25 August 2021

Cyber Weapons – A Weapon of War?

Maj Gen PK Mallick, VSM (Retd)

The character of warfare has changed fundamentally over the last decade. In the past, it was essential for an adversary nation or insurgent to physically bring weapons to bear during combat. That requirement is no longer a necessity. In cyber operations, the only weapons that need to be used are bits and bytes. In this new era of warfare, logistics issues that often restrict and limit conventional warfare and weaponry are not impediments. This new weaponry moves at the speed of light, is available to every human on the planet and can be as surgical as a scalpel or as devastating as a nuclear bomb.

Cyber attacks in various forms have become a global problem. Cyber weapons are low-cost, low-risk, highly effective and easily deployable globally. This new class of weapons is within reach of many countries, extremist or terrorist groups, non-state actors, and even individuals. Cyber crime organisations are developing cyber weapons effectively. The use of offensive Cyber operations by nation-states directly against another or by co-opting cyber criminals has blurred the line between spies and non-state malicious hackers. New entrants, both nation-states and non-state actors have unmatched espionage and surveillance capabilities with significant capabilities. They are often the forerunners for criminal financial gain, destruction and disruption operations. Progressively, we see non-state actors including commercial entities, developing capabilities that were solely held by a handful of state actors.

Social Media in Violent Conflicts – Recent Examples

Maj Gen PK Mallick, VSM (Retd)

Alan Rusbridger, the then editor-in-chief of the Guardian in his 2010 Andrew Olle Media Lecture, stated, “News organisations still break lots of news. But, increasingly, news happens first on Twitter. If you’re a regular Twitter user, even if you’re in the news business and have access to wires, the chances are that you’ll check out many rumours of breaking news on Twitter first. There are millions of human monitors out there who will pick up on the smallest things and who have the same instincts as the agencies—to be the first with the news. As more people join, the better it will get. ”

The most important and unique feature of social media and its role in future conflicts is the speed at which it can disseminate information to audiences and the audiences to provide feedback.

United States' Failure to Push Back Pakistan Has Brought Taliban to Kabul. India Had Seen it Coming.

Arun K. Singh

As the Taliban appear to be on the verge of storming into Kabul, consigning possibly into the dustbin of history the two-decade-old United States-constructed governance and security structure, there is an inevitable sense of history coming full circle.

It is unfortunate that the situation has come to this. It reflects a failure at many levels. Clearly, the United States has failed to create an enduring institutional and security structure in Afghanistan, despite an overwhelming presence for two decades. There is also a failure of the Afghan leadership in not being able to consolidate, come together, and create mass support for their leadership.

But most of all, it is a failure of U.S. Pakistan policy. Because of its dependence on Pakistan for the movement of supplies for its military into Afghanistan, the United States was never able to generate sufficient pressure on Pakistan to stop providing a safe haven and support to the Taliban.

Nobody Wins in Afghanistan

Adam Weinstein

Afghanistan attracted hundreds of billions of dollars in aid and troops from dozens of countries, especially NATO members, over the course of the last 20 years. This has abruptly come to an end as Washington completes its withdrawal, foreign embassies scramble to evacuate, and the Taliban take control of the country. Afghanistan’s lifelines to the outside world will now run through China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and a handful of smaller neighbors.

When U.S. President Joseph Biden announced his decision to proceed with the planned withdrawal in April, he reasoned that rather than continue a war with the Taliban, the United States must focus on more pertinent challenges including “an increasingly assertive China.” A steady stream of rebuttals now claim that leaving Afghanistan is a loss for the United States in the age of great-power competition. But this is little more than another attempt to redefine the legacy of America’s longest active war in the terms that fit the geopolitics of the Washington chattering classes in 2021.

NPR recently warned that “China could gain a foothold in the region” and listed it as one of four reasons why a Taliban-led Afghanistan should concern the world. The Daily Beast’s Julia Davis called the withdrawal “a thrilling prospect to the Kremlin.” Republican Sen. John Kennedy took it a step further to claim, “our enemies—China and Russia—are laughing.” European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell described the Taliban takeover as a “defeat for the Western world.” Daniel Hoffman, a retired CIA clandestine services officer, argued that remaining in Afghanistan was part of a “forward defense” against terrorists and larger state enemies such as China and Russia. A flurry of articles cited the possibility of China unlocking Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth.

Afghanistan is not the country the Taliban last ruled. Will that matter?

