Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Actionable Intelligence

Last week, shortly after his slim but historic victory in the US Presidential election, Barack Obama finally got a chance to peek beneath the veil. He has begun to receive classified intelligence briefings about the full range of the threats arrayed against the US and its interests at home and abroad, and about the responses to those threats which he will presently be entrusted to oversee. This is information which would not have been available to him as a senator and a candidate, and it appears to have been a sobering experience for him.

Obama can hardly be blamed for seeming a bit less ebullient as the full weight of the responsibilities he must bear begins to settle on his shoulders. In characteristically irresponsible fashion, the New York Times has reported (again!) on a portion of the covert operations which were authorized by the Bush Administration to pursue and harry al Qaeda across the globe. Depending on your orientation, this story reads like a Bush-Derangement fantasy of Imperial overreach, or as a sobering account of the hitherto (and appropriately!) unseen portions of the Long War in its far-ranging and valiant campaign to keep us safe from the murderous ideologues who would slaughter our children for the sake of piety. Either way, it is part of Obama's world now.

The full scope of the threat landscape in which our President-Elect must immerse himself is daunting in the extreme. However much he has staked his claim on the notion that the US must withdraw from Iraq with all possible speed, I strongly suspect that his access to the Full Story will (hopefully!!) act to stay his hand (no doubt to the considerable annoyance of his supporters):

Iran would cheer a quick American withdrawal, but as soon as the US leaves Iran will use its Shia proxies in Baghdad to create an Iraqi government manipulated like a puppet by strings that stretch to Tehran’s mullahs.

Iraqi Sunni and Kurdish minorities will feel disenfranchised by a quick withdrawal because they expect the Shia majority will then manipulate Baghdad’s government to deny them opportunities and resources. That could ignite a real civil war.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda’s [fictional] Iraq leader, offered President-elect Obama a truce in exchange for removal of all forces from the region. But American intelligence officials caution any step that could be perceived as a victory for al Qaeda, like pulling troops out of Iraq before the country stabilizes, would only strengthen the terror group’s ability to recruit.

A precipitous US withdrawal is opposed by important allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Saudis fear that Tehran might take advantage of an early withdrawal to seize oil fields in the Shia dominated eastern Arabian Peninsula. Israel, which says it faces an existential threat from a nuclear Iran, wants the US to remain in Iraq in order to keep Tehran in check and hopefully deal with the mullah’s atomic weapons program.
To his credit, Obama has stuck by the theme that a nuclear-armed Iran is "Unacceptable." Indeed, it is. However, the path which he must walk to prevent this is far less than clear. Iran has gamed the international system most adroitly, and has scoffed at all attempts to rein in its nuclear ambitions. There is no reason to believe that this will cease as a result of Obama's much-vaunted willingness to engage in diplomacy with the Mullahcracy. Indeed, on its face, that willingness would seem to play right into the Persians' hands, offering the opportunity to play for time while its centrifuges spin inexorably toward the unacceptable. I expect that the most current intelligence estimates of Iran's capabilities and intentions have now become available to Obama. What will he do with them?

Much has been made of Obama's ill-advisedly public though essentially correct intention to violate Pakistani sovereignty in pursuit of al Qaeda Prime. Indeed, he has made it a cornerstone of his war plan to address the as-yet unfinished business in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. But I have long felt that he has glossed very badly over the complexities of the Af-Pak theater, and so painted himself into a perilously untenable corner:

Recently, Obama’s staff was briefed that the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse – American casualties are up and the Taliban militias are gaining strength and now control large swaths of that country. That’s why the Bush administration told Obama’s people that they must come to office with a battle plan that addresses troops, Pakistan’s safe havens area (where as many as one million Islamic radicals have refuge) and whether to negotiate with the enemy.

Sending more troops to Afghanistan must be part of a winning strategy. But US forces are overstretched globally and that’s why Obama must ask NATO allies to provide more forces. Even though Europeans overwhelmingly endorsed Obama’s presidential bid they have no desire to increase their Afghan role. In fact, the Taliban’s recent campaign of violence has shaken European will to contribute any troops much less more to NATO’s Afghan mission.

Obama’s Afghan war plan must also address the politically sensitive issue of aggressively pursuing Taliban militias and al Qaeda terrorists that are taking refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In 2007, Obama promised that “…if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets” in Pakistan and that government “won’t act, we will.”

Recently, the US increased cross-border raids and drone missile attacks against enemy forces inside Pakistan. Those assaults have angered Pakistani officials such as Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s military chief, who promised to defend his borders at “all costs.” Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said US attacks were “…counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government.”
Obama must now confront the reality of a precariously unstable Pakistan's domestically unpopular alliance with the West, the extensive infiltration of its military and intelligence services by Islamist radicals, the fractiously feudal composition of the populations along its border with Afghanistan, and --perhaps most poignantly-- the likely intransigence and apathy of our so-called "traditional allies" in Europe, whose military capabilities are only slightly more limited than their willingness to use them. He must thread multiple needles, with the growing knowledge that many lives will be lost if he should so much as drop a stitch.

Already, Russian puppet-president Medvedev (for the record, pronounced med-VYED-yev) has wasted no time in throwing down the gauntlet before the untried POTUS-to-be. Puppet-master Putin is banking on Obama's previous statements expressing skepticism about the effectiveness and desirability of missile interceptor batteries stationed in Eastern Europe, and, as usual, has masterfully scoped the table before playing his hand:

Medvedev said he holds no animus for Americans and hopes “…the US administration, will make a choice in favor of full-fledged relations with Russia.” But he didn’t backdown [sic] on any front to include expanding Moscow’s military activities in the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Caribbean where Russian bombers and warships recently visited Cuba and Venezuela.

President-elect Obama will need all the political savvy he can muster and allies to deal with a belligerent Kremlin. But he shouldn’t expect help from Europe because Russian energy markets tend to be European-based and Moscow will leverage them to make the European Union squirm.
That last point deserves special mention: the degree to which the Russian economy is based on its ability to leverage its considerable energy supplies to gain geopolitical advantage cannot be overestimated. A sharp drop in the cost of oil and natural gas on the global markets would be devastating to Russia (as indeed it would be for a host of our adversaries). Obama's laudable but ill-conceived reluctance to develop domestic hydrocarbon energy supplies in favor of renewable sources which are just entering a very long pipeline (if you will pardon the pun) indicates a degree of naivete of which I hope he is presently cured. The global economic contraction which has accompanied the recent financial crisis has already precipitated a steep reduction in demand (and thus a concomitant drop in price) for petroleum. If this opportunity were maximized through aggressive pursuit of additional supplies, it could signal a perfect storm for the economies (and accompanying capacity for global mischief) of our various foes.

It is entirely possible that Obama's recent briefings will apprise him of the manifold ways in which these multiple threads wind round each other and form the fabric of the geopolitical veil-dance which George W Bush has doggedly (if often clumsily) executed during these last seven-plus years. It is still my belief that history will vindicate the Presidency of George Bush, but that is out of my hands (maybe the Li'l Cyte will write a thesis on the subject someday...). It is no secret that Obama was not My Guy...but he will presently be my President. As such, I wish him well, and would be more than happy to research the best ways to prepare a hearty dish of crow.

In the meantime, Senator Obama has tasted of the unexpurgated menu whose aroma outsiders like myself can discern only through a probably-unhealthily obsessive daily sniff. I have little doubt that it has seared his taste buds something fierce. I can only Hope that the experience will help him to Change his mind about how he deals with the kitchen staff. It could happen; he is a very smart man. But as with Intelligence, intelligence is only as good as what you do with it.

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