8 December 2021


Maj Gen P K Mallick, VSM (Retd)

Microsoft released its second annual Digital Defense Report, covering July 2020 to June 2021. This year s 134 pages report is quite detailed, with sections on cybercrime, nationstate threats, supply-chain attacks and Internet of Things attacks. The report includes security suggestions for organizations with remote workforces. It has a section describing the use of social media to spread disinformation. The report is a compilation of integrated data and actionable insights from across 

India in Space Domain - Pathbreaking Developments

Maj Gen PK Mallick, VSM (Retd)


India is now a major spacefaring nation. Initially, the Indian space programme was focused primarily on societal and developmental utilities. Today, like many other countries, India is compelled to use space for several military requirements like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Hence, India is looking to space to gain operational and informational advantages.

India has had its fair share of achievements in the space domain. It includes the launch of the country’s heaviest satellite, the GSAT-11 which will boost India’s broadband services by enabling 16 Gbps data links across the country, GSAT-7A, the military communication satellite and the launch of the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle GSLV Mk III-D2, the GSAT 29. The Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test is an intrinsic part of today’s geopolitics and the national security context.

Pak Hackers Targeting Indian, Afghan Government, Military Officials: Report

Pakistani hackers are targeting the Indian and Afghan governments, especially the military officials to steal sensitive Google, Twitter and Facebook credentials from its targets and stealthily obtain access to government officials, a report by thehackernews.com has revealed.

The portal said, "Malwarebytes' latest findings go into detail about the new tactics and tools adopted by the APT group known as SideCopy, which is so-called because of its attempts to mimic the infection chains associated with another group tracked as SideWinder and mislead attribution".

"The lures used by SideCopy APT are usually archive files that have embedded one of these files: LNK, Microsoft Publisher or Trojanized Applications," the report quoted Malwarebytes researcher Hossein Jazi as saying.

He added, "The embedded files are tailored to target government and military officials based in Afghanistan and India".

What Afghanistan Teaches Us About Evidence-Based Policy

Corinne Graff, Ph.D.

Even as the debate over the lessons learned by the U.S. government in Afghanistan continues, several clear conclusions have emerged. One is that U.S. agencies repeatedly underestimated the time and resources needed to support a nation wracked by decades of war, while they failed to follow a consistent plan for civilian recovery efforts. U.S. personnel also lacked the training needed to be successful in the field, and monitoring and evaluation efforts did not receive the policy attention required to enable course corrections and learning.

Local Afghan police in Kakeran, Afghanistan, Feb. 18, 2013. While some militias the U.S. helped create to protect areas from the Taliban are operating as hoped, others have a reputation for abuse and banditry. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

While these gaps certainly all had a role in undermining efforts to stabilize Afghanistan over the past two decades, one finding stands out not only because it has been repeatedly identified as an obstacle to U.S. policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but because it would be relatively easy — and inexpensive — to fix: the U.S. government’s poor understanding of the conflict environments in which it operates.

Power Structures, Patronage and Violence

The nature of the problem is described in a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR), a government watchdog established in 2008 to audit and investigate U.S. programs. It finds that government agencies lacked accurate data on the operating environment in Afghanistan, including the terrain and climate. Buildings were constructed in colder regions without due consideration to the potential for heavy snow loads on roofs, or without consulting topographic maps. To some extent, these types of information gaps are understandable, given the dangerous conditions on the ground, particularly as violence increased over the past decade. Policymakers lacked access to critical sources of information, no doubt an unavoidable situation and part of the so-called fog of war.

But as the report makes clear, the biggest blind spots in Afghanistan were not failures of historical or cultural knowledge or intelligence collection, but of conflict analysis: U.S. policymakers failed to take into consideration the political and economic dynamics driving these conflicts, and to anticipate the impact U.S. interventions would have on those dynamics. “The United States seems to have misunderstood the dynamics of political power in Afghanistan, particularly the role of patronage networks, which were born of several decades of armed conflict and had become entrenched in the country’s political economy,” the SIGAR report noted. This type of analytical gap is not specific to U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, but affects U.S. aid to countries that experience conflict around the world.

As a result of such analytical blinders, U.S. projects too often inadvertently provided support to — or withdrew resources from — the wrong power-brokers, upsetting local power dynamics and fueling further conflict. In Afghanistan, state-owned enterprises were privatized without sufficient attention to the power and patronage networks that hold sway over Afghanistan, fueling corruption and community grievances. Foreign advisers drafted laws that conflicted with local traditions and lacked broad acceptance, incentivizing entire communities to turn to the Taliban for more familiar solutions. U.S. security cooperation and supply chains enriched and fueled violent competition between elites, further alienating the citizens it was meant to help protect.

While it should be expected that the underlying elite power structures and backroom deals through which traditional societies are informally governed are opaque, there is a growing body of research that zeroes in on these conflict dynamics and is assessing their policy implications. Political settlement analysis — not to be confused with the formal “peace settlements” that end wars — is a well-established field of study. It examines how rival elites inside and outside governments exercise political power through transactional political deals among themselves. In countries where formal government institutions and the social contract between elites and citizens are weak or nonexistent, systems of elite bargaining drive decision-making — and organized violence. Political settlements can be more or less exclusive and involve more or less violence and corruption driven by rent-seeking elites. The task for policymakers seeking to resolve conflicts is to gradually transform these arrangements so they become more inclusive, representative of minority groups, accountable and, gradually, more stable.

Political settlement analysis prompts policymakers to look beyond the motives of political leaders and performance of formal institutions, and to seek to understand the system of political power within which elites operate and policy is made. It starts with questions such as:
Who are the key national and sub-national elites and what role do formal and informal institutions play in shaping their actions and decisions?

From where do they derive their power, and how are they wielding this power over different groups?

What is the role and impact of external policy and programs on elite bargaining processes, and what can donors do to make the political settlement more inclusive and stable?

This type of analysis could help the United States achieve better results in the many conflict-affected countries where it continues to engage. So far, however, this type of innovative research has not been incorporated into U.S. policy and doctrine.

Upgrading the U.S. Toolbox

Despite the urgings of individual advisers who have been strong advocates for it, this type of analysis has had limited impact on U.S. policy. One problem is that there are of course many barriers to ensuring that good evidence informs public policy — a challenge that is not specific to conflict prevention and stabilization policy. Yet clearly there are also important analytical gaps withing the U.S. government when it comes to engaging in fragile environments. Recent U.S. stabilization and conflict prevention doctrine reflects the need to focus on the “political roots” of conflict and on “improving governance” to stabilize communities, but doesn’t address the power structures and networks that are at the center of conflicts, as SIGAR found in Afghanistan. For the most part U.S. doctrine continues to ignore the central role of political settlements in driving conflict and constraining policy and reform.

This is perhaps not surprising since U.S. government agencies are noticeably absent from the publicly disclosed institutional funders that support cutting-edge research on conflict and on the impact of relevant policy interventions, including at MIT, the London School of Economics and Oxford University. This is not to say that advances have not been made across the U.S. government, but existing analytical tools are overdue for an upgrade. In some quarters of the U.S. government, technical analysis is being done to better understand these political-economy dynamics, but it is not focused on conflict and unclear how much impact this analysis is having on aid programs, let alone U.S. policy.

By contrast, other donors are leveraging the latest findings from this research. Political settlements analysis is heavily funded by the UK government, as is research on the related concept of political marketplaces. Based on this line of work, other donors have developed entire policy frameworks that shed new light on elite decisions and bargains in these contexts — as well as the breakdowns that lead to devastating violence and commensurate policy responses. This work includes policy recommendations for supporting pathways out of conflict, taking into account the interests and positions of elites. Although each conflict setting is different, research on political settlements tends to emphasize the following policy priorities: participatory conflict analysis and needs assessment; community-based accountability mechanisms and programs; conflict-sensitive humanitarian and development aid; forging coalitions for security sector reform; and developing accountable state capacity for taxation and budgeting.

While there are no easy solutions when it comes to understanding and navigating complex political and economic dynamics in distant countries, U.S. agencies must update their tools to analyze conflict-prone societies based on the latest available research.
Expand Research Partnerships

Several measures could help remedy these analytical gaps in fragile environments. Research partnerships have been repeatedly identified as one of the best ways to increase the use of evidence by policymakers. To ensure that strategy, policy and program decisions in conflict countries are informed by cutting edge political-economy analysis, the State Department and USAID could seek opportunities to share best-practices on analytic and assessment tools with other leading donor agencies. State and USAID as well as intelligence agencies should also explore relationships with research institutions, perhaps modeled on the research and development strategy that the U.S. government has developed in the field of global health, or the research partnerships it has established in the agriculture and health sectors. Conflict and violence prevention and stabilization should also feature prominently in USAID’s Research Technical Assistance Center consortium. It is critical that agencies and U.S. missions around the world also invest in research platforms that are inclusive of local researchers in fragile states, such as the Resolve Network. Agencies could also bring leading experts into government agencies through short-term details to develop new training programs for diplomats and program and policy guidance based on cutting-edge conflict research.
Build the U.S. Government’s Evidence Base on Conflict

Secondly and relatedly, agencies should update their monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and learning systems to ensure they are positioned to adapt policies and programs in response to fast-evolving political dynamics in fragile states. Research on flexible and adaptive M&E mechanisms, including a recent project funded by the UK government at the Graduate Institute Geneva, builds on political settlement analysis and is developing practical analytical tools for field-based staff. More broadly, State and USAID should seize on the Evidence Act and USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s commitment to evidence-based policy to ensure they are prioritizing evidence in conflict settings. For example, the new Office of Behavioral Science and Experimental Economics at USAID should include a strong team of political economists and conflict experts. USAID should also prioritize partnerships with policy innovation labs that run quasi-experimental research projects on the impacts of stabilization and conflict prevention policies, such as the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.

Staff up for Success

Finally, the bottom line is that no progress will be possible without additional resources to improve the U.S. government’s analytical capabilities in conflict settings. As the latest SIGAR report makes clear, it is unrealistic to expect agencies to improve their own capabilities if only 5 percent of their budget can be invested in such reforms, the spending cap provided under the recent Global Fragility Act (GFA). Conducting context-specific local analysis is staff-intensive. Congress should support USAID’s request for funds to ensure the agency has the staffing posture it needs to improve its evidence base and hire experts in the field, including by lifting the GFA spending cap, if necessary.

As we continue to reflect on the lessons from Afghanistan, it will be important to identify achievable reforms that can help the U.S. government improve the outcomes of its policies in fragile states around the world. Improving the USG’s analytical capacities to develop a better understanding of conflict environments is low hanging fruit. We should seize it.

All Against All The Sectarian Resurgence in the Post-American Middle East

Vali Nasr

The Biden administration’s mantra for the Middle East is simple: “end the ‘forever wars.’” The White House is preoccupied with managing the challenge posed by China and aims to disentangle the United States from the Middle East’s seemingly endless and unwinnable conflicts. But the United States’ disengagement threatens to leave a political vacuum that will be filled by sectarian rivalries, paving the way for a more violent and unstable region.

The struggle for geopolitical primacy between Iran’s Shiite theocracy and the countries led by Sunni Arabs and, more recently, Sunni Turkey is stoking conflict across the region—eroding social compacts, worsening state dysfunction, and catalyzing extremist movements. Both sides have weaponized religious identity for their own purposes, using it to rally partisans and bolster their influence across the region. As a result, the broader Middle East remains a tinderbox.

