29 March 2010

Fixing Intel: Implementing MG Flynn's SOICs

Now that several months have passed since MG Flynn published his "Fixing Intel" report, I thought it might be an opportune time to examine how his concepts/ideas are being implemented on the ground in Afghanistan.

One of the key components of MG Flynn's proposed strategy to improve intelligence support to full-spectrum counterinsurgency (COIN) operations was the creation of several Stability Operations Information Centers (SOIC) at the RC level - whose mission would be to write and maintain "meaty, comprehensive descriptions of pivotal districts throughout the country" and organize/share/disseminate all of the information and intelligence gathered in the field across various units, agencies, and partners. Essentially, MG Flynn's intent for the SOICs was to serve as a one-stop shops for a particular district/province, providing assessments that fuse a wide array of lethal and non-lethal intelligence data.

While it's easy to agree with MG Flynn on the need for improved fusion, analysis, and dissemination of lethal and non-lethal intelligence, it's much more difficult to actually operationalize his directive in the complex operational environment (OE) in Afghanistan. A recent report written by the RC-West SOIC Director provides an excellent summary of their efforts to stand up one of these SOICs in Western Afghanistan.
Stability Operations Information Center - 09 Mar 2010

The report, aptly entitled "Comprehensive Understanding for Comprehensive Operations," begins with an excellent explanation of the criticality of information management. Explaining the importance of giving the commander a "timely and comprehensive flow of relevant information," the article explains that this feedback can (and will) come in many forms - including academic assessments, KLEs, surveys, source operations, or tribal engagements. The author bluntly explains the existing lack of processes and organizations to capture, fuse, and assess this information, thus highlighting the need to change the way we do business.

One of the most informative and eye-opening sections of the piece is Part III (Why change is needed), which traces the evolutionary steps that we as a military have taken to improve our intelligence processes and systems in COIN operations. This really hit home for me, perfectly capturing the different "stages" that we went through before grasping the importance of understanding all of the dimensions of the complex and adaptive operational environments in COIN - fusing "hard" and "soft" power disciplines. The author's description of Step 2 is spot on and probably accurately reflects where most conventional forces are still at - emphasizing the importance of the "meat eaters" (S2/S3) over the "leaf eaters" (CA/PSYOP/HTT). In the spirit of being brutally self-critical, my unit probably spent the majority of our last deployment to Mosul (from 2007-09) in Step 2. Although we understood the importance of fusing lethal and non-lethal, we never truly institutionalized the process - at least at the BN level. Which brings up another interesting point: although the SOICs are focused at the RC level (DIV), the imperative to synch the meat eaters and leaf eaters extends all the way down to the company-level. Therefore, units at all echelons must develop processes and systems to do so, relying on the SOICs as the initial point of entry and "clearinghouse" for all data.

Another critical section of the paper that merits further consideration and debate is the explanation of the "Population-Centric COIN Targeting Cycle" - UD3A. As you can see in the graphic below, this cycle is a modified version of the widely-used F3EAD lethal targeting cycle (Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate).

In contrast to the F3EAD methodology, which is designed primarily for lethal targeting, the UD3A is more comprehensive and aims to more effectively synchronize kinetic and non-kinetic effects - something that we have traditionally done poorly in the past. The most important (and often the most difficult) step of the process is "Understand." This is also the step which the SOICs are designed to facilitate, fusing and analyzing large volumes of data to provide improved situational understanding for the commander or decision-maker. As you can see in the graphic, the "Understand" step includes a full Intelligence Preparation of the Environment (IPOE) cycle with an emphasis on understanding the aspects of PMESII and ASCOPE (various non-lethal factors).

Once the commander has a rich contextual understanding of the operational environment, he/she can make an informed decision (in the "Decide" step) about which targeting methodology to utilize and develop a comprehensive collection plan to fill any intelligence gaps (in the "Detect" step). Once the established trigger has been met, the commander then determines the desired effect and the best option to "Deliver" that effect, whether that be a lethal operation (raid, cordon/search, etc.) or a non-lethal operation (key leader engagement, shura, etc.). This is where we see the true power of the UD3A methodology - flexibility. Armed with a deep appreciation and understanding of the situation, refined through focused intelligence collection and analysis, the commander is empowered to deliver tailored effects in order to impact his/her operational environment. Transitioning seamlessly to the "Assess" step, the commander (and staff) then digest the new information learned and use it to further refine their understanding, feeding the next targeting cycle in a continuous loop.

When used effectively to synchronize and focus all operations (both lethal and non-lethal) in a particular OE, this process is extremely powerful. Although this is the first time I've seen the steps laid out and detailed, I'm sure there are units (at multiple different echelons) out there already using it. As always, I'd be very interested in hearing feedback/ideas from those who have used this methodology. In particular, I'm interested in hearing how tactical units at the BCT and below level have operationalized this process (or another similar process) to fuse their lethal and non-lethal targeting efforts. As we continue to conduct COIN operations, this will remain a critical component of maximizing our effectiveness.

Finally, I would love to hear any feedback (positive or negative) from those in the field who have worked at or with the various SOICs that are being stood up. How have the SOICs tied in with the existing fusion cells across theater? How are the SOICs (which sit at RC/Division level) interfacing with BCTs and BNs? How are we integrating partner and local security forces and overcoming classification issues?

23 March 2010

New Taliban Deputy: Mullah Abdul Qayim Zakir

As I predicted last month, it appears that Mullah Abdul Qayim Zakir (aka Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul) has been appointed as the Taliban's Deputy Commander. He will replace Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a highly influential leader and close associate of Mullah Omar who was reportedly involved in high-level reconciliation talks with Afghan leaders (some analysts hypothesize this is why he was arrested).

Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai report on their Declassified blog (at Newsweek) that Mullah Omar recently announced the promotion of Abdul Qayim Zakir and Akhtar Mohammed Mansoor as his deputies, according to a reliable source who is a senior Taliban operator. As the Newsweek article mentions, it appears that Zakir is a popular choice among Taliban leadership and members:

"The choice of Zakir, who was released from Guantánamo in late 2007, and who returned to join the Taliban in the field about one year later after being freed by Afghan authorities, is popular with Taliban commanders. Several Taliban commanders have told Newsweek that they wrote letters to Mullah Omar in support of Zakir as the logical replacement for Baradar soon after his deputy's arrest. The commanders favor Zakir because, unlike Baradar—who never set foot in Afghanistan since the Taliban's collapse in late 2001—he frequently visits insurgent units in the field, giving them advice and listening to their complaints. For more than a year, Zakir, who is in his mid-30s, has largely been in charge of insurgent operations in the south of Afghanistan."

