Small Wars

This Week at War: Could North Korea be the next Afghanistan?

East Asia on the brink of small war.

A different kind of small war in Korea?

This week, South Korea's government took steps to prepare the country for a military confrontation with North Korea. Artillery batteries practiced their gunnery and the country had its first serious civil defense drill in decades. Within the next few days, the South promised another artillery exercise from Yeonpyeong Island, the island the North shelled for an hour on Nov. 23. Should the South carry through with this exercise, Pyongyang made its own promise, a riposte "deadlier than what was made on Nov. 23." The mood in the South has hardened -- another round of six-party talks is out, military preparation and air raid drills are in.

After two unanswered provocations by the North -- the attack on Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the warship Cheonan -- the South's political leaders have concluded that it now pays to be tough and have promised retaliatory airstrikes for future Northern attacks. This change in attitude has consequences for Obama administration officials, who would surely prefer not to be drawn into an armed skirmish. U.S. officials likely agree in principle with a tougher policy toward the North. Much less agreeable to them is letting the South Korean government determine by itself how to retaliate after the next provocation. The United States will want to demonstrate that it is a reliable ally, while also maintaining control over its own fate. How the U.S. government manages this dilemma during a fast-moving crisis remains to be seen.

On Dec. 13, the South Korean army sent its artillery forces into the field for a workout, conducting gunnery exercises at 27 sites. Much more important was a nation-wide civil defense drill on Dec. 15, the first such serious drill in decades. 300,000 police and Civil Defense Corps members mobilized for the 20-minute exercise, herding pedestrians and schoolchildren into bombs shelters and subway stations while South Korean fighter jets buzzed overhead. Eleven million South Koreans participated in the exercise. In addition, the government plans to spend $45 million next year on new bomb shelters. Given Seoul's vulnerability to North Korean artillery fire, a South Korean threat of retaliation previously lacked credibility. Seoul's renewed commitment to civil defense has bolstered the credibility of its new retaliatory policy.

Stress in Pyongyang is undoubtedly on the rise. The United States, South Korea, and Japan seem likely to hold firm with their rejection of new six-party talks, which means the North will not receive a payoff from those negotiations like it has in the past. There is likely to be increased global surveillance of the North's weapons proliferation transactions, the interdiction of which could cut the North's future cash flows. Finally, China's leaders will increasingly conclude that they need to get a rope around the North before Pyongyang does any more damage to China's interests. 

With the rules of the game having changed and with internal and external pressure mounting, North Korea's leaders might conclude that doubling down on their previous tactics is their only choice. Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence and former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, predicted "a military confrontation at lower levels" between the South and North. Such a confrontation could come in the form of sporadic artillery duels or naval skirmishes with the North attempting to create intimidation and the South attempting to show resolve. The first such duel could occur this weekend, should the South follow through with its artillery exercise on Yeonpyeong Island.

Like the other "small war" in Afghanistan, such a conflict in Korea would be a contest for influence over the South Korean population as a means of coercing political leaders in the South and in the United States. Like Afghanistan, a conflict would play out in the global media and would involve a test of wills among top decision makers. But instead of rifles and roadside bombs, the weapons would be big cannons and warships, which means the costs could go way up.

Two intelligence reports mean more Afghan headaches for Obama

The Obama administration's December review of its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy delivered just what administration officials had previously promised: a progress report on the current strategy, not a recalculation of that strategy. The review reported progress against al Qaeda and the Taliban and with the effort to build Afghanistan's security forces. It also took note of unresolved obstacles, such as governmental corruption and the persistence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The review reaffirms a policy that resulted from both the 2009 strategy review and the recent NATO summit meeting in Lisbon. Under the current policy, the United States and NATO will transfer responsibility for the war over to large and competent Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. In the meantime, a gradual and conditions-based withdrawal of U.S. forces will begin in July 2011. According to the December review, there has been enough progress to warrant sustaining this policy.

However, the arrival of two ominous national intelligence estimates, one each on Afghanistan and Pakistan, provide trouble for the current strategy. The estimates, which are the consensus of the entire U.S. intelligence community, conclude that the persistence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan is a serious obstacle to ultimate success of the Afghan campaign. This conclusion was recently confirmed by both a U.S. brigade commander operating near Kandahar and a recently retired U.S. diplomat who served in the city.

By next summer, the president will have to decide what weight to give the intelligence estimates. One possibility is to simply dismiss them as wrong. There are grounds for such a view. In 2006, the top U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer in Anbar Province, Iraq produced an intelligence report that concluded that the war effort in the region was doomed. He signed off on this report at the very moment that the Awakening, the Sunni tribal rebellion in Anbar against al Qaeda, was forming. Another example is the 2007 national intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program which has since been discredited and which many dismissed at the time it was released.

Alternatively, Obama could accept the new intelligence estimates as accurate but irrelevant to U.S. policy. By this view, it does not matter for policy that the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan will persist; the U.S. program is to build up Afghanistan's security forces to continue the war by themselves after 2014.

But this implies an acceptance of the sanctuaries and thus, that the war will go on indefinitely. And that leads to another assumption, namely that the Afghan government can build, and indefinitely sustain, large and competent security forces without a break in the war against the Taliban.

The new intelligence estimates do not torpedo Obama's Afghan policy. But they do make it harder to defend. The president will have wave away the advice of his intelligence community while he defends an increasingly unpopular policy. That will take more than a little moral courage.


Small Wars

This Week at War: China's North Korean Folly

By standing up for Kim Jong Il, Beijing only finds itself more isolated than ever.

With North Korea, China aims at its foot and pulls the trigger

Admiral Michael Mullen, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited South Korea this week to reinforce the United States security alliance with Seoul. While meeting with South Korea's top defense officials, Mullen criticized the Chinese government for its "tacit approval" of North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island and the torpedo attack earlier this year that sunk a South Korean warship. Mullen asserted that China has a "unique responsibility" to rein in the North before more aggression occurs.

China's North Korea policy has been steady and consistent -- and that is the bad news for China. Beijing's ham-fisted approach to the North Korean issue is causing other countries in East Asia to rally around the United States in alarm over Chinese intentions, a result exactly contrary to China's long term policy goals in the region. With no change in its policy toward North Korea, China should prepare for more diplomatic isolation and a stepped-up security response by the United States and its neighbors.

On Dec. 6, the Washington Post's John Pomfret described Beijing's clumsy approach to South Korea in the wake of the North's hour-long artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island. Four days after the attack, China sent State Councilor Dai Bingguo to Seoul, without an invitation or advanced notice. Upon landing, Dai demanded that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak abandon his schedule for the rest of the day in order to meet with him, which Lee refused to do. When the two met the following day, Dai told Lee to "calm down" and then delivered a history lecture on China-South Korean relations.

Dai's diplomatic bungling was startling. After his departure, Lee and his new defense minister adopted a policy of military retaliation against the North. Lee then sent his foreign minister to a policy coordination meeting with his U.S. and Japanese counterparts. The United States proceeded with large military training exercises with South Korea and Japan. Soon after that, the U.S. and South Korean governments unveiled a completed free-trade agreement. China's actions regarding North Korea have done wonders to bring together the United States and its Asian allies.

China's self-inflicted diplomatic damage over North Korea now even extends to the Persian Gulf. According to a 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks, the U.S. government requested that China stop a shipment of ballistic missile parts from North Korea to Iran that passed through Beijing. It is likely that the shipment identified in this cable was just one of many from North Korea that have passed through China on their way to Iran. Such shipments are in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions targeting North Korea's weapons proliferation activities. According to a defector from Iran's diplomatic service, North Korean missile and nuclear technicians have been regular visitors to Iran since at least 2002. The WikiLeaks cables have also revealed that Persian Gulf Arab leaders are increasingly apprehensive about Iran's nuclear and missile programs. With the military assistance Iran receives from North Korea, it is easy for these leaders to trace the blame for their deteriorating security back to Beijing.

Why is the Chinese government unable to change a policy that is inflicting more and more damage on its own interests? Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently attended a think-tank event in Beijing which included numerous Chinese government officials. By his account, Chinese decision-making remains as opaque as ever. With respect to the North Korean issue, China's authoritarian government displays less agility than its counterparts in the West. While the Chinese government struggles with its inertia, it should expect risk in the Korea peninsula to rise and China's strategic position to fall.

Both sides in the WikiLeaks cyberwar are firing blanks

A cyberwar has broken out over WikiLeaks. The soldiers are in this war are two hodgepodge groups of computer hackers and activists attacking and defending WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Their weapon of choice thus far is the Distributed Denial of Services (DDoS) attack, which seeks to clog their target's websites.  After several days of cyberwar, it is now clear that both sides are shooting blanks -- the DDoS attacks have failed to shut down either WikiLeaks or its enemies. As with any insurgency, such a draw is a victory for the WikiLeaks insurgents. Both sides will now have to consider whether they should escalate to more powerful cyberweapons.

The first shots in the WikiLeaks cyberwar were fired last week, when several anonymous hackers organized DDoS attacks on WikiLeaks' original website, effectively shutting it down. WikiLeaks then switched to a new URL in Switzerland. Around the same time, Amazon expelled WikiLeaks and its files from its web-hosting servers, claiming that the site had violated Amazon's terms of service. Further attacks on WikiLeaks followed. WikiLeaks supporters responded by establishing over a 1,000 "mirror" sites or clones of the WikiLeaks site, a tactic that stymied DDoS attacks against WikiLeaks.

Earlier this week, a financial attack on WikiLeaks began. Under political pressure and concerned about the image of their brands, payment vendors PayPal, Mastercard, and Visa cut off payment services to WikiLeaks. A counterattack against Amazon and the three payment vendors ensued. According to the New York Times, up to 1,500 pro-WikiLeaks hackers and activists organized DDoS attacks on Amazon, PayPal, Mastercard, and Visa, briefly clogging their websites on Dec. 8. All were back to normal operation on Dec. 9.

Neither side in this little cyberwar has achieved its objectives. DDoS attacks have failed to stop either the release of more documents from WikiLeaks or the wheels of e-commerce at Amazon, PayPal, or the credit card companies. WikiLeaks is now cut off from a convenient method of funding, but we should expect it to rapidly arrange a new pathway for donations, which are now likely to arrive at a record pace.

A stalemate favors WikiLeaks, which will continue operating as it did before the cyberwar broke out. Those opposing WikiLeaks and who wish to continue the war may be pondering the use of more powerful weapons, such as smart malware directed at WikiLeaks and its supporters. Naturally, more powerful cyberweapons risk collateral damage to the wider Internet.

Many analysts have long anticipated that the Internet would become a much more hostile battlefield, expecting state and non-state forces to employ cyberweapons to gain advantages in a larger military campaign. So far these predictions have amounted to little, with the WikiLeaks cyberwar another anticlimax. But when an adversary can use the Internet to create substantial damage to his opponent, we should anticipate the arrival of much heavier firepower than we have seen thus far in the cyber domain. In that case, the casualties may not be limited to the combatants.

STR/AFP/Getty Images