The Center for Preventive Action sat down with Michael Dempsey, national intelligence fellow at CFR and former acting director of national intelligence, to discuss the conflicts he is most concerned about, the state of the U.S. counterterrorism campaign, and the most important things policymakers should consider before using force. He also offers his advice to those interested in a career in conflict prevention.
Given today’s increasingly chaotic geopolitical environment, is there any crisis in particular that worries you?
Michael Dempsey: Even after seven plus years of fighting, the Syrian war still stands out to me for several reasons. First, the Bashar al-Assad regime clearly enjoys battlefield momentum and appears poised to retake southwestern Syria in the next few weeks. But the number of civilians injured and killed continues to grow, and there is likely to be intense fighting—potentially involving the use of chemical weapons—in the coming months, particularly in Idlib Province. Second, the fighting continues to generate massive population displacement, increasing the risk of instability in countries of first asylum such as Lebanon and Jordan. Third, as this week’s alleged Israeli airstrike in Syria demonstrates, there remains the distinct possibility that Israel’s alarm about Iran’s presence in Syria, especially along the border with Israel, could spark a broader conflict. Finally, Syria remains home to a significant number (in the low thousands) of al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters, and absent a final resolution of this conflict, they will continue to train and operate there. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a stable future for Iraq if al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters are allowed to operate just across the border in Syria.
Any other conflicts of concern?
MD: Yes, several. I’m concerned about the direction of war in Afghanistan (now in its seventeenth year), and the lack of progress in advancing a meaningful peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government. I’m worried about the grinding conflict in Yemen (well into its third year), and the human misery it is generating, as well as the conflict’s potential to spill beyond Yemen’s borders. I’m also concerned about a series of simmering conflicts that have the potential to go from zero to sixty in a moment’s notice, such as in Libya (now in its seventh year) and in eastern Ukraine (in its fourth year).
As you can probably tell, I’m deeply concerned about the length of these conflicts and the international community’s seeming inability to end wars. This is especially frustrating because resolving even a few of these crises would dramatically reduce the refugee and displacement crisis which is now, according to the United Nations, as bad as it has been globally since the end of World War II.
How is the global counterterrorism campaign going?
MD: I think it’s fine at the tactical level, but it’s still worrisome at a strategic level. Let me explain. There has clearly been dramatic progress since 2014 in eliminating the Islamic State’s physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, which has, in turn, undermined the group’s strategic messaging effort. In addition, the core of al-Qaeda in South Asia has been devastated, and most of the terrorist attacks in the West over the past three plus years have been from homegrown violent extremists versus large scale, centrally directed plots. That’s the positive news.
However, it’s also true that both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda retain several nodes that are capable of conducting attacks. Al-Qaeda’s most active branch is in Syria, while the Islamic State’s is probably a toss-up between its branches in Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen. It’s also worth noting that despite the Islamic State’s recent battlefield setbacks, none of its overseas branches have renounced their pledge of fealty to the group.
Meanwhile, the broad underlying conditions that have fueled the appeal of the extremists’ message show few signs of improvement. These include a 30 percent youth unemployment rate throughout the Middle East, limited space for political expression in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the current refugee crisis, which is jeopardizing the future of an entire generation of children in places such as Yemen and Syria.
So, while we’ve clearly made progress in rolling back the operational capabilities of terrorist groups and in forestalling large scale attacks in the West, we still have a long way to go in tackling terrorism’s root causes. Western political leaders, by the way, also need to avoid issuing public statements and enacting policies that will be exploited by jihadist leaders to create the perception that the terrorism fight is part of a broader struggle between the West and the world’s Muslim community. That’s the kindling that could keep this fire burning in perpetuity.
Any thoughts on the evolution of warfare and its influence on the United States?
MD: I think we are living through a period of profound military transformation that’s most akin to the period around World War I. In that era, as you’ll recall, we witnessed the initial use of chemical weapons on the battlefield, and the development and use of combat aircraft, tanks, flamethrowers, and more advanced artillery and machine guns. Today it’s the use of armed drones, cyber warfare, and autonomous weapons. I worry that the pace of technological change is outstripping our ability to formulate new international norms governing the use of these systems, that the use of stand-off, antiseptic weapons is desensitizing us to the actual toll of combat, and that the U.S. national security structure hasn’t sufficiently updated its processes, authorities, and organizational structure to meet this new challenge.
What practical advice would you offer anyone interested in pursuing conflict prevention or resolution?
MD: I’m glad you asked this question! The trap we fall into in government is that we spend the bulk of our time grappling with crises that have already occurred, and much less time in preventing future crises. In terms of career advice, I would say up front that despite the barrage of stories in recent months about low morale at the State Department and USAID, they are wonderful places to work, and a career spent in either place working to prevent and resolve conflicts is a noble calling.
As for practical advise to policymakers, I would urge them before committing to use military force to fully consider several factors, including: how U.S. policy actions during a crisis are perceived by our potential adversaries; the need for absolute precision when identifying what is a core U.S. national security interest; the potential unintended consequences and the second- and third-order effects of using military force; the toll that long-term conflict is taking on our military personnel and equipment; and the need to always use as much time as possible before making critically important decisions. Our recent history demonstrates that it’s much easier to start a war than to end one.