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Category Archives: geopolitics

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor
The United States apparently has reached the point where it must either accept that Iran will develop nuclear weapons at some point if it wishes, or take military action to prevent this. There is a third strategy, however: Washington can seek to redefine the Iranian question.
As we have no idea what leaders on either side are thinking, exploring this represents an exercise in geopolitical theory. Let’s begin with the two apparent stark choices.

Diplomacy vs. the Military Option

The diplomatic approach consists of creating a broad coalition prepared to impose what have been called crippling sanctions on Iran. Effective sanctions must be so painful that they compel the target to change its behavior. In Tehran’s case, this could only consist of blocking Iran’s imports of gasoline. Iran imports 35 percent of the gasoline it consumes. It is not clear that a gasoline embargo would be crippling, but it is the only embargo that might work. All other forms of sanctions against Iran would be mere gestures designed to give the impression that something is being done.
The Chinese will not participate in any gasoline embargo. Beijing gets 11 percent of its oil from Iran, and it has made it clear it will continue to deliver gasoline to Iran. Moscow’s position is that Russia might consider sanctions down the road, but it hasn’t specified when, and it hasn’t specified what. The Russians are more than content seeing the U.S. bogged down in the Middle East and so are not inclined to solve American problems in the region. With the Chinese and Russians unlikely to embargo gasoline, these sanctions won’t create significant pain for Iran. Since all other sanctions are gestures, the diplomatic approach is therefore unlikely to work.
The military option has its own risks. First, its success depends on the quality of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facilities and on the degree of hardening of those targets. Second, it requires successful air attacks. Third, it requires battle damage assessments that tell the attacker whether the strike succeeded. Fourth, it requires follow-on raids to destroy facilities that remain functional. And fifth, attacks must do more than simply set back Iran’s program a few months or even years: If the risk of a nuclear Iran is great enough to justify the risks of war, the outcome must be decisive.
Each point in this process is a potential failure point. Given the multiplicity of these points — which includes others not mentioned — failure may not be an option, but it is certainly possible.
But even if the attacks succeed, the question of what would happen the day after the attacks remains. Iran has its own counters. It has a superbly effective terrorist organization, Hezbollah, at its disposal. It has sufficient influence in Iraq to destabilize that country and force the United States to keep forces in Iraq badly needed elsewhere. And it has the ability to use mines and missiles to attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf shipping lanes for some period — driving global oil prices through the roof while the global economy is struggling to stabilize itself. Iran’s position on its nuclear program is rooted in the awareness that while it might not have assured options in the event of a military strike, it has counters that create complex and unacceptable risks. Iran therefore does not believe the United States will strike or permit Israel to strike, as the consequences would be unacceptable.
To recap, the United States either can accept a nuclear Iran or risk an attack that might fail outright, impose only a minor delay on Iran’s nuclear program or trigger extremely painful responses even if it succeeds. When neither choice is acceptable, it is necessary to find a third choice.

Redefining the Iranian Problem

As long as the problem of Iran is defined in terms of its nuclear program, the United States is in an impossible place. Therefore, the Iranian problem must be redefined. One attempt at redefinition involves hope for an uprising against the current regime. We will not repeat our views on this in depth, but in short, we do not regard these demonstrations to be a serious threat to the regime. Tehran has handily crushed them, and even if they did succeed, we do not believe they would produce a regime any more accommodating toward the United States. The idea of waiting for a revolution is more useful as a justification for inaction — and accepting a nuclear Iran — than it is as a strategic alternative.
At this moment, Iran is the most powerful regional military force in the Persian Gulf. Unless the United States permanently stations substantial military forces in the region, there is no military force able to block Iran. Turkey is more powerful than Iran, but it is far from the Persian Gulf and focused on other matters at the moment, and it doesn’t want to take on Iran militarily — at least not for a very long time. At the very least, this means the United States cannot withdraw from Iraq. Baghdad is too weak to block Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, and the Iraqi government has elements friendly toward Iran.
Historically, regional stability depended on the Iraqi-Iranian balance of power. When it tottered in 1990, the result was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The United States did not push into Iraq in 1991 because it did not want to upset the regional balance of power by creating a vacuum in Iraq. Rather, U.S. strategy was to re-establish the Iranian-Iraqi balance of power to the greatest extent possible, as the alternative was basing large numbers of U.S. troops in the region.
The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 assumed that once the Baathist regime was destroyed the United States would rapidly create a strong Iraqi government that would balance Iran. The core mistake in this thinking lay in failing to recognize that the new Iraqi government would be filled with Shiites, many of whom regarded Iran as a friendly power. Rather than balancing Iran, Iraq could well become an Iranian satellite. The Iranians strongly encouraged the American invasion precisely because they wanted to create a situation where Iraq moved toward Iran’s orbit. When this in fact began happening, the Americans had no choice but an extended occupation of Iraq, a trap both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought to escape.
It is difficult to define Iran’s influence in Iraq at this point. But at a minimum, while Iran may not be able to impose a pro-Iranian state on Iraq, it has sufficient influence to block the creation of any strong Iraqi government either through direct influence in the government or by creating destabilizing violence in Iraq. In other words, Iran can prevent Iraq from emerging as a counterweight to Iran, and Iran has every reason to do this. Indeed, it is doing just this.

The Fundamental U.S.-Iranian Issue

Iraq, not nuclear weapons, is the fundamental issue between Iran and the United States. Iran wants to see a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq so Iran can assume its place as the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf. The United States wants to withdraw from Iraq because it faces challenges in Afghanistan — where it will also need Iranian cooperation — and elsewhere. Committing forces to Iraq for an extended period of time while fighting in Afghanistan leaves the United States exposed globally. Events involving China or Russia — such as the 2008 war in Georgia — would see the United States without a counter. The alternative would be a withdrawal from Afghanistan or a massive increase in U.S. armed forces. The former is not going to happen any time soon, and the latter is an economic impossibility.
Therefore, the United States must find a way to counterbalance Iran without an open-ended deployment in Iraq and without expecting the re-emergence of Iraqi power, because Iran is not going to allow the latter to happen. The nuclear issue is simply an element of this broader geopolitical problem, as it adds another element to the Iranian tool kit. It is not a stand-alone issue.
The United States has an interesting strategy in redefining problems that involves creating extraordinarily alliances with mortal ideological and geopolitical enemies to achieve strategic U.S. goals. First consider Franklin Roosevelt’s alliance with Stalinist Russia to block Nazi Germany. He pursued this alliance despite massive political outrage not only from isolationists but also from institutions like the Roman Catholic Church that regarded the Soviets as the epitome of evil.
Now consider Richard Nixon’s decision to align with China at a time when the Chinese were supplying weapons to North Vietnam that were killing American troops. Moreover, Mao — who had said he did not fear nuclear war as China could absorb a few hundred million deaths — was considered, with reason, quite mad. Nevertheless, Nixon, as anti-Communist and anti-Chinese a figure as existed in American politics, understood that an alliance (and despite the lack of a formal treaty, alliance it was) with China was essential to counterbalance the Soviet Union at a time when American power was still being sapped in Vietnam.
Roosevelt and Nixon both faced impossible strategic situations unless they were prepared to redefine the strategic equation dramatically and accept the need for alliance with countries that had previously been regarded as strategic and moral threats. American history is filled with opportunistic alliances designed to solve impossible strategic dilemmas. The Stalin and Mao cases represent stunning alliances with prior enemies designed to block a third power seen as more dangerous.
It is said that Ahmadinejad is crazy. It was also said that Mao and Stalin were crazy, in both cases with much justification. Ahmadinejad has said many strange things and issued numerous threats. But when Roosevelt ignored what Stalin said and Nixon ignored what Mao said, they each discovered that Stalin’s and Mao’s actions were far more rational and predictable than their rhetoric. Similarly, what the Iranians say and what they do are quite different.

U.S. vs. Iranian Interests

Consider the American interest. First, it must maintain the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. The United States cannot tolerate interruptions, and that limits the risks it can take. Second, it must try to keep any one power from controlling all of the oil in the Persian Gulf, as that would give such a country too much long-term power within the global system. Third, while the United States is involved in a war with elements of the Sunni Muslim world, it must reduce the forces devoted to that war. Fourth, it must deal with the Iranian problem directly. Europe will go as far as sanctions but no further, while the Russians and Chinese won’t even go that far yet. Fifth, it must prevent an Israeli strike on Iran for the same reasons it must avoid a strike itself, as the day after any Israeli strike will be left to the United States to manage.
Now consider the Iranian interest. First, it must guarantee regime survival. It sees the United States as dangerous and unpredictable. In less than 10 years, it has found itself with American troops on both its eastern and western borders. Second, it must guarantee that Iraq will never again be a threat to Iran. Third, it must increase its authority within the Muslim world against Sunni Muslims, whom it regards as rivals and sometimes as threats.
Now consider the overlaps. The United States is in a war against some (not all) Sunnis. These are Iran’s enemies, too. Iran does not want U.S. troops along its eastern and western borders. In point of fact, the United States does not want this either. The United States does not want any interruption of oil flow through Hormuz. Iran much prefers profiting from those flows to interrupting them. Finally, the Iranians understand that it is the United States alone that is Iran’s existential threat. If Iran can solve the American problem its regime survival is assured. The United States understands, or should, that resurrecting the Iraqi counterweight to Iran is not an option: It is either U.S. forces in Iraq or accepting Iran’s unconstrained role.
Therefore, as an exercise in geopolitical theory, consider the following. Washington’s current options are unacceptable. By redefining the issue in terms of dealing with the consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there are three areas of mutual interest. First, both powers have serious quarrels with Sunni Islam. Second, both powers want to see a reduction in U.S. forces in the region. Third, both countries have an interest in assuring the flow of oil, one to use the oil, the other to profit from it to increase its regional power.
The strategic problem is, of course, Iranian power in the Persian Gulf. The Chinese model is worth considering here. China issued bellicose rhetoric before and after Nixon’s and Kissinger’s visits. But whatever it did internally, it was not a major risk-taker in its foreign policy. China’s relationship with the United States was of critical importance to China. Beijing fully understood the value of this relationship, and while it might continue to rail about imperialism, it was exceedingly careful not to undermine this core interest.
The major risk of the third strategy is that Iran will overstep its bounds and seek to occupy the oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf. Certainly, this would be tempting, but it would bring a rapid American intervention. The United States would not block indirect Iranian influence, however, from financial participation in regional projects to more significant roles for the Shia in Arabian states. Washington’s limits for Iranian power are readily defined and enforced when exceeded.
The great losers in the third strategy, of course, would be the Sunnis in the Arabian Peninsula. But Iraq aside, they are incapable of defending themselves, and the United States has no long-term interest in their economic and political relations. So long as the oil flows, and no single power directly controls the entire region, the United States does not have a stake in this issue.
Israel would also be enraged. It sees ongoing American-Iranian hostility as a given. And it wants the United States to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. But eliminating this threat is not an option given the risks, so the choice is a nuclear Iran outside some structured relationship with the United States or within it. The choice that Israel might want, a U.S.-Iranian conflict, is unlikely. Israel can no more drive American strategy than can Saudi Arabia.
From the American standpoint, an understanding with Iran would have the advantage of solving an increasingly knotty problem. In the long run, it would also have the advantage of being a self-containing relationship. Turkey is much more powerful than Iran and is emerging from its century-long shell. Its relations with the United States are delicate. The United States would infuriate the Turks by doing this deal, forcing them to become more active faster. They would thus emerge in Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran. But Turkey’s anger at the United States would serve U.S. interests. The Iranian position in Iraq would be temporary, and the United States would not have to break its word as Turkey eventually would eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq.
Ultimately, the greatest shock of such a maneuver on both sides would be political. The U.S.-Soviet agreement shocked Americans deeply, the Soviets less so because Stalin’s pact with Hitler had already stunned them. The Nixon-Mao entente shocked all sides. It was utterly unthinkable at the time, but once people on both sides thought about it, it was manageable.
Such a maneuver would be particularly difficult for U.S. President Barack Obama, as it would be widely interpreted as another example of weakness rather than as a ruthless and cunning move. A military strike would enhance his political standing, while an apparently cynical deal would undermine it. Ahmadinejad could sell such a deal domestically much more easily. In any event, the choices now are a nuclear Iran, extended airstrikes with all their attendant consequences, or something else. This is what something else might look like and how it would fit in with American strategic tradition.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

