30 December 2019

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020

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Local conflicts serve as mirrors for global trends. The ways they ignite, unfold, persist, and are resolved reflect shifts in great powers’ relations, the intensity of their competition, and the breadth of regional actors’ ambitions. They highlight issues with which the international system is obsessed and those toward which it is indifferent. Today these wars tell the story of a global system caught in the early swell of sweeping change—and of regional leaders both emboldened and frightened by the opportunities such a transition presents.

Only time will tell how much of the United States’ transactional unilateralism, contempt for traditional allies, and dalliance with traditional rivals will endure—and how much will vanish with Donald Trump’s presidency. Still, it would be hard to deny that something is afoot. The understandings and balance of power on which the global order had once been predicated—imperfect, unfair, and problematic as they were—are no longer operative. Washington is both eager to retain the benefits of its leadership and unwilling to shoulder the burdens of carrying it. As a consequence, it is guilty of the cardinal sin of any great power: allowing the gap between ends and means to grow. These days, neither friend nor foe knows quite where America stands.

All-India NRC will certainly fail. Here’s what Modi govt should do for its citizenship plan


Being able to accurately identify who is a citizen of your country is a very useful thing. From national security to public service delivery, from voting in elections to borrowing books from public libraries – having irrefutable proof of an individual’s citizenship can make the state more effective and empower the citizen in substantial ways. So, count me as among those who think that putting an unambiguous proof of citizenship in the hands of citizens is a good thing. Most developed countries have them; India should too.

I hadn’t put much thought into exactly how we could do this until ten years ago, after a debate with one of the designers of what was then called the Unique Identification (or UID) project. To my criticism that the UID design should have included a citizenship field, my friend effectively told me that proving citizenship is practically impossible because birth registration rates in some of our most populous states in 2008 were around 60 per cent. One generation ago, an even smaller fraction of the population would have registered births. In other words, when hundreds of lakhs of people in India didn’t have even a birth certificate, accurate determination of citizenship was a far cry. Creating a proof of identity for a country of 130 crore people was hard enough; creating irrefutable proof of citizenship was next to impossible.

Impossible to start from where we are now

China’s Central Asian Plans Are Unnerving Moscow

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KHORGOS, Kazakhstan—On the China-Kazakhstan border, flanked by snowcapped peaks, a highway cuts through a barren landscape to reach this terminal at Khorgos. Here, amid a collection of cranes, rail tracks, and warehouses, a growing town is poised to become a bustling inland transport hub and a vital link in China’s vast and battered Belt and Road Initiative.

Khorgos is roughly 1,550 miles from the nearest coastline, but developers have dubbed the site a “dry port,” a terminal designed to process overland cargo. It began operating in 2015 and has seen steady growth. But it is also a launching pad for Beijing’s ambitions to connect Europe to Asia through new trade and transport routes under what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called “the project of the century.”

A nearby special economic zone is already home to a few factories and boasts lofty ambitions for future investment and industry. On the Chinese side of the border, the scope and scale of the project is already visible, with a sister city of high-rises and shopping malls, also called Khorgos, home to a population of more than 100,000 people after the town was officially opened in 2014.

China hosts Japan, South Korea with eyes on nuclear North

Jing Xuan TENG

China hosted the leaders of squabbling neighbours South Korea and Japan for their first official meeting in over a year on Tuesday, flexing its diplomatic muscle with America's two key Asian allies and seeking unity on how to deal with a belligerent North Korea.

The gathering in the southwestern city of Chengdu was held with the clock ticking on a threatened "Christmas gift" from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that could reignite global tensions over its nuclear programme.

Kim has promised the unidentified "gift" -- which analysts and US officials believe could be a provocative missile test -- if Washington does not make concessions in their nuclear talks by the end of the year.

US President Donald Trump said Tuesday that "we'll find out what the surprise is and we'll deal with it very successfully," joking that "maybe it's a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test."

How Will China Act In The South China Sea? Just Ask Russia.

by Lyle J. Goldstein

The “sail by” of USS Lassen within the 12 nautical mile claim line of the new Chinese facilities on Subi reef in the South China Sea occurred without major incident last week. Despite some fiery Chinese rhetoric, war has not broken out and that is a profoundly good thing. Actually, nothing much has changed at all, so it seems. The tense stalemate persists as before. China will continue to build up its new “bases” in and among the Spratly islets. The U.S. will continue to patrol regularly and exercise with its alliance partners. Perhaps, as Xi Jinping said not so long ago, the Pacific Ocean really is big enough to accommodate the interests of both China and the U.S.?

