Smaller drones don’t let the US off the hook for war crimes

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates the separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground test range, Arizona on March 26, 2021
The XQ-58A Valkyrie releases a ALTIUS-600 small UAS during a test in Arizona, March 26, 2021

  • The US has relied heavily on drones for many missions – including lethal strikes – for decades.
  • Drones are only a platform, and what matters for international law is how those platforms are used.
  • In the US, focus on the drones themselves has overshadowed debate with the wider ethics of armed violence.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When it comes to armed drones, is smaller and more precise necessarily better?

The question came to my mind upon seeing the news that the US Air Force just successfully test-launched a new weaponizable drone, the ALTIUS-600, making it the smallest drone in operation. Even more remarkably, this tiny aircraft was launched from the second-smallest-drone, the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, while the Valkyrie was in flight.

There is nothing objectionable about the development of mini-drones. One could even argue they would be improvements, in humanitarian terms, over the use of the much larger Reaper to deliver 500-pound bombs in allegedly “precise” strikes that instead often sweep up scores of civilians and destroy the property their surviving family members rely on for their livelihoods.

But the US military’s obsession with minimalism – from fewer boots on the ground to lower-payload munitions – also minimalizes public engagement with the wider ethics of armed violence.

The emphasis on size, mobility and precision is the product of a highly limited and limiting view rife in American political discourse: that the key ethical and legal problem presented by armed drones is collateral damage. This narrative – reflected in public opinion surveys, Hollywood films and political discourse – circumscribes debate.

As Sarah Kreps, a Cornell professor and WPR contributor, notes in her book with John Kaag, the question of collateral damage is but a subset of a subset of a subset of the wider international law on the killing of human beings by governments.

Drone Strikes
Demonstrators burn the US flag during a protest against US drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal region, in Karachi, November 8, 2013.

At the overarching level, that law applies to governments in peacetime, not in war. The basic legal rule, enshrined in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is clear: “No arbitrary deprivation of the right to life.”

Due process is required for state-sanctioned executions; guilt must be proven, not assumed. And even the death penalty for criminals convicted of the worst genuine offenses is increasingly frowned upon and must be carried out using humane means. The only exceptions to this prohibition on the use of deadly force are in cases of imminent harm to others where no other options for preventing that harm are available.

Of course, in times of war, things shift, and the law of war applies. The default proscription against killing is lifted, but only under strict conditions, reflecting the fact that war is considered an aberration, a small subset of the variety of circumstances in which states might direct lethal force against individuals. Among the conditions that must be met, a state of war must apply.

Those doing the violence must be members of the state’s armed forces; civilian CIA pilots would be unlawful combatants. The targets must be military objectives, not civilians. And the harm and suffering caused even to legitimate military targets must be minimized to what is necessary to weaken the enemy and not involve inhumane methods or disproportionate or indiscriminate collateral harm.

Here and only here do the rules of collateral damage apply, with the central question being, How much harm to bystanders and infrastructure is acceptable given the necessity of hitting a particular legitimate military target with a particular military means deployed by a particular military actor in a particular military context?

In short, the collateral damage question is embedded within the rules governing who may be targeted, which are in turn embedded within the rules governing who may do the targeting, which are subordinate to the bigger question of whether a situation falls within the scope of war law at all, rather than peacetime human rights rules.

Yet, popular attention so often focuses on this tiny subset of the rules governing collateral damage, eliding these higher-level issues.

drone strike yemen
People gather at the site of a drone strike on a road in the southern Yemeni province of Lahj, August 11, 2013.

Suppose a drone were not only perfectly precise and relatively humane, but also carried a firearm rather than explosives or sword blades. Suppose it killed quickly, rather than burning its victims alive or hacking them death, as a new Hellfire missile is designed to do in the name of limiting collateral damage. And suppose the identity of the target could be determined without fail, using biometrics before a bullet was fired.

The accuracy of such an attack does not resolve the question of whether a kill decision is correct in the first place. These targeting decisions often rely on human intelligence – reports from locals – to determine who is allegedly a mortal danger to US interests.

But in insurgencies and civil wars, reports from local sources are just as often used to settle old scores as to provide accurate intelligence, as the research of Stathis Kalyvas, a professor at Yale, has long showed.

At times, in fact, the US has often relied not on specific kill orders of specific individuals, but rather on “signature strikes” – a best estimate of who is likely to match the profile of a suspected militant in a particular context – to determine whether to launch a strike that often targets whole groups.

As the NGOs Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will have documented, signature strikes have been carried out based on criteria as arbitrary as the sex and age of the victims, with nearly any military-age male in a frontier region vulnerable to lethal strike. These combinations of false stereotypes, faulty intelligence, mnemonic shortcuts and sheer hubris have killed scores of civilian teenage boys, not by accident, not by precision weapons failure, but by design.

These civilian men and boys directly targeted by the US include 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, a soccer player, amateur photographer and anti-drone activist. Aziz died in late October 2011 in Waziristan, Pakistan, when a CIA-fired Hellfire missile burned him and his 12-year-old cousin Waheed Khan beyond recognition as he drove to give his aunt a ride home from a wedding.

Even in a precise strike carried out far from other villages, with no collateral damage, the killings of these boys would have been not only tragic, but criminal. In a real war, we would have called this a case of civilian targeting – a war crime. In peacetime – a more accurate view of the state of relations between the US and Pakistan – we would simply call this murder.

That the Pakistani government approved or perhaps even requested the strike doesn’t make it legitimate. It merely makes both governments complicit in political murder.

US drone strikes
Pakistani protesters shout slogans against US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal region, October 2014.

All these important legal concerns are lost in a view of weaponized drones and targeted killings that sees the main issues as those of precision, human intelligence, accuracy and the reduction of collateral damage to “bystander” civilians, as if the civilians we are directly targeting merit no outrage on their own.

Reducing collateral damage is important in real wars, but that is not the only or even the primary concern with the use of ever-smaller lethal technology to wage ever-more subtle forms of peacetime political violence.

Terrorism is a crime. States are obligated to capture criminal suspects, put them on trial, allow them to defend themselves and free them if they are found innocent. Drones enable the opposite, as do special operations teams with kill orders.

But drones do something else as well: They provide a veneer of precision and bloodlessness that directs our attention to efforts at collateral damage control, obfuscating the reality of what is and has always been a campaign of extrajudicial execution sweeping up civilians whether by accident or by design.

Arguably, that has been the point. In November, the Center for Civilians in Conflict published a report entitled “Exceptions to the Rules,” tracking 20 years of US drone policy.