Although Iran retains the upper hand, challenges to its position are building across the region. Sunnis have tired of virulent extremism, but the anger that fueled the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) remains undiminished; new insurgencies in the broken parts of the region will undoubtedly harness that rage once more. Sunnis in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria are increasingly chafing at moves by Tehran and its allies to tighten their hold on power. And terrorism has emerged in Afghanistan again, as the country slides into chaos in the wake of the Taliban’s victory. Without any political process to defuse these tensions, they are bound to erupt in new waves of tumult and bloodshed.

In Afghanistan, ‘Who Has the Guns Gets the Land’

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Yaqoob Akbary

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — For decades, roughly a thousand families called the low-slung mud-walled neighborhood of Firqa home. Some moved in during the 1990s civil war, while others were provided housing under the previous government.

Soon after the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15, the new government told them all to get out.

Ghullam Farooq, 40, sat in the darkness of his shop in Firqa last month, describing how armed Taliban fighters came at night, expelling him at gunpoint from his home in the community, a neighborhood of Kandahar city in southern Afghanistan.

“All the Taliban said was: ‘Take your stuff and go,” he said.

Those who fled or were forcibly removed were quickly replaced with Taliban commanders and fighters.

Thousands of Afghans are facing such traumatic dislocations as the new Taliban government uses property to compensate its fighters for years of military service, amid a crumbling economy and a lack of cash.

A Big, Dumb Machine The problem in Afghanistan wasn't mere incompetence. The problem was a broken system.


It is common to chalk up America's failures in Afghanistan to incompetence, ignorance, or stupidity. Yet The Afghanistan Papers, by The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock, shows an American government that, although it had no idea what it was doing when it came to building a democracy in Afghanistan, did an excellent job manipulating the public, avoiding any consequences for its failures, and protecting its bureaucratic and financial interests. The problem was a broken system, not a generalized incompetence.

In 2016, Whitlock received a tip that the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) had interviewed hundreds of participants in the war, including top American and Afghan officials, military leaders, and outside consultants. When the paper tried to get its hands on the results, SIGAR fought it every step of the way; it took a three-year legal battle to get the documents. The Post then published them on its website—along with some related items, such as memos from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—and those formed the basis of this book.

Afghanistan’s Looming Catastrophe

P. Michael McKinley

On December 1, a United Nations official said that Afghanistan may be facing the most rapid economic collapse in modern history. Since the Taliban takeover in late August, government revenues have all but disappeared and the country’s cash-based economy has shrunk at dizzying rates. The World Food Program estimates that up to 23 million Afghans—more than half the population—may not have enough to eat by the end of the year. Public-sector workers have not been paid in months, and three million children under the age of five face acute malnutrition, an almost unfathomable number. As winter begins, Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

The challenge is providing relief on the necessary scale to meet the unprecedented needs of the Afghan people. The United States and its allies rightly seek to deny the Taliban government any legitimacy or funding until it provides guarantees for the rights of women, girls, and minorities and unequivocally cuts its ties to international terrorism. The U.S. Treasury, international donors, and organizations have frozen billions of dollars of Afghan assets and seek to channel humanitarian aid through UN relief agencies and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) still operating, with difficulty, inside the country. Meanwhile, despite the growing crisis, the Taliban have shown little sign of changing their behavior.

Iran Will Not Fracture on Ethnic Lines Like Ethiopia

Michael Rubin

Ethiopia faces an existential crisis. Just over a year ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed provoked a war against the country’s northern Tigray state when, angered at the local government’s refusal to delay elections, he sent in the army. He believed it would be a cakewalk and, indeed, he quickly captured the state capital, Mekelle. Abiy, who like many Ethiopians bore many grudges against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for previous abuses of power and human rights violations, sought to settle old scores. In practice, this meant targeting and killing TPLF leadership and old guard such as Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s seventy-one-year-old widely respected former foreign minister. The problem with this strategy is that, while older TPLF leaders had once been part of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition and so embraced Ethiopian nationalism, younger Tigrayans have little interest in being part of Ethiopia; many would prefer independence. This might be a moot concern had Abiy won, but the Tigray Defense Forces retreated to the countryside, and then staged a counterattack that routed the Ethiopian Army. The Tigrayans—and some temporary allies of convenience from among Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups—now threaten the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

Air University Press Air & Space Power Journal

The Underdog’s Model: A Theory of Asymmetric Airpower

Department of Defense Laboratories: Recalibrating the Culture

Integrating Cost as a Decision Variable in Wargames

Cost-of-Delay: A Framework for Air Force Software Factories

Theorist, Prophet, or Ideologue? : Review of “False Gospel for Airpower Strategy? A Fresh

 Look at Giulio Douhet’s Command of the Air”

Opportunity Realized: Review of “Ten Propositions Regarding Space Power: The Dawn of a Space Force”

Lost in Translation: Innovating to Failure: Review of “The Use and Abuse of Technology: In Insurgent Warfare”

Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Special 2021, v. 4, no. 8

Competing or Colluding Commercial Interests? Ports and Free Zones along China's Maritime Silk Road in Africa

Comparing the Strategic Worldviews of the United States and China: Implications for Strategy and Engagement with Africa

Djibouti: The Organizing Principle of the Indo-Pacific

Regional Security Complexes and African Foreign Polities

Africa, America, and China: Estimation or Underestimation

Counterbalancing Chinese Influence in the Horn of Africa: A Strategy for Security and Stability
China's Military and Economic Prowess in Djibouti: A Security Challenge for the Indo-Pacific
Peacekeeping Operations to Address Counterinsurgency and Criminal Deviance in Mozambique

Will Taiwan tensions explode?

What might a Taiwan crisis look like? China ups its inflammatory rhetoric, shoots missiles close to the island’s ports, mobilizes massive armed forces along the Strait and conducts amphibious assault and live-fire exercises near the islands under Taiwan’s control.

