By Scott Stewart
Over the past few weeks, aviation security — specifically, enhanced passenger-screening procedures — has become a big issue in the media. The discussion of the topic has become even more fervent as we enter Thanksgiving weekend, which is historically one of the busiest travel periods of the year. As this discussion has progressed, we have been asked repeatedly by readers and members of the press for our opinion on the matter.
We have answered such requests from readers, and we have done a number of media interviews, but we've resisted writing a fresh analysis on aviation security because, as an organization, our objective is to lead the media rather than follow the media regarding a particular topic. We want our readers to be aware of things before they become pressing public issues, and when it comes to aviation-security threats and the issues involved with passenger screening, we believe we have accomplished this. Many of the things now being discussed in the media are things we've written about for years.
When we were discussing this topic internally and debating whether to write about it, we decided that since we have added so many new readers over the past few years, it might be of interest to our expanding readership to put together an analysis that reviews the material we've published and that helps to place the current discussion into the proper context. We hope our longtime readers will excuse the repetition.
We believe that this review will help establish that there is a legitimate threat to aviation, that there are significant challenges in trying to secure aircraft from every conceivable threat, and that the response of aviation security authorities to threats has often been slow and reactive rather than thoughtful and proactive.
Editor's note: This is the second installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.
By George Friedman
A borderland is a region where history is constant: Everything is in flux. The countries we are visiting on this trip (Turkey, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Poland) occupy the borderland between Islam, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. Roman Catholic Hapsburg Austria struggled with the Islamic Ottoman Empire for centuries, with the Ottomans extending northwest until a climactic battle in Vienna in 1683. Beginning in the 18th century, Orthodox Russia expanded from the east, through Belarus and Ukraine. For more than two centuries, the belt of countries stretching from the Baltic to the Black seas was the borderland over which three empires fought.
There have been endless permutations here. The Cold War was the last clear-cut confrontation, pitting Russia against a Western Europe backed — and to a great extent dominated — by the United States. This belt of countries was firmly if informally within the Soviet empire. Now they are sovereign again. My interest in the region is to understand more clearly how the next iteration of regional geopolitics will play out. Russia is far more powerful than it was 10 years ago. The European Union is undergoing internal stress and Germany is recalculating its position. The United States is playing an uncertain and complex game. I want to understand how the semicircle of powers, from Turkey to Poland, are thinking about and positioning themselves for the next iteration of the regional game.
I have been accused of thinking like an old Cold warrior. I don't think that's true. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and U.S. influence in Europe has declined. Whatever will come next will not be the Cold War. What I do not expect this to be is a region of perpetual peace. It has never been that before. It will not be that in the future. I want to understand the pattern of conflict that will occur in the future. But for that we need to begin in the past, not with the Cold War, but with World War I.
By Ben West
Indian Maoist militants, known as Naxalites, have been meeting with members of the outlawed Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), according to the director-general of police for India's Chhattisgarh state. Based on information from a police source, state police chief Vishwa Ranjan said Nov. 11 that two LeT operatives attended a Naxalite meeting in April or May. While their presence at the meeting still needs to be corroborated, the chief said, it appears very likely that the Naxalites held the meeting to adopt a new policy and plans for increasing "armed resistance" in order to seize political power in India.
Indian authorities are using the alleged meeting between LeT operatives and Naxalites as evidence that Pakistan is trying to forge relationships with the Naxalites, which India has long suspected. India blamed the LeT for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the 2001 parliament attack. For the Indian public, LeT also has become synonymous with Pakistani intelligence operations. The group that Indian officials refer to as "LeT," however, is no longer an ally of Pakistan and has changed so much in recent years that we have started to refer to it and similar groups as "neo-LeT".
Before this latest accusation, Indian officials implicated at least six other militant groups in Naxalite activities (with varying degrees of Pakistani support). Linking the estimated 10,000-strong Naxalites to militant groups backed by Pakistan, India's main geopolitical rival and primary source of external security threats, creates a "nightmare" scenario for India. Indeed, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has labeled the Naxalites "the biggest internal security challenge" to India. Taken at face value, reports of such an alliance lead to visions of well-trained, well-disciplined Naxal militants expanding their near-daily attacks on low-level rural targets in eastern India (known as the "Red Corridor") to political and high-tech targets in Calcutta, Hyderabad or even New Delhi. But such visions are alarmist and do not reflect the true nature of the very limited Pakistani-Naxalite relationship.
