Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq

Looming Disaster of “Doing Mosul”

If President Obama pushes ahead to expel ISIS from the major city of Mosul in Iraq, without much better preparation of the post-conflict circumstances, the aftermath with be a disaster.  Iraq was bad when he inherited the problem, it may well be worse when he hands it off to a successor.  Link below is to a piece written with Judy Miller for the New York Post.

http://nypost.com/2016/05/15/the-next-us-victory-in-iraq-may-just-mean-another-crisis/

 

 

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Mosul – Prepare for Chemical Weapons and Civilian Casualties

Retaking Mosul from ISIS is clearly the next big military objective.  Visits to Baghdad by SECDEF Ash Carter and SECSTATE John Kerry clearly presage this movement.  Carter announced additional US forces and capabilities.  President Obama’s meetings with the GCC clearly touched on next steps in Iraq.  The gradual constriction of finances and resources around Mosul seems to be working.

But Mosul is a very big city–population on the order of one million.  This is not Falluja or Ramadi.

Possibly the operation could go better than expected.  ISIS could leave the city and retreat to Syria as the siege of Mosul goes on. The Iraq government may have very good intelligence inside the city and maybe they could infiltrate forces into the city and surprise ISIS. Maybe.

It strikes me as more likely that ISIS will not readily cede this prize city of its new caliphate.  It will be difficult to surprise ISIS.  And it seems likely, they will use the residents as hostages.  ISIS successfully used horror in their successful expansion in 2014 and 2015.  What’s worse now is they have the resources to produce and use chemical munitions–and already have.  The US has bombed sites they identified as associated with explosive and chemical weapons production including at Mosul University.  Mosul University has especially good science facilities.  It was a site that UN weapons inspectors kept under monitoring in the 1990’s.

Will Iraqi forces move into Mosul if ISIS proceeds to use mustard or sarin agent against either military of civilian targets? It will be interesting to see if advancing Iraqi forces carry chemical protection gear. Will the Iraqi Council of Representatives support the government if thousands are being massacred in Mosul?  I could see Iraqi forces stalling outside Mosul if the political will flags in the face of civilian casualties.
It seems like the Obama administration is supporting progress toward “doing Mosul” before the end of his presidency.  An attack on Mosul could go very badly and lead to the disintegration of the government in Baghdad.   I hope our intelligence is really really good on this one.

 

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ISIS and CW in Europe

Again this week ISIS has conducted a major terrorist attack in Europe by ISIS. By targeting crowds of people at transportation hubs used by millions, they appear to have been trying to kill as many as possible with as much economic consequence as possible.

If this conclusion is correct about their motives, then it reinforces the concern that ISIS will use chemical or perhaps even biological weapons. They have motive and capability.

This risk, highlighted in previous posts below, is not going away. ISIS retains the required infrastructure in Syria and Iraq to produce either mustard or sarin agents. For the military battlefield tasks ISIS confronts, neither agent is particularly helpful, though terrifying to civilians.

However, to create horror with major economic effect, chemical or biological weapons dispersed in western cities would be highly effective–more than conventional bombs.

The US strategy of going after ISIS financing is wise and seems to be having substantial effect. The US is also going after leadership as it did against Al Qae’da.

CW capacity (and potentially BW) should also be a major priority. If ISIS can smuggle large amounts of military grade explosives and weapons into Brussels, then containers of chemical agent can get there as well.   It’s only a matter of time.

Which also raises the question, Do major European cities have the capacity to react? Judging from the way Brussels handled conventional terror attacks, I doubt it.  Imagine all the first responders seen in video during this weeks attacks–do the local response teams have chemical protection gear? Do they know how to use it?  Do they have mobile chemical/biological detection gear?  How long will large areas be blocked off?  This will be far more devastating that conventional terror attacks. Imagine even a rudimentary attack in Gare du Nord (busiest train station in Europe, on a par with Grand Central Station–700,000 passengers a day.  Paris may not burn but it will come to a stop.

 

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ISIS CW Attacks in Europe or Beyond?

In 2016, ISIS may once again take its terror out of the region of its “caliphate.”  It had success in Paris last November and is losing ground in Iraq.  Watch out for a new horror—they may take chemical attacks overseas—to the far enemy as Al Qa’ida would call it—Washington must ratchet up concern for chemical weapons attacks.

