Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Asian Aspirations: NATO Looks East

As NATO’s mission in Afghanistan completes its transition from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the non-combatant Resolute Support Mission (RSM), the question on the minds of senior Allied leaders is how to maintain Alliance cohesion without the massive political-military gravity of the war to keep the Nations engaged with one another. Cohesion may seem like an odd thing to worry about after 70 years of Allied success but what is not apparent to many is that for the last 14 years, the war in Afghanistan has given NATO tremendous energy and unity of purpose. Now, even with events in the Ukraine giving the Alliance renewed vigor, NATO finds itself adrift, searching for a purpose that all 28 member states can agree on even as Europe is beset on all sides by complex and serious challenges to its security.

The Ukraine crisis aside, NATO’s answer to this dangerous environment is to look outside its borders. With compound threats from transnational terrorism, illicit drugs, human trafficking, and seemingly endless instability on Europe’s southern flank, it is very easy to see why this strategy makes sense. While the Alliance has a growing number of legal vehicles at its disposal for reaching out, it was adoption of the Berlin Partnership Policy in 2011 –specifically the creation of the Individual Partnership Cooperation Plan (IPCP)– that truly opened doors to military cooperation beyond Europe and North America. Since that time, Japan, South Korea, Iraq, New Zealand, Sweden, Mongolia, and Australia have finalized IPCPs with NATO.

Measuring Asian Engagement

While all the military diplomacy sounds very promising, in real terms it has not yet amounted to much. The Nations all agree that military cooperation with non-NATO partners is important but other than to support RSM or Operation Ocean Shield, an ongoing operation in the Gulf of Aden, NATO forces have not ventured beyond Europe since the 2011 Foreign Ministers meeting that led to the Berlin Policy. While it would be a good first step to have Asian forces participating in NATO exercises, military cooperation will need to occur on partner nation territory to meet the goals of the Allied strategy. This is no small matter. Funding, organizing, supplying, and controlling multinational exercises is a complex and expensive endeavor; even with 70 years of procedure to guide the planning. IPCPs lack the administrative backbone necessary to run a large-scale NATO exercise outside its borders and a notable exercise failure could make such cooperation very unpopular very quickly. In this sensitive space at the intersection of politics, military action, diplomacy, and fiscal restraint, the utility of one tool rises above all the others: Special Operations Forces or SOF.

Reliable, rapidly deployable, relatively inexpensive, and capable of secrecy and discretion, SOF has long been a favorite tool of nations for building new relationships of this type. In Asia in particular, Special Operations Forces have broader utility than naval or air units for the simple reason that while not all potential Asian partners have viable navies or air forces, most have credible SOF. Paradoxically, when it comes to Special Operations, limitations on engagement lay with NATO partners which rarely share their SOF capabilities with the Alliance. Even those member states that maintain robust relationships with Asian SOF units (the United States and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Portugal), rarely commit their special forces to NATO missions. But as Asia grows in economic, social, and political importance, there are many reasons why Allied nations may be more likely to share their SOF in the future.

Asian SOF Sniper
Credible SOF partners: Cold weather training of ROK Army Special Forces snipers in 2014

Asia is a Big Deal

The rough numbers behind Asia’s rise are no mystery to readers of The Affiliate Network: 60% of the planet’s population is Asian, their defense budgets comprise 25% of the world’s total, and their economies represent 30% of global gross domestic product; but relationships between NATO SOF units and their Asian counterparts are underdeveloped. It is therefore important to remember some things about SOF in Asia: with the exception of Thailand, Asian security services from India to Indonesia to North Korea trace their roots directly to the Japanese Imperial Army or to Allied efforts to counter it. During the Second World War, Japanese graduates of the intelligence school at Nakano mobilized the political and military leadership of occupied areas to maximize contributions to the greater Japanese economy.[1] This fact ties modern Asian security services to politics in ways that have been remarkably consistent over the last 70 years. Secondly, though Asian governments generally maintain active relationships with their former colonial sponsors, these relationships are not proprietary, nor have they been constant. The result is that with few exceptions, European SOF have very little experience in what is rapidly becoming the world’s most important geopolitical arena. Today, as NATO and its member states wake up to the opportunities and risks inherent in South and East Asia, this lack of experience collides squarely with a desire to build relationships there and to operationalize the Berlin Partnership Policy in a way that can provide a springboard to larger and more regular interactions.

