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March 21, 2014

The WIIS-DC blog has become the WIIS Global blog. You can check it out here! If you would like to submit a post to the new blog, here are the requirements.

Diversity and Inclusion: Imperative for the U.S. Military’s Future Success

February 3, 2014

By Kelsey L. Campbell

In late October, I had the pleasure of attending a well-curated conference organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States entitled, “Mission Critical: Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices for Militaries.” Military officers from Europe, Israel, Australia, and New Zealand joined American defense personnel, private sector leaders, and members of Congress for a two-day conversation on diversity and inclusion (D&I).

The main lesson of the conference was that we should not be blind to our individual differences (for example, sex, religion, ethnicity, language ability, education), but instead acknowledge and value them. These differences can and should be used to improve mission effectiveness—the military sine quo non. In contingencies today, interpersonal skills and the ability to operate in various cultures and situations are key to protecting the force and achieving varied missions. Having a diverse squad (in education, sex, ethnicity, and socio-economic background) of service members increases the chances for mission effectiveness by bringing a wider variety of tools to the fight. A diverse force is more dynamic and able to more easily adapt to the next challenge.

I recently ran across a piece on contextual intelligence by Harvard scholar and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye that is apropos of this discussion. He posits that today’s defense leaders need a combination of soft and hard power, attraction and coercion. The technologically centered battlefield of the twenty-first century requires a range of leaders and fighters, and the oversimplified image of a traditional warrior is not doing us a service.

“It is not a manly modern Achilles or the strongest alpha male who makes the best warrior leader in today’s communication age. Military leadership today also requires political and managerial skills,” Nye states.

Some critics of mandating diversity in the military (especially those against opening up combat positions to military women) have peddled the notion that introducing a new sub-population will negatively impact unit cohesion and morale. However, our European allies at the German Marshall Fund conference stated that diversifying the ranks actually improved unit cohesion. Diverse personnel offer access to complementary knowledge and skills, creating interdependence and therefore increased cohesion in the unit.

Members of the Bundeswehr (German military) told us about efforts to increase representation of Turkish immigrants. This not only helped create a more representative German force, but also provided opportunities for increased engagement during contingencies in Muslim countries. Likewise, African immigrants in European militaries have served as soldier-ambassadors during missions in Africa. Although the Female Engagement Teams assembled by the U.S. Army and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan did not result from increased recruiting efforts of women, having all-women teams operating in the field proved very successful as it enabled U.S. forces to engage with and hear the concerns of tribal women and children.

Only 1% of the American public has served in the U.S. military.  By nature of the all-volunteer force, those that enlist in the military are primarily self-selecting. For many, it is about continuing a family tradition of service. Though, for example, several immigrant communities and women have not had the long tradition of service or perhaps have not been encouraged to serve. Quotas or affirmative action recruiting are contentious policy options in America. The key is to encourage diversity and inclusion to occur in the most organic way possible. When young people see military leaders that look like them or have a similar background, it sends the signal that the military is a viable option for them. Promoting qualified military leaders with perhaps non-traditional backgrounds or career paths can send a strong signal to future recruits—everyone has a place to excel in the U.S. military.

The U.S. military does not have the option for personnel to ‘lateral in’ – i.e. a mid-career civilian joining the military and receiving a rank equal to their civilian experience. No matter your background, everyone enters the military as either lower enlisted or a company grade officer. Thus the diversity of our senior non-commissioned officers and flag/general officers is solely dependent on who is recruited to the initial ranks. The Department of Defense has to anticipate specific needs in personnel expertise and background at least 20 years in advance in order for those unformed members to reach top leadership positions in the military. Providing senior officers with further education only serves as a stopgap, and is unlikely to completely transform their perspectives or experiences that have been formulated over two decades. The time to recruit a diverse group of senior uniformed leaders for 2030 and 2040 is today.

Another reason to establish a diverse force is that it better prepares service members for their transition into civilian life. A case can be made that service members that are a part of diverse and inclusive units will more easily transition to civilian life, whether that is onto a multifaceted college campus or into corporate America.

Increasing the diversity of the U.S. military has the attention of many members of Congress. Senator Ben Cardin, an early champion of the Military Leadership Diversity Council, was a keynote speaker for the event. Congressman Elijah Cummings, introducer of the Military Leaders Enhancement Act in 2011, spoke at the VIP lunch panel. Both were very passionate about creating a force that is agile and best represents the country it defends. As Congress becomes a more diverse and inclusive body with each election, one can only imagine that their interest in DoD progress in this area will continue.

