Archive for the ‘Military’ Category

Munich_Eye_05_15_49_00In a recent testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen estimated that over 20,000 fighters from across Europe, North America, or elsewhere in the Arab world had left their homes to join militant groups operating inside Iraq and Syria. This figure is striking given global outrage over widely publicized executions, the depth of the US-led coalition, and extensive barriers to entry resulting from European legislation targeting would-be militants traveling to Syria. The common narrative is that despite these deterrents, potential fighters decide to join groups such as the Islamic State (IS) due to a shared religious ideology. However, this explanation is likely more convenient than accurate. Militants do not join IS because they adhere to the group’s specific interpretation or brand of Islam, but rather because of a secular combination of personal and environmental factors pushing and pulling them to the Levant.

Interviews, testimonies, and social media analyses of militants operating inside Syria and Iraq indicate that “pull” factors comraderiesuch as the yearning for adventure, seeking camaraderie, and search for purpose serve as greater internal motivators to join IS than one’s religious fervor. Within many Arab countries, youth seek to fill the “purpose void” in their lives that is the product of a lack of desirable career opportunities or social integration. Coupled with the inherent sense of adventure that most youth, regardless of faith or nationality, grapple with, a militant life in Syria can be as alluring as backpacking through Europe is for many western college graduates. Referring to fighters that had already left for Syria, several Jordanian men in a recent Foreign Policy article called IS militants “our friends and neighbors” – alluding to a pseudo-fraternal perspective of IS.

A bevy of environmental factors also provide the “push” that many militants consider in making the decision to join. An unemp;aforementioned lack of career prospects and youth unemployment rates over 29% region-wide portray IS as “a potential employer more than an ideological kinsmen” said one Jordanian man interviewed by Foreign Policy. Injustices at home in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, whether in the form of police brutality or community ostracism, perpetuate the “us versus them” mentality at the heart of many regional conflicts. Finally, a lack of faith in the West, particularly the US, to act leads many to think that they alone must turn the tide of the battle against Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and/or creeping Iranian influence.

Rather than the common “shared ideology” narrative used to explain why militants decide to join jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, it is more appropriate to attribute such a decision to a complex and secular blend of personal “pull” and environmental “push” factors. However, given that each potential jihadist’s motivations are inherently unique and multifaceted, perhaps a greater focus on the “how” versus the “why” would succeed in stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. While significantly more expensive and intrusive, “how” factors are easier to diagnose, address, and measure. Increased scrutiny of social media, communication surveillance, social network mapping, and enhanced airport security protocols all have the ability to impede the “how” why remaining applicable to all potential militants despite their elaborate spectrum of “whys.”

Despite an uptick in effective military strikes against IS targets in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, the problem of eliminating IS cannot be completely solved with the barrel of a gun or any number of “how” remedies. Insurgencies, by their nature, focus on hearts and minds to appeal to recruits. Therefore governments and societies from which foreign fighters flow must take a critical and introspective look at the conditions they are fostering at home and realize these circumstances are far more likely to send young men and women to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria than any radicalized interpretation of Islam.


In response to a friend’s recent question pertaining to current events in Iraq and Syria: What are your feelings on the situation [ISIS’ recent land-grab and subsequent US-led coalition strikes]? And why aren’t more Middle East countries involved in the coalition? I wish Iran would step up and show they are not as crazy as they use to be… and “for once” Israel has a legitimate reason to conduct air strikes, why don’t they take advantage of it?”

isis-ten-arab-nations-join-us-led-coalition-against-islamic-stateRegarding the question of why more Middle Eastern countries aren’t involved in the coalition, I would say it’s because the Middle East isn’t a unified, solitary actor/participant in regional or international affairs any longer. Countries throughout the region all have different goals and desired outcomes not only for Iraq/Syria, but for the new balance of power in the region at-large. Gone are the days were the Arab League, and even the GCC, spoke for everyone represented in their respective regional groups. Qatar/Kuwait are believed to be supporting non-ISIS Islamists – both political and militant varities – in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Iraq with money, supplies, and even weapons. All the while, the UAE/Saudi Arabia are opposing, by means of arming and financing the competitors of, the very forces that Doha and Kuwait City are supporting. We saw this struggle occur very overtly in the recent Tunisian parliamentary elections (where the UAE-support secularist Nidaa Tounes party outgained the Qatar-backed Islamist Ennahda party), and we are seeing this on the battlefields of Syria each day. While I think there’s pretty unanimous animosity towards ISIS at the state-level, there are plenty of individual donors in all the above-mentioned countries who are supportive of the group. These donors all likely have some amount of political or economic leverage and leeway within their homelands. Granted, experts agree that private donations make up a tiny percentage of the money ISIS is sustaining itself on (oil sales and extortion being the chief methods and whole other cans of worms); it goes to show the level of disagreement alive in the Middle East at the state and individual-level right now-even on the most pressing issues. I also think Arab regimes have a legitimate concern that if they directly participate in the killing, whether collateral or deliberate, of other Arab tribesmen and militias sympathetic to ISIS, then uproar at home may result.

iran-historic-nuclear-deal.siAdding to the internal differences of opinion within Arab countries, Iran is an equally-looming issue for our Middle Eastern partners with respect to their cooperation with U.S.-led coalition efforts. As long as the U.S. refuses to deliberately target Assad’s forces, a puppet of Iran, Middle Eastern countries do not see the U.S. as supportive of one of their chief foreign policy interests (degrading Iran’s regional influence), and therefore they are hesitant to play bigger roles in the coalition. This is now coupled with/exacerbated by the U.S. and Iran coming closer and closer to a nuclear deal. I think Iran isn’t stepping up to do more unilaterally in Iraq because they know such action will fan the flames among their Arab neighbors/Israel more than they can tolerate politically at the moment. There are most definitely Iranian advisers (intel, military, political) at work in both Syria and Iraq, but unfortunately Iran is held to a different standard when it comes to a physical military presence in the region. They have many decades of suspicion and distrust to dispel among their Arab neighbors, and I don’t think seeing Saudi and Iranian jets flying side by side would end well.

syriaarabisiscoalitionRegarding Israel, we’ve actually seen Netanyahu paint Hamas in a similar light as ISIS recently. By drawing similarities between the two, he is retroactively legitimizing the bombardment of Gaza a few months back. Regardless of that political maneuver, I do not think ISIS poses a credible and existential threat to Israel- hence Jerusalem’s lack of involvement. It’s one thing for ISIS to challenge the territorial integrity of places like Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey where sympathetic radical Sunnis and widespread government resentment exist (albeit as a vast minority in terms of the former). However, history has shown us time and time again that in moments of crisis the Israeli population rallies behind their government’s choice to confront existential threats with massive shows of force. There also does not exist mobilized radical Sunni organization operating inside Israel* willing to cooperate with ISIS (*not to be confused with inside the West Bank or Gaza). I believe Israel would handily suppress, and repel, any maneuver ISIS attempts against their country. Geographically/tactically, ISIS would have to make HUGE gains in Jordan, Lebanon, and/or Western Syria before posing any kind of potential threat to Israel’s borders. Long before ISIS gets within 100 miles of an Israeli border, we’ll be seeing Israeli jets pounding their positions in Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria. I think Israel is also in a similar boat as Iran politically-speaking. Many of the Arab coalition members are participating in a limited fashion in an attempt to save face among their populations at home who want to see the Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria defended by Muslims. Mix in pictures of IDF forces collaborating with Emirati pilots, and you may see public support for the coalition effort wane. The West knows this, and therefore has probably told the Israelis to sit on the sidelines despite their probable desire to participate.

More on Israeli participation in the coalition effort here

Geek-HackingAmidst the plethora of U.S. national security threats buzzing in the media today, one issue stands tall amongst the others when discussed at the highest echelons of our military and legislature. Cybersecurity, or what I would call the prevention of widespread disruption, destruction, and/or capture of our invaluable electronic technology systems, has become the proverbial flavor of the year for security strategists after recent attacks stemming from places such as Israel, Iran, and the perpetually bothersome China. Senator Joe Lieberman, Sec.Def. Leon Panetta, and a host of other national security A-listers have all warned of our gaping vulnerability to a devastating cyberattack, and President Obama has gone so far as to deem cybersecurity “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation” and that “America’s economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on cybersecurity.”

