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Schippert on COIN as an Exit not a Strategy

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Steve Schippert, my national security amigo from Threatswatch.org, scored an op-ed in The Washington Times. He’s not happy.

Counterinsurgency incoherence: President Obama prefers an Exit Strategy to Victory

In war, and particularly in an Afghanistan counterinsurgency effort, there are always three sides to the coin: the good, the bad and the ugly. This is especially true in President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy, finally announced to the American public Tuesday from a West Point backdrop.

The prescribed influx of much-needed American warriors onto the battlefield is clearly and rightly the good. And the good can withstand the bad, a Taliban enemy in the absence of reliable partners in the Afghan and Pakistani governments.

But the glimmering light of the good will surely be eclipsed by the ugly, an incoherence of strategy beneath the surface sheen of a surge. The devil is always in the details.

….For a counterinsurgency effort to succeed, the willing partners aren’t in Kabul or Islamabad, no matter the demands made upon each. Rather, they reside in the villages and towns spread through the provinces of Afghanistan. Winning over the local leaders will strengthen our position and ultimately lead to the Afghan people demanding better governance from Kabul.

This requires – in both word and deed – clear demonstration of presence and resolve, not in intellectual arguments for an exit strategy. There are no exits for the Afghans we seek to defend in parallel with our own security and interests.

Read the rest here.

Arm the tribes. Where there are no tribes, create loyalist paramilitaries from whatever networks are at hand for district and village self-defense. A heavily Tajik and Uzbek Afghan National Army will never fight the Taliban half as eagerly as Pushtun villagers defending their own homes and fields.


Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

My previous post stirred some interest in the blogosphere on the issue of Mexico being in danger of becoming a “Failed State” and prompted others to respond with Mexico related analysis of their own. Here are some that caught my eye:

           POINT – Mexico is a Failed State or at least in some danger of becoming so:

Threatswatch.org (Fraser) Los Zetas and the Denial of Mexico’s Failed State Status

The softening of words and the aversion to stating the obvious by the Administration simply obliterates the reality that President Felipe Calderón of Mexico “leads” a country dominated by the cartels and not governed by the federal government. The transparent denial of the recent Joint Operating Environment report is troubling at best.

To better understand just how close to the precipice he is, it might be worthwhile to take another look at the organization (and movement) of Los Zetas. As a reminder, Los Zetas are a paramilitary group tied to the Gulf Cartel. Their origins and their evolution from being deserters from the Mexican special forces to a criminal organization is chronicled in a report from International Relations and Security Network

….With each of the original members training at least another ten, they grew to over 300 strong by 2003. In just the first quarter of 2009, Los Zetas (the organization) has been linked to a death threat against the president of Guatemala, the hand grenade tossed in Pharr, Texas and various other criminal acts. The ranks of Los Zetas has grown, and strikingly, they have broken ranks with the Gulf Cartel. Over time however, and with the deaths of some of the original Zetas, they have morphed into an organization. This is a very important distinction to note.

RBO Are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico ‘failed states’? If so, then what?

….In particular there is recent debate as to whether Mexico is/is not a failed state. If it is, then we ask whether its “failed” status is on a par with such other failed states as Pakistan and Afghanistan? – Even though there are those who do not subscribe to the notion that either of them is a failed state.

As always, let’s start at the beginning. What is a failed state?

In the simplest of definitions, a failed state is one that has a “shattered social and political structure.”

Writing December 1999 for the International Review of the Red Cross, Daniel Thürer, J.D. (right), Professor of International Law, European Law, Constitutional Law and Administrative Law at the University of Zurich, said

    Failing States are invariably the product of a collapse of the power structures providing political support for law and order, a process generally triggered and accompanied by “anarchic” forms of internal violence.

Dr. Thürer wrote that former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, described this situation in the following way (emphasis added):

    A feature of such conflicts is the collapse of state institutions, especially the police and judiciary, with resulting paralysis of governance, a breakdown of law and order, and general banditry and chaos. Not only are the functions of government suspended, but its assets are destroyed or looted and experienced officials are killed or flee the country. This is rarely the case in inter-state wars. It means that international intervention must extend beyond military and humanitarian tasks and must include the promotion of international reconciliation and the re-establishment of effective government. States in which institutions and law and order have totally or partially collapsed under the pressure and amidst the confusion of erupting violence, yet which subsist as a ghostly presence on the world map, are now commonly referred to as “failed States” or “Etats sans gouvernement”.

