The ISIS Conundrum

I just finished watching a 17 minute discussion from the Wednesday night PBS NewsHour (10 June) moderated by anchor Judy Woodruff  with Leon Panetta, Michele Flournoy, Tony Zinni, and Andrew Bacevich discussing US policy/strategy in Iraq in light of President Obama’s decision to send 450 combat advisors there.   This link (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/can-obamas-plan-defeat-destroy-islamic-state/ ) provides both the video of the discussion and a transcript.

I found this roundtable discussion both informative and distressing.  Informative because it framed the issues and exposed the various policy options. Distressing because all but Bacevich see ISIS threating US national interests, and yet Panetta and Flournoy believe we need Sunni Iraqis to defend those interests for us!  The elephant in the room mentioned but not really addressed is how to defeat (destroy?) ISIS without a long term US ground force commitment to the region.  Neat trick if it can be done.

With “due respect” to Ms. Flournoy, absent a large ground force commitment to Iraq I do not see Iran’s influence (military, religious, cultural, economic, and diplomatic) in the region waning.  Ergo, a reasonable strategy is for the US is to get out of the way and let Iran deal with ISIS while the US prepares to deal with Iran as an adversarial nation state regional power.  Does this mean the end of a sovereign Iraq?  Probably, but isn’t Iraqi sovereignty mostly de jure vice de facto?

It is my sense that what the American people want to hear is “no long term military commitment of ground forces to Iraq,” so if there is a threat to their safety from ISIS then the national security leadership needs to forcefully make that case … and expect it to be accepted or rejected in the 2016 election.  Alternatively, if the threat is now clear and present the President could request from Congress a declaration of war against ISIS or the Congress could offer such a declaration to the Commander in Chief.

Regarding the threat ISIS is presenting, I found Alex Ward’s recent article How Much Does ISIS Really Threaten America in THE NATIONAL INTEREST (http://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-much-does-isis-really-threaten-america-12993?page=show ) well-reasoned.

Agreeing with Ward, I would observe that ISIS is fully engaged in creating vice operating from a safe haven in Eastern Syria and Northwestern Iraq as it fights Iraq, Iran, and elements in Syria to create the Islamic State.  As threatening as ISIS inspired “lone wolfs” are it is difficult for me to see any of  them as being  more dangerous to the safety of American citizens in the homeland than James Holmes (Aurora Movie Theater mass murder), Adam Lanza (Newtown School Shooting), Jared Lee Loughner (Congress Woman Gifford shooting),  etc. all of whom were not ISIS motivated.

As Leon Panetta observed in the NewsHour roundtable, the destabilization ISIS is causing in the Middle East represents a  threat to US interests, but a case can be made that ISIS is actually an artifact of the instability that already existed in region from the Syrian Civil War and an ethically Balkanized Iraq.  More importantly though, how does ISIS enhancing the regional instability threaten the strategic safety of the US or even Israel?  They could achieve nation state status, but the Islamic State would be a poor country in rough neighborhood.  How about as a state sponsor of terrorism?  I don’t see the Islamic State as being in the same league as North Korea, Iran, Somalia, or even fracturing Yemen.  Without Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), terrorism is the tactic of choice of the militarily weak.

As effective as ISIS recruiting and radicalization appears to be, they have not shown the ability for their recruits to plan, let alone conduct, coordinated attacks.  Actually it is this inability to mount synchronized attacks that makes ISIS “lone wolves” difficult for the Intelligence and Law Enforcement Agencies to identify and disrupt them.

Alex Ward makes several recommendations for dealing more effectively with the ISIS threat as it exists (stop hyping it, focus on tracking returning “foreign fighters,” stop looking at motivation and pay attention to how ISIS attacks), to which I would add work on intelligence driven “honey pots” to identify ISIS radicals amongst us and develop analytics that extract “lone wolf” signatures out of their low signal to noise environments.  More strategically the US needs a narrative that dilutes if not counters the appeal of the ISIS narrative for disconnected people to fight and die for ISIS.

I find it disconcerting that 14 years after 9/11 and all the blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US still has not developed a rational for countering radical jihadism.  Beyond that over two administrations and several Congresses we have not yet agreed on what national interest are at stake in Iraq since it was found not to have WMD and Saddam was removed.  Nor have we developed a consensus around a national strategy for dealing with the rise of Iran.  In retrospect, preventing the North from overrunning the South and containing the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia was actually a more coherent strategy for American war policy in Vietnam than anything we have seen in the last ten years in the Middle East!

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

Advertisements

Crisis as Opportunity for the IC

The summer of crisis is showing no signs of abatement with the approach of the fall equinox. Yes, I am mindful that Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease fire on August 26th, but I don’t see it addressing any of the underlying causes feeding the violence on both sides with regard to Gaza. There is still no assignment of responsibility for the shoot down of Malaysian Air Flight 17 over the eastern Ukraine but now there are photographs of Russian troops and armored vehicles securing the road that connects Rostov in southern Russia with Sevastopol in the recently annexed Crimea. Then there are the horrific executions by beheading of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff apparently meant to warn the West that it should be mindful that the Islamic State (IS) is a sovereign nation that is not to be interfered with. In the background the Ebola epidemic continues in West Africa along with Boko Haram, Libya is being run by militias, the Horn of Africa remains ungovernable and there are almost daily news reports of serious cyber hacks reminding me that there are dangerous chemical, biological, and cyber threats from a variety of vectors that accidently or purposely could ruin our day in the Continental United States (CONUS).

As bad as all this is, the current cauldron of crises should be an opportunity for the Intelligence Community (IC), the Department of State (DoS), Department of Homeland Security (DoHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) to individually and collectively show the American people that they are ready to defend them and that the investments made in these departments over the past 12 years has been money well spent on their behalf. Whether it’s because of (or lack of) policy decisions, capability gaps, organizational structure, or leadership I have the sense that the American people not only don’t have trust and confidence in our government’s ability to protect them, but they are beginning to see the government as contributing to if not causing the threats to our national security. Moreover, the impending release of the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI’s) release of its lengthy report on rendition and enhanced interrogation will likely only add to the misgivings the electorate has about the IC post Snowden.

Without getting into the politics of who’s at fault, it is a matter of record that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not turned out the way Washington said they would. Neither has been short; both have delivered more casualties than expected; each has seen several shifts in strategy; both have been crushingly expensive; neither resulted in stable sovereign national governments, but most important of all the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not ridded the world of violent Sunni Moslem Jihadist looking to wreak death and destruction on the United States. Instead, America is confronted with a well-organized, well financed, heavily armed, highly radical Islamic Sharia State the size of Belgium in what used to be northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq that unchecked will threaten at least Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia – – – – which offers IS strongman Baghdadi both more oil riches as well as control of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina to expand the appeal of the IS “caliphate.”

As with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Abdu Bakr al Baghdadi are also threatening the United States with jihadi violence because of American opposition to the reestablishment of the Islamic Caliphate under Sharia Law. While it was not certainly planned this way, the current threat presented by the IS provides the Intelligence Community (IC) with the opportunity to regain the trust and confidence of the American people by demonstrating what it can do for them as opposed to what Greenwalt, Bamfort and others have been saying the IC has been doing to them.

The first thing the IC can and should do is identify and broadly publicize as many names as possible of American’s fighting for the IS. It is one thing for these individuals to be watch listed but another for the American people to be engaged in protecting themselves by knowing who they are. Another is for the IC to share with the American people the intelligence it is providing to the Kurds and Turks to enable military action against IS fighters so they can understand what the IS is doing. Spare me the concern about compromising sources and methods if we are willing to provide actionable intelligence to uncleared foreign fighters. If the IC wants trust and confidence then it needs to let those paying the bills see some of their IC tax dollars at work! Without being specific, the IC should also be talking openly about how it is using big data and analytics to understand how the Islamic State is organized, operates, who its leaders are, and how it targets.

It wouldn’t hurt either if the American people saw the IC actively contributing a comprehensive strategy to deal with the threat the IS presents as well as responding Putin’s aggression in the eastern Ukraine. Some of that strategy should involve active (and visible) intelligence collection, analysis and sharing. If I got the chance to offer strategy advice to policy makers I would suggest at least the following:

For the Islamic State:

  • Stop trying to save Iraq as a nation state and allow it to fractionate into its natural Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish constituencies.
  • Use American ISR and military power to help the Turks, Kurds, Saudis, and Iran backed Iraqi Shias to contain, weaken, and defeat the military capabilities of the Islamic State
  • Destroying the Islamic State is more important than whether Assad continues to rule what is left of Syria; with political, economic, and military pressure his regime will last only a matter of years

For Russia and the Ukraine:

  • Continue to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically while calling out Putin with the release of selected intelligence
  • Provide the Ukrainian Government in Kiev with strategic and tactical intelligence regarding Russian actions in the eastern Ukraine
  • Insure military arms and ammunition quickly reach the Ukraine Government
  • Expedite the completion of land based missile defense capabilities in Poland
  • Ramp up visible peripheral reconnaissance along the northern shore of the Black Sea
  • Deploy a U.S. Navy Surface Combatant Strike Group (AEGIS cruisers and destroyers armed with Tomahawk missiles
  • Suggest to NATO that the Montreux Convention be examined to allow for aircraft carrier transits of the Turkish Straits

While national strategic options for both the IS and the Ukraine are being formulated and debated I do believe it would be prudent to move a USN Carrier Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean to show both interest and intent in each of these areas of concern.

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

The “New Normal” and DIA

It is Memorial Day and I am surprised by how inured I am to our military being at war for 13 years now.  I am careful to say the military rather than the nation being at war, because since 9/11 two very different two-term Presidents have as a matter of policy made the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan the sole purview of the armed forces vice the nation they are protecting.  It seems to me that in different ways both the Bush and Obama Administrations reached the same political calculation: if the American people have to sacrifice in terms of higher taxes, reduced entitlements or less consumer goods they will quickly use their voting power to end these conflicts. Now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have come to an end out of wearing frustration and crushing expense with results that don’t seem to have made the United States any safer.  This is especially true when we consider what a small group of passionately anti-American terrorists operating from a failed state can do with kinetic, chemical/biological, or cyber weapons of mass destruction.  We have, however, demonstrated what terrorists can expect should they bring harm to the homeland of the United States.

It is in this context I am viewing the news of the world in a state of constant crisis as being the “new normal,” from the coup in Thailand, Boko Haram taking 200 school girls hostage, continuing armed conflict in Syria, escalating violence in Iraq, political upheaval in Egypt, instability in Pakistan, events in the Ukraine, or the confrontation in the South China Sea.  In all of his public appearances for the past year or so Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director LTG Mike Flynn has been warning that crisis is the “new normal” and implying that solid intelligence is the capability most in need by policy makers and military operators for sorting out which world events present serious security threats to the interests of the United States and how to effectively deal with them.  In other words, putting this daily menu of crises into context so that national energy and resources can be effectively engaged against those that matter the most. And when force is employed by providing military commanders with decision advantage.

Given his Special Operations Forces (SOF) background and his description and prescription for what is wrong with military intelligence in his seminal 2010 paper “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan”,  I was not surprised by Mike Flynn’s aggressive efforts through personnel and organizational change to make DIA more relevant to decision makers and military officers dealing with constant crisis.  I was surprised, however, that for reasons not clear to me he was not continued for a normal third year of his tour as DIA Director because according to press reports he was disruptive!  Really?  So what was the DoD and IC leadership who selected him to lead DIA expecting from a person this transparent?

DIA was established in 1961 to provide the Secretary of Defense and the wider defense enterprise with timely, relevant, and actionable intelligence to support policy, acquisition, and operations. DIA was also seen as adding to the competitive analysis of intelligence offered by the military services State Department and the CIA.  Nonetheless, DIA has struggled throughout its history to establish itself on an equal professional footing with the CIA and the other four national intelligence agencies (NSA, NRO, NGA, and FBI).  Since the mid-1990’s I have observed Flynn’s seven  predecessors become DIA Director with a mandate and/or agenda to revive DIA and make it a more meaningful player for DoD’s needs and by extension give it influence within the larger Intelligence Community (IC) commensurate with its mission and size.  In their own ways each of these well thought of three star officers achieved incremental success in modernizing and equipping DIA for the post-Cold War Intelligence challenges DoD, the IC and the nation faced.  In aggregate, though, none of these seven directors significantly changed how DIA was perceived externally by its consumers or IC peers; nor did they impact how DIA is internally viewed by its own workforce.

When Mike Flynn became Director DIA in July 2012 it seemed to me his approach for changing DIA was employing a quick hitting “SOF raid” where he and a cadre of trusted subordinates in short order shifted over 100 SES’s to new positions (detaching most from their bureaucratic power bases) while also reorganizing DIA out of its hierarchical structure to a flatter more fluid “centers” based approached driven by consumer needs.  In retrospect what LTG Flynn misgauged was that as a bureaucratically hardened target with practiced survival skills DIA was not a good SOF target.  In the end it seems DIA’s entrenched ways attrited Flynn’s more agile but smaller force before he could change DIA’s organizational outlook.  DIA’s change-resistant culture also got some serious top cover from the military service intelligence organizations that see gains for DIA as working against their prestige and budgets.  Similarly, CIA has no interest in DIA becoming a meaningful counterweight on the military side to its role as the IC’s leading all source intelligence producer.

I suspect Mike Flynn understood that there were long odds against dramatically changing DIA on his watch, but doing a risk verses benefit calculation I can see where he saw virtually only personal danger to himself and unlimited upside if the effort to make DIA more relevant to the “new normal” environment of continuing crisis succeeded. Presumably, whoever the next DirDIA is they will be informed by LTG Flynn’s experience of attempting to rapidly alter DIA and return to a path of incremental change for the agency.

Here are some recommendations I hope the next DIA Director will consider as this officer assesses the direction they want DIA to move in:

  • No reorganizations; play the cards you are dealt so the DIA workforce will stop being concerned about organization charts and be more focused producing intelligence.  Moreover, continuing the DIA “Centers” will allow the agency to avoid the disruptive ad hoc task force response to crises that it has traditionally used.
  • The quickest path to relevance is through tailored embedded (virtual where this makes sense) intelligence support teams for military operating forces going in harm’s way.  DIA “go teams” that train up with SOF, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units they are supporting will provide these units with better intelligence while infusing DIA at the working level with what military forces need and how they want it.
  • Avoid becoming “cyber warriors” but develop a deeper understanding of collection, analysis, signatures, and order of battle associate with the cyber domain.  What should the Modernized Intelligence Data Base (MIDB) look like for cyber targets?
  • Intelligence support to DoD acquisition is under served and is in the sweet spot of DIA’s capabilities and strengths.  Begin to view intelligence for acquisition as supporting the next generation of warfighters.
  • Information Technology (IT) is an “enabler” but not a core mission for DIA so stop spending so much time and money on it!  Shift to an outsourced managed services model similar to Ground Breaker to both save money and improve IT infrastructure performance.  Turn DIA to being an IT consumer/follower vice developer/innovator.  Leverage IT capabilities offered by ICITE, DI2E, and DISA

In the final analysis it doesn’t matter if DIA becomes a more relevant IC player through revolutionary or evolutionary change.  The radical organizational change and sense of urgency LTG Flynn has introduced into DIA, I believe will provide the next DirDIA a platform to help DIA through an incremental approach to achieving its true potential

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