Dr. Nelson Lim, a senior social scientist for RAND, suggests that diversity and inclusion programs be removed from the human resources part of military staffs and instead fall under the operations staff, which is led by officers who generally have the most influence in a military unit). For diversity and inclusion to succeed, senior Defense leaders need to make it a top priority for the forces. Lim said the military services would be wise to “plan less, act more, and monitor progress” when it comes to D&I.  Simply put, we do not need many more academic studies, but more action and leader focus to mainstream diversity and inclusion.  With the political investment of the top brass and civilian leaders, the Department can effectively implement a D&I strategy.

It has only been a few decades since we anxiously kept an eye on the Fulda Gap for armored columns. Today, we have GIs just barely out of high school battling cyberspace threats. Times have changed and continue to change, and we must build a cadre of service members and leaders who will be able to fight and win in any political, cultural, or environmental climate around the world.


Kelsey L. Campbell is a Foreign Affairs Specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and an Air Force veteran. The views expressed here are strictly her own.

Shaking Trees: Women, Politics & Economics in Kyrgyzstan

December 19, 2013

By Sarah E. Orndorff

As I discovered while interning during the summer of 2013 at the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative*, a non-profit foundation in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, women and their supporters may very well be the best asset the country has for future security and development.  A small, mountainous country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is in many ways a country of contradictions.  Though a low-income country, the people are well educated (a result of its Soviet past).  It is a communist republic still under the shadow of Russian influence, but has overthrown two corrupt leaders to establish a parliamentary democracy.  And though its 2012 ranking in the UN Development Program Gender Development Index is lower than its neighbors, including China, women’s development in Kyrgyzstan is still ranked higher than other, more developed countries, including Georgia, Turkey, Indonesia, and India.

Of course no one in Kyrgyzstan highlights the potential of women more than the founder and heart of the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative.  Ms. Otunbayeva’s list of diplomatic positions in the USSR and independent Kyrgyzstan is long.  She not only served as President of Kyrgyzstan from April 2010 to December 2011, but also as the first ambassador from the Krygyz Republic to the United States and Canada, and the first ambassador to the United Kingdom.  Her most impressive accomplishment so far is completing the first democratic turnover of power in Central Asia.  Giving up power is rare in Central Asia.  Her two greedy and corrupt predecessors were overthrown in popular coups.


Roza Otunbayeva, former President of the Kyrgz Republic

Ms. Otunbayeva is a veritable force of nature.  She is petite but carries herself with a palpable sense of determination and focus.  When she thinks it is necessary, she purposefully ruffles feathers, both in the international community and among her fellow citizens.  She calls it “shaking trees.”  I call it “pointing out what people in positions of comfort prefer not to notice.”  In meetings with the directors of museums and theaters in Bishkek, she asked what they were doing to contribute to cultural education for the growing youth population.  When they answered “nothing”, she provided them with ways to change their answer.  Those institutions now offer numerous educational opportunities for children and their parents.

She also “shook the trees” of youth.  The Bishkek Humanities University presented Ms. Otunbayeva with an honorary doctorate this summer at its commencement ceremony.  Following her speech, the graduates were able to ask her questions.  As an atheist, Ms. Otunbayeva often receives questions relating to the existence of a god.  Her response was gracious and demonstrated her belief in everyone’s responsibility to care for one another, regardless of religious beliefs.  However, when she was asked whether she will open an institute for diplomatic studies in Bishkek, she was much more blunt.  Bishkek has plenty of opportunities to study international relations and diplomacy, she remarked.  If she were to open an institute to contribute to Kyrgyzstan’s growth and development, it would not be more of the same; it would be an institute for the study of tourism.  The mountains and lakes of Kyrgyzstan have significant potential in ecotourism, but its tourism sector needs dramatic improvement.  This may not have been the answer the graduate expected, but it was the one the population needed to hear.

With her peers on the international level, Ms. Otunbayeva shakes trees with hurricane force.  Before a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, Ms. Otunbayeva summarized her speech for me.  The glint in her eye hinted that she enjoys her occasional position as the underdog, a former President from a small, landlocked, developing country.  Her message to the OSCE was clear:  Poverty breeds insecurity and threatens democracy.  Kyrgyzstan is among the poorest nations in the OCSE.  If they really value security and democracy, then what are they doing to contribute to development and poverty alleviation in Kyrgyzstan?  To the wealthy nations of the OSCE, it was a challenge to follow through on their rhetoric, delivered by a grandmother who often can barely see over the podium.


Women playing the “komuz” in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan.