In response, the United States orders in a carrier group, to confront the Chinese Navy’s most modern destroyers, attack submarines and warplanes. The world waits anxiously for the first shot to be fired.

This drama has happened before. It would be a repeat of the crisis during the run-up to Taiwan’s first presidential election in 1996. Having lived in Taiwan for several years, I was worried at the time. More experienced voices, however, assured me that this was only theatrics aimed at swaying voters away from supporting candidates China perceived as promoting the island’s independence.

Sure enough, there was no war and President Bill Clinton was soon rebuilding relations, even though Taiwan’s voters had defied China.

Reassessing China’s Capabilities and Goals for Strategic Competition

Melissa Morgan
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Taiwan. Hypersonic missiles. The South China Sea. In the last few months, China’s activities have grabbed headlines and fueled speculation about its intentions. But how much of this action is posturing, and how much should U.S. policymakers and strategists take seriously?

To help explain what’s going on with our biggest competitor, FSI Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro, a specialist on China’s military and an active member of the United States Air Force Reserves, joins Michael McFaul on World Class to debunk some of the myths that persist about China’s capabilities and reframe how the U.S. needs to think about strategic competition with Beijing. Listen to their full episode and read highlights from the conversation below.

Where China Was in the 1990s

Twenty years ago, the Chinese-Taiwan invasion plan was to take a couple of fishing vessels and paddle their way across the strait. In the 1990s, China had very limited, and often no ability to fly over water, or at night, or in weather, and their ships had no defenses.

Implementing China's Grand Strategy in Asia Through Institutions

Rafiq Dossani, Lynn Hu, Christian Curriden

China's economic growth has been accompanied by a rise in its regional and global ambitions. It has sought to fulfill these ambitions in various ways, including through the promotion of new initiatives and institutions. The large number of new institutions and initiatives that China, in recent years, has chosen to promote or be actively involved in suggests that its grand strategy may have changed.

Some of these initiatives may accomplish multiple outcomes. For example, in addition to providing development finance to developing countries, the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative's corridors integrate China's economy more closely with those of developing countries. Through the land corridors, China could transport its goods to Asia and Europe if maritime routes, which are currently the main routes for transport, are blockaded in a war. China's regional and global ambitions now encompass the attainment of technological, diplomatic, cultural, and military power.

In this report, the authors review the literature on China's grand strategy, its use of institutions, and its emphasis on Asia. Drawing on the input of policy experts, the authors further discuss China's use of institutions in implementing its grand strategy toward Asian nations of interest to China, including, as a case study, the countries of the Korean Peninsula.

China Wants to Write the Tech Rules for 5G. Experts Say That’s a Big Problem


You may not know the International Telecommunication Union or the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, but they and similar bodies set security standards for the internet of today and tomorrow. Experts say Beijing has been stacking the boards of such groups to benefit China and undermine the rest of the world’s data privacy and information security.

That’s not the way those bodies are supposed to work. Their boards are intended to mediate between competing industry proposals in search of the best ideas for everyone. That’s the process that created technical standards for everything from DVDs to WiFi to 2G, 3G, 4G technology and so on.

“While the process is not completely apolitical, considering the stakes involved, the technical standardization process has been traditionally focused on technical, rather than commercial or political, arguments in debating the merits of a standard,” says a paper from the Asia Policy Institute published on Wednesday. “However, China’s increasing engagement in standards development, particularly given its top-down, state-centric approach to standardization, is changing the status quo.”

Elon Musk Needs China. China Needs Him. The Relationship Is Complicated.

Lingling Wei, Rebecca Elliott and Trefor Moss

With the U.S. tightening technology exports to China in 2018, President Xi Jinping defiantly pledged to make China the world’s future innovation and industrial center. Key to his plan was Elon Musk.

Mr. Xi viewed the South African-born entrepreneur as a technology utopian with no political allegiance to any country, according to officials involved in policy-making, and saw his Tesla Inc. as a spearhead that could make China a power in new-energy cars.

Mr. Xi rewrote the rulebook to allow foreign companies sole ownership of auto ventures so Mr. Musk would open an electric-vehicle factory in Shanghai. Authorities showered him with cheap land, low-interest loans and tax incentives, expecting in return that Tesla would groom local suppliers and bolster lagging Chinese electric-vehicle players, say people with knowledge of the talks between Beijing and the company.

Today Tesla likely makes more than half its vehicles in China, suggest calculations based on the company’s third-quarter production and delivery figures and China Passenger Car Association data. Chinese sales helped propel Tesla to its first full year of profitability in 2020 and provided roughly a fourth of Tesla’s revenue in the first nine months of 2021. Mr. Musk, meanwhile, has cemented his place as the world’s wealthiest person.

#StopXinjiangRumors: the CCP’s decentralised disinformation campaign

Jake Wallis and Albert Zhang

Video testimonials from Uyghurs saying they’re content with the economic opportunities provided for them through Chinese Communist Party re-education programs; promotion of Xinjiang as an idyllic tourism destination; commentary on the positive impact of CCP policies on the health and life expectancy of the region’s Uyghur population; content distributed in multiple languages on US and Chinese social media platforms: these are all efforts revolving around the hashtag #StopXinjiangRumors to recalibrate international perceptions of life in the Xinjiang region.

The content is distributed by social media networks that previously focused on porn and Korean soap operas but also—curiously—by CCP diplomats. Yet these networks are run by the Chinese state, directly or by outsourcing to state-directed companies linked to state and regional propaganda departments.

ASPI’s new report on Xinjiang disinformation linked to the Chinese party-state highlights how different strands of CCP online and offline information operations now interweave to create an increasingly coordinated propaganda ecosystem made up of Chinese government officials, state and regional media assets, outsourced influence-for-hire operators, social media influencers and covert information operations.

