Gen. Michael Hayden & Jamil Jaffer

International Terrorism

October 21, 2015  |  Blog

The threat posed by al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups with existing or potential global reach is a multi-generational problem for the United States and its allies. It is a problem we have confronted since at least the late 1970s, as Iran sought to spread its Islamic revolution through Shi’a-based terrorist groups like Hizballah and its support for certain Sunni terrorist groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

At the time, we paid relatively less attention to the spread of a reactionary Sunni movement as it sought to challenge dominant power structures in Muslim countries across the Middle East. In some cases, elites in Sunni Arab states used such groups both to counter the spread of Shi’a revolution from Iran and expand their own influence. These Sunni groups gained legitimacy, support and valuable experience fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Then, in 1998, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri announced an alliance between the former’s al Qaeda and the latter’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad. They declared war against “crusaders and infidels” and formally gave birth to al-Qaeda, an organization with deep roots in radical Sunni Islamist thought. This is the group that attacked us on 9/11, was driven out of Afghanistan shortly thereafter, and finally took up residence in the tribal regions of Pakistan.

Over time, under heavy U.S. pressure, much of al-Qaeda’s core leadership has been killed or forced to move from its long-time hideouts in Pakistan. Recently, al-Qaeda moved cadre with an active desire to strike the American homeland—the so-called Khorasan Group—to Syria to take advantage of the chaos there. A range of other so-called franchises also evolved, the most dangerous to the U.S. homeland being al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which continues to gain strength from the ongoing chaos in Yemen.

We also confront a growing threat from a former al-Qaeda franchise that has reinvented itself as a rival to its parent. The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) today arguably forms the single greatest threat to American national security in the region. By wiping out the border between Iraq and Syria, ISIS has gained credibility and resources that have permitted it to attract thousands of recruits to its cause. These recruits are drawn to ISIS for a variety of reasons: religious ideology, dissatisfaction with Western materialism and secularism and with their lot in life generally, an opportunity to belong to a tight-knit group with a cause to fight for, and sometimes just for excitement and adventure. A constant stream of outreach and slick media materials that rival high-quality Western products helps fill the recruiting pipeline. So does a large social media presence, including multiple active feeds on Twitter and YouTube. More than 20,000 foreign fighters have joined the jihad in Syria, including more than 3,000 Westerners and more than 100 Americans.[27]

Though it has sustained some tactical battlefield setbacks, ISIS is hardly on the run. It is a confident, expanding organization growing in territory, manpower, and wealth. In the past year alone, ISIS has announced new outlying “provinces” in at least seven countries and has claimed responsibility for attacks across the globe, including in Europe and the United States. And while its main force resides in what used to be the states of Syria and Iraq, ISIS represents a serious threat to the stability of Lebanon, Jordan, and prospectively the Arab Gulf states. No solution to the region’s massive political violence—itself driven by a range of factors, especially sectarian division and power politics—is imaginable without decisively dealing with ISIS.

As a harbinger of things to come, the growth and expansion of ISIS and the increasing influence of al-Qaeda affiliates in the Syrian conflict has emboldened Iran and its Shi’a proxies. In Syria, Hizballah has directly intervened to support the regime, while in Iraq several Shi’a militias form the backbone of the government’s fight against ISIS, evolving from small commando-like squads into much larger, better armed, and more capable forces. Even worse, IRGC-Quds Force operatives roam Iraq at will, providing direct support to Iraqi forces and advertising their presence openly on social media. Lest one forget, Iranian Shi’a proxies have killed hundreds of Americans, from Hizballah in the 1980s to Khatib Hizballah’s and Asaib al-Haq use of Iranian-made weaponry to kill American and allied soldiers in Iraq in the 2000s.

Many today argue that the recent spread of terrorism across the Middle East has nothing to do with Islam. The truth, however, is that the ideology that motivates and inspires al-Qaeda and ISIS has deep roots in certain longstanding forms of radical Sunni Islamist theology going all the way back to Ibn Taymiyyah in the 13th century. The ideology that underpins the Iranian revolutionary state and its terrorist proxies likewise has roots in radical Shi’a theology. At a minimum, these extremist interpretations create a narrative for their adherents of unrelenting hostility between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West.

This is not to say that the majority of the world’s Muslims support these groups or follow these ideologies. They do not. Indeed, the vast majority rejects their radical visions and abhors their tactics. Nonetheless, the theologies that form their intellectual backbone—whether Wahhabism, Salafism, Shi’a martyrdom narratives, or other similar constructs—are long standing, widely known, and avidly studied strains of radical Islamist thought. And moderates in general, even when they form a large numerical majority, do not fare well under the polarized conditions of civil war, including in the ongoing sectarian version of civil war that currently spreads over increasingly many (and ever more faint) territorial boundaries across the region.

Violence of the sort that such radical theology engenders is by no means exclusive to Arabs or Muslims; historical examples can be drawn from every region of the earth over many centuries. In the West, not until the 17th century did Christendom transcend hundreds of years of strife over religious doctrines. In many ways, Enlightenment-era theological reform was a response to this long history of religious conflict, and the doctrine of separating the Church from the state was one tool by which reformers sought to limit the spread of doctrinal disputes into politics and war. With Enlightenment-era reforms breaking the bond between the coercive power of the state and the religious and moral narrative of the Church, the Church’s ability to drive world events was substantially limited.

Islam writ large has not achieved that separation. The theology that drives both Shi’a and Sunni radical groups constructs an artificial conflict between faith and modernity. It tells of a golden era when Islam’s influence and territory was dramatically expanding and constructs a narrative of a new, rising era of Islam in the modern day. And with the majority of the world’s Muslims living in countries that are impoverished, run by narrow elite groups, or where their religious practice is viewed as a threat to the stability of the state, this narrative can be extremely attractive to a tiny but hugely problematic subset of the population —mostly disaffected young men. They grab on to this narrative—and to its underlying religious ideology—often in an effort to give meaning to their lives. Troublingly, key parts of the religious ideology that undergirds this narrative are actually supported by the very states—or at least by elites within such states—that are now threatened by this trend.

