The Complex

Top Marine Commander: Iraq Chaos Shows Costs of U.S. Withdrawal

Stepping into an intensifying political debate, the head of the Marine Corps said the United States doesn't have the luxury of isolationism and said Iraq's deterioration may have been prevented if Washington had maintained a larger U.S. presence there.

The comments from Gen. James Amos, the outgoing commandant of the Marine Corps., come amid sharp divides over who bears responsibility for the takeover of much of Iraq by Islamist militants and whether the United States should pull back from its leadership role on the world stage.

Republican critics of Barack Obama's administration argue that the White House's decision to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 cleared the way for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a hard-line Shiite, to consolidate power and drive the country's Sunni minority into the arms of militants from the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, which has conquered broad swaths of central Iraq. The critics also argue that removing all U.S. forces allowed the Iraqi military's fighting capabilities to wither so significantly than many troops abandoned their posts and fled when ISIS militants attacked, leaving the armed group with large caches of advanced and U.S.-provided weaponry.

At the same time, the Republican Party itself has been riven by a fierce internal debate about whether the United States should maintain the type of muscular foreign policy that has characterized the party for decades or adopt a less interventionist approach. The dispute has pitted two presumed 2016 presidential candidates against each other, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry deriding Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the prime proponent of a more cautious foreign policy, as an isolationist whose views pose dangerous risks to U.S. national security. Paul, in turn, has said that Perry's approach would leave the United States enmeshed in long, messy wars like Afghanistan.

Amos, who is scheduled to retire this fall, offered strong views on both debates. On Iraq, Amos said he believes that the ISIS takeover of central Iraq -- and the growing political fissures between Maliki and the country's embattled Sunni minority -- may have been avoided if the United States hadn't completely withdrawn from the country in 2011.

"I have a hard time believing that had we been there, and worked with the government, and worked with parliament, and worked with the minister of defense, the minister of interior, I don't think we'd be in the same shape we're in today," Amos said during an event at the Brookings Institution.

Amos also had strong words for those who want the United States to pull back from its commitments and responsibilities around the globe.

"We may think we're done with all of these nasty, thorny, tacky little things that are going on around the world -- and I'd argue that if you're in that nation, it's not a tacky, little thing for you. We may think we're done with them, but they're not done with us," Amos said.

He said ISIS's capture of Anbar province, a former insurgent stronghold that had been cleared by U.S. Marines at great cost, was painful for him both personally and professionally.

"It breaks our hearts," Amos said, while quickly rattling off statistics showing what the war in Iraq cost the Marine Corps: 852 killed with another 8,500 injured.

He said that when the Marines left Anbar in 2010, handing operations over to the U.S. Army, they felt good about what they'd accomplished there.

"They believed that they'd made a difference," Amos said.

Now, the Islamic State controls Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, both cities where the Marine Corps spent years fighting and bleeding.

Marines are now in the midst of their withdrawal from Afghanistan's Helmand province, which holds a similar importance to them as Anbar did in Iraq, and it remains uncertain whether the Afghan security forces will be able to hold off Taliban attacks.

Amos said he is confident in the Afghan security forces' ability to fend off the Taliban, but he warned that Afghanistan could collapse like Iraq if the United States pulls out "lock, stock, and barrel."

"There's no question that [the Afghan security forces] would not be able to hold," Amos said.

Still, Amos said he's optimistic about Afghanistan because the administration has agreed to keep 9,800 U.S. troops there until the end of 2015. In May, Obama announced that half of those troops will remain in Afghanistan until 2016. Beyond that, a small military presence will remain at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

"I think now that the president has made the decision to leave 9,800, that there will be continued support for those great warriors and leaders," Amos said about the Afghan security forces.

The four-star rarely shies away from expressing his opinion, even when it contradicts the official White House or Pentagon position. When the Obama administration was pushing to repeal "don't ask don't tell," which forbade gays from serving openly in the military, Amos warned that doing so could have detrimental effects on the Marines' ability to fight. He later embraced the policy change and said his previous concerns were unfounded.

This year, the Pentagon recommended scaling back funding for military commissaries, reducing the average shopper's savings from 30 percent to 10 percent. The Joint Chiefs have defended the proposal on Capitol Hill, but Amos won't get behind it. At Brookings on Tuesday, Amos reiterated his opposition to the idea.

