Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cyber Attacks: Modern-Day Protesting Against the U.S. Government

   Each January, Americans and many others around the world pay homage to the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who dedicated his life to advancing the civil rights movement. Foremost in Dr. King’s teachings was the importance of combating racial inequality through peaceful means, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. While King knew that the fight for racial equality was a long and laborious road, and that there was a strong probability that he would not live to see the fruits of his labor, he still asserted that “the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available” in the struggle for justice in America. This concept of peaceful demonstration reined during Vietnam, with hippy protestors and others preaching “love, not war.” However, protesting in the U.S. against government actions has often been demonstrated in radical displays of violence, even in the fight for civil rights and an end to the Vietnam conflict.

   These days, there is a new type of protestor – the internet activist. While there is a tendency to think of cyber attacks in terms of a new generation of war to be employed by foreign terrorists against the United States, government and the intelligence community would do well to consider the capabilities of this new form of opposition to government action. Earlier today, news reports surfaced that the website of a federal judicial agency had been hacked by a group of activists, known as Anonymous, demanding reform to the American justice system in order to establish the free flow of information. The group took over the agency’s homepage and threatened to release a large amount of embarrassing Justice Department documents to the media. Their actions were in response to the suicide of Aaaron Swartz, an internet activist dedicated to making any and all information, including government documents, freely available to the public for the good of society.

   Swartz initially followed in Dr. King’s footsteps of “peaceful protest” by founding a nonprofit group named DemandProgress, which led a successful campaign to block a bill created to stop online piracy. His group protested the bill because they felt it would give the government the ability to censor and cease legitimate internet communication. Yet instead of sticking to his peaceful demonstration, Swartz moved to a more “violent” means, by allegedly stealing millions of academic articles and journals from MIT. Online tributes following his death suggest that he is considered a martyr for his cause, which could prompt others to carry the torch.

   Given the Defense Department’s increasing reliance on technology and network-centric capabilities, policymakers and the intelligence community must remember their vulnerability to all those who would use cyber attacks as a weapon for their cause, not just terrorists. For instance, as the debate escalates on the use of drones, the public will likely become more aware of their use. It is plausible to consider that pacifists and those who consider drone use to be immoral will take up protesting against drone use. Considering the technology employed by the armed services for drone operations, a cyber attack by one of these new types of protestors would be extremely tempting. Violent protesting by cyber attackers can be very damaging and widespread, much more so than the localized violent protests of 40 years ago.

This time they've got no way out.

We had a very compelling discussion about North Korea the other day and the potential threat it poses to the United States homeland and our interests in the region.  In response to their satellite launch last December, the fifteen member United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to apply stiffer sanctions.  Notably, that vote included Russia (who notoriously, at least recently, opposes anything that might limit domestic sovereignty) and China (North Korea's only remaining "friend").  Now Pyongyang is upping the ante.  As we all know, they are promising to conduct a third nuclear test and to continue developing their intercontinental ballistic missile program with the objective being capability to attack the U.S. homeland.  They've released a statement condemning Russia and China for voting in favor of more sanctions, blasting the U.S. as the "sworn enemy" of the Korean people, and claiming that "sanctions mean war."

But boisterous talk is nothing new with North Korea.  They do it to compel the international community to provide some level of aid so the regime can still feed its people.  "Although North Korea's leadership is undeniably concerned that it might be attacked or bullied by outside powers, the tough talk is mainly an attempt to bolster its bargaining position in diplomatic negotiations."  The international community, however, should not simply ignore those provocations.  According to Narushige Michishita, a North Korea expert at Tokyo's Graduate Institute of Policy Studies "this [is] their way of testing the water. . . .  North Korea will probably never be able to defeat the United States in a war. But they are getting stronger."

Although they are improving some of their more high technology weapons systems (ICBMs and nuclear missiles), they already pose a significant threat to the region.  And they are years (if ever) away from developing the necessary expertise to launch any direct strike on the U.S. -- with or without a nuclear warhead.  The 2006 and 2009 tests resulted in surprisingly low nuclear yield, far less than even a Hiroshima-type device.  Moreover, they would have to miniaturize the technology to be able to mount on an ICBM (and that's assuming a missile launch doesn't result in splashdown in the Sea of Japan like their first satellite launch attempt in the summer of 2012).

