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By George Friedman ~ Honorable Political Season Contributor
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 23. The meeting follows the explosion in U.S.-Israeli relations after Israel announced it was licensing construction of homes in East Jerusalem while U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel. The United States wants Israel to stop all construction of new Jewish settlements. The Israelis argue that East Jerusalem is not part of the occupied territories, and hence, the U.S. demand doesn’t apply there. The Americans are not parsing their demand so finely and regard the announcement — timed as it was — as a direct affront and challenge. Israel’s response is that it is a sovereign state and so must be permitted to do as it wishes. The implicit American response is that the United States is also a sovereign state and will respond as it wishes.
The polemics in this case are not the point. The issue is more fundamental: namely, the degree to which U.S. and Israeli relations converge and diverge. This is not a matter of friendship but, as in all things geopolitical, of national interest. It is difficult to discuss U.S. and Israeli interests objectively, as the relationship is clouded with endless rhetoric and simplistic formulations. It is thus difficult to know where to start, but two points of entry into this controversy come to mind.
The first is the idea that anti-Americanism in the Middle East has its roots in U.S. support for Israel, a point made by those in the United States and abroad who want the United States to distance itself from Israel. The second is that the United States has a special strategic relationship with Israel and a mutual dependency. Both statements have elements of truth, but neither is simply true — and both require much more substantial analysis. In analyzing them, we begin the process of trying to disentangle national interests from rhetoric.

Anti-Americanism in the Middle East

Begin with the claim that U.S. support for Israel generates anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world. While such support undoubtedly contributes to the phenomenon, it hardly explains it. The fundamental problem with the theory is that Arab anti-Americanism predates significant U.S. support for Israel. Until 1967, the United States gave very little aid to Israel. What aid Washington gave was in the form of very limited loans to purchase agricultural products from the United States — a program that many countries in the world participated in. It was France, not the United States, which was the primary supplier of weapons to Israeli.
In 1956, Israel invaded the Sinai while Britain and France seized the Suez Canal, which the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdul Nasser had nationalized. The Eisenhower administration intervened — against Israel and on the side of Egypt. Under U.S. pressure, the British, French and Israelis were forced to withdraw. There were widespread charges that the Eisenhower administration was pro-Arab and anti-Israeli; certainly no one could argue that Eisenhower was significantly pro-Israel.
In spite of this, Nasser entered into a series of major agreements with the Soviet Union. Egypt effectively became a Soviet ally, the recipient of massive Soviet aid and a center of anti-American rhetoric. Whatever his reasons — and they had to do with U.S. unwillingness to give Egypt massive aid — Egypt’s anti-American attitude had nothing to do with the Israelis, save perhaps that the United States was not prepared to join Egypt in trying to destroy Israel.
Two major political events took place in 1963: left-wing political coups in Syria and Iraq that brought the Baathist Party to power in both countries. Note that this took place pre-1967, i.e., before the United States became closely aligned with Israel. Both regimes were pro-Soviet and anti-American, but neither could have been responding to U.S. support for Israel because there wasn’t much.
In 1964, Washington gave Cairo the first significant U.S. military aid in the form of Hawk missiles, but it gave those to other Arab countries, too, in response to the coups in Iraq and Syria. The United States feared the Soviets would base fighters in those two countries, so it began installing anti-air systems to try to block potential Soviet airstrikes on Saudi Arabia.
In 1967, France broke with Israel over the Arab-Israeli conflict that year. The United States began significant aid to Israel. In 1973, after the Syrian and Egyptian attack on Israel, the U.S. began massive assistance. In 1974 this amounted to about 25 percent of Israeli gross domestic product (GDP). The aid has continued at roughly the same level, but given the massive growth of the Israeli economy, it now amounts to about 2.5 percent of Israeli GDP.
The point here is that the United States was not actively involved in supporting Israel prior to 1967, yet anti-Americanism in the Arab world was rampant. The Arabs might have blamed the United States for Israel, but there was little empirical basis for this claim. Certainly, U.S. aid commenced in 1967 and surged in 1974, but the argument that eliminating support for Israel would cause anti-Americanism to decline must first explain the origins of anti-Americanism, which substantially predated American support for Israel. In fact, it is not clear that Arab anti-Americanism was greater after the initiation of major aid to Israel than before. Indeed, Egypt, the most important Arab country, shifted its position to a pro-American stance after the 1973 war in the face of U.S. aid.

