3OS Paper #2
Abstract: Most of the potential enemies the US Department of Defense (DoD) will likely face are accurately summarized in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), however the probability of facing each one and the advantages and disadvantages each foe has along all facets of power and levels of warfare are myriad. As an example, economic threats that work well against one potential adversary (China), such as tariffs have little value against some potential others (Russia). Likewise, counter-proliferation is a national strategy that applies to Iran, North Korea, and all terrorist organizations, but is neither applicable to China & Russia, nor is really germane to human smuggling and narcotics trafficking organizations. Most importantly though are internal issues to all of the actors defined in the NDS (as well as others not mentioned). These pressure points combined with existing US national policy and traditional American political actions makes each actor more or less likely of a foe than otherwise suggested by popular national discourse.
A long list of actors
Bottom line up front: A weaker US in a peaceful, more organized world is morally superior to a strong US in a dangerous and disorganized world, but the lack of US "imperial hegemony" doesn't invite peace and organization; it invites rival powers that are even more nefarious, selfish, and evil. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the lack of the US as a monolithic hyperpower only invites worse actors to fill the void. The world with a US weaker than its near peers is a more threatening world for personal liberty or economic freedom.
The purpose of this paper is really to set the contextual boundaries for the remainder of the papers in this Third Offset Strategy series. Defining the broad frameworks of warfare at various command levels and intensities is very useful as an exercise in creating requirements, but only by applying a more holistic view of the various challenges against the context of the real world can a true evolutionary pivot be achieved.
Therefore the focus of this particular paper are the actors the US DoD will be expected to face, and it is a long list of actors. Coincidentally, this is by far the longest paper in the series; longer than all the others combined. In fact, this paper took over three years to write during downtime, and as such, its narrative flow will transition from the state of the world in early 2020 to mid 2023. Because it would take more than a few hours to read the entire thing, I expect people to occasionally skim parts of this paper while reading the rest of the series and use it as the type of reference (and massive citation resource, this 100,000+ word document has 1,000+ citations) it is meant to be. It's both a contextual history of the actors and an analysis of what that means to American security interests at all levels of national security framework, from macro-economics to cultural norms to geostrategic resource access. After all, well-read Americans find it easy to compartmentalize the differences between Southern Dixiecrats, New England Liberals, Bible-Belt Republicans, West-Coast Wokeism, etc., but then paint a nation like Iran with thousands of years of history with a broad brush of "Shi'a Terrorist Supporters," even though that's a naïve over-simplification.
There are some nations seeking very targeted pressure on the US to which the US DoD need not waste much thought. One example would be diplomatic forces exerted by small satellite states with minimal real power like Tunisia. In that case, in spite of domestic disapproval of the US and a growing push for relations with global rivals, Tunisia is still far from being a military foe. There are also many nations with complex relationships that may require security intervention for domestic upheavals including civil wars or extremely unfavorable coups in the future such as Egypt and Turkey. Coincidentally, both Egypt and Turkey also play a very important geo-strategic role in world affairs (as would be expected of any nation that bridges across multiple continents), but most of the focus on these nations is confined to either diplomatic channels, nascent economic threats, or extremely covert operations, none of which require a fundamental reshaping of US defense policy or strategy.
First and foremost there are China and Russia as near-peers. In most all facets of maneuver warfare they are far behind the US DoD, but have utilized their own pivot strategies to greatly reduce US efficacy in any engagement. Both of them also have comprehensive Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies. They are “great powers” seeking to reshape the stability of the global economy and access to markets. They are also both, contrary to belief by some, actual pacing threats because of their embrace of other pivots, strategies and use of instruments of power that mitigate many US DoD maneuver warfare advantages (even if Russia has managed to squander much of its potential in the Ukraine in 2022/23).
Rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran as mentioned in the NDS, and Venezuela, who were not, all seek various levels of leverage against the US, US interests, or US allies that are unacceptable. Syria nor Iraq get a full entry as the US DoD is already engaged in both locations to the level which would be expected, but you'll find both nations and their histories mentioned many times in this blog entry.
And lastly, there is the broad statement of trans-national criminal organizations (TCOs). This is made up of two broad classes of organizations categorized by their motivational model: idealism and racketeering. For the former, it too can have a wide range of definitions, from illegal nation states such as the now defunct Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the resurgent Taliban, both of whom actually had an ostensible self-defined statehood (and as of mid-2022, the Taliban is back to almost full control of Afghanistan), to other global terrorist organizations including al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and many others. Regarding the latter, racketeering, this too is roughly broken into two larger sub-classes: vertically integrated narcotics trafficking organizations, and diversified and/or franchised narcotics, black market and human trafficking organizations, many of which often overlap in various market segments. The degree with which the US DoD must concern itself is mostly defined in National Law.
The scale within which the US will face these potential adversaries also is diverse. Within the US DoD the idea of full-scale battle with Russia or China often seems far off – like wargaming for a battle that will never happen – but there are daily skirmishes within other frameworks of national power. Near constant espionage by near-peer foes has consistently been a problem, and other aspects of diplomatic, informational, military and economic (DIME) instruments of power are in constant states of friction with most every actor in this paper.
There can be endless debate over the likelihoods of large-scale vs. low-intensity conflict (LIC) against every single one of the actors above, but there is zero debate that Russia and China have changed their own internal calculus driving a requirement to shift US DoD strategy. To ignore the pressures by them would invite a complete change in global stability away from free-markets and improved human rights. Ukraine is what happens when we decrease our global leadership.
As was previously mentioned, this paper is extremely long, and arguably poorly written from the perspective of prose. It meanders between analysis of modern weapons systems and their associated strategy, geopolitical strategy, macroeconomics, national-level investment and impacts on global security, and contains a fairly detailed analysis of the modern history of the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central and South America. Due to that length, unlike the rest of the Third Offset Strategy (3OS) series blog entries, I'm including a table of contents with links to sections within this massive paper.
- The Near Peers
- Exodus of Capital
- Vlad the Impaler
- Informational superiority across the board
- From strategic information to tactical cyber
- The Kaliningrad Problem
- The great European Heater prior to a post-scarcity world
- If you can't get paid, make sure no one else does either
- Russia vs. OPEC vs. North Dakota vs. COVID-19
- More demographic risk
- A History of Complexity
- Hybrid warfare and proxy wars with third offset tactics
- MAD is still a path to peace, but not to stability
- Ukraine 2022: The end of Russia as a near peer
- Russian summation
- The Rogues Gallery
- Iranian Modern History - a British and Russian Project
- Iran, Iraq, Israel and World War II
- Religious Fundamentalism is the new Communism
- Pure British Property
- Masters of the proxy
- Foreign pressures shaping the politics of a domestic theocracy
- A long overdue action
- Tip of the hand
- Fiscal pressure
- Iranian nuclear proliferation
- Doubling down
- Iranian summation
- North Korea
- Nation State Summary
- Policy failures
- References/works cited and assorted footnotes
China’s brand of communism isn’t the same as Lenin’s or Stalin’s in the early days of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the Warsaw Pact. While Soviet communism was an exportable brand, leading to disastrous conflicts for both the west (example: sunk American & French lives and treasure in Vietnam) and themselves (example: the Afghanistan invasion of 1979), China’s path since the exile of the Kuomintang in 1949 has been about domestic growth of Chinese communism and Chinese domination of relationships, not spreading of Chinese-branded communism. China cannot afford exclusive relationships with communist nations as their entire economic model requires external actors to fund their factories from capitalist sources.
China is primarily engaged in a policy of expanding their economic sphere of influence, and typically resorts to an “escalate to de-escalate” mantra with regards to US DoD engagement, particularly in the Western Pacific and the Indian Oceans.[c1] This type of saber rattling with minimal if any loss of life or equipment will most likely continue until Chinese economic parity is reached. China’s end-state is reaching a capability to ignore the impact of US sanctions or other economic pressures, actions that could have harmful impacts on the current Chinese domestic political spheres of influence.
There are many Chinese domestic influences which must be accounted for when determining an appropriate US posture, especially when considering long-term defense spending as a bulwark against Chinese global influence. While China exacts a totalitarian level of absolute control on their population, they have also censored huge segments of the Internet, blocking off Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and more.[c2] This censorship has allowed the Chinese government to control many aspects of public life in China, and even control the narrative internationally. As a more recent example, it has become difficult to extract any form of truth data regarding Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) out of China, with locals being censored, reported data questioned, locals unable to gain access to their own relative’s bodies, and then wonder by many if any of it was worth it.[c3] Even with this strict control of the population, there is descent in China for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control. In merely the second half of 2019, massive protests in Hong Kong and international outrage over the treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province and the oppressive human rights oppression in a blatant sinicization campaign drew ire from the CCP as they struggled to control the international narrative, leaning on economic client states and communist partners to garner support to avoid censure in United Nations (UN).[c4]
Exports by China to the US make up a full 20% of all Chinese exports as of 2018,[c5] and the reliance on US corporations buying Chinese goods is actually increasing hold of the economy in spite of the threats by the Trump administration to increase import tariffs. Going back to 2001, the US has been the #1 national trade partner for Chinese exports. Meanwhile, China is the second largest[c6] foreign holder of US debt.[c7] This type of behavior, with a national power buying up another nation’s debt to such a large degree is typically done for one of two reasons:
2. To artificially change the valuation of fiat currency to impact trade balance through monetary manipulation
China’s ownership of over $1 trillion in US public debt is a firm example of the latter, particularly given the global reliance on the US dollar (USD) as a trade standard. This debt ownership is done by selling yuan to buy treasury bonds, which in turn artificially devalues the Chinese yuan and artificially overvalues the USD, especially relative to each other. In turn, this keeps the US export/import trade imbalance wholly in China’s favor as a supplier. However, this act, while keeping Chinese factories open and ships streaming eastward across the Pacific has also created an issue of mutual reliance. Conventional thinking assumes the US needs China to retain the debt ownership they have (or sell it back to the US or another country in very small increments) without potentially crashing the value of the USD. Conversely, China needs the US to continue to buy from them as their entire economy revolves around an export-based manufacturing sector, and the US is the overwhelming largest client to the Chinese economy, propping up many segments upon a precipice. If the nuclear weapons pointed at each other by the Soviets and the US in the 1980s were considered mutually assured destruction (MAD) in the 1980s, the monetary, manufacturing, and trade relationship between the US and China now is an economic example of MAD.
For China to dictate terms geopolitically, it currently cannot shut off the flow of exports to the US. There are no alternatives that could keep the Chinese economy moving, and the troubles with COVID-19 censorship, Hong Kong’s democracy demonstrations, and Uyghur minorities would be mere footnotes in the type of domestic upheaval that could be unleashed if the US quit importing from China. The Chinese economy – which is already precarious for other reasons which will be explored in many respects in this paper – would potentially tumble beyond repair. One of the only available alternatives is to increase the exports to other nations, preferably outside of the American sphere of control, so that the reliance on exports to the US decreases to a level where it doesn’t spell certain economic doom to China if they were to be suddenly stopped. In an effort to achieve this type of economic independence, the Chinese have enacted a new policy at opening foreign trade to partners beyond the US and EU.
One Belt, One Road
The Chinese policy formerly known as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) and now referred to as the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is a textbook example of a center of gravity (COG) from a US perspective.[c9] For BRI to work, China has had to invest heavily in a deep-water Navy and open access to new client states. China is currently caught in a predicament regarding the US economy and the US Administration, where the commercial sector steams towards informational-age advancements faster than the monolithic CCP control of the Chinese economy can keep up with, yet the US administration seeks to create a larger amount of US manufacturing within the US and increase US exports, particularly to the EU. The US commercial sector desperately needs the monetary imbalance and labor exploitation of Chinese manufacturing to sustain information-age economic growth, but this is done at a cost to China for long-term independence. While the US can’t afford the level of drop in value of the USD in the current bear market caused by COVID-19, the “lesson of 2015-2016”[c10] has taught the US that China really can’t afford a trade war as much as the US can, particularly as the import/export imbalance is approximately 3.2:1 in China’s favor.[c11] If China attempted to sell off all their treasury bonds, the idea was originally one of two horrible things would happen to the US economy: interest rates would skyrocket in the US to pay for the US treasury bonds, also causing marginal inflationary spikes, or worse, it would force an unexpected round of quantitative easing (QE) by the Federal Reserve and cause massive inflation. The result from 2015/16 shows though that, especially in an uncertain global economic downturn, US treasury bonds are stable debt instruments and were snapped up rapidly without much negative impact on the US economy. A more comprehensive analysis shows there is a ratio of basis points to gross domestic product (GDP) wherein there would be a noticeable negative impact on the US economy, including some effective inflation of the USD even without an associated QE event, but while this may increase the price for a gallon of gas or a loaf of bread to the average American, it has some positive second and third order effects, to include ones detrimental to China in the end.[c12] The decrease in value of the USD would increase export value to the EU and others. The current ability for China to hold economic leverage over the US at the governmental level is nowhere near as powerful as the US capability to exact pressure with things like tariffs or import restrictions.
From an economic perspective, the US wants to maintain a relationship as a client where the goods and services bought from China can be easily replaced with vendors from other nations, but where the percentage of those same goods and services are too important to lose for CCP leadership. With this kind of relationship, the US can push back on Chinese governmental and corporate espionage, push back on Chinese human rights violations, and most importantly, contain China from destabilizing global trade. But the US must maintain a relationship where these pressures are preferred to the alternative.
For China to avoid these pressures, they need to move beyond a subservient relationship to the US economy. China is doing so – both transparently and possibly nefariously – with the BRI.[c13] The BRI aims at creating a massive amount of infrastructure investment in as many as 60 other countries, tying the world together into a Chinese centric economic sphere. The BRI could be seen as China's attempt for creating their own Marshall Plan, but for third-world nations as opposed to the post-war western nations needing rebuilding. Regarding the transparent aims of the BRI, even that has stated goals that directly threaten US economic modalities. The BRI aims to create a Chinese yuan based value for trade in East Asian markets, and potentially in Central Asia and much of Africa. This increased valuation of yuan, after years of artificial devaluation was the basis for the 2015-16 sell-off of US treasuries, primarily to use them to instead buy yuan and prop the yuan up relative to other currencies. That the sale didn’t impact US interest rates in any significant manner probably taught the CCP that their policy to diversify their economy – then still referred to as OBOR – certainly needed to be accelerated, as the US couldn’t be economically bullied. This was probably not welcome news; the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) belligerence had recently increased, especially in the South China Sea, constructing the airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef and using that to extend influence over the highly lucrative area. China, in creating a defacto extension of itself in an otherwise unoccupied area then demanded an extension of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the newly constructed facilities. This has led to many confrontations in the area, including with Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the US. The US Navy (USN) has refused to acknowledge the EEZ, pushing ships and aircraft around the Spratly Islands at will.
The BRI’s potentially nefarious issues however are much more sinister. The BRI is a potential source of debt-trap diplomacy, and some nations have already defaulted on infrastructure loans. Further, BRI domestically is running into issues with how CCP management of the Chinese economy is organized, and many of the provincial and regional domestic Chinese projects are failing due to the very nature of communist economic machinations. It is probable the BRI has malicious properties given the context of the foreign developments. With a plan for a massive amount of infrastructure investment in as many as 60 other countries, 41 of these nations either have no credit rating or a junk credit rating. This suggests the Chinese “loans” are instead debt traps to create future client states and beneficial trade agreements. The optimistic view is that the investment by China is in an attempt to prop up struggling economies and make them dependable trading partners for China who have a vested interest in Chinese success. The pessimistic view is that China is utilizing the relationships to create diplomatic leverage to extort nations in the future. Reality is probably a combination of the two. In either case, some of the diplomatic leverage already occurred, such as in the aforementioned statement by 54 nations in support of China’s policies in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs. This was most likely leveraging diplomatic favors in an attempt to counteract information from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reported to the UN by the Ambassador from the United Kingdom (UK).[c14]
Defining BRI as a strategic COG is mainly done because there is a vested interest in the US seeing BRI fail, and also a vested interest in seeing the BRI succeed. The level of expenditure and the strategic endgame of BRI are a major risk factor to not merely US economic interests, but fundamental Chinese domestic concerns. There are serious questions regarding global stability that hang in the balance all the way around BRI and the CCP.
Empress Cixi’s revenge
If BRI was to succeed, it would diversify the Chinese economy and reduce their reliance on exports to the US. The obvious ramifications of second and third order effects are mostly bad for US policy, particularly with regards to freedom of navigation and market access. The Chinese relationships with those debt-bound would hurt US economic and diplomatic capabilities globally, and the Chinese relationships with those empowered by successful investment would be creating additional wealth and economic freedom of movement for the CCP. If China reaches economic parity with the west, the ability to exert pressure on the CCP for the greater good would no longer be possible. These examples includes decimation of autonomy in Hong Kong, the invasion and takeover of Taiwan, continued repression of rights for not merely Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but also Tibet. All four of these periphery regions have avoided sinicization, and to the contrary have seen their local identities grow and radicalized activists.[c15] The ability to not merely ignore American economic threats, but hold a slightly more powerful economic threat would empower the CCP greatly in both global affairs and in their ability to manage their periphery without western interference.
For this reason, the US needs to pay close attention to the BRI. The most intelligent possible foil of the BRI is the peaceful multi-national effort called the Blue Dot Network (BDN), launched by the US and western allies Japan and Australia in 2019. The aim for the BDN is to take advantage of the open free-markets of western nations and encourage private investment for long-term goals. Examples are re-insurance funds and pension funds with needs for steady extreme long-term investment opportunities. Infrastructure investment is a good example of this type of investment, but financial managers of large portfolios will not typically seek to invest in emerging markets where fiscal transparency and project reliability are potentially suspect. While the BRI maintains typical fiscal obfuscation like almost all CCP actions, BDN is designed to make quality standards transparent to encourage outside investment. BRI is basically a shadowy fund that comes with diplomatic strings attached where many of the projects are going to outright fail, but buy-in comes easy. BDN projects will be fewer and farther apart, but much more likely to succeed given the outside investment, the standardization of finance, engineering, contracting, and loan rating quality indicators which must be clear prior to stakeholder investment. Yet the targeted nations for BDN match many of those for the BRI, creating global infrastructure investment opportunities across the eastern hemisphere. Luckily for the potential BDN investors, the opening of these markets ensure that the infrastructure investment opportunities most likely will lead to positive profit streams over the long term.
If the western allies are able to contain the efficacy of Chinese diplomatic overtures on the back of BRI while still allowing it to succeed in stabilizing riskier facets of the Chinese economy, the most likely path with zero bloodshed is a free-market solution such as BDN encouraging more rigorously competitive investment in open projects. Ideally, BDN would even be open to Chinese investment, ratcheting down stressors between nations and encouraging greater fiscal transparency in Chinese foreign investment, though this is unlikely to occur. Chinese corporations have an extremely vested interest in attaching themselves to BRI given its position within the CCP.
Risk of ruin
If BRI was to fail catastrophically, given the investment, the results may be dire. The US “game” of threats of tariffs, implemented tariffs, and external pressures on Chinese expansionism, particularly tangential US support of the Philippines in the South China Sea may push China “too far.” As the Chinese dump of US debt in 2015-16 has shown they don’t have a strategic economic weapon of the same scale as US tariffs or an embargo does on China. In a theoretical circumstance with the international failures of BRI, the wealth exploitation of the South China Sea significantly thwarted, US commercial demand keeping Chinese suppliers reliant on the USD, US economic policy straining CCP profits with punitive tariffs combined with internal domestic pressures from the periphery hot spots of Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and a lack of resolution of Taiwan, the CCP could rapidly implode.
Traditionally, the best way to shore up domestic support, especially amidst multiple internal and credible external pressures is to start a diversionary war. For this, the US would be an obvious foil. The conditions of the war that the CCP would try to contain combat within wouldn’t be terribly detrimental to US security, but war is chaos, and a shooting war with China should be avoided at all costs given the risks of incalculably bad escalation opportunities.
As a COG, the risk of BRI failure depletes Chinese monetary value further constraining them from becoming a true economic peer to the US. In turn, without dumping US debt, China’s economy would become even more of a satellite to the US, creating even more available pressure for the US to shape China’s politics. If China instead chose to prop up the yuan after trillions of loss in BRI failure, this would have even less negative impact on the US economy, keeping Federal Reserve interest rates low and avoiding QE. US inflation would be negligible compared to the yuan value, and the Chinese economy would still be ostensibly enslaved to US commercial sector demands and US policy. Because this end-state is unacceptable to the CCP, but foreign partners outside of the west need to fill the client gap in economic growth capacity, China is stuck in a position of needing the BRI (or something like it) to work in order to avoid a war with the west. Unfortunately, when resolving granular data from the individual projects against the strategic aims that define a project as part of the BRI, many of the BRI investments are failing.[c16] Given that the data is mostly derivative due to the lack of transparency it is difficult to draw conclusions. Whether it will be a big enough failure to effect CCP policy or impact the Chinese economy writ-large remains to be seen.
A giant house of cards
The Chinese economy at its most fundamental is built atop some precarious economic pillars. The suggestion that the CCP has “re-written the rulebook” on economics, particularly in the context of monetary policy and fiscal central planning is championed by many, including progressive apologists in the west seeking bigger governmental control over capitalism.[c17] The problem with this broad claim is that fundamentals of macroeconomics are based on more underlying human traits about motivations and incentives regardless of nationalized economic systems.[c18] The problem with China’s rapid economic growth, subsidized by a currency manipulating central government is that it’s mostly fiction.[c19] The fundamentals underneath the Chinese economy require accounting to be obfuscated under the auspices of “national security” by the CCP to maintain external relationships. Deng Xiaoping’s justification for market reform to the CCP was by denoting classical Marxism required the existence of an advanced capitalist society to start from.
“…because of a lack of a coherent explanation in the chance of failure this revolution did not occur, the revolutionaries would be forced to take over the responsibilities of the bourgeoisie.” [c20]
Despite Deng’s revolutionary introduction of market economics beneath socialist structures and government ownership of many industries, the growth of the market in China has brought with it an unprecedented growth in the super-rich; from 2015 to 2018, the average growth of billionaires doubled.[c21] The rapid ascent while ignoring fundamentals from the days of Deng were predicated on a socialist viewpoint that China had to create capitalism in order to achieve true Marxist socialism. The problem has then become that the nature of even “early stage socialism” creates an exodus of wealth. Many of China’s super-rich are leaving in droves because, as was mentioned before, economics on even the largest scale are all about microeconomic incentives. With this movement of capital away from inherent CCP control, has come an inevitable flood of overall wealth leaving China, much of it headed to the west.[c22]
In 2015, it was widely publicized that China used more cement in three years – 2011-2013 – than the US did in the entire 20th century.[c23] This growth, fueled by central planning resulted in a lot of mistakes that have further mired the Chinese debt, such as massive cities sitting mostly empty. Kangbashi sat unoccupied for many years; from massive investment and development, it took a fall in over 70% of real-estate values before the city made it to 30% of capacity. Which isn’t to say that China’s rapid growth doesn’t always function well in terms of centralized urban planning; from April 2017 to April 2020, Xiong’an went from an almost completely empty ghost town to a population of over 950,000.
Suffering from a capital exodus, irrational debt spending, and a myriad of other fundamental problems, the issue becomes can China’s economy survive? Even alternative methods of measurement show that China’s most likely been “cooking the books” for quite a while.[c24] China’s productivity relative to investment has been zero or negative for more than a decade, ensuring that debt relative to GDP will only continue to worsen.[c25] This creates more pressure on economic relationships, particularly with the US as a global competitor but also their number one trade partner.
The leverage of rare earth
Most facets of the supply chain from China to the US greatly benefit the US from the perspective of geo-strategic leverage. The exception is China becoming a single source for many high-value rare earth metals required for many high-tech systems, especially elements needed for military application. As an example, a single Virginia-class submarine contains over 9,000 pounds of rare earth metals.[c26] The US DoD desperately needs to find alternative sources for these strategically vital raw materials, but sources have been hard to come by.[c27] Over the last 20 years, China flooded the rare earths market, driving prices down and forcing many other vendors out of the market-space.[c28] This has left one of the world’s largest and most productive mines – the Mountain Pass mine in California – out of business for most of the last two decades, and without processing facilities to remove China completely from the supply chain. China has 85% of the world’s processing capacity and a significant percentage of the active mining operations are either wholly within China, or are Chinese investments abroad. Even the Mountain Pass mine has a minority ownership stake traced back to China.[c29] China’s expansion of the market in an effort to control it will only work for so long. Much like the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) could control prices as a cartel for oil only up to a point, when eventual supply and demand pressures drove oil up to $120/barrel in 2011. At that price-point, investment in alternatives was worthwhile, and thus domestic fracking was born.[c30] If China were to try and completely close off the rare earths market to the US for the purpose of controlling the market, there are places like Mountain Pass mine which could back-fill the demand, albeit with a large investment on the front-end for development.
This strikes of a tangential theory; there is conjecture that one point of the strategic oil reserve and the slowed reliance on fracking could be an effort to let others deplete their supply. From the oil perspective, the reduction of Saudi Arabia’s probable reserves as independently analyzed could now be of strategic value to the US.[c31] With lowered oil costs from OPEC, the US is incentivized to use foreign oil, lowering their strategic supplies and keeping the quantity of oil in US reserves higher and more valuable year after year. Unfortunately, China was smarter than this with their handling of rare earths, probably because they are a single nation as opposed to a member of a multinational cabal like OPEC where Saudi Arabia has to deal with multiple external pressures including other non-OPEC oil producers like Russia. China in fact cut off unrefined rare earths to Japan, the only nation with nearly the refining production, thereby controlling the market outright.[c32] China then forced small mines to merge with state controlled mines and began a process of controlling quotas, reducing exports year-over-year until a World Trade Organization (WTO) decision forced a change in policy back to a less protectionist market.[c33]
By 2015, many users began to find alternative resources. In 2020, the Mountain Pass mine is producing rare earths, and work on a refinery to completely cut China out of the production loop is under way. The US is already the world’s third largest rare earths producer as of 2018, trailing Australia. Combined US/Australian production is still less than 1/3 of Chinese production, but while that may mean US corporations in the commercial sector buy Chinese rare earths for the foreseeable future, it does eliminate the need for the defense industrial base (DIB) to be tied to a Chinese production chain.
China’s attempted control of the rare earth market segment may not have been as successful in the long run as they had hoped, but China did control a vital portion of the defense production chain and has very successfully manipulated many external market forces to invent “Chinese market economics conducive for early stage Marxist socialism.” This has been to the benefit of hundreds of millions of Chinese who have been pulled out of poverty and into a higher standard of living with more disposable income. Ideally, China’s economy would use this route of continued internal market growth as opposed to trade imbalances to grow towards economic parity, but the long-term outlook is bleak; China’s consumerism is going to constrict for reasons that have nothing to do with economics.
Social pressures and demographic collapse
China was a third-world agrarian economy struggling to call itself a communist utopia prior to the liberalization of the market reforms under Deng. Going back to immediate post-war cultural norms of China under CCP control, the population grew dramatically: from 1953 to 1982 the population of China nearly doubled, from 582 million to over 1 billion, a dramatic increase in less than 30 years. This is especially alarming given the period from 1958 to 1962 – the “Great Leap Forward” – saw a massive dip in fertility rate, birth rate, and a major increase in death rate as nearly 5% of the Chinese population – over 30 million – died of famine in the worst famine in world history, entirely due to communism. In spite of the massive death toll, the Chinese population continued to boom as the average total fertility rate (TFR) over this time was over 4.7. For context, a TFR of 3.8, without significant immigration or emigration, will result in a doubling of a national population in approximately 32 years. Without the famine of the Great Leap Forward – which some scholars believe killed as many as 55 million, the population by the 1982 census could have been significantly higher.[c34]
There were multiple reasons for explosive population growth. The predominant reason was that the Chinese in both the rural tracts and urban centers were extremely poor, which is globally linked to large fertility rates. Simultaneously, western medical advancements, benefiting from research & development (R&D) in modern nations was able to export low-cost life-saving concepts like immunizations and antibiotics that vastly improved death rates and life expectancy in communist China, growing the population at rates even faster than the rest of the post-WWII baby boom.[c35]
Eventually, in 1979, China knew that this population growth was unsustainable and instituted a “one-child policy” with education, social pressure, and ultimately coercion ranging from fiscal penalties to imprisonment for violating the policy. In the 35 year period from 1975 to 2010, the TFR would crash from 3.58 to 1.45, significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1.[c36] Due to effects of population inertia, this impact isn’t being felt in the Chinese economy yet; the existing population of working class earners is still from an era of population boom and/or sustainment rate. However, within the next 30 years, China’s demographics for the working class (and the age available for their military) will constrict relative to the elderly that will still require funding to support in a socialist model. This will create much more added stress on a market that already suffers from being under-productive.
A TFR of 1.45 alone in an under-productive marketplace with social spending on an aging population is dire. China has additional concerns beyond this that will create significant internal pressures in the coming years. Many facets of Chinese culture predating the Red Chinese army’s civil war against the Kuomintang have been changed by aggressive control of the CCP, but many concepts remained for decades. The tradition of filial piety is incredibly aged – tradition in Chinese culture goes back to Confucius over 2,500 years ago – and specifies that eldest sons will be responsible for the parents in daily life. Basic ideographs like xiao (孝) are even built by combining the character of “old” being carried by the character of the “son.” Even though this tradition has been widespread across all of Earth, even in ancient Rome, it has been more ingrained in Asia and more formalized (there are specific instructions within the “Book of Rites,” one of the five principle classics of Confucianism). Aside from the formalization in ancient China, filial piety as a concept is much more common among the lower socioeconomic strata.[c37]
The social norms ingrained in the culture contributed to a large number of missing females between 1953 and 1979. There was a very high ratio of female over male infanticide reported, probably due to filial piety, especially during the Great Leap Forward. But this paled in comparison to the impact the one-child policy would have without a significant change in social norms. From 1980 to 2010, there was an estimated 163 million missing girls in China thanks to the one-child policy combined with filial piety.[c38] This has resulted in a phenomena in China known as “bare branches” which are Chinese men of marriageable age capable of reproduction who are incapable of creating a family or having children due to a missing female. The demographics simply aren’t there to support the population, with a 23:20 male to female ratio in child-rearing ages now.
In some urban areas of China, where natural forces of modernization and westernization also contribute to lower TFR, the rate may be lower than 1.2. A rate of 1.3 will halve a population in 80 years, and the Chinese increase in life expectancy with a reduction in manpower will desperately impact the Chinese economy. The 24 million men unable to find a wife now are just the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” By 2050 there could be a reduction of 200 million in the Chinese workforce.[c39]
The impact on the Chinese workforce alone would be catastrophic to the Chinese economy, but the concern the US DoD must worry about is how this shift in demographics will evolve the Chinese PLA and their posture against US interests. The CCP is well aware of their impending population crash and the impact it may have. From an economic perspective this has been a primary driver in China’s effort to find greater productivity efficiencies.[c40] From a militaristic perspective it has forced China to create their own offset pivot.
Competing internal offsets
China’s effort to create an offset strategy to pivot the framework of warfare away from an overwhelming advantage currently held by the US DoD is channelized by internal properties. Some of these aspects of Chinese policy, such as those regarding multi-domain (MD) warfare and technology integration into the military have given China a remarkable advantage over the US. Yet other aspects of the same policies have put them farther behind US hegemony. The question becomes which side can counteract their shortfalls and pivot to total domination faster.
1. The growth of the Chinese military-industrial complex (MIC).
2. The inherent reliance on espionage to grow the Chinese MIC.
3. The lack of institutional knowledge within the Chinese MIC.
4. The antiquated command & control (C2) doctrine endemic to Marxism in general.
The Chinese MIC has been one of the larger segments of the Chinese economy; before Deng’s opening of the economy, there was still a concentrated effort among the CCP to maintain a growing and credible military, so it predates most of the commercial sector growth. However, as China was mostly an agrarian third-world socialist failure, there was no significant internal R&D.
To facilitate a lack of R&D, China has relied upon their more integrated approach to intelligence than the US methodologies.[c41] Unlike western intelligence that is aligned at each level of war with appropriate commanders to aid their decision-making process, the tenets of espionage and intelligence analysis in China date to Confucius and Sun-Tzu, and are not merely integrated vertically throughout the military from platoon-equivalent units up through national strategy, but are also integrated horizontally into the economic and commercial sectors of Chinese life outside of direct CCP purview or PLA integration.
This is also a reflection that much of China’s espionage originates from open-source exploitation as a paradigm, supported by targeted espionage across both the military and commercial fronts. This is enhanced by their extremely proficient cyberespionage arm who have plundered vast sums of data from American defense contractors and the US DoD itself.[c42] This espionage, even when covert, is mostly benign in a vacuum.
“No one notices you steal an entire beach if you only do it one grain of sand at a time.” - Chinese intelligence philosophy
We have noticed in the end. There is an estimated loss of two million American jobs and over $320 billion in economic losses.[c43] Further, this becomes very difficult to counteract when aggregated espionage is across so many sectors of the American landscape that no coherent counterintelligence strategy is capable of stopping the penetrations. While some cases have had immense strategic value such as Dr. Wen Ho Lee’s suspected leakage of nuclear secrets, and others may have had more operational impact such as Jerry Chun Shing Lee’s leaks of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), the impact into defense that the commercial-targeted breaches mean in the future balance of warfare is now the most concerning.[c44] In a comprehensive report, it was found that Chinese proxies, on behalf of the CCP and PLA were involved in approximately 16% of all Silicon Valley venture capital (VC) deals.[c45] This has resulted in technology transfers over commercial technologies in the information-space that has vital defense capabilities such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), robotics and more, all in violation of policies by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). Many of these technology transfers occurred wherein not only were the technical innovators in the US unaware of Chinese espionage, their actual investors themselves were unaware. The Chinese penetration was being done through multiple proxies, with many of them unaware of their own complacency.
While this is done in violation of the CFIUS, much of it is successful by exploiting other laws in the US, particularly those to govern intellectual property (IP). This concern about the diversification of knowledge with different IP security standards being exploited was accurately summarized by an expert at the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU):
In all of the most secured vaults with the highest level of access on your base at Air Combat Command, it is doubtful you could find a blueprint of the F-35 and, using your mouse wheel, drill down through the various sub-systems, from turbines down to black boxes and see the actual lines of source code for that software on those boxes. Yet I bet we can point out a building on Tonggang Road in Shanghai where the people in there could do exactly that.
The use of espionage to gain material advantages has some drawbacks; it often doesn’t come with enough underlying “institutional” knowledge that the act of actually creating technologies comes with it. It doesn’t even have to be a foreign adversary; knowledge is sometimes lost, like “Fogbank”[c47] was for the nuclear enterprise or Roman concrete’s recipe lost for over a thousand years. However, for a rival, like China, to steal secrets like those of the F-35 are often taken without the proper context. Even if PLA unit 61398 was who stole the plans for the F-35, upon which the J-31 is obviously based upon, there’s issues with the engines owing to lack of knowledge that is inherent at Pratt & Whitney and General Electric in the US, not the least of which is intense materials science knowledge.[c48]
The stolen F-35 plans haven’t translated into a workable stealth aircraft for China yet, and there remains lots of highly expensive R&D to finish development of such a weapons system.[c49] The espionage however has allowed China to leap forward to a state much closer to the US DoD with much less investment. The director of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China stated that the use of “reverse-engineered foreign R&D”[c50] allowed China to develop magnetic-levitation train technology for 50-60% the cost and in 30-40% of the time of the original developers.[c51] Even with the inherent institutional knowledge that China doesn’t currently have over things like materials sciences or manufacturing tolerances, by skipping to the front of the line with espionage over massively expensive projects such as the F-35, they are capable of trimming billions of dollars of R&D and years of waiting.
There is an adage in the Silicon Valley that to “fail fast, fail cheap” is a good thing as long as you learn from it, correct it, and move forward. Much more work in this paper series is dedicated to this philosophy. China may be able to do this by focusing future espionage and internal R&D on these shortfalls to current delivery of flawed systems.
There is no reason to expect that China’s deployment of effective fifth-generation stealth fighters will not occur much faster and for far less money than the US DoD and DIB spent working on our own systems like the F-117, B-2, F-22 and F-35.
Still, the US DoD could only be so lucky to face a similarly armed Chinese PLA utilizing fifth-generation fighters in an attempt to exert will or maintain A2/AD in a contested environment. The idea of a Chinese military reaching mechanical parity with the US DoD seems incredibly risky and threatening at first, but it is actually quite welcome for two reasons:
A. The Chinese own the largest manufacturing capacity in the world, the very same statistic that once made the US the victor of WWII. To assume they would not exploit this capability under similar conditions of warfare is naïve.
If the Chinese PLA seek to reach maneuver warfare parity with the US DoD, then many of the same expenses and risks to the US DoD will similarly impact the Chinese PLA, and eventually they will run out of US DIB secrets to plunder. In a theoretical large-scale major combat operation (MCO) in the 2020s, the US DoD would potentially see high numbers of casualties and major operational level and tactical level losses, yet on average, the US TTP advantages of flexible doctrine, decentralized execution and empowered warfighters trained to think inside of the enemy’s observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop would most likely lead to victory.
That is the ultimate strategic problem though. The Chinese PLA cannot politically afford to institute the types of professional military freedom of thought enjoyed by the US DoD due to CCP standards in military management, but the Chinese PLA can certainly employ better integration of technology into their military where their strengths are, particularly in MD warfare. And the Chinese PLA can find other ways to train and rehearse joint operations towards better military efficiency. The expectation of facing the Chinese PLA in an MCO is that there will be employment of “total war” within the cyber realm, neutralizing many institutions and capabilities the US DoD relies upon, that electronic targeting and warfighting by both sides will be overwhelming, and that while tactical cyber integration of the Chinese PLA at the maneuver warfighting level is not well documented in the open-source realm, it would be expected to be vastly superior to the US DoD’s current capabilities to integrate cyberwarfare with tactical maneuver.
Spheres of access
The Chinese PLA is well aware of their shortfalls and their advantages against the US DoD, and one area where they are grossly outmatched is the application of training and doctrine in the battlefield.[c52] Much of this is due to cycle after cycle of American service-members actually deploying and thinking in the context of a live battlefield to hone skills, particularly in leadership and multi-dimensional thinking.[c53] The Chinese PLA is spending vast sums of energy on trying to embrace joint operations, akin to “finding their Goldwater-Nichols moment.” This is a major shift in doctrine away from centralized C2 under the thumb of the CCP towards a more decentralized and highly trained force akin to the US DoD. A functional joint capability for the Chinese PLA with synchronized maneuver would see much of the current American asymmetric advantage evaporate.
Much of the emerging Chinese PLA power is being done at a discount compared to the same level of investment in a hyper-inefficient US DoD. Between IP thievery, a vastly cheaper purchase power parity (PPP) for anything produced domestically, and the high cost of US personnel, China is getting a substantially modernized military for what seems like a lot less investment than the US. Getting hard data on personnel expenditures and proper accounting of foreign purchasing of parts and equipment is likewise difficult, but most Chinese military equipment is produced domestically. Given that assumption, if the Chinese PLA spend any less than 42% of their defense budget on personnel – not difficult to imagine among conscripts – they actually have more relative dollars available for R&D, innovative development and procurement/sustainment than the US DoD does.[c54] Even if it’s not quite as much as the US DoD budget, it is certainly closer to even than what is reported. The $606b vs. $227.8b from 2017 is not a very good barometer of reality, especially when they are using our own R&D through both military and industrial espionage, and utilizing our commercial sector R&D far more effectively than the US DoD does.
Because of this, in reality, China has a higher effective defense budget than the United States.
For the US DoD to offset this will require exploitation of domestic commercial superiority in an informational economy, particularly as China continues to enjoy commercial superiority in manufacturing. The existing US DoD’s advantage of training and doctrine may erode rapidly; it is only a matter of time before the Chinese PLA has their own equivalent of Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) or National Training Center (NTC) and begin crafting lower-ranked officers capable of thinking within many of our own commander’s OODA loops.
The current Chinese PLA growth has been to take advantage of modernization primarily for the benefit of force projection. Most of the Chinese PLA investment growth over the past 15 years has been focused on cyberwarfare, PLA Air Force and PLA Navy modernization.[c55]
The USSR and China both witnessed the firepower the US DoD could forward project with proxy wars in places such as Korea and Vietnam. Combined with this and the persistent overflights by spy aircraft, the USSR, then Russia, put a very high demand signal to their internal design bureaus to perfect surface to air missile (SAM) systems. While China and modern Russia have a relationship best defined as “complex,” there has been a long history of China as a client state for Russian arms, ranging from fighter jets (the currently serving J-11, J-15, and J-16 are variations of the Russian Su-27 or Su-30, with varying levels of legal licensing and illegal IP theft), the Liaoning aircraft carrier (which was purchased through rather clandestine methods[c56]), to the SAM systems themselves. This has resulted in a fairly modern Chinese PLA equipped with aircraft, robust A2/AD capabilities, and limited forward projection of sea-based power.[c57]
The rationale for this development is more recent than many realize. The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in the mid-1990s backfired on the CCP, as the US deployment of a carrier strike group immediately shut down the Chinese PLA intimidation of Taiwan.[c58] Instead of forcing Taiwanese voters to select pro-reunification candidates and bring Taiwan back under control of the CCP, it ended up increasing the Kuomintang share of victory in the elections and strengthened Taiwan’s links to the west.[c59] The A2/AD goals by China have gone beyond mere integrated air defense systems (IADS); the 2nd Artillery Force of the Chinese PLA has developed and deployed the DF-21D and DF-26 missiles as “carrier killers” designed to deny freedom of maneuver for the USN anywhere remotely close to ranges where strike aircraft could be effective.[c60] The efficacy of the anti-ship ballistic missiles developed by China, who are outside of the framework of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty was one of the principle reasons for the US withdrawal from the INF in 2019.[c61] As China succeeds at an A2/AD policy however, their ability to control access in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean enters into a new set of problems. The Liaoning and its sister, the Shandong are incapable of matching any USN carrier task force, though the growing Chinese PLA Navy submarine fleet now includes four operational nuclear powered and nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines and six nuclear powered fast-attack submarines.[c62]
While the ballistic missile submarines are an extension of an A2/AD policy, more specifically as a literal “nuclear option” to deter foreign aggression, the aircraft carriers and fast-attack submarines are “dual-role” assets which could be used as a defensive capability to thwart the USN's ability to attack China, but can also be used to project a forward expeditionary force.
For the BRI to succeed, the Chinese PLA Navy will be required to maintain market accessibility. Freedom of navigation is usually ensured by many Navies – the USN, the UK Navy, et. al., but these Navies are not typically concerned with the international shipping security with foreign flagged vessels with zero citizens or economic interest. Ergo, a requirement for Chinese PLA Navy force projection. Additionally, if any of those vessels are in support of a BRI need, but are either directly violating international sanctions or transporting goods in violation of sanctions, there is a high likelihood of interception by a credible Navy such as the USN, UK Navy, or any number of others. The Chinese PLA Navy therefore needs to be an expeditionary force with credible strength to protect Chinese aligned assets that may otherwise be in violation of international sanctions.
While the ability to traditionally project power using deep-water Navy assets will increase Chinese capabilities for expeditionary force projection, the development of a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) carries multiple risks.[c63] The most obvious is the existential threat of nuclear equipped hypersonic glider re-entry vehicles that would be exceptionally hard to deter, and would further validate the US withdrawal from the INF. However, there is a more pressing concern which is the use of conventional non-WMD warheads, meaning that China could use FOBS as an expeditionary-type projection of power without forward deploying any forces. The threat to US forces not merely in the Pacific, but now worldwide, could be catastrophic.
The Petroyuan? The Cyberyuan?
China's lesson of 2015-16 taught a valuable lesson about the power of American currency and its vital link to the strength of the US economy. Mu Changchun, head of the team developing the Chinese cyber currency, noted the development of extranational privatized crypto currency was a serious threat to Chinese central bank sovereignty,[c64] particularly the ability for a fiat currency to be tied to central bank monetary policy which may or may not be politically manipulated to gain an advantage in the marketplace. China's adoption of their own government backed cyber currency will give them an advantage in their ability to use digital tools to micromanage their own populace. Tying transaction records to the social credit score in China has various positive implications for the CCP,[c65] even if such a thing seems absurd to liberty and privacy minded Americans. There's no illusion of a 4th Amendment in China. What is perhaps more concerning is the physical power a "cyberyuan" would have on the global stage if the yuan as a globalized currency begins to replace the USD (or the Euro).
The notion of a globalized yuan may be occurring between the emergence of the BRI funded partners and China's growth as an oil consumer. The "petroyuan" may be a thing that if not replaces the petrodollar, certainly weakens it.[c66]
If emerging nations already in default to China and OPEC nations both begin denominating their debt into yuan, adoption of the Cross-border Interbank Payment System (CIPS),[c67] a Chinese centered alternative to the European and American backed Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system, further moves currency stabilization away from free and open markets and towards currency manipulation in favor of Beijing.
Ten key takeaways from the above analysis:
1. A proxy battle with Chinese interests may occur given the right stimulus, but the Chinese PLA are still developing a nascent expeditionary force to forward project power.
2. China has a comprehensive A2/AD capacity that puts large segments of Eastern Asian access at risk.
4. Economic MAD cannot be relied upon as a long-term stabilizer due to the fragile state of the Chinese economy and the inability for Chinese debt ownership to impact the US economy with equal devastation to the impact of trade controls on the Chinese economy.
5. Chinese ownership of the rare earth market has created a major security risk that continues, though increasing domestic and allied sources may alleviate the danger - at least to the Defense industry, if not to the US economy in general - in the near future.
6. Chinese espionage (such as the Thousand Talents Program)[c69] combined with favorable PPP has skewed the R&D deficit into their favor, particularly as they turn American commercial R&D into their military faster than the US DoD does. Unfortunately for China, COVID-19 exposed many American companies and the US national security supply chains to the vulnerability they had on Chinese manufacturing, and the resulting shutdown of technology transfer to China by the US commercial sector is going to slow access to new American technologies. Additionally, China's reaction to COVID-19 has ultimately been very poorly handled and their economy is not recovering as well as they would have hoped.[c70]
7. The CCP may be threatened by their own domestic issues and/or debt from potential failure of the BRI that forces them to seek an external actor to rally behind. Due to hegemony in the Asian-Pacific and close diplomatic relations with rivals such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, the US is the most likely target of diversionary foreign policy efforts.
8. Chinese demographic collapse and Chinese PLA modernization are both happening rapidly; if the latter occurs prior to the former, the risk of an MCO will be at its highest given the inevitability of long-term fallout from population decline.
9. China has massive numbers of internal pressures that can be exploited to keep them from projecting unacceptable power abroad, including recent legal changes in Hong Kong, international pressures with Xinjiang or even Taiwan or Tibet can be a thorn in the side of Chinese dominion.
10. China is a massive bureaucracy of over one billion highly regulated people and an unwieldy apparatus to keep them obedient. The size and outrageous inefficiency of such an organization will be an advantage for the US for the foreseeable future.
The Chinese PLA understands a conflict with the US DoD will likely be either for Taiwan, or through a third-party nation. Saber-rattling in Hong Kong will probably generate more force from the UK or EU than the US, and the actions in Xinjiang and Tibet are not likely to generate military activity by any outside agency. North Korea is a complex situation dealt with later in the paper. In any of the credible scenarios besides Taiwan, there is an expeditionary and proxy nature to the forces employed for China as well as possibly a proxy or partner force for the US DoD. In these circumstances, the current calculus benefits the US DoD. However, this cannot be relied upon given the rapid modernization and integration of the Chinese PLA.
China's ultimate goal is dislodging the US from hyperpower status and the ability to project hegemonism against China's favor. China does not seek military confrontation with the west, but may be forced to politically for myriad reasons. This sadly would not be the first time that China felt compelled to enter a war with the west despite major reservations.[c71]
The economic advantages that powered the US to victory the last time the US faced near-peers in total war is now China’s advantage. The US DoD will have to change the calculus of warfare beyond merely adjusting TTP to embrace MD; they will have to adapt doctrine to take advantage of information and close the OODA loop against a Chinese adversary across not merely all levels of warfare but all domains of warfare. Additionally, the greater US government will have to synchronize the use of other segments of DIME national power to neutralize the threat of China. Many different triggers could force confrontation with China, and without a major change in US DoD policy, China will enjoy an upper-hand in many types of conflict for a significant period of time. The US DoD cannot afford to wait until the Chinese potentially collapse demographically or economically; they are on an upswing now and will soon hold the type of advantage they can use to ensure they maintain superiority in a global stage even with a demographic decline.
Without drastic change, America will rapidly lose the ability to project global stability. This will be disastrous for liberty throughout the world as China is not an advocate for peace or freedom.