And the regime remains weak.  When Kim Jong-un reaffirmed the long established "military first" policy after taking over for his father, many analysts were alarmed.  But for a 27-year-old (maybe 24? or 28? who knows) son of a dictator who grew up in western culture, he had no choice but to reinstitute that policy.  If he is to make any changes to the despotic regime, he needs to do so incrementally and after consolidating power among the coterie of military elite that run the country.  He wouldn't be the first leader to use optics and a show of force to bolster his image for domestic political reasons.  That's one reason I believe that the state run media released a picture of stoic Kim tranquilly smoking a cigarette while watching the December satellite launch by himself in the North Korean equivalent of a NASA control room.  

And this time it's different.  China ain't playing around anymore.  And that's important because of not only China's historical military support for the North Korean regime, but its current economic impact of an already impoverished country.  Basically its only significant trading trading route is through China.  Closing that would severe North Korea's only access to the outside world.  And China has a huge incentive to prevent war in the region.  The East and South China Sea disputes are already too hot at the moment, which threatens the $5.3 trillion worth of trade that flows through the SCS and the hundreds of billions of bilateral trade between China and Japan.  China has a similar incentive to prevent Pyongyang from striking Seoul or initiating some action that would require U.S. military involvement.  

Why else would China want to play ball with the U.S. in limiting North Korea?  Islands.  Most of us area aware of the Senkaku/Diayou Islands dispute between Japan and China.  But South Korea and Japan also contest control over the Liancourt Rocks.  So a really good negotiator might be able to do this:

1)  Secure China's commitment to dismantle North Korea's nuclear and ICBM programs.
2)  When that can be sufficiently proven, negotiate sovereignty for China over the Diayou Islands.
3)  In exchange for China's commitment to disarm NK, South Korea will give up claims on the Liancourt Rocks, giving full sovereignty to Japan.
4)  Because it now has strategic control over the Diayou Islands, China would give up claims on the Nine-Dash line in the South China Sea allowing the other claimants in the region (Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, et al) to proceed under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

A negotiated settlement as laid out above would allow all sides to get something (and therefore save face) along with disarming North Korea's most threatening capabilities.  They might still maintain the ability to attack Seoul via artillery, etc., but they would know that the U.S., Japan, and South Korea would respond with overwhelming force.  (I realize that might also present a problem for the U.S. in the future, should China have the capability and desire to send nuclear-armed submarines into the Pacific through the Strait of Taiwan.  But if we are assuming North Korea is more of a threat now, that might be a tradeoff we're willing to make in the short-term).

Military options to take out the North Korean nuclear and ICBM programs are problematic.  They won't have the capability to strike any time soon, and their big brother (China) has an incentive to be on our side.  Let's not waste that opportunity through a premature military strike.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Solid, Liquid, Gas

"Gas particles have very large spaces between them. In fact, gases are mostly empty space. Gases are quite different from liquids and solids because the particles in a gas can move freely in all directions. This is why gases always spread out or diffuse to fill their container."

In the current age of 'War on Terror', traditional ways of thinking about war are outdated. Instead of waiting for destabilizing forces to overthrow a given government, then fighting a war to remove that illegitimate regime from power, the current trend is to keep a finger on the pulse of militants and strive to head them off before they pick up enough steam to effectively displace the governing structure of a given state. What this means is that the United States, the UN, or any force afforded legitimacy for peacekeeping purposes, can no longer simply wage large-scale military-to-military campaigns on the order of those against Japan and Germany, for example. Instead of a focused attack on a concentrated area, perhaps comparable to painting a circle within a given boundary on a canvas, we must now fling paint at multiple smaller targets without allowing the brush to touch the canvas, and hope that the paint splatters hit as many of right spots as possible, while leaving the wrong spots untouched.
This not only requires extraordinary precision, but also leaves the attacking force entirely open to criticism, because that force isn't attacking a state military force on an acknowledged battlefield; that force is ferreting out camouflaged insurgents who are not only hiding among the general population, but are, in fact, part of the general population in the sense that they are not legitimate government actors. This makes the task of targeting these non-state actors challenging, and has changed the face of warfare. Not only must we identify insurgents and find ways to combat them on their turf while doing our best to avoid civilian casualties, but we must also make a compelling case for doing so on the stage of worldwide public opinion - a difficult task when civilian casualties are all but impossible to avoid in such an undertaking. Not only are we trying to hit a moving target, that target is moving through civilians.