In another way, there are parallels to America’s urban gang infestation in the 1970s and 1980s. The alienation felt by disenfranchised youth, and the meaning, opportunity, and excitement they found in joining the Bloods, Crips, and other violent street gangs, roughly parallels the path of thousands of young people travelling to join the jihad under banners of al Qaeda and ISIS. Just like joining a street gang, however, it matters which group you join. Vastly more Muslims who find themselves disenfranchised or dissatisfied choose a constructive path, seeking opportunities and achieving success in business and politics, and adhering to more moderate and traditional forms of faith. The problem today, of course, is the trend—within the small group of individuals who are attracted to radical ideologies—toward ever more extreme forms of radicalism and, in turn, the violence they engender. And while al-Qaeda was once the vanguard of this movement—with its promise of opportunities to attack the West—today ISIS is the leading attraction for the deeply disaffected, through its promises of land, wealth, and concubines to its recruits.

One of the most challenging issues confronting the West is how to deal with this fight within Islam, a fight fundamentally over the nature and future of the faith. It would be arrogant for us to assume that we can solve this problem. We must accept that if Islam is to be rid of these extremist trends, it must come to this realization itself. And while we have powerful tools of statecraft at our disposal, the use of these tools can only inform, but not determine, the outcome of this great debate. If Islam is even to come close to the West’s Enlightenment answer—separating the sacred from the secular—we must accept that this will be a multi-generational process and that specifics of the “Christian solution” may not apply to this other great monotheism. We must also be prepared to confront the support for these destructive ideologies provided by some of our key allies and be prepared to demonstrate, in concrete terms, the very real threat that these extreme ideologies pose to their own stability.

In addressing the threat posed by these (and other) terrorist groups, we begin with a basic first principle: The United States has an absolute right (and responsibility) to defend itself against those who present a threat to its people or its vital national security interests. We have the right to take direct action to eliminate groups that present such threats, as well as to go after state entities that permit them to operate. This does not mean, however, that it is always wise to take direct action or to immediately remove regimes in all countries where radical terrorist groups operate. We must have a prudent and pragmatic foreign policy, one that does what is necessary to keep Americans safe and protect our core national security interests, while we also work to support our allies and patiently empower moderates.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush implemented a clear national policy on terrorist groups of global reach and the regimes that harbored them. From Afghanistan and Pakistan to East Africa and the Philippines, America took action to kill, capture, detain, and interrogate key terrorist suspects and to infiltrate their training, logistics, and communications networks. We acted alongside partners where possible, seeking to build on and leverage their capacity, but also took unilateral action when necessary.

These policies set the stage for more recent counterterrorism efforts, including the continued expansion of direct counterterrorism actions. Indeed, the most successful operations of this White House replicate, in significant respects, the intelligence and military efforts begun in the Bush Administration. Most importantly, the relative continuity across two administrations reflects a clear American policy consensus and affirmatively legitimizes the use of these tools going forward.

It is precisely because of the sustained pressure that these counterterrorism operations have brought to bear upon al-Qaeda and others that our country is less vulnerable today that it was on September 10, 2001. And yet this very success has allowed the 9/11 attacks to fade from consciousness, particularly among Washington policymakers. As a result, in recent years, U.S. counterterrorism policy has become significantly more constrained. For example, the Obama Administration has exhibited little tolerance for collateral damage, requiring a near virtual certainty that non-combatants will not be killed before we take direct action. Terrorists have learned this lesson and now intentionally hide among civilians. Moreover, President Obama has imposed limitations on when and where U.S. forces can strike and has significantly raised the bar on the threat required before U.S. forces can act, essentially taking a powerful capability off the table and easing the pressure on the enemy. Rather than actively pursuing these groups at every turn, as we once did, today we more often limit ourselves to acting only in rare circumstances on high value targets or in response to imminent threats.

Similarly, we have shifted (back) from a war footing toward a law enforcement posture. By taking long-term intelligence or military detentions off the table, the Obama Administration effectively decided to capture terrorists only when a Federal indictment is available. This has the perverse effect of requiring us to either let key targets go, hand them over to other states, or, more often than not, try to kill them. Of course, one cannot interrogate dead people, and the sharp decline in interrogations, a product of our lack of an appropriate capture-and-detention policy, has significantly limited our collection of timely terrorism intelligence.

This shift from intelligence-driven warfighting on the battlefield to evidence-based indictments in Federal court is likely to make it significantly harder to successfully prosecute this conflict. In particular, the shift is almost certain to result in lost intelligence and hence actionable opportunities. Indeed, in many ways, it represents a return to the failed law-enforcement strategy that our nation rejected in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Likewise, the decision by Congress—with explicit support from the White House—to cut back on intelligence collection authorities at a time when threats are increasing is shortsighted and creates increased risk for the nation.

From its public statements about the need to end wars, the possibility of repealing the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), and the constant drumbeat about closing Guantánamo Bay to the tactical constraints it has imposed upon itself, the Obama Administration has made clear to the American public, the world, and, perhaps most troublingly, to our enemies that it has tired of the fight.

The Obama Administration has likewise muddled our national thinking because of its unwillingness to candidly discuss the threat we face from ISIS and al-Qaeda. While the President deserves credit for describing our conflict with al-Qaeda as a war, he does so while backing off from the full use of the tools of a belligerent. He has suggested, unconvincingly, that the conflict may be coming to an end. And the Administration’s actions often seem driven by a desire to be seen as doing something rather than by a determination to achieve actual success. More often than not, recent Administration efforts are trending toward minimizing American involvement while sticking to the narrative of ending global conflicts. As a result, even when action is taken, it tends to be hesitant and halting, and the size and durability of our commitments seem untethered from battlefield realities.