Few belligerent moves by Russia in the past twenty years have been hard to predict in hindsight; Russian aggression has been mostly pragmatic with very few lapses until late February of 2022. Given knowledge of the dictator Vladimir Putin, the foreign policy of the Russian Federation neatly dovetails with the inherent nature of the Russian kleptocratic government atop a cronyist perversion of capitalism. Unlike continual erosion of free-market capitalism in the west due to regulatory capture, the Russian model is by design.[r1] The goal of the modern Russian government has never been to rebuild the USSR or revert to Marxism; it is to increase the wealth of the ruling elite who helped Putin achieve, maintain, and expand power. Russia’s economy isn’t merely crony capitalism among a class of otherwise independent companies like it is in the US, and its government isn’t merely a kleptocracy like former dictatorships in the Philippines, Malaysia, Sudan or Haiti – it is a concerted effort to facilitate movement of materials-based wealth from the state to the oligarchs.[r2]
Russia however has substantially more difficult internal pressures than China. The Chinese economy, as precarious as it is due to its rapid growth atop strict CCP directed planning, at least still experienced growth among all sectors. In China as billionaires were created at record speed, the middle class exploded almost as quickly. In 2014 the “middle class” in China was earning as much as the top 10%, and though that has decreased to look more akin to American inequality, it pales compared to Russian figures.[r3] The 98 billionaires in Russia in 2019 accounted for $421 billion in wealth; the remainder of Russia accounted for $420.7 billion in bank deposits.[r4]
Russia’s history itself is one of wild fluctuation from horrific poverty, with adult national income at 35-40% of Western European levels during the Tsarist era, then rising rapidly to 65% in the post-war aftermath as the communist USSR invested heavily in schooling and industrialization as post-war Europe struggled amidst Marshall Plan investment to grow.[r5] However, by the fall of the USSR, that gap was growing again with net wealth of those in the communist nation to decrease along with the standard of living.[r6] Income inequality also followed this change; during the pre-World War I Tsarist era, income inequality was high, with the top 1% of Russians held approximately 20% of Russian wealth.[r7] During the USSR period, the median Soviet had substantially lower quality of life than their Western European counterpart, but the top 1% of the economy accounted for approximately 4-5% of the wealth.[r8]
Marxism did as it always does and made everyone equal by making everyone poor.
The quality of life for everyone was lower, but income inequality wasn’t nearly as bad. In Russia now, the top 1% holds more than 45% of national wealth in Russia, while 36% of the population live in poverty.[r9] Even in the US, where income inequality is often touted as a major problem, both of these values in Russia are much worse. The US has a huge number of super-rich[r10] people that change the apparent ratio of rich vs. poor; the top 1% in the US in 2016 held 38.6% of the wealth, but poverty rates were approximately ⅓ of Russia’s at 12.7%.[r11]
Putin called for reducing poverty in Russia in May of 2018, with a goal of reducing poverty to 6.6% by 2024.[r12] However, since then poverty has actually risen. Putin could not seem to be bothered, instead ordering a change in the Russian constitution, which was approved, and allows him to potentially stay in power until 2036.[r13]
Russia’s continued exploitation of their own population is based upon the Russian oligarchs continuing to exploit Russia’s vast amounts of natural resources and maintain superiority in a scarcity-based economic model. Russian productivity is lousy, lagging distantly behind US productivity, closely mirroring Chinese economic productivity. Given the decently high labor participation rate of 68.5% and unemployment of 4.58% as of December 2019, the tiny earnings of $755.48 per capita was abysmal given the relative PPP within Russia.[r14]
Russia could have theoretically increased their productivity, though sanctions after the Ukrainian invasion have only made things far less productive. Much like income inequality has gotten worse, economic productivity has also decreased, contracting 2.36% in 2019, even prior to not merely the invasion, but prior to the pandemic.[r15] COVID-19 only exacerbates this more. The overt corruption and the lack of rule of law are building blocks towards a failed state.
Worse still for the potential of economic stability is the movement of funds outside of Russia. Massive quantities of wealth have been funneled out of Russia into the west, illegally.[r16] Unlike China that has grown a nuclear arsenal on the backs of its own economy, Russia inherited a massive arsenal from the failed USSR, but has not converted the post-Soviet economic freedoms into an economic powerhouse. In the US, two individual states alone have higher net-GDP than Russia.[r17]
Russia’s export-based economy, mostly based on natural resources such as gas and timber, should have created large quantities of cash available for either investment or state accumulation. The amount of US Treasury bonds owned by China are an example of this, or the numbers of German owned factories producing value for Deutschland abroad. Yet in Russia, neither of those things exist. In 2015, official ledgers showed only 26% of national income was the net value of foreign assets.[r18] Russian capital is missing, moved offshore and not generating income for Russians, which was done out of fear of the Russian economic collapse. The examples of this are vast, with hundred-million dollar plus homes in the Kensington area of London to the wild examples from Roman Abramovich alone, which includes one of the aforementioned mansions, long-time ownership of one of England’s most successful Premier League soccer teams, Chelsea Football Club, and the world’s second largest private yacht, the Eclipse.
Exodus of Capital
Fear of leaving money in Russia isn’t unfounded, considering the collapse of the Russian economy, particularly the complete collapse of the ruble in 1998.[r19] For many of these Russian oligarchs, the appeal of moving money out of Russia and into the west was for three reasons:
1. They wanted to purchase things they were denied access to in the USSR.
2. The Russian economy was not a safe place to keep their money for economic reasons, such as the 1998 collapse of the ruble.
3. Once funds were “washed” in the west, they were safe, as opposed to Russia, where even the ultra-rich could be broken rapidly through nefarious means other than economic collapse, such as with Mikhail Khodorkovsky.[r20] Russia is not built on rule of law, but rather, rule of force.
Vlad the Impaler
The story of modern Russia is a story about Vladimir Putin. Putin had rose to mid-level officer status in the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB - translated: Committee for State Security) of the USSR prior to the collapse of the country and the coup in 1991. By the time of the coup, Putin was stationed in St. Petersburg where he worked for the KGB as an administrator of international affairs at Leningrad State University. While there, Putin forged a relationship with an economics professor named Anatoly Sobchak. After the fall of the USSR, Putin resigned from the KGB. He followed Sobchak to the Mayor’s office in St. Petersburg. This is when Putin forged strong relationships with many nefarious actors as he acted to facilitate licenses for legal sales of Russian properties overseas without incurring the wrath of the government in Moscow. These licenses were often for temporary shell companies and the resulting imports they were supposed to bring in – food for the starving St. Petersburg population – never arrived. An investigation was launched but dismissed by Sobchak with no results. In addition to this, Putin helped facilitate the “northern route” for heroin to escape from Afghanistan to Europe, an act that made many local gangsters grow from local Russian criminal syndicates that struggled to operate within the USSR to global enterprises.[r21] Other criminal cases, such as one regarding a fuel monopoly being created on behalf of the Tambov gang’s Gennady Petrov and Alexander Malyshev[r22] or a real estate company that was used as a money cleaner for, among others, the Cali cartel from Colombia, were opened, then shelved and never fully investigated until after Putin reached power, when they were summarily dismissed.[r23]
Putin’s rise through politics in Russia continued in parallel with the amassing of riches by oligarchs preying upon the natural resources of Russia and an insatiable demand abroad. By the time Putin rose through ranks in Moscow to take over the Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii (FSB - translated: Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) in 1998, Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s liberalization of foreign trade permissions decreed in late 1991 had made many people billionaires. And many of them made that money through shady activities approved by Putin in St. Petersburg.[r24]
Putin would anonymously make his way to be Yeltsin’s third different prime minister, and many assumed he would be relieved of power like his predecessors. When Yeltsin surprisingly resigned on literally the eve of the millennium, Putin became the president of the Russian Federation and began a long process of changing the liberalized Russia.
Putin worked diligently to create a new narrative about himself; a shirtless man unafraid of the frontier, with a background as a cold-war KGB agent. Except almost none of it was true. Putin’s university study was international finance law, and his initial KGB experience was focused on economics, with him working in an office pushing papers while he still lived with his parents.[r25] Eventually he would train in intelligence tactics and promote himself abroad, working in East Germany, where he was during the fall of the Berlin wall.[r26] Putin may have been responsible for some intelligence and counter-intelligence around Dresden and across the border into Western Germany in the late 1980s, but there is nothing of any substantial value to which Putin contributed at the time. This is not the first time the president of a super-power used this formula for electoral success. Teddy Roosevelt was a man who abandoned his New York City roots as a tennis playing child of aristocrats, rose to be the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and then only participated in a single day of front-line battle during an incredibly brief campaign. Teddy then re-invented himself as a western frontiersman with hardened combat experience, carefully controlling the narrative about himself in the media.[r27] In this respect, Putin was the new Teddy Roosevelt, continuing to cultivate the image even now as he has shirtless pictures of him fishing in remote southern Siberia released and turned into calendars.[r28]
Putin then began courting the west, trying to look like a democratic and capitalist reformer, and after 9/11, an ardent counter-terrorism (CT) ally. At the Slovenian meeting between President George W. Bush and Putin in 2001, relations between the US and Russia seemed better than even at Yalta in 1945 or Sitka in 1867. Relations between the US and Putin’s Russia didn’t begin to sour until his actions in Chechnya, the handling of the Beslan school massacre, and the crackdown on media officials showed the writing on the wall: Putin was not a westernizing reformer, but a hardliner consolidating Russian power.[r29]
Few of Putin’s aims are towards rebuilding the framework of the former USSR, but rather, rebuilding the notions of centralized control of state security functions and re-empowering the state security apparatus to have the level of control they had during the USSR. Quite to the contrary, Putin is not a fan of socialist economics as few, if any, of his policy changes have done anything to prevent the continued economic pillaging of the vast majority of the Russian population and Russian natural resources by a handful of selected oligarchs in Putin’s inner circle. Putin’s primary aim has been to consolidate political power by increasing his relationships with the oligarchs and having a mutually beneficial relationship with them, especially those with whom he helped in St. Petersburg. Putin’s controversial actions since elected have included the consolidation of power in Moscow by removing democratic elections for regional governors and replacing them with his own appointees who are tacitly “approved” by the state legislatures; if Putin’s appointees are rejected twice, Putin then has the authority to completely fire the entire state legislature and appoint his own governor anyway.[r30] These actions were seen as wholly un-democratic and derided by both the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin, as well as other oligarchs who were critical of Putin such as Boris Berezovsky.
Berezovsky fled Russia after Putin took power and funded, from the UK, the Liberal Russia Party in an attempt to unseat Putin and maintain democratic reforms in Russia in the 2000 elections. Two of the most prominent members, Sergei Yushenkov and Vladimir Golovyov were murdered shortly after Berezovsky created the party.[r31] Those two, in 2002 and 2003, respectively, were just two on a long list. Fellow former KGB and FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko’s murder with the use of polonium-210 is arguably the most famous. Journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova and Yuri Shchekochikhin as well as insiders such as Litvinenko and Berezovsky all claimed – with compelling evidence – that the Moscow apartment bombing in 1999 that thrust Putin into the forefront of Russian politics were actually conducted as an inside job by the FSB to create support for security operations against Chechnya.[r32] Incidentally, Yushenkov also claimed the FSB was behind the apartment bombings; between that and the association with Berezovsky, his shelf-life was limited in Russia. Additionally, Politkovskaya and Estemirova compiled large amounts of information about human rights abuses in Chechnya. Both were shot to death along with Estemirova’s lawyer Stanislav Markelov in three separate incidents in Russia.[r33] The chief editor of Forbes in Russia, Paul Klebnikov was murdered after writing about corruption of Putin and the oligarchs.[r34]
Berezovsky would die in London in mysterious circumstances.[r35] Shchekochikhin similarly died under controversial circumstances, succumbing suddenly to a mysterious illness and dying a few days before he was scheduled to fly to Washington and meet with US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigators.
Arguably the most telling death though is one from Putin’s first run for President. As Putin was rising from the realm of the unknown to the presidency of Russia, he reached out to his political mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor of St. Petersburg for help campaigning. Sobchak had fled Russia shortly after he lost his Mayoral reelection campaign in St. Petersburg amidst corruption charges, fleeing to Paris. Sobchak returned to Russia when Putin’s ascension to Prime Minister seemed to signal his exile was no longer necessary. Sobchak never meant to depose of Putin or usurp his quest for power, but Sobchak made many errors. Among them, his narrative of Putin’s life he shared with journalists contrasted with the well-crafted fiction that Putin was sharing as his official biography. This was probably part of Sobchak’s undoing. Putin asked Sobchak to campaign for him in Kaliningrad, with an urgent request to travel there immediately.[r36] Sobchak obliged, leaving that day. His wife would never see him again. Sobchak’s official cause of death was noted as a heart attack, with two separate autopsies being performed, one there in Kaliningrad and another in St. Petersburg, personally conducted by the Russian minister of health.[r37] Sobchak wasn’t alone however; he had two bodyguards, able-bodied young men. They would both need hospitalization in Kaliningrad for poisoning. The theory put forward by Russian investigative journalist Arkady Vaksberg, was that Sobchak was killed by poisoning.[r38] Vaksberg conducted extensive research on Kamera, a Soviet-cum-Russian poison laboratory operated by the Naródnyiy Komissariát Vnútrennikh Del (NKVD - translated: People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), then the KGB, then the FSB, and now Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye (GRU translated: Main Intelligence Directorate) Unit 29155, and tied it to many murders, not merely Sobchak, but also Shchekochikhin and Litvinenko.[r39] Vaksberg’s theory was that a poison was placed on an incandescent light bulb at a bedside lamp which when heated, aerosolized the poison.[r40]
Putin showed more emotion at Sobchak’s funeral than at any other time in public before or since.[r41] Vaksberg, for his work and study of Soviet and Russian poisoning had his car explode in his garage. He was lucky not to be in it at the time.
Mikhail Lesin – killed in Washington, D.C. – was ultimate proof of Putin’s willingness to put pragmatic murder ahead of any sense of loyalty. Lesin had been in Putin’s cabinet as a minister for media, and helped facilitate the dismantling of the open and free press in Russia.[r42] If anything, some of Politkovskaya’s, Estemirova’s and Shchekochikhin’s blood was not merely on Putin’s hands, but possibly Lesin’s as well. After leaving the government, Lesin stayed within Putin’s inner circle, as an advisor, and as a senior figure in the organization of RIA Novosti. Lesin would go back and forth to the United States before returning to Russia in 2013 and heading the Gazprom Media Group until the end of 2014. Gazprom Media Group was ostensibly owned by Yuri Kovalchuk through his ownership of Bank Rossiya. Bank Rossiya, originally funded by the mob boss Petrov, is so tightly bound with Putin that Kovalchuk was among those targeted by US and EU sanctions in 2014 after the Crimean Annexation.[r43] Even in 2020, Bank Rossiya is often considered Putin’s private bank, while Gazprom Media Group is arguably the basis for Rossiya Sevodnya, the replacement for RIA Novosti, and a direct propaganda arm of the Kremlin.[r44] The 2014 sanctions reduced Kovalchuk’s personal value from $1.4 billion to $650 million.[r45] Lesin was an insider to not merely Putin, but Kovalchuk, so when he had a suspected falling out with Kovalchuk, Lesin left Russia again. Lesin’s most impactful job up to that point had been the creation of Russia Today (RT). Lesin was left to his own devices until questions about his wealth began to create questions about its legal origins. Eventually, a US Senator asked the US Department of Justice (DoJ) to investigate Lesin under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.[r46] Between the risk of investigation and the fallout with Kovalchuk, Lesin was murdered in November 2015. Like Sobchak, Lesin’s death was reported in Russian media as a heart attack rather quickly. His death was even reported on RT- America as a heart attack more than four months before the medical examiner in Washington, D.C. released the truth: blunt force trauma injuries to the head actually killed Lesin.[r47]
For those looking for a handy list of people Putin didn't like who died mysteriously, this first group are pretty much known to have been murdered directly for Putin and/or his closest associates, and his grip on power:
- Sergei Yushenkov
- Vladimir Golovyov
- Alexander Litvinenko
- Anna Politkovskaya
- Natalia Estemirova
- Yuri Shchekochikhin
- Stanislav Markelov
- Igor Domnikov
- Victor Popkov
- Anastasia Baburova
- Paul Klebnikov
- Anatoly Sobchak
- Mikhail Lesin
Since the Ukraine invasion, things have ticked up a notch; as of August of 2023, there's been 40 more people to randomly sleep-walk through high-rise windows, fall down flights of stairs or be murdered with their entire family in mysterious circumstances!
- Leonid Shulman
- Igor Nosov
- Alexander Tyulakov
- Vasily Melnikov
- Vladislav Avayev
- Sergey Protosenya
- Andrei Krukovsky
- Alexander Subbotin
- Yuri Voronov
- Dan Rapoport
- Ravil Maganov
- Ivan Pechorin
- Vladimir Sungorkin
- Anatoly Gerashchenko
- Pavel Pchelnikov
- Nikolay Petrunin
- Nikolai Mushegian
- Vyacheslav Taran
- Vladimir Makei
- Grigory Kochenov
- Dmitriy Zelenov
- Vladimir Bidenov
- Alexander Buzakov
- Pavel Antov
- Alexei Maslov
- Magomed Abdulaev
- Dmitry Pavochka
- Vladimir Makarov
- Marina Yankina
- Viatcheslav Rovneiko
- Igor Shkurko
- Pyotr Kucherenko
- Artyom Bartenev
- Grigory Klinishov
- Kristina Baikova
- Andrei Fomin
- Aleksey Avramenko
- Alexander Nikolayev
- Natalia Bochkareva
- Anton Cherepennikov
Putin, the mafia, and the oligarchs around him will never hesitate to use murder and pressure to maintain their control. While this is a strategic risk for the US as Putin is morally willing to do things that Americans are not, it is a potential vector to exploit. Unfortunately, much of the successful use of this manipulation is being done by the Kremlin.
Informational superiority across the board
Putin got what he wanted out of Lesin long before he was beaten to death in Washington, D.C. RT was fully operational and by the time Lesin was killed, had been divorced from RIA Novosti and moved to the control of virulent pro-Putin Dmitry Kiselyov.[r48] RT's editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan hasn’t changed since the beginning, when she announced the very creation of RT in June of 2005.[r49] In the time between 2005 and the movement from Lesin to Kiselyov, however, RT changed significantly. In its earliest era, as Russia’s relationship with the west deteriorated and the “embrace” of the US and Russia in 2001 had given way to antagonism, RT's coverage bordered on the absurd. Ridiculous guests peddling 9/11 conspiracy theories, that the CIA was testing drugs on the US population, or any number of other absurd claims were typical RT segments. When President Obama was elected and Secretary of State Clinton offered a “reset” with Russia, it came at an important time for Russia. The prices of commodities that Russia and the Russian oligarchs relied upon, such as oil, steel and aluminum had all plummeted, and the Russian GDP contracted 7.9% in 2009.[r50] Russia needed an American friend. When US and Russian relations started to improve, ironically, so did RT's coverage of America, slowly legitimizing the network, and even allowing for less strict editorial control.[r51] Yet the leash was only so long. In the wake of protests regarding Putin’s plan to run for election in 2012, and with violence in the Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea being initially reported upon in a light that didn’t cast Putin flawlessly, Lesin was removed, the ownership of RIA Novosti terminated, Kiselyov installed, and Lesin’s lifespan cut tremendously short.
The editorial slant of RT has famously cost it some reporters. After the narratives regarding the Russian annexation of the Crimea peninsula were so heavily doctored and any semblance of truth was ignored, reporters quit. Famously, Liz Wahl resigned live on the air on her show on RT.[r52]
“...not be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.” - Liz Wahl, during her live on-air resignation.
At the time, Simonyan simply chalked up Wahl’s departure as “a publicity stunt.”[r53] Yet the narrative of RT has remained pro-Putin even for the few years when RT wasn’t anti-American. By 2017, things had come too far, and RT was forced to register as a foreign agent in accordance with the Foreign Agent Registration Act.[r54] Simonyan didn’t even try to fight the label and RT reluctantly registered as a foreign agent.
The biggest coup came when the likes of RT and other arms were used to influence the 2016 Presidential Election.[r55] In spite of the help of the two GRU cyber units, Unit 26165 and Unit 74455, the Russian play on the 2016 Presidential Election was not an intent to hack voting machines, but rather to hack the voter.[r56] The primary antagonist wasn’t really RT or the GRU's hackers, but a St. Petersburg based “troll farm” of social media influencers called the Internet Research Agency (IRA).
What the IRA managed to do was incredible. They were able to manipulate possibly 126 million people – mostly American voters via targeting demographics on Facebook alone, and also had a massive presence on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit, Medium, YouTube, Google+, Vine, and even some other less important sites. The IRA's history not only pre-dates the 2016 Presidential Election, but in a way, the IRA and foreign Internet meddling itself. Through emails leaked by Anonymous in a hack in 2012, a Russian youth group paid by the Kremlin called Nashi was manipulating the Russian public as early as 2011.[r57] In the pre-IRA days, Nashi operatives would employ trolls. The founder and early leader of Nashi, itself a pro-Putin youth movement in Russia was Vasily Yakemenko. After founding Nashi in 2005, Yakemenko would hire Kristina Potupchik as a spokeswoman who would eventually head a “troll farm.”[r58] The hacked emails showed price lists for paying for pro-Putin bloggers, and for what they were expected to do in an effort to spread propaganda.[r59] By this time, Yakemenko had another job – when Putin was still President in 2007, Yakemenko had been hired directly by the Kremlin to become the head of the Federal Youth Agency. The main goals in 2011 were to oppose the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia – anti-Russian popular movements – and to be as pro-Putin as possible, as, at the time he was not the incumbent President.[r60] With Putin running for election back to the Presidency in 2012, it was not assured as he was not the incumbent, but his apparatus of manipulation was heavily funded by his oligarchic friends and mafia associates. This included funding for Yakemenko, and he ensured that the trolls for Nashi were well paid until it was essentially folded in 2013 by the deputy prime minister (PM) Vyacheslav Volodin. Volodin considered Nashi as a political entity superfluous to the United Russia youth group he had overseen as Secretary-General of the United Russia party. In his capacity as deputy PM, Volodin also held authority over Yakemenko, and Nashi as an entity ceased to exist not long after the Anonymous hack.[r61] In spite of the end of Nashi as a youth movement and political entity, Volodin saw immense value in what they had been able to do with manipulation of the Russian populace by using Internet trolls between 2007 and 2012. Volodin then reached out to arguably the most important middle-man in all of Russia’s top tiers until 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin, who spent from 1981 to 1990 in prison for robbery, fraud and pimping teenage prostitutes in St. Petersburg would eventually found one of the first casinos in St. Petersburg.[r62] His rise from being a convicted felon to riches coincided with Vladislav Reznik – now a member of the Duma in Russia, but a recent defendant with Petrov in an organized crime case in Spain – and Kovalchuk, who all found their fortunes in illegal activities in St. Petersburg in the 1990s with licenses and authorizations from Putin. Prigozhin, by 2012 was a billionaire with massive contracts to the Russian military as a caterer, and numerous other enterprises. One of these enterprises was the establishment of the IRA.
In close cooperation with Volodin, Prigozhin began disinformation campaigns at the IRA, initially similar in scope and aim to the successful work of Nashi by Yakemenko. However, instead of a small political group’s insiders finding willing volunteers and paying them on commission only, the IRA was a full-scale enterprise, operating first out of a small white office building in the suburbs of St. Petersburg at their inception in the summer of 2013, but moving into a larger building in urban St. Petersburg by fall of 2014.[r63] From their inception until late 2014 their focus was exclusively domestic; discrediting opposition to Putin and endorsing state policies. Employees were required to write around 100 online comments a day focusing on Russian politics. Due to demand and need, the IRA was easily infiltrated by several journalists, and several exposés were written in Russia.[r64]
The successful penetration of the IRA by independent journalists in Russia’s fully independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper had already been reported on heavily in Russia long before actions began targeting the US.[r65] This sort of published information was dangerous; the dead journalists Politkovskaya, Estemirova and Shchekochikhin (as well as Igor Domnikov, Victor Popkov, and Anastasia Baburova), as well as lawyer Markelov were all employees of Novaya Gazeta that were murdered during Putin’s reign. In hindsight, the US should have been more prepared for the disinformation campaign.
In the early days of the IRA, LiveJournal was a primary focus. Given its Russian ownership and large body of Russian users, LiveJournal was a logical target for the IRA trolls, and the US was usually mentioned either as a miserable antagonist with low standards of life, or merely a convenient scapegoat for Russian ills.[r66] By the end of 2014 however, there was an active group of English speakers in the IRA and they were developing a large-scale American presence.[r67]
The IRA continued to tarnish President Poroshenko of the Ukraine, President Obama, and sing praises of Putin, but the English speaking members were soon given a new project: “Translator.”
Translator was the IRA's English language focus on the United States, specifically the Presidential Election of 2016.[r68] Translator was basically scaling up the success of the 2012 efforts for Putin’s election to see if the open information standards and freedom of speech in the US could be exploited for Russian gains.
The aims of Russia in 2016 were not specifically to get President Trump in the White House. By February of that year, internal IRA documents recovered by investigators showed the main idea was just to foment chaos.
“use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump - we support them).” internal IRA documents.[r69]
The IRA wasn’t so much concerned with the election of any specific candidate, but rather with the discord in the US political system. As Hillary Clinton or many of the other centrist candidates would have not caused harm to the US in the greater geo-strategic sense, nor caused long-term internal upheaval, candidates ranging from Clinton to Cruz went against Russian preferences. With Sanders or Trump there was wide opportunity to cause total chaos to the American political system, American leadership, or any sort of normalcy that the Russians considered a risk.[r70]
The IRA would create content across hundreds of fake Facebook accounts, hundreds more fake Instagram accounts, and had Twitter accounts with countless followers, to include the @TEN_GOP which was a fake Tennessee Republican party Twitter account. The @TEN_GOP account attracted more than 136,000 followers and was even retweeted by Kelly Anne Conway and Donald Trump, Jr. Yet it was entirely ran out of St. Petersburg by Russian IRA employees doing Putin’s bidding.[r71] By the summer of 2016, the IRA had two operatives in the US canvasing the country, had another creating domestic virtual private network (VPN) hosts, and was even organizing rallies for candidates in opposition to Clinton.
The entire operation was at its core defined as “active measures.”[r72] The IRA successfully used persistent information operations and the value of American commercial capabilities – to include Facebook’s impressive advertising system for demographic based targeting – against the US public. Combined with persistent work in targeted misinformation by RT and blatant cybercrime by GRU operators, the Russians were able to play a significant role in the outcome of the US election. Even if the Trump campaign team had zero involvement – which is wholly debatable – the notion that Russian information operations didn’t “hack the voter” is absurdity. There was a concerted effort that was at least partially successful.
The third segment in these operations, the GRU, was less pervasive but far more volatile and blatantly criminal. GRU Unit 26165 utilized targeted penetration methods of much less sophistication than many other strategic computer penetration methodologies used by other cyber warfare units, but made up for this with two facets: scope and target selection. Unlike organizations like the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Tailored Access Operations (TAO) teams, which typically goes after national-level targets like Iran’s Natanz nuclear site with the infamous Stuxnet hack, GRU Unit 26165 was targeting Clinton campaign staffers – both employees and volunteers – with spear-fishing attacks across hillaryclinton.com, dnc.org, and even to some gmail.com accounts used by them.[r73] Because their targets were individuals without the greatest of security standards, these efforts bore fruit with even amateurish attack vectors. Eventually, the unit was able to gain access to thousands of emails by April of 2016, and the entire Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).[r74] Six days after compromising the entire DCCC network, GRU hackers used a VPN link to gain persistent access to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) network.[r75] The GRU hackers then gained access to the DNC file servers and mail servers, eventually compromising all of their data by early June.[r76]
After GRU Unit 26165 successfully compromised more than 70 gigabytes of data, GRU Unit 74455 created two personas, DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, and used these to release the stolen data.[r77] Ironically, in March 2016, before the GRU had penetrated the DNC or DCCC, Wikileaks had released 30,000 emails of Clinton’s that had been acquired through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation.[r78] In the summer, after the GRU had illegally acquired the DNC and DCCC data, in addition to their own leaking of the data, at strategic times, they also transferred the data to Wikileaks.[r79] Julian Assange, the leader of Wikileaks had no loyalty to Trump but a deep hatred for Clinton and published the Clinton emails three days before the Democratic National Convention.[r80]
Russian hacking played a major role in the US elections in 2016 and was arrayed to play a role in the 2020 elections. True American sovereignty is at risk.
From strategic information to tactical cyber
Russia's GRU haven't merely improved their ability to manipulate foreign populations with strategic messaging, they are part of a Russian military organization that has vastly improved their MD TTPs over the past decade. During the 2008 invasion of the South Ossetia region of Georgia, Russia employed a disjointed mixture of integrated and unilateral cyber effects and achieved remarkable success. The initial penetration of Georgian airspace was made possible with a combination of traditional electronic attack and cyber-attacks supporting the kinetic operations to fully neutralize the sites.[r81] This is an electronic equivalent to the operation conducted by Task Force Normandy to begin Desert Storm in 1991: the use of MH-53Js and AH-64As against Iraqi early-warning radar sites to open up a “hole” for tactical fighters to pour through.[r82] The Russian cyber-attack was effective and done in conjunction with the well-timed electronic attacks and kinetic attacks, and it was an effective opening salvo against a fixed target. The multi-domain attack was a strategic effort that was coordinated in advance, allowing for complex timing and planning.
The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 didn’t merely have strategic commonality with the US military in the theory of Task Force Normandy busting open a hole in an IADS network that non-low-observable (LO) tactical aircraft could exploit, it also employed a very similar style of cyber effect to kinetic maneuver warfare integration that the US DoD does now; complex and coordinated time-based operations against fixed targets.
In other words, the Russian attack on Georgia was one the US could also facilitate and operate right now with the organizational limitations of the cyber domain and the slow turnaround of the Air Tasking Order (ATO) cycle. The Russian multi-domain attacks facilitated an environment where dynamic tactical targeting could occur. Subsequent Russian cyber efforts were less integrated and more unilateral in nature, and succeeded in defacing Georgian propaganda and conducting widespread denial of service attacks to make Georgian C2 more difficult.[r83]
Less than a decade later, during operations in Eastern Ukraine, the Crimea and Syria, Russian cyber effects were often done at a more tactical level, with much faster integration between cyber operators and ground forces.
At the fundamental strategy level, the “Hybrid Warfare Model” that Russia employs focuses on limited tactical attacks at a very small scale. These are conducted to both elongate protracted and expensive operations for the enemy while shrinking individual combat engagements to benefit the survivability of a small footprint of deployed assets. The Russian forces primary mission in this deployment model is typically to support non-standard military objectives, such as diplomatic overtures based upon massive misinformation or other political aims. Many of the deployed ground combat forces were either mercenaries, giving the Russian state greater plausible deniability,[r84] or were Russian special operators embedded with friendly guerrilla forces who would benefit the Russian aims within the state, much like the way US Special Forces (SF) Operational Detachment-Alphas (ODA) operate to facilitate foreign internal defense (FID). This relatively effective doctrine is simple; however, it includes a complex structure of fire support (FS) assets, electronic intelligence assets, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) controls and cyber operations teams. All of these assets are uniformed Russian forces, and protected by Russian heavy armor deployed in a mostly defensive posture. They give multi-domain cyber-warfare capabilities, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, and indirect fire (IDF) support to the special operations and mercenary forces that actually make contact with the enemy. The integrated efforts of Russian cyber operations with support for maneuver warfare was far more effective in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine prior to the 2022 invasion than the disjointed efforts in Georgia after the initial invasion.
From a multi-domain combat perspective in support of modern maneuver warfare, this Russian force is far more dynamic and integrated than not only the Russian efforts in Georgia in 2008, but is far more effective and advanced from a tactical perspective than current American cyber doctrine can allow for. Later in the fifth paper in this series, the cyber integration to maneuver warfare for the US DoD is explored with much more detail.
The Russian cyber warfare model at the tactical and operational level of warfare is vastly superior to the US organizational model, but like all facets of Russian life, has come undone by Russian corruption and the self-disintegration of the Russian armed forces after the disastrous invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
The Kaliningrad Problem
Kaliningrad poses a unique problem. It's primary value to Russia in the post Soviet break apart was for shipping access to the Baltic Sea that is ice-free all year around.
Kaliningrad's history is interesting. It's basically a single city and its suburbs that is geographically separated from the rest of Russia; there is no land access to Kaliningrad to the rest of Russia without going through one of two other NATO countries (Poland or Lithuania). Originally called Königsberg, the city of Kalinigrad prior to World War II was Prussian going back to the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century. With the creation of the German Empire in 1871, Prussia dominated Germany's population and Germany itself included Königsberg. Even after World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, Königsberg remained a remote German city in the Weimar Republic, populated as it had been since 1255 by ethnic German Prussians. After WWII, when Germany was divided at the Potsdam Conference along the Oder-Neiße line, Königsberg became a Soviet property, and Germans were expelled - or in the case of around 100,000 - raped and/or murdered by the Soviets.[r85] Königsberg was then renamed Kaliningrad and re-populated with Russians.
At one point, Kaliningrad was poised to be the "Baltic Hong Kong" and was seen by Putin as a way to usher in a German and Russian dominated Europe that was broadly anti-American.[r86] This was even touted in 2005 at the 750th anniversary celebrations of Königsberg/Kaliningrad. Yet beginning in 2008, and becoming ever more obvious with the deployment of the Iskander missile system and then S-400 SAM (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) systems and associated systems for point defense, including the formidable Pantsir S-1, Kaliningrad's value was to be based solely on its geostrategic location and ability to saber-rattle at Europe. Specifically, this means Kaliningrad has become a major A2/AD thorn in NATO's side.[r87]
Russian foreign military sales (FMS) relies substantially on the ability to sell A2/AD bubbles to non-western aligned nations concerned with interventions from western powers. Example nations include Iran, Syria, North Korea, etc., all of whom Russia either actively sells to now or has in the past. When Russia had an Su-24 shot down by a Turkish F-16 near the Turkish/Syrian border in November 2015, Russia's response was to deploy an S-400 to a Russian controlled airbase in Syria, ostensibly to deny offensive capabilities by NATO aircraft operating in the region and protect the Assad's Ba'athist Syrian government, an ally of Putin's Russia. The S-400 deployment proved to be a bit of a strategic thorn in Russia's side and a threat to the total projected efficacy of Kaliningrad to NATO after the US response to Syria's chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun.[r88] The US response, with Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (TLAMs) fired from the USS Ross and USS Porter three days later striking the Syrian airbase of Al-Shayrat. Though damage to Al-Shayrat was negligible, mostly due to the nature of how many agencies had to be notified - including the Russians - prior to the strike,[r89] the Russian inability to intercept them in spite of S-400 and Pantsir S-1 deployments to Syria proved that the true A2/AD bubble created by modern Russian IADS is much smaller in actual tactical practice.
Kaliningrad's value to Russia has been based mainly on asymmetry in engagement with NATO in the Baltics and to have an appearance of an effective A2/AD bubble. The inability for Russia to present a defense to Syria invited US operations there with basic impunity. In addition to the Al-Shayrat strike, the US conducted intentional strikes on Syrian forces at least five more times as well as shooting down multiple manned and unmanned aircraft. Additionally, airstrikes on February 7th, 2018 even killed several Russian private military contractors (PMCs) associated with Wagner Group - an organization funded by and heavily influenced by the same Prigozhin that funded the IRA.
The saber rattling in Kaliningrad also ushered in many changes in deployments and developments in US European Command (EUCOM). Increased deployments to the Baltics have been occurring for many years, with the 173rd Airborne deploying twice to Estonia,[r90] before larger-scale and longer-term deployments to Poland.[r91] In spite of the appearance to critics of the Trump Administration that decreased troop presence in Germany is a concession to Russian aims for European dominance,[r92] the draw-down is actually for two unrelated reasons. First, there was an intent to save funds on troops deployed overseas since the Trump campaign positioned itself contrary to both the Obama and George W. Bush Administrations regarding foreign troops. The second reason was a specific aim by the Trump Administration at Germany that they were not contributing their 2% of GDP towards NATO security as recommended. The fact that most troops leaving Germany are staying within EUCOM and posturing further east into Poland and Romania is evidence that concessions to Russia were clearly not part of the plan. To Putin, this could only be seen as blatant antagonism of Russia's sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. To newer NATO allies such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland, this move is seen not only as stabilizing the US commitment to security in the region, but the parity in the region is further bolstered by continuing US arms sales.
Among these sales, one of the most critical is a massive FMS sale of the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) to Poland.[r93] The ATACMS range of 300 kilometers is well below the 500 km cutoff limited by the now defunct INF treaty. Russia on the other hand developed the Iskander they deployed to Kaliningrad to have many variants in gross violation of the INF. In spite of the relatively limited range of the ATACMS, from the suburbs of Gdansk, the ATACMS would be capable of overwhelming the A2/AD "bubble" provided by the S-400 and conventional towed and self-propelled artillery from Poland and Lithuania could easily degrade Russian IADS in Kaliningrad. Without an effective A2/AD strategy for Kaliningrad, Russian domination of the Baltic completely collapses under the weight of the USN's Second Fleet, with expeditionary US Air Force (USAF) aircraft including large quantities of fifth-generation F-35s permanently based in the UK and Italy and F-22s with long-range counter A2/AD capabilities which are easily dispatched from Virginia to EUCOM. The F-22s and F-35s additionally offer clear air-to-air superiority over any Russian aircraft using USAF TTPs and armament.
Kaliningrad's real A2/AD capability isn't truly impenetrable, but rather would require such a clear level of escalation in force-on-force hostilities that the "hybrid warfare" model with extremely limited ground force commitment couldn't be utilized by any belligerents in the region. Given that the idea of a hot war with Russia that holds short of a nuclear exchange is one where both sides will seek peaceful off-ramps, the Kaliningrad militarization has effectively prevented any "hot wars" in Europe and the continued nuclear stalemate with Russia will go on.
Kaliningrad may have served a purpose as a thorn in NATO's side, but while the A2/AD threat is primarily hollow, it serves the purpose of creating FMS marketing and is also at least tangible, while many of Russia's economic threats to Europe have fallen flatter and flatter over the years.
The great European Heater prior to a post-scarcity world
Russia has long been seen as holding a major amount of asymmetric leverage over the EU given their reliance on Russian oil, especially heating oil.
However, reality is more complex than Putin having an iron fist controlling more than 40% of the EU's natural gas.[r94] Pipeline investment across Russia and the nations on Russia's border oft considered part of the Russian sphere of influence have had stabilizing effects on not merely the Russian economy, but the European energy markets.[r95] This isn't to say that Russia hasn't made multiple attempts to orchestrate national policies of EU member states through energy manipulation.[r96] However, the efficacy has been what one would expect when trying to engineer a market: the consumers act rationally when given choices. Many EU member states have drastically decreased their net energy imports from Russia choosing to diversify,[r97] and even prior to the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, EU regulatory policy has required a level of transparency that has resulted in more rational behaviors by Gazprom and the Russian Federation.[r98]
Ultimately, the problem in Moscow is that Putin controls Gazprom through the Russian Federal control of the natural gas exports by the cartel, but the oligarchs who put Putin into power have a large say in how profitable - or how often they are willing to accept a loss - they are. So, in spite of attempts to manipulate many other states through energy price and supply manipulation, the overall relationship between Russian supply and EU demand has been very stable, with larger new pipeline developments.[r99] This may change in the near future as larger fields controlled by Gazprom are coming online to supply the growing Chinese market demand for natural gas.[r100]
The issue then came to a head in 2022. Germany's reliance on nuclear power had diminished, and natural gas from first the Nord Stream 1 pipeline and promises of more from Nord Stream 2 were causing major EU powers to effectively increase their reliance on Russian gas while the growing export market to East Asia gives Putin more freedom to manipulate prices to EU customers. Even as many EU nations switch to more fungible natural gas sources such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), the massive quantities of cheap gas available through Russian controlled pipelines became a serious long-term risk to the EU. Russia felt between the profits from Chinese sales and the reliance on Russian gas by EU customers, sanctions from the Ukrainian invasion wouldn't be steep enough to dramatically effect Russian gas income.
NATO was, for many years ostensibly weakened by the EU reliance on Russian gas. Germany's place in the EU economic hierarchy combined with their reliance on Russian natural gas is a known issue that threatened not merely EU autonomy,[r101] but NATO security. While the EU pushed for more diversification from Russian natural gas and EU member nations are pushing through strict regulatory measures to decrease demand, EU nations are also decreasing domestic production[r102] and the net result has been an even larger reliance on Russian energy imports.[r103] This all came crashing down after the Ukranian invasion.
The larger marketplace for Russian gas into East Asia may result in the loss of a pressure-point. The kleptocrats that rose to power with Putin need the money from German gas sales just as badly as Putin wants to control German energy markets. When the diversification of income for Moscow shifts away from just the EU, the balance of power shifts from Berlin to Moscow as well.[r104] In effect, this is the equivalent between the EU and Russia that benefits Putin much as the BRI is an attempt to shift the balance of economic power from Washington to Beijing.
- Increasing efficiencies with existing supplies
- Diversifying supply of natural gas from other sources
- Increasing LNG processing capacity to allow for a more fungible supply sector
- Employing more renewable (green) and non-gas (nuclear) energy supplies
This would have continued, with the exploitation of the kleptocratic nature of the Russian economy - one that is largely reliant upon profiting from natural resources - the customers can exercise a larger amount of foreign control due to the corrupt nature of the Russian ruling class. However, with the invasion of Ukraine, it became critical to stop all monetary flows immediately.
If you can't get paid, make sure no one else does either
Russia's relationship with most other energy suppliers reaching for the European sphere has been antagonistic at the very least. For Gazprom and Putin's treatment of Ukraine, incredibly inconsistent pricing fluctuations and the sudden refusal to carry debt that had been tolerated for years[r105] was just the first step in a long line of antagonism to Ukrainian energy. Shortly before Christmas of 2015, amidst the frigid Ukrainian winter, Russian hackers sabotaged the Ukrainian electrical grid through a cyber attack. The attack was similar to the NSA's TAO penetration of the Natanz site; an advanced persistent threat (APT) actor, most likely GRU Unit 26165, penetrated the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) for the distribution sub-stations in Kiev and in the Ivano-Frankivsk regions. Over 200,000 people suddenly lost power.
Attributing the attacks on the US elections in 2016 and the attacks on the Ukranian power grid to the same organization is both logical from the perspective of political expedience from Moscow and Russian hybrid warfare doctrine, but also the APT "signatures" from these attacks (as well as many other high-profile attacks against everyone from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) after Russia was disqualified from the 2016 Rio Olympics,[r106] to the journalists that exposed Russian involvement in the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine.[r107]) matched technologically. The attacks against many of these organizations, particularly the Ukrainian power system was a hallmark of a state actor, just like the NSA's TAO work on Natanz. Persistent attacks, updating of threat vectors, use of multiple zero-day attacks with ruthless efficiency and spear-phishing attacks designed around clear understanding of intelligence operations and information operations exploitation are all hallmarks of work by a state actor or a closely bound organization under a state contract or orders.
The Russian cyber attacks on Ukraine continued with another round of attacks on the electrical grid in December of 2017, and these attacks coincided with Russian diplomatic and economic pressures on Ukraine. Russia sees the Ukraine's turn away from Russia, and towards the EU - to include potentially joining NATO - as a direct threat to Russia. The Orange Revolution of 2004 was jarring to Moscow, and Putin wouldn't tolerate a disobedient former vassal state.
Furthermore, the same oligarchs at Gazprom and elsewhere for whom Putin is part of their cabal had seen their own leverage over Ukraine ebb and flow with the will of the Ukrainian voter to acquiesce to Moscow. After the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko's Ukrainian policies favored the EU and NATO, and coincidentally, Russian energy supplies were cut off.[r108] When Yanukovych took the reigns, not only did natural gas resume in flow from Russia, it came often at a massive discount, with supply flowing even when Ukraine couldn't afford to pay for it. Once Yanukovych left, Russian gas was shut down.
Ukraine wouldn't be intimidated by price bullying from Gazprom[r109] and pursued a strategy of partnering with western nations to develop vast untapped energy reserves the Ukraine, specifically those in the following three locations:
- The Black Sea basin off the Crimean shelf
- Yuzivska Shale Block
- Olesska Shale Block
Between the three, Ukraine had potential to become the third largest natural gas producer in Europe and not merely become energy self-sufficient, no longer requiring Russian exports by Gazprom, but actually become a net-exporter and decrease Russian market-share in Europe.[r110]
Given the value that Russia places on their asymmetric economic relationship with the EU for natural gas this was an unacceptable development. The net impact of this would be disastrous for many in Moscow. For the Russian Federal government, this would decrease political leverage first in Ukraine, then in the EU. For the oligarchs in charge of Gazprom this would drastically cut into profits, especially as the technology to exploit this was based on fracking and would require help from the west. Worse for Putin, this would all be on him. The results were predatory hybrid warfare in many ways.
Initially, Russia paid for and supported anti-fracking protesters in the vicinity of the Yuzivska shale block, even as Ukraine signed deals with Royal Dutch Shell to develop that region, seen as having as much as 20 billion cubic meters of gas annually.[r111] When this failed to work, the follow-up was unquestionably aggressive: the invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Russia never could justify this action diplomatically or morally, but the mere suggestion that it was to maintain access to the Black Sea at Sevastopol belies a much larger long-term economic goal of eliminating access to the Black Sea shale deposits. Ukraine had been developing a deal with ExxonMobil to develop the Black Sea deposits, but the US energy giant balked amidst the unrest and Russian annexation.
Then, Russia would employ similar tactics in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine to prevent access entirely to Shell for development. The entire Yuzivska shale block effectively has been denied to Shell as security of the development site is far from cost-effective for the commercial enterprise, with Russian forces so aggressive in the region they even accidentally shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Which left the Olesska shale block, one which another US energy giant, Chevron, sought to develop in western Ukraine. The western regions of Ukraine were still considered safe, far away from Russian encroachment, right in the heart of the Ivano-Frankivsk region. This is then where the electrical infrastructure attacks in 2016 and 2017 took place.[r112] Amidst this problem, holdover appointees from the Yanukovych administration such as the corrupt Victor Shokin would also do the bidding of Moscow even after Poroshenko replaced Yanukovych, further stalling Ukrainian energy development.
The electrical hacks are proof that Russia's hybrid warfare policies are effective across several borders. Not only did Russia effectively end western investment into the cash-starved nation and eliminate the threat to Gazprom's profits and Russia's monopoly on natural gas into Europe, it also showed their APT capabilities such as GRU Unit 26165 could effect the operational environment in an almost kinetic way,[r113] even if it meant hundreds of thousands innocent people in the cold darkness of a bitter winter.
Russia's antagonism over Ukraine isn't about rebuilding a Soviet Union. It's like everything else Putin does: it's for the profiteering of the oligarchs that put him in power.
Russia vs. OPEC vs. North Dakota vs. COVID-19
Russia's efforts to dominate the European energy markets don't end merely with natural gas, but extend to crude oil.
In early 2002, amidst turmoil in the Middle East after 9/11, a growing confrontation between Saddam Hussein and the US, growing conflicts over Gaza Strip and Israel, US saber rattling at Iran over potential weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and continuous terrorist threats to Saudi Arabia by both internal and external fundamentalists, oil markets in the Middle East tanked. In February of that year, Russia actually overtook Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer.[r114]
This wouldn't last long however. Even though Russia has massive natural gas reserves, by far the world's largest,[r115] their oil capacity with current and emerging extraction technologies doesn't place it in the top five of reserves, and there's no equivalent to the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and Montana or the Santos Basin off the coast of Brazil to ramp up production as oil costs increase.[r116] While Russia's only real regional economic threat to natural gas dominance in the European economic zone is Ukraine, who they've dealt with first through hybrid war and unbridled aggression and now by an actual illegal invasion, Russia must balance a much more difficult set of economic equations to maintain long-term and short-term profitability in the oil sector.
In 2018, the US, fueled by increased production in North Dakota, Montana, Texas, New Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska and California moved from being a massive energy importer, as they had been for many years, to the world's largest producer of oil.[r117] Even though the US is still the world's largest producer of oil as of 2022, the US is also far-and-away the world's largest consumer of oil, and is a net importer. In spite of this, the US is able to maintain its energy demands without many foreign supply requirements. The members of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) produce almost enough oil to satisfy their own demands.