It concludes, “A policy that allows the use of covert, lethal force under the laws of armed conflict outside of the context of an armed conflict undermines the protection of internationally recognized human rights and international law.”

It added that any reform agenda must not make the mistake of focusing too narrowly on any single abuse, which “risks missing the emergence of a more problematic phenomenon, the gradual accumulation of legal loopholes.”

US drones
Graffiti protesting against US drone strikes in Sana’a, Yemen, September 2018.

As a result of this ethical devolution, not limited to but certainly epitomized by drone politics, our understanding not only of political-legal reality, but also of political-legal possibility, becomes smaller and more insignificant.

Leaders of the free world would be wise to reverse course and return to fundamental principles. One reason to be heartened is the fact that President Joe Biden’s review of the use of US drones outside of active battlefields is really a review of America’s targeted killing program.

Another is the fact that the US military might prefer to be kept in reserve for conventional wars, rather than thrust into counterterror and counterinsurgency missions for which it is ill-suited.

To be clear: Weaponized drones themselves are also not the problem. Drones are only a platform, and what matters in international law terms is how platforms are used. But if there is a reason to focus on drones, it is because of the way in which, as Gregoire Chamayou shows us, our conceptual understanding of drones as a particular technology has also impacted our ability to even notice what is wrong with their use in international law terms.

Focusing on technology relaxes our legal and ethical horizon and narrows our parameters of debate, and this needs to change. Smaller and simpler is not always better. Less is not always more.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.

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Warnings about an imminent Chinese invasion of Taiwan are overblown

Taiwan Kinmen China
A concrete bunker on a beach facing the Chinese city of Xamen on the Taiwanese island of Little Kinmen, which at points lies only a few miles from China, in Kinmen, Taiwan, April 20, 2018.

  • China’s posture toward Taiwan has grown markedly more belligerent in recent years.
  • Nonetheless, there are many good reasons to be skeptical about warnings of a near-term or even medium-term invasion of Taiwan by Beijing.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The top US military commander for the Asia-Pacific region, Adm. Philip Davidson, raised eyebrows at a recent Senate hearing when he suggested China could invade Taiwan within the next six years.

The nominee to replace Davidson at the head of US Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. John Aquilino, then went a step further, telling the same committee last week that in his view, “This problem is much closer to us than most think and we have to take this on.”

At first glance, such concerns might seem justified. The Chinese Communist Party has always viewed the annexation of Taiwan as a key strategic goal, but its posture toward the democratic, self-ruling island has grown markedly more belligerent in recent years. Chinese leaders have publicly reiterated their willingness to use force to “unify” Taiwan with the mainland, while ramping up the pace of military activities in and around the Taiwan Strait.

Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has presided over the rapid growth and modernization of the People’s Liberation Army-particularly its navy, air force and missile arsenal. Where Taipei once enjoyed certain advantages in the event of a military conflict, including technological superiority and the benefits of island defense, many military analysts now conclude that China could take Taiwan by force, and that the United States would be hard-pressed to stop it.

China amphibious tanks invasion
Chinese People’s Liberation Army amphibious tanks land on a beach during a Sino-Russian military exercise near the Shandong Peninsula, China, August 24, 2005.

Nonetheless, there are many good reasons to cast a gimlet eye on Davidson and Aquilino’s warnings of a near-term or even medium-term Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

First, the US military brass has a long history of inflating threats in order to ensure continued support from elected officials, particularly the lawmakers who fund their operations. It should be no more surprising that the head of Indo-Pacific Command is hyping the prospect of Chinese military adventurism than it is to hear the head of Southern Command opining that fragile states in the Western Hemisphere pose an “existential” threat to the United States.

The Pentagon’s own annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities, released last year, makes clear that an amphibious invasion of Taiwan would be “a significant political and military risk” for China.

Large-scale amphibious invasions are hard to pull off under the best of circumstances, and this would likely be the largest mass military mobilization the world has seen since D-Day. It would require the PLA to transport its soldiers across a body of water nearly five times as wide as the English Channel, all while ensuring that it maintains unchallenged control of the seas and airspace around the island.

As Taiwan-based writer Brian Hioe recently pointed out in a piece for the online magazine New Bloom, it is doubtful that the PLA currently has adequate amphibious lift capability to sustain an invasion and occupation of Taiwan.

China could try to make up for this deficiency by utilizing coast guard ships, commercial vessels and even fishing boats – engineering what some analysts have called a “reverse Dunkirk” – but that would entail its own discrete risks.

Whatever the case, it seems clear that Chinese military planners would prefer to have more time to develop their amphibious capabilities before attempting to take Taiwan by force.

Taiwan China amphibious landing military exercise
Taiwan’s military holds a large-scale exercise in the southern part of the island simulating an attempted amphibious landing by Chinese forces, May 30, 2019.

Beijing must also factor in the likelihood of an intervention from the US and its allies, particularly Japan, which hosts the largest overseas contingent of American active-duty military personnel. Most of them are stationed in Okinawa, just 750 kilometers – roughly 466 miles – from Taiwan.

In recent years, the already robust bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill in favor of supporting Taiwan’s autonomy from Beijing has only strengthened, and US public opinion polls also indicate growing support for the defense of Taiwan.

Japan, too, maintains close unofficial ties with Taiwan, and would view any Chinese aggression toward the island as a threat to its own security. According to a recent report in the Nikkei, a leading Japanese newspaper, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Joe Biden are planning to underscore the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait in their joint statement when they meet in Washington later this month.

As the Nikkei notes, the last time Japanese and American leaders expressed such concern was in 1969. Should it wish to forcibly annex Taiwan, Beijing would have to accept the high likelihood of a war with its top two trading partners.

Even if China successfully pulls off a cross-strait invasion while keeping the US and its allies at bay, the human and economic toll would be nothing short of catastrophic. Taiwan’s technology and manufacturing sectors play crucial roles in global supply chains, and Beijing would likely come under tremendous international pressure, including economic sanctions, to reverse course.

Bonnie Glaser and Matthew Funaiole, two scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have also argued that China would have to deal with the prospect of a prolonged resistance movement on the island.

“An all-out invasion of Taiwan might bog down the PLA in a counterinsurgency effort that lasts for years, which could compromise the military’s modernization efforts, drain precious resources from the Chinese economy, and lead to dissatisfaction at home as the body bags come home, many of them likely to be their parents’ only sons,” they wrote in Foreign Policy last year.

This would be exactly the type of aggressive military intervention and occupation that China has castigated the US for mounting in the past.

Chinese marines navy landing craft beach
Chinese troops board landing craft during an amphibious exercise on the coast of southeast China’s Fujian Province, November 27, 1995.