Khaled Hosseini

And just like that, in a matter of days, the Taliban is back. Its flag flies proudly over major Afghan cities, including my birthplace, Kabul — in stunning contrast to American intelligence assessments saying that the capital would take months to fall. The chaotic events make it hard to trust anything American officials say about Afghanistan. The question is, can anything the Taliban says be trusted?

In interviews since the takeover of Kabul, Taliban leaders have insisted that Afghan citizens have nothing to fear, even as searing images of desperate Afghans chasing airplanes on the tarmac of Kabul’s airport were going viral.

Why are Afghans terrified? Allow me to refresh the memory.

For more than 20 years, the Taliban has systematically terrorized, brutalized, maimed and murdered its own people. It has bombed schools and hospitals. For two decades, it has slaughtered countless fellow Afghans — men, women and children, many of them poor, ordinary villagers. The last time the Taliban ran the country, it chopped hands for petty theft and executed accused adulterers publicly. The regime virtually imprisoned women, denied them proper health care and stole their right to education. It whipped them for daring to show their faces in public and beat them for walking outside without a male companion. It struck men publicly for the inadequate length of a beard. It robbed Afghans of the simple pleasures of life: music, art, dance, even kite fighting. It destroyed priceless historical artifacts. Who could forget the shouts of “Allah u Akbar” as the Taliban fired rockets at the beautiful Buddhas of Bamian, which dated to the 6th century?

Miscue After Miscue, U.S. Exit Plan Unravels

Michael D. Shear, David E. Sanger, Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Julian E. Barnes 

WASHINGTON — The nation’s top national security officials assembled at the Pentagon early on April 24 for a secret meeting to plan the final withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. It was two weeks after President Biden had announced the exit over the objection of his generals, but now they were carrying out his orders.

In a secure room in the building’s “extreme basement,” two floors below ground level, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with top White House and intelligence officials. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken joined by video conference. After four hours, two things were clear.

First, Pentagon officials said they could pull out the remaining 3,500 American troops, almost all deployed at Bagram Air Base, by July 4 — two months earlier than the Sept. 11 deadline Mr. Biden had set. The plan would mean closing the airfield that was the American military hub in Afghanistan, but Defense Department officials did not want a dwindling, vulnerable force and the risks of service members dying in a war declared lost.

Afghan Resistance Ready For Conflict But Prefers Negotiations

David FOX 

Former Afghan government forces forming a resistance movement in a fortified valley are preparing for "long-term conflict", but are also seeking to negotiate with the Taliban, their spokesman told AFP in an interview.

Since the Taliban took control of the country following a lightning charge into the capital Kabul, thousands of people have made their way to Panjshir to both join the fight and find a safe haven to continue their lives, Ali Maisam Nazary said.

There, Ahmad Massoud, the son of legendary Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud who was assassinated by Al-Qaeda two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks, has assembled a fighting force of around 9,000 people, Nazary added.

The National Resistance Front's main goal is to avoid further bloodshed in Afghanistan and press for a new system of government.

The Taliban’s new reign of terror


Ican’t help watching again and again the video showing some poor devil clinging to the undercarriage of a US Air Force C-17 as it takes off from the chaos and violence of Kabul airport. He hangs there for a few seconds until his grip inevitably gives way and he falls to his death. What an image that is for Afghanistan after 20 years of Western involvement: the plane packed with people oblivious to everything except the relief that they’re on their way out; the stowaway so panicked by the victory of the Taliban that he thinks it’s worth risking everything to escape. And I can’t help rereading a line from a newspaper article written by an Afghan woman graduate: “As an orphan I [wove] carpets just to get an education… Now it looks like I have to burn everything I achieved in 24 years of my life.”

Many people who know and love Afghanistan would, I imagine, like to freeze-frame that video and print out that quotation, and nail them to the walls of Donald Trump’s Florida hideout and Joe Biden’s Oval Office. The empty agreement that Trump reached in Doha with the Taliban’s political leadership in February last year, and that Biden meekly decided to go along with, led directly to the fall of the stowaway and the destruction of the young woman’s dreams, and to everything else that is likely to follow in Afghanistan.

What Will the Taliban Do With a $22 Billion Economy?

Bobby Ghosh

No sooner had the Taliban taken Kabul than questions began to be asked about how they would manage Afghanistan’s economy. Do the insurgents-turned-rulers have the skills to run, say, a modern finance ministry and central bank? Will foreign donors trust them with aid? Can they do business with investors interested in the country’s mineral wealth?

