Authors: Anton Mardasov* & Kirill Semenov
2017 marked a turning point in the Syrian conflict. With the full support of Russia and Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime was able to neutralize the “domestic threat” completely. Throughout 2017, Damascus used the situation to carry out “outlying” operations, manipulating the ceasefire agreements and other accords reached as part of the Astana Peace Process. As soon as a relative calm would settle in a given “de-escalation zone” [in the opinion of the present authors, quotation marks are necessary in this case, as they indicate the real nature of these four zones], the regime would start transferring the available forces to other areas. First to eastern Syria in order to break the blockade of Deir ez-Zor and establish control over adjacent areas, which undoubtedly accelerated the downfall of the “Caliphate,” then to Idlib Governorate. And then, taking advantage of the agreements reached between Russia and Turkey on the division of spheres of influence in this “de-escalation zone,” to East Ghouta. Now Damascus has the initiative in terms of launching an offensive and a significant advantage over opposition groups.
The State of Affairs
As early as the beginning of 2017, the Syrian opposition demonstrated its ability to consolidate efforts and respond to the regime’s offensive manoeuvres. One such example is the way it managed to reduce “tension” in East Ghouta by carrying out distracting operations of its own in Daraa and Hama. However, the Syrian opposition became irreversibly fragmented after the process to form the de-escalation zones began, accompanied by the establishment of an external protectorate over these zones. As a result, most of the opposition factions in Greater Idlib now operate exclusively in the interests of Turkey, and the Amman Agreement between Jordan, Russia and the United States regarding the southwest de-escalation zone has succeeded in taking the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front out of the game. External actors have played a decisive role in the outcome of the confrontation between Damascus and the internal opposition, cutting off aid to opposition factions and effectively splitting them into isolated fragments.
That being said, until February 2018 (when the Russia–Turkey agreement made it possible to wrap up the active operation in Idlib and focus forces on East Ghouta), all the efforts of the elite units of the 4th Armoured Division, as well as the Syrian Republican Guard and other regular units of the Syrian Arab Army, to repel opposition forces in East Ghouta’s Jobar and Ayn Tarma ended with the withdrawal of government-sponsored troops after significant losses. The operation in Harasta ended with the encirclement of a Republican Guard battalion and the deaths of five colonels and brigadier generals. The same thing happened during an operation in Daraa in the south of the country.
Despite the active support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian Special Forces and the Shiite “Expeditionary Corps” led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and various Iraqi factions, the government forces still suffered significant strikes from the heavily outnumbered Islamic State. One such event took place in Homs and Deir ez-Zor in September–October 2017, when Islamic State units managed to cut off almost all the supply routes to pro-Assad troops operating along the Euphrates. The only thing that prevented the terrorists from building on their successes was the lack of numbers on the part of Islamic State (very few detachments are left) and the haphazard band-aid approach adopted by Russian specialists on the issue.
Thus, Damascus’ victories over its opponents can, for the most part, be put down to favourable circumstances and external support, rather than to the regime’s strengthening of its forces or increasing its combat effectiveness, despite the great efforts Russia has expended to train Syria’s military personnel and provide its regular units with up-to-date military technology.
Counting on the fact that these manipulations have successfully paralyzed the opposition to the point that pro-government forces will now be able to deal with current challenges does not eliminate the need to have a national military structure – without the growing Shiite International.
At present, the armed forces that Bashar al-Assad relies on continue to be an assortment of groupings, all of which depend on Damascus to varying degrees. There is no unity within the army in terms of readiness to unquestioningly carry out the directives of its leadership. There is a complicated system of approvals for the use of “elite” sections of the Syrian Arab Army in specific operations. This even applies to its most elite components: the 4th Armoured Division, the Syrian Republican Guard, Suheil al-Hassan’s “Tiger Forces” and individual units of other sections – for example, the “Deir Al-Qalamoun” unit of the 3rd Armoured Division and the “Saif Al-Mahdi” unit of the 4th Armoured Division, among others. At the same time, the combat effectiveness of the Syrian Arab Army’s combat manoeuvre units leaves much to be desired, and attempts are made to avoid moving them to regions far away from their areas of permanent deployment.
Various paramilitary groupings that do not answer directly to the Syrian Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the state security organs continue to play an important role, including the so-called National Defence Forces, the Local Defence Forces, foreign (primarily Shiite) groups, and other units created by them in Syrian territory, made up of Syrian nationals. There are at least twice as many fighters in the irregular army formations as in the Syrian Arab Army itself.
