2016: A Year of Living Dangerously

Well, it only took China and Saudi Arabia 48 hours to remove the “happy” from new years for 2016!  As Saudi Arabia was executing 47 on January 2nd, the Chinese stock market was tanking sending financial shock waves into an already unsettled world.  Wanting to extend its “best wishes” for the new year, North Korea tested what it falsely claimed to be a hydrogen bomb, while China flew a military aircraft to Fiery Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as Iran released video footage of its second underground missile depot in seeming violation of its nuclear agreement with the United States.  These events in the first week of the New Year make predicting that 2016 will be dangerously tumultuous unnecessary.

Economic trouble in China will have the most immediate impact on the average American in terms of access to consumer goods and their IRAs’ bottom line with the Dow Jones average down over 900 points in the first week of trading.  The Chinese stock market sell off was precipitated by  the release of the Caixin/Markit Purchasing Managers’ Index which showed that China’s manufacturing sector contracting for the 10th-straight month in December. The continued weakness in this private survey, contrasted with robust official numbers for industrial output, indicates that the overall economy is expanding only in the low single digits. China’s economy is also struggling with demands for higher wages, accommodating an aging population, and shifting to a new growth model based on raising internal consumption of goods and services produced.  Equally as disturbing, imports (a good indication of both manufacturing and consumption trends) fell 8.7 percent in November in dollar terms, for a record 13 straight months of decline. Exports that month were off 6.8 percent, the fifth-straight month in negative territory. This litany of economic challenges means China is headed into a serious recession that will likely result in the Chinese people questioning whether the Chinese Communist Party is governing in their best interests.  Economic woes may well cause Xi Jinping and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party to turn to a “wag the dog” strategy appealing to Chinese nationalism against “foreign devils” asserting sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas.  Such a nationalist approach and/or China being seen as the cause of weakness in the American economy, will only encourage those running for President to take a more confrontational stance towards China.

Not helping the Chinese stock market recover are increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  North Korea’s claims to have conducted on January 6th an underground detonation of a hydrogen bomb, which has not been confirmed and is viewed as unlikely, has increased the pressure on both China and the United States to restrain Kim Jong Un’s brinkmanship.  North Korea’s “boy leader” apparently sees the US’ inability to control the Hermit Kingdom’s behavior with sanctions and isolation as pushing China to insure the security of North Korea or risk South Korean and US forces conducting military operations/occupation nearer the Chinese frontier.  Besides a B-52 fly over, Washington and Seoul are already engaged in discussions about the US bringing more “strategic assets” to South Korea. This last atomic test has also brought Japan, South Korea, and the United States closer together diplomatically and militarily, causing China to feel more isolated if not threatened.  Beyond pushing China to be more protective of North Korea’s security, it probably wouldn’t surprise too many if Tehran was actually funding part of Pyongyang’s nuclear program as a hedge while Iran’s nuclear program is on hold to get economic sanctions lifted.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 shocked the American people with its ISIS-like brutality and infuriated Iran because among those executed was the well-known Shiite cleric Nemer al Nemer.  “It looks like an extremely irrational and ill-considered decision to do this,” said Christopher Davidson, a professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in Britain. “In my view, it speaks more about the local dynamics in Saudi Arabia itself that are shifting steadily away from the ruling family’s control.”  The House of Saud, however, was motivated by at least three reasons for going forward with this controversial execution of a large number of internal dissidents.

  • Declining oil prices means that the Saudi government will need to cut back on subsidies for housing, education, medical care, jobs, and gasoline that ordinary Saudi citizens have come to expect. The mass execution of dissidents on January 2nd demonstrates the absolute power the royal family holds and will use against those who question it rule let alone oppose it.
  • These executions play to Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative Sunnis, who support the monarchy as ISIS inspires young Saudis to see the royal family as not protecting fundamental Muslim beliefs. As confrontation with Iran becomes more manifest, conservative Saudis are also increasingly seeing the Kingdom’s 10% to 15% Shiite minority population as a “fifth column.”
  • The executions signal that Saudi Arabia’s tolerance for Tehran’s Shiite meddling in the Arab world has reached its limit. Resisting Iranian military involvement in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen’s civil wars is costing Saudi Arabia billions of dollars and, as oil revenues decline, is forcing the royal family to spend sovereign wealth fund money. This will create dissention within the royal family and may eventually threaten the kingdom’s internal stability.  More ominously, the Saudi leadership feels abandoned as the US seeks an accommodation with Iran.

