A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner
Monday night Donald Trump announced a “new strategy” for Afghanistan and South Asia. He said the new strategy is predicated on three conclusions he drew regarding U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Those conclusions are the “immense” threat posed by Afghanistan and the region, the need for an “honorable and enduring outcome” and the pitfalls of a rapid exit.
How this will change U.S. strategy, though, was not entirely clear. He spoke of holding Pakistan accountable — not new; following a conditions-based schedule rather than a time-based one — also not new; easing use of force and targeting policies — again, not new.
In the end, though, Trump focused on killing terrorists: “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida…”
And most critically, throughout his speech he reminded Americans of his penchant for “winning.” On 10 occasions he affirmed that “we will always win,” or “in the end, we will win…”
President Trump’s new strategy ignores the evidence amassed over 16 hard-fought years, and, as a result, more American treasure will be lost as this unnecessary war continues.
His “winning” rhetoric, like that of previous administrations, makes it sound as though this is America’s war to win or lose. It is not.
In the aftermath of a previous war that did not go America’s way, an American military officer told his counterpart, “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” To which the Vietnamese officer replied, “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.” A similar exchange could take place today. Thanks to its military might, the U.S. has exclusive control over who wins on the battlefield. However, the U.S. has very little control over how the Afghan government will govern or how Afghan security forces will fight. America, therefore, has little power to affect the outcome of Afghanistan’s civil war.
Ever since the signing of the Bonn Accords in late 2001, the U.S. and the international community have endeavored to stand up a fledgling Afghan democracy. That has failed. Based on the lack of political rights and civil liberties available to Afghans, Freedom House rates the country as “not free,” the lowest rating. Afghanistan also remains abysmally corrupt, ranking 169 out of 176 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index.
If civil wars occur, in part, because citizens rebel when they have enough grievances against their government, then it seems unlikely Afghan insurgents will lay down their weapons now to support one of the world’s most corrupt and least capable governments and live in a country that is not free.
Afghan security forces are similarly lackluster. There are approximately 350,000 Afghan military, police and local constables facing 35,000 to 45,000 Taliban and other insurgent groups. Despite being dramatically outnumbered, out-trained and out-equipped, the Taliban now control or contest 40 percent of Afghan districts, more than at any other time since 2001.
If civil wars occur, in part, because the government cannot prevent them, it seems unlikely, after 16 years and billions of dollars of effort, that additional U.S. troops and money will motivate and professionalize the Afghan security forces enough to secure its citizens.
The failure of the Afghan government and security forces is, primarily, a failure of Afghans. The U.S. can adjust its strategy as often as it would like, but Americans should not expect substantially different outcomes until Afghans find their own way.
And Trump’s suggestion that we can kill our way to victory is similarly unsupported by the evidence. Despite invading two countries, toppling three regimes and conducting military strikes in seven nations, the estimated number of Islamist-inspired terrorists has grown from approximately 32,000 before initiation of the war on terror to 109,000 now.
Some may find these to be tough truths. Yet the reality is that all these issues are manageable because no vital U.S. interests are at stake. The terrorist safe haven argument does not hold water, as Americans since 9/11 have been and remain quite safe. Homeland security efforts have successfully kept foreign terrorists out of the country even as the number of Islamic State group, al-Qaida and similar terror group numbers have multiplied. And if terror safe havens were a vital national interest, then a number of other countries would require U.S. action well before Afghanistan: Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, chief among them.
President Trump’s new strategy ignores the evidence amassed over 16 hard-fought years, and, as a result, more American treasure will be lost as this unnecessary war continues. There will be no winning for the U.S. in Afghanistan.A. Trevor Thrall is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Department and associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Erik Goepner is a retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force. During his military career, he commanded units in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Iran nuclear deal is increasingly at risk, with President Trump threatening to overrule his top national security advisers and defy the assessment of international monitors to declare Iran non-compliant with the agreement’s stipulations. The problem for the administration, however, is that no viable alternative is better than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. If Trump rips up the JCPOA, the U.S. would forfeit the stringent limitations placed on Iran’s enrichment activities and the international community would lose the unprecedented transparency it now has on Iran’s nuclear program. Even more daunting, the United States would become isolated in its approach to Iran, opposed by Europe, Russia, China, and much of the rest of the world.
Perhaps a more realistic concern is the prospect that the administration will nominally uphold the deal, while engaging in aggressive covert action against Iran. Increasingly, when traditional military and diplomatic options appear too costly, states turn to cyber warfare. But a stepped-up cyber offensive against Iran is very unlikely to yield desirable results. Not only is it unlikely to be effective in its immediate objectives, but it risks antagonizing Iran into precisely the kinds of behavior the hawks want to forestall.