None of this means that China’s threatening behavior against Taiwan should not be taken seriously.

PLA warplanes have intruded into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone with such frequency in recent months that the Taiwanese military has decided to stop scrambling fighter jets upon each incursion, opting to track them with ground-based missiles in order to conserve resources.

Deputy Defense Minister Chang Che-ping told lawmakers in Taipei this week that he considered China’s provocations to be a kind of “war of attrition,” likely referring to the fact that Taiwan has incurred hundreds of millions of dollars in additional maintenance costs to facilitate the frequent scrambling of its jets, many of which are older models.

Chang’s comments speak to a core pillar of China’s strategy: Wearing Taiwan down psychologically in the hope that, eventually, its leaders will be forced to negotiate the terms of their surrender.

Of course, Beijing itself has undermined that strategy with its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong and on the city’s autonomy, making a mockery of the “One Country, Two Systems” approach that Chinese leaders once put forward as a template for unification with Taiwan.

Going forward, China is more likely to continue and perhaps build upon its multipronged pressure campaign against Taiwan. This could mean further efforts to isolate Taipei on the world stage by trying to poach its remaining diplomatic allies and continuing to block its access to international organizations.

It could even try to test Taiwan’s resolve – and the international community’s commitment to defending it – by taking over one of the smaller islands that Taiwan administers in the South China Sea. But at least in the immediate term, it is difficult to envision Chinese leaders justifying the political, economic and reputational costs of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.

Pentagon officials are fond of saying that the US military is a planning organization. Its job is to plan for contingencies, and a military conflict over Taiwan is certainly worth putting at or near the top of the list. There are a number of scenarios that, while improbable, could spark an escalatory cycle and change China’s cost-to-benefit calculus with regard to Taiwan.

But no one is served by publicly exaggerating the likelihood of conflict in the Taiwan Strait – not the United States and certainly not the people of Taiwan, who ultimately have the most at stake.

Elliot Waldman is the senior editor of World Politics Review.

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Stop asking the US military to fight terrorism and rebuild countries

US soldiers troops patrol war in Afghanistan
A US soldier digs out a vehicle stuck in mud in southeastern Afghanistan, April 23, 2007.

  • The US military spent much of the past 20 years on tasks for which it is ill-suited: counterterrorism as well as stability and support operations.
  • The solution isn’t to weaken laws for counterterrorism operations or to diminish the role of civilian agencies in peace building but to take the military out of those roles.
  • Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Have know-nothing civilian bureaucrats, lily-livered humanitarian do-gooders and misguided academics tied the military’s hands with increasingly restrictive norms that don’t correspond to the laws of war, let alone the rigors of battle and requirements of victory?

That’s the premise of a new article in Military Review by Army Lt. Gen. Charles Pede and Col. Peter Hayden. Pede and Hayden write derisively of the three-decades-old shift in US military doctrine toward enhanced civilian protection, exemplified by the population-centric counterinsurgency approach to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is a danger, they argue, since troops trained in restraint and respect for civilian life would be tactically, bureaucratically and morally hobbled if faced with a massed formation of Russian, Chinese or Iranian tanks.

For all this argument’s numerous flaws, it contains one underappreciated insight. The US military has been asked to take on tasks to which it is ill-suited, affecting mission readiness for its primary role: winning wars.

The solution, however, is not to water down the laws of war as they pertain to counterterrorism operations or to diminish the role of civilian agencies in peace building. Instead, the US military should get out of the counterterrorism and nation-building business and stick to the battlefield where it belongs.

US troops soldiers war in Afghanistan
An Afghan boy looks at US soldiers as they patrol a village near the town of Makkor, southwest of Kabul, April 20, 2007.

Pede and Hayden make some valid points, even if their conclusions miss the mark. It is true that the laws of armed conflict are more permissive than most civilians believe and most humanitarians wish. But NGOs and academics are the first to acknowledge that. Advocating for stronger rules is not the same as pretending they already exist.

It is also true that NGOs, lawyers, scholars and activists are actively involved, alongside militaries, in promoting, augmenting and implementing the laws of war. But that has been the case ever since the very first Geneva Convention codified, at the behest of 19th-century Swiss activists, the right of civilian medical workers to rescue wounded soldiers from battle without being shot by warring parties – the origin of today’s Red Cross.

And yes, it is true that the laws of war are evolving today as much through soft law, advisory opinions, jurisprudence and policy initiatives as through changes in the letter of multilateral treaties. But that’s how the laws of war are designed. Geneva and Hague rules are not merely words on paper, but a living, breathing set of norms meant to evolve within limits and change with the times, as new technologies emerge and global temperaments shift.

Where Pede and Hayden are most right, however, is when they point out that neither militaries nor the system of rules designed to regulate their behavior in war were really designed for the kind of operations into which the US military has been thrust for the past two decades: counterterrorism and nation building.

But the solution is not to disparage or undo the humanitarian achievements of the NGO sector, but rather to move the US military out of both counterterrorism as well as stability and support operations. This means acknowledging that those operations require adherence not to the law of war at all, but to human rights law.

The law of war, as the authors note, is a more permissive framework meant to apply only in genuine situations of armed conflict, and not to peace building or counterterror operations. But the strained relationship between military readiness and international law is not the result of the norm entrepreneurship of humanitarians, but rather of the misguided marrying of military power to law enforcement and peace-building operations.

What former President Barack Obama once called “overseas contingency operations” do require different mindsets, strategies and legal regimes than do operations on conventional battlefields. And it is equally true that this is not what troops are trained for, nor what they do best.

us soldiers iraq
US military vehicles in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul, during an operation against ISIS militants in Mosul, November 7, 2016.

This has arguably led to the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, it has required an expansion of war law restrictions, causing officers like Pede and Hayden to chafe over fears of defeat on “Battlefield Next.”

On the other hand, this trend has also diluted human rights law, which is the branch of international law that ought to apply in law enforcement or nation-building situations. And worst of all, it has muddied the important distinction between the two branches of the law and their respective scopes of application, contributing to failures of political imagination and foreclosed policy options.

Consider the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Carried out with the blessing of the international community and in alignment with the United Nations Charter, it led to a quick and decisive tactical, strategic and moral victory. But rather than quit while ahead, the US then stayed for an extended bout of nation building, resulting in an enduring quagmire, with the promise of a power vacuum upon the inevitable withdrawal of American forces.

Worse still, during the so-called nation-building stage, the US military continued to treat Afghanistan and the surrounding region as a hot battlefield, operating in a war law mindset rather than a human rights law mindset. The US continues to speak of “civilian casualties” instead of “innocent bystanders,” of “enemy combatants” rather than “accused insurrectionists,” and of “peace talks” rather than “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.”