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By Kamran Bokhari, Peter Zeihan and Nathan Hughes
On Feb. 13, some 6,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops launched a sustained assault on the town of Marjah in Helmand province. Until this latest offensive, the U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan had been constrained by other considerations, most notably Iraq. Western forces viewed the Afghan conflict as a matter of holding the line or pursuing targets of opportunity. But now, armed with larger forces and a new strategy, the war — the real war — has begun. The most recent offensive — dubbed Operation Moshtarak (“Moshtarak” is Dari for “together”) — is the largest joint U.S.-NATO-Afghan operation in history. It also is the first major offensive conducted by the first units deployed as part of the surge of 30,000 troops promised by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The United States originally entered Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. In those days of fear and fury, American goals could be simply stated: A non-state actor — al Qaeda — had attacked the American homeland and needed to be destroyed. Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan at the invitation of a near-state actor — the Taliban, which at the time were Afghanistan’s de facto governing force. Since the Taliban were unwilling to hand al Qaeda over, the United States attacked. By the end of the year, al Qaeda had relocated to neighboring Pakistan and the Taliban retreated into the arid, mountainous countryside in their southern heartland and began waging a guerrilla conflict. In time, American attention became split between searching for al Qaeda and clashing with the Taliban over control of Afghanistan.

But from the earliest days following 9/11, the White House was eyeing Iraq, and with the Taliban having largely declined combat in the initial invasion, the path seemed clear. The U.S. military and diplomatic focus was shifted, and as the years wore on, the conflict absorbed more and more U.S. troops, even as other issues — a resurgent Russia and a defiant Iran — began to demand American attention. All of this and more consumed American bandwidth, and the Afghan conflict melted into the background. The United States maintained its Afghan force in what could accurately be described as a holding action as the bulk of its forces operated elsewhere. That has more or less been the state of affairs for eight years.

That has changed with the series of offensive operations that most recently culminated at Marjah.

Marjah Map

Why Marjah? The key is the geography of Afghanistan and the nature of the conflict itself. Most of Afghanistan is custom-made for a guerrilla war. Much of the country is mountainous, encouraging local identities and militias, as well as complicating the task of any foreign military force. The country’s aridity discourages dense population centers, making it very easy for irregular combatants to melt into the countryside. Afghanistan lacks navigable rivers or ports, drastically reducing the region’s likelihood of developing commerce. No commerce to tax means fewer resources to fund a meaningful government or military and encourages the smuggling of every good imaginable — and that smuggling provides the perfect funding for guerrillas.
Rooting out insurgents is no simple task. It requires three things:

  1. Massively superior numbers so that occupiers can limit the zones to which the insurgents have easy access.
  2. The support of the locals in order to limit the places that the guerillas can disappear into.
  3. Superior intelligence so that the fight can be consistently taken to the insurgents rather than vice versa.

Without those three things — and American-led forces in Afghanistan lack all three — the insurgents can simply take the fight to the occupiers, retreat to rearm and regroup and return again shortly thereafter.  But the insurgents hardly hold all the cards. Guerrilla forces are by their very nature irregular. Their capacity to organize and strike is quite limited, and while they can turn a region into a hellish morass for an opponent, they have great difficulty holding territory — particularly territory that a regular force chooses to contest. Should they mass into a force that could achieve a major battlefield victory, a regular force — which is by definition better-funded, -trained, -organized and -armed — will almost always smash the irregulars. As such, the default guerrilla tactic is to attrit and harass the occupier into giving up and going home. The guerrillas always decline combat in the face of a superior military force only to come back and fight at a time and place of their choosing. Time is always on the guerrilla’s side if the regular force is not a local one.

But while the guerrillas don’t require basing locations that are as large or as formalized as those required by regular forces, they are still bound by basic economics. They need resources — money, men and weapons — to operate. The larger these locations are, the better economies of scale they can achieve and the more effectively they can fight their war.

Marjah is perhaps the quintessential example of a good location from which to base. It is in a region sympathetic to the Taliban; Helmand province is part of the Taliban’s heartland. Marjah is very close to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, the religious center of the local brand of Islam, the birthplace of the Taliban, and due to the presence of American forces, an excellent target. Helmand alone produces more heroin than any country on the planet, and Marjah is at the center of that trade. By some estimates, this center alone supplies the Taliban with a monthly income of $200,000. And it is defensible: The farmland is crisscrossed with irrigation canals and dotted with mud-brick compounds — and, given time to prepare, a veritable plague of IEDs. Simply put, regardless of the Taliban’s strategic or tactical goals, Marjah is a critical node in their operations.

The American Strategy

Though operations have approached Marjah in the past, it has not been something NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ever has tried to hold. The British, Canadian and Danish troops holding the line in the country’s restive south had their hands full enough. Despite Marjah’s importance to the Taliban, ISAF forces were too few to engage the Taliban everywhere (and they remain as such). But American priorities started changing about two years ago. The surge of forces into Iraq changed the position of many a player in the country. Those changes allowed a reshaping of the Iraq conflict that laid the groundwork for the current “stability” and American withdrawal. At the same time, the Taliban began to resurge in a big way. Since then the Bush and then Obama administrations inched toward applying a similar strategy to Afghanistan, a strategy that focuses less on battlefield success and more on altering the parameters of the country itself.

As the Obama administration’s strategy has begun to take shape, it has started thinking about endgames. A decades-long occupation and pacification of Afghanistan is simply not in the cards. A withdrawal is, but only a withdrawal where the security free-for-all that allowed al Qaeda to thrive will not return. And this is where Marjah comes in.  Denying the Taliban control of poppy farming communities like Marjah and the key population centers along the Helmand River Valley — and areas like them around the country — is the first goal of the American strategy. The fewer key population centers the Taliban can count on, the more dispersed — and militarily inefficient — their forces will be. This will hardly destroy the Taliban, but destruction isn’t the goal. The Taliban are not simply a militant Islamist force. At times they are a flag of convenience for businessmen or thugs; they can even be, simply, the least-bad alternative for villagers desperate for basic security and civil services. In many parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban are not only pervasive but also the sole option for governance and civil authority.

So destruction of what is in essence part of the local cultural and political fabric is not an American goal. Instead, the goal is to prevent the Taliban from mounting large-scale operations that could overwhelm any particular location. Remember, the Americans do not wish to pacify Afghanistan; the Americans wish to leave Afghanistan in a form that will not cause the United States severe problems down the road. In effect, achieving the first goal simply aims to shape the ground for a shot at achieving the second.

That second goal is to establish a domestic authority that can stand up to the Taliban in the long run. Most of the surge of forces into Afghanistan is not designed to battle the Taliban now but to secure the population and train the Afghan security forces to battle the Taliban later. To do this, the Taliban must be weak enough in a formal military sense to be unable to launch massive or coordinated attacks. Capturing key population centers along the Helmand River Valley is the first step in a strategy designed to create the breathing room necessary to create a replacement force, preferably a replacement force that provides Afghans with a viable alternative to the Taliban.

That is no small task. In recent years, in places where the official government has been corrupt, inept or defunct, the Taliban have in many cases stepped in to provide basic governance and civil authority. And this is why even the Americans are publicly flirting with holding talks with certain factions of the Taliban in hopes that at least some of the fighters can be dissuaded from battling the Americans (assisting with the first goal) and perhaps even joining the nascent Afghan government (assisting with the second).

The bottom line is that this battle does not mark the turning of the tide of the war. Instead, it is part of the application of a new strategy that accurately takes into account Afghanistan’s geography and all the weaknesses and challenges that geography poses. Marjah marks the first time the United States has applied a plan not to hold the line, but actually to reshape the country. We are not saying that the strategy will bear fruit. Afghanistan is a corrupt mess populated by citizens who are far more comfortable thinking and acting locally and tribally than nationally. In such a place indigenous guerrillas will always hold the advantage. No one has ever attempted this sort of national restructuring in Afghanistan, and the Americans are attempting to do so in a short period on a shoestring budget.

At the time of this writing, this first step appears to be going well for American-NATO-Afghan forces. Casualties have been light and most of Marjah already has been secured. But do not read this as a massive battlefield success. The assault required weeks of obvious preparation, and very few Taliban fighters chose to remain and contest the territory against the more numerous and better armed attackers. The American challenge lies not so much in assaulting or capturing Marjah but in continuing to deny it to the Taliban. If the Americans cannot actually hold places like Marjah, then they are simply engaging in an exhausting and reactive strategy of chasing a dispersed and mobile target.

A “government-in-a-box” of civilian administrators is already poised to move into Marjah to step into the vacuum left by the Taliban. We obviously have major doubts about how effective this box government can be at building up civil authority in a town that has been governed by the Taliban for most of the last decade. Yet what happens in Marjah and places like it in the coming months will be the foundation upon which the success or failure of this effort will be built. But assessing that process is simply impossible, because the only measure that matters cannot be judged until the Afghans are left to themselves.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

by George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

A small number of Iranian troops entered Iraq, where they took control of an oil well and raised the Iranian flag Dec. 18. The Iranian-Iraqi border in this region is poorly defined and is contested, with the Iranians claiming this well is in Iranian territory not returned after the Iran-Iraq War. Such incidents have occurred in the past. Given that there were no casualties this time, it therefore would be easy to dismiss this incident, even though at about the same time an Iranian official claimed that Iraq owes Iran about $1 trillion in reparations for starting the Iran-Iraq War. But what would be fairly trivial at another time and place is not trivial now.

Sending a Message With an Incursion

Multiple sources have reported that Tehran ordered the incident. The Iranian government is aware that Washington has said the end of 2009 was to be the deadline for taking action against Iran over its nuclear program — and that according to a White House source, the United States could extend that deadline to Jan. 15, 2010.

That postponement makes an important point. The United States has treated the Iran crisis as something that will be handled on an American timeline. The way that the Obama administration handled the Afghanistan strategy review suggests it assumes that Washington controls the tempo of events sufficiently that it can make decisions carefully, deliberately and with due reflection. If true, that would mean that adversaries like Iran are purely on the defensive, and either have no counter to American moves or cannot counter the United States until after Washington makes its next move.

For Iran, just to accept that premise puts it at an obvious disadvantage. First, Tehran would have to demonstrate that the tempo of events is not simply in American or Israeli hands. Second, Tehran would have to remind the United States and Israel that Iran has options that it might use regardless of whether the United States chooses sanctions or war. Most important, Iran must show that whatever these options are, they can occur before the United States acts — that Iran has axes of its own, and may not wait for the U.S. axe to fall.

The incursion was shaped to make this point without forcing the United States into precipitous action. The location was politically ambiguous. The force was small. Casualties were avoided. At the same time, it was an action that snapped a lot of people to attention. Oil prices climbed. Baghdad and Washington scrambled to try to figure what was going on, and for a while Washington was clearly at a loss, driving home the fact that the United States doesn’t always respond quickly and efficiently to surprises initiated by the other side.

The event eventually died down, and the Iranians went out of their way to minimize its importance. But two points nevertheless were made. The first was that Iran might not wait for Washington to consider all possible scenarios. The second was that the Iranians know how to raise oil prices. And with that lesson, they reminded the Americans that the Iranians have a degree of control over the economic recovery in the United States.

There has never been any doubt that Iran has options in the event that the United States chooses to strike. Significantly, the Iranians now have driven home that they might initiate a conflict if they assume conflict is inevitable.

U.S. and Iranian Options

Iran’s problem becomes clear when we consider Tehran’s options. These options fall into three groups:

  1. Interdicting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf through the use of mines and anti-ship missiles. This would result in a dramatic increase in world oil prices on the Iranian attempt alone and could keep them high if Tehran’s efforts succeeded. The impact on the global economy would be substantial.
  2. Causing massive destabilization in Iraq. The Iranians retain allies and agents in Iraq, which has been experiencing increased violence and destabilization over the past months. As the violence increases and the Americans leave, a close relationship with Iran might be increasingly attractive to Iraqi troops. Given the deployment of American troops, direct attacks in Iraq by Iranian forces are not out of the question. Even if ultimately repulsed, such Iranian incursions could further destabilize Iraq. This would force the Obama administration to reconsider the U.S. withdrawal timetable, potentially affecting Afghanistan.
  3. Use Hezbollah to initiate a conflict with Israel, and as a global tool for terrorist attacks on American and allied targets. Hezbollah is far more sophisticated and effective than al Qaeda was at its height, and would be a formidable threat should Iran choose — and Hezbollah agree — to play this role.

When we look at the three Iranian options, it is clear that the United States would not be able to confine any action against Iran to airstrikes. The United States is extremely good at air campaigns, while it is weak at counterinsurgency. It has massive resources in the region to throw into an air campaign and it can bring more in using carrier strike groups.

But even before hitting Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Americans would have to consider the potential Iranian responses. Washington would have to take three steps. First, Iranian anti-ship missiles and surface vessels — and these vessels could be very small but still able to carry out mine warfare — on the Iranian littoral would have to be destroyed. Second, large formations of Iranian troops along the Iraqi border would have to be attacked, and Iranian assets in Iraq at the very least disrupted. Finally, covert actions against Hezbollah assets — particularly assets outside Lebanon — would have to be neutralized to the extent possible.

This would require massive, coordinated attacks, primarily using airpower and covert forces in a very tight sequence prior to any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Without this, Iran would be in a position to launch the attacks outlined above in response to strikes on its nuclear facilities. Given the nature of the Iranian responses, particularly the mining of the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, the operations could be carried out quickly and with potentially devastating results to the global economy.

From the Iranian standpoint, Tehran faces a “use-it-or-lose-it” scenario. It cannot wait until the United States initiates hostilities. The worst-case scenario for Iran is waiting for Washington to initiate the conflict.

At the same time, the very complexity of an Iranian attack makes the United States want to think long and hard before attacking Iran. The opportunities for failure are substantial, no matter how well the attack is planned. And the United States can’t allow Israel to start a conflict with Iran alone because Israel lacks the resources to deal with a subsequent Iranian naval interdiction and disruptions in Iraq.

It follows that the United States is interested in a nonmilitary solution to the problem. The ideal solution would be sanctions on gasoline. The United States wants to take as much time as needed to get China and Russia committed to such sanctions.

Iranian Pre-emption

The Iranians signaled last week that they might not choose to be passive if effective sanctions were put in place. Sanctions on gasoline would in fact cripple Iran, so like Japan prior to Pearl Harbor, the option of capitulating to sanctions might be viewed as more risky than a pre-emptive strike. And if sanctions didn’t work, the Iranians would have to assume a military attack is coming next. Since the Iranians wouldn’t know when it would happen, and their retaliatory options might disappear in the first phase of the military operation, they would need to act before such an attack.

The problem is that the Iranians won’t know precisely when that attack will take place. The United States and Israel have long discussed a redline in Iranian nuclear development, which if approached would force an attack on Iran to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Logically, Iran would seem to have a redline as well, equally poorly designed. At the point when it becomes clear that sanctions are threatening regime survival or that military action is inevitable, Iran must act first, using its military assets before it loses them.

Iran cannot live with either effective sanctions or the type of campaign that the United States would have to launch to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. The United States can’t live with the consequences of Iranian counteractions to an attack. Even if sanctions were possible, they would leave Iran with the option to do precisely those things Washington cannot tolerate. Therefore, whether the diplomatic or military route is followed, each side has two options. First, the Americans can accept Iran as a nuclear power, or Iran can accept that it must give up its nuclear ambitions. Second, assuming that neither side accepts the first option, each side must take military action before the other side does. The Americans must neutralize counters before the Iranians deploy them. The Iranians must deploy their counters before they are destroyed.

The United States and Iran are both playing for time. Neither side wants to change its position on the nuclear question, although each hopes the other will give in. Moreover, neither side is really confident in its military options. The Americans are not certain that they can both destroy the nuclear facilities and Iranian counters — and if the counters are effective, their consequences could be devastating. The Iranians are not certain that their counters will work effectively, and once failure is established, the Iranians will be wide open for devastating attack. Each side assumes the other understands the risks and will accept the other’s terms for a settlement.

And so each waits, hoping the other side will back down. The events of the past week were designed to show the Americans that Iran is not prepared to back down. More important, they were designed to show that the Iranians also have a redline, that it is as fuzzy as the American redline and that the Americans should be very careful in how far they press, as they might suddenly wake up one morning with their hands full.

The Iranian move is deliberately designed to rattle U.S. President Barack Obama. He has shown a decision-making style that assumes that he is not under time pressure to make decisions. It is not clear to anyone what his decision-making style in a crisis will look like. Though not a prime consideration from the Iranian point of view, putting Obama in a position where he is psychologically unprepared for decisions in the timeframe they need to be made in is certainly an added benefit. Iran, of course, doesn’t know how effectively he might respond, but his approach to Afghanistan gives them another incentive to act sooner than later.

There are some parallels here to the nuclear warfare theory, in which each side faces mutual assured destruction. The problem here is that each side does not face destruction, but pain. And here, pre-emptive strikes are not guaranteed to produce anything. It is the vast unknowns that make this affair so dangerous, and at any moment, one side or the other might decide they can wait no longer.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

By George Friedman – Honorary Political Season Contributor

President Barack Obama’s speech in Oslo marking his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize was eloquent, as most of his speeches are.

It was also enigmatic — both for its justification of war and for his speaking on behalf of the international community while making clear that as commander in chief, his overarching principle is to protect and defend the United States.

In the end, it was difficult to discern precisely what he meant to say. An eloquent and enigmatic speech is not a bad strategy by a president, but it raises this question: At the end of his first year, what precisely is this president’s strategy abroad? Ironically, it is useful to consider Obama in the light of the last president who dominated and defined his time: Ronald Reagan, a man as persuasive, polarizing and enigmatic as the current president.

These two men share much, including charisma and a desire to revive American power abroad. But Obama is about to diverge from this parallel. Whereas Reagan chose to reassert American power to bring U.S. allies back into line, Obama seems to be choosing to rejuvenate American alliances to revive national power. And this choice constitutes the largest foreign policy risk to his presidency in the months and years ahead.

A Year of Presidential Dominance

Obama dominated 2009 as no freshman-year president has since Reagan. As with Reagan, the domination came not only from character and charisma but also from deep public disappointment with his predecessor.

Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter, who was seen as having led the country into the double miasma of a major economic crisis and a global crisis of confidence in the United States. The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981 raised the question of the limits of American power and the extent to which U.S. allies could count on American power. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan drove home the diminished state of American power, as the United States seemed incapable of responding.

George W. Bush very much paralleled Jimmy Carter, as different as their respective ideologies seemed. Like Carter, Bush’s presidency also culminated in a grave economic crisis, while his foreign policy had created deep distrust worldwide about the limits and effectiveness of U.S. power.

It is ironic in the extreme that both Reagan and Obama ran on platforms emphasizing the need to do something about Afghanistan and castigating the prior president for alleged fecklessness with dealing with it. At some point, someone should write a history of the last American generation and its Afghan obsession. This has become a symbol of our times, and not for obvious reasons.

Reagan vs. Obama

The similarities and profound differences between Reagan and Obama are a good starting place for understanding the last year. Reagan took office in a powerful country that seemed to have lost its confidence, and he saw his mission as restoring both American self-confidence in its global mission and its appetite for pursuing it.

To Reagan, the American-led anti-Soviet alliance was in jeopardy not only because of the Carter presidency but also because of Gerald Ford (whom Reagan had challenged for the nomination in 1976) and ultimately because of Richard Nixon. They saw the United States as a declining power and sought to manage that decline. Reagan intended to preside over the reassertion of U.S. power and global leadership.

The Obama presidency is partially a reaction to Bush’s response to 9/11. Obama argued that the war in Iraq was not essential and that it diverted American forces from more important theaters, particularly Afghanistan. Like Reagan, Obama feared the fate of the American alliance system, though for very different reasons.

Whereas Reagan feared that unwarranted American caution was undermining the confidence of the alliance, Obama’s view has been that excessive and misplaced American aggressiveness was undermining its alliance, and weakening the war effort as a result.

Both Reagan and Obama set about changing the self-perception of the United States, and with it the perception of the United States in the world. Neither was uncontroversial in doing this. Indeed, critics vilified both for what they did, frequently in extraordinarily vituperative ways.

Surging Then Sagging Popularity

The controversy of each president has been rooted in a shared fact: Neither won the presidency overwhelmingly. Reagan took 50.7 percent of the vote, but Carter lost by a large margin because of third party candidates. Obama won with 52.9 percent. Put another way, 47.1 percent of the public voted against Obama and 49.3 percent voted against Reagan.

Both surged in popularity after the election and both bled off popularity as the rhetoric wore thin, economic problems continued and actions in foreign affairs didn’t match promises. Reagan fought a brutal battle for tax cuts to stimulate the economy and was attacked by Democrats for greatly increasing the deficit. Obama fought a brutal battle for more spending and was attacked by the Republicans for greatly increasing the deficit.

As a result, Reagan suffered a sharp setback in the 1982 midterm elections as Republicans lost seats in the House of Representatives. Reality overwhelmed rhetoric, and Reagan’s rhetorical skills even began to be used against him. But over time, as the economy recovered, Reagan began to gain ground in foreign policy. There were many failures to be sure, but Reagan succeeded by aligning his policies with geopolitical reality.

The United States was enormously powerful, regardless of psychic wounds and poorly deployed resources. The Soviet Union was much weaker than it appeared to those who feared to challenge it. Reagan did not try to change this reality; instead, he crafted policies that flowed from this reality. For all his mistakes, this made him both a two-term president and one more fondly regarded today than he was in his time.