Israel’s Importance to the United States

Let’s now consider the assumption that Israel is a critical U.S. asset. American grand strategy has always been derived from British grand strategy. The United States seeks to maintain regional balances of power in order to avoid the emergence of larger powers that can threaten U.S. interests. The Cold War was a massive exercise in the balance of power, pitting an American-sponsored worldwide alliance system against one formed by the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has acted a number of times against regional hegemons: Iraq in 1990-91, Serbia in 1999 and so on.
In the area called generally the Middle East, but which we prefer to think of as the area between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush, there are three intrinsic regional balances. One is the Arab-Israeli balance of power. The second is the Iran-Iraq balance. The third is the Indo-Pakistani balance of power. The American goal in each balance is not so much stability as it is the mutual neutralization of local powers by other local powers.
Two of the three regional balances of power are collapsed or in jeopardy. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the failure to quickly put a strong, anti-Iranian government in place in Baghdad, has led to the collapse of the central balance of power — with little hope of resurrection. The eastern balance of power between Pakistan and India is also in danger of toppling. The Afghan war has caused profound stresses in Pakistan, and there are scenarios in which we can imagine Pakistan’s power dramatically weakening or even cracking. It is unclear how this will evolve, but what is clear is that it is not in the interest of the United States because it would destroy the native balance of power with India. The United States does not want to see India as the unchallenged power in the subcontinent any more than it wants to see Pakistan in that position. The United States needs a strong Pakistan to balance India, and its problem now is how to manage the Afghan war — a side issue strategically — without undermining the strategic interest of the United States, an Indo-Pakistani balance of power.
The western balance of power, Israel and the surrounding states, is relatively stable. What is most important to the United States at this point is that this balance of power also not destabilize. In this sense, Israel is an important strategic asset. But in the broader picture, where the United States is dealing with the collapse of the central balance of power and with the destabilization of the eastern balance of power, Washington does not want or need the destabilization of the western balance — between the Israelis and Arabs — at this time. U.S. “bandwidth” is already stretched to the limit. Washington does not need another problem. Nor does it need instability in this region complicating things in the other regions.
Note that the United States is interested in maintaining the balance of power. This means that the U.S. interest is in a stable set of relations, with no one power becoming excessively powerful and therefore unmanageable by the United States. Israel is already the dominant power in the region, and the degree to which Syria, Jordan and Egypt contain Israel is limited. Israel is moving from the position of an American ally maintaining a balance of power to a regional hegemon in its own right operating outside the framework of American interests.
The United States above all wants to ensure continuity after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dies. It wants to ensure that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan remains stable. And in its attempts to manage the situation in the center and east, it wants to ensure that nothing happens in the west to further complicate an already-enormously complex situation.
There is very little Israel can do to help the United States in the center and eastern balances. On the other hand, if the western balance of power were to collapse — due to anything from a collapse of the Egyptian regime to a new Israeli war with Hezbollah — the United States might find itself drawn into that conflict, while a new intifada in the Palestinian territories would not help matters either. It is unknown what effect this would have in the other balances of power, but the United States is operating at the limits of its power to try to manage these situations. Israel cannot help there, but it could hurt, for example by initiating an attack on Iran outside the framework of American planning. Therefore, the United States wants one thing from Israel now: for Israel to do nothing that could possibly destabilize the western balance of power or make America’s task more difficult in the other regions.
Israel sees the American preoccupation in these other regions, along with the current favorable alignment of forces in its region, as an opportunity both to consolidate and expand its power and to create new realities on the ground. One of these is building in East Jerusalem, or more precisely, using the moment to reshape the demographics and geography of its immediate region. The Israeli position is that it has rights in East Jerusalem that the United States cannot intrude on. The U.S. position is that it has interests in the broader region that are potentially weakened by this construction at this time.
Israel’s desire to do so is understandable, but it runs counter to American interests. The United States, given its overwhelming challenges, is neither interested in Israel’s desire to reshape its region, nor can it tolerate any more risk deriving from Israel’s actions. However small the risks might be, the United States is maxed out on risk. Therefore, Israel’s interests and that of the United States diverge. Israel sees an opportunity; the United States sees more risk.
The problem Israel has is that, in the long run, its relationship to the United States is its insurance policy. Netanyahu appears to be calculating that given the U.S. need for a western balance of power, whatever Israel does now will be allowed because in the end the United States needs Israel to maintain that balance of power. Therefore, he is probing aggressively. Netanyahu also has domestic political reasons for proceeding with this construction. For him, this construction is a prudent and necessary step.
Obama’s task is to convince Netanyahu that Israel has strategic value for the United States, but only in the context of broader U.S. interests in the region. If Israel becomes part of the American problem rather than the solution, the United States will seek other solutions. That is a hard case to make but not an impossible one. The balance of power is in the eastern Mediterranean, and there is another democracy the United States could turn to: Turkey — which is more than eager to fulfill that role and exploit Israeli tensions with the United States.
It may not be the most persuasive threat, but the fact is that Israel cannot afford any threat from the United States, such as an end to the intense U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship. While this relationship might not be essential to Israel at the moment, it is one of the foundations of Israeli grand strategy in the long run. Just as the United States cannot afford any more instability in the region at the moment, so Israel cannot afford any threat, however remote, to its relationship with the United States.

