CIA’s own studies: arming rebels almost categorically fails

Props to the CIA for honestly checking itself:

The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

Almost the only “success” in arming rebels (as opposed to governments) was Afghanistan in the 1980s, according to their own internal review, and we all know what happened as a direct result of that.

Too bad President Obama, who seemed swayed by the study for some time, reversed course in September of this year and ordered an incomprehensible and ineffective program to arm and train Syrian rebels extremely slowly, narrowly, and pointlessly.

As I asked then:

Why do we have to provide military training and weapons to uncontrollable non-state actors in an already brutal civil war? Is it worth going through this effort and incurring this risk to help a declining rebellion that might even be over by the time these fighters arrive? Are we potentially making the situation for civilians in Syria worse by introducing a new source of destruction and death, rather than letting this war come to a finite end?


"First Sting" by Stuart Brown, CIA Museum, an artist's depiction of Afghan mujahideen rebels shooting down a Soviet aircraft with CIA-supplied Stinger missiles.

“First Sting” by Stuart Brown, CIA Museum, an artist’s depiction of Afghan mujahideen rebels shooting down a Soviet aircraft with CIA-supplied Stinger missiles.

Into the Black: The Nearly Ill-Fated First Spacewalk

The exclusive BBC interview and huge multimedia feature on the first human to walk in space is not to be missed:

[Alexey] Leonov, now 80, has given a rare interview to the BBC in which he talks about the series of emergencies that made the trek back to Earth worthy of any Hollywood movie.

Minutes after he stepped into space, Leonov realised his suit had inflated like a balloon, preventing him from getting back inside.

Later on, the cosmonauts narrowly avoided being obliterated in a huge fireball when oxygen levels soared inside the craft. And on the way back to Earth, the crew was exposed to enormous G-forces, landing hundreds of kilometres off target in a remote corner of Siberia populated by wolves and bears.

Afterwards, the Soviet authorities revealed nothing about the problems. For years, few people knew the truth.

It almost makes the movie “Gravity” look like a walk in the park, and it’s a true story.

Leonov on the first-ever extra-vehicular excursion in space. (Credit: Soviet space program via Wikipedia)

Leonov on the first-ever extra-vehicular excursion in space. (Credit: Soviet space program via Wikipedia)

Russia & UAE: A big week for women in air and space

This week saw the 4th ever female cosmonaut go into space and the first ever United Arab Emirates female combat pilot go into action in Syria.

Russia’s Yelena Serova launched into space yesterday aboard a Soyuz flight from Kazakhstan and arrived overnight at the International Space Station. She is the first woman in Russia’s space program to go to space since Yelena V. Kondakova‘s space shuttle flight (STS-84, Atlantis) in May 1997, which went to the Mir station.

Kondakova, now a member of the Russian Duma (parliament) for the ruling party, went to space twice during her career as a cosmonaut, but was actually only the 3rd ever Soviet or Russian female cosmonaut — making Serova the 4th in the entire program’s history. The Soviet Union, notably, sent a woman into space two decades before the U.S. did the same, but failed to capitalize on that milestone (not even sending its second until 19 years later). This stands in contrast with the opportunities opened to many women in NASA and space programs around the world since then.

In another part of the world, the United Arab Emirates announced on U.S. television that their pioneering female combat pilot, Major Mariam Al Mansouri, led the UAE’s airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria, as part of the US-led coalition:

[UAE Ambassador to the US] Al Otaiba also confirmed that Major Mariam Al Mansouri, 35, an F-16 pilot, will lead the air strike missions on ISIL.

“I can officially confirm that the UAE strike mission on Monday night was led by female fighter pilot Mariam Al Mansouri,” he said.

“She is a fully qualified, highly trained, combat-ready pilot and she is on a mission.”
Maj Al Mansouri has an undergraduate degree in English literature and is the first woman to join the Khalifa bin Zayed Air College, graduating in 2008.

She is expected to continue commanding the UAE’s missions in Syria in the coming days and weeks.

Ambassador Al Otaiba cited her as a positive example of how Arab states and Muslim societies can be more moderate and open than the stereotype, while retaining their identities. The example was offered in contrast to both ISIS and some of the Emirates’ neighboring countries. You can read more about Major Al Mansouri and her path to the skies here.

Cosmonaut Yelena Serova (via NASA/Wikimedia) and Maj. Mariam al-Mansouri (via WAM/The National)

Cosmonaut Yelena Serova (via NASA/Wikimedia) and Maj. Mariam al-Mansouri (via WAM/The National)

Yet another war about to erupt?