It appears initially that the capture of Baradar could in fact result in more harm than good, at least over the next 6-9 months. Although his removal from the critical Deputy position disrupted Taliban command and control and planning, the Taliban was clearly able to appoint a replacement relatively quickly who is highly respected, experienced, and less willing to consider reconciliation than Baradar reportedly was.

On a related note, the announcement of dual deputies is quite interesting and may offer possible opportunities to drive a wedge between the senior Taliban leadership. Clearly, the recent capture of several top Taliban leaders has disrupted the internal leadership structure and might have caused paranoia and infighting that we could exploit. We need to continue to develop a better understanding of the current structure and relationships within the Taliban's Inner Shura in order to identify potential weaknesses and select the best individuals to target, both kinetically and non-kinetically.

For more background on Mullah Abdul Qayim Zakir, check out my previous post here.

17 March 2010

Is It the Tribes? Someone Just Tell Me Already.

Another interesting article pertaining to the relative strength of Afghan tribes is up at SWJ titled, “The Tea Fallacy”. The author, Michael Miklaucic highlights a couple of points that definitely have some validity.

1. Locals know sooner or later we're leaving Afghanistan. That has to weigh heavily on a person sitting on the proverbial fence. Looking back at historic references, it would be interesting to determine what counterinsurgent nation political entities were telling their constituencies. Were they telling their populace the same thing Americans are being told, out in 2 years? Did the folks at home during the many COIN conflicts over the last two centuries even care or truly understand (by and large) what was going on? Would it have been different if communications and media were the same as they are now?

2. First impressions. I'm not 100% on this one, but I think it bears mention. Are we already too far into this to truly change the average Afghan’s opinion?

3. Do the tribes really matter? According to Mr. Miklaucic and LCol JJ Malevich they're overrated. According to MAJ Jim Gant, they're imperative. I'm yet to experience an Afghanistan deployment, and AfPak is not my primary research/reading region, so I’d enjoy comments from those more enlightened than I. Instinct tells me that MAJ Gant is a lot closer to “right” than the other two, but my instincts have failed me once or twice in Vegas before as well.

Comments, as always, are welcome and encouraged.

13 March 2010

Terrorists Dream of the Islamic State: Geostrategic Ideology of AQIM

*Before you read this, I encourage you to brief the first section of this series discussing the emerging "forking strategy" of terrorists in the region; how they move, plan, and organize. Here, I focus particularly on the heightened operational tactics of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to strenghten my analysis on the connecting ideological strands of AQCL affiliates, Al Shabaab Mujahideen Movement (ASMM) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Introduction: AQIM Ideology

I first promised to publish this second part only days after the initial post, but found the research I was conducting to be so facinating while attempting to, at least to some degree, put the pieces together that I continued to read more deeply. Today is an opportune time to finally share some of my thoughts and analysis: Yesterday AQIM, reported by Evan Kohlmann at IntelTweet, released their Spanish hostage, Althea Gamit whose kidnapping was confirmed in an official statement made by Andalusia Institute for Media Production in 2009.

AQIM, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, whose operations focus on Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Senegal, and Nigeria, has seemingly showcased their heightened operational methods, at least concerning this recent kidnapping case. Previously, captured tourists have been
used for ransom - perhaps to drive their drug trafficking. Further evidence: "GSPC militants kidnapped thirty-two European tourists traveling in the Algerian Sahara in February 2003. The ransom paid for their release is unknown but estimated to be from $5 million to as much as $10 million; the group may have used these funds to purchase surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns, mortars, and satellite-positioning equipment."

In contrast, Gamit's release is ideologically based, not logistically-centered in criminal/terrorist respects: Gamit was forced to convert to Islam as a fulfillment of their "agreed" terms.

Ideology --> Tactics

But I will be wrong, I think, to not connect the ideologically-driven method to the logistical goal: The terrorist group is positioning it's prowess in the region to support what they believe is the necessary return to the Islamic State, dar al-Islam, the pure reign of the Prophet Mohammad. In this way, the mandate to follow and obey religious governance dictates cultural practices and customs as well as fosters the growth of avenues for economic prosperity and political influence (which, AQIM continues to prove, will be pursued and gained vis-a-vis violence).

Such activity is clearly evident of an offensive jihad campaign, and perhaps one can argue a strategy including offensive daw'a. The actions spotlight a sense of mission itself that is thought to be the anecdote to the conventional Western pursuit of progress, which is thought be rooted in injustice, oppression, self-interest, exploitation, and usurpation: The leaders are driven by the burning desire that returning to the Islamic State is arriving. Islam, to AQIM and other affiliates like ASMM that I covered in Part I, is the answer, and all means of offensive tactics - mostly violence - will be used to pave their arrival to supremacy.

I will discuss in more depth in one of my follow-up posts an historical analysis of the four Caliphs (Caliphate) in order to provide further perspective on how AQIM, ASMM, and AQAP may understand themselves in relation to the Prophet. For now, in short, let me name the offensive procedure by which such terrorist groups, especially AQIM as witnessed by their "release" of Gamit, will continue to structure jihad to ensure a returning to economic, political, and religious purity. During the expansion of the Caliphates, Islam was spread in part through military conquests that rested on three ("just") principles when engaging the non-believer:
  1. Offering to surrender and convert to Islam, as it means to surrender to the will of Allah;
  2. If not, then opposing party(ies) pay tax, jizya, and in return granted dhimma (protection) by Muslim rulers for recognizing Islam's superiority;
  3. Lastly, if not still, then party(ies) defeated by offensive force as result of choice not to comply; thus subjecting all persons to death or rule (if survived) and institution of the holistic governing framework .
AQIM and AQCL affiliates, in general, do not follow this procedure in a lock-step process. In fact, they quickly skip to the end. Gamit's situation is uncommon, but important to understand in the larger AQ movement as I will elaborate below. Before I present methods of expansion, please bear with me on two important points concerning the above procedure:

a) There is need to recognize the argument deconstructing the historical meaning of such principles, highlighting that a non-believer, in traditional terms, means only one who believes in no Deity; whereas, Christian and Jew are "brothers" in the monotheistic faith, known as Ahl al-dhimma. The traditional term used here, brother, is not equal to the meaning of the word, akh, akhoya. Cesari's argument, which I described in short in Part I of this series, is important here in explaining AQIM's (and ASMM, AQAP) ideologically-driven tactics because of the tension between terrorism and modernity - the struggle between "returning" and progressing.

b) I always argue, and try to consistently make it clear, that AQCL and AQ affiliates define meaning based on their own narrow interpretation of Islam; therefore, it is understandable that they target all who fall outside of this narrow framework. Non-believer, in this sense, is not similar in meaning to an historical and theological understanding embraced by true, peaceful Muslims. (This may seem a vague explanation, but it rests on takfir: It is my small attempt to define AQ as outside Islam, and this could help Roberts' argument that AQ is an "outsurgency").

