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Five Thoughts for a Glorious Autumn

With two rogue nations loudly proclaiming their development of nuclear technology, an extremely tenuous Middle East situation capable of erupting into renewed hostilities, African nations powerless to stem insurgent unrest, and Iraq teetering on the brink of civil war, perhaps the moment is ripe for a step back in reflection as we enter this fall season.

In this time of seemingly disarray, I offer the reader a top five list of sorts; five statements-some of fact, others of opinion, some inter-connected, and others detached-but all bedrock principles to this writer. I present these basic statements with the hope that these words will initiate discussion and provide an alternative opinion to contentious debates.

1. Iran is a nation anxious to be on the move, but without a specific route, destination or vehicle.
With Iraq and Afghanistan in their respective states of disarray and the U.S. preoccupied accordingly, Iran clearly sees the present as an opportunity for the growth of its regional influence, economic power, and nuclear capability. Tehran’s obsession with uranium enrichment for “peaceful nuclear technology” coupled with its longstanding, but recently salient, support of Hezbollah highlights Persian ambitions of establishing what has been entitled the Shiite Crescent. Through coalition with Syria, Lebanon, and Iraqi elements, Iran seeks to disrupt the balance of power throughout the Persian Gulf region in countering U.S. strategic interests and further endangering the security of the Israeli state.

Despite outbursts of inflammatory rhetoric directed at the United States, Israel and, to a lesser extent, the influencing nations within the European Union, this Iranian state, mindful that increasing economic volatility equates to domestic political instability, desperately seeks the acceptance and amplified international trade with the Western economic world which only normalized relations may bring. Yet, to gain this acceptance, the question remains of whether Iran will continue to embrace the vehicle of proxy wars and nuclear weapons or will it disavow these tactics and engage the UN with open hands, even if it requires a seemingly unlikely reversal of its propaganda machine.

As the August 31 deadline to cease uranium enrichment has come and gone, it appears Iran, sensing Russian unwillingness to support even the least stringent of economic sanctions, will refuse to turn away from its position that access to peaceful nuclear technology is a right of statehood. To its credit, the Bush Administration is following the right course; by backing away from the rhetoric front and refusing to engage in a war of retributive words, this administration is giving Iran all the rope it needs to hang itself in the court of public opinion. Yet, ripe with its recent successes vis … vis Hezbollah and its continuing development of highly enriched uranium, Iran comes to the negotiating table this fall season infused with a strong position. And, as evident by its recent spurning of the UN Security Council, Iran knows it well.

2. Nuclear blackmail, once North Korea’s favorite noisemaker, now increasingly represents its final option.
North Korea, by its own design never a popular nation, is now at risk of losing the lingering few of its historical allies. Both Vietnam and China, two of the remaining Communist entities in the region, have made significant moves in the past months to freeze financial accounts which, up to this point, provided greatly needed cash flow to the food poor, but militarily strong nation. South Korea, the United States, and other regionally influential countries have also significantly limited both economic trade and humanitarian assistance to the extent that North Korea is at its most isolated, and perhaps most precarious, moment.

A study of DPRK’s nuclear history indicates a ready willingness or, better yet, a reliance upon the threat of WMD development to force developed nations to the negotiating table with aid and DPRK-perceived international respect in hand. This strategy gained US attention and economic concessions in 1994, but to date has not proven as fruitful within the most current iterations of the Six Party negotiations. As the world turns on the situation within the Middle East, expect Pyongyang to stamp its feet in frustration as it demonstrated in early July with the technically flawed, but disturbingly real Taepodong-2 missile tests. Perhaps Kim Jong-il, facing potential economic collapse or civil unrest, but relying upon U.S. pre-occupation in the Middle East to limit American range of military action, is ready to ratchet the nuclear blackmail game up to the next level.

Such further engagement of this strategy may include additional acts of saber rattling such as nuclear tests, missile launches, or establishing a brinksmanship position along the DMZ in brazen challenge to ROK or U.S. military action. American refusal to negotiate with the DPRK on a one-to-one basis, similar to its position on Iran, will not likely lead to substantial agreements in abandoning nuclear weaponry. From the perspective of the DPRK, American refusal of direct talks signifies an insult to the power of the North Korean state and relegates its status to that of a third world nation. Progress under these circumstances is henceforth unlikely in the near-term.

3. Al Qaeda, while physically impotent as an organization, possesses far greater firepower as an ideological movement.
As depicted by the Madrid and London bombings, the recent flight terror plot uncovered by British investigators, and now realized conspiracies of U.S. and Canadian terrorist cells aspiring to the further destruction of American landmarks, this transnational terror network seeks to permeate and ignite marginalized, young Muslim populations. Furthermore, the U.S. principle of preemption, perceived by many within this demographic as American imperialism treading unjustly upon the sovereignty of Islamic nations, has created a rallying call for extremism and anti-American sentiment. This call to action has proved many times over more effective than any previous al Qaeda recruiting tool, both in Western Muslim communities and on the urban battlegrounds of the Middle East.

Our forces in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan, can stand testimony to the variety of jihadists who have spilt across national borders to join the bin Laden supported struggle, despite limited al Qaeda physical presence or leadership. Al Qaeda’s very embrace of a largely Shiite struggle in Iraq, in fact, demonstrates the immense power of this ideology in uniting disenfranchised, but widely divergent classes of jihadists, placing anti-Americanism as the premier objective superior to all other traditional religious or national differences. While al Qaeda’s physical organization may have been reduced greatly in its numbers and freedom of maneuver, as long as the organization can leverage the internet as a recruiting platform, Iraq as a rallying call for global retaliation, and angry, impressionable young Muslim communities as a breeding ground, this ideological movement will continue to hold its title as public enemy number one.

4. Greater unrest within the isolated and marginalized Muslim communities of Western Europe signifies and highlights the growing spread of violent Islamic extremism.
The breeding ground complement to Al Qaeda’s radical ideology and terror methodologies has developed in the ethnic enclaves of Western Europe as recent floods of Muslim immigrants have relocated to these developed, but ill-prepared nations. As illustrated by the recently unearthed British and German terror plots, within these communities exists the perfect recipe for terror recruiting: disenfranchised youths with limited employment and educational opportunities, but with effortless access to web-based terror recruiting tools and possessing festering anger over perceived U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. As an allied coalition in the Global War on Terror, our international
capacity to contain extremist factions from engaging these populations is critical to the prevention of future terrorist attacks. However, this capacity is no longer simply a military objective or responsibility, but must be accomplished using wider means of national and allied power.

Governments of these Western nations must undertake specific measures in blocking extremist ideology from taking root within their Muslim communities. Such measures include disrupting the flow of extremist ideology, communication, and recruiting via the internet, freezing monetary accounts funneling cash to terrorist organizations through Islamic benefactors and charities, prohibiting the entry of particular hard-line Islamic leaders, and blocking student travel to fanatical madrasses in Pakistan, Indonesia & Afghanistan. Furthermore, nations must support greater investment in sponsoring the growth of domestically developed, moderate Islamic religious leaders capable of guiding their respective communities towards expressing civil unrest legally and productively within the democratic process.

5. U.S. counter-terrorism resources, incorrectly postured due to overemphasis upon DoD capabilities, are misaligned with the evolving enemy situation.
The Department of Defense is currently the lead agency in the Global War on Terror. Yet, defeating violent Islamic extremism requires collaboratory action across a broad spectrum of counter-terrorism phases: detection; prevention; protection; interdiction; and crisis management. Of these phases, DoD’s capabilities are primarily restricted to interdiction, which requires limited military involvement within constrained and highly surgical environments. Remaining counter-terrorism phases lie within the domain and capabilities of various other federal counter-terrorism agencies. DoD’s role within counter-terrorism should be accordingly limited to a smaller-scale mandate of specialized military action, thereby allowing the military to shift focus, personnel, and resources upon rebuilding its conventional capacity, which, after four years of constant engagement, is in dire need of recapitalization.

While this suggestion reflects purely wishful thinking recognizing our existing obligations within Iraq and Afghanistan, it underscores the larger point that the correct weaponry must be matched to the individual enemy situation. Given a terrorist foe more driven by ideology than physical leaders and relying upon non-traditional tactics, it makes comparatively greater sense to contest these atypical characteristics with similarly atypical capabilities. To this end, we must accordingly leverage coalition cooperation in intelligence, investigatory police work, clandestine operations, and propaganda campaigns to eliminate the conditions necessary for terrorist organizations to prosper. The opposite approach, supporting large scale military action against small-scale opponents, only serves to create a retaliatory rallying call to arms-the very prerequisite condition needed for terrorist incubation.

John Serafini (HBS/KSG 07) is a literary contributor to the Good Harbor Report (www.goodharborreport.com), an online source of news and opinion on foreign policy and national security. Please feel free to forward comments in response to this piece to letters@harbus.org. All comments become the property of The Harbus News Corporation and may or may not be printed at the discretion of The Harbus News Corporation.

September 18, 2006
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