Jay Fraser, who has been watching developments in Mexico for some time, drills down on the most violent and fastest evolving faction among the cartel groups in Mexico. Procrustes concentrates on the “Failed State” concept and examines how conditions in Mexico compare to academic yardsticks and the case studies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries that inevitably crop up in discussions of failed and failing states.

          COUNTERPOINT – Mexico is not a failing state or has greater resilience than experts are acknowledging:

Apropos Two Theories – Why Mexico may NOT fall apart – and a way to think about it

I’ve never seen so many American analysts and journalists sounding alarms about Mexico – most for good reasons, others for their own agendas. And it’s true, parts of Mexico have turned awfully violent, barely governable. Government controls have weakened, and security trends are adverse. Domestic terrorism and insurgency are not presently the problem; it’s the extreme crime and corruption, driven by the drug cartels and other criminal gangs.

….Yet, I’m struck that long-time American experts who specialize on Mexico are not providing counter-arguments. A few Mexicans are, lately Enrique Krauze. But no Americans I know of (though I’ve not searched exhaustively).Shouldn’t analysts and journalists who specialize on Mexico be doing a better job of wondering whether and why the growing alarmism may be wrong – again?When I worked as a specialist on Mexico, I experienced three or four periods when Mexico seemed to be on the verge of instability, in particular:

  • In 1968, at the time of the student uprising and its military suppression (I was then a graduate student studying in Mexico City).
  • During 1984-8, when a few U.S. government analysts claimed that Mexico was about to collapse due to multiple economic, political, and other crises.
  • In 1994-5, when the Zapatista uprising raised new specters of widespread insurgency, if not terrorism.

Each time Mexico remained stable and recovered. And it did so mostly for reasons that American analysts had not understood or anticipated well at the time – including American experts on Mexico who did not buy into the alarmism.In these three instances, the key stabilizing factor turned out to be some kind of social or organizational network that American analysts were barely aware of:

  • In 1968, it was intra-elite networking that revolved around the mysterious camarilla system (or so I think, though I was just a grad student then).
  • In the mid 1980s, it was familial and other social networks that cushioned the effects of unemployment and other economic displacements.
  • In 1994, it was the roles played by newly-formed networks of human-rights and other activist NGOs, first in calming the Zapatista scene, later in monitoring the 1994 presidential election campaign.

Conditions in Mexico look worse than ever this time around – much worse, not just along the U.S. border, but everywhere that the drug cartels are powerful. So I’m not suggesting optimism, but rather a search for additional factors that may moderate the equations of gloom.What might keep Mexico from disintegrating this time? My guesstimate is that networks will be the decisive factor again. And the networks that will matter most this time are:

  1. Informal intra-elite social networks that reflects what’s left of the old camarilla dynamic.
  2. Cross-border organizational networks for U.S.-Mexico security (military, police, intel) cooperation

David Ronfeldt, for new readers here, is a major “edge” thinker in the national security field at RAND and is a co-author (with John Arquilla) of the influential “classic”,  Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy , which sits on my shelf about two feet from me as I type this. As it happens, Ronfeldt also specialized in Mexican and Latin American security as an analyst during the Cold War which gives means that his caveats are worth careful consideration. Frankly, we are all better off if Ronfeldt is correct and the “alarmists” are wrong, though I think the grim state of affairs south of the Rio Grande is deterring most Mexico experts  from going out on a limb to make positive predictions.

Joining Threatswatch.org

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Thank you to Michael Tanji for welcoming me to the Threatswatch.org team:

Welcome to ThreatsWatch

It is with considerable pleasure that we welcome Adam Elkus, Mark Safranski and Shlok Vaiyda as contributors to ThreatsWatch. Friends of ThreatsWatch will know these gentlemen from their work at Rethinking Security, Zen Pundit and Naxalite Rage, respectively. We are honored that such astute, creative intellectuals find value in collaborating with us in our efforts to build Think Tank 2.0, and we are looking forward to the discussions that will inevitably flow from the analysis and opinions they will be sharing.

This is somewhat different than the blogging relationships I have with other sites like Chicagoboyz or Progressive Historians which is about political, historical or intellectual discussion via blogging or with Pajamas Media, which is business. While I will periodically make tight and focused national security related posts, joining Threatswatch.org is for long term collaboration on more substantive endeavors ( kind of like…this) with the excellent individuals it has on the roster as well as the talent I know they will recruit or partner with in the future.

