28 May 2017



“We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!” That was Donald Trump tweeting in November 2013. Fast forward and President Trump is considering sending 3,000 to 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Although the precise troop numbers and particulars of their deployment are still being mapped out, all indications are that these additional forces would not directly contribute to the counter-terrorism mission. Rather, they would be sent to shore up the Afghan government forces fighting against the Taliban. As the White House reviews the proposed increase, there are numerous questions it should address. Four are paramount.

1. Is shoring up the Afghan government forces necessary to enable an ongoing counter-terrorism mission, and, if not, then what U.S. interests are at stake?

For the past three years, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has focused on targeting al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and any other terrorists that could directly threaten the American homeland or U.S. persons and infrastructure overseas. The narrowness of the mission makes it easier to achieve and to sustain. However, the ability to conduct this mission — at least in its current form — is contingent on a friendly Afghan government remaining in control of its territory.

The Taliban currently controls approximately 11 percent of Afghan districts and contests another 29 percent. Taliban gains might enable al-Qaeda to reconstitute itself in Afghanistan. This should be a concern, but not necessarily the only one. Indeed, the current purpose of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is to neutralize precisely these types of threats. There is a danger is that as the Taliban seizes territory, the U.S. counter-terrorism mission becomes more difficult to execute. The worst-case scenario would be a replay of Yemen, where a friendly government was toppled by a domestic insurgency and U.S. counterterrorism efforts were seriously curtailed as a result. Thus, the debate should be focused on whether buttressing the Afghans against the Taliban is necessary to achieve vital national interests related to counter-terrorism. If not, then any review will need to make the case for why the United States should expend more blood and treasure and what Washington reasonably hopes to accomplish.

2. Does the United States want to create conditions for a political settlement, or does it want a semi-permanent military presence?

Leaving aside for the moment whether a political settlement to end the war is attainable (on which more below), decision-makers should also consider if the United States could live with the consequences of catastrophic success. As Barnett Rubin observed in this space not too long ago, Washington has not decided whether its aim is to maintain a military presence or pursue a political settlement.

Afghanistan currently provides the United States its only military foothold in the region. This has obvious utility for counter-terrorism. It is tough to imagine a settlement with the Taliban that allowed for an ongoing U.S. troop presence. Afghanistan’s neighbors are also unlikely to throw their weight behind a settlement that does not end with the withdrawal of American troops. Yet even if the Taliban promised to break with al-Qaeda and not to allow Afghanistan to become a haven for international terrorists, it is tough to see how the United States would be comfortable trusting any Afghan government to enforce this pledge. It is similarly difficult to imagine what circumstances would lead U.S. decision-makers to be comfortable withdrawing all American forces.

Of course, military access in Afghanistan is not simply useful for counterterrorism. It also has utility for a potential contingency in Iran or Pakistan. Any decision to deploy additional troops needs to be clear about whether the aim is to create conditions for a future settlement. There are arguments to be made for prioritizing a semi-permanent troop presence over a settlement that could be considered disadvantageous to the United States. But let’s be clear — this choice comes with costs for the United States and for the region. And it is one that the administration must be clear about before committing more troops.

3. Depending on the desired objective, will another 3,000 to 5,000 troops achieve it and in what time frame?

If the purpose is simply to buttress the Afghan forces in order to ensure the United States can continue conducting its counter-terrorism mission, then the Trump administration must account for why this escalation is anything other than a stopgap measure. Without changing the conditions on the ground in a meaningful way, a troop escalation just plays for time.

If the purpose is to create or improve Afghan capacity and capabilities to the point where they beat back the insurgency, then the administration needs to outline why this will work now when it did not before. In other words, what can up to 5,000 troops accomplish now that 100,000 could not several years ago, and why? There’s general agreement that President Barack Obama’s decision to attach a timeline for withdrawal to the troop surge he authorized signaled to the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan that they could wait out the United States. So it is conceivable that an open-ended commitment that kept U.S. troops in Afghanistan for years could ultimately help Afghan government forces to wear down the Taliban. However, this was hardly the only factor that explains the failure of the Obama surge. Although Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is serious about reform, his government is still achingly corrupt and overly reliant on predatory warlords. Thus, any review that culminates in a troop escalation will need to address how to facilitate improvements in governance.

The administration will have to account for these same variables if the purpose is to create conditions for settlement. China and Russia are playing a bigger role in Afghanistan than in the past, including wading into the pursuit of a peace settlement. Moscow hosted regional conferences on Afghanistan in December 2016 and February 2017 that the United States did not attend. Russia is also reportedly providing some assistance to the Taliban. Sending U.S. forces to advise and assist Afghan government forces theoretically could help the United States regain influence to shape a future settlement. However, this presumes the administration has thought through not only what an acceptable endgame would be, but also how simply blunting Taliban gains — as opposed to sufficiently weakening the movement — achieves it.

4. What does the administration plan to do about Pakistan?

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor and no stranger to Afghanistan, has urged “a holistic review” of American policy toward Pakistan. The Pakistan Army remains committed to shaping the future Afghan government in order to make it friendly to Pakistan and to reduce India’s presence and influence in Afghanistan. Widespread Pakistani perception of Indian and Afghan support for anti-Pakistan groups based in Afghanistan reinforces its policy of backing the Taliban and Haqqani network. Ending support and safe haven for them would not only sacrifice a powerful instrument for shaping the endgame in Afghanistan, but could also lead to increased attacks in Pakistan.

