Category Archives: Security

America’s Myanmar Mistake

Andrew Mercer

Photo courtesy of Andrew Mercer


If Rwanda was Bill Clinton’s greatest regret and Darfur was George W. Bush’s, Myanmar may well become President Barack Obama’s. U.S. Myanmar policy, occasionally praised as one of Obama and Hillary Clinton’s greatest foreign policy accomplishments, is flavored by willful blindness toward the government’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims.

Myanmar citizens will cast their ballots on November 8th in an election that excludes 800,000 Rohingya voters, dozens of Muslim candidates, and a host of other minorities. Even Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party has refused to run Muslim candidates. After a summer-long media onslaught on the great promise of the country’s “free and fair elections,” the news is catching up: in Myanmar’s elections, people of certain ethnicities and religions are less equal than others.

The election is perhaps least fair for the stateless Rohingya. At the moment, 140,000 of them are wasting away in ghettos and internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine State. They have little hope of returning to their land and businesses, which have been effectively confiscated, and they are at the mercy of the country’s ruthless security forces.

In fact, reports from the Yale Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, the International State Crime Initiative, and an Al Jazeera investigation have concluded that there is strong legal evidence for classifying persecution against Rohingya as state-sponsored genocide.

Lamentably, this classification may not matter—at least as far as the U.S. government is concerned. Rohingya are already widely considered victims of ethnic cleansing. By 2013, the human rights community had begun hinting at genocide, after leaked draft legislation and regional orders revealed that the Myanmar government and military were actively engaged in restricting the Rohingya’s most basic rights.

However, in Washington, few are willing to use the term “genocide.” They worry that, if they do, they will not be taken seriously, particularly since the U.S.-Myanmar relationship is considered such a success story.

Given the lack of concern the issue is receiving, it is not surprising that the U.S. government has done little to ease the Rohingya’s plight. Tolerance programs at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, paltry amounts of humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, and admonishments against religious discrimination are about all the U.S. has offered to the country, which has been rocked by an ethno-religious identity crisis since violence broke out in Rakhine State in mid-2012.

The Obama administration has avoided identifying the crisis as ethnic cleansing and has not acknowledged the government’s active role in perpetuating systematic persecution. The administration often frames the Rohingya situation as a “challenge” that has arisen from “hate speech” caused by the lifting of restrictions on freedom of expression and by the Race and Religion Protection Laws that undercut the government’s “efforts to promote tolerance, diversity, and national unity.”

But the government’s lifting of some restrictions on basic freedoms of speech and expression is hardly the cause of violence, be it “intercommunal” or state sponsored. The Rohingya cleansing is not a natural consequence of a transition to democracy, but a consequence of the government’s discriminatory policies and violence.

Ethno-religious violence has been a favorite direct and indirect tool of the military regime since the 1960s, and the current government remains adept at silencing “hate speech” on topics against its interests. The Myanmar government has led a sustained, targeted campaign against the Rohingya for decades including through the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act, the 1982 Citizenship Law, and particularly horrific episodes of violence since 1978. Given this history, it is utterly impossible—despite the Obama administration’s best efforts—to see the Myanmar government as an agent of tolerance, diversity, or national unity.

Outside of the Obama administration, some politicians have tried to hold the Myanmar government accountable for its abuses. A bipartisan group on Capitol Hill, including Senators Marco Rubio, Bob Menendez, Bob Corker, and Ben Cardin, has realized the culpability of the government, writing a bill to limit full U.S. engagement with a country at war with its minorities. In Myanmar, well-institutionalized violence and discrimination are rooted in a Buddhist-Burman nationalism that continues to rationalize state attacks on minority groups across the country. This is precisely why no number of tepid and toothless admonishments from a half-hearted U.S. will ever end the Rohingya’s torment.

More recently, in October 2015, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes traveled to Myanmar to discuss “U.S. expectations” of the upcoming election. However, those “expectations” remain unclear—and so far they seem to be largely nonexistent. Already, the Myanmar government has disenfranchised the Rohingya, excluded Shan and Kachin townships from elections, blocked overseas advance voters, and refused to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president.

Rather than clarifying that a Muslim-free election won’t be taken seriously by the leader of the free world, the Obama administration has through the International Foundation for Electoral Systems provided funds to Myanmar’s Union Election Commission— which banned Rohingya parliamentarians from running. Some Obama administration officials have even said that the U.S. will view the election as legitimate as long as the Myanmar people do.

That argument is disingenuous at best. It ignores the basic criteria for credible elections and the evidence that many people are already being excluded from voting. Moreover, it discounts the chorus of civil society voices speaking out for plurality and religious tolerance in Myanmar.

