Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Iraq War – 10 years later

          OK, here’s my challenge. From the comfort and detachment of my home office, what worthwhile observations can this strategist contribute on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War? Well, here are ten thoughts.

1) Weak intelligence provided a poor picture to policy makers both before and during the war. Political opponents and some intel players trying to avoid blame have successfully established a meme that the information provided to the UN and the American people was simply created from whole cloth: “Bush Lied: People Died.” There is no evidence for this conclusion. I find Charles Duefler’s well titled article “Bush wasn’t lying about WMD. He was just wrong” (Foreign Policy, 18 March 2013) to be the more convincing explanation. Saddam had WMD in the past and he used it. Intel communities in many other countries agreed that he had probably kept it in violation of UN directives. Saddam’s henchmen later admitted to confusion over what he had in storage, and Saddam himself threatened to use what he apparently did not have. More importantly, Bush’s political opponents have focused on the single issue of WMD while in fact intelligence was just as weak in later phases of the war. Intel missed the existence of the Fedayeen, the emergence of the Sunni/Shiite civil war, Iranian assistance, the rise of Al Qaeda, the Anbar Awakening . . . the list goes on. Developing actionable intelligence on another people, language and culture is very hard. Sometimes, despite best efforts, intel gets it wrong. There is an important lesson for the future here – a lesson you miss if you simply blame Bush.
            2) What does appear likely is that Bush officials interpreted intel uncertainty to suit their strategic preferences. The war was not about oil (another partial truth elevated to the status of accepted myth by political opponents). The war was about world view. For nearly a decade, neo-cons (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, etc.) had argued for establishing a global US benign hegemony in the absence of another global superpower. That posture required the forward presence of key bases, and the ability to conduct preemptive regime change to keep those who disturbed the international order under control.  Iraq was a chance to move that plan forward. In the face of weak and contradictory intelligence, civilian officials in the Bush Administration pressed forward with a plan to win the war, establish a permanent position in the Mideast, and dominate the world. This required a positive Iraqi reception of American forces, and the idea that economic advancement would replace all that unpleasant talk of tribal preferences and religious extremism. That line of thinking was wrong; it failed to account for human nature.
            3) Saddam had an opportunity to avoid the American invasion by cooperation; he turned it down. Had he accepted the UN mandate for WMD inspections, and shown that he had no WMD on hand, the Bush Administration would have been unable to make the case for military action, either domestically or internationally.  People still remember Colin Powell’s convincing presentation before the UN. But it was Saddam’s intransigence that sealed his fate. Why he preferred destruction to an admission that he did not possess WMD remains a mystery to this day.
            4) At the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a decade after the end of the Cold War, our senior military leaders were prepared to fight a new type of war – but not prepared to win it. To back up just a bit, the central narrative to emerge from the astonishing collapse of our Cold War enemy was that by applying information technology in new ways, the US military had leapfrogged so far ahead that the Russians bankrupted themselves trying to keep up with our “Revolution in Military Affairs.” As military budgets became tight during the Clinton Administration, military leaders argued that continued development of advanced technology would cause military capability to be “Transformed” at affordable cost. By 2003 most of the proposed technology was not yet available, but military doctrine and operations and the use of precision fires had advanced. The result was a crushing defeat to Saddam’s outdated forces in the field.  However, the military spent so much intellectual effort on the fighting part of their mission, that they neglected (nay, ignored) the “what to do when you have won” part.  Military historians remembered that the last time the US occupied a country (Germany and Japan in 1945) we ended up overseeing all government functions with mostly military personnel. But military planners and operators were not ready for that challenge in 2003. And to make matters worse, Iraq was not a nation with a unified culture or religion or loyalty. Over time, US military authorities tried to create and institutionalize a government based on rule of law, among a people who had never known anything but rule by power. Creating a new culture and new government bureaucracy on the fly during a civil war proved impossible.
            5) Civilian officials and agencies were even less prepared for this challenge. Unlike the military, many government civilians had extensive experience in assisting developing countries. But the scale of the problem, and the difficulty of creating infrastructure in a country at war with few native infrastructure experts available proved too much. Over and over, expensive, well-intended projects just didn’t work.  Perhaps more importantly, specialists from the US government and Non-Governmental Organizations were used to working with some degree of functioning security. Given competing demands for US troops, the State Department frequently turned to contract security, which became problematical in its own right.
            6) As the US military stayed and adapted, new ideas did not come from the stateside organizations designed to produce them, but rather from soldiers and leaders in the field. This is, perhaps, as it should be. New tactics will frequently come from those in closest contact with the enemy. But why did General Petraeus have to go home to the library at Ft Leavenworth and read for a year to come up with the strategy for “the surge?” Could no one in our war colleges, staff colleges, think tanks, and the extensive staff organizations in the rear fill that void? Really?
7) With all these factors working against us (as well as an innovative, adaptive, thinking enemy who lived where we were fighting), we none the less avoided catastrophe for three reasons:

 - Excellence in operations, tactics, techniques and procedures – our volunteer military showed discipline and professionalism under terrible conditions, in performing everything from combat operations, to medical care, to population security. 

- Logistics, logistics, and logistics. The US ability to provide complex support over long distances made the Romans look like amateurs.

- The sustained support of the American people for their military, even during political upheaval and dark days of casualties and loss.

From a military perspective, those who served from the post 9/11 counterattack in 2002 through the withdrawal from Afghanistan next year in 2014 give their World War II forbearers a run for the title of our "Greatest Military Generation."
8) Some of the allied efforts in this war were more for show than effect. But in fairness, many of our friends deployed from other countries really did come through for us.
9) And in the process of this decade long war (with operations still on going in Afghanistan) we have developed a capability and methodology that can hunt down and eliminate our enemies, in ways unparalleled in history. For some reason, many people find targeted killing more distasteful than the less discriminating and less effective practice of putting large numbers of soldiers directly in harm’s way.   Targeted killing works.
10) Finally, Religion matters. For decades, political scientists and specialists in international relations have been competing to explain how the world works based on theories of power, bureaucracy, organization, information or economics. One of their few points of agreement has been the idea that religion may be fine at the personal level, but is not a matter for serious consideration in security studies and international affairs. That idea was proved wrong over the last decade of conflict. 9/11 was a religions act, not just a political act. The Taliban exist because of religious beliefs, not economic concerns. Iraq fractured along religious boundaries, not just political alignments. The suicide attacks that nearly drove us from Iraq were mounted by people motivated by scripture, not wiring diagrams. Religion is not an environmental condition of the operation, like geography or weather. It is a causative factor of conflict. It better be considered in any strategic solution.
So, in the process of a decade long war, we made a lot of mistakes, demonstrated admirable courage, and developed an unparalleled capability for killing the enemy . . . if only we can figure out why he fights, and what might cause him to stop.
That last point is an issue that still haunts our war in Afghanistan today.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

As Chavez Departs

More than a decade ago I led a US military delegation to Venezuela just as the Chavez revolution was beginning. I have followed the story closely. AP article about Venezuela upon his death (Hugo Chavez coffin parades . . . March 16, 2013) published in the Brian/College Station Eagle ) provides many important “dots” but does not connect them. Here is my take.
            Fourteen years ago the economic divisions in Venezuelan society were stark. A few with spectacular wealth lived spectacular lives. A larger percentage led promising middle class lives where the system of economic incentives allowed merchants, professionals and service providers who worked and saved to better their lot. And millions of desperately poor lived squalid lives with dirt streets, dirt floors, no lights, no water, no sewers, no schools, no jobs and no hope. Chavez set out to serve group 3 by redistributing wealth from groups 1 and 2.
            As is always the case with such schemes, the results were predictable. Today the poor are marginally better off. The very wealthy have found ways to hide or move their wealth. And the middle class workers have been crushed by higher taxes, higher inflation and reduced productivity. Redistribution works briefly, but only so long as you have something to redistribute. It is like giving a growing body a candy bar instead of a nutritious meal. A sugar high comes and goes. Protein builds muscle for the future. Redistribution is sugar without protein.
Giving away money and government jobs (a-la Venezuela) does not increase long term productivity. It just puts more money to chasing the same pool of goods. The price of producing those goods goes up. And if the government caps price increases as Venezuela did (predictably),  producers quit producing. Shortages result. (Stalin blamed Trotsky. Hitler blamed the Jews. Chavez blamed the Americans. Everybody blames business owners who work and save and won’t sell at a loss.) And so Venezuela is stuck: it can’t move forward and it can’t move back.
What lessons should we learn from the Venezuelan experience? Here are several. 
1) The people will not forever ignore rich thieves who use connections to beat the system. (In the US, connected bankers come to mind. So do those who sucked taxpayer blood thru Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) 
2) Those legitimately in need are not going to disappear – we must find a sustainable way to assist them. 
3) Productive people must be rewarded for producing – our entire economic system turns on this basic idea. 
4) Unproductive people must contribute to the best of their ability in order to receive assistance – else they will crash the economy with the sheer weight of their unsustainable demands.  
 5) Holding people accountable for their behavior – at the top and at the bottom -- must be a strategic priority for the nation.
Venezuela is not unique. One hundred years of examples demonstrate these truths before our eyes. If there is any agreement and cooperation to be had between our political parties today, it must begin with a common understanding of these facts.

