and the database includes over 10,000 relevant documents.

“The data is good,” Pape said. And it needs to be, as his argument is entirely founded on statistical analysis.

To begin with, Pape argues that many of the tactics used in the War on Terror have actually encouraged more suicide terrorism. The evidence? From 1980 to 2003, there were a little under 350 suicide terrorists attacks, 15% of which were anti-American, while from 2004-2009, the world saw 1,833 suicide attacks, 92% of which were directed against America. 87 % of these were in U.S.-occupied Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Also, the attackers were mainly from the Arabian peninsula, where U.S. troops have been stationed since 1990.

“Foreign occupation is the trigger for religious and secular suicide terrorism, just like smoking is the trigger for lung cancer,” Pape declares.

Pape insists that it’s misleading to see Islamic fundamentalism as the trigger for suicide terrorism—or as primarily a martyr’s bid for a virgin-filled heaven. However abhorrent, suicide terrorism is a tactic based on a clear internal logic aimed at  coercing democracies into withdrawing troops from prized territories, he adds. The evidence? When the troops go home, the attacks decrease.

For instance, Hezbollah, which launched suicide bombings during the Israeli occupation in the early 1980s, has not waged a suicide attack since 2000. If the attacks were motivated simply by fundamentalism, Pape points out, we’d have seen a lot more Hezbollah martyrs in the last decade. Plus, some of the Hezbollah attackers were Christian.

So what can Pape’s analysis tell us about U. S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan?

In Iraq, suicide attacks declined after 2007. Pape attributes the drop to the fact that the U.S. government paid local Sunni tribes in Anbar Province “not to kill us.” The strategy worked, he says, because the community felt empowered to secure its own future. Pointing out that suicide bombing decreased by 85% in the same period that 100,000 U.S. troops went home, Pape concludes, “By withdrawing our troops, we produced stability.”

For Pape, the data clearly indicates that the United States needs a new way to protect its strategic interests in the Middle East.

His answer is “off-shore balancing,” a strategy that does not call for an unqualified U.S. withdrawal, but rather for a concentration of military power offshore, aircraft carriers and naval presence, combined with rapidly-deployable ground troops but without the establishment of permanent bases.

Pape’s strategy also calls for the U.S. to train and equip local troops for self-protection, as in Anbar. Pape thinks this strategy would be particularly successful in southern Afghanistan, which saw a rise in Pashtun suicide terrorism after the U.S. sent troops into the Pashtun region.

Following Pape’s presentation, there was a lively discussion. Some participants found Pape’s analysis too simplistic, pointing out that suicide terrorism could increase or decrease due to other factors. One participant argued that the decrease in suicide bombing in Israel since the 2005 Gaza withdrawal could be the result of better Israeli defense, rather than troop reductions. He also pointed out that Pape’s data does not take into account foiled attacks by suicide bombers.

Even Pape questioned the political likelihood of the United States returning to its Middle Eastern strategy of the 1970’s and 1980s, when it sought to influence the region through offshore military, political and economic power.

But Pape stands by the data and his basic conclusion about the root cause of suicide terrorism. In its simplest formulation, his message is: “They’re coming over here because we’re going over there.”

Securing the Russian and Turkish Frontiers of Europe

Greg Austin wrote this piece for his weekly column in New Europe.

Land borders are not what they used to be. Finance and investment values are traded through the ether in what often seems like a new borderless world. Even in terms of physical borders, which of course still exist, the air borders of most countries now seem more important. High value trade comes by air cargo as do the tourist dollars. The new threats, such as pandemic and terrorism, also come across the air border more often than across dry ground. In 2009, EU countries refused entry to more than 50,000 people at their air borders.

But this relationship between air frontiers and the land is worth a second look. In 2009, Spain turned away almost 400,000 people at its land borders, and Poland just over 25,000 people. The bigger pressure for illegal migration is on the ground not by air. And of course pandemics and terrorists do cross land borders.

We can look at the changed military strategic significance of ground and air borders in a similar way. Only a few countries of the world guard their ground borders with divisions and tanks. The ground borders have definitely become much less important, relatively speaking. Modern aircraft and missiles allow attack from remote distances with little effective warning time. And as American military leaders remind us, cyber warfare capabilities allow “global strike in milliseconds”.

How do these changed relationships between air and land boundaries play out in geopolitical terms for Europe? For the moment, Europe (the EU) looks very comfortable. There are no strategic military threats from any bordering country and almost no military defence of any kind for ground borders. The one low intensity exception is Cyprus.