The fight with ISIS is indicative. The conflict began small in the summer of 2014, with the Administration repeatedly eschewing opportunities to stymie ISIS’s rise as it rolled across the Syria-Iraq border despite appeals from U.S. officials on the ground and U.S. partners in the region. When we did act, we initially limited our efforts to a small number of locations in Iraq, with the Administration’s own war powers notifications to Congress highlighting its preferred narrative of a short-term, highly limited engagement. Despite the expansion of conflict, the Administration has failed to conduct a robust campaign against ISIS, relying principally on a limited volley of airstrikes. This failure could have catastrophic consequences. With ISIS’s establishment of provinces around the world and the increase in attacks it is inspiring in the West, we are seeing the development of a capacity for global reach. When combined with its control over a significant swath of land, including its strategic position sitting atop historic trade routes and key natural resources, ISIS could become an even more serious threat to the United States at home.

Moreover, the failure to act when moderates still had a chance to play a significant role in the Syrian opposition permitted better-funded, better-armed, and better-trained forces, including Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, to dominate recruiting. This, in turn, filled the Syrian rebel force with committed jihadis from around the globe who—like the Afghan jihadis before them—will return home to wreak havoc there also.

U.S. inaction has likewise permitted Iran to be more influential in Baghdad and Damascus than ever before. It has allowed a terrorist proto-state to be established and flourish on the resource-rich lands between Iraq and Syria, and it has led our allies to question U.S. commitments and long-term resolve. The repeated lack of action by the U.S. government when allies are threatened, when terrorists capture significant territory, and when publicly declared redlines are crossed has cost us dearly in credibility and, ultimately, constitutes a core failure of global leadership for our nation.

The current situation, and our current approach to it, is thus a recipe for long-term disaster. The next President—of whatever political party—must enter the White House prepared on day one to reinvigorate our longstanding commitment to taking the fight to the enemy overseas, where they live and plot against the West.

In the face of these threats, we must be prepared to defend ourselves with all instruments of national power. We must combat this threat directly while also working to protect our key allies and interests around the world. A revised counterterrorism policy that takes this approach has ten key elements.

First, recognize and deal with the changed political geography of the Middle East. The states of Iraq and Syria are all but gone in their prior form. The same is likely true of Libya and Yemen, which are on the verge of becoming failed states. Likewise, Lebanon once again teeters, enflamed by renewed sectarian strife threatening its very viability as a state. These states were created with but modest attention to historical, tribal, commercial, ethnic, or religious realities, and were historically sustained by raw power. While the geopolitical contours of a future Middle East are difficult to discern—and beyond U.S. power to unilaterally determine—we should think long and hard before adopting any policy designed to “restore” old lines that were never more than frail symbols for these societies. A more realistic approach would grant more freedom of action for us to deal with the Kurds, and to address Baghdad’s Shi’a government, the remnants of Alawi power in Syria, and Iran’s quest for regional hegemony, all the while frustrating the demands of al-Qaeda and ISIS to return the region to a medieval caliphate.

Second, employ counterradicalization programs to reduce the attractiveness of jihadism. Many of our key partners in the global fight against terrorism, including the governments of Indonesia and Morocco, conduct significant counter radicalization programs with some success. While these programs are not without flaws—including recent increases in recidivism—they offer useful lessons in combating the attractiveness of jihadism. The longstanding idea that we can win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world through a public relations campaign is absurd. A better approach is to demonstrate to local populations the threat these groups pose to their own safety, security, and economic livelihoods. We can and should give locals the tools and capabilities to address these problems themselves. Such tools need not exclusively, or even primarily, be weapons. To the contrary, the best way to limit the long-term attractiveness of jihadism is to give people a stake in their own success and an investment in their own communities. Economic progress in underprivileged societies, the ability to obtain an education—one not in a radical madrassa—and the ability to establish and maintain strong family and personal ties, are all elements in a long-term strategy we must adopt if we are to succeed in limiting the growth and attractiveness of radical terrorist groups.

Third, keep up the pressure. A key to our relative safety since 9/11 has been keeping key terrorist groups on the run, constantly searching for new places to hide. Sustained counterterrorism pressure makes it hard to plot large-scale attacks. We must not permit broad swaths of land in key regions to remain ungoverned, or worse, be governed by groups like ISIS. This will mean, in real terms, restoring more flexible authorities to both our military and the intelligence community to identify, locate, and take action against groups that mean us harm, as well as to treat the ongoing conflict like the war it really is, not the smaller, more limited engagement some might wish it were.

Fourth, take unilateral direct action when necessary. A key part of keeping terrorists on the run is our willingness to take direct action when circumstances warrant it. Thus, in places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Mali, and Somalia, we must be willing to act not only against key terrorist leadership targets but also against the training sites and the support infrastructure of planners, facilitators, and funders that support the global jihadi force. We must double down on our willingness to use all direct action tools at our disposal, and not shy away from any of the tools of war, including the use of manned or unmanned aerial vehicles and deployed special operations forces, to set the conditions for direct action, and take it when appropriate.

Fifth, step up direct commitments and support to partners. Beyond resources and equipment, we must be willing to deploy U.S. forces as part of the fight we ask our partners to undertake. In the Iraq-Syria theater, this means not simply conducting a limited train-and-equip program that generates a handful of moderately capable fighters. It means committing fully to both our Iraqi and Kurdish partners (including direct shipment of equipment and ammunition to the Kurds) and requires us to actively edge out Iranian forces from their current lead role. It also requires us to be willing to deploy special forces teams into the field in both countries alongside our partners, whether moderate Syrian rebel forces, Kurdish peshmerga, or Iraqi security forces. Such deployments could provide a major morale boost to our allies and allow us to be a force multiplier for our partners, directing the more effective use of U.S. airpower (which must also be stepped up) and helping our partners employ more effective fighting tactics. These much closer partner ties on the ground must also be accompanied by much more robust intelligence sharing agreements, drawing from the lessons learned in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sixth, expand counterinsurgency efforts against key terrorist nodes worldwide. While we view the fight against al-Qaeda today as primarily focused on the Af-Pak border region and certain ungoverned parts of the Middle East and Africa, we must not forget the longstanding alliances and operational capabilities that al-Qaeda has generated globally. And while we currently view the ISIS fight to be localized to the Iraq-Syria border region, it is increasingly clear that the ISIS ideology is spreading beyond these bounds. We must therefore establish a U.S. presence alongside our partners in additional countries to take the fight to al-Qaeda and ISIS not just where they control territory or operate in ungoverned spaces, but also where they take root in local populations. In doing so, we must take advantage of lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan for conducting long-term counterinsurgency operations.