The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran is now out in the open, exposing the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as proxy conflicts between the dominant Sunni and Shia theocracies for the soul of Islam.  As a secular nation, this is a holy war the US does not understand and would be ill advised to take sides in as this would preclude the next administration in Washington from serving as an honest broker to prevent a bloody regional war that could involve outside powers.

A deep economic recession in China, a growing North Korean nuclear arsenal, and an open conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran are each disruptive in their own unique ways, but what they share in common is the potential to impact regional and global events in significantly and unpredictably.  Not yet a month into the new year, 2016 is showing that already this will be a year of “living dangerously” for the national security community.

That’s what I think; what do you think?

A Holy War on the Arabian Peninsula?

When we last engaged I was opining that the Intelligence Community (IC) seems least prepared to warn effectively against what it perceives as the most immediate and likely threat to the homeland – – –  the self-radicalized Islamic Jihadi “lone wolf” already residing  in the United States.  Then in the midst of the sentencing phase of Boston Marathon Bomber Tamerian Tsarnaev trial and the 20th Anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, an eccentric Tampa area mailman flew his homemade gyrocopter down the Mall to a landing on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.  This act witnessed by thousands and seen by millions on TV seems to have more than anything else galvanized national concern about the threats “lone wolves” (whether foreign or domestic) can pose to national security.  Perhaps Postman Pat (a.k.a Doug Hughes) literally flying his gyrocopter under the radar into the restricted airspace of Washington D.C. after posting his intentions to social media and informing the press will make it obvious that DHS’ Intelligence and Analysis Directorate (I&A) needs to be aggressively applying modern analytics to the big data sets of human terrain information it has access to for discerning potential “lone wolves” in order to nominate them for investigation.   And yes, those charged with stopping the “lone wolves” among us should expect a high false positive rate from these DHS profiles.  Such is the nature of this threat.

Turning to the Iranian “nuclear agreement.” you won’t find me taking any kind of public stance on whether I think the “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program” (a.k.a “The Framework Agreement”) is a good deal or a bad deal, as it is just too early, at least for me, to tell.  What is clear though is that Tehran is anxious to have the economic sanctions imposed against it for its pursuit of a nuclear weapon lifted as soon as possible.  When asked about whether Iran “can be trusted” to formally agree to the provisions of “The Framework Agreement” and then not cheat on its implementation in return for sanctions being lifted, the President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense all have stated for the record that “verification” not “trust” is what the US will depend on for assuring Iran’s compliance.

The Framework agreement certainly puts the IC in the political and policy cross hairs of national security. Despite an excellent track record of keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear development, and if the New York Times is to be believed for having even slowed it down with STUXNET malware, there will be many ready to assert that the Iranians can hide from IC sensors their continuing enrichment of fissile material to weapons grade levels.  Moreover, the IC will be put in the position of having to prove a negative where the absence of evidence that Iran is not enriching uranium doesn’t mean they aren’t.  Even with international inspectors in country, there is the reasonable potential that Iran could move its nuclear weapons enrichment capabilities to undetected locations inside of Iran or off shore to North Korea.  Given these circumstances, the stage is set so that if the Framework Agreement keeps Iran from going nuclear with the benefit of IC monitoring it will be a policy success, but if Iran can continue its nuclear enrichment program without detection it will be an intelligence failure.