It’s only fitting to recognize Secretary Panetta’s provocative likening of the U.S.’ current susceptibility to such attacks as a “cyber Pearl Harbor” waiting to happen, and doing so sheds light onto the strategic and defensive importance of the matter. While I agree that the U.S. is diverting an insufficient amount of time and treasure to addressing this threat, I fail to hear any experts say is how vulnerable our enemies are to the same threats that are causing the single strongest nation in the world (the U.S., if you had any doubt) to quiver in its boots. Perhaps it is the U.S.’ strategic prerogative to lull potential adversaries into a false state of security, buttering them up for a crippling blow when the time is right? Though Secretary Panetta may need to tiptoe around words like “offense” and “attack” when testifying on the Hill, I am bound by no such political correctness and will delve deeper into various facets of the U.S. cyberarsenal.

Much like its Cold War cousin, a policy of cyberdeterrence based on mutually-assured disruption (the new M.A.D.) is the most viable defensive strategy that the U.S. could adopt in this situation. Though many theorists may cite the famous “best offense is a great defense” adage to support their claim of earmarking more preventative measures, I would be remiss if I did not draw their attention to the unscathed nature in which the United States operated during the height of the Cold War. It was our investment in silos, warheads, and bombers that psychologically pummeled our adversaries into submission, not reliance on bomb shelters, gas masks, and sirens. I hope Mr. Panetta’s comments do stimulate conversation about the DoD’s use of offensive cyberwarfare tactics, especially in an era where conventional military means are quickly becoming obsolete.

Presuming that Iran and China remain the primary conductors of cyberespionage that the U.S. faces today, we should rest assured that both countries stand to suffer tremendously at the hands of cyberattacks on their home soil. The Middle East and East Asia have become not only as technologically dependent as the rest of the developed world, but are also experiencing a rapid expansion of technology usage in their respective societies despite relatively successful efforts to suppress media exposure during times of crisis. One need only look at the roles Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook played during events such as the 2011 Arab-induced revolutions*, the “Innocence of Muslims” video backlash, and the widely circulated footage of Neda Agha-Soltan dieing at the hands of a Revolutionary Guard sniper in the 2009 Iranian protests to see the full-integration of technology in each nation. Mixing a sudden denial of service from said technology, crumbling financial services, and already disintegrated public opinion towards the host regime would create an environment ripe for collapse and disarray. Therefore the rebuttal that Eastern societies are better suited to survive in “disconnected” environments (compared to the West) neglects the extent of technological development in the two regions over the past decade.

Aside from the e-assassins sitting in Pentagonian war-rooms across the river, let’s take a minute to consider America’s true e-cavalry waiting for the bugle to sound: internet-based social groups. I recognize that members ofanon U.S. Anonymous, 4chan’ers, and other internet cliques are often our government’s greatest critics, but I strongly believe that in the event that these groups’ precious intarwebz, cat pics, Call of Duty sessions, and Mountain Dew XP caches are no longer accessible thanks to Iranian or Chinese cyberattacks, the U.S. would instantaneously gain a harrowing new fighting force in the global cyber war. I’ve personally seen /b/ (a hyper-NSFW sub-community of 4chan) locate, disparage, and dismantle crooked burger-joint employees, playground bullies, and competing social websites using only commercially available software, open source image analysis, and the collective power of nationwide internet geekdom. The sheer havoc that could be wrought on informal and unsuspecting technologies abroad without presupposed legal repercussions or oversight during a wartime scenario (assuming the U.S. government would continue it’s streak of inability to prosecute and locate most domestic e-villains), could be monumental when supported with conventional military and special operations maneuvers.

To think that our enemies do not sense the same vulnerability to cyberattacks that we do, given the unprecedented amount of technological dependence that the entire world has acquired over the last decade, would be both a strategic and naive blunder. Just as fear of nuclear retaliation mitigated some of the most tense and volatile Cold War showdowns the world has ever faced, I believe the same fear of reciprocal cyberattack – whether formal or informal – are enough to keep most potential adversaries at bay. The United States wields one of the most technologically savvy, connected, and resilient societies in the world, and any attempt to drastically compromise U.S. national security in cyber capacity would surely elicit a response far more detrimental than our foes would ever expect.