Cyber-attacks fall into two basic categories: Computer Network Exploitation and Computer Network Attack. CNE essentially equates to espionage. It is simply the newest method of engaging in one of the oldest activities of states: snooping on enemies. CNA, on the other hand, is the practice of attacking foreign systems or infrastructure in order to destroy or incapacitate enemy networks.
A renewed campaign of covert network attacks is more likely to spur Tehran’s nuclear efforts than hinder them.
When cyber weapons complement the use of conventional power, as when Israel employed a CNA to incapacitate Syrian air defense systems before it bombed a suspected nuclear enrichment facility in 2007, their tactical utility can be quite high.
However, cyber power is not very effective as an independent tool of coercion. Successful coercion requires the targeted state to know both the identity of the attacker and the attacker’s intended message. This is often difficult in cyberspace because the identity of the attacker is frequently obscured and because isolated cyber-attacks don’t clearly communicate intended messages, making the target’s compliance unlikely.
Other factors also undermine the utility of CNA operations. Collateral damage and spillover effects are frequently unavoidable, for example. Cyber weapons are also effectively single-use tools of foreign policy because a targeted adversary can generally diagnose and patch whatever vulnerability allowed the attack. As well, CNA weapons carry a high probability of blowback. Targeted states can reverse-engineer the malicious code, replicate it, and then use it themselves. This only increases the likelihood that adversaries will respond to a cyber-attack, not with capitulation, but with defiance or counter-attack.
The Stuxnet virus is often held up as a fantastic success. As part of a larger U.S.-Israeli effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities, Stuxnet is probably the most sophisticated, complex, and powerful cyber weapon ever used. According to Wired magazine, Stuxnet “was unlike any other virus or worm that came before. Rather than simply hijacking targeted computers or stealing information from them, it escaped the digital realm to wreak physical destruction on equipment the computers controlled.”
Initial estimates exaggerated the damage caused by Stuxnet, claiming it set back the Iranian nuclear program by three to five years. Later assessments said the computer worm damaged only about 980 centrifuges (at the time, one-fifth of the total at the Natanz plant), and delayed Iran’s overall nuclear program by a matter of months. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that, during Stuxnet’s attack window in 2009 to 2010, Iran actually increased the number of operating centrifuges, and increased production of low-enriched uranium from 80 kilograms per month to 120 kilograms per month. This suggests that Iran was spurred to boost production in the face of cyber-attacks.
In the aftermath of Stuxnet, and indeed right up until the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action interim agreement in which Iran agreed to temporarily freeze portions of the nuclear program as negotiations with the P5+1 continued, Iran’s number of operating centrifuges and stockpile of enriched uranium continued to grow. From 2008 to 2013, Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium grew from 839 kilograms to 8,271 kilograms, almost a ten-fold increase.
“At best,” according to the University of Toronto’s Jon Lindsay, “Stuxnet thus produced only a temporary slow-down in the enrichment rate itself.” Other experts are even more skeptical. Ivanka Barzashka, Research Associate at King’s College London and a Fellow at Stanford, argues that “evidence of the worm’s impact is circumstantial and inconclusive.” Brandon Valeriano and Ryan Maness, in their book Cyber War Versus Cyber Realities contend, “It is wholly unclear if the Stuxnet worm actually had a significant impact on Iran.”
The broader diplomatic picture adds weight to these skeptical analyses. To the extent that Stuxnet’s objective was to delay enrichment production and coerce Iran to make more dramatic concessions in diplomatic negotiations than it otherwise would have, it seems to have failed. Indeed, Iran had demonstrated a willingness to engage in pragmatic diplomacy with the United States and make concessions on its nuclear program long before Stuxnet.
In a secret diplomatic overture sent to the Bush administration through the Swiss embassy in 2003, Iran offered to open up the their nuclear program to intrusive international inspections and to sign the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in exchange for an end to America’s hostile policy toward Iran. At the time, they had only 164 operating centrifuges, compared to the 5,060 they got under the JCPOA.
And again in 2010, after lower-level negotiations with the United States on an interim agreement stalled, Iran, with help from Turkish and Brazilian negotiators, agreed to the benchmarks of an Obama administration proposal to ship out Iran’s low-enriched uranium to a third-party country to satiate concerns about weaponization. Though this coincided with the period of the Stuxnet attack, the virus was not revealed as such until months later and there is no indication the damaged centrifuges actually motivated Iran to agree to the fuel swap.
Iran’s willingness to make concessions in return for American accommodation makes the utility of Stuxnet seem dubious. According to Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council who has interviewed Iranian officials on the issue at length, Iran was deliberately doubling down on its nuclear program in order to show the West that the coercive approach would not work in the absence of diplomatic concessions.