Before wrapping up, I want to take note that war has broken out between Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Houthi proxies in what is now the failed state of Yemen, where Aden also remains the home base of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  As in Iraq where Tehran is supporting Shite military action against Sunni ISIS, Iran is providing military equipment and “advisers” to its Shia Houthi allies in Yemen.  More ominously, the Iranian Navy has deployed the destroyer ALBORZ and the logistics support ship BUSHER to the Gulf of Aden “to protect the Islamic Republic of Iran’s interests on the high seas.”  Subsequent reporting indicates Iran is sending a convoy of merchant ships to Yemen, presumably bringing war supplies for the Houthis.

The presence of Iranian naval forces in the region leads to the open question of whether Saudi Arabia will challenge them, and if so will the US Fifth Fleet become directly involved?  Having spent some tension filled time in this region (Iranian Hostage rescue 1979; Tanker War/Ernest Will escorting reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers 1987) the potential for the unexpected to happen at sea is considerable.  The standing USN order post STARK to “defend yourself” makes for a volatile situation that can turn strategic almost immediately because of tactical decisions made by ship captains operating under almost constant stress.  It is probably premature, but you don’t need to be Robert Kaplan to see that Iranian military success at rolling back ISIS in Iraq and establishing Houthi control over at least part of Yemen looks like a pincer that could envelope Mecca and Medina wresting them from Saudi Arabia’s Sunni control for the Shia Mullah’s in Qom.  Extrapolating from the current situation it is not farfetched to infer the likelihood for a bloody religious war been Sunnis and Shiites playing out on the Saudi Peninsula before the next US Presidential election.

Assuming no outside intervention, I would expect a “holy war” on the Arabian Peninsula to settle into a drawn out stalemate between the Sunni forces of Saudi Arabia and the Shia forces of Iran that will negatively impact the supply and price of oil.  The more discouraging option, of course, is Iran over time becoming the dominant power on the Arabian Peninsula and reestablishing the Persian Empire with control of all the significant energy resources from the Red Sea to Afghanistan.  Such a greater Persia, with or without nuclear weapons, would shift Iran from being a regional actor to a strategic competitor with global economic and religious clout.

That’s what I think; what do you think?

2015 Will Be Like 2014 — Just Different

The holidays this year were unusually kind to the Mazzafro family, and I hope the same is true for you and all who matter to you.

No holiday though for world events that affect and effect our national security and personal safety.  While there have fortunately been no ISIS beheadings since our last virtual encounter, the last two weeks of December ushered out 2014 with several events that will surely impact the national security scene in 2015.  As the price of oil continued to drop driving the Russian economy into chaos, President Obama diplomatically recognized Cuba to mixed reviews in both countries.  There was a lone wolf terrorist hostage situation in Sydney Australia that resulted in two dead, while the Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar for Pakistani military children killing 141 (132 children).  All of this was unfolding as North Korea concocted a high visibility cyber hack against Sony Picture Entertainment (SPE; previously Columbia Pictures) to prevent the release of the feature film “The Interview,” which is a comedy satire imagining that two reporters acting on behalf of the CIA assassinate North Korea’s “Boy Leader” Kim Jung Un.  The cyber hack against SPE’s intellectual property, business records, and emails was followed by threats of physical violence against theaters screening “The Interview” on Christmas Day.  The US-led NATO combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended but with 11,000 troops remaining, while the general leading the fight against ISIS said things are going well, but that it will be at least three years before we can stand-down.  Not surprisingly the polemics about the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI) majority report on the use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques dissipated with the adjournment of the 113th Congress.

So given all this, here is a potpourri of what I think we can expect to see in 2015:

  1. The Sony Hack is likely to be the seminal cyber event that causes both the US government and the private sector to get serious enough about cyber security to encourage the Congress to pass bi-partisan legislation that will require the sharing of threat information between corporations and government agencies with cyber security responsibilities.  Moreover, there will likely be a robust debate about what constitutes “cyber vandalism” as opposed to “cyber terrorism” and when a “cyber-attack” is an act of war?  Presumably, this debate will educate the American people regarding when and how they can expect their government to protect them in cyber space.  I also believe that the Sony hack and privacy concerns raised by the Snowden revelations will cause a rapid adoption of data encryption by virtually all Fortune 500 companies around the world and a significant number of individuals as well. As for North Korea, I would not be surprised to see a more open struggle emerge between hardliners and Chinese-encouraged moderates regarding pragmatic accommodations with South Korea and the US.
  2. The 46% drop in oil prices during 2014 has certainly ratcheted up the effects of economic sanctions on Iran and Russia while stimulating economic activity in China, Japan, and the US – – so what’s not to like about this situation? Nothing, if it causes Tehran to agree to curtail its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable way and results in Moscow rethinking its expansionist foreign policy in former states of the defunct Soviet Union.  The alternative, however, is an “us against the world” outlook that actually causes Putin and Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei to see no option but to keep pursuing aggressive nationalistic based policies that will continue to challenge a “lame duck” Obama administration facing an adversarial Congress.
  3. With China’s economic growth rate slowing to between 6% and 7% as the population ages, the Xi Jinping regime will become increasingly concerned with domestic issues. Of particular importance to Xi and the Chinese Politburo will be insuring that the democracy movement/demonstrations in Hong Kong do not spread to China’s mainland coastal cities. Meanwhile, the declining price of oil should have a calming effect on China and other nations seeking to establish territorial claims in the South and East China Sea in order to preserve energy exploration rights.
  4. By this time next year the US lead effort to degrade, disrupt and defeat ISIS with airpower will likely have devolved into a stalemate despite the US committing another 7,000 combat “advisers” (for a total of 10,000 boots on the ground) to steady and encourage the Iraqi Army. The irony here is that US ground forces will likely be acting in concert with the Iranian military to keep at least a Shia Iraq in existence.  Unless Syrian Dictator Bashar al Assad is taken out politically, or by other means, there seems little chance of the Syrian civil war ending in 2015.
  5. With 11,000 US troops remaining in Afghanistan as combat advisors, the end of America’s combat mission in this foreboding landlocked country is more political rhetoric than reality. The presence of US troops and the Pakistani military’s unwillingness to now concede safe haven to the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the Peshawar military school slaughter should keep the central government in Kabul viable, but for the long term prognosis see Iraq after the US departure in 2011 and Afghanistan post the Russian departure in 1989.  Already Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is saying the United States might want to “re-examine” the timetable for removing the remaining U.S.-led coalition troops in the country by the end of 2016.
  6. And now for the “lightening round”
    • “Lone Wolf” attacks, both physical and cyber, will increase in 2015 as result of self-radicalization, aggrieved individuals, or some just seeking their “15 minutes of fame.”
    • NSA’s bulk collection authorities will likely be renewed, but with considerable deference to privacy concerns and transparency. I also expect to see privacy advocates arguing before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)
    • The Intelligence Community’s (IC) deteriorating relationship with Congress should begin to heal, but it will be incumbent on the IC to rebuild the trust and confidence of the Congress (and by extension the American people) in the community. Both the IC and its Congressional oversight committees should begin a dialogue regarding how to revamp oversight so it can be more effective both in terms of IC mission needs and growing privacy concerns associate with the Information Age.
    • Budget caps will not be lifted by the 114th Congress, leaving Overseas Contingency Operating (OCO) funds as the only source of relief for unmet defense and intelligence funding needs. Military Service Intelligence agencies will be particularly squeezed
    • Despite the interest of incoming Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in acquisition reform, which is shared with Senator McCain (incoming Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) and Representative Thornberry (next Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee), there will be no meaningful reforms enacted in 2015.
    • As defense and intelligence contract award opportunities diminish because of budget realities, there will be an increase in merger and acquisition activity within the DoD and IC’s industrial base.
    • Expectations that private sector Research & Development (R&D) will be sufficient to meet Defense and IC needs are misplaced as contractors shift funding from R&D to protect shareholder equity and/or improve their balance sheets for potential acquirers.
    • 2015 is the “make or break” year for ICITE to begin to deliver mission capabilities to the IC if IOC, as laid out in 2012, is going to be achieved by 2017. Agencies opting out of the Desk Top Environment (DTE), the slow development of governance models, and challenges with integration do not make me optimistic

 

 

That’s what I think; what do you think?