Seventh, redouble efforts to obtain counterterrorism intelligence. The lesson of 9/11 and our past 14 years of war is that consistent, timely, and solid intelligence collection and analysis, across all disciplines, remains critically important to successfully combatting terrorist groups. At the same time, incidents like the horrifically successful double-agent operation al-Qaeda ran against the CIA in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009 remind us that al-Qaeda and ISIS are improving their own intelligence capabilities. As a result, we must develop an even stronger collection posture against them, and must dedicate the additional resources necessary to this effort. We must also provide more flexible authorities and policy guidance to implement this collection, and we must develop a realistic counterterrorism capture policy. It is time to acknowledge that the current Administration’s policy of only capturing and detaining terrorists when we can bring Federal charges is seriously deficient. We must maintain a capacity—in addition to just a narrow law enforcement context—to capture, detain, and interrogate terrorist targets for sustained periods of time to obtain intelligence information.
Eighth, re-establish ties with longstanding partners while also addressing issues with them. Longstanding U.S. partners in the Arab world today have little faith in our commitment to them; they doubt our word, and their confidence in our staying power suffers from our seeming indecision and hesitancy. They see us as exhorting them to take on an increasing share of the burden—as we are and they must—while providing little support to help them actually do so. We must reorient this policy by actively supporting efforts to re-establish the Yemeni government, by actively helping the Libyan government (such as it is) to establish effective control over key areas; and by supporting the Egyptian government’s efforts to roll back the jihadi infestation of the Sinai Peninsula. At the same time, we must acknowledge that Sunni terrorist groups receive support from institutions and individuals in allied states, that too often turn a blind eye to such support and provide haven to the radical clerics whose theology drives these groups. As a result, while we must expand our ties and double down on our security commitments to longstanding partners, the price of admission must be a major, sustained change in internal policy with respect to their direct and indirect support to terrorist groups and their networks.

Ninth, create a serious, near-term plan to defeat ISIS. While much effort since 9/11 has focused on addressing ungoverned spaces, today spaces actually governed by terrorist groups and their sympathizers represent a serious, growing problem. ISIS’s success in gaining power and land in the Levant was aided by the premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the Obama Administration’s failure to support moderate forces in Syria. And while the Administration is taking action against particular ISIS targets and is haltingly working toward the creation of a small, moderate Syrian rebel force, this simply is not enough. Success will almost certainly demand the deployment of more U.S. forces to the region, even as we encourage an Arab ground force to take the lead. And even after such a force comes into existence, it will need extensive direct U.S. support in the form of command and control, intelligence, weaponry, logistics, and possibly manpower. While this is likely to spark controversy, it is important to realize that not making such a commitment now will almost certainly ensure that an even larger effort will be required down the road.

Tenth, account for the threat of a resurgent Iran. We cannot allow the expanding threat posed by al-Qaeda and ISIS—nor the desire to seal a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program—to distract from the fact that the explosion of conflicts in the region is, in significant part, stoked by the resurgent and growing destabilizing activities of the Iranian regime and its proxies. It is Iranian support for the Assad regime that has allowed the Syrian conflict to fester, creating the conditions for the rise of ISIS, and it is Iranian support for the Houthi rebels that helped push the Yemeni government out of power, increasing instability in a country that hosts the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate. We must directly confront Iran’s destabilizing actions and make clear to the regime in Tehran that we will not tolerate such activities.

In sum, we find ourselves in a challenging environment, one that our own actions—or lack thereof—have helped create. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, particularly AQAP, pose a significant threat to the homeland today. ISIS has established the beginnings of a terrorist superstate with control over significant territory and resources, and its message of jihad spreads worldwide. Our traditional allies question our commitment to them and our willingness to act. And our desire for a nuclear deal with Iran has led us to turn a relatively blind eye to its destabilizing activities and to its growing, outsized influence in places that matter.

Yet hope remains. Two U.S. Administrations into the global war on terrorism, we have established our position that America can and will take action to protect our nation at the times and places of our choosing. Our nation and its people—most importantly, our men and women in the military and the intelligence community—are prepared to do what it takes. What is now required is strong and resolute leadership in the White House to renew our longstanding commitment to countering these threats before they arrive on our shores by taking the fight to the enemy overseas.

(26) See Prepared Statement of Nicholas J. Rassmussen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Current Terrorist Threat to the United States, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (February 12, 2015).

This article originally appeared in the John Hay Initiative’s book Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World.

Arthur Herman

The Moscow-Beijing-Tehran Axis

August 19, 2015  |  Blog

There’s considerable debate over whether the Obama administration’s recent accord with Iran will stop the regime from getting a nuclear weapon. But there can be no debate about the fact that the biggest beneficiaries of the accord and the impending lifting of sanctions will be—besides the rulers in Tehran—Russia and China. Beijing and Moscow are already seizing this moment to consolidate their steadily growing influence in the Middle East, through their client Iran, at the expense of the U.S. and its allies.

Read the rest of the article here.

Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans

Distinguishing Between The Iranian Regime and Its People

July 29, 2015  |  Blog

The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) is encouraging the 2016 presidential candidates to refrain from broad generalizations about the Iranian people when discussing the nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran.

Irrespective of party affiliation, a robust debate among all presidential candidates over this important and complex national security issue is necessary for the shaping of our foreign policy.