For NATO Europe, the picture is very different. Turkey has land borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria that present a range of low level and high level strategic risk, and an active cross-border threat of terrorism and insurgency.

For OSCE Europe, the picture becomes even more complicated. Not only does that include the Turkish frontier’s challenges, but it raises the stakes considerably. Suddenly there are “European” land borders with Afghanistan, China and North Korea.

What then is the fundamental geopolitical character of Europe’s land borders and where in strategic terms, do these borders actually sit? Few would imagine in strategic terms that the EU is the geopolitical essence of “Europe”. Surely, at the very least, Turkey is part of Europe’s land frontier.  But “strategic Europe” (OSCE Europe) might also include Russia and Ukraine at least, even if more conservative views would be ambivalent or negative about including the Central Asian states that border Afghanistan.

Who is looking after border security of “strategic Europe”? What are the common plans or concepts for geopolitical security in the arc from Antakya to Almaty (via Kirkuk and Kunduz)? As we go into the summit season (NATO in November and OSCE in December), who will take up this question?

It is very plain that the United States will not. It would be seen to be against US interests to do so. That is perhaps understandable at one level. For countries of Europe, however defined, continued collective disregard of the security of their geopolitical land borders on the east and south of both Turkey and Russia, or on the OSCE border with Afghanistan in terms of hard security planning can no longer be justified.

In the 20-30 year time frame to which defence planners must look, these frontiers may well be the biggest source of potential land-based threat to Europe. The prospects of war may remain remote. But, on a balance of reasonable probabilities, in the coming decades, this is the area where Europe’s ground forces will most likely be needed.

NATO Should Hand Over in Afghanistan

Greg Austin wrote this piece for his weekly column in New Europe.

In August 2003, NATO took over the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan under the mandate of the United Nations. As the ISAF website notes: “The Alliance became responsible for the command, coordination and planning of the force.”

But who is running this Alliance? Where is the Allied command at political level that binds together these allies around a political strategy agreed by all of the Allies? According to ISAF, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) “provides overall coordination and political direction”, working “in close consultation” with non-NATO troop-contributing countries. The NAC meets at least weekly, often more frequently, at Ambassadorial level in Brussels, and twice yearly at Ministerial level, and occasionally at Head of State level. Is the NAC really making the political command decisions for the counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan? Should it be?

The answer is no, on both counts. The NAC is not and cannot be a supreme decision making body for the politics of war inside Afghanistan. This gap in political control and accountability for war waged by the international community needs to be fixed.

Everyone accepts the need for a clear transition from the massive intervention by NATO and other allies to a politically sustainable future premised on a self-confident and secure Afghanistan. To do this, we need a new (a genuine) political command council that is dominated not just by a handful of NATO members but by the key political players in the war, of which the Afghanistan government has to be one.
Because support from inside NATO for Afghan combat operations is weakening, the UN Allies and the NAC need to think rather urgently about creating a new structure that provides for a durable, representative and workable political command. The United States has been the pre-eminent policy designer for NATO in this war (and still runs its own independent forces in Afghanistan) but it is not a credible long-term leader for the political transition we now need. The United States, like NATO, has to pass the baton, but to whom and to what?

The answer may lie in how the main actors address the need for a second requirement: effective regional security arrangements that can counter the violent extremists using Islam as their cover. That problem has to be solved primarily by Muslim states and Muslim communities.
The only answer may be to create a new standing Council at head of state level that brings together key stakeholders from the region and the major external powers. It might comprise the UN Secretary General (as chair), Afghanistan, Pakistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the United States, the European Union, Russia, China and India. There would have to be a place for Iran at the table. This Council would not be a command authority for Afghanistan alone, but a political stabilization council and allied command authority for the South and West Asia regions.

The Council could devise, fund and execute a clear set of complementary political, military and economic action plans for these regions in their entirety, even if discrete elements might need to be packaged country by country according to political sensitivities and practicalities. These measures could include a Muslim Peace Corps building on the OIC’s youth initiative from 2003. The Council could serve under UN mandate for renewable periods.

This might be a path marked by controversy, division and failures, but it is the only sustainable path. Such a step would serve to force the pace on regional security cooperation in a part of the world where it is so embryonic, so mistrusted and so visibly needed.