Throughout their two decades in the wilderness, the Taliban have shown themselves capable of generating resources to maintain an insurgency, mostly from the drug trade, illegal mining and donations from supporters abroad, but also from taxes and rents in areas under their control. In good years, the Taliban’s revenues amounted to upwards of $1 billion.

But the Afghan budget is more than five times that size. The country’s gross domestic product, estimated at $22 billion, has grown nearly threefold since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001. And the economy has for several years been in precarious health, propped up by foreign aid. By the World Bank’s reckoning, three-fourths of the government’s budget is funded by international donors, led by the U.S.

The Entirely Predictable Failure of the West's Mission in Afghanistan

Christoph Reuter

In early July, before the great storm broke over Afghanistan, Kabul was already surrounded by the Taliban. And nowhere were the Islamist fighters closer to the Afghan capital city than on the shores of the Qargha Reservoir, a popular getaway on the western edge of the city. People were saying that the Taliban had gathered in the villages behind the nearby hills. The last frontline, it was said, was on the shore of the reservoir at the amusement park.

During the day, families were still taking their children to the rides and the restaurants or going out on the water in swan-shaped paddle boats. A small, six-member special forces unit even enjoyed a picnic in a wooden pavilion on the shore. One of them had to stand guard at the gun turret of their armored Humvee as the rest smoked hookahs and drank colorful sodas.

The next day, I met one of the Taliban’s leading military commanders for Kabul, who received me in the middle of the city in an unremarkable office building. When asked how far the Taliban had to walk to get to the lakeshore, he responded: "Not far at all." He seemed perfectly calm, a clean-shaven emissary of fear. "They’re already there, after all. They are the security guards at the restaurants, the ride operators, the cleaning staff. When the time is right, the place will be full of Taliban."

Afghanistan, Again, Becomes a Cradle for Jihadism—and Al Qaeda

Robin Wright

In March, I travelled to Afghanistan and the Middle East with General Kenneth (Frank) McKenzie, Jr., the Alabama-born marine who heads Central Command. He has been overseeing the frantic evacuation out of Kabul. During one of several interviews aboard his plane, I asked him, “Do you really think, given the intermarriage, the interweaving of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, that the Taliban is really ever going to be able or willing to restrain Al Qaeda from doing anything against us?” By then, the Taliban held roughly half of Afghanistan, a country about the size of Texas. McKenzie was chillingly candid. “I think it will be very hard for the Taliban to act against Al Qaeda, to actually limit their ability to attack outside the country,” he replied. “It’s possible, but I think it would be difficult.”

For more than a year, both the Trump and Biden Administrations had reams of warnings—from the military and diplomats, congressional reports and a commissioned study group, its own inspector general, and the United Nations—that the collapse of the Afghan government, an ever-growing possibility, would also mean a resurgence of Al Qaeda. In April, a U.S. intelligence assessment warned Congress that Al Qaeda’s senior leadership “will continue to plot attacks and seek to exploit conflicts in different regions.”

Hostile Harbors: Taiwan’s Ports and PLA Invasion Plans

Ian Easton

The scale of an all-out Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC) invasion by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) military—the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—defies human comprehension and would likely eclipse any historical comparison. In this important contribution to the field, Senior Director Ian Easton analyzes Chinese military studies frameworks and internal PLA documents to answer pressing questions that will help Taiwan and the United States both understand and better plan for potential crisis scenarios. He highlights the centrality of ROC port facilities—and Taiwan’s ability to defend them—in the PLA’s potential invasion plans for Taiwan, illustrating likely operational strategies explored by PLA leadership. In addition to postulating ports likely targeted in a PLA invasion, he provides recommendations that the Taiwanese government could undertake to ensure its port infrastructure security, as well as recommendations for the United States on how to be a supportive partner to Taiwan in that effort.

China and the Taliban: What to Watch

Bonnie Girard

Over the past 180 years, Afghan fighters have prevailed over the British, Soviet, and now American forces that have challenged them within their own mountainous, desert-ridden borders. Indeed, the annihilation of nearly 16,000 British soldiers, civilians, and families in 1842 as they fled Kabul remains one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history, second only to the fall of Singapore in World War II. The Soviet Union left in ignominy in 1989, although not in disarray. And the Americans are now leaving under the full weight of both humiliation and chaos.