There has been plenty of grousing in the last few months on the right and within U.S. national security circles about how excessive “kibitzing” and hand-wringing preceded the Lassen’s recent patrol. “Too little, too late” will be the inevitable critique of the Obama Administration. But perhaps the Administration that gave U.S. foreign policy the underappreciated legacy of “Don’t do stupid stuff” – an approach much criticized in the Syrian context – could be forgiven for exercising due caution when it comes to escalating a conflict with another nuclear power in that power’s backyard. Perhaps Obama’s national security advisors understand that what might begin as cutters “blasting away” with water cannons could rapidly transition to anti-ship cruise missiles sinking warships, to missile and air attacks on bases, and even to a nuclear exchange targeting cities. That escalation chain could take hours not days and would certainly constitute “stupid stuff” if such a military conflict was fought over “rocks and reefs.”

On Both Sides of the Pacific, Skepticism Over China Farm Purchases

By Josh Funk, Paul Wiseman, and Joe McDonald

President Donald Trump likes to joke that America’s farmers have a nice problem on their hands: They’re going to need bigger tractors to keep up with surging Chinese demand for their soybeans and other agricultural goods under a preliminary deal between the world’s two largest economies.

But will they really?

From Beijing to America’s farm belt, skeptics are questioning just how much China has actually committed to buy — and whether U.S. farmers would be able anytime soon to export goods there in the outsize quantity that Trump has promised.

China’s commitment amounts to $40 billion a year, according to Trump’s trade representative, Robert Lighthizer. If you ask the exuberant president himself, though, the total is actually “much more than’’ $50 billion. To put that in perspective, U.S. farm exports to China have never topped $26 billion in any one year.

What’s more, since Trump’s trade war with Beijing erupted last year, China has increased its farm purchases from Brazil, Argentina, and other countries. As a result, Beijing may now be locked into contracts it couldn’t break even if it intended to quickly increase its purchases of American agricultural goods to something approximating $40 billion.

China’s Second Aircraft Carrier: A Sign of PLA Naval Muscle?

By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
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On December 17, China commissioned into service its first home-built aircraft carrier, Shandong, at the Sanya naval base in Hainan, with President Xi Jinping presiding over the commissioning ceremony.

The commissioning of the aircraft carrier is significant. This is China’s second aircraft carrier, and an important addition to China’s power projection capabilities. It is also noteworthy because it displays China’s capability to develop aircraft carriers indigenously.

Military analysts argue that the layout of the warships “limits her military potential” as also its power projection capabilities since it is simply a copy of its first carrier, Liaoning, which itself is a refurbished ship bought from Ukraine. The J-15s that it operates also imposes limitations on the kind of operations it can undertake. Nevertheless, PLA Navy is clearly on the way to becoming a more credible blue water navy and it warrants close attention from key Indo-Pacific nations including, India, the United States, Japan and Australia.

Star Wars: How Taiwan’s Celebrities Became Pawns in the Cross-Strait Struggle

By Jo Kim
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On Saturday, Taiwanese singer Annie Yi drew criticisms from Taiwan for reaffirming her identity as a Chinese. Yi even remarked that her daughter’s favorite song is “I Love Beijing Tiananmen,” a song written to exalt Mao Zedong. Yi is not the first celebrity to disappoint the Taiwanese population with open declarations of supporting “One China.” Owing to mainland China’s vast market, many Taiwanese celebrities have either been forced to or chose to accord with mainland China’s political narratives.

That trend had already started back in 2015, when Taiwanese Chou Tzu-yu, a member of the K-pop group TWICE, was reported as a “pro-independence” celebrity for waving the flag of the Republic of China (ROC) on a Korean variety show. Chou released an apology video shortly after. The pressure on the then-teenager created an uproar in Taiwan that contributed one to two percentage points to presidential hopeful Tsai Ing-wen’s eventual win in the 2016 election.

With U.S. Help No Longer Assured, Saudis Try a New Strategy: Talks

By Declan Walsh and Ben Hubbard

Worried that they can no longer count on American defense, the Saudis have begun talking to their enemies to cool conflicts in the region.