Addressing this capability gap begins at home. European SOF seeking to operate in Asia will find themselves in a bewildering cultural and linguistic landscape where modern politics intersects 5000 years of history and religion in confounding ways. While vital cultural awareness is next to impossible to build in a classroom, language capabilities can and should be developed this way despite the time and money required to maximize these skills. Secondly, many Asian (especially Southeast Asian) top-tier SOF capabilities reside in national police forces whereas European SOF units are overwhelmingly military. This presents an obstacle for many European nations that maintain strict legal prohibitions on military relations with police forces. NATO nations interested in undertaking Alliance SOF missions in the region must take steps to eliminate these regulatory barriers before they cause a problem. Thirdly, European SOF forces lack strategic mobility. While military transport aircraft are available, even large powers France and Germany struggle with lift capacity. European SOF will need to develop a familiarity with the nuances of projecting power via global shipping, something that is often particularly tricky in situations involving weapons, narcotic medicines, and sensitive technologies. Lastly, European SOF will need to sort through a host of details required for success in Asia; from having contracting support and flexible funding for logistics, to having 220-volt power tools on hand, to coming to terms with murky associations between some Asian SOF units and national political parties, human rights issues, and wide variations in quality of their counterparts.

Engaging militarily in Asia will in some ways be a difficult undertaking for NATO, especially in light of growing threats close to the continent, but armed with the right knowledge and preparation, SOF will be a key tool in expanding partnerships in fulfillment of NATO’s Strategic Concept.  Whether this provides the cohesion Allied leaders seek remains to be seen.


[1] The founders of many post-war SE Asian governments and militaries were trained by the Japanese and later switched sides. Examples are Ne Win and Aung San (Burma), Subas Chandra Bose (India), Sukarno and Zulkifli Lubis (Indonesia), Bảo Đại (Vietnam), and others.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

Power Project: China’s New Strategy

Taking a page from the Pentagon’s playbook, China last month publicly revealed a new military strategy; a first ever move that advertises how Beijing intends to implement its growing foreign policy in the coming years. Released on May 26th just days ahead of the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues, the strategy supports China’s three national priorities (safeguarding national unification, maintaining territorial integrity, and developing its economy), and describes a shift away from land power in favor of the air and maritime domains. But the new strategy is about much more than a simple change in emphasis, it embraces joint operations and offensive warfare, particularly in the maritime domain, and introduces security cooperation as a key element of national policy. These are sophisticated concepts associated with power projection and though this may cause concern in some western military circles, they are a recognition of a strategic reality that has been evident for some time already: specifically that China simply must project power if it wants to sustain its increasing importance in the global economy.

Admiral Sun of the PLA Navy at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues
Admiral Sun of the PLA Navy at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues

The emergence of the air and maritime domains (and by extension the space domain) in Chinese strategic thinking is a natural outgrowth of the country’s new economy. In the 1950s when China set the foundations on its previous strategic concept, the country was an inward-facing rural agrarian society that largely provided all the resource needs of its own economy. Territorial integrity and population resource control within mainland China were the overarching preoccupations of Beijing. An independent, centralized economy and a closed society were basic tools to maintain this control and support the limited foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Chinese Dream

Needless to say, that has been changing at an ever-quickening pace since Deng Xiaoping suggested that to be rich is glorious. Since then, China has become an integral player in the modern globalized economy. It joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and now provides labor and infrastructure for an enormous percentage of the world’s simple manufacturing; in effect, China has subordinated its foreign policy to its economy much as western nations have been doing for hundreds of years. In this regard, the new Chinese strategy is a sensible adjustment to globalization.

Thus, power projection has become the unifying principle of Chinese military development affecting all branches of its armed forces. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), traditionally a defensive force, is transitioning “from theater defense to trans-theater mobility”.  It is adapting itself to tasks in different regions of the world and for different purposes. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) will take on offensive missions including air strike, airborne operations, and strategic projection. This last bit was clearly on the minds of generals and politicians in Beijing during the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 which featured PLAAF air and logistical units operating deep in the Indian Ocean from forward bases for extended periods. Though the operation revealed weaknesses in air-sea integration, intelligence fusion, and planning, it was a necessary first step and undoubtedly provided many important lessons. The PLA Navy (PLAN), which in the past more closely resembled a coast guard than a true navy, is making the most visible transition, developing carrier aviation, ballistic missile submarines, and possibly even anti-ship ballistic missiles. Like the PLA Air Force, the PLAN is already experimenting with power projection, operating a national counter-piracy operation in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden since 2008 and influencing construction of dual-use port facilities in the Maldives, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Notably, PLAN also pioneered integration with Chinese paramilitary units of the Coast Guard and Fisheries Service that are on the forefront of defending territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