Due to complexities in pipelines and refineries, the trade is drastically different in practice. The US actually exports more oil to Mexico than it imports.[r118] Conversely, mainly due to Canada's lack of pipeline infrastructure, almost all Canadian crude oil produced is exported to the United States then in turn Canadian oil is imported from other ports in the United States.[r119]
The net result is that the US imported approximately 9.1 million barrels per day while exporting 8.57 million, resulting in a net deficit of 0.53 million in 2020. The largest two suppliers of US oil from outside of the USMCA? Saudi Arabia and Russia, which combined make up a total of around 13% of all US oil imports.[r120]
The US growth in oil production hasn't gone unnoticed by Russia, who went from the world's leader in oil in 2002 to distantly behind their American counterparts by 2018 in production, and no longer able to manipulate the oil marketplace like they can with natural gas.
By 2014, the US was mostly energy independent with a 1000% increase in production in seven years.[r121] Saudi Arabia responded by trying to destroy the US market, pushing OPEC, which it is the principle leader of, to instead flood the market. This drove prices down, especially as Saudi Aramco, the state oil company had both the world's largest capacity for increase and the lowest price-per-barrel to recover costs. The idea was that the US shale industry, which is only profitable when oil is above a certain price point would instead default and go out of business. Yet in spite of this growth of oil supply to a market where the US was no longer a major customer, the growth of other emerging markets - especially China - kept both OPEC and Russia profitable even in the glut, and kept the American enterprises slightly profitable relative to leveraged debt. By 2017 however, OPEC had to adopt the policies of constraining supply in order to increase prices. The rise in cost only spurred American shale companies to increase production and lead to the US leaping to number one in production a year later.[r122]
With the combined supply of OPEC and Russia flooding a market where the US was no longer a major buyer, the COVID-19 fueled economic downturn crashed the global market's demand for oil by 3.5 million barrels per day. Given the major price depression, OPEC called on Russia to join them in cutting back on supply in March of 2020, and Russia refused.[r123]
For Russia, there were two probable and complimentary reasons. One was an attempt to finally crush the US shale industry, especially as shale expansion by American enterprises had been a principle pathway to Ukrainian energy independence and American LNG exports to European ports were also a severe long-term risk to Russian hegemony. But regardless of Russian opinion on American interests, Russia saw themselves as capable of shouldering the loss in profits better than Saudi Arabia. Russia's actions in the Ukraine in 2014, while expensive and borne on the back largely of taxes from Gazprom, Lukoil and Rosneft, was mostly a low-cost hybrid warfare action to protect those very same companies from long-term market competition. Conversely, the "2030 Vision" by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expensive and funded almost entirely by profits from Saudi Aramco.[r124]
Saudi Arabia's response - to not merely balk at the cut-back, but to actually increase supply dramatically and cut deals with China for even lower priced oil has been a major blow to many. While Saudi Arabia was still making a tiny profit on the low-cost sales, it was nowhere near what they needed relative to their massive infrastructure costs and the share prices for Saudi Aramco. Even worse, it was disastrous for the US, as it further tanked US shale companies who had seen sales flattened by COVID-19, and it was a stiff attack back at Russia. Many US companies are already suffering, and with a need for crude oil to trade at $50 for almost 2/3 of the shale operators in the US to make a profit, the Saudi actions dropped oil to $30.71 on March 12, 2020.
There were long-term ramifications. On August 24th, 2020, Standard & Poor announced the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) would no longer contain ExxonMobil, the American oil company replaced by Salesforce.com, the young cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) company from the Silicon Valley. In the meantime, the shale industry is stuck on a precipice, as over 400 bankruptcies and more than $140 billion in debt in danger of being evaluated as junk.[r125]
But this also smashed Russia who needs a price of $42 per barrel to keep their domestic costs afloat.[r126] In the end, Russia has ended up losing a large portion of their Asian customer base, especially major sales to China. The original OPEC ask in March of 2020 for Russia to cut back was less than 1 million barrels per day; instead, after enraging Saudi Arabia, Putin was instead forced to cut back production by more than 2.5 million barrels per day by mid-April of 2020.[r127] During the five week long price war, at one point oil dropped to nearly $10 per barrel, and cratered Russia's entire industry.[r128]
The long-term risk to the US shale industry is still to be determined; the individual production companies in the Dakotas and Texas, etc., may fail en masse due to debt structuring of an emerging market, but the technology is successful and the debt will just be reorganized by the hyper-aggressive US finance markets. Several shale companies will likely die, but the industry is here to stay.[r129] As oil costs increased in 2021 and 2022, the shale industry in the US is booming again.
From a Russian perspective, the deal is disastrous. For Lukoil, the decision was billed as "humiliating but necessary."[r130] Saudi Arabia re-asserted its role as the market price setter, even if the US out-produces them. To Saudi Arabia, the requirement to be the largest producer or exporter doesn't matter as much as the ability to control the market to a level that keeps their national wealth at the standard they want. Ultimately, Saudi Aramco flexing their production muscle brought a reluctant Putin to the table amidst the crashed demand from a COVID-19 wrecked global economy.
COVID-19 exposed a lot of issues in Russia. Exceptionally poor pandemic planning compounded with a focus on economic issues at the expense of their population was not an exclusively American folly; Russia would see their PM Mikhail Mishustin among other officials contract the disease[r131] while three doctors who had all voiced concerns with policy over treatment of COVID-19 would all mysteriously fall out of windows to either death or serious injury.[r132] The IMF estimates Russia's economy may have contracted as much as 5.5% in 2020, while the health minister reluctantly acknowledged the nation wasn't prepared to deal with a pandemic.[r133]
Russia was also forced to close the border with China due to health concerns and public image over COVID-19. This was detrimental for Moscow on many levels. With a very low-output and inefficient economy, the exports of raw materials to China - exploiting Russia's natural resources to feed the Chinese manufacturing sector - is a very effective method to keep the Russian oligarchs financially stable. It allows the power-players who keep Putin in power to retain wealth by exploiting the last semblances of a scarcity based economy. The trade imbalance with China was a net positive for Russia, one of the few countries on the planet to boast a positive trade imbalance with China. With that no longer operable, Russia's illusion of dominance in the Eurasian markets faded quickly. In the post-COVID-19 post-Ukraine invasion meeting between Russia and China, the borders were re-opened, but purely in favor of Chinese interests.
The Russian public was disillusioned with Putin's handling of COVID-19, even as Moscow struggles to gain positive global public relations by announcing a vaccine (dubbed "Sputnik V") which supposedly offered two years of immunity to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) CoV-19, the virus that causes COVID-19. The efficacy of such a vaccine is suspect by most objective scientists.[r134] One of the principle mechanisms of the Russian vaccine uses an adenovirus vector for protein gene surface delivery that has been shown in other vaccine trials (for other diseases) to actually increase the likelihood of infection. The shrinking community of academia in Russia doesn't have the same kind of "sanity checks" over emergency drug approvals that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, allowing for the Russian government to overwhelm science with propaganda. The Russian vaccine's efficacy is suspect also because it has not undergone phase III trials, the phase II trials in both Russia and China were done only with healthy volunteers, and not with anyone suffering from a comorbidity who probably need an effective and safe vaccine more than the healthy do, and by the time Russia promised a vaccine, no one worldwide really knew what an ideal immune response to the virus would even look like.[r135] After Russian propaganda announced an effective vaccine, another study showed re-infection is possible within only a few months.[r136] The efficacy of the Russian vaccine doesn't address any of these questions. Russia did ultimately walk-back some of the claims over availability of Sputnik V, and instead has ordered an actual phase III trial.[r137] The phase III trial completion date was originally estimated to be in May of 2021, though it wasn't actually approved until August of 2021, meaning Russia's blustering about "first to a cure" - assuming the adenovirus 5 vector issues aren't actually a major health risk as some have warned[r138] - still put it behind several other vaccines.[r139] Its efficacy is still unknown as of early 2023.
The vaccine safety & efficacy and three doctors mysteriously falling from windows after voicing concerns with Russian policy were not the only controversy in Russia with their handling of COVID-19. To an even greater extent than China the statistics in Russia fly in the face of statistical reality.[r140] Unlike the US and the EU, Russia only reports COVID-19 deaths when no other comorbidity is present.[r141] This means Russian fatalities due to COVID-19 are probably triple what is reported.[r142] Further, Russia promised a peer reviewed academic journal article on the vaccine in August of 2020; as September arrived, it was nowhere to be found, another hollow promise.
No amount of propaganda can overcome simple math however. Despite successful bullying of Ukraine (prior to the disastrous invasion) to protect their natural gas monopoly, Russia dealt with COVID-19, Saudi Arabia and their own population quite poorly. The economic suffering of the Russian oil industry has short term impacts on the ruling elite that Putin caters to, but Russia's real Achilles' Heel is similar to China's: a crashing population.
More demographic risk
While China's TFR collapse is well documented with the one-child and two-child policies and a multi-millennial cultural norm of filial piety, in Russia the TFR since 1880 has been a veritable roller coaster, with highs and lows often completely contrarian to neighbors and socio-economic peers.[r143] These highs and lows have ebbed to mostly lows. In 2017, Russia recorded a birth rate of 1.69 million babies while more than 1.8 million Russians died. Russia's population contracted by 134,400.[r144] The death rate is exacerbated by a male life expectancy one would expect in a third-world nation, fueled mostly by alcoholism. In the year 2000, Russia's net migration was ~213,600, TFR of Russian women was 1.2, and male life expectancy was only 59.0 years of age.[r145] A very grim outlook. While male life expectancy has risen dramatically since then, it has not reversed the trend of a shrinking Russian population.
The shrinking birth rate matches the data for Russian TFR. It's been on a slide for a long time and is consistently below the 2.1 required for population stability.
Russia's TFR consistently ranks among the lowest in the world, but does not have incoming immigration to replenish the national labor pool like the US does. Instead, Russia has a "brain drain" of not merely their best and their brightest, but of their entire labor pool. Between 1.6 and 2 million Russians fled Russia for western democracies since Putin took power[r146] - and that was prior to the mobilization-fueled exodus during the Ukrainian invasion in 2022. Much like the capital leaving Russia as shown above, the people leaving are part of a bigger long-term problem for Russia.
Between the lack of immigration, the departure of people to western democracies, and the crashing birth rates, Russia's population will decline significantly, even without the large numbers of dead in Ukraine. The only question is how much; the UN's World Population Prospects shows a possibility of Russia's population declining from ~146 million in 2020 to ~135 million in 2050. The UN's own pessimistic calculations predict a possible Russian population of around ~104 million in 2100 if things do not change.
Putin has pushed for policy to change the outcome of Russia's demographic collapse, proposing a "Maternal Capital" first in 2006, then proposing an increase in January of 2020 that would drastically increase the cost of the program from $4.4 billion in 2018 to $6.9 billion in 2020.[r147] Yet the funds to conduct this increase have instead disappeared with the oil crash of 2020.
It's not terribly important either; the subsidies are only part of the problem for Russian population constriction.
"Subsidies cannot impact the birth rate in any way. First, a low birth rate is registered not only among the poor, but also among those financially able to raise another child. Second, similar trends are observed in all developed countries. In some of them, the birth rate is higher than in Russia (e.g. France), but there are other wealthy countries where it is lower (e.g. Germany). The notion that the number of children and a family’s economic capacity are directly linked is wrong. Besides, the birth rate coefficient of 1.7 [Putin's stated target] is quite low. This number is insufficient to achieve even population replacement in Russia... ...There is no hope to resolve the birth rate problem in Russia." Anatoly Vishnevsky in an interview with Novaya Gazeta
This drastically small population will also have a drastically small number of people capable of defending it from external threats. Whether the external threats are real or imagined, Russia has long held beliefs that foreign invasion was an existential threat. As Igor Sikorsky Jr., son of the famed Russian émigré who founded Sikorsky Aircraft in the United States - the manufacturer of popular US military platforms such as the UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-53K King Stallion - wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in 1981.[r148]
"The Soviets are dominated by fear of invasion. Historically, they have the lesson of Napoleon but, even more recently, the remembrance of World War II predominates and the idea of vast armies stalking through their heartland. No consideration of Russian motivation can ignore safely the fact that Soviet fears are genuine and, to some extent, well-founded. The Soviet Union was invaded by the West, albeit with relatively small forces, after the Revolution and World War I; the Soviet Union was brutally devastated by a surprise attack at the commencement of World War II. From the Soviet point of view, marks and memories of that invasion abound throughout the country." Igor Sikorsky Jr., June 30, 1981.
Some have argued that the rise in life expectancy, particularly among males, the moderate increase in GDP and the marginal increase in economic productivity mean the demographic collapse of Russia isn't truly catastrophic,[r149] yet the mean wages and levels of poverty in Russia as well as wealth inequality are growing, as is the "brain drain." Population alone isn't a very reliable barometer of national power. With a population of 170 million, Bangladesh is certainly not as powerful as the UK with only 67 million, much less over double. The ability to educate and empower a population into a strong economic force is the best benchmark of national power in the context of demographics.[r150] From this perspective, again, Russia is a complex beast.
A History of Complexity
Traditionally, Imperial Russia then the Soviet Union utilized a massive populace to field the large types of armies required to fight in second generation warfare types of combat. During World War I, Imperial Russian conscription would lead to one of Russia's first forays against Islamic violence, as the Semirechye Revolt of 1916 would include mass killings of Russian settlers by the central Asian Muslim populations. This problem was mostly Russia's own design. After the disastrous defeat to a multi-national front in the Crimean War of the mid-1850s,[r151] Imperial Russia realized they desperately needed to modernize as they were one of the only remaining feudal states in Europe. The evolution began with the abolition of private serfdom and their emancipation in 1861.[r152] While Russia's agrarian occupants struggled to break their debt-bonds as serfs from the landed gentry, the Russian military expanded throughout central Asia during the mid-19th century just like most other world powers.
"The position of Russia in Central Asia is that of all civilized states which are brought into contact with half-savage nomad populations possessing no fixed social organization. . . The United States of America, France in Algeria, Holland in her Colonies, England in India; all have been forced by imperious necessity into this onward march, where the greatest difficulty is to know where to stop." Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov, 1864.
This resulted in the annexation of many territories in what is now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, in an area that Russia dubbed Turkestan in 1876.[r153] The famed Russian PM Sergei Witte would embrace capitalist reforms for the Russian agrarian class near the turn of the 20th century, and lead to the Stolypin reform.[r154] The prevailing thought in Moscow was to empower the former serfs to embrace free-market economic forces for modernizing their farming, and also breaking their debt bonds to the landed gentry in western Russia. This also required available land, and the newly annexed territories from the numerous defeated Khanates, bolstered by subsidies and transportation access from the Imperial coffers lead to major demographic shifts. When Russia invaded the land to be known as Turkestan in the 1860s, as many as 5 million mostly Muslim tribesmen lived in the rural steppe between the few large cities. By 1911, the re-settlement of Russian Cossacks would lead to a Russian population of around 2 million in the Kazakh steppe, Turkestan, and Bukhara.[r155] The Russians would find their colonial end at the Durand Line which now separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, shored up in an Anglo-Russian treaty in 1907 after multiple disastrous incursions into Afghanistan by the British.[r156]
Eventually, as Russia was being pummeled by Imperial Germany during World War I, the need for forces wasn't as well thought out as it should have been. Turkestan had been ruled by a military governor general, and with the locals having no representation within the Russian Duma, the backlash of the attempted draft was far beyond what Moscow would have expected. The resulting blow-back would lead to an estimated 3,000 Russians - mostly elderly, women, and children, as the majority of men had left for the eastern front to fight the Germans - were killed by locals, stirred into a religious fervor by local Imams to commit jihad.
The Russian response was nothing if not overwhelming. As many as 40% of the ethnic Kyrgyz were wiped out as were massive tracts of native settlements.[r157]
Ultimately, Russia had too little industrialization and advancement of TTP across all three levels of warfare to have had any result in World War I other than catastrophic loss. The relative success of the Brusilov Offensive that forced the Germans to further abandon the principles of the Schlieffen Plan was significant toward the ultimate allied victory. The actions in Western Ukraine by Brusilov effectively removed Austrio-Hungary as a major player in the war and forced the Germans to alter their commitment to action in the west, primarily at Verdun.
However, Russia would capitulate internally shortly thereafter into the Bolshevik revolution, and ultimately the Soviet Union. The very same farmers who had moved to embrace capitalist growth were collectivized. The Islamic locals considered separatism away from Russia but were ultimately federated into the Soviet Union without consent. Leninist policy was nothing if not demanding.
Hybrid warfare and proxy wars with third offset tactics
Russia's use of hybrid warfare is predicated on an understanding of what Russian policy and Russian military planners consider to be asymmetric advantages for Russia. Among them is the value of their A2/AD systems to deter potential adversaries - particularly NATO nations - from threatening the outright sovereignty of Russia and Russia's perceived superiority upon all Russian neighbors.
From Russia's perspective, "hybrid war" was perfected by the United States, with concerted efforts of diplomatic concessions and pressures by the US State Department, alliances and exercises sustained by the US DoD, and information spread by the US media and the general US population on social media.[r158] In reality, the level of bureaucracy in the US Federal government keeps most any concentrated synergies from the US State Department and DoD from making any positive overtures. The idea of concentrated efforts across the grossly independent US media, much less the wholly chaotic social media sphere is laughable. That many times, from Russia's perspective, these separate pillars of the US seemed to work in concert is rather a reflection of the incentives and motivations of all of these separate actors dovetailing together to seem "anti-Russian." In that context, it doesn't seem too difficult to draw the analysis of a counter-Russian strategy across the various actors. That all the pillars were "anti-Russian" wasn't true so much in that random American folks on social media, the US mainstream media, the State Department and the US DoD are all actually pro-liberty, and that's very anti-Putin.
The Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine in 2004 and Georgia in 2003, respectively, were seen as lessons learned by Russia, ones that were skillfully implemented with their new model of warfare implemented against the Ukraine in the Crimea. Russia would keep their military footprint tiny, with boots on ground not merely a small moral liability, but a tiny fiscal liability. Instead, conventional forces became a security apparatus to protect UAV-based ISR and IDF assets supporting proxy forces. Additionally, cyber forces that never left Russian soil operated across the entire hybrid model. This included not merely GRU operatives who penetrated Ukrainian digital systems, but also those that "hacked the Ukrainian" and applied social pressures. This combined hybrid war imposed far more costs on the Ukrainian defense forces than it did on the Russians involved and this combined to make the warfare model sustainable for Russia over the long term while also manipulating popular discourse to their favor in both nations. Russia began a long propaganda campaign to imply Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine were Nazis committing genocide (neither of which was true.)[r159]
The Russian approach to defense is a multi-faceted one. Within the Russian General Staff, opinions from forward thinking generals such as Valery Gerasimov postulate Russia can take a "new" approach to both offense and defense, but he has not completely changed the Russian traditions. Many of these are based on worldviews from the Soviet era: that there is an ongoing existential challenge to Russian hegemony and that only with long-term multi-dimensional superiority can Russia "protect itself" from the aggressors abroad.
Russia is not a monolithic nation, nor is it particularly well organized. As shown, the oligarchs are often willing to have contracted murders carried out within Russia, as is Putin - to whom a long list of journalists and opposition politicians could attest if they weren't deceased. Putin also has GRU Unit 29155[r160] - more commonly referred to as the 161st Special Purpose Specialist Training Center - willing to carry out extra-national assassinations such as those against former GRU Agent Colonel Sergei Skripal in the UK in March of 2018 or the attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny on August 20th, 2020.[r161] However, in spite of these iron fists, the weight of Russia's own corruption carries with it penalties when viewed in the context of effective long-term national security. This is particularly true when seen through a lens of existential threat from abroad. If anything, the flaws in a lack of maneuver warfare "speed of thought," a preference for buffer states and the desire to control them, extremely advanced informational warfare exploitation, a strong preference for A2/AD doctrine and defensive warfare echoes the same Russian philosophies that Putin tries to exploit when justifying the gambit he's presented to the Russia public: abandon liberalism and freedom for the comforts of security and prosperity.[r162] As prosperity never comes for the masses, and the illusion of security is intermixed with calls to arms over endless foreign threats, what is presented is actually blustering arrogance over a deep-seeded sense of dread. Much like Dostoevsky could wind a tapestry of hubris amidst a failure of morality, or Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn could find the depression in the midst of everything, Putin and his administration have managed to make their military seem like an overwhelming juggernaut capable of annihilating all of NATO, while simultaneously portraying every action that disturbs the wealth of the Russian ruling class as a profusely dire threat to the very existence of Russia. Much like the protagonists in a Platonov novel, it's grim and tiring.
This philosophical viewpoint informs the evolution of the Russian warfare strategy.
Only Putin knows if he genuinely fears the west or if he considers the west a tool for exploitation in gaining Russian wealth for himself and his inner circle. What is true is that this exploitation has happened and the mixture of this perspective of the Russian culture with the push from the oligarchy.
As Russia modernized to adopt third generation maneuver tactics, so did their military posture, and this has mostly compensated for their lack of manpower prior to their foray into Ukraine. Russian military doctrine at lower organizational levels still revels in the types of Leninist doctrine levied that is ingrained in the Russian psyche. At the operational and tactical levels of third generation maneuver warfare there are still deficits in creative thought within the confines of commander's intent. Nor is there a nascent ability to "tighten the OODA loop." These shortfalls aren't a product of demographic collapse or changes in the Russian General Staff. If anything, modern Russian warfare policies and doctrine are a natural extension of the same pressures facing Russia as a whole; lack of creativity in the economic sphere writ-large, which is compensated for with a more holistic embracing of information warfare all for the benefit of the ruling elite.
Russian policy will continue to follow the Gerasimov Doctrine and utilize hybrid warfare as a net cost savings instrument for protracted engagements in an expeditionary posture. Much of that is owed to the oligarchy as well though, as proxy forces fight - and die - on behalf of Russian wealth, not the Russian people.[r163] This philosophy isn't a bad one; it's bolstered by the fact that since the invasion of South Ossetia, Russian hybrid warfare in action has been - with the exception of the battle of Khursham - mostly successful.[r164]
The battle of Khursham, in February 2018 ostensibly occurred when Syrian government forces, pushing a mostly defeated ISIS eastward out of their territory met US allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pushing ISIS westward out of their territory.[r165] A deconfliction line, to prevent potential mid-air collisions existed between the US and Russia given the large numbers of air assets belonging to both countries operating in the region, and the Euphrates river served as the natural ground border between the two sides.
As ISIS collapsed, the shadowy PMC Wagner Group was contracted to reclaim Syrian oil fields which ISIS had been using to generate revenue from 2014 to 2017, and the Prigozhin controlled company would then collect a percentage of the proceeds generated from the recovered oil fields. For Wagner Group, the Omar field, among the largest in Syria,[r166] and the American funded natural gas facility owned by Conoco were within striking distance from Syrian and Wagner held territory on the west side of the river.
Unfortunately for Wagner, the SDF forces in that area were accompanied by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operators, another Special Operations Forces (SOF) unit (specifically US Army (USA) SF), and conventional US Marine Corps (USMC) ran a small forward operating base (FOB) approximately 20 miles away.[r167] The combined Syrian and Wagner force had been collecting on the west side of the river, monitored by US aircraft, until they moved east into the SDF and US controlled zone.
The US mission commanders called the Russians on the deconfliction line and told them there were forces massing on the east side of the Euphrates in close proximity to American forces, and that if fired upon, the US forces would annihilate any attacking forces. Russian military on the deconfliction line assured the Americans there were no Russians present in the Khursham area on the east side of the river.
A resulting fight ensued when tanks and large weapons systems were used by the Syrian and Wagner force in an attempt to seize the oil fields and the natural gas refinery. The US force responded mostly with American close air support (CAS) and IDF that pummeled the Syrian and Wagner force. The official tally for the total number of Russian dead from the Wagner force range from a low of four to a high of 200.[r168] Independent tallies reliably list a total of around 80 dead and over 100 wounded Russians.[r169]
The potential profits from the natural gas and oil field were massive; the greed from Prigozhin equally massive. The forces on the ground however were arrayed against each other in a formation that favored the American forces capabilities with communications, massed air power and relative air superiority. The resulting CAS coordinated by the strike cells and called in by the ground forces leveled the Wagner PMCs.
Despite this setback, Wagner has been very successful as an irregular warfare (IW) extension of Russian foreign policy, especially given the dovetailing of Prigozhin and Putin's interests. Because of this, the use of PMCs like Wagner, often working with Spetsnaz, GRU, or directly upon their behalf giving Russia a large amount of plausible deniability and low-cost options for manipulating activities in foreign countries. Even after the events of June 2023 and exile of Prigozhin, Wagner continues to operate in Syria and Africa.
MAD is still a path to peace, but not to stability
The probability of a "shooting war" between any traditional (United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, United States, Canada, Italy, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Germany and Spain) member of NATO and the actual Russian military is very unlikely. The alliances in play among the EU member states, particularly members of Schengen treaty and those within the Eurozone, as well as traditional NATO members such as the US, UK and Canada mean actual aggressive acts of war by Russia will likely be met with aggressive firepower from the US, up to and including the use of nuclear arsenals. For Russia, who despite its age and poor maintenance still possesses a vast nuclear weapons capability, the question of nuclear parity or a "missile gap"[r170] may no longer be part of the US nuclear weapon modernization calculus, yet the concept of MAD[r171] remains not only US policy, but as pointed out in the previous paper, it's also contextualized as part of the pivot rotation.
Nuclear stalemate is still a pathway against a full-blown conventional war, but it's only part of the reason Russia wouldn't try to escalate into a shooting war with the US. The other reason is that Russia doesn't stand to profit from a post-apocalyptic nuclear exchange (really no one does), and because in the shoot/maneuver war leading up to a nuclear exchange, Russia stands zero chance against the US military.
Ukraine 2022: The end of Russia as a near peer
Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 has proven many of these points. The nation-states (China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela) portions of this paper were mostly written between February 2020 and November of 2021; as of February 2022, the portion that was in the research phase was on Hezbollah and the narrative section was the al-Qaeda section - both of which are tens of thousands of words later in this paper. Yet, Putin's decision to invade Ukraine required a whole new section of the Russia part of the paper, massive re-edits of the entire Russia section, and will also likely require an entirely new summary section about Russia, re-written in August of 2023.
Russian troops began forming en masse near the Ukrainian border, encircling the former Soviet republic as early as January of 2022.[r172] Russia did not merely array their forces along the disputed eastern front where they made false claims of genocide against ethnic Russians,[r173] they moved forces through Belarus, through the Crimean peninsula they had illegally annexed in 2014, and all along the northern border of Ukraine.
The US declassified massive amounts of intelligence and broadcasted to the world, including that Russia was planning a false-flag attack as a pretext for invasion.[r174] In spite of this, Putin overplayed the value of the west's reliance on Russian oil and natural gas. The assumption by Putin, given the value of infrastructure projects like the Nord Stream 2[r175] and the overall reliance on Russian energy - in 2019, Russia accounted for 27% of Europe's crude oil, 41% of Europe's natural gas, and 47% of Europe's solid fuels (such as coal)[r176] - was the west would rapidly "move on" from his actions. Given the irrefutable need for low-cost energy to sustain an advanced western economy[r177] as well as the tendency for European economies to lean even further into Russian energy resources as they shutter nuclear power plants[r178] and renewable "green" energy as a market lags behind even the most basic projections,[r179] Russia felt the economic pressures for European nations were clearly in Moscow's favor. Combined with the fatigue for combat that NATO in general[r180] and the US in particular have after an "eternal" war with politically disastrous fallout from the handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, the fallout from Russia's collapsed TFR meant the clock was counting down to expand the number of ethnic Russians and the sphere of Putin's authority.
While Putin did accurately assess that neither NATO nor the US in particular would militarily counter an invasion, Putin made a series of errors in his assessment, the types of errors typical of an egomaniac. He consistently underestimated everyone else while overestimating his own hand.
- The Kremlin underestimated the severity of the sanctions levied by western governments.
- The Russian military underestimated the combat capabilities of the Ukrainian military.
- Most of the planet - other than maybe Volodymyr Zelensky - underestimated the resolve of the Ukrainian populace to mount an immediately effective insurgency and support the Ukrainian military.
- The Kremlin also failed to account for significant damage to their economy done by western corporations and interests pulling out of Russian business dealings.
- Russia overestimated their cyber capabilities relative to Ukraine's (and the rest of the world's).
- Russia also vastly overestimated their military's capabilities in combat using maneuver warfare as opposed to just semi-static hybrid-warfare.
- Putin didn't plan for not merely western corporations to boycott the Russian market sphere, but for thousands of western corporations and people to volunteer their time, effort and commodities to impose additional stress on Russian invaders and the Russian ruling class.
The sanctions pose the widest threat to Russia for myriad reasons. The strength in depth against the nation as a whole of the sanctions package alone is incredibly powerful,[r181] but the breadth in sanctions has also allowed for attacking a larger body of corrupt Russian oligarchs.[r182] The sanctions package will impact the Russian economy for years - if not decades - to come.[r183]
The scope of the sanctions is massive; between the US, UK, EU, Canada, Japan and others: sanctions on multiple banks including over 80% of all banking assets within Russia,[r184] severing them from the SWIFT - cutting them off from the rest of the world's banking capabilities; freezing of Russia's access to foreign currency reserves (over $600b), and ultimately drastically impacting Russia's sales of oil, natural gas and other energy.[r185] The economic impact has been overwhelming, especially for the middle and lower classes[r186] with the value of the ruble tumbling to less than one cent (approximately equal to 0.75¢ on March 8th, 2022). In addition to governments isolating Russia's economic system, multinational corporations have pulled out of Russia as well, with Visa, MasterCard, and American Express all ceasing financial operations in Russia,[r187] Apple and Google turning off their payment services for Apple Pay and Google Pay, respectively,[r188] as well as major corporations such as McDonald's, Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Pepsi all ceasing operations in Russia.[r189] The sporting world has even penalized Russia, with Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) kicking all Russian professional clubs out of all European competitions and terminating the Russian national team from World Cup qualification.[r190] Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and their race series Formula 1 terminated not merely the 2022 Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, but also terminated their relationship with Russia who was set to host the Russian Grand Prix in St. Petersburg in 2023 and moving forward.[r191] The most important corporations for Russian national wealth are arguably multinational energy companies, and many of these too have terminated Russian relationships including Shell Oil and British Petroleum (BP).[r192]
One of the principle ideas of the sanctions has been to ratchet up pressure on Putin by attacking the only surface area in which he suffers from pressure: his fellow oligarchs.[r193] In fact, the pressures on the initial oligarchs targeted for sanctions even impacted behaviors of other oligarchs, such as Abramovich who announced his intent to sell current FIFA Club World Cup and UEFA Champions League champions Chelsea Football Club on March 2nd.[r194] The projected sale was put on hold on March 10th when he was in turn sanctioned.[r195] Todd Boehly, the co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers completed the purchase of Chelsea in late May, 2022.[r196] Additional sanctions placed on Dmitry and Nikita Mazepin validated Haas Formula One team's decision to terminate Nikita's contract and remove Urakali sponsorship from their cars.[r197]
The economic impacts on Russia will be felt for decades, and given Russia's TFR issues and the lack of productivity from their economy, Russia may not become a pacing threat to the US DoD for several generations, if ever again.
The US DoD is also learning a huge amount of information about Russia's maneuver warfare capabilities and the level of "yes men" that misreported readiness reality from the bottom to the top in the conventional Russian Army.
Much of this is due to poor Russian logistics. While Russian Army doctrine, particularly fire support tactics require a larger logistical support menu of resupply, Russian Army organizations actually have a smaller logistic footprint at most combat echelons.[r198] This requires a more difficult level of support and often ties Russian logistical support to access to railheads and depots.[r199] Wargaming by think-tanks had assumed the Russian logistics shortfall and the political realities in Eastern Europe meant only by doing what Russia basically did in 2008 in Georgia or Crimea in 2014 - a fait accompli - could they achieve further gains to Russia.[r200] Russia's logistics shortfall meant they were going to have such severe difficulties projecting ground power into any NATO nation that Article 5 would have prevented them from making lasting gains that could have shattered the alliance.[r201] Ukraine, on the other hand, by virtue of not being within NATO could be invaded over a slower time period - relatively speaking in terms of the ability for NATO to counter-project force, but for a Ukrainian invasion to be successful, Russia was still going to need to make rapid sustained gains, topple the government, install a Russian friendly proxy, and do so quick enough to revert to pre-invasion economic engagement with the west.
The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride. - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, solidifying Ukrainian support from not merely his military, but the people of Ukraine.
Ukraine has put up an immense amount of opposition to Russia, bolstered by international support of every type.
A massive aerial fleet of spy planes circles Ukraine, along the Baltic state's borders, and throughout the Black Sea.[r202] In addition to classified intelligence sharing by US spy agencies and the military,[r203] private sector efforts in the west have included massive data projects, providing open-source data from private citizens around the world with tools like liveuamaps.com to nullify Russian operational security (OPSEC) and further the already sizable demoralization of Russian conscripts.[r204]
Theories for the pause of the Russian convoy that paused for over a week[r205] range from low-quality and poorly maintained tires unable to cope with Ukrainian mud[r206] to warnings that the convoy would merely establish effective combat outposts. Reality was probably that tire degradation did play a role, but the convoy's extreme distance from Russian depots lead to logistical issues it took nearly a week to rectify. The convoy finally started to disperse in early March,[r207] yet it didn't turn into an overwhelming attack that decimated Ukraine. Nonetheless, relentless shelling of Ukrainian civilians[r208] has resulted in hundreds of needless civilian deaths in less than three weeks and nearly four million refugees and/or internally displaced civilians.[r209] By March 10, 2022, independent analysis showed as many as 6,000 Russian soldiers and 4,000 Ukrainian forces had also been killed.[r210]
With Russia's inability to establish air dominance, there are various theories as to why:
|A.||Inability to deconflict their own aircraft from their own Russian (and Belarusian) based surface-to-air (SA) defenses|
|B.||Russian Air Forces are held in reserve against NATO|
|C.||Lack of precision guided munitions needed to do low-collateral damage attacks in heavily built infrastructure|
|D.||Fear of Ukrainian SA defenses|
|E.||Inability to conduct complex air operations|
Of the above reasons, A-D don't make sense in context of the actual war. For reason A., this doesn't make any sense as the Russians have been using advanced aircraft in proximity to their own SA defenses in Syria for over six years, without any incident.[r211] Regarding B., this too is actually counterproductive as the lack of operational effectiveness by the Russian Air Force in Ukraine is weakening the perceived threat that it would have to NATO forces.[r212] Regarding C., the use of dumb bombs against the populace, by the middle of March 2022 we'd have seen massive use of Russian Air Force as the Russian artillery on the ground is murdering innocent civilians en masse. There is no moral protection of Ukrainian civilians by Russian military planners.[r213] Regarding D., this may have an impact on some use of Russian aircraft; many facets of Russian aviation now only fly at night or target from well outside of Ukrainian airspace using offset weapons, probably due to the persistent man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). However, risk aversion hasn't played a role in the use of any other assets; Russian tanks are pushed into Ukraine with almost reckless abandon, being absolutely pummeled by Javelins and other forces with major losses of armor.[r214] Which leaves us with the fact that the Russian air forces really can't operate in a complex environment or using complex operations.[r215] This seems hard to believe from the perspective of the US Air Force who've watched the Russian air forces modernize extensively for the last dozen years with modernized equipment,[r216] yet Russia hasn't really addressed the bigger gulf between the gold standard of Air Forces in the United States and what Russia's service lacks: training.[r217] The average Russian combat pilot gets far less time in the cockpit, far less comprehensive simulator training, no exercises like Red Flag or Green Flag, and their training sorties are significantly less complex.[r218] By this stage of the invasion, even accepting they would lose aircraft in the process, Russia should have already achieved overwhelming air dominance by using strike packages to cripple the Ukrainian A2/AD umbrella.[r219] Instead, while Ukrainian SA capabilities are degraded, they still pose an operationally significant deterrence to Russian forces. If anything, Russia's inability to plan and execute complex operations is the principle reason Ukraine still has a moderately effective SA capabilities.
The inability to do complex operations in the air also belies an inability to do complex things at all. This is possibly why so many senior level commanders have been killed on the front lines, including four Russian generals as of 5 June, 2022. The four Russian generals, Andrei Sukhovetsky, commander of the 7th Airborne Division;[r220] Vladimir Frolov, deputy commander of the 8th Guards Combined Arms Army;[r221] Kanamat Botashev, a retired general thought to have been working for Wagner group[r222] and Roman Kutuzov, commander 1st Army Corps of Donetsk People's Militia[r223] have been confirmed as killed. Additionally, Oleg Mityaev,[r224] commander of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division; Andrei Kolesnikov,[r225] commander of the 29th Combined Arms Army; Yakov Rezantsev,[r226] commander of the 49th Combined Army Army and Andrei Simonov,[r227] chief of electronic warfare, 2nd Guards Combined Arms Army have been reported killed and have not been confirmed nor denied as of 19 October, 2022.
That all of these senior officers were perilously close to the front lines, suggests lack of effective command and control.
The fabrications used by Putin to justify the war - and the suppression of the Russian populace, going so far as to enact laws restricting a free press, and criminalizing the use of the terms "invasion" or "war" to describe Russia's invasion of Ukraine[r228] and the killing of Ukrainian civilians with relentless and indiscriminate artillery strikes drag on in spite of information from the western media trickling into Russia.
Russia is not achieving the level of success most scholars and pundits agree they should have been capable of. Now that they've resorted to barbaric tactics in an attempt to suppress the populace, they are in turn destroying all potential access they may have enjoyed to energy markets had they handled the situation with more nuance.
The long-term geopolitical economic benefits to the US may be multifaceted. The costs of gasoline in America, and the soaring inflation are, despite denials and deflections, largely due to the Biden Administration's policies.[r229] Between shutting down the Keystone Pipeline project, John Kerry's efforts to move most large lending institutions in the US into the Net-Zero Banking Alliance which meant massive restrictions in lending for most American energy companies, and the restrictions on permits in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve, the Gulf of Mexico and other federal lands, it shrank supply to the global market while not decreasing domestic demand.[r230] However, in spite of an effort to shift blame for inflation and gasoline prices onto Putin, Biden may have inherited an opportunity to fix strategic level economic errors without paying a penalty in the elections. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Biden and Democrats were facing a very difficult election in November 2022[r231] due to inflation as well as extra large gasoline costs.[r232] In March of 2022, 71% of American support the resumption of construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline.[r233] The volatility of the futures market, in which some see a backwardation trend,[r234] and others see contango from demand growth,[r235] it is already known that current spot prices for crude oil make the existing shale fields highly profitable.[r236] The Bakken Field has resumed production.[r237] When the section above was written about oil production, the Trump Administration had made the US largely energy independent. The Biden Administration reversed that in an effort to force Green Policy earlier. This enabled Putin to be more forceful due to his sudden growth in relevance with Russia's energy resources. So, in many ways the economic naïveté of the Biden Administration encouraged Putin's adventurism into Ukraine. Unfortunately, the alternatives proposed now are similarly unacceptable. The Biden Administration has considered easing sanctions on Venezuela and Iran - two nations listed in this paper for very valid reasons - to ease the oil pressure.[r238] This has already preemptively lead to a group of US Senators proposing legislation to block the use of Iranian or Venezuelan oil.[r239]
There is a clear security risk in tangling energy dependence on our enemies, especially when they've been continuous supporters of anti-American terrorists. Tying of American energy policy to any foreigners, much less enemies, makes our diplomatic and economic instruments of power weaker.
Maybe, just maybe, the West shouldn't have outsourced its energy strategy to a dictator from another country, someone they all claim to have known was a dictator. What was the plan exactly? To lure Russia into being nice by giving them all this power over the West while cutting off our own ability to supply energy to ourselves and others? - Dan Hollaway, Newsweek, March 2nd, 2022
With the war in Ukraine, there is an opportunity to embrace domestic energy independence through reversal of poor policy.[r240] After Biden took office and reversed Trump's strategic energy policies, the US became reliant upon Russia.[r241] The appetite for voters now has clearly swung back towards wanting security from energy independence, which may cause the administration to follow the overwhelming voice of the public.[r242] Despite doing much better in the midterm election of 2022 than expected, Democrats only were successful because many of their competitors were even more ridiculous in the minds of voters. National approval for domestic energy policy of the Biden administration continues (as of December, 2022), abysmal.
The need for energy independence is so dire that the Chairman of Tesla Motors[r243] even called for it, knowing it would have negative consequences for his own company.
Even after Zelensky's call for support on March 16th 2022, likelihood of NATO enacting a no-fly zone is minimal, when no such order was enacted even through the end of 2022. However, this isn't to say Russia isn't a threat to NATO. Putin is a politically, economically, and militarily wounded animal backed into a corner; the endgame is rapidly becoming a wildcard where Putin's decisions are less rational as he may face war crimes charges.[r244] It is however relevant to point out that escalation between the west and Russia is very unlikely. The actors in Russia are motivated by greed and power, not dogmatic ideology.
Political pressures internally from sanctions are going to eventually put pressure on Putin in the form of billionaires who've never hesitated to murder over their wealth suddenly finding themselves much less wealthy. Putin is already behaving as if he's concerned about assassination,[r245] which isn't wholly without merit.[r246] Putin needs an "out" that is politically acceptable for him to save face, but also will allow for sanctions to be lifted, improving the lives of not merely the Russian people being badly hurt by both sanctions and Putin's autocratic rule, but also the oligarchs who truly control the Russian economy.
One possible solution is for two or more ostensibly neutral nations to agree to demilitarize the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, dismantling the entire frameworks there of hostilities by removing the vestiges of neo-Nazism from the Azov Battalions[r247] fighting against the Russians as well as the Sparta Battalion, which is also filled with neo-Nazis[r248] (but as they fight on behalf of the Kremlin, Putin was willing to overlook that). Non-NATO Australia[r249] plus another even further removed nation such as Pakistan[r250] both under the auspices of the UN as peacekeepers could be called upon to complete Russia's "special military operation" within Ukraine, giving Putin political legitimacy, while also denying any territorial gains for Russia, maintaining Ukraine's sovereignty, and most importantly, saving the lives of innocent Ukrainians and disinterested Russian conscripts.
Under no circumstances should Ukraine give up land, promise not to disarm, or promise not to join NATO. Putin would never respect any of these and would use them as excuses to annex Ukraine yet again; he's already made it clear he does not respect Ukrainian sovereignty.[r251] Putin cannot be gifted a clear victory; the only offramp he can be given is an opportunity to walk away with no gains, massive irrecoverable economic losses and a political pyrrhic victory over the "de-Nazification" of the Donbas and Luhansk.
In September of 2022, Ukraine turned the tables on Russia violently, launching a brilliantly executed counter-offensive that depleted Russian logistics and battlefield capabilities.[r252] While many features of Ukraine's capabilities are owed to their resolve, much of their national resolve is owed to strategies learned from 10th Special Forces Group's (SFG) Green Berets.[r253] The US operators trained Ukrainians (as well as those in the Baltics and others in Eastern Europe) at all levels - from small unit tactics for cell-sized insurgents, battalion level operational units, or even the strategies of national policy, Ukraine is adopting a series of ideas that were developed by the US specifically to stop Russian hybrid warfare tactics.[r254] None-the-less, the Ukraine's counter-offensive has shown to be highly effective in not only repelling Russian troops from occupation, it's also forced strategic changes from Moscow. A sham referendum, which will not be recognized by anyone other than Russia and maybe Belarus, has been planned to move forward from November 4th, 2022 to September 23rd, 2022 in order to avoid further loss of seized territory to Ukraine[r255] - who is militarily superior to Russia in numerous ways by the summer of 2022.[r256]
In addition to Special Operations tactics, national policy impacting Ukrainian resolve, there are three other factors leading to the swing in momentum by Fall of 2022 to favor Ukraine heavily.
- Allied equipment support for Ukraine
- Ukrainian ingenuity and tactical agility
- Gross Russian incompetence at all levels
With regards to #1, among the billions of dollars in aide from NATO nations, Ukraine has proven themselves brilliant in use of the M-142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) in multiple ways, ranging from their agility in use of the system and standard NATO TTPs, as well as their own innovative tactics and employment.[r257] Given the threat that the HIMARS has turned out to be against Russian forces, Ukraine has exploited Russian TTPs as well, resulting in massive expenditure of limited numbers of precision cruise missiles on worthless decoys.[r258] It's one of many examples of Ukraine's brilliant ability to pivot faster than Russia. Another fine example of #2 above is the rapid deployment of software best described as "Uber for Fire Support" - software that wasn't just rapidly developed, creating major efficiencies on its own, but also being developed and iterated with agile principles leading to use of software derived TTPs to defeat counterfire batteries.[r259] And with regards to #3, the numbers of examples are massive. Starting with just the maintenance report from the sunken missile cruiser Moskva alone,[r260] the only thing more widespread than Russian incompetence is Russian corruption. The Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea fleet was in horrid disrepair, yet its performance "on paper" if fully operational would have made its destruction by the Ukrainians especially difficult. Instead, the Russian story that "a fire during a storm" supposedly sinking a mighty modern warship sound like absurdist propaganda, is actually, well plausible. Turns out anything more than a minor breeze and any weapons targeting by Ukraine of firepower greater than a small surface-to-surface missile was going to result in the Moskva resting on the bottom of the Black Sea.
This was hardly an exception to the rule. Corruption that defines Russian economic relationships also defines Russian military leadership. Reports of suicides after the mass majority of "reserve" equipment was found to have been harvested for scrap may prove to be apocryphal, but could also be very true.[r261]
As Putin hid behind the excuse of using NATO expansion as an existential threat, the violent and wholly unprovoked attack on Ukraine has had the exact opposite impact; NATO is now expanding on Russia's border, with previously staunchly neutral Sweden and Finland poised to become the 31st and 32nd members of the alliance.[r262] The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is easily the biggest post-Soviet blunder. Russia's use of hybrid warfare to manipulate democracies is still a threat, as is their nuclear capacity, but Russian maneuver warfare is not really worthy of the respect it was even when this paper was originally drafted. Respect for Russian maneuver warfare capabilities has dwindled almost as quickly as it took for you, the reader, to read this paper. Certainly faster than it took for the author to write it.
By September, 2022, Russia's logistics were so inept, they were relying on Iran for new drones[r263] and North Korea for stocks of artillery and rockets.[r264] And after the success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, Putin ordered mass mobilization and drafting of additional troops, going so far as to see Prigozhin's Wagner Group offer presidential pardons to prisoners who agreed to fight on behalf of Russia in Ukraine for six months.[r265] The draft is even more unpopular than the war itself.[r266] In the face of an un-popular war that Russian state-media talking-heads were unable to control the narrative of, and with a professional military that had dwindled to shreds, those being drafted aren't necessarily of the highest quality. Men have taken to fleeing Russia as fast as they can, with the price of a plane ticket out of Russia soaring.[r267]
The only thing trying to run out of Russia faster than an able-bodied man being forced to fight a war they don't believe in is the shreds of looted dollars from oligarchs desperate to cling onto their wealth before Putin runs it completely bare.
Ultimately, Russia will send more unwilling soldiers[r268] into a losing war and further plunge the nation ever farther off of a precipice. The endgame for the farcical referendums is to allow for Russia to consider illegally occupied Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizka and Kherson to join Crimea as "Russia," ergo allowing for the use of WMD "to protect the sovereignty of Russia."[r269] In reality, the use of WMD would ultimately result in NATO completely dismantling Russian federal leadership from top to bottom and the prosecution or death of Putin. Russia has no realistic endgame that isn't a catastrophe putting the 1980s fiasco in Afghanistan to shame. By June of 2023, the collapse internally was so bad, Prigozhin launched a makeshift Ministry of Defense focused coup.[r270] Even as it failed, and he resorted to exile, the true legitimacy of the Russian state is now in question.
Ten key takeaways from the above information:
- Russia will try to utilize a modernized A2/AD strategy, bolstered by profitable FMS to deny access to not merely Russia-proper, but a periphery within the nations Russia considers to be their exclusive sphere of influence. The market sphere for FMS will likely shrink catastrophically after the Ukraine invasion given both poor performance by Russian forces and the marketability of Russian goods in general.
- Russia will continue to maintain an extremely comprehensive WMD capability that makes the likelihood of direct Russia v. NATO conflicts highly unlikely, barring first-strike use of WMD. This will be Russia's only major capability that makes them a military peer in the future. If a pro-western actor can be installed in place of Putin and true de-nuclearization of Russia can occur, they may be forced to become rational actors in the European market in the future.
- Collapsing Russian demographics will not have a large tangible effect on actual Russian military capabilities in the near term, but does have long-term ramifications on other facets of Russian DIME. With the damage to Russian military credibility in Ukraine, the demographic collapse will make martial recovery more difficult.