This turn of events puts a new spin on potential changes for the relationship between China and Afghanistan. The two share a (short) border, and China has attempted to make investments in Afghanistan, which have thus far gone badly. But with the departure of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan, the two neighbors may recalibrate their positions vis-à-vis one another, based on mutual interests and, of course, money. Chinese concerns that a Taliban-led Afghanistan may pose new security threats to China, particularly the prospect of jihad in support of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region, would seem to be mitigated by Afghanistan’s increased need for Chinese investment, technology, and support services, if they can get it.

The US and China Are Not Destined for War


BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA – In the year 2034, the United States and China become embroiled in a series of military conflicts that escalate into a devastating tactical nuclear war. Other countries – including Russia, Iran, and India – get involved. Suddenly, the world is on the verge of World War III.

This is the scenario described in 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, an engrossing work of speculative fiction by NATO’s former supreme commander, Admiral James Stavridis, and Elliot Ackerman. The book is part of a growing chorus now warning that a clash between the world’s current rising power and the incumbent one is almost unavoidable. Graham Allison of Harvard University has dubbed this phenomenon the Thucydides Trap, recalling the ancient Greek historian’s observation that, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

True, throughout history, when a rising power has challenged a ruling one, war has often been the result. But there are notable exceptions. A war between the US and China today is no more inevitable than was war between the rising US and the declining United Kingdom a century ago. And in today’s context, there are four compelling reasons to believe that war between the US and China can be avoided.

China’s Anti-Satellite Weapons Could Conquer Taiwan—Or Start a War

Brian G. Chow, Brandon Kelley

On July 1, 2021—the one-hundredth birthday of the Chinese Communist Party—President Xi Jinping declared that China will “advance peaceful national reunification” with Taiwan. It would be easy to dismiss such statements as mere political rhetoric: certainly, Taiwan would never willingly accede to Chinese demands to rejoin the fold. But China’s rapidly advancing anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities could open up another avenue: deterring United States intervention on Taiwan’s behalf in order to coerce reunification without firing a shot.

If current trends hold, then China’s Strategic Support Force will be capable by the late 2020s of holding key U.S. space assets at risk. Chinese military doctrine, statements by senior officials, and past behavior all suggest that China may well believe threatening such assets to be an effective means of deterring U.S. intervention. If so, then the United States would face a type of “Sophie’s Choice”: decline to intervene, potentially leading allies to follow suit and Taiwan to succumb without a fight, thereby enabling Xi to achieve his goal of “peacefully” snuffing out Taiwanese independence; or start a war that would at best be long and bloody and might well even cross the nuclear threshold.

China’s Coming Afghan Policy: a Window on China’s New Strategy

François Godement

On July 28, China widely broadcast official photos of China’s Foreign Minister greeting Taliban leader Ghani Baradar and his crew. They sat in the very spot where, 48 hours earlier, Wang had lectured US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on America’s mistakes in general. Evidently, Beijing presciently picked the right time to upgrade its relationship with the Taliban to near government recognition level. Only two months earlier, in response to the killing of more than 50 school girls in Kabul, China’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying had repeated China’s opposition to "violent extremism", reaffirmed its support for the Afghan government, and urged the U.S. to carry out its announced withdrawal "in a responsible manner": good advice, in fact.

Since peace talks started between the Taliban and the U.S., under the Trump administration, and in Doha with the Afghan government in September 2020, there have been public Taliban visits to Iran and Russia as well - while India opted to receive Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the newly created Reconciliation Council. Talks between China and the Taliban are not new either - starting at least a decade ago with officious Chinese think tanks such as CICIR visiting Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas where the Taliban retreated every winter. Nonetheless, the speed and extent of China’s adjustment in its Afghan policy raises the question of China’s future Afghan strategy - an issue for both regional and global stability.

China’s Top Priority In Afghanistan Is Stability, Experts Say


The scene at the Kabul airport continues to be chaotic more than a week after the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital, with throngs of people so desperate to escape the country that some are passing babies over barriers to help get them out.

But just three miles away, it’s business as usual at the Chinese embassy.

China is one of only a handful of countries that have kept their embassies in Kabul open amid the Taliban takeover. Beijing’s interest in Afghanistan, at least in the short term, is more focused on preventing instability that could spill over the border into China, rather than capitalizing on American chaos or stepping in where the U.S. is stepping out, experts say.

