Small Wars

This Week at War: The Pakistan Scenario

How the United States could end up paying even more for an anti-American Egypt.


In its dealings with the United States, will the new Egypt take after Pakistan?

This week’s battle between pro- and anti-Mubarak supporters for control of Cairo’s Tahrir Square only deepened the mystery over where Egypt’s latest revolution is headed. Mubarak has promised to step down after presidential elections in September, though it remains to be seen if he’ll have to make an exit much sooner than that. What will follow, no one can say. The U.S. government has long granted a generous foreign assistance package to Egypt in order to maintain Mubarak’s support for critical interests in the region. Regardless of what form the new, post-Mubarak government takes, the financial price the United States will have to pay to keep Egypt on its side will almost certainly go up.

Whether the next government is authoritarian or representative, the street protests of the past two weeks will force it to do more than Mubarak ever did to reflect popular will. The Mubarak government was as pro-American as U.S. policymakers could reasonably hope for; its successor will almost certainly be less so. Its level of dependence on the United States will start out the same, but its level of antagonism will very likely go up. At the same time the new Egyptian government will also have important leverage over the United States. Since 9/11, Pakistan’s leaders have shown how leverage and antagonism can be combined into a money machine financed by the U.S. treasury. Obama and his officials should expect the new Egyptian government, whatever form it takes, to quickly apply the same formula.

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the populations of both Pakistan and Egypt have rock bottom opinions of the U.S. government. With popular will now out on the streets, political leaders in post-Mubarak Egypt will profit from burnishing their anti-American credentials. A less cooperative bilateral relationship with the United States will likely result. As is currently the case with Pakistan, U.S. officials will soon have to deal with counterparts in Cairo who will face a limited ability to cooperate with U.S. objectives due to popular resistance.

In spite of this antagonism, U.S. officials will still have to seek Egyptian government cooperation on critical U.S. interests in the region. These include Egypt’s continued support for U.S. military activities in the region, its peace treaty with Israel, its active support of counterterrorism, and its continued adherence to a policy of nuclear non-proliferation.

These policies would seem largely to be in Egypt’s interest as well. However, that does not mean that Egypt will agree to deliver on these U.S. interests for free. Pakistan has shown how to combine leverage over the United States and popular anti-American sentiment into a method of extracting ever more foreign assistance from the U.S. government. U.S. policymakers may grumble that the Pakistanis have delivered little on al Qaeda in many years or that it harbors the Afghan Taliban or that it is rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal. Given the leverage Pakistan has over the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, it seems that the less Pakistan cooperates, the more foreign assistance it receives from the Washington; according to the State Department, U.S. foreign assistance to Pakistan has gone from $727 million in 2007 to a request of $3.05 billion in 2011. Similarly, Yemen has used its tepid support for U.S. counter-terrorism goals to vault its annual U.S. foreign assistance from $19.4 million in 2008 to a request of $106.6 million this year.

The post-Mubarak government could very well follow Pakistan’s lead in combining Egypt’s inherent anti-Americanism and the U.S. government’s critical interests in the region to form a powerful lever to pry more cash out of the U.S. treasury. Although some may view such payments to "frenemies" as unsavory, most U.S. policymakers likely view them as a bargain when compared to the alternatives. Mubarak’s pro-American approach yielded $1.56 billion in assistance this year. With a little bad behavior, the next Egyptian government should be able to do much better than that.

Should the Pentagon flaunt its cyberpower?

During an interview he gave just prior to retiring as the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force General Kevin Chilton asserted that if the Pentagon wants to use deterrence to defend its interests in cyberspace, at some point it will need to put on an intimidating display of just how much turmoil it can inflict online. "[I]f we’re going to use cybercapabilities to deter, that’s going to beg for some demonstration of that capability," Chilton said. "There’s no plans for anything that would demonstrate a [cyberattack] capability at this time. But I think, if we’re going to think about deterrence, which we do at Stratcom, these are the kinds of challenges for the future for us."

Chilton is no doubt using Cold War nuclear deterrence as a model for dissuading potential cyber adversaries. Images of massive mushroom clouds over the Nevada desert or Bikini Atoll were presumably enough to convince Soviet decision-makers to think long and hard about making potentially provocative moves. But how would the U.S. government actually go about making a similar display of cyberpower? And is Cold War deterrence even the appropriate model of conflict in cyberspace?

The most difficult problem regarding cyberdeterrence is attribution, knowing who the attacker is, where to find him, and what assets he values that are vulnerable to retaliation. Chilton asserted that attribution "is more difficult in this domain but it’s not impossible," and that Stratcom is getting better at it. A policy of deterrence through the threat of retaliation won’t be credible until Stratcom reliably solves the attribution problem — attackers won’t fear Stratcom cyberretaliation as long as they know that Stratcom can’t find them. And until Stratcom finally does solve the problem, a demonstration of offensive cybercapability would be diplomatically damaging and would unnecessarily reveal capabilities that best remain inside an adversary’s imagination.

While the Pentagon’s computer engineers work on those problems, the government’s attorneys have some cyberwork of their own to complete. Writing in the New York Times, Richard Falkenrath, a former deputy commissioner for counterterrorism for the New York Police Department and deputy homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, says that it is unclear what legal authority a U.S. president has to conduct offensive cyberoperations. Under his commander-in-chief powers, a president presumably has the authority to employ cyberweapons in support of a military campaign against foreign adversaries. But in the cyber world, the U.S. government’s offensive cyberoperations may run through or target assets or persons inside the United States. Just as it is highly questionable whether a president has legal authority to order Predator drone strikes inside the United States, according to Falkenrath a president’s authority to employ cyberweapons at or through U.S. cyber infrastructure is currently ambiguous and should be resolved with a statute from Congress.

Is Cold War deterrence even the appropriate model of conflict in cyberspace? Rather than looking to the nuclear standoff against the Soviet Union for lessons, a better model might be the Pentagon’s more recent experience chasing down anonymous insurgents who hide within the non-combatant civilian population. If cyberadversaries are insurgents who hide among the world’s computer servers, as the counterinsurgent, the Pentagon would need to persuade those servers (and their owners) to be on its side of the conflict. Just like counterinsurgency in the physical world, winning that struggle in cyberspace will take diplomacy and a whole-of-government approach.

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