Amid Tensions With Turkey, China Is Putting the Kurdish Issue in Play

Nurettin Akcay

China-Turkey relations have been full of ups and downs since 1971. In addition to some structural problems related to trade, the Uyghur issue seems to be the most insurmountable issue driving a wedge between China and Turkey.

The Uyghur issue has triggered political tensions between the two countries many times. There is a large Uyghur diaspora population residing in Turkey, and Turkic nationalist sentiments extend to the Uyghur ethnic group. China, meanwhile, is extremely sensitive to any hint of separatist sentiment stemming from the Uyghurs, including appeals to transnational ethnic identity.

China-Turkey relations came to a halt between 1990 and 2000 following the anti-Chinese activities of the Uyghurs in the 1980s. Bilateral relations gained momentum when the AK Party came to power, but ties were seriously weakened again with the Urumqi riots that broke out in 2009. Turkey reacted very harshly to the ensuing crackdown, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan describing the events as genocide. As Chinese authorities were displeased with Erdogan’s rhetoric, they cut off relations with Turkey.

Iran Feels Cornered by the Biden Administration

Kim Ghattas

Few saudi officials are more candid or colorful these days than Prince Turki al-Faisal, a son of the late King Faisal and former ambassador to Washington. Although he no longer holds a government position, the prince retains influence and insight into the kingdom and, thanks to a two-decade-long career as Riyadh’s intelligence chief, understands better than anyone its rivalry with Iran. So I was mildly surprised by his frank assessment of the current state of affairs. “The Iranians,” he told me, “have us by the cojones.” (He was speaking in a private setting and later assured me that I could quote him.)

The kingdom should feel secure enough in the face of an adversary strangled by sanctions, whose economy is less than a third the size of its own, whose military budget is less than a quarter of the kingdom’s, and whose oil production is at an all-time low. And yet, anxiety within Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Arab monarchy, vis-à-vis Iran, a Shiite Persian theocracy, has been a constant over the past few decades, and not without reason.

Iranian officials have been boasting for years that they control four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sanaa, and Baghdad. Across these countries, Tehran runs a network of militias through which it projects power, siphons off local resources, and forms a ring of fire that essentially encircles Saudi Arabia. Iran’s cheaper, asymmetrical approach to warfare gives it an advantage over its richer Gulf neighbors with well-armed but less experienced traditional forces. Add to that a nuclear program that is progressing apace, and Prince Turki is indeed right. Or at least he would have been until very recently because subtle but serious shifts in the Middle East are making Iran feel insecure and cornered. That, paradoxically, is why Tehran is acting overconfidently and being uncompromising, all of which makes for a dangerous combination.

Let’s start with Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran had hoped that Joe Biden’s presidency would herald an easy and quick return to the nuclear agreement that Donald Trump pulled out of, and with it would come the lifting of sanctions. But the Biden administration has been more intransigent than the Iranians expected. Almost a year after Biden took office, no relief is in sight for Iran’s economy. It contracted by 7 percent from 2019 to 2020, and the national currency has taken a plunge. Iran’s oil exports rose to 2.5 million barrels a day in 2016, after the nuclear deal came into effect, then dropped to 400,000 barrels a day under Trump. Under Biden, oil exports have inched up, but barely, and the country’s reserves have strengthened only thanks to rising oil prices. Under Trump, Iran lost access to more than $100 billion of its foreign reserves; so far under Biden, they remain off limits, in bank accounts around the world. Iran needs this money to stabilize its national currency, keep its economy running, and stave off protests. And yet, despite all this, Iran appears in no mood to compromise, continuing to fund and develop its nuclear program and regional power plays.

But tighter resources are not Iran’s most serious concern. An Iranian academic based abroad, who asked to remain anonymous because he still travels regularly to Tehran, told me that although Iran is not able to spend as much as it used to on its regional allies and proxies (the figure is almost half of what it was in 2014, down to about $2 billion to $3 billion a year, he estimates), the real challenge facing Tehran is the rapidly changing regional landscape—which is precisely why it cannot compromise in nuclear talks.

First there are the ongoing Israeli strikes on Iranian military assets in Syria and suspected sabotage of Iranian energy or nuclear installations over the past couple years. Within Syria, Iran also has to cooperate and sometimes compete with the mightier Russian military, which dilutes some of its power on the ground.

More confounding was the outburst of popular anger in Beirut and Baghdad in the fall of 2019 against corruption and sectarianism, which also targeted Iranian influence and Tehran’s proxy militias in both countries. Iran’s involvement in Lebanon and Iraq has brought no economic benefits to those countries’ populations, except for Tehran’s closest allies or a corrupt few. Meanwhile both countries sink into a state of economic disrepair. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment (where I am a nonresident fellow), describes this dynamic as an “axis of misery.” The 2019 protests happened while Iranians themselves were out marching against their government; taken together, the various movements were among the more complex challenges that Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, had to face in his career. The Iranians were concerned enough by the wave of discontent that Soleimani was personally involved in the violent crackdowns in all three countries, before he was killed by a U.S. strike in Iraq in January 2020.

The protests have continued to simmer in Lebanon and Iraq. In the latter, the mood shift against Tehran resulted in the trouncing of Iranian allies in parliamentary elections last month. That’s not to say Iran’s influence in Iraq is being rolled back, but that there is a breach in its hold on the country. Barely a month after the election, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the form of a drone attack on his residence, which U.S. and Iraqi officials blamed on pro-Iran militias. Whether Iran ordered the attack is almost irrelevant—if it did, the move denotes anger and insecurity; if it didn’t, the assassination attempt indicates the loosening of its control over the militias.

