Is North Korean antagonism rational?

Nearly every serious thinker agrees that the North Korean ownership of nuclear weapons is rational. Rational in the sense that, like any other regime, the primary goal of the North Korean leadership is survival. Yet, unlike other regimes, the North Koreans have an immediate and capable threat at their doorstep. For the past 64 years, North Korea has had to discourage an invasion of an American military stationed directly at its southern border. Nuclear weapons are widely acknowledged as the most efficient and perhaps the only way of doing this.

The logic is pretty straightforward. When nuclear weapons are introduced to the bargaining process, victory becomes so costly that both sides are deterred from waging conflict, let alone pursuing regime change. This is because both sides are vulnerable to a nuclear strike, regardless of what happens on the battlefield. If a state has second strike capability then it doesn’t matter how disadvantaged they are in traditional military metrics as nuclear weapons neutralize any gains earned on the battlefield. As highly desirable it would be to dispose of the Kim regime and reunite the peninsula, the potential death of 200,000 South Korean civilians has, at least for now, been enough to deter American military action.

The issue, however, isn’t if North Korean ownership of nuclear weapons is rational. We all recognize that it is given their environment. The issue is whether those in Pyongyang abide by the rules of mutually agreed destruction. North Korean foreign policy very often appears to be a reflection of the personality of its leader. Both in rhetoric and action, North Korea can appear to be unpredictable and irrational. In the words of Nikki Haley, North Korean seems to be “begging for war.” On a fairly routine basis, the North Koreans threaten the United States and its regional allies. Japan was threatened with nuclear clouds.  The United States would be turned into “a sea of fire.” Even Guam was threatened with a “salvo or misses.” Even more provactivley, North Korea has on several occasions initiated conflict, sending missiles over Japan, sinking the South Korean Cheonan, and firing artillery shells at Baengnyeong Island in 2010.

If war with the United States would be suicidal for North Korea, why do they constantly antagonize? After all, nuclear weapons were attained to ensure the survival of the regime, not lead to its end. I would argue that the belligerent and at times erratic behavior of North Korea is in fact rational. In order for nuclear weapons to be an effective deterrent, a state has to convince others that they would indeed use them, despite it being suicidal. This is one of the great ironies of nuclear weapons as their unprecedented destructive power result in a loss of credibility. Prior to nuclear weapons, war was once a normal instrument of coercive diplomacy and the threat to use it could pressure others to bend politically. But in the era of mutual vulnerability, the second strike capability of your opponent makes the bargaining leverage of nuclear weapons futile. How serious of a threat are nuclear weapons if they ensure the death of the regime that would in fact launch them? A regime would have to be crazy to be the first to use them as they would be signing their death certificate. That is, unless, it was part of a strategy to convince an opponent to take their nuclear capability seriously.

Putting the North Korean belligerence in perspective is important because nuclear weapons do not make war impossible, no matter how catastrophic it would be. The United States has invested a lot of its reputation in resolving the Korean issue and there are audience costs. It is not entirely implausible to imagine a scenario that the United States tie its hands publically by drawing a line in the sand only to see North Korea cross it and escalate an already tense situation. Trump has already stated that his administration will never let North Korea advance their nuclear program to the point that they can harness an intercontinental missile with a nuclear weapon. Military action could be used to retard such progress creating a spiral until a nuclear strike is employed.

North Korea isn’t crazy. Despite North Korea “begging for war,” it’s the last thing they want. The United States should recognize that North Korea is stuck in the situation of having to defend itself by convincing the United States that it is willing to commit suicide. How exactly does a state coerce an opponent by threatening to kill itself? I assume the only way to do that is to appear unhinged and impetuous. The alternative interpretation of North Korean behavior is that their grand strategy has been to endure 20 plus years of sanctions and international isolation in pursuit of an end goal of self-destruction.

State building over multiple nations in Afghanistan.

The aim of the Trump “mini-surge” is largely a repackage of policies already seen including the training of Afghan forces and an increased focus on counterterrorism operations. The logic defending the continued American military presence in Afghanistan is to help provide the physical security that would allow for the strengthening of Afghan governance. Those in favor of the surge argue that it is not possible to improve Afghani governance unless pursued in a physically stable environment. Along with the dismantling of Al-Qaeda and its terrorist camps, this has been the reasoning that defends keeping the American military in Afghanistan.

So, if the argument for more American resources being sent to Afghanistan is that it will help build a self-sustaining Afghanistan government, then we should evaluate progress based on that criteria. What has the United States put into Afghanistan and how does it compare with the return received for its investment?

The investment? American troop strength has varied over the past 16 years, with a peak around 100,000 in 2010. In addition to troop deployments, the United States has provided Afghanistan $117.26 billion for relief and reconstruction since 2002. Note that this doesn’t include contractors or the contributions made by American allies.

The return? In rule of law, regulatory quality, control of corruption, government effectiveness, and political stability, the World Bank ranked Afghanistan at or near the very bottom in each category for the past 18 consecutive years. Freedom House ranks Afghanistan as “not free” for every single year of the American war. Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Afghanistan 169 of 176 in its metric of corruption perception.

Why has America achieved little to any progress in erecting an effective Afghanistan government despite sending so many troops and investing so much aid? Surge defenders argue that the lack of success in Afghanistan is because of mistakes made by the intervener; that is, the failure of America in Afghanistan is a result of relying on a combination of air power, special forces, and indigenous militias instead of a full-blown occupation. These are the people who always argue that “we would have been successful if we had a bit more resources.” It is still difficult to take these surge arguments seriously when the amount of time and money spent in Afghanistan is already far larger than what the United States invested in both Japan and Germany, combined. There is also the obvious fact that little to anything changed in the quality of the Afghan government after the 100,00 troop Obama surge.

The fact is that the poor performance of the Afghanistan government is not because of American commitment. The poor performance of the Afghanistan government is because America is trying to build a central state over multiple nations.

A state is a self-sustaining set of institutions that govern over a well-defined and internationally recognized area.

A nation is a collective identify of people rooted in a combination of a common language, shared traditions, and most often, ethnicity.

The United Kingdom is a state with four nations. The Kurds are a nation without a state. Japan is a nation-state.

For most of its history, Afghanistan has been multiple nations exercising local autonomy under a weak state. Even after the billions spent and hundreds of thousands of troops deployed, this is Afghanistan today.

As of 2016, Afghanistan had about 33 million citizens, 40 percent who identify as Pashtun, 33 percent who identify as Tajik, 9 percent who identify as Uzbek, 11 percent who identify as Hazara, and 8 other groups who number between 1 to 2 percent of the population. Ethnic fueled fighting is nothing new to Afghanistan. Just before the arrival of the coalition troops in 2001, Afghanistan was recovering from a series of ethnic civil wars that claimed an estimated 100,000 Afghans. The Taliban, America’s main antagonist in the conflict, is largely drawn from the Afghan Pashtuns and the only thing that the other tribes have in common with each other is a fervent hatred of Pashtuns. Ethnic tensions of Afghanistan are so strong that their Census is not even able to record tribe membership of the results producing violence.

The tendency to identify with the tribe and not as an Afghanistan makes it difficult for the state to consolidate power. Franky, an interest for a strong Afghan government is largely limited to Washington D.C. and among those Afghans who run it. America needs to better set priorities and recognize building a central government over competing and distrustful ethnic groups is neither strategic and, most probably, possible. Instead, the United States should look to gradually turn over all security operations to the Afghan National Army, cut its losses, and not fight against centuries of Afghan history.

Chinese-American tensions in the South China Sea.

China also established its first overseas military base, conveniently located in Djibouti, near a valuable global shipping lane and just four miles from a U.S. installation. In addition, Chinese warships have been popping up all over the globe, including near Alaska, Japan, and Australia. While their movement thus far has been through international waters, and therefore not in violation of any international law, it is a clear sign of China’s desire to be taken seriously as a global military power. Too bad Beijing doesn’t respect that same right when other countries attempt to exercise their freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas.

and there is this as well.

There is a slight cause for optimism on this front. An exclusive story from Breitbart last week claims the White House has approved a proposed plan crafted by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to conduct regular freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, or FONOPs. According to an anonymous U.S. official, Mattis wants to change the nature of conducting FONOPs. Instead of sending discrete requests to the National Security Council each time the U.S. Navy plans such an operation, he allegedly outlined a schedule for conducting them regularly throughout the rest of the year.

 

Carrying out FONOPs is a good way to challenge Beijing’s claims on the high seas. Despite China’s aggressive provocation, the Obama administration put an end to FONOPs from 2012 to 2015, and only conducted three in 2016 out of fear of upsetting Beijing (because appeasing a revanchist power always turns out so well). So far this year, the Trump administration has carried out three FONOPs and clearly has plans for several more. Let’s hope the Breitbart story is accurate and these become much more frequent as the year wears on.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

Don’t escalate the fight against ISIS.

President Trump has identified ISIS as his highest priority and, acting accordingly, has deployed 1,000 Marines to Syria, pledged future support to Iraq, and requested an additional 5 billion dollars to help escalate the fight.

There are good reasons for the United States to be concerned with ISIS. At its height, some estimated that ISIS controlled approximately 35,000 thousand square miles including such major cities as Mosul, Ramdi, Falluja, and Raqqa. Outside of the Middle East they have inspired similar style caliphates, such as Boko Haram, as well as terrorist attacks against the west.

Yet, it is still not clear that it is in America’s interest to get furthered involved in this fight. This is because there are other groups in the region who have a stronger incentive to defeat ISIS and, by most metrics, appear to be doing just that.

According to IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS lost approximately a quarter of its territory in 2016. Ramdi and Falluja were recaptured and ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa. Their reduction in territory was accompanied by an estimated loss of 50,000 fighters.

Their financial problems are mounting as well. It has been reported that the Caliphate’s monthly revenue and oil production are down 30 percent and salaries have been cut nearly in half.

All of this has resulted in a lowered morale, an increase in infighting, and a rise in desertions.

American air strikes certainly played a role in creating this situation, yet it is probably not in America’s interest to get furthered involved in the conflict. ISIS is already battling a long list of enemies in the region that include the Assad regime, the Russian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, the Kurds, various Sunni rebel groups, Hezbollah, and basically most of the Muslim population at this point. All of these groups have different reasons for getting involved in the conflict, and at times their regional interests conflict with one another, yet all have an interest in defeating ISIS. Despite the complicated politics of the region, they have been working together to do this. To give just a few examples, Russia and Turkey have fought together in Al Bab, Iran has deployed its military to support the Assad regime and Iraqi government, and a variety of local militias which include Arabs, Syrian Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds are working together in taking back Raqqa.

ISIS poses the biggest threat to the region, not America. Therefore, it should be the regional forces that take the lead in defeating them, not some country on the other side of the world. Despite not always being well coordinated, this is what is happening. The Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian governments as well as the various local non-state entities have all made serious advances into former ISIS territory and have seriously reduced ISIS ranks. With the momentum for an ISIS defeat growing, the United States may be tempted to rush in and tip the balance, but it would be wise not to interfere. Further American involvement would reduce the incentive of the local forces to continue their fight against the organization as well as possibly producing unintended consequences. It was after all the American invasion of Iraq and the de-Ba’athification of the Baathist regime that lead to the creation of ISIS in the first place. There is no way to know how an American escalation of the fight will complicate the current conflict and with ISIS on the ropes, the United States would be wise to leave well enough alone and continue to let the local powers take the lead in defeating ISIS.