Struggling to fight ISIS in a fractured Libya

Frederic Wehrey writes from Sabratha, Libya: Ahmed “Amu” Dabbashi, the 28-year-old leader of a militia in this seaside town near the Tunisian border, proudly unfurls a black Islamic State flag, seized during late-February raids on safe houses of ISIS, as the group is also known. He shows me a captured arsenal, too: truck-borne explosives, detonators, crates of ammo, crew-served machine guns, and identification cards of foreign fighters.

Days earlier, American warplanes had bombed an Islamic State training site at a nearby house. Then, Amu tells me, “we decided to cleanse our town.” In the raids that followed, fighters for the so-called caliphate struck back, assaulting a police station and cutting the throats of several officers. Scores of youths perished in gunbattles.

Elsewhere across Libya, disparate factions are trying to hold the line against ISIS, often tenuously. The terrorist group is most entrenched in the central city of Sirte. Refugees fleeting Sirte tell me that ISIS extorts businesses and stops traffic to conduct executions.

In late March, a new presidential council — formed under the auspices of a U.N.-brokered unity agreement — arrived with great fanfare in the capital of Tripoli. Washington and its allies had hoped this would provide a foundation for a military campaign against ISIS. But after an initial burst of public enthusiasm, the council is struggling to exert its authority.

The fight against Islamic State faces daunting challenges. First, there still is no unified military structure through which the U.S. and Western allies can channel assistance. A powerful eastern faction allied with Gen. Khalifa Haftar remains hostile to the unity agreement and has tried to sell oil independently from Tripoli. Other militias, even if nominally supporting the new government, remain beholden to towns, tribes and power brokers.

Thus, Western special forces must work with militia surrogates in any operations against Islamic State. But this is risky: Assisting these armed groups could rekindle old rivalries and further reduce the incentives for national reconciliation.

Militias have figured out that signing up for the campaign against Islamic State is the best way to get legitimacy and attention. Whether or not they intend to use outside support solely against ISIS is another story. Many still regard their local rivals as the pressing concern. In some cases, the West may find them unsavory partners: traffickers, hard-line Salafists, tribal supremacists, military officers with authoritarian and anti-Islamist leanings.

This is evident in Sabratha, where Amu’s extended family has had longtime links with smugglers and jihadists. In the capital of Tripoli, a Salafist militia leader lets me tour his prison’s rehabilitation center, where Islamic State suspects are thrown in with drug addicts for undefined stretches with no due process. In a trip to Benghazi last fall, I saw how neighborhood militias carried out what amounts to personal and tribal vendettas, all under the cover of combating Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. activates Romanian missile defense site, angering Russia

Reuters reports: The United States switched on an $800 million missile shield in Romania on Thursday that it sees as vital to defend itself and Europe from so-called rogue states but the Kremlin says is aimed at blunting its own nuclear arsenal.

To the music of military bands at the remote Deveselu air base, senior U.S. and NATO officials declared operational the ballistic missile defense site, which is capable of shooting down rockets from countries such as Iran that Washington says could one day reach major European cities.

“As long as Iran continues to develop and deploy ballistic missiles, the United States will work with its allies to defend NATO,” said U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Robert Work, standing in front of the shield’s massive gray concrete housing that was adorned with a U.S. flag.

Despite Washington’s plans to continue to develop the capabilities of its system, Work said the shield would not be used against any future Russian missile threat. “There are no plans at all to do that,” he told a news conference.

Before the ceremony, Frank Rose, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, warned that Iran’s ballistic missiles can hit parts of Europe, including Romania. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. troops confused about their mission in Afghanistan

Reuters reports: Amid fierce fighting after the Taliban captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz last year, U.S. special forces advisers repeatedly asked their commanders how far they were allowed to go to help local troops retake the city.

They got no answer, according to witnesses interviewed in a recently declassified, heavily redacted Pentagon report that lays bare the confusion over rules of engagement governing the mission in Afghanistan.

As the Taliban insurgency gathers strength, avoiding enemy fire has become increasingly difficult for advisers, who have been acting as consultants rather than combatants since NATO forces formally ceased fighting at the end of 2014.

In the heat of the battle, lines can be blurred, and the problem is not exclusive to Afghanistan: questions have arisen over the role of U.S. troops in Iraq after a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed by Islamic State this month.

“‘How far do you want to go?’ is not a proper response to ‘How far do you want us to go?'” one special forces member told investigators in a report into the U.S. air strikes on a hospital in Kunduz that killed 42 medical staff, patients and caretakers. [Continue reading…]

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The rest of the world has no Trump contingency plan

The New York Times reports: Alarmed by Donald J. Trump’s grip on the Republican presidential nomination, world leaders are wrestling with the possibility that, even if he loses the general election, his ascent reflects a strain of American public opinion that could profoundly reshape the way the United States addresses security alliances and trade.

From Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul to the headquarters of NATO in Brussels and the vulnerable Baltic nations along Russia’s western border, officials and analysts said in interviews that they saw the success of Mr. Trump’s “America first” platform as a harbinger of pressure for allies to pay up or make trade concessions in return for military protection.

In many capitals, Mr. Trump’s formal and off-the-cuff foreign policy proposals — his threat to pull out of NATO; his musings about removing the United States’ nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea; his pledge to slap huge trade tariffs on China — are regarded with a mix of alarm and confusion. Asked on Thursday if Beijing was concerned about the prospect of a Trump presidency, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, replied, “We hope the U.S. people from all walks of life would view bilateral relations from a reasonable and objective perspective.”

Stefano Stefanini, a former representative of Italy to NATO and former diplomatic adviser to the Italian president, put it this way: “There is no Donald Trump contingency plan.” [Continue reading…]

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Italy’s plan to combat Libyan migrant smugglers could mean chasing shadows

Patrick Kingsley writes: Though migration levels from Libya are no higher than they were last year, European governments are terrified that the closure of the refugee route from Turkey to Greece will lead to a fresh surge through the north African country towards Italy.

Over the past few days, these fears prompted western leaders to discuss a two-pronged response. First, Rome proposed the deportation of Italy-bound migrants back to war-torn Libya. Then Barack Obama agreed at a meeting with European allies to add US ships to ongoing anti-smuggling operations in international waters off the Libyan coast.

Italy’s defence minister, Roberta Pinotti, told Italian media that a Nato-led anti-smuggling mission could be in operation as early as July. But such haste may have both practical and ethical pitfalls. For a start, western navies may not be able to do much against smugglers if the latter stick to international waters. By this point, senior smugglers have left their boats in the hands of either expendable juniors, or co-opted migrants.

Even if Nato gets approval from Tripoli to enter Libyan waters, they will still struggle to make an impact. Most migrant boats from Libya are rubber inflatables that carry no smugglers and are boarded from the country’s shore. Only a ground presence could stop their departure: by the time these dinghies are out at sea, there is little a naval mission can do to apprehend the smugglers who sent them. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s worst mistake: failing to plan for the ‘day after’ in Libya

CNN reports: President Barack Obama said the worst mistake of his presidency was a lack of planning for the aftermath of the 2011 toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

“Probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya,” he said in a Fox News interview aired Sunday.

This is not the first time in recent weeks he has talked about Libya and the NATO-led intervention which resulted in Gadhafi’s death in October of that year, months after NATO first intervened. [Continue reading…]

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Everyone says the Libya intervention was a failure. They’re wrong

Shadi Hamid writes: Libya and the 2011 NATO intervention there have become synonymous with failure, disaster, and the Middle East being a “shit show” (to use President Obama’s colorful descriptor). It has perhaps never been more important to question this prevailing wisdom, because how we interpret Libya affects how we interpret Syria and, importantly, how we assess Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

Of course, Libya, as anyone can see, is a mess, and Americans are reasonably asking if the intervention was a mistake. But just because it’s reasonable doesn’t make it right.

Most criticisms of the intervention, even with the benefit of hindsight, fall short. It is certainly true that the intervention didn’t produce something resembling a stable democracy. This, however, was never the goal. The goal was to protect civilians and prevent a massacre.

Critics erroneously compare Libya today to any number of false ideals, but this is not the correct way to evaluate the success or failure of the intervention. To do that, we should compare Libya today to what Libya would have looked like if we hadn’t intervened. By that standard, the Libya intervention was successful: The country is better off today than it would have been had the international community allowed dictator Muammar Qaddafi to continue his rampage across the country.

Critics further assert that the intervention caused, created, or somehow led to civil war. In fact, the civil war had already started before the intervention began. As for today’s chaos, violence, and general instability, these are more plausibly tied not to the original intervention but to the international community’s failures after intervention. [Continue reading…]

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Syria shows that Russia built an effective military. Now how will Putin use it?

The Washington Post reports: As Russia turned the Syrian conflict into an exhibition ground for its newly robust military over the past six months, its neighbors were watching with rapt interest.

This, after all, was a sterling opportunity to assess Russia’s new battlefield capabilities, in the form of ship-based cruise missiles, improved logistics and elite units. And on display, too, were Russia’s weaknesses.

“It is like a game of football,” said Janis Berzins, the managing director at the Center for Security and Strategic Research of the National Defense Academy of Latvia, a NATO member nation that borders Russia. “If you’re playing against Germany, then you go watch Germany play, right? It’s the natural thing to do.”