STRATFOR has watched Indian officials link Pakistan to the Naxalites before, but we have yet to see significant changes on the ground that would give any credence to the scenario outlined above. Many Indian officials are equally insistent that no connections exist between Naxalites and Pakistan. Although the Naxalites have provided rhetorical support for Kashmiri (and other anti-Indian groups') opposition to New Delhi over the past year, there has been little action to back up the rhetoric. The Indians have long feared that outside powers would manipulate grassroots groups in India and further destabilize an already regionalized country. When the Naxalite movement began in the 1960s, New Delhi feared Beijing was trying to get a foothold in India, and for the past 50 years India has demonized Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) for allegedly supporting militant operations in India.
Editor's note: This is the first installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.
By George Friedman
I try to keep my writing impersonal. My ideas are my own, of course, but I prefer to keep myself out of it for three reasons. First, I'm far less interesting than my writings are. Second, the world is also far more interesting than my writings and me, and pretending otherwise is narcissism. Finally, while I founded STRATFOR, I am today only part of it. My thoughts derive from my discussions and arguments with the STRATFOR team. Putting my name on articles seems like a mild form of plagiarism. When I do put my name on my articles (as Scott Stewart, Fred Burton and others sometimes do) it's because our marketing people tell us that we need to "put a face" on the company. I'm hard pressed to understand why anyone would want to see my face, or why showing it is good business, but I've learned never to argue with marketing.
I've said all of this to prepare you for a series of articles that will be personal in a sense, as they will be built around what I will be doing. My wife (who plans and organizes these trips with precision) and I are going to visit several countries over the next few weeks. My reasons for visiting them are geopolitical. These countries all find themselves sharing a geopolitical dilemma. Each country is fascinating in its own right, but geopolitics is what draws me to them now. I think it might be of some value to our readers if I shared my thoughts on these countries as I visit them. Geopolitics should be impersonal, yet the way we encounter the world is always personal. Andre Malraux once said that we all leave our countries in very national ways. A Korean visiting Paris sees it differently than an American. The personal is the eccentric core of geopolitics.
By Eugene Chausovsky
Tajikistan's military continues to conduct security sweeps in the Rasht Valley in the eastern part of the country to catch roughly two dozen high-profile Islamist militants who escaped from a Dushanbe prison in August. The chairman of Tajikistan's State National Security Committee announced Nov. 9 that these special operations have been successful and would soon be completed. However, the Tajik military has announced it will retain its presence there, and the Defense Ministry is setting up special training centers from which to base operations into the mountainous region surrounding the Rasht Valley.
These security sweeps began just over two months ago, and there are conflicting accounts of how successful they have been in rounding up the militants. Tajik military and government spokesmen have said that most of the escapees have been either captured or killed and that roughly 80 Tajik soldiers have been killed hunting them down. However, Tajik media have given higher estimates of the number of military casualties, and STRATFOR sources in Central Asia have said the number of deaths and injuries in various firefights might actually be closer to a few hundred. The region's remoteness and the sensitive nature of the security operations have made such reports difficult to verify.
The very purpose of these security operations has also been called into question within the country and the wider region. The official reason for the sweeps is to round up the escaped militants, but according to STRATFOR sources, preparations for these special operations in the Rasht Valley were being made long before the jailbreak. There are also unconfirmed reports that none of the escapees were from the Rasht Valley, and while the valley's mountainous terrain does make it a good location to seek refuge, it does not guarantee that locals there would willingly harbor the fugitives. The security forces' ultimate goal could center on growing concerns that remnants of a previously key regional militant group — the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — could be regaining strength in the country.
By Scott Stewart
The Oct. 29 discovery of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) inside two packages shipped from Yemen launched a widespread search for other devices, and more than two dozen suspect packages have been tracked down so far. Some have been trailed in dramatic fashion, as when two U.S. F-15 fighter aircraft escorted an Emirates Air passenger jet Oct. 29 as it approached and landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. To date, however, no other parcels have been found to contain explosive devices.
