Small Wars

This Week at War: Playing Sanctions Chicken

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Do we have the guts to enforce the new Iran sanctions?

Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama succeeded in pushing another Iran sanctions resolution through the U.N. Security Council. That resolution gives countries the right (but not the obligation) to inspect ships suspected of carrying military and nuclear items the Security Council has banned from Iran. On July 1, Obama signed into law H.R. 2194, a statute that will allow the president to impose sanctions on people or companies anywhere in the world who deal with Iran's petroleum exploration and refining businesses. H.R. 2194 was a very popular bill; it passed 408-8 in the House and 99-0 in the Senate.

Obama now has all the sanction authority he could have hoped for. But now that he has these powers, will he have the will to use them? Employing the new sanctions will require Obama and the United States to experience some unpleasant side effects. The next phase of the tussle with Iran could involve a global game of chicken, and it's not clear who will blink first.

On July 6, the Washington Post ran a story about Iran's preparations for a naval clash in response to the shi- inspection provision of the Security Council resolution. The article discussed Iran's "asymmetric" tactics against the U.S. 5th Fleet which could involve anti-ship missile attacks supplemented with suicide speedboat and aircraft attacks on U.S. warships near Iran. U.S. commanders, informed by war-games and training exercises, claim to be ready for these tactics.

A naval clash would seem to play to the U.S. military's strong suit. An Iranian attack would allow U.S. air and naval power to punish a broad range of Iranian military targets. The United States would seem to possess "escalation dominance" in this scenario.

But Iran's strategy would be primarily political, not military. Even one minor hit on a U.S. warship, one photograph of gray smoke coming from a U.S. hull, would exceed expectations and would be an Iranian moral victory. More importantly, Iran would hope to turn its losses into a propaganda victory -- an example of the U.S. bully beating up a small country. From an economic perspective, the Obama team would likely ponder the implications for the global economy of a naval battle in the Strait of Hormuz. For all these reasons, it might be in Iran's interest to arrange a provocation over the ship-inspection provision, engage the United States in a game of chicken, and see whether or not the Security Council resolution will have any meaning.

Iran is not the only one that can play chicken over this issue. China's oil companies will soon be the dominant foreign player in Iran's energy sector. H.R. 2194's sanctions will place these Chinese companies, and many other Chinese companies dealing with Iran, in Obama's gun sights. Will he be willing to pull the trigger and risk a possible trade war with China, thus imperiling his goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years? Or will Obama use the bill's opt-out provisions, which the president noted in his signing statement, and render the statute something of a dead letter?

Sanctioning Iran is not free; it will require taking risks and possibly incurring economic and even military losses. Iran, and perhaps China, might soon test Obama's appetite for further escalation.

Is Afghan development assistance making the problem worse?

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, David Kilcullen, a close advis0r to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, predicted that the newly installed Afghanistan commander would focus "on [Afghan] government accountability, government reform [and] government human rights abuses." Kilcullen added, "Now the [NATO] strategy says the aim is to extend the reach of the Afghan government.... Thank God we haven't been very successful.... We would have extended the reach of a government people don't like." Indeed, a new survey of Afghans found that 28 percent of households, overwhelmingly in rural areas, had to pay bribes, mostly to police, and judges, or for other routine government services. Although far from popular, the Taliban are able to hang on because enough of the population views them as an antidote to a hopelessly corrupt government.

A long feature story in the New York Times this week described how al Qaeda is expanding its presence in rural Yemen. Powered by popular contempt for a corrupt Yemeni government, the piece speculated that Yemen's ungoverned tribal areas could soon equal or surpass the Pashtun Afghan-Pakistan tribal areas as al Qaeda's preferred haven.

The 9/11 attacks traced their origins back to an irresponsibly governed Afghanistan. More recent terrorist attempts on the U.S. homeland have been traced back to the ungoverned parts of Yemen. Is there anything the U.S. government can do to mitigate the terrorist threats lurking in the world's ungoverned territories?

A 2007 study by the Rand Corp. analyzed the terrorist threat from ungoverned territories and produced recommendations for how the U.S. government should respond. The report studied ungoverned spaces on four continents, including the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa.

After cataloging and analyzing risk factors from all the case studies, the authors discussed recommendations for a U.S. government response. The recommendations sound strikingly similar to those the U.S. government is currently employing in Afghanistan: strengthen governance, extend the reach of government, emphasize security assistance, invest in infrastructure, improve agency cooperation, deny terrorists local sources of income, and so on. In other words, nation-building, with more effort and resources on the ungoverned spaces.

The report gave passing attention to the possibility that U.S. development assistance might make the problem of corruption inside an ungoverned society worse. Were this to occur, it would boost the popularity of insurgent groups, including those who harbor anti-American terrorist organizations.

U.S. policymakers should be open to the possibility that the more development aid the United States pushes into Afghanistan, the more corrupt the government in Kabul becomes and the more the Taliban gain. In an even more cruel irony, adding more roads, airports, telecommunications capacity, and banking services to a partially ungoverned Afghanistan increases the usefulness of the country to transnational terrorist organizations, when compared with much more primitive backwaters such as Somalia.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, it is charitable to conclude that Rand's recommendations have yet to be proved. They might even be making the situation there worse. If so, unsettling conclusions follow. At a minimum, what to do about ungoverned territories remains an open question.

AFP/Getty Images

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