CAIRO — In the months since a missile and drone attack widely seen as the work of Iran left two Saudi oil facilities smoldering, the Saudi crown prince has taken an uncharacteristic turn to diplomacy to cool tensions with his regional enemies.

The prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has stepped up direct talks with the rebels he has been fighting in Yemen for over four years, leading to a decline in attacks by both sides.

He has made gestures to ease, if not end, the stifling blockade he and his allies imposed on his tiny, wealthy neighbor, Qatar.

He has even engaged in indirect talks with the kingdom’s archnemesis, Iran, to try to dampen the shadow war raging across the region.

Near Disaster: Gwadar’s Little Village Faces a Crumbling Coastline

By Mariyam Suleman

Abdul Jabbar sits under the porch of his only remaining room. He raises his finger in the air, pointing toward the sea and its waves breaking two to three meters away. “This had fed us for centuries but now we fear for our lives and our homes,” Jabbar says.

The boundary wall of his home had already fallen off by the end of October, after Cyclone Kyarr hit Ganz village. “If we get a meter or two more – nothing will remain. Not a block of our only room!” says the 60-year-old, before he walks a few steps closer to the waves.

As a fisherman, Abdul Jabbar has seen the frequency with which the sea water spills over large boats and hits the village. He has seen the village flood throughout his life, “but now the waves are getting stronger, higher, and closer year-on-year.”

US contemplates information warfare to counter Russian interference in the 2020 election

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - United States military cyber officials are developing information warfare tactics that could be deployed against senior Russian officials and oligarchs if Moscow tries to interfere in the 2020 US elections through hacking election systems or sowing widespread discord, according to current and former US officials.

One option being explored by US Cyber Command would target senior leadership and Russian elites, though likely not President Vladimir Putin, which would be considered too provocative, said the current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

The idea would be to show that the target's sensitive, personal data could be hit if the interference did not stop, though officials declined to be more specific.

"When the Russians put implants into an electric grid, it means they're making a credible showing that they have the ability to hurt you if things escalate," said Professor Bobby Chesney, a law expert at the University of Texas at Austin.

Why the Liberal International Order Will Endure Into the Next Decade


It’s become fashionable to wonder whether the liberal international order can survive the malign forces that have been lining up against it during the 2010s—what the Wall Street Journal called the “Decade of Disruption.” But based on recent trends, it’s a fair bet that democracy, globalism, and open trade will endure handily into the third decade of the 21st century.

Start with the state of democracy. Nothing has been more alarming than the one-two punch of U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who have taken power in two of the world’s oldest and most important democracies by awakening the old demons of nationalism. With Trump focusing his ire on NATO and the World Trade Organization, and Johnson stalking out of the European Union, the two leaders have transformed the once-hallowed “special relationship” from a bulwark of global stability (sullied though it was by the Iraq War) into what looks more like a wrecking ball. Elsewhere, illiberalism has overtaken young democracies, such as Hungary and Poland, and even threatened mature ones with the rapid rise of nationalist parties such as the Alternative for Germany and Norbert Hofer’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party of Austria. In the world’s largest democracy, India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party appear to be sending the same message. And there are considerable doubts as to whether the democratic body politic possesses an immune system strong enough to fight off a plague of cyber-generated misinformation and disinformation, and systemic hacking by such autocrats as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Japan Delays Key Steps in Fuel Removal from Tsunami-wrecked Fukushima Nuclear Plant

More than 4,700 units of fuel rods remain inside the three melted reactors and two others that survived the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Tokyo: Japan on Friday revised a roadmap for the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant cleanup, further delaying the removal of thousands of spent fuel units that remain in cooling pools since the 2011 disaster. It's a key step in the decadeslong process, underscoring high radiation and other risks. The government and the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., still keep a 30- to 40-year completion target.

A look at some of the challenges:


More than 4,700 units of fuel rods remain inside the three melted reactors and two others that survived the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. They pose a high risk because their storage pools are uncovered and a loss of water in case of another major disaster could cause fuel rods to melt, releasing massive radiation. Their removal at Units 1 and 2, after repeated delays, is now delayed by up to 10 years from the initial target of 2018, with more preparation needed to reduce radiation and clear debris and other risks.