The United States suffers from an asymmetry of interests. Afghanistan is more important to Pakistan than it is to America. Efforts to change Pakistan’s calculus with incentives have failed repeatedly. Pressing for sweeping changes in Pakistani security policy is unlikely to yield results even if the United States suddenly got much tougher. Any increase in the use of coercion would need to account for the ways in which Pakistan could retaliate. It still provides ground and air access for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and limited, but important counterterrorism cooperation in terms of intelligence sharing. There is less of a need for access than when the United States had tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan, but it is unclear how long the United States could maintain resupply, and retrograde if this access were removed entirely.

Pakistani leaders believe they need the United States less than in the recent past thanks to Beijing’s promised investment of over $60 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and provision of weapons systems. Analysts, including me, have recommended various measures to promote shifts in Pakistani behavior. But there are no magic bullets for solving the vexing problems related to working with Pakistan or getting it to stop providing support to the Taliban and Haqqani Network.

America abandoned Afghanistan after Soviet forces completed their withdrawal in 1989. The Taliban swept to power the following decade and provided numerous terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, with safe haven. This understandably has made U.S. leaders gun-shy about turning their backs on Afghanistan a second time. However, in doing so they have made many other mistakes along the way. The issue before the administration now is how to move forward. Well before the Syrian civil war erupted and became the problem from hell, Afghanistan was already a Gordian knot of violence. Any strategy to untangle that knot will be multifaceted. But it must be based on a sound understanding of the fundamentals. Thus, any review that considers sending more troops must include a clear-eyed assessment of the interests at stake, the objectives these forces are intended to achieve and the probability of achieving them given the long-standing challenges in the region.

Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as a senior advisor for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Department of Defense. You can follow him on Twitter at @StephenTankel or interact with him directly in the War Hall

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks

Experts try to figure out who’s behind global cyberattack Posted on May 15, 2017 by Kelvin Chan

Patients wait at the registration desks at Dharmais Cancer Hospital in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, May 15, 2017. Global cyber chaos was spreading Monday as companies booted up computers at work following the weekend's worldwide "ransomware" cyberattack. The extortion scheme created chaos in 150 countries and could wreak even greater havoc as more malicious variations appear. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara) 

HONG KONG (AP) — Experts are trying to figure out who’s behind a global “ransomware” software cyberattack that shut down hundreds of thousands of computers around the world by exploiting a software vulnerability.

Some details about the “WannaCry” attack, which emerged late Friday, and what you can do to stay safe:

How the Virus Works

Cybersecurity experts say the worm affects computers using Microsoft operating systems and takes advantage of a vulnerability in the software to spread the infection. “WannaCry” is particularly malicious because it takes just one person to click on an infected link or email attachment to cause the virus to spread to other machines on the same network.

Infected computers are frozen and display a big message in red informing users, “Oops, your files have been encrypted!” and demanding about $300 in online bitcoin payment. Victims have only hours to pay the ransom, which rises to $600 before the files are destroyed.

Money has been trickling in, according to a Twitter account monitoring bitcoin wallets linked to the attacks, with victims paying nearly $39,000 by Monday afternoon in Asia
The Impact

The worm has claimed at least 200,000 victims since Friday, according to one count by Europol, Europe’s policing agency. Cases have been reported in 150 countries, and include Chinese gas stations, Japanese broadcasters, Indonesian and British hospitals, and German railways.

“We think Asia-Pacific was impacted probably not as heavily as the European regions, but I don’t think they dodged a bullet,” said Tim Wellsmore, Asia-Pacific director for threat intelligence at FireEye, a California-based network security company. He said ransomware attacks are an everyday occurrence, and that victims tend to be small businesses that don’t have as much money to invest in cybersecurity.

Wellsmore said Asia was likely spared the brunt of the attack because of the timing. “Just as those attacks were picking up speed, we were heading into Friday evening and turning off a lot of computer systems,” he said.
How Can I Protect My PC?

Computer users should patch their machines with updates from Microsoft, especially those using older versions of operating systems such as Windows XP. Microsoft did put out a patch two months ago for more recent systems, but not all users may have downloaded it. After “WannaCry,” it released an emergency patch for older systems too.

Ransomware Is Big Business

The “WannaCry” attack grabbed headlines around the world because of its scale, but it’s just one of many types of ransomware that cybersecurity experts see every day. That’s because it’s a very easy way to make money. “It’s a business model that works and you don’t need a lot of investment to actually get a decent return,” said Wellsmore.

“You can buy ransomware kits on the dark web, you can buy all the tool sets you need to undertake your own ransomware campaign quiet easily,” he said, referring to an area of the internet often used for illegal activity. Would-be extortionists can launch a global campaign with little effort, yet authorities can do little because it’s very difficult to investigate, Wellsmore said.

Who Is Behind the Attack?

Wellsmore and other cybersecurity experts say the identity of the perpetrators is still unknown. The hackers were using tools stolen from the U.S. National Security Agency and released on the internet. The software vulnerability was purportedly first identified by the NSA for its own intelligence-gathering work.

“We don’t expect this to be a sophisticated group,” said Wellsmore. “We expect this is a small operation that is undertaking this. They just happen to hit the motherlode. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this thing went quite global quite quickly.”

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