The death toll from continued US armed violence continually exacerbated the situation, yet for the US to withdraw abruptly would likely leave civilians even more at risk from a renewed civil war. It is the same no-win scenario America has continuously faced when it has melded wartime victories into nation-building projects.

Now, imagine a counterfactual: The US enters Afghanistan briefly in 2001 to topple the Taliban, applying the law of war as best it can during a conflict as brief and relatively bloodless as that in Kosovo or Libya. It then turns the rebuilding of Afghanistan over – as happened in Kosovo but not in Libya – to a UN-authorized peace enforcement mission combining civilian and military police with civil society experts from Muslim-majority countries, with a robust mandate to protect civilians.

US troops soldiers patrol war in Afghanistan Afghans
Afghan children gesture at US soldiers standing guard near an Afghan police checkpoint in Nangarhar province, December 19, 2014.

As Page Fortna and Lise Howard have shown, such missions have a far better track record of success in peace building than what the US military calls “stability and support operations.” This is because they are structured around principles, norms and rules of engagement designed to win the peace, rather than win wars.

With burden-sharing across many nations, UN missions also have staying power, avoiding the no-win scenario of remaining forever or leaving a power vacuum, as NATO mistakenly did in Libya and former President Donald Trump set the stage to do in Afghanistan. Most importantly, UN missions are incubators for training post-conflict nations in human rights law and democracy – the ingredients of stable peace.

If nation building might be better left to other actors than the US military, what about counterterrorism?

As Kenneth Roth argued early in the war on terror, what the US calls counterterrorism is much better thought of as an effort to apprehend and punish transnational criminals than as a form of all-out war, and thus best handled not by militaries but through the tools of international law enforcement: extradition, arrest, trial, detention and ultimately punishment or rehabilitation.

This would be not only consistent with human rights law but also far more effective and ethical than the arguably illegal campaigns of extrajudicial execution the US has been instead carrying out with drones.

Instead of drones aiming to kill, imagine special forces commando raids to arrest terror suspects in much the way the FBI arrests and tries mass shooters in the US.

Such suspects would then be turned over to Interpol, or a neutral third country for detention and trial, or be tried in US criminal court. Those found innocent would be released. Those found guilty would be rehabilitated in prison – a process that Saudi Arabia, for all its flaws, has been particularly good at.

US troops soldiers medics war in Afghanistan
US Army medic Staff Sgt. Rahkeem Francis treats an Afghan boy with a broken leg aboard a helicopter in Helmand Province, August 19, 2010.

The distinctions between civilian and combatant, between battlefield and home front and between unlawful combatant and POW rightly become irrelevant within such an architecture.

This was the world before 9/11; before then-President George W. Bush declared “war” on a band of criminals; before Congress authorized the use of force without due process against anyone, anywhere suspected by the US to be a threat; and before the U.S. military was erroneously tasked with transnational law enforcement, nation building and operational support in the world’s various civil wars.

To be sure, where useful, members of the US military might be deployed under UN auspices to support peacekeeping missions. US special forces could become a useful adjunct for Interpol and/or any country willing to try alleged terrorists under universal jurisdiction.

But the military as an institution is not equipped to orchestrate the building of nations or effectively police transnational crime, nor should it be entrusted with these tasks. The attitude underpinning Pede and Hayden’s article is itself an example of why.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.

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How a Crimea-like crisis could easily unfold on islands in the South China Sea

Pratas Dongsha Islands Taiwan South China Sea
The Pratas Islands, known as the Dongsha Islands in Chinese, in July 2008.

  • Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted much international outrage but little meaningful action.
  • Today, a similar scenario could easily unfold in the South China Sea.
  • In this case, China would be the aggressor, while Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands, which Beijing also claims, are the potential targets.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine prompted much international outrage but little meaningful action. President Vladimir Putin was able to forcefully redraw his country’s borders, shrugging off the international sanctions that the United States and European Union imposed in response.

Putin’s success augmented “the belief among some that bigger nations can bully smaller ones to get their way,” as US President Barack Obama put it at the time. Given Crimea’s location in a small country – and the complex, often ethnically tinged territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia – the world was not willing to fight for it.

History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes; today, a Crimea-like scenario could easily unfold in the South China Sea. In this case, China would be the aggressor, while Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands, which Beijing also claims, are the potential targets.

Also known as the Pratas Islands, they have no permanent inhabitants, but they host a detachment of some 500 Taiwanese marines, and are also visited by fishers and researchers. Although the Dongsha are located about 275 miles from Kaohsiung, the municipality in southern Taiwan that administers them, they lie just 170 miles from Hong Kong and are within the city’s airspace, putting them in easy reach of the People’s Liberation Army.

Taiwan Coast Guard Pratas Islands
A Coast Guard member with Republic of China flags after a flag-raising ceremony near the sea shore of Pratas Island, April 11, 2019.

In recent years, Beijing has become more aggressive in the South China Sea, where it maintains expansive maritime claims that are not recognized under international law.

On countless occasions, China’s fleet has harassed, intimidated or even rammed into other countries’ ships in this strategic waterway – including naval vessels, fishing trawlers and oil exploration rigs. The PLA has also built military installations atop reefs and rock formations in the disputed Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands.

But unlike those features, which are the subject of numerous overlapping claims and international legal disputes, the status of the Dongsha Islands is a bilateral row between China and Taiwan. This makes it easier for China to attempt a unilateral change to the status quo.

Indeed, throughout 2020 and into 2021, Beijing has stepped up the pace of its military exercises near the Dongsha, prompting Taipei to respond with live-fire drills on the islands, including one earlier this month. As his administration looks to build closer ties with Taiwan, President Joe Biden would be wise to pay close attention to this potential flashpoint.

The Dongsha Islands have long been seen as strategically significant in China, which could use them to control and hinder foreign access to the Bashi Channel, a waterway between Taiwan and the Philippines that Chinese nuclear submarines use to access the Western Pacific Ocean.

Chinese writers and scholars have in recent years made Beijing’s position plain: The Dongsha Islands are necessary to both China’s eventual unification with Taiwan and for Beijing’s broader geopolitical interests.

Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, put it simply, writing in a recent article for the state tabloid Global Times that the “Dongsha Islands’ location is strategically important as it links the South China Sea and the West Pacific, and if the Taiwan authority lets US military forces deploy facilities in the islands, it would be a major threat to the PLA and the mainland’s security.”