No one expects Russia and NATO to engage in a conventional war anytime soon. But with limited, consequential interventions in two conflicts, Ukraine and Syria, in the past two years, President Vladimir Putin had shown the Russian military’s growing proficiency as well as his appetite to use force to achieve his greater geopolitical goals. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. considering boosting forces in Europe for defense against Russia

Military Times reports: The Pentagon is discussing plans to permanently move one or more Army brigade combat teams back to Europe, where the top American commander has signaled an urgent need to shore up allied defenses against the Russians, Military Times has learned.

If approved, the move could involve thousands of troops — an average BCT is composed of between 3,000 and 5,000 personnel — and mark the first time in decades that U.S. European Command has increased its footprint on the continent.

The EUCOM Commander, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, discussed his proposals with top-level Pentagon officials while in Washington last week, according to a defense official familiar with the plans. Any increase would come in addition to the brigade-size force that would rotate through Eastern Europe as part of the $3.4 billion “European Reassurance Initiative,” which was included in the Pentagon’s latest budget request. [Continue reading…]

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NATO accuses Russia of ‘weaponising’ immigrants

Financial Times reports: Nato’s top commander accused Russia and the Syrian regime on Tuesday of “weaponising” immigration by using bombs aimed at civilians to deliberately cause large flows of refugees and challenge European political resolve.

General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s supreme allied commander, said that the types of bombs being used in Syria — especially the Assad regime’s barrel bombs — were designed to force civilians from their homes.

Asked at a Senate hearing whether Russia was aggravating the Syrian refugee crisis in order to divide countries in the EU, he replied: “I can’t find any other reason for them [air strikes against civilians] other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else’s problem.” He added: “I use the term weaponisation of immigration.” [Continue reading…]

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Refugees are becoming Russia’s weapon of choice in Syria

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Simon Tisdall writes: Excerpts from a report by Turkey’s security services, published on Tuesday in Hurriyet newspaper, highlighted Turkish suspicions that Russia was purposefully attempting to “weaponise” the refugee crisis.

The report warned: “Regime forces and allies are trying to create a new refugee wave by moving towards Azaz [in northern Syria] … There are 10 refugee camps between this town and Turkey’s town of Kilis, approximately along an eight-kilometre line. The residents of these camps will likely flee and seek shelter in Turkey while these camps would be taken by the PYD or Assad forces.”

Security officials told the paper that Russia was employing tactics previously used in the first Chechen war in the north Caucasus in the 1990s, known as the “Grozny model”. This involved forcibly emptying urban residential areas through a campaign of attrition against the local population. Once this was achieved, heavy weapons were deployed to eradicate opposing forces, entailing widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure.

Given Assad’s previous documented use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons, airstrikes and heavy artillery against civilian areas, Russia’s alleged tactics hardly seem new. What appears to be different is the deliberate creation of tactical refugee emergencies to influence outside actors who must deal with the fallout.

Speaking at the weekend, US senator John McCain, a fierce critic of the Obama administration’s policy of non-intervention and a noted hawk, said Russia’s strategy was “to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project”.

European politicians attending the weekend Munich security conference, prior to Monday’s attacks, echoed McCain’s concerns saying shops, schools and hospitals were being targeted in an attempt to force the local population to capitulate and increase the flow of refugees towards Turkey and Europe. [Continue reading…]

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Can the U.S. take action to protect Aleppo?

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Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier write: Aleppo is an emergency, requiring emergency measures. Are we no longer capable of emergency action? It is also an opportunity, perhaps the last one, to save Syria. Aleppo is the new Sarajevo, the new Srebrenica, and its fate should be to the Syrian conflict what the fate of Sarajevo and Srebrenica were to the Bosnian conflict: the occasion for the United States to bestir itself, and for the West to say with one voice, “Enough.” It was after Srebrenica and Sarajevo — and after the air campaign with which the West finally responded to the atrocities — that the United States undertook the statecraft that led to the Dayton accords and ended the war in Bosnia.

The conventional wisdom is that nothing can be done in Syria, but the conventional wisdom is wrong. There is a path toward ending the horror in Aleppo — a perfectly realistic path that would honor our highest ideals, a way to recover our moral standing as well as our strategic position. Operating under a NATO umbrella, the United States could use its naval and air assets in the region to establish a no-fly zone from Aleppo to the Turkish border and make clear that it would prevent the continued bombardment of civilians and refugees by any party, including the Russians. [Continue reading…]

Any military strategy that’s designed “to recover our moral standing” is dubious — and not simply because there are those who doubt that the U.S. possessed much the moral standing in the first place.

The effectiveness of a military strategy can’t be assessed on the basis of the worthiness of its non-military goals.

The authors in their sweeping assertion that they are offering “a perfectly realistic path,” dodge the awkward details on how this would work.

Are they assuming that once the boundaries of this no-fly zone had been defined, Russian and Syrian aircraft would then obediently comply?