Reports in the last two months state ISIS has used mustard agent and aspires to produce its own chemical agents including the nerve agent sarin (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/b6c721d1beb34b989bf46aa101cf361a/iraqi-us-officials-working-produce-chemical-weapons).  These risks are credible and serious.

Recall that the progenitor of ISIS, Mussab al Zarkawi planned and almost successfully executed a massive attack against Jordanian government buildings in April 2004.  He planned to lace the explosives with poisonous chemicals.  He was only thwarted by incredible skill and luck on the part of the Jordanian intelligence services—using methods and knowledge unavailable in the US.  (See Joby Warrick’s recent book  “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS” for a great discussion of this near disaster.)

On the one hand, this underlines the importance of the success of removing the Syrian government’s large CW stockpile following the agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry in September 2013.  Imagine if those stocks fell into the hands of ISIS?  The UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did an extraordinary job implementing this agreement. However, there are still instances of the use of chlorine as a rudimentary chemical agent and, a fact-finding mission of the OPCW has now reported a confirmed use of mustard agent (though they have not attributed who was responsible).

While the Syrian stocks appear to have been accounted for fully, this was not the only path to chemical weapons for ISIS.  They might, (and possibly have) obtained access to undeclared residual stocks from the Libyan arsenal.  The Libyan inventory was declared destroyed by international weapons inspectors last year.  This may be, but unexpected stores have been discovered in Libya before.  Now that Libya is in chaos, weapons inspection teams are unable to work there.  It is possible that mustard chemical weapons used by ISIS in Syria followed the path of Libyan conventional weapons once Qaddafi’s government collapsed.

Worse is the potential for ISIS to produce their own nerve agent.  ISIS has the will (demonstrated in their own statements and actions) and they probably have or can obtain the capability–at least to produce moderate quantities of sarin.  

To produce sarin (or other chemical agents) four things are needed:  a secure space; some laboratory facilities; chemical expertise; and, chemical precursors.

ISIS controls territory with substantial infrastructure (something Al Qa’ida never has).  Certainly within a city like Mosul Iraq, they can set up a secure facility capable of producing small amounts of sarin.  This would not be large scale, such as the enormous facilities established under Saddam.  (He produced and used over 100,000 chemical rounds against Iran and the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s.)  However it would be sufficient for ISIS to cause terror.

The expertise to produce sarin could be drawn from a variety of sources.  Iraqi experts remain in the area.  They may willingly or by force be called to the ISIS cause.  I would not want to be a chemist living in Mosul.

There are also other experts with experience in production of CW in Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.  Ideology, force or money could drive them to serve ISIS.

This requirement may be key.  ISIS needs to obtain the requisite precursor chemicals.  ISIS has been adept at getting illicit weapons, but getting precursor chemicals may be more challenging and intelligence agencies may be able to pick up indications of such activity.

The concern of ISIS matched with WMD sounds like 2002 and the concerns of the Bush Administration over the “nexus of terrorism and WMD.”  This threat did not materialize then, but that is no reason to ignore the risk now.  ISIS is has territory, funds, and a global network of sympathetic supporters willing to die for their cause.

It is worth remembering that Aum Shinrikyo, the much smaller Japanese cult, produced enough sarin in a clandestine laboratory to create terror in the Tokyo subway system in 1995.  They had access to far fewer resources than ISIS.

Hopefully, the US and other intelligence agencies have this risk near the top of their threat matrix.  ISIS appears to have used chemical agents locally.

And, unlike Saddam, they seek to attack the West.  Given all the horrors they have perpetrated, why wouldn’t they use chemical weapons?

 

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Iran Nuclear Deal – IAEA calls Iran out Weapon Design Work

The IAEA report, now circulating publicly, states clearly that Iran conducted nuclear weapon design related efforts before 2003 and between 2004 and 2009.  Iran denies this. Now it is up to the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council to decide if they are going to give Iran a pass in the interest of letting the agreement go forward, or hold Iran to the commitment to explain its work as the agreement demands.

This was the first early test of the agreement.  The IAEA has, despite political pressure, stuck to facts that can not be explained away.  Their report will be condemned by Moscow as biased, but it adheres to the facts as known to the IAEA.

Washington will probably seek to explain away the importance of the report or the discrepancies.  Secretary Kerry has laid the groundwork for this by saying the past is not important.  What is important is the future non-nuclear work of Iran.  Maybe he is correct, but to start this process with a lie and pushing aside inconvenient facts is not a good sign.  Maybe Iran will comply with the agreement going forward and the international community may have bought some time and some will have a significant new trading partner.