The tone, tenor and context of the rhetoric employed during such discourse, will prove instructive in our ability to nurture the good will that exists towards America on behalf of the Iranian people.  Whatever differences may exist with the government of Iran, presidential candidates must make a distinction between the government and the people of Iran.

Iran is quite unique in the Middle East in that it maintains a sizable young, urban and highly educated population that holds favorable views towards America.  Repeated public opinion polls confirm that the people of Iran want to engage with and connect to the world.  A survey conducted in 2012 by Israeli political strategist Yuval Porat, shows that the Iranian people tend to hold liberal and democratic values.

Out of context rhetoric and broad generalizations only serve to alienate Iranians who want their government to reform and engage the international community in a positive way and embolden those who seek the exact opposite.

Jamil Jaffer & Matthew Kroenig

How to Walk Away from the Iran Talks

July 8, 2015  |  Blog

Get tough by increasing demands and tightening sanctions.

As American negotiators again blow past their self-imposed deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran, and the Iranians continue to dig in their heels, there are increasing signs that the terms of any final deal could get even worse for American interests. Critics, including Governor Scott Walker (R., Wisc.), have already called for us to “step away from this bad deal.” Many believe Obama is so committed to sealing a deal that the terms don’t really matter. But even this president, with his reputation for irresolution, has stated that he is willing to “walk away.” While there is reason to doubt this statement, given recent developments, it is at least worth asking what walking away would look like.

The answer is not yet clear. The Obama administration has frequently argued that the only alternative to negotiations is war, but this a canard intended to build support for a deal. Indeed, since Obama has been unwilling to enforce his own redlines in the past, it is unlikely he would reach for the military option now if negotiations break down. Moreover, due to the administration’s single-minded focus on striking an accord, it is unlikely that it has a well-thought-out Plan B.

The obvious default would be to return to the interim deal, the so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Administration officials have suggested this as the most desirable path forward if negotiations fail. According to these forever-JPOA advocates, although the Iranians would continue to receive modest sanctions relief, an extension would guarantee a nuclear-weapon-free Iran, assuming Tehran continues to comply.

Simply returning to the JPOA, however, would be a serious mistake. It is called an “interim” deal because it was intended to remain in place for only six months, to create time and space for a comprehensive accord. While it has been extended long past its original shelf life, it was never meant to be permanent. And for good reason: Under the JPOA, Iran’s nuclear breakout time (the period needed to assemble one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium) is only two to three months — much too close for comfort. It also permits Iran to continue research and development on advanced centrifuges, which would further reduce its breakout time. Allowing Iran to keep (and potentially reduce) this breakout capability kindles regional instability and weakens global nonproliferation norms. Worse still, like the current deal under negotiation, the interim accord ignores other aspects of Iran’s nuclear development, like warhead design and ballistic missiles, permitting Iran to work on the elements of nuclear weaponization it hasn’t yet mastered.

If this outcome were acceptable, we could simply declare the interim deal final and be done with it. But it is not acceptable, and we should not risk making the temporary permanent through a string of unlimited extensions.

Instead, if we are to continue negotiations, Iran must be incentivized to move towards a more acceptable bargain. It must realize that it cannot drag out negotiations, pocket concessions, and receive one extension after another. The Supreme Leader’s inflexibility reveals that he may very well prefer the status quo over tough compromises.

The best possible option, therefore, is to return to the pressure track. We must give Iran a clear choice between a truly good deal and a significantly less pleasant future.

Iran has repeatedly missed its opportunity to seize our gift of a deal, so, rather than making even more concessions — as the administration appears ready to do — we should tighten our demands. Iran can have a peaceful nuclear program and a lifting of international sanctions over time, but only if it completely dismantles its enrichment facilities. Like the vast majority of countries with a peaceful program, Iran can import nuclear fuel from abroad; it need not enrich domestically.

Champions of the current framework deal have argued that a zero-enrichment deal is impossible, but past diplomatic breakthroughs, including the zero-enrichment deal with Libya in 2003 and even the interim nuclear accord with Iran, were unfathomable just months before they were struck.

If Iran cannot immediately accept these terms, we should build support for a new round of crippling sanctions and, if necessary, go it alone, as in the past. Combined with an oil price of just over $50 a barrel, such sanctions could reconstitute the kind of pressure that forced Iran to the table before.

The administration has long warned that new sanctions will cause Iran to pursue a nuclear breakout, but when Congress put sanctions in place between 2010 and 2013, Iran didn’t build weapons. To the contrary, the sanctions drove Iran to negotiate seriously for the first time. Even taking the administration at its word, there is an obvious way to address this concern: set clear redlines and be prepared to enforce them. If Tehran is reckless enough to dash ahead anyway, America can exercise its military option, setting Iran’s program back several years. Rather than choose war with the United States, however, it is much more likely Tehran will do what it takes to avoid conflict, allowing time for pressure to mount, and laying the groundwork for an unquestionably good deal that could win bipartisan support.

We can hope that the Obama administration will follow our advice and press its significant bargaining advantage, but that seems unlikely. Unfortunately, therefore, we might have to wait until January 2017 for stronger American leadership. Either way, this is the only course of action that holds out the possibility of truly resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis.

— Jamil Jaffer is the former chief counsel and senior advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an adjunct professor of law and director of the Homeland and National Security Law Program at George Mason University School of Law. Matthew Kroenig is associate professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at The Atlantic Council, and a former adviser on Iran policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Matt Roti

Much Needed ISIS Strategy

June 25, 2015  |  Blog

The recent U.S. kill/capture raid on the head of ISIS oil operations in Syria demonstrates the need for updated legal authorities for a limited “boots-on-the-ground” capability to help lead the region, demonstrate our commitment, and inspire our regional allies to form a strong Arab coalition to fight ISIS.