Repudiation vs. Continuity

This is where the difference between Reagan and Obama begins to emerge, and the two men as historical figures begin to diverge.

Reagan repudiated his predecessor’s foreign policy and understood that by flexing American power, the allies would regain confidence and fall back into line. By contrast, Obama has taken a different turn — and is traveling a much more difficult road. He has retained a high degree of continuity with his predecessor’s policies while seeking to resurrect American power first through popularity in order to get allies to cooperate. This is a complicated proposition at best.

With Iraq, Obama continues the Bush policy of phased withdrawal subject to modification. In Afghanistan, the president has carried out his campaign pledge to increase forces, continuing the war that began in 2001, again with a timetable and again subject to change.

With Iran, Obama continues the Bush policy of using sanctions while not taking any other options, like war, off the table. With Russia, Obama has maintained the position the Bush administration took toward NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia, as well as resisting Russian attempts to dominate the former Soviet Union. With China, Obama’s position is essentially the Bush position of encouraging closer ties, not emphasizing human rights and focusing on tactical economic issues.

This continuity is combined with a so-far successful attempt to create an altogether different sensibility about the United States overseas. Obama has portrayed the Bush administration as being heedless of international opinion, whereas he intends to align the United States with international opinion. This has resonated substantially overseas, with foreign publics and governments being far more enthusiastic about Obama than they were about Bush.

As a result, the president has been particularly proud of the number of nations that are part of the Afghan war coalition, which he puts at 43. The Iraq war saw only 33 countries send troops, substantially less than Afghanistan but still not indicative of isolation. But in both cases this use of popularity as power is illusory. In many cases the numbers of troops sent are merely token gestures of goodwill.

Nevertheless, there is no question that Obama has managed to generate far more excitement and enthusiasm about his presidency overseas than Bush did. This is the marked achievement so far and it is not a trivial one. His goal is to create an international coalition based less on policy than on a perception of the United States as more embedded in the international community.

The question is: Will this gambit succeed? And if the answer is yes, the next question is: What does he plan to do next? Reagan intended to change the U.S. perception of itself to free him to conduct a more aggressive and risk-taking foreign policy. His view of the world was that the American perception of itself was irrational and limiting and that by lifting the limitations, American power would surge.

Obama’s strategy thus far is to change the perception of the United States in foreign countries while at the same time conducting a foreign policy imposed on him by geopolitical reality, much as it imposed itself on Bush. Obama’s problem is that the perception he has deliberately generated and the actions that he has taken are at odds. What will the allies offer him, for instance, if he has simply resurrected American popularity — but not changed U.S. policy?

Indeed, significant policy changes so far have not succeeded. Openings to Iran and Cuba have not been reciprocated. The opening to the Islamic world has not revolutionized U.S. relations in the region. The Russians are deeply suspicious of Obama, as is Eastern Europe. The Chinese find it hard to see a difference. The major impact has been in Europe, in particular Europe west of Poland. But even here there is a difference between popular enthusiasm and the unease of governments, particularly in Germany.

The Obama Paradox

And so it is in Europe that Obama’s strategy will face its defining moment.

In Europe, two goals are at odds. For the Europeans, a definitive, new era is one in which the United States will stop making demands on Europe to support foreign adventures and, ideally, stop engaging in foreign adventures except with European approval.

Obama expects that the Europeans, when approached, will be far more willing to join the United States in foreign adventures because their perception of the United States is more positive.

This is the deep paradox of Obama’s foreign policy, which he expressed in Oslo as he accepted the peace prize and went on to make the case for just war and for sanctions against regimes like Iran. In the coming months, three questions will manifest themselves. The first is: Will the Europeans shift from greater control over U.S. actions and less risk to less control and more risk? The second is: What will the president give them in exchange? How much control will pass to them in a consultative foreign policy? The third: How much active support for the Untied States are the Europeans able and willing to bring to bear?

After all, the reality is that the American president who just accepted the Nobel Peace Prize is engaged in multiple wars and a confrontation with Iran. Europe’s good wishes have some value, but not the same as material engagement. Indeed, it is not clear why foreign states would embrace Bush’s foreign policy conducted by Obama, simply in exchange for consultation. The Europeans will want more.

Aligning Foreign Policy and Geopolitics

Reagan’s foreign policy was elegant and aligned with geopolitics. It sought to create a domestic surge in self-confidence in order to support larger defense budgets and a more aggressive policy toward the Soviet Union. Reagan’s read of the situation was that the United States was stronger than had been thought and the Soviets were weaker. He had many problems along the way: economic setbacks, scandal, etc., and his popularity shifted. But his thrust was clear.

What is inelegant, though, in Obama’s foreign policy is the relation between continuing many of Bush’s old policies while improving America’s image overseas. Continuity is understandable: Geopolitics deals the cards and the choices are few. The utility of the popularity is important; it can only help. What is unclear as he enters his second year is the relationship between the two.

Most presidents do not fully define their strategy in the first year. But those who do not in the second year tend to run into serious political trouble. Obama has time, but not much. He must show the hand he is playing, or invent one, fast.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

With U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement of his strategy in Afghanistan, the U.S.-jihadist war has entered a new phase. With its allies, the United States has decided to increase its focus on the Afghan war while continuing to withdraw from Iraq. Along with focusing on Afghanistan, it follows that there will be increased Western attention on Pakistan. Meanwhile, the question of what to do with Iran remains open, and is in turn linked to U.S.-Israeli relations. The region from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush remains in a war or near-war status. In a fundamental sense, U.S. strategy has not shifted under Obama: The United States remains in a spoiling-attack state.

As we have discussed, the primary U.S. interest in this region is twofold. The first aspect is to prevent the organization of further major terrorist attacks on the United States. The second is to prevent al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups from taking control of any significant countries.

U.S. operations in this region mainly consist of spoiling attacks aimed at frustrating the jihadists’ plans rather than at imposing Washington’s will in the region. The United States lacks the resources to impose its will, and ultimately doesn’t need to. Rather, it needs to wreck its adversaries’ plans. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the primary American approach consists of this tack. That is the nature of spoiling attacks. Obama has thus continued the Bush administration’s approach to the war, though he has shifted some details.

The Jihadist Viewpoint

It is therefore time to consider the war from the jihadist point of view. This is a difficult task given that the jihadists do not constitute a single, organized force with a command structure and staff that could express that view. It is compounded by the fact that al Qaeda prime, our term for the original al Qaeda that ordered and organized the attacks on 9/11 and in Madrid and London, is now largely shattered.

While bearing this in mind, it must be remembered that this fragmentation is both a strategic necessity and a weapon of war for jihadists. The United States can strike the center of gravity of any jihadist force. It naturally cannot strike what doesn’t exist, so the jihadist movement has been organized to deny the United States that center of gravity, or command structure which, if destroyed, would leave the movement wrecked. Thus, even were Osama bin Laden killed or captured, the jihadist movement is set up to continue.

So although we cannot speak of a jihadist viewpoint in the sense that we can speak of an American viewpoint, we can ask this question: If we were a jihadist fighter at the end of 2009, what would the world look like to us, what would we want to achieve and what might we do to try to achieve that?

We must bear in mind that al Qaeda began the war with a core strategic intent, namely, to spark revolutions in the Sunni Muslim world by overthrowing existing regimes and replacing them with jihadist regimes. This was part of the jihadist group’s long-term strategy to recreate a multinational Islamist empire united under al Qaeda’s interpretation of Shariah.

The means toward this end involved demonstrating to the Muslim masses that their regimes were complicit with the leading Christian power, i.e., the United States, and that only American backing kept these Sunni regimes in power. By striking the United States on Sept. 11, al Qaeda wanted to demonstrate that the United States was far more vulnerable than believed, by extension demonstrating that U.S. client regimes were not as powerful as they appeared. This was meant to give the Islamic masses a sense that uprisings against Muslim regimes not dedicated to Shariah could succeed. In their view, any American military response — an inevitability after 9/11 — would further incite the Muslim masses rather than intimidate them.

The last eight years of war have ultimately been disappointing to the jihadists, however. Rather than a massive uprising in the Muslim world, not a single regime has been replaced with a jihadist regime. The primary reason has been that Muslim regimes allied with the United States decided they had more to fear from the jihadists than from the Americans, and chose to use their intelligence and political power to attack and suppress the jihadists. In other words, rather than trigger an uprising, the jihadists generated a strengthened anti-jihadist response from existing Muslim states. The spoiling attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in other countries in the Horn of Africa and North Africa, generated some support for the jihadists, but that support has since diminished and the spoiling attacks have disrupted these countries sufficiently to make them unsuitable as bases of operation for anything more than local attacks. In other words, the attacks tied the jihadists up in local conflicts, diverting them from operations against the United States and Europe.

Under this intense pressure, the jihadist movement has fragmented, though it continues to exist. Incapable of decisive action at the moment, it has goals beyond surviving as a fragmented entity, albeit with some fairly substantial fragments. And it is caught on the horns of a strategic dilemma.

Operationally, jihadists continue to be engaged against the United States. In Afghanistan, the jihadist movement is relying on the Taliban to tie down and weaken American forces. In Iraq, the remnants of the jihadist movement are doing what they can to shatter the U.S.-sponsored coalition government in Baghdad and further tie down American forces by attacking Shiites and key members of the Sunni community. Outside these two theaters, the jihadists are working to attack existing Muslim governments collaborating with the United States — particularly Pakistan — but with periodic attacks striking other Muslim states.

These attacks represent the fragmentation of the jihadists. Their ability to project power is limited. By default, they have accordingly adopted a strategy of localism, in which their primary intent is to strike existing governments while simultaneously tying down American forces in a hopeless attempt to stabilize the situation.

The strategic dilemma is this: The United States is engaged in a spoiling action with the primary aim of creating conditions in which jihadists are bottled up fighting indigenous forces rather than being free to plan attacks on the United States or systematically try to pull down existing regimes. And the current jihadist strategy plays directly into American hands. First, the attacks recruit Muslim regimes into deploying their intelligence and security forces against the jihadists, which is precisely what the United States wants. Secondly, it shifts jihadist strength away from transnational actions to local actions, which is also what the United States wants. These local attacks, which kill mostly Muslims, also serve to alienate many Muslims from the jihadists.

The jihadists are currently playing directly into U.S. hands because, rhetoric aside, the United States cannot regard instability in the Islamic world as a problem. Let’s be more precise on this: An ideal outcome for the United States would be the creation of stable, pro-American regimes in the region eager and able to attack and destroy jihadist networks. There are some regimes in the region like this, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The probability of creating such stable, eager and capable regimes in places like Iraq or Afghanistan is unlikely in the extreme. The second-best outcome for the United States involves a conflict in which the primary forces battling — and neutralizing — each other are Muslim, with the American forces in a secondary role. This has been achieved to some extent in Iraq. Obama’s goal is to create a situation in Afghanistan in which Afghan government forces engage Taliban forces with little or no U.S. involvement. Meanwhile, in Pakistan the Americans would like to see an effective effort by Islamabad to suppress jihadists throughout Pakistan. If they cannot get suppression, the United States will settle for a long internal conflict that would tie down the jihadists.