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The Complex

U.S. Electrical Grid Vulnerable to Cyberthreats and Physical Attack, Study Finds

The United States' electrical grid is vulnerable to disruptive attacks by computer hackers that could shut off power to vital sectors of the economy and key public utilities, giving potential adversaries a new way of hitting the United States, according to a new study by a Washington think tank.

The report by the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill consider legislation that would beef up cybersecurity standards for critical infrastructure like the power grid while also encouraging the government and private sector to share more information about cyberthreats and thwarted attacks. That legislation has been in the works for years but has been blocked by business interests that see mandatory security standards as an improper attempt by Washington to dictate how companies manage privately owned facilities in industries ranging from telecommunications to the financial and transportation sectors.

Cyberattacks on the power grid have long been seen as a kind of doomsday scenario that could cripple large swaths of the U.S. economy and society, leading to lengthy power outages and wide-scale panic. The new report identifies a range of potential cyberattackers that have both the motive and the capability to take down portions of the power grid, from countries like China and Russia to terrorist organizations and organized criminals.

"For countries like Iran and North Korea, grid vulnerabilities serve as targets for attacks aimed at disruption or asymmetric effects in terms of national, economic, and civil security," the report's authors write, referring to the idea that a country that will always be outmatched militarily by the United States will look for unconventional ways to attack. Cyberweapons, which can include malicious programs written by individual hackers, offer just such a relatively cheap and easier way of hitting the United States.

U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned about the threat that Iran poses to critical infrastructure, including the power grid and the financial sector, because of rapid advances in Tehran's cyberattack capabilities. In 2012, U.S. intelligence officials say, hackers in Iran launched a series of debilitating assaults on the websites of major U.S. banks. Disabling an electrical grid would require a more sophisticated kind of attack, but U.S. officials and security experts say that Iran is on a path to acquire the means and the know-how to target the power grid.

"Although Iran does lack technological sophistication when compared to other threat actors, such as China or Russia, Iran's diligence and tenacity make it just as formidable an opponent," the report's authors write. "Overall, Iran and government sponsored organizations throughout the country are continuing to expand their ability to conduct a major cyberattack."

The report emphasizes that it's not just cyber-intruders that threaten the U.S. power grid. Electrical systems are also vulnerable to "physical attack, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), geomagnetic storm, and inclement weather.… Focusing on one event or one type of attack fails to account for the overlapping nature of many of these threats," the report's authors write.

The threat of a physical attack was underscored in April 2013 when at least one gunman used a high-powered assault rifle to disable 10 transformers at an electrical facility near San Jose, California, which had few protective measures in place to deter potential intruders.

During the attack, cooling oil leaked from a transformer bank, causing it to overheat and shut down. State regulators urged customers in the area to conserve energy over the following days, but no long-term damage was reported at the facility and there were no major power outages.

Still, the attack gave policymakers in Washington a vivid reminder that electrical facilities are vulnerable to both cyberattacks and physical attacks. In response, the report's authors call on Barack Obama's administration to use more executive actions -- such as presidential orders and recommended industry standards -- to heighten cybersecurity and to work with Congress to pass laws that make it easier for companies to share information about vulnerabilities in their networks with each other and with the government.

Many companies are concerned that if they do share information about potential hacker activity on their computer networks with U.S. law enforcement or intelligence agencies, they could violate privacy laws. That's because monitoring networks for cyberthreats may require examining information about a company's customers, and companies may not be authorized to voluntarily give such information to the government.

The Obama administration has recently tried to assuage companies' concerns and encourage them to share more information with each other, which officials say is essential to preventing attacks. In April, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission announced that companies sharing cyberthreat information, so that they could learn from each other and cooperate on putting defensive measures in place, would not violate federal anti-trade laws.

"Cyberthreats are increasing in number and sophistication, and sharing information about these threats, such as incident reports, indicators, and threat signatures, is something companies can do to protect their information systems and help secure our nation's infrastructure," Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer, who heads the Justice Department's antitrust division, said at the time. "With proper safeguards in place, cyberthreat information sharing can occur without posing competitive concerns."

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