But maybe not.  The growing role of Iran all over the region, teamed with Russia, doesn’t look very promising.

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Iranian General Killed in Syria – US Iran Policy – Nuclear Deal Prospects

The Iran nuclear deal would be a whole lot more palatable if we had a clear picture of a robust Iran strategy that included actions to punish the part of the Iranian government that has killed so many Americans.  Nuclear negotiations with Rouhani are OK, but the security brief is more in Kamenei’s hands and through them to the IRGC.  The IRGC is the real driver of Iranian security actions and they are acting against the US and its friends and allies directly.  I have argued that accompanying the carrot of the nuclear agreement should be a tough stick for those who kill Americans.  Why should we treat the al Quds force of the IRGC any differently than al Qa’ida?  They have been responsible for hundreds of American deaths.  Why should we not treat them in the same fashion?   Maybe we will…

Last Friday (October 9, 2015) it was reported by Iran media that Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani was killed in Syria by ISIS.  It would be nice if more of these leaders were taken off the battlefield as they say.  Hamedani, was reported to be a very close deputy to Qasem Solemeini, the Qods force commander.  I don’t know if Iran is certain it was ISIS that was responsible for the death of Hamdani, but it wouldn’t hurt if they wondered if the US was somehow connected.  Watch this space. 

Back to the Nuclear deal.  I wrote a piece for Politico in September 9 (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/09/a-nuclear-inspectors-view-give-the-iran-deal-a-shot-213128) saying that the Iran nuclear deal might work….for a while.  I highlighted again that we will soon get a powerful indication of how things would work.  Iran, by October 15th is meant to have responded to IAEA road map requirements to disclose details related to their nuclear weaponization program.  Tehran has denied these efforts though the international community and even the IAEA believe they took place. (See the November 8, 2011 IAEA report which has an incredibly detailed description of the people, places, things, etc. related to a weaponization program.)

The IAEA will report to its Board of Governors and the UN Security Council on December 15th regarding their assessment.  At that time we will know if Iran is starting with a big lie, and we will know how tough IAEA reporting will be.  AND we will see how tough the US and other P-5 + 1 parties intend to be.  Don’t expect much.  

Certainly Putin will not want to see the deal blow up before sanctions are further loosened.  The US will also not want to blow up the deal even though it begins with a lie.  Kerry has already said, the past doesn’t matter, it’s only important what Iran does in the future.  He states we already know what Iran did whether the admit it or not doesn’t matter.   Somehow, that doesn’t sound right.

So my take is the deal may buy some time.  How much?  I bet on the short side.

 

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Iran Verification – Wobbly

Verification is wobbly. Yes the provisions are better than other IAEA systems, but this is nothing compared to the access and techniques used in Iraq.  Moreover, it is very sensitive to how aggressive the IAEA intends to be.  And there will be huge pressures on the IAEA Director General to be “balanced.” There will be huge pressures for the mechanism to be “successful.”

Further, the many limits on Iran are intentionally reversible.  It’s good that all but 300 kg of Uranium is eliminated or removed from Iran.  However, enrichment capacity, i.e. centrifuges are put in storage, not destroyed.  Iran has explicitly said it will eventually improve its enrichment capability.

But, the goals of this agreement are far more limited than the case in Iraq.  The deal is intended to delay Iran from achieving a weapon, maybe for ten years, maybe less if Iran decides to whittle down on cooperation as time passes.  So, depending on your evaluation criteria, this may be good enough, or at least, better than nothing. The verification mechanism will probably achieve the limited goal of slowing the progress of Iran having a nuclear weapon. It cannot categorically inhibit Iran.

Key weaknesses include:

The focus is on nuclear supply chain, but other aspects of nuclear weapons development can proceed, i.e. ballistic missile delivery systems. Weapons design work. If Iran tests fuzing and payload separation techniques needed for delivering a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile, the IAEA will not do anything.