A New Americanism

By Jill Lepore 

In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize–winning, bowtie-wearing Stanford historian Carl Degler delivered something other than the usual pipe-smoking, scotch-on-the-rocks, after-dinner disquisition that had plagued the evening program of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association for nearly all of its centurylong history. Instead, Degler, a gentle and quietly heroic man, accused his colleagues of nothing short of dereliction of duty: appalled by nationalism, they had abandoned the study of the nation.

“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler said that night in Chicago. He issued a warning: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

U.S. Cybercom contemplates information warfare to counter Russian interference in 2020 election

Ellen Nakashima

Military cyber officials are developing information warfare tactics that could be deployed against senior Russian officials and oligarchs if Moscow tries to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections through hacking election systems or sowing widespread discord, according to current and former U.S. officials.

One option being explored by U.S. Cyber Command would target senior leadership and Russian elites, though probably not President Vladimir Putin, which would be considered too provocative, said the current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. The idea would be to show that the target’s sensitive personal data could be hit if the interference did not stop, though officials declined to be more specific.

“When the Russians put implants into an electric grid, it means they’re making a credible showing that they have the ability to hurt you if things escalate,” said Bobby Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “What may be contemplated here is an individualized version of that, not unlike individually targeted economic sanctions. It’s sending credible signals to key decision-makers that they are vulnerable if they take certain adversarial actions.”

Cyber Command and officials at the Pentagon declined to comment.

Shinzo Abe Can’t Afford to Rest on His Laurels

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Shinzo Abe has defied the political odds to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister since the office was first created in 1885. Despite this notable achievement in the bare-knuckles world of Japanese politics, a weakening economy, an unfinished political agenda, and a minor but politically debilitating scandal that has hit his approval ratings mean that this is no time for him to take a victory lap.

When Abe took office in December 2012, there was little expectation that he would represent a new longevity in leadership. Abe had himself been in office from 2006 to 2007, one of a string of lackluster leaders who seemed to embody the country’s drift as the economy still struggled to recover from the collapse of the so-called bubble economy more than 15 years earlier. Resigning in disgrace, he was set to join the other elder statesman of forgotten former leaders. Today, with an overwhelming majority in parliament and two more years as head of the party, Abe is now likely to extend his leadership until party rules require him to step down in September 2021.

His term has not been without some significant accomplishments. Abe enjoys greater international name recognition than almost all of his predecessors and has helped to put the country on the global stage. Notably, he has made Japan a champion of free trade, a sharp reversal from decades of import restrictions meant to first protect fledgling manufacturers and then the politically powerful farming lobby. He rescued the Trans-Pacific Partnership from near-death after a newly elected President Donald Trump in 2017 pulled the United States out of the 12-nation pact that was meant to bring a new era in trade and, more practically, hold back China. Abe also pushed to complete a long-negotiated deal with the European Union, the largest bilateral trade pact ever.

Return to the Rat Hole


Coal miners in the mineral-rich northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya have something to celebrate. Over the summer, the Supreme Court of India passed an order to reopen mining in their state.

A ban, put forward in 2014 over environmental concerns, had “almost marked our graves,” Balious Swer, who until recently served as the president of the Jaintia Coal Miners and Dealers Association, told me in October. “We had to figure out other ways to support our families.” For his part, Swer did manage to pick up government and other contracts during the five-year ban, but he says that it’s the laborers, many of them local Nepalis, who suffered the most. Some resorted to desperate measures, he says, even suicide or selling their children. Corroborating his claims was a sudden—almost quadruple—jump in the 2015 national crime statistics for human trafficking, mostly of minor girls, in the neighboring state of Assam. Until then, children trafficked from Nepal and Bangladesh to work in the mines used to be widely reported.

Still, it isn’t clear that miners’ lives will be much better with the ban lifted. The Supreme Court’s reversal came a mere eight months after a tragic accident in a mine in Ksan, in East Jaintia Hills, claimed the lives of at least 16. They were working in an illegally operating rat-hole mine—a practice involving very narrow tunnels connecting to deeper pits—when water from a nearby stream rushed in. The mine owner, Jrin Chullet, was arrested days later but was released on bail after a few months.

Infographic Of The Day: 10 Global Insights Into A Transforming World

Today's infographic presents a snapshot of 10 insights into how the world is changing, based on its research work from 2019.

