Last Thursday, June 13, 2019, two tankers traveling in the Gulf of Oman were struck by explosions. The crews of both ships were quickly evacuated, and there was no loss of life onboard. The United States’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly announced that Iran was responsible for these strikes. The U.S. government released military footage that it said showed an Iranian ship removing a limpet mine from the side of one of the tankers. There had been an attack on four other tankers within the last month. The U.S. alleged that Iran was carrying out these assaults because of U.S. pressure regarding the nuclear deal. …
With the constant media attention to the alleged Russian involvement in the last American election, there is perhaps more media attention to the issue of cyber-warfare than ever before. In this context, Shane Harris’ book, @ War: the Rise of the Military-Internet Complex is provides a sweeping overview of how the U.S. government and its corporate allies have sought to respond and use cyber tools for espionage and war.
Harris has a background as a journalist, and he has extensively interviewed people in both the U.S. federal government and industry. His work provides a deep understanding of how these actors view cyber-conflict. The book is particularly good at showing how corporations are intricately connected the armed forces in cyber-warfare: “Without the cooperation of the companies, the United States couldn’t fight cyber wars. In that respect, the new military-Internet complex is the same as the industrial one before it” (Harris, p. xxiii).
At the same time, this book views this issue through an American lens, and at times has an unreflective view of technology’s role in war. Ever since the Vietnam War, the United States has relied on technology to win wars, while not similarly prioritizing cultural, strategic and historical awareness. One can see this issue in the opening section of the book, which examines U.S. efforts to use cyber-espionage to target ISIS in Iraq, in what he describes as a triumph: “Indeed, cyber warfare -the combination of spying and attack- was instrumental to the American victory in Iraq in 2007, in ways that have never been fully explained or appreciated” (Harris, p. xxii). Even though his description of U.S. operations in Iraq is fascinating, this part of the work has not aged well, and confronts the reader with technology’s limitations more than its capabilities. …
As the war against ISIS comes to an end, the media and politicians have been discussing how to deal with the return of those who fought for ISIS. What fewer people are aware of is that there were also volunteers who chose to embed with Kurdish units fighting against ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria. In some respects, as I discussed in an earlier blog, the conflict in the Middle East has resembled the Spanish Civil War, in that it drew in foreigners from around the world, who were motivated to join an ideological conflict. I’m not the first person to have that insight, which was also recently discussed in a documentary titled, “The Fight Against Islamic State – Robin Hood Complex.” …
Although we think of arms control and peace treaties as relatively modern concepts, they have ancient roots. I’ve been reading Richard Louis Walker’s book, The Multi-State System of Ancient China, which was published by Shoe String press in 1953. He describes major negotiations that followed a period of devastating warfare during the Spring and Autumn period, as contending states struggled for primacy in China. Interestingly, his description of how the ancient states of China interacted would be all too familiar to a scholar in the modern Realist School. The idea of a Balance of power dominated Chinese politics in this distant time period in the same manner that it did in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In the sixth century BC a Sung statesman named Hsiang Shu (p. 56) lobbied the courts of multiple Chinese states, to try to reach an agreement to end the perpetual warfare. Even states that had little interest in negotiations found that they had no choice but to at least pretend to take part:
“The states had, of course, at least to pretend an interest in his idea. A Chin leader said, “War is destructive to the people, an insect that eats up the resources of a State, and the greatest calamity of all small States. If any one try to put an end to it, though we think it cannot be done, we must sanction his proposal. If we do not, Ch’u will do so, and proceed to call the States together, so that we shall lose the presidency of the covenants.” (Walker, 56).
As Walker describes (56-57) fourteen major states took part of in the discussion. Predictably, once an agreement was reached there was a dispute between the two most powerful states over who should sign first (57). The negotiations had gone so poorly that during the meetings “the Ch’u representatives even wore armor.” (57). In the end, even though an agreement was reached to end warfare, many states refused to sign, while the signatories ignored it (57).
As for statesman and peace-maker Hsian Shu, he sought a reward from the Prime Minister of Sung, to whom he presented a signed copy of the treaty. The Prime Minister responded with scorn, in a speech that deserves to be as frequently remembered in International Relations studies as the Melian Dialogue recorded by the Greek historian Thucydides. According to the Prime Minister of Sung, war was an inevitable tool of statecraft. To seek to abandon these tools was a delusion. He told Hsian Shu that he was lucky to have escaped without punishment, but now he was coming to him looking for a reward. The Prime Minister cut the copy of the treaty to pieces and threw it away (58).
Without the signature of all major states the peace treaty had no power, and the bitter wars continued.
Recently, there have been a series of articles pointing to the signs of war in the Middle East. Of course, given the ongoing civil war in Syria, the chaotic situation in Libya, and the current blockade of Yemen, it’s also true that war is already ravaging the region. Still, many observers are pointing to the real risk that the region might slide into the equivalent to World War One. The long-standing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia pushes the region towards unrestricted and massive warfare.
Of all the articles on this topic, I particularly like Michael Coren’s on the CBC News website, “Ominous signs that the next war in the Middle East is coming, and it won’t be pretty.” Coren points to particular signs that suggest that a conflict may be impending. What struck me in particular was the fact that 2,245 people had commented on this piece, which suggests that many people were as impressed by this brief analysis as I was. Highly recommended.