- Long-term Russian demographic collapse correlates to long-term Russian economic instability as scarcity-based economic models will devalue Russian natural-resource wealth. Sanctions will exacerbate the model, especially as western nations as of 2023 are willing to live with the increased costs in order to penalize Russia for their aggression against Ukraine. Regardless of US energy policy, the shift in energy policy within Europe will have lasting economic effects on Russian commodities markets.
- Russia, even more-so than China knows the inevitability of their existential predicament, and this is philosophically reinforced by Russian cultural norms. Again, examples such as Ukraine in early 2022 and the need to increase the scope of ethnic Russians under Putin's control give credence to this theory.
- The corruption of the oligarchy is a pressure-point for both Putin and Russian policy at-large; manipulation of market forces outside of Russian control can be used to manipulate Russian policy as there is not a real market economy to balance the forces at play. The sanctions on the Russian economy that will squeeze the Russian middle and lower class actually have no impact on Russia like they would on the US; low-income US voters actually can sway policy in the US, unlike Russia. Conversely a tiny number of Russians actually do have the power to sway Putin, and they are also the target of sanctions after the Ukrainian invasion.
- Russia would have continued to antagonize the west in "escalate to de-escalate" rounds if their invasion of Ukraine had gone smoother and faster; given the quagmire they are now stuck in, Russia's options are narrowing for engagement with the west both diplomatically and economically. Russia will find it continuously difficult to maintain economic legitimacy and regional center of gravity status.
- If NATO partners maintain intense economic pressure on Russia, Russia will rapidly run out of options to try to gain concessions from the situation in Ukraine and be forced to disengage unequivocally. Since March of 2022 - up through December of 2022 - Russia's concern will continue to be preventing Putin from being assassinated or facing a war crimes tribunal as opposed to a lasting victory in Ukraine.
- Economic MAD is assumed with China, but thermonuclear MAD is assured with Russia - by treaty. This will be used as Moscow's only pressure point to gain concessions with Ukraine through use of WMD threats to manipulate both Ukraine and NATO.
- Russian use of proxy forces and extra-territorial murder on behalf of the state will continue as long as there continues to be absolutely no recourse against it. The sanctions package currently impacting Russia is appreciably strong, but probably should have been done after the 2014 Crimean annexation to prevent the 2016 acts against the US public leading up to the election.
Prior to invading Ukraine, Russia was more of a pacing threat than China because Russia had already realized their need for an offset strategy and had already began to pivot. Gerasimov's Hybrid warfare[r271] is more than just Russia's current doctrine, it's a reflection that an offset pivot isn't a uniquely American strategy. Russia has pivoted. Unfortunately for Russia, their maneuver warfare capabilities were woefully inadequate to capitalize on their static combat capabilities, and they've burnt a large percentage of their economic capital.
Much like China escalates and creates tensions in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans, with an end-state in mind of de-escalating in order to extract concessions, Russia has likewise done similar things, with examples such as first rotational - then permanent - deployments of Iskander missile complexes to Kaliningrad.[r272] When capable of extracting permanent strategic gains, Russia does[r273] take advantage. They were previously willing to back away from aggressive moves when they were no longer viable,[r274] but they've become "pot committed" in Ukraine.
Between the opening of the cyber domain to full-scale "total war" as part of an information dominance campaign, and the exploitation of the west's universal values of freedom of speech as a vector to manipulate democracies, Russia has operationalized information warfare and is already engaging the US as a foe. The ability to project hard power through proxies and manipulate states on the Russian border aren't merely convenient, but reflect the Russian ideologies. Ukraine was merely Russia overestimating their own capabilities. Russia's acts of destabilization of the US (and to a lesser extent, the UK and EU) populations through hybrid warfare manipulation then the acquisition of the Crimea suggest we may already be several years deep into World War III.[r275] How China postures both relative to Taiwan in the militaristic sense, and with the use of CIPS will certainly make an impact, as has the meeting between Xi and Putin that went overwhelmingly in China's favor.
The US DoD will have to not merely adjust TTP to embrace MD in order to counteract the already effective Russian aggressors, but will have to impose costs on the Russian oligarchy deemed unacceptable to continue fighting. To counter the acts in Ukraine, these sanctions must continue regardless of Russia's success or failure in Ukrainian occupation. For most actions, this will revolve around integrated use of various segments of DIME. The current combination of effects from diplomatic relations with other modern democracies to impose combined economic hardships on Russian benefactors of aggressive actions should be augmented with counterintelligence services eliminating foreign operatives who have engaged in extra-national murder. There may become a need for clandestine US military forces to neutralize proxy forces regardless of their privatized deniability if Russian use of contracted forces such as Wagner happens within any allied state.
Additionally, the failure of not merely Russia's TTPs and their gross mismanagement through corruption has bookended a severe risk to their once viable arms export market.
Wars are shop windows for defense manufacturers; any buyer in their right mind will want the technology made by the winner. Putin’s misjudgment has merely provided a fantastic marketing opportunity for its Western competitors. - Timothy Ash, Center for European Policy Analysis
Russia's continued failures in Ukraine are serving the United States nicely. Operationally, the attrition of their capabilities to threaten US forces on the battlefields of the future alone is worth the investment the US has made in Ukrainian support.[r276] When the strategic gains of their depletion of economic capabilities and their collapse from debt spending amidst severe sanctions are considered, the spending is a bargain.
The US DoD cannot afford to wait until Russia potentially collapses demographically or economically as Russia is already well aware of these shortfalls and has pivoted to exploit US philosophies, doctrines and policies as a weakness in hybrid war. Russia cannot wait for the turmoil caused by the 2024 election season to come fast enough and use their hybrid tools to potentially alleviate the DIME pressures. Quite to the contrary, the US must continue to ratchet up the pressure until Russia doesn't just capitulate in Ukraine, but is deterred from destabilizing western interests in perpetuity. Russia's aims don't seek to make the world a better place, but rather just to make a select group of Russians even richer than they already are through the use of deceit and death. Until that model is destroyed, Russia's nationalistic demise must remain a priority.
During World War II, the US's current near-peer pacing threats, Russia and China, were outright allies to the US in wars against current US allies Germany and Japan. The complexity of the diplomatic relationship with Iran is no different, at one point a foe to the Allies then a member of them in the span of two years early in World War II.
Much like Russia and China, historic relations with Iran are complex and range from ally to foe. Iranian domestic messaging is used to keep the populace focused on an external actor, and this mainly paints the US and Israel as "The Great Satan" and "The Little Satan," respectively. These aren't merely utilized as an outlet for internal anger, but also wrongly depicted as the source of all of Iran's woes.[i1]
Iranian Modern History - a British and Russian Project
Iran's distant past is basically the history of human antiquity, dating back several millennia. However, Iran's more recent past must be examined in much more detail than Russia and China's, mainly because it is a past created by a combination of despotic rulers, careless royals trying to expand an empire from afar, and ruthless unchecked cronyist robber barons. And none of these belligerents that shaped Iran's collective psyche were until very recently American. In spite of our lack of involvement in the troubles that effectively became Modern Iran, examining how external actors (mostly the UK and Russia/USSR) and an unbroken chain of autocratic leaders will better inform the complexities that would be an Iranian confrontation in the 2020s.
The modern history that informs the socio-economic structures, religious ideologies and the economies of Iran cannot possibly be distilled to a few key events, but there are a handful that top the list. The first was the Safavid Dynasty in the 1500s which established the Imamiyyah school of Shi'a Islam, and furthermore, forced the conversion of the largely Sunni Muslim population to Shi'a.[i2] The Safavid Empire would last for over 200 years.
In its early years, the Safavid leaders expanded their borders and forced Shi'a conversions on the masses. An iron fist was very successful, but Safavid Iran was surrounded by belligerents. By the early 1700s, Pashtun Afghan warlords from the Kandahar region would overthrow the Safavid Dynasty, but their rule would only stretch so far into what is modern-day southern Iran; Russia's Peter the Great attacked Iran through the Caucasus and the Ottoman Empire attacked from the west, through modern day Iraq. The Safavid Empire would ultimately be resurrected by a slave-turned-commander-turned-tyrant named Nader Shah that would earn the Caucasus back through diplomacy, and the eastern and western provinces through blood. This lead to the Afsharid Empire which would wane, and ultimately after multiple internal splits - the Zand Empire, the Talysh Khanate - the Qajar Iranian Dynasty would take control near the end of the 18th century.[i3]
While the Russian Empire did invade Iran in the early 1700s, the second major impact to modern Iran that shapes its very shape and sense of ethnic history was the Russo-Persian conflicts that stretched from the mid-1790s[i4] to the late-1820s.[i5] The punitive terms of the treaties that ended the two major Russo-Persian wars would shrink the borders of Persia significantly, cede what is modern-day Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the region of Dagestan to Russia. Within a generation, Russia was seen as a potential ally as the UK's sphere of influence had grown from India westward, through southern Afghanistan, and into Persia, leading to the Anglo-Persian War in 1856.
By the early 1890s, the ruler of Iran, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar was far removed from the perils of his great-grandfather, Fath-Ali Shah Qajar, who had signed the treaties ceding much of Persia to Russia. To Naser al-Din, Russia was a likely ally. Naser al-Din had traveled through Russia in the late 1870s and was impressed by the Cossack forces. In Imperial Russia, the Cossack model was likewise a feudal model, but the training, professionalism and focus on Cossack cavalry wouldn't merely be based on the Russian model; Naser al-Din requested support in creating a Persian Cossack force from Imperial Russia. In response, Tsar Alexander II would not merely approve the request and send officers to fill the leadership roles of the Persian Cossack force, but would utilize this relationship to strengthen Russian influence in Persia.[i6] The Russian officers commanding the Persian Cossack Brigade would not merely be Russian by birth, but in reality, represent Russian interests in Persia, not just Persian ones.
Naser al-Din would be assassinated and though his eldest son had plans for the throne, the Cossack Brigade, on behalf of Russian influence realized that the chosen successor, Muzzafer-ed-Din Shah Qajar would be the preferred puppet to Russian Imperial aims. The Russian officers in the Persian Cossack Brigade moved to Tehran and made sure Muzzafer-ed-Din was installed.[i7]
Much like Russia was struggling to modernize in the early 20th century, Persia suffered from being a backwards feudal state that was ostensibly a vassal state to distant European empires. Muzzar-ed-Din's weakness was exploited by not merely the Russians, but also the British. The British understood his debts - due not merely to his ineffective leadership and weak economy, but also his excessive abuse of the throne and gluttonous behaviors - could be exploited to gain major long-term concessions. William Knox D'Arcy would utilize Muzzar-ed-Din's character flaws to extract exclusive oil rights to much of Persia through bribery[i8] and a promise of just 16% of net profit.[i9] By the middle of the 1900s, revolts of the Persian working class forced the aging Shah to adopt a Constitution giving the parliament significant power.[i10] The Shah signed the Constitution then died of natural causes just three days later. His son, Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar inherited the throne and didn't respect the new Constitution; he considered it an affront to Islamic law.[i11] Simultaneously to the Shah's disdain of the new parliament, Russia and Britain, after years of conflict in central Asia,[i12] entered into an agreement over Persian foreign access. While the Russian and British agreement - the Anglo-Russian Convention - was aimed at minimizing Germany's economic expansion into the Ottoman Empire, the result was to divide Persia into areas with exclusive spheres of influence. The Russian Empire would gain economic and diplomatic control of northern Persia, and the UK would take the southern areas, agreeing to a rough "neutral zone" in the center of the nation and extending to the west where both "great powers" would be allowed to commercially operate and influence Persian policy.[i13] Neither the Persian parliament nor the Shah were privileged to the terms of the agreement, and the treaty between Russia and the UK infuriated Persian nationalists. Ironically, D'Arcy's oil rights he had inherited from the agreement with Muzzar-ed-Din covered all of the British and Neutral areas, while the Persian government legally retained rights to oil and gas exploration in the northern areas, which were considered "Russian" per the treaty between the UK and Russia. The British had "out gamed" their Russian rivals.
Both Russia and the UK accurately assessed that Mohammad Ali - much like his father Muzzafer-ed-Din had been - could be easily manipulated and controlled. This lead to broad foreign support to Mohammad Ali's effort to overthrow the parliament and re-install the Shah as the leader of Persia. Colonel Liakhov, the Russian commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade would be the "teeth" to a coup against the parliament and reinstall the Shah as the sole leader of the nation in the summer of 1908. The first Persian democracy lasted little over 18 months. During this time, D'Arcy's corporate interests in the oil in Persia had been sold to Burmah Oil company, a British oil company which struck oil in Masjid-i-Suleiman.[i14] As the British began to extract profitable amounts of oil, members of parliament would lead an attack on Tehran a year after being banished, re-establish parliament, and install Mohammad Ali's eleven-year-old son, Ahmad Shah Qajar as an obedient figurehead with an uncle ruling as regent. Shortly after his sixteenth birthday, he was formally crowned, but the Russian and British influence in Persia would explode shortly thereafter as Persia became a front against the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
Towards the end of World War I, the Russian Empire collapsed internally and the Tsarist ruling class was replaced by two extremely short-lived governments in 1917 that then gave way to the Soviet Union. In the early Soviet era, under Lenin, foreign control of non-traditional Soviet satellite states like Persia was regarded as a shameful colonialist relic of the capitalist monarchists; the USSR had no claim to the Anglo-Russian Convention and swore it off. The UK considered the Soviet overthrow of the Russian Empire a grave threat, but in 1917 it was not seen in the same way as the US looked at the Cold War. Rather, the UK which still held vast colonial claims, particularly all of what is modern-day India and Pakistan, considered the Soviet threat to Central Asia as a dire threat to British capital and hegemony, and a potential vector to anti-colonial revolution. The British would lead a multi-national allied advance against the Soviets in 1919, intervening on behalf of the "White Movement" of Russian anti-Communists and the Czechoslovak Legion.[i15] The Czechoslovak Legion entered the war pining for freedom from first the oppressive Hapsburg ruled provinces of Bohemia, Moravia (in modern day Czech Republic) and the Slovak territories (which are now Slovakia). The Czechoslovak Legion would be the most successful units operating within Russia against the Soviet Bolsheviks, even taking the entire Trans-Siberian Railway until 1920. During this time, the British would send reinforcements not merely from the North Sea and Baltic Sea, but through Persia to reinforce units in the Caucasus,[i16] as allies to include the US even fought against the Soviets.[i17] Amidst this conflict in 1919, the UK seized the initiative and expanded the rights of the local subsidiary of the Burmah Oil company (the Anglo-Persian Oil Company) to include all of Persia, including the provinces previously outside of the scope of D'Arcy's original agreement, gaining Ahmad Shah's tacit agreement in trade for a modest loan, munitions, officers to train a domestic military, and infrastructure construction.[i18] The agreement, known as the Anglo-Persian Agreement would fail to be ratified by the Persian parliament. The Red Army, fighting on behalf of Lenin and the Communists would invade northern Persia in response to the British attacks in 1920, and go on to establish the Soviet Republic of Gilan (also called "Persian Socialist Soviet Republic").[i19] The Soviets would also occupy large parts of northern Persia with Red Army forces.
Given the extreme weakness of Ahmad Shah, the UK would endorse his removal from effective power.[i20] In 1921, the Ahmad Shah would be effectively overthrown in a military coup lead by a Persian officer named Rezā Khan Pahlavi who had risen in the ranks of the Persian Cossack Brigade. Rezā Khan Pahlavi had been the highest ranked Persian ever within the Persian Cossack Brigade, then took over in an absolute total leadership role after the Russian officers had left during the chaos of World War I. While Ahmad Shah still sat on the throne, Rezā Khan Pahlavi would consolidate the role of Minister of War and Commander of the Army (the equivalent of having the same man be both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense simultaneously), would install a new Prime Minister and negotiate peace with the Soviets. Within a month of the coup, Zia ol Din Tabatabaee was the new PM, the Red Army had left Persia, and the Soviet republic in Gilan ceased to exist, returning to Persia outright.[i21]
The backing of Rezā Khan Pahlavi by the British partly backfired; in addition to crafting a poorly worded treaty with the Soviets, Rezā Khan Pahlavi's chosen PM couldn't overcome his own ineptitude. Though Ahmad Shah was supposed to only be a figurehead, he would dismiss Tabatabaee by royal decree, and the new PM, Ahmad Qavam os-Saltaneh would be released from prison and take office.[i22] Within three weeks of assuming the role in parliament in June of 1921, the Anglo-Persian Agreement would be formally rejected.[i23]
Rezā Khan Pahlavi spent most of 1921 and 1922 concerned with internal security of Persia instead of the political infighting in Tehran. By 1923, he returned to politics in the capital and was named PM which lead to Ahmad Shah departing for Europe. Ahmad Shah would never return to Persia, and his departure effectively ended the Qajar Dynasty at seven generations.
By October of 1925, Ahmad Shah was formally removed from power by parliament and Rezā Khan Pahlavi was installed as the new Shah, Rezā Shah.[i24] Rezā Shah's reign from 1925 to 1932 mostly revolved around consolidating power while simultaneously modernizing Persia from a mostly tribalist conglomeration of separate states to a functioning nation-state with central control and a homogeneous populace. Persia would increase their infrastructure with more than a 700% increase in highways, a transnational railway system that would connect the Caspian Sea with the Persian Gulf, and a vastly improved education system that would include the first University in Persia.[i25]
In 1932, Rezā Shah unilaterally cancelled the D'Arcy Concession which was supposed to have lasted until 1961. The UK would dispute this breach of treaty, but prior to a decision at the League of Nations, a new agreement regarding British access to Persian oil was reached on April 26th, 1933.[i26] Later, in 1935, Rezā Shah would rename Persia into Iran by formal decree.[i27] Rezā Shah would also become more and more corrupt, ruling as a sycophantic totalitarian throughout the remainder of his reign. The opinion of Rezā Shah towards the end of his rule was far from kind.
"[Rezā Shah was] ...not a reformer but a plutocrat strengthening the landed upper class; not a real nationalist but a jack-booted Cossack trained by the Tsarists and brought to power by British imperialists." Excerpt from Ervand Abrahamian's "A History of Modern Iran."[i28]
Iran, Iraq, Israel and World War II
On September 1st, 1939, with the spread of violence that defined World War II into Europe, the evolution of the world political order would quickly shift long before the war ended. Many previous colonial dependencies not freed after World War I would either seize independent initiative or somehow be swept up in external violence. Many of these would then see internal violence erupt as tribalist vendettas, ethnic divisions artificially constrained by foreign oversight, or any number of other reasons lead to strife and turmoil on a global scale unseen in human history. Actions surrounding Iran had major impacts on the Iranian state during the early years of World War II. The fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I created a colonialist rule from western Europe of much of the Middle East; the British had gained control of Iraq (British Mandate of Mesopotamia) as well as Jordan and Israel (British Mandate Palestine), and the French had retained Syria and Lebanon (French Mandate Syria and Lebanon). In the early 1930s, the British ostensibly granted freedom to Iraq, but did so with similar oil concessions to those they had negotiated with Iran in the 1900s, and the UK was allowed to retain multiple airbases to link their empire from British Mandate Palestine to India. Shortly after Iraq gained theoretic independence, Arabs in Mandate Palestine would rise up against their British colonial rulers over their policy of allowing Jews to return to what is modern day Israel. Those Jews were legally allowed by the British to purchase lands from the foreign Turkish land-owners who had held deeds from the Ottoman era. To the Arabs in Mandate Palestine, Zionism was a religious issue for the Muslim occupants, but British rule was the primary cause for consternation.[i29] How this history leads into the formation of many Middle Eastern terror organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) will be explored later in this entry, yet the movement of many of the leaders of the uprising to Iraq after the failure, chief among them Haj Amin al-Husseini, would have a very specific political impact on Iran only a few years later. After the British military cracked down on the Palestinian terrorists, al-Husseini declared a Jihad and not only attacked Jews and British, but declared all Muslims that failed to obey his interpretation of holy law as enemies of Islam. In the ensuing infighting, almost as many Muslims were killed by their fellow Muslims than the British or Jews.[i30] The flight to Iraq by al-Husseini would play a role in Iraq's posture at the outset of World War II, which in turn would play a role in the UK's posture to an Iranian state professing neutrality.
In 1940, as the Allies and Axis were already locked into war, the Iraqi nationalist Rashid Ali al-Gaylani would become PM of Iraq, and despite Iraq having already formally severed ties with Nazi Germany at the outset of World War II, would maintain diplomatic ties with Fascist Italy. Rashid Ali was soon influenced by the Italians and the Palestinian mufti al-Husseini who had found asylum in Baghdad. Even as Rashid Ali resigned as PM in 1941, within a few months a military coup would be launched by four anti-British senior officers, and Rashid Ali would be reinstalled as the PM.[i31] After surrounding the British base in western Iraq, the Iraqi forces under control of the anti-British leadership attempted to force a British surrender, but were instead attacked on May 2nd with extremely effective - by 1940s standards - CAS by numerous aircraft.[i32] Within a week, the domestic Iraqi forces had been fully routed by a tiny but superior trained British expeditionary force. The value of Iraq to the Axis hadn't gone unnoticed by the British however. Despite the failure of the Iraqi forces in merely nine days, their diplomatic extensions to Italy and Germany had borne fruit.[i33] As France had fallen to the Nazis a year earlier, French Mandate Syria and Lebanon contained supplies that would be authorized for use against the British. In turn, the British would destroy them as well as numerous other Axis forces in both Iraq and Syria.[i34] What had started as a small force that Churchill considered far lower than even a fourth priority in the Middle East at the end of April was now a contest between multiple brigade sized Allied and Axis units, as well as almost the entirety of Iraqi forces. In the end, the Axis and Iraqi forces were routed by the end of the month, and the pro-British monarchy was restored. Iraq became a vassal state for the UK once again.[i35] Rashid Ali and al-Husseini had fled to Iran, though they later fled to Italy and ultimately Germany during the war. The British would continue to press north and defeat the Axis forces in French Mandate Syria and Lebanon by the end of July.
The value of oil in the Middle East and Allied access to not merely their own oil, but even each other would prove to be the thorn in Iran's desire for neutrality. When Nazi Germany penetrated the USSR in the summer of 1941 - only days after the British restored the monarchy to Iraq - the Nazi invasion of the Russian heartland lead to an alliance between the UK and the USSR. Iran retained diplomatic ties with all the belligerents to World War II, and strove to maintain true neutrality. The British considered the Abadan refinery, still owned by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which was still a possession of the British Burmah Oil company, a vital strategic asset that was threatened by German citizens who lived in close proximity.[i36] Additionally, the trans-Iranian railway was considered vital to supplying the USSR with vital war-stuffs provided by the US lend-lease program.
The UK and the USSR made veiled threats to Tehran and Rezā Shah in the summer of 1941 demanding expulsion of all Germans and unlimited access to the railway. Rezā Shah refused and the UK and the USSR invaded Iran in August of 1941 with 200,000 troops, aircraft, tanks and IDF assets. Within five days, the Iranian military was completely overran, and the Allies had established absolute control of all airspace and most major cities. Rezā Shah would dismiss his PM, yet the new one he picked to replace him was also one who deeply hated him. PM Mohammad Ali Foroughi ended up negotiating the surrender of Iran to the Allies, but did so with the intent to have the British and Soviets force Rezā Shah to abdicate.[i37]
During negotiations with the Allies, Rezā Shah would allow for an exodus of German citizens out of Iran. The ceasefire he had requested was tacitly agreed to by the Allies with the understanding that the German, Italian, Hungarian and Romanian embassies would be closed. The British and Soviets further demanded that the German citizens be turned over to them, but by the middle of September, most had already fled. The USSR continued their push even as Rezā Shah was hoping for diplomatic solutions amidst the ceasefire. Ultimately, Rezā Shah was forced to abdicate as the Red Army entered Tehran. After debates between the British and Soviet forces, it was agreed his Rezā Shah's "honor" would be maintained by installing his son, Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi as the new Shah. He took the oath the very same day, on September 16th.
Mohammad Rezā Shah would agree to the Tripartite Treaty of Alliance with the UK and the USSR which guaranteed the Allies access to all of Iran and control during the war, but promised complete respect to Iran's independence and territorial integrity, and that all forces will remove themselves from Iranian lands within six months of the end of hostilities of World War II.
In September of 1943, Iran would declare war on Germany. This resulted in non-combat American troops arriving to facilitate logistics, and ultimately lead to the Tehran Conference at the end of November of that year. Josef Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill would meet and hash out allied war plans at the largest strategic scale. While many major items shaped planetary history - Churchill and Roosevelt agreeing to opening the second front against the Nazis that ultimately became Operation Overlord and Stalin agreeing to declare war on the Japanese after the Germans were defeated - there was also an agreement again to fully respect Iran's sovereignty and that all occupying forces would withdrawal after the war ended.
With Japan's official surrender on September 2nd, 1945, the clock was ticking for forces to leave Iran. American and British forces left well within the prescribed time, yet Soviet forces didn't merely loiter in Iran, they helped facilitate a regional uprising.
In many respects, the Soviet occupation of Iran in 1946, built within the framework of former Soviets of Gilan and the structures of Kurdish Separatists (including the forerunners to the modern Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), a communist aligned terrorist organization in Turkey and Syria) was a predecessor of modern Russian aggression in South Ossetia, Georgia and the Donbass, Ukraine. To Kurdish people of Iran seeking autonomy, the occupying Soviet forces were a lifeline to ethnic separatism with foreign protection by a superpower. For Iranian Azerbaijan, there was not merely overlapping property with the short-lived Soviet Republic of Gilan, but also many of the same significant members such as the Soviet Republic of Gilan Minister of the Interior Ja'far Pishevari,[i38] who would serve as the President of "The People's Republic of Azerbaijan." In either case, to the Soviets, these were means to a Leninist globalized communist ends, and these were buffer states to use for growth of the Soviet sphere to encompass more lands and more economic concessions.
By December of 1945, even though this was prior to the six month withdrawal, Soviet forces had moved south and occupied even more of Iran than they had occupied in September; the withdrawal appeared to be more of an invasion. During this time, the Soviet expansion had facilitated the two aforementioned breakaway republics.
Many of the very first UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) were in regards to this Soviet occupation in violation of Iranian sovereignty. UNSCRs 2, 3 & 5 all pertained to the Soviet occupation and ultimately lead to the Soviets departing and Iranian forces occupying. The governments of both short-lived communist breakaways either fled to the Soviet Union (those from the People's Republic of Azerbaijan) or were executed (many of the Kurds from the Republic of Mahabad, though Mustafa Barzani, grandfather to the current (as of December 2020) Iraqi Kurdistan Region president, Nêçîrvan Barzani did manage to escape as Mahabad fell.)[i39]
An agreement regarding oil rights in Northern Iran between the Iranians and Soviets was hastily agreed upon. The timing was suspect; as the UNSCRs came into effect and the Soviets withdrew from the breakaway republics, they still sought access to the oil fields and the wealth they offered that Lenin had abstained from honoring when nullifying the Anglo-Russian Convention. The newly elected parliament nullified the agreement in late 1946, denying the Soviets access to the Iranian oil fields.[i40]
Religious Fundamentalism is the new Communism
For Iran, the next three years were not terribly eventful, until a rash of attempted and successful assassinations at the highest levels began. Unlike many other nefarious acts both before and after, from 1949 to 1951, there appeared to be purely domestic reasoning. Many of the assassinations and attempts were religious in nature.
In 1949, there would be an attempted assassination of Mohammad Rezā Shah by Nasser Fakhrai, a journalist for Parcham-e Islam - a fundamentalist and anti-secular Shi'a aligned newspaper. Fakhrai had further paid dues to a union aligned with the Communist leaning Tudeh party, and was potentially a member of the Fadā'iyān-e Islam - anti-secularist religious fanatics. Mohammad Rezā Shah would crack down on the Fadā'iyān, the Tudeh - and anyone else he felt was a threat.[i41] A Constitutional amendment would lead to filling the Iranian Senate with appointees of Mohammad Rezā Shah and appointment of Haj Ali Razmara to PM.
The fear of the Fadā'iyān was well placed. While Mohammad Rezā Shah was trying to consolidate power at the throne, the Fadā'iyān assassinated PM Razmara.[i42] He was replaced by Hossein Alā who would only sit in the seat for 47 total days before resigning, preferring to avoid the political ramifications of any opinion regarding Oil Industry Nationalization.
The assassination of PM Razmara was theoretically religious given the goals of the Fadā'iyān. However, his funeral was filled with pamphlets from the Tudeh, threatening any member of Parliament who voted against Oil Nationalization.
Pure British Property
By 1950, oil nationalization was a hot-button issue in both Iran and the UK. For the British, the idea of oil nationalization was an affront to what they felt was their own investment and that the legal agreements were to be honored. Burmah Oil's possessions in Iran were the single largest overseas asset owned by a British Corporation by 1950.
"...British officials still believed that Persian petroleum was actually and rightly British petroleum because it had been discovered by the British, developed by British capital, and exploited through British skill and British ingenuity." William Roger Louis, referring to popular British opinions in the 1940s and 1950s over the Abadan Refinery and Iranian oil.[i43]
The Iranian perspective however was one of victimization. For one, the framework of the D'Arcy concession had given the Iranians a share of net profits, which were calculated after other taxation and expenses. By 1950, the British government made more than the Iranian government did on any given liter of oil, nevermind corporate profits for Burmah Oil.[i44] Second, though in 1932 Rezā Shah had unilaterally cancelled the D'Arcy concession that Muzzafer-ed-Din Shah Qajar had granted in 1901, the Iranian parliament debated nationalization heavily in spite of the newer agreement that Rezā Shah had brokered in 1933. PM Razmara fought nationalization right up until his murder. The National Front, headed by Mohammad Mossadegh would take power, and in early 1951, the Iranian parliament would vote - unanimously - to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, effectively terminating British control of Iranian oil.
The ensuing backlash was palpable. The UK had already lost British Mandate Palestine to become modern Israel and Jordan and had ceded British India to become India and Pakistan. In an effort to punish Iran for this act against an enduring contract, the UK began an embargo against Iranian oil after shutting down the Abadan Refinery. In the entire first year of Iranian nationalization, Iran sold a meager 300 barrels of oil in total; paltry given that Abadan was capable of 500,000 barrels per day in 1950.[i45] The British imposed sanctions, tying up all Iranian assets in British banks, blocking exports of strategically valuable commodities to Iran, and basically began a blockade in the Persian Gulf. In addition to unilateral actions the UK appealed to both the UN and the World Court. The United Kingdom v Iran in the International Court of Justice was decided in July of 1952,[i46] and found that the Court actually lacked jurisdiction on the matter, referring it to domestic Iranian courts, which, obviously were in favor of Iran on the matter.
By August of 1952, the US had joined the UK in denouncing Mossadegh as "impossible to deal with."[i47] Without the ability to manipulate the US against the UK, Mossadegh's international options were limited. Any sort of concession or approach to the USSR would likely have been met with an overwhelmingly negative reaction given what the US-lead UN forces were doing on the Korean Peninsula at the time. Mossadegh was ostensibly trying to minimize the inefficacy of the crown, appeal to the secular Iranians seeking modernization by using oil funds, and maintain external contacts with the west, only he was failing on all fronts. As the Iranian economy was collapsing, Mohammad Rezā Shah saw Mossadegh as an agent of failure that would lead to his overthrow by the US, the UK, or the Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani, the parliamentary protector of Fadā'iyān-e Islam - who had also even turned against Mossadegh. In October of 1952, General Fazallah Zahedi conspired with pro-royal senators and the British Embassy to overthrow Mossadegh, but was uncovered and forced underground while the Senate was disbanded and the British embassy closed.[i48] At this point, all foreign planning and facilitation for an anti-Mossadegh coup was purely British; the Truman administration had zero appetite for American intervention.
In November of 1952, Eisenhower won the US presidency, and the UK resumed efforts to get the US involved in a coup, though as of his inauguration in 1953, Eisenhower still had zero interest. To the British however, there was still hope; Eisenhower had been a large fan of covert intelligence and foreign interventionism through detached methods, particularly through the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS) in World War II. Major General William "Wild Bill" Donovan's unit had been instrumental in numerous operations for Eisenhower, and had been largely influenced by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). The OSS had been in turn the basis for the new CIA.[i49]
Only a few months later, as Kashani and Mossadegh's rivalry grew, and the role of Mohammad Rezā Shah shrank, the US began to warm to the idea of a coup. In spite of this, the economic pains from the British embargo had weakened Mossadegh's coalition and National Front substantially. By early summer, Mossadegh had attempted to consolidate power by pushing Mohammad Rezā Shah further away from power and stripping him of most powers he'd regained since his father had been deposed.[i50] Mossadegh had also spent considerable effort to that point to dissociate himself from the Tudeh and the unfortunate association that came with communists early in his premiership. By the summer of 1953, the National Front was falling apart and the Tudeh were among his only support. Unfortunately, this helped solidify the viewpoint by the Dulles brothers (John Foster, US Secretary of State, and Allen, head of the CIA) that the failure of Mossadegh to control the chaos in Iran combined with his association with the Tudeh would naturally proceed to a failure of the Iranian democracy and a turn to communism. The US didn't care at all about the Abadan Oil refinery or British oil concessions, but the idea of a Soviet Iran was absolutely unacceptable.[i51]
That summer the US administration covertly began planning in Washington D.C., using former President Theodore Roosevelt's grandson, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. as the "man on the ground." Kermit, like his cousin, Archibald Bulloch Roosevelt, Jr., was a CIA officer with intimate knowledge of the middle east and the foreign affairs by the European states that had been manipulating them.
Eisenhower's decision wasn't as foolhardy or warmongering as modern revisionism suggests. Before Kermit even set foot in Iran, Mossadegh and the communist Tudeh called for a national referendum to dissolve parliament. Even before the US CIA got involved, communism had already begun destroying Iran's democracy.[i52]
Mossadegh defied constitutional rules on secret ballots and ordered a referendum to finally remove the last vestiges of a functional parliament - and with it, any semblance of democracy or constitutional republican ideals.[i53] The referendum was woefully criticized for numerous reasons and was likely invalid, but it gave Mossadegh the unchecked power he wanted.[i54]
Kermit's first attempt at a coup, in August, after Mossadegh had already destroyed the Iranian democracy, was a total failure. Kermit went to the city of Ramsar, the Shah's summer home, and convinced him - with $1,000,000 cash in 1953 (when adjusted for inflation, this bribe was worth nearly $10,000,000 in 2020; also the exchange rate for Iranian Rials at the time was approximately 65:1. Ergo, this was an extremely large bribe.) to sign a royal decree dismissing Mossadegh and placing Zahedi - the same General who had been involved with the British the previous year - as the new PM.[i55]
Utilizing the Imperial Guards, and a copy of the royal decree, an attempt to arrest Mossadegh in mid-August was routed by pro-Mossadegh Army officers and the Tudeh communists. Amidst the backlash, Mohammad Rezā Shah was painted by Mossadegh's close friend, Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Fatemi as a traitor, and Fatemi urged Mossadegh to use his power to demolish the crown and declare Iran a republic, urging new elections and no Shah.[i56]
Mohammad Rezā Shah, who at this point was still young, weak, and timid, validated Eisenhower and Churchill's concerns and fled Iran, going to Baghdad then Rome. Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., however figured out that the chaos in Iran, the collapse of the economy caused by the British embargo and blockade, and the endless infighting between the various factions was ripe for exploitation. In Tehran alone, the collapsed National Front - including the religious zealots of the Fadā'iyān-e Islam, and the communist Tudeh - as well as the remaining Royalists who still supported the crown would be ripe for a scapegoat. In a vacuum, the scapegoat would have likely been painted as Mohammad Rezā Shah, who was, in some respects responsible, though most of the malaise predated even his father. It is possible that in the future - such as now, in the 2020s - Mossadegh would be painted poorly as well for the dissolution of parliament and seizure of the military. But Kermit realized Mossadegh could be shown right then, in August of 1953 as responsible, and easily toppled. Opening the CIA checkbook, Kermit paid many to actually exacerbate the lack of law-and-order, who begin burning buildings, looting, and destroying royal properties. The Tudeh communists willingly joined in on the looting without being paid by the CIA, and thus, Tehran fell further into anarchy.[i57]
As Tehran burned, massive numbers of Iranians arrived to overthrow Mossadegh. While the attempted coup on August 15th was a British/American attempt to overthrow Mossadegh, the ranting by Fatemi and Mossadegh's loss of control combined with the Shah's sudden disappearance had convinced the Iranian public that Mossadegh was responsible for a coup on August 17th.[i58] By August 19th, an entirely Iranian mass of demonstrators had arrived and lead their own overthrow of Mossadegh. On the 20th he was arrested and Mohammad Rezā Shah returned from Italy.
After Mohammad Rezā Shah returned to power and Zahedi was installed as PM, it was agreed to create a multi-national consortium to take over the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and resume operations at Abadan. The new corporate entity and agreement increased revenues and involvement of Iran, while the British had to share an equal amount of their ownership of the company with a US consortium. The final split was 40% to the new corporate entity that had grown out of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company that was renamed the British Petroleum Company (BP), 40% to a US holding company equally split between Gulf Oil (now part of Chevron), Standard Oil of California (now also part of Chevron), Texaco (now also part of Chevron), Standard Oil of New York (now part of ExxonMobil), and Standard Oil of New Jersey (now also part of ExxonMobil), 14% to Royal Dutch Shell, and 6% to Compagnie Française des Pétroles (now known as Total).[i59]
From the resumption of operations at Abadan until 1977, Iranian foreign relations were much less complex. Mohammad Rezā Shah took a much more active role in decision-making and though he stood in awe of the power of western nations, he also eagerly worked toward advancement. In the 1950s, Mohammad Rezā Shah would continuously play other entities internally against one another to consolidate his own power, and further grow ever more mature as a leader in the eyes of the west.[i60] Over the course of the decade, he began liberalizing Iran and growing infrastructure and technology.
By the late 50s, fearing that the US had forgotten Iran, Mohammad Rezā Shah sought to broker a non-aggression pact with the USSR. Ultimately, Eisenhower convinced the Shah not to sign it, and Khrushchev would actually order Mohammad Rezā Shah's assassination.[i61] By the end of Eisenhower's second term, military sales to Iran from the US were opened up to massive levels.
In the early 1960s, the Shah further liberalized Iran, beginning with his "White Revolution" - nationalizing some resources while privatizing others, allowing non-Muslims to hold office, and most controversially, giving women the right to vote. The Ayatollah Khomeni was particularly incensed by this; in October of 1962 he wrote a telegram to Mohammad Rezā Shah that stated, among other things:
"According to that which has been published in the newspapers, the government has not made Islamic qualifications a prerequisite for candidates and votes in the elections for the Provincial and County Councils, and has given women the right to vote. This is of great concern to the religious authorities and other Muslims." Ayatollah Khomeini, October 9th, 1962.[i62]
Within a few months, the Ayatollah was openly attacking the Shah.
"Then the ignorant Mr. Shah also steps forward and talks of equal rights for men and women!" Ayatollah Khomeini, May 2nd, 1963.[i63]
The Ayatollah would go on to call the Shah "a wretched, miserable man" - statements that got him detained and moved from Qom, the holy city, to Tehran. This led to riots and his imprisonment for two months.[i64]
Approximately a year later, after the United States and Iran tightened relations even further, Khomeini again denounced the Shah and the US, resulting in his arrest. Six months later he was summoned by the sitting PM, Hasan Ali Mansur, who demanded Khomeini apologize to the Shah. Khomeini refused and Mansur slapped him. Within a few months, Fadā'iyān-e Islam followers assassinated the PM. Though the murderers were caught, prosecuted and put to death, the Ayatollah was banished from Iran altogether. He went to Iraq for the next 15 years.[i65]
Beginning in 1977, the first opposition to Mohammad Rezā Shah was secular liberals - many of whom his policies had already helped immensely. The US and Iran had very good relations, with projected trade between the two countries to amount to over $25 billion from 1976 to 1982 - not counting the two largest segments: oil from Iran or military arms from the US.[i66]
This very narrow international market relationship actually spelled problems. Though mutual trade is normally a good thing, with the US having relative hegemony in Iran, and with the lack of internal economic development, this exacerbated the Shah alienating his own internal strata. The Shi'a religious hardliners, the secular politicians eager for more liberal freedoms, and the intellectuals who denounced the violent means of the Shah's internal security services were all incensed by the tight relationship between the crown and the US.[i67]
Mohammad Rezā Shah acquiesced to many demands in the summer of 1978; he relaxed censorship, agreed to allow fully democratic elections for Parliament, and removed many controversial officers from government.[i68] These efforts didn't stop the demonstrations, but rather emboldened many of the protestors who now saw their efforts bore fruit. The inability for security forces to quell riots without causing even greater inflammation was further harmed by the newly installed Carter administration in the US refusing to sell tear gas or rubber bullets to Iran.[i69] By the end of the summer, the protests had grown from small, manageable numbers to massive incidents leading to a declaration of martial law and a confrontation in Tehran that resulted in nearly 100 killed.[i70] When the Shah again attempted to offer appeasement to the protestors, Ayatollah Khomeini, then in France after being ousted from Iraq, was being painted by western media as a mystic savior of oppressed peoples.[i71] The Ayatollah flatly refused to negotiate or work with the Shah.
The protests continued and grew in size until nearly 10% of the country of Iran was protesting by mid-December of 1978. As the country was on the verge of collapse and looting was out of control, communists and secular leftists within the ranks of the protestors attempted to gain traction, though Khomeini's demands for pure sharia would destroy all they had built since the Shah's White Revolution.
The ignorance by the Carter Administration was breathtaking. Though the US played a minimal role in the revolution itself, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance postulated that Khomeini would be moderate and progressive. This was based primarily on western media painting Khomeini in a particular way; the truth was that Khomeini had made his intentions clear since the early 1960s: his goal for Iran was absolute autocratic leadership by the religious scholars. In some respects, this should have been doubly-obvious. Not only had Khomeini been consistent in demands for sharia law, but Iran - and prior to that, Persia - had been mostly ruled by despots for millennia. Vance was an optimistic fool.[i72] Vance orchestrated the meetings between American officials and members of Khomeini's entourage,[i73] while other elements within the US had resulted in USAF General Robert Huyser meeting with members of the Shah's military in an effort to calm the situation. Eventually, the Carter Administration let Khomeini know that they would tolerate an overthrow of the Shah so long as things remained stable.
"If the integrity of the army can be preserved, we believe there is every prospect the leadership will support whatever political form is selected for Iran in the future." - Cable from US State Department to Khomeini's entourage in Paris, 1979.[i74]
This was nothing if not approval from the US that they wouldn't prevent Khomeini from instigating a coup.
The Shah made one more attempt to appease protestors and installed Shapour Bakhtiar as PM. Bakhtiar was extremely liberal by Iranian standards and was prominent in Mossadegh's National Front back in 1951. Bakhtiar had spent six years in prison for being politically opposed to the Shah, so for the Shah to install him as a constitutionalist liberal PM was nothing short of a major consolation to all the protestors.
Bakhtiar was genuinely concerned regarding the direction the country was heading; while he genuinely hated Mohammad Rezā Shah, he was fearful that Iran under communists or Mullahs would be worse. The same day in January of 1979 that Bakhtiar was sworn in, Mohammad Rezā Shah and his wife Farah boarded a plane and left Iran, never to return. As PM, Bakhtiar would dissolve the secret police, freed all political prisoners, allowed mass demonstrations, promised fully free elections and invited all factions to join in a "government of national unity." He also invited Khomeini back to Iran.
What followed was basically a second coup. Khomeini arrived and immediately ordered that Mehdi Bazargan was to be the new PM and Bakhtiar to step down.
"I appoint the government." - Ayatollah Khomeini, making it obvious he was neither progressive nor moderate.[i75]
While all of Iran seemed to be overjoyed with the ousting of the Shah, the Tudeh and the National Front and the secular liberals and the capitalists could all see the writing on the wall: Sharia would be very, very bad.
The military broke apart into its own civil skirmishes internally, before ultimately declaring neutrality on February 11th. This lead to the takeover by Khomeini. Bakhtiar was forced to flee and was sentenced to death in absentia. Numerous assassination attempts would be made on his life in Paris before he was ultimately murdered in 1991 by Iranian agents.[i76]
Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi - no longer the Shah of Iran - had been suffering from cancer prior to the revolution. Instead of getting the treatment he needed, he floated around Egypt, Morocco and Mexico before an extremely reluctant President Carter allowed him to be admitted for treatment in the US. In spite of Pahlavi being given an alias and covertly moved around the US to get treatment, his location was learned by Khomeini, and Iran immediately demanded he be returned to Iran for execution.
Execution and extra-national homicide was and continues to be completely normal Iranian actions. Just as many accuse the US of killing abroad, and it is well known other states such as Russia do it regularly, Islamic Iran has made death a very popular judicial sentence. Over a period of 16 years (from 1963 to 1979), it's estimated the Shah's political prosecutions killed a little over 3,000 people, almost all of them within Iran.[i77] Conversely, Khomeini's Islamic Iran would kill more than 8,000 between 1979 and 1986, also mostly within Iran, but many more abroad.[i78]
Pahlavi's presence in the US lead to the Ayatollah declaring the US as "The Great Satan" and Iranian University students initially leading a takeover of the US embassy 13 days after Pahlavi arrived for cancer treatment. The government of Iran didn't merely tacitly approve of the student-lead grab for hostages, they immediately cancelled treaties with the US that made the Americans ability to recover the numerous hostages legally impossible.
Most Americans are aware of the 66 original hostages taken from the embassy, and that African Americans and women were released only a few weeks later, or that the CIA managed to smuggle six others who had hid at the home of a Canadian diplomat thanks to the hit film Argo.
In addition to the embassy personnel, other Americans had been seized during the turmoil. This included two employees of H. Ross Perot's Electronic Data Systems who were essentially kidnapped by the corrupt and failing state, and whose rescue, spearheaded by one of the Son Tay Raid masterminds, Col Arthur "Bull" Simons (Ret.), was turned into a book by Ken Follett.[i79]
By April of 1980, Col. Simons' close friend and protégé - the man who actually lead the Son Tay Raid - retired Major Dick Meadows was among the "advanced team" in Iran to help effect a rescue. Col Charlie Beckwith's brand new unit, Delta Force, was to be the primary force for an attempted raid, "Operation EAGLE CLAW" to free the US hostages.[i80] This raid would be an outright disaster, exposing the horrendous lack of joint operations capabilities, result in several dead American service-members, and be a large reason Jimmy Carter was not reelected.[i81]
In spite of the failed raid, a sick hostage was released approximately three months later, leaving 52 American hostages in Iranian custody as of summer 1980. They would remain in custody until the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981, a total of 444 days of captivity.
The release of hostages did not diminish the impact Iran would have on the US in the early 80s.
Masters of the proxy
As previously noted, Lebanon and Syria were carved out of "French Mandate Palestine." The carving of them apart in a Christian / Muslim split was much like Israel and Jordan were the Jewish and Muslim states carved out of "British Mandate Palestine." However, Lebanon received a very interesting Constitutional apportionment of roles by religious sect; the President was required to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the Parliament a Shi'a Muslim, and so forth. In spite of this ostensibly "amicable" split based on the 1932 census,[i82] by the late 1970s most Shi'a Muslims lived in squalor in the south; the feudal Shi'a wealthy families and the rest of Lebanon writ large had forsaken the Shi'a into the largest bloc of poverty within the country.[i83]
Simultaneously to the economic devolution of the Shi'a within Lebanon, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) engaged in a continuous act of violent armed struggle with Israel. After the 1967 Six-Day war in which Jordan was humiliated, Jordan passively "allowed" the PLO to operate from within Jordan for another three years. The continuous Israeli counter-attacks were seen by King Hussein as precipitating a casus belli that would lead to a new war with Israel that Jordan wished to avoid. Additionally, the PLO considered Hussein weak for his peaceful diplomatic negotiations with Israel. For the PLO, only armed confrontation was acceptable. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was not interested in another war with Israel and the PLO were a political liability by 1970. Combined with an attempted overthrow by the PLO of the Jordanian government and the Israeli total control of the West Bank, the PLO were ejected from Jordan in what was referred to as the Black September Crisis. While the Black September actions ultimately lead to the PLO terror attack at the Munich Olympics two years later, it also preceded a lasting peace between Israel and Jordan.[i84]
When the PLO began concentrated attacks against Israel from their new home base of Lebanon, it would be a major catalyst for the Lebanese Civil War. Unfortunately for the poor Shi'a of Lebanon, most of the PLO incursions into Israel would be launched from their back door.
