Thursday, February 26, 2015

Short: Why is Libya Important to the Islamic State?

Reader Nathan asked if I would make a Libya post and then, helpfully, gave me some truly awesome source information. Thanks, Nathan!

The big question here is: why ISIS is putting so much effort into expanding into Libya when it's losing ground in Iraq and having mixed success in Syria? (To elaborate a bit: ISIS does need to put recruiting, training, and physical resources into Libya, and foreign Jihadis going to Libya aren't going to Iraq/Syria to reinforce there, so it's definitely an investment.)

The article starts with a translation of an ISIS strategy document, which outlines to ISIS and fellow Islamic extremist groups the motivations for going to Libya.

I'll briefly sum up the main points below, but the key takeaway is that ISIS isn't looking to Libya primarily or urgently for attacks in Italy. Despite its apocalyptic machinations, ISIS' first priority is to actually establish the Caliphate: to them, that includes a very ambitious plan that is way bigger than the previous Caliphate of the dark/middle ages.

Adding to this of course are the gains that the Ottomans made in the 1200s-1400s that included areas in India, the rest of Turkey, the known Muslim areas in northern Africa, and some of the Balkans. IS wants all of this stuff and, for whatever reason, all of India. Why IS would want to rule India is not yet clear to me.

The summary of the strategic document, in short:

  • The Islamic State really does want to cover all of the Muslim World
  • Libya is a window of opportunity: the strength of militants, rise of Jihadi groups, and government division mean that IS can establish a foothold there
  • It's under less pressure than Iraq and is a pretty free operating space for regional operations (where IS is on the defensive in Iraq and still under lots of bombing/Kurdish pressure in Syria)
  • It has access to nearby states that IS wants to spread to, many of which have potential allies (particularly Niger, Mail, and Algeria)
  • It has access to battle-hardened recruits in Libya, Algeria, and Sudan [added after post]
  • Indeed it does have access to Southern Europe--there are human trafficking operations that could more easily move militants to Italy and elsewhere for expanded terror operations--probably "some 20 militants shooting up Rome for a few hours" kind of mayhem

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Is the President's Request for Authorization of Force the Right Package? Is the Mosul Announcement Crazy?

(Total reading time: about 10 minutes)

Reader Andrew asked me for my opinion on the efficacy of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that President Obama requested from Congress earlier in the month.

Part of what prompted the question was an email from Andrew's representative Michael Capuano (D-MA) stating why he was against the authorization as-written. In short, his objections:

  • "Half measures are a recipe for failure and this resolution is a half measure." It doesn't allow US forces to take part in military operations necessary to win
  • The US' record in the Middle East usually includes success on the ground followed by disaster--either quagmire (Afghanistan and Iraq) or post-war collapse without us there (Libya and post-2013 Iraq); there's currently no plan on how to make this work
  • The US is not directly threatened by ISIS; we could play a support role for more directly threatened nations (Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) that lead the assault, but leading it does not make sense from a national security perspective
Presumably if Jordan/Egypt/Turkey/Saudi Arabia (along probably with the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar for good measure) led a ground force, they'd be stuck with managing the aftermath--good both because the US doesn't have to get stuck in another quagmire and also because these countries will have a better chance of managing the peace (more cultural affinity and "pulse" of the situation). Spoiler alert: they probably won't.

Before I add my two cents, let's review a very brief summary of the draft sent to Congress.

Key Points of the AUMF

  • The AUMF is for 3 years (a year beyond the remainder of the President's term) and has no geographical restrictions
  • It's clear enough that it's specifically ISIS-related that it probably can't be used to go after every terrorist organization out there (I'll leave out commentary on the 2001 "Global War on Terror" AUMF and the question of constitutionality of recent operations)
  • Ground forces can advise local troops, conduct search-and-rescue operations for coalition members captured by ISIS, coordination for airstrikes and allied ground movements (think: helping coordinate airstrikes to soften targets for Kurdish advances), and "special operations" (SEALs and whatnot) to take out ISIS leaders
  • Ground forces cannot participate in "enduring" (this is probably intentionally vague) offensive ground operations...
  • The 3,000 troops in Iraq are exempt from this restriction, meaning they'll probably be participating in the Iraqi spring offensive

It's Actually Pretty Good

After reading Rep. Capuano's letter, I was feeling pretty prone to side with him on opposing the AUMF for similar reasons. I'm generally critical of the President's half-measures to deal with problems like Russia, Syrian chemical weapons usage, and other matters.

But I've changed my mind. I think this is a solid AUMF.

I do think there's a clearer plan in place than Capuano believes, but also that requiring too clear a plan before authorizing force is unreasonable. The President's military advisers need the freedom and flexibility to formulate and adjust a plan over time, and the AUMF gives them the green light to move when they're ready--it does not require that any particular action happen now.

Let's talk a bit about what might happen under the AUMF.

Offensive in Iraq

The plan for Iraq is incredibly clear and pretty sound. We've already seen that airstrike coordination in Kobane was critical in helping the outnumbered and outgunned force turn the tide (and continues to help in the counter-offensive). The 3,000 US troops should be a huge boon--both for morale and effectiveness--if they join the assault on Mosul. And they should. In fact, while it's not been announced, I suspect the wording of the AUMF makes it very clear that this would be the plan.

Mosul has about 2,000 ISIS fighters holding it right now. 25,000 Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces are going to be thrown at the city, and the big question is whether the Iraqi fighters are going to break and run as soon as ISIS troops sneeze. I believe very much that having US soldiers in the trenches--along with witnessing well-timed airstrikes just before the assault--will keep Iraqi troops confident enough to point their guns in the right direction. House-to-house fighting sucks, and ISIS is going to make it very hard for civilians to flee (making airstrikes tougher). But the Iraqis and Americans can take their time and regroup in safer areas if they get beat up in any parts of the city.

The big question is that since it's been so broadly announced, will ISIS try to shore up defenses in Mosul? Maybe. The President has gotten some funny looks from the news media and some politicians, and even the Iraqi government: "why the heck would you tell the enemy they have 2 months to fortify your primary target?" It seems totally backwards. One generally doesn't tell the enemy the time and location of one's next offensive.

Once again, I think there is some subtlety at play that is lost in the knee-jerk reaction.

One thing that we must keep in mind is that coalition forces have total air dominance. The US is hitting targets in Mosul probably as you're reading this, and probably while you're sleeping, too. So obviously the coalition has a few months to "soften" Mosul.

But what about a flood of reinforcements? Let's take a look at the region around Mosul:

Thanks for being awesome, Wikipedia

Mosul has some space around it where it could draw fighters back from the front line--I don't know how many are there, but they're actively fighting Kurdish troops in the east, so if they turned tail, the Kurds would be able to recover some territory and place heavy guns within striking distance. At a rough guess, I'd say the local villages, if abandoned, could beef up Mosul to about 4,000 troops. Remember that while these guys are zealous-and well-armed, they are not particularly expertly trained and don't have military intelligence to help at all. The intelligence gap was probably a big part of why the US was able to lead the Kurds so effectively to pick off fog-blinded pockets of ISIS resistance in Kobane.

But obviously the concern is that reserves from other places not under pressure (like ar-Raqqah or elsewhere) could send columns of these guys and turn Mosul into a bloodbath. Let's look at Mosul another way to consider this:

Thanks, Google Earth and MS Paint

Around Mosul is a whole bunch of wide open desert, and I can guarantee you that desert has a few drones circling overhead constantly (for those who have seen the movie "Zero Dark Thirty," recall the drones constantly circling over Bin Laden's hideout for a few hundred days), taking a look at those two roads coming in from the west and south in addition to scouting targets for US airstrikes.

If anyone out there has a good idea of how to sneak in hundreds of troops or dozens of heavy weapons along those highways, I'd love to know (leave thoughts in comments). But I really don't think it's possible.

And here's what I really think is going on; if I'm right, I tip my hat to the administration:

I believe the President is trying to goad ISIS into trying to reinforce Mosul. 


If a huge column of trucks and heavy weapons starts rolling from more fortified positions, it will have to travel through a lot of desert and be exposed for at least 3 hours (if coming from the closest ISIS town, al-Qamishili).

Thanks, Google Maps.

American or Jordanian fighter-bombers can get where they need to go in about 30 minutes.

If the coalition doesn't totally blow it, Route 1 would become 2015's Highway of Death.
Thanks, Wikipedia

Is ISIS going to fall for it? Maybe. As we talked about in an earlier post on Kobane, ISIS' power comes from legitimacy and a sense of divine inevitability. Taking Mosul made it horrifying and seemingly irresistible. But nobody likes betting on a loser, so their recruiting (and intimidation) strategy depends in part on winning. I'd be surprised if ISIS was really willing to let Mosul go without a big fight. Furthermore, if they were able to defeat the best efforts that Iraq/the US could put up to root them out of Mosul, it would be a massive symbolic (and military) victory that would probably convince the Iraqis that resistance is just totally futile. There is a whole lot at stake, and I'd be mighty surprised if ISIS was willing to commit to a fight they're probably going to lose.

So it could work. It's even possible the Iraqi defense minister is actually in on the plan and is complaining to make ISIS think reinforcing is a good idea. If so, once again: well done.

The other option, of course, is to abandon Mosul if it looks like it's unwinnable and not suffer a humiliating military defeat. If ISIS believes Mosul is doomed, it is unlikely to cling to the city. There's some evidence it might be thinking this way: ISIS is apparently ditching the big base south of Mosul that they have held for 7 months. The announcement about the Mosul offensive may mean that ISIS would want to focus forces for a counter-attack elsewhere that is not under heavy bombardment and scrutiny, to keep the Iraqis off-balance.

Fallujah, Tikrit, and other areas along the Euphrates in Iraq will require significantly more work than Mosul. Think of Mosul as a place the Iraqis can cut their teeth and gain some confidence for the real work ahead in Sunni-dominated regions.

What about Syria?

Syria is a theater that remains somewhat impervious to anything but a massive ground invasion. I'll repeat: the government and rebel forces aren't going to do it until the civil war resolves in some way, which won't happen for years. The Kurds could pick up territory once the Iraqi Peshmerga forces get relief from the Mosul offensive.

We've seen that the Kurds are perfectly willing to occupy territory outside of their primary ethnic strongholds (see the map below--they're currently occupying Kirkuk and northwest Syria) and so may push in northern Syria to create buffer space. 

CIA, via Wikipedia

But the Kurds simply have no interest in moving to the Euphrates, where ISIS is strong and rules with total impunity. I really just don't think anyone at all has a plan to deal with Syria, and the AUMF only sets up the administration to make a move if the Syrian political situation changes or Jordan/Syria/Egypt get fed up with ISIS hanging out next door and decide to go on a major ground offensive. 

It's possible that success in Iraq will be inspiring and that Jordan, which remains incredibly pissed off, and Egypt, similarly pissed off about 21 Copts being similarly brutally murdered, could decide it's just plain time to lend serious military support to Syria on top of the current airstrikes. 

But, frankly, their armies are small and their economies stretched, and they'd only enter Syria if the civil war ends and moderate forces can finally unite against ISIS.

I'll maintain that if ISIS falls in Syria, its ill-advised strategy of trying to bring Jordan and Egypt into the fight will be part of its undoing.


Libya's divided forces have opened the door for continued ISIS expansion, which now holds 3 towns (2 weeks ago, it was only Derna), having added Sirte and Nofilya. 

Seriously, Donate to Wikipedia

The grey (in Benghazi and elsewhere) is Ansar al-Sharia, who is a totally different (but ISIS-friendly) menace not covered by the AUMF. (Syria has similar pockets of these guys, though right now they're not really fighting with the "good guy" rebels, so we're making the same mistake--as with ISIS--of leaving them alone "until" the "good guy" rebels win.)

Jordan and Egypt want the UN to authorize force in Libya to nip ISIS' presence there in the bud. Egypt is already putting down airstrikes, but now that Libya is in ceasefire, it's a prime place for US special forces, trainers, and airstrike coordinators to help the Tobruk government take back Derna.

A Bit of Good News

And just because everyone likes a bit of good news: ISIS has been totally pushed out of the Baghdad environs and is getting pinned up against a river by the Kurds near Kobane. 

New territory from last week in Kobane circled in yellow.

 Still Wikipedia

New territory gained by the Iraqi government over the past 6 weeks circled in red.
I'll let you guess where I got this one

The Iraqi forces are already pushing back pretty steadily, which is a sign that, despite everyone freaking out about readiness, the Iraqis are showing they can put the fight to ISIS and win.

If you got this far, thanks for taking the time. Leave me some comments about what you want to hear about next, either about ISIS or otherwise!

Update! Kurdish Peshmerga Forces Working on Cutting Off Mosul

Reader and generally-smart-guy Shir shared with me this great article and map showing a Kurdish advance on Route 1, which ISIS is using to resupply Mosul. We discussed above the risk of sending big columns down that road, but if the Kurds can hold the area for the next few months, getting military and support resources to Mosul will be a lot harder and more dangerous--they'd be much more open to ambushes from the Kurds and airstrikes from the Americans. It makes the assault on Mosul a much more likely prospect.

The Washington Post and I seem to have some agreement on the general strategy for isolating Mosul from reinforcement in the coming counter-offensive. Exciting stuff. Expect me to be blogging obsessively about it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Atlantic's Must-Read Article on ISIS

For all that my (and everyone else's) general disgust of ISIS tends to cause us to only see the psychotic thuggery of their movement, it is very much worth getting into the heads of these guys in order to consider how to defeat them. Tens of thousands have flocked to the "Caliphate" to wage an endless religious war of constant expansion, very much trying to mimic the expansion of the Caliphate during and after the reign of Muhammed himself. There is something terrifyingly appealing about ISIS in a way that previous extremists just did not have, and it is important to understand their appeal and purpose: these have been the reasons that ISIS has been so frighteningly successful where other attempts at creating extremist Islamic states have failed.

While I am a bit bashful at my own previous lack of curiosity around the theology behind ISIS, I was finally enlightened when a friend shared an article by The Atlantic that is, I think, the most impressive single foreign policy article that I have read in years.

Throughout, the article has a great discussion about the appeal of ISIS's extreme (but not out-of-left-field) interpretation of the Koran.

An interesting digression one could have in response is philosophical. Nietzsche predicted that the modern age (after the "death" of God) would bring about, on the one hand, a sad sort of hedonism ("just enjoy life") and on the other, incredibly destructive fanaticism as a reaction. The natural human need to be part of something bigger than having material comfort and enjoyment--as offered in the West--makes the kind of insanity that is fascism, communism, or religious extremism appealing. The desperate human craving for meaning to our lives makes us susceptible to giddily throwing our lives--and the lives of others--at the State, the People, or God, depending on the circumstance.

In these cases, flexibility is impossible: if someone else's creed is just as plausible as mine, then mine cannot be The Truth, and thus my sacrifice and effort are meaningless.

ISIS has much greater appeal than al-Qaeda: the latter is merely fighting, the former is creating the Caliphate itself and even bringing about the apocalypse of the crude and corrupt material world to finally create God's kingdom on Earth (which from any millenialist perspective is the most important of things).

There has been much writing on the topic (perhaps most famously by Samuel Huntington in A Clash of Civilizations), but I think we must be prepared for religious extremism to be a matter of extended worldwide ideological struggle in the way fascism was in the mid 20th century  and communism was later. The madness and barbarism that is ISIS, al-Qaeda, and all of its fellow affiliates plaguing almost the entire Muslim world will not be stamped out by drone strikes, and the message of "freedom" will do worse than fall on deaf ears: it will reinforce their concept of the total moral bankruptcy in the modern "just have fun" society.

Short: Debalsteve Falls

It seems Putin is not happy with the ceasefire.

Debaltseve fell yesterday (take a look at the live map here) as rebels pushed ahead with completing their takeover of the town, using all the heavy equipment that was supposed to be pulling out days ago. Ukrainian government troops broke out of the encirclement rather than be captured--the retreating column was picked apart by tank and rocket fire.

Debaltseve is critical to an independent Luhansk and Donetsk because it's a major rail depot between the two capital cities. I think this is why Russia raced in heavy weapons to support the encirclement and capture of the town. There's some patchy evidence that Russia and the rebels may have doubled down around Debaltseve during the ceasefire, moving troops from other towns in the belief that Ukraine would not counter-attack.

In a way, well done.

Expect Mariupol to be next on the hit list.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Yemen Rounds Out Middle Eastern Religious Fighting in Which Extremists Win

Yemen's civil war is reaching a "turning point" of sorts as the Houthi rebels (a large Shiite militia tens of thousands strong, very Islamist and anti-American) have totally taken over the capital, dissolved parliament, and set up a revolutionary council of sorts.

They're planning to stick around: they've rejected UN's call to cede power--not surprising.

Source: Wikipedia. Yellow represents Houthi control; Red is old regime; grey is al-Qaeda/etc

As we can see, al-Qaeda has taken hold, probably in the government's back lines as they had the bulk of their troops in the northwest. Yemen's been a big al-Qaeda stronghold for a while (recall the USS Cole bombing of the 1990s). Oh, and it's worth noting that there have been separatists in the south fighting the government to secede entirely. Yemen was two countries until 1990 and (probably) the notion of jointly producing and exporting large oil reserves brought them together. 


But this unification was during a period of time where it was looking like Shiites and Sunnis would be able to live together in more harmony than they do now. In retrospect, the fairly clear lines between Sunni and Shiite populations might have been helpful--"good fences make good neighbors."


Like Iraq and Syria, this ethnosectarian civil war looks like it doesn't have a clear way of getting resolved. There's little likelihood of an agreement to just split back up--these things are often hard in general, and oil makes it way more complicated (which is part of why the Sudanese civil war went on for 25 years before it became too painful to continue).

The Houthis being in control will make the southern Sunni separatists even more motivated to get the heck out, so they're likely to keep on fighting. Meanwhile, away from the action, al-Qaeda will continue to entrench itself. The very anti-American Houthis are also quite unlikely to invite the US to strike al-Qaeda with drones (where the old regime was quite happy to have the help), so expect their power to grow in time.

If I were the US national security adviser, I'd be pulling my hair out.

Next time: we're going to go over in some detail Obama's plan for dealing with ISIS.

Friday, February 13, 2015

So There's a Ceasefire in Ukraine? Probably Not. But Either Way: Putin's Winning Again.

The give-peace-a-chance summit at Minsk went all night, but a peace deal came out.

At least it appears so.

Warning that my complete lack of sympathy for Russia in all this is going to come through, but I want to try to set what-I-think-is the record straight.

The peace deal included the leaders of: Ukraine, France, Germany, Russia. It was signed, quite reluctantly (or at least they put on a show of reluctance) by two rebel leaders.

The Charlotte Observer has a pretty good summary of the peace deal; I'll touch on a few points.

1) All "foreign" fighters are to leave Ukraine.
2) All "foreign" heavy weapons are to be pulled out of Ukraine.
3) Ukraine will grant its eastern provinces partial autonomy--including free trade with Russia.
4) The eastern Ukrainian provinces get to hold referenda on their status. Luckily, this time it'll be run by Kiev with outside observers, rather than the incredible sham that was Crimea.

All of this begs the question: if Russia does not have troops or heavy weapons in Ukraine, how is it supposed to agree to pull them out?

The situation would be a spectacular joke if it weren't the case that Russia is continually getting away with invading another country, killing people, gobbling up territory, and facing no consequences.

There is ample evidence Russia has been there in huge force. NATO keeps releasing satellite photography of Russian heavy weapons, APCs, etc, crossing the border and going deep into Ukraine. Russia has sent a bunch of cargo trucks into Ukraine to pick up as many as 4,000 Russian bodies and bring them home--despite said bodies having never been there. Ukraine keeps capturing Russian regular soldiers, including paratroopers, who keep claiming that they are "lost" in Ukraine and were most definitely not sent there on purpose. Ukraine keeps stumbling across Russian military ID's scattered about its country. Ukrainian rebels keep getting their hands on Russian tanks, rocket launchers, APCs, guns, etc (including the sophisticated SAM that shot down the Malaysian Airlines plane)--we know they're Russian specifically because the Ukrainians don't use these weapons and they can't simply be captured in Ukraine by the rebels..

The Russians' continued denial of involvement in Ukraine has reached a comical absurdity.

Time for More Mayhem

The ceasefire doesn't start until February 15th, and there are likely plans to consolidate more territory into rebel hands before the ceasefire comes into effect, in order to have leverage during the ceasefire implementation. Russia sent about 90 heavy vehicles into Ukraine during the peace talks, and I'll bet they're heading for Debaltseve , which has been surrounded by rebels honing in on Ukrainian government troops and pounded by Russian rockets and artillery that is definitely not there. 

Tactically, it's a Battle of the Bulge-style disaster for Ukraine if it indeed loses Debaltseve before the ceasefire comes into effect.

The following constantly-updated map shows that Debaltseve has not yet fallen, but is nearly surrounded completely.

Putin Wins Again

With the Sudetenland Crimea even more securely in hand with  this deal, Putin is going to end up with much of what he wants in Ukraine--and the ceasefire might actually hold if Russia is satisfied (the Chicago Tribune has a great piece on how the deal is set up to give Russia and the rebels lots of excuses to start fighting again if it's in their interest). If Russian support is actually pulled, the rebels will have a more frustrating time beating the Ukrainian army--the fall counter-offensive by Kyiv is what led to a shrinking of rebel-held territory until the Russians brought arms and troops back into the fight.

Of course, not even Putin has full control over the rebels in eastern Ukraine. If the referendum doesn't end up resulting in "annexation by Russia," I suspect the rebels will pick right back up, and Putin is likely to continue not-supporting them until even more concessions are made.

But what else has Putin won? 

1) The autonomy for eastern Ukraine gives Russia a heavy lever to make sure Ukraine does not join NATO. As we discussed before, Ukraine joining NATO would be a major strategic, long-term security threat for Russia, and the invasion of Crimea secured Russia's only warm-water port in Sevastopol.

2) The referenda obviously might result in more territory--and thus more buffer space--for Russia. Interestingly, such buffer space might actually lead to Ukraine as a whole becoming more EU/NATO-leaning (as pro-Russian populations leave the country), but it makes the territorial integrity of Russia generally safer.

3) Russia once again sets the precedent that it can use military force to invade a neighboring country and win its political/strategic goals without consequence.

4) The ceasefire likely won't hold, and Russia will have won concessions from Ukraine for nothing in return. 

Some readers may think that my not-so-subtle reference to Nazi Germany here is overblown or even absurd. The Russians do not share the simply absurd evil of the Nazis, but it's the most recent and well-known example of expansionist powers testing the resolve of European leaders, seeing their will to be wanting, and then making ever-greater moves.

As a "realist" (this is a school of International Relations theory, rather than simply a haughty impression of myself), I believe the greatest risk for peace in a region of states (rather than a region run by militias and ethnosectarian groups, like the Middle East) is a lack of deterrence. The repeated failure to deter military invasions of Russia's neighbors is cause for serious long-term concern.

The US and UK Part from the EU

The US and UK are both planning on sending military aid (weapons) to the Ukrainians if the fighting picks back up. Even if it doesn't, the US is sending training teams to improve Ukraine's military--no doubt these trainers are also likely to be assistant coordinators if/when the war picks back up.

The EU continues to want to avoid getting embroiled in the war, so new friction is emerging between Germany/France and the US/UK, putting NATO unity at risk. Such continued discord is what makes the Visegrad 4 (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia) so nervous and independent.

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