A Self-Defeating Strategy

The jihadists are engaged in a self-defeating strategy when they spread out and act locally. The one goal they must have, and the one outcome the United States fears, is the creation of stable jihadist regimes. The strategy of locally focused terrorism has proved ineffective. It not only fails to mobilize the Islamic masses, it creates substantial coalitions seeking to suppress the jihadists.

The jihadist attack on the United States has failed. The presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has reshaped the behavior of regional governments. Fear of instability generated by the war has generated counteractions by regional governments. Contrary to what the jihadists expected or hoped for, there was no mass uprising and therefore no counter to anti-jihadist actions by regimes seeking to placate the United States. The original fear, that the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan would generate massive hostility, was not wrong. But the hostility did not strengthen the jihadists, and instead generated anti-jihadist actions by governments.

From the jihadist point of view, it would seem essential to get the U.S. military out of the region and to relax anti-jihadist actions by regional security forces. Continued sporadic and ineffective action by jihadists achieves nothing and generates forces with which they can’t cope. If the United States withdrew, and existing tensions within countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan were allowed to mature undisturbed, new opportunities might present themselves.

Most significantly, the withdrawal of U.S. troops would strengthen Iran. The jihadists are no friends of Shiite Iran, and neither are Iran’s neighbors. In looking for a tool for political mobilization in the Gulf region or in Afghanistan absent a U.S. presence, the Iranian threat would best serve the jihadists. The Iranian threat combined with the weakness of regional Muslim powers would allow the jihadists to join a religious and nationalist opposition to Tehran. The ability to join religion and nationalism would turn the local focus from something that takes the jihadists away from regime change to something that might take them toward it.

The single most powerful motivator for an American withdrawal would be a period of open quiescence. An openly stated consensus for standing down, in particular because of a diminished terrorist threat, would facilitate something the Obama administration wants most of all: a U.S. withdrawal from the region. Providing the Americans with a justification for leaving would open the door for new possibilities. The jihadists played a hand on 9/11 that they hoped would prove a full house. It turned into a bust. When that happens, you fold your hand and play a new one. And there is always a hand being dealt so long as you have some chips left.

The challenge here is that the jihadists have created a situation in which they have defined their own credibility in terms of their ability to carry out terrorist attacks, however poorly executed or counterproductive they have become. Al Qaeda prime’s endless calls for action have become the strategic foundation for the jihadists: Action has become an end in itself. The manner in which the jihadists have survived as a series of barely connected pods of individuals scattered across continents has denied the United States a center of gravity to strike. It has also turned the jihadists from a semi-organized force into one incapable of defining strategic shifts.

The jihadists’ strategic dilemma is that they have lost the 2001-2008 phase of the war but are not defeated. To begin to recoup, they must shift their strategy. But they lack the means for doing so because of what they have had to do to survive. At the same time, there are other processes in play. The Taliban, which has even more reason to want the United States out of Afghanistan, might shift to an anti-jihadist strategy: It could liquidate al Qaeda, return to power in Afghanistan and then reconsider its strategy later. So, too, in other areas.

From the U.S. point of view, an open retreat by the jihadists would provide short-term relief but long-term problems. The moment when the enemy sues for peace is the moment when the pressure should be increased rather than decreased. But direct U.S. interests in the region are so minimal that a more distant terrorist threat will be handled in a more distant future. As the jihadists are too fragmented to take strategic positions, U.S. pressure will continue in any event.

Oddly enough, as much as the United States is uncomfortable in the position it is in, the jihadists are in a much worse position.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

By George Friedman and Reva Bhalla

The decision over whether to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan may wait until the contested Afghan election is resolved, U.S. officials said Oct. 18. The announcement comes as
U.S. President Barack Obama is approaching a decision on the war in Afghanistan. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Obama argued that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time, but Afghanistan was a necessary war. His reasoning went that the threat to the United States came from al Qaeda, Afghanistan had been al Qaeda’s sanctuary, and if the United States were to abandon Afghanistan, al Qaeda would re-establish itself and once again threaten the U.S. homeland. Withdrawal from Afghanistan would hence be dangerous, and prosecution of the war was therefore necessary.

After Obama took office, it became necessary to define a war-fighting strategy in Afghanistan. The most likely model was based on the one used in Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus, now head of U.S. Central Command, whose area of responsibility covers both Afghanistan and Iraq. Paradoxically, the tactical and strategic framework for fighting the so-called “right war” derived from U.S. military successes in executing the so-called “wrong war.” But grand strategy, or selecting the right wars to fight, and war strategy, or how to fight the right wars, are not necessarily linked.

Afghanistan, Iraq and the McChrystal Plan

Making sense of the arguments over Afghanistan requires an understanding of how the Iraq war is read by the strategists fighting it, since a great deal of proposed Afghan strategy involves transferring lessons learned from Iraq. Those strategists see the Iraq war as having had three phases. The first was the short conventional war that saw the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s military. The second was the period from 2003-2006 during which the United States faced a Sunni insurgency and resistance from the Shiite population, as well as a civil war between those two communities. During this phase, the United States sought to destroy the insurgency primarily by military means while simultaneously working to scrape a national unity government together and hold elections. The third phase, which began in late 2006, was primarily a political phase. It consisted of enticing Iraqi Sunni leaders to desert the foreign jihadists in Iraq, splitting the Shiite community among its various factions, and reaching political — and financial — accommodations among the various factions. Military operations focused on supporting political processes, such as pressuring recalcitrant factions and protecting those who aligned with the United States. The troop increase — aka the surge — was designed to facilitate this strategy. Even more, it was meant to convince Iraqi factions (not to mention Iran) that the United States was not going to pull out of Iraq, and that therefore a continuing American presence would back up guarantees made to Iraqis.

It is important to understand this last bit and its effect on Afghanistan. As in Iraq, the idea that the United States will not abandon local allies by withdrawing until Afghan security forces could guarantee the allies’ security lies at the heart of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The premature withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, e.g., before local allies’ security could be guaranteed, would undermine U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. To a great extent, the process of U.S. security guarantees in Afghanistan depends on the credibility of those guarantees: Withdrawal from Iraq followed by retribution against U.S. allies in Iraq would undermine the core of the Afghan strategy.

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan ultimately is built around the principle that the United States and its NATO allies are capable of protecting Afghans prepared to cooperate with Western forces. This explains why the heart of McChrystal’s strategy involves putting U.S. troops as close to the Afghan people as possible. Doing so will entail closing many smaller bases in remote valleys — like the isolated outpost recently attacked in Nuristan province — and opening bases in more densely populated areas.

McChrystal’s strategy therefore has three basic phases. In phase one, his forces would fight their way into regions where a large portion of the population lives and where the Taliban currently operates, namely Kabul, Khost, Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The United States would assume a strategic defensive posture in these populated areas. Because these areas are essential to the Taliban, phase two would see a Taliban counterattack in a bid to drive McChrystal’s forces out, or at least to demonstrate that the U.S. forces cannot provide security for the local population. Paralleling the first two phases, phase three would see McChrystal using his military successes to forge alliances with indigenous leaders and their followers.

It should be noted that while McChrystal’s traditional counterinsurgency strategy would be employed in populated areas, U.S. forces would also rely on traditional counterterrorism tactics in more remote areas where the Taliban have a heavy presence and can be pursued through drone strikes. The hope is that down the road, the strategy would allow the United States to use its military successes to fracture the Taliban, thereby encouraging defections and facilitating political reconciliation with Taliban elements driven more by political power than ideology.

There is a fundamental difference between Iraq and Afghanistan, however. In Iraq, resistance forces rarely operated in sufficient concentrations to block access to the population. By contrast, the Taliban on several occasions have struck with concentrations of forces numbering in the hundreds, essentially at company-size strength. If Iraq was a level one conflict, with irregular forces generally refusing conventional engagement with coalition forces, Afghanistan is beginning to bridge the gap from a level one to a level two conflict, with the Taliban holding territory with forces both able to provide conventional resistance and to mount some offensives at the company level (and perhaps at the battalion level in the future). This means that occupying, securing and defending areas such that the inhabitants see the coalition forces as defenders rather than as magnets for conflict is the key challenge.

Adding to the challenge, elements of McChrystal’s strategy are in tension. First, local inhabitants will experience multilevel conflict as coalition forces move into a given region. Second, McChrystal is hoping that the Taliban goes on the offensive in response. And this means that the first and second steps will collide with the third, which is demonstrating to locals that the presence of coalition forces makes them more secure as conflict increases (which McChrystal acknowledges will happen). To convince locals that Western forces enhance their security, the coalition will thus have to be stunningly successful both at defeating Taliban defenders when they first move in and in repulsing subsequent Taliban attacks.

In its conflict with the Taliban, the coalition’s main advantage is firepower, both in terms of artillery and airpower. The Taliban must concentrate its forces to attack the coalition; to counter such attacks, the weapons of choice are airstrikes and artillery. The problem with both of these weapons is first, a certain degree of inaccuracy is built into their use, and second, the attackers will be moving through population centers (the area held by both sides is important precisely because it has population). This means that air- and ground-fire missions, both important in a defensive strategy, run counter to the doctrine of protecting population.

McChrystal is fully aware of this dilemma, and he has therefore changed the rules of engagement to sharply curtail airstrikes in areas of concentrated population, even in areas where U.S. troops are in danger of being overrun. As McChrystal said in a recent interview, these rules of engagement will hold “Even if it means we are going to step away from a firefight and fight them another day.”

This strategy poses two main challenges. First, it shifts the burden of the fighting onto U.S. infantry forces. Second, by declining combat in populated areas, the strategy runs the risk of making the populated areas where political arrangements might already be in place more vulnerable. In avoiding air and missile strikes, McChrystal avoids alienating the population through civilian casualties. But by declining combat, McChrystal risks alienating populations subject to Taliban offensives. Simply put, while airstrikes can devastate a civilian population, avoiding airstrikes could also devastate Western efforts, as local populations could see declining combat as a betrayal. McChrystal is thus stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place on this one.

One of his efforts at a solution has been to ask for more troops. The point of these troops is not to occupy Afghanistan and impose a new reality through military force, which is impossible (especially given the limited number of troops the United States is willing to dedicate to the problem). Instead, it is to provide infantry forces not only to hold larger areas, but to serve as reinforcements during Taliban attacks so the use of airpower can be avoided. Putting the onus of this counterinsurgency on the infantry, and having the infantry operate without airpower, is a radical departure from U.S. fighting doctrine since World War II.

Seismic Shift in War Doctrine

Geopolitically, the United States fights at the end of a long supply line. Moreover, U.S. forces operate at a demographic disadvantage. Once in Eurasia, U.S. forces are always outnumbered. Infantry-on-infantry warfare is attritional, and the United States runs out of troops before the other side does. Infantry warfare does not provide the United States any advantage, and in fact, it places the United States at a disadvantage. Opponents of the United States thus have larger numbers of fighters; greater familiarity and acclimation to the terrain; and typically, better intelligence from countrymen behind U.S. lines. The U.S. counter always has been force multipliers — normally artillery and airpower — capable of destroying enemy concentrations before they close with U.S. troops. McChrystal’s strategy, if applied rigorously, shifts doctrine toward infantry-on-infantry combat. His plan assumes that superior U.S. training will be the force multiplier in Afghanistan (as it may). But that assumes that the Taliban, a light infantry force with numerous battle-hardened formations optimized for fighting in Afghanistan, is an inferior infantry force. And it assumes that U.S. infantry fighting larger concentrations of Taliban forces will consistently defeat them.