Unlike the Six-Day war of 1967 or even the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the battles between the PLO in Lebanon and Israel did not involve multiple Arab states arrayed against Israel, nor even involved a state. Israel engaged in "punishment" of the Lebanese military for their lack of policing the PLO, but the true foe for the Israeli military were the PLO's various paramilitary parties. The only way to effectively deal with the problem was to begin a prolonged, expensive and often painful counter-insurgency (COIN) operation.[i85]
As Lebanon was falling apart, domestically the security apparatus within Iran had been consolidated. Shortly after Khomeini had taken control of the nation, most Iranian paramilitary organizations were consolidated into a new organization called the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Unlike the "regular" Army of Iran which was responsible for the overall sovereignty of Iran's borders, the IRGC was responsible for maintaining the Sharia Islamic state, and this included foreign actions to benefit the global Shi'a community. In September of 1983, the IRGC organized an operation with an organization initially labeled "Islamic Jihad" in Lebanon to carry out "catastrophic attacks against the US Marines."[i86]
What resulted was the bombings of the US Embassy on 18 April 1983 and the twin bombings of the US Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport and the French Parachute Regiment barracks on 23 October 1983. Between the bombings, 258 Americans were killed. The other result was that "Islamic Jihad" - an otherwise mysterious organization that seemed to exist only to take credit for bombings and kidnappings under the approval of Iran's IRGC operating in Lebanon became Hezbollah.[i87]
Shortly after the bombing of the Marine barracks, an unlikely argument arose between US Secretary of State George Shultz and US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; Shultz believed Hezbollah and the IRGC were at fault and needed to be punished while Weinberger contended the true culprits were unknown and a punitive action against the wrong agency was worse than doing nothing. This is atypical behavior in the 2020s where the State Department is usually more cautious and the Defense Department more willing to spill foreign blood, but in 1983 the CIA reported to the Secretary of State. Further, the Defense Department and CIA had a notoriously bad relationship in the early 1980s, completely unlike their close cooperation in the post-9/11 American security apparatus. By 2003, there was zero denial that Hezbollah was responsible for the bombings of the Marine barracks and the embassy (as well as a second embassy attack in September of 1984 that killed another two American service members.) There was also no denial that Iran had been behind Hezbollah fully at the time.[i88]
There is more about Hezbollah themselves later in this blog. Hezbollah may be Iran's most successful terror export, but they are hardly their only proxy. In Yemen, the Houthi rebels observe a specific school of Shi'a called Zaidism, and have found themselves in a civil war with the Yemeni government which was in turn backed by most of the other Sunni-oriented Arab nations.[i89] Even though the US government had accurately assessed by 2015 that the Houthi were a domestic product of Yemen without strong ties to Iranian central control,[i90] their relationship has grown by way of large amounts of weapons shipments.[i91]
Iran's work with proxies extended deep into Iraq during the US occupation. A large number of American casualties - calculated at 603 as of April, 2019 - were because of the explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) employed by the IRGC's Quds Force.[i92] The Quds Force, supervised by Qasem Soleimani until January of 2020 had played a major role in the deaths of Americans in Iraq for many years,[i93] though the complexities of relationships in the Middle East had meant Soleimani had been an American ally at several points, if only for a brief moments.
Foreign pressures shaping the politics of a domestic theocracy
While Iran has often been painted with a brush of pure idealism bordering on the verge of suicidal national policy, the truth is Iran is a country of politics and nuance just like any other, including the United States. And Iran's complex relationship with the rest of the world, particularly around the time of the revolution can't merely be shown in the context of Iranian/Persian or Shi'a/Sunni Islamic history, but also must reflect the regional issues in Central Asia at the time and the geopolitical impacts of the other world powers at the time.
In the year leading up to the Iranian revolution, Iran's eastern neighbor, Afghanistan, endured their own revolution, and much like Iran's own history, Afghanistan's 1800-2000 history was dominated by British and Russian interventionism. As noted in the Russian section above, the Durand Line was a construct between the Russians and British when India and Pakistan were not merely one nation prior to the partition, but were British possessions. By 1947 and the split of India and Pakistan into rival nations, Pakistan quickly aligned itself with the US during the Cold War, pushing Afghanistan and India - their rivals - further towards the Soviet Union. In the case of India, the Soviet alignment was complex and mostly a reflection of Cold War polarization reflected internally; the Indian caste model atop a democracy was the polar opposite of the Soviet Union, but the American alignment with Pakistan coupled with India's continued rivalry with China - that lasts through this day[i94] - basically forced India into the Soviet sphere.
Afghanistan found itself in a more complex position as it was internally split by ethnic strife. In the 1950s, with the Pashtun tribalists in the east eager to assimilate rural western Pakistan in an irredentist plot, the American alliance with the resistant Pakistanis was the first step in pushing Afghanistan towards the Soviet bloc. By the end of the Chinese/Indian war in 1962, Pakistan formally allied itself with China and Afghanistan found itself more tightly bound with the Soviet Union. This extended to Soviet arms sales as the US refused to arm Pakistan's rival.
By 1973, the Afghani monarchy disintegrated. It was replaced by a "strongman" oriented republic that lasted only until a communist overthrow in 1978. The alignment of Afghanistan to the Soviet Union wasn't surprising to the US, in spite of it being a blow in anti-communist efforts. The Soviets had been supporting Afghanistan since 1919 in various efforts anyway.
To Iran, in 1979, a godless communist government in an Islamic nation was not merely unacceptable, that it was being propped up by Russians was all the worse. Khomeini despised the Soviets for much closer reasons that the history between the Russians and Persia over the last century. In spite of their alignment leading up to the deposing of the Shah, the Tudeh faction was among the most serious internal threat to the ascendency of the theocracy. And the Tudeh was the last vestige of Soviet alignment within Iran.
On the same day that the Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs was kidnapped and murdered in Kabul.[i95] There was involvement by the KGB in the killing and the subsequent cover-up.[i96] Only a few months later, in October of 1979, the pro-Soviet Afghan leader, Nur Mohammed Taraki was deposed and eventually murdered under the orders of Hafizullah Amin less than a week after returning from Moscow and meetings with Leonid Brezhnev. At around the same time, Archer Blood, the former Deputy in Charge of Mission (DCM) in Afghanistan was appointed as the chargé-designate - the closest to an Ambassador the US was willing to appoint after the murder of Dubs. Blood was experienced in the region; not merely as the former DCM in Afghanistan, but who famously wrote the Blood Telegram while the Consul General in East Pakistan during the civil war that created Bangladesh. Blood was intimately familiar with the roles of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Soviet Russia, China, and India, and how the people as well as governments operated.[i97] Combined with the perception of betrayal by Anwar Sadat in Egypt from the Soviet sphere to the American sphere, the arrival of Blood and his meeting with Amin shortly after Amin had Taraki executed was the casus belli that Moscow sought to justify their invasion of Afghanistan.[i98]
The role the American intelligence and military forces played in the Afghani-Soviet war is in more detail in the Taliban section of this paper. Of interest is how, in spite of that, realpolitik trumped any other concerns at any given moment. Soleimani's Quds Force would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq by the late 2010s, and would be implicated in helping the Taliban by 2010,[i99] yet this pro-Taliban cooperation in 2009 was polar opposite to Iran's direct-action pro-American interventions in Herat Province in the early stages of the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. Soleimani himself[i100] helped the US war planners with the planning for Ismail Khan's faction of the Northern Alliance and US & UK SOF units which undertook the Herat Uprising against the Taliban.[i101] The "Axis of Evil" speech and the punitive sanctions against Iran's nuclear program by the George W. Bush administration were certainly the catalyst for the Iranian policy pivot, yet the outpouring of Iranian military support to the US in 2001 was itself a drastic pivot from the open hostilities of the 80s.
There are myriad reasons for Iran's pivot at this point. In 1998, Iran nearly went to war with Afghanistan over the Taliban's murder of thousands of Shi'a in Mazar-I-Sharif[i102] and the deaths of nine Iranian diplomats.[i103] The violent Wahhabist version of Sunni Islam the Taliban prescribed to condemned all Shi'a to death. This was considered a much graver threat to Iran in the late 1990s than a distant Clinton-era United States, especially as al-Qaeda and the Taliban had made themselves a common enemy of Iran and the United States. On 9/11, it was probably very logical from a self-preservation perspective to side with the United States as the DoD sharpened its claws and began the annihilation of Islamists who had wronged them. The Taliban and enclaves of al-Qaeda world-wide were systematically erased, as US forces engaged in not merely Afghanistan, but from the Philippines to Africa.[i104]
Iran's choice in 2001 to side with the United States was betrayed by future US policy, but was itself a betrayal of their own internal policies of painting the US as "the Great Satan." If anything, the US applying the Axis of Evil moniker on Iran was much more consistent given the relationship since the Islamic Revolution. The important lesson of all of it however is that the actions of the Iranian government are nothing if not pragmatic. The idea of an evil theocracy willing to commit global suicide is a farce, and nothing more than propaganda. Since the Iranian Revolution, Iran has pivoted from blatant anti-Russian/anti-Soviet actions to fully within the embrace of Putin's Russia and has spun their attitude on the US from ambivalence during the fall of the Shah to a convenient foe of opportunity in the 80s to an ally against the Taliban around the turn of the century to an enemy once again from the late 2000s through the present. In the broader view this seems asinine, yet in the context of each policy pivot, Iran's actions aren't merely understandable, they are rational and intelligent.
A long overdue action
Soleimani had been characterized as the "Keyser Söze" of Middle Eastern policy.[i105] In June of 2011, all but two of the American soldiers killed in Iraq were killed by organizations under Soleimani's indirect control,[i106] yet at the outset of actions against ISIS, Soleimani again played a role as a reluctant ally to the US. Soleimani played with the lives of American service members fast and loose as his only loyalty was to pragmatic concerns of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That was his responsibility as the leader of the Quds Force. Unfortunately for him, his hubris finally caught up with him on January 3rd, 2020 when he was killed by a US airstrike in Baghdad. Many apologists suggest illegality in his killing; international law itself depends upon both Soleimani's status as a combatant or terrorist[i107] versus a political figure and on the level to which American autonomy in CT is authorized for use of lethal force within Iraq to make that determination. Within the narrowed scope of both US law and executive policy - to which this collection of papers is focused - there was zero doubt to the legality of his killing.
What was more controversial was the question over whether Soleimani's killing was productive or counterproductive. While his true legacy was that of a moral chameleon in support of pragmatism, his image in Iran was that of a savior of the Islamic Republic. For this, his death, whether legal or not, was a casus belli.
The immediate aftermath was an Iranian attack on American sites in Iraq, firing ballistic surface-to-surface missiles at airbases at al-Asad and Erbil, resulting in multiple American injuries.[i108] In addition to the missile attacks and their engagement with counter-missile weapons, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) prohibiting American civil aviation operators from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran, the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman. The FAA's concern was soon proven to be apt, when a Ukrainian Airlines flight, flight PS752 was shot down over Tehran by an Iranian SA-15 SAM. The two missiles which hit PS752 destroyed the airliner, killing all 176 aboard.
Iran initially tried to discount that they had accidentally engaged the airliner, and only when overwhelming intelligence combined with footage from social media showing a clear missile strike, did they ultimately admit they had shot the airliner down. The resulting demonstrations against the Iranian theocracy were unlike any previously seen. Merely one week after hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of protesters had been chanting for death to America over the killing of Soleimani, students at the usually anti-American Behesti University refused to trample on American and Israeli flags over the lies about the downing of PS752.[i109]
The Supreme Leader of Iran drastically underestimated their ability to control narrative and what it would mean to their own credibility. While the ability to paint Israel and the US as vile opposition to Iranian cultural beliefs was something they could probably drag on into perpetuity, the ability to control the narrative of an incident that killed innocent Iranians was compounded when their lie was exposed. Iran had drummed up enough internal support to make their actions against the US after Soleimani's death encouraged by the population, right up until their lie about PS752 was discovered. The fallout created the kind of internal pressures that completely deflated Iranian aggression towards the US.
Tip of the hand
The shootdown of PS752 was actually the second time in a year that Iran shot an American-made aircraft down with a Russian SAM system. On June 19th, 2019 Iran used an SA-11 SAM to shoot down a US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk,[i110] an early variant of the Triton system and a close cousin of the US Air Force's Global Hawks.
The shootdown of the aircraft coincided with heavy ramp-up of Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf in the summer of 2019. The signatures of the SA-11 are known well and the mobile launchers, which while hard to find, are not nearly as effective against fifth generation platforms. Due to this, there was minimal intelligence value gained by the loss of such an expensive American ISR platform. Combined with the failure by Iranian forces to down an MQ-9 earlier that week,[i111] there were certainly lessons to be learned[i112] by the escalation of A2/AD use in the region amidst more aggressive actions within the Persian Gulf.
In the summer of 2019, Iranian forces attempted to assert complete control of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, going so far as to seize the Kokuka Courageous and the Altair, as well as threaten the crew of the Hyundai Dubai.[i113] Shortly thereafter in early July, the UK seized the Iranian ship the Adrian Darya-1 off the shore of Gibraltar as it headed toward Syria in violation of EU sanctions.[i114] Iran in turn seized the Stena Impero, a British flagged vessel in the Strait of Hormuz, escalating the standoff.[i115]
While holding the British vessel at Bandar Abbas, Iran further escalated the situation in the Persian Gulf by attacking two major Saudi Arabian oil refinery facilities, the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field.[i116] Saudi Arabia moved strategic oil reserves around to prevent catastrophic economic impacts even as futures markets reacted violently. As was noted above in one of the Russia sections, Saudi Arabia makes almost all of their political decisions based upon controlling the world's oil market. In spite of the strategic importance of Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia refused to be bullied by Iran's transgressions.
The fallout from the refinery attacks would be more pressure from the west. Prior to the seizure of the British tanker or the attack on Abqaiq, European allies had been disappointed in the Trump Administration's veer away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - commonly referred to as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.[i117] Even though the French had sought to offer Iran a line of credit to ease impact from the renewed US sanctions, they changed their attitude after Iran's hostile actions in summer of 2019.[i118]
The US increased sanctions in response to the attacks on Abqaiq in 2019,[i119] and truly escalated the situation in January of 2020 with the targeted killing of Soleimani.
Iranian nuclear proliferation
Iran's nuclear ambitions have ebbed and flowed over the years and not coincidentally, so have the reactions by rival nations. This hasn't merely included the US and traditional NATO allies, but even traditional rivals in the region. Over the years, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iraq have all held stern rivalries with each other, but none have ever been tightly allied with Iran at any point, and all have considered pragmatic activities to prevent Iranian proliferation.
This was akin to the pragmatism Iran as a whole and Soleimani specifically have shown since the very beginning of the modern Islamic Republic. In spite of strong anti-Israeli rhetoric from Khomeini after the overthrow of the Shah, Iran and Israel allied themselves against Iraq with a particular shared interest in preventing Iraqi WMD proliferation. Shortly after Iraq invaded Iran, Israel publicly called for Iran to bomb the French built reactor at Tuwaitha.[i120] Iran would, with Israeli intelligence support, do that exact thing only three days later. Seven months later, Israel would strike the site again, all but completely destroying it.[i121]
In spite of their cooperation against Iraq and their close cooperation in several other operations such as the Iran-Contra Affair, for Israel, the bombing of Osirak was an extension of the Begin Doctrine,[i122] itself an outgrowth from earlier acts against enemies - either real or perceived - that could be an outright threat to Israel's existence.
In the early days of the Begin Doctrine, Iran was not an enemy, and Israel focused their efforts against nations now on their periphery such as Egypt and Iraq.[i123] Times have changed, and so has the focus on the Begin Doctrine: squarely at Iran.
The first foray at counter-proliferation to deny Iran wasn't an armed strike like the bombing of Osirak. It was a coordinated attack with the United States called Stuxnet conducted from 2007 to 2010. While much of that attack is more heavily detailed later in the fifth paper in this series, Stuxnet was an extremely effective cyberattack that had tangible effect on fungible equipment and set back Iranian nuclear ambitions by several years.[i124]
Israel wouldn't stop at cyberattacks. As Stuxnet operated in the shadows at the Natanz site from 2007 to 2010, a pre-Civil War Syria made an attempt to build a nuclear weapons capability in defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).[i125] Israel would theoretically use some cyber capabilities to neutralize Syrian air defenses, but the target itself, a nuclear reactor built by the North Koreans and funded in large part by Iran was hit with multiple bombs from numerous aircraft.[i126]
Iran had considered the Syrian Dir a-Zur site as a backup for work at Natanz, and unfortunately for them, Israel's attack in 2007 was very successful. The strike was barely mentioned publicly, unlike Israel's attack on Osirak which drew mass condemnation from all across the globe. In fact, the strike on Dir a-Zur barely struck a tone in the international media, much less at the UN. Both Israel and the IAEA released information in the years to follow that Dir a-Zur was an illegal weapons reactor and Israel was at least morally justified in their actions if not legally from an international relations perspective.[i127]
Even though the strike on Dir a-Zur was technically a strike on Syria, its Iranian proxy effects were well documented.[i128] Stuxnet itself was documented primarily within the US for both the major role played by the NSA's TAO, and how influential in the world of cybersecurity such a thing was.[i129] The killing of Soleimani was seen as an attempt to curb Iranian involvement in Middle Eastern terrorism.[i130] The resumption of secondary sanctions after the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA were aimed at increasing pressure on Iran to both curb regional and global terrorism support in addition to prolonging WMD proliferation.[i131] In spite of all of these, Israel's actions have been the most consistent and have been the nexus to push the US forward on some actions.
In early 2018, Israel stole a treasure-trove of nuclear secrets from a vault in Tehran, releasing many documents to the public to validate the legitimacy of their brazen theft. Prior to the public release, PM Benjamin Netanyahu gave President Trump a brief on the contents, which showed a covert Iranian nuclear weapons development plan was in fact developed, and this was arguably the single largest reason for the US withdrawal from the JCPOA.[i132]
The break-in precipitated further actions to degrade Iranian WMD development. In the summer of 2020, Israel is thought to be responsible for another attack at the Natanz enrichment site.[i133] Unlike Stuxnet, the attack in July of 2020 was intended to be an outright attack with crippling physical damage instead of latent damage to centrifuge motors and the associated monitoring software. It also caused an immense amount of damage.[i134] Then, a few months later, Israel killed the highest ranking military official involved in the acquisition and development of nuclear weapons, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.[i135] Fakhrizadeh was not the first time Israel had arguably been involved in the killing of an Iranian nuclear official; Massoud Ali Mohammadi and Majid Shahriari, both nuclear physicists, were killed in 2010 as were Darush Rezaei-Nejad in 2011 and Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan in 2012.[i136]
Israel's timing for the sabotage at Natanz in 2020 and the killing of Fakhrizadeh weren't coincidence. Fakhrizadeh had been under surveillance for months,[i137] yet his killing happened to occur when diplomatic relations of Iran by the EU-based signatories of the JCPOA were the most tenuous. Iran's rhetoric towards the Trump Administration was probably seen as perfectly acceptable in Brussels so long as Iran's actions remained firmly towards an American belligerent. A counter-attack at Israel after the Natanz fire or the assassination of Fakhrizadeh without clear-cut proof of Israel's involvement would have likely thrown away any European pity for the JCPOA-walkaway by the US and resulted in complete reversion to pre-JCPOA sanctions[i138] that were extremely crippling to the Iranian economy.
The Begin Doctrine is more than just a manner to juxtapose Soleimani and Iran's willingness to switch allegiances - even going so far as to ally with different previous bad actors so long as the ends justify said action - it's also a barometer of true likelihood of near-proliferation in the Middle East. Israel's willingness to bomb Osirak and Dir a-Zur, participate in the hack on Natanz and the follow-on sabotage, the theft of the vaults and the targeted assassinations of nuclear scientists shows that if Israel isn't actively attacking a WMD center in Iran, it probably doesn't believe there is a problem. And given Israel's cyber and signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities are of a similar level to the US, but their human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities with regards to Iran are basically superior,[i139] Israel's actions can be seen as a pretty clear barometer of actual nuclear proliferation in Iran.[i140]
The debate continues into the summer of 2021 as explosions rocked Iran's operational and strategic assets. On June 2nd, 2021, a massive and mysterious blast rocked the Tondgooyan refinery near Tehran which supplies fuel to the embargoed Iranian capital.[i141] On the very same day, the Kharg, Iran's largest Naval vessel and the only one capable of long-distance force projection as a logistical support asset, had a fire break out in the engine room which proved uncontainable and ultimately sunk the vessel.[i142] Debate remains as to whether Israel was involved with either incident. The vessel itself was old and difficult to maintain given the international embargos and was conducting a training mission when it sunk; sabotage wouldn't necessarily be the most likely explanation. Likewise, the explosion at the refinery also came during a heat-wave, and again, embargo related maintenance could be as likely of an explanation as foreign agents setting explosives.
The Kharg is the third Iranian vessel to sink in three years.[i143] Of those, the Damavand was damaged beyond repair due to navigational errors and the Konarak was hit by one of Iran's own missiles in an epic mistake. As to whether either of them, or the fire on the Kharg were done by a foreign perpetrator or by Iranian errors is still up for debate.
With the sinking of the Kharg, the largest vessel in the Iranian fleet by far is now the Makran, had been headed west towards an assumed Venezuelan docking, in what was figured to be an arms sale in violation of sanctions of both countries.[i144] As of July 2021, the Makran has turned away from a cross-Atlantic run and is headed towards either joint exercises with Russians or to Syria. Whether this was due to diplomatic pressures against governments to prevent the Makran from making the journey unimpeded, or if it was due to the loss of the Kharg and its assumed role in the training exercises, the movement of the seven high-speed fast attack boats it had on its deck from Iran to Venezuela appears to be on hold.
After the US resumed sanctions against Iran, the impact of the post-JCPOA economy in Iran severely crippled President Hassan Rouhani's standing in Iran's domestic political arena. The Iranian election in summer of 2021 was a litmus test for democracy in Iran, and many of the more progressive and liberalized Iranians sought leadership that would move to make Iran's economy more opened to the world, and therefore increase quality of life for the Iranian population.
Instead, Iran's Guardian Council disqualified most presidential candidates from even being on the ballot, leading to an overwhelmingly large victory for the ultra-conservative hard liner Ebrahim Raisi, a long-time ally of Supreme Leader Khamenei with a checkered human rights past.[i145]
Iran will not move towards being a global partner as long as it is partnering with terrorist proxies and marching towards WMD proliferation. The shoe-horning of Raisi into the Iranian presidency is a step backwards from stabilization and instead a march towards future belligerence.
As the failing war of Russia's aggression into Ukraine has drawn the west closer together, it has similarly drawn Russia and Iran closer as well. In early 2023, Iran and Russia decided to create a joint drone manufacturing facility within Russia to manufacture Iranian designed unmanned vehicles.[i146] Even Israel has taken advantage of the western world's disdain of Iran's relationship to Russia at this point as an invitation to strike Iran's nuclear sites with little fear of international condemnation.[i147] Iran has definitely drawn itself into an anti-western corner, and will most likely suffer many consequences even as their people are seeking an internal revolution.[i148]
Ten key takeaways from the above information:
- Covert and multi-domain operations to prevent proliferation of WMDs will need to remain a policy of the US and allies for the foreseeable future, though deniability must be of the utmost concern.
- Ancient Persia was one of the most important empires of antiquity, but modern Persia and Iran is a state that is repetitively victimized by foreign forces. Over the last 200 years, it was almost entirely by Russia/USSR and the UK, and not the US or Israel, though for pragmatic reasons the latter pair have come to play roles bilaterally.
- Iran uses the US and Israel as a foil for internal political maneuvering; in turn the US and Israel manipulate Iran's ability to project power as it impacts Israel's entire existence and multiple US allies in the region as well as global energy supplies.
- In spite of the death of Soleimani, Iran will continue to utilize proxies (Shi'a sects in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen to fight against Saudi Arabian Sunni proxies, assorted organizations on an ad-hoc basis in Afghanistan as best suits Iranian interests, and most importantly, Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon arrayed against Israel) to effect outcomes most beneficial for the Islamist interests and entrenched political leadership of Iran.
- Iran's economy is based largely on energy exports, making control by external actors such as the US with embargos not merely an asymmetric advantage, but one that the Iranian population has already borne the brunt of and is not content with their own regime continually causing friction. In past generations, careful control of domestic narrative had painted the western powers such as the US and the UK as unprovoked belligerents, yet the modern youth in Iran are exposed to more globalized information and are becoming aware of the underlying causes of Iranian economic malaise.
- Iran will continue to not merely utilize proxies, but attempt to control the Strait of Hormuz and escalate-to-deescalate in the narrow pass. Continuous "close calls" with the US Navy will likely result in deaths of Iranian sailors, though the long-term effects of Iranian belligerence in the region will probably not escalate to a full-blown shooting war. Unlike US approach to the shores of China, Iran does not possess an ability to control the Strait in a shooting war and Iran fully knows that escalation akin to an act of war will not result in broad support from the world community.
- Iran also has a distant history of powerful rulers, but more recently of being ruled by terribly inefficient sycophantic totalitarians. Sadly, this history does also stretch back to before Iran was even remotely modernized. Efforts to modernize rule of law and rule of democracy have been thwarted by the west in the past (Mossadegh - again, by the UK with the US playing a supporting role), but most of Iran's malfeasance and incompetence has been fueled purely by their own internal strife and external actors just play the role of scapegoat.
- Israel's Begin Doctrine will continue to operate in the region, regardless of whether the US participates in the JCPOA. If Iran inches closer to WMD proliferation, Israeli meddling will simultaneously increase, which may lead to a war with disastrous long-term outcomes for the people of Iran, as well as the Israeli populace at large.
- Iran's inability to turn a negative narrative over the shootdown of flight PS752 amidst internally collected evidence (video released to social media) shows that the religious leaders may not have the level of totalitarian control over the populace they enjoyed in previous decades. A "Persian Spring" akin to Arab populist uprisings over the past decade is not out of the realm of possibility, and continued internal pressure on the regime will potentially lead to internal collapse, the best case scenario for the people of Iran, regional security, and the interests of the west. The level of meddling that Khamenei had to employ to ensure a pro-Ayatollah presidency is proof that the Iranian autocrats are worried about liberalization of the Iranian population leading to their downfall.
- To bring Iran forward into the world community as a positive partner will require supporting internal forces that seek to modernize, democratize and secularize Iran. External actors and autocratic despots alike are not merely the two most principle causes of Iran's issues in the past 300 years, but they are pressure-points the existing ruling class uses to keep Iran from modernizing as a partner in a global economy.
Iran's efforts to attain WMDs cannot be assumed to be for defensive purposes alone; if that were the case, Israel and its impressive nuclear arsenal would have long ago flattened Tehran. The biggest risk of an Iranian WMD is their existing relationship to organizations such as Hezbollah who would not hesitate to annihilate Tel Aviv or Washington, D.C. For this reason, the primary focus of the US DoD must continue to be preventing proliferation of Iranian WMDs so long as they continue to actively fund, train, equip, and lead by proxy terror organizations that target civilians. In spite of that, US appearances must continue to be one of respecting the Iranian populace as it reaches towards liberalized policies and moves to usurp totalitarian Sharia law from the Iranian political landscape. In spite of these internal pressures, the Iranian regime is pushing back aggressively against liberalism and globalized harmony by basically "installing" Raisi. How this will ultimately impact Iranian long-term internal politics remains to be seen. Ushering in an internally driven "Persian Spring" is the ultimate goal of not merely the US DoD, but the entire western world. However, the appearance of exterior meddling by the US and Israel will only delay a badly needed internal upheaval. This is why American military actions must remain as covert as possible and pressures in the other DIME sectors such as diplomatic assertions or economic sanctions have to be carefully crafted to show the Iranian population they are in support of liberalized goals and their misery is wholly the responsibility of the hardliner Islamists turning the country away from prosperity and embrace by the global economy.
North Korea isn't actually "full metal crazy," in spite of its reputational history. In fact, North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is itself interesting as it's neither a democracy nor a republic, and the people have no freedoms much less control. About the only bit of honesty in the DPRK moniker is that North Korea is on the Korean peninsula.
In spite of a regime that, rightly so seems absolutely unhinged, most moves by the Kim family in light of internal pressures and pragmatic expectation management are logical, albeit only if these acts are seen in a context devoid of a moral compass. The acts of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un are all absent any semblance of honesty or ethics, but are not irrational.
It is through this lens that the US DoD must adjust strategic policy, as equipping and deploying forces arrayed against such an opposition must be based on a more accurate understanding of the actual forces at play, and not the perception of those forces.
A lesson can be learned from another recent hotspot the US DoD faced: Iraq. Much of the illusion of Iraqi WMDs that lead to the second invasion of Iraq was a fantasy actively created by Saddam Hussein, not to create a war with the US, but to keep Iranian meddling in Iraqi internal politics at bay.[n1] Likewise, the arrays of artillery tubes pointed at Seoul and the actual WMDs North Korea possess are not vaporware like Iraqi WMDs were, yet the willingness to actually be a global aggressor is akin to Saddam's saber rattling. For this purpose, honest analytics of North Korea becomes much more difficult given the difference in cultural norms and that many of Kim Jong-un's acts are sadly rational in the context of maintaining absolute control over the hermit kingdom.[n2]
Unfortunately for Kim Jong-un, these acts whether "crazy" or not have manifested themselves over the past few years into somehow making North Korea worse, which is saying a lot. In a 2009 book by Barbara Demick,[n3] the review by Stephen Schenkenberg of St. Louis Magazine[n4] probably said it best:
The last time I read a book with something truly harrowing or pitiful or sad on every page it was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and those characters had the good fortune to not be real.
In August of 2020, Kim Jong-un was forced to basically admit the nation hadn't lived up to his goals.[n5] Jong-un's goals were set at a Worker's Party Congress in 2016 for a five year plan, yet by 2020, massive torrential rains,[n6] COVID-19, and crippling UNSCRs in response to WMD and ballistic missile proliferation and testing had all played parts in the failure of North Korea to achieve economic growth.
In reality though, most all of these failures fall back onto Kim Jong-un's shoulders. The blame for the sanctions from the UNSCRs were squarely on the DPRK military; under his leadership, North Korea outright defied expectations of global peace in an effort to force South Korea, Japan and the US to change policy. With both the flooding and COVID-19, Kim Jong-un refused foreign aid, overtly claiming it was to keep the country's 0% infection rate, but in reality, as a political ploy to avoid the appearance of foreign reliance in an effort to prop up internal political support.[n7] Even though much of the DPRK history is based upon foreign aid, the Kim regime touts self-sufficiency as a national tenet.
By 2021, North Korea's arrogance in the face of the UN and refusal to work with the global economy or accept aid had compounded into reluctant admittance that North Korea will most likely face famine in 2021.[n8] If it will be on the same massive scale as the 1990s[n9] remains to be seen, but the messaging being used by the regime in summer of 2021 to prepare for an "arduous march" is in fact the same used by Kim Jong-il during the famine of the mid-90s.[n10]
The Hermit Kingdom
North Korean daily life for those who support the government isn't terribly different than the daily life of peasants in any other third world country. Literature reviews that examined several contemporary texts of life in the DPRK suggest that to the average North Korean, daily struggles parallel those of many other nations.[n11] Yet even this must be seen through a lens of the state's almost cult-like behavior. During the famine of the 1990s, while flooding and drought both played a role, the primary cause for so much death was Kim Jong-il's refusal to allow foreign aid - even from China - to make a difference.[n12] The resulting narrative controlled by the government went so far as to make use of the words "famine" or "hunger" illegal, while food aid and distribution of food through the government's centralized control and distribution system was not based on health or need, but on governmental loyalty to the Juche system[n13] which is itself, basically a cult.[n14]
In the Juche system in North Korea, several concepts are melded together in a perverse form of beliefs. Marxist/Leninist communism is melded to near fascist levels of nationalism, based on ideas in the 1950s surrounding the end of Stalinism. As Soviet globalized communism was driven forward to create a global utopia for the proletariat, Juche was nationalistic in its efforts to keep North Korea independent of foreign reliance. Additionally, Marxism saw the organization of economic models as the center of societal growth (and this is not merely shared with capitalist views on history, but with sociology and archeology as well). Juche, in theory put the human itself at the center of societal growth, not the methods of economic organization around them. This is done in order to draw in a basic Confucianist concept of filial piety as part of national organization. In Juche, Kim Il-sung repainted himself as not just father of North Korean political institutions like the Communist party, or even of the concept of North Korea as a modern nation state, but almost as if transubstantiated into the literal father of all North Koreans. Kim Jong-il would push Juche even further, canonizing his father (and declaring him "President for Eternity"), formalizing many of the uniquely North Korean facets of communism into their updated constitution,[n15] and basically ignoring any plight of the North Korean people.
With Kim Jong-un, nothing has improved, even if Juche as a cult has a firm grasp. In 2012, during a flash flood, 14-year-old Han Hyon Gyong was reported to have died when trying to save portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il from being swept away,[n16] and was then lauded as a hero for being "displayer of the spirit of devotedly defending the leader." Whether a single word of that is true or not is not relevant; it is the propaganda coming from North Korea that a teenage girl should drown in an attempt to save valueless portraits of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il that shows what the government's view on North Korean attitudes should be. And if it is true, it's truly horrifying in what it says about the Kim regime's success.
During the famine in the 1990s, two tenets of Juche were utilized in how food was doled out. First was the concept of "military first." Those in the Army were afforded food ahead of others. Second were allocations by family according to those most loyal to Juche ideals.
The end result were probably as many as a million died.[n17] Market capital reforms began to take hold in rural North Korea to allow for food trade, but these were dealt with by Kim Jong-il's regime harshly. Early assumptions of Kim Jong-un's takeover were that in light of globalization of information, market reformation would follow in North Korea. However, Kim Jong-un has actually become more harsh than his father; a man in Gangwon province in May 2021 was executed by firing squad for selling discs and USB thumb drives for $5-$12 filled with South Korean music, movies, and other information from outside of the DPRK's tight propaganda control.[n18]
The DPRK's ability to prevent an internally launched coup is substantially greater than Venezuela's, Iran's, or even that in China or Russia and this is due to the ability of Kim Jong-un to employ informational asymmetry to his advantage[n19] by denying access to open knowledge to the public. Iran's need to disqualify presidential candidates or Venezuela's constant need for controlled referendums are last gasps of attempted control of a population through illusion of implied democracy, but substantial portions of the public are aching for a "Persian Spring" or a full-fledged Civil War in either case. In North Korea, the Kim regime fights outside influence with not mere absolute denial of outside Internet access, but also with criminalization of outside information. Kim Jong-un frames it as preserving Korean Culture, another extension of Juche, but to those who've been murdered by the regime in front of the their family over BTS mp3s, it doesn't mean much more than totalitarianism. Sadly, it works. Former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper aptly noted that Kim Jong-un was basically a god.[n20]
"They [North Korean leadership elites] are also deadly serious about any perceived affronts to the Supreme Leader, whom they literally consider a deity." - Former DNI James Clapper.
The willingness to throw away the lives of North Koreans for the "theory" of North Korea as a culture, or Juche, specifically, is not receiving the kind of blowback even amongst those elites who have access to outside knowledge because of the power of the cult of personality, as well as the overwhelming fear of retribution from "Dear Leader."
If North Koreans en masse gained access to true outside information, the internal revolt would be assured, and the fate of the Kim regime would be over swiftly. For this reason, the use of Juche as a tool to justify enforced massed ignorance will continue as long as a Kim can wield power.
Trolling for support
Like all the other nation-states on the list the of likely enemies, the DPRK is a totalitarian dictatorship, but it's unlike China, Russia and Iran in that it's basically incapable of self-sufficiency. This isn't just due to poor leadership by the Kim regime, which is ironic given one of the central tenets of Juche is national self-sufficiency. Another part of the problem is that in command economies such as Kim-branded communism, there is a need for a major geographic advantage to have any sort of hope of economic success. North Korea is far from blessed in regards to geographic advantages; North Korea has no known natural gas or crude oil reserves, a 66% foreign trade deficit - almost entirely to China, from whom the DPRK imports 96% of all foreign goods, while exporting 67% of all domestic exports there - and abysmal statistics such as only 26% of the national population even possessing electricity.[n21] Even Taliban controlled Afghanistan has better numbers.[n22] In spite of the imposition of Juche onto the populace, the regime itself desperately needs aid from other nations for any hope of survival. Ironic, given the penalties for the population violating Juche for dealing with foreign commerce ranges from political imprisonment to death to even more tyrannical punishments such as the rule of multi-generational imprisonment.[n23]
DPRK's need for foreign support extends beyond the necessities for the population to survive to diplomatic ties to prevent their doom at the hands of their foes. The DPRK's belligerence against their South Korean and Japanese neighbors as well as their consistent violation of UNSCRs and US sanctions would most likely have already lead to their upheaval without the benevolence of the USSR, Russia and China. Yet to maintain the illusion of Juche amongst not merely the ignorant North Korean masses but the elite leadership of the DPRK, the Kim regime must carefully balance belligerence with the west against reliance on their traditional friends; the relationships between the great powers are completely out of Kim Jong-un's control, and support for his regime could be easily sacrificed collateral by Moscow or Beijing.
Even as North Korean official and unofficial market relationships are predominately focused on China, one of the three nations that border North Korea (along with South Korea across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and a scant 40 kilometers with Russia, which ironically is the shortest of all 16 different national borders Russia has), the DPRK has had other relationships which are quite dangerous to the US DoD. As mentioned above, the DPRK has played a role in nuclear proliferation for both Iran and Syria,[n24] two other states the western world are also aiming to contain from gaining effective WMD projection.
The DPRK firmly sees itself as an anti-western, anti-capitalist nation. Though officially an Atheist nation, Juche is itself almost a religion or a cult, with jingoism and patriarchal transubstantiation of the Kim regime at the heart of their beliefs. This internally focused message of North Korean "humanity" at the heart of national belief, with an implication that the Kim family is the apex of human perfection, allows for them to have collaborative relationships with other countries they ostensibly have nothing in common with. Iran, a totalitarian theocracy with regional aims in southwest Asia has little in common with DPRK beyond suppression of personal rights, authoritarian dictatorship, and a deep hatred of the United States. To think this alone is a reason to two countries to work together is at minimum naïve, and at worst, myopic. As an example, the US has tenuous ties - at best - with Serbia[n25] and Pakistan[n26] who are far from allied, especially over the recognition of Kosovo as a state.[n27] It's easy to see all anti-American nations as some sort of allied bloc of singular motivation (especially as during the Cold War, this was roughly true, at least amongst major world powers). This is also a natural illusion as humans like to create false dichotomies, instead of appreciating the nous of complex relationships amongst unique nation states in a world of over 7 billion opinions. Nonetheless, North Korea and Iran work together on many projects, mostly defense-related.[n28]
This cooperation between Iran and North Korea that dates back to the founding of the Islamic regime in 1979 when Kim Il-sung still ran DPRK has never truly died off, even when strict sanctions against both nations made trade and transport difficult. Contrary to modern revisionism, George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech didn't push North Korea and Iran together; it was an accurate reflection of their nuclear proliferation ambitions. The misnomer was the suggestion that either had much to do with Iraq; Saddam Hussein's mostly Sunni government and secular Ba'athist party made up of Arab Iraqis had waged an incredibly bloody war with the Persian Shi'a theocratic Iranians for almost the entirety of the 1980s; there was no love between Iraq and Iran. Kim Il-sung's DPRK allied itself with Iran during that war, offering what little support they could against Iraq.
The spending continues; amidst the growing famine concerns[n29] in 2021, North Korea has launched several missiles in September, including long-range strategic cruise missiles[n30] - which are not banned by UNSCRs - and ballistic missiles,[n31] which are. In spite of the starvation and poor spending choices on WMDs and their associated equipment, per official DPRK media, the world's happiest people are the Chinese, then North Koreans, then Cuba, Iran and Venezuela, all much happier than South Korea (152nd of 203 countries) or the US (dead last place).[n32] The idea of such outlandish claims jives with a nation whose state media claimed Kim Jong-il took so well to golf that he shot a 34 on a par-72 - an astounding 38-under including five holes in one - on his first ever round of play.[n33]
To have the kind of chutzpah to make claims like this at the National media level is beyond astounding. The lies told by state media on behalf of the Kim regime are more appropriate from Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite.
The proliferation is seen by DPRK as a pathway to prevent external actors from toppling the regime, much the same as Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein fell from power after their WMD projects were no longer viable.[n34] The irony is that while the west played a role in both, Qaddafi and Hussein were both killed by their own people after decades of internal oppression.
Allies have been hard to find for the DPRK with both China and Russia being at best "fair-weather friends" since Deng's embrace of capitalism and the fall of the Soviet Union, respectively. Relations have ebbed and flowed over the years, with the Kim regime's recklessness in diplomacy often pushing the level-headed Chinese and Russian leaders away, even when willing to forgive small-scale infractions such as a dozen ships illegally poaching from Russian waters.[n35] In spite of even wounding four Russian FSB officers in a shootout during the arrest, Russia seems more concerned over the lives of the North Korean fishermen, warning that they most likely face harsh punishment upon repatriation, most likely death by firing squad due to embarrassment caused to Kim.
"I’m under the impression that if those guys were in Pyongyang’s hands, they’d be shot," said Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house.
As the DPRK walks a tightrope of domestically claiming Juche is not merely policy but an extension of the Kim regime's godlike patriarchy to the nation, the DPRK must also struggle for international friends desperately needed to balance the books and even feed a starving populace. This is compounded with the difficulty of having limited and strictly guarded borders and strict international sanctions.
North Korea's three land borders are all reflections of complex relationships. The DMZ that runs roughly along the 38th parallel is among the most heavily fortified borders in the world, and while the occasional North Korean successfully flees into South Korea across the DMZ, there's extremely limited trade at the border, especially since South Korea removed their participation in the Kaesong Industrial Complex after an early 2016 DPRK nuclear weapons test.[n36] In spite of the 2016 closure, South Korea initially claimed the step back from the partnership would be temporary, and in a first step towards re-opening the complex, re-opened the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in September of 2018. The office was basically abandoned for non-political reasons (COVID-19) in January of 2020, but the DPRK literally destroyed the office with explosives, further damaging relations with South Korea.
North Korea's northern borders aren't quite as heavily fortified as the DMZ, but still sit relatively sealed since COVID-19. The tri-point border with China and Russia[n37] and the short border with Russia has been sealed tight since January of 2020.[n38] Even as the DPRK relied upon strong border controls to prevent North Koreans from fleeing into Russia or China, the strongest threat to prevent refugees from fleeing has been the punishment that awaits the families of those left behind, with even children of defectors left to work in labor camps.[n39]
This assumes a functioning DPRK state security apparatus to control those left behind. The issue for Russia and to a much larger respect, China, is that if the Kim regime begins to collapse due to internal pressures and can no longer pose a serious threat to the domestic populace, will defectors become an effective refugee catastrophe for Beijing?[n40] Conventional wisdom assumes such, especially as China has long had a much more profitable relationship with South Korea[n41] than the North,[n42] only exacerbated lately with the relative collapse of North Korean trade.[n43] Both North and South Korea call China their #1 export partner, yet in 2019 that trade accounted for $136b in South Korean exports to China, compared to $207m for North Korea. Conversely, China exported $108b to South Korea, and only $2.6b to North Korea. South Korean bi-lateral trade with China was worth 8724% more than North Korean/Chinese bi-lateral trade in 2019, and that was prior to an 84% collapse in North Korean/Chinese trade seen in the first half of 2021. China's economic relationship with South Korea is worth several orders of magnitude more than North Korea's.
Even though China continues their North Korean repatriation policy for refugees, much to the chagrin of human rights agencies, China has tried to shy away from their 1961 mutual defense treaty with North Korea, potentially breaking the tie altogether.[n44] In spite of the treaty and the traditional link of Communism, the economic relationship China has with the rest of the world, especially the United States and South Korea has pushed them away from North Korea as a defense partner. This leaves China left with a fear of hundreds of thousands if not millions of famished North Koreans charging across their borders in fear if the Kim regime begins to truly collapse.
North Korean summation
- South Korean cultural influences are the strongest threat to Kim regime. Both propaganda leaflets and drones launched into North Korea and the continual pervasive nature of movies, music and assorted South Korean entertainment into the hands of those in the North is the single largest form of cultural pervasiveness that will undo the iron grip of the Kim regime.
- China's economic relationship with North Korea isn't strong enough to bring Beijing into conflict on Pyongyang's behalf. China is economically bound to South Korea and the US far more than a 50-year-old treaty with North Korea endears them, especially as global trade for the few natural resources North Korea can provide, particularly coal, has dropped, making North Korea that much less valuable.
- North Korean Juche is brainwashed throughout the masses; foreign propaganda has to be more subtle than merely challenging Kim's relative god-hood. The fact that the DPRK has the courage to tell their people they are the second happiest in the world while their daily life is akin to those in The Road is only because seventy years of hard work has gone into a national-level propaganda machine. Breaking it requires subtle cues to the reality of life outside of the Hermit Kingdom.
- North Korea sees their nuclear arsenal as a ticket to international respect, not as an invitation for foreign meddling. This is partially founded in reality but also is a major barrier to relieving internal pressures from famine exacerbated by lack of foreign aid. It forces the DPRK government to walk a precarious tightrope between foreign pressures and internal pressures.
- Much of the internal pressure has been relieved over the years by employing not merely the deceitful propaganda, but enjoying an incredibly strong informational asymmetry advantage over the North Korean population. This asymmetry gets continuously more difficult; globally, information is more freely accessed than ever and this is a foundational threat to the DPRK leadership.
- DPRK's actions, seen through the lens of Kim's leadership needs are pragmatic in nature. In spite of an often chaotic appearance, the actions from Pyongyang shouldn't really surprise any astute observer.
- Reaction to COVID-19 and further embrace of Juche has shrunk global trade during a food shortage, ushering in a potentially greater famine than seen in the 1990s. In addition to being a humanitarian disaster, this will push Kim's ability to be seen as an effective leader to a test that may result in total collapse of the DPRK.
- Defectors continue to flee in spite of the major risk to themselves and their families left behind, proving both how bad the problems in the DPRK are, as well as bringing information out to show the world the harshness of the North Korean experience.
- Once the Juche model is destroyed under the light of free information, the North Korean people would be an easily transitioned population to a new governmental model; high literacy rates, embrace of strong work ethic, and low rates of religious dogmatism will not stand in the way of new standards of living that could easily usher in greater economic prosperity for the people as well as external capital investors (most likely from China and South Korea).
- Given the multiple internal and external threats to North Korea, an embrace of nationalism against a strong external threat, whether real or fabricated will be required to keep internal pressures low enough to prevent a coup or civil unrest if the famine increases to 1990s levels. Escalation of antagonism with South Korea and the US is inevitable, though even with a functional nuclear arsenal, the Kim regime will pragmatically stop short of either a full-scale shooting war - which will inevitably end with the removal of the Kim regime, Juche, and the eradication of the existing structures of the North Korean state - or with denuclearization, which the Kim regime also feels is essential to prolong the DPRK as a Kim-family entity. A realistic expectation is escalation to de-escalate in order to win terms of diplomatic concessions that will keep the Kim regime in power and the DPRK as a semi-functioning nation-state, even if it remains a post-apocalyptic nightmare of human rights tragedies.
In the context of all of these exterior influences, the best possible use of western forces isn't even the 1st SFG Green Berets fomenting unrest amongst North Korean guerillas and expatriates willing to return and fight Kim's regime; the popular revolt within North Korea probably hasn't achieved the level of mass appeal yet necessary to lead to a civil war and overthrow of the Kim regime.
The best course of action is continued education of the North Korean populace of what life is like outside of the carefully constructed - and wholly false - narratives the DPRK propaganda machine crafts. Infiltration of North Korean airwaves and internet traffic with glimpses of reality instead of the deceitful propaganda will ultimately be the downfall of the colossal failure that is the Kim regime.
Venezuela is a particular concern to the DoD for many reasons.
- Maduro's government continues to have - and foster - close relationships with all the other nefarious actors of the 2018 NDS as well as other traditional anti-American nations such as Cuba.[v1] Maduro has firmly entrenched his policies as anti-American regardless of our policies. The antagonism from Venezuela traverses all American parties; whether Trump or Biden claimed the sky was blue, Maduro would argue the opposite and blame all ills on American policy.
- Venezuela possesses an immense number of natural resources that can cause severe impacts to commodities markets the US considers of vital national security importance.
- The rise of neo-Leninist socialism and the emergence of communism is and always should be a concern for the US, since regardless of economic modalities that align nations, communism is always associated with human rights violations. This axis is probably the most concerning for American defense interests as it has a universal support among the American voter, and thus appeal to Congress and an Executive when making deployment decisions.
- The proximity of Venezuela to the US and US interests also invokes the Monroe Doctrine.[v2] Prior to such heavy meddling by Russia, and to a lesser extent, China, US political interference in Venezuela could be viewed only through the lens of the Roosevelt Corollary[v3] (named for Theodore, not Franklin who actually abandoned it). At this point, foreign meddling has made the original intent of the Monroe Doctrine germane again, much like when Kennedy utilized it to blockade Cuba.[v4]
Venezuela's downhill collapse could have been predicted the moment Hugo Chávez was elected on a platform described as a "Bolivarian Revolution" but was heavily influenced by his time training with terrorists of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC translated: Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia)[v5] before outright declaring himself as a Marxist in later proclamations.[v6]
Venezuela's foray into socialism was initially not a complete failure due to the record high prices for oil and the nationalization of the oil industry. For many years, the reappropriation of oil profits into social welfare spending was able to marginally - but measurably - reduce poverty, increase literacy and generally help Chávez in the polls towards re-election.[v7] However, this prosperity would not last. During the Chávez years, Venezuela failed to maintain their oil production infrastructure, failed to invest in any other commodity extraction technologies nor diversified their economy, and the Marxist model of socialist economics beneath a fascist leadership model did what it always does and lead to widespread corruption. With no politically acceptable recourse that wouldn't involve capitulation to democratic machinations and laissez-faire capitalism - policy choices that proved to be very successful in Chile over the same time frame - Venezuela further saddled all their monetary income to the oil industry, letting food production languish. Though the massive reduction in oil prices that would lead to hyper-inflation in Venezuela wouldn't occur until after Chávez died of cancer and was replaced by fellow Marxist Nicholas Maduro, the unchecked social welfare spending, sole-source funding from nationalized sector in disarray from mismanagement due to both neglect and corruption and the beginnings of fiat currency manipulation in a deflating market that would lead to inflation all began to unravel the Venezuelan markets.[v8]
Under Maduro, the problems increased, especially with the massive reduction in global oil prices in 2015.[v9] This would lead to further economic and societal collapse.
There are remarkable differences in the scale of collapse between Venezuela and the state of failure in North Korea. Both are totally failed states with rampant poverty, malnutrition, increase in preventable disease, vast networks of corruption, various fascist state apparatuses suppressing reporting through coercion or violence. The two states represent two of the worst human rights records in the entire world, yet some things are significantly worse in Venezuela. As an example, in North Korea there are many things that could result in the state killing you, but homicide from other citizens is relatively rare for a third-world country. North Korea's intentional homicide rate in 2012 - the last year upon which the UN's Office of Drugs and Crime collected data - was the same as the that in the United States: 4.7/100,000 people. Venezuela's was either 53.8/100,000 or 54.74/100,000 in 2012 depending upon which source the UN recognized, but this was merely a footnote as the rate continued to rise to a peak of 63.34/100,000 a few years later. Venezuela's murder rate is consistently one of the ten worst in the world.
Worse yet, North Korea would be expected to be a failed state merely due to their hermit status combined with their geographic penuriousness. North Korea as a location is dismal, with minimal arable land, poor natural resource commodities for trade, nor much to offer from a goods/services perspective. Venezuela is the exact opposite, a beautiful nation with massive tracts of viable land for cultivation of a wide variety of hearty and healthy foods, an embarrassment of commodity riches including the world's largest amount of proven oil reserves,[v10] and a decent population which, prior to Chávez was capable of operating the diverse industries Venezuela was capable of.
Cold Civil War
One area which makes the future of Venezuela brighter than that of North Korea or Iran is that the fascist leadership model in Venezuela was initially built upon the typical transactional incentive model to manipulate class warfare for the benefit of those running for political office, instead of a cultural transition towards seeing a particular class as religious clerics above reproach (as in Iran) or a family as actual deities (in North Korea).
Because neither Chávez nor Maduro has the legitimacy of anything other than a political leader, challenges have arisen such as that posed by rival political factions.
In the first elections to Parliament after Chávez's death, Chávez's United Socialist Party suffered a massive defeat; after 16 consecutive years of ruling Parliament with a fairly sizable majority, opposition parties toppled the socialist bloc with a super-majority victory in 2015.[v11] This wasn't a fluke either, as the 2015 elections enjoyed some of the largest turn-out in Venezuelan legislative electoral history.[v12]
The will of the voter meant little to Maduro; the lame duck socialist parliament packed the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice with Maduro loyalists then declared enough incoming PMs of their seats to prevent a veto-proof super-majority. This crippled the opposition parliament from opposing Maduro's policies long enough for Maduro to consolidate power and create a new Constitution and create a new Assembly, thereby avoiding democratic checks on his thirst for power.
This resulted in a Constitutional crisis in 2018-2019 leading to a "Cold Civil War" in Venezuela. Citing clear text in the 1999 Constitution, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, was declared interim president and has lead the legitimate government of Venezuela opposed to Maduro's continued rule.
The world has drawn sides, and supporters for Guaidó have included most western democracies; Maduro's supporters have mostly been either nefarious nations with horrific human rights or creditors to the Chávez and Maduro administrations.
The image above is dated; as of 2021 most EU nations had gone from formally calling for dialog to formally recognizing Guaidó until the Constitutional dictate that declared him the interim president ended. Nonetheless, the EU still recognizes the 2015 elections as the last democratic elections in Venezuela and Maduro as an illegitimate leader.
Guaidó and/or the National Assembly he leads is backed by the US, UK, and many others, including EU/NATO allies such as Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden, and other democracies such as Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Morocco, Paraguay and South Korea, among others.
Maduro's supporters internationally is a near comical collection; the 2018 NDS actors Russia, China, Iran & North Korea, as well as Bolivia, Cuba, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Palestine, Peru, Sudan, Syria, Turkey and only a handful of others, yet Maduro retained the most important pathway to power: support from the Venezuelan military. Only through this has Maduro retained iron fisted rule, even as most Venezuelan citizens have grown away from the socialist regime.
Failing state fallout
The BBC has compiled a brilliant graphical compendium of how badly things have fallen apart in Venezuela.
As the oil production fell, the price had been rising until 2015; this had mostly masked over the mismanagement and poor maintenance. After the collapse in oil prices, it lead to massive economic fallout.
The Maduro administration dealt with collapsing income by merely printing more money. However, Venezuelan Bolivars aren't a fiat currency with global recognition as a central part of the world economy; ergo, the economic rules surrounding inflationary growth for the US during QEs isn't the same as Maduro panicking.
The massive inflation[v13] has lead to huge problems within in the nation. Preventable diseases are on the rise, such as Malaria.
The issues are more than malaria; diphtheria, measles, tuberculosis and others are also rising sharply.
Because of these cascading failures, Venezuelans are leaving in droves.
In fact, Venezuela's economic collapse has had follow-on effects with various other systems impacting US security including immigration from the Central American nations to the US dramatically increasing as Venezuela had previously been a seasonal immigration destination that was no longer viable.
The bottom line for Venezuela is that the country is completely falling apart and the socialist experiment has been an unmitigated disaster impacting every part of the nation unfavorably. The only positive is that there are internal forces attempting to peacefully transition the country away from its current downward trajectory back into a democratic institution that is part of the world community.
Despite not being within the 2018 NDS, it could be argued that Venezuela is the most likely location for US interventionalism in the near future for a myriad of reasons, and thus a very important nation to understand politically, economically and militaristically.
Luckily, the Venezuelan military, in spite of heavy equipping from their Chinese and Russian creditors is poorly trained, poorly equipped, and lacks professionalism, experience, nor any significant weapons systems beyond a fairly robust A2/AD capability[v14] and a small handful of Russian 4th generation aircraft, most of which are thought to be grounded as of mid-2021.
The Venezuelan A2/AD capabilities, were they part of a more formidable ground and air defense system would be capable of thwarting existing US DoD Second Offset Strategy (2OS) maneuver warfare TTPs. However, the overall state of Venezuela at the national level means they are woefully under-prepared for a multi-domain attack from US forces were deployments be necessary. The question is what is the casus belli to warrant intervention?
As of right now, no casus belli truly exists. Venezuela is a sovereign nation falling apart due to its own internal mismanagement; even the sanctions against Venezuela, while crippling to Maduro's corrupt friends,[v15] shouldn't have had a significant impact on Venezuelan food production or medical supplies.
Venezuela's government is deeply involved in narcotics traffic to the United States, including indictments for Maduro[v16] and his wife.[v17] This has been a justification for some of the international sanctions, but the antagonism has not reached a level to which conventional US DoD forces would necessitate involvement. Venezuelan antagonism hasn't reached levels Russia and China typically use in an "escalate-to-deescalate" model, but Venezuela isn't formidable like Russia and China; the reality within Venezuela has already lead to attempts on Maduro's life[v18] and even a failed coup attempt[v19] already. Treatment of the Venezuelan people by Maduro's regime is merely a large US media driven influence away from being very politically acceptable to topple. For this reason, US DoD forces needs to be prepared to interdict the Venezuelan military allowing for the people of Venezuela to regain democratic control of their own nation.
Venezuela is a failed state.[v20] Much of this can be exploited in various ways.
- The collapse of governmental institutions within Venezuela hasn't been effectively blamed upon outside actors to the level the Maduro administration would prefer. This has increased internal pressures on the administration resulting in further degradation of democratic institutions.
- The dwindling of democracy in Venezuela has also increased foreign pressures and allowed for internal splits, which has further fractured internal power structures allowing for greater diplomatic pressure points.
- Venezuela is still embroiled in an internal "Cold Civil War" that will not abate until either the ruling regime significantly increases the standard of living of Venezuelans or until they are toppled, whether internally or externally.
- Venezuelan inflation has grown dramatically and continues to grow. This has eliminated many of Venezuela's abilities to trade with other actors beyond Russia and China who instead see access to Venezuela in more advantageous methods.
- Russia's linkage to Venezuela is far stronger than China as Russia doesn't just see value in Venezuelan natural resources, but sees a major strategic value in Venezuela's location. Due to these reasons, Russian intervention akin to Syria would be expected during operations in a Venezuelan theater of combat. After the failure of the Ukrainian invasion, Russia's expeditionary capabilities - even through proxies such as Wagner Group - may not be a significant enough barrier for internal or external actors to apply pressure to the Maduro Regime.
- China sees Venezuela as a client state that can be diplomatically manipulated (akin to debt trap diplomacy from the Belt & Road Initiative) and extract valuable natural resources. China is not ideologically tied to Venezuela nor has a defense partnership; China would most likely not involve themselves beyond diplomatic overtures at the UN.
- The Venezuelan Air Defense capabilities are nowhere near as robust as previously thought; the national blackouts due to crumbling infrastructure previously damaged the S-300 systems in place, and the ability to neutralize the A2/AD capabilities is probably substantially easier than other rivals such as Iran, much less China or Russia.
- The Venezuelan Air Force is no longer capable of forward projection of force or deterrence of coalition activity. This has resulted in US overflights severely limiting narcotics outflow from Venezuela.
- Domestic standards of living are among the worst in the world for nations not in the middle of a declared war. Colombia, who has already absorbed more than a million Venezuelan refugees sees the lack of US intervention now as a major problem at both the governmental level and among the Colombian population. And as Russia (and to a lesser extent, China) inject themselves in Venezuelan politics to the detriment of democracy, the Monroe Doctrine is more easily justified to utilize the deployment of US Forces to overthrow the criminal regime.
- Though conventional US DoD capabilities are a significant overmatch for the Venezuelan military, and neither of the pacing threats will likely get involved in a militaristic way, there is no political reason for a US intervention at the moment. This doesn't negate the fact that organizations such as the CIA, various operational Tier-1 JSOC units or the extremely qualified 7th SFG could easily be used to supplement internal foment within Venezuela and help the local populace overthrow the tyranny and failure there. If these things are happening, they should continue to foster internal dissent and apply pressures from within, but overt US intervention isn't politically necessary on Capitol Hill yet.
Nation State Summary - and who to stare at in the future
All our most likely enemy nations have one thing in common: autocratic despots in charge who value the human lives of the own population very little. While Venezuela, China and North Korea all exist upon a socialist/communist spectrum ranging from the warm embrace of cronyist socialized capitalism in Beijing to execution by firing squad for selling contraband purchased in a market in Pyongyang, neither Iran nor Russia fit into a neat socialist box, even if both have many of the same socialist safety nets that exist in the west. There are many allies that are friendly to US capitalist interests while still anti-human autocrats, but there's a much larger spectrum of US allies with ostensible socialist tendencies that objectively value democratic institutions and human life. In fact, it would be nigh impossible to find a nation with a strong value for democracy and human rights that the US considers an enemy.
We can learn four key things from this:
- Unlike during the Cold War, the spectrum of capitalism to communism isn't the principle difference in the US and our antagonists, yet for a country with a penchant for human rights abuses to be a US ally, they must at least be "safe" for capitalism.
- Capitalism alone isn't a guarantee of protection from American meddling or even belligerence. And as we've seen with the swing from outright ally (as late as World War II for both) to bitter foe with both Russia and China over the last century, the idea that other current US allies with horrendous human rights habits now could rapidly become an enemy isn't hard to fathom. Nations like Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, or many others that are currently American allies could quickly become enemies with only a few strategic shifts in behavior (many of which Turkey is already showing). This is food for thought in the US DoD not merely from the perspective of strategic war planning, but for capabilities developers to consider when making acquisition programming decisions, as the politics and diplomacy these nations make for their own self-interests may push their alignments away from the ones we currently consider friendly.
- It isn't hard to imagine a proxy war with a near-peer in a battlefield within a nation we currently consider friendly under two extremely likely circumstances: A. if that third party nation makes a handful of decisions that push them from the western sphere of influence to that of a pacing threat and then to an enemy, such as what Turkey has ebbed and floe'd on for the past decade, or, B. they suffer an internal civil breakdown pushing them into a situation where the legitimate government embraces either direct US intervention or that of US allies, and the internal belligerents are propped up by a US foe (such as Yemen). Planning for those contingencies now will prevent a massive shortfall in training, equipment and capabilities if combat were to occur in such a scenario.
- When long-term planning for the US DoD, we are often hamstrung by changing administrations with changing focus based on political platforms, political expediency leading to re-election probabilities and lobbyist influence. This makes use of bureaucratic mechanism for acquisitions even harder to bring to bear for the warfighter as long-lead developments are prone to being modified, cut or bizarrely changed at the whim of a future administration or Congress. These rival states ran by life-serving autocrats like Putin, Xi, or Kim do not have such concerns; they are playing the long-game where their principle threat to their rule is foreign meddling or foreign economic influence, and most of that influence is done by Democratic institutions in the civilized western world. Thus, the principle threat to their pillars of power are US DIME instruments. For this reason, our calculus of training, equipping and planning done in two-to-four year politically expedient windows is very short-sighted compared to a pacing threat that can afford to take a lifetime look at our capabilities and adjust accordingly with no concern for democratic ideals, human rights, or, pragmatically, political expediency.
The mere definition of a TCO (or TNCO) suggests a lack of nation-state status, and fundamentally this is true. However, many of these actors receive massive nation-state support, or, in a few cases, have made the claim of statehood themselves.
The level of unmitigated violence facing the soldier on the ground whether they are in a gunfight with an ISIS sympathizer or a branch of the Los Zetas cartel is approximately the same, yet the motivation driving either one to behead an innocent person is grossly different. For this reason, the TCO segment can be roughly divided into two groups: Idealists and Racketeers.
As politically incorrect as it may be to narrow down "idealist TCOs" just to Islamic fundamentalists, that does encompass the vast majority of enemy organizations the US DoD has been engaged with over the past 30 years. While there are non-Islamic fundamentalists - even those engaging in suicide bombing such as the Tamil Tigers - the US DoD really does have a strong focus on Islamic terrorists. The breadth of threats in this space is so broad, it further needs to be subdivided into pseudo states - of which there are several - and cell-based or terror organizations - of which there are many, many more.
The US DoD has found itself at odds with a handful of Islamic fundamentalists who’ve managed to rise to the level of semi-statehood, and even managed to defeat two of them: ISIS[p1] and the Taliban, even if the latter ended up being a temporary victory that lasted from spring of 2002[p2] to the summer of 2021.[p3] The US DoD even has employed SOF assets to fight the Houthi rebels in Yemen.[p4]
With both the Taliban and ISIS, they’ve been off-shoots of movements that partially originated with US actions. Often, in the context of complex politics within Washington and with pressures from domestic lobbyists, second and third-order effects from similarly complex socio-political issues “downrange” aren’t often thought of and the results are situations murkier and more difficult than the original problem. One could say that the overthrow of the Communist government within Afghanistan was ostensibly less positive in the long run than an al-Qaeda friendly Taliban that led to 9/11 and 20 years of warfighting in Afghanistan. Likewise, Saddam Hussein was by no means a good thing or defensible from any perspective, but the handling of the Second Iraq War laid the groundwork for ISIS which was arguably worse for global security than Saddam’s iron fist in the Levant. US Congressional and Executive policy tend to only respect the nuance of second and third order effects as they impact likely voters in the next cycle.
While it is true that the Taliban were an outgrowth of the Mujahideen that the US propped up through various proxies to battle against the Soviet Union in the 1980s,[t1] reality is more complex than merely that “the CIA built them.” The US involvement – some of it direct, some of it through proxies such as the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – did lead to the rise of almost all of the belligerents in the post-Soviet civil war within Afghanistan. Ergo, just as much as the CIA's effort to usurp Soviet Communism within Afghanistan lead to the Taliban, it also lead to organizations like the Northern Alliance,[t2] Western Alliance,[t3] and others who were the Taliban's mortal enemies. During the fight against the Soviets these disparate organizations were held together by a common enemy; this has been the subject of movies like Charlie Wilson’s War[t4] or even Rambo 3.[t5] After the communists departed in defeat, the tribal loyalties and perverse interpretations of Islam fostered a near endless civil war.[t6]
Much of Afghanistan's history from antiquity through the mid-20th century is either inconsequential for US DoD consideration when war-planning, or else is wrapped up in a few of the sections about Iran.
The modern history of Afghanistan over the past fifty years is a mess of dozens of influences that created a tapestry of nightmares for the Afghani people. For every Ahmad Shah Massoud[t7] or Ismail Khan[t8] with classical liberal ideals[t9] in mind for a vibrant Afghan people, there were ten people like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,[t10] Hafizullah Amin,[t11] Muhammad Omar,[t12] or Jalalhuddin Haqqani[t13] that used an excuse of some theory – usually Islam, though with Amin, this was further justified with economic collectivism – to justify wanton human rights violations.
As previously noted, Afghanistan had been part of the Durrani Empire from the early 18th century and the arbitrary drawing of the Durand Line until the post-World War II partition of Pakistan and India into separate states and the changed calculus of British influence.[t14]
The King of Afghanistan during the Cold War, Mohammed Zahir Shah was very popular amongst all the various ethnic groups and tribes within Afghanistan,[t15] but as with many tribalist nations, nepotism was initially pervasive. He inherited the throne from his father, Mohammed Nadir Shah who was not nearly so popular; M. Nadir Shah had been a totalitarian who was a legitimate member of the Durrani lineage, but usurped the throne after King Amanullah was deposed by Habibullah Kalakani in the Afghan Civil War of 1929.[t16] M. Nadir Shah’s rule was stark and miserable for Afghanis such as the Hazaras, and this led to M. Nadir Shah’s assassination and his son, M. Zahid Shah’s installation at age 19.[t17] With the throne came his father’s younger brother, Mohammad Hashim Khan as the Prime Minister.[t18] Given the history of meddling in Afghanistan by the Russians and Soviets, as well as by the British, prior to World War II, Hashim Khan made many deals for modernization contracts within Afghanistan with Nazi Germany, Imperial Italy and Fascist Italy.[t19] On the eve of World War II, Afghanistan was effectively a vassal state of Axis powers. During World War II, Hashim Khan expelled the Axis membership, and this was considered unpopular, leading to his replacement by his brother, Shah Mahmud Khan.[t20] His reign as Prime Minister included the aforementioned attempt to form a Pashtun state out of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan shortly after the British ceded India and Pakistan into separate states. Between this irredentist plot and Pakistan’s tight coupling to the US in the Cold War, Afghanistan leaned further towards the Soviet sphere.[t21]
Mahmud Khan’s role as Prime Minister would end in the early 50s, when he would be replaced by Mohammed Daoud Khan.[t22] Daoud Khan’s time as Prime Minister pushed Afghanistan ever closer to the Soviets, mainly due to disastrous conflicts with the Pakistanis and the retribution causing economic strain.[t23] Daoud Khan pressed for his cousin, the king, M. Zahid Shah to institute a single-party Constitution that would increase Daoud Khan’s authority, but the King refused and Daoud Khan resigned.[t24] Instead, the King instituted a Constitution that would bar any members of the Royal Family from serving in roles such as the Prime Minister in the future.[t25] Nine years later, while the King was recovering from surgery in Italy, Daoud Khan lead a bloodless coup and ended the Durrani monarchy, making Afghanistan a Republic for the first time in 1973.[t26]
Even though Daoud Khan, as M. Zahir Shah’s cousin was a member of the ruling family, his act effectively ended the dynasty, though did leave him in charge. He created an executive-based government, dissolved the parliament, and drastically reduced the power of the courts.[t27] In spite of his previous appeals for socialist policies when he served as PM under his cousin, he did not swing towards Marxism and actually instead reached out to the US and even Pakistan, attempting to open Afghanistan to the west.[t28]
After five years of relatively peaceful rule, including incremental modernization of Afghanistan towards being a modern western nation[t29] – especially the cosmopolitan northern cities such as Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif – Afghanistan suffered a communist overthrow in April of 1978.[t30] This would lead to military strife in Afghanistan that continues to today in early 2023, almost 45 years later. Given the median age in Afghanistan is merely 18 or 19 years old (depending upon the estimation’s source), and over 60% of Afghanis are under 25-years-old, significantly more than half of all Afghanis have never known a time in the nation of peace. It has been in a state of some sort of war – civil or foreign – since many years before two-thirds of the population was even born.
Daoud was deposed by communists within Afghanistan, with Nur Muhammad Taraki, a Khalqist that was leading a primarily low-class Pashtun tribalists towards “classical Leninist” goals, seeking to foster a “worker’s revolt.” His efforts during the Daoud years were in vain and failed, though Taraki managed to gain followers within the military. These would form the basis of the coup that deposed Daoud. Other leaders of the communist revolution were fellow Khalqist Hafizullah Amin and Babrak Karmal from within the other faction of Afghani communists, the Parchamites.
Shortly after the April 1978 coup, Amin ousted the Parchamites from leadership within the Afghani communist committees, resulting in a Parchamite coup.[t31] This didn’t go well, and Karmal and his former bodyguard, Mohammad Najibullah had to flee to Europe as Amin cracked down on internal threat to his and Taraki’s rule.[t32] This period was the origination of the internal development of the Mujahideen within Afghanistan as an anti-communist movement.[t33] In early 1979, as mentioned in the Iranian section above, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph Dubs was killed in what was considered a Soviet action (on the same day as the US Embassy was attacked in Iran.[t34] By the summer, the CIA has begun to purchase weapons for the Mujahideen,[t35] though this is primarily routed through a proxy to the ISI in a continual escalation as the Soviets themselves increased their involvement in Afghanistan.[t36] Eventually, Amin and Taraki collided themselves, and a power struggle ensued through 1979. Taraki was assassinated by Amin’s men, upsetting the Soviets who had been backing the Afghani communists.[t37] Amin was considered a liability to Soviet communism in Afghanistan, deposed after his reign of unmitigated terror, and Karmal, then living in Czechoslovakia, was installed back into Afghanistan, and with him came Soviet forces.[t38] The Soviet efforts in Afghanistan would drag on into a quagmire and cost the Soviet Union billions of rubles – so much so, it was a threat to the continued existence of the Soviet Union itself.[t39] By 1986, the Soviets removed Karmal – albeit without the typical murder – and replaced him with the iron fisted Najibullah, who had been the Afghani equivalent of the KGB director under Karmal.[t40]
For the CIA, Operation Cyclone was a long-running operation and took on many evolutions in the US support to the Mujahideen. It started with supplies of older WW2 vintage and post-war Soviet arms funnels from the Israelis and Egyptians through the ISI to the rebels, but eventually grew under the administration of Reagan into overt support with modern American weapons including Stinger missiles to mitigate Soviet aviation effectivity.[t41]
The support of the various factions of Mujahideen – an extremely diverse hodgepodge of groups including Mohammad Yunus Khalis’ lead Hezb-i-Islami that included commanders such as Abdul Haq and Haqqani; his Hezb-i-Islami was a splinter from another separate group with the exact same name ran by Hekmatyar. The US funded Hekmatyar both directly and through the ISI who saw him as in their best interest for an eastern buffer state with Pashto hegemony for the benefit of Pakistan. In addition to Hekmatyar's funding, the US also funded Khalis' cell primarily to Haqqani who was a valuable asset. For the US ally, Great Britain, the Military Intelligence, section 6 (MI6) focused on Massoud, the Panjshir-based military commander of the Jamiat-e Islami political party ran by Burhānuddīn Rabbānī as their proxy against the Soviets.[t42] History would show that the British chose better than the US did with either Hekmatyar or Haqqani.[t43]
The motivations of the ISI vs the CIA in Afghanistan were quite different even if the goals at the time aligned. The ISI had a vested interest in post-Soviet Afghanistan to function as a Pashto-dominated vassal state of Pakistan that could be both an effective buffer between them and the Soviet Union, and also ensure Afghanistan would not be aligned with India, Pakistan’s primary antagonist. For the CIA, the only goal was defeating the Soviets and making it as painful, expensive and complex as possible.[t44] This was an unfortunate level of ignorance with regards to second and third order effects. While true that communism in both theory and practice is a horrible affront to human rights, the understanding of Islamic fundamentalism and its threat to America was apparently lost between the era of the Barbary Coast pirates and the overthrow of the US embassy in Iran. Even then, in the early 1980s, the division between the Shi’a and Sunni sects of Islam[t45] were poorly understood among the US public, and even more poorly understood was just how dangerous fundamentalist Sunni Islam was. In the early 1980s, Shi’a was associated with the Ayatollah Khomeini, kidnapped Americans, Hezbollah bombings and terrorism writ large. To those who understood that Islam was primarily divided between Sunni and Shi’a, the Sunni were seen as peaceful. This was an American public who’d never heard of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist sect of Sunni every bit as dangerous as Shi’a terrorists.
In this era of anti-communist focus by the US, the actions of the ISI they were funding and equipping was having other international effects. The ISI sought to further finance their efforts by reaching out to their Saudi Arabian counterparts, Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah to provide funding for the Mujahideen both for operating costs within Afghanistan as well as for training within Pakistan. In 1979 when the Soviets invaded, the radical Palestinian cleric Abdullah Yusuf Azzam was a professor at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where one of his students was a young man named Osama bin Laden.[t46] Azzam issued a fatwa condemning the invasion and calling on all Muslims, worldwide, to protect Muslim lands from invasions by infidels.[t47] Azzam moved to Pakistan and began teaching at the International Islamic University in Islamabad.[t48] Not long later, he established Maktab al-Khadamat, a “service” to facilitate the insertion of foreign (mostly Arab) Muslim fighters into Afghanistan.[t49]
Despite what has often been written, the CIA never recruited, trained, or otherwise used the Arab volunteers who arrived in Pakistan. The idea that the Afghans somehow needed fighters from outside their culture was deeply flawed and ignored basic historical and cultural facts. – Michael Bearden, former CIA station chief in Pakistan.[t51]
For those who’ve ever spent significant time in Afghanistan, this is underpinned by rather strong theory within practice; the Afghan people, especially the Pashtun, are exceptionally proud, tribal, and independent. The notion of an Arab “savior” is not palatable to the Afghans, even during their anti-communist civil war and uprising against the Soviets. Even the American involvement was from afar, through a proxy for this exact reasoning.[t52] Only one major Afghani warlord, Abdulrab Rasul Sayyaf worked to facilitate bringing Arab fighters onto the battlefield. Sayyaf took control of the Ittihad-al-Islami organization, embraced Wahhabist fundamentalism, and gained influence with Saudi royalty who were funding many of the organizations within Afghanistan against the Soviets. Sayyaf would create Dawa’a al-Jihad, the madrasa where Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and his uncle, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad both attended; Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was a member of Ittihad-al-Islami from 1987 to 1991. Between Azzam and Sayyaf, the international radicalization of Arab militants into a terror organization based out of Afghanistan was well in place by the end of Soviet hostilities, but in the grand scheme of counter-Soviet warfare, they were an insignificant footnote. There were seven major Mujahideen organizations, of which three were politically strong and well funded: both Hekmatyar’s and Khalis’ Hezb-i-Islami parties, and Rabbani and Massoud’s Jamiat-i Islami. The other four included Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi’s Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami, a very traditionalist Pashtun faction from the south, the two most progressive, Jabha-i Nejat-i Milli and Mahaz-i Milli, both of which were trying to reinstall a democratic elected parliament and restoration of the Monarchy, though the former preferred an Islamist state and the reinstallation of Zahir Shah, and the latter a more secular nationalist state, and last the smallest of all seven was Sayyaf’s Ittihad-i Islami with its Arab members. American and British funds trickled into all of them, but so did the influence of Azzam and Sayyaf’s strict Wahhabist fundamentalism to many as well, all made available along with intense military training at several madrassas around Peshawar, Pakistan. It was particularly appealing to many of the conservative rural Pahsto tribesmen within the Afghan Mujahideen groups such as those within Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami.
By the 1986 Soviet-ordered replacement of Karmal with Najibullah, the Mujahideen and their war of “liberation” against a communist “revolutionary” regime was a direct affront to Communist dogma. Opposition to communist ideals was to be expected, but in classical Marxism this was typically from the bourgeoisie, and the proletariats could be counted upon to support the revolution. In Afghanistan, the majority of those in a class comparable to the proletariats were the backbone of the Mujahideen; the entire philosophical construction of Marxism and Leninist Soviet ideals were at risk.[t53] As Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the need to remove Soviet forces from actions abroad – not merely Afghanistan, but Mongolia and Angola as well – would lead to their ultimate removal by 1989.
As soon as the Soviets departed, the Afghan warlords turned against each other as well as against the remaining communist Afghani government of Najibullah. The communist government had only one commander – himself a warlord – capable of offensive operations, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a Tajik from the north. From 1989 to 1992, Afghanistan deteriorated as the seven factions often clashed with one another, most notably Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami and Massoud’s military wing of Jamiat-i Islami. The US lost interest in supporting Hekmatyar, especially as several in the US finally considered Massoud a better option.[t54] By 1992, the Soviet Union had completely collapsed, and with it, any external support for Najibullah’s communist regime. Najibullah offered to resign if it would help stabilize the nation, but instead it just moved Dostum to defect from the communist government to be a warlord working with Massoud. Dostum’s Junbish-i Milli would help Massoud’s Jamiat-i Islami to take control of Kabul by April of 1992, though Hekmatyar would refuse to accept rule from anyone other than himself. In addition to his Hezb-i Islami sect and Jamiat-i Islami, Mohammadi’s Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami and Sayyaf’s Ittihad-i Islami were also holdover Mujahideen armies that remained engaged in hostilities during the years following the collapse of communism. They were joined by Dostum’s Junbish-i Milli and a Shi’a group of mostly ethnic Hazaras called Hezb-i Wahdat lead by Abdul Ali Mazari with strong ties and financial backing from Iran. Most all of them would shift allegiances over the following years.
From 1992 to 1994, Massoud and Dostum were allied against Hekmatyar. Sayyaf’s Arab-backed forces fought against Mazari’s Iranian-backed Hezb-i Wahdat. In 1994, Dostum and Hezb-i Wahdat moved allegiance to Hekmatyar and against Massoud. By January of 1995, Massoud’s Jamiat-i Islami had Rabbani sitting as the “interim President” of Afghanistan in Kabul. Parts of Northern Afghanistan were able to stabilize such as Herat with Warlord Ismail Khan retaining stability there, Massoud’s control of the Panjshir valley, and after changing loyalties again back to allied with Rabbani and Massoud, Dostum’s retained control of Mazar-i-Sharif. For the majority of Afghanistan, including its second largest city, Kandahar, there was zero stability and infrastructure was failing amidst constant infighting.
When it became obvious to the ISI that Hekmatyar was a failure and unable to take control of Afghanistan, they shifted their support to a new organization that had taken control of Kandahar called the Taliban. They were led by a veteran of Khalis’ Hezb-i Islami (not Hekmatyar’s) named Mullah Omar who was, like Osama bin Laden, a devout follower of Azzam’s teachings. Many of the Afghans who had worked with the Arabs, particularly of Sayyaf’s Ittihad-i Islami swore allegiance to the Taliban - even though Sayyaf himself did not - as well as many of the more devout Sunni members of Khalis’ Hezb-i Islami.
There is no telling the story of the Taliban without the background of al-Qaeda. Azzam and bin Laden had founded al-Qaeda in 1988 in Afghanistan. Azzam had been killed in Pakistan shortly thereafter, and his Maktab al-Khadamat was then folded into bin Laden’s al-Qaeda along with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (more on this is later in the al-Qaeda section of the paper). In 1990, after the Soviets had left Afghanistan but before Najibullah’s government fell, bin Laden offered to bring his Arab Mujahideen forces to Saudi Arabia to protect the Wahhabist royalty from Saddam Hussein’s aggression.[t55] Hussein’s Iraq had invaded Kuwait and was poised to overrun Saudi Arabia; bin Laden sought to legitimize al-Qaeda as a bastion for Islamists to protect the Holy Land. Instead, the House of Saud expelled bin Laden[t56] and he moved al-Qaeda to the Sudan,[t57] also further embracing Sayyid Qutb’s Salafist Jihadism.[t58] As the Saudi royals brought in the Americans to defeat Saddam in the First Gulf War, bin Laden considered this an unforgivable affront; American support to Israel and the plight of Palestinians had been unacceptable, but American soldiers on Arab soil was the final insult making the United States a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda.[t59]
As al-Qaeda operated in east Africa, the Taliban began as a mostly popular uprising to restore order in Southern Afghanistan. Initially, it was seen as a path to bring back King Zahir Shah and even received funding from future anti-Taliban president Hamid Karzai.[t60] However, as the Taliban moved north and became more aggressive, they received support from the ISI.[t61] When al-Qaeda returned to Afghanistan in the mid-90s, bin Laden had large pockets and helped finance the Taliban as well.[t62] By the time Ismail Khan had fled Herat for Iran and Dostum had fled Mazar-i-Sharif for Turkey,[t63] al-Qaeda and their 55thBrigade of Arab terrorists was working hand-in-hand with the Taliban,[t64] and some of their early supporters, such as Karzai had now turned away from them. Conversely, though Hekmatyar himself had fled Afghanistan, most of his faction left behind moved to the Taliban, as did Haqqani’s forces. Massoud was now in charge of the Northern Alliance[t65] and was facing a single enemy: Mullah Muhammad Omar’s Taliban.
The civil war between Massoud’s forces in the north and Omar’s forces in the south would last from 1996 through 2001. Though the ISI would facilitate Pakistani Pashtun fighters to train in Pakistan at madrassas in camps funded by Saudi Arabian funds and al-Qaeda, then enter Afghanistan and fight on the behalf of the Taliban, this was of no great concern to the US who only cared about al-Qaeda itself during this timeframe. By September 9th, 2001, Afghanistan was in a long-running civil war and the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) was mere hours away. This was when bin Laden had Tunisian suicide bombers posing as journalists assassinate Massoud.[t66] This wasn’t necessarily sanctioned by the Taliban even if it was to their benefit; whether Omar and his organization knew what bin Laden had planned for September 11th will probably always be unknown. The US was unequivocal that the Taliban had zero leverage to stop the US from annihilating al-Qaeda and anything less that complete cooperation would lead to decimation of the Taliban as well. And bin Laden was accurate in assuming Massoud would have been the first name on the CIA and 5th SFG's list of “who to work with.”
Omar himself lived by the Pashtunwali code and refused to turn over bin Laden or al-Qaeda. Of course, the story of the Taliban from September 11th 2001 through early 2021 is mostly known to everyone who didn’t live under a rock; the Taliban and al-Qaeda were decimated in Afghanistan, removed from power, then launched an insurgency along with associated organizations such as the Haqqani Network and Hekmatyar’s semi-reconstituted network. War with deployed American forces and their partners from NATO and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) would last nearly 20 years.
The graft, corruption and large-scale failure of nationalized Afghan institutions, especially the majority of those responsible for state security ensured that when the NATO forces departed, Afghanistan’s ability to defeat the Taliban uprising was incapable. In 2021, the Taliban, fueled by Pashtun fervor, committed many war crimes in their spread across Afghanistan,[t67] toppling the Afghan government and taking de facto control of Afghanistan.[t68]
Afghanistan is now mostly lawless; the Taliban are not necessarily going to curtail the opium trade[t69] – and methamphetamine[t70] – like they did in the past,[t71] particularly as it was the primary funding mechanism that kept their insurgency alive for two decades.[t72]
Massoud’s son (also named Ahmad) held out the longest of all forces opposing the Taliban, trying to create a “new” Northern Alliance.[t73] However, with him having now having fled to Tajikistan after the fall of Panjshir, Ismail Khan having fled to Iran after the fall of Herat, and Dostum to Uzbekistan after the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, there is no real effective alliance to counter the Taliban.
In this situation, expectations are that Afghanistan will again become a haven for terrorism as organizations such as al-Qaeda as well as rival Islamist terror organizations like ISIS in the Khorasan (ISKP) move to fill the vacuum left behind from a western concerned security apparatus.
The only thing that is constant in Afghanistan is usually violence. This is easy to fathom among Americans when it has been the US’s longest war, but even predating the bloodless coup of 1973, Afghanistan has been the site of countless wars, from “The Great Game” waged between Russia and the UK[t74] – that shaped not merely Afghanistan, but modern Iran – to Genghis Khan’s Mongols[t75] and Alexander’s Greeks.[t76] Though massive foreign armies like the Mongol’s Golden Horde, Alexander’s forces and the American war machine were able to topple the governments within Afghanistan, the costs were always high, leading to the term “Graveyard of Empires.”[t77] The reality is that if Afghanis can’t fight a foreign invader, they fight amongst themselves. From 1793 to 2021 there were no less than eight major “Civil Wars.” Going further back, the number of conflicts just grows.
Peace in Afghanistan will likely be fleeting if at all.
The US can take some sense of pride; unlike with the departure of the Soviets, Afghan women literally threw their children at Americans at Kabul International Airport in an effort for them to have a better life.
Much like the Taliban, the story of ISIS shares two major elements: al-Qaeda’s Salafist jihadism as taught by Azzam, and American expeditionary warfighting in the middle east causing second and third order effects.
When the US invaded Iraq the second time, in 2003, the seeds of ISIS were already there. It’s arguable the “spiritual” origins of ISIS came from Abu Ali al-Anbari, also known as Abdulrahman al-Qaduli, Abu Ala al Afri – and several more aliases – who had been trained at one of bin Laden’s camps in 1988.[k1] Anbari returned to Iraq and began training military Jihadists under the most extremist of Sunni faith near Tal Afar, Iraq since the 1990s.[k2] Anbari had gone as far as seeing the Muslim Brotherhood as apostates who weren’t extreme enough and were part of the problem, not the solution of a properly Sharia caliphate.[k3]
In 1989, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was being trained in another one of Azzam’s madrasas in Pakistan associated with al-Qaeda.[k4] By 1999, Zarqawi was operating an al-Qaeda affiliated training camp near Herat funded by bin Laden, but focused on training Jordanian militants to attack Israel and the Jordanian monarchy as their targets, naming his terror group Tawhid wal-Jihad.[k5] This included his involvement in the al-Qaeda Millennium attack plans.
In 2002, after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, but prior to the invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi fought against American (and possibly Iranian forces under command of Qasem Soleimani) in Afghanistan, was wounded, and returned to Iraq. Zarqawi eventually found his way into a leadership role with Ansar al-Islam. His time there would be brief; Ansar al-Islam was severely degraded by the CIA and 10th SFG Green Berets and their Peshmerga allies prior to the main US invasion.[k6] Zarqawi then fled Iraq, and was responsible for the murder of Laurence Foley, an American diplomat with the US Agency for International Development on October 28th, 2002 in Amman, Jordan.[k7] Zarqawi was never in Iraq with “permission” much less support from Hussien.[k8] Zarqawi would eventually swear allegiance to “Shiekh bin Laden” and declared his formerly named organization as al-Qaeda in Iraq.[k9]
From 2003 to 2006, Zarqawi was among the most wanted men in the world. In January of 2006, Zarqawi had al-Qaeda in Iraq take a leading membership role of the “Mujahideen Shura Council” creating a group of likeminded Sunni extremists. As the COIN operations in Iraq degraded out of control prior to the “surge” in 2007,[k10] Zarqawi was at work doing two things: creating an organization that could achieve statehood per the definition of a caliphate with a Salafist jihadi context, and avoid American airstrikes.
On 7 June 2006 in an airstrike that nearly didn’t occur because of how incompetent the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) was, Zarqawi was finally terminated.[k11] For JSOC, trying to limit the sectarian violence and prevent an all-out civil war along Sunni vs. Shi’a religious lines had been the primary reason for hunting him down. However, his tradecraft in avoiding kill or capture and his manipulation of events – such as the bombing of the Askaria shrine in Samarra – had mostly achieved his goal by the time he was killed.[k12]
With Zarqawi’s death, Abu Ayyub al-Masri took over al-Qaeda in Iraq. He too had links with al-Qaeda dating back to the 1980s, as one of Zawahiri’s adherents in Egyptian Islamic Jihad.[k13] Within months, Masri would link the Mujahideen Shura Council with a handful of other organizations, primarily in Anbar province[k14] to create the “Islamic State of Iraq” with himself as Minister of War and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the first emir.[k15] With that, al-Qaeda in Iraq had effectively become ISIS.
From late 2006 until 2010, ISIS continued to operate in a highly contested space, being hunted mercilessly by JSOC. In April, Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in an airstrike, and ISIS seemed to be severely degraded.[k16] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new leader of ISIS, and his newly installed membership included “Haji Bakr,” a former member of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service that guided the fledging ISIS from near-defeat to multi-national caliphate.[k17] Coinciding with the drawdown of US forces in Iraq,[k18] Syria fell into a civil war. Similar to how many other Arab nations had descended to chaos during the “Arab Spring” from 2010 through 2012, Syria also fell into anarchy.[k19] Syria however would prove to be among the most complex tapestry of belligerents in all of history. A quick list of “players” involved included: the United States, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rest of NATO, plus Syria, which within included the Assad Regime, SDF, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the PKK, Hezbollah, and the al-Qaeda and ISIS aligned al-Nusra Front – among dozens of others. Each of them had their own list of friends and foes, and none of them lined up. There was no neat polarization of any type.
The power vacuum of a failed state was ideal for ISIS to grow, especially as regional powers in Iraq were themselves marginalized. Given the pressures on the Kurdish Peshmerga by not merely the central Iraqi government, but the Turkish military and ISIS, much of northern Iraq outside of the area immediately under Peshmerga control fell to ISIS rapidly,[k20] as did vast swathes of eastern Syria during the civil war. From 2011 to 2014, ISIS grew into a potent enemy and the largest threat to peace in the Middle East. Anbari was released from prison and resumed work within al-Qaeda and ISIS immediately.[k21] In February of 2014, al-Qaeda and ISIS finally split as Bakr al-Baghdadi demanded al-Nusra be subservient to him directly, not an equal; he felt ISIS had grown into a caliphate that owed no allegiance to Zawahiri.[k22] The role Anbari played in the split is controversial; he had been bin Laden’s personal choice to replace Masri and Omar al-Baghdadi but had been unable to get the message forward until after Bakr al-Baghdadi was appointed.[k23]
ISIS would globalize, gaining allegiance from numerous other organizations including Boko Haram, Abu-Sayyaf – the former al-Qaeda affiliate from Philippines, ISKP, terror cells in Libya, and several others.[k24] ISIS would reach peak size in 2014 but also draw international action with their siege of the Yazidis.[k25] ISIS would then decline as the US re-engaged in Iraq and Syria and the SDF, Peshmerga, and others would degrade ISIS significantly.[k26] Anbari was trying to reconcile al-Qaeda and ISIS “back together” up until his death in 2016.[k27] Anbari, an original student of Azzam’s whose radicalization in Iraq pre-dated even the first Gulf War had been the best hope by Salafist jihadis of an ISIS/al-Qaeda re-merger. His death, during the culling of ISIS territory as American airstrikes supported Arab warfighters on the ground re-taking ISIS territory effectively ended that. By 2018, ISIS's shrinkage lead to many of the issues between Russian contractors and the US military as mentioned above. In March of 2019, ISIS would finally lose almost all of their Iraqi and Syrian territory.[k28] By Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death in October 2019,[k29] their first attempt at a caliphate had been a catastrophic failure.[k30]
While the world managed to operate as a cohesive front against ISIS to effectively neutralize the caliphate, its rise and manning from disaffected youth around the world. Social media played a novel method in ISIS recruiting and messaging.[k31] The issue from the US DoD perspective becomes what is the relative cost for an organization like ISIS to recruit, equip, train, and field an ISIS terrorist relative to the cost for the US DoD to kill that terrorist at the end of a 10,000 mile logistics chain using globalized information compartmentalization? There is an asymmetric advantage used by ISIS when their indoctrination methods are being taught not merely by easily monitored individuals in a mosque,[k32] but rather spammed on social media for all to see.
In January and February of 2022, ISIS attempted to rise yet again both in Iraq & Syria and still retaining a mantle of leadership over other "provinces" like Boko Haram, abu-Sayyaf, et. al., though the death of Bakr al-Baghdadi's replacement, will likely slow this temporarily.[k33] Much like the Taliban, victory over the long term may take more dedication to attacking the ideas that created it than just defeating the network itself.
Unlike the Taliban and ISIS, the Houthi movement not only isn't really linked to the US, it's not even linked to the same branch of Islam.
Yemen has a unique history dating back as the origin of the drinkable form of coffee.[h1]
The history of Yemen is complex - like basically everywhere else. Owing back to an early Shi'a sect called Zaydism that, unlike most Shi'a are not amongst the "twelver denominations," the Zaidi Shi'a in Yemen either ruled as vassals to the Ottomoan Empire or outright over the Yemeni highlands from the middle of the 8th century until 1962. The final Zaidi kingdom in Yemen, the Muttawakili Kingdom fell into a multi-year civil war that finally ended with "modern Yemen" in 1970.
In the 1990s, a group of Yemeni students called "Believing Youth" would be mobilized from merely a "moderate" group promoting a Zaidi revival.[h2] The group radicalized by 2004 and began taking up arms.[h3] The US was seen as an enemy to the Houthi movement for two reasons; one was the US invasion of Iraq and how that was an affront to Arab sovereignty. The second was the US cooperation with the Yemeni government after al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in 2000.[h4] From 2004 to 2011, the Houthi movement was merely a persistent annoyance, but the Arab Spring gave life and they made gains, eventually taking the capital of Sanaa in 2015. This has lead to a proxy war between Sunni Arabs supporting the Yemeni Government and Shia Iran supporting the Houthis.[h5] With Saudi Arabia as a defense client of the US, both Iran and Hezbollah as antagonists, and the cooperation of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government as a partner in fighting against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the US initially supported the anti-Houthi operations, albeit without deployment of conventional forces.[h6]
The US declared the Houthi as a terrorist organization in the waning days of the Trump Administration; the Biden Administration walked the designation shortly thereafter primarily to open up access to humanitarian relief organizations.[h7] This is a double-edged sword. While Yemen is stuck in the middle of one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters,[h8] driving the US to break all involvement with anti-Houthi operations,[h9] it hasn't stopped the Houthi from committing acts of terrorism across borders.[h10] Even the Saudi oil refinery explosion facilitated by Iran was launched by Houthi terrorists and had geostrategic implications.[h11] Given the lawlessness in the region and the firm entrenchment of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the continued humanitarian disaster, and the anti-American flavor of terrorism pushed by the Houthi rebels, a continued instability that may draw future US DoD forces back into the fray.
The US DoD has spent the better part of the last two decades specializing in fighting cell-based organizations, it's been a much longer fight than even 9/11. The hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985[l1] and the dynamic US response[l2] reads like a history of modern JSOC. The 1986 bombing of a German disco by Libyan agents[l3] ushered a response with tactical bombings of Libya.[l4] But cell-based terrorism truly became the main threat to the United States starting in the 1990s, primarily with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.
There are very few humans alive who aren't aware of al-Qaeda.
While 9/11 is the most obvious example of al-Qaeda's actions,[q1] there are few organizations the US has fought over such a wide breadth of the planet.
Prior to 9/11, al-Qaeda was still a massive thorn in the side of the US. In the early 1990s, bin Laden was on the CIA's radar, with spies like Billy Waugh and J. Cofer Black playing cat-and-mouse games in Khartoum with him.[q2] Ironically, bin Laden himself was seen as a secondary person of interest; the communist Venezuelan terrorist named Ilich Ramírez Sánchez was their priority target.[q3] Ramírez Sánchez, more commonly known as Carlos the Jackal was arguably the world's most famous terrorist until 9/11. Waugh and Black played a major role in tracking him down and turning him over to the French[q4] who captured, prosecuted and continue to incarcerate him to this day.[q5]
Waugh and Black pressed for authority to terminate bin Laden in the early 1990s, already aware of his threat to the US, but were rebuffed by the Clinton Administration.[q6] This would prove to be a recurring pattern, as under Clinton there were numerous opportunities to hunt and capture and/or kill bin Laden prior to 9/11.[q7] While in some cases, the intelligence confidence possibly wasn't high enough to warrant direct action, in many cases it was[q8] and the administration was timid and didn't understand the threat al-Qaeda truly meant to the US.
Chronologically, al-Qaeda's transition from existence to anti-American was several years apart; when founded in the rugged Waziristan area of the Pakistani and Afghani frontier in 1989, al-Qaeda was a transition of the Maktab al-Khadamat group founded by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam[q9] into a transnational organization aimed at spreading a Qutb-esque Salafist jihad across all "Muslim" lands including not merely Israel, but the removal of the secular leaders of Islamic nations throughout the world and replacement with a Wahhabist Sunni sharia caliphate.[q10] It wasn't until the House of Saud invited Americans to the Holy Land to repel Saddam Hussein's Iraq from threatening Saudi oil fields that al-Qaeda bore its sights on America,[q11] but it wouldn't take long for the radicalization and embrace of decades of "Death to America" chants (ironically popularized by Shi'a groups that don't align with al-Qaeda at all[q12]) throughout the Middle East to be "weaponized."
While bin Laden and Maktab al-Khadamat were still in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and post-Soviet era while Najibullah still lead the unpopular communist government, the basis of the of al-Qaeda was formed out of a change in direction pushed by the Egyptian members of Maktab al-Khadamat. This included not merely Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Maktab al-Khadamat co-founder, but also Mohammed Atef[q13] and Omar Abdel-Rahman, "The Blind Sheikh." While still in Egypt, Abdel-Rahman had issued a fatwa in support of Egyptian Islamic Jihad's plan to kill Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (who was in fact assassinated)[q14] and though he was not convicted of involvement in the assassination, he was expelled from Egypt. This expulsion lead him to Afghanistan. Like bin Laden, Abdel-Rahman was a former student of Azzam's.
After Azzam's death and the transition of Maktab al-Khadamat into al-Qaeda, Abdel-Rahman traveled to Khartoum, Sudan and applied for a visa to the United States.[q15] His visa was approved - most likely in error[q16] - and he began an extended stay[q17] during which time he fomented virulent anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiment during his sermons.
In the meantime, al-Qaeda had also moved from Afghanistan to Sudan and begun setting the groundwork for anti-American activities while bin Laden engaged in cloak & dagger with Waugh and Black.
Ramzi Yousef, the young nephew of Ittihad-i Islami member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was not a member of Maktab al-Khadamat or al-Qaeda, though he did study at a Pakistani terrorist training camp. He traveled to the US in 1992 and began working with al-Qaeda supporter Abdel-Rahman. This would lead to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.[q18]
At this point in 1993, Sayyaf's former follower in Ittihad-i Islami, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was not yet a member of al-Qaeda, but the seeds were sown for the future attempt to topple the twin towers.[q19]
1993 was a watershed year for al-Qaeda and their relationship to the United States. In addition to Abdel-Rahman's involvement in the World Trade Center bombing, Mohammad Atef, a high-ranking al-Qaeda member traveled to Somalia[q20] to help train militants; other al-Qaeda members such a Saif al-Adel would then be involved in the fighting against US forces in October 3-4, 1993.[q21]
By 1998, bin Laden had been stripped of his Saudi citizenship and expelled from Sudan, returning to Afghanistan with the rest of al-Qaeda leadership. His activation of the 055 Brigade[q22] to assist the Taliban in the fight against Massoud and Dostum was a major factor in Muhammad Omar reopening the doors to al-Qaeda. Atef had sent Adel and Mohammad Odeh to Somalia first,[q23] and then Odeh to Kenya. While there, Odeh would be involved in the building of two extremely large explosive devices, which would be used against the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.[q24] The date of both explosions, August 7th, was the eighth anniversary of US troops landing on Saudi Arabia. The selection of the date for the bombings by bin Laden was no doubt in honor of this transgression against the Holy Lands.[q25] The idea of anniversaries is a running theme with not merely al-Qaeda, but even with some US DoD and allied reactions as well. As an example, one of the two masterminds of the embassy bombings, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, father of bin Laden's daughter-in-law and second-in-command of al-Qaeda after Ayman al-Zawahiri as of 2020, was shot to death by suspected Israeli assassins in Tehran, Iran, on August 7th, 2020.[q26]
After the 1998 bombings, responses were minimal; cruise missiles were fired which may or may not have been a "wag the dog" moment as Monica Lewinsky was testifying in front of a Grand Jury.[q27] Either way, the efficacy of the strikes themselves were minimal and neither bin Laden nor al-Qaeda was degraded in any significant capacity, and didn't even compare to the US casualties suffered by the bombings, much less the massive loss of innocent African lives.[q28]
In 1999, al-Qaeda had big plans for numerous attacks; Abu Zubaydah, another early al-Qaeda member orchestrated a global "Y2K" plot to strike at the United States and her allies on New Years from 1999 to 2000.[q29] The plot didn't merely include an attempted bombing of Los Angeles International Airport, but potentially several other US venues[q30] as well as attacks on US allies such as Israel and Jordan,[q31] attacks on other "enemies of Islam" such as India,[q32] and an attempt to sink a USN destroyer, the USS The Sullivans while refueling in Aden, Yemen.[q33]
In spite of all the thwarted terror attempts from the turn of the Millennium, the latter was recreated a few months later; the USS Cole was bombed in the Yemeni port of Aden.[q34]
Seventeen sailors were killed in the attack in October of 2000.[q35] For al-Qaeda, things were just getting started.
al-Qaeda's biggest operation was borne of another Mujahideen fighter from Afghanistan, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.[q36] Sheikh Mohammad had been a fighter for Abdul Rahul Sayyaf's Ittihad-al-Islami organization against the Soviets, and was also one of his students at Dawa’a al-Jihad along with his nephew, World Trade Center 1993 bomber Ramzi Yousef.[q37] Sheikh Mohammad studied under Azzam while in Afghanistan, and was associated with some Islamic fighters in Bosnia in the early 1990s, but mostly disappeared from global terrorism until an association with his nephew after the World Trade Center bombing.[q38] In 1994, Yousef and Shiekh Mohammad would attempt to bomb 12 airliners transiting the Pacific Ocean;[q39] this plot would ultimately lead to Yousef's capture.[q40] Sheikh Mohammad traveled to Sudan and met with Atef. Despite his followership of Azzam, relations to Yousef, association with Atef and admiration of bin Laden, Shiekh Mohammad was not a member of al-Qaeda. In 1996, Sheikh Mohammad visited bin Laden, Atef and other al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan on anti-American ideas.[q41] Among the discussions were the plot that would become 9/11; by the end of the meeting, bin Laden offered Sheikh Mohammad full membership in al-Qaeda and an offer to live with his family in Afghanistan.[q42] At the time Sheikh Mohammad declined; his closest associate in Afghanistan was Abdul Rahul Sayyaf, whom had closer ties to Massoud[q43] and was the only Pashtun in the Northern Alliance,[q44] making joining al-Qaeda more restrictive than he would have liked.[q45]
After the 1998 embassy bombings, Sheikh Mohammad decided to join al-Qaeda and moved to Kandahar, Afghanistan. As Sheikh Mohammad worked on early details - the 9/11 plot went through many revisions[q46] - a cell of unaffiliated Islamic extremists in Hamburg, Germany decided to travel to Chechnya to fight against Russia. Prior to leaving for Chechnya, the group - an Egyptian named Mohammad Atta, a Yemeni named Ramzi bin al-Shibh, an Emirati named Marwan al-Shehhi, and a Lebanese named Ziad Jarrah - were recruited in Germany by an al-Qaeda member named Mohamedou Ould Slahi.[q47] By November of 1999, the four had Pakistani visas and had made their way to Afghanistan.[q48] Atta, Shehhi and Jarrah all made their way to the US and into flight training in Florida by the summer of 2000.[q49] Shibh was denied a visa for illegal immigrant policy reasons - he was not on any terrorism watch lists - and instead became a facilitator for the plotters from Germany.[q50]
Without Shibh, Sheikh Mohammad needed another pilot, and either bin Laden or Atef found another Saudi, Hani Hanjour in Afghanistan at the al-Faruq terrorist training camp.[q51] Hanjour was an already trained pilot (with an FAA issued commercial pilot certificate from April of 1999),[q52] who made an ideal replacement pilot.
The "muscle" hijackers were selected in Afghanistan by bin Laden. They returned to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates - where all of the muscle hijackers were from - to attain clean passports and US visas.[q53]
There were numerous intelligence lapses that lead to 9/11. Various segments of the CIA and the FBI failed to communicate amongst themselves and each other; some of these were issues of institutional cultural biases, some of were arbitrary misunderstandings of policies, and some of which were actual policy limitations at the time.[q54]
The end result is arguably one of the most formative moments in many Americans lives.
The selection of 9/11 as a date was picked by Atta and communicated with Sheikh Mohammad, bin Laden, Atef and al-Qaeda leadership via Shibh.[q55] Yet, the idea of the date's significance can't be left out. September 11th has been a very bad date for Islamic warfare against the west in history; on that date in 1683 the siege of Vienna was averted by a massive rout of Ottoman forces.[q56] Before that, the siege of Malta had drug on until September 11th, 1565 when the Ottoman occupiers were forced off the island.[q57] In 1609, the expulsion of Muslims from Spain by royal decree was promulgated on September 11th.[q58] And a year - to the day - after the Battle of Vienna, on September 11th 1684, the Ottoman army was comprehensively annihilated at the Battle of the Zenta River.[q59]
Yet in spite of the significance of the date, from the US DoD perspective in the capabilities development, the most important impacts to catalog are the vast asymmetry of investment to effectiveness. It is estimated the entire 9/11 project cost al-Qaeda less than $500,000.[q60] Conversely, the GWOT has cost an estimated $8,000,000,000,000.[q61] Early post-9/11 opinions suggested the GWOT would actually help the US economy,[q62] yet the endless debt spending has had negative effects on the American economy[q63] - roughly as could be expected.[q64]
The fact that 19 hijackers with a small logistics footprint could force a multi-year response that cost 16,000,000% more than their investment showed that US CT and COIN operations and the intelligence supporting it needs a vital decrease in cost in order to make sustained missions to maintain American peace viable.
Since 9/11, al-Qaeda has been the torchbearer of however you want to title their Sunni extremism: Qutbism, Wahhabism, or Salafist Jihadism. ISIS was an evolution of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and several "branches" of al-Qaeda over the years have moved their allegiance from Zawahiri and al-Qaeda to ISIS, but a massive number of semi-independent Salafist Jihadi groups still either directly align underneath al-Qaeda or are affiliated with them. With Anbari's death, al-Qaeda and ISIS will probably stay ideological rivals for recruits and funding, and optimally, will actually continue to fight and attrit each other. Even after Zawahiri was killed in late July 2022 while living in a home owned by Haqqani in Taliban controlled Kabul, al-Qaeda will continue with minimal disruption.[q65]
The massive number of attacks and relationships al-Qaeda has built is useful knowledge for an al-Qaeda specialist, but doesn't amplify any knowledge needed for any US DoD decision maker beyond the following points:
- al-Qaeda isn't going to cease to exist anytime soon. Their idealism and simplicity in corporate design will make their cell-based terror model a lasting enterprise.
- al-Qaeda will continue to target America, Americans, and American interests and thus will continue to be an adversary for the US DoD.
- al-Qaeda's design will make them a lower-cost operator that can be utilized by near peers as a proxy to continuously degrade American defense capacity if we cannot lower our costs to fight them. Their existing asymmetric cost advantage must be lowered even if it can't be wholly reversed.
Abu Sayyaf & Boko Haram
The consolidation Abu Sayyaf Group and Boko Haram into a single section is to reflect that in spite of many differences, they are both organizations committing terrorism towards a Salafist Jihadism goal - specifically a Sunni oriented Sharia state of Muslims, AND, they are also a microcosm of terror groups throughout the planet and the complex relationship between al-Qaeda and ISIS. The Abu Sayyaf Group is based in the heavily Muslim southern Philippines islands while Boko Haram is based in northeast Nigeria, yet both have internally shifted alliances as well as moved in their allegiance between al-Qaeda and ISIS.
For Abu Sayyaf Group, the links to al-Qaeda go back to pre-9/11, with Ramzi Yousef traveling to the Philippines many times in the early 1990s.[y1] This guidance from al-Qaeda would result in Abu Sayyaf Group earning a reputation as a dangerous and unpredictable terror organization that was responsible for many lethal attacks.[y2] As can be expected, the Abu Sayyaf Group takes their name from the strict Wahhabist Afghani warlord Abu Rasul Sayyaf, whose group Ittihad-al-Islami brought in eager foreign fighters to fight the Soviet invasion. Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani was a Filipino Moro Islamic fundamentalist that fought against the Soviets as well, and used the name Abu Sayyaf as an honorific of the Afghan warlord he admired.[y3] Janjalani would be dead and Yousef would be in prison (captured in the Philippines no less)[y4] long before al-Qaeda planned and conducted 9/11. In spite of this, Abu Sayyaf Group maintained links to al-Qaeda and conducted similar types of attacks until 2014 when allegiance shifted to ISIS[y5] and ostensibly broke ranks with al-Qaeda. In spite of this "shift," it's suspected that its actually marketing related, with Abu Sayyaf Group attempting to take advantage of the growth in ISIS at the time to increase their membership or their "standing" amidst a cluster of Moro Islamic movements in the Philippines.[y6] To some extent, it may have worked, with membership - and attacks - both increasing after the public allegiance was sworn.[y7] Even if al-Qaeda actually provided funding, the international growth by ISIS in the mid 2010s fueled an even greater growth in Abu Sayyaf Group even if they didn't receive any material support.
For Filipino CT officials, the links to ISIS weren't of major concern. One of the most difficult aspects in fighting against Abu Sayyaf Group has been their insular organizational model built atop clan-like trusted networks among inter-married families of similar socio-economic strata.[y8] This has made it very difficult to penetrate Abu Sayyaf Group for both Filipino and international CT organizations.
From the US perspective, Abu Sayyaf Group is important to study for two reasons:
- They have kidnapped and killed Americans and other westerners seeking leverage against not merely the Filipino government, but to bolster their own ranks within the Moro Islamic landscape.
- The relationship between a local anti-government Islamic terror group and international terror organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS can inform future decisions to exploit the differences between them and weaken all the organizations.
Boko Haram has shown themselves to be far more violent and unhinged than Abu Sayyaf Group. Boko Haram's earliest incarnation wasn't terribly violent even if they were extremist, with a seven year gap from their founding as a group focused on Islamic fundamentalism in 2002 to their first violent acts in 2009.[y9] Shortly after initial clashes with Nigerian police, the founder of Boko Haram, Mohammad Yusuf, was killed in a confrontation with the police before being replaced by Abubakar Shekau.[y10]
After Shekau took over, he increased the level and frequency of violence by Boko Haram dramatically while also linking the group to al-Qaeda.[y11] In spite of the link, the Boko Haram to al-Qaeda links were tenuous at best with Shekau's liberal use of Takfir as justification to kill Muslims en masse leading to an internal split in 2012, with the minority element - still a violent terror organization - called Ansaru splitting off.[y12] The validated links to al-Qaeda only lasted a few years; by 2014, Boko Haram was still saying positive things about al-Qaeda but pledged allegiance to ISIS in a video released by Shekau.[y13] Shortly thereafter, Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS in March of 2015, effectively severing ties with al-Qaeda.[y14] This act would not merely push Ansaru back into a link with al-Qaeda, it would also lead to a larger Boko Haram split.[y15] With the allegiance in March 2015, Boko Haram effectively became Islamic State, West African Province (ISWAP), though this designation under Shekau wouldn't last long.[y16] In August of 2016, due to Shekau's continual use of Takfir as justification to kill Muslims, al-Baghdadi of ISIS replaced Shekau with Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the eldest son of Mohammad Yusuf, the original Boko Haram founder, shuffling leadership of ISWAP.[y17] Shekau refused to give up his leadership role and split ISWAP into two factions, effectively keeping the original Boko Haram group name. This has resulted in three separate factions all operating with rival loyalties in northeast Nigeria: ISIS aligned ISWAP, al-Qaeda aligned Ansaru, and Boko Haram. On May 19th, 2021, Shekau killed himself when threatened to be captured alive by ISWAP.[y18] A few months later, ISWAP leader al-Barnawi was killed as well, in late August 2021.[y19]
In spite of Shekau's and al-Barnawi's deaths, all three factions continue to operate in the area, much like ISIS continues after al-Baghdadi's death and al-Qaeda continues after the deaths of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.
Boko Haram's transition from independent to al-Qaeda affiliated to ISIS affiliated to some sort of pseudo gaggle of organizations that are infighting is similar to Abu Sayyaf Groups's transition. Abu Sayyaf Group's movement from independent to al-Qaeda-aligned to claiming allegiance to ISIS but only in a manner that benefits recruiting, as they have no real ties also lead to internal fragmentation. Both Boko Haram and Abu Sayyaf Group are dangerous to Americans and US interests; American SOF can easily expect to find themselves rescuing American hostages threatened with beheading on the Internet by either one. Yet the real lesson is that neither have shown particular loyalty to any larger international terrorist organization. Shekau was easily manipulated into fracturing his own base and Boko Haram is far less dangerous in 2023 than it was in 2015. Abu Sayyaf Group has sought to increase its scope and size, but is also less significant in 2023 than in the early 2000s. Well placed diplomacy, well thought out intelligence operations and occasional SOF operations will not merely attrit groups like Boko Haram and Abu Sayyaf Group in traditional force-on-force methods, but can be done in ways to cause them to internally fracture and weaken themselves.
Due to the heavy influence from Iran, there is a significant section above that delves into the founding of Hezbollah. However, beyond merely the 1983 & 1984 Marine Barracks bombings in Lebanon, Hezbollah has been responsible for many acts of terrorism. Hezbollah, initially known as the Islamic Jihad Organization, Islamic Jihad or, in Israel, Islamic Resistance,[z1] was responsible for a large number of terror attacks in the 1980s but continues to threaten western interests in 2023 and beyond. The most significant attacks in the 1980s, from the American perspective are obviously the embassy and barracks bombings in Beirut, which between the three killed 260 Americans. Yet the 1985 hijacking of Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight 847 made it into the tapestry of America by inspiring the 1986 Chuck Norris film "The Delta Force."[z2] The TWA 847 hijacking involved the murder of one American, USN Seabee diver Robert Stethem (for whom the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Stethem is named) who was tortured, beaten, shot and then dumped on the tarmac of one of the airports the airline flew between during the multi-day ordeal.
Other attacks by Hezbollah in the 1980s didn't produce as high of a body count of Americans but were still quite significant, including the suicide bombing of the US embassy in Kuwait that left several non-Americans dead[z3] and the bombing of the Descanso restaurant in Madrid, Spain in 1985 that wounded 15 Americans.[z4] Hezbollah was also responsible for a raft of kidnappings and murders in Lebanon throughout the 1980s including killing CIA station chief William Buckley[z5] and keeping reporter Terry Anderson as a hostage for more than 2450 days.[z6]
The hijackings had all been around the Middle East but the bombing in Madrid, as well as the bombings in France and the attempt on the American Embassy in Rome[z7] should have been a more dire group of warnings to America that Hezbollah was willing to strike beyond the area around Lebanon.
Imad Mughniyah, the director of international operations for Hezbollah was considered by many to be involved in the bombings of the embassies and barracks in 1983, the hijacking of TWA 847, the killing of Buckley, and Khobar Towers.[z9] He also masterminded the hijacking of Kuwait Airways Flight 221 that killed another two Americans, and Kuwait Airways Flight 422 in an effort to force the release of his brother-in-law (and cousin), Mustafa Badreddine.[z10]
It took many years, but in 2008, the CIA and Israel's Mossad got their revenge, killing Mughniayh in a targeted killing in Damascus, Syria.[z11] For all his work to liberate Badreddine from Kuwait, Mughniyah wasn't successful, though Badreddine was released by the invading Iraqi Army during their invasion of Kuwait in 1990.[z12]
Badreddine would be killed amidst mysterious circumstances in Syria. Among the most plausible and likely scenarios is that IRGC's Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani had met with him in an effort to reverse his decision to reduce Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian Civil War, and unsatisfied with his answer, Soleimani had Badreddine executed.[z13]
"I could not be happier that someone killed the son of a bitch." - Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Lebanon when discussing the death of Badreddine.[z14]
With the deaths of Mughniyah and Badreddine, many of the "old guard" are dead. With Soleimani's death, Hezbollah's largest champion from Iran is gone as well. The problem is that after over 30 years of effective tradecraft and leadership, Hezbollah has grown to be arguably the world's largest and most-powerful non-state actor.[z15] With that growth and effective leadership has come a deep bench of lieutenants that can offer the deeply genocidal Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah[z16] a continual line of leaders.
The lessons learned from nearly 40 years of violence against Hezbollah is much less positive than the lessons learned from fracturing loyalties in Boko Haram or Abu Sayyaf Group. Hezbollah hasn't just lasted for a long time, they've been successful through dogged use of effective tradecraft by determined professionals mixed with the use of expendable suicide bombers fueled by dogmatic extremism. Amidst this, they've carved out deep relationships with state actors in Iran and Syria to facilitate funding and arms, and have been very effective with their public branding to keep recruitment alive and well. Hezbollah is a very dangerous foe that will require equally determined professional vigor to effectively target, exploit, degrade and neutralize.
Abu Nidal Organization, Hamas & The PLO
While Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and most other Islamic terrorist organizations (as well as the nation of Iran) have all made hatred of Israel a central tenet of their organization's philosophy, all of them have at least other primary aims. In the case of Hamas, the PLO and Abu Nidal Organization, they are almost solely focused on the genocide of Jews and the destruction of Israel.
The formation of Israel is covered above briefly, but it was politicized rapidly and is the basis for understanding huge amounts of background to almost every Islamic terror organization in the world. The conflict between the western world and the Jews in what is now Israel and the Arabs from the region really dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century after the first large immigration of Jews from Europe to what was then Ottoman Syria.[w1] The Jews who immigrated from 1881 to 1903 (the "First Aliyah;" the term Aliyah referred to waves of immigration by Jews into the Holy Land, regardless of which political entity (Ottoman Turkish Empire, British Mandate Palestine, Israel) controlled the location) brought with them European socio-economic norms and technical know-how, as well as funding from Europe allowing them to actually purchase land or leases from the absentee Turkish land owners. The Jewish immigrants weren't merely religiously different than the Arab Muslims they were displacing, they were socio-economically different than the "Old Yishuv" Jews who were the existing minority in the region and economically and technologically similar to the Arab majority and the large Christian population.[w2] Jewish immigration from across Europe and the Middle East would increase up through World War I, and with them came modernization in not merely farming technologies, but in land ownership shifting towards the European modern land-owner capitalist farming model and away from the serfdom model that Ottoman Arabs still clung to.
Much like the history of Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan are side-stories in a British epic, so is the modern mess the Middle East. During World War I, in a myopic effort to put pressure on Germany and their relationship with Ottoman Turkey, the British made promises to give the Arabs hegemony if they'd rise up against the Turks.[w3] Given Jerusalem was not merely an extremely important site to Jews who continually inhabited the city for more than 3000 years,[w4] the Arab leaders assumed hegemony over Jerusalem would be included. In fact, the McMahon-Hussein letters of 1915 and 1916 offered very little detail over what was considered "west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo,"[w5] which would become a source for consternation between the British and the Arab royals after the Balfour Declaration. The British had offered the entire Arabian peninsula with the exception of Aden (modern day Yemen), Kuwait and the "Syrian Coast" which wasn't well defined.
For the British during World War I, the primary concern for Arab support wasn't so much to get them to directly support British forces in the war, but for the religious edict of Jihad issued by the Ottomans to be counteracted by other powerful Islamic clerics. The idea was to prevent the British Indian Muslims from revolting against their British officer masters based on religious loyalties.
For the Hashemite Sharif and Emir of Hejaz, Hussein bin Ali, the assumption was an opportunity to become the leader of most of the Arab lands. His fiefdom at the time was Hejaz, in what is modern day western Saudi Arabia, and included the holiest Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina, though he was subservient to the Ottoman Sultan. After the Balfour Declaration in 1917,[w6] Hussein Ali was incensed. He would demand clarification from the British, who responded with the Hogarth Message in January of 1918. It informed Hussein Ali that Muslims would maintain control of the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, but that the rest of Jerusalem would be split up among international control, and that a Jewish state would be established after the war if the allies were successful.[w7]
The Hogarth Message shouldn't be confused with the Bassett Letter.[w8] Earlier during the war, the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement[w9] had been made between the British and the French over how they would divide control of the Ottoman Empire if the Allies defeated the Germans and Ottomans. To be fair to the British, they actually had made many efforts to ensure the tracts of land available under their mandate would be suitable given the agreements with the Hashemites in Hejaz,[w10] but the end result of diplomatic concessions to the French after negotiations would lead to the Sykes-Picot line - which is much of the Iraq/Syria and Jordan/Syria border to this very day - was a secret agreement between the French and British, though with visibility by Russians and Italians.[w11] Unfortunately for the British, Lenin and Bolsheviks published the agreement in the Russian newspaper Pravda.[w12] The Bassett Letter, itself a total lie meant to temporarily appease Hussein Ali, was sent a month after the Hogarth Message.[w13] The Bassett Letter claimed that the Sykes-Picot Agreement as published was misinformation by the Ottomans meant to undermine the British/Arab cooperation.[w14]
After the war, Hussein Ali refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles.[w15] His oldest son Ali was promised his lands of Hejaz, while his second son Abdullah bin al-Husayn was crowned King of Jordan, and Faisal bin Al-Hussein bin Ali Al-Hashemi was crowned King of Syria.[w16] None of these nations would continue to exist independently for long. The League of Nations endorsed the Balfour Declaration to create a homeland for Jews in the Middle East, ratified the Sykes-Picot Agreement and created British Mandate of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), British Mandate Palestine (modern Israel) and British Mandate Transjordan (modern Jordan), put what is modern Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate.[w17] This was all done completely without Arab (or even Old Yishuv Jewish input) even after the Nebi Musa riots of 1920.[w18]
The French refused to appease Hashemite Arab appeals for independent statehood and removed Faisal from Syrian leadership; the brief French-Syrian War of 1920 was fought to reestablish European control of Syria and resulted in quick victory for the French forces.[w19] In 1921 at the Cairo Conference, the British decided that Faisal would be an excellent vassal ruler and installed him on the throne in Baghdad as the leader of British Mandate Mesopotamia.[w20] The British Mandate for Mesopotamia ended in 1930, prior to World War II, leading to independent Iraq. Ironically, what became British Mandate Transjordan had been under Syria prior to the French invasion, but when the French ousted Faisal, the British lands south of the Sykes-Picot line would need to be reconsidered.
As the pieces in Syria and Iraq fell into place, modern Jordan and Israel would still need to be ironed out by the British during their mandate. Over the next decade, over 80,000 Jews migrated into British Mandate Palestine.[w21] This increase came with the continued movement of Jews into land-owning roles, often evicting Palestinian Arabs who merely dwelled on lands held by Turks in a modernized serfdom. This growth of the Jewish population and Jewish land owning into the relatively small British Mandate Palestine was still dwarfed by Arab populations and land ownership.[w22]
During World War II, Mandate Palestine became another front between the Axis and Allies both operationally and informationally. The Nazis Himmler and von Ribbentrop tried to convince the Grand Mufti to support the Axis by proclaiming their shared policy of "anti-Jewry." The Grand Mufti had towed a very tight line; from the 1920s through 1940, most acts of violence in the region had been by Arab terrorists against the Jewish population (such as the Hebron Massacre of 1929).[w23] When the French took control of Syria and the area of the short-lived Syrian Kingdom south of the Sykes-Picot line became British Mandate Transjordan, the British interests took control of what is modern Jordan. There is Zionist revisionism that this was a "partition" of Palestine and split to create a Palestinian state (Jordan) to compliment the Jewish state (Israel), but the Balfour declaration had never applied to Transjordan, and the British immediately installed another of Hussein Ali's sons, Abdullah bin al-Husayn, as Emir of Transjordan until the British Mandate ended and he became the King of the independent Jordan, and is the Great-Grandfather of the current King of Jordan, Abdullah II.
The British established the Peel Commission in the 1930s to deal with major Arab violence against British rule and Jewish immigration. The proposed solution was to divide British Mandate Palestine into three states; a tiny Jewish state that corresponded to areas of predominate Jewish land ownership and population, a small, but slightly larger "international" zone that would include Jerusalem, and a much larger Arab state.[w24] While the Jewish leaders were insulted by the tiny offer compared to the much larger promises of the Balfour Declaration, they reluctantly agreed to negotiate.[w25] The Arabs on the other hand, flat refused any partition and would only accept a single state with Jewish rights severely curtailed.[w26] The British did generate a White Paper in 1939 over the continuing Arab revolts limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine.[w27] Unfortunately for European Jews, the refuge of British Mandate Palestine, championed by Zionists and the promise of the Balfour Declaration as a future state, was taken away as Nazis began to crack down on Jews throughout Europe.
For Mandate Palestine, post-World War II there were pressures from all sides. The US pushed aggressively for the British to lift the immigration quotas. The British pushed back, figuring Jewish support was, geopolitically, inconsequential, whereas Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were British allies and all violently anti-Jewish.[w28] Ironically, Saudi Arabia was, as a modern state, new. Ibn Saud had conquered Riyadh in 1902 and Nejd in 1922, but held short of Hejaz and Hussein Ali due to British support.[w29] After his refusal to sign the Treaty of Versailles, the British withdrew support of Hussein Ali, and in 1925 Ibn Saud invaded and took over Hejaz, ending 700 years of Hashemite rule over Mecca and Medina.[w30] Even as the British supported Faisal in Iraq and Abdullah in Jordan, they allowed the father, Hussein, to lose his empire and maintained a relationship with his usurper, Ibn Saud. In addition to fears of Arab diplomatic revolt over the Jewish state, the Jews themselves had become a considerable problem in British Mandate Palestine.[w31] Acts of terrorism, including the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem served to exacerbate the issues between the British and the Jewish problem in both the Middle East and in mid-war and post-war Europe.[w32]
The Arabs refused to even acknowledge Jews worth meeting or negotiating with prior to the civil war beginning in 1947.[w33] By early 1948, the US had revoked their support for a partition whereas the British had shifted to supporting an annexation of British Mandate Palestine into the newly independent Kingdom of Jordan.[w34] This wasn't so much an anti-Jewish decision, but rather an anti-Grand Mufti decision.
Ultimately, the British washed their hands of British Mandate Palestine, leaving the Jewish population to fend for themselves. By spring of 1948, both the Arabs and the Jews were absolutely fed up with the British, and the British, after World War II, had zero appetite for more war. On midnight, between the 14th and 15th of May, 1948, the British Mandate for Palestine expired and the State of Israel immediately was established. The Soviets, through a proxy of Czechoslovakia, armed both sides of the impending conflict, shipping arms to Israeli Jews and to the Arab Liberation Army.[w35] The Arab insurgents were immediately joined by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.[w36] Initially, the Arabs enjoyed vastly superior firepower and the advantage of being the attacking force and thus, the initiative in choosing most tactical confrontations.[w37] The removal of the British Mandate brought with it the end of the embargo and vast quantities of Jewish reinforcements - both fighters and weapons - quickly changed the calculus between the two forces.[w38] Additionally, the French supplied intelligence assessments of the Arab forces disposition which helped the fledgling Israeli forces hold their lines long enough to begin to counter-attack.[w39]
Additionally, the use of airpower, armor and sea power by the Arabs was abysmal in spite of technological superiority at the outset of the war, compared to use by Israelis that was commensurate with British or American use during World War II, in large part due to the experiences of fighting for allied forces during the war by so many of the Jewish volunteers.[w40] The asymmetry in capability fueled by experience and tactics over just sheer manpower rapidly turned the tide, as did immense recruiting efforts through globalized Zionist appeals.
By spring of 1949, Israel had managed to hold its own and repel all of the invaders and seize massive amounts of terrain. The proposed "Three State Solution" of carving up British Mandate Palestine into Jewish, Arab and Neutral states was off the table, and the Israelis controlled the majority of these lands.
While arguably the largest impact of the Jewish success of winning the 1948-1949 war of Israeli independence was the creation of a secular Jewish state in the heart of the Islamic dominated Middle East, the singular event from the war upon which most Palestinian terror organizations hinge much of their basis is the exodus of Arabs from Israel around the 1947-1949 timeframe. Nearly 85% of all Arabs who lived in British Mandate Palestine on the eve of the war were gone, fled to Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and other locations[w41] for a myriad of reasons. These ranged from the complete breakdown of Arab society in Israel fueled by the indiscriminate "total war" attacks by the invading Arab armies (especially the Egyptians), to actual expulsions carried out by Jewish irregular forces.[w42] The reason for the fleeing is myriad; historians have managed to piece together several hundred thousand fleeing prior to any hostile Jewish action, owing to fear of war, or even a few thousand being ordered to flee by the future invading Arabs, and then tens of thousands who were forcibly removed by Israeli forces.[w43] In hindsight though, it can't really be distilled to a single answer. In the face of war, especially after World War II had just ravaged the planet and made "total war" a rational fear in the face of both Arab threats of genocide, as well as artificial propaganda claiming Israel sought genocide of Arab Muslims, the exodus was rushed and panicked.[w44]
As Israel became a country and fought for its own survival, the Arab nations also threatened to retaliate against their own Jewish populations in a perverse form of collective punishment for foreign acts.[w45] The governments of many Arab nations,[w46] including Syria,[w47] Iraq,[w48] Egypt,[w49] and other Muslim nations such as Afghanistan,[w50] viciously treated their Jewish populations. Additionally, Jews moved voluntarily from places such as Iran[w51] and Turkey[w52] in huge numbers, all leading to a massive population change in the area, with property ownership and ethnic population in Israel becoming overwhelmingly Jewish.
The notion of Arab expulsion by Israeli forces was a complex question as well. While tens of thousands of Arabs were expelled by Israeli forces and Israeli leadership endorsed these actions, the more than 150,000 Arabs who remained in Israel after the war were given full Israeli citizenship.[w53] The Syrian prime minister extolled that the Palestinian exodus was largely an Arab problem.
"Since 1948, we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave." - Khalid al Azm, prime minister of Syria during the Israeli-Arab War of 1948-49, in his memoirs.[w54]
Though Israel was eager to accept the Jews that were expelled from the other Arab nations, most all of them refused to absorb the Arabs that had fled Israel, even the majority who did so willingly or the minority who did so under encouragement from Arab leaders. Conversely, Israel has flat refused to reaccept almost all Arabs who fled Israel for any reason - whether voluntary or forced to by the Israeli military.
In spite of Arab nations broadly punishing their Jewish populations, most of them refused to allow the Palestinian Arabs that fled Israel to assimilate into their tapestry with the notable exception of Jordan, who actually forbade the term Palestinian and considered Israeli Arabs and Jordanian Arabs to be one and the same ethnically and politically.[w55] Most other nations refused to accommodate refugees in any manner, regardless of space or funding. The UN Relief and Works Agency received the lion's share of their funding from the US, often getting more from Israel than from any Arab nation. In 2001, the funding for the entirety of the UN Relief and Works Agency received less than $8m from all Islamic states combined; the US contributed over $120m.[w56] Even when Saudi Arabia suffered a massive labor shortage for infrastructure construction in the 1980s, Saudis imported labor from East Asia instead of Palestinian refugees in spite of the fact their labor would have been funded by the UN Relief and Works Agency. The Arab nations politicized the Palestinian refugees and maintain their squalor in an effort to keep world pressure on Israel. Egypt's treatment of Arabs in the Gaza Strip - land which they seized during the 1948-49 war and was held under exclusive Egyptian rule until 1956.[w57] In spite of that, the Egyptians refused to allow the Palestinians there to migrate to Egypt, did not grant citizenship to children borne of the refugees, and forced them to live in a squalid level of poverty so bad, other Arabs even compared it to concentration camps in Nazi Germany.[w58]
Amidst this mistreatment of the Palestinians by everyone - Israeli and Arab alike - except perhaps the Jordanians - young Palestinians with no economic opportunities became prime terror recruiting targets.
In 1956, France and Britain joined Israel in invading Egypt over the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and while it was once again a tactical victory for the westernized nations, it was a strategic failure, emboldening Egypt. Though the PM of the UK resigned in shame, Israel did manage to win a major concession in opening up the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.[w59] The situation in Gaza did not improve for the refugees, and as their population grew, the squalor continued.
In 1964, the PLO was formed[w60] at an Arab League summit in Cairo. The PLO was formed with two goals: unity of Arab efforts in Palestine, and the destruction of the state of Israel. Though the PLO was founded as a centralized organization to represent Palestinians (their charter mentions both Arabs and pre-Aliyah Jews, commonly referred to as "Old Yishuv" as Palestinians),[w61] the organization rapidly splintered. The various factions included the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Yasser Arafat led group Fatah. While each shared a core hatred of Zionism, Israel, and Jews in general, they were nonetheless fractured and prone to infighting.
In 1967, without any progress made towards repatriation of Palestinian Arabs to lands in Israel, Arab stresses with the Jewish state increased towards war. Rhetoric in places like Syria and Egypt ratcheted up to a fever pitch.
“The Zionist barrack in Palestine is about to collapse and be destroyed. Every one of the hundred million Arabs has been living for the past nineteen years on one hope – to live to see the day Israel is liquidated…There is no life, no peace nor hope for the gangs of Zionism to remain in the occupied land.”
“As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel….The sole method we shall apply against Israel is a total war which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence” - Cairo Radio shortly before Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran.
Tensions between Arab nations and Israel escalated throughout the mid-60s. Finally, in May of 1967, Egypt denied Israel access to the Straits of Tiran after Israel had already stated such an act was casus belli for war.
By the end of May, other nations had weighed in.
"Our goal is clear - to wipe Israel off the map" - President Aref of Iraq, May 31st 1967.[w62]
The UN peacekeeping force that had that been in place since the conclusion of the 1956 battle between Israel/France/UK and Egypt pulled out on June 5th,[w63] and Israel wasted no time. Egypt had built up forces along the border with Israel in the Sinai prior to the UN departure, but Israel didn't give them the option of the initiative and instead began a concentrated attack on Egypt, even as massive forces arrayed in Jordan to the east and Syria to the north.
Israel decimated Egypt's Air Force on the first day, destroying most all of it on the ground on the first day of the conflict.[w64] Egypt, despite massive losses and no strategic, tactical, or operational gains, reported massive success to Jordan.[w65] King Hussein of Jordan had already transferred command of his combined Jordanian forces which were reinforced in Jordan by Iraqi military units.[w66] Israel's response was to annihilate the Jordanian Air Force as well, and following up by seizing the entire West Bank.[w67] By day four, Israel pushed into the Golan Heights where Syria had regularly shelled Israeli positions and seized it as well with an overwhelming victory.
Within six days, Israel had thoroughly decimated Egypt's, Jordan's, and Syria's militaries, forcing all three to sue for peace. Between 10,000 and 20,000 Arabs were either killed in action or captured compared to less than 1,000 dead or captured Israelis.[w68] Less than two weeks after the war, Israel offered to return almost all the territory it had seized - including the nearly 1,000,000 Arabs they had suddenly inherited - back to the three nations, with the notable exception of East Jerusalem which Israel folded into the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem proper, but doing so with the caveat of granting full Israeli citizenship to anyone in East Jerusalem who wanted it if they chose to apply and renounce other citizenship.[w69]
After the Six Day War, the Arab League Summit in Khartoum - which including the following nations: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Tunisia, continued their harsh stance on the nation of Israel and adopted the policy of "The Three No's: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel."[w70] There was a crystalized agreement: "there must be no solution other than the total destruction of the State of Israel."[w71]
The PLO increased operations from Jordan and regularly attacked Israel, who hadn't made lasting peace with Jordan's Hashemite rulers - now the only remaining Hashemite kingdom after the falling of the Hejaz, Iraq, and Syrian monarchies. By the end of the 1960s, there was significant fallout from the continuous PLO sponsored terrorism, often done under direct leadership from Arafat through the Fatah branch. The PLO had effectively become a "state within a state" in Jordan, and the challenge to King Hussein and Jordan was ultimately becoming a dangerous political struggle.[w72] On one hand, Jordan had to at least appear to be supporting the Palestinians for numerous reasons; domestically, it was needed to appear to be conciliatory to Palestinian civilians to political legitimacy. Additionally, the support of the Palestinian struggle against Israel was needed as a member of the Arab League.[w73] Conversely, the PLO fedayeen members had become so emboldened they made multiple attempts on King Hussein's life by summer of 1970.[w74] In early September of 1970, fedayeen within the PLO conducted a massive international airline hijacking operation, flying all the aircraft to Dawson's Field in the Jordanian desert.[w75] The response was rapid: the Jordanian Army began arresting, expelling or killing Palestinian fedayeen members, all ostensibly part of the PLO over their hostile actions towards the Kingdom of Jordan.[w76] The resulting civil war between the PLO and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was known as "Black September" and gave rise to a new terror organization carved out of Arafat's Fatah section of the PLO named the "Black September Organization."
The Black September Organization would carry out numerous attacks against western targets in a concerted effort to "liberate Palestinians" from their oppressors,[w77] though who was truly oppressing them was basically everyone except the Jordanians; Israel, Egypt, Syria, et. al., were all to blame for the poverty and lack of opportunity for the Palestinian people. The Black September Organization continued to operate from late 1971 through September 1973,[w78] but is most famous for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.[w79]
Israel's response to the Munich massacre was violent and long-lived, with Operations Spring of Youth launched with violent effectiveness into Lebanon and Syria, and then Operation Wrath of God that took place over many years.[w80]
Though Operation Wrath of God lasted for nearly 20 years,[w81] Operation Spring of Youth was a quick, decisive and violent incursion in April of 1973 into multiple other countries including Israeli SOF operators infiltrating Lebanon in drag to kill those responsible for the Black September Organization attack in Munich.[w82]
Between the Black September Organization attacks in Munich and Israel's first major response of Operation Spring of Youth, Egypt had descended into domestic economic malaise and support for President Sadat was at a perilous low.[w83] It had been decided at the highest levels within Egypt that war with Israel was inevitable.[w84] On Yom Kippur, October 6th, 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel from the south, and north, respectively.
Unlike 1967, Israel did not run roughshod against their opponents other than in the sea where their forces inflicted unprecedented lopsided defeats on Syrian and Egyptian vessels alike.[w85] However, in spite of early setbacks, the Israeli Army and Air Force fought back and repulsed both forces, also knocking out an Iraqi armor division, and completely encircling an the Egyptian 3rd Army, forcing Syrian ceasefire and Iraqi disengagement/retreat by October 23rd. The resulting encirclement of the Egyptian forces by the Israeli counter-attack lead to an escalation of tensions between the US 6th Fleet and a Soviet Naval Squadron in the largest Naval standoff of the Cold War.[w86] Additionally the ability to outperform a significantly larger and similarly equipped adversary through use of superior training around niche technology advancements and use of fires supporting maneuver that Israel used to great success would be lauded by USA's newly founded Training and Doctrine command (TRADOC)[w87] and the USAF's overall use of airpower to support maneuver warfare.[w88]
Henry Kissinger was able to use the Israeli embrace of the ceasefire and their mercy against the Egyptian 3rd Army to not only increase American influence in the Middle East,[w89] but also to facilitate changes in the Arab status quo.[w90]
To the PLO, the Yom Kippur War ushered in Arafat's Ten Point Plan, a reluctant admission that the state of Israel, at least within its 1948-1967 borders and dole over the remainder of the Golan Heights, Gaza Strip and the West Bank from Syria, Egypt and Jordan, respectively, as a newly recognized Palestinian State.[w91] Diplomatically, this worked out well for Arafat, legitimizing the organization from a terrorist organization to one that could receive international aid and potential recognition as a sovereign state authority.[w92] The quarter century since the first Arab-Israeli war however had emboldened many more who saw Arafat's embrace of a "two-state solution" as unacceptable. The rhetoric from inside of Israel was hardly supportive either, as the definitions of part of the two states - Gaza Strip - was indisputable, but the extent of the West Bank, particularly in East Jerusalem, was completely different. For many progressive Jews, leaving East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state was arguably acceptable, but many others saw the success in 1967 and Jordan's reluctance to participate in 1973 as carte blanche to do what they wished with East Jerusalem, particularly justifying it by using a history of more than 2500 years for justification.[w93] The domestic political climate, history of violence, and embedded passion for the genocide of all Jews fostered a climate where Arafat lost control of many of his most passionate - and violent - members of the PLO. In 1974, Sabri Khalil al-Banna, who had adopted the nom de guerre of Abu Nidal created a breakaway group focused on the total destruction of the state of Israel and attacked not merely Israel, but the entirety of the west and any non-fundamentalist Arabs or Muslims, even the PLO.[w94]
"Yeah, I guess he thought the other terrorist groups were a little too warm and fuzzy for his tastes." Gib (portrayed by Tom Arnold in the film "True Lies."), referring to an even more violent breakaway terrorist group. This is an apt reference to Abu Nidal and his breakaway from the PLO.
Nidal had grown up as one of 25 children of Hajj Khalil al-Banna who was outrageously wealthy as one of the richest Arabs in British Mandate Palestine on the eve of the creation of the state of Israel.[w95] Nidal would grow up moderately well off in spite of being a refugee. Even with most of his father's wealth lost when the family fled during the Arab invasion and what was left being diluted dozens of times, Nidal was never in poverty.[w96] The family moved to Nablus in the West Bank, he was not violent until after Nablus was seized by Israel during the Six Day War. Nidal joined Fatah, worked for Arafat and the PLO for the first few years before splintering off in the early 1970s.[w97] Nidal had been used by Arafat for his organizational skills to great effect and he was the representative of Fatah in Khartoum, Sudan then Baghdad, Iraq.[w98] Nidal was in Iraq when King Hussein expelled the PLO from Jordan and was able to avoid being swept up in the attacks.
Nidal's first attack as a "breakaway" from direct PLO control was a hijacking in 1973 to force the release of one of the primary Munich massacre plotters from Black September out of prison in Kuwait, Abu Daoud.[w99] Ironically, Nidal would try to have Daoud assassinated later in 1980.[w100] Nidal's group, referred to as "Abu Nidal Organization" would be responsible for countless attacks in the 1970s and 1980s, including the hijackings and/or bombings of several aircraft, including TWA flight 841,[w101] GulfAir flight 771,[w102] EgyptAir flight 648,[w103] TWA flight 840,[w104] and PanAm flight 73,[w105] among numerous other attacks. Abu Nidal would not merely target Israelis or westerners or Jordanians, but had a long war with the PLO itself and basically everyone. Abu Nidal would also have to operate from many locations with much of the world hunting him. He operated out of Iraq until he moved his operations from Iraq to Syria in 1981[w106] (Nidal was expelled from Iraq in 1983[w107]) then to Libya in 1986, where he was allegedly[w108] involved in the bombing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Nidal had disappeared from being a major terrorist by 1994. By 1998 he was being treated in a clinic in Egypt, but fled back to Iraq shortly thereafter.[w109] As the US threatened Iraq with invasion in 2002, Nidal may have been seen as a liability and was ultimately terminated by Iraqi intelligence services in August of 2002.[w110]
In spite of Abu Nidal's end, he was hardly the only offshoot of the PLO to terrorize Americans that lessons could be learned from in how to exploit networks against future CT and COIN opponents. Muhammad Zaidan, who went by the nom de guerre of Abu Abbas was also very active as a terrorist operating on behalf of Arafat through the 1980s, most notably masterminding the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.[w111] Abbas had initially used diplomatic authorities to enter Egypt and act as a broker to end the hijacking, even after Jewish American World War II veteran Leon Klinghoffer was murdered, but Abbas's role as the planner for the entire operation was discovered as he tried to rush the hijackers out of Egypt.[w112]
Before the ship returned to port and the hijackers fled, President Reagan had authorized SOF to seize the ship and kill/capture the terrorists.[w113] When that was no longer possible, the USN's 6th Fleet forced the EgyptAir flight the terrorists were on to Sigonella Naval Air Station to be taken into custody there.[w114] The resulting standoff between the American SOF and Italian law enforcement was known as the Sigonella Incident, and lead to both poor relations between the US and Egypt, US and Italy, as well as to Abbas's release by the Italians causing domestic upheaval in Italy.[w115] Abbas would flee Italy first to Yugoslavia then Southern Yemen before migrating to Iraq and moving back and forth between Iraq and Gaza Strip until the late 90s.[w116]
The handling of the hijackers from the Achille Lauro would lead to law changes in the United States as well that were of major importance in how the US DoD is organized even now. While the Iranian hostage situation as detailed above, especially the poor performance of the US military in joint operations during Operation EAGLE CLAW lead to the Goldwater-Nichols act,[w117] the additional incident of the Achille Lauro and the follow-on Sigonella Incident lead to the Nunn-Cohen amendment[w118] to Goldwater-Nichols that established Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as its own Unified Combatant Command (UCC) with a protected budget that service chiefs can't reappropriate.
