3 May 2021

How to Think About Counterinsurgency After Afghanistan


President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that all U.S. military forces would leave Afghanistan this year drew immediate criticism from a wide range of national security experts and elected officials. Some of this reflected fear of a human rights disaster if the Afghan government is unable to hold out against the Taliban once the American military leaves. But most of the pushback was based on the claim that the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan is vital for preventing another major terrorist attack on the United States. The pervasiveness of this idea demonstrates that after sixty years of involvement in counterinsurgency, Americans still don’t truly understand it.

The first mistake leading the United States to a quagmire in Afghanistan was linking counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. When the United States became involved in counterinsurgency during the Cold War, it did so to prevent pro-Soviet rebels from seizing power in friendly nations. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States lost interest. Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States rediscovered counterinsurgency. This time, however, the objective was preventing transnational terrorists from gaining foreign sanctuary. It was, as former President George W. Bush put it, a way “to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.” Based on this claim, the United States undertook counterinsurgency support in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, on a smaller scale, in a host of other places in the Islamic world.

Counter-terrorism Has the USA lost the Afghan war to Pakistan?

Roland Jacquard 

Afghanistan suffered two deadly suicide attacks on May 12. The first one hit the Dasht-e-Barchi maternity hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Kabul that killed at least 14, including 2 new born babies and the other was at a funeral of a local police commander in Khewa district of Nangarhar, killing 24. Both attacks were aimed at innocent civilians majority of who were women and children. While no group has yet claimed responsibility, the Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib in a statement held the Taliban and its ‘sponsors’ responsible for the attacks. He was most likely referring to the Pakistan-backed terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), that is known to be operating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

In 2019, a report submitted by the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team to the 1988 Sanctions Committee, which oversees sanctions on the Taliban, said LeT “continues to act as a key facilitator in recruitment and financial support activities in Afghanistan”. The report quoted Afghan officials as saying that some 500 LeT fighters are active in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces alone. These two incidents, coupled with the attack on Afghan soldiers in Helmand province on May 4, has laid bare the frivolity of the much publicized conditional peace agreement between the US and the Taliban in Doha on February 29 this year, that called for the withdrawal of foreign troops in 14 months if the Taliban upheld the terms of the agreement. However, this should not have come as a surprise for those who have observed the Af-Pak region for the last few decades. In fact, the US, impatient to sign a peace deal with the Taliban and exit Afghanistan, made the same mistakes that it had repeatedly committed in the past 18 years, since overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001. 

China’s Microsoft Exchange Cyberattack Puts Biden in a Bind

Emily Taylor 

The U.S. had barely begun its recovery from the SolarWinds compromise, when another large-scale, state-sponsored cyberattack came to light in January. Like the SolarWinds hack, the Microsoft Exchange Server data breach exploited several zero-day vulnerabilities and has been attributed to a nation-state. But unlike SolarWinds, while the Microsoft attack was initially a targeted attack, it went on to create widespread collateral damage, leading some commentators to characterize it as “reckless.” Microsoft has attributed the compromise to a Chinese state-sponsored espionage group called “Hafnium.”

Recent U.S. sanctions against Russia, in part motivated by the SolarWinds attack, have given rise to an expectation that the U.S. will respond against China for its alleged role in the Microsoft hack. Yet, so far, the U.S. response has been practical rather than symbolic, and domestic rather than geopolitical. More generally, invocations by the U.S. of the rules-based international order ring hollow given the lack of agreed norms for responsible state behavior in cyberspace.

The Coming Blockade of Taiwan by China?

by Simon Leitch

Since Taiwan’s democratisation over thirty years ago, the world has seen fit to promote a so-called “status quo” in which Taiwan’s friends pretend it isn’t a real country, while Taiwan pretends its problems will disappear, if given enough time. In this fantasy of failed strategy, China was meant to become peaceful, satisfied with wealth, amenable to Taiwan’s continued independence, and not at all a belligerent bully biding its time to wage a war Taiwan cannot win.

Yet here we are. As China’s routine warplane intrusions across the Strait wear down Taiwan’s air force, and its new carrier group performs sweeps near its coast, the military leadership of America, Japan and Taiwan are starting to speak more openly about the prospect of a Chinese attack on the island before the end of the Biden-Harris administration. Rightly so.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little understanding of just how desperate Taiwan’s situation is, and little appreciation of China’s likely tactics. Rather than defending Taiwan from a D-Day style attack, Taiwan and its allies need to be preparing for a possible coming blockade, one which will throttle the island over a period of months or years, and which will open the way to an air campaign that eventually compels the island’s surrender.