Taiwan China Dongsha Pratas Islands
Atoll National Park in the Dongsha Islands, called Pratas Islands by Taiwan, 150 miles southwest of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, September 15, 2010.

It was thus no surprise when in May 2020, China began planning a massive military drill to simulate taking over the Dongsha Islands, prompting Taiwan to deploy hundreds of reinforcements in response.

For reasons that remain unclear, though, the exercise was apparently canceled at the last minute. Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defense University of the PLA, was quoted by the Global Times as denying that the drills were ever planned. Still, China’s designs for these islands remain clear.

In 2020 alone, the PLA sent military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone over 300 times, with the intention of “paralyzing Taiwan’s psychology,” as one Taiwanese analyst put it.

Just days after Biden took office, on January 23, China sent eight nuclear-capable bombers and four fighter jets into airspace just southwest of Taiwan, followed the next day by another 16 Chinese military aircraft of various types.

In addition to the islands’ strategic and ideological importance for China, they would require minimal effort to take over.

The impetus for such a move could come from China’s recent efforts to tighten its control over Hong Kong, which have led many pro-democracy lawmakers and members of the political opposition to attempt to flee to Taiwan via the Dongsha Islands. Beijing could at some point try and deny Taiwan access to its own islands, citing the supposed national security risks of this exodus from Hong Kong.

In fact, there is already precedent for this. In October 2020, the Hong Kong government prevented a Taiwanese aircraft from using its airspace to fly to the islands, reportedly due to nearby PLA missile drills. Less than a week later, a senior Taiwanese military officer, Lt. Gen. Li Tingsheng, made a trip to the islands with a delegation of coast guard personnel, sending a clear message of defiance to Beijing.

However, the Dongsha Islands’ presence in Chinese airspace makes fortifying them and maintaining effective control over the territory a much harder and more expensive task for Taiwan. Here, the parallel to Russia’s takeover of Crimea is disturbingly clear, given that the peninsula’s geography – almost completely surrounded by the Black Sea – and proximity to Russia made it difficult for Ukraine to defend.

Taiwan Coast Guard Pratas Dongsha Island
Coast Guard personnel stationed in Pratas Island (Dongsha Island) during routine training, April 10, 2019.

When Putin seized Crimea, the international community responded by isolating Russia and imposing sanctions. Yet despite this pushback, it was clear that the United States, the European Union and the rest of NATO were not going to risk war with Russia over Crimea.

When Ukraine’s then-prime minister visited Washington in mid-March 2014 – less than a month after Russian forces entered Crimea – and requested military assistance, the Pentagon refused, fearing that lethal aid would only escalate the situation. Later that month, Obama told an audience in Brussels that the United States and NATO “did not seek any conflict with Russia,” namely because “there are no easy answers, no military solution.”

Taken in sum, these efforts may have avoided a military confrontation. But they also made it clear to Putin that while he might face some short-term pain, he could redraw Europe’s borders by force without fear of military pushback. And now, some seven years later, it is apparent that he has done just that.

Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have taken this lesson to heart. Indeed, he appears to have been emboldened by the democratic world’s collective failure to hold Putin to account after the seizure of Crimea. China continues to not only claim nearly the entire South China Sea, but physically fortify its islands there, prompting, again, “only muted response from the international community,” as US Air Force Capt. David Geaney put it in a recent op-ed.

If Xi believes he can get away with militarizing disputed land features in the South China Sea – and with sinking and harassing neighbors’ vessels there, as he has so far – he may very well see the Dongsha Islands as ripe for the taking.

In the event of such aggression, the rest of the world would be wise to bear in mind the lessons of Crimea. If the architects and most fervent supporters of the rules-based international order – namely, the United States, the EU, Japan and others – again fail to defend the victims of outright aggression and annexation, this time off China’s coast, the attractiveness and validity of that order will only further decline, as it has since 2014.

The United States and its partners cannot expect countries around the world to support and stand by the US-led international order, rather than defect to China’s illiberal vision for the world, if Washington and Brussels do not stand up for smaller countries that are threatened by the bullying behavior of nearby great powers.

In 2014, the international community’s red line should have been Crimea; today, it must be the Dongsha Islands.

Shahn Savino is a program analyst with VTG, a defense contractor. He is a member of the Black China Caucus and the National Association for Black Engagement with Asia. Follow him on Twitter @ShahnMarc.

Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, an associate at the LSE IDEAS think tank and a contributing editor of American Purpose, Francis Fukuyama’s new magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesDunst.

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Biden’s restrictions on drone strikes are about much more than drones

drone strikes
A US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan.

  • On his first day in office, President Joe Biden quietly implemented new restrictions on US drone strikes.
  • The temporary measures make such strikes subject to review by the National Security Council, and they have potentially far-reaching implications.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Pentagon confirmed this week that President Joe Biden has imposed new, temporary restrictions on counterterrorism drone strikes outside of active battlefields, making them subject to review by the National Security Council.

According to The New York Times, which first broke the news, the rules were quietly put in place on Biden’s first day in office, as a stopgap measure while his national security team conducts a broader review of US counterterrorism operations.

According to Charli Carpenter, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst specializing in the laws of war, the Biden administration’s review is a long-overdue opportunity to rein in the practice of targeted extrajudicial killings, like the drone strike that killed Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020. She joined WPR’s Elliot Waldman on the Trend Lines podcast this week to discuss the potentially far-reaching implications of Biden’s move.

The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted drone aircraft performs aerial maneuvers over Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, U.S., June 25, 2015. U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Cory D. Payne/Handout via REUTERS
An MQ-9 Reaper over Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, June 25, 2015.

World Politics Review: What impact do you expect the Biden administration’s new rules will have on the frequency of US drone strikes around the world?

Charli Carpenter: I think it will immediately result in fewer drone strikes. Essentially what Biden is doing is he’s moving the barometer back to where it was before Trump devolved authority for drone strikes away from the executive branch and into the hands of commanders.

What that means is that anytime a drone strike is envisioned, it needs to be approved by the White House. There’s going to be a much higher level of oversight and much more concern over the legal nuances of each strike. It will just make drones harder to use, and you can imagine the weaponized drones will only be used in the most extreme cases.

WPR: What was the basis on which the Trump administration devolved the authority to commanders in the field? What impact did that have on the dynamics of the war on terror and also on the actual relationships with countries where these strikes were taking place?

Carpenter: One of the interesting things about Trump’s drone policy is we know much less about it than we knew about Obama’s policy, because he didn’t really explain his thinking or justify it publicly. A lot of those documents are classified. So, there’s a limited extent to which I can speak to it. My understanding of the rationale was that it was partly just to empower those in the field – lower-level commanders – to be much quicker on their feet.