Jokowi’s Political Record Could Derail His Big Plans for Indonesia’s Economy

Joshua Kurlantzick 

Two months into his second term, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi, has announced some bold new economic plans. He has vowed to push through major legislation on deregulation—modeled on the Trump administration’s agenda in Washington—and launch a staggering number of new infrastructure projects. It is all part of a push to attract foreign investment, which has provoked backlashes in Indonesia before, but which he said “no one should be allergic to” in a speech after winning reelection.

Whether Jokowi can implement this economic agenda remains unclear. He has built a vast, 50-member Cabinet, including vice ministers, from 10 political parties—an uneasy collection of veteran politicians, including some with unsavory backgrounds, and younger, reform-minded technocrats. This combustible mix, with many Cabinet members close to powerful tycoons more interested in their own interests than in seeing real reform, could undermine his economic plans. Jokowi’s own disinterest in parallel political reforms could prove to be a hurdle as well, hindering his abilities to get anything done if democratic backsliding undercuts his popularity. ...

Japan Wants to Dump Nuclear Plant’s Tainted Water. Fishermen Fear the Worst.

By Motoko Rich and Makiko Inoue

IWAKI, Japan — The overpowering earthquake and tsunami that ripped through northern Japan in March 2011 took so much from Tatsuo Niitsuma, a commercial fisherman in this coastal city in Fukushima Prefecture.

The tsunami pulverized his fishing boat. It demolished his home. Most devastating of all, it took the life of his daughter.

Now, nearly nine years after the disaster, Mr. Niitsuma, 77, is at risk of losing his entire livelihood, too, as the government considers releasing tainted water from a nuclear power plant destroyed by the tsunami’s waves.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet and the Tokyo Electric Power Company — the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where a triple meltdown led to the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl — must decide what to do with more than one million tons of contaminated water stored in about 1,000 giant tanks on the plant site.

Putin the Great

By Susan B. Glasser 

On January 27, 2018, Vladimir Putin became the longest-serving leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin. There were no parades or fireworks, no embarrassingly gilded statues unveiled or unseemly displays of nuclear missiles in Red Square. After all, Putin did not want to be compared with Leonid Brezhnev, the bushy-browed septuagenarian whose record in power he had just surpassed. Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, was the leader of Putin’s gritty youth, of the long stagnation that preceded the empire’s collapse. By the end, he was the butt of a million jokes, the doddering grandfather of a doddering state, the conductor of a Russian train to nowhere. “Stalin proved that just one person could manage the country,” went one of those many jokes. “Brezhnev proved that a country doesn’t need to be managed at all.”

Putin, a ruler at a time when management, or at least the appearance thereof, is required, prefers other models. The one he has liked the longest is, immodestly, Peter the Great. In the obscurity and criminality of post-Soviet St. Petersburg in the 1990s, when Putin was deputy mayor, he chose to hang on his office wall a portrait of the modernizing tsar who built that city on the bones of a thousand serfs to be his country’s “window to the West.” By that point in his career, Putin was no Romanov, only an unknown former lieutenant colonel in the KGB who had masqueraded as a translator, a diplomat, and a university administrator, before ending up as the unlikely right-hand man of St. Petersburg’s first-ever democratically elected mayor. Putin had grown up so poor in the city’s mean postwar courtyards that his autobiography speaks of fighting off “hordes of rats” in the hallway of the communal apartment where he and his parents lived in a single room with no hot water or stove.

20 Years of Russia’s Institutionalism in Eurasia

By Janko Šćepanović

Over the past two decades, the Russian Federation sponsored and promoted several influential integrative organizations in Eurasia. These diverse bodies developed different foci, ranging from the hard security oriented Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to the economics driven Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), to the politico-security centered Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Moscow established together with China. While sometimes its efforts were dismissed as nothing more than attempts to “re-Sovietize” the Eurasian space, or were questioned for their intergovernmental character centered on the protection of the region’s entrenched governments, Russia’s true motivations were grounded in some practical needs. Among these, the most palpable were various security challenges that affected the post-Soviet space, a necessity of addressing globalization’s negative impact on the local economies, and a desire to settle a tense frontier with erstwhile Cold War rival China. Therefore, these institutions became essential vessels in Russia’s drive to deal with Central Asia’s complex environment, and also help it restore its formerly enjoyed status of a true global power.