How TSMC has mastered the geopolitics of chipmaking

Chipmakers’ craft can seem magical. They use light to stamp complex patterns on a dinner-plate-sized disc of crystal silicon, forming arrays of electric circuits. Once cut out of the disc, each array is called a chip. The chip’s job is to shuttle electrons in a mathematical shimmer prescribed by computer code. They do the maths which runs the digital world, from Twitter and TikTok to electronics in tanks. Without them, whole industries cannot function properly, as carmakers forced to pause production because of microprocessor shortages are discovering.

The most important firm in this critical business is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (tsmc). It controls 84% of the market for chips with the smallest, most efficient circuits on which the products and services of the world’s biggest technology brands, from Apple in America to Alibaba in China, rely. As demand for the most sophisticated chips surges thanks to the expansion of fast communication networks and cloud computing, tsmc is pouring vast additional sums of money into expanding its dominance of the cutting edge.

Just How Safe Is Taiwan From China?

David Axe

Twenty-five years after the U.S. Navy steamed two aircraft carriers near Taiwan to deter a possible Chinese attack on the island country, there’s good news and bad for Taiwan.

The good news is that, despite hot rhetoric and frequent overt displays of military aggression, Chinese leaders seem to be happy with the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan functionally is independent, but Taiwanese officials carefully avoid saying as much.

The Chinese Communist Party meanwhile insists it’s within its rights to enforce Chinese “unity,” but the Party at the same time maintains an elaborate fiction that the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China in fact already comprise a single state.

The bad news is that there are few constraints on China when it comes to Taiwan. If Taipei were formally to declare independence, or if the CCP decided its unity fiction were losing credibility, then the Chinese People’s Liberation Army could invade—and possibly win.

Those are the main conclusions of a new assessment by RAND, a California think-tank with close ties to the U.S. military. RAND’s experts rated U.S. deterrence efforts in two conflicts—the Koreas and China-Taiwan.

Social Media Is Blurring the Lines of National Sovereignty

By Maxwell Lowe

In 2018, when I was in my first year of university, I moved into a student residence that mostly served to house Chinese students studying abroad in Australia. The Chinese students tended to stick together. Posters in student halls were in Mandarin, while stores and restaurants surrounding the residence catered to homesick students seeking groceries direct from China.

On the March 11 of that year, the Chinese government approved the removal of two-term limits on the presidency, and Xi Jinping effectively became “president for life.”

On that day, I walked out of my student accommodation and saw that, in a rare act of defiance, a student had put up posters of Xi with “NOT MY PRESIDENT!” written in bold letters across them. The posters were all over campus. Within three hours they had been taken down.

The stifling censorship faced by Chinese students in Australia from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been well documented. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published evidence that many Chinese students were afraid to speak out on politically sensitive issues in Australia due to fear of repercussions from Beijing.

China’s surprising drone sales in the Middle East

By: Bradley Bowman, Maj. Jared Thompson, and Ryan Brobst  

The Biden administration plans to move forward with $23 billion in weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, according to press reports published last week. The sales include F-35 aircraft, MQ-9B armed drones and other equipment.

The Biden administration’s decision was likely informed, at least in part, by a new dynamic emerging in the Middle East arms market: Beijing has increasingly exploited Washington’s reticence to sell drones to key Gulf partners. If this trend continues in drones and other arms sales, it will undermine Washington’s leverage and potentially endanger core American interests.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released a report in March noting that global arms transfers from 2016 to 2020 leveled off compared to 2011-2015 — but arms imports in the volatile Middle East grew by 25 percent in the same period. Arms sales to countries in the region included, for example, advanced tanks, aircraft, ships and satellites. The report demonstrates that the Middle East arms market is becoming increasingly crowded, robust and competitive.

Prospects of China-U.S. Climate Diplomacy: The Perspective From Beijing

By: Kevin Jianjun Tu


As U.S.-China tensions have continued into the Presidency of Joseph R. Biden, climate change is seen by some to be a rare area for bilateral collaboration (21st Century, December 22, 2020; The Paper, January 20). However, despite the U.S.’ official return to climate diplomacy with its rejoining of the Paris Agreement on February 19, sustained bilateral tensions over issues including disagreements over the origin of the coronavirus, trade frictions, an ongoing military standoff in the South China Sea and human rights-related disputes in Hong Kong and Xinjiang make the prospects of bilateral climate cooperation uncertain.