While Ms. Otunbayeva’s passion and focus may be unique, strong women and support for women in society are more prevalent than I expected.  Rather than working with others’ ideas, the women working at the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative took a risk in joining a new nonprofit so that they could see their own ideas in action.  Sheryl Sandberg would be proud to see these women leaning in.  Joining the Initiative was not the only risk my coworkers took.  Declaring to the world that you have ideas worth implementing and then implementing those ideas can be a risky endeavor.  Failure to achieve goals can be disheartening or even embarrassing.  The women are unique in their determination to move forward with their lives, both public and private, and to assert their will.


The summer kindergarten is housed in yurts – the same structure that Kyrgyz nomads have traditionally lived in. One yurt is the school, another is a kitchen.

The people of Kyrgyzstan are proud of women’s talents and active roles in society.  Near the end of my internship, I went on a trip to Naryn, a provincial city of about 35,000, for a conference held by the Initiative.  On our way, we stopped to visit kindergartens attended by children whose families live as nomads for the summer.  Local performers sang and played music for us during our breaks.  Upon returning to Bishkek, I remarked about how much I enjoyed listening to one particular lady who sang and played the komuz, a Kyrgyz stringed instrument.  The response was matter-of-fact: “Well, yes, they have very talented women in the Naryn Region.”

Women in Kyrgyzstan face significant challenges, including increasing patriarchal and nationalistic trends, limited educational opportunities, and a very restricted economy.  Yet they continue to thrive in the workplace, pushing for recognition of their ideas and acquiring valuable skills necessary to build the country’s economy and new democracy.  They are doing this with the support of a society that appreciates the talents and abilities of women and with the example of a former President determined to improve the future of her country, even if she has to shake things up.

When I arrived at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, I knew I was going to be working with one of the most impressive women in the world, former President of Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbayeva.  Only later did I realize that she is not an exception in a society of resilient and determined women.  Despite the focus on Kyrgyzstan’s nascent democratic government and its potential in hydroelectric power, geostrategic location, mineral resources, ecotourism, I realized that women and their supporters are Kyrgyzstan’s biggest assets.

*You can find more information about the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative at


Sarah Orndorff served as a nuclear propulsion plant operator in the U.S. Navy before earning a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service in 2008 from Georgetown University.  Combining her technical military background and foreign affairs education, she worked supporting nuclear weapons policy and nuclear response programs for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security for three years.  In 2013, she completed a MSFS with a concentration in International Development at Georgetown University. She is particularly interested in the relationship between development and security.

Nowhere to Go But Up: Girls’ Education in Pakistan

November 18, 2013

By Kelsey L. Campbell

By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the story of Malala Yousafzai: In October 2012, she was shot in the head by the Taliban in her native Swat Valley in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province because she campaigned for girls’ right to education. She was medically evacuated to England, where after a miraculous recovery, she is now continuing her studies and her global push for girls’ education.

Malala’s story, like that of many young Pakistanis, has been an inspiration for millions and has highlighted some of the adversities in South Asia and around the world. For her bravery in the face of Pakistan’s Taliban, she was recently awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament, as well as the Anna Politkovskaya Award by Reach All Women in War. Inspired by Malala’s recently released book, faculty from George Washington University are developing interactive multimedia tools to accompany the book, highlighting major themes such as a valuing women’s participation and community engagement.

Young girls return home from school in Skardu, Baltistan. The blue kurta and white veil is a popular school uniform in Pakistan. April 2013. Photo by Kelsey L. Campbell

Young girls return home from school in Skardu, Baltistan. The blue kurta and white veil is a popular school uniform in Pakistan. April 2013. Photo by Kelsey L. Campbell

Malala’s story highlights two development issues in Pakistan: gender equity, and quality and access to education. Pakistan is one of a handful of critical countries likely to fail to reach Millennium Development Goal 2: Universal Primary Education by 2015. Even as several donor countries and NGOs make long-term commitments to build the capacity of provincial governments to deliver education, Pakistan still has a long way to go.

Officially, the government of Pakistan has committed to education for all. In 2012, the National Assembly passed Article 25-A of the constitution, guaranteeing the right to free and compulsory education to all children ages 5-16. Pakistan has been a signatory to almost all international conventions on education, including the Dakar Framework for Action in 2000, a UNESCO-led commitment signed by 164 governments to provide quality education for all children, youth, and adults. However, federal expenditure on education remains the lowest in South Asia and unable to meet the needs of the country’s youth—currently 1/3 of the nation’s population. For 2013-2014, education spending is just 1.9% of GDP (the global standard is 4%).