The two parcels that did contain IEDs were found in East Midlands, England, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and both appear to have been sent by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda's jihadist franchise in Yemen. As we've long discussed, AQAP has demonstrated a degree of creativity in planning its attacks and an intent to attack the United States. It has also demonstrated the intent to attack aircraft, as evidenced by the failed Christmas Day bombing in 2009 involving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate an explosive device concealed in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
A tactical analysis of the latest attempt suggests that the operation was not quite as creative as past attempts, though it did come very close to achieving its primary objective, which in this case (apparently) was to destroy aircraft. It does not appear that the devices ultimately were intended to be part of an attack against the Jewish institutions in the United States to which the parcels were addressed. Although the operation failed in its primary mission (taking down aircraft) it was successful in its secondary mission, which was to generate worldwide media coverage and sow fear and disruption in the West.
By Ben West and Lauren Goodrich
On Aug. 12, four members of the militant group the Caucasus Emirate (CE) appeared in a video posted on a Russian militant website withdrawing their support from CE founder and leader Doku Umarov. The reason for the mutiny was Umarov's Aug. 4 retraction of his Aug. 1 announcement that he was stepping down from the top leadership position. STRATFOR and many others noted at the time that the Aug. 1 resignation was unexpected and suggested that Umarov may have been killed. However, the Aug. 4 retraction revealed that Umarov was still alive and that there was considerable confusion over who was in control of the militant group.
The mutineers were all high-level members of the militant group: Hussein Gakayev, commander of the CE's Chechen forces; Aslambek Vadalov, commander of Dagestani forces and to whom Umarov had briefly turned over control in his Aug. 1 resignation; an Arab commander named Muhannad; and a veteran field commander known as Tarkhan. The four CE commanders said Umarov's renunciation showed disrespect for his subordinates and that, while the four leaders continued to pledge support to the CE, they no longer supported Umarov. Gakayev, Tarkhan and Muhannad had all appeared in a video that aired Aug. 1 in which they supported Umarov's decision to appoint Vadalov CE emir.
To further confuse the issue, a video released Aug. 11 by Emir Adam, the CE leader in Ingushetia, pledged his and his followers' loyalty to Umarov. The next day, another video appeared featuring the group's new leader in Dagestan, Emir Seyfullakh Gubdensky (who succeeded Vadalov after he became deputy leader of the CE), similarly endorsing Umarov's reclamation of the top CE post.
These disparate messages from top leaders paint a picture of confusion and dissension in the CE that appears to mark a serious crisis for a group, which, until recently, had been consolidating militant groups across the Caucasus under a single, more strategic leadership structure. STRATFOR has collected insight from sources familiar with the group and its leadership turmoil that explains what happened and the nature of the threat that the CE poses to Russian security in the Caucasus.
By George Friedman
It is August 2010, which is the month when the last U.S. combat troops are scheduled to leave Iraq. It is therefore time to take stock of the situation in Iraq, which has changed places with Afghanistan as the forgotten war. This is all the more important since 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq, and while they may not be considered combat troops, a great deal of combat power remains embedded with them. So we are far from the end of the war in Iraq. The question is whether the departure of the last combat units is a significant milestone and, if it is, what it signifies.
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 with three goals: The first was the destruction of the Iraqi army, the second was the destruction of the Baathist regime and the third was the replacement of that regime with a stable, pro-American government in Baghdad. The first two goals were achieved within weeks. Seven years later, however, Iraq still does not yet have a stable government, let alone a pro-American government. The lack of that government is what puts the current strategy in jeopardy.
By George Friedman
The Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) have agreed to engage in direct peace talks Sept. 2 in Washington. Neither side has expressed any enthusiasm about the talks. In part, this comes from the fact that entering any negotiations with enthusiasm weakens your bargaining position. But the deeper reason is simply that there have been so many peace talks between the two sides and so many failures that it is difficult for a rational person to see much hope in them. Moreover, the failures have not occurred for trivial reasons. They have occurred because of profound divergences in the interests and outlooks of each side.
These particular talks are further flawed because of their origin. Neither side was eager for the talks. They are taking place because the United States wanted them. Indeed, in a certain sense, both sides are talking because they do not want to alienate the United States and because it is easier to talk and fail than it is to refuse to talk.