Oh, you thought world news couldn’t get worse? Wrong! It can always get worse. Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-aligned breakaway region of Azerbaijan, has been frozen in a ceasefire with no final agreement for 20 years (after 6 years of brutal war), but just saw 15 soldiers killed in 4 days, as angry rhetoric rises. The dispute over the region led to an internal war in the southern Soviet Union and worsened after the Union broke up and stopped keeping a lid on things altogether. The new troop deaths are the worst in twenty years, though civilians are often killed near the war zone border.

Nagorno-Karabakh region within Azerbaijan after the 1994 ceasefire. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Nagorno-Karabakh region within Azerbaijan after the 1994 ceasefire. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Russia, while playing mediator (now and in 1994), is much more aligned with Armenia, which has been enthusiastically supporting recent Russian foreign policy when virtually no one else will. Iran and Turkey both have interests in the situation, due to proximity to it, as well as various historical ties or antipathies toward one or the other. Turkey opposed Armenia last time around, while Iran opposed Azerbaijan. (Iran’s government currently fears an Azeri unification movement more than they want to liberate another majority Shia population from secular rule as a second satellite like Iraq.)

The last war also somehow involved Afghan mujahideen at one point, so if we’re looking to open up not only another ex-Soviet conflict but also make it a holy war, this seems like the place.

When do we reach capacity on world conflict? Right now we’ve already got cross-border war, civil war, low level internal conflict, or extensive civil unrest in: Syria, Gaza, Libya, Iraq, Ukraine, Xinjiang, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Egypt. Plus maybe others I’m forgetting. (Edit to add: Central African Republic, Congo.)

Summer 2014 is not going much better than Summer 1914.

Further assorted thoughts on gun policy this week

The NRA people act like they’re the most oppressed population in the entire United States, when in fact they control the entire debate and all policy outcomes on anything related to guns — or even tangentially related to guns — at the Federal level. This power continues despite gun-owning households being only about a third of households these days, and probably only a fraction of those being hardliner NRA members who oppose any reform except fewer controls.

Things that are now “tyranny” apparently include

  • locking your gun away from children;
  • selling guns with biometric locks;
  • magazine limits;
  • allowing background checks to try to keep legal guns out of irresponsible hands;
  • keeping track of who owns things intended to be used as a deadly weapon like we do for a person’s car, which is not intended as to be used such;
  • doctors asking if you keep a gun in the house because it’s a known health risk factor;
  • restricting general ownership of military-grade firearms designed solely to kill people in combat; etc. etc. etc.

Here’s another question: If widespread anticipatory gun ownership is the only way to avoid or throw off totalitarianism, how did all of the Eastern Bloc countries and the Soviet Union fall apart without a huge shoot-em-up revolution from 1989-1991?

Even in the middle of World War II and just afterward, the Soviets managed to very effectively suppress a vast array of nationalist/partisan revolts against the USSR in the outlying Soviets and occupied satellites (Ukraine, Poland, etc.) even when those people were quite heavily armed. One of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world as measured by sheer number of successful target assassinations was the Western Ukrainian insurrection against the Soviet government after the Nazi withdrawal. Thirty months and 11,725 assassinated Soviet officers, agents and collaborators later, the heavily armed Ukrainian Insurgent Army was ultimately brought down by infiltration, psychological warfare, and their own alienation of the local population. So much for guns saving the day against a totalitarian occupier.

A half century later, the Soviets were brought down by, essentially, bankruptcy and internal political reform. If you want a realistic fantasy of throwing off totalitarianism, it probably won’t look like “Red Dawn.” No, it probably just involves a lot of spreadsheets, endemic corruption, and ill-conceived defense expenditures.

How to respond to Russia (safely)

Arsenal Essay: This isn’t Neville Chamberlain in 1938. It’s the world NOT taking the bait of Serbian gunmen in 1914.
nato-logo-200The Crimea annexation has raised a crucial question: What is the world to do when a country with a large military and nuclear weapons decides to end a (voluntary, it turns out) period of non-aggression toward its neighbors?

For a while, the Soviet Union and Russia was so bogged down by the 1980s Afghanistan debacle and economic problems of the 1990s that it wasn’t in a strong position to intervene militarily in its European neighbors’ political affairs as it had once regularly done.

But by the mid-2000s, Russia’s military was back up and ready. The United States and the wider Western world appears to have mistakenly convinced itself that Russian non-intervention in Eastern Europe was due to universalizing of norms against such interference and some sort of implicit global check against it.