I love the War College podcasts, which consist of outstanding interviews with key thinkers in the area of security. If you want to understand the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, I highly recommend their podcast, “The Case for Leaving Afghanistan,” which showcases the thoughts of journalist Douglas Wissing. Spoiler alert: the picture is not good. The author of two books on Afghanistan, Wissing argues that our longest military commitment has endured because companies make money from it, while officers make careers. Wissing says that we have spent over a trillion dollars on the war to date, but the Afghan government is losing ground.
In terms of development, the U.S. has spent over $100 billion in Afghanistan, which is more than the U.S. spent on the Marshall plan in Europe after adjusting for inflation. As Wissing notes this is a staggering amount of money for a nation of 30 million people. Worse, he suggests that a significant portion of those development funds were siphoned off to fund the Taliban itself. He argues that the projects that the U.S. has funded have been divorced from Afghan reality, and unsustainable for that reason. The entire history has been a textbook lesson in how not to do development, he suggests, in part because policy has been driven by the personal, career and institutional needs of those people dispersing the funds. …
Max Fisher has an outstanding article on the Syrian Conflict titled “Syria’s Paradox: Why the War Only Ever Seems to Get Worse.” Fisher places the Syrian conflict into the context of other civil wars, and argues that that what makes this conflict distinct is not only the diversity of combatants within Syria, but the extent to which this is a proxy war, which has drawn in a myriad of external actors. In sum, Fisher suggests that all the factors in place suggest that this will be a very long war. While not a cheerful read, the writing is clear, the arguments are succinct, and the implications are disturbing. As I write this, the piece has attracted over 330 comments, and it is well worth reading the “reader recommended” ones. …
Despite the collapse of oil prices, Russia has remerged onto the global stage as a major player, in the aftermath of the conquest of the Crimea. Russia’s involvement in Syria, for example, reversed the course of that conflict, which was sliding towards the government’s defeat. Before the recent ceasefire was declared the government was on the verge of encircling Aleppo, which would have been impossible with Russia’s intervention. During the conflict, Russia launched missiles from naval ships in the Black Sea, which reminded observers of its new military capabilities.
While Russia has formidable military forces, however, it’s also worth remembering that it is not the great power that it was during the Cold War. In many respects, Russia barely has a blue water fleet, which is capable of operating globally. This graphic from Contemporary Issues and Geography makes clear the astounding decrease in the size and capabilities of Russia’s naval forces. While Russia is using its modest naval forces effectively, they still cannot compare either with the naval forces of the Soviet Union, or the U.S. navy today.
Roman Poroshyn’s brief book (156 pages) provides an excellent overview of Stuxnet within the larger context of cyber-warfare and espionage in the Middle East. Unlike another book on the same topic, Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero, it is not based on extensive interviews, nor does it focus in as great a depth upon the process through which the virus was investigated by global cyber security firms. Instead, with Stuxnet: the true story of Hunt and Evolution, Poroshyn tries to place Stuxnet into a broader context of espionage and cyber-warfare directed against not only Iran, but also other institutions in the Middle East, such as the Lebanese banking system. The book is an engaging read (despite the awkward wording of its subtitle), and Poroshyn shares a number of intriguing insights, of which the most interesting was that Stuxnet’s creators ultimately may have allowed it to be revealed to the world as an act of psychological warfare (33-35, 154-155). One of Poroshyn’s other arguments is that Stuxnet is only one chapter in a much longer struggle, which is convincing given his detailed analysis of successive software tools (Flame, Gauss, Narilam, and perhaps Stars) that Israel and the United States likely used against Iran and other regional actors.
One of the book’s strengths is its ability to convey the intelligence of the software design behind this particular cyberweapon. For example, Stuxnet entered into the Iranian nuclear enrichment network through USB sticks, because the network was air-gapped (lacked an internet connection) to the outside world. The level of deceit entailed is chilling: “After the third infection the original Stuxnet worm commits suicide. It deletes itself from the USB stick without leaving a trace” (18). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that it used the very tools for securing machines to infect them: “The perfect match for all of Stuxnet’s requirements is a computer scan process, generated by antivirus software. Stuxnet injects its clone into a variety of processes generated by anti-virus programs from BitDefender, Kaspersky, McAfee, Symantec, and many others” (19). The program was so effective that it briefly shut down the entire Iranian enrichment program (22). Of course, the Iranians ultimately were able to return to significant production. What is impressive, however, was that it achieved this goals which would have been difficult to achieve even with a conventional airstrike against such a hardened site as the Iranian enrichment facility. It also had dangerous implications: “Russia, which is involved in the reconstruction of the Iranian nuclear reactor in Busher, immediately accused Stuxnet of problems associated with the reactor’s reconstruction, and blamed Stuxnet for all delays” (37). There seems to be little evidence for this allegation, but once the attack is made, other actors may also view themselves as being threatened (or that the attack represents a convenient excuse).
There is reason to believe, as Poroshyn suggests, that there are other versions of this particular weapon in existence, only biding their time to be unleashed (53). This book is currently in its third edition. It will be interesting to learn what has happened when the fourth edition is released.
If you are interested in cyber-warfare you might want to read my review of the novel Ghost Fleet.