There is assuredly an argument to be made that extending an open hand to Myanmar’s leaders without focusing on human rights could be a way to eventually lead the country to act as a responsible state. But minimizing the Rohingya’s plight as a mere human rights issue, rather than taking seriously the likelihood of a state-sponsored genocide, may stop the White House from developing a coherent plan of action. This could give Myanmar time and space to conduct a partial extermination of the Rohingya.

Some hold flickering hope that the NLD’s anti-Muslim stunt was just a political one. They hope that the party will sweep the election and somehow demonstrate the political resiliency and capacity to fight back against the nation’s powerful police and security forces, dogmatic government officials and parliamentarians, and Rakhine extremists for the sake of 800,000 disenfranchised Rohingya the international community has already written off. It may be possible, but without a little moral, principled, and honest support from the U.S., we may soon be talking about Barack Obama’s greatest foreign policy regret.

The Taliban’s Fate

"Taliban insurgents turn themselves in to Afghan National Security Forces at a forward operating base in Puza-i-Eshan -a" by isafmedia - originally posted to Flickr

Why should the Taliban embrace the recent reconciliation option initiated by the Afghan government? The answer lies in the simple fact that the Taliban are no longer a popular movement. It has increasingly lost its claim to any form of political legitimacy, and many Afghans now view the group as morally bankrupt.

Moreover, the group is in organizational disarray. Once Mullah Omar’s death was revealed, there was disunity and confusion over who the new leader should be—and whether or not that new leader could gain the allegiance of the group’s rank-and-file members. Already, a schism has emerged between the Taliban’s Pakistani and Afghan members. Even within the Afghan Taliban, certain prominent members parted ways with the central leadership. This was demonstrated by the discontent of Mullah Mansour Dadullah, a famed Taliban fighter who exposed Pakistan’s secret agenda for the Taliban and who also challenged the legitimacy of the group’s new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour.

The challenges facing the Taliban show no sign of abating, and it will become more and more difficult for them to remain a viable movement.

Now, Taliban members face a stark choice: they can either continue their acts of violence and terrorism—and risk losing whatever popular support they still have—or they can agree to sit down and negotiate with the government in good faith.

Will all Taliban members be willing to make the latter choice? Certainly not. But Afghan Taliban soldiers who are by birth citizens of Afghanistan may be willing to give up their fight against the central government.

But unfortunately not all Taliban members will be willing to compromise. Other Taliban soldiers are affiliated with warlords or international terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, and they will not negotiate with the government or give in.

Yet, luckily, after 14 years of war, there are fewer and fewer of those diehards. The Afghan government has not fallen, and the Taliban does not control large portions of the populace or the strategically located provinces in the country. Also, in the most recent battles, the Taliban have incurred much higher casualties than the Afghan security forces. Their recent take-over of Kunduz province (which lasted less than a week) resulted in catastrophic casualties for them. This battle also reaffirmed once again that the Taliban movement while socially and morally incompatible with the wishes of the Afghan public is also operationally unsustainable.

Given their military setbacks and the national disapprobation that they face, the Taliban’s best option is to reconcile their differences with the Afghan government. Most Taliban fighters, in fact, are not that different from many of those who serve in the government. They share a common history, culture, and religion. Such commonalities make reconciliation a real possibility.

However, if the Taliban wants to pursue negotiations, they are running out of time. The country’s political elites and the public have already grown weary of the peace talks, and popular reactions against the Taliban’s most recent wave of attacks indicate that the group’s future survival is in serious doubt.

Also, the Taliban cannot permanently rely on Pakistani support. Indeed, in the long term, that support is unsustainable. Mounting pressure—from the Afghan government, the Afghan population, and the international community—will eventually force Pakistan to choose between the Taliban and its relationship with an increasingly strong Afghan state. It is in Pakistan’s own geopolitical interest to choose the latter.

Particularly after the wave of recent attacks in Afghanistan, public anger toward Pakistan has increased. Afghan politicians, civil society organizations, and the public are outraged by Pakistani meddling. Almost the entire nation blames Pakistan for the political instability in Afghanistan, and several Afghan religious scholars have even declared Jihad against Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani recently stated: “We hoped for peace, but war is declared against us from Pakistani territory.” His statement resonated with all Afghans, and it spread like wild fire among the public, particularly in light of the recent attacks in Kabul—one of which killed at least 15 people and wounded hundreds more.

The Afghan government and public continue to work for peace, stability, and prosperity, and the Taliban’s attacks, of late, have done nothing to slow the country’s progression toward democracy. (Indeed, most of the world’s stable democracies have emerged from some sort of conflict.) Now, democracy has been planted in the Afghan soil, and its growth—while slow—is continuing. The Taliban must embrace reconciliation. It is their only option, and it will not be around forever.

The Side Deal Not Yet Signed



Despite aggressively rebutting each other in public over the recent Iran nuclear deal, both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have clarified in the past month the resilient strength of U.S.-Israel relations. Nevertheless, public debate over the agreement erodes the strategic alliance between the countries, jeopardizing both nations’ interests. Washington and Jerusalem are not going to agree wholesale on the Iran issue. However, in order to weather this squall and maintain the alliance, both sides should focus their efforts on an intimate U.S.-Israel dialogue and agreement. Now that the American president has managed to secure enough support in Congress to block any legislative attempt to override him, it is time to change the discussion between the two leaderships.

Netanyahu asserts his responsibility to voice Israeli concerns about the dangers of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and corollary deals signed between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran. The Israeli prime minister should adhere to his responsibility, but instead of purely grandstanding about achieving these objectives, his efforts would be more effective pursuing a private strategic dialogue with the American administration.

In this dialogue, for example, Israel should point out that the nuclear deal does not “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon” – an objective set by President Obama. Iran will be able to advance its research and development program, creating more advanced centrifuges that shorten the time required to cross the nuclear threshold. It does not guarantee absolute transparency, leaving some “blind spots” that could potentially be exploited for military purposes. It also lacks a feasible and rapid international response mechanism that encourages Iranian compliance.

Israel also has concerns that if Iran does not decide to violate the agreement and cross the nuclear threshold in the first decade, it could close the gap in the second decade without cheating. Iran can enhance its nuclear program after ten years, so any western attempt to stop it from going nuclear would be extremely difficult. Though Iran has possessed significant threshold capabilities in the past two years, it never had international legitimacy to do so. Now that it does, there is a risk that other countries in the region will push for the same.

Furthermore, Israel should also explain that even though the Obama Administration rightly argues that the nuclear agreement was never intended to address Iranian behavior in the region, it cannot disregard the consequences of improving Tehran’s international status while it boldly supports terrorism, aggressively promotes regional instability, and takes an active role in the civil war in Syria. Relieving the embargo and Iran’s missile program sanctions does not help the administration’s argument. Netanyahu has warned that some of the more than 100 billion dollars Iran expects to receive will increase its support of terrorism and empower its proxies against Israel (namely, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza). Altogether, in the eyes of many, the nuclear deal weakens the credibility of American deterrence (both nuclear and non-nuclear) as well as its commitments to allies in the region on those issues.

To alleviate Israeli concerns, the U.S. should sign a side deal with its strongest ally in the region. The notion of a parallel agreement has been promoted in recent months by former head of IDF Military Intelligence General Amos Yadlin and myself. This agreement should be signed before international sanctions against Iran are lifted as a product of intensive dialogues between Washington and Jerusalem.

There are five critical components to an effective agreement.  First, both countries should engage in unprecedented intelligence collaboration to swiftly detect any Iranian violation of terms. This commitment of resources will be an effective information-sharing mechanism and part of a rapid decision-making process.

Second, the two countries should agree on an interpretation of the agreement and responses to Iranian non-compliance. They must clearly define how a nuclear deal with Iran would be implemented, how to handle violations, and what could be done outside the framework to incentivize Iranian compliance.

Third, the two governments should work out a contingency plan under which if Iran decides to acquire nuclear weapons, Israel will be able to take action independently without relying on an international consensus. In order to be a credible deterring force against this potential threat, especially after the main constraints on Iran’s nuclear program are lifted, Israel will require advanced weaponry to ensure that this scenario is not realized under any circumstances.

Fourth, special efforts should be made to halt Iran from advancing its missile program before it is capable of launching nuclear attacks against its adversaries in the Middle East and beyond. Iran’s missile program is a crucial factor in the Iranian nuclear decision-making calculus, and may be the most significant challenge faced by Tehran if they decide to cross the nuclear threshold. The nuclear deal endeavors to preempt this concern as it states that missile program-related sanctions will only be lifted after eight years. The U.S-Israel deal must address this.

Lastly, the U.S. and Israel should agree on tenets for countering Iran’s possible exploitation of the nuclear deal and expanding influence in the region. These measures should both improve Israel’s defensive capabilities and include a bolder American offensive strategy for the Middle East, both aimed at actively challenging Iran’s regional policy. This essential tenet signals to Israel that Washington is not abandoning the Middle East and leaving it susceptible to the influence of Iranian hegemony as it becomes a more dangerous place. As the Iran deal and its tributary deals are fait accompli, the U.S. and Israel should actively cooperate on formulating a policy for the next major side deal between the two countries.