Obviously, if McChrystal drives the Taliban out of secured areas and into uninhabited areas, the United States will have a tremendous opportunity to engage in strategic bombardment both against Taliban militants themselves and against supply lines no longer plugged into populated areas. But this assumes that the Taliban would not reduce its operations from company-level and higher assaults down to guerrilla-level operations in response to being driven out of population centers. If the Taliban did make such a reduction, it would become indistinguishable from the population. This would allow it to engage in attritional warfare against coalition forces and against the protected population to demonstrate that coalition forces can’t protect them. The Taliban already has demonstrated the ability to thrive in both populated and rural areas of Afghanistan, where the terrain favors the insurgent far more than the counterinsurgent.

The strategy of training Afghan soldiers and police to take up the battle and persuading insurgents to change sides faces several realities. The Taliban has an excellent intelligence service built up during the period of its rule and afterward, allowing it to populate the new security forces with its agents and loyalists. And while persuading insurgents to change sides certainly can happen, whether it can happen to the extent of leaving the Taliban materially weakened remains in doubt. In Iraq, this happened not because of individual changes, but because regional ethnic leadership — with their own excellent intelligence capabilities — changed sides and drove out opposing factions. Individual defections were frequently liquidated.

But Taliban leaders have not shown any inclination for changing sides. They do not believe the United States is in Afghanistan to stay. Getting individual Taliban militants to change sides creates an intelligence-security battle. But McChrystal is betting that his forces will form bonds with the local population so deep that the locals will provide intelligence against Taliban forces operating in the region. The coalition must thus demonstrate that the risks of defection are dwarfed by the advantages. To do this, the coalition security and counterintelligence must consistently and effectively block the Taliban’s ability to identify, locate and liquidate defectors. If McChrystal cannot do that, large-scale defection will be impossible, because well before such defection becomes large scale, the first defectors will be dead, as will anyone seen by the Taliban as a collaborator.

Ultimately, the entire strategy depends on how you read Iraq. In Iraq, a political decision was made by an intact Sunni leadership able to enforce its will among its followers. Squeezed between the foreign jihadists who wanted to usurp their position and the Shia, provided with political and financial incentives, and possessing their own forces able to provide a degree of security themselves, the Sunni leadership came to the see the Americans as the lesser evil. They controlled a critical mass, and they shifted. McChrystal has made it clear that the defections he expects are not a Taliban faction whose leadership decides to shift, but Taliban soldiers as individuals or small groups. That isn’t ultimately what turned the Iraq war but something very different — and quite elusive in counterinsurgency. He is looking for retail defections to turn into a strategic event.

Moreover, it seems much too early to speak of the successful strategy in Iraq. First, there is increasing intracommunal violence in anticipation of coming elections early next year. Second, some 120,000 U.S. forces remain in Iraq to guarantee the political and security agreements of 2007-2008, and it is far from clear what would happen if those troops left. Finally, where in Afghanistan there is the Pakistan question, in Iraq there remains the Iran question. Instability thus becomes a cross-border issue beyond the scope of existing forces.

The Pakistan situation is particularly problematic. If the strategic objective of the war in Afghanistan is to cut the legs out from under al Qaeda and deny these foreign jihadists sanctuary, then what of the sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal belt where high-value al Qaeda targets are believed to be located? Pakistan is fighting its share of jihadists according to its own rules; the United States cannot realistically expect Islamabad to fulfill its end of the bargain in containing al Qaeda. The primary U.S. targets in this war are on the wrong side of the border, and in areas where U.S. forces are not free to operate. The American interest in Afghanistan is to defeat al Qaeda and prevent the emergence of follow-on jihadist forces. The problem is that regardless of how secure Afghanistan is, jihadist forces can (to varying degrees) train and plan in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia — or even Cleveland for that matter. Securing Afghanistan is thus not necessarily a precondition for defeating al Qaeda.

Iraq is used as the argument in favor of the new strategy in Afghanistan. What happened in Iraq was that a situation that was completely out of hand became substantially less unstable because of a set of political accommodations initially rejected by the Americans and the Sunnis from 2003-2006. Once accepted, a disastrous situation became an unstable situation with many unknowns still in place.

If the goal of Afghanistan is to forge the kind of tenuous political accords that govern Iraq, the factional conflicts that tore Iraq apart are needed. Afghanistan certainly has factional conflicts, but the Taliban, the main adversary, does not seem to be torn by them. It is possible that under sufficient pressure such splits might occur, but the Taliban has been a cohesive force for a generation. When it has experienced divisions, it hasn’t split decisively.

On the other hand, it is not clear that Western forces in Afghanistan can sustain long-term infantry conflict in which the offensive is deliberately ceded to a capable enemy and where airpower’s use is severely circumscribed to avoid civilian casualties, overturning half a century of military doctrine of combined arms operations.

The Bigger Picture

The best argument for fighting in Afghanistan is powerful and similar to the one for fighting in Iraq: credibility. The abandonment of either country will create a powerful tool in the Islamic world for jihadists to argue that the United States is a weak power. Withdrawal from either place without a degree of political success could destabilize other regimes that cooperate with the United States. Given that, staying in either country has little to do with strategy and everything to do with the perception of simply being there.

The best argument against fighting in either country is equally persuasive. The jihadists are right: The United States has neither the interest nor forces for long-term engagements in these countries. American interests go far beyond the Islamic world, and there are many present (to say nothing of future) threats from outside the region that require forces. Overcommitment in any one area of interest at the expense of others could be even more disastrous than the consequences of withdrawal.

In our view, Obama’s decision depends not on choosing between McChrystal’s strategy and others, but on a careful consideration of how to manage the consequences of withdrawal. An excellent case can be made that now is not the time to leave Afghanistan, and we expect Obama to be influenced by that thinking far more than by the details of McChrystal’s strategy. As McChrystal himself points out, there are many unknowns and many risks in his own strategy;
he is guaranteeing nothing.

Reducing American national strategy to the Islamic world, or worse, Afghanistan, is the greater threat. Nations find their balance, and the heavy pressures on Obama in this decision basically represent those impersonal forces battering him. The question he must ask himself is simple: In what way is the future of Afghanistan of importance to the United States? The answer that securing it will hobble al Qaeda is simply wrong. U.S. Afghan policy will not stop a global terrorist organization; terrorists will just go elsewhere. The answer that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is important in shaping the Islamic world’s sense of American power is better, but even that must be taken in context of other global interests.

Obama does not want this to be his war. He does not want to be remembered for Afghanistan the way George W. Bush is remembered for Iraq or Lyndon Johnson is for Vietnam. Right now, we suspect Obama plans to demonstrate commitment, and to disengage at a more politically opportune time. Johnson and Bush showed that disengagement after commitment is nice in theory. For our part, we do not think there is an effective strategy for winning in Afghanistan, but that McChrystal has proposed a good one for “hold until relieved.” We suspect that Obama will hold to show that he gave the strategy a chance, but that the decision to leave won’t be too far off.

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

Two major leaks occurred this weekend over the Iran matter.

In the first, The New York Times published an article reporting that staff at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear oversight group, had produced an unreleased report saying that Iran was much more advanced in its nuclear program than the IAEA had thought previously. According to the report, Iran now has all the data needed to design a nuclear weapon. The New York Times article added that U.S. intelligence was re-examining the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007, which had stated that Iran was not actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.

The second leak occurred in the British paper The Sunday Times, which reported that the purpose of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly publicized secret visit to Moscow on Sept. 7 was to provide the Russians with a list of Russian scientists and engineers working on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The second revelation was directly tied to the first. There were many, including STRATFOR, who felt that Iran did not have the non-nuclear disciplines needed for rapid progress toward a nuclear device. Putting the two pieces together, the presence of Russian personnel in Iran would mean that the Iranians had obtained the needed expertise from the Russians. It would also mean that the Russians were not merely a factor in whether there would be effective sanctions but also in whether and when the Iranians would obtain a nuclear weapon.

We would guess that the leak to The New York Times came from U.S. government sources, because that seems to be a prime vector of leaks from the Obama administration and because the article contained information on the NIE review. Given that National Security Adviser James Jones tended to dismiss the report on Sunday television, we would guess the report leaked from elsewhere in the administration. The Sunday Times leak could have come from multiple sources, but we have noted a tendency of the Israelis to leak through the British daily on national security issues. (The article contained substantial details on the visit and appeared written from the Israeli point of view.) Neither leak can be taken at face value, of course. But it is clear that these were deliberate leaks — people rarely risk felony charges leaking such highly classified material — and even if they were not coordinated, they delivered the same message, true or not.

The Iranian Time Frame and the Russian Role

The message was twofold. First, previous assumptions on time frames on Iran are no longer valid, and worst-case assumptions must now be assumed. The Iranians are in fact moving rapidly toward a weapon; have been extremely effective at deceiving U.S. intelligence (read, they deceived the Bush administration, but the Obama administration has figured it out); and therefore, we are moving toward a decisive moment with Iran. Second, this situation is the direct responsibility of Russian nuclear expertise. Whether this expertise came from former employees of the Russian nuclear establishment now looking for work, Russian officials assigned to Iran or unemployed scientists sent to Iran by the Russians is immaterial. The Israelis — and the Obama administration — must hold the Russians responsible for the current state of Iran’s weapons program, and by extension, Moscow bears responsibility for any actions that Israel or the United States might take to solve the problem.

We would suspect that the leaks were coordinated. From the Israeli point of view, having said publicly that they are prepared to follow the American lead and allow this phase of diplomacy to play out, there clearly had to be more going on than just last week’s Geneva talks. From the American point of view, while the Russians have indicated that participating in sanctions on gasoline imports by Iran is not out of the question, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev did not clearly state that Russia would cooperate, nor has anything been heard from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the subject. The Russian leadership appears to be playing “good cop, bad cop” on the matter, and the credibility of anything they say on Iran has little weight in Washington.

It would seem to us that the United States and Israel decided to up the ante fairly dramatically in the wake of the Oct. 1 meeting with Iran in Geneva. As IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei visits Iran, massive new urgency has now been added to the issue. But we must remember that Iran knows whether it has had help from Russian scientists; that is something that can’t be bluffed. Given that this specific charge has been made — and as of Monday not challenged by Iran or Russia — indicates to us more is going on than an attempt to bluff the Iranians into concessions. Unless the two leaks together are completely bogus, and we doubt that, the United States and Israel are leaking information already well known to the Iranians. They are telling Tehran that its deception campaign has been penetrated, and by extension are telling it that it faces military action — particularly if massive sanctions are impractical because of more Russian obstruction.

If Netanyahu went to Moscow to deliver this intelligence to the Russians, the only surprise would have been the degree to which the Israelis had penetrated the program, not that the Russians were there. The Russian intelligence services are superbly competent, and keep track of stray nuclear scientists carefully. They would not be surprised by the charge, only by Israel’s knowledge of it.

This, of course leaves open an enormous question. Certainly, the Russians appear to have worked with the Iranians on some security issues and have played with the idea of providing the Iranians more substantial military equipment. But deliberately aiding Iran in building a nuclear device seems beyond Russia’s interests in two ways. First, while Russia wants to goad the United States, it does not itself really want a nuclear Iran. Second, in goading the United States, the Russians know not to go too far; helping Iran build a nuclear weapon would clearly cross a redline, triggering reactions.