A More Complicated Relationship

What is clear in all this is that the statement that Israel and the United States are strategic partners is not untrue, it is just vastly more complicated than it appears. Similarly, the claim that American support for Israel fuels anti-Americans is both a true and insufficient statement.
Netanyahu is betting on Congress and political pressures to restrain U.S. responses to Israel. One of the arguments of geopolitics is that political advantage is insufficient in the face of geopolitical necessity. Pressure on Congress from Israel in order to build houses in Jerusalem while the United States is dealing with crises in the region could easily backfire.
The fact is that while the argument that U.S. Israel policy caused anti-Americanism in the region may not be altogether true, the United States does not need any further challenges or stresses. Nations overwhelmed by challenges can behave in unpredictable ways. Netanyahu’s decision to confront the United States at this time on this issue creates an unpredictability that would seem excessive to Israel’s long term interests. Expecting the American political process to protect Israel from the consequences is not necessarily gauging the American mood at the moment.
The national interest of both countries is to maximize their freedom to maneuver. The Israelis have a temporary advantage because of American interests elsewhere in the region. But that creates a long-term threat. With two wars going on and two regional balances in shambles or tottering, the United States does not need a new crisis in the third. Israel has an interest in housing in East Jerusalem. The United States does not. This frames the conversation between Netanyahu and Obama. The rest is rhetoric.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

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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

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

Wow. Imagine that.  Taliban militants attack the capital on the day Karzai is swearing in his cabinet. Remember when Obama announced his Afghan surge strategy and said that US forces would begin to withdraw after 18 months? There was a great hue and cry about telling the enemy when we would leave and the argument was that the Taliban would just sit back and wait for us to split and then take over. I think we can officially call that argument stupid.