What also needs to be noted is how, 20 years later, all of these institutions have significantly evolved from their modest beginning. This naturally followed Moscow’s changing view of their utility to its practical needs. While not being flawless by any stretch of imagination, the CSTO and EAEU made some noticeable achievements in improving regional military and economic cooperation and coordination. On the other hand, the SCO moved beyond its practical mandate and became a relevant international forum that brings together world’s largest non-Western nations. While Russia’s intentions toward it remain unclear, and its lobbying for SCO enlargement were criticized, Moscow generally sees a purpose behind every integrative mechanism it established or co-founded in the past 20 years.

CSIS Bad Idea: Giving Space Command An AOR


We’ve decided to make it a tradition: partnering with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to bring you their BEST Bad Ideas in national security over the Holiday Season. Given all the folderol last week over the Final Frontier, we’re starting with Kaitlyn Johnson’s critique of the Pentagon’s move to designate the new(ish) Space Command as a geographic command (whose AOR starts 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface). Instead, CSIS’s Johnson argues, it ought to have been structured as a functional command like Transportation Command, given the nature of the space domain and the types of military operations likely in space. The Editor.

After a 17-year hiatus, the United States Space Command was re-established in 2019 as a new combatant command focused on operations, doctrine, and plans in the space domain. However, unlike its predecessor Space Command from 1985 to 2002, the newly re-established Space Command was deemed a geographic command.

The United States Needs a Strategy for Artificial Intelligence


In the coming years, artificial intelligence will dramatically affect every aspect of human life. AI—the technologies that simulate intelligent behavior in machines—will change how we process, understand, and analyze information; it will make some jobs obsolete, transform most others, and create whole new industries; it will change how we teach, grow our food, and treat our sick. The technology will also change how we wage war. For all of these reasons, leadership in AI, more than any other emerging technology, will confer economic, political, and military strength in this century—and that is why it is essential for the United States to get it right.

That begins with creating a national strategy for AI—a whole-of-society effort that can create the opportunities, shape the outcome, and prepare for the inevitable challenges for U.S. society that this new technological era will bring. The United States has taken important steps in this direction. In February, the White House launched the American AI Initiative, which articulates a comprehensive vision for American leadership in AI. Last month, the Congressionally-mandated National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) released its interim report, which outlines five lines of effort to help ensure U.S. technological leadership.

Best of The Interpreter 2019: Technology

The endless blessings of technology – where would we be without them? Not reading this page, for a start. Several decades into the so-called digital revolution (depending where you mark the start), tech has become almost as essential to our everyday lives as air and water, and yet behind the utopian glimmer, doubts linger that we have tricked ourselves, and the Luciferian fire that brings light also has the power to consume us and destroy us.

The Interpreter traced how technology has continued to influence and infiltrate international affairs this past year – in the battles to control information on social media, the politicisation of manufacturers and markets, the pursuit of innovative approaches to vexing challenges, the power of big data to ask big questions, and other ways.

Before we step into 2020, let’s see where we’ve been…

Facebook turned 15 in February, and in the tradition of cocky 15-year-olds everywhere, declared itself awesome. Damien Spry pointed out that the social media giant has hardly done the world of diplomacy any big favours:

Information Warfare: South Asian Cyber War

December 27, 2019: Internet security firms have noted an increase in Cyber War campaigns waged by Indian and Pakistani APTs (Advanced Persistent Threat) operations. APTs are well organized and very active hacker groups that are often created and sustained by governments or major criminal gangs. In this case six Indian APTs (Lucky Elephant, Donot Team, Patchwork Group, Sidewinder Group and two unnamed) and the three Pakistani (Transparent Tribe and two unnamed) have been carrying out large scale and persistent Internet based attacks. All APTs are given a number, as in APT23, and often a name as well. Many APTs stick with criminal activities over a long period, concentrating on stealing money, or information they can sell. The current online conflict between India and Pakistan is unique and deemed a Cyber War for several reasons. First, it has involved numerous attacks on military and government networks to steal information or plant malware that can later be activated to crash the network temporarily. Many other attacks are against media to sway public opinion over issues like Pakistani efforts (since the late 1940s) to annex Indian Kashmir or accuse the other side of promoting terror and disorder.