A PLAN J-15 Fighter Takes Off from the Deck of China's First Carrier, the Liaoning
A PLAN J-15 fighter takes off from the deck of China’s first carrier, the Liaoning

Non-Traditional Security

While China’s military evolution is observable and measurable, other aspects of its drive to project power are less so. Chinese cyber units have been attacking American military and commercial activities for years with the latest incident, according to two US Senators, taking place last week when hackers stole security background information of up to 4 million US Government officials. In the realm of security cooperation, Chinese Special Operations Forces (SOF) are also becoming more active and more aggressive. There were credible reports in June 2014 that Chinese SOF helped evacuate their nationals from Iraq as that country came under threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Similar operations took place more recently in Yemen. Chinese naval commandos are known to operate with PLAN task groups in the Gulf of Aden, and other Chinese SOF are busy engaging counterparts around the world.  By early 2012, this activity had accelerated so much that US Intelligence grew concerned this was a systematic attempt to directly counter American influence in Southeast Asia. They had determined that Chinese SOF were engaging Southeast Asian units hot on the heels of similar visits by US SOF teams. While the timing and the targets of these exchanges is impossible to dispute, these patterns probably had more to do with host nation priorities for which units would benefit from the training. Whatever the real motivation, the point is that Chinese SOF are engaging regional neighbors in the exact same manner as US SOF and reportedly with much more flexible rules for investing in their hosts. And while SOF is the most versatile and reliable of China’s tools for security cooperation, it is hardly the biggest or most important. China maintains robust relations through training exchanges in Africa and Latin America and routinely conducts combined exercises with Russia under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The new strategy reinforces these interactions but also specifically recommends increasing military ties with Europe in unspecified ways.

For observers and practitioners familiar with the strategic culture of China in the last ten years, there is a noticeable if hesitant emergence of the Chinese military from the shadows of secrecy and a defensive mindset. While western nations may be very happy to accept China into the global economy, they are less comfortable with the corresponding increase in Chinese military engagement. Western discussions on the management of China’s rise are overwhelmingly presented in economic terms, leaving us to ponder whether the purpose of the newly released strategy is to remind us that we must also consider the rise of China’s military if we hope to keep peace in Asia.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

The Root of All ISIL?

There is a lot of soul-searching nowadays regarding the origins of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  Historians and political scientists of all sorts have logged a lot of air time and print space answering the questions:  “How could ISIL have happened and where did these savages come from?”  Their answer is almost always a history lesson of the Iraq war with the occasional biopic on the Assad family thrown in for balance. Very rarely do they explore ISIL’s roots beyond that so there is something missing in the coverage.  While the post-2011 situation in Iraq undoubtedly led to the conception and birth of ISIL, let us remember that the group grew up in Syria.  For those of us paying attention then, our thoughts on the genesis of ISIL must inevitably turn to the Arab Spring and its mishandling by the Obama Administration and others.

Are the White House's failures at the roots of ISIL? Tahrir Square protesters communicate the scope of the problem.
Are the White House’s failures at the roots of ISIL?  Tahrir Square protesters communicate the scope of the movement in 2011.

Leading from Behind

We all know the mixed history of the Arab Spring.  On one hand it promised to liberate political thought in the Middle East from its despotic modern history but on the other led to the jarring realization that Islamism may indeed come to US allies like Egypt through the ballot box.  The Obama Administration should have learned a lesson from the electoral victory of Hamas but instead meekly transmitted mixed messages of support for America’s distasteful but stable ally Mubarak.  On 11 February 2011, Egypt announced Mubarak’s resignation while other regional allies watched in horror as America abandoned the second-largest recipient of US military aid.  Four days later, as if on cue, violence erupted at Arab Spring protests in Benghazi, Libya, igniting the civil war that ultimately led to the ignominious downfall of Muammar Ghaddafi and the slow descent of the country into perpetual balkanized dysfunction.  Less than three weeks after the first shots were fired in Benghazi, Britain and France were rushing headlong into the fray, enforcing a no fly zone and bombing Ghaddafi’s forces on the ground.  To support this they waved the flag of humanitarian intervention but found themselves critically limited in two ways: by their own inability to sustain a protracted air campaign in Africa, and by the insistence of the Obama Administration to “lead from behind” and achieve victory through airpower.

UntitledIn what must be one of history’s most stunning examples of the costs of alliance politics, the United States very quickly found itself compelled to rescue its allies from spectacular failure in a campaign it was verbally supporting.  Constrained by the President’s refusal to lead from the front, the United States Military took the reins under the guise of a NATO intervention while the French and British happily withdrew to the familiar position of supporting a US-led military endeavor America never wanted and did not benefit from.  In Libya, the rest is history.  Freed from control of the Ghaddafi regime and armed by a flood of loose weaponry, groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) unleashed direct assaults on governments across northern Africa.  As I argue in “The Illusion of Suddenness“, The infectious cocktail of successful rebellion in Egypt and weaponry from Libya transformed another Arab Spring protest, this time in Syria, into a raging insurgency.  The stage was set for ISIL to come of age.

The Birth of ISIL

As the war in Syria intensified, the United States continued to display hesitation in its foreign policy.  With the Assad regime clinging desperately to survival, western governments began to grow concerned about the potential for its use of chemical weapons. At a 20 August 2012 press conference, the President of the United States, who seemed to have recovered from his earlier lack of conviction in regional affairs, delivered a clear and powerful deterrent threat to Damascus by drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.   But as a string of mysterious chemical weapons began exploding in rebel-held neighborhoods in October of that year, the “red line” began to bend and eventually broke in August 2013 after the undeniable use of Sarin in the town of Ghouta.  Rather than use authority under the War Powers Resolution to defend the “red line”, the President sought and received a specific resolution from Congress on 6 September which, among other things, required him to use “all appropriate diplomatic and other peaceful means to prevent the deployment and use of weapons of mass destruction by Syria”.  In this he complied with further delay, announcing that air strikes could be averted if Syria were to give up its chemical stockpiles.  Sensing an opportunity, Russia sent its Foreign Minister to negotiate the handover, managing by his success to destroy what little deterrent credibility the United States had left in the region.

The Situation in Iraq on 8 August 2014
The Situation in Iraq on 8 August 2014

The ISIL assault on Iraq began predictably three months later with the fall of al Qaim in December.  By the end of February 2014, Fallujah and Ramadi, taken at such cost by American soldiers ten years earlier, were firmly in Islamist hands.  In June, ISIL attacked the Tigris river valley, taking Mosul on the 10th and Tikrit the next day.  By the end of the month, large formations of the Iraqi Army had been completely destroyed, Tal Afar was in ISIL hands, and both Syria and Iran were actively intervening in Iraq.  Even then, America held off taking action until ISIL’s slaughter of Yezidis in Sinjar and simultaneous advance on the Kurdish capital Irbil.  By this time, ISIL controlled all the major cities in the north and west of Iraq, the Kurds were on the verge of being shattered into four exiled refugee communities, Baghdad was surrounded on two sides, and Iran was intervening openly in the situation.  The specter of state on state sectarian war was becoming very real indeed as the buffer between traditional enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia was collapsing precisely as Washington’s resolve was in serious doubt.

A Silver Lining?

The chronology of this is as disheartening as it is hard to deny.  A series of American half measures, broken promises, and false threats is the real root of all ISIL in the Middle East.  Faced with nothing but bad options, the White House now finds itself fighting shoulder to shoulder in Iraq with its old enemy, the Quds Force. Meanwhile, Riyadh has felt compelled to build an independent coalition (read: without the USA) to wage open war against Iranian proxies on their Yemeni frontier leading to the possibility that once again, the United States will get dragged into a conflict it doesn’t want in order to rescue an ally from failure.  Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE have all conducted offensive military strikes against ISIL and Arab Spring-related forces in the last five years, and large rifts are developing between the United States and critical allies Turkey and Israel.  If there is a silver lining to the quickening foreign policy disaster in the Middle East, it is that the crisis has given Tehran and Washington an opening to start talking about the Iranian nuclear program.  One gets the sense however, that the rapprochement comes amid declining American leverage rather than the reverse.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.