According to UNESCO, Pakistan has the world’s second largest amount of out of school children, two-thirds of which are girls. In recent years, the primary net enrollment rate has risen to 74% overall. However, the ratio of girls enrolled remains 14 percentage points behind boys. The enrollment discrepancy is even larger in rural areas than in urban areas. Fifty million Pakistani adults are illiterate, two-thirds of whom are women. The data demonstrates that girls are overwhelmingly marginalized in the current education construct.

Despite government commitment to increase resources to achieve gender parity in public schools, a 2011 Ministry of Education report revealed that only 36% of primary schools in Pakistan are girls’ schools. It was government rule of thumb for many years to build two primary boys’ schools for every one girls’ school. In the midst of the Islamization process in the 1970’s under General ul Haq, girls were often forced to leave coeducational schools even though no alternative girls’ schools were offered as a replacement.

Where girls’ schools do exist, infrastructure is often in poor condition. Parents do not like sending their children, especially daughters, to schools without toilets, running water, boundary walls, or electricity. Due to cultural norms, girls cannot travel alone to a school far from the village, particularly after they reach puberty. In much of rural Pakistan, schools are located more than two km from the home, discouraging parents from sending their daughters across unknown, unfriendly, or isolated territory.

Parents overwhelmingly prefer female teachers for their daughters. This creates several challenges—finding qualified women to teach in schools, and ensuring they are able to balance their own family duties with their role as teacher. After decades of lack of access to education, the supply of qualified teachers is too low to meet the needs of the school-age population. According to the Pakistani government, women comprise only 38% of the teaching force—a serious impediment to getting more girls to enroll and stay in school. Since very few women are appointed as school heads or to senior-level district positions, girls and female teachers often do not have a voice in the management of the public school system.

The national curriculum in Pakistan reflects a strong male gender bias, as well as an urban bias. The few depictions of women that exist in textbooks often fulfill gender stereotypes, such as representations of women as ill mannered, passive, and stubborn domestic workers. According to UNESCO, these stereotypes reinforce traditional gender roles and hinder the aspirations of many girls. In many parts of Pakistan, families prefer to invest in their sons, who are seen to be future breadwinners. For families with limited income, savings for girls is often spent on the dowry.

Even through poverty, illiteracy, and often times the restriction of movement, Pakistani women are known for their amazing strength. There are many recent examples of female role models: Sharmen Obaid-Chinoy who earned an Oscar for her documentary on acid violence, Samina Baig, who at age 21 was the first Pakistani woman to summit Mt. Everest, Humaira Bacha, who as a teenager built and now operates a school in Karachi, and the scores of women and mothers, like Mossarat Qadeem, who are leading the way in moderating extremism and building peace. The latest role model is the Burka Avenger, who is reaching younger audiences with her ability to fight evil with her books, pens, and advanced acrobatics. Pakistani women and their supporters will continue to make great strides to ensure education for all. Insha’allah, with continued support, no more young girls or boys will have to fight for the right to education.


Kelsey L. Campbell is a Foreign Affairs Specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and an Air Force veteran. The views expressed here are strictly her own.

Tajikistan’s Southern Border: Opiate Headwaters

October 10, 2013

This article was originally posted by the Central Eurasia Standard, which looks at news and analysis out of Central Asia and Eurasia.

CES recently enjoyed a jaunt along the Tajik-Afghan border from Qalaikhumb to Langar before jumping over the Pamiri Plateau and back to Khorog.  Along the deteriorated road following the Panj River, we were able to speak with a number of locals regarding the opiate trafficking surging north from its headwaters in Afghanistan.

The Tajik-Afghan border, as anyone familiar with the region knows, is porous.  30% of Afghan opiates (about 90 tons/yr) come through Tajikistan every year en route to western markets.  The Economist provided a nice example of foreign aid gone awry in its piece on the situation in 2012:

“A European official says the people doing the trafficking are the same counter-narcotics people that Western countries are training. “We give them cars, and they use them to transit drugs—look at their houses,” he says of the mansions cropping up around [Dushanbe].”

With the US relying on Tajik airspace at least for transit in and out of Afghan for the foreseeable future, counter narcotic efforts will remain Potemkin – a show of effort that actually serves only to enrich those controlling the distribution channels.

Panj RiverNear the border town of Qalaikhumb the Panj River, with its swift chalky brown current, is a stone’s throw wide.

Head upstream and east to the minuscule hamlet of Langar and this “border”, now a brilliant turquoise brook, would hardly wet the knees of a grown man.

The story is hardly new and unlikely to change anytime soon.  High-seated Tajik corruption, obscene profit margins and ravenous Western demand keep narcotics rushing across the border in high volume.