By Scott Stewart and Nate Hughes
Over the past decade there has been an ongoing debate over the threat posed by electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to modern civilization. This debate has been the most heated perhaps in the United States, where the commission appointed by Congress to assess the threat to the United States warned of the dangers posed by EMP in reports released in 2004 and 2008. The commission also called for a national commitment to address the EMP threat by hardening the national infrastructure.
There is little doubt that efforts by the United States to harden infrastructure against EMP — and its ability to manage critical infrastructure manually in the event of an EMP attack — have been eroded in recent decades as the Cold War ended and the threat of nuclear conflict with Russia lessened. This is also true of the U.S. military, which has spent little time contemplating such scenarios in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union. The cost of remedying the situation, especially retrofitting older systems rather than simply regulating that new systems be better hardened, is immense. And as with any issue involving massive amounts of money, the debate over guarding against EMP has become quite politicized in recent years.
We have long avoided writing on this topic for precisely that reason. However, as the debate over the EMP threat has continued, a great deal of discussion about the threat has appeared in the media. Many STRATFOR readers have asked for our take on the threat, and we thought it might be helpful to dispassionately discuss the tactical elements involved in such an attack and the various actors that could conduct one. The following is our assessment of the likelihood of an EMP attack against the United States.
By George Friedman
We are now nine weeks away from the midterm elections in the United States. Much can happen in nine weeks, but if the current polls are to be believed, U.S. President Barack Obama is about to suffer a substantial political reversal. While we normally do not concern ourselves with domestic political affairs in the United States, when the only global power is undergoing substantial political uncertainty, that inevitably affects its behavior and therefore the dynamics of the international system. Thus, we have to address it, at least from the standpoint of U.S. foreign policy. While these things may not matter much in the long run, they certainly are significant in the short run.
To begin thinking about this, we must bear three things in mind. First, while Obama won a major victory in the Electoral College, he did not come anywhere near a landslide in the popular vote. About 48 percent of the voters selected someone else. In spite of the Democrats' strength in Congress and the inevitable bump in popularity Obama received after he was elected, his personal political strength was not overwhelming. Over the past year, poll numbers indicating support for his presidency have deteriorated to the low 40 percent range, numbers from which it is difficult, but not impossible, to govern.
By Scott Stewart
Sept. 11, 2010, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was a day of solemn ceremony, remembrance and reflection. It was also a time to consider the U.S. reaction to the attack nine years ago, including the national effort to destroy al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in order to prevent a repeat of the 9/11 attacks. Of course, part of the U.S. reaction to 9/11 was the decision to invade Afghanistan, and the 9/11 anniversary also provided a time to consider how the United States is now trying to end its Afghanistan campaign so that it can concentrate on more pressing matters elsewhere.
The run-up to the anniversary also saw what could have been an attempted terrorist attack in another Western country. On Sept. 10 in Denmark, a potential bombing was averted by the apparent accidental detonation of an improvised explosive device in a bathroom at a Copenhagen hotel. The Danish authorities have not released many details of the incident, but it appears that the suspect may have been intending to target the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which has been targeted in the past because it published cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. Groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have tried hard to ensure that the anger over the cartoon issue does not die down, and it apparently has not. It is important to note that even if the perpetrator had not botched it, the plot — at least as we understand it so far — appears to have involved a simple attack plan and would not have resulted in a spectacular act of terrorism.
Yet in spite of the failed attack in Denmark and all the 9/11 retrospection, perhaps the most interesting thing about the 9/11 anniversary in 2010, at least from an analytical perspective, was what did not happen. For the first time, the al Qaeda core leadership did not issue a flurry of slick, media-savvy statements to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And the single statement they did release was not nearly as polished or pointed as past anniversary messages. This has caused us to pause, reflect and wonder if the al Qaeda leadership is losing its place at the ideological forefront of the jihadist cause.