Pakistan: A Resilient Nation

To paraphrase Mark Twain: “Rumours about Pakistan’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.” By any measure, the country has defied the odds, and we are one of the most resilient nations on earth. How many nations are capable of surviving the manmade and natural catastrophes that we are periodically subjected to, not counting the disaster that is our democratic leadership? Even incurable optimists like me do not cease to wonder at our inherent ability to rise from the ashes. Something like Razzak’s amazing century the other day in Abu Dhabi.

In 2009, parliament (which is “supreme”) voluntarily surrendered sovereign authority in Swat, with hardly any debate and in less than one day. The public mask for the evil designs of Fazlullah, his murderous son-in-law, Sufi Mohammad gave away the jihadis’ hand by publicly heaping scorn on the Supreme Court. For good measure, he added that the militants did not recognise the country’s Constitution. Had the media darling of that time not shot off his mouth prematurely, Swat’s population would today be subject to the Fazlullah brand of Shahriah, thanks to parliament that has never revoked that despicable Resolution. With Islamabad only 60 kms away as the crow flies. The “domino theory” was very much a possibility in the adjoining districts. The outraged public reaction and the continuing atrocities perpetuated by Fazlullah was “casus belli,” giving space to the army deal with them effectively.

Once given the green signal and with the population firmly behind its campaign the army showed no reluctance or hesitation in going after the insurgent terrorist menace within our borders. The successful counterinsurgency overcame the psychological barrier, the feeling that the jihadis could not be beaten. The battlefield momentum was thereafter extended to South Waziristan. The Mahsuds provided the supposedly impenetrable outer ring around the non-Pakistani Al-Qaeda stronghold. But the myth of their invincibility, created with the help of uninformed media hype, soon evaporated. Many cadres of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) were killed. Some were taken captive but a substantial number melted away, many of them seeking (and receiving) refuge in North Waziristan from the Haqqani group.

Not that the army is infallible. The other day someone mentioned that the Pakistani army was working on a new doctrine. One was not surprised that an enquiry about the national security strategy on which the doctrine should be based produced blank looks. One may be forgiven for being rather skeptical. But, after all, who can forget the brilliance (and the after-effects) of the last two “doctrines”: (1) the defence of the East lies in the West, and (2) Afghanistan gives us strategic depth.

In similar vein, when Mian Nawaz Sharif talks about a 25-year charter drawn up by all stakeholders, one wonders what in the world is he talking about. For example, what really is the PML-N chief doing about the electricity and petroleum rates hiked beyond description? Forget the “vision thing.” The PML-N leader should start playing the role that Pakistanis want from the opposition, both within parliament and outside, providing the checks and balances that are the essence of democracy.
The Supreme Court judgment on the 18th Amendment was quite Solomonic, and hopefully parliament would respond in a mature fashion and correct the anomalies that have slipped into an otherwise commendable Raza Rabbani-led achievement. The PML-N’s ineptitude and the Supreme Court inaction have gifted Zardari time and space time and again. The one public official in Pakistan who does not have to declare his assets, the president has used this repeated let-off quite brilliantly, launching an effective attack against the Supreme Court’s credibility. While the Supreme Court has been forced occasionally to take the opposition’s role by default to ensure and/or enforce the rule of law for the hapless people of Pakistan, it has only itself to blame for vacillating in implementing its judgment on the NRO, whose beneficiaries continue to disfigure at will whatever governance there is in Pakistan.

The US is generous in getting material and monetary aid to us whenever we face either manmade and/or natural disasters. The US Chinooks supplementing Pakistan Army Aviation helicopters made the difference between life and death for millions stranded above the snowline in the high mountains during Earthquake 2005. The Chinooks were joined this time around during the devastating Floods 2010 by Sea Stallions in saving thousands upon thousands from the rising floodwaters, as well as delivering timely material aid. The $2 billion in military aid promised by the US recently is rather niggardly (at $500 million a year beginning 2012), when the amount is compared to the $18 billion largesse for the Afghan National Army (ANA). One must not look a gift horse in the mouth, but one feel more than a little aggrieved at what is being poured into a black hole in Afghanistan. The Pakistani army has lost more than 3,000 killed in the last 18 months, the ANA less than 300 dead (all the coalition forces put together have lost about 600 killed in action this year).