“The main concern is that whatever problems there are in Afghanistan stay in Afghanistan,” said Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow in the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program. “They want the Taliban to establish a government that at least jumps through enough hoops that it can reach diplomatic legitimacy….They don’t want a pariah state on its border again.”

Ideological Competition With China Is Inevitable—Like It or Not

Nathan Levine

As rancorous U.S.-China talks in late July demonstrated, tensions between the two superpowers have continued to escalate. Beijing has declared the relationship “is now in a stalemate and faces serious difficulties.” U.S. President Joe Biden has increasingly characterized strategic competition with China as part of a broader conflict between democracies and autocracies in the 21st century. This has prompted dissenters in Washington and around the world to decry the prospect of the two countries slipping into an ideological competition reminiscent of the Cold War.

Such warnings tend to come from two main camps. Political progressives warn defining the standoff as a Cold War-style ideological contest will divide the world, distract from efforts to address social issues at home, and make it harder to fight climate change. Realist-leaning foreign-policy thinkers, on the other hand, believe framing the U.S.-China relationship in ideological terms is extraneous to the core issues of great-power competition and could also alienate important U.S. allies and partners.

Despite this, however, neither group tends to seriously suggest the United States stop standing up for human rights and liberal democratic governance around the world. It is now a rare item of bipartisan agreement in Washington and with voters more broadly—perhaps, in part, because China has served to highlight the issue and such an argument would find little traction. But this position creates a contradiction: Advocacy of these values itself represents an ideology—one fundamentally at odds with the worldview adhered to in Beijing. For that reason, the truth is ideological competition with China is inevitable.

Iran and Saudi Arabia Battle for Supremacy in the Middle East

Over the past decade, the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance in the Middle East has insinuated itself into nearly every regional issue, fracturing international alliances and sustaining wars across the region, while raising fears of a direct conflict between the two powers that could involve the U.S. Now both sides seem to be seeking a diplomatic offramp to confrontation, amid a broader shift toward lowering tensions across the region.

Saudi Arabia ramped up its regional adventurism after Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful son of King Salman known as MBS, was appointed crown prince in 2017. From the Syrian civil war to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, that has meant proxy conflicts with Iran-backed regimes and nonstate armed groups that have on several occasions veered dangerously close to direct hostilities between to two rivals. A precision missile and drone strike on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 was widely blamed on Iran. And the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to Tehran brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war in January 2020, with direct implications for Riyadh.

Column: The fall of Kabul doesn’t need to spell the end of U.S. global power


Amid the chaos in Kabul, politicians and pundits have declared the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan a defeat from which U.S. influence may never recover.

“Biden’s credibility is now shot,” wrote Gideon Rachman, chief oracle of Britain’s Financial Times.

“A grave blow to America’s standing,” warned the Economist.

But take a deep breath and remember some history.

When South Vietnam collapsed after a war that involved four times as many U.S. troops, many drew the same conclusion: The age of U.S. global power was over.

Less than 15 years later, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War began to end, and the United States soon stood as the world’s only superpower.

US credibility with military allies at risk over Afghanistan pullout


The messy withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the subsequent scramble to protect civilians who aided the American war effort are triggering a ripple effect of concern among allies who rely on the United States for military protection.

The Pentagon has thousands of troops stationed in South Korea, Japan, Germany and elsewhere around the world. Asian allies in particular have indicated some concerns in recent days over whether the quick military exit from Afghanistan could one day happen in their countries.

Those concerns have been exacerbated in places such as Taiwan: Not only is there the looming threat of Chinese military action, but some now worry Beijing could be emboldened by the events in Afghanistan.

In a sign of how the anxiety has broken through, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan faced questions this past week about what the Afghanistan withdrawal means for Israel, South Korea and Taiwan. Reporters also questioned State Department officials about the potential fallout for U.S. allies and the possible decline in credibility.

Can America’s Withdrawal From Afghanistan Help Its China Strategy?

Dingding Chen

U.S. President Joe Biden has been severely criticized from all fronts in recent weeks as the United States’ supposedly peaceful and orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan turned into a classic fiasco in front of the whole world. As a consequence, Biden’s approval rating has dropped to its lowest level since his inauguration, with increasing numbers of both Democrats and Republications disapproving of his handling of the Afghanistan situation. Internationally, Biden has not received much support from the publics in many U.S. allies either. For example, half of Britons believe that Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan is wrong. U.S. allies and partners in Asia have expressed similar concerns as to the U.S. commitment to the region, particularly as China’s influence is rapidly increasing.