When it comes to anniversaries, al Qaeda has not always seized upon them as opportunities for attacks, but it has long seen them as tempting propaganda opportunities. This first began in September 2002, when the group released numerous messages in a multitude of forms to coincide with the first anniversary of 9/11. These included a one-hour video titled "The Nineteen Martyrs," referring to the 9/11 attackers; a book released by al-Ansar media telling the story of the 9/11 attacks; an audio tape from al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri; a statement from al Qaeda's "Political Bureau"; and a statement from al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. Then, on Oct. 7, 2002, Al Qaeda released a message from Osama bin Laden to the American people to commemorate the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
By George Friedman and Reva Bhalla
Strange statements are coming out of Cuba these days. Fidel Castro, in the course of a five-hour interview in late August, reportedly told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore."
Once that statement hit the headlines, Castro backtracked. Dressed in military uniform for the first time in four years (which we suspect was his way of signaling that he was not abandoning the revolution), he delivered a rare, 35-minute speech Sept. 3 to students at the University of Havana. In addition to spending several minutes on STRATFOR's Iran analysis, Castro addressed his earlier statement on the Cuban model, saying he was "accurately quoted but misinterpreted" and suggesting that the economic model doesn't work anymore but that the revolution lives on.
Castro, now 84, may be old, but he still seems to have his wits about him. We don't know whether he was grossly misinterpreted by the reporter during the earlier interview, was acknowledging the futility of the Cuban model and/or was dropping hints of a policy shift. Regardless of what he did or did not say, Castro's reported statement on the weakness of the revolution was by no means revolutionary.
By Ben West
Militants in Tajikistan's Rasht Valley ambushed a military convoy of 75 Tajik troops Sept. 19, killing 25 military personnel according to official reports and 40 according to the militants, who attacked from higher ground with small arms, automatic weapons and grenades. The Tajik troops were part of a nationwide deployment of security forces seeking to recapture 25 individuals linked to the United Tajik Opposition militant groups that had escaped from prison in Dushanbe on Aug. 24. The daring prison break was conducted by members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and saw five security guards killed and the country put on red alert. According to the Tajik government, after the escape, most of the militants fled to the Rasht Valley, an area under the influence of Islamist militants that is hard to reach for Tajikistan's security forces and thus rarely patrolled by troops.
Sunday's attack was one of the deadliest clashes between militants and the Tajik government since the Central Asian country's civil war ended in 1997. The last comparable attack was in 1998, when militants ambushed a battalion of Interior Ministry troops just outside Dushanbe, killing 20 and kidnapping 110. Sunday's incident was preceded by a Sept. 3 attack on a police station that involved a suicide operative and a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) in the northwest Tajik city of Khujand that killed four police officers. Suicide attacks are rare in Tajikistan, and VBIEDs even more so. The Khujand attack also stands out as it occurred outside militant territory. Khujand, Tajikistan's second-largest city after the capital, is located at the mouth of the Fergana Valley, the largest population center in Central Asia.
This represents a noticeable increase in the number and professionalism of militant operations in Tajikistan. Regardless of whether the September attacks can be directly linked to the Aug. 24 jailbreak in Dushanbe, the sudden re-emergence of attacks in Tajikistan after a decade of quiet in Central Asia deserves our attention. In short, something is percolating in the valleys of Central Asia that has reawakened militant groups more or less dormant for a decade. This unrest will likely continue and possibly grow if Tajik security forces can't get control of the situation.
By George Friedman
Bob Woodward has released another book, this one on the debate over Afghanistan strategy in the Obama administration. As all his books do, the book has riveted Washington. It reveals that intense debate occurred over what course to take, that the president sought alternative strategies and that compromises were reached. But while knowing the details of these things is interesting, what would have been shocking is if they hadn't taken place.
It is interesting to reflect on the institutional inevitability of these disagreements. The military is involved in a war. It is institutionally and emotionally committed to victory in the theater of combat. It will demand all available resources for executing the war under way. For a soldier who has bled in that war, questioning the importance of the war is obscene. A war must be fought relentlessly and with all available means.
But while the military's top generals and senior civilian leadership are responsible for providing the president with sound, clearheaded advice on all military matters including the highest levels of grand strategy, they are ultimately responsible for the pursuit of military objectives to which the commander-in-chief directs them. Generals must think about how to win the war they are fighting. Presidents must think about whether the war is worth fighting. The president is responsible for America's global posture. He must consider what an unlimited commitment to a particular conflict might mean in other regions of the world where forces would be unavailable.