Take the AQIM in Mali, for example. A nation (France) is putting itself at a disadvantage against a non-state actor, or network of militants, by sending out ground troops. This looks to me (so, grain of salt as I'm still learning) as though the French are unwisely employing traditional warfare practices in a context where they're nearly futile. In a context where the opponent is a highly mobile, relatively well-camouflaged and coordinated network, alternative methods are in order. We don't go about containing steam the same way we go about containing water or ice. The composition of an entity is a key factor in determining how to contain it. If state military forces are comparable to matter in its 'solid' state and a fragile or weak state can be described as 'liquid', then militant networks can be described as 'gaseous' in their elusiveness to containment. By this logic, it is irrational to attempt to contain them as though they were solid or even liquid. Sending out ground troops to round up a gas cloud is a waste of time, resources, and human lives. Good intelligence and careful covert operations, including use of drones, may be our best tools in combating the kind of militant networks we're encountering in place of state-sponsored military opponents. 

A case could be made that converting gases (militant networks) into solids (legitimate state actors) renders them easier to contain - as with Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Taliban in AfghanistanIf an insurgent group is put into a position to be held accountable to a public, and especially to the international community, their credibility as rebels against what their supporters considered an illegitimate governing force (or "the man") begins to dissipate as they become "the man" themselves and inevitably fail to live up to the challenges a ruling entity must face. When you're no longer the under dog, you're no longer one of "the people" are "the man."

I think that both Hamas in Palestine and the Taliban in Afghanistan will be interesting cases to follow. Perhaps the best way to combat militant groups is to give them the power they think they want, then watch them fall flat on their asses. Then state actors would be free to come in and deal with them on an open field, with what would likely be greater international support - though this opens the issue of access to nuclear weapons, which certainly complicates things. I'm not dealing with that can of worms in this blog post.

France’s tactical challenges in “Operation Serval”

French military routes to West Africa
The map of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) 

On January 11 President Hollande did what many French voters wanted and expected him to do. At the same time he deprived his internal opposition of another opportunity to call him weak and indecisive. 6,000 French nationals living in Bamako and 80,000 Malians living in France will definitely be among the staunch supporters of his decision, as well as those having economic interests in uranium mines in neighboring Niger.  It’s doubtful, however, that President Hollande will maintain such mass support for a long time. It shouldn’t take too long for French citizens to realize that Operation Serval is not going to be similar to 2011 airstrike against Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbabgo, and that it is not another Lybia operation either, believed to be so successful at the time. There are all signs to anticipate that Operation Serval will be much longer and costlier. That said, had France and International community protracted this operation even longer, we could have easily gotten another Rwanda. Not in terms of the genocide maybe, but in terms of letting the processes escalate to the worst possible scenario.

Here are some of the operational and tactical challenges French forces face in Mali.

Fighting adversary’s strengths. One of the main rules of an effective military operation is to confront adversary’s weakness, not its strength. Fighting rebels from the air would have been much easier and cheaper in terms of human loses. Even though Mali rebels are quite well armed, SA-7 and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles inherited from Malian army and Moammar Gadhafi’s arsenal, could bring down planes of Malian government or the African assistance force, but they would be less effective against French or NATO air forces. But France has already realized that heavy air bombardments are not sufficient and started deployment of ground forces. It is moving towards deeper engagement pretty quickly. Starting from some 30 to 40 Special Forces troops serving as spotters for bombing operations, French presence quickly increased to 800 and is planned to achieve some 2,500 in coming days. But ground combat is where militants’ strengths are. All three groups – al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine are well-equipped, well-trained, and know the austere desert terrain of northern Mali very well. These groups have been preparing for war for months. They have built impressive network of underground bunkers and trenches fortified with the cement walls on the sides of the few roads to northern Mali. Even though some reports claim that militants have alienated locals with the enforcement of radical Islamic rules, other sources report that militants have protection of local chiefs and that their ties are further strengthened by intermarriages. Yet other sources mention that Islamists have evicted civilians from their houses and implanted their bases in locals’ mud houses, making it much more difficult for the French to detect and fight them. Such tactics will certainly increase civilian casualties in the coming battles. 
Fighting extremely mobile adversary. The type of war these groups have been waging for the last decade involved high level of mobility, which has a crucial importance at the operational level. Since 2003 they have kidnapped and held 32 European tourists in the hideouts in desert and, according to Stratfor, raised about $89 million in ransom payments. They are equipped with some armored personnel carriers seized from the Malian military and vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns. Throughout these years militants have perfected small-unit tactics, learned every dune in the desert and thus, can re-group and reposition very quickly. As Col. Michel Goya from French Military Academy’s Strategic Research Institute put it “You can’t launch a war of extermination against a very tenacious and mobile adversary… we are in a classic counter-insurrectionary situation. They are well armed, but the weapons are not sophisticated; A couple of thousand men, very mobile.”