Since the 1980s Pakistan has been waging an unacknowledged Islamic terrorist campaign in Kashmir and accusing India of planning to invade and conquer Pakistan. This effort is the work of the Pakistani military and its ISI intelligence agency. A similar effort has been waged against Afghanistan. The most visible aspect of the Afghan effort is the Taliban, which was created in the mid-1990s by ISI to end the Afghan civil war with the Taliban in control of Afghanistan. Rule by a religious dictatorship backed by Pakistan was not popular with most Afghans. That led to the overthrow of Taliban rule in 2001 and persistent Pakistan-backed violence in Afghanistan ever since.

What the Pentagon needs before it makes a decision on satellite communications

By: Nathan Strout   

The U.S. military will likely take a hybrid approach to meet its satellite communications needs in the future, relying on bandwidth from commercial services and government-owned systems. But the mechanics of how the Pentagon will get there isn’t exactly clear.

According to a Government Accountability Office report released Dec. 19, an analysis of alternatives for wideband satellite communications conducted by the Department of Defense more than two years ago determined the military should depend on a mix of government-owned and commercial satellites for satellite communications. What the report lacked, however, were recommendations on how to get there.

The analysis instead determined the department needed more information to make any recommendations, although the GAO warned the Pentagon does not have a formal plan to gather that information. As a result, Congress’ watchdog agency recommended the Secretary of Defense ensure military leaders develop such a plan.

The latest addition to the Wideband Global SATCOM system will provide increased resilience and a stronger signal for war fighters.

Combining AI and Playbooks to Predict Cyberattacks

Derek Manky

Mature machine learning can analyze attack strategies and look for underlying patterns that the AI system can use to predict an attacker’s next move.

When organizations invest in AI, they are not only able to automate menial tasks like patching, but they can also create an automated system that looks for and discovers attacks, not only after the fact, but even before they occur. This predictive capability becomes increasingly necessary as cybercriminals get better at exploiting the expanding attack surface and the security gaps resulting from digital transformation efforts.

In the future, predicting cybercriminal methods will develop even further by marrying statistical analysis and machine learning. Organizations will be able to develop customized playbooks tied to their AI that can dramatically enhance threat detection and response. Blue team (defensive) playbooks will be used to predict tactics and map out responses to specific threats based on red team (adversarial) playbooks that are built and updated using collected data that profiles the unique attack patterns and strategies of different malware variants and cybercriminals.

DHS updates its view of trust in new network security guidance

Andrew Eversden

New Department of Homeland Security draft guidance on an updated version of the federal government’s external network security program takes a new approach to trust, moving toward a more “nuanced” view to allow for flexibility across different agencies’ mission areas.

The draft guidance, released for public comment Dec. 20 by Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, outlines significant changes to the Trusted Internet Connections program, which secures federal agencies’ external network connections, as federal agencies continue to add remote users and move parts of their network into the cloud. The draft documents, released in five volumes, are out for comment from Dec. 23 to Jan. 31, 2020.

CISA wrote in the draft that, under the new TIC, the government is ditching old documents that established a “strictly-defined” approach to trust, instead taking an approach that “recognizes the reality that the definition of ‘trust’ may vary across specific computing contexts."

Groupthink Resurgent

by George Beebe

THE WAR between Ukraine, Russia and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region has reached its sixth year. So far, it has claimed some thirteen thousand lives and displaced millions of people. It threatens to create an unstable line of long-term confrontation between Russia and the West dividing the heart of central Europe, or even spiral into a broader conflict. With so much at stake, are American government experts on Ukraine vigorously debating how to handle this daunting challenge more effectively? Not a chance.

The lack of any significant contention about Ukraine is reflected in the term groupthink, which first entered our political lexicon in the 1970s, when American policymakers and academics struggled to understand why the national security elite’s conventional wisdom about the war in Vietnam turned out to have been so wrongheaded. The term’s popularity enjoyed a fresh vogue in the wake of the Iraq wmd debacle, when numerous postmortems determined that analysts had been so convinced that Saddam Hussein was hiding stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons that they “simply disregarded evidence that did not support their hypotheses.” The few policy advisors who attempted to warn the White House that the destruction of Baathist Iraq would also destroy the balance of power in the Persian Gulf—vital to containing Iran—were shown the door. But seldom has contemporary evidence of groupthink been on such stark public display as during the House impeachment hearings regarding Ukraine.