Overcoming Challenges to India–U.S. Defense Cooperation

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter meets with Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi in New Delhi, India, June 3, 2015. DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett (Released)

United States Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar signed in June a 10-year defense framework agreement renewing bilateral commitments. Defense ties are one of the brightest spots in the tapestry of cooperation between India and the U.S. and are driven by mutually symbiotic interests of strategic posturing and enhancing defense trade and commerce, as well as preventing the use of force to resolve territorial and maritime disputes. There is a growing congruence between the United States’ and India’s Asia-Pacific policies. Both have a significant stake in ensuring regional stability through retaining the status quo and establishing a rules-based multipolar Asia-Pacific, which would ensure all countries uphold the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), respect territorial sovereignty, and not resort to hegemonic actions. Against the backdrop of increasing Chinese territorial assertiveness, the logic of geopolitics dictates that both India and the U.S. have vital interests in strengthening defense cooperation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama pledged in September 2014 to deepen existing ties in defense cooperation to bolster security and treat each other as their “closest partners” in defense technology trade. Though defense trade between the two countries within a decade has reached circa $9 billion, there are structural challenges in the relationship that need to be addressed to achieve equal partnership in truest terms. So far the bulk of the India–U.S. defense trade has been through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route—a program which facilitates sales of U.S. arms to foreign governments. However, in the long run importing through the FMS route would be untenable for the Indian government as the route is not based on competitive market principles, and dependence on arms imports from the U.S. stymies the Indian government’s intent to allow domestic industries to play a greater role in defense indigenization. The FMS route is also unsustainable for long-term development as it involves a one-time purchase from American defense contractors and does not add any technological know-how to Indian partners. Transfer of technology (ToT) is important for Indian industries to kick-start the much needed defense industrial base and generate economic spin-offs.

On the other hand, the Indian government has clearly indicated its preferred route for defense capital acquisitions: the “Buy”, “Buy and Make,” and “Buy and Make (Indian)” categories envisaged in Defense Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2013. The proposed categorization of DPP 2013 highlights steps taken by the Ministry of Defense which give precedence to Indian industries by galvanizing the indigenous defense manufacturing through the “Buy and Make (Indian)” category. The relaxation of foreign direct investment limits in defense from 26 percent to 49 percent augurs well for Modi’s vision of “Make in India” where the U.S. defense companies are encouraged to leverage partnership with Indian Defense Public Sector Undertakings under the “Buy and Make” categories to meet India’s huge domestic demands under provisions of DPP 2013.

Strengthening bilateral defense ties would also require the American government and defense companies to address India’s pressing concerns regarding the lack of credible technology transfers from the U.S.  It is understandable that Washington would be unwilling to part with the know-how of cutting-edge technology, which provides the U.S. defense industry with the competitive edge. However, India and the U.S. should make efforts to rise above the procedural challenges of ToT to focus on the Defense Technology & Trade Initiative under which both countries are exploring the joint production of military hardware. Despite a steady rise in licensing of U.S. defense hardware to India, stringent American laws on technical and manufacturing assistance agreements have failed to incentivize co-development on defense hardware between India and the U.S.. Stimulating the process of co-production would necessitate more flexible regulatory frameworks to allow American defense companies to share technologies with Indian partners expeditiously. As the scale of ToT interaction between India and the U.S. increases, issues of intellectual property rights would simultaneously gain significance. Hence, greater harmonization of Validated End-User agreements, which allows approved countries to receive U.S.-controlled products and technologies more easily and reliably, needs to be encouraged.  As India and the U.S. are making progress towards taking defense partnership to the new level, embarking on co-development and co-production of defense technologies and synchronizing end-user agreements would help develop India’s private sector into the role of systems integrator.

However, there are concerns that India is not in a position to absorb the transfer of advanced technologies. U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner have noted that India’s heightened expectations for ToT outpace India’s offset absorption capacity. Thus, from the Indian side, the ToT proposals need to be approached from a perspective of sensitivity with regard to what can be achieved with the technology received.

Another major roadblock has been lack of accord on signing “foundational agreements,” logistics support, CISMOA (Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement), and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for geo-spatial cooperation), which the U.S. insists is fundamental for transfer of military technology and weapons. While India’s former United Progressive Alliance government hesitated to sign the foundational agreements due to security concerns on matters of sensitive technology, it is possible that the Modi government may take a fresh look at them, contingent on the progress and success of co-production initiatives.

India also needs to address the structural inadequacies which prevent it from developing a vibrant defense domestic manufacturing base. India’s defense planning process has been greatly handicapped by an absence of a national security doctrine and suffers from a lack of inter-service prioritization. There exists dysfunction with technology planning, development, and coordination among R&D bodies, production agencies, and end users. It is of crucial significance that India should have a Chief of Defense Staff to provide single-point military advice to the government in order to coordinate between the different inter-service agencies.

As the power balances of the 21st century shift, Indo-U.S. defense partnership will not be solely about defense commerce; instead, this vital partnership flows from geopolitical interests. To sustain the momentum of burgeoning defense ties, India and the United States should undertake proactive measures to resolve the complex policy challenges faced by both nations towards bilateral cooperation. As the U.S. continues to bolster India’s militarily preparedness through sales of sophisticated defense hardware, intensified cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts and intelligence sharing, a militarily strong India complements America’s security goal of a stable multipolar Asia-Pacific.