The issue continues to attract international support, a true core competency of the Tajik government.  The annual CSTO summit in Sochi yielded increased Russian technical support for Tajik border security, including renovating existing buildings (see below), radar, air patrol and surveillance.  However, Russia will not provide any troops to supplement the devastatingly thin Tajik patrol presence on the border.

The Border

Tajik bases are few and far between with many completely abandoned since President Rahmon banished Russian forces from the border in 2005 due to their alleged involvement in narco-trafficking.   Others believe Rahmon wanted the narco royalties in Tajik rather than Russian hands.  Either way, security along the Panj is sparse.  We traveled hours without seeing a green fatigue.  Perhaps they stay off the roads.  Those we did see appeared to be boys, most under 20 years old, paying their dues in this barren region before being released back to their families and personal aspirations. Judging from media reports, very few enlisted men are there by their own choice.  The bases seen from the road are old and sparsely populated at best if not utterly abandoned.

Base seen from the roadOutside Khorog a local explained the narcotics trade to us.  By his estimates, a kilo of heroin can be purchased on the Afghan side of the river for roughly $1,000.  The price instantly jumps to $2,000 once it crosses the river and arrives at the Saturday market in Khorog, reportedly a hotspot for shady dealings since Afghan merchants are licensed to cross over and sell their wares (here’s a good article on cross-border trade).  Those able to transport the product to Dushanbe can make $5,000 while the markets in Russia fetch closer to $10,000.  The Afghan government and UNODC cite prices in the $3,000 – $4,000 range for off-white 100% Badakhshan powder heroin and prices close to our friend’s estimate for “chara”, a 20% purity variant.  In a country with an average per capita income of $1,800 the temptation is simply too great. Despite the harsh penalties for trafficking (our friend quoted 15 years minimum), hundreds are arrested each year along the border and in Dushanbe.

In the PamirsEach night we asked if we might walk down to the river and each night we heard similar tales of the Tajik military harassing, extorting and even deporting foreigners for being near the river. Although no law exists about proximity restrictions, we were told that Rahmon’s forces are taking an iron fisted approach to the border in the months leading up to his election.  One evening we met an Israeli couple who had hitchhiked all the way in from the Kyrgyz city of Osh.  They claimed to have swum in the river for well over an hour to cool off in the high afternoon after walking for a good portion of the day.  Maybe they just got lucky. Maybe the military is compensating for holes in their regimens with panoptic tales to the locals.

Before climbing up to the Pamir Plateau and away from the border we stopped at the ancient fort of Yamchun.  An obelisk on the road reads,

The Obelisk“Yamchun Fortress is thought to have been one of the greatest defense fortifications in the ancient Wakhan.  It dates back to 300 – 100 BC.  Based on the legend there was a town called Gashon under the rule of king brothers Qahqaha and Zangibor who are said to have built the fortress.”

To the north the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the south swelled upward, its crowns capped in rich glaciers defying the high September sun.  No one guards this relic of the ancient world so we skipped down through the precarious ravine separating the fort from the road and scrambled up to its remaining turrets.  Despite its ideal strategic location nested in the cliffs overlooking the Wakham Corridor, the harsh Pamir weather, tourists’ boots and scavengers moving rocks in search of valuable artifacts fuel its decay.

Forces just as fundamental, although more elusive, pull at the poppies to the south, urging them northward across the Panj and into the intricate, braided streams of our societies.   Qahqaha and Zangibor’s citadel remains, although in grave disrepair, a picturesque watchtower over the Wakhan.  Perhaps its greatest splendor is the contrast provided by its backdrop against the Hindu Kush, utterly dwarfed by their vast primordial stature.  Their strength looms large from the south, almost as if to say, “Our affairs are beyond you.  Be on your way.”

Qahqaha and Zangibor’s citadel as it stands now

Afghanistan’s poppies have mastered this dispatch as well and in this lonely valley Qahqaha, Zangibor and the thousands of protectors of territories, laws and transitory institutions obey.

Breaking Bad in Syria

September 24, 2013

By Jill Zabel

As I have watched AMC’s Breaking Bad and the events unfolding in Syria, I noticed that Walter White and Bashar al-Assad have a lot in common.  These lead characters’ similarities speak to a wider point about how people can grow into roles that were not meant for them, become corrupted, and, over time, cross lines that would have been unthinkable at the beginning of their journeys.  Perhaps more than anything else, the parallels described below urge us as U.S. foreign policy decision makers, analysts, and diplomats to understand that each individual—including heirs to authoritarian regimes—has the propensity for a spectrum of good and evil.  U.S. policy interests are best served when we can bolster the capacity and willingness to do good when the United States confronts power transitions. (Note: Some spoilers are below. For those who are not familiar with the show and want to learn more without watching, see here.)