A number of possible explanations present themselves. The leak to The Sunday Times might be wrong. But The Sunday Times is not a careless newspaper: It accepts leaks only from certified sources. The Russian scientists might be private citizens accepting Iranian employment. But while this is possible, Moscow is very careful about what Russian nuclear engineers do with their time. Or the Russians might be providing enough help to goad the United States but not enough to ever complete the job. Whatever the explanation, the leaks paint the Russians as more reckless than they have appeared, assuming the leaks are true.

And whatever their veracity, the leaks — the content of which clearly was discussed in detail among the P-5+1 prior to and during the Geneva meetings, regardless of how long they have been known by Western intelligence — were made for two reasons. The first was to tell the Iranians that the nuclear situation is now about to get out of hand, and that attempting to manage the negotiations through endless delays will fail because the United Nations is aware of just how far Tehran has come with its weapons program. The second was to tell Moscow that the issue is no longer whether the Russians will cooperate on sanctions, but the consequence to Russia’s relations with the United States and at least the United Kingdom, France and, most important, possibly Germany. If these leaks are true, they are game changers.

We have focused on the Iranian situation not because it is significant in itself, but because it touches on a great number of other crucial international issues. It is now entangled in the Iraqi, Afghan, Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese issues, all of them high-stakes matters. It is entangled in Russian relations with Europe and the United States. It is entangled in U.S.-European relationships and with relationships within Europe. It touches on the U.S.-Chinese relationship. It even touches on U.S. relations with Venezuela and some other Latin American countries. It is becoming the Gordian knot of international relations.

STRATFOR first focused on the Russian connection with Iran in the wake of the Iranian elections and resulting unrest, when a crowd of Rafsanjani supporters began chanting “Death to Russia,” not one of the top-10 chants in Iran. That caused us to focus on the cooperation between Russia and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on security matters. We were aware of some degree of technical cooperation on military hardware, and of course on Russian involvement in Iran’s civilian nuclear program. We were also of the view that the Iranians were unlikely to progress quickly with their nuclear program. We were not aware that Russian scientists were directly involved in Iran’s military nuclear project, which is not surprising, given that such involvement would be Iran’s single-most important state secret — and Russia’s, too.

A Question of Timing

But there is a mystery here as well. To have any impact, the Russian involvement must have been under way for years. The United States has tried to track rogue nuclear scientists and engineers — anyone who could contribute to nuclear proliferation — since the 1990s. The Israelis must have had their own program on this, too. Both countries, as well as European intelligence services, were focused on Iran’s program and the whereabouts of Russian scientists. It is hard to believe that they only just now found out. If we were to guess, we would say Russian involvement has been under way since just after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, when the Russians decided that the United States was a direct threat to its national security.

Therefore, the decision suddenly to confront the Russians, and suddenly to leak U.N. reports — much more valuable than U.S. reports, which are easier for the Europeans to ignore — cannot simply be because the United States and Israel just obtained this information. The IAEA, hostile to the United States since the invasion of Iraq and very much under the influence of the Europeans, must have decided to shift its evaluation of Iran. But far more significant is the willingness of the Israelis first to confront the Russians and then leak about Russian involvement, something that obviously compromises Israeli sources and methods. And that means the Israelis no longer consider the preservation of their intelligence operation in Iran (or wherever it was carried out) as of the essence.

Two conclusions can be drawn. First, the Israelis no longer need to add to their knowledge of Russian involvement; they know what they need to know. And second, the Israelis do not expect Iranian development to continue much longer; otherwise, maintaining the intelligence capability would take precedence over anything else.

It follows from this that the use of this intelligence in diplomatic confrontations with Russians and in a British newspaper serves a greater purpose than the integrity of the source system. And that means that the Israelis expect a resolution in the very near future — the only reason they would have blown their penetration of the Russian-Iranian system.

Possible Outcomes

There are two possible outcomes here. The first is that having revealed the extent of the Iranian program and having revealed the Russian role in a credible British newspaper, the Israelis and the Americans (whose own leak in The New York Times underlined the growing urgency of action) are hoping that the Iranians realize that they are facing war and that the Russians realize that they are facing a massive crisis in their relations with the West. If that happens, then the Russians might pull their scientists and engineers, join in the sanctions and force the Iranians to abandon their program.

The second possibility is that the Russians will continue to play the spoiler on sanctions and will insist that they are not giving support to the Iranians. This leaves the military option, which would mean broad-based action, primarily by the United States, against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Any military operation would involve keeping the Strait of Hormuz clear, meaning naval action, and we now know that there are more nuclear facilities than previously discussed. So while the war for the most part would be confined to the air and sea, it would be extensive nonetheless.

Sanctions or war remain the two options, and which one is chosen depends on Moscow’s actions. The leaks this weekend have made clear that the United States and Israel have positioned themselves such that not much time remains. We have now moved from a view of Iran as a long-term threat to Iran as a much more immediate threat thanks to the Russians.

The least that can be said about this is that the Obama administration and Israel are trying to reshape the negotiations with the Iranians and Russians. The most that can be said is that the Americans and Israelis are preparing the public for war. Polls now indicate that more than 60 percent of the U.S. public now favors military action against Iran. From a political point of view, it has become easier for U.S. President Barack Obama to act than to not act. This, too, is being transmitted to the Iranians and Russians.

It is not clear to us that the Russians or Iranians are getting the message yet. They have convinced themselves that Obama is unlikely to act because he is weak at home and already has too many issues to juggle. This is a case where a reputation for being conciliatory actually increases the chances for war. But the leaks this weekend have strikingly limited the options and timelines of the United States and Israel. They also have put the spotlight on Obama at a time when he already is struggling with health care and Afghanistan. History is rarely considerate of presidential plans, and in this case, the leaks have started to force Obama’s hand.

….with the exception of the bit about a nuclear detonation in an American city, that the following is a correct line of reasoning from the commenter R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. at Real Clear Politics:

My prejudicial judgments. Obama, a very bright articulate, persuasive orator, for the first time in his life, holds both the burden of real decision making and confronts opponents who have no qualms about killing their enemies. Obama’s opposition were George Bush, Gitmo, the Iraq war, and global warming. Obama made much, during the campaign, of an intelligence report that flatly contradicted Bush’s position that Iran was pursuing the bomb. It crippled Bush’s foreign policies in the middle east. We now know that report was either incorrect, or a lie. Iran had repeatedly cheated and lied about a basic cause of war. Obama knew the truth when He spoke in Cairo, and apologized for our policies. Looking at the cards, the world will suffer a nuclear explosion in a city, within the Obama Administration. Prime targets would be Tel Aviv, New York, or Washington D.C. There is nothing in Obama’s background to indicate that he is capable of facing this horror. Very few humans could. World leaders have come to a judgment that the US is led by an ineffective Commander-in-Chief, one who mouths empty words. I pray that Sarkozy, and I, are wrong.

I pray he’s wrong too.

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor



During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, now-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said that like all U.S. presidents, Barack Obama would face a foreign policy test early in his presidency if elected. That test is now here.

His test comprises two apparently distinct challenges, one in Afghanistan and one in Iran. While different problems, they have three elements in common. First, they involve the question of his administration’s overarching strategy in the Islamic world. Second, the problems are approaching decision points (and making no decision represents a decision here). And third, they are playing out very differently than Obama expected during the 2008 campaign.

During the campaign, Obama portrayed the Iraq war as a massive mistake diverting the United States from Afghanistan, the true center of the “war on terror.” He accordingly promised to shift the focus away from Iraq and back to Afghanistan. Obama’s views on Iran were more amorphous. He supported the doctrine that Iran should not be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons, while at the same time asserted that engaging Iran was both possible and desirable. Embedded in the famous argument over whether offering talks without preconditions was appropriate (something now-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attacked him for during the Democratic primary) was the idea that the problem with Iran stemmed from Washington’s refusal to engage in talks with Tehran.

We are never impressed with campaign positions, or with the failure of the victorious candidate to live up to them. That’s the way American politics work. But in this case, these promises have created a dual crisis that Obama must make decisions about now.

Iran

Back in April, in the midst of the financial crisis, Obama reached an agreement at the G-8 meeting that the Iranians would have until Sept. 24 and the G-20 meeting to engage in meaningful talks with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P-5+1) or face intensely increased sanctions. His administration was quite new at the time, so the amount of thought behind this remains unclear. On one level, the financial crisis was so intense and September so far away that Obama and his team probably saw this as a means to delay a secondary matter while more important fires were flaring up.

But there was more operating than that. Obama intended to try to bridge the gap between the Islamic world and the United States between April and September. In his speech to the Islamic world from Cairo, he planned to show a desire not only to find common ground, but also to acknowledge shortcomings in U.S. policy in the region. With the appointment of special envoys George Mitchell (for Israel and the Palestinian territories) and Richard Holbrooke (for Pakistan and Afghanistan), Obama sought to build on his opening to the Islamic world with intense diplomatic activity designed to reshape regional relationships.

It can be argued that the Islamic masses responded positively to Obama’s opening — it has been asserted to be so and we will accept this — but the diplomatic mission did not solve the core problem. Mitchell could not get the Israelis to move on the settlement issue, and while Holbrooke appears to have made some headway on increasing Pakistan’s aggressiveness toward the Taliban, no fundamental shift has occurred in the Afghan war.

Most important, no major shift has occurred in Iran’s attitude toward the United States and the P-5+1 negotiating group. In spite of Obama’s Persian New Year address to Iran, the Iranians did not change their attitude toward the United States. The unrest following Iran’s contested June presidential election actually hardened the Iranian position. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remained president with the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while the so-called moderates seemed powerless to influence their position. Perceptions that the West supported the demonstrations have strengthened Ahmadinejad’s hand further, allowing him to paint his critics as pro-Western and himself as an Iranian nationalist.

But with September drawing to a close, talks have still not begun. Instead, they will begin Oct. 1. And last week, the Iranians chose to announce that not only will they continue work on their nuclear program (which they claim is not for military purposes), they have a second, hardened uranium enrichment facility near Qom. After that announcement, Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy held a press conference saying they have known about the tunnel for several months, and warned of stern consequences.

This, of course, raises the question of what consequences. Obama has three choices in this regard.

First, he can impose crippling sanctions against Iran. But that is possible only if the Russians cooperate. Moscow has the rolling stock and reserves to supply all of Iran’s fuel needs if it so chooses, and Beijing can also remedy any Iranian fuel shortages. Both Russia and China have said they don’t want sanctions; without them on board, sanctions are meaningless.

Second, Obama can take military action against Iran, something easier politically and diplomatically for the United States to do itself rather than rely on Israel. By itself, Israel cannot achieve air superiority, suppress air defenses, attack the necessary number of sites and attempt to neutralize Iranian mine-laying and anti-ship capability all along the Persian Gulf. Moreover, if Israel struck on its own and Iran responded by mining the Strait of Hormuz, the United States would be drawn into at least a naval war with Iran — and probably would have to complete the Israeli airstrikes, too.

And third, Obama could choose to do nothing (or engage in sanctions that would be the equivalent of doing nothing). Washington could see future Iranian nuclear weapons as an acceptable risk. But the Israelis don’t, meaning they would likely trigger the second scenario. It is possible that the United States could try to compel Israel not to strike — though it’s not clear whether Israel would comply — something that would leave Obama publicly accepting Iran’s nuclear program.