It is a fact of life that our young men in uniform are being killed in the line of duty at a ratio of 10:1 to the number of coalition casualties put together. Compared to the Afghan civilian casualties, our young and old – men, women and children – are dying at about the same rate at the hands of suicide bombers in the streets of Pakistan. While we must own the war against terrorism, it is ours to fight and win, the disparity in our effort compared to the treatment meted out to us rankles with us.

US ambassador Cameron Munter has hit the ground running. That is good, given the rather large shoes of his predecessor that he has to fill. Ambassador Anne Patterson was a class act and, even though one did disagree with her shoring up an inherently corrupt and ineffective leadership in Pakistan which represents everything that the average American can never stomach, she was outstanding in coalescing the core interests of the US with the concerns of Pakistan.

It is no secret that the US has always had (and continues to have) inordinate influence over our rulers, civil and military included, and while Pakistan may not always carry out their express instructions immediately, either because of a lack of resources and/or long-term core interests: e.g., action against the Haqqani group in North Waziristan, the US can (and must) use its considerable clout, Holbrooke notwithstanding, to ensure that our corrupt-to-the-core rulers adhere to the rule of law.

Let’s call a spade a spade and not insult everybody’s intelligence. We should be content being paid a pittance as mercenaries. What else will be made out to look when President Obama visits the real US “strategic partner” in the next few days? While the security of the US president must be the deciding factor, Obama should be persuaded to put himself in harm’s way for “a country that refuses to fail.” Even a few hours on our soil would be a tremendous vote of confidence.

Click here to read this piece online

Using Smart Strategies to Fight Radicalism

How can we win the War on Terror? For Richard Barrett of the UN and Tom Parker of Amnesty International, education and narrative are the smart ways to counter violent extremism.

Click here to read the report on World Policy Blog

Click below for interviews with Richard Barrett and Tom Parker:


Full Text from World Policy Institute

By Ryan French

In early October the Global War on Terror entered its tenth year, with no clear end in sight.  Though drone strikes have proved their worth by dividing terrorist leadership from their followers, especially in the AfPak region, there are discouraging setbacks, such as the recent near-misses by would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and Umar Abdulmutallab, the infamous “underwear bomber” of Christmas Day 2009.  Unless new strategies are adopted that undermine the credibility of terrorist leaders with their followers, it is likely that the West will suffer a successful attack from what has shown itself to be a patient and determined foe.  As the Taliban have boasted, “NATO has all the watches, but we have all the time.”

On Tuesday, October 26, the World Policy Institute and EastWest Institute co-hosted Richard Barrett, coordinator of the Al Qaeda Taliban Monitoring Team for the UN, and Tom Parker of Amnesty International in the annual Ian Cuthbertson Memorial Lecture on improved strategies in the fight against radicalism. In Pakistan, Barret pointed out, public support for the current U.S. counter-terrorism strategy holds at a dismal 20 percent. Because terrorists capitalize on this sort of widespread opposition to gain sympathizers and recruits, the U.S. must supplement its counter-force tactics with innovative policy approaches. Barrett recommended that states consider education and messaging as methods to decrease the appeal of terrorism to discontented Muslims.  Although, as Barrett mentioned, 90 percent of the victims of Al Qaeda attacks are Muslim, Osama bin Laden is nevertheless able to rally supporters through his claims that the West is crusading against Islam. To be victorious in this war of competing narratives and ideas, governments should start by correcting the incomplete, inaccurate information held by the consumers of Islamist ideology.

Tom Parker, Policy Director for Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Human Rights at Amnesty International USA, echoed Barrett’s sentiment–the heart of the conflict against terrorism is an issue of competing ideas and narratives.  Muslims susceptible to radicalization must be educated in order to mitigate the information asymmetry that fosters terrorism.  To that end, the U.S. must engage in a war of information and publicize the human toll that Al Qaeda's attacks are taking on Muslims.  Al Qaeda relies on this information asymmetry to ensure the allegiance of its followers. If these adherents are exposed to new ways of thinking, particularly from credible religious leaders who emphasize the atrocities committed by terrorists upon Muslims and the Koran’s strict ban on suicide, there is potential to reverse or prevent the radicalization process.

By solving the problem of incomplete information that attracts young radicals to bloodshed, the seeds of a viable counter-narrative to the violent worldview of terrorist leaders can be sown. There are encouraging signs that such twisted, radicalized groupthink is already being challenged.  In December 2007, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's second-in-command, participated in an online question-and-answer session with an audience of jihadis. One of the questions asked was, how do you justify killing Muslim civilians?  Zawahiri went on to give a lengthy diatribe as to why Al Qaeda’s actions were permissible, but his defensive reaction to the question is proof of the frailty of Al Qaeda’s narrative.  The counter-narrative must be implanted by unbiased, credible figures in Islam, such as the respected cleric Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri who issued a fatwa in March against suicide terrorism, declaring it to be an unforgivable sin.  One of the strategies employed by Saudi Arabia has been to embed jihadist chatrooms with agents who offer an alternative “voice of reason” to the violent tactics discussed by the participants.

Forging a successful counter-narrative will achieve semantic infiltration, in which Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are pressured to acknowledge positive values in their public statements, such as concern for human rights. As Parker put it, this will “force [terrorists] into a value system that they can't adhere to,” further undermining their popular support.  Semantic infiltration appears to already be underway within Al Qaeda--earlier this month, Osama bin Laden released two recorded messages calling for humanitarian aid to victims of the recent flooding in Pakistan, as well as action to combat famine and climate change.  Surprisingly, there are no calls for violence in either videotape.  Indeed, the so-called Galula principle that successful counter-terrorism is 80 percent “hearts and minds” and only 20 percent conflict appears to hold sway, as the terrorists themselves seem to operate by this principle. Many groups have dubious charity wings that vie for the good graces of the public in a twisted effort to boost their political capital.

Ironically, the clearest example of the phenomenon of semantic infiltration, Barrett claimed, has been through Western use of the word, “jihad.”  As he said, In Islam, jihad is a highly nuanced concept, referring foremost to one's internal spiritual struggle.  Since 9/11, however, it has been seized by Western media outlets as a buzzword for Islamic “holy war,” thereby reinforcing the idea of a cultural conflict between Islam and the West.  This has served to increase cross-cultural antagonism, strengthening the hand of the violent narrative championed by Al Qaeda.

Without supplementing the current counter-force strategy against terrorism with innovative policies, the War on Terror is simply a perpetuation of the status quo.  In order to avert the distressingly real possibility of a “Forever War” against the proverbial hydra of terrorism, nations ought to view the conflict as one of competing ideas.  Until the violent narrative espoused by bin Laden and his disciples is viewed with universal disdain by Muslims, the risk of radicalization and terrorist attack will continue to loom large.  In the meantime, bin Laden will continue to dominate the political narrative by framing Al Qaeda and Islam as victims of Western belligerence:  “As you kill us, you will be killed... the initiator of the injustice is the true aggressor.”

Click here to read the report on World Policy Blog

Negotiating with the Taliban: Lessons from Vietnam

For EWI Associate Franz-Stefan Gady, recently back from Kabul, the Vietnam War holds lessons for ending the war in Afghanistan. 

Click here to read this article in Small Wars Journal.

Negotiating with the Taliban: Lessons from Vietnam

Despite many critical voices of the overuse of the Vietnam War metaphor when talking about the war in Afghanistan there are many striking similarities between the last years of the Vietnam War and the Obama administration's attempt to extract U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan. I therefore think it is important, given the upcoming NATO Summit in Lisbon in November and the looming withdrawal of NATO forces from the region, to examine the Nixon administration’s effort to win the Vietnam War on the negotiation table and to have, in Nixon’s words, “Peace with Honor."

Just like President Obama in 2009, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon came into the White House in 1969 to end the war which, at that point, was already a “bone to the nations throat,” to quote a former White House speech writer. Talks with the North Vietnamese had already started under the Johnson administration in Paris but come to no satisfactory conclusion. The main objectives of the United States on the negotiation table were the territorial integrity and independence of South Vietnam, a withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from South East Asia and a withdrawal of Vietcong insurgents in South Vietnam.

Similar to today’s situation in Afghanistan, the Nixon administration had to deal with a largely unpopular leader, Nguyen Van Thieu, who was reelected in 1969 after winning a fraudulent election and whose regime was infamous for its corruption. North Vietnam’s strategy in a nutshell, again similar to insurgents in Afghanistan, was to outlast the Americans, get rid of the Thieu regime and to take over the country once the United States withdrew.