Verification is also very sensitive to following:

  1. This is highly dependent upon the attitude, aggressiveness of IAEA inspectors (Director General).  And, consider the political machinations that will surround the selection of the next Director General in 2017.
  2. IAEA has typically focused on monitoring for diversion of material, not inspection of suspect sites. Agressive forensic types of inspection are not their forte.
  3. The investigation of “Possible Military Dimensions” is highly uncertain, but critical. There is only a brief paragraph point in the agreement.  But if Iran won’t disclose what they have accomplished in “weaponization” how will inspectors know what to look for in future?  What does this say about Iran’s long term willingness to comply?  Iran has blocked IAEA investigation of this subject for years.   The IAEA Director General has declared that he and Iran have agreed on a “roadmap” to address these questions, but they have not made it public. The PMD’s are vital. If Iran does not come clean on this, it puts into question their overall intentions to comply.
  4. This will be first and critical early test of Iran’s will to comply AND IAEA’s willingness to push. They need to show major progress by 15 October deadline.  This will be a critical point.  Sanctions lifting hinges on this.  The political pressures for this to go forward will be enormous.
  5. The process for gaining access to non-declared sites is terribly slow. This lengthy process is not credible for detecting non-enrichment related violations.  Imagine you are in Iran at a location doing design work on detonators.  You know that you will have 24 days to cover your tracks should the IAEA declare the intention of coming to your location.
  6. The dispute resolution will be convoluted once it gets to Security Council.  Will the Security Council generally (or even the US) want to reinstall sanctions because IAEA inspectors are denied access to some site that they have suspicions about?  Sanctions snap-back of sanctions may happen if there is a blatant egregious violation and the international community is willing to give up the massive flow on commerce.  Dubious.
  7. Unlike Iraq, the restrictions on Iran are reversible. Unlike Iraq, inspectors will not be destroying centrifuges, they will be monitoring their non-use.

With all these weaknesses, it may be better than nothing, but don’t oversell it. This slows Iran’s nuclear program, but when Iran wants a weapon, they can build it. This may be the best we can get.  It may fit in with some strategic realignment with Iran and a hope that Iran (including the IRGC and other elements) will somehow become more aligned with US interests in the future.  Secretary Kerry and his team worked extremely hard to come up with this deal.  Maybe they did well considering the hand they were dealt.  Clearly Iran has done well.

 

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A Nuclear Deal?

Iran needs this more than US.   The sanctions hurt them.  If there is an agreement, they will get out of sanctions much faster than if they simply wait for sanctions to erode or collapse.
What does the US get? The US is not getting a non-nuclear Iran.  At best, we get an Iran that, for a decade will not quite be a nuclear weapon state.

Presumably, the American strategy is something like this: We hope to delay Iran’s nuclear weapons capability while we expect Iran will evolve into a more responsible international actor. Underlying this thought is that the preponderance of the Iranian population is youthful, on-line and will be less radical when they gradually assume positions of power in the government.

Maybe this is the best we can do.

But, don’t believe that this agreement provides anything more than fair chance of preventing Iran from edging forward on a nuclear weapons program. The inspection regime that seems to be emerging, while better than nothing, is by no means rigorous.

Indeed, the mechanism may be deeply flawed depending on how some key issues are addressed:

1.  Will Iran come clean on its previous work on the design and testing of a nuclear weapon? If not, then they clearly have not given up their weapons ambitions. In fact, it appears we have given up on trying to get them to truly give up weapons aspirations.
2.  How robust will inspections be? Can they deter cheating? For example can IAEA inspect (not just visit) a wide range of sites, have access to staff, take samples, etc. Watch the language agreed on these points. “Managed access” to a military site does not equal an inspection.
3.  Is there a sensitive hair trigger for the re-imposition of sanctions?  This is hard to imagine at this point.  Moreover, whose finger is on the trigger?  The Director General of the IAEA?  If so, what magnitude violation by Iran will suffice to renew sanctions?  Will the Russians, Chinese, and everyone else be required to agree? If there is some dispute resolution process, how long will that take and will Putin have a veto?
4.  How can we be sure this will be sustained over time? Drawing on the experience in Iraq, the consensus in the Security Council will inevitably erode. Three or four years from now, Iran can be pretty confident that the will of the Security Council will have diminished.

The Regime in Washington will change before the Regime in Tehran.

At this point, why rush to meet an artificial deadline? The US can afford to take time to press for a strong resolution of these points.

If Iran walks away, that may be a good outcome.  Sanctions will remain. (In my opinion, this might be the best outcome)

Open question is:  Where does this fit in overall US strategy towards Iran and the region?  I have not seen any clear exposition of this.  The West has already conceded a huge point to Iran, ie. it can be a “virtual” nuclear weapons state and that is ok.  What else can Iran do? Control most of Iraq? Continue to undermine US friends in the region? Have we opted to align with a future Iran that we hope will be less antagonistic at the expense of current friends in the region?