Trump, of course, was not as concerned as the Obama administration was with the legal nuances of whether these strikes were really lawful under human rights law and under the laws of war. He also had a different perspective on grand strategy and the war on terror. I will say that I think that there was – to a great extent on the right during the Obama years – a sense that a commander’s hands were really being tied by all of the legal requirements and legal oversight for these strikes.

drone strike yemen
People gather at the site of a drone strike in the southern Yemeni province of Lahj, August 11, 2013.

WPR: How else did the rules that the Trump administration put in place differ from what the Obama administration was doing?

Carpenter: Essentially what he did is he removed oversight on strikes. He also removed the requirements to count and publicize civilian casualties.

In some respects, this really signaled to the military and to the CIA – which is not part of the military, it’s a civilian agency, but it does also have a drone program – that the gloves were coming off a bit. They wouldn’t be dealing with JAG lawyers [Judge Advocate General, the US military’s legal arm] at the highest levels, going over every strike. There was much less scrutiny on these pilots and on their commanders to account for collateral damage.

One thing that we do know from global civil society groups that track civilian casualties from drone strikes, or from airstrikes in general – groups like Airwars – is that civilian casualty counts went way up during the Trump administration. So that’s one of the concrete impacts and one of the regretful things that we would hope would be rolled back a bit by Biden’s new policy. We would hope to see civilian casualties go down.

But at the same time, I think that it’s important to note that part of the impetus for Trump’s shift comes from a sense that you heard from many commanders and troops in the field during the Obama years that their hands were really being tied in the war on terror by all of these legal nuances and legal strictures. There was a sense that much more discretion was needed in order to fight the war on terror effectively.

Now, that is disputed by many analysts who study counterterror dynamics. We know that if there’s a very large level of civilian casualties, there’s actually a blowback effect in terms of your effectiveness in counterterror operations. But there was very much a sense that this was going to assist troops. So you can imagine that there’s going to be some sense on the right that this is, again, going to hobble the troops in the field.

drone operators
Two drone operators fly an MQ-1 Predator on October 22, 2013.

WPR: One of the interesting things about this new rule that the Biden administration put in place was its distinction between active battle zones and the fact that the rules only apply to areas outside of those active battle zones. What does that distinction mean in reality? Is there a formal definition for that?

Carpenter: The Biden administration is attempting to create a formal definition, and governments do this – they creatively interpret norms and laws to suit their moral proclivities and their strategic interests at the time. This is not a term in international humanitarian law, but it does map onto an important distinction. It’s a salient distinction, the kinds of theaters where we are using weaponized drones. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is sort of the guardian of international humanitarian law, would use language about “situations of armed conflict, in which the US is a party to the conflict.”

A situation like that would be Afghanistan or Iraq, and to some extent, Syria. But Pakistan is not such a situation. There is to some extent an armed conflict going on there, a low-level armed conflict, but the US is not a party to that conflict. It is not a party to the war in Yemen, or a party to what’s going on in Somalia.

These are three areas in which the US has used drones, to a greater or lesser extent, to essentially decapitate individuals suspected of being terrorists or al-Qaida affiliates or militants. That is a different beast than using air power in an active battle zone where the US is engaged in hostilities against either another state or nonstate armed forces.

The reason why this matters is that in war, there’s one set of legal rules that applies, and within certain constraints, you’re actually allowed to kill people. But outside of situations of armed conflict, those rules don’t apply. The rules that apply are human rights law, which says you actually can’t just carry out extrajudicial executions of individuals you suspect of criminal activity. You’ve got to capture them and try them and punish them for their crimes if they’ve committed crimes, and offer them due process and release them if they’re found innocent.

So, the idea that we would be using military air power – which also risks civilian lives in the vicinity, regardless of how precise we try to be – in areas that are not hot battlefields, is extremely problematic in terms of international law, as many human rights lawyers and human rights groups have argued. So the fact that Biden is actually pointing to this distinction can be very impactful in shifting US rhetoric and international rhetoric on when drones might be acceptable, and when they may not be.

US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone pilot Creech
An MQ-9 Reaper pilot controls an aircraft from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

WPR: We’ve seen a lot of other countries use drones in battlefields, for example, in Libya, and also recently in Nagorno-Karabakh in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But is the US the only one right now using drones for these kinds of extrajudicial executions that you’re talking about?

Carpenter: That’s a good question. I would want to really research that before answering, but it’s certainly the country that is most known for using drones in this way. I will say that there are nonstate actors that have also tried to use drones to assassinate their enemies. It’s rather simple to actually use a weaponized drone to go after anybody you want. It’s one of the ironies that we’ve popularized and proliferated this technology, which could so easily be used against us.

But it’s the United States that has really become known for this tactic, and really criticized for this tactic by many actors, including local groups in Pakistan, a wide grassroots movement in the US and in Europe, and to some extent, the big international human rights and humanitarian law organizations.

These organizations are not so much concerned with drones per se, because drones are really not so different from their perspective from any other aerial platform for delivering weapons in an armed conflict. The concern is that they’re being used essentially for a campaign of extrajudicial execution in areas in which we’re not at war.

This is really a precedent that the US has set that thankfully not so many countries have followed. But it would not surprise me if some were beginning to, and I would expect more and more to do so in the future if this isn’t reigned in a bit. That may be what Biden is trying to do.

It may be that his advisers have decided that the risks of proliferating and justifying a type of act that could easily be used against us by our adversaries, or in areas where our civilians are at risk, isn’t worth the potential hypothetical gains in counterterror operations. They may have determined that we may in fact benefit from – in terms of our counterterror work – using means that are much more likely to protect civilians.

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India and China have backed away from their mountaintop showdown, but they’re still on a dangerous path

India China Pangong Lake cricket
Children play cricket by Pangong Lake, near the India-China border in Ladakh, India, July 22, 2011.

  • On February 11, India and China began withdrawing from their positions on Pangong Lake after nine months of tense military confrontation.
  • The successful disengagement lowers the risk of another clash, do not guarantee peace or even an improvement in Sino-Indian ties.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Along the waters of Pangong Lake, high up in the Himalayas, there was a slackening of shoulders and a collective sigh of relief on February 11.

After nine months of tense military confrontation, which included the first deadly clash in decades between Indian and Chinese troops along their disputed border, the two sides began withdrawing from their positions on the southern and northern banks of the lake as part of a phased, synchronized military disengagement.

By mitigating the risk of another skirmish or accident, the move has brought Beijing and New Delhi back from the brink in their border standoff. The successful disengagement was followed up on February 20 with a 10th round of meetings between the Indian and Chinese commanders in the region.