In Lebanon, protesters chanted slogans against the Iran-backed party-cum-militia Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, for the first time, including in some of the cities where the group is most powerful. An investigation into last year’s Beirut port blast appears to be making Hezbollah uneasy. This summer, a series of incidents saw members of Hezbollah clash with people from different religious communities in various locations and, in a country with too many guns, at least two members of the Shiite group were shot dead—signaling that its aura of invincibility has taken a hit. Opposition groups in Lebanon are hoping to replicate some of the success witnessed in Iraq to claw parliamentary seats away from Hezbollah and its allies during next year’s elections. Here again, while popular discontent is real and Iran is learning that domination through oppression and assassinations is never-ending hard work, Tehran will continue to deploy all tools, including violence, to maintain its grip.

So can the popular pushback against Iran translate into real political change? The short answer is no, at least not in a meaningful way, because there are few local mechanisms to outmaneuver Iran and its entrenched allies inside Lebanon and Iraq.

This brings us to the regional dynamics and the Biden administration. The past few months have been an interesting multidimensional chess game across the Middle East: Iraq hosted talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the United Arab Emirates foreign minister visited Damascus; Jordan and Egypt drew up proposals to help address Lebanon’s energy crisis; Jordan, Israel, and the UAE signed a separate energy deal; and much else besides. This is more regional activity, mostly cooperative, than the Middle East has seen in years.

It’s easy to overinterpret the intentions behind such moves or how much strategic thinking is involved. But three parallel patterns have emerged, all of which should worry Tehran.

First, the efforts to engage with Iran to de-escalate tensions appear to be mostly pro forma, including by the Saudis. The kingdom’s foreign minister described the talks in Baghdad as “cordial” and “exploratory,” while another official said the dialogue lacked substance. A high-level delegation from the UAE is expected to travel to Tehran in the coming weeks. No one expects decades of rivalry and enmity to end, and there’s no sign yet that Tehran is offering enough to Riyadh for it to reopen the Saudi embassy in Iran. Regional engagement with Iran can help reduce tensions while the high-stakes nuclear talks inch forward. At the very least, Arab countries can turn to the U.S. and say, in effect: “We have engaged; we’ve been positive; we got nothing.”

Second, nothing has served Iran’s interests better in past years than division among and dysfunction within Arab countries. Petulant moves such as Riyadh’s brief kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister in 2017, or its rush into war in Yemen in 2015, have backfired, providing opportunities for Iran to deepen its involvement in both countries. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saudi Arabia was a reluctant, almost absent, partner in post-Saddam Iraq, to the benefit of Iran. Now Arab countries appear to be working together on an ad hoc basis to address regional energy issues; even Saudi Arabia is discussing deals worth billions of dollars with Iraq. Two years ago, a senior Saudi official told me that the best way to counter Iran would be with an economic vision for the region.

Furthermore, decades into a chilly peace between Israel and its neighbors Jordan and Egypt, several Gulf countries have signed peace treaties with Israel, a set of agreements known collectively as the Abraham Accords, and the evolution of the public relationship and cooperation between Israel and the UAE has been particularly swift. The agreements have done little to help the Palestinians and played into Iran’s decades-long propaganda efforts to brand itself as the only real defender of the Palestinian cause. But the Accords also present a true strategic challenge for Tehran, which now faces a front of Arab countries actively working with Israel.

Finally, there are the overtures to the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad by Jordan and the UAE—pragmatic realpolitik at its best, or perhaps worst. Assad should be facing trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide, but 10 years after the start of the peaceful uprising turned bloody civil war in Syria—in which an overwhelming majority of casualties were the result of government shelling, with Russian help later on—Assad is clearly not going anywhere.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s economy has taken a real hit over the past decade because of the closing of borders, the choking off of trade, and the flood of incoming refugees. Jordan’s imperatives for reaching out to Assad are different from the UAE’s, but both see an advantage in diluting Iran’s presence in Syria even slightly. (Trying to peel Syria away from Iran has been a longtime dream of many, including the George W. Bush administration, but ties have run deep between Damascus and Tehran since the early days of the Iranian revolution.) Even a diplomatic spat between Riyadh and Beirut a few weeks ago appears to have been the result of a convoluted effort by the kingdom to gain leverage in Lebanon again, after it ceded ground to Iran in prior years. In other words, Arab countries are signaling to Tehran that it is no longer the only player in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. (Yemen is a different problem.)

All of this regional activity is happening with the U.S. quietly coordinating in the background, encouraging some moves while discouraging or ignoring others (such as the overtures to Assad), but overall engaging in much more diplomacy across the region ahead of the nuclear talks with Iran that resumed this week after a five-month hiatus.

Crisis is always around the corner in the Middle East, and if the nuclear negotiations with Iran go nowhere, tensions will rise again rapidly. This is where the unusual level of inter-Arab dialogue and efforts at cooperation could provide some balance, and a rare win-win for everyone. Except the leaders of Iran.

A National Security Strategy for Dollar Innovation

Michael B. Greenwald 

US dollar dominance has underpinned American economic and geopolitical leadership since World War II. It’s no stretch to say that Washington’s strong hand in trade relationships, military power, and alliances depend on the dollar’s pre-eminence. This structural advantage, however, will begin to crumble over the next several years unless the federal government prioritizes a central bank digital currency (CBDC).

Just a few years ago, the concept seemed fanciful. Now, nations not adopting a CBDC risk being left behind. The global monetary system is undergoing a generational transformation, with over80 countries exploring CBDCs. Two recent developments stand out. On July 14, the European Central Bank launched its digital euro project. A day later, the People’s Bank of China released a white paper acknowledging the digital yuan’s long-run internationalization potential.

Meanwhile, the US is stuck in preliminary discussions about a digital dollar, falling behind its largest rival while admiring its chief ally’s innovation. As CBDCs proliferate, the era of unchallenged dollar dominance is giving way to one of competition and choice among a basket of currencies, most importantly the digital yuan.