Friday, March 15, 2013

2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment by the Director of National Intelligence

            One of the findings of the 9/11 Commission was that information developed by US intelligence agencies and forwarded to the President was not fully coordinated across those agencies. Since 1947, the Director of the CIA had also been the Director of Central Intelligence, and in theory was the integrator of information developed by all 16 members of the “Intelligence Community” (IC).  But in fact, the various agencies did not always work well together, contributing to the failure to “connect the dots” before 9/11. As a result, the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was established by The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.
Additionally, congressional inquiry into the failure to find the much ballyhooed WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) in Iraq after the US invasion also turned up the distressing fact that several intel chiefs claimed to have disagreed with the WMD report that went to the President. But they maintained that they performed their duty adequately when they simply refused to “sign off,” and felt no responsibility for failing to advise the President of their reservations.
            Congress was not amused by such game playing, and insisted that in the future the new DNI coordinate all efforts at the most senior levels of the IC. Unfortunately, congressional patrons of various individual agencies (like the CIA, FBI, DOD, etc.) stepped in to block authority in the only two areas that really matter to bureaucracies: personnel and funding. And so the DNI’s power to actually coordinate the IC remains limited.
            That said, the DNI can still require IC leaders to review various national level reports, and either concur or state the reasons they disagree. For this reason the DNI’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, recently presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, really does represent the position of the entire US Intelligence Community. And the report for 2013 offers some interesting insights into how the IC sees the world.
            Perhaps the most striking point about the assessment is the top billing it gives to cyber threats against the United States. While careful to note that there is only “a remote chance of a major cyber attack against US critical infrastructure systems during the next two years,” it nonetheless points out that cyber technologies are growing faster than we can understand “the security implications and mitigate potential risks.” And so we might find that an unexpected cascade of failures follows a relatively limited attack, as vulnerabilities “at one node might spill over and contaminate” other parts of a network. Neither the examples provided (banks, stock exchanges, private companies, electrical grids) nor the implications of attack are new. But the prominence accorded the threat of attack is new, as is the emphasis on cyber espionage, which is closing our lead in military technology, and reducing our economic advantage internationally.
            A second insight from the assessment is the emphasis on transnational organized crime as a threat to the United States. Terrorism remains a concern, of course, and the dedication of Al Qaeda and other jihadist threats to attacks mounted on US soil or overseas remains undiminished. But continued US pressure (ie, targeted killing) has forced terrorist threats into what the report calls “a transitional period as the global jihadist movement becomes increasingly decentralized.” In other words, our main enemy has been smashed into  splinter groups. Unfortunately, at the same time, the threat from organized crime has risen to unprecedented levels.
            At the top of this list is drug trafficking. Mexico and Colombia still lead the list of countries sending poison into the US in the form of heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, and cocaine.  Meanwhile, the violence and corruption associated with the drug trade extends beyond these two countries to undermine government and stability in West Africa and Afghanistan as well. And money laundering to the tune of more than a trillion dollars annually spreads corruption globally, while endangering the US financial system through the illicit flow of dollars around the world. Even more disturbing is the blurring of the line between government, intelligence, business and criminal enterprise in many countries, making reliable business, military and diplomatic relations almost impossible.
            Of special note in the testimony is the trafficking of up to 20 million humans around the world, mostly for illegal exploitation as sex slaves and oppressed workers.
            Of course the testimony lists many of the “regular suspects” who always appear as continuing threats to the United States, including WMD proliferation, dangers to the network of global supplies and resources, and growing capabilities of potential enemies to impact US assets in space. And long standing regional concerns continue to evolve from the Middle East to South Asia, East Asia, Russia, Africa, and the Americas. Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela offer special concerns in this latter category, given the potential for unpredictable events in each area.
            These last issues really represent nothing new for the IC, whose job it is to watch worrying trends and foresee unfavorable developments before they develop. In general, we need to stay awake to these threats, but we do not need to lose sleep over them.
            But it is impossible to read this congressional testimony by the Director of National Intelligence without getting the impression that something new and dangerous is afoot in the areas of cyber security and transnational organized crime. The DNI has done his job. We have a warning integrated across the entire Intelligence Community. Now it is time for the Administration and Congress to pause from their focus on politics and focus on strategic solutions to these very real problems while we still have time to forestall them.