And this, of course, would jeopardize Obama’s credibility. It is possible for the French or Germans to waffle on this issue; no one is looking to them for leadership. But for Obama simply to acquiesce to Iranian nuclear weapons, especially at this point, would have significant diplomatic and domestic political ramifications. Simply put, Obama would look weak — and that, of course, is why the Iranians announced the second nuclear site. They read Obama as weak, and they want to demonstrate their own resolve. That way, if the Russians were thinking of cooperating with the United States on sanctions, Moscow would be seen as backing the weak player against the strong one. The third option, doing nothing, therefore actually represents a significant action.

Afghanistan

In a way, the same issue is at stake in Afghanistan. Having labeled Afghanistan as critical — indeed, having campaigned on the platform that the Bush administration was fighting the wrong war — it would be difficult for Obama to back down in Afghanistan. At the same time, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has reported that without a new strategy and a substantial increase in troop numbers, failure in Afghanistan is likely.

The number of troops being discussed, 30,000-40,000, would bring total U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan to just above the number of troops the Soviet Union deployed there in its war (just under 120,000) — a war that ended in failure. The new strategy being advocated would be one in which the focus would not be on the defeat of the Taliban by force of arms, but the creation of havens for the Afghan people and protecting those havens from the Taliban.

A move to the defensive when time is on your side is not an unreasonable strategy. But it is not clear that time is on Western forces’ side. Increased offensives are not weakening the Taliban. But halting attacks and assuming that the Taliban will oblige the West by moving to the offensive, thereby opening itself to air and artillery strikes, probably is not going to happen. And while assuming that the country will effectively rise against the Taliban out of the protected zones the United States has created is interesting, it does not strike us as likely. The Taliban is fighting the long war because it has nowhere else to go. Its ability to maintain military and political cohesion following the 2001 invasion has been remarkable. And betting that the Pakistanis will be effective enough to break the Taliban’s supply lines is hardly the most prudent bet.

In short, Obama’s commander on the ground has told him the current Afghan strategy is failing. He has said that unless that strategy changes, more troops won’t help, and that a change of strategy will require substantially more troops. But when we look at the proposed strategy and the force levels, it is far from obvious that even that level of commitment will stand a chance of achieving meaningful results quickly enough before the forces of Washington’s NATO allies begin to withdraw and U.S. domestic resolve erodes further.

Obama has three choices in Afghanistan. He can continue to current strategy and force level, hoping to prolong failure long enough for some undefined force to intervene. He can follow McChrystal’s advice and bet on the new strategy. Or he can withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Once again, doing nothing — the first option — is doing something quite significant.

The Two Challenges Come Together

The two crises intermingle in this way: Every president is tested in foreign policy, sometimes by design and sometimes by circumstance. Frequently, this happens at the beginning of his term as a result of some problem left by his predecessor, a strategy adopted in the campaign or a deliberate action by an antagonist. How this happens isn’t important. What is important is that Obama’s test is here. Obama at least publicly approached the presidency as if many of the problems the United States faced were due to misunderstandings about or the thoughtlessness of the United States. Whether this was correct is less important than that it left Obama appearing eager to accommodate his adversaries rather than confront them.

No one has a clear idea of Obama’s threshold for action.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban takes the view that the British and Russians left, and that the Americans will leave, too. We strongly doubt that the force level proposed by McChrystal will be enough to change their minds. Moreover, U.S. forces are limited, with many still engaged in Iraq. In any case, it isn’t clear what force level would suffice to force the Taliban to negotiate or capitulate — and we strongly doubt that there is a level practical to contemplate.

In Iran, Ahmadinejad clearly perceives that challenging Obama is low-risk and high reward. If he can finally demonstrate that the United States is unwilling to take military action regardless of provocations, his own domestic situation improves dramatically, his relationship with the Russians deepens, and most important, his regional influence — and menace — surges. If Obama accepts Iranian nukes without serious sanctions or military actions, the American position in the Islamic world will decline dramatically. The Arab states in the region rely on the United States to protect them from Iran, so U.S. acquiescence in the face of Iranian nuclear weapons would reshape U.S. relations in the region far more than a hundred Cairo speeches.

There are four permutations Obama might choose in response to the dual crisis. He could attack Iran and increase forces in Afghanistan, but he might well wind up stuck in a long-term war in Afghanistan. He could avoid that long-term war by withdrawing from Afghanistan and also ignore Iran’s program, but that would leave many regimes reliant on the United States for defense against Iran in the lurch. He could increase forces in Afghanistan and ignore Iran — probably yielding the worst of all possible outcomes, namely, a long-term Afghan war and an Iran with a nuclear program if not nuclear weapons.

On pure logic, history or politics aside, the best course is to strike Iran and withdraw from Afghanistan. That would demonstrate will in the face of a significant challenge while perhaps reshaping Iran and certainly avoiding a drawn-out war in Afghanistan. Of course, it is easy for those who lack power and responsibility — and the need to govern — to provide logical choices. But the forces closing in on Obama are substantial, and there are many competing considerations in play.

Presidents eventually arrive at the point where something must be done, and where doing nothing is very much doing something. At this point, decisions can no longer be postponed, and each choice involves significant risk. Obama has reached that point, and significantly, in his case, he faces a double choice. And any decision he makes will reverberate.

Political Season Reaction: This is it folks. We are about to get a definitive demonstration of the size and vitality of President Obama’s cojones. If I were the President and it appeared that I could not get the Russians and the Chinese to get on board for crippling sanctions, based on this analysis, I would opt to attack Iran directly and bomb the living daylights out of them. Obama gets reports about what they are thinking in foreign capitals and I hope to hell that he finds the perception of him as weak really distasteful and decides to smash Ahmadinejads’s face. I don’t like the idea of yet more warfare and bloodshed and the upheaval worldwide that will come with it if we strike Iran, but better Obama do it and take his destiny into his own hands than be pulled along by events he did not initiate. Obama stated many times during the campaign that he would not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and its going to be difficult to back away from that now. Bush doubled down and did the surge and the combatants recalculated. Obama may have to double down on Iran and force a rethink worldwide about what he is capable of and willing to do. This is it. For Obama, its gut check time.

From Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard:

“When Barack Obama strode on stage to scold Iran for its failure to disclose the existence of a second uranium-enrichment facility in the country, his message was timid and at times almost apologetic. When the tough language came, it was because French president Nicolas Sarkozy had taken the podium. Sarkozy excoriated the Iranians for their deception, saying that the revelations have caused “a very severe confidence crisis” and issued a time-specific warning about oft-threatened (but never implemented) sanctions. “We cannot let the Iranian leaders gain time while the centrifuges are spinning,” he declared. “If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be imposed.”

The above is one of several pieces I have seen since the UN meetings began that essentially says, “France’s Sarkozy talks tougher than Obama” and the comparison is made to paint Obama as weak. Its trash talking foolishness. Lets bottomline it. If push comes to shove on Iran, the US is going to do the shoving. There won’t be a frenchman anywhere to be found if the time comes to dance with Iran. Someone remind me: how many French combat troops are on the ground in Iraq? In Afghanistan they number about 2,000 or so mostly stationed in and around Kabul (not where the real heavy lifting is going down).

I really want to understand the logic of all these people who are so hot to mix it up with Iran and spend so much time trying to paint Obama as a coward. First off, Obama’s diplomatic dance is actually Bush’s diplomatic dance. This is the same policy people, for the same reasons. The consequences and unknown impacts of large scale military action against Iran are no joke. Bush hesitated to pull such a trigger and Obama isn’t jumping to do it for the same reasons. Lets be clear about the realities of such an action and likely aftermath. George Friedman summarizes nicely:

First, a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be no one-day affair. Intelligence on precise locations has uncertainty built into it, and any strike would consist of multiple phases: destroying Iran’s air force and navy, destroying Iran’s anti-aircraft capability to guarantee total command of the skies, the attacks on the nuclear facilities themselves, analysis of the damage, perhaps a second wave, and of course additional attacks to deal with any attempted Iranian retaliation. The target set would be considerable, and would extend well beyond the targets directly related to the nuclear program, making such an operation no simple matter.

Israel could unilaterally draw the United States into an airstrike on Iran. Were Israel to strike Iran by any means, it most likely would lack the ability to conduct an extended air campaign. And the United States could not suffer the consequences of airstrikes without the benefits of taking out Iran’s nuclear program. Apart from the political consequences, the U.S. Navy would be drawn into the suppression of Iranian naval capabilities in the Persian Gulf whether it wanted to or not simply to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. Even if Iran didn’t act to close off the strait, Washington would have to assume that it might, an eventuality it could not afford. So an Israeli attack would likely draw in the United States against Iran one way or another. The United States has had no appetite for such an eventuality, particularly since it considers a deliverable Iranian nuclear weapon a ways off. The U.S. alternative — in both administrations — was diplomatic.

Second, Iran has the ability to respond in a number of ways. One is unleashing terrorist attacks worldwide via Hezbollah. But the most significant response would be blocking the Strait of Hormuz using either anti-ship missiles or naval mines. The latter are more threatening largely because the clearing operation could take a considerable period and it would be difficult to know when you had cleared all of the mines. Tankers and their loads are worth about $170 million at current prices, and that uncertainty could cause owners to refuse the trip. Oil exports could fall dramatically, and the effect on the global economy — particularly now amid the global financial crisis — could be absolutely devastating. Attacking Iran would be an air-sea battle, and could even include limited ground forces inserted to ensure that the nuclear facilities were destroyed.

This is what we’re talking about people. Bush hesitated rightly to jump this off, and Obama is not doing anything different. There was a strategic rationale for doing Iraq, one I don’t quibble with, but we’re in Iraq 6+ years because we didn’t think through some of the angles. What is it that these dweebs at the Weekly Standard and all those who want to make a game out of calling the President weak want to have happen? Are they really so cavalier about the costs and consequences of putting a hit on Iran? We’re talking about jumping off open warfare with a regional power by severely bombing the place for at least a week, a country that we don’t intend to occupy and couldn’t if we wanted to. Its absolutely irresponsible.

I agree that their is some uncertainty about the character of Obama’s cahones in these matters. As has been asked elsewhere, Obama is loved in many places, but does anyone fear him? Obama is aware of the sentiment at home and in foreign capitals that he is weak. The time may come that he’s going to have to do something seriously unpleasant to someone to make his point. But there is no intellectual or patriotic honesty in goading the President into being some kind of cowboy with regard to Iran. The consequences of military action are serious and unforeseeable, particularly in a time when the global economy is still a fragile mess. The reality is that Iran is still some ways off from a viable nuclear weapon. If he can contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions by getting Russia to deal on crippling sanctions and using diplomacy, that is preferred to the alternative and the unknowns that come with it.

For heaven’s sake, cease and desist with the comparisons to Sarkozy for toughness. When it comes time to play globo-cop, that 911 is not going to ring at Sarkozy’s desk. It is EASY for Sarkozy to talk tough, because when it comes down to it, he is not the one who’s going to have to face off against Iran. That’s going to be Obama’s job. When France becomes the country that gets the call to kick butt and take names, then feel free to tell me all about how Sarkozy is such a badass. Until then, please shut the hell up.