Tactics --> Environment(s)

Accordingly, not only groups like Christians and Jews fall outside of their framework as non-believers, but so too Muslims and others alike. So, the operational environment is not entirely defined by geographic latitudes and longitudes but by an ideological vision. Captain Russell J. Isaacs informs us in his work, The North African Franchise: AQIM’s Threat to U.S. Security - Strategic Insights, Volume VIII, Issue 5 (December 2009) - that the historical development of AQIM is a security threat to US facilities and personnel in Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan as well as to Europe itself (I provide excerpts here):
  • Today, AQIM operates a widespread and coordinated structure across Europe. While the majority of their attacks and operations occur inside Algeria, AQIM maintains a widespread network of financial support and direct action cells outside the country. Terrorism analysts estimate that several dozen cells exist across Europe, primarily in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom.
  • A major task of AQIM cells in Europe is the financial support of the group’s operations worldwide. AQIM’s primary means of finance are car theft, credit card fraud, document forgery and the active seeking of donations. AQIM is extremely successful collecting donations in Europe...
  • Another focus of AQIM cells in Europe is recruiting Algerian immigrants to fight. French authorities assert that several AQIM cells within France are actively recruiting volunteers for...jihad. Moreover, Spanish media outlets reported in April 2007 that AQIM supporters were collecting funds and recruiting volunteers for terrorist training in the mountains of Algeria. A final focus of AQIM in Europe is the planning and execution of attacks against European targets. AQIM does not hide its intention to carry out attacks against European targets. In February 2005, for example, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri urged AQIM to be a “bone in the throat of American and French crusaders.
The vision is tied, I think, to OBL's messages (regardless of his actual involvement and/or approval; he mostly issues statements to maintain his own image as the Serpent Head), but more importantly to, for example, Saed Elshari, AQ's number two in the Arabian Peninsula;
"I swear to God, we will open up for them doors of hell on the ground, which will be the key to our victory, where we will cut the tails of the crusaders; destroy the dreams of crusade and ruin the desires of the Jews in the region."
Also, we can consider Gadahn's latest message, which seeks to recruit American-Muslims to act as Hasan did against Western "crusaders;"
"We must erode our cowardly enemy’s will to fight by killing and capturing leading Crusaders and Zionists in government, industry and media who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk and are only interested in prosecuting their profitable wars as long as it’s other people who are in the line of fire and not them...And finally, we mustn’t allow our lawless enemies to provoke us with their evil, sadistic and murderous crimes into crossing the boundaries laid down by Allah and His Prophet or doing anything which may have negative repercussions on the image of the Jihad and reputation of the Mujahideen."

The connection highlights that the regional tactics of AQIM may differ, in degree and manner, to AQAP and ASMM, but the vision is interwoven; it is a singular ideology that is global although environmentally dispersed. We may have cause to apply a rule to AQ regional operations: As I have stated, ideology --> tactics --> environment(s). But this still leaves the odd situation of Gamit: Why did they force him to convert? All AQCL affiliates focus predominantly on violent campaigns which they consider to be defensive, but AQAP and ASMM have not used convergence tactics before (to my knowledge). It is documented as early as 2002 that AQCL under OBL has, having stated in, A Letter to the American People:

(1) The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam.

(a) The religion of the Unification of God; of freedom from associating partners with Him, and rejection of this; of complete love of Him, the Exalted; of complete submission to His Laws; and of the discarding of all the opinions, orders, theories and religions which contradict with the religion He sent down to His Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Islam is the religion of all the prophets, and makes no distinction between them - peace be upon them all.

It is to this religion that we call you; the seal of all the previous religions. It is the religion of Unification of God, sincerity, the best of manners, righteousness, mercy, honour, purity, and piety. It is the religion of showing kindness to others, establishing justice between them, granting them their rights, and defending the oppressed and the persecuted. It is the religion of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil with the hand, tongue and heart. It is the religion of Jihad in the way of Allah so that Allah's Word and religion reign Supreme. And it is the religion of unity and agreement on the obedience to Allah, and total equality between all people, without regarding their colour, sex, or language.

(b) It is the religion whose book - the Quran - will remained preserved and unchanged, after the other Divine books and messages have been changed. The Quran is the miracle until the Day of Judgment. Allah has challenged anyone to bring a book like the Quran or even ten verses like it."

It is obvious this "offering" came after September 11, 2001. So, once again, the lock-step process was not followed but still serves as a framework for justification.

Counter Operations

In short, the US and its allies, I think, do not yet have a comprehensive counter narrative that seeks to erase AQ legitimacy in terms of ideology. Gamit's conversion to Islam, which I would hold is not actually a conversion to Islam but only a recognition of AQIM's narrow definition and interpretation of the meaning of their version in alignment with AQCL's version, provides another opportune time for the US to define and articulate in a clear, concise, and consistent way a counter-narrative that targets AQIM, ASMM, and AQAP leaders. Such an employed tactic, Information Operations, would aid both foreign diplomacy that deeply and rightly involves legitimate Muslim nations and actionable intelligence missions to dismantle AQ logistical tactics in expanding AQ operational environments.

I propose here, as I have promoted before, a targeting strategy focusing on middle-tier personalities: They provide not only training but ingrain identity of both individual persons and collective groups in alignment with ideology throughout an entity. I think HUMINT can be done throughout Europe, but we can follow the money trailing their drug trafficking and financing avenues.

Please share your insights, as we all need to work together to procure our freedoms home and abroad and disrupt, dismantle, and defeat AQ.

12 March 2010

Governance in Marjah

As the Afghan flag was raised over Marjah at the end of February and President Karzai made his second trip to the town on March 7, it was clear that the hardest part of the campaign to make enduring improvements in the key southern town remains. During Karzai's recent visit, it was clear that the main issue on the minds of most locals was likely: How will this operation really change anything and make my life better in the long run?

Already, there are early indications of a return to the way things were before. As I discussed in my previous post, there are three main challenges that lie ahead: 1) Providing enduring security with ANSF (ANA and ANP forces) that are viewed as legitmate and competent by locals; 2) Providing an alternate source of income in the wake of large-scale poppy eradication efforts; 3) and 3) Providing improved local governance and the district and sub-district level.

