Many events divided the attention of the Washington think tank community – ranging from the 2016 budget proposal to the revelations that the CIA and Mossad collaborated to kill Imad Mughniyah, a principal military Hezbollah leader of Hezbollah .
The Monitor analysis looks at both the assassination and the latest Obama budget proposal. We note that assassination – a popular Israeli tactic – rarely works and often leads to unintended consequences.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Washington Institute looks at the Shiite jihad in Syria and its effects. They note, “Just as pivotal as the Sunni jihadists, however, if less frequently covered, are the thousands of Shiite jihadist fighters who have mobilized in opposition to their Sunni foes. These fighters have come primarily from Iraq and Lebanon, but also from other countries. Indeed, what may have appeared to be a disjointed or even organic flow of Shiite fighters into Syria, ostensibly to defend the country’s Shiite holy sites, was actually a highly organized geostrategic and ideological effort by Iran to protect its ally in Damascus and project power within Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East.
According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
The death of the Saudi king has focused attention on the Sultan of Oman, who is also in bad health. They note, “The complexity of the succession mechanism established in the Basic Law, combined with the central role played by officials who do not belong to the royal family, raises many questions. There is every indication that the Ruling Family Council has never met to date. In these circumstances, if the royal family cannot make a decision, is it ready to yield supreme decisionmaking to individuals who do not belong to the royal family and who owe their positions solely to Qaboos?… Tremendous social and economic challenges await Qaboos’s successor. But Oman’s young civil society will not be willing to grant him the same degree of authoritarian paternalism that their parents gave Qaboos.”
The CSIS looks at the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. They recommend that if negotiations fail in June, “The United States and Europe should reverse those dynamics in July, either by looking at new coordinated sanctions or alternatively at increased constraints on Iran’s program. First, the transatlantic members of the P5+1 should work together to craft a new package of coordinated sanctions, as they have done in the past when negotiations were unable to advance satisfactorily to their objectives. Russia and China would not necessarily support this outcome, but they would not break the P5+1 format as both countries share the objective of preventing a nuclear Iran through diplomacy, and sanctions are a tool of those diplomatic efforts. Increased economic pressure could create more flexibility in Iran’s negotiating posture in order to reach a comprehensive agreement at a later stage. More Western policy measures could also be focused on making Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts a much more costly policy.”
The Hudson Institute looks at Obama’s strategy in the Iranian nuclear talks. They note, “As a matter of ideology as much as strategy, Obama believes that integrating Iran into the international diplomatic and economic system is a much more effective method of moderating its aggressive behavior than applying more pressure. Contrary to logic, and to all the accumulated evidence before and since the November 2013 interim agreement, he appears also to believe that his method is working. In his March 2014 interview, he argued that his approach was actually strengthening reformers and reformist trends in Tehran: “[I]f as a consequence of a deal on their nuclear program,” he said, “those voices and trends inside of Iran are strengthened, and their economy becomes more integrated into the international community, and there’s more travel and greater openness, even if that takes a decade or 15 years or 20 years, then that’s very much an outcome we should desire.”
The CSIS looks at the growing problems in Afghanistan. The report indicates that the military situation is far worse than the US Department of Defense and ISAF have reported, and provides detailed graphs and maps showing the real risks in the current security situation. It also provides a detailed analysis of the problems in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the limits in their capability, as well as the weaknesses in past and planned US and allied force development and training efforts. The report suggests that President Obama’s insistence on rapid cuts in the US advisory presence and its near elimination by the end of 2016 could cripple the Transition effort, and that a large and longer conditions-based effort may be critical to success.
The Heritage Foundation looks at the 2016 defense budget. They insist Congress should increase the FY 2016 defense budget to $584 billion. “Six years of defense cuts, totaling 25 percent reductions in annual spending, have degraded the U.S. military, and it needs to be rebuilt. At the same time, Congress needs to address out-of-control spending, mainly spending on entitlements, which is the real driver of debt. Instead of trying to fix the nation’s fiscal problems on the back of the defense budget, Congress should craft fiscally responsible spending legislation that addresses the growth in entitlement spending, cuts unnecessary non-defense discretionary spending, and increases defense spending.”
The CIA- Mossad Joint Assassination
Why Now, What Does it Mean and Is it a Smart Tactic?
The Washington Post reported this week that in 2008, the CIA worked with the Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, to kill Imad Mughniyah, an important Hezbollah military leader. According to the Post, Mossad placed the bomb and made sure it was on target, but the CIA built the bomb, testing it 25 times to make sure the blast wouldn’t damage a large area thereby causing collateral damage.
The story is interesting in and of itself – more like a Hollywood action movie than a real life operation. However, the big question is: why is it coming out now, when American-Israeli relations are so strained and Israel and Hezbollah may be on the verge of war?
If one believes that the Obama administration is behind the leak, then the leak is probably intended to send a message to Israelis and/or their Prime Minister Netanyahu. In that case, the message is that Israel and the United States can accomplish worthwhile things when they cooperate. Conversely, it means that Israelis need a Prime Minister with whom the American president will cooperate.
Alternatively, the message might be that the U.S. knows Israel’s secrets and that if Prime Minister Netanyahu embarrasses President Obama, the administration’s next leaks will be highly damaging to Israel.
The leak about Mughniyah, while perhaps not highly damaging to Israel, probably isn’t welcome. As noted, tensions between Israel and Hezbollah are running high in the aftermath of deadly attacks by both sides against the other. In that light, does the Obama want to exacerbate the tensions by inflaming Hezbollah? If he intends to hurt Netanyahu politically, it was a bad move as Netanyahu’s chances for reelection or popularity internally are not affected by such leaks, although it may complicate matters to him.
Of course, it may have been the work of several in the intelligence community who want to heighten tensions in the region. However, since the Obama Administration has been brutal in prosecuting people in the government who leak embarrassing information, it’s highly unlikely – especially since it appears that up to 5 people provided information and collaboration.
It is important to note that the killing of Mughniyah occurred during the Bush administration. Thus, the leaked information does not implicate the Obama administration – which raises a question about the level of Obama CIA? Mossad cooperation there is now?.
There was a clear reason for the CIA’s role in the assassination of Mughniyah. According to the Post, Mughniyah had been implicated in the killing of hundreds of Americans, dating back to the embassy bombing in Beirut in 1982 that killed 63 people, including eight CIA officers. He was also believed to have been involved in the 1984 kidnapping and torture of the CIA’s station chief in Lebanon, William Francis Buckley. Few politicians would have problems with this assassination.
Are Assassinations Helping or Hurting?
Assassination has always been a questionable tool, either through direct action as that against Mughniyah, or with drones as is the favorite method preferred by Obama.
This was a question being raised at the same time that the CIA was assisting the Mossad. In a CIA report made public by Wikileaks, it appears that serious questions were being raised about the advisability of targeted assassinations and whether they help or hurt insurgencies.
A few weeks ago, WikiLeaks has released a copy of a secret CIA analysis, which reviewed the success of “High Value Target” (HVT) assassination programs used by governments to combat insurgencies. The review shows the CIA is trying to evaluate assassination attempts by colonial powers and unpopular governments that have failed to suppress revolutions. Their study demonstrates that relying on lethal strikes to combat insurgencies has often failed to succeed.
The report was drafted by the Office of Transnational Issues (OTI), which is the agency tasked with providing senior United States policymakers, military planners and law enforcement with “analysis, warning and crisis support.” It is dated July 7, 2009, which means it was probably drafted before Obama came to power and before he escalated use of drones to kill leaders of insurgent groups in the Middle East.
OTI studied: Afghanistan (2001- June 2009), Algeria (1954-1962), Colombia (2002-June 2009), Iraq (2004- June 2009), Israel (1972 to mid-1990s, mid-1990s to June 2009), Peru (1980-1999), Northern Ireland (1969-1998) and Sri Lanka (1983 – May 2009). Examples from Chechnya, Libya, Pakistan and Thailand were also considered as well.
The analysis was very cautionary about the value of assassinations. The report stated strikes, “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if noncombatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent. Because of the psychological nature of insurgency, either side’s actions are less important than how events are perceived by key audiences inside and outside the country, according to an academic expert on counterinsurgency.”
The report looked at Israeli assassinations and their degree of success. They noted from 2000 to 2002, in Israel, these efforts “strengthened solidarity between terrorist groups and bolstered popular support for hardline militant leaders, according to US Embassy officials in Jerusalem and clandestine reporting.” These are words that hardly advocate an expanded assassination program.
The report also looked at programs outside the current situation. They noted, since 2004, the Thai Government’s fixation on targeting southern insurgent leaders—which in the late 1990s proved effective against an earlier generation of insurgents—has caused Bangkok to misperceive the decentralized nature of the movement and miss opportunities to counter it, according to reporting from the US Embassy in Bangkok.
The report also looked back at Algeria’s fight for independence and France’s brutal attempt to crush it. “The National Liberation Front (FLN) began a revolt in 1954 against French rule in Algeria with the goal of establishing an independent state. The group’s campaign of urban terrorism, intended to provoke a French overreaction that targeted the general Algerian population, succeeded, and the resulting loss of civilians increased the FLN’s popularity, according to an academic study. French efforts to target FLN leaders included intelligence-driven commando raids on insurgent hideouts, according to a former insurgent, and culminated in the 1956 capture of FLN chief Ahmad Ben Bella and four other top leaders during a flight from Rabat to Tunis. Ben Bella was a relative moderate among the FLN leadership, and his capture enhanced the influence of radical Algeria-based leaders, according to academic studies. French military gains from 1956 to 1958 shifted the conflict sharply against the insurgents, according to a RAND study. However, the draconian measures taken to quell the insurgency eroded French domestic and international support for the effort, resulting in Algeria achieving independence in 1962, according to the RAND study.”
While such assassination attempts seem like quick expedients to fight terrorists or insurgents, the report warned of several problems. And, although some in Obama’s national security team have surely read the report, it appears that they have failed to take some of the warnings to heart.
One warning is that HVT projects can become a focus of a nation and its security community. They note, “HVT operations can capture the attention of policymakers and military planners to the extent that a government loses its strategic perspective on the conflict or neglects other key aspects of counterinsurgency.”
This can be seen here in the US as Obama focuses on okaying each drone strike and many parts of the intelligence and defense community are solely focused on the drone program.
The report also warns that aggressive targeting can force groups to fragment and sometimes rely upon more radical elements for leadership. They note, “aggressive HVT strategy risks fragmenting an insurgency or causing it to devolve into terrorist or criminal activity.”
The emergence of more aggressive groups of Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, northwest Africa and Somalia is exactly what has happened in the past years as the CIA (and US military) has escalated its use of HVT operations.
Ironically, the State Department’s own report on terrorism last year admitted the same trouble. They note, “Leadership losses (of AQ) in Pakistan, coupled with weak governance and instability in the Middle East and Northwest Africa, have accelerated the decentralization of the movement and led to the affiliates in the AQ network becoming more operationally autonomous from core AQ and increasingly focused on local and regional objectives.”
Although the report looked at assassination in terms of fighting al Qaeda, the same analysis also applies to ISIS and the Obama drone assassination policy can be seen as helping ISIS rather than destroying it.
During the Bush Administration, the reliance on drone strikes was perceived as having a moderate impact on al Qaeda in Iraq. However, as evidenced by Obama’s decision to escalate more attacks in Iraq to go after ISIS, those “successes” did not rid the country of the threat. It is also very debatable whether the CIA’s own operations were helping to stabilize the region, given the fact that it is teaming up with the Mossad to assassinate high value targets.
Obama’s 2016 Budget
This week Obama submitted his 2016 to Congress. And, as always happens when the Congress and White House are controlled by different parties, Congress quickly declared it, “Dead on arrival.”
Of course, that was okay with Obama as the budget was less a spending plan than a political document for the 2016 presidential election. The plan is to set up “income inequality,” as a campaign theme for the Democrats. The budget also plays to the Democratic base with proposals to increase spending for domestic programs such as education and child care and expanding Social Security benefits for same-sex couples.
The budget also is designed to force a confrontation between national security Republicans and the wing of the party that wants to cuts spending. He is offering a $38 billion increase for national security programs over current budget caps and $37 billion more in discretionary spending for domestic programs. His proposal to relax those spending limits, known as sequestration, would put discretionary spending for fiscal 2016 at $1.091 trillion, which is $74 billion above the limits.
There is also a focus on is cybersecurity. After the hacks against banks, Sony and the U.S. Postal Service, the White House and lawmakers in both parties have been searching for ways to deter attacks, respond to them when they happen, and, in some cases, retaliate. Obama’s budget would spend $14 billion, spread across government agencies, to bolster cybersecurity.
In addition to new taxes and greatly increased spending, the budget is designed to force a confrontation with congressional Republicans. Obama coupled his budget proposal with a threat. “I’m not going to accept a budget that locks in sequestration going forward. It would be bad for our security, and bad for our growth,”
The White House strategy is simple. Either Obama well get what he wants in the budget – and many new programs for his Democratic base – or the media will give him cover by blaming a shutdown based on a budget impasse on John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. He also knows that Republican failure to cut spending would mean punishment by Republican voters come 2016.
However, Republican lawmakers do have public opinion on their side. Voters clearly have told pollsters that they want less spending and do not trust the government to spend their money wisely.
Be prepared for another game of budget brinkmanship this fall.
A Proposal for the FY 2016 Defense Budget
By Diem Nguyen Salmon
January 30, 2015
U.S. foreign and defense policy has reached a critical juncture. In an astonishingly brief period of time, the world—and America’s place in it—has changed dramatically. During this period, presidential elections, the financial crisis, and government shutdown politics largely supplanted overseas engagements and foreign affairs in the minds of the White House and Congress. The swearing-in of a new Congress and a new majority party in the Senate provides an important opportunity to reassess the objectives of U.S. foreign policy and to align other policy priorities accordingly. The U.S. defense budget is the first among the items to reconsider in the context of a changing international landscape. While foreign policy matters cannot simply be solved with more money for defense, little can be expected to change without it. Consecutive years of across-the-board budget cuts have significantly weakened the U.S. military. The military will likely need several years of reinvestment to return to a sound footing, and a higher defense budget for fiscal year (FY) 2016 would be an encouraging start.
Iran Negotiations: The Policy Consequences of Time
By Simond de Galbert
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 4, 2015
Absent an agreement in July, the temptation to preserve and continue the P5+1 negotiating framework in place will be great. But there will be policy costs and consequences to maintain the status quo that may not be in the West’s interests, specifically if the impact of sanctions decreases over time or alternatively if Iran does not continue to restrain its nuclear development throughout the negotiating period. Negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear program have been substantive over the past year, and some progress has been achieved. It logically justified two negotiating extensions. Whether Iran will be willing to make the necessary choices to bring its positions closer to those of the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, plus Germany) to reach an acceptable outcome remains uncertain, 15 months after the Joint Plan of Action (JPoA) was agreed in Geneva in November 2013. But, should Tehran choose to maintain its negotiating posture that it will retain a dual-capable nuclear program, the P5+1 will be unable to accommodate Iran’s position.
Transition in Afghanistan: Losing the Forgotten War?
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 4, 2015
The report focuses on the lessons that need to be learned from of the US experience in Afghanistan to date, and the problems Afghanistan faces now that most US and allied combat forces have left. It builds on more than a decade’s worth of reporting and analysis of the Afghan war. It examines the recent trends and problems in Afghan governance, the trends in the fighting, progress in the Afghan security forces, and what may be a growing crisis in the Afghan economy.
Simmering Unrest and Succession Challenges in Oman
By Marc Valeri
January 28, 2015
The uncertain health of the sultan of Oman has heightened concern about the future of the country, the most personalized of all Gulf monarchies. Many Omanis have long equated the country with its ruler, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who won their loyalty by building up a state and a national identity centered on himself. However, amid mounting popular frustration, criticism of Qaboos has emerged, as has anxiety about what will follow his reign. There are several measures the regime can undertake to avoid further unrest.
Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy
By Michael Doran
February 2, 2015
President Barack Obama wishes the Islamic Republic of Iran every success. Its leaders, he explained in a recent interview, stand at a crossroads. They can choose to press ahead with their nuclear program, thereby continuing to flout the will of the international community and further isolate their country; or they can accept limitations on their nuclear ambitions and enter an era of harmonious relations with the rest of the world. “They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it,” the president urged—because “if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication . . . inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power.” How eager is the president to see Iran break through its isolation and become a very successful regional power? Very eager.
The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects
By Phillip Smyth
Policy Focus 138
In 2012 and early 2013, media sources were widely reporting the imminent fall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime to Sunni rebel groups. But not long thereafter, it began to show resilience, holding off further rebel advances and even retaking lost ground. This turnabout was fueled largely by Iran-backed Shiite proxy groups fighting on Assad’s behalf. While these groups often invoked the defense of the Sayyeda Zainab shrine as their rallying cry, their influx into Syria was far from a spontaneous expression of Shiite unity. Indeed, it reflected instead a highly organized geostrategic and ideological effort by Iran to protect its Syrian ally and project power across the Middle East. When fighting spread to neighboring Iraq, many of the Iraq-based proxies regrouped across the border to defend their homeland against advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor