Boots on the Ground

Should NATO troops help enforce an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement?

Will U.S. peacekeepers be heading to the West Bank?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently stirred controversy when he suggested that a U.S.-led NATO force might backfill Israeli soldiers as they withdraw from Palestinian areas under a two-state peace agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced skepticism about foreign peacekeepers, most recently in his March 4 speech to AIPAC in Washington. Hamas meanwhile has said that they'd view NATO as a hostile occupier. For his part, Secretary of State John Kerry cautiously noted in February that a third-party force is "something for the parties to work out."

Controversial though it may be, Abbas's proposal is not going to fade quickly. Indeed, if negotiators in the peace process start making progress on other contentious issues, the question of how to transition Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) out of the West Bank in a way that both sides would find reassuring will loom ever larger. Negotiators shouldn't wait to shift gears toward implementation challenges. They should start thinking now about how to surmount obstacles to a successful security transition. In doing so, they'll need to focus on six critical questions.

How would an international peacekeeping presence be viewed? Peacekeepers would need to be seen by the Palestinian public as tangible evidence of outside support for their independence, lest they become lightning rods for radicalization or magnets for foreign jihadists or Hamas spoilers. Managing such dynamics could be the biggest challenge that a peacekeeping force would face. An energetic public affairs strategy -- a collaboration of troop-contributing countries, the Palestinian Authority, civil society, and the private sector - would need to show how the force advanced the goal of a peaceful, sovereign Palestine and how extremist attacks against it could jeopardize that goal. Equally important would be a strategy for engaging Israeli stakeholders to convey credible assurances that the third-party force would not tolerate activities that would directly threaten Israelis' security.

What would the peacekeepers' responsibilities actually be? While the final peace agreement would be the ultimate decider on these terms, peacekeepers could be tasked to assist in the return or resettlement of Palestinian refugees, as well as stabilize areas within the borders of a Palestinian state. (They should not be responsible for managing any mutually agreed-upon land swaps, as no third-party force would have the political credibility to do so; only Israeli government entities have the strength and credibility within Israel to implement those parts of agreed-upon land swaps that require the relocation of Israeli settlements.) They could also help the Palestinian Civil Police continue to build its capacity, or support the delivery of essential services to underserved communities. This is a very diverse menu but not unusual for a complex peacekeeping mission.

What "stress tests" would peacekeepers likely face? In addition to the extremist/spoiler problem, one could imagine civil disturbances flaring in urban areas (especially greater Jerusalem) or at newly established border crossings. If local police were overwhelmed, a third-party force would surely get the call and would need to be prepared to respond. Hamas-style cross-border rocket attacks are clearly Israel's greatest concern and would immediately trigger pressures for IDF air strikes or commando raids, unless third-party units were willing and able to quickly suppress the threat. Security along a Palestinian state's eastern border would also be a grave concern, given how stressed Jordan is by the Syrian conflict. Border and riverine operations, enabled by overhead reconnaissance and Amman's active cooperation, would be vital for denying access to foreign fighters. A stronger U.N. peacekeeping presence and mandate on the Golan Heights could be an important supporting factor, as well.

How "American" should a third-party force really be? If this idea gets traction, Israelis as well as Palestinians would likely want to see an American commander at the helm of peacekeepers, as well as a sizable U.S. force presence. Given America's decades-long commitment to Arab-Israeli peace processes, it would not be surprising if Washington policymakers accepted a "boots on the ground" presence. The U.S. challenge, alas, is that the country could not shoulder this burden itself. Allies and partners would surely need to be in the mix, but who they are and how effective they might be as implementers of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would attract much more intense scrutiny than how they have operated in, say, remote Afghan provinces. Indeed, a patchwork of national caveats on permissible actions by troops could rob the operation of its credibility and raise risks to all.

How would Gaza and an unstable Sinai figure into the mix? As post-Mubarak Egypt has progressively lost control of the Sinai Peninsula, Israel has lost a valued buffer zone. This might ramp up pressures on a third-party force to grow its area of operations beyond the West Bank, possibly to replace the Multi-national Force and Observers (MFO) that was established by the Egypt-Israel peace pact of 1979. The United States has contributed troops to the MFO since 1982. Whether a heavier international presence in Sinai might raise tensions with Hamas-dominated Gaza or, alternatively, offer a secure means by which Gaza could rejoin the West Bank as part of a Palestinian state without threatening Israel poses a challenging "fork-in-the-road" issue that our negotiators will need to ponder.

What would the exit strategy be? When defining successful outcomes, strategists and operators usually resonate to a "conditions-based" exit strategy, while authorizers and appropriators are more comfortable with a firm date on the calendar. But the real issue here is political. Would a third-party force ever be able to withdraw? For his part, President Abbas has referred to a permanent NATO presence, and surely some members of the Israeli Knesset might ask, "After our international buffering force departs, then what?"

Over the long term, success will hinge upon Israelis and Palestinians living peacefully by themselves, side by side. That said, as peace talks move forward, negotiators will need to engage intensively with mission planners, operators, intelligence experts, trainers, and logisticians on how best to shape a strategy for effectively implementing an agreement, in particular the role of third parties. Given the blend of high hopes and deep angst that a peace treaty would surely generate, stakeholders must agree in advance on the size, composition, capabilities, and tasking of a third-party force.

It would be tragic if poor treaty implementation turned into the Achilles heel of this peace process. Yet it's also true that any third party signing up for a peacekeeping mission -- including the United States -- would be highly motivated to get the job done right. The stakes are incredibly high; the world will be watching intently. And if Israelis and Palestinians could agree on a role for NATO, a successful closure to one of the world's longest-running conflicts would also be a fitting legacy for the world's oldest collective defense alliance.

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The Drone Invasion Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Why sensationalizing drone proliferation is going to kill our ability to control them.

A casual observer of recent reporting and analysis of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- most commonly referred to as drones -- might assume that the world is already awash in drones of all shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Amazon's contrived hint of drone-delivered packages only tantalized the public's imagination back in December, and seemingly new uses for drones are found each day, from identifying rhinoceros poachers, to border control, to tracking whaling ships. But this apparent runaway train of drone proliferation (and its misreported uses) is actually stymieing efforts to promote or influence responsible armed-drone exports and their uses. Because if drones are already ubiquitous, then efforts to control their spread -- whether through tight export controls or pressure on major producers to restrict their transfers, which Barack Obama's administration is now contemplating in a long, contentious interagency review of U.S. drone exports -- are unnecessary and even misguided.

The problem with this now commonly stated assumption -- that the world is fully equipped with drones -- is that while these news articles hyping a drones arms race are exciting, they are also misleading. Take, for example, a report on March 5 that North Korea has developed an armed drone that it could use to threaten the region. The problem is that the capability is little more than a kamikaze missile, a far cry from the American version that the drone is purportedly intended to resemble.

Contrary to these sensationalist accounts, the international market for armed drones -- the most potentially threatening and destabilizing type -- is quite small. Actually, it's minuscule, projected to be about $8.35 billion by 2018, around which time the global defense market is expected to reach $1.88 trillion, which would mean that drone expenditures will make up less than 0.5 percent of the world's defense spending. Even though global drone expenditures are expected to grow roughly a billion dollars a year (though they actually fell from $6.6 billion to $5.2 billion between 2012 and 2013), the business of UAVs will remain little more than a small focus of defense spending outside the United States for the next decade.

Part of the reason the public is so easily manipulated is that much of what is known about the development of armed drones is clouded in secrecy. Some countries, including the United States, maintain covert programs for obvious reasons like maintaining the strategic element of surprise, while others, such as Iran, boast of armed drones that have not been demonstrably used in order to garner national prestige. There are also government announcements of deadlines for developing them that appear to go unmet, as well as aspirational statements by drone manufacturers for orders that are never fulfilled.

Drone sales have indeed increased markedly over the past few years. A decade ago, analysts estimated that global spending on commercial and military drones would be $2 billion in 2005, and the amount projected over the next decade was estimated to be nearly $11 billion. In 2013, $5.2 billion was spent on drones -- a 21 percent decrease from the previous year -- with $89 billion projected for the next 10 years combined. Of that amount, only an estimated 11 percent, or $9.9 billion, is expected to be used to purchase armed drones. However, it is important to keep these numbers in perspective. According to IHS Jane's, global defense spending in 2013 was $1.54 trillion.

The global market still belongs overwhelmingly to the United States and Israel, which were estimated in 2012 to comprise three-quarters of all drone sales. A November 2012 report estimated that U.S. defense firms Northrop Grumman and General Atomics accounted for 40 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of worldwide drone manufacturing. No other company had more than 3 percent of the market share. In 2013, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that Israel was responsible for 41 percent of drone exports between 2001 and 2011. However, China has reportedly sold two of its smaller armed drones to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, raising concerns about whether China would export its larger Predator-equivalent drone (the CH-4) to countries such as Iran.

According to the Teal Group, over the next decade 51 percent of global drone procurement and 65 percent of global research and development on drones will be solely American. This should not be surprising given that the United States has been the lead actor in the development and use of all drones and that the Pentagon's budget is bigger than the next 10 largest defense budgets combined.

And though many militaries around the world are pursuing drones, the vast majority of armed drones in development will not resemble U.S. armed drones, such as the Predator and Reaper, which have the greatest potential to be used against perceived adversaries domestically or in neighboring territories. Most drones will be used for surveillance to capture full-motion video or collect signals intelligence. Of the 27,420 aerial drones that the Teal Group projects will be purchased in the next decade, just 3 percent are estimated to be either medium-altitude, long-endurance drones (like the weapons-capable Predator and Reaper) or unmanned combat aerial vehicles (armed drones). This is also true for the United States. According to a recent Pentagon report, the United States possesses some 11,000 aerial drones, of which fewer than 400 are capable of being weaponized.

That other countries have not followed the United States' lead in acquiring armed drones may be surprising given what might seem to be the enviable position of using them to target adversaries while not incurring any meaningful risk. But while one can buy a rudimentary drone at Brookstone, producing an advanced armed drone is no small technological feat. The United States' armed drones require sophisticated beyond-line-of-sight communications, access to satellite bandwidth, and systems engineering -- from internal fire control to ground control stations -- that are currently beyond the reach of most states. Even countries that have relatively advanced aerospace programs -- Russia, France, and Italy -- will struggle to develop and deploy this systematic architecture of capabilities and processes.

Moreover, in some countries domestic politics have impeded armed drone developments. Whereas the U.S. targeted killing program has faced few domestic constraints, drone politics look considerably different in other countries. In late February the European Parliament passed an unprecedented resolution, declaring: "Drone strikes outside a declared war by a state on the territory of another state without the consent of the latter or of the UN Security Council constitute a violation of international law and of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of that country."

In Germany, advocates of the armed drone program have encountered intense opposition from a public worried that the lethal capability could compromise the country's defense-only security norms and increase the prospects for military interventions more generally. The German debate demonstrates how the prism through which both sides view armed drones is significantly influenced by their perception of the morality, legality, and necessity of U.S. drone strikes. Thus, while the Ministry of Defense declared for a half-decade that it planned to purchase 16 armed drones, the decision was postponed in November and is once against under review.

In an era when most defense budgets -- outside the Asia-Pacific region -- are static or in slight decline, costs will constrain armed drone developments and purchases. As the United States has learned, armed drones are not markedly cheaper than manned fighter aircraft, and in some situations they are actually more expensive. Human intelligence is costly and required in large numbers to analyze and disseminate the full-motion video and signals intelligence collected by drones. Before committing to redirect precious defense dollars, governments must identify the military missions for which armed drones are uniquely suited and that cannot reliably be achieved by the weapons systems currently in their arsenals. To date, the majority of governments worldwide simply have not rushed away from manned aircraft, rocket and artillery, or special operation forces -- and toward armed drones.

The truth about drone proliferation matters because the Obama administration is in the final stages of a long, contentious interagency review of U.S. drone exports. If the White House's strategy is based on the misperception of a world characterized by limitless drone proliferation, then a policy of markedly reduced barriers for U.S. drone exports is sensible, because states would ultimately acquire armed drones irrespective of U.S. policies. If, however, proliferation does have structural and normative impediments, then how the United States -- as the largest manufacturer of armed drones -- develops its export strategy could have an impact on the breadth and speed with which the technology diffuses. And then some of the caricatures of drone proliferation may end up being credible. The result could be that more states will be armed with the low-risk technology that arguably lowers the threshold for using force, with potentially destabilizing consequences for regional and international security.

Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images