In addition to the meager, even counterproductive, impact of Stuxnet on Iran’s nuclear program, the unprecedented cyber-attack wrought other negative consequences. First, it had notable spillover effects. Though the Stuxnet worm was designed not to “propagate beyond Iranian nuclear centrifuges…it infected over 100,000 computers worldwide before it could be stopped,” according to West Point scholars Erica D. Borghard and Shawn W. Lonergan.
Second, Stuxnet drew blowback: it motivated Iran to launch multiple waves of cyber-attacks against American banks and Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil company. Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a hyperbole typical of official statements on cyber security, said Iran’s retaliatory cyber-attacks were “probably the most destructive attack the private sector has seen to date.”
The Trump administration has limited options on its Iran policy outside of the JCPOA. Whether or not the president makes good on his threats to effectively abrogate the deal, one thing is for sure: a renewed covert cyber war is unlikely to produce any benefits worth the trouble. Such an approach will only antagonize Iran and boost the regime’s motivation to once again pursue a nuclear weapons capability in earnest.John Glaser is associate director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.
At an August 12th “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Nazi-sympathizer James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly drove his car into a group of counter-protesters and murdered Heather D. Heyer. In the aftermath, virtually all commentators condemned the attack and the ideology that inspired it. But then some partisan commentators began to argue that Antifa, a self-styled group of anti-fascist protesters who want to beat up Nazis, were also inciting violence at Charlottesville.
There are certainly plenty of Left Wing thugs and terrorists, but there have not been many attempts to compare them to other ideologically-inspired terrorists who have committed murder on American soil, until my recent Cato Institute blog on the subject.
Information on terrorist attacks and the terrorists themselves in the United States is available from the Global Terrorism Database, the RAND Corporation, and other sources. I further grouped the ideology of the attackers into four broad categories of Left Wingers, Nationalists and Right Wingers, Islamists, and Unknown/Others.
Terrorists murdered 3,342 people on U.S. soil from 1992 through August 12, 2017. Islamist terrorists are responsible for 92% of all those murders. The 9/11 attacks, by themselves, killed about 89% of all the victims during this time. During this time, the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an Islamist was about 1 in 2.5 million per year.
Keeping these numbers in perspective should help cut through the partisan spin after the Charlottesville terrorist attack.
Nationalist and Right Wing terrorists are the second deadliest group by ideology, as they account for 6.6% of all terrorist murders during this time. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the second deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, killed 168 people and accounted for 77% of all the murders committed by Nationalist and Right Wing terrorists. The chance of being murdered in a Nationalist or Right Wing terrorist attack was about 1 in 33 million per year.
Left Wing terrorists killed only 23 people in terrorist attacks during this time, about 0.7% of the total number of murders, but 13 since the beginning of 2016. Nationalist and Right Wing terrorists have only killed five since then, including Charlottesville. Regardless, the annual chance of being murdered by a Left Wing terrorist was about 1 in 330 million per year.
Terrorists inspired by Nationalist and Right Wing ideology have killed about 10 times as many people as Left Wing terrorists since 1992. Terrorists with unknown or other motivations were the least deadly. Islamists swamped them all.
There is some ambiguity in counting terrorist attacks by ideology, but only with a minority of deaths. Islamists and unknown/other terrorists are easy to categorize. Left Wing terrorists included communists, socialists, animal rights activists, anti-white racists, LGBT extremists, attackers inspired by Black Lives Matter, and ethnic or national separatists who embrace Socialism. Nationalist and Right Wing terrorists include white nationalists, neo-Confederates, non-socialist secessionists, anti-communists, fascists, anti-Muslim attackers, anti-immigration extremists, sovereign citizens, bombers who targeted the IRS, militia movements, and abortion clinic bombers.
My terrorism research focuses on deaths committed by terrorists because that is the easiest and the least ambiguous metric to analyze the damage committed by terrorism. Attacks could be as minor as a pipe bomb left by a bulldozer that explodes at 2:30 a.m., or as deadly as the 9/11 attacks that killed 2,983 people and caused billions in property damage, so counting the number of attacks by ideology does not reveal much.
The risk of being killed in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is small. The chance of being murdered in a non-terrorist homicide from 1992 through 2017 was about 1 in 17,000 a year, which is about 133 times as great as being killed by a terrorist. Islamist terrorists are the deadliest in U.S. history-and certainly since 1992. Islamism is an ideology created overseas, while much of the ideology that inspires Nationalist, Right Wing, and Left Wing terrorism is homegrown.
The number of people killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is small, but some ideologies inspire more terrorism than others. Islamists have killed about 14 times as many people as Nationalist and Right Wing terrorists who, in turn, have killed about 10 times as many people as Left Wing terrorists. Keeping these numbers in perspective should help cut through the partisan spin after the Charlottesville terrorist attack.Alex Nowrasteh is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.