Abbas would be demoted from a leadership role in the PLO,[w119] and ultimately stay in Iraq until the US invasion in 2003. The same SOF team that ironically is famous for rescuing Jessica Lynch managed to capture Abbas on 14 April, 2003.[w120] The US doesn't forget. Abbas would die in US custody in 2004.
By 1993, Arafat had signed the Oslo Accords, wherein the Palestinian Authority was created, Arafat's role as the leader of the Palestinian people was expanded to a larger international stage, and the PLO officially recognized Israel and Israel's right to exist.[w121]
There were many religious zealots within the PLO, the Abu Nidal Group, etc., but the aims of the organizations were secular. Conversely, the Muslim Brotherhood had backed a group of deeply religious Palestinians who were also supplied with early funding by the Israeli military as well.[w122] This organization was started by Shiek Ahmed Yassin, and became known as Hamas.[w123]
Hamas had originally been ambivalent to Israel and seen the poverty in Gaza Strip as a function of the PLO and been hostile to them.[w124] But by 1988, Hamas had changed their focus and even declared per their charter that their goal was to destroy the state of Israel and have a Palestinian state from the banks of the Jordan river to the Mediterranean, or, roughly the equivalent of all of Israel and the lands of the Palestinian Authority.
The complex relationships in the Middle East are laid bare with the similarly convoluted relationships Hamas had with their fellow organizations including the PLO and their Fatah component, fellow anti-Israeli terror organizations such as Hezbollah, and even the relationships with other states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq and Iran throughout the decades. As an example, Hamas has shifted from allied with Hezbollah to antagonistic with them - and back again - multiple times as they share some principles, such as hatred of Jews and a goal for the destruction of the state of Israel - but diverge on others, with Hamas being Sunni, aligned with Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah being Shi'a and aligned with Iran.
The typical Middle Eastern infighting was only a footnote with the exception of the 2007 battle between Hamas and Fatah over the Gaza Strip. Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, ousting Arafat's Fatah from ruling the Palestinian Authority, and with it came strife.[w125] With Hamas being a designated terrorist organization,[w126] humanitarian aid was terminated and the large stipends of funding previously flowing into the Palestinian territories were cutoff. Hamas and Fatah fought a bloody battle that ultimately resulted in the effective division of the Palestinian territories split into two, the Palestinian National Authority under Fatah controlling the parts of the West Bank not under Israeli occupation, and Gaza Strip, firmly under Hamas control.[w127] Humanitarian aid resumed to the West Bank, but all legal monies from the west were effectively terminated, forcing Hamas to get creative to fund themselves, akin to other terror organizations like al-Qaeda or Boko Haram.[w128]
In spite of the civil war in 2007, the predominate focus of all Hamas violence however has clearly been Israel. The numerous intifada's against Israel resulted in countless strikes back by Israel, such as when three teenagers were abducted from a bus stop and murdered by Hamas members in 2014, resulting in a severe crackdown by Israeli defense forces.[w129] During the war that followed, Hamas wasn't merely randomly targeting civilians with indiscriminate rocket attacks,[w130] but doing so from populated civilian areas[w131] with an intent to cause further domestic casualties in counterstrikes in an effort to degrade Israel in the court of public opinion. Indeed, Israel did counterstrike to these densely populated areas, often making a brief phone call to warn civilian occupants to flee only minutes before striking,[w132] leaving no time to pack any heavy weapons out of the facility. Hamas used suicide bombing[w133] in addition to indiscriminate rockets to attack Israel, targeting indiscriminately while engaging in rhetoric about holocaust denial,[w134] invocation of antisemitic parts of the Quran as part of their charter,[w135] and even claiming the proven forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is factual.[w136]
As of 2023, with Hamas effectively in control of Gaza and in a prolonged stalemate with Israel, another sect has formed. A Shi'a tied terror group dubbed Palestinian Islamic Jihad has not merely sought the same end-goal as Hamas - genocide of Jews and the Zionist state of Israel - but as they are aligned with Iran and Hezbollah, naturally they hate Hamas as well.[w137] The most recent violence in the Gaza Strip was actually between Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and without rational actors involved - sadly, Fatah is even a rational actor by comparison in this calculus - options for the citizens of Gaza are bleak.[w138]
Traditional enemies are now either reluctant partners[w139] such as Jordan, who cooperate with Israel on many matters of security, but still have a relatively cool relationship in the eyes of public opinion. Nonetheless, it has been more than 25 years since they signed a peace treaty[w140] and there's almost no fear of hostilities between the two states now in spite of belligerence against one another numerous times in the 20th century. Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel and recognize their right to exist,[w141] though when Mohamed Morsi briefly seized power under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood, peace with Israel looked to be potentially nullified.[w142] Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, the military coup launched against Morsi likely tied to fear of losing American aid,[w143] much the same that Hamas's overthrow of the PLO ended aid to the Gaza Strip.
Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and many others will continue to focus their efforts on destruction of Israel, and with it, pose a serious threat to the United States, Americans in the homeland and abroad, and especially both citizen and servicemember alike in the Middle East. Special vigilance must be made to be prepared to conduct intelligence operations in support of Israel or direct CT operations against any of these terror organization. Furthermore, they will continue to operate using similar recruiting, ideology, alignment, and most importantly, fund sources and TTPs to other multi-national terror organizations that specifically target the US such as al-Qaeda.
As the 2018 NDS laid bare, the US DoD has failed to maintain superiority to pacing threats or adapt an appropriate pivot because of this massive investment in inefficient COIN & CT operations. The aggregate cost to kill a member of al-Qaeda or ISIS or Hezbollah with a joint direct attack munition (JDAM) delivered by a fifth-generation tactical fighter after mid-air refueling all at the end of a 10,000+ mile long logistics chain is orders of magnitude more expensive than recruiting disaffected youth through social media, indoctrinating them with propaganda, and equipping them with shoddy knock-off Kalashnikov rifles and sending them to do horrible things to innocent people.
The US DoD will always have a higher cost, but some cost can be justified by moral superiority and paid for with a superior capitalist economy. However, 16,000,000:1 ratios are absolutely unacceptable and will be a strategic risk that can lead the US towards unwanted conflicts or outright losses.
The coincidence that the US pulled out of Afghanistan amidst poor planning at the National level and Russia's decision to invade Ukraine as likely to be unopposed can't be merely dismissed as coincidence, and any competent near peer would happily use a non-state proxy to drag us into a COIN/CT war to deplete our economic engine if they assumed we'd continue to spend more than a 1,000,000:1 ratio compared to their investment cost. It's a calculation worth it to any coherent enemy.
Capabilities developers must choose to adapt solutions that will drastically reduce the gap between the costs by terrorists and the costs to the US DoD to a manageable delta.
When considering organizations that the US DoD should orient itself against, most people would assume the list would focus on either nation states with credible militaries or international terror organizations, and this is sound logic. Yet when describing TCOs, the reason to separate idealists from racketeers was that the racketeering oriented organizations that operate at scale and location of which national security is a concern requires its own level of US DoD focus. While true that the number racketeering-focused TCOs at the National-threat level is rightfully a tiny percentage of all racketeering organizations, there's still quite a few. The number of them that concerns the US DoD is still amazingly high; the total number of racketeering organizations is probably in the hundreds of thousands; the US DoD is probably only concerned about a few dozen.
The reasons these TCOs are viable for the US DoD to orient a segment of itself against is stark: the organizational models, bureaucratic machinations, capitalistic orientations, moral void, and lack of respect for human rights combined with massive budgets and revenue streams make for a very formidable foe worthy of intense scrutiny and concern. Vertically aligned narcotics organizations are among the most difficult organizations for the US government to combat as they employ a formidable budget, extremely lean management model, cell-type franchising to minimize single points of failure, and they typically exist within the seams of frameworks for the DoD, DoJ, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and state and local law enforcement organizations making coalesced efforts to combat them far more difficult. Often, it is nearly impossible to coordinate efforts due to policy and regulations aimed at protecting US citizens - policies that are extremely well meaning and important for American Constitutional values to be respected - yet impose difficulties on counter-narcotics organizations.
Worse yet, historically multi-national narcotics organizations such as Japan's Yakuza, China's Triad, the Italian and Russian Mafias, and the numerous Colombian drug cartels were primarily located far beyond the US shores. Their domestic footprint was well within the purview of US law enforcement agencies and the length of their supply chains relative to the US drug market was easier to exploit. This is no longer the case; the majority of the drug cartels imposing difficulties on the US and of concern to the US DoD is predominately in Mexico. Due to this proximity, and this control of the plazas that facilitate drug trafficking into the US, the ability to coordinate law enforcement, State Department and US DoD actions is extremely difficult. There are multiple layers of policy, massive bureaucratic roadblocks, and the necessity of far too many lawyers with legal opinions to make for an efficient organization. This is easily exploited by leaner and more efficient models employed by the narcotics organizations, who thrive in the both literal and figurative boundaries between agencies poised against them.
As of spring of 2023, there are six major cartels in Mexico operating on a scale of concern to the US DoD, though all six owe their roots to two cartels: Cártel de Matamoros and Cártel de Guadalajara. Cártel de Matamoros was from the area south of the Texas/Mexico border along the Gulf Coast and rose in stature during the era of Prohibition in the 1930s.[d1] Much like the wealth of drug cartels is rooted in the criminal enterprise artificially overvaluing a black-market commodity (and making enforcement of policy far more difficult), Cártel de Matamoros grew to large success on the backs of alcohol being illegal in the US. Later, during the rise of Colombian cocaine importation into the US, Cártel de Matamoros would grow yet again as a powerful enterprise leveraging their access to US import routes for cocaine trafficking.
The other "godfather" of the modern drug cartels, Cártel de Guadalajara is much younger, founded in the 1970s and has been focused on hyper-violent protection of importation plazas for the illicit narcotics into the US since its inception.[d2]
For Cártel de Guadalajara, all of the following are in some way, shape, or form, offshoots (or offshoots of offshoots): Cártel de Sinaloa, Cártel de Juárez, Organización Arellano Félix, and Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG). For Cártel de Matamoros, it evolved into Cártel del Golfo (CDG), which has had its own offshoot, "Los Zetas," the bulk of which is now known as Cártel del Noreste (CDN). These six (Sinaloa, Juárez, Arellano Félix, CJNG, CDG, and CDN) Mexican drug cartels are responsible for the mass majority of all narcotics imported into the United States.
Cártel de Sinaloa, more commonly known in the United States as The Sinaloa Cartel, is the largest, most powerful, and economically threatening cartel in the world.[s1] The Sinaloa's predecessor, Cártel de Guadalajara, rose to power in the 1970s by transitioning from a marijuana grower to a funnel for Colombian cocaine into the United States.[s2] Pedro Avilés Pérez had increased drug importation to the United States - controlling import "plazas" from an individualistic enterprise to an industrial scale, transporting drugs like marijuana in massive loads by the late 1960s.[s3] Avilés Pérez would control the plazas into the US through the mid-70s with three principle lieutenants, Rafael Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, and Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo. In 1978, Avilés Pérez was killed in a shootout with police. Some presume that Fonseca Carrillo set Avilés Pérez up in order to take control of the plazas and expand from a domestically produced marijuana-oriented organization to a Colombian cocaine oriented organization.[s4] Fonseca Carrillo, Caro Quintero, and Félix Gallardo would then run the Cártel de Guadalajara from 1978 until it effectively ceased to operate in 1989.[s5] The principle reason for Cártel de Guadalajara's diminishment was the US response to the kidnapping, torture and murder of US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena Salazar in 1985. Caro Quintero ordered the death of Kiki Camarena[s6] after the infamous "Buffalo Ranch" marijuana farm had been seized by a joint Mexican and DEA raid. The follow-on investigation over Kiki Camarena's death not only lead to arrests of high-ranking corrupt Mexican officials,[s7] but would ultimately be the downfall of Cártel de Guadalajara as a monolithic vertically integrated narcotics agency. Caro Quintero and Fonseca Carrillo were both arrested in 1985 shortly after Kiki Camarena's death. To preserve the order within Mexico, Félix Gallardo who effectively ran all the plazas west of the Gulf Cartel, opting to "franchise" operations and step back from day-to-day operations over the entire organization.[s8] After Caro Quintero and Fonseca Carrillo were arrested, but prior to his own arrest four years later, Félix Gallardo split Cártel de Guadalajara into Cártel de Sinaloa, ran by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera and Ismael Zambada García; Cártel de Juárez, was given to Fonseca Carrillo's nephew, Amado Carrillo Fuentes; in Tijuana, the plaza was given to his own nephew's, the Arellano Félix brothers, becoming Organización Arellano Félix and the Sonora plaza was given to Rafael Caro Quintero's brother, Miguel.
By the 1990s, the Sinaloa cartel had swallowed the Sonora cartel, and in the early 2000s also effectively made the Milenio Cartel a subset of their federation. As the Sinaloa cartel grew, and all of the original Cártel de Guadalajara leaders were imprisoned in either Mexico or the United States, the Sinaloa cartel's power brought them into conflict with the other former members of Cártel de Guadalajara. Though El Chapo sits in prison in the United States and the Sinaloa cartel is experiencing infighting in 2022, dividing into three between Zambada García's sect, his brother, Aurelio “El Guano” Guzmán Loera's sect, and a division ran by his four sons known as "Los Chapitos."[s9] Though all three groups are still rivals to each other, they are all allied against the splinter organization of CJNG.
In spite of the fractures, the Sinaloa cartel does basically operate as a vertically aligned organization, integrating business extortion rackets and domestic drug dealing as part of an overall community ownership. By virtue of running the entire criminal enterprise - from the production of synthetic methamphetamines or fentanyl - through the entire security process all the way through the movement into the United States, they've condensed costs and maintained a viable structure that generates higher profit-to-loss ratios and encourages a greater domestic economic growth than hyper-violent rivals like CJNG or the Zetas.[s10]
The rise of Sinaloa - and its continued dominance - has much to do with how much more easily they've integrated their brand of criminal enterprise control into the tapestry of Mexican life. Though the Sinaloa cartel (and their Guadalajara predecessor) has shifted their individual drug focus from marijuana in the 1970s to transitioning cocaine for Colombian cartels in the 1980s to domestically grown poppies for heroin in the 1990s and 2000s, to now methamphetamines and synthetic opiates like fentanyl in the 2010s and 2020s, they've kept their economic focus on illegal narcotics for export, and control of vertical markets within Mexico to maintain control of the entire enterprise from production through distribution to the plazas for export. The protection rackets that operate as a tax within Mexico aren't funneled to the top; the extortion fees typically fund the operating costs of franchised cartel operations within locales, and in a way, this has expressed itself in a typically capitalist way. The threat of Cartel violence is the primary factor for compliance by civilians, but the franchising and localized accounting of profit/loss allow for lower-cost operations, a higher propensity of localized law enforcement bribery and bribery of the intermediate levels of government (so far as Mexico's National Action Party or "Partido Acción Nacional" going out of their way to specifically distance themselves in media from the Sinaloa cartel on multiple occasions[s11] even though government actions make it blatantly obvious there is wanton collusion between the dominant political party and the Sinaloa cartel).
The Sinaloa cartel dominates not only large stretches of the US/Mexico border, including almost all of New Mexico and Arizona's borders, but also has presence from San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, the Sinaloa dominates narcotics trafficking relationships in many other areas, functioning as the plaza owners in Africa for many cocaine trade routes, primarily to facilitate movement of the drug into Europe.[s12]
Their actual footprint on the ground - and associated violence - in the United States is actually quite small; they facilitate wholesale importation into the US and leave distribution in the US up to regional actors who may or may not be exclusively tied to the Sinaloa cartel.[s13] While the single largest cause of violent homicide in the US is tied to the drug trade, it is by virtue of local turf wars, not a function of Sinaloa vs. CJNG vs. Zetas causes.
Nonetheless, the Sinaloa cartel is indirectly responsible for a massive increase in drug overdoses.[s14] The exact reasons for all the overdose growth will be addressed later in the paper as it isn't a Sinaloa cartel-exclusive issue; it's a function of capitalism mechanisms and failure in enforcement.
To exploit the Sinaloa cartel from a US DoD perspective is a complex beast; the actions right along the plazas are law enforcement issues best handled by DoJ, DHS, and state/local law enforcement entities. The complex issue of internal politics in Mexico and the US's "difficult" relationship further weakens potential response to cartels like the Sinaloa, but there's pressure points that can eventually be exploited, including ones unique to Sinaloa.
The principle weaknesses in the Sinaloa cartel are primarily in their size and in the security scale relative to their future threats. Their size is actually something they've controlled for in the past. When and where the cartel chooses to control vertical markets (where the political pressures and the acceptance by the Mexican populace don't merely allow it, but actually prefer it to rival cartels or ineffective government security), they've done so in a manner that is economically viable. Conversely, they've sought to limit exposure where unnecessary. In spite of this, the profits have already driven a wedge into leadership since "El Chapo's" arrest, a division that can be easily exploited through intelligence operations. The second weakness is that the Sinaloa cartel has only ever gone "to war" with other cartels or the failed state of Mexico. If 7th, 19th, or 20th Group Special Forces operators were to be employed with the goal of defeating the Sinaloa cartel, the cartel has zero defenses or capabilities to avoid being neutralized.
Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación
Rising from the ashes of the Milenio cartel, the modern split of CJNG from the Sinaloa has lead to massive disaster in Mexico. The machinations of the Sinaloa in Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, and Mexico City, was borne of the former Milenio cartel which the Sinaloa had effectively absorbed as a "franchise" to grow their vertical market control. This had worked well until the former Milenio leader, Óscar Orlando Nava Valencia was captured by Mexican security forces, and the Sinaloa leader of the faction, Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel was killed by Mexican security.[j1] This lead to a split internally of the former Milenio personnel into a faction that ostensibly supported the Sinaloa, and another that sought to branch off into their own, headed by Nemesio Ruben "El Mencho" Oseguera Ramos. As CJNG grew in the early 2010s, so did the Zetas, themselves an offshoot of CDG, and CJNG made war with the Zetas for the dominance of the drug importation plazas east of the traditional Sinaloa routes for both importation from South and Central America, as well as for exportation into southern Texas and along the I-35 corridor towards the US east coast.
CJNG began their growth through mass violence and continue to do so. Much of their foreign policy mirrors Sinaloa, utilizing non-exclusive but lucrative wholesalers in the United States and Europe, exclusive partnerships with South American cartels, and violent exclusive franchising in Central America.[j2] Their "ownership" of Mexican domains is characterized primarily through totalitarian violence, and their exclusive use of intimidation has driven many Mexican businesses caught between cartel violence and lack of national government legitimacy, often choose the Sinaloa because of that.[j3]
Because CJNG has both made violence the centerpiece of their leadership style and because so many other organizations have been in constant states of violence with them, they are quite capable of "operating" in that type of conflict. Their growth in other markets, including Asia,[j5] Africa,[j6] and Europe[j7] continues, in pace with the Sinaloa. The CJNG is growing rapidly across the globe, and with that growth, is putting its operations outside of Mexico - particularly in Europe - at risk against competent law enforcement in non-failed or non-overtly corrupt states. CJNG is also enjoying revenues from opening new routes to lucrative narcotics markets through paths in failed states like those in South America and Africa.
From a US DoD perspective, the issues with combatting CJNG are rooted in policy restrictions as the tactical and strategic capabilities lacking in their capability to execute with competent tradecraft is similar to the flaws the Sinaloa have. The CJNG is even more at risk to defeat by virtue of their lesser effective domestic relationships predicated purely on violence.
Juárez Cartel and Arellano-Félix Organization
Both the Juárez cartel and the Arellano-Felix Organization have drastically reduced their size and power over the years, but their continued dominion over their import plazas into the United States - has kept them relevant. For the Juárez cartel, it has been bolstered by their relationship to the street gangs that rule the import plazas into El Paso, Texas - and their relationship with the Aztecas gangs in Texas, has kept them relevant even after continual conflict with Zetas, Sinaloa, and CJNG.[d3] While many other cartels in southern Mexico are larger than Juárez or Arellano-Félix Organization, the proximity to the United States is of value. The massive quantities of narcotics being funneled into America by them make them a threat worth targeted exploitation and about whom lessons learned would be worthwhile.
The Juárez cartel owes its roots to the Guadalajara cartel, just like the Sinaloa and, tangentially, CJNG.
The Arellano-Félix Organization is likewise an offshoot of the Guadalajara cartel, but went to war with the Sinaloa cartel early - an attempted assassination of El Chapo was done as early as 1993.[d4] However, given the rise of the Zetas and then CJNG, by 2010 all of the original Arellano-Félix Organization heads were either dead, imprisoned, or on parole and no longer players, and the Arellano-Félix Organization - now more commonly referred to as the "Tijuana Cartel" essentially became a franchise of the Sinaloa cartel.[d5]
In 2023, both the Juárez and Tijuana cartels are ostensibly profitable plaza managers for lucrative routes for the Sinaloa cartel's operations, and because of their value, are both under attack from rival gangs allied with CJNG, many of whom were previously allied with the Zetas. In terms of "footprint" both the Juárez and Tijuana cartels are tiny, but they are both in vital tradespace. The Tijuana cartel controls access to San Diego, and, by tangent, the US West Coast. The Juárez cartel likewise controls access to El Paso, and tangentially, a major access route to the US as well. The most important commodity in the entire drug trade in the western world is access to the US market. Manufacturing, cultivation, wholesales within the US, extortion/protection rackets, kidnapping, etc., for most all of the cartels, these vertical integrations exist specifically to support the plaza ownership as that is the highest source of profit. For this reason, the fighting between the larger cartels over access to Juárez and Tijuana will keep those cartels relevant even if they aren't vertically integrated throughout the entire supply and support chains like the Sinaloa and CJNG are.
The Gulf Cartel
While the offshoots of Cártel de Guadalajara dominate most of the US/Mexico border and much of the drug trade into the US, Cártel de Matamoros predates it, and its offshoots are not to be overlooked. While the Matamoros owes its roots to prohibition,[g1] it slowly evolved first into the CDG, which itself gave birth to "Los Zetas," itself evolving into some regional gangs including CDN.
At its inception, the Gulf Cartel primarily smuggled liquor and cigarettes across the border into the United States. However, by the 1980s, the organization had diversified its operations and was heavily involved in the trafficking of cocaine and marijuana. In the 1990s, the Gulf Cartel entered into an alliance with the notorious Sinaloa Cartel, but the relationship eventually turned sour, leading to a bloody turf war that lasted for years and gave birth to Los Zetas. CDG still operates, although it has been weakened by infighting among its members and government crackdowns that many believe were targeting rivals of the Sinaloa.
While most Mexican cartels have had to change their drug import models as a result of the legalization of marijuana in some US states, CDG was hit especially hard given the percentage of their drug trafficking previously made up of marijuana.[g2] As a result, CDG has had to diversify its criminal activities to maintain its profits, and one of the areas in which it has expanded is human trafficking.
Human trafficking is a lucrative business for criminal organizations, and CDG is no exception. The organization has been involved in the trafficking of people from Central and South America into the United States, primarily for the purpose of forced labor and sexual exploitation. The victims are often driven out of hyper-violent nations seeking "the American Dream" in the US, only to be held captive and forced to work under inhumane conditions.
The movement of people across the US-Mexico border has also been a source of profit for CDG. The organization has been involved in smuggling people across the border, often charging thousands of dollars per person for their services. Unfortunately for DHS's Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) division, the costs are not prohibitive, and they are struggling to deal with massive influx of migrants into the country.[g3] CDG's involvement in human trafficking and migrant smuggling has made it a significant player in the ongoing immigration debate in the United States, and has led to calls for increased security measures and closer cooperation between US and Mexican law enforcement agencies.
Worst of all, the decrease in narcotics is mainly a decrease in a mostly harmless marijuana trade, with a marked increase in methamphetamine manufacturing and importation.[g4] But the biggest change in CDG operations is their focus on human trafficking. This is a multi-faceted abuse as well.
- CDG charges vast quantities to transport South and Central American refugees into the US. While many of these people are desperate to flee crime and economic failures, they often are required to sell everything the have to pay the "toll costs" to the cartel.
- The use of minors as part of a family unit has effectively commoditized children, meaning families that have children and cannot afford to pay the taxes/tolls extorted by the cartels, can either sell their children, or may face execution and have their children redistributed to others who can afford to pay.
- The children who are trafficked this way often find themselves resold again in the US, typically into sexual slavery.
The CDG did run the most lucrative importation plaza into the US for many years going through Laredo, Texas, with a rough alliance with the Sinaloa cartel that eventually shattered. To maintain the security of CDG, the head of the cartel at the time, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, began recruiting from Mexican Special Forces, including a sicario named Arturo Guzman Decenas in the late 90s. Guzman, known by the radio code of "Z-1" was the first of the "Zetas," which he lead until his death in 2002.[g5]
CDG, with security from Los Zetas thrived in the early 2000s, until government crackdowns lead to not merely Guzman's death, but also Osiel Cardenas Guillen's arrest.
Since their peak as a drug cartel in the late 90s, the importation plaza in Laredo is no longer under CDG control, the value of one of their leading commodities, marijuana has drastically diminished, and the US government has done next to nothing since 2021 to curb illegal immigration, encouraging a human migration crisis. These factors have lead to CDG pivoting their profit model towards capitalizing on human misery and desperation, as well as capitalizing on second and third order effects from well intentioned US policy.
Cartel del Noreste / Los Zetas
As mentioned above, The Zetas cartel originated as a group of 31 elite soldiers lead by Arturo Guzman Decenas who deserted from the Mexican Army's special forces in the late 1990s to work for CDG.[x1] Over time, as the markets shifted, the Zetas became more powerful and influential within CDG, and by the mid-2000s, they had essentially taken over as the dominant faction. The factionalizing continued until 2010, when the Zetas fully split from CDG and became a fully independent criminal organization. This was due in part to a power struggle within CDG, as well as to the Zetas' desire to control their own drug trafficking operations and expand their influence in other criminal activities such as kidnapping, extortion, and human trafficking.
As the Zetas grew more powerful and violent, they became notorious for their brutal tactics, including beheadings, mass killings, and torture. They also developed a reputation for being one of the most technologically advanced and sophisticated criminal organizations in Mexico, using social media and other digital platforms to communicate and coordinate their activities.[x2]
In recent years, the Zetas have undergone further changes as they have fragmented into smaller, regional factions. One of the most significant of these is CDN, which operates primarily in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. Others include the Cartel Del Golfo Zetas ("Zetas Gulf Cartel"), Zetas Vieja Escuela ("Old School Zetas"), Zetas Nueva Escuela ("New School Zetas"), and others. CDN and Zetas Vieja Escuela are literally operated by rival brothers, Miguel ("Z-40") and Alejandro Trevino Morales ("Z-42").
All of these factions variously fight amongst each other, other cartels, and yet if economic interests align, cooperate. The original founders are all either dead or in prison, leading to further fragmentation as the remnants of the original Zetas continue to use the trademarked hyper-violence, but do not have the deep logistical skills of their predecessors. When combining overreach of ambition with detrimental management and experience, it's been the leading cause of decline. As the Zetas and their offshoots have diversified heavily into multiple sectors, including energy, though they've ultimately suffered from over-extension.
"Pigs Get Fat. Hogs get Slaughtered." - Proverb.
In the end, the various Zetas offshoots and CDN are still a hyper-violent organization that control one of the most important and lucrative narcotics import plazas bordering the US. The Zetas and its offshoots use of extreme violence combined with the vertical integration model pioneered and utilized by the Sinaloa cartel have become the basis for CJNG; in a way, they've combined the two models making The Zetas more or less obsolete at the macro scale.
This shouldn't discount them as "has-beens." Quite the contrary; CDN continues to operate the majority of drug imports into the United States through the largest land port, Laredo.[x3] While this doesn't make CDN the overall largest trafficker, it certainly makes them extremely important. Laredo's economic value as a commercial import hub is extremely valuable to drug traffickers. Borne of largescale economic investment by US corporations in the wake of first NAFTA and now the USMCA, the cartels utilizing Laredo as a plaza enjoy the benefits of a super-massive port system with constant activity and traffic in order to hide vast quantities of narcotics into the US. From this perspective, CDN and the other Zetas segments that operate the plazas have done what any good commercial sector does: found the most profitable portion of a vertical market and zoned in on it.[x4] In terms of profit/loss ratio taking into regard the costs of supply versus the downstream demand, plaza control is the most valuable segment of drug cartel control, ergo, in spite of shrinking size compared to CJNG and the Sinaloa, CDN and the other Zetas sit in a comfortable position owning the most lucrative plaza of all, even compared to the Juárez and Tijuana cartels.
Clan del Golfo
Not all major drug cartels operate in Mexico. The original global super-cartel that personified wealth and violence as well as Hollywood fascination was Colombia's Medellin cartel ran by the notorious Pablo Escobar. Escobar's downfall was engineered in large part by the US DoD, with many modern JSOC units playing a large role including early incarnations of Task Force Green[a1] and Task Force Orange.[a2]
In spite of Escobar's violent death and the fall of the Medellin, Colombia's thriving coca production has ensured it remains a haven for powerful drug cartels and has seen thriving growth of various cartels. As of 2023, the most powerful of these cartels is the "Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia" also known as the "Clan del Golfo" or more simply in English, "The Gulf Clan" - not to be confused with its Mexican counterpart, CDG, in Tamaulipas. Clan del Golfo rose from multiple vacuums. During the 1980s, the Medellin and Cali cartels dominated Colombian cocaine trafficking, but both were in decline by the beginning of the 1990s. As the 1990s unfolded, FARC had emerged from its mid-1960s emergence as a leftist fringe focused purely on communist revolution into a narcotics-funded terror group and filled the void. Over the course of the late 1990s, the balkanization of cartels within the power vacuum as the state focused Army efforts on FARC yet coca production increased created a plethora of small cartels. Among them was the Los Urabeños[a3] from the northwest near the Pacific ocean ports and Panamanian jungle border, as well as the Bloque Centauros from the eastern plains of Colombia. Eventually, the two smaller factions merged their security apparatus and expanding in the mid-2000s into a highly lucrative drug trafficking organization, supplying Central American and Caribbean wholesalers. After the death of Clan del Golfo leader Juan de Dios Usuga-David in 2012, his brother Dario Antonio Usuga-David - known as Otoniel ran the cartel to greater highs, becoming the dominate cartel in Colombia despite Otoniel's capture in 2021.[a4] Even with the loss of the powerful figurehead, Clan del Golfo has managed to grow due to a structured organization capable of handling change,[a5] unlike other post-Medellin/Cali organizations like Oficina or Los Rostrojos. Los Rostrojos was borne[a6] of Norte del Valle, itself the successor[a7] of the Cali cartel, and had become the dominate Colombian cocaine distributor by the early-2010s, but successive blows to leadership in 2012 and 2013 dwindled the cartel's presence as Oficina and Clan del Golfo rose in market share. Only a few years after Los Rostrojos diminished, Oficina - itself the successor[a8] of parts of the Medellin cartel - also began to fall apart. The few armed factions of Los Rostrojos are thought to have been absorbed within Clan del Golfo.
Clan del Golfo has not filled the entire void, and this has probably been to its benefit. While the FARC controls the majority of coca production in Colombia and Clan del Golfo is the single largest exporter, the Colombian drug trafficking network is more complex now than ever in its history. Remnant organizations from older mostly defunct cartels and small "startups" throughout Colombia actually account for the majority of cocaine exports. Ultimately, this is more effective for the theory of drug trafficking and possibly better for anti-corruption movements, but is more dangerous for the general populace as it encourages higher violence rates among non-cooperative rivals in a black market.
In any black market, there are various economic pressures. In Colombia, there is an extremely entrenched and cost effective coca manufacturing infrastructure. There is vast expertise, conducive environmental factors, and endless demand; given the demand, the incentives are there for the supply to grow and find a market. However, while the management of the government can't truly turn off a market with just supply-side influence, it can certainly impact it, and that has manifested itself over a myriad of different ways from the 1970s through 2023.
When the law enforcement apparatus is non-corrupt and running operations, it will naturally lead to the type of situation currently seen (where the military and the external pressures exerted by US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) are the effective law enforcement apparatus). Pressures on the cartels result in balkanization, the smaller market segments run more effectively given lesser centralized pressures, there are less large-scale funds for manipulation of government officials, and the resulting violence to accommodate black market operations tend to be wide-spread, emotional, and small-scale individual acts (single homicides, etc.)
When the civilian oversight of the military is more forceful, and the market pressures are still intense, the result is higher levels of corruption, and more consolidation of cartel operations into a smaller number of larger organizations. In Colombia in the 1980s this resulted in the Medellin and Cali cartels rising to size, and is why the Sinaloa and CJNG are currently so dominant in Mexico. The net result is larger-scale violence of massive organizations against both each other and non-corrupt segments of the government.
A tentative peace between the newly elected liberal government of Colombia was brokered with a ceasefire between the Colombian military, FARC, Clan del Golfo, and others in late 2022. However, by March, the government had called the ceasefire off and resumed efforts to hunt members of Clan del Golfo down.[a9]
The direct impact that Clan del Golfo should have on US DoD policy specifically is minimal at best; if anything, the efficiency with which they've managed to weather multiple changes of leadership can be seen as a cautionary tale with regard to other cartels and the risk of a complete balkanization of the narcotics trade. No amount of supply-side attacks or regulation have been capable of diminishing the drug trade. In both Colombia and Mexico, whether we're talking about the 1980s or the 2020s, the 800 lbs gorilla in terms of market forces is the drug users in the western world who drive up demand and prices. Without effective controls for supply side economic forces, the best the US can do, both militarily through the DoD and through State Department actions is shape flows and effects.
The incidental value of marijuana importation decreasing has been mentioned in this paper previously (here, here, and here), but it warrants its own mention as well. The US public[f1] has definitely taken notice[f2] as well as the relative value of marijuana is now much more competitively levelized given the much more legal frameworks governing it. The construction of a wall hasn't mattered at all, as length of border fence never correlated to increases or decreases of marijuana seizures or domestic pricing (ergo, supply). And border fence/wall would be most effective at marijuana because it's much harder to bring across the border in quantity than other drugs. Cocaine and methamphetamine and various morphine and sythetic morphine drugs are easily repackaged and can be difficult to detect. Marijuana is larger in scale and a well-trained dog can pick it up easily, meaning it is most often trafficked across the border between ports of entry (BPOE). Ergo, if a wall was going to impact any drug, it arguably would have been marijuana. And it didn't. What did though was legalization.[f3]
However, domestic legalization by many states hasn't taken money away from the cartels in the long-term; quite the contrary, what the pivot did was force them to adapt their own market strategies. While marijuana grows marginally well in Mexico, its legality was never as rigidly enforced as illegal farms were in the United States. When states began to ease restrictions in the US, areas with better environmental conditions for marijuana growth such as California, Oregon and Washington immediately reduced Mexican demand. The excess of production relative to demand has even lead to high levels of interstate traffic of legally produced marijuana crossing illegally across state lines to become black market product in other states. The economics are still more attractive for all the players involved than Mexican weed. Given that marijuana is no longer a profitable crop, Mexican cartels have shifted to synthetic opiates and methamphetamines to fill in the gaps.
The Mexican cartels are nothing if not innovative. They have found ways to industrialize methamphetamine production, which in turn has altered many markets in the US.[f4]
Our four-year study of methamphetamine markets taught us that most of the questions about meth can be answered by understanding the dynamics of the relationship between meth markets and public policy. We found a complex, multifaceted, transnational industry. At one extreme, meth is produced in small batches for local use and sold to just a few people who know one another. At the other, we found a large, sophisticated business operated by international cartels that depend on locally known and trusted users, much like franchises, to sell their product to local customers. - Timothy Mulcahy and Henry H. Brownstein
Meth has a long American history of abuse dating back to the 1960s,[f5] which was a long time removed from its Japanese roots. It was Japanese chemists who both discovered the extraction from ephedra[f6] and then the amphetamine's origin as an usable crystal,[f7] before it became more widely prescribed during World War II across the globe. By the 1980s, meth in the US became much more difficult to abuse as former drugs like Benzedrine had been banned and even the easiest precursor, ephedra, became nearly impossible to find.[f8] This forced domestic meth labs to turn to pseudoephedrine and gave rise to the meth as a "small business" in the US, popularized by shows like Breaking Bad.
Of course, sometimes, life imitated art. Tom Arnold - then not merely the husband of Roseanne Barr - but his own near A-lister at the time, starring on weeknight sitcoms and action films with Arnold Schwarzeneggar - had a sister named Lori. Lori Arnold personified the meth epidemic in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, running labs in small Midwest facilities and keeping the meth industry extremely localized.
The pivot in Mexico was largely spurred by the legalization of marijuana, and now meth is industrial-scale produced at massive warehouse labs throughout northern Mexico.[f9] And this industrial model has not only forced many domestic labs out of business for failure to keep up with relative pricing from the Mexican supply, glut, but the increased supply and its associated quality has increased the market size again.[f10] From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, hospitalizations for primary use of methamphetamine only increased an average of 8% year-over-year.[f11] By comparison, from 2014 to 2019, the increase was 26% year-over-year.[f12] Meth busts were also changing shape, with busts of domestic labs down year-over-year and busts along the US/Mexico border exploding by relative percentages.[f13]
Mexican meth has slowly changed as well into nearly 100% pure methamphetamine; lower priced retail and higher purity has lead to not merely more overdoses, but a growth in addiction rates.[f14]
While industrializing methamphetamine was a clear pivot by the Mexican cartels with a pronounced impact on the US drug trade, it was more of a matter of economics. From the perspective of national security, the explosion of synthetic opioid trafficking on the other hand is a clear threat to the United States.
This chart doesn't even come close to the total problem either; overdose deaths dropped for the only time between the 1990 and 2023 in 2018 by a total of 4.2%[f15] - but shot back up 44% by 2020, and another 17% again in 2021.[f16]
Even as synthetic opiates have grown into full epidemic status, the benefits outweigh the risks. While the deaths of customers could be considered "bad for business," the value of addiction associated with fentanyl alone is worth the overdose risk.[f17] Fentanyl, and even stronger drugs like carfentanil - itself 10,000 times more powerful than morphine,[f18] allow for morphine equivalent dosages (MED) to be increased by orders of magnitude per shipment and lower overall infrastructure costs for transportation networks, while keeping addiction levels high.
Worse still, the primary route fentanyl takes to get into the US is through Mexico, but its origins are from China.[f19] The city of Wuhan, known primarily as ground zero of COVID-19 is also known as the "World Capital of Fentanyl" - so much so, that when COVID-19 locked the city down, the glut on global access to fentanyl precursors shot up the cost for fentanyl globally.[f20] China is the world leader on fentanyl production, and never stopped.
Not only is China not doing enough to contain this industry. They are actually encouraging this industry through a series of tax breaks, subsidies, and other grants. - Ben Westhoff, author of "Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic"
Profit streams are largely tied to two things: 1. transportation costs - ergo the value of controlling access plazas - and, 2. the MED costs. Ironically, that has also been why in spite of immense glamour on film and in TV, illegally dealing drugs as an economic rule doesn't pay well.
The average drug dealer in Chicago in the early 2000's was making around $3.30/hr; less than just flipping burgers at McDonald's and at far greater physical and legal risk.[f21] Even as dealing doesn't pay well for the low-level feet dealers, the plaza owners, and the vertical cartel leaders do pay well. El Chapo was estimated to be personally worth more than $1 billion in 2013.[f22]
The power of the cartels hasn't merely become mega-wealthy, they've effectively turned Mexico into a failed state. Mexico's inability to implement basic rule of law with an impunity rate of around 99%[f23] means that legitimate economic growth is far more difficult. That extends to both external investors - such as American and Canadian companies utilizing the USMCA - or internal growth. An example of this is the imposition of cartel taxes[f24] and cartel regulations[f25] on the avocado industry. And given that avocado exports from Mexico is more than $3 billion annually,[f26] the cartels are using that as an additional revenue stream in a nation that can't effectively stop them. In 2019, Ovidio Guzmán López, son of El Chapo, was arrested Sinaloa, but the Sinaloa Cartel laid siege to the city of Culiacán, and the Mexican government - under direction of the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, ordered his release.[f27] The state of Mexico essentially admitted defeat to narco violence and the only conclusion is that Mexico is a failed state.[f28] By 2017, Mexican homicides were worse than Iraq and Afghanistan's wars combined.[f29] Of course by 2023, the gulf is even wider.
Drug cartels in Mexico have thrived by exploiting the issues of jurisdictional bureaucracy. As noted earlier, the institutional boundaries of the various organizations charged with counter-narcotics operations have been easily exploited by Mexican cartels compared to the more difficult tasks for cartels with longer international logistics chains.
The US DoD is the lead agency for detection, monitoring, and interdiction of foreign vessels and aircraft entering the United States,[u1] while other agencies from other Federal departments play key roles in counter-narcotics operations. The DoJ has multiple divisions, such as the DEA and FBI, who both play major roles, as does DHS and many of their component elements such as the US Coast Guard (USCG), CBP, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), as well as several combined task forces that cross all three Federal departments and incorporate state and local law enforcement (LE). Each organization has its own internal bureaucracy; for example, the FBI's internal divisions that do LE and divisions that do intelligence collection are notoriously firewalled from each other. Some, such as CBP are further subdivided into drastically different organizations such as US Border Patrol (USBP), Air & Marine Operations (AMO), and Office of Field Operations (OFO), which itself works hand-in-hand with ICE. Of the 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community (IC),[u2] several of them have a mission focus on counter-narcotics, yet have extreme difficulties in coordinating with each other for numerous reasons.
Some issues are typical issues associated with massive bureaucracy; policies requiring specific forms, poor data models and bad infrastructure, etc. But many of the issues are endemic to bureaucracy in ways that can't be fixed by agile software and smart information technology (IT) professionals. Rules[u3] and regulations[u4] that make it extremely difficult to conduct operations near the US border - itself a political minefield with the same Congress responsible for writing legislation also filled with manipulative narcissists seeking to justify their agendas through blatant misinformation and outright lies,[u5] making any sort of positive gains on the US/Mexico border further difficult to achieve.
In order to succeed against Mexican cartels, especially in light of Mexico's complete inability to do so, most of the work required is in domestic policies that will impact demand; the only true change you can make on a black market is by reducing demand, and the US has done poorly at that, just like many other nations. The answers are difficult. All attempts at modern illegalization such as in the US and EU doesn't work, and there's no evidence of any drug prohibition laws in any modern western nation leading to any form of national success. However, even innovative strategies like those of Portugal[u6] or Oregon[u7] are difficult to glean information from. Portugal's success is statistically significant from a data perspective, but hardly a silver bullet that has "solved the drug problem," and Oregon's policies have done what most Oregonian policies have done in the last 20 years and just made things significantly worse for everyone, drug user and non-drug user alike. There's no miracle solution that will instantly curb demand for narcotics in a manner that will not hurt citizens in some manner, but the economic realities that supply-side regulatory measures will curb market growth when demand still exists is just exceptional naïveté.[u8]
Barring major American policy decisions to reduce demand, the Mexican cartels have organized themselves to maximize profit from the existing regulations, including the failures of the broader LE and IC organizations to collaborate. In spite of efforts to create organizations focused on collaboration such as the DEA managed High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) teams, the DHS managed regional joint task forces (JTFs), or their DoD managed cousins such as Joint Task Force - North (JTF-N) or Joint Interagency Task Force - South (JIATF-S), only the latter has had any sort of true success, and that is only without context.
For the DHS JTFs, and their subordinate organizations like the Regional Coordinating Mechanisms (ReCoMs), they are even further behind than China in terms of achieving true joint interoperability. Collaboration between AMO, OFO, and USBP within CBP is difficult and often there are teams even within the same city who rarely if ever collaborate. And relationships to other DHS entities like ICE or USCG are worse still. Further complicating things are lack of any sort of standards in organization. The city of Corpus Christi, Texas sits in a DEA zone it shares with Houston, but not San Antonio. The USBP office is subordinate to a region in McAllen, Texas on the US/Mexico border, but there is also a regional AMO headquarters there on a USN base who don't coordinate their operations with the USBP or the local USCG offices - a fairly large district headquarters and air station whose higher headquarters is in New Orleans. The local ReCoM falls under a higher headquarters in San Antonio. The US DoD used to play a role holding it together and coordinating use of both active duty assigned personnel, personnel on temporary duty (TDY) to support operations, reservist intelligence analyst support (RIAS) on loan to DHS (usually in a sensitive compartmentalized information facility (SCIF) at an HSI office or at a regional USBP headquarters), but they've shut down their regional support teams and no longer bind together DoD support to counter-narcotics operations at the tactical level. The RIAS analysts operate "alone and unafraid" with their DHS and, to a lesser extent, DoJ partners in a collaborative IC effort, but the ability for the DoD to make an impact at the border is nascent at best. The cartels easily exploit loopholes in regulatory restrictions on DoD activity, particularly as most all operations are under Title 10 authorities and the restrictions are hyper-strict. While no member of the DoD wants to see any sort of violation of posse comitatus, restrictions on things like SIGINT collection into Mexico even when near the border require a level of legal oversight for even Title 50 operations that makes them difficult to work and almost impossible to plan/coordinate with any sort of tactical efficiency.
For the US DoD, groups like JIATF-S and JTF-N are varying levels of ineffective. For the former, there have been some clearly documented successes, operationally, and the nature of being able to use combat operators, and combat support troops such as intelligence analysts, signals collections teams, etc., means that the JIATF-S deployments are operationally somewhat effective on a mission-by-mission basis. However, JIATF-S costs are outrageous,[u9] and the amount of interdiction and denial they are responsible for is laughable at best. To be fair, even studies showing the relative success rates of JIATF-S as an organization,[u10] are quick to also point out that the economics of drug demand are orders of magnitude more effective than interdictions and the price comparisons really aren't even close.[u11] JTF-N is even less effective. Though their budget is less than 1/4 of JIATF-S's,[u12] their effectiveness is far less. A handful of RIAS efforts in collaboration with HSI have lead to drug interdictions at the US/Mexico border, but for the most part, inter-agency efforts along the US/Mexico border are governed by legal review of complex statutes, executive orders, esoteric policies, and convoluted bi-directional agreements which take the majority of technical capabilities and tactical effectivity out of play. Even when missions or operations can make it through review, they are often far removed from what the cartels will actually do, and are only successful on the rare occasions where hubris by the cartels leads to busts/arrests.
The US is facing a broad set of challenges. China represents threats of economic grand power competition, threats to American intellectual property and potentially a threat to the global order from monetary markets, as well as manipulation of markets for everything from fossil fuels to investment strategies in metals. China and Russia share more than a border, but also an epic collapse of their national demographics, albeit for different reasons. And in Russia, there's a great many changes. Everything from corruption fueled hubris to battlefield failures in Ukraine cause the nation to careen off the tracks. Iran continues to be a complex case where the youth of the nation are potentially fed up with the Mullah class, and may force another revolution towards freedom. Like Iran, Venezuela is ran by a totalitarian who maintains nascent control through brutality while the entire nation is victimized by lousy socialist policies and both personal and economic freedom are mere memories of an earlier era. But also like Iran, Venezuela may eke out positive outcomes as there are internal forces seeking better ways forward. North Korea on the other hand will probably do nothing to extricate themselves from the world they've created of tragedy and high-octane nightmare fuel. The Kim regime will need to probably be forcibly removed at some point, even if not by the US DoD. And with non-state actors, or pseudo-states like the Taliban, there will continue to be many forces at play, particularly in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa that will all be potential landing zones for US DoD activity. Lastly, overdoses from synthetic drugs - both methamphetamine and opioids - from Mexico are an actual national security threat at this point, and though true action will require domestic reforms to impact will require efforts by the US DoD to help secure the US. These all must be considered when drafting an effective national defense policy - not merely a single threat or perceived threat.
Header image courtesy of The Ringer
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