Think Tank 2.0 and more.

Spree Terrorism

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

I lack sufficient depth and familiarity with the Indian political context to comment intelligently on the origins and ultimate aims of the shadowy Islamist group that carried out the Mumbai Massacre. I’d love to hear Olivier Roy speculate on the ideological aspect but in terms of organization, I’d bet heavily on a “modular” structure of transnational and indigenous personnel – a strategic alliance between groups or a hybrid operation.

What I can comment sensibly on is the use of “Spree killings” as a tactic by terrorist groups. Spree killings are an attractive tactic because they are easy to initiate, impossible to anticipate and can be massively effective in driving media attention.

Spree killers like Andrew Cunanan or John Muhammed  “the DC Sniper” riveted the attention of an entire nation or acheived international news coverge. Cunanan, while on the run from a national manhunt for earlier murders managed to assassinate celebrity designer, Gianni Versace before committing suicide; Muhammed and his junior partner managed to murder ten people in a metropolitan area blanketed with local, state and Federal law enforcement despite having gandiose plans that were the product of a confused and agitated mental state. “School shootings“, another form of spree killings, have almost become a macabre rite of Spring in the United States and the late 1990’s bank robbery gone awry in Los Angeles, that featured a heavily armed, body armored, pair of criminals holding off dozens of police in a savage shoot-out that may have been inspired by a scene in the Robert DeNiro movie Heat.

Spree killings, though rare, have previously been used to forment terror both by non-state actors as well as by states. A few examples:

 In 1997,  Gamaa Islamiya massacred 58 foreign tourists at Luxor, Egypt an action that led the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak to crush Egyptian Islamist groups as harshly as Nasser had once cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1990, the Tamil Tigers killed 147 Muslim men and boys at four mosques in  Katthankudi, Sri Lanka ( the Tigers are a highly effective and innovative terrorist-insurgency, having pioneered both suicide bombing and naval-terror operations).

In 1941, the radically fascist and fanatically anti-semitic Iron Guard in Romania attempted a coup d’etat against the nationalist dictator and Nazi ally, Ion Antonescu, which featured wild street violence by Legionaires and a ghoulish pogram against Romanian Jewry so horrific that even German SS commanders on the scene in Bucharest were appalled. Despite having made use of such tactics himself in the Kristallnacht and the Night of the Long Knives and having his own genocidal program for the Jews, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht and SS to assist Antonescu in crushing the Iron Guard revolt.

Spree killings have almost never produced long term positive effects for the groups using them and we can expect that the Mumbai massacre will have negative consequences for both Pakistan as well as Indian Islamist groups. Despite this, we can expect that the likelihood of spree terrorism will increase when groups become sufficiently radicalized because any semi-open society presents almost ubiquitous oportunities for random mass-murder on a modest budget and the terrorists’ own extremism blinds them to how their actions will be interpreted or perceived.

From an email with security expert Steve Schippert of Threatswatch.org, ( see Schippert’s Mumbai commentary here and here ) I learned that the terrorists in Mumbai were unable to or never targeted any systems in India’s center of capitalism – water, power, internet, road arteries etc. – were left untouched. That in my view is a future danger, terrorists using the all-consuming attention generated by spree terrorism as a trojan horse or distraction to conceal a strategic systems-level attack.

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007


Michael Tanji blasts “business as usual” in the intelligence community in a post at Threatswatch.

“All of these and countless other tales of institutional woe in our national security system can be traced to bad management. Those who share this view and have first-hand experience are loathe to call it “leadership” because leaders would have long since found a way out of the mess our hard- and soft-power institutions find themselves in. People who were on the job in national-security positions before 9/11 will readily divulge that nothing substantial has changed in the past five years; they probably log more hours, but the administrivia is as thick as ever and the security, budgetary and procedural morass – not to mention inter-agency in-fighting – is just as bad as it has always been. Those who joined after 9/11 have no frame of reference, but the fact that many are opting to vote with their feet indicates they know a bad thing when they see it.

….I have waxed and waned about the need to purge current management because it can be dangerous to paint with too broad a brush. However, this latest round of stories about business as usual in our national security apparatus has forced me to cast off any misgivings I might have harbored for throwing out a very small baby in a great volume of tepid, fetid bathwater. We should thank those who have served honorably for their time, energy and sacrifice, but their time is over.”

Read all of it.

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