Washington will no doubt have a story on all this whenever a nuclear agreement is rolled out. But will it be credible and will it be sustainable over more than two years?

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Looming Iran Nuclear Deal

Secretary Kerry in a question and answer session yesterday seemed to be saying that Iran’s progress in weaponization, that is developing and testing the design of a nuclear weapon is not important for the completion of a deal with Iran.

“We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in. What we’re concerned about is going forward. It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way.”

I wonder if Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper would agree with this.  If we “have absolute knowledge” about Iran weapons design, then there has been a massive improvement in intelligence on the Iran program.  On the other hand, if we are writing off this requirement because it is “unattainable” like so many other things related to the Iran negotiation, this is troubling.  Secretary Kerry and his team have worked endlessly on this task.  But at some point, they have to hold firm and if Iran walks away, so be it.  In fact, that might be a good outcome.  Those who are so deeply involved in the process, and who have given so much of their time, reputation and lives to achieve an agreement, may not be the best positioned to judge its benefit.  Congressional review of whatever may be agreed by the Administration will be very important.  And “no” is an acceptable answer.
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Judy Miller’s Book

“The Story” provides a fascinating perspective on a terrible period.  For those who want to look at the Iraq mess from various angles, this will add a valuable perspective (she quotes me in it, so I may not be unbiased).

There have been harsh comments about Judy Miller’s reporting, but the intelligence community did no better–as has been acknowledged publicly. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 2002 has now been largely declassified.  This was the baseline document for Congress and the Administration regarding the decision to go to war.  It was awful.  Now it serves as an example of how not to create intelligence assessments. And, the intelligence community has taken many steps to improve its collection, analytic process and intelligence products in the aftermath.  But don’t think there won’t be future intelligence “failures.”  It’s inevitable.

Journalists face many of the same problems as intelligence officers–vetting sources, not getting locked in on a single hypothesis, checking your assumptions, reviewing all the sources of bias that seep into analysis, etc, etc, etc.  For both journalists and intelligence officers Iraq was a tough problem.

There was little data.  Defectors were wobbly and hard to check. (Curveball was only the most famous fabricator).  And the mindset was, given Saddam’s history, why wouldn’t he have WMD?  Chemical weapons saved him (by offsetting Iranian “human wave attacks”) in the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s.  Later, in the 1991 Kuwait war, Saddam believed his WMD stocks saved him again by deterring George Bush the elder, from going to Baghdad.  Add to those two facts, the years of Saddam’s playing cat and mouse with UN inspectors (91-96 or so), and it is understandable that intelligence analysts were not postulating that Saddam had finally given everything up.

In the absence of evidence, but with the requirement, nevertheless, to make a judgment for policymakers, giving Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt was improbable.

Of course the assessments were mostly wrong, especially on Nuclear where they were way off the mark–embarrassingly so.  The other assessments (CW, BW, and ballistic missiles) lacked caveats and qualifications that misled readers to assume there was real data underlying the judgments.  As Ms. Miller’s account relates, journalists did not do much better.

It’s worth recalling that the UN weapons inspectors also found it impossible to give Saddam a clean bill of health.  Obviously the consequences of their judgments were not the same as the US intelligence community.  However, their work formed the basis for many key assessments.  And the weapons inspectors were certainly unconvinced that Saddam had come clean.  In fact, they delineated the areas where Saddam had not provided verifiable accounts of his WMD activities.  And the substantial gaps in his story were more readily explained by “hidden WMD” than he innocently “forgot how much he had or where it went.”

From Ms. Miller’s description, it also seems the ugly bureaucratic fights in the government bureaucracy (e.g. between State and Defense) had their counterparts inside the NY Times. The friction between management and staff is quite similar.  So too were the slippery responses by management when things go wrong.

The circumstances leading to the war were not simple.  Quite the contrary.  For those who already have their minds made up (“Bush lied and People died”) and do not want any contrary evidence, perhaps this is not for you.  However, if you are inclined to build on your background this book adds a lot.  I would expect journalism students would find it on future syllabi.

As for Jon Stewart, he certainly expounds a point of view.  And he knows his audience.  He gives them what they want to hear.  Maybe he should become the head of the CIA in his next job.  He’d be better than some and worse than others.  But, I suspect he will run for congress (Senate) next.  Those jobs’ are more in line with his talent.  And maybe the hearings would be even more comical.

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