Browsing articles in "Military"
Jan 23, 2014

The Magic Mountain

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria (from BBC).

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria in a hotel of the town (from BBC).

On Wednesday, a long-expected international conference backed by the United Nations began in Montreux, Switzerland. Its participants, representatives from 40 countries (including the U.S. and Russia) and delegates from the Syrian government and some factions of the Syrian opposition, discuss the so-called Geneva communiqué. This document was issued in 2012 as a result of another international meeting about the Syrian conflict. In general, it provides a framework within which the war will come to an end, including the stop of violence, the formation of a transitional government with full executive authority, and the holding of elections, among other things. After a one-day break, the meeting will resume on Friday in Geneva.

The first day of the encounter was dedicated to speeches from all the delegations attending it. Leaving rhetoric aside, this first glance at the conference illustrates the obstacles that very likely it will find in the near future. The most salient point of divergence is that while the U.S., most of the foreign delegations, and the Syrian opposition insist that Bashar Al-Assad must step down and cannot be present in a transition government, the official Syrian representatives assure that the continuation of Al-Assad as president is not to be discussed. Further, for the Syrian government the conference is not about discussing the formation of a transition authority (even more, Syria is the only participating delegation that did not subscribe the Geneva communiqué), but about the Syrian people’s demands of “eliminating terrorism”, “terrorists” being how they refer to Al-Assad opponents (in addition to the fact that there have been reports of Al-Qaeda activity in Syria). Therefore, there are different and diverging goals among the attendants to Montreux and Geneva.

Another aspect that could complicate the conference is its measures of success. It would be very unlikely that the main goal of the Geneva communiqué, the constitution of a transition government, is achieved. However, there are other more specific goals that will be discussed in the second part of the meeting. While the Montreux event featured speeches from each delegation, Geneva will hold more head-to-head mediated conversations between the parts in conflict. It is expected that the talks in these sessions go around issues such as the provision of humanitarian assistance and the protection of human rights in the areas of conflict, the facilitation of the flow of people between zones controlled by the government and by the opposition, or the continuation of the provision of basic public services throughout the country. The extent to which deals can be struck in these issues is still to be seen, but it appears they have more chances of success than topics related to the transitional government.

But even within that reduced set of expectations about the conference, whatever results it could bring could find further difficulties to be implemented in the ground. This is mainly due to the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. Its largest and arguably most visible section for external viewers, the Syrian National Council, is not sitting at the table because it refuses to discuss anything until Al-Assad leaves power. The leader of another large group, the National Coordination Committee, refused to participate because its delegation did not have sufficient time to prepare itself. Finally, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces yielded to pressures from other countries and agreed to take part in the discussions, although many of its members did not agree with this because they wanted guarantees that Al-Assad would step down.

The picture above could suggest that the prospects for the conference in Geneva are grim. However, it must also be underlined that the current assessment is made taking as after just one day of work in which top-level diplomats (mostly foreign ministers from the participating countries) gave speeches. The session in Geneva could be more productive, constructive, or at least less polarized, given its interactive nature and the presence of mediators. At the same time, the top objective, the formation of a transition government without Al-Assad, could almost be ruled out. Once works in Geneva begin and some time as gone by we can have a clearer idea about what to expect from this conference.

Aug 29, 2013

The Phantom of Liberty

USS Gravely, reportedly deployed and ready for an eventual attack against Syria (archive photo from El Pais).

USS Gravely, reportedly deployed and ready for an eventual attack against Syria (archive photo from El Pais).

After accusations of chemical weapons being used in the conflict in Syria, the international community has raised its voices and threatens to intervene in some way. Leaders from the U.S. (who has prepared Tomahawk missiles pointing towards Syria), France and the U.K., (François Hollande saying the infamous gassing of innocents will not be left unpunished, while the British Parliament waiting for the U.N.’s inspection to finish to define what it will do), NATO (assuring the unacceptability of the use of such weapons), Russia and Iran (threatening with some kind of retaliation if Syria is attacked) and other major military powers emphasize they either will not stand still in the face of the use of chemical weapons or in the face of an “unprovoked” attack against Syria. As in the days of the Cold War, both sides seem just to be waiting who makes the first move to have a motive for reaction.