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

As Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi exited the vehicle that brought him onto Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2009, security guards noticed he was behaving strangely. They moved toward al-Balawi and screamed demands that he take his hand out of his pocket, but instead of complying with the officers’ commands, al-Balawi detonated the suicide device he was wearing. The explosion killed al-Balawi, three security contractors, four CIA officers and the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) officer who was al-Balawi’s handler. The vehicle shielded several other CIA officers at the scene from the blast. The CIA officers killed included the chief of the base at Khost and an analyst from headquarters who reportedly was the agency’s foremost expert on al Qaeda. The agency’s second-ranking officer in Afghanistan was allegedly among the officers who survived.

Al-Balawi was a Jordanian doctor from Zarqa (the hometown of deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). Under the alias Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani, he served as an administrator for Al-Hesbah, a popular Internet discussion forum for jihadists. Jordanian officers arrested him in 2007 because of his involvement with radical online forums, which is illegal in Jordan. The GID subsequently approached al-Balawi while he was in a Jordanian prison and recruited him to work as an intelligence asset.
Al-Balawi was sent to Pakistan less than a year ago as part of a joint GID/CIA mission. Under the cover of going to school to receive advanced medical training, al-Balawi established himself in Pakistan and began to reach out to jihadists in the region. Under his al-Khurasani pseudonym, al-Balawai announced in September 2009 in an interview on a jihadist Internet forum that he had officially joined the Afghan Taliban.

A Lucky Break for the TTP

It is unclear if al-Balawi was ever truly repentant. Perhaps he cooperated with the GID at first, but had a change of heart sometime after arriving in Pakistan. Either way, at some point al-Balawi approached the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Pakistani Taliban group, and offered to work with it against the CIA and GID. Al-Balawi confirmed this in a video statement recorded with TTP leader Hakeemullah Mehsud and released Jan. 9. This is significant because it means that al-Balawi’s appearance was a lucky break for the TTP, and not part of some larger, intentional intelligence operation orchestrated by the TTP or another jihadist entity like al Qaeda.

The TTP’s luck held when a group of 13 people gathered to meet al-Balawi upon his arrival at FOB Chapman. This allowed him to detonate his suicide device amid the crowd and create maximum carnage before he was able to be searched for weapons.

In the world of espionage, source meetings are almost always a dangerous activity for both the intelligence officer and the source. There are fears the source could be surveilled and followed to the meeting site, or that the meeting could be raided by host country authorities and the parties arrested. In the case of a terrorist source, the meeting site could be attacked and those involved in the meeting killed. Because of this, the CIA and other intelligence agencies exercise great care while conducting source meetings. Normally they will not bring the source into a CIA station or base. Instead, they will conduct the meeting at a secure, low-profile offsite location.

Operating in the wilds of Afghanistan is far different from operating out of an embassy in Vienna or Moscow, however. Khost province is Taliban territory, and it offers no refuge from the watching eyes and gunmen of the Taliban and their jihadist allies. Indeed, the province has few places safe enough even for a CIA base. And this is why the CIA base in Khost is located on a military base, FOB Chapman, named for the first American killed in Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion. Normally, an outer ring of Afghan security around the base searches persons entering FOB Chapman, who the U.S. military then searches again at the outer perimeter of the U.S. portion of the base. Al-Balawi, a high-value CIA asset, was allowed to skip these external layers of security to avoid exposing his identity to Afghan troops and U.S. military personnel. Instead, the team of Xe (the company formerly known as Blackwater) security contractors were to search al-Balawi as he arrived at the CIA’s facility.

A Failure to Follow Security Procedures

Had proper security procedures been followed, the attack should only have killed the security contractors, the vehicle driver and perhaps the Jordanian GID officer. But proper security measures were not followed, and several CIA officers rushed out to greet the unscreened Jordanian source. Reports indicate that the source had alerted his Jordanian handler that he had intelligence pertaining to the location of al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. (There are also reports that al-Balawi had given his handlers highly accurate battle damage assessments on drone strikes in Pakistan, indicating that he had access to high-level jihadist sources.) The prospect of finally receiving such crucial and long-sought information likely explains the presence of the high-profile visitors from CIA headquarters in Langley and the station in Kabul — and their exuberance over receiving such coveted intelligence probably explains their eager rush to meet the source before he had been properly screened.