To fend off rising domestic concern that climate diplomacy with China would be transaction-oriented and detrimental to other foreign policy goals, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has said unequivocally that climate would be a “critical, standalone issue” that will never lead to a weaker China policy (VOX, January 27). His remarks immediately sparked a negative response from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚), who stressed that “China-U.S. cooperation in specific areas, unlike flowers that can bloom in a greenhouse despite winter chill, is closely linked with bilateral relations as a whole” (MOFA, January 28).

The European Union's Turkish Neighbor: Can't Live with It, and Can't Live without It

Shimon Stein, Oded Eran

For years European Union heads of state have debated what policy the EU should adopt vis-à-vis Turkey. The dilemma has intensified in recent years due to the aggressive external policy and authoritarian internal policy pursued by Erdogan. Relations with Turkey have deteriorated substantially, from its being a candidate for EU membership to being an object of threatened European sanctions. These complex relations, and the attempt on both sides to contain the rift, also have implications for Israel. The lack of a comprehensive solution to these disputes will leave Turkey undermining stability in Israel’s strategic environment and threaten to harm Israeli interests, especially with regard to the exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean and the transport of natural gas. Therefore, Israel has an interest in Turkey and the EU settling their relations, although not to the point of full Turkish membership in the Union.

Turkey's challenge to the European Union is multidimensional – cultural, demographic, political, economic, and security – and a solution to this complex challenge is not in sight. An expression of the deep disagreements between the EU and Turkey is reflected in a report submitted to the European Council in March 2021. In the political context, the report notes the ongoing deterioration in relations in recent years, mainly due to Turkey's activity in the Eastern Mediterranean – the Cyprus crisis, the ongoing conflict with Greece over the issue of territorial and economic waters and gas drilling – along with threatening steps and belligerent rhetoric. This joins Ankara’s assertiveness in other crisis areas: Syria, Libya, Russia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. There is also the continuing deterioration in Turkey’s domestic political affairs – including the deteriorating rule of law and protection of human rights; the violation of the independence of the judicial system; the violation of the freedom of speech; and the continued concentration of power by President Erdogan. This conduct is perceived by the EU as harming its interests, and as long as there is no change in Turkey's position it will therefore diminish the EU's willingness to move forward on a long list of bilateral issues on the agenda.

The Saudis Need More than a Scolding on Yemen

by Nick Danby

In the world of business, “under promise and over deliver” and you shall go far. The same holds true for the art of war. Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) flouted this golden rule in Yemen. Predictably, neither he nor the kingdom he leads has gotten very far.

Since the Yemeni conflict began in March 2015, the United States has acted like a bank, giving the Saudis a blank check to prosecute a war against the Houthis. Washington bolstered Riyadh’s efforts through intelligence-sharing, logistical support, targeting information, in-flight refueling, and billions of dollars’ worth of weapons. Six years later, the Saudis have failed to accomplish their initial objectives. The Houthi insurgents are still undefeated, and the official government of Yemen is still in tatters and exile. Instead, the Saudi war has thrown Yemen into a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 230,000 people dead and another four million displaced. Riyadh has overdrawn on its bank account with the U.S. government. Like any responsible business lender—and world leader—it is high time the United States calls in the loan.

Ambiguity and Incongruity

International Involvement in Infrastructure Projects in Azerbaijan’s Newly Regained Territories

By: Shabnam Hasanova

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced earlier this year that a number of large infrastructure projects had been launched in the territories liberated from Armenian occupation as a result of the 2020 Second Karabakh War. Importantly, he added that friendly countries and partners would be involved in these projects (Report.az, February 15).

When it comes to attracting foreign assistance in restoring and rehabilitating these regained southwestern areas of the country, Azerbaijan will prioritize its closest ally, Turkey, and Turkish businesses. Companies eager to participate in these projects have already submitted several proposals, according to Azerbaijan’s Economy Minister Mikayil Jabbarov (Trend, April 2). Another strategic partner invited to take part in reconstruction projects is apparently Belarus, whose president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, visited Baku earlier this month to, in part, discuss the possibility of such participation by Belarusian firms (see EDM, April 20)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with Aliyev on January 25, 2021, and stated that Iran was ready and eager to engage actively in the reconstruction process. As President Aliyev had confirmed that the liberated territories will be a green energy zone, Iran and Azerbaijan reached an agreement in the area of renewable energy for the installation of the Khudaferin and Maiden Tower hydro junctions. Hydroelectric power plants, in particular, have tremendous potential in this region of Azerbaijan (Azertag.az, February 15).

The Ninja Missile: A Breakthrough in U.S. Counter-Terrorism Weaponry?

