Ian Black

Washington is still powerful enough to shape an agenda for international activity but too weak to implement it globally.

THE UNITED States is still powerful enough to shape an agenda for international activity but too weak to implement it globally as it faces uncertain prospects in Iraq, an escalating confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions and a robust challenge to its military hegemony from an increasingly assertive China, argues a new report, The Military Balance 2007, by a leading United Kingdom think tank.

An annual survey of the international military scene produces a picture of a messy "nonpolar" world rather than the "unipolar" or "multipolar" world often described as having emerged since the late 1980s, said John Chipman, director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Others, whether rival states or key "non-state actors" such as Lebanon's Hizbollah, are now "strong enough to resist an American agenda but too weak to shape an internationally attractive alternative or to implement an enduring local agenda free of outside influence," he suggested.

Traditional military thinking needs to adjust further to the "complex battlefield" of the 21st century. Neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan had there been adequate planning for post-conflict problems or nation-building after the "highly successful" combat phase, the IISS report says. In both cases there had been over-reliance on technology at the expense of vital human intelligence. Lawrence of Arabia is quoted to underline the need for psychological warfare operations to defeat insurgents.

Biggest test for U.S.

The biggest ongoing test of U.S. power is in Iraq, where President George W. Bush is trying his last-ditch "surge" strategy. "Simply flooding one area ... in this case Baghdad, with troops, neglects the subtler aspects of counter-insurgency doctrine," Dr. Chipman warns of the "clear, hold and build" approach. For a surge of troops to be sustainable it needs a follow-up process of reconstituting security, building an administrative capacity and establishing the rule of law. "The Americans are good at clearing but the problem has been in holding, and then allowing through holding to build," said the IISS director of studies, Patrick Cronin, rating the chances of U.S. success in Iraq at just 40 per cent.

Iraq's Shia Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, would have to remove large numbers of ineffective cabinet ministers to strengthen his own position. But he lacks the political power for such a bold move, Dr. Chipman says. The institutions of the state, especially the Iraqi army, are not strong enough.

On Iran, the IISS estimates that the country is still two to three years away from being able to produce 25 kg of highly enriched uranium, enough for one nuclear weapon. But if it overcomes technical hurdles the military options will increase, though sanctions do appear to be having an impact on Tehran.

"As Iran nears the point at which it masters enrichment and production capability there will be increasing pressure to prevent it from reaching a weapons capability," says IISS proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick. "I don't think Washington is giving up on diplomacy but as the year goes on that pressure will increase." Israel has also warned that it will not accept a nuclear-armed Iran.

"Iran's sense of its own power has been steadily heightened as U.S. influence in the Middle East is challenged and in response to disunity in the international community on how to deal with Tehran's pursuit of its nuclear ambitions," the report says.

Afghanistan

NATO member states face a "stamina" problem in Afghanistan, the IISS says, though there are grounds for optimism despite a resurgent Taliban and difficulties with Pakistan. "Nato will have to stay for a long time to allow stability, which then allows reconstruction," says Christopher Langton, editor of the 450-page report.

Afghan security problems are complicated by a weak police force and the issue of the eradication of the poppy crop. "The removal of farmers' livelihoods, with no significant incentive or replacement livelihood programme runs counter to efforts to win `hearts and minds' in many areas," the report adds. "The Taliban capitalise on this contradiction by championing the case of the farmers ... protecting those who profit from the opium and heroin trade."

Movement on North Korea's nuclear programme could come as a result of new flexibility in U.S. negotiating tactics, Dr. Chipman predicts. Pyongyang has floated the prospect of halting its production and reprocessing of uranium, of which it now has enough for up to ten weapons, and though it is unlikely to surrender them, "there is fresher life to the negotiating pace than might have been anticipated." Any North Korean nuclear cooperation with Iran as distinct from the supply of ballistic missile technology would be a "red line" for the U.S.

Conflict persisted in Darfur, with much talk about peacekeeping. But the African novelty of the year was the opening up of a possible third front for international jihadists in Somalia (after Afghanistan and Iraq), with Al Qaeda urging the "lions of Islam" to resist the U.N.-backed transitional government in Mogadishu. The IISS sees the danger of a new Islamist insurgency fuelled by U.S. attacks on suspected terrorist targets.

Fighting insurgents

The IISS urges the U.S. and allies to pay more attention to psychological warfare and "influence operations" on the basis of their Afghan and Iraqi experiences.

"Insurgents and jihadists have proved adept at conducting successful information campaigns that reach a global audience and foment violence elsewhere," it says. Western armies have not kept up. Announcements by NATO forces of how many fighters they had killed could be counter-productive because, for the Taliban, "death is a form of victory."

Taking on novel military challenges doesn't come cheap. "New equipment requires finance outside the normal budgetary cycle," the IISS report says. "Part of the capacity to react quickly is contingency funding on a level not previously envisaged by those countries that sought to cut defence spending following the end of the cold war."

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006