Logistics – international support is lagging behind. So far the operation is led by the French, but President Hollande expects Africans to take the lead sometime soon. France is already receiving logistical support from UK, Canada, Denmark, and Belgium, and Pentagon has promised airlift and intelligence assistance. Without international support it would be very difficult for France to project its power on another continent and transport needed supplies into the theater. The table of forces and logistical support available as of January 17 can be found here. Economic Cooperation of West African States (ECOWAS) pledged to send the troops, but deployment is taking much more time than expected. ECOWAS forces are ill-equipped, lack training, and require UN’s financial support.

On the other hand, rebel groups are almost self-sustainable financing themselves through the ransom raised from hostages. As one of their ex-hostage, Robert Fowler has described in his memoires A Season in Hell, AQIM has not only stockpiled weapons, generators, gasoline and other resources in its vast bunkers, but also developed quite well-organized system of supply.

France’s current tactics are far from the stated political and strategic goals. France’s main political aims in Mali are to stop terrorist aggression, make Bamako safe, and restore Mali’s territorial integrity. But achieving these goals will need much more than just a successful military operation. It will require building military capabilities of Mali’s security and defense institutions as well as broader state building efforts and it is not going to happen in a short term. If President Hollande is serious about these goals, he should start preparing his government and French public for the long-term and expensive operation.  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Will the U.S. Finally Flex Its “Red Line” Muscle in Syria?

Recent events in Syria may finally answer the elusive question on whether “red lines” drawn by the U.S. are really deterrents for other nations to abide by our rules or just tough guy talk. After North Korea has plowed over one red line after another, U.S. credibility can easily be called into question. Iran’s nuclear development program has not given much insight on the point of U.S. resolve either. When asked by Israel to draw a red line for Iran on its nuclear development, Obama refused for several reasons. The most important of which was that he knew very well that Iran would respect no such red line, which would force the U.S. to choose between taking military action or face public and political backlash for a lack of credibility. While a military engagement would have been operationally feasible, the U.S. was not prepared to do so, politically or logistically.

But the red line drawn for Syria on its possible use of chemical weapons seemed to be firmly in place when first issued. In August 2012, Obama threatened a pre-emptive military engagement against the Syrian regime if it was determined that Assad’s forces were moving toward the use of chemical weapons. Several months later, however, the line got a bit fuzzy when the threat changed to be more responsive in nature to the actual use of chemical weapons. Evidence of U.S. resolve began to present itself in the first week of December 2012 after Syrian force loaded their chemical weapons. The U.S. response was to send an aircraft carrier, several offensive aircraft, an amphibious warship, and thousands of troops to the Syrian shore. Other NATO forces, including the French and the British, also seem ready to pounce. Yet after a questionable attack on opposition forces on December 23rd, the red line is still in question.
On that day, Syrian forces attacked opposition forces in the city of Homs with a gas of some kind, killing 5 people and injuring about 100. It is yet to be determined whether the gas was a nerve agent (a chemical weapon capable of mass destruction) or a strong hallucinogen (a weapon generally used in riot controls which is only lethal in very strong doses). While the rebels claim to have been hit with a chemical weapon, there are inconsistencies in the effects on the victims versus the effects that would be caused by a chemical weapon. Nevertheless, the hallucinogen agent is not one that Syria is known to possess. With the type of weapon still in question, it is unclear whether Assad actually used a chemical weapon, which could indicate that his regime is mixing different gases to determine what is acceptable and what is not. He may not have crossed the red line, but he seems to be teasing and testing the U.S. by doing the hokey-pokey right on top of it. Only if he loses his balance on the wrong side will our curiosity be satisfied.