The attack, the most deadly against CIA personnel since the 1983 Beirut bombing, was clearly avoidable, or at least mitigable. But human intelligence is a risky business, and collecting human intelligence against jihadist groups can be flat-out deadly. The CIA officers in Khost the day of the bombing had grown complacent, and violated a number of security procedures. The attack thus serves as a stark reminder to the rest of the clandestine service of the dangers they face and of the need to adhere to time-tested security procedures.
A better process might have prevented some of the deaths, but it would not have solved the fundamental problem: The CIA had an asset who turned out to be a double agent. When he turned is less important than that he was turned into — assuming he had not always been — a double agent. His mission was to gain the confidence of the CIA as to his bona fides, and then create an event in which large numbers of CIA agents were present, especially the top al Qaeda analyst at the CIA. He knew that high-value targets would be present because he had set the stage for the meeting by dangling vital information before the agency. He went to the meeting to carry out his true mission, which was to deliver a blow against the CIA. He succeeded.

The Obama Strategy’s Weakness

In discussing the core weakness in the Afghan strategy U.S. President Barack Obama has chosen, we identified the basic problem as the intelligence war. We argued that establishing an effective Afghan army would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, because the Americans and their NATO allies lacked knowledge and sophistication in distinguishing friend from foe among those being recruited into the army. This problem is compounded by the fact that there are very few written documents in a country like Afghanistan that could corroborate identities. The Taliban would seed the Afghan army with its own operatives and supporters, potentially exposing the army’s operations to al Qaeda.

This case takes the problem a step further. The United States relied on Jordanian intelligence to turn a jihadist operative into a double agent. They were dependent on the Jordanian handler’s skills at debriefing, vetting and testing the now-double agent. It is now reasonable to assume the agent allowed himself to be doubled in an attempt to gain the trust of the handler. The Jordanians offered the source to the Americans, who obviously grabbed him, and the source passed all the tests to which he was undoubtedly subjected. Yet in the end, his contacts with the Taliban were not designed to provide intelligence to the Americans. The intelligence provided to the Americans was designed to win their trust and set up the suicide bombing. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that al-Balawi was playing the GID all along and that his willingness to reject his jihadist beliefs was simply an opportunistic strategy for surviving and striking.

Even though encountering al-Balawi was a stroke of luck for the TTP, the group’s exploitation of this lucky break was a very sophisticated operation. The TTP had to provide valuable intelligence to allow al-Balawi to build his credibility. It had to create the clustering of CIA agents by promising extraordinarily valuable intelligence. It then had to provide al-Balawi with an effective suicide device needed for the strike. And it had to do this without being detected by the CIA. Al-Balawi had a credible cover for meeting TTP agents; that was his job. But what al-Balawi told his handlers about his meetings with the TTP, and where he went between meetings, clearly did not indicate to the handlers that he was providing fabricated information or posed a threat.

In handling a double agent, it is necessary to track every step he takes. He cannot be trusted because of his history; the suspicion that he is still loyal to his original cause must always be assumed. Therefore, the most valuable moments in evaluating a double agent are provided by intense scrutiny of his patterns and conduct away from his handlers and new friends. Obviously, if this scrutiny was applied, al-Balawi and his TTP handlers were still able to confuse their observers. If it was not applied, then the CIA was setting itself up for disappointment. Again, such scrutiny is far more difficult to conduct in the Pakistani badlands, where resources to surveil a source are very scarce. In such a case, the intuition and judgment of the agent’s handler are critical, and al-Balawi was obviously able to fool his Jordanian handler.