A Guide to Extreme Competition with China

Christopher Paul, James Dobbins, Scott W. Harold, Howard J. Shatz, Rand Waltzman

The U.S.-China competitive dynamic has been evolving rapidly and is at a critical crossroads. Rather than fostering greater cooperation, the global COVID-19 pandemic escalated tensions and is driving calls to rethink, reframe, and strengthen the U.S. competitive position. The United States might have the capacity and capability to counter China's influence, but China's rapid rise means that decisions about when and how to compete come with significant or even prohibitive costs. These decisions are also bounded by U.S. and international law, or even just the burden of upholding international norms and standards. China is opportunistic in exploiting these gaps.

In the long term, societal and economic trends will put the United States at a disadvantage as the next generations of policymakers assume responsibility for the China challenge. Now is the time to revise federal spending priorities to address current and emerging barriers to growth, innovation, and cooperation.

The purpose of this report is not to add to the overflowing catalog of policy guidance, strategic directions, and cautionary advice; it is, rather, to offer realistic, actionable policy options that align with U.S. interests but are mindful of the limits of U.S. influence. Policymakers can benefit from a new framework for thinking about this challenge that draws on an assessment of Chinese intentions and addresses how the competitive dynamic does — or could — play out across the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic elements of national power while remaining sensitive to the limits of U.S. competitiveness.

Building Military Coalitions Lessons from U.S. Experience

Jennifer Kavanagh, Samuel Absher, Nathan Chandler, Ariane M. Tabatabai

The decision to use a military intervention to achieve a political goal is inherently risky. To offset some of these risks, states sometimes seek to build coalitions made up of partner states that have similar objectives. This report uses quantitative analysis and a series of qualitative case studies to identify and describe factors that seem to be associated with U.S. decisions to use coalitions for military interventions, factors that drive partner states to join such coalitions, and factors that shape the success of military coalitions. The findings indicate that the United States relies on coalitions when operational demands are high and to build international legitimacy for military action. Partners states are most likely to join U.S. coalitions when they have close ties with the United States, when the precipitating crisis is in their home region, when they seek to advance their international standing, and when the coalition has support from an intergovernmental organization. As the United States faces more significant threats from near peer competitors, it may need to rely on partners more heavily and can leverage the insights in this report to construct strong and durable coalitions.

Fossil Fuel’s Downfall Could Be America’s Too

Adam Tooze

The United Nations climate change conference (known as COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, was billed as historic. By that measure, the conference didn’t deliver. But it nevertheless marks a moment of transition. Glasgow completed the process begun at the 2015 Paris conference, under which nations progressively raised their national commitments to decarbonization. All the major economies of the world are now notionally committed to reaching net-zero emissions between 2050 and 2070. As a result, Glasgow also marked the moment when climate politics began to focus on the energy transition as a matter of industrial policy. It was symptomatic that a prominent commitment to reduce coal burning was included in the final resolution. It was not enough, but it was a significant first. It was also symptomatic that Britain’s conservative government put the emphasis on businesses. That dismayed many activists, but it was a prompt eagerly seized on by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry.

Kerry finished the conference hailing an impending transformation. Firms that were willing to innovate and gamble on the energy transition would be opening up the “greatest economic opportunity since the Industrial Revolution,” he said. In a Financial Times op-ed published in November, Kerry added: “Like the proverbial cavalry, the first movers [in business] are coming. … Companies should seize this opportunity by propelling the shift—rather than being buffeted in its wake.” Meanwhile, in the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman chimed in to declare if we are looking to save the world, “we will get there only when Father Profit and risk-taking entrepreneurs produce transformative technologies that enable ordinary people to have extraordinary impacts on our climate without sacrificing much—by just being good consumers of these new technologies. In short: we need a few more Greta Thunbergs and a lot more Elon Musks.”

U.S. and Europe Must Counter Potential Weapons-Grade Enrichment by Iran

Andrea Stricker

Israel has shared intelligence with the United States and other allies indicating the Islamic Republic of Iran plans to enrich uranium to 90 percent purity, the level necessary for nuclear weapons. This unprecedented move would test whether there is any Iranian nuclear advance that would spur the Biden administration and its European allies to impose punitive measures rather than pursue negotiations regardless of Tehran’s provocations.

Both Axios and CNN reported Jerusalem’s warning, yet the only specific basis they identified for the Israeli conclusion was a broad finding that Iran is taking “technical steps” to prepare for 90 percent enrichment. Israeli analysts further assess that Tehran’s plan represents an effort to gain leverage at the indirect talks between Iran and the United States aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. The talks resumed in Vienna on Monday.

Separately, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on Wednesday that Iran has begun enriching uranium to 20 percent purity in a cascade of advanced centrifuges at the deeply buried Fordow plant. At Fordow, separate cascades of 1,044 early-model centrifuges known as IR-1s already enrich uranium to 20 percent purity. The new model, or IR-6, is far more efficient, thus reducing the number of centrifuges required. The new arrangement at Fordow could enable Iran to quickly enrich 20 percent uranium to weapons-grade purity in a facility that is fortified against air strikes. Twenty percent enrichment represents more than 90 percent of the effort required to make weapons-grade material.

Stabilizing Great-Power Rivalries

Michael J. Mazarr, Samuel Charap, Abigail Casey, Irina A. Chindea

The consensus inside and outside the U.S. government is that the international system is headed for a renewed era of intense and sometimes bitter competition among leading states. The objective of this research was to assess the emerging strategic competitions between the United States and both China and Russia, examine the approaches most likely to preserve long-term stability in these competitions, and draw implications for Army capabilities and posture. To this end, the authors reviewed existing literature on rivalries, identifying variables strongly associated with stability and instability, and, based on that research, developed a framework for assessment of such rivalries. They then applied this framework to historical cases of bilateral rivalries to identify the most important factors. Finally, they leveraged this work to assess the current state of U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China relations. Their assessment suggests that there are serious grounds for concern about the stability of both the U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China rivalries. While certain contextual factors, such as mutual strategic vulnerability, will remain buffers of conflict, many of the warning signs for instability are clearly visible, and the future seems likely to be even more volatile. The report offers recommendations for the U.S. government and the U.S. Army, in particular, to manage this challenging new era of competition. One overarching theme identified is that to ensure stability—and avoid war—the policy response to this intensified great-power competition should be nuanced and go beyond merely bolstering capabilities to counter rivals.