Tragedy forges a new path

Tragedy marks a critical turning point in people’s lives and can set them on a new life path.  In all likelihood, Walter White would not have started cooking meth if he was not presented with a cancer diagnosis that endangered his ability to provide for his family.  Similarly, Bashar al-Assad would likely have never come to power if not for the fatal car crash that killed his brother, Basil, who had been groomed as Hafez al-Assad’s heir.  Both the fictional chemistry teacher and the real-life eye doctor did not anticipate the life they eventually came to live.

New beginnings can lead to innovations—for better or worse

When one is not planning to be a meth kingpin or the heir to a repressive regime governing over 22 million people but nevertheless transitions into these jobs, innovation is possible if not likely, even if one grows up a young Syrian prince.  For White, that meant raising the bar on cooking meth and producing a purer product using his mad science skills that came to corner the life-destroying market.  When al-Assad assumed power in 2000, many expected (hoped?) he would manage a transition to greater openness, reform, and freedoms in Syria.  Many Syria watchers were optimistic that al-Assad would bring fresh ideas to the table as a more cosmopolitan, tech-savvy young  leader. Bashar’s choice of a Western-raised and educated spouse raised hopes further for human rights and women’s equality among people who expected her to be a role model and champion for her countrywomen.  While al- Assad did make some small strides toward reform in the beginning of his presidency, he did not move nearly far enough and received little inducement from the West to move further toward reform or away from Syria’s closest ally and negative influence, Iran.

“For the family”

While White’s claims that his meth empire was built for his family’s benefit became increasingly hollow over time, it is likely that al-Assad is actually concerned about his family, the successful if shadowy power and economic structures it built, and his co-religionists, the Alawites, more broadly.  As this brilliant cartoon depiction shows, Syria’s regime is more of an oligarchy than a dictatorial regime per se, with the al-Assad family as the key protagonists in a family drama that often spills onto the national stage. Bashar al-Assad was almost certainly aware of his leadership shortcomings and, like many sons, is driven in part by a desire to not disappoint his father and uphold the house that Hafez built. As the now three-way Syrian civil war has intensified since protests in March 2011, sectarian and ethnic lines among Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, and Christian Syrians have thickened.  As most powerful opposition groups are Sunni and al-Assad’s demise would shift power to Sunni Syrians, many non-Sunni minorities fear the outcome of al-Assad’s potential fall.

Voices of reason are silent or complicit

Neither Bashar al-Assad’s London-born wife, Asma Akhras, nor Walter White’s wife, Skyler White, have curbed their husbands’ (or their husbands’ allies)  violent impulses. When the wheels start to come off the ethics bus, we should all hope that someone would help steer the person back toward a lawful existence, whether in Albuquerque or within international norms.  Both White and al-Assad’s wives seem well-positioned to put the brakes on problematic behavior or at least would seem capable of getting out for the sake of their kids, if not their own moral compass.

As a law-abiding citizen, Skyler initially struggles with her husband’s immoral but lucrative involvement in drugs. Rather than reporting him or otherwise reining him in, she decides to launder the money and, at times, calls for more militant responses to entities that threaten the family and its business.  Akhras, a mother of three who was born, raised, and educated in Britain and worked in international finance, might have used any influence she had to temper Syria’s response to peaceful protests.  Instead, her response seems to be denial, dispassion, and silence, making her complicit in the regime’s crimes.  Despite being raised in the Western world, Akhras remains in Syria, unable to tear herself away from the system that she is (literally) wedded to and that makes her relatives rich.  While we may hope time spent in the United States or other Western countries endow people with an appreciation for certain values, Asma Akhras shows that this is not always the case—or at the very least, they may not act on the values they learned.

Poisoning children

Without their better halves or other measures to prevail to their better natures, White and al-Assad (and his cronies that are more dangerous than Bashar himself) go farther and farther down a destructive path and caused misery and murder in their wake.  Both have crossed lines, including killing people and gravely harming children.

The ultimate fate of Bashar al-Assad and Walter White are an open question at this point, although both have managed to hang on—through pluck, the aid of “merciless butcher[s]” as allies, and brutality—through some challenging circumstances.  As fans await the finale of Breaking Bad and policy makers and pundits anticipate some kind of response to Syria’s descent into chaos, especially after the August 23rd chemical weapons attack, many wonder what will happen to the fictional and real protagonists discussed here.  Will they get away with their crimes?  If not, who can bring them to justice?  If they had a shred of conscience, perhaps the worst punishment for White and al-Assad would be to come to grips with the profound and irreparable damage that their actions have wrought. At this point, it does not seem like they do.