That being said, your move e-thugs…

(*I say “Arab-induced revolutions” because I feel the phrase “Arab Spring” doesn’t give enough credit to revolutionary movements (like those in China) that reverberated outside of the Middle East during the same period)


For anyone who’s played at least 5 minutes of the immensely popular PC video game StarCraft, the very idea of a photon cannon most likely makes you grin with tactical delight. For my less nerdy readers, let me illustrate for you what a photon cannon is exactly. In the not so distant video game future, mankind has fallen victim to two different alien invasions. The immeasurably more intelligent Protoss species possesses, within its arsenal, an automated defense cannon (the gold and blue circular structures pictured to the right) fully equipped with an AI hell-bent on firing upon charging enemy units (in red) without the need for its creator to pull the proverbial trigger or designate alien friend from human foe. Protoss commanders need not supervise the autonomous cannons which are commonly placed among their flanks, at critical choke points, and around pivotal resource nodes, and can dedicate precious attention, resources, and mouse clicks elsewhere on the battlefield.

I understand that I am pandering to an impossibly small cross section of readers who are both ardent Foreign Policy readers and avid video gamers, so let me move on before I digress further the depths of StarCraft fandom…

(I preface the remainder of this article by saying that I am by no means an engineer, soldier, mechanic, mathematician, scientist, nor a robot, and the basis of my arguments below revolve around what I regard as an above average understanding of the limits of computer programing and the things more learned people than I call “algorithms”) Chances are if you have a pulse (and/or cable TV) you’ve probably seen [trailers for] movies such as Terminator, Eagle Eye, I,Robot, and Stealth over the last decade. Quickly becoming the action movie flavor of the decade, “robot-gone-wrong” thrillers have stolen Hollywood’s heart from the previous top dog: the “uncontrollable disease/zombie outbreak” genre. I, more than most, find RGW scenarios terrifying, primarily due to the logical feasibility and exponential advancement of technology with each passing year. Despite my (and Hollywood’s) hangups, it’s not to say that such technology should be abandoned outright. I fully endorse the development and implementation of automated weapon systems, so long as they come complete with government oversight and strict scientific and mechanical parameters.

Many critics claim that automated weapon systems lack the “human intuition” to differentiate an enemy from a bystander during murky situations such as the ‘woman running after her children who happen to be playing with toy guns’ scenario outlined in the source article. Such claims seem to naively overlook the unprecedented capabilities of technology in the modern era. If Johnny Six Pack can go to a local Walmart, purchase an XBox 360 Kinect video game system for a few hundred dollars, and play Dance Central 3 – a video game with the amazing ability to detect even the most nuanced dance move and translate them into a correspondingly dancing avatar on your screen – then it should be a relative jaunt in the part to develop an autonomous AI capable of determining a friend from a foe on several bases. Aside from the “threat algorithm” programmed into weapons systems that would make instantaneous judgements based on a target’s height, weight, size, or heat signature, I don’t believe it would be very difficult to also implement the ability to identify potentially harmful silhouettes possessing weapon-shaped outlines (this vs. this, for instance), genuine fear/anger demonstrated by distinct facial recognition, or aggressive body language. Unless our enemies are planning to utilize swarms of armed, facially-neutral, and casually-demeanored children/little people, I rest assured that military-grade technology would be able to distinguish between maliciously-armed fighters and innocently-meandering bystanders.

Similarly, different security situations call for different security protocols. Whereas most fear that autonomous robots will eventually roam desolate city streets scanning for life forms to indiscriminately destroy in Schwarzennegerian fashion, evidence indicates that most modern applications for autonomous robotic systems are in border patrol/perimeter securing environments (such as South Korea’s use of the SGR-1 in the DMZ). Assuming that securing borders will be the most prevalent use of robotic systems in the near future, the potential to fire on innocent civilians becomes minimized as computer-generated lines in the sand are easily deemed “crossed” or “uncrossed”. Put another way, the algorithm used to dictate robotic behavior becomes much simpler in these scenarios: shoot anything that crosses the line in an unauthorized fashion, and spare all else.

The source author’s argument that robotic defense systems behave inhumanely is both cliche and hypocritical in an analytical sense. Deciding to illegally cross a border or fire upon security forces inherently violates the most basic and primordial (aka- “humane”) tenets of the social contract amongst individuals according to scholars such as John Locke. By challenging the freedom and security of fellow countrymen in crossing a border illegally or taking up arms against government personnel, perpetrators forsake their right to humane treatment by nature of acting inhumanely themselves. In assuming that robotic systems behave properly in an ethical sense, their implementation becomes a simple matter of efficiency and propensity to save lives during otherwise human assignments. With proper oversight, development, and implementation in appropriate field assignments, I believe that we may see efficient, dependable, and accurate robotic weapons systems in our lifetime… and that’s no fantasy.