To be far to Biden, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan makes some sense from a strategic point of view, as the China-U.S. competition seems set to be the dominant theme of international politics in the coming decades. Given the long-term relative decline of U.S. capability and energy, it is wise to shift the focus and resources to China from other areas, such as the greater Middle East, that are no longer vital national interests to the United States. Afghanistan is such an area, as the U.S. has wasted almost $2 trillion and thousands of U.S. lives there after 20 years of occupation.

When You’re Wounded and Left on Afghanistan’s Plains

George Friedman

I was shocked by what happened in Afghanistan in the past week or so. Not because I didn’t expect it – President Joe Biden had in fact announced that the military would leave – but because people seemed to expect the withdrawal to be somehow orderly. The Taliban and the United States had fought a war for 20 years. The U.S. was leaving in defeat. The Taliban rapidly retook control, capturing those who collaborated with the enemy with an apparent joy that the war was over and victory was theirs. I was shocked that people didn’t understand that this is what defeat looks like.

Also shocking was America’s decision to go to war in the graveyard of empires, as were the decisions of successive presidents to stay there for two decades. Wars are not gestures. Staying in a war is the most significant decision a leader can make, and losing is a terrible outcome.

The war began before the dead and wounded on 9/11 were counted. It is remarkable that anyone 25 or younger is too young to remember. The rest of us remember that day. It was the Pearl Harbor of our time, an attack by an enemy that we did not think had the cunning to carry out such an attack. The attack, well organized and brilliantly conceived, was executed by men who were willing to calmly perform in the face of certain death. That sort of will was utterly alien to our own sense of duty, and it raised the question of how to stop people who attack like this. Such men, if they plan as carefully as they planned 9/11, could mount more unanticipated attacks.

Twenty Years After 9/11, Are We Any Smarter?

On a warm June evening in downtown Manhattan, tourists hoping to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum are disappointed. The spot is closed after 5 p.m., a security guard repeats patiently to visitors. From behind a rope, the tourists look at the spaces where the Twin Towers used to be. The names of the 2,977 people killed by Al Qaeda in September 2001 are etched into bronze parapets surrounding two pools. Water flows down 30 feet in clear streams over the walls into the pools. During the day, if you are close enough to the water, the endless noise of the city is drowned out. But on nights like this one, New York’s cacophony makes itself heard here. If you close your eyes, it doesn’t sound very different than it did before the terrorists devastated the buildings.

This September marks the twentieth anniversary of the attacks. “Everybody was traumatized,” remembered Richard Clarke, the chief counterterrorism adviser at the time. In the immediate aftermath, Clarke said, the Bush administration was mainly concerned with reacting swiftly to prevent another attack. “[We were trying] to put ourselves in the heads of Al Qaeda, imagine what they might do next, and that was difficult because there were so many vulnerabilities, particularly back then, and a very long list of things they could do.”

The U.S. Doesn’t Have to Choose Between Counterterrorism and Great Power Competition

Colin P. Clarke

In an address to the nation in early July, President Joe Biden suggested that one of the factors leading him to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan was the “need to focus on shoring up America’s core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations that is really going to determine our future.” For the past several years, the zeitgeist in Washington has been all about great power competition, or the need to prepare for potential conflict with countries the United States considers “near-peer” adversaries—namely Russia and China, but to a lesser extent, Iran and North Korea as well. The Trump administration adopted this concept as the central pillar of its national security strategy in 2017, supplanting the previous focus on counterterrorism, and Biden’s interim national security guidance has kept that approach in place.

Listening to policymakers, one gets the impression that the United States can do either counterterrorism or great power competition, but not both. This false dichotomy between counterterrorism on the one hand, and great power competition on the other, serves to undermine U.S. interests. In fact, the United States can and must do both in order to protect its national security. Moreover, upon closer examination, there is significant overlap between these two approaches, both in the way U.S. adversaries operate but also in the way Washington can respond. As terrorism expert Matthew Levitt has noted, “with a modicum of strategic planning [great power competition and counterterrorism] are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive efforts.”

A Post-American Central Asia

 Alexander Cooley

The stunning Taliban victory in Afghanistan has unleashed a wave of anger at U.S. President Joe Biden. Critics accuse his administration not only of mismanaging the troop withdrawal and damaging Washington’s global credibility but also of doing something else: leaving a regional vacuum in Central Asia that China and Russia will enthusiastically fill. One news report observed that “America’s chief adversaries veritably crowed . . . following the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.”