Given these parallels, what lessons can a U.S. foreign policy maker take away from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad breaking bad?

  • Engage with new leaders (publicly or through back channels) to identify opportunities to thaw or otherwise improve relations.
  • Understand that the first few months and years set the tone and trajectory for rule; early engagement is critical to enable good innovations such as human rights, press freedoms, expanded economic and educational opportunities, and new ties.
  • Old habits and alliances often die hard, but positive and persistent engagement could have the potential for great dividends over time.
  • Enhance and refine techniques that help analysts and policy makers understand behavioral attributes and use them constructively to induce positive end states.
  • Develop a better understanding of a leader’s environment—inner circle, political machinations, etc.—and craft policies and overtures that account for the milieu in which new leaders find themselves.


Jill Zabel is an experienced international security analyst and regular WIIS blog contributor. Originally from Orlando, Florida, she has a BA from Vanderbilt University and an MA in International Security from Georgetown University.

Technology and Human Trafficking: Friends or Foes?

July 16, 2013

Ieva Pundina

Human trafficking is one of the world’s most shameful crimes. While human trafficking is not yet the most profitable illicit trade – that honor goes to narcotics trafficking – it is likely the fastest growing. This low cost, high profit crime is thought to be a 32 billion dollar industry. Despite the frequency of the crime, human trafficking remains largely hidden from society, but has arguably become more prevalent with the accessibility of both low and high technology.

Technology’s contribution to human trafficking has been mixed. Technology has helped to combat human trafficking by allowing law enforcement to identify perpetrators more easily by tracking cell phones and financial transactions, identifying sellers, and mapping criminal activities.  However, technology has also made the facilitation of human trafficking far easier for criminal networks.  For example, technology has created new online platforms for recruitment, especially when vulnerable populations can be more easily identified and targeted. In addition, human traffickers are increasingly leveraging the internet and cell phones to attract buyers of trafficking victims, making the selling of sex more seamless.

The sheer volume of available data generated by technology can create a tremendous amount of work for law enforcement to sift through, though, requiring better coordination between law enforcement and effective information-sharing procedures to prevent traffickers and criminal networks from gaining the upper-hand. To complicate the matter, a significant portion of the electronic information about human trafficking that could be used to better counter it is piecemeal and subject to privacy rules. Disparate databases contain information like state anti-trafficking legislation; pending trafficking-related cases; financial transactions commonly associated with trafficking; criminal justice and service-providers’ best practices; and human trafficking prevalence estimates. Data that is available is often stored using non-standardized terms, making it challenging to aggregate with other databases.

Traffickers, on the other hand, are not bound by confidentiality rules with regards to sharing trafficking-related information. Accordingly, many have managed to replicate technological best practices from other illicit activities and apply them to the human trafficking space, including identifying available smuggling routes, leveraging communication networks, sharing bank accounts, and making wire transfers.  The same networks that facilitate legitimate international business can also be a part of criminal activities, making it even more difficult for law enforcement to decipher the legal from the illegal. In fact, many “legal businesses” are simply shells for illicit activities – arms or narcotics smuggling, counterfeiting, money laundering, and/or human trafficking.

Human trafficking activities, like any market-driven business, respond to supply and demand. When major events take place, an increase in demand often leads to an uptick in human trafficking. The Super Bowl, for example, attracts thousands of people to the host city, generating millions of dollars for the local economy. Behind the public celebrations, however, a quiet system of sex trafficking often goes largely unnoticed. A Forbes article revealed that an estimated 10,000 prostitutes were brought to the 2010 Super Bowl in Florida, that Texas made 133 underage arrests for prostitution around the 2011 Super Bowl, and that Louisiana made 85 arrests for human trafficking and prostitution around the 2013 Super Bowl.

One method used to combat human trafficking around the Super Bowl is legislation.  Florida, Texas, Indiana, and Louisiana all tightened their anti-trafficking ahead of hosting the Super Bowl. New Jersey, which will host the Super Bowl in 2014, has already amended its laws in advance of the event. Beyond legislation, states, in coordination with local and national non-profits, often launch awareness and outreach campaigns, such as trainings for the hospitality and travel industries (bars, hotels, motels, restaurants, flight attendants, cab drivers) on how to recognize sex trafficking victims.  Still, the extent of the problem begs the question of what technology could be applied to better detect and combat traffickers and their activities around major events, like the Super Bowl.

In Dallas and New Orleans, law enforcement officials in 2011 and 2013, respectively, proposed using unmanned areal vehicles (UAVs) around the Super Bowl. UAVs would be used like traditional manned helicopters to survey crowds and potentially monitor suspicious criminal activities, including sex trafficking. An advantage of UAVs is that they allow for real-time data collection using live video signals.  This video is then transmitted back to a “war room”, of sorts. UAVs are already patrolling border areas in Arizona, Florida, and North Dakota, examples of how UAVs can assist law enforcement in surveillance and patrolling. UAVs are also being used to monitor drug trafficking, gathering intelligence on the movements of drug cartels and human smugglers between the US and Mexico. The FBI recently revealed that it uses UAVs for surveillance in hostage and barricade situations.

Nevertheless, a number of legitimate concerns exist around UAVs, particularly with regards to civil liberties and privacy. These very concerns are what prevented both Texas and New Orleans from using UAVs for security and crowd monitoring during their Super Bowls. Clear rules for individual protection must be set before their use.

Despite these concerns, the extent to which human traffickers leverage the internet, coupled with the abysmally low identification rate of victims, suggests that new ways to combat trafficking via technology are required. Whether by using UAVs, increasing online investigations by law enforcement, or developing more innovative data sharing tools to facilitate cross-organizational cooperation, technology will need to play a vital role in fighting trafficking.

Ieva Pundina is an International Research Fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, where she focuses on human trafficking and national security issues. She previously worked as a lawyer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia, where she will return to this fall. Her expertise is in European Union and international law. She holds a master degree from University of Maastricht, European Law School, Netherlands.


Selected Sources

Moises Naim, Illicit, How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy, Doubleday, 2005, page 88.

D. Boyd, H. Casteel, M. Thakor, R. Johnson, Human Trafficking and Technology: A Framework for Understanding the Role of Technology in the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S.,, page 4.

Arthur Rizer and Sheri R.Glaser, Breach: The National Security Implications of Human Trafficking,

Widener Law Review, ISSN 1933-5555, 09/2011, Volume 17, Issue 1, page 87.

Michael Miklaucic and Jacqueline Brewer, Convergence of Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization, Center for Complex Operations Institute for National Strategic Studies By National Defense University Press Washington, D.C.
2013,, page 234.

Margaret Minnicks, Human Trafficking Attracts More Traffickers than any Other Event in US,, February 3, 2013,

Matt Rudnitsky, The Super Bowl Had a Sex Trafficking Problem, to the Tune of 85 Arrests Made, Sports Grid, February 8, 2013,

New Jersey Tightens Human Trafficking Laws ahead of Super Bowl, Express Times, May 6, 2013,

Homeland Security New Wire, Arlington, Texas Hopes to Keep Aerial Drone, May 17, 2011,

T.C. Sottek, City Cancels Plans for Super Bowl Drone Despite Enthusiasm and Interest from NOPD, September 19, 2012, The Verge,

Jason Koebler,, New Orleans Says No to Drones at Super Bowl, September 20, 2012,

Noelle Newton, DPS Using Drones to Fight Crime Locally, KVUE News, January 24, 2011,

Cristina Costantini, U.S. Border Patrol Increases Use Of Unmanned Drones For Surveillance, Surveillance, The Huffington Post, May 1, 2012,

Ginger Thompson and Mark Mazzetti, U.S. Drones Fight Mexican Drug Trade, The New York Times, March 15, 2011,

Jake Miller, FBI Director Acknowledges Domestic Drone Use, CBS News, June 19, 2013,

Carol Cratty, FBI Uses Drones for Surveillance in U.S, CNN, June 20, 2013,

Big Data and Diverse Threats: The Essential Role of Domain Expertise

July 9, 2013

Dr. Andrea Little Limbago 

The recent presidential campaign placed data analytics in the limelight, highlighting its growing role across academia, industry, and politics. Whether it was the use of data scientists to mine vast amounts of information about voters, the pre-election vitriol for Nate Silver’s predictions for an easy Obama victory, or the post-election glorification of all-things data, quantitative data analytics is back en vogue after the scorching it received at the height of the recession. This trend has finally made its way into national security community. For instance, the recent Foreign Affairs May/June cover story, appropriately titled “The Rise of Big Data”, notes the transformative effect of the big data environment.

As is often the case, the pendulum swings sharply, with a growing movement toward big data analytics and away from domain expertise. Machines can simply replicate the knowledge inherent within a domain expert, it is argued, and provide more provocative assessments in a shorter period of time. In fact, a panel at the Strata 2012