Given his enthusiastic welcome at FOB Chapman, it would seem al-Balawi was regarded not only as extremely valuable but also as extremely reliable. Whatever process might have been used at the meeting, the central problem was that he was regarded as a highly trusted source when he shouldn’t have been. Whether this happened because the CIA relied entirely on the Jordanian GID for evaluation or because American interrogators and counterintelligence specialists did not have the skills needed to pick up the cues can’t be known. What is known is that the TTP ran circles around the CIA in converting al-Balawi to its uses.
The United States cannot hope to reach any satisfactory solution in Afghanistan unless it can win the intelligence war. But the damage done to the CIA in this attack cannot be overestimated. At least one of the agency’s top analysts on al Qaeda was killed. In an intelligence war, this is the equivalent of sinking an aircraft carrier in a naval war. The United States can’t afford this kind of loss. There will now be endless reviews, shifts in personnel and re-evaluations. In the meantime, the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan will be attempting to exploit the opportunity presented by this disruption.

Casualties happen in war, and casualties are not an argument against war. However, when the center of gravity in a war is intelligence, and an episode like this occurs, the ability to prevail becomes a serious question. We have argued that in any insurgency, the insurgents have a built-in advantage. It is their country and their culture, and they are indistinguishable from everyone else. Keeping them from infiltrating is difficult.
This was a different matter. Al-Balawi was Jordanian; his penetration of the CIA was less like the product of an insurgency than an operation carried out by a national intelligence service. And this is the most troubling aspect of this incident for the United States. The operation was by all accounts a masterful piece of tradecraft beyond the known abilities of a group like the TTP. Even though al-Balawi’s appearance was a lucky break for the TTP, not the result of an intentional, long-term operation, the execution of the operation that arose as a result of that lucky break was skillfully done — and it was good enough to deliver a body blow to the CIA. The Pakistani Taliban would thus appear far more skilled than we would have thought, which is the most important takeaway from this incident, and something to ponder.

Political Season reaction: The sophisticated tradecraft on this op by the Pakistan Taliban leaves me to wonder if they didn’t have help, perhaps the Pakistani security services?

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

Taliban fighters before they ever gave a damn about Taliban fighting
A reminder, in a world filled with war and violence, of our common humanity

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 ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

U.S. President Barack Obama announced the broad structure of his Afghanistan strategy in a speech at West Point on Tuesday evening. The strategy had three core elements. First, he intends to maintain pressure on al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistani border and in other regions of the world. Second, he intends to blunt the Taliban offensive by sending an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan, along with an unspecified number of NATO troops he hopes will join them. Third, he will use the space created by the counteroffensive against the Taliban and the resulting security in some regions of Afghanistan to train and build Afghan military forces and civilian structures to assume responsibility after the United States withdraws. Obama added that the U.S. withdrawal will begin in July 2011, but provided neither information on the magnitude of the withdrawal nor the date when the withdrawal would conclude. He made it clear that these will depend on the situation on the ground, adding that the U.S. commitment is finite.

In understanding this strategy, we must begin with an obvious but unstated point: The extra forces that will be deployed to Afghanistan are not expected to defeat the Taliban. Instead, their mission is to reverse the momentum of previous years and to create the circumstances under which an Afghan force can take over the mission. The U.S. presence is therefore a stopgap measure, not the ultimate solution.

The ultimate solution is training an Afghan force to engage the Taliban over the long haul, undermining support for the Taliban, and dealing with al Qaeda forces along the Pakistani border and in the rest of Afghanistan. If the United States withdraws all of its forces as Obama intends, the Afghan military would have to assume all of these missions. Therefore, we must consider the condition of the Afghan military to evaluate the strategy’s viability.