Russia’s Satellite Weapon Gambit Was More Than Just a Test

Grant Anderson

One of the more interesting aspects of geopolitical study is that specific and notable events rarely, if ever, happen in a vacuum – and placing events against a wider context and background is often important if one is to ever make sense of things on a broader scale. In other words, events don’t just happen on their own or completely separate from some larger imperative, issue, or objective.

Such is possibly the case with Russia’s recent anti-satellite (ASAT) test, a defiant demonstration of kinetic capability that has rightfully earned the scorn of the global community. On Monday, November 15th, the Russian Ministry of Defense launched a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile at the COSMOS 1408, one of Russia’s own defunct, but fairly large satellites. Notably, this was Russia’s first official strike with its current ASAT capability, a system known as Nudol. The interception caused a wide dispersion of over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris throughout low-Earth orbit. Never mind the fact that the detritus from the satellite imperiled the International Space Station – with both Americans and Russians currently onboard – to the point that the crew on the ISS had to be awakened and warned to prepare for potential debris impact.

Global mortality from outdoor fine particle pollution generated by fossil fuel combustion: Results from GEOS-Chem

The burning of fossil fuels – especially coal, petrol, and diesel – is a major source of airborne fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and a key contributor to the global burden of mortality and disease. Previous risk assessments have examined the health response to total PM2.5, not just PM2.5 from fossil fuel combustion, and have used a concentration-response function with limited support from the literature and data at both high and low concentrations. This assessment examines mortality associated with PM2.5 from only fossil fuel combustion, making use of a recent meta-analysis of newer studies with a wider range of exposure. We also estimated mortality due to lower respiratory infections (LRI) among children under the age of five in the Americas and Europe, regions for which we have reliable data on the relative risk of this health outcome from PM2.5 exposure. We used the chemical transport model GEOS-Chem to estimate global exposure levels to fossil-fuel related PM2.5 in 2012. Relative risks of mortality were modeled using functions that link long-term exposure to PM2.5 and mortality, incorporating nonlinearity in the concentration response. We estimate a global total of 10.2 (95% CI: −47.1 to 17.0) million premature deaths annually attributable to the fossil-fuel component of PM2.5. The greatest mortality impact is estimated over regions with substantial fossil fuel related PM2.5, notably China (3.9 million), India (2.5 million) and parts of eastern US, Europe and Southeast Asia. The estimate for China predates substantial decline in fossil fuel emissions and decreases to 2.4 million premature deaths due to 43.7% reduction in fossil fuel PM2.5 from 2012 to 2018 bringing the global total to 8.7 (95% CI: −1.8 to 14.0) million premature deaths. We also estimated excess annual deaths due to LRI in children (0–4 years old) of 876 in North America, 747 in South America, and 605 in Europe. This study demonstrates that the fossil fuel component of PM2.5 contributes a large mortality burden. The steeper concentration-response function slope at lower concentrations leads to larger estimates than previously found in Europe and North America, and the slower drop-off in slope at higher concentrations results in larger estimates in Asia. Fossil fuel combustion can be more readily controlled than other sources and precursors of PM2.5 such as dust or wildfire smoke, so this is a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders to further incentivize a shift to clean sources of energy.

Is America Ready for Electronic Warfare With Russia and China?

Kris Osborn

Here's What You Need to Remember: Passive EW sensors, Krull explained, would be of particular relevance in a major-power, high-end conflict where giving away a signal could pose serious risks.

When a Stryker gunner released the so-called “dead man’s” switch on the vehicle’s 30mm cannon, a slow-moving ground drone target exploded into a cloud of smoke and fire, marking a demonstration of a new counter-drone sensor-shooter technology now in development for Army consideration.

The 4-foot drone, moving along a dusty test-firing range in Kingman, Ariz., appeared on the gunner’s “field of view” targeting screen able to calculate the precise location, distance and speed of the enemy drone target. The exercise was designed to assess an emerging counter-drone weapon systems called Anti-Unmanned Systems Defeat (AUDS) by integrating the system onto a Stryker vehicle and attacking air and ground drones.

Why international cooperation matters in the development of artificial intelligence strategies

Aaron Tielemans

In October, the Forum for Cooperation on Artificial Intelligence (FCAI), a multistakeholder dialogue among high-level government officials and experts from industry, civil society, and academia, released an interim report taking stock of the current landscape for international cooperation on AI and offering recommendations to make further progress.

FCAI publicly launched the report as part of Brookings’ Global Forum on Democracy and Technology event, Aligning technology governance with democratic values. UK Secretary of State Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, praised the “excellent” report as a “helpful step in [the] process” of building international AI collaboration while discussing her government’s role in its presidency of the G7 group and its upcoming Future Tech Forum. To discuss the report, Brookings co-authors Cam Kerry and Josh Meltzer, and Andrea Renda of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) welcomed a panel featuring representatives from the governments of Australia, Canada, and the United States, as well as industry representatives from IBM and Twitter.

While the entire event and panel discussion around the report can be found here, for some unfamiliar with the FCAI, this blog will serve as an introduction to the Forum and the new report. Specifically, it will provide background on the creation of the FCAI and preview key elements of the report, including the arguments for international cooperation on AI, the current international AI policy landscape, and the list of proposed recommendations with which the FCAI intends to shape future dialogues on the issue.