In my mind, the most important (and most daunting) of these challenges is the governance piece. A recent must-read article by Radio Free Europe provides the best open-source analysis I've read to date of the governance challenges we face in Marjah. The article gives an excellent quote from Azizullah Khan, a prominent local elder in Marjah, who sharply questioned/criticized Karzai during his last visit. Azizullah explained the current dilemma that the people of Marjah face:

"For the past eight years the warlords have been ruling us. Their hands have been stained with the blood of innocents and they have killed hundreds of people. Even now they are being imposed on the people in the name of tribal and regional leaders. People are afraid to convey the real feelings of locals because they sense themselves to be in danger from all sides."

Khan pleaded for the government to ensure security, remove any military presence from schools and private homes, compensate locals for losses resulting from the recent fighting, and help rebuild schools, clinics, and irrigation canals. His most impassioned and telling appeal, however, was for Karzai to avoid repeating a past mistake: Do not hand over control of local affairs to former militia commanders or other "people with influence."

This last statement was clearly a reference to the current battle over influence/control of the Marjah district governor position. As I discussed last week, two individuals (both backed by different elements at the national level) are currently vying for control - Abdul Zahir (the "official" civilian leader that was appointed by the Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal) and Abdul Rahman Jan (the former police chief/local warlord who is recognized by many as the most powerful "strongman" in the area). During the last few weeks, Abdul Rahman Jan (ARJ) has formed a 50-man "Marjah Executive Committee" in a clear move to re-consolidate the power he previously had (until he lost control to the Taliban over the last 2-3 years). During the time that he held sway, he was known as brutal, corrupt, and mostly ineffective. Yet, in the wake of Operation Moshtarak he's making another bid to capitalize on the power vacuum left behind after the Taliban were pushed out. Abdul Zahir, appointed by Provincial Governor Mangal (recognized by ISAF leaders as quite an effective leader) is also mounting a campaign to gain influence. It will be very difficult given perceptions among the local populace that Abdul Zabir is an outsider.

During the weeks to come, it will be crucial to monitor this tenuous situation. ISAF leadership must work to further legitimize Abdul Zahir, who is definitely the "least worst" option for the crucial post of Marjah district governor. Additionally, as we look forward to planning and preparations for possible large-scale operations in/around Kandahar, we must consider how we'll fight a similar battle there to install a leader who is viewed as more legitimate than the current de facto team of powerbrokers (Ahmed Wali Karzai - the President's brother and head of Kandahar provincial council, Gul Agha Shirzai - former Kandahar provincial governor, and Muhammad Arif Noorzai).

11 March 2010

After a bit of a hiatus I am back on the blogging scene. I am now safely nestled on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in northern Iraq. Hopefully I can add ground perspective to some of the recent reporting coming out of Iraq.

First, this is a completely different conflict than when I left just over a year ago (almost to the day). Attacks against US Forces still happen, but nothing like I’ve seen during previous deployments. Perhaps the name change to Operation New Dawn is fitting after all. The Iraqis truly are in the lead.

The Iraqi Security Forces appear far more capable than they were a year ago. I still see the political realm being the greatest barrier to stabilizing Iraq in the short-term. Local perception of Sunday’s election appears to be quite favorable right now. Voter turnout across northern Iraq was quite impressive, with some provinces surpassing a 70% turnout. Interestingly, I haven’t really heard about any election fraud. After the results are released I fully anticipate hearing fraud claims from slighted parties. Regardless of the opinion of Ernesto Londono, I do believe that the elections were an overall success. And I’m not just saying that because I wear a uniform.

I still believe that Nigeria is in danger of slipping back into chaos after their lengthy (for their standards) period of relative stability. Sectarian killings in and around Jos are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg threatening to sink Nigeria back into chaos. Oh, and Somalia is still no picnic.

On a completely separate note, my beloved Oregon Ducks cannot seem to stay out of trouble. Chip Kelly needs to read his team the riot act and get them focused on defending their Pac 10 title this fall. Too many off-field problems, plain and simple.

10 March 2010

Terrorism on Trial: Agility is Our Greatest Tool

Introduction: Poll Data
Two weeks ago, we Editors of al Sahwa requested you share your thought in response to our first-ever poll question, "How should suspected terrorists be tried in the United States of America?" The majority, 44%, concluded that terrorists ought to be tried on a case-by-case basis.

This past week, we asked a more particular question, "How should KSM be tried in the United States of America?" The majority, 58%, think he ought to be tried in a military tribunal while 37% think that a civilian trial ought to proceed.

Our Tool: Legal Agility
The US is engaged in a war against al-Qaeda; we seek to dismantle their expanding operational environments and counter their narrow apocalyptic narrative. It is consistently re-iterated that our leaders need to utilize every tool we have mastered and continue to develop innovative ones that are intellectually intuitive and mechanically strong. All-the-while, AQ's ideological strategy and operational tactics shift and morph, often tailored to local strongholds while maintaining a "global jihad." Our tools that provided solutions earlier falter or lag in delivering results if we do not proactively and interactively stay ahead of the cycle.

We must be agile in our discernment on how to put terrorism on trial, and to aid our dialogue I assess here three separate yet interconnected cases. They are separate because they each have different circumstances, but they are interconnected because each highlights what type of enemy(ies) we are fighting. Both aspects can support our decisions on how to use our tools to dismantle and counter.

KSM: International Combatant
Much political back-and-forth continues to surround the case of KSM. I do think that such debate can cause confusion - an atmosphere I think AQ wants as a part of its Phase IV Strategy to disrupt our culture and values in aiding its targeting of economic and military structures - but also create fervent dialogue about who we are and what actions we need to take. We need to get it right in order to secure our freedoms.

KSM, by definition, is a international terrorist, an unlawful enemy combatant who planned and executed the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (and caused the crash in Pennsylvania) carried out on Thursday, September 11, 2001. As a part of Phase I of AQ Strategy, he spearheaded the most successful attacks from an international, geographical coordinates on the "Far Enemy," the infidel of the West. This was the beginning of the jihadi awakening, a showcase of AQ's operational power.

In short, KSM ought to be tried in a military tribunal according to the Military Commissions Act, which bestows authority on the President of the United States to establish such commissions to try an unlawful enemy combatant;
"(i) a person who has engaged in hostilities or who
has purposefully and materially supported hostilities
against the United States or its co-belligerents who is
not a lawful enemy combatant (including a person who
is part of the Taliban, al Qaeda, or associated forces);

‘‘(ii) a person who, before, on, or after the date of
the enactment of the Military Commissions Act of 2006,
has been determined to be an unlawful enemy combatant
by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal or another competent
tribunal established under the authority of the
President or the Secretary of Defense."