On May 15, 2015 U.S. Special Forces executed a surgical raid on the compound of Abu Sayyaf after months of intelligence gathering.  Most have never heard of Abu Sayyaf, but as an ISIS declared ‘minister’, he is close to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and controls one of the group’s main funding sources – black market oil sales.  The intelligence U.S. forces now have at their disposal from the documents, computers, phones and hard drives will allow them to fill intelligence gaps and put the intelligence web together so ISIS can be systematically hobbled.  Additionally, the corroborative information that will come from questioning the two detainees from the raid, (one being Abu Sayyaf’s wife and the other being a Yazidi girl enslaved by Abu Sayyaf) will be very helpful in putting the minister’s network of contacts together.

This highly risky mission, executed by the most professional strike force in history, will certainly yield intelligence for future opportunities that would not have been accessible if airstrikes were used.  Do we want to put U.S. Special Forces operators at risk on the ground where they could be caged and burned alive like the Jordanian pilot, of course not.  However, if we wish to resolve this conflict and ensure that ISIS does not gain more momentum and influence to ultimately strike at Western interests, then we have to address this problem in a sober manner.  Coalition airstrikes alone are not working.  We can certainly continue to disrupt day-to-day ISIS operations with this strategy, but we will never defeat them.  To this point, ISIS recently took the city of Ramadi in Iraq, further entrenching its fighters in amongst civilians, schools, mosques, and hospitals as a strategy to hide from coalition airstrikes.

Many cities have fallen to ISIS because: first, the residents feel their government has not represented them and perhaps even betrayed them; second, they know there is not a strong central government to protect them.  The winning strategy for ridding the region of ISIS will be for an Iraqi led multinational coalition to enter the cities to Clear, Hold, Govern and Stabilize each area.  This would allow for the government of Iraq to reestablish itself and regain momentum as a governing body to trusting, invested citizens.

Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates must be persuaded to full commit to solving this problem with their own forces, not just contributing to the efforts of the U.S. and Iraq.  Defeating ISIS cannot have a Western-face, this has to be a true coalition.  The U.S. has a strong military-to-military relationship with many of the countries in this region already and can help facilitate greater mutual involvement, as it has in GCC naval operations near the Strait of Hormuz.  While not taking the lead in such a coalition, the U.S. could provide tactical intelligence information, airpower, training, advisors and personnel recovery assurances to allow the multinational forces freedom of movement and less risk to aviators.  Our Arab partners could be vital, given culture and fluency, in helping to scale regional information operations against the ISIS military and propaganda machine.  But here at home there must be an overall strategy developed with appropriate authorities to conduct limited multinational operations.

The commander of US Special Operations Command recently said his forces are “operating in possibly the most complex strategic environment in recent history.”  This short article is not meant to over-simplify the larger regional problems including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s relationships in the region and Turkey’s unwillingness to engage in this conflict in a meaningful way.  There is a litany of secondary and tertiary difficulties that exist because of the history in the area, but the greatest immediate threat to stability for all remains ISIS.  As long as ISIS stands to prove its legitimacy as a Caliphate and can boast of successes over the internet, they will continue to be a threat.  Everyone likes a winner, including terrorist financiers and potential recruits.

We now have a great opportunity to go after the leadership of ISIS with the intelligence derived from the raid on 15 May.  This could allow for subsequent raids on other leaders in the network to work our way deeper into the webs of power in Raqqa, but it is unlikely to affect the ideological challenges that come with battlefield victories and a mass of online propaganda.  We must press ahead now, but the West cannot be the ones most committed to this issue.

Joshua Huminski

China’s Literal Expansionist Foreign Policy

June 5, 2015  |  Blog

The world may be well served by changing its attention from the FIFA scandal to what has been occurring in the South China Sea, particularly over the last few days. Though by no means as sexy as a scandal involving the Most Beautiful Game and suitcases of cash, China’s provocative actions are worsening an already tense situation that will have far reaching consequences, much more so than the ousting of Sepp Blatter.

Beijing is conducting a quite literal expansionist foreign policy with the creation of new islands and bases in the South China Sea amidst the disputed Spratly Islands. China is creating at last count, five new outposts totaling over 2,000 acres – literally building new territory out of the water. These outposts are fixed bases onto which China installing airstrips and fielding weapons including artillery. U.S. aircraft operating in the area have been warned to leave the area, which is international airspace, in a move by the Chinese which greatly risks unintentional escalation.

Why does this expansion matter? The Spratly’s are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia and are believed to contain large quantities of fossil fuels.  Despite the overlapping claims, China alone has the capacity and willingness to dominate the region by force.  But it has also inspired an arms race to counter and deter these efforts.  Vietnam and Malaysia have only recently acquired submarines.

China’s foreign policy as of late is much like a teenager – it pushes its boundaries until it is scolded and then it stops, recalibrates, and looks to move again. To date, Washington hasn’t adequately stood its ground and communicated – clearly – to Beijing that its policies are unacceptable. Yes, the Secretary of Defense has stated that these actions will not stand, but Beijing has yet to heed these warnings or calls for cessation because there have been no consequences.

Words, when convincing, may be sufficient; but now Washington’s words are clearly inadequate.  Redline claims in Syria were not heeded and nuclear negotiation deadlines have been ignored.  Washington’s vacillation in the Middle East, apparent abandonment of its allies, and its deaf ear to its closest friends is clearly being watched by Beijing. China’s leadership is taking a calculated risk that Washington will not act, or at least is distracted enough to remain idle. This must be corrected.

America’s allies in Southeast Asia are rightly worried about China’s actions. What is to stop Beijing from encroaching further into the Spratly Islands? What will stop China from throwing its weight around and claiming more disputed territories or demanding greater concessions in the South China Sea? At present, nothing. Washington must move beyond rhetoric and demonstrate its resolve to both Beijing and our allies.

Does this mean military action? Far from it – there are means of showing force without using force.  The U.S. Navy must continue to operate in international waters and airspace, despite repeated Chinese warnings. Multi-lateral exercises with Malaysia and others must be increased.  Sales of advanced weapons must be reconsidered.

Beijing is watching, and so are our allies.


Matt Roti

Does the United States Have ‘Red Lines’ Anymore?

June 1, 2015  |  Blog

Unfortunately, once bold ‘red lines’ have faded over the past few years. The U.S. has had several opportunities to show its strength against the evil destabilizing the world in Syria, Ukraine and now Iran; but instead, delayed or abstained from living up to its responsibilities as a Superpower. This leaves much of the world wondering where the U.S. stands on tough issues and at what point it will engage on an issue. The rogues gallery is paying attention when countries like Russia exert themselves against their neighbors and the U.S. idly watches. Not knowing if the U.S. has a coherent strategy makes it difficult for allies to align their own interest with ours and work with the U.S. on a global scale. This is a problem the U.S. cannot afford both figuratively and literally. Our future president and cabinet must have a firm grasp of their foreign policies, a plan to implement them, and clearly convey those plans to the world. This is critical in order to reestablish boundaries for the preservation, security, and stability of America and ultimately peace in the world.

We are experiencing levels of political instability not seen since World War II. It is clear that America’s policy in recent years has been that peace would happen by its own means if the U.S. just stayed out of things. The fact is, many of these fledgling post Arab Spring governments are not capable of providing security and therefore cannot provide governance. And because our policies have not allowed for involvement early and often, we are now dealing with fractured governments, an influx of foreign fighters and reinvigorated adversaries in countries such as Libya and Iraq. Ultimately, this will end up costing America more taxpayer dollars because of the growing threat to U.S. interests presented by fresh terrorist sanctuaries in these broken countries.

Over the last 14 years of fighting terrorists and setting governments back on their feet, America has learned that without security; governance, stability, and peace are not possible. Moving forward, it is paramount that we demand our future leaders develop expertise in foreign affairs. Too many lives are in the balance. Security is intrinsically tied to our economy, our lifeblood, and it is time for a clear vision both for our well-being and that of America’s allies. Hope is not a strategy. Confidence and trust will continue to wane if American policy is developed off-the-cuff, like with chemical weapons reductions in Syria. America can redraw those red lines, but we must clearly and consistently articulate our foreign and security policies, stand firm, and back them up with our diplomacy and military might.

P.J. Whalen

Countering the ISIS Narrative

May 27, 2015  |  Blog

The violence in Garland, Texas, like recent events in Ottawa, Sydney, and a foiled plot against the U.S. Capitol, captured the attention of western media organizations, further inflating the reputation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, better known as ISIS, as the most fearsome Islamist movement on the planet.  While ISIS has proven itself to be a barbaric, murderous force, capable of overwhelming poorly trained Iraqi troops and displacing Syrian groups, its successes outside the region and long-term sustainability are questionable.  Yet, the U.S. government and the West have ceded this point to ISIS by not cancelling out its most effective weapon: the propaganda machine.

President Obama should be particularly disappointed because he has failed to take the tools that propelled him to two historic political victories, and mobilize them at a proportionate level to counter ISIS’s false narrative of strength and reach.

ISIS has distinguished itself by mastering Web 3.0 technologies to spread its message of violent extremism around the world, at zero cost.  The failure of the U.S. and its western allies to effectively push back against ISIS’ false narratives has provided it with the space on platforms like Twitter and Facebook to propagate its populist message of violent jihad, and mobilize thousands of young people to travel to the war zone in Iraq and Syria.  It has inspired populist attacks globally in ways that go far beyond what Anwar al-Awlaki and al Qaeda achieved.  Its tweets and posts encouraging the targeting of law enforcement and the military have also kept our men and women in uniform, and the nation’s security apparatus on alert for months now.

This is both disturbing and frustrating because the U.S. government is missing an opportunity.  For all of ISIS’ presumed success over the past two years, airstrikes and limited military involvement on the ground have blunted its ability to expand its territorial footprint.  The need to back the narrative of unrelenting momentum, on which ISIS’ derives strength and reputation, has exposed the group by overextending the organization and forcing it to engage in battles on multiple fronts. As ISIS has made more and more enemies, its strategic communications program has therefore become the critical piece in preventing the overstretched caliphate from collapsing.  While it is essential that ISIS maintains this narrative of momentum and success to reinforce the belief in its power, draw new recruits, and attract satellites in Africa and Asia, its reliance on propaganda is ripe for disruption.

The slow, uninspired response to countering the ISIS narrative by the U.S. government is reflective of the Administration’s delayed, indecisive reaction to the group’s rise and growth.  This is a deadly problem that requires a serious commitment of funds and personnel.

The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and the Information Coordination Cell which have both at times been tasked with countering ISIS’ messaging, are reportedly under-resourced and seemingly incapable of keeping up with a problem set that exists in the Web 3.0 world.  The mission of undermining the ISIS narrative needs to be handed to an organization far more agile than the current interagency process.  The good news is that a model does exist- the President’s former campaign organization, with its thorough opposition research ability and rapid response team, effectively blunted Republican attacks at warp speed during two election cycles.  In the aftermath, both Democrat and Republican parties have built lean organizations that have become very adept at these functions.

The tactics they perfected are now being adopted by private sector companies engaged in battles to disrupt entrenched institutions and gain market share.  Former senior campaign operatives are being brought onboard to develop counter-narratives and lead messaging operations.  Wouldn’t they be valuable and effective if properly mobilized in the fight against ISIS?

The Administration needs to take a new approach to ISIS and seriously consider a task force that employs a campaign-style mentality with opposition research and rapid response components.  This group would have access to the resources of the Department of Defense, State and the U. S. Intelligence Community to provide timely content to counter and disrupt ISIS’ prolific stream of shock and awe messaging.  This task force could then publish content on social media as well as work with contacts in the broadcast, radio and print worlds, to show that ISIS is truly an emperor with no clothes.

While ISIS is contained within the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria, the threat it poses to the public due to its ability to influence, inspire and claim credit for cowardly acts of violence has never been greater.  However, all truly successful narratives depend on truth and credibility.  A serious challenge to ISIS’ messaging is long overdue.  The first step to pushing ISIS back and diminishing the threat is to look outside the bureaucratic box.  One more campaign Mr. President.

Joshua Huminski

The coming arms race in the Middle East

May 14, 2015  |  Blog

What’s more concerning than Iran with nuclear weapons? The Middle East with nuclear weapons – a scenario that is becoming more likely as the United States and Iran gradually walk closer to a nuclear agreement. While administration officials are crowing that the deal will curb Iran’s program for at least ten years, according to recent media reports, some countries may see this as a deadline for the acquisition of their own nuclear arms. Should we be surprised by this possibility? No. Not at all.

States build nuclear weapons for a number of reasons – in some cases states build weapons for domestic political considerations, advancing internal bureaucratic interests; in others, states build weapons because they see them as a symbol of power and modernity, but for our purposes the third reason is the most important – simple security. In the absence of an international leviathan, states, such as Saudi Arabia, must pursue their security needs by one of two methods – balancing by entering into alliances that will safeguard their interests, or pursue their own, independent means of protection.

For many decades, Riyadh looked to Washington to be its balancing partner. Oil rich, but militarily weak, by itself Saudi Arabia could not hope to defend itself from the predations of the Soviet Union or the aggression of Iraq. It looked to the United States to guarantee its security and defense, to provide it with advanced weapons systems and training, and to give it the outsized diplomatic clout necessary to stabilize the region.

That is security balancing at its finest, and in the eyes of both Washington and Riyadh it could be said that this security architecture maintained a relatively favorable environment for many years. Yes, Iraq was an issue, and yes these interests needed to be balanced against those in Jerusalem, but overall the situation remained stable.

Fast forward to today – what do you see? From Riyadh’s perspective this administration is so focused on securing a deal with Tehran that it is not listening to the advice of its allies, seemingly abandoning its closest partners to befriend a regional bully, and rewarding intransigence while abandoning the few sticks it has to influence behavior. From Riyadh’s perspective, Washington is even ignoring Israel’s warnings – something that was surely unthinkable a few years ago.

If your balancing partner goes wobbly on you, what do you do then? If we follow the realist model of international relations and security, you pursue your own independent means of defense, and sadly the only balance against the existential threat of a nuclear weapon is another nuclear weapon. Sure, there are those who will say that we are beyond the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, but that is looking at the world from a biased security view, and it is critical, above all else, to look at the world through the eyes of your ally.

Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon will not stop, and removing sanctions will only embolden the regime. If and when Iran does gain the bomb, the security architecture in the Middle East will be shaken.

Undoubtedly, developing a nuclear weapon would be difficult – the components of such a system are complex and expensive, from the raw materials of uranium and plutonium, to the warhead or bomb, to the delivery vehicle, to critical command and control systems. And yes, this could be bluster by the Saudis to get America’s attention – but Washington should be paying a lot more attention to the risks that this deal presents to regional security and what it says that our allies are questioning our commitment and attention.

By Matt Roti

The Expansion of ISIL – Competing for Resources Between Terrorist Networks

April 8, 2015  |  Blog

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and figuring out how to defeat it has the focus of many countries around the world. ISIL’s matured messaging strategy through social media to proliferate ideologies of an Islamic Caliphate has sparked splinters of known terrorist organizations like Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Boko Haram and others to pledge their allegiance to ISIL. In the past, these terrorist organizations have primarily been regionalized and were able to draw funding from both local extortion and illegal trade, as well as from outside interest groups and hawalas (Arabic value transfer system). However, the rise of ISIL in the regions where these terrorist groups typically operate has successfully caused competition for resources – essentially busting up a terrorist monopoly in each area.

There is little to no “good” that can be derived from the rise of yet another competing terrorist organization, especially one that seems to have fewer values and even less conscience than al-Qaida. In fact, just when it might be thought that it could not get any worse, another group has sprouted up and taken extremism one step farther, teasing the most radical of the violent extremists out of the herd: kidnappings, praying on the youth over social media, violent beheadings, burning and burying people alive, all of which are paraded over the internet in a falsely glorified and righteous manner. This new level of extremist has overshadowed the traditional version we are used to hearing about. This evolved brand has reinvigorated support and shifted funding sources towards this new effort that seems to be able to “get things done” in the eyes of those who would participate in or finance such terrible actions.

ISIL has successfully intensified and capitalized on an already raging sectarian battle between Sunni and Shia in the Middle East and Africa. ISIL, being a Sunni movement, gained momentum due to ongoing conflict in Shia-ruled Syria as well as the sectarian political tensions created by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s (Shia) rule. Due to crises in Syria and Iraq, ISIL was able to easily raise funding and support around the world from donors wanting to reinforce the radical Sunni movement against the radical Shia. In places like Northern Iraq where ISIL controls the population and infrastructure, they rob banks, tax the people, and control the black market oil trade; which funds the vast majority of their operations. However, in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Nigeria where those same resources are not as prevalent, they have managed to cut into the existing al-Qaida profits, thereby reducing the funding that would have ordinarily gone to that group.

Ultimately, even though the rise of ISIL has purged some of the funding from other terrorist organizations, it is not a good thing. As mentioned, for one, this group has pushed extremism to the next level of brutality and begs the questions of where the progression will end – what will ISIL version 2.0 look like? More importantly, the Iranians will not allow for the continued backing of these Sunni extremist groups without a response by supporting the violent segment of Shia populations around the world.

We are already seeing this play out in the ongoing proxy war in Yemen and in places like Iraq, where the Iranian IRGC-Quds Force is playing a big role in reestablishing Iraqi government control. In this case, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend and will not ultimately solve the problem. The U.S. must continually look beyond the immediate crisis at hand and see the entire picture for what it is and how it might devolve as we implement our foreign policy and throw around our support. And the rise of one terrorist organization over another is not a victory for peace-loving countries. Unfortunately terror is not mutually exclusive.