A president must take a more dispassionate view than his generals. He must calculate not only whether victory is possible but also the value of the victory relative to the cost. Given the nature of the war in Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama and Gen. David Petraeus — first the U.S. Central Command chief and now the top commander in Afghanistan — had to view it differently. This is unavoidable. This is natural. And only one of the two is ultimately in charge.
By George Friedman
The U.S. government issued a warning Oct. 3 advising Americans traveling to Europe to be "vigilant." U.S. intelligence apparently has acquired information indicating that al Qaeda is planning to carry out attacks in European cities similar to those carried out in Mumbai, India, in November 2008. In Mumbai, attackers armed with firearms, grenades and small, timed explosive devices targeted hotels frequented by Western tourists and other buildings in an attack that took three days to put down.
European security forces are far better trained and prepared than their Indian counterparts, and such an attack would be unlikely to last for hours, much less days, in a European country. Still, armed assaults conducted by suicide operatives could be expected to cause many casualties and certainly create a dramatic disruption to economic and social life.
The first question to ask about the Oct. 3 warning, which lacked specific and actionable intelligence, is how someone can be vigilant against such an attack. There are some specific steps that people can and should take to practice good situational awareness as well as some common-sense travel-security precautions. But if you find yourself sleeping in a hotel room as gunmen attack the building, rush to your floor and start entering rooms, a government warning simply to be vigilant would have very little meaning.
The world is awash in intelligence about terrorism. Most of it is meaningless speculation, a conversation intercepted between two Arabs about how they'd love to blow up London Bridge. The problem, of course, is how to distinguish between idle chatter and actual attack planning. There is no science involved in this, but there are obvious guidelines. Are the people known to be associated with radical Islamists? Do they have the intent and capability to conduct such an attack? Were any specific details mentioned in the conversation that can be vetted? Is there other intelligence to support the plot discussed in the conversation?
By Marko Papic
Twenty-eight heads of state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will meet in Lisbon on Nov. 20 to approve a new "Strategic Concept," the alliance's mission statement for the next decade. This will be NATO's third Strategic Concept since the Cold War ended. The last two came in 1991 — as the Soviet Union was collapsing — and 1999 — as NATO intervened in Yugoslavia, undertaking its first serious military engagement.
During the Cold War, the presence of 50 Soviet and Warsaw Pact armored divisions and nearly 2 million troops west of the Urals spoke far louder than mission statements. While Strategic Concepts were put out in 1949, 1952, 1957 and 1968, they merely served to reinforce NATO's mission, namely, to keep the Soviets at bay. Today, the debate surrounding NATO's Strategic Concept itself highlights the alliance's existential crisis.
By Scott Stewart
On Friday, Oct. 22, the organization known as WikiLeaks published a cache of 391,832 classified documents on its website. The documents are mostly field reports filed by U.S. military forces in Iraq from January 2004 to December 2009 (the months of May 2004 and March 2009 are missing). The bulk of the documents (379,565, or about 97 percent) were classified at the secret level, with 204 classified at the lower confidential level. The remaining 12,062 documents were either unclassified or bore no classification.
This large batch of documents is believed to have been released by Pfc. Bradley Manning, who was arrested in May 2010 by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Command and charged with transferring thousands of classified documents onto his personal computer and then transmitting them to an unauthorized person. Manning is also alleged to have been the source of the classified information released by WikiLeaks pertaining to the war in Afghanistan in July 2010.
WikiLeaks released the Iraq war documents, as it did the Afghanistan war documents, to a number of news outlets for analysis several weeks in advance of their formal public release. These news organizations included The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and Al Jazeera, each of which released special reports to coincide with the formal release of the documents Oct. 22.
Due to its investigation of Manning, the U.S. government also had a pretty good idea of what the material was before it was released and had formed a special task force to review it for sensitive and potentially damaging information prior to the release. The Pentagon has denounced the release of the information, which it considers a crime, has demanded the return of its stolen property and has warned that the documents place Iraqis at risk of retaliation and also place the lives of U.S. troops at risk from terrorist groups that are mining the documents for tidbits of operational information they can use in planning their attacks.