The political implications of where such a tribunal is held shall be debated and disputed by representative parties, but most importantly, this process restricts habeas corpus and/or the Brady Rule. Moreover, Subchapter I (Trial Procedure), Section 949d (Sessions), stipulation 3f seeks to safeguard classified information;
information shall be protected and is privileged from disclosure
if disclosure would be detrimental to the national security.
The rule in the preceding sentence applies to all stages of
the proceedings of military commissions under this chapter.
‘‘(B) The privilege referred to in subparagraph (A) may
be claimed by the head of the executive or military department
or government agency concerned based on a finding by the
head of that department or agency that—
‘‘(i) the information is properly classified; and
‘‘(ii) disclosure of the information would be detrimental
to the national security.
Our legal system can in no way serve as an entry point for AQ, both Central and affiliates, to penetrate our process, procedures, and protocol.

In conclusion, having made the points that KSM ought to be tried in a military tribunal due to his status as an "unlawful enemy combatant" in alignment with his international operations as well as the process of safeguarding national intelligence, I think our legal tools inherent in the proceedings will pragmatically serve justice and define the US as a nation that is willing to use every masterful, logistical avenue we have to assist in the disruption and countering of AQ abroad.

Zazi: Transnational Combatant
Zazi, who recently pleaded guilty for his acts of conspiracy against the US in planning to execute an attack in NYC on the subways, is also an enemy combatant. However, is a transnational terrorist who was trained abroad and sought to carry out plans on American soil after receiving instructions from AQ conspirators. He purchased the materials in the US, drove a van in the US, resided here, ate, slept, and went to the bathroom here. (I am usually not this loose in my language, but wish to make a point). When considering the case of KSM, Zazi's intentions and acts certainly showcase a progression in the AQ Strategic Plan (Really, you must the report linked here): Operatives have been (and will continue to be) deployed to bring the fight to the far enemy in close quarters. Zazi used deception and deceipt while operating amongst the infidel who was his "Near Enemy," a term conventionally applied to US military soldiers and civilians "occupying" international countries.

Unlike KSM, Zazi was monitored, tracked, and arrested on American soil by FBI federal agents, which all give reason(s) to proceed with a civilian trial in accordance with the US Constitution, for example:
a) How due process shall be carried out;
1. Amendment Six: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
2. Amendment Seven: In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Zazi's guilty plea is good and useful, and was most likely facilitated through the leveraging of his parents' immigration status. However, even in light of this we must decide how habeas corpus and the Brady Rule, only two tools of many that can be used by suspected terrorists to delay the process, will affect civilian procedures and allow terrorists to ambiguously guise their fidelity to anti-American principles of justice. For example, Ghailani, a suspect in 1998 Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, has argued his right to a speedy trial has not been met and the charges against him must be dismissed.

In conclusion, the circumstances particular to Zazi's case fittingly serve to aid our efforts to dismantle and counter AQ in a civilian trial and promise to uphold and promote our legal values and traditions; although, I think issues will arise given the availability of rules like Brady. Our discernment does not end once the civilian trial ensues.

Conclusion: Agility & Abdulmutallab
More cases of international and transnational combatants are bound to present vague circumstances for the US legal system. When I was little, my parents bought me that wooden fraction set which taught me how to fit pieces in their rightful place; circles in circles, squares in squares, and triangles. The scenarios presented by AQ tactics and ideology are not as easy as fitting wooden pieces in their place, and Abdulmuttalab's case, I think, presents such a challenge.

Abdulmutallab is also an unlwaful combatant, but he is a terrorist that trained abroad and committed an act of terrorism while in transnational movement on an international flight destined for US. (Regardless of his failure to accomplish the act, thank God, his motive and intention is cause enough to call it a terrorist act). Is he, then, by definition, an international or transnational terrorist? He was only arrested on American soil. Like Zazi, the US pragmatically leveraged his parents as a resource for information, but unlike Zazi, arguments hold that his circumstances still give reason(s) for military tribunal even though a civilian trial will proceed.

Whether or not a military or civilian trial ensues, this is an oppotune time to establish the protocol for issuing miranda rights; to whom, when, and for what reasons.
By no means am I, you, and/or our allies thankful for such an opportunity (as we work to prevent them at all times), but Abdulmuttallab's case begs us to formulate a structure particular to these circumstances that answers my initial question; namely, "How do we exploit our resources to be right and pragmatic; to ensure an outcome that serves justice and maintains processes and procedures?"

For one, current arguments support the allowance of time for suspects to first be interrogated and then read miranda rights. Although pragmatic, yes, the implications of these actions will reverberate as we consider the cases of international detainees at Guantanemo like Khadr, who's Defense argued "The procedures governing the appointment of the Chief Trial Judge and Military Judge in [his] Military Commission contravene Mr. Khadr’s right to be tried by a fair and impartial tribunal" as well as persons operating domestically like Hasan and the newly infamous, Jihad Jane. The Obama Administation may eventually argue to use "custodial interrogation" with suspected terrorists, which prescribes procedures during interrogation after miranda rights have been issued.
Moreover, our work will shape our domestic and foreign policies, and will certainly serve as an aid (or rebuttal of) legal procedures elsewhere: We shall consider those undertaken in Pakistan trying five men once operating in Virginia and another trying four men in a court in Duesseldorf. If we succeed, others will too. If we preserve, others will follow.

The process by which we put terrorism on trial will prevent terrorists from returning to battle, as I do not think it will stop terrorists from being recruited: AQ ideology targets also Western economic and social practices, along with military and civilian operations to generate recruitment efforts.
With the expansion of operational environments and ever-morphing AQ tactics, a case-by-case method of legal proceedings will effectively and efficiently aid in the disruption and countering of international, transnational, or - most dangerous to our immediate security - domestic plots against the great nation of the United States of America because we will be able to consistently show how fortified we are; that we figured it out and no attack can decay who we are and what actions we take to safeguard our Nation, our values and traditions.

We have the agile tools to get it right the first time around, and for that matter, every time.

07 March 2010

AfPak Update

Adam Gadahn aka Azzam al Amriki, was reportedly captured by Pakistani forces in Karachi.

Wanted to highlight a few important developments in the AfPak region:

1) According to multiple reports coming out of Pakistan, senior al Qaeda spokesman and leader Adam Gadahn aka Azzam al Amriki was captured by Pakistani Special Forces in Karachi. For more details, check out Bill Roggio's excellent post at the Long War Journal. If the initial reports are true, this would be a significant capture. Gadahn has quickly risen within the ranks of AQ's senior leadership over the last several years (in part due to his value to the organization as an American citizen). Successful and rapid exploitation of Gadahn could potentially provide actionable intelligence on senior AQ leaders, including Ayman al Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al Libi. More to come on this topic as details continue to emerge...