By: Jacob Ware

A February 2017 airstrike in Idlib, Syria targeted and killed Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a deputy to al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Masri was one of the first foreign terrorists to have been killed using the U.S. military’s newest counter-terrorism weapon: the AGM-114R9X (R9X) Hellfire missile, often called the “ninja missile” or “the flying Ginsu” (Jerusalem Post, June 15, 2020). The missile is a new variant on the Hellfire. However, instead of delivering an explosive payload, the R9X missile releases six blades shortly before impact, crushing and cutting its target.

At first glance, the R9X missile, described as “a weapon that combines medieval brutality with advanced technology,” appears to be an important breakthrough in the U.S. counter-terrorism arsenal (Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2019). Despite its Hellfire connotation, the R9X missile is more like a long-range sniper round than its explosive cousins. The payload allows a drone operator based in the United States to target terrorist leaders anywhere in the world to an accuracy of only a few feet, and potentially without any collateral damage. But there are downsides, including a failure to adequately address ethical and human rights questions and a lack of clarity about if it can be deployed effectively in future battles.

Background and Early Use of the R9X

US SolarWinds Response Unlikely to Change Russia’s Behavior, Highlights Need for Improved Cyber Defense

Paul Kolbe

The United States has unveiled its overt response to Russia’s SolarWinds cyber operation—the expulsion of 10 Russian Embassy personnel from Washington, along with new sanctions on Russian sovereign debt and on Russian IT firms that support Moscow’s cyber intelligence operations. A “unseen” response promised by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, presumably cyber operations against Russian intelligence networks, has yet to publicly manifest. In response, Russia has denounced the “illegal” sanctions and predictably expelled 10 U.S. diplomats from Moscow.

Amid the flurry of accusation and counteraccusation, the question remains: Will the U.S. response to the SolarWinds compromise deter future Russian cyber activity? Based on what we’ve seen so far, I believe the costs on Russia imposed by the U.S. response will have little effect on future Russian cyber operations against U.S. government and private sector targets.

We do not know what the U.S. may undertake as part of the “unseen” response, but past experience would suggest cyber operations to signal displeasure are unlikely to change Russia’s behavior. A measured and proportional response will be shrugged off as the cost of business, and a cyber “shock and awe” campaign would risk escalation beyond U.S. intent.

US Agencies, Defense Companies Hacked Via VPNs


WASHINGTON: US government agencies, critical infrastructure entities, and private sector organizations are back in the cyber crosshairs, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said today — first in an alert and later in an emergency directive issued within hours of each other.

CISA’s emergency directive and alert were issued as US security companies FireEye and Ivanti disclosed separately — but in coordination with each other — that threat actors are targeting one newly discovered and three previously known vulnerabilities in Pulse Connect Secure appliances. Security patches are currently available for the three known vulnerabilities. A patch for the newly disclosed vulnerability is expected within weeks.

Ivanti, FireEye, Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Center, and government and law enforcement agencies are said to be working together on this incident.

Pulse Connect Secure is an enterprise virtual private network (VPN) product. VPNs encrypt data as it’s transmitted across public networks, such as the internet. Pulse Connect Secure enables remote workers to securely access enterprise networks.

US military to blend electronic warfare with cyber capabilities

Mark Pomerleau

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy plans to blur the lines between traditional electronic warfare and cyber operations as it prepares to receive its new airborne electronic jammer, according to a top service official.

Cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum are inextricably linked, which sometimes leads to arguments over why cyberspace is considered a domain of warfare, yet the electromagnetic spectrum is not.

“Now with the ability to do phased array, advanced jamming techniques, we really start to blur the lines, I think, between what we would consider traditional jamming with cyberwarfare,” Rear Adm. John Meier, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said April 13 during remarks at a virtual event hosted by the Association of Old Crows. “I think that the capabilities inherent in the jamming pod are going to open up a wide, wide array of not only jamming techniques, ranges, effective radiated power, but also taking us into other areas that we’ve never really had the ability to do before.”

Meier was talking about the Next Generation Jammer, the Navy’s — and by extension, the joint force’s — premier aerial electronic attack platform to be mounted on EA-18G Growler aircraft. It is broken into three pods covering three portions of the electromagnetic spectrum: mid, low and high.

The Time Is Now for U.S. Global Leadership on Covid-19 Vaccines

It is in the United States’ strategic interests to ensure that the world mobilizes effectively to end the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. A proactive U.S. role is essential to secure the gains underway in the United States and ensure Americans’ health, safety, and prosperity into the future. Helping to secure the future of lower- and middle-income countries is also simply the right thing to do, on humanitarian, economic, and security grounds.