What critics miss, however, is that Central Asia is no longer the anarchic place it was 20 years ago, when the Taliban ruled in international isolation. Today, there is a regional order that can accommodate Washington’s absence. The United States’ invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 spurred profound shifts in Central Asia’s political dynamics. Afghanistan’s neighbors learned to navigate the often contradictory demands of the United States and its liberal international order while also abetting the Chinese and Russian backlash against the enduring U.S. military presence. As a result, Central Asia today is a multipolar space where different countries exert influence through new organizations, norms, and networks that overlap with and compete against those of the United States and its allies.

Could Cyberwar Make the World Safer?

Cybèle C. Greenberg

The battles in a global cyberwar are visible only through periodic glances in the rearview mirror: Indra, Colonial Pipeline, SolarWinds, WannaCry.

Such an episodic view obscures the fact that this jousting by nation-states, criminal networks and private actors is happening constantly — right now — without foreseeable end.

It’s hard to wrap our minds around that. It’s a departure from thousands of years of conventional warfare that leaves us wondering how exactly to categorize cyberattacks. Are they espionage? Sabotage? Acts of war? Some cyberattacks, like North Korea’s targeting of Sony Pictures, entail central involvement from states. Others, like ransomware, are simply criminal. But the spy and the hacker have a lot in common: They both trespass into others’ information.

During the Cold War, the United States, China and Russia sat on stockpiles of world-ending weapons. Now, these same countries routinely employ an array of offensive cyberweapons, though not quite to their full power grid-zapping, water system-clogging, society-crippling potential.

Cyber Attribution and State Responsibility

William Banks

We might expect international law to specifically address cyber attribution requirements due to the significance of attribution in framing the legal responsibility of States and the boundaries of responsive actions by victim States. However, there is little international law of cyber attribution, and what law there is exists largely by implication. Likewise, there is only a murky and highly contested law of State responsibility that theoretically constrains the vast majority of State-sponsored cyberattacks. Because victim States cannot engage in countermeasures unless they attribute a cyberattack to a State, attribution can serve simultaneously to constrain and empower victim States. However, the lack of a common understanding about whether cyber attribution is required—much less what evidence suffices for attribution of a cyberattack for international law purposes—combined with the absence of consensus legal rules to limit cyber intrusions, has helped render the entire international legal response to cyberattacks weak and largely ineffective. Going forward, States and the international community should support public cyber attributions and address what legal or evidentiary standards must be met to attribute responsibility for a cyberattack to a State. A viable cyber attribution regime is a missing but key component for States to overcome the Wild West cyber environment that we live in.

How Big Data Carried Graph Theory Into New Dimensions

The mathematical language for talking about connections, which usually depends on networks—vertices (dots) and edges (lines connecting them)—has been an invaluable way to model real-world phenomena since at least the 18th century. But a few decades ago, the emergence of giant data sets forced researchers to expand their toolboxes and, at the same time, gave them sprawling sandboxes in which to apply new mathematical insights. Since then, said
Josh Grochow, a computer scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, there’s been an exciting period of rapid growth as researchers have developed new kinds of network models that can find complex structures and signals in the noise of big data.

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research develop­ments and trends in mathe­matics and the physical and life sciences.

I Can’t Forget the Lessons of Vietnam. Neither Should You.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

I was 4 years old when Saigon fell, so I do not remember any of it. I count myself lucky, since many Vietnamese who survived the end of that war were greatly traumatized by it. The collapse of the American-backed Southern regime began in my Central Highlands hometown, Ban Me Thuot, in March 1975. In less than two months, all of South Vietnam capitulated to the North Vietnamese. Soldiers fled in chaotic retreat among civilians. My mother, brother and I were among them. We left behind my adopted sister. After walking nearly 200 kilometers to escape the advancing North Vietnamese army, the three of us made it to the seaside city of Nha Trang, where we managed to find a boat to take us to Saigon where my father was.

We were lucky; many others weren’t. My brother remembers dead Southern paratroopers hanging from trees. In Nha Trang, some people fell to their deaths in the sea, trying to clamber onto boats. In Da Nang, desperate soldiers crammed into the luggage compartments of a plane, while the ones left behind threw grenades and fired at the plane.