2) Operation Mostarak continues in Marjah (in the southern Afghan province of Helmand). While most of the significant military operations have ended, the more difficult task of transitioning from "clear/secure" to "hold/build" is now occurring. The best coverage and analysis I have seen on the way ahead in Marjah is Josh Foust's writing, both in his recent NY Times op-ed and on his blog Registan. Based on my analysis of the situation, the three greatest challenges facing ISAF and ANSF elements in Marjah are:
  • Establishing a government that is both capable and recognized as legitimate by the local populace. Currently there is a battle for control between two individuals - Abdul Zahir (the "official" civilian leader that was appointed by the Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal) and Abdul Rahman Jan (the former police chief/local warlord who is recognized by many as the most influential "strongman" in the area). Abdul Zahir will face an uphill battle to be recognized as legitimate amid reports of his criminal background and, more importantly, his reputation as an outsider. US leaders in Marjah will have to walk a fine line between trying to prop up Abdul Zahir, while minimizing the legitimacy of the more-popular (or at least more-feared) Abdul Rahman Jan. This will be the single-most important part of the entire campaign and right now I'm not sure we're backing the right guy.
  • Providing an alternative source of income to the majority of farmers in the area whose livelihood depends on poppy cultivation. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, Marjah has long been recognized as a critical hub in the opium trade that flourishes across Southern Afghanistan. ISAF and ANSF elements have already begun their "government-led eradication" campaign and locals are not pleased. The Taliban has recognized this as a major opportunity to win support and are tailoring their IO messages to highlight the fact that ISAF and the new government are doing more harm than good by stopping poppy growth, and at the same time providing no alternative. For more on the challenges and complexities of eradicating the opium trade in Marjah (and Helmand), see this excellent article from TIME.
  • Building capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), including the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). As ISAF draws down the number of troops in Marjah, it will become critical to have a competent and trusted security force of locals who can hold the city and prevent the return of the Taliban. Currently, most locals have little trust or faith in the ANSF, especially the ANP who are widely viewed as more corrupt than the Taliban. Several reports from embedded reporters during the operation have highlighted the challenges ahead in improving the performance of the ANSF. CJ Chivers has some excellent analysis in the New York Times, where he highlights the resistance of locals to support the ANP elements being brought to Marjah. One local elder commented to the US commander, "We’re with you. We want to help you build. We will support you. But if you bring in the cops, we will fight you till death." Also, check out this excellent article from several days ago by Chivers that describes the poor performance of the ANSF during the clearance operations in Marjah.
3) Finally, I just wanted to link to an excellent book review written by Dexter Filkins and published in The New Republic this week. Filkins reviews the book "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan," by Seth G. Jones (from RAND). I recently finished the book myself and highly recommend it. Jones provides an excellent summary of the last fifty years in Afghanistan, providing great context for anyone interested in understanding the various forces and events that have brought us to the current point we're at in Afghanistan.

As usual, Filkins writing is masterful (just as it as in his book The Forever War) and I recommend his book review as a stand-alone article. Entitled, "The American Awakening," the article presents a clear, concise, and well-reasoned assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan, highlighting both the progress we've made and more importantly the challenges that lay ahead. If you don't have time to read Jones' phenomenal book, you should definitely check out Filkins' article.

03 March 2010

Iraq’s Fragile Future (and the US Way Ahead)

As Iraqis prepare to vote in this Sunday’s national parliamentary elections, I think it’s critical to take a moment to examine the current state of affairs in Iraq and re-assess the US strategy for the next 12-24 months.

Tom Ricks’ recent New York Times op-ed, “Extending Our Stay in Iraq,” offers an excellent summary of the current situation in Iraq and the complex challenges that our military/civilian leaders face in formulating a plan for the way ahead. [Also, check out the full version of Ricks’ report, published by CNAS]. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves two key questions: 1) What will Iraq look like in 2-3 years? (in terms of security, governance, and economics); and 2) How should the US proceed in order to enable the best (or least worst) outcome?

Despite the significant progress that has been made in Iraq over the last 2-3 years, it’s clear that there is still a long way to go before the country is likely to remain stable and secure over the long term (10-15 years). Although the surge was successful in terms of making gains in security and the development of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), it still has yet to provide any real, lasting improvements in governance. As Ricks explains, “the larger goal of the surge was to facilitate a political breakthrough, which has not happened.” The default mindset of all of the various political parties and actors remains very much a “zero-sum game” mentality – in order to advance my narrow interests, I must grab as much power as possible when able. This primarily stems from the political calculus that the prospects for long-term stability and peaceful transfer of power are low, making it imperative to “get yours” while you’re in a position to do so.

Drivers of Instability

The most useful way to understand the current situation in Iraq and predict the future is by examining the main drivers of instability (and/or points of tension). For those who have closely followed the conflict in Iraq over the last 7 years, this list will look quite familiar. And that’s the point – none of these major issues have been satisfactorily resolved. Without some sort of political compromise, any of these divisive issues could quickly ignite significant levels of violence between different ethno-sectarian groups (each of which is essentially aligned with a political party/coalition running in the upcoming elections):

1) Sunni-Shia tensions over sharing of power and strength of the central government. This was the primary underlying force behind the sectarian violence that almost drove Iraq into a civil war in 2006-2008. Here’s how I conceptualize the problem: Think of a small, slow-burning fire – this is the historic tension between Sunni and Shia that has always (and probably will always) existed in Iraq. In a situation where there are relatively high levels of security, economic opportunity, and access to services, this fire continues to burn behind the scenes but causes little/no damage. However, when some sort of accelerant is added to the fire, it can rapidly grow to a point that threatens to destroy everything around it. In 2006, the bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra served as this initial accelerant, initiating a vicious and escalating cycle of violence and fear driven by tit-for-tat violence between Sunni insurgent groups and Shia militias. While the US surge temporarily dampened the large flames, there are still multiple indications of a growing fire between Sunni and Shia groups. It’s very possible that if one of these two groups (likely the Sunnis) feel disenfranchised after the March 07 elections, the conditions will be set for another accelerant to re-ignite a major fire.

There are already serious indications of this being the likely outcome. As the New York Times reported last month, the efforts of Maliki’s government (and the wider Shia movement) to block qualified Sunnis from the upcoming elections resulted in the decision of a sub-party (Saleh al Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Dialogie Front) belonging to Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement (the leading Sunni alliance) to boycott the upcoming elections. This is the end result of a prolonged campaign by various Shia power-players to weaken Sunni influence and block top Sunni’s from running. For more background on these efforts, check out Abu Nasr’s great coverage at Challenge COIN here and here as well as the always-excellent coverage from Musings on Iraq here, here, and here. Also, see the must-read Brooking Institution report Iraq’s Ban on Democracy.”