Today, the United States is quickly approaching a moment of genuine promise, when exceptionally effective vaccines, accelerated distribution at home, and an enlarged American vaccine industrial base open the door for the Biden administration to bring American leadership to urgent global vaccine challenges. The United States’ health, economic, and national security interests argue for seizing this moment, beginning with presidential leadership to explain the stakes to Americans still legitimately worried about the epidemic at home. The United States ignores at its own peril the acute threat posed by viral variants, geopolitical rivals who take advantage of the moment, and deep vaccine inequity around the world. By sharing American vaccine resources starting at the soonest possible moment, the United States can claim ascendancy against these risks. That essential step should be part of a four-part U.S. diplomatic strategy that will: DOWNLOAD THE REPORT

Sunk Indonesian Submarine Should Worry Pacific Powers

By Nick Danby

This undated underwater photo released April 25, 2021, by the Indonesian Navy shows parts of submarine KRI Nanggala that sank in Bali Sea, Indonesia.Credit: Indonesian Navy via AP

On the morning of April 24 local time, the Indonesian Navy changed the status of its missing submarine, KRI Nanggala 402, from “sub miss” to “sub sunk.” The announcement dashed hopes of finding the submarine’s 53 crew members alive.

Hours earlier, search assets identified a “high magnetic” force object floating 160-320 feet below sea level as well as an oil spillage near the submarine’s last known location, raising the prospect of finding the vessel. Further investigation and rescue efforts near the area, however, recovered “authentic evidence… believed to be from the submarine,” This included a periscope lubricant, a torpedo protective device, and prayer rugs.

The debris’ identification meant Indonesia would wind down its three-day search for the 44-year-old undersea vessel that lost contact on April 21 during a military exercise, after requesting permission to dive and conduct a torpedo drill. The cause of the sinking remains elusive. Indonesian naval officials suggest an electrical failure prevented the submarine from executing emergency procedures while it sank nearly 2,000 feet or more below sea level.

The accident is worrisome in light of regional developments. The Asia-Pacific’s decade-long arms race, territorial disputes, and access denial campaigns have triggered the procurement and modernization of submarines throughout the region. A greater propensity for undersea warfare, then, must beget a multinational effort to collaborate and enhance submarine safety awareness and protocols as well as search and rescue (SAR) techniques and tools.

This Researcher Says AI Is Neither Artificial nor Intelligent

TECHNOLOGY COMPANIES LIKE to portray artificial intelligence as a precise and powerful tool for good. Kate Crawford says that mythology is flawed. In her book Atlas of AI, she visits a lithium mine, an Amazon warehouse, and a 19th-century phrenological skull archive to illustrate the natural resources, human sweat, and bad science underpinning some versions of the technology. Crawford, a professor at the University of Southern California and researcher at Microsoft, says many applications and side effects of AI are in urgent need of regulation.

Crawford recently discussed these issues with WIRED senior writer Tom Simonite. An edited transcript follows.

WIRED: Few people understand all the technical details of artificial intelligence. You argue that some experts working on the technology misunderstand AI more deeply.

KATE CRAWFORD: It is presented as this ethereal and objective way of making decisions, something that we can plug into everything from teaching kids to deciding who gets bail. But the name is deceptive: AI is neither artificial nor intelligent.

The Nine Commandments on Countering Hybrid Threats

Most hybrid threats are non-kinetic, yet in grappling with the concept of “hybrid” the West still manages to shoot itself in the foot. Not only are there many different definitions, there is also a lack of discipline in applying the term. For example, cyber and hybrid attacks are often used interchangeably; terms like “hybrid war” are bandied about as if the term “war” had no specific legal meaning anymore; and even smaller, non-existential hybrid activities are said to be extremely dangerous.

How can one foster a common understanding of hybrid threats and responses? The following nine commandments (using 10 could have resulted in charges of copyright infringement) are intended to help the Western strategic community reach a common understanding and, consequently, chart a common course.

First Commandment: Thou shalt be precise

“Hybrid” always describes a combination of two or more tools or actions. Hence, we should not use the term when we are just describing a series of cyberattacks or a single disinformation effort. Only when several tools are applied together is the word “hybrid” really appropriate. Rule of thumb: whenever an expert uses the term “hybrid,” but only talks about cyber, he or she is no expert! By the same token, calling everything we don’t like “hybrid,” simply to get more attention, leads to semantic overstretch that will only confuse ourselves.

Second Commandment: Thou shalt not generalize