Five days later, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar spoke by phone with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, affirming the disengagement as “a significant first step,” according to an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson. The two sides also unveiled plans to establish a diplomatic hotline to aid in future crisis management.

China India Galway Himalayas border clash
A still image of a mid-June 2020 clash between Chinese troops, foreground and Indian soldiers, right and background, along the Line of Actual Control in the Galwan Valley, in the Himalayas, released by China on February 20, 2021.

While positive, these de-escalatory steps do not guarantee peace, much less a return to conciliatory Sino-Indian ties.

“This is a tactical withdrawal, and it is temporary on both sides,” cautioned Shivshankar Menon, a former Indian national security adviser, in an interview with The Wire, an Indian news outlet. A political agreement on how to resolve the larger border dispute is still lacking, and there is little trust left to speak of between New Delhi and Beijing, making the path ahead perilous.

The two rivals continue to blame one another for the deadly brawl last June in the Galwan Valley, offering conflicting accounts of what precipitated it. Press reports indicate that starting last April, Chinese troops moved into territory previously patrolled by India and began constructing fortifications, which led to the standoff.

But both sides maintained that it was the other advancing beyond their agreed-upon patrol areas that led to the clash. At the time, India said that 20 of its soldiers were killed in the hand-to-hand combat, while China belatedly announced last month that four of its soldiers had died.

Now, Indian officials are emphasizing the need to verify that all agreements are being “observed in letter and spirit,” as Gen. Manoj Naravane, India’s army chief, put it in recent public remarks. Both militaries will be watching closely to ensure the other does not renege on their commitments.

Synchronized pullbacks are fragile; it is worth remembering that the Galwan Valley clash occurred in the midst of a failed effort at disengagement. Even if it sticks, the Pangong Lake withdrawal is merely the start of a complex process.

Naravane has admitted there is still “a long way to go,” and that both sides must now focus on de-escalation and troop withdrawal from other areas along the Line of Actual Control, the de facto demarcation that separates Indian- and Chinese-controlled territory.

Troops have not drawn back from the other flashpoints along the border in the eastern Ladakh region, including Gogra, Hot Springs, Demchok and the Depsang Plains. Both militaries still have more troops near the Line of Actual Control than they did prior to last spring.

India army convoy Kashmir Ladakh
An Indian army convoy on a highway leading to Ladakh, June 18, 2020.

India is also concerned about Chinese activity in the disputed eastern sector of the border, on the other side of the Tibetan plateau from Ladakh, around the Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Here, China has significantly upgraded its military presence and infrastructure over the past year.

Keeping the border quiet will be especially difficult after the norms governing the border forces came undone last spring. The old rule book may no longer hold.

In the wake of last month’s disengagement, Chinese officials and state media have called for a reset in the bilateral relationship. Wang, for example, said over the weekend that the two sides must “expand and enhance cooperation to create enabling conditions for the settlement of the [border] issue.”

But this will be nearly impossible given Beijing’s role in initiating the standoff last spring. China’s actions since, and its belligerent statements during the disengagement process itself, have ensured that the border dispute will remain charged.

China’s announcement on February 19, revealing for the first time that some of its soldiers had been killed in the Galwan clash, came in the form of a highly nationalistic video. It hailed the slain soldiers as heroes, while redoubling Beijing’s allegations that India had been the aggressor.

The video roiled anti-Indian sentiment in China and raised eyebrows in India at a sensitive moment, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government having to assure Parliament that it had not ceded any territory to China.

By publicly confirming that four Chinese soldiers had lost their lives in the clash – as opposed to India’s 20 – Beijing was declaring a sort of political victory over India. This public relations blitz, just as the two militaries were finishing their joint withdrawal, made Beijing’s talk of reconciliation ring hollow.

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China’s aggressive moves in other domains have complicated matters further.

Chinese state-sponsored hackers reportedly conducted cyberattacks on India’s power grid and other critical infrastructure last year, just as Indian and Chinese soldiers faced off along the border, according to The New York Times. One such attack last October was responsible for 20 million people in Mumbai losing power.

While Indian authorities were already aware that China was behind the attacks, the report hardened anti-Chinese sentiment among many Indians and added pressure on the government to demonstrate that it was being tough in the face of Chinese aggression. The increasingly hostile public mood in both countries will make it harder for each government to compromise in the coming weeks and months.

The cyberattacks were also consequential in crystallizing Indian suspicions about China. Increasingly, policymakers and strategic experts in New Delhi see China not as an irritant neighbor but an outright rival bent on constraining India’s rise.

They view Beijing as actively encroaching on India’s sphere of influence in South Asia – from Nepal to Sri Lanka to the Indian Ocean – and blocking its ambitions for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council and entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an organization that seeks to control the export of nuclear materials, equipment and technology to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks inside a conference room used for meetings between military commanders of China and India, at the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo
A conference room used for meetings between Chinese and India military commanders in Arunachal Pradesh, November 11, 2009.

Beyond the border dispute, India has sought out ways to push back more broadly against its rival. It has countered China’s global vaccine diplomacy with its own, shipping millions of free COVID-19 vaccines to other developing countries. It is also enhancing security cooperation with Washington to blunt China’s rise.

Ultimately, though, New Delhi’s options are limited. Beijing’s superior military and economic capabilities make a broader confrontation unwise for India. For example, New Delhi’s efforts at economic warfare, banning Chinese social media apps and canceling China-backed infrastructure projects, have had only limited success.

Despite those measures, China displaced the United States to become India’s largest trading partner in 2020. Attempting to decouple more fully with Beijing will not only be difficult, it could also do lasting damage to India’s own economy.

With no political solution to the border issue on the horizon, the military disengagement merely provides temporary relief for a chronic problem. As the border remains tense, Sino-Indian competition will increasingly play out in other arenas as well.

This leaves the relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbors in a tenuous place, constrained by a range of conflicting interests, a lack of trust and increasingly adverse public attitudes.

Anubhav Gupta is associate director of the Asia Society Policy Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @AndyGupta21.

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Why the world’s newest country has only ever known war

South Sudan
SPLA soldiers in a vehicle in Juba, December 20, 2013.

  • South Sudan is only 10 years old, but it has already been through years of fighting that killed and displaced millions.
  • That fighting has eased, but violence remains rampant, and the risk of a return to full-blown conflict is never far away.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Few nations have seen their dreams and hopes dashed as quickly and ruthlessly as South Sudan. A mere two years after thousands thronged the streets of the capital, Juba, to celebrate independence from Sudan’s autocratic rule, the country descended into a brutal civil war.