Along these lines, I’d also like to offer some more anecdotal evidence illustrating the ever-simmering tensions between Sunni and Shia within Baghdad. One of my former Iraqi interpreters, Ali (who is now living in the US thanks to the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa program), recently told me an alarming story involving threats against his son from Ministry of Education officials. Ali’s son, Hassan (who is a Sunni), has been studying engineering at a major university in Baghdad for nearly two years. About one month ago, he was approached while leaving school and told by uniformed officials from the Ministry of Education (run by the Shia) that he was no longer welcome at the school and if he returned he would be killed. According to Ali, this intimidation of Sunni’s to limit their education has occurred all across Baghdad for the last several months, highlighting one of the many ongoing efforts below the surface to gain more power for the Shia. Unfortunately, Sunnis in positions of power are making similar power grabs across the country as well. These daily events are what maintain the steady flame of Sunni-Shia tension that threatens to explode at any given time.

2) Alignment of various ISF elements with ethno-sectarian groups. As each of the various ethno-sectarian groups have aimed to consolidate power and control, they have developed strategic alliances with various units and elements within the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) – which includes the Iraqi Army (IA), Iraqi Police (IP), Facilities Protection Service (FPS), and Border Police (IBP/DBE) – in order to advance their interests. This situation has grown increasingly more serious over the last year, as highlighted in the recent New York Times op-ed by Najim Abed al Jabouri, a fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, and former mayor of Tal Afar from 2005 to 2008. Najim explains that the situation has deteriorated to the point that, “members of the security forces are often loyal not to the state but to the person or political party that gave them their jobs.”

The police and border officials, for example, are largely answerable to the Interior Ministry, which has been seen (often correctly) as a pawn of Shiite political movements. The same is true of many parts of the Iraqi Army. For example, the Fifth Iraqi Army Division, in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, has been under the sway of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Shiite party that has the largest bloc in Parliament; the Eighth Division, in Diwaniya and Kut to the southeast of the capital, has answered largely to Dawa, the Shiite party of Prime Minister Maliki; the Fourth Division, in Salahuddin Province in northern Iraq, has been allied with one of the two major Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Based on my recent firsthand experience and observations, this phenomenon is widespread and extremely dangerous for the long-term security and stability of Iraq. In Mosul (during 2008), there was such a high level of tension and mistrust between many of the Sunni IP officers and Kurdish IA officers that we could barely get them to sit together through an entire meeting, never mind getting them to plan and conduct a joint operation. Each unit’s leadership was clearly aligned with one particular party/group and worked only to advance that element’s agenda, oftentimes at the expense of providing security for the populace.

The politicization and “sectarianization” of the Iraqi Security Forces only appears to be getting worse as various groups ratchet up the competition for power. As it stands, the current system of organizing and funding units only exacerbates the problem. Najim correctly asserts that although, “The status quo offers a temporary balance of power between the incumbent parties, likely providing relative peace for the American exit…deep down, ethno-sectarianism creates fault lines that terrorist groups and other states in the Mideast will exploit to keep Iraq weak and vulnerable.” He is exactly right.

3) Kurd-Arab tensions over oil revenue sharing and the role of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Although Sunni-Shia tension and violence has dominated much of the media coverage coming out of Iraq, the conflict between the various Kurd parties (predominately Barzani’s KDP and Talibani’s PUK) and the Arabs (mostly Sunnis in Northern Iraq) has grown increasingly serious over the last two years. The two primary causes of this tension are: 1) The dispute over who owns Kirkuk (and, more importantly, the multitude of proven oil reserves surrounding it). Although the Kurds historically dominated the area around Kirkuk, Saddam’s “Arabization” campaign re-populated much of the city and surrounding areas with transplanted Arabs in order to shift the demographic balance in favor of the Sunnis; 2) The disagreement over how much power the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has in relation to the federal government. The debate over Article 160 (the allocation of political positions/seats and oil revenue) still rages in the North and has nearly led to full-on force-on-force conflict between Iraqi Army forces (loyal to Maliki’s national government) and Kurdish Peshmerga forces (who are the de facto owners of the KRG). For example, disagreements between Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Army’s First Division over who had primacy in the town of Khanaqin (in Diyala province) nearly erupted into violence during August-September 2008. It took direct negotiations between PM Maliki and KRG President Barzani (after heavy pressure was applied by US Forces) to defuse the situation. Additionally, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has attempted to stoke the flames of tension between these two groups with a steady string of suicide attacks and SVBIEDs (car bombs) throughout Kirkuk, Mosul, and other key cities in Northern Iraq.

Recently, we have seen the tension between Kurds and Arabs grow stronger in the lead up to parliamentary elections, particularly in Ninewa province (which is about 60% Sunni, 25% Kurd, and 15% Christian/other). In the 2008 provincial elections, the Sunni-led al Hadba party won the majority of the seats in the provincial council (which had historically been dominated by Kurds) and appointed a new Sunni governor, Athil al Nujayfi (whose brother is a prominent member of the national parliament). The Kurdish-led Ninewa Brotherhood List protested not being included in the new government by announcing that they and 16 districts they controlled would not cooperate with al-Hadbaa, denouncing the party as Baathists. The Kurds went further by saying that no provincial officials could enter the 16 areas without their permission. This resulted in two dramatic confrontations in May 09 when the governor and provincial police chief were stopped from entering Kurdish controlled areas by the Peshmerga. As Joel Wing at Musings on Iraq explains, tensions grew later in the month as locals in Tal Afar (30 miles west of Mosul) demanded that they be annexed by Kurdistan, and then in June pro al-Hadba tribesmen got into a shootout with Peshmerga in Sinjar (a small town near the Syrian border). In August, when three large suicide bombs struck minorities the Brotherhood List and al-Hadba blamed each other rather than insurgents for the attacks. It appears that both parties are using various insurgent groups as proxies to target their opponents as well as win political points with their own constituencies – once again, all of this occurs at the expense of the local populace.

Things have gotten no better as the March 2010 parliamentary elections are nearing. In January 2010 the governor of Ninewa, Athil al Nujayfi, initiated a no confidence vote against the mayor of Sinjar (a Kurd), who turned around and filed a lawsuit against the governor. The Brotherhood List condemned the removal of the mayor as well, claiming that al-Hadba represented Baathists and their henchmen. At the beginning of February, Governor Najafi went to the Tel Kayf district (northwest of Mosul) where protestors threw fruits and vegetables at his car, while Kurdish officials said that the governor had gone to the area without their permission. Later in the month Kurdish parties accused al-Hadba of trying to shut down their offices in the province before the vote, while Governor Najafi held a press conference calling on the central government to have the peshmerga removed from Ninewa. I expect these incidents to continue and likely worsen in the wake of the parliamentary elections as the Arabs and Kurds continue to vie for control of the strategic cities of Kirkuk (the northern oil capital) and Mosul (a key economic and political hub).