Afghanistan vs. Vietnam

Obama went to great pains to distinguish Afghanistan from Vietnam, and there are indeed many differences. The core strategy adopted by Richard Nixon (not Lyndon Johnson) in Vietnam, called “Vietnamization,” saw U.S. forces working to blunt and disrupt the main North Vietnamese forces while the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would be trained, motivated and deployed to replace U.S. forces to be systematically withdrawn from Vietnam. The equivalent of the Afghan surge was the U.S. attack on North Vietnamese Army (NVA) bases in Cambodia and offensives in northern South Vietnam designed to disrupt NVA command and control and logistics and forestall a major offensive by the NVA. Troops were in fact removed in parallel with the Cambodian offensives.

Nixon faced two points Obama now faces. First, the United States could not provide security for South Vietnam indefinitely. Second, the South Vietnamese would have to provide security for themselves. The role of the United States was to create the conditions under which the ARVN would become an effective fighting force; the impending U.S. withdrawal was intended to increase the pressure on the Vietnamese government to reform and on the ARVN to fight.

Many have argued that the core weakness of the strategy was that the ARVN was not motivated to fight. This was certainly true in some cases, but the idea that the South Vietnamese were generally sympathetic to the Communists is untrue. Some were, but many weren’t, as shown by the minimal refugee movement into NVA-held territory or into North Vietnam itself contrasted with the substantial refugee movement into U.S./ARVN-held territory and away from NVA forces. The patterns of refugee movement are, we think, highly indicative of true sentiment.

Certainly, there were mixed sentiments, but the failure of the ARVN was not primarily due to hostility or even lack of motivation. Instead, it was due to a problem that must be addressed and overcome if the Afghanistation war is to succeed. That problem is understanding the role that Communist sympathizers and agents played in the formation of the ARVN.

By the time the ARVN expanded — and for that matter from its very foundation — the North Vietnamese intelligence services had created a systematic program for inserting operatives and recruiting sympathizers at every level of the ARVN, from senior staff and command positions down to the squad level. The exploitation of these assets was not random nor merely intended to undermine moral. Instead, it provided the NVA with strategic, operational and tactical intelligence on ARVN operations, and when ARVN and U.S. forces operated together, on U.S. efforts as well.

In any insurgency, the key for insurgent victory is avoiding battles on the enemy’s terms and initiating combat only on the insurgents’ terms. The NVA was a light infantry force. The ARVN — and the U.S. Army on which it was modeled — was a much heavier, combined-arms force. In any encounter between the NVA and its enemies the NVA would lose unless the encounter was at the time and place of the NVA’s choosing. ARVN and U.S. forces had a tremendous advantage in firepower and sheer weight. But they had a significant weakness: The weight they bought to bear meant they were less agile. The NVA had a tremendous weakness. Caught by surprise, it would be defeated. And it had a great advantage: Its intelligence network inside the ARVN generally kept it from being surprised. It also revealed weakness in its enemies’ deployment, allowing it to initiate successful offensives.

All war is about intelligence, but nowhere is this truer than in counterinsurgency and guerrilla war, where invisibility to the enemy and maintaining the initiative in all engagements is key. Only clear intelligence on the enemy’s capability gives this initiative to an insurgent, and only denying intelligence to the enemy — or knowing what the enemy knows and intends — preserves the insurgent force.

The construction of an Afghan military is an obvious opportunity for Taliban operatives and sympathizers to be inserted into the force. As in Vietnam, such operatives and sympathizers are not readily distinguishable from loyal soldiers; ideology is not something easy to discern. With these operatives in place, the Taliban will know of and avoid Afghan army forces and will identify Afghan army weaknesses. Knowing that the Americans are withdrawing as the NVA did in Vietnam means the rational strategy of the Taliban is to reduce operational tempo, allow the withdrawal to proceed, and then take advantage of superior intelligence and the ability to disrupt the Afghan forces internally to launch the Taliban offensives.