The Syrian crisis has made it possible for political institutions to acquire their own military formations. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party still has active squadrons, some of which are part of the 5th Corps. Eagles of the Whirlwind is the military wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. And the Syrian Resistance is a left-wing paramilitary group led by Mihrac Ural, who is considered a terrorist in Turkey.
The formation of various paramilitary structures – military wings of mafia-like clans, private military companies, regional and tribal militias and militarized political organizations – has undermined the stability of the regime. These forces do not simply support Damascus. From the very beginning, they have attempted take root in government institutions and/or take control of various sources of income. It is no secret that various Shabiha detachments currently operating under the aegis of the National Defence Forces control the checkpoints, which in practice means that they have access to corrupt schemes, including the opportunity to send radical opposition fighters into the Turkish zones of influence. A number of figures associated with the pro-Iranian Syrian group Liwa al-Baqir (the Baqir Brigade, part of the Local Defence Forces) have their own fleet of minibuses and continue to operate transport businesses.
Given that Damascus is in dire need of local groupings in order to maintain stability and security, these militias will probably continue to exist after victory is declared. All the more given that all armed militia groups were legalized in 2013 and given permission to carry out their “activities” by the Ministry of Interior.
The incorporation of the National and Local Defence Forces into state structures was predetermined by the fact that both the Syrian special services and the army were unprepared for an uprising, and the vacuum thus created was filled by paramilitary groups. Iran also took advantage of this by helping set up various paramilitary structures and thus establishing a multi-echeloned presence in Syria.
Worthy of separate note is the Fifth Corps of Volunteers, an autonomous military structure that was created with the direct participation of Russian military advisers. According to some reports, the corps itself is also led by Russian generals. The corps can hardly be regarded as a regular military formation. It consists of various subdivisions made up of volunteers and is financed by a number of non-government sources. It also contains certain pro-government Syrian forces that existed before the corps was set up, including those financed by private individuals (the “Sea Commandos”) or set up with the participation of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan). At the same time, the inclusion of defectors and objectors from among the Sunni population in the Fifth Corps was apparently supposed to break the stereotype about the sectarian foundation of the pro-government forces and the auxiliary nature of the Sunnis’ participation in the war. However, the experiment has yet to bear fruit. The most combat-ready units of the Fifth Corps – the so-called ISIS Hunters – are again “sectarian militias” (as far as Syria’s Sunni majority is concerned). Such groups are made up primarily of Syrian Christians and Alawites (for example, the aforementioned “Sea Commandos”) or Shiites (Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, with the participation of Lebanese fighters). Work of this kind is likely to continue: according to some reports, work on the establishment of a 6th Corps is already under way.
Sooner or later the Syrian armed forces will surely face the challenge of transition to a peaceful life. In this context, it is important to understand what will happen to the large number of paramilitary formations and militias. The Iraqi leadership is attempting to solve this very same problem at home, having initiated a procedure to integrate soldiers of the militia group “Khashd ash-Shaabi” into the country’s armed forces. The experience gained during the creation of the 5th Corps, as well as its predecessor (the 4th Corps) can be used to help integrate certain paramilitary structures into the Syrian Arab Army and the Ministry of Interior.
It is also possible at the initial stage to revive the three corps of the Syrian Arab Army that formally existed before, turning them into territorial commands. All the regular and paramilitary units could be placed under their control on a territorial basis, thus becoming parts of the regular forces, identified by numbers instead of names. This is a necessary step, because many of these structures simply refuse to dissolve themselves, as in the case in Iraq. However, their existence should be legalized and their activities brought into line with military regulations.
Another problem is how to overcome the increasingly “sectarian” nature of military forces in Syria. All or most of the combat-ready units are made up primarily of national and religious minorities. Sunnis play a secondary role, mainly serving in auxiliary, “second echelon” groupings. Attracting Sunnis who have fought or lived in opposition territories, earning their trust and ensuring that they carry out their duties in a diligent manner will also be a key issue.
A Necessary but Unrealistic Scenario
If we distance ourselves from the propaganda and frankly dilettantish stereotypes about the Syrian opposition, then the best option for establishing an ethnic and confessional balance would be to unite the opposition groups and pro-government forces into a single structure. This is the kind of renewal of the armed forces that the UN documents envision. It is hardly possible, for example, to incorporate the insurgent factions that have, with Turkey’s support, united to form the Syrian National Army (SNA, which operates exclusively in Northern Aleppo) into existing Syrian Arab Army units and divisions. The leadership of the opposition factions will not agree to this, bearing in mind what happened in Tajikistan (where the opposition was liquidated after its divisions were incorporated into government units). One possibility is to form about five to seven separate corps and divisional units from opposition forces and establish a single military council involving the Syrian National Army and the Syrian Arab Army.