4) Intra-Shia tension over the role of Iran in Iraq’s future government. The lead-up to this weekend’s parliamentary elections has also highlighted the serious disagreements between the leading Shia parties/blocs. The main point of tension between the groups is what level of Iranian influence they are willing to tolerate in Iraq. While all of the Shia parties have significant ties to Iran and the Iranian regime, there are clearly differing levels of support for Iran’s push to stay intimately involved in Iraq’s day-to-day affairs. Although we’ve recently seen more signs from PM Maliki that he’s willing to stand up to the Iranians’ push for influence in Iraq (as he did in Dec 09 during a dispute over one of the southern oil fields and during Operation Knight’s Charge in Basra in March-May 2008 aimed at limiting the growing influence of Sadrist elements with ties to Iran’s IRGC-QF), there is still a strong relationship between his Dawa party and the Iranian regime. However, Maliki’s recent formation of the “State of Law” party (primarily composed of former Dawa members) signals his intention to at least nominally distance himself from Iranian influence. Maliki has been under heavy pressure from Iranian officials to join with the other top Shia party/bloc – the Iraqi National Alliance (composed primarily of members of Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadr List). For right now, it appears that Maliki’s State of Law party is likely to win the highest number of parliamentary seats. The key question in the wake of the elections, however, will be the extent to which the two main Shia parties are able to agree and compromise in order to form a coherent political bloc (in opposition to the Sunni bloc). In my opinion, the tension and disagreement between the Shia parties is actually healthy and will continue to go on into the distant future until Iraq is strong enough to form a government that can truly stand up to the ridiculously high levels of Iranian influence and maneuvering in Iraq. Although the intra-Shia disagreements still serve as a driver of instability, they are the least likely to cause significant violence in the short run, as the Shia are mostly willing to compromise on their internal differences in order to appear united in the face of opposition from Sunnis and Kurds. For more background on Iran’s influence and intentions in Iraq, see this excellent post (and all of the other excellent coverage) at Musings on Iraq.

The Way Ahead in Iraq

Based on an understanding of the current situation in Iraq (as defined by the drivers of instability that I discussed above), I’d like to throw out some points of consideration as we discuss/debate the future US strategy in Iraq.

1) Election Outcome: I expect that Iraqis will likely vote along ethno-sectarian lines, as they did in 2005. Ultimately, the elections will largely entrench the already prominent parties. The real period of high risk will occur post-election. Coalition building and government formation (between the various parties/blocs) after the elections will likely require months of negotiations, posting significant governance challenges in the interim. Additionally, unlike in 2005, voters can choose individual candidates rather than selecting a particular bloc, potentially upsetting pre-election agreements and post-vote bloc cohesion. Recent polling data (from mid-Feb) highlighted on Musings in Iraq, seems to confirm this assessment. Respondents were asked the question, “Who would you vote for in the 2010 parliamentary elections?” with these results:

29.9% - State of Law – PM Maliki (Dawa)

21.8% - Iraqi National Movement – Ex-PM Allawi

17.2% - Iraqi National Alliance – Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), Sadrists, Ex-PM Jaafari, Iraqi National Congress

10% - Kurdish Alliance – PUK, KDP

5% - Iraqi Unity Movement – Minister Bolani, Sheikh Abu Risha’s Anbar Awakening

2.7% - Iraqi Consensus (Tawafuq) – Iraqi Islamic Party

4.9% - No opinion

2.2% - No response

(+/- 2% margin of error)

So, of the 325 total seats available, I assess that Shia Islamists will win plurality (120-150), Sunni and secular parties will win 60-80 (INM will win most of these), and Kurdish Parties will win 60-70 (KA will take the majority). Since it takes a majority of 163 seats to form a government, this will require the plurality-winning Shia alliance to make an agreement one of the other two groups – most likely one or both of the Kurdish parties.

2) US Forces Drawdown: As President Obama has regularly discussed, his desired endstate is to drawdown all US “combat forces” by September 2010 and all US troops by the end of 2011 in line with the US-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Currently, the plan for 2010 is to pull out about 10,000 troops a month for five months, beginning in late spring. That will halve the U.S. military presence this year, with the remainder scheduled to be with­drawn by the end of next year. However, as Ricks’ points out in his excellent piece, “This timing is worrisome.”

The two major concerns with this plan are: 1) The synchronization of the US drawdown with the post-election government formation. Just as US troops are being reduced (and the troops staying in country are focused on pulling out troops and equipment), the fledgling new government will be attempting to form coalitions and begin making more progress in terms of significant governance efforts; 2) The potential for a “tipping point” when the withdrawal of US troops changes the calculus of insurgent groups and militias, making them feel that the time is right to ratchet violence back up. The initial troops that are withdrawn will be from relatively secure and stable areas, but as troops are pulled form more critical areas (especially Anbar, Mosul, Kirkuk, and to some extent Baghdad), there is a much greater risk for increased violence.

These concerns (and others) are likely what has recently prompted GEN Odierno, the top commander of US Forces-Iraq (USF-I), to request a slowdown or halt to the planned withdrawal of US “combat focused” BCTs. As Tom Ricks highlighted in his article at the Foreign Policy blog, Odierno recently publicly requested the extension of a US BCT operating in the critical area of Kirkuk (a major flashpoint for Kurd-Arab tensions during the post-election period). Clearly, this signals serious concern on the part of Odierno, a highly competent and experienced leader who arguably knows and understands Iraq better than anyone else in the US military or government.

So, what does all of this mean for the future of US force levels and US strategy in Iraq? What should the US do based on the increasing potential for ethno-sectarian violence and a continuing state of weak, ineffective government? As Ricks argues in his piece, we have little choice but to adjust our plan based on the changing situation on the ground in Iraq. We must begin a dialogue with the new Iraqi government (and other key power players) to consider modifying the SOFA in order to allow for a greater role for US forces in maintaining stability in the fragile post-election period. It’s just as important to define the mission and authorities of the US forces that will remain as it is to define the number of troops. Concurrently, we must also begin developing a plan to maintain a force of 30,000-40,000 US troops in Iraq for the next 2-3 years (which will need to be synchronized with the Afgan surge as well). While this will clearly be a very tough sell politically for Obama, I believe he has no other choice. I echo the comments of Josh McLaughlin (who is on his way back to Iraq for a third go-around right now) in his recent post, “You break it, you buy it. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m ok with staying if it means we finish what we started.