The fallout between President Salva Kiir and Vice President-turned-rebel Riek Machar, and the subsequent fighting, exerted a terrible toll. Between 2013 and 2018, up to 400,000 people were killed and 4 million – a third of the country’s population – displaced, amid numerous reports of ethnic-based atrocities like rape and massacres.

The world’s youngest country is now approaching its 10-year anniversary, and while the war has quieted thanks to a fragile 2018 peace deal, the risk of a return to full-blown conflict is never far away.

South Sudan still faces an insurgency in the south of the country and rampant localized violence elsewhere. Ethno-political tensions remain high and could be unleashed again by the next presidential election, which was originally scheduled for 2022 but is likely to be delayed.

Moreover, amid the constant efforts to halt violence, avoid the further deterioration of a dire humanitarian situation and keep the sputtering peace deal on track, both external partners and many South Sudanese themselves seem to have lost sight of any vision for longer-term stability.

south sudan
An armed man near the village of Nialdhiu in South Sudan, February 2017.

Maintaining the peace deal and getting the country past the presidential poll – which would likely pit Kiir against Machar, who has returned to the position of vice president under the terms of the 2018 agreement – are the most immediate hurdles.

But any hope for stability demands a reset of South Sudan’s ill-suited, winner-take-all political system that fuels the ongoing tensions among elites.

Despite the fact that its divisions and vulnerabilities were apparent at independence a decade ago, both South Sudanese and outsiders downplayed the new country’s political woes, and especially its ethnic cleavages.

South Sudanese had fought a long war against Sudan, but also, more often than not, against each other. Kiir and Machar, for example, fought on rival sides between 1991 and 2002, mobilizing fighters from their respective Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups.

At independence, the country’s political system, which vests enormous power in the presidency, offered few mechanisms for the inclusion of rivals. This meant those locked out of power had few incentives to believe in the new state rather than rebel against it.

The scramble for power and resources dominated politics in Juba and, as Kiir and his clique monopolized both, the scars of decades of infighting reopened.

south sudan
South Sudanese await the country’s president at Juba International Airport, June 22, 2018

Conflict soon flared, while several peace agreements and cease-fires collapsed – notably in 2016 when Machar, then vice president, fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo on foot after fighting erupted in Juba – before the 2018 pact brought a bit of respite.

Kiir and Machar finally formed a unity government in February 2020. But they have achieved little beyond a delicate cease-fire, as most of the provisions of the agreement languish unfulfilled. These include the unification of forces supporting the two rivals into a single national army, the establishment of a new National Assembly, the creation of a transitional court of justice, and economic reforms.

On top of all that, South Sudan still has to deal with the insurgency in its southern Equatoria region led by Thomas Cirillo, a former senior military officer who has not signed the peace agreement. Localized violence in other places rages unabated.

With this uneasy arrangement in place and ethno-political tensions so deeply rooted, the risk of a new collapse exists at every turn of the road.

No turn looks more dangerous than the next presidential election, whenever it is held. Even if they seem to have lost the confidence of a significant part of their respective support bases, Kiir and Machar still look intent on facing off.

The poll, if it ever occurs, could be a fatal blow to the peace agreement, given that the winner could lock the loser and his coalition out of any share of power.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir
South Sudan President Salva Kiir at the State House in Nairobi, May 11, 2014.

Given the current level of tensions, rival factions will surely contest nearly every step in the lead-up to the poll, so foreign diplomats in South Sudan should refrain from putting pressure on the government to rush into a potentially destabilizing election.

Crucially, regional powers like Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which are the main guarantors of the 2018 peace deal, will also need to push for some form of pre-election deal that ensures a share of power to the losers.

Such an outcome could avert a violent breakdown around the vote, but it still would not resolve South Sudan’s many problems. Ultimately, the country will need to revisit its political model to avoid remaining stuck in cyclical bouts of conflict.

The existing centralized state butts up against the harsh realities across the country. South Sudan still lacks roads or basic institutions, and peaceful governance is impossible without broad accommodation across its diverse patchwork of communities and groups.

As the International Crisis Group argues in a recent report, instead of a king-of-the-hill system, South Sudan could evolve toward a more consensual form of governance. This would give the country’s notorious elites in Juba, as well as its beleaguered but divided population, a sense of shared interest.

What would this look like? One way to begin solving exclusionary politics is by institutionalizing power-sharing at the heart of the state. Several options exist, including a presidency that rotates among ethno-political groups or regions, formally slotting government positions for runners-up or instituting diversity quotas at all levels of political and public life.

None of these options would address all the challenges the country faces, but they may at least help reduce the deadly stakes of the central power struggle.

FILE PHOTO: People walk along a street in Juba, South Sudan December 21, 2013. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo
People on a street in Juba, South Sudan, December 21, 2013.

Beyond power-sharing in Juba, devolving power and resources to regional and local authorities could also reduce the temperature of national politics. Decentralization, enshrined in South Sudan’s constitution but hardly implemented over the past decade, is increasingly back in fashion among the country’s thinkers and politicians.

Striking the right balance will be critical if the country heads in this direction, as decentralization can also push conflict and corruption to the local level. But devolving power and resources could also help resolve raging local conflicts by empowering local officials and opening avenues for conflict resolution outside the political gridlock in Juba.

The prospects of such changes happening soon are limited, though, to say the least. The challenge of reform lies less in imagining new options than in persuading self-interested elites to adopt them. This challenge goes beyond Kiir and Machar, although the two are likely to remain unconstructive actors at the center of the country’s political stage for some time to come.

Yet even when these archrivals are finally out of the equation, the country will still likely lack state institutions and infrastructure, in addition to being bitterly divided, awash in guns and in need of broad consensus to avoid more rampant bloodshed.

Faced with such grim prospects, other South Sudanese leaders and their external partners must seize every opportunity to push for improvements, even if gradual.

Reform-minded South Sudanese politicians should push for constitutional reform and champion an inclusive national conference to chart a path away from the zero-sum politics that define the status quo. External partners should be ready to push in that direction and support such initiatives, including financially.

If South Sudan’s peace deal again collapses, external mediators could also assess whether efforts to patch things back together again can also go some way to address these underlying structural questions and make peace more durable.

For now, the scale of South Sudan’s challenges contrasts frighteningly with what seems politically possible to fix, and progress in that direction will undoubtedly be halting. But persistence toward a broader settlement is the only way for South Sudan to salvage the dreams that so animated its independence celebrations a decade ago.

Alan Boswell is the senior analyst for South Sudan and hosts The Horn podcast for the International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organization. This article is part of a regularly occurring series of briefings by analysts of the International Crisis Group.

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