The Western solution is not to prevent Taliban sympathizers from penetrating the Afghan army. Rather, the solution is penetrating the Taliban. In Vietnam, the United States used signals intelligence extensively. The NVA came to understand this and minimized radio communications, accepting inefficient central command and control in return for operational security. The solution to this problem lay in placing South Vietnamese into the NVA. There were many cases in which this worked, but on balance, the NVA had a huge advantage in the length of time it had spent penetrating the ARVN versus U.S. and ARVN counteractions. The intelligence war on the whole went to the North Vietnamese. The United States won almost all engagements, but the NVA made certain that it avoided most engagements until it was ready.

In the case of Afghanistan, the United States has far more sophisticated intelligence-gathering tools than it did in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the basic principle remains: An intelligence tool can be understood, taken into account and evaded. By contrast, deep penetration on multiple levels by human intelligence cannot be avoided.

Pakistan’s Role

Obama mentioned Pakistan’s critical role. Clearly, he understands the lessons of Vietnam regarding sanctuary, and so he made it clear that he expects Pakistan to engage and destroy Taliban forces on its territory and to deny Afghan Taliban supplies, replacements and refuge. He cited the Swat and South Waziristan offensives as examples of the Pakistanis’ growing effectiveness. While this is a significant piece of his strategy, the Pakistanis must play another role with regard to intelligence.

The heart of Obama’s strategy lies not in the surge, but rather in turning the war over to the Afghans. As in Vietnam, any simplistic model of loyalties doesn’t work. There are Afghans sufficiently motivated to form the core of an effective army. As in Vietnam, the problem is that this army will contain large numbers of Taliban sympathizers; there is no way to prevent this. The Taliban is not stupid: It has and will continue to move its people into as many key positions as possible.

The challenge lies in leveling the playing field by inserting operatives into the Taliban. Since the Afghan intelligence services are inherently insecure, they can’t carry out such missions. American personnel bring technical intelligence to bear, but that does not compensate for human intelligence. The only entity that could conceivably penetrate the Taliban and remain secure is the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This would give the Americans and Afghans knowledge of Taliban plans and deployments. This would diminish the ability of the Taliban to evade attacks, and although penetrated as well, the Afghan army would enjoy a chance ARVN never had.

But only the ISI could do this, and thinking of the ISI as secure is hard to do from a historical point of view. The ISI worked closely with the Taliban during the Afghan civil war that brought it to power and afterwards, and the ISI had many Taliban sympathizers. The ISI underwent significant purging and restructuring to eliminate these elements over recent years, but no one knows how successful these efforts were.

The ISI remains the center of gravity of the entire problem. If the war is about creating an Afghan army, and if we accept that the Taliban will penetrate this army heavily no matter what, then the only counter is to penetrate the Taliban equally. Without that, Obama’s entire strategy fails as Nixon’s did.

In his talk, Obama quite properly avoided discussing the intelligence aspect of the war. He clearly cannot ignore the problem we have laid out, but neither can he simply count on the ISI. He does not need the entire ISI for this mission, however. He needs a carved out portion — compartmentalized and invisible to the greatest possible extent — to recruit and insert operatives into the Taliban and to create and manage communication networks so as to render the Taliban transparent. Given Taliban successes of late, it isn’t clear whether he has this intelligence capability. Either way, we would have to assume that some Pakistani solution to the Taliban intelligence issue has been discussed (and such a solution must be Pakistani for ethnic and linguistic reasons).

Every war has its center of gravity, and Obama has made clear that the center of gravity of this war will be the Afghan military’s ability to replace the Americans in a very few years. If that is the center of gravity, and if maintaining security against Taliban penetration is impossible, then the single most important enabler to Obama’s strategy would seem to be the ability to make the Taliban transparent.

Therefore, Pakistan is important not only as the Cambodia of this war, the place where insurgents go to regroup and resupply, but also as a key element of the solution to the intelligence war. It is all about Pakistan. And that makes Obama’s plan difficult to execute. It is far easier to write these words than to execute a plan based on them. But to the extent Obama is serious about the Afghan army taking over, he and his team have had to think about how to do this.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR