The Uncounted.

The NYT pushes back against claims that the air attacks against ISIS had minimal civilian casualties.

From their investigative reporting they states…

“We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history. Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes… remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.”

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.

Naval Collision Adds to Fears About U.S. Decline in Asia

Ecellent reporting in the NYT on the growing incompetence of the 7th fleet.

Here is one bit.

Dr. Thayer, the Asia-Pacific security expert, said: “The U.S. Navy is still very powerful, but its aura of invincibility has taken a huge hit. American credibility in the region has taken a big hit.”

The rest can be found here.

Iraq was not the first illegal US-led attack on a sovereign state in recent times. The precedent was set in 1999 in Yugoslavia.

The legality of the war against Iraq remains the focus of intense debate – as is the challenge it poses to the post-second-world-war order, based on the inviolability of sovereign states. That challenge, however, is not a new one. The precursor is without doubt Nato’s 1999 attack on Yugoslavia, also carried out without UN support. Look again at how the US and its allies behaved then, and the pattern is unmistakable.

Yugoslavia was a sovereign state with internationally recognised borders; an unsolicited intervention in its internal affairs was excluded by international law. The US-led onslaught was therefore justified as a humanitarian war – a concept that most international lawyers regarded as having no legal standing (the Commons foreign affairs select committee described it as of “dubious legality”). The attack was also outside Nato’s own remit as a defensive organisation – its mission statement was later rewritten to allow for such actions.

This article is old (it was first published in 2003) but is relevant for understanding current Chinese suspicions of American hegemony.

You can read the rest here.

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.

Course Correction: How to Stop China’s Maritime Advance

Here is one piece

U.S. policymakers should recognize that China’s behavior in the sea is based on its perception of how the United States will respond. The lack of U.S. resistance has led Beijing to conclude that the United States will not compromise its relationship with China over the South China Sea. As a result, the biggest threat to the United States today in Asia is Chinese hegemony, not great-power war. U.S. regional leadership is much more likely to go out with a whimper than with a bang.

here is another

For the same reason, U.S. President Donald Trump’s idea of reviving President Ronald Reagan’s strategy of “peace through strength” by beefing up the U.S. military will not hold China back on its own. The problem has never been that China does not respect U.S. military might. On the contrary, it fears that it would suffer badly in a war with the United States. But China also believes that the United States will impose only small costs for misdeeds that stop short of outright aggression. No matter how many more warships, fighter jets, and nuclear weapons the United States builds, that calculus will not change.

The publication is Foreign Affairs. I disagree with most of what the author has to say but the piece is well written and worth a read.

You can read the rest here.

The Forgotten War

All told, the conflict has displaced between two million and three and a half million people. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 1.6 million Ukrainians moved west toward Ukraine’s capital, Kiev as a result of the fighting. Russia says that 2.6 million Ukrainians moved east. In its report ending March 12, the refugee agency also estimated that from mid-April 2014 to mid-March 2017, at least 9,940 people have been killed and 23,455 wounded.

That is from a June 20th NYT piece titled The War No One Notices In Ukraine.

 

American Versus Russian Intervention

Excellent WaPo piece about American intervention by Simon Waxman.

The point of the article is to lend understanding about why Putin supported a Trump presidency, but what I found most insightful was his point about Putin and Syria.

Of course, Putin does not oppose militant humanitarianism for idealistic reasons. He, too, claims to be a militant humanitarian. In justifying Russian policies toward Syria and Ukraine, Putin and his supporters have explicitly relied on arguments the Clinton administration used in Kosovo. If NATO can stumble into Yugoslavia’s civil war, why can’t Russia do the same in Syria? Indeed, Russia is Syria’s ally, sworn by treaty to protect its government. And if Saddam Hussein’s genocide against Kurds was a reason to violently unseat him from power, then why shouldn’t Russia protect persecuted ethnic Russians, as it has claimed to do in Georgia and Ukraine? If there is a principled difference between the Clinton and Putin approaches to militant humanitarianism, it is that the latter is essentially conservative, seeking to preserve the status quo or restore the status quo ante, and the former is transformative, attempting to build new states along lines preferred by U.S. politicians and strategists.

The rest can be read here.

His homepage is here.

 

BBC interview with North Korean Diplomat

They are not Iran. They have no ideology they want to export.

They want the regime to survive.

As Vice-Foreign Minister Han made clear to me, North Korea has learned the lessons from recent history, in particular the US-led attempts at regime change in Iraq and Libya.

 

“If the balance of power is not there, then the outbreak of war is imminent and unavoidable.”

 

“If one side has nukes and the other side doesn’t, and they’re on bad terms, war will inevitably break out,” he said.

 

“This is the lesson shown by the reality of the countries in the Middle East, including Libya and Syria where people are suffering from great misfortune.”

I’m not defending the regime (they aren’t the sort of government I want to be ruled by) yet if America does want to fix this issue it should address it’s post-cold war foreign policy first, NK foreign policy second.

From a third party view, NK foreign policy appears to be rational.

You can read the rest here.