Putin doesn’t appear to feel bound by any of those norms, after all (though the United States has had an extremely iffy track record on that as well since 1999). For some time now I’ve been firmly in the camp that this has more to do with restoring the pre-1914 Russian Empire and little to do with restoring the USSR. I think Putin’s vision of Russia is a lot like the Russia that was a European power with an inferiority complex and a Peter the Great-inspired desperation for Europe’s respect but not its approval.

It also calls to mind the arrogant Russia that saw itself as the older brother (and divinely chosen leader) of all Slavs everywhere, whether they liked it or not — and the White Man’s Burden Leader of the near abroad (especially Central Asia, as we’ve seen flashes of again recently). We’ve seen the revived patronizing attitude of Russians who simply can’t comprehend why Ukraine wouldn’t want to be part of Russia again.

Of course — as I’ll return to later in this essay — that was the same “Older Brother Russia” with the largest land army in the world that invaded the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in response to an Austrian police action in Serbia following the Serbian assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 (and Serbia’s alleged refusal to hand over the terrorists).

Rather than the Slavic World-Tsar liberating the Yugo-Slavs (the Slavs of the South), it brought the world into a devastating war that collapsed four empires, including Russia’s.

But let us return to Putin’s neo-imperial Russia of today. The lack of Russian invasions in Eastern Europe in the past nine years — apart from the disputed circumstances of Georgia in 2008 — seems now to have been more out of the “goodness” of Putin’s heart than out of any real commitment to respecting the independence of the Federation’s neighbors.

Putin’s revelation is that the 1956 rules still apply no less than they did in 1956, when the Soviet Union violently invaded Hungary (an anti-NATO Warsaw Pact member) to preserve communist rule there, and NATO was forced to watch passively because it could not risk a nuclear war over the matter.

Does the current Russian leadership, like the Soviet leadership of 1956, have enough sense to realize that it can only get away with interventions in its “sphere of influence” or will he press his luck? At the end of the day, it’s at least partly a matter of voluntary forbearance, as to how far Russia pushes. But partly as the hawks are telling us, it’s also about whether NATO and the United States are a credible umbrella for NATO members in Eastern Europe. As in: Is NATO really prepared to honor its defense obligations to the Baltic Republics if Russia intervenes there too?

I don’t know for sure if we’d actually launch a war if Russia invaded Estonia, say, but I do know that the United States isn’t twiddling its thumbs either — and is working to make sure that doesn’t happen in the first place, so that we never have to find out. Contrary to Republican belief, President Obama has been taking strong measures to shore up NATO allies in Eastern Europe against Russian aggression. Here’s the New York Times on the moves:

Since President Vladimir V. Putin ordered troops to seize Crimea, Mr. Obama has become increasingly engaged, blitzing foreign leaders with telephone calls, imposing sanctions and speaking out more frequently.

To reassure nervous allies, he sent six extra F-15C Eagles to Lithuania and 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland. Mr. Obama, who met here with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, will further bolster defenses in Eastern Europe by rotating more ground and naval forces for exercises and training in Poland and the Baltic countries; update contingency planning; and increase the capacity of a NATO quick-response force.

“Putin just declared war on the European order and it’s demanding that the United States focus on Europe again as a security issue,” said Damon Wilson, a former national security aide to Mr. Bush and now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. While some Republicans have pushed the president to be tougher, Mr. Wilson praised Mr. Obama’s response. “I don’t think I’ve seen the president more personally engaged on any foreign policy crisis in a concerted way as he has been on Ukraine.”

This might not do much to help or re-assure non-NATO members such as Ukraine, Moldova, or Sweden, but we haven’t ever legally bound ourselves to defend them in the event of a foreign attack. The administration is striking a balance by re-affirming our existing commitments and alliances without drawing us into fresh entanglements that risk a World War I-style avoidable meltdown into war between major powers.

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Russia-US: At least we have Space

naga-logoIf nothing else, let’s all stop for a moment to appreciate that the joint Russian-US space program efforts have continued totally uninterrupted, despite everything happening politically, including a barrage of American sanctions on senior Russian officials.

Russia just launched another NASA astronaut toward the space station today.

30 years ago, as President Reagan was trying to weaponize outer space against the Soviet Union, would it have even been imaginable that the two space programs would be collaborating so closely on manned missions even at a very low point in political relations between their parent nations?

(More on the history of joint US-Russian/Soviet space programs.)