There are several questions that must be addressed in this context. One of the first issues is why a potential intervention would have to wait until now. Of course, the alleged reason, the utilization of chemical weapons by Bashar Al-Assad’s government against its opposition, is sufficient. The international community is ready to defend human rights and to prevent a President from hurting the citizens of the country he’s ruling. It is difficult, though, not to think that if in case an intervention would have happened earlier the use of chemical weapons could have been prevented in the first place. However, this leads to another problem which brings uncomfortable memories about the Iraq campaign: what argument would be wielded to explain action in Syria? If it would not have been something shocking, such as now is the use of chemical weapons, then the call would have had little echo and would have contributed to stamping the “imperialist” or another kind of label in whoever made it.

Furthermore, again retrieving the Iraq experience, it is not clear what will the objective of an intervention would be. For sure, it is too early to think about such purpose, even more because no course of action, uni- or multilateral, is yet defined. One can just speculate about when and how the mission will be completed. Will the masterminds and operators of the chemical attack be detained, trialed, and punished? That would be the case if the intervention strictly stuck to punishing the use of such weaponry. But their use was not an isolated event, as it occurred in the context of an authoritarian government fighting its people. It can be argued that such leaders should not be allowed to continue in office because of the domestic and potentially international threat they represent. The problem then goes to that will be done the day after Al-Assad is gone. The Syrian opposition has been in pains trying to form a united front against the government, for which it can be expected they will not have either an easy time when it is their turn to rule.

Unfortunately, all those questions are very difficult to answer. For each argument supporting intervention, there will be another one condemning it under grounds inefficient past intervention or of sovereignty violation, or arguing that a multilateral approach, centered on U.N. action, must be followed. Additionally, it is unclear who will have ears for the answers to those questions and be willing to change their behavior in relation to what the discussion says. Now it is time to speak up and, hopefully, prevent an already complex situation from becoming even more complicated by involving the international community in warfare.


Jun 4, 2013

Manning in Maryland

Bradley Manning walking to the court on the first day of the trial (from El País).

Bradley Manning walking to the court on the first day of the trial (from El País).

Yesterday began in the Fort Meade base in Maryland the military trial against Bradley Manning for accessing classified documents of the Army and sharing them while being deployed in Iraq as an intelligence analyst, which ultimately led to their publication in the Wikileaks website. He faces 22 charges, which are mostly related to wrongfully accessing computers and to misusing their information, government-owned and sensitive. The most relevant one, as foreseen in the pre-trial hearings, is that of aiding the enemy (namely, Al-Qaeda) for which he faces a life-long sentence. He has pleaded guilty of 10 of those charges, not including the latter.

The process and the charges must be considered in two stages. First, Manning’s direct actions. He has mentioned that he decided to share the documents for wide publication expecting to increase awareness about some of the failures of the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq. Otherwise said, Bradley wanted to promotion of transparency in governmental information.

Clearly, it was a very dumb way to do it. To begin with, he broke the ethics of any public servant, which is that the information with which one works belongs to the government and must be handled with the utmost care. In addition, the nature of the data he shared could have put his and his teammates’ integrities at risk. Next, he did put the U.S. in a very shameful situation as diplomatic communications, containing judgments sometimes not so favorable about other countries’ politicians which are publicly called friends but are privately criticized. And finally, he did not need to expose his military career in such a way for the world to know the severe problems in the U.S. foreign policy and armed interventions. Manning’s lawyer statement that he was “young and naïve but well-intentioned” is maybe a correct but too soft description of his actions.