Or do they assume that as soon as a few jets had been shot down the intended lesson would have swiftly been learned?

Turkey already shot down a Russian jet on the edge of this arena. What lessons, if any, have been drawn from that incident and are they now being applied to this future scenario?

“If the Russians and Syrians sought to prevent humanitarian protection and resupply of the city, they would face the military consequences,” we are told by the armchair generals.

“Military consequences” is a phrase of political bluster — especially when coming from two writers who profess no military expertise. If pressed to spell out what these military consequences might be, I expect Ignatieff and Wieseltier would defer to the actual generals.

My point here is not to dismiss the idea that at this late hour there might be a constructive military intervention in Syria, but simply to say that such an argument needs more detail and substance and fewer passionate declarations. It needs to credibly show how this would work rather than simply why it should be undertaken.

Currently, Obama administration officials are cynically curtailing all discussion about their military options by claiming that they only have two choices: start World War III or do essentially nothing (beyond repeating their mantra that their is no military solution in Syria).

“What do you want me to do, go to war with Russia?” John Kerry is reported to have asked a Syrian NGO representative in London last week.

The choice is false but it is gladly being picked up by ideological anti-interventionists who are attracted by the rhetorical utility of this device when offered to those who have little interest in questioning its validity.

To those who insist on framing this crisis in terms of World War III, I would ask two questions: What makes you think it hasn’t already begun? And why do you think its defining attribute necessarily involves a clash between the U.S. and Russia?

A world war involves global instability and a contagion of violent conflict. There are active conflicts in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and Libya. There is unrest in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Palestine, Israel, and elsewhere.

As the EU struggles to handle the refugee crisis, European unity is being fractured, placing its future in jeopardy.

If through the power of inattention, Americans could indeed successfully insulate themselves from the effects of global strife, then perhaps this could endure as a land of blissful ignorance.

Instead, what is more predictable is that the more disengaged the U.S. becomes, the less influence it will have and the fewer options it can consider.

No one will benefit from America’s self-imposed paralysis.

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Russian aggression drives Swedish defense spending

Defense News reports: Sweden’s discomfort over Russia’s long-term political and military ambitions in the Baltic Sea and High North has risen further after a senior military chief stated the Nordic state could find itself under attack “within a few years.”

The warning, made by Swedish Armed Forces’ Maj. Gen. Anders Brännström, came the same week that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed, in the organization’s Annual Report, that Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers accompanied by Sukhoi Su-27 jets conducted a simulated “training” nuclear strike targeting key Swedish defense installations in March 2013.

Brännström stated, in an internal military document forwarded to officers and soldiers attending the armed forces’ Markstrids’ (Land Combat) conference in the sub-Arctic town of Boden, that the changed post-Cold War security landscape will require Sweden to downgrade international missions and prioritize reinforcing national defense readiness and capabilities. [Continue reading…]

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If Russia started a war in the Baltics, NATO would lose — quickly

Dan De Luce writes: If Russian tanks and troops rolled into the Baltics tomorrow, outgunned and outnumbered NATO forces would be overrun in under three days. That’s the sobering conclusion of war games carried out by a think tank with American military officers and civilian officials.

“The games’ findings are unambiguous: As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members,” said a report by the RAND Corp., which led the war gaming research.

In numerous tabletop war games played over several months between 2014-2015, Russian forces were knocking on the doors of the Estonian capital of Tallinn or the Latvian capital of Riga within 36 to 60 hours. U.S. and Baltic troops — and American airpower — proved unable to halt the advance of mechanized Russian units and suffered heavy casualties, the report said.

The study argues that NATO has been caught napping by a resurgent and unpredictable Russia, which has begun to boost defense spending after having seized the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine and intervened in support of pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine. In the event of a potential Russian incursion in the Baltics, the United States and its allies lack sufficient troop numbers, or tanks and armored vehicles, to slow the advance of Russian armor, said the report by RAND’s David Shlapak and Michael Johnson. [Continue reading…]

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Russia carried out practice nuclear strike against Sweden

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The Local reports: When Russian planes carried out a simulated attack against Sweden in 2013, it included nuclear warfare, a Nato report has revealed.

The training mission by the Russian military took place just beyond the eastern edge of the Stockholm archipelago three years ago. It grabbed global headlines because Sweden’s military was slow to react due to staff being on vacation and had to rely on help from Nato.

Several Swedish media outlets had previously speculated that the exercises also included a simulated nuclear attack, but this was never confirmed.

Now, Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has revealed that this was indeed the case – a revelation that appears in the defence alliance’s annual report.

The text, which was released last week but only widely reported in Sweden on Wednesday, also confirmed that four Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers had participated in the training exercise as well as two Sukhoi Su-27 jets. [Continue reading…]

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