Global Viewpoint

ACDIS Associate Director Bharath Gopalaswamy Discusses International Security Issues

Matt VanderZalm
11/29/2011  8:00 am

Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy is currently the associate director of the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security (ACDIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Prior to joining ACDIS, Dr. Gopalaswamy was a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's (SIPRI) Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme; his projects at SIPRI included space security and missile defense.

Dr. Gopalaswamy holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering with a specialization in Numerical Acoustics from Trinity College, Dublin. In addition to his studies abroad, he has previously worked at the Indian Space Research Organization's (ISRO) High Altitude Test Facilities and the EADS Astrium GmbH division in Germany. Currently, his research interests include: space and maritime security, missile defense and technical and political issues related to nuclear test ban verification. Here, he discusses current topics related to international security.

President Obama has announced that all American troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011. How do you foresee the withdrawal affecting security in the country and the region more broadly?

President Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of the year poses challenges to stability in a country that still faces sectarian violence and pressure from its neighbors in an unstable region.

Internally, violence will not end as Sunni Islamists tied to Al-Qaeda will continue to target security forces as a means to demonstrate that Maliki’s government is not capable of providing security to its citizens. Meanwhile, Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shi’ite cleric who has been opposing military presence and whose militia fought U.S. troops, will welcome the decision. The Kurdish bloc, a key advocate for a continued U.S. presence, will be concerned. This decision will be a source of disturbance and disagreement

On a regional level, Syria’s ongoing political turmoil threatens Iraq’s western borders, while Iran and Turkey’s vying political influence threatens the north and east of the country. The declining American presence will only encourage these developments.

While there has been word about the administration’s plans for American military in Iraq, there is still no clear end to the war in Afghanistan. How effective has the troop surge of 2009 been, and what will it take to create a secure Afghanistan?

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the troop surge was meant to increase quantity and quality of Iraqi and Afghan security forces so that they could take over most or all of the fighting and defense, and to create sufficiently stable conditions so that when the country is handed over to indigenous forces, the conditions are sustainable, and not doomed to fail.

The surge in Afghanistan has achieved some success. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell’s leadership has improved the quality and quantity of the Afghan National Army. That its partnership with NATO forces (however primitive it may be) provides about half of all combat forces in the south, bearing primary responsibility for security in Kabul, and showing fairly strong commitment to the Afghan state, is underappreciated in the U.S debate. However, this provides a basis under which the argument to hand-off security to Afghan forces can be made.

However, there are challenges: first, the goals for Afghanistan were far more ambitious than that for Iraq.  While Kabul and other former strongholds of Taliban are secure, there are still some parts of the country that remain perilious and in the hands of the Taliban. Violence still has not decreased and so have attacks and assassinations. This means, transportation arteries are still under threat. So a continued U.S. presence is required to ensure stability.

What role does the lack of a secure border between Afghanistan and Pakistan play in the continued insurgency?

The border regions act as the headquarters of the ongoing militancy and insurgency in Afghanistan. Money in large sums originating across these borders routinely finds its way into the team houses of Taliban members in various villages, towns, and cities of Afghanistan.

The command and control and the organization direction for the Taliban and the Haqqani network originate in these areas. It is safe to say that, by and large, the epicenter and fountainhead of militancy, terrorism, and insurgency in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is here. As Afghan President Karzai repeatedly has pointed out, these border regions must be included in any plan of action in order to bring militancy and insurgency under control on both sides of the Afghan-Pak border. A renewed focus on these border areas and working towards neutralizing the militant headquarters in those regions would have the effect of reducing violence. In short, border areas are the key and a political solution must be explored.

The so-called “Arab Spring” has brought about regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and most recently, Libya. What effect did NATO have in bringing down Gahdafi, and do you foresee similar intervention in countries like Syria, where threats of violence against their own people remain?

The role of NATO in Libya gave both military and political support. Militarily speaking, NATO’s air attacks  helped the rebels in neutralizing Gaddhafi’s arsenal. Politically speaking, the NATO operation stressed the principle of collective action. The U.S with the support of France and other EU partners marshaled the international community in gaining political and diplomatic support for a military intervention in Libya.

However, the Libyan intervention model cannot be interpolated to cases like Syria and Bahrain. In the case of Syria, NATO has already ruled out a Libyan like intervention.  Primarily, there is no international consensus or wider regional support for military intervention in Syria. Other factors, such as differences in Syrian politics and its impact on the Middle East region as a whole have been a primary concern in attempting a Libyan like intervention in Syria.