The second stage of the process and the charges is helping the enemy. Once Manning has accepted his culpability in the first stage, the trial will move to demonstrating that Osama bin Laden asked for and received information that was available in Wikileaks. Whether or not this happened was out of control of Manning or, at least, he shares responsibility with Julian Assange, the manager of the Wikileaks site, and its webmaster, who are not wanted by justice for those charges. In the second stage of the process Manning will not be trialed for what he did, but for what happened after he acted. Can he be processed for something over which he did not (or not solely) have control?

Manning’s process is a court martial, thus having a special set of assumptions and rules. It is not a “normal” case of disclosed governmental information; its most disastrous use will lead not the destruction of a political career benefitting the adversary political party, but to endangering the lives of soldiers, the nullification of any progress made in the campaign, and, ultimately, putting at risk the national security. In any democratic regime government transparency must be enhanced, and the public must be made aware of the failures of government actions. Similarly, public officers who abuse of the access they have to privileged information must be punished. That is out of the question here, and Manning seems to understand it. What is pending of decision is whether he can be held accountable for what other people did with the information he released. That might be an unjustified burden on a single person, given the openness and plurality expected in a democratic regime. But, again, this is a military environment, and it is not only a judge, but his superiors, who will have the last word.

May 7, 2013

A fog of War: Redux

Rubble in Damascus after an air strike (from The New York Times).

Rubble in Damascus after an air strike (from The New York Times).

The last days the international press has seen a flow of reports related to the alleged utilization of chemical weapons in Syria. However, the information has been contradictory, incomplete, or vague. Some sources say that Bashar Al-Assad’s government has used those weapons against the guerrilla. Others have suggested that it is the rebels who have recurred to them. There is no confirmation on any of those two sets of statements, but some people say that interviews with doctors in the field could be enough to sustain them. For the time being, the Obama administration has no incontrovertible evidence on the use of chemical weapons, and thus the red line that would propel some kind of action has not been yet crossed.

What has been mentioned in the news brings about the same questions that emerge in the prelude of what could become a foreign intervention to protect human rights of a threatened group or to prevent a government from becoming an international menace. Here are some of them: What kind of evidence is needed before a criminal or threatening situation can be confirmed? What kind of confirmation is needed before the option of foreign intervention can be brought to the table? When or why should U.S. interventions be backed by international support? In the case of Rwanda, the decision to act was taken until sufficient evidence had been accumulated to indicate that the massacre had occurred, once it was too late to do anything substantive. In the case of Iraq, photos shown as evidence of Saddam Hussein possessing nuclear weapons were misleading or plain lies. And in almost any single case in the last two decades when the U.S. has decided to act alone it has met the skepticism or disapproval from the international community.

The openness of those questions points out that when crises such as the current one in Syria appear bad decisions can be easily made. Decision-makers (from the analyst in a civilian intelligence agency up to the President) face a lot of uncertainty, hence risk, and are under severe stress. What they decide or suggest doing will have implications on the lives of many people in the country where the intervention might take place and on the lives of U.S. personnel who will participate in the operations. And there is always present the risk of failure, with its multi-faceted consequences: international embarrassment, loss of domestic popular support, attacks from the partisan opposition, or the deterioration of the crisis in the intervened country.

But maybe the most important question that also emerges in these contexts is what has been learned from previous experiences. An editorial in the New York Times urged the Obama administration not to be detained by past mistakes from taking decisive action in Syria. What could be added to that recommendation is that past mistakes should also inform current decision-making processes by teaching decision-makers how to work better under the somewhat normal uncertainty of war environments. In the following days we will see what, if any, are the lessons of U.S. interventions abroad over the last fifteen years.

Feb 27, 2013
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Is There an Emerging Military Drone Complex?

MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan

MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

We often think about approaches toward security as a matter of government policy, set by those in executive or appointed positions and implemented by career civil servants at the Department of State, Department of Defense, or the many intelligence agencies. And to a certain extent, this is true. Look no further than Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Iran. Military engagements, by law, are initiated and led under executive authority. Strategic and diplomatic goals often change with administrations. Choices about resources — particularly funding priorities within the various bureaucracies for the military, intelligence, and foreign aid — all carry consequences and must be approved by the president, even if the budgets themselves are first passed by Congress. Policy, in a bureaucratic sense, begins at the top and flows downward.

Yet, it is equally true that policy choices are constrained, even manipulated, by forces that flow upward. This is most visible (and self-evident) in the world of domestic policy, where powerful lobbies combine with regular elections and grassroots mobilization to shape government behavior. But is the same true in foreign affairs? When Barak Obama entered office in 2009, and immediately recalibrated U.S. policy toward Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism, Iran, Israel, Russia, and a host of other issues, how many viewed those choices as anything other than a reflection of party ideology, or perhaps — cynically — derived from a reading of public opinion?

This frame adds to the intrigue surrounding Obama’s policy on military drones. Unlike every other significant area of security or diplomacy, Obama has not only continued his predecessor’s practice on targeted killings using unmanned aerial vehicles, he has escalated it in stunning fashion. For Democrats and liberals, the practice betrays the fundamental principles that they applaud elsewhere in Obama’s foreign policy approach. The New America Foundation keeps a running database of drone activity from 2004 to the present, with figures on strikes and casualties in Pakistan and Yemen. In a comprehensive report released last month, the Council on Foreign Relations also provided a detailed account of the evolution of drone policy and practice. The trend is clear. In only half the time, President Obama has approved seven times as many drone strikes in non-battlefield environments than President George W. Bush.

Much of the recent debate over Obama’s drone policy has centered around two primary issues: their tactical and strategic value in the field, and the concerns over accountability, oversight, and abuse. Do drones provide better operational flexibility and responsiveness? Do they achieve a strategic security objective? Does the combination of negligible risk to U.S. operators and distance from the destruction on the ground create a moral hazard? These are all worthy of exploration. But they each start from the basic premise that drone policy is, in fact, set at the highest levels of government for reasons that emerge from a traditional security calculus.

Here is a different question. Have the drone wars of recent years given birth to a drone lobby? And if so, is it possible that its influence has been magnified by domestic political events? There is little doubt that drone design and development has emerged as a lucrative niche within the broader industry of military contractors. Like any industry that survives off of government resources, it has a vested interest in advocating vigorously for continued funding and long-term commitments. Yet, unlike producers of other military hardware — tanks, planes, ships — drone manufacturers offer something that the military desperately needs: a highly efficient, comparatively inexpensive weapon in an era of shrinking budgets and force reductions. With the political environment as it is, DOD officials cannot rely upon typical funding or procurement strategies of the past. This, combined with what many assume will be an aversion to large-scale interventions for quite some time, has likely created a situation where the quintessential light-footprint weapon serves an even more useful budgetary purpose. Deficit politics, and the subsequent dysfunction we’ve seen with artificial crises and looming sequestration, have made drones an even more seductive weapon of choice, and perhaps emboldened the growing industry of producers to push for more contracts. For better or worse, the assumed benefits of drone warfare have hardened into conventional wisdom, fueled in part by economic and political considerations that begin far below executive-level decision-making.

I don’t mean to undersell the relevance of strategic debates over how to best address our evolving security challenges. In fact, that is exactly the topic of our upcoming issue in Democracy & Society (shameless plug…don’t miss the chance to submit a piece!). But it is important to remember that domestic political forces can influence foreign policymaking in unexpected ways, far beyond public opinion. As much as we like to think that policies on issues as vital as security begin and end with professional assessments from the experts, incentives matter. On a purely economic and political level, drones provide numerous benefits for a wide array of actors. That, unfortunately, can carry much more weight than the moral or strategic arguments that have thus far failed to gain much traction during Obama’s tenure in office.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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