However, neither Damascus nor Tehran, nor indeed Moscow, is interested in such a scenario. Although it is far easier for the Russian side to play along with the Syrian regime, which seeks to eliminate the Syrian opposition once and for all by military means, that goal would serve only to strengthen the positions of Iran and Syria. Moscow has had a significantly more difficult time than expected positioning itself as a moderator in the conflict and maintaining effective working relations with the opposition groups that participated in the Astana Peace Process and signed agreements with the Russian military in Cairo and Geneva. Integrating the opposition into military and political structures that are aligned with the current regime could serve as a natural counterweight to the influence of Iran and preserve a certain balance of power that is beneficial to Moscow. The big question now is: to what extent will Moscow be able to maintain control over its “client,” given that Tehran is clearly benefitting from the situation?
Reform of the Military Intelligence Services
Against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s transition to clandestine activities in Iraq and Syria (which is common for the group) and various other challenges, the role of the Syrian intelligence services is acquiring greater significance. Their activities today little resemble the standards adopted in the sphere. Opportunities to carry out covert intelligence work have been greatly reduced, and the grassroots tools of state governance have been destroyed. The Syrian intelligence services were not even able to prevent terrorist attacks on the National Security Council building.
At present, the Syrian intelligence services do not seem to have an analogue anywhere in the Middle East. Four independent security structures operate within the Syrian Arab Army. These structures are divided into “military,” which includes military intelligence and aerial reconnaissance (Air Force reconnaissance) and “political” (civilian units formally subordinate to the Interior Ministry), which includes the main security department and the department for managing political security. All of these structures answer directly to the president. However, the system of intelligence services in Syria reflects the complexity of relations and confrontations among various groups of influence in the country’s ruling elite. The system is constructed in such a way that the individual intelligence services effectively work against each other, which makes it impossible for any single “branch” to become significantly stronger than the others.
Air Force reconnaissance was conceived as the intelligence structure “closest” to the heart of former president Hafez al-Assad, who was a fighter pilot himself. As a result, it effectively turned into an independent state security agency, with its own external intelligence and counterintelligence divisions, and even a department for combatting anti-government activities. During the Civil War, the Air Force reconnaissance formed an entire “pleiad” of special forces units to carry out operations using heavy machinery. The other three “branches” took similar steps in order to prevent any one of the intelligence agencies from becoming significantly stronger than the rest.
It would appear that the simplest solution for transforming the Syrian intelligence services with the goal of optimizing their activities would, first of all, be to merge Air Force reconnaissance and military intelligence into a single organ of the General Staff of the Syrian Arab Army, and strip these structures of the ability to carry out political investigations. As for the political security structures, it would be practical for one of them to focus exclusively on external intelligence activities, while the second could be engaged in counterintelligence and anti-terror activities. In other words, Syrian intelligence services would be brought up to global standards.
It is also imperative to create border security forces to control Syria’s eastern frontiers first and foremost, but also the entire border, as a kind of unified system with its own social and infrastructural characteristics. While Hafez al-Assad paid special attention to the country’s tribes, granting their leaders various privileges and taking their views into consideration in political life, his son Bashar all but forgot about them, which combined with drought in the regions and the misallocation of resources created the conditions for social upheaval. The years spent under the control of radical groups transformed the tribal social fabric even more. At present, the regime relies primarily on the Suqur al-Furat militia, which contains members of the Al-Shaitat tribe, to carry out its activities in the eastern part of the country. The tribe attempted a revolt against the Islamic State rule in 2014 but was defeated in a gruesome fashion. Damascus used this as a pretext to organize a military training programme for the tribe’s members and announced an amnesty for them.
If Damascus is unable to hold a constructive dialogue with the Sunni tribes, then there is a risk that the Islamic State will emerge once again in one form or another as a result of the joint efforts of independent Sunni groups and radicals (operatives, preachers, etc.), who will be able to remain in the country. It is all the more important to deal with the cadres who are familiar with the local terrain in the east of the country could help prevent smuggling, with which both Damascus and Baghdad have well-documented issues.
*Anton Mardasov, Military Observer Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Institute of Innovative Development
First published in our partner RIAC
Sino-Russian regional activities after Afghanistan
After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last August, Russia warned against the threat from the extremist organisation of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the increase in drug trafficking.
The Taliban have decided to cooperate with Russia, China and Iran to maintain regional security. The news agency France-Presse reported that the Taliban had participated in high-level talks in Moscow. During that time, ten countries requested emergency humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan and said that the countries which have recently withdrawn from Afghanistan should provide funds to help with reconstruction. The countries are the following: China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Before that meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned that some ten thousand ISIS fighters had gathered in Northern Afghanistan to spread religious and ethnic discord. The Soviet Union once bordered on Afghanistan and Russia still considers this area a zone of influence.
Putin reported in mid-September that the ISIS leader was planning to send people disguised as refugees to neighbouring countries in Central Asia.
The countries participating in the Moscow talks stressed in a joint statement that they were concerned about the actions of terrorist organisations and reaffirmed their willingness to continue to promote security in Afghanistan to contribute to regional stability.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticised the absence of US officials during the meeting. He said earlier that ISIS-affiliated fighters and al-Qaeda were trying to take advantage of the power void in some parts of Afghanistan.
In the joint statement, the participating countries urged the Taliban to implement appropriate and cautious domestic and foreign policies and adopt a friendly policy towards Afghanistan’s neighbours.
In terms of internal policy, they demand that the Taliban respect the rights of ethnic groups, women and children. Prior to that meeting, Taliban representatives had met with EU and US officials and had also travelled to Turkey, hoping to gain official recognition and assistance from the international community.
The Taliban are in desperate need of allies at the moment because Afghanistan’s economy is in danger due to the loss of international aid, rising food prices and increasing unemployment.
With specific reference to China and Russia, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the signing of the Sino-Russian Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation, relations between the two countries entered the third decade of stability and friendship.
Currently, however, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has led to at least two negative outcomes for China and Russia: 1) Afghanistan, located in the ‘backyard’ of China and Russia has destabilised; 2) the conflict has been chaotic and the future is uncertain and after thirty years since the end of the Cold War, the United States has freed itself from that burden to focus on the challenges of the two major Eurasian powers.
Before the US withdrawal – although the Sino-Russian-US geopolitical game continued to intensify – Afghanistan was still the place where the interests of the three countries overlapped and the parties were all interested in achieving a “soft landing” on the issue.
Since 2019 the three countries have been working together in the form of an enlarged “troika” to peacefully resolve the Afghan issue. For Russia and China, the US military presence in Afghanistan was a double-edged sword: it did not only represent a geographical threat, but could also effectively contain radical Islamic forces in the region.
Both China and Russia hoped that, after reaching a sustainable peace agreement with the parties involved in Afghanistan, the US military would withdraw from Afghanistan in an orderly way to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a “terrorist sanctuary” again.
The quick US defeat in Afghanistan, however, without agreements and/or compromise solutions, was unexpected for China and Russia, especially when, on May 11, the US military evacuated the Kandahar airport without informing the Afghan government, etc.
China and Russia have no choice but to face an Afghanistan whose political future is doubtful. The two superpowers, however, have completely different attitudes towards the Afghan issue: the former is more proactive in contacting all parties inside and outside Afghanistan.
On May 11, at the Second Meeting of the Five Foreign Ministers in the format of “Central Asia and China” held in Xi’an, the Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, had warned that “foreign troops should withdraw from Afghanistan in an orderly and responsible manner to prevent hasty actions against Afghanistan”. A few days later, the Chinese Foreign Minister told his Afghan counterpart that China was “willing to host Afghanistan’s internal talks and help its efforts against terrorism”. In mid-July, during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Dushanbe, Wang Yi reiterated that proposal.
It was in that context that Wang Yi paid an official visit to Tajikistan on July 14 and then participated in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Foreign Ministers’ meeting and met Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Tashkent the following day. Furthermore, on July 16, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a telephone conversation with the then Afghan President Ashraf Ghan. Xi Jinping urged “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned political dialogue to promote national reconciliation and peace processes”. He also promised to provide more assistance to Afghanistan in the fight against Covid-19 and hoped that the Afghan side would provide more protection to Chinese citizens and organisations in Afghanistan.
Ten days after US forces suddenly withdrew from Bagram Air Base (July 6), i.e. when Xi Jinping and Ghani were in talks, the United States announced that the new deadline for the US withdrawal was August 31, thus causing the Afghan army’s collapse across the country as early as late July.
On July 28, while meeting Taliban political leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, Wang Yi said: “The sudden withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan marks the failure of US policy in Afghanistan. The Afghan people are now faced with an important opportunity to stabilise and develop their country”.
Baradar hopes that China will increasingly participate in the peace-building process in Afghanistan and play a greater role in the country’s reconstruction and economic development. Wang Yi said the Taliban should draw a clear line with terrorist organisations such as ISIS. In response, Baradar promised that the Afghan Taliban would “absolutely not permit any force to do anything harmful to China on the territory of Afghanistan”.
Baradar is not the first to visit China. Before September 11, 2001, the Taliban had contacts with China but, after the tragic events, China supported the Afghan Northern Alliance and the aforementioned contacts with the Taliban were interrupted for several years. Nevertheless, China has never classified the Taliban as a terrorist organisation.
China’s active diplomacy towards Afghanistan has two main reasons: firstly, security concerns, particularly China’s Western borders; secondly, economic interests, because all of Afghanistan’s neighbours are countries linked to the Silk Road Initiative.
In the actual operation, security and economy are closely related and are both essential. On July 14, the shuttle bus of the Dasu Hydropower Project in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Northwest Pakistan, was attacked by terrorists. The attack caused the death of thirteen people, including nine Chinese citizens. The Dasu Hydropower Plant is part of the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Moreover, as a neighbouring country to Afghanistan, China has a 92-kilometre-long border at the eastern edge of the 300-kilometre-long Wakhan Valley, which is connected to this war-torn country. According to reports, China provided about 70 million dollars in military assistance to Afghanistan between 2016 and 2018 and helped the Afghan army establish a mountain brigade dedicated to fighting terrorism in the Wakhan corridor.
Furthermore, during the two decades in which the United States occupied Afghanistan, China’s investment there included millions and millions of dollars in economic assistance, including various projects such as schools, hospitals, flats and food assistance, and trained thousands of Afghan students and technicians in China and Afghanistan.
Since 2017 China, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been discussing the possibility of extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan. Nevertheless, some major economic projects, such as the 2008 four billion dollar contract for the Anyak copper mine and the 2011 contract for the Amu Darya Basin joint oil and gas field development, have been suspended due to security concerns.
Unlike China, Russia has considered the Taliban a terrorist organisation since February 2003, but this has not prevented it from having contacts with them. On August 13 last, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stressed: ‘We are in dialogue with all important political forces in Afghanistan, including the Afghan government and the Taliban, the representatives of Uzbeks and Tajiks and others”.
In fact, the representatives of the Taliban visited Moscow as early as November 2018 to participate in the peace Conference hosted by Russia. They also held two meetings in 2021 (on March 18 and July 8) to participate in tripartite consultations, Russia’s preferred format for dialogue. Two days before the Taliban took control of Kabul, Foreign Minister Lavrov envisaged an enlarged tripartite consultation mechanism to include Iran and India in addition to Pakistan. Outside Afghanistan, Russia has invested many resources in Central Asia and has considerable influence in the security field (Collective Security Treaty Organisation).
As important countries, many global problems are related to the relationship between China and Russia. Western countries, like colonies led by the United States of America, have preferred to have hammers in their hands and nails in their eyes. China and Russia have not followed the Western model, but have gone their separate ways. This is a hope for the countries that have been devastated by the US interference (former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, African countries, etc.), and it is also a hope for the Westphalian world order disrupted by the United States after the Twin Towers attack.
The development and progress of human civilisation cannot have only one pathway, nor should there be only one model. As a Chinese saying goes: “Those who are fit for themselves but forgets the others are abandoned by the people; those who deny themselves and rise again are admired by everybody”.
A More Diverse Force: The Need for Diversity in the U.S. Intelligence Community
As part of a hiring initiative meant to attract new and diverse hires, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released a new recruitment video in March of 2021. The video featured a Hispanic female discussing her background and time in the CIA, as well as why she chose to serve her country. She says at one point, “I’m a woman of color. I am a mom. I am a cis-gender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder…I did not sneak into CIA. My employment was not and is not the result of a fluke or a slip through the cracks. I earned my way in, and I earned my way up the ranks of this organization”.
The video showed a woman who cares for her family, cares for her country, and desires to see a difference be made in the world. However, some took issue with the advert though, though these criticisms came over a month after the video first was published and made available to the public.
In a tweet, the Republican Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, said, “If you’re a Chinese communist, or an Iranian Mullah, or Kim Jong Un…would this scare you? We’ve come a long way from Jason Bourne”. Many criticized Cruz for his usage of Jason Bourne, a fictional CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer, yet he took to Twitter once again to clarify, saying, “My point is that CIA agents should be bad-asses—not woke, fragile flowers needing safe spaces”.
Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted “China & Russia are laughing their asses off watching CIA go full woke…If you think about it, wokeness is the kind of twisted PSYOP a spy agency would invent to destroy a country from the inside out”. Others, including popular conservative commentators like Dinesh D’Souza and Meghan McCain, also criticized the ad calling a “joke” or “insane” while others went as far to say that the CIA was “actively looking to recruit the most immodest, narcissistic, grotesquely self-serving people in the world”.
Criticism towards the ad did not purely come from the Conservative, rightist personalities either, but also members of the left. Left-leaning publications such as The Intercept and Jezebel both critiqued the ad. It seems that, from all sectors of American public and political life, this advert and total tactic was heavily derided; from members of the left, it was cringey and irrespective of the agency’s long and controversial history while, from members of the right, it was ineffective national security and intelligence policy.
However, what many seem to be forgetting is that diversity within the intelligence world is an extremely important factor in creating effective and accurate foreign policy and in gaining the most up to date and accurate intelligence.
Intelligence analysis is probably the most important part of the Intelligence Cycle and holds just as much, if not more, importance as the end result, the intelligence estimate or packet. To put it simply, if the analysis is corrupted in some way, shape, or form by either the analyst’s personal views or tainted by poorly verified intelligence, then the action taken based upon this intelligence could result in missteps or negative affects to U.S. policymakers, military units, or regions in which the intelligence affects. Throughout history, there are an abundance of examples in which intelligence analysts have misinterpreted situations due to their own biases about a nation, political ideology, or have been selected specifically to sort through intelligence in order to back up a preconceived opinion.
One of the best examples in showing how analysts’ personal views, both conscious and subconscious, can affect their overall analysis is the 1954 coup d’état of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz.
The coup, which was given the CIA codename Operation PBSUCCESS, was a mission in which the U.S. government, via the CIA and U.S. State Department, engaged in fomenting a coup to remove Árbenz, the leftist president who had approved of agrarian reforms within Guatemala. To justify an invasion, members of the State Department and CIA tried to link Árbenz to Guatemalan communists, yet this proved very difficult as there was “no evidence that Arbenz himself was anything more than a European-style democratic socialist”. A CIA paper, published two months before the coup, also, “did not cite any direct contact between Guatemalan Communists and Moscow. The paper offered ideology, not facts…”.
A master’s thesis written by a student at West Virginia University extensively and exclusively covers the CIA’s decision making process, detailing how, “CIA reports from the early 1950s also demonstrated this fear [of Communism]… The “red scare,” in essence, affected nearly all Americans. Many in the Eisenhower government also felt that Moscow had a nefarious hidden hand and controlled communist sympathizers around the globe,” while also noting that the, “ONI [Office of Naval Intelligence] did not feel that CIA had valid reasons or enough sources to reach the conclusion it did regarding Soviet intentions in Latin America”. The heightened fears of Communism and the Soviet Union that permeated the minds of analysts within the State Department and CIA (as well as the desires by some to ensure the survival of the United Fruit Company in the country) resulted in intelligence that was skewed to believing that the Guatemalan government was embracing Communism, when, even according to the CIA’s own histories, was baseless.
Based upon this example, as one can see, the intelligence provided to the U.S. government was based upon analyst biases and did not accurately reflect how the Guatemalan government under Árbenz operated nor how entrenched the Communists were in political life. The fear of Communism overwhelmed the amount of solid and fact-based analysis, resulting in an invasion that removed a democratically elected president.
This coup eventually resulted in the emplacement of a right-wing, military government, which would rule until 1996, overseeing a brutal civil war complete with death squads, acts of genocide committed by presidential administrations, political assassinations, and a drastic increase in governmental corruption. Members of the CIA who were involved in the operation too regretted their actions and acknowledged that the outcome did not benefit Guatemala, the U.S., or Latin America. Operation PBSUCCESS did not bring about a U.S.-friendly democracy, but a U.S.-friendly military dictatorship that engaged in war crimes and severely destabilized the entire country. The failure of this operation to bring about a democracy and U.S. intervention in the country in the first place was, in my own view and examination, based upon biased analyses by the CIA which promoted the view that Guatemala was becoming sympathetic to Communists and the operation itself shows just how important intelligence analysis is.
Not only is analysis an incredibly important tool within the intelligence cycle as a whole, but the analyst themselves are highly important. The analysis is only as good as the analyst and if the analyst is biased, limited in their outlook or worldview, or come from a sole section of society, then the analysis will reflect those beliefs. Most of the analysts involved in the Guatemalan operation were white and male, most likely coming from middle-class backgrounds and either having military service or Ivy League education or both. These beliefs and hiring processes which exclude persons beyond the majority of America’s populace can significantly hinder an agency and promote a poor world outlook. The majority of persons in countries in which the U.S. is involved, thinking of becoming involved, or are creating analyses in anticipation of potential foreign policies are not white or male nor from wealthy societies; they are, most often than not, of an extremely different mindset than many Americans, live in poverty or close to poverty, and have an immensely different culture. While the CIA has made some headway in this area, retired CIA case officers and analysts have made claims that the CIA (and the Intelligence Community as a whole) are severely underperforming and not effectively recruiting towards people from outside of that select pool.
Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, Jr.’s comments about the CIA lowering their standards and fostering an environment in which the CIA now is ineffective at creating intelligence or defending the United States from foreign threats (not being “badass” enough) is nonsensical. If anything, the inclusion of persons who are not white or male, who have experience outside of the military, who are knowledgeable on issues beyond military, intelligence, and national defense/security makes for a more well-rounded force and an agency more effective at analyzing collected intelligence, crafting accurate and informed recommendations, and allowing past mistakes, the misreading of important political events, to take hold. Including strong, analytical persons from more minority backgrounds into the national security framework will perform wonders for American intelligence analysis and in making influential policy decisions.
To quote Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer, “Diversity is an operational advantage. Simple as that. I want case officers who look like the UN”.
Women Maoists (Naxalbari)
Every now and then, Indian newspapers flash news about Maoist insurgents, including women being killed. They usually avoid mentioning how many soldiers were killed in encounters, whether fake or genuine. Here is a glimpse of such news: A woman fighter, along with a male c-fighter, was killed in a clash with government forces in Odisha’s Malkagiri district (Press Trust of India, December 14, 2020).
In another incident, a woman Maoist was killed in an encounter with India’s security forces in Sukma district of Chhatisgarh (PTI, October 13, 2010). A woman Maoist was killed near Anrapali forest (Visakhapatnam, Andhrapradesh). And, another woman Maoist, carrying Rs. 16 lac reward on her head was killed in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra.
Sometimes there are pitched battles between the Indian forces and the Maoists, including women. For instance, there was a head-on confrontation between a Maoist group and government forces of over 1500 “jawan”, equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and helicopters at the Bijapur-Sukma border. Sans air power, the Maoists, armed only with machine guns, gunned down 22 soldiers belonging to Central Reserve Police Force, Commando Battalions for Resolute Action (Cobra), and Bastariya Battalion of the Central Reserve Police.
Why do women join the Maoist Movement?
They find the Maoist narrative of emancipation attractive. . Not only the low-caste women but also the high-caste ones joined the Maoist ranks in droves. About 30 to 40 per cent of combatants are Maoists. The status of women in the Indian society is no better than that of slaves. They are not supposed to form an opinion or dare express it. Even the high-caste women are supposed to be reticent and coy. They are tutored to be housewives confined to quadrilateral of their homes, rear children, and do household chores. The Maoist ideology ingrained the sense of empowerment in them. The Maoist manifesto teems with such words as “mahila sasahktikaran” (women’s empowerment), “raise their voices” (awash uthaunne), “get their voices represented” (mahilako awaj ko pratinidithyo) and “understand women’s grief” (mahila ko dukka bhujnne).
The Maoist struggle is commonly known as “the people’s war”. The “war” aims at abolishing the feudal system, and creating a democratic egalitarian society. The bulwark of the Maoists is rural population, lower castes and women. Women and men of all castes, classes, ethnic backgrounds and education levels joined the movement.
The Maoist has incorporated women’s emancipation in their ideological manifesto, actually a “40-point demand-document”. The gender equality is enshrined in points 19, 20 and 21, mentioned heretofore:
“19. Patriarchal exploitation and discrimination against women should be stopped, girls should be allowed to access paternal property as their brothers.
20. All racial exploitation and suppression should be stopped. Where ethnic communities are in the majority, they should be allowed to form their own autonomous governments.”
The Maoist proved their heart-felt commitment to the manifesto by punishing rapists, wresting back the usurped land of single women, penalising men for polygamy, and prohibiting the sale of liquor as drunken men more often beat the women. Jan adalats (“people’s courts”) ferociously uphold women’s rights on issues of social and domestic violence.
Women were given political or combat position on the basis of merit. Untouchability and gender discrimination has been abolished. The points 19, 20 and 21 of the Maoist manifesto relating to women stress the need to transform state and customary laws to redress gender inequality at all levels.
In 2002, in recognition of their female constituency, the Maoists introduced the so-called “prachanda path,” creating a women’s department in the Central Committee. In several cases, it is the women who slay the incorrigible feudal tyrants. The women realise that they are “agents of change” who have to fight out repression in all its manifestations. The women have become politically aware that they have the right make decisions about their marriages, children’s education, and other everyday gender needs.
Indian police admit it was the women fighters who were in the vanguard of a deadly attack in Chhattisgarh, where 24 people, including some top politicians, were killed.
Because of its liberal manifesto, the insurgency has spread to 11 states, with Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha as epicenters. It has become entrenched in all central and eastern Indian states, often referred to as the “Red Corridor.
Having failed to subdue the Maoists, the government occasionally resorts to spreading false news about deaths of Maoist leaders. For instance, Hindustan Times dated June 24, 2021 reported that Maoist leader Haribushan, carrying a reward of Rs. 40 lac on his head, had died from COVID19. Her wife rebutted the news (Parveen Kumar Bandari Hans News Service October 5, 2021). “More than 16 senior and middle level level communist leaders have died in the last couple of months due to COVID19…Two senior most leaders of Bastar Ganga, including Dandakaryana Special Zone Committee members Ganga and Sobhroi have died due to infection in the last couple of months”.
Sympathy with Naxals is an offence
In the Bhim Koregaon planted-letters case, several intellectuals and rights activists including Navalakha were declared “traitors” by the Indian government. They were even accused of having links with Kashmiri militants. Fake letters were inputted into their computers. They were even accused of being Pakistan’s intelligence agencies agents through Ghulam Nabi Fai, a US-based Kashmiri leader. Fei has served two-year imprisonment in the USA for having illegally received funds from the inter-services intelligence of Pakistan.
The Maoist are trying to disseminate their message to urban areas also. They understand that the minorities are fed up with the regressive caste system. The rebels want to radicalise youngsters and already have carved out a strong network in premier universities of Delhi and Kolkata. The Maoist want to create an urban militia to fight the oppressive enforcement machinery of the states and Indian Union. They are believed to have infiltrated the government intelligence machinery to stay abreact of government’s tactics.
The Maoists make no bones about their plan to set up a “coordination network among like-minded outfits in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. They want unhindered movement of left-wing extremists in these territories to exchange arms, ammunition and information”. To counter the Maoist strategy, India rushed its diplomats to capitals of neighbouring countries to plug up the porous border and obstruct the insurgents’ free movement.
In addition, India launched Special teams for simultaneous searches in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka at suspected Maoist training centres and hideouts. The effort was counter-productive because India’s national Investigation Agency framed charges against the innocent people.
During searches, the Indian forces were surprised to know that the retired Gorkha soldiers of both British and the Indian Army harbour sympathy for the Maoists.
They trained the Maoists to use fire arms efficiently. Some Maoists demonstrated their alacrity and military sills in planning bank robberies, and extorting ransom from rich businessmen. Besides arms and ammunition snatched from police stations, the Maoists are believed to have amassed over Rs. 5 billion from bank heists. The general impression in people’s minds is that the Indian forces dare not pursue the Maoists in forests. The insurgents pick up places where to ambush the security forces, and make off with booty with impunity.
Salwa Judum (purification hut)
Having failed to arrest momentum of the movement, India organised a private army ofSalwa Judum ledbyMahendra Karma From among the villagers. To boost their morale, they were given honorary rank of “special police officer. “As a workaround, the government sponsored counter-militias and split tribes into those “for” and “against” Maoists. Those willing to fight the Maoists were offered guns, money and honorary police ranks.
The Maoists shot dead Mahendra Karma and several members of the ruling Indian National Congress whose brainchild the Salwa Judum was. It later transpired that the salwa judum had been cobbled up with help of child soldiers recruited under duress or financial allurement. It was involved in gross human rights violations. When People’s Union of Civil Liberties in India brought its atrocities to the Supreme Court’s notice, it declared it illegal in 2011.
Charu Mazumdar started the movement as a “revolutionary opposition” in 1965. The world came to know of it in 1967 when the Beijing Radio reported “peasants’ armed struggle” at Naxalbari (Siliguri division of West Bengal). In July 1972, the police arrested Charu Mazumdar and tortured him to death on the night of July 27-28. The Naxalite ideology has great appeal for marginalized strata (particularly dalit and adivasis) of India’s caste-ridden society. The Naxalites Central Committee’s resolution (1980) visualises creating a base for spreading people’s democratic revolution. It would include : ‘Homogenous contiguous forested area around Bastar Division (since divided into Bastar, Dantewada and Kanker Districts of Chhatisgarh) and adjoining areas of Adilabad, Karimnagar, Khammam, East Godavari Districts of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrapur and Garchehiroli district of Maharastra, Balaghat districts of Madhya Pradesh, Malkagiri and Koraput districts of Orissa. The Naxalites want to carve out an independent zone extending from Nepal through Bihar and then to the Dandakarnaya region extending up to Tamil Nadu to give them access to the Bay of Bengal as well as the Indian Ocean.
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