Historically speaking, the U.S. Army has been one of the most monumental figures in international relations over the past 300 years. Dictators were deposed across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, and democracy was defended amidst the onslaught of communism in the far East, all thanks to the efforts of young men and women who selflessly served this country and its ideals. As new threats emerge which question our Army’s effectiveness to meet and overcome 21st century challenges, critics are claiming that the tools utilized for the last 300 years are quickly becoming obsolete. Brooks’ claim that the U.S. Army’s cache of young, male soldiers (ages 18-24) no longer present the kind of militaristic advantage that they once projected worldwide raises some interesting social and national security questions. I have 3 poignant observations when it comes Brooks’ skepticism of the fitness of young men serving in the U.S. Army: 1) women are less suited to serve as intermediaries in conservative cultures, 2) there is no need to alter the U.S. Army and its historic niche in U.S. foreign policy, and 3) if young men are as immature, misguided, and at-risk as the author states they are, then why isn’t more being done to help them before they fail?

As the U.S. winds down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, new conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iran, and the horn of Africa loom on the horizon. Though I’ll admit that not all of these countries are as restrictive and unwelcoming to women as western media may portray them, there still exist enclaves of religiously conservative (not to be confused with religiously radical) populations who are less inclined to cooperate with female negotiators due to preexisting cultural aversions. Rather than rule out young men as inherently incapable of developing the cultural sensitivity and language skills necessary to effectively understand indigenous populations, the Army should invest in developing the diplomatic skills (if this is the only option, see the next paragraph for alternatives) of the soldiers more likely to be respected, considered equals, and able to penetrate the folds of conservative cultures. This argument doesn’t begin to take into consideration the different ways that our enemies may perceive and treat women in combat. Women serving on the front lines stand to face significantly less humane treatment as POWs, and sexual misconduct as a result of inhumane treatment of female POWs raises several ethical dilemmas and social quagmires that need not be elaborated on here.

I find it interesting that Brooks seeks to dramatically change the Army’s character, image, and capabilities. The U.S. Army is a finely tuned killing, defending, and securing machine that should be treated as such. Certainly today’s security threats call for more adaptive tactics, flexibility, and increased soft power, yet we should not alter the effectiveness and strengths of one of our greatest institutional assets in order to achieve these. The U.S. State Department, Intelligence Community, and legislative CoDels should be the primary implementers of our diplomatic efforts abroad, and these entities should therefore have greater compatibility and commingling with U.S. troops on the ground. The Army does not ask U.S. diplomats and civilian officials to perform security sweeps, kick down doors, and secure perimeters because those are not the types of maneuvers their skill sets permit them to do effectively. Similarly, our soldiers should not be asked to be cultural experts, linguists, and negotiators because their training and talents are not conducive to such tasks.

The claim that young men, ages 18-24, are grossly immature, unsophisticated, scientifically-impaired, and lacking good judgement is as offensive as it is concerning. Frankly, I don’t know how mature, sophisticated or anthropologically-oriented any 18year old recruit would be, man or woman, especially when it comes to sending them overseas and in harm’s way. If it’s true that young men are neurologically hindered and organically prone to violent crime, substance abuse, and suicide, then why isn’t more being done to address this tragedy? The media today is flooded with advocacy groups who promote the outreach and assistance of oppressed minorities of all kinds (women, gays, ethnic groups, etc.), yet America’s truly troubled people, if the author’s conclusions are true, remain neglected, abandoned, and now unfit for duty. Unfortunately, a dramatic decrease in young men’s enrollment in the Army would subsequently cast these violent, abusive, and troubled people back into a society where their stereotypes and psychological shortcomings are likely to be perpetuated.

Brooks puts a disproportionate amount of blame on Army recruiters, rather than the fact that young women and older men are simply less interested in serving on the front lines of battle as she may think. I’m sure that official statistics show that women and older men are less likely to regard the Army as a fitting career and thus voluntarily visit recruiters less. Given the tactical strengths and weaknesses of the demographics that visit them, Army recruiters simply make the best of the recruits that offer themselves to them. Blame should therefore not rest on a presumptively resistant and ignorant recruiting policy, but rather on critics who fail to realize that young men continue to be essential parts of our Army’s strategic calculation.