When one takes a careful look at the classified documents released by WikiLeaks, it becomes quickly apparent that they contain very few true secrets. Indeed, the main points being emphasized by Al Jazeera and the other media outlets after all the intense research they conducted before the public release of the documents seem to highlight a number of issues that had been well-known and well-chronicled for years. For example, the press has widely reported that the Iraqi government was torturing its own people; many civilians were killed during the six years the documents covered; sectarian death squads were operating inside Iraq; and the Iranian government was funding Shiite militias. None of this is news. But, when one steps back from the documents themselves and looks at the larger picture, there are some interesting issues that have been raised by the release of these documents and the reaction to their release.
By George Friedman
We are a week away from the 2010 U.S. midterm elections. The outcome is already locked in. Whether the Republicans take the House or the Senate is close to immaterial. It is almost certain that the dynamics of American domestic politics will change. The Democrats will lose their ability to impose cloture in the Senate and thereby shut off debate. Whether they lose the House or not, the Democrats will lose the ability to pass legislation at the will of the House Democratic leadership. The large majority held by the Democrats will be gone, and party discipline will not be strong enough (it never is) to prevent some defections.
Should the Republicans win an overwhelming victory in both houses next week, they will still not have the votes to override presidential vetoes. Therefore they will not be able to legislate unilaterally, and if any legislation is to be passed it will have to be the result of negotiations between the president and the Republican Congressional leadership. Thus, whether the Democrats do better than expected or the Republicans win a massive victory, the practical result will be the same.
When we consider the difficulties President Barack Obama had passing his health care legislation, even with powerful majorities in both houses, it is clear that he will not be able to push through any significant legislation without Republican agreement. The result will either be gridlock or a very different legislative agenda than we have seen in the first two years.
These are not unique circumstances. Reversals in the first midterm election after a presidential election happened to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It does not mean that Obama is guaranteed to lose a re-election bid, although it does mean that, in order to win that election, he will have to operate in a very different way. It also means that the 2012 presidential campaign will begin next Wednesday on Nov. 3. Given his low approval ratings, Obama appears vulnerable and the Republican nomination has become extremely valuable. For his part, Obama does not have much time to lose in reshaping his presidency. With the Iowa caucuses about 15 months away and the Republicans holding momentum, the president will have to begin his campaign.
Obama now has two options in terms of domestic strategy. The first is to continue to press his agenda, knowing that it will be voted down. If the domestic situation improves, he takes credit for it. If it doesn't, he runs against Republican partisanship. The second option is to abandon his agenda, cooperate with the Republicans and re-establish his image as a centrist. Both have political advantages and disadvantages and present an important strategic decision for Obama to make.
By George Friedman
The 2010 U.S. midterm elections were held, and the results were as expected: The Republicans took the House but did not take the Senate. The Democrats have such a small margin in the Senate, however, that they cannot impose cloture, which means the Republicans can block Obama administration initiatives in both houses of Congress. At the same time, the Republicans cannot override presidential vetoes alone, so they cannot legislate, either. The possible legislative outcomes are thus gridlock or significant compromises.
U.S. President Barack Obama hopes that the Republicans prove rigidly ideological. In 1994, after the Republicans won a similar victory over Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich attempted to use the speakership to craft national policy. Clinton ran for re-election in 1996 against Gingrich rather than the actual Republican candidate, Bob Dole; Clinton made Gingrich the issue, and he won. Obama hopes for the same opportunity to recoup. The new speaker, John Boehner, already has indicated that he does not intend to play Gingrich but rather is prepared to find compromises. Since Tea Party members are not close to forming a majority of the Republican Party in the House, Boehner is likely to get his way.
Another way to look at this is that the United States remains a predominantly right-of-center country. Obama won a substantial victory in 2008, but he did not change the architecture of American politics. Almost 48 percent of voters voted against him. Though he won a larger percentage than anyone since Ronald Reagan, he was not even close to the magnitude of Reagan's victory. Reagan transformed the way American politics worked. Obama did not. In spite of his supporters' excitement, his election did not signify a permanent national shift to the left. His attempt to govern from the left accordingly brought a predictable result: The public took away his ability to legislate on domestic affairs. Instead, they moved the country to a position where no one can legislate anything beyond the most carefully negotiated and neutral legislation.