Comparable to President Obama’s surge strategy, Nixon decided to increase military pressure on Vietnam. Henry Kissinger insisted that, “A fourth rate power like North Vietnam must have a breaking point.” Upon taking office in 1969, Nixon secretly conveyed to the North Vietnamese that he was seeking peace and willing to negotiate, but that the United States was willing to escalate the conflict should its demands not be met. Over a period of 15 months, the United States Air Force dropped more than 100,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia. Nixon’s first attempt to gain concessions from the Vietnamese on the negotiating table failed. The major stumbling blocks, the integrity of South Vietnam and the preservation of the Thieu regime, were to stall negotiations for the next three years.

Despite what current proponents of escalating U.S. engagement in Afghanistan claim, North Vietnam in 1969 shifted from an offensive to a defensive strategy. They did this by limiting offensive operations in the South and even withdrawing troops across the demilitarized zone, not due to military setbacks, but to wait Nixon out until public opinion at home forced the U.S. to withdraw combat troops, something sources in Kabul claim is precisely the Taliban’s strategy. Frustrated by North Vietnam’s unwillingness to make any substantial concessions at the secret negotiations in Paris, Nixon ordered the formation of a secret National Security Council Study Group to come up with “savage punishing blows” for the North Vietnamese. However, the conclusion of the Study Group, chaired by Henry Kissinger, showed that increased military pressure would not yield additional concessions from Hanoi.

The insurgents in Afghanistan, despite being battle weary, will certainly also not be willing to make any major concessions with U.S. troop withdrawal a few months away. This is happening in spite of an increase in drone strikes and special forces operations activities throughout the country. The North Vietnamese, by cleverly manipulating U.S. negotiators, essentially bought time by making vague proposals that amounted to little substance and complaining about procedural matters such as the size and set up of tables at the negotiations in Paris. Their real goal until 1972 was to buy time for North Vietnamese Forces to get resupplied and strengthened for the final military blow against the Thieu regime. The insurgents in Afghanistan, although in no way comparable in size, equipment and capabilities to the Vietcong and the regular North Vietnamese Army, will probably employ similar delaying tactics until the withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces. Any initial “willingness” by Taliban leaders to talk has to be seen in this critical light.

The famous Vietnamization policy was a direct consequence of the United States' failed attempt to break the deadlock at the negotiating table with military force and domestic pressure to start withdrawing U.S. combat troops. Without consulting his South Vietnamese ally, Nixon unilaterally announced this policy, frustrated by the lack of military progress and mounting US casualties. Within months the South Vietnamese Military became one of the largest and best equipped Armies in the World (by 1974 South Vietnam’s Air Force was the fourth largest in the world). At the same time the United States stepped up its Phoenix program headed by the CIA, and just like its modern successor, the drone strike campaign, aimed at decapitating the leadership of the Vietcong and destroying Vietcong strongholds in the South. The United States claimed big successes and the elimination of over 20.000 Vietcong targets in South Vietnam. However, the Vietcong’s command structure and ability to conduct operations remained intact. So far the same is true for Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, which have been targets of drone strikes.

Indeed, there are also striking similarities between Obama’s decision to step up the drone strikes into Pakistan and Nixon’s controversial decision to invade and bomb Cambodia to buy time for Vietnamization, and destroy North Vietnamese safe havens. In the end, despite having claimed to have killed 2000 insurgents and substantially disrupted North Vietnamese supply bases and “treasure troves” of intelligence (according to Henry Kissinger), it did not alter the outcome of the conflict, but led to the massive destabilization of Cambodia. Events in Pakistan today illustrate the danger of undermining a government’s authority on their own territory. The strategic military impact of recent drone strikes remains to be seen, but so far have not influenced the Taliban’s offensive capabilities substantially.

In October of 1970 Nixon launched a “major new initiative for peace” which was promptly rejected by Hanoi. More U.S. troops were withdrawn and the process of Vietnamization sped up. Nixon also expanded the war into Laos in 1971 to disrupt enemy supply line and to force a military decision. Talks failed over the same fundamental issue: the future of the South Vietnamese government under Thieu. Later in 1971,  Kissinger made yet another secret proposal to the North Vietnamese: Complete US withdrawal in exchange for US POWs held in Hanoi. Again North Vietnam rejected the offer. POWs were one of the few bargaining chips they had when negotiating with the United States and only would give it up last. North Vietnam again insisted on the removal of the Thieu regime, which the U.S. dismissed. North Vietnam proposed open elections in September 1971, on the condition that the United States withdraw support for Thieu. Kissinger and Nixon refused.

In March 1972, North Vietnam launched a large scale invasion of South Vietnam with conventional forces, having carefully prepared its offensive capabilities over the previous two years and stalled negotiations in Paris. Despite some initial progress, North Vietnam was beaten back by massive U.S. air raids in the demilitarized zone on Hanoi and Haiphong. For the first time, Kissinger made secret concessions to North Vietnam that would allow North Vietnamese Forces in South Vietnam after a cease fire, undermining the sovereignty of South Vietnam, but still insisting on the future existence of the Thieu regime. North Vietnam rejected them and Nixon further escalated the air war, and mined Haiphong harbor. In June 1972 alone the US dropped 112.000 tons of bombs.

North Vietnam estimated that it would need three years to recover from the losses incurred during the Easter Offensive (which proved correct) and agreed to shift their war strategy to a “strategy of peace” to buy time and guarantee the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam. A tripartite electoral commission comprising the Thieu regime, the Vietcong (Provisionary Revolutionary Government), and neutralists such as the Buddhists was to come up with a political solution to the conflict after the U.S. withdrawal. Nixon ordered additional bombing raids over North Vietnam over Christmas 1972 to force the Vietnamese to agree to a settlement and to save face vis-à-vis Thieu and the American people. Despite massive air raids it did not set back North Vietnam’s capacity to conduct war in the South. When the United States and North Vietnam finally came to an agreement in Paris in January and February 1973, Thieu who had the least interest in an agreement and withdrawal of US troops did not sign the treaty. The Paris agreement was a compromise agreement securing the return of the majority of US POWs, guaranteeing the US troop withdrawal from South Vietnam and leaving the Thieu regime in power. North Vietnam still had forces in the South and the large question of the political future of Vietnam was unresolved.

Describing the Nixon administration’s year-long struggle to extract the United States from Vietnam holds some valuable lessons for the Obama Administration. First and foremost, it shows that there can be no solution to the conflict if the underlying fundamentals causing the insurgency are not addressed. North Vietnam could not accept the Thieu regime. The Taliban will not accept the Karzai regime, especially with the looming withdrawal of NATO-led forces. The only answer will be unconditional Afghan-led talks between the warring factions should any agreement ever be reached.

Second, military escalation of the conflict will not fundamentally influence the negotiation process; it will only prolong the fighting. Temporary military setbacks by either side may delay talks, but the essential issues will remain unchanged: How can the United States extract itself with protecting its core security interests and how can Afghanistan be stabilized?

Third, one of the reasons why Thieu proved a very difficult partner in negotiations was because Nixon and Kissinger never consulted him on major changes in U.S. foreign policy such as Vietnamization. President Karzai was also presented with a fait accompli with the July 2011 withdrawal deadline, and voiced his deep concern that it will empower the Taliban in the long term. An increasingly insular perception of the White House is gaining a foothold in Kabul and among NATO allies. Whether true or untrue when it comes to making peace, allies and partners need to be informed of every aspect of U.S. strategy, since any reconciliation of warring factions has to be based on consensus.

Fourth, the United States in any negotiation should stick to its core national security interests in Afghanistan. The United States made the critical mistake of equating the preservation of the Thieu regime with rolling back communism in South East Asia because it lacked a clear perception of its core national security interest in the region. Supporting Karzai may or may not guarantee the dismantling of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but the United States has to insist that a future government, which may include insurgent/Taliban representation, disassociate itself completely from Al Qaeda. Destroying Al Qaeda is the core national security interest of the United States in Afghanistan. Reconciliation, on the other hand, should be entirely left to the Afghans.

Last, and most important: Afghans on both sides, the government and the Taliban, know that Western Forces will eventually leave. This alone undermines any military credibility sought for the purpose of having a strong negotiating position vis-à-vis the Taliban and guarantees that the United States and its allies may win every battle but in the end lose the war. Vietnamization had its limits, as the United States painfully learned with the fall of Saigon in 1975 and defeat of the South Vietnamese Army. The current capabilities of the Afghan National Army leave little doubt how the tide will turn once U.S. forces have left Afghanistan.

Franz-Stefan Gady is an associate at the EastWest Institute. He has previously worked as an adjunct research assistant at the Institute for National Strategies Studies of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., focusing on regional security issues. He was also an analyst for the Project on National Security Reform, a congressionally funded nonprofit organization founded to reform the national security structure of the United States. He holds an M.A. in Strategic Studies/International Economics from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and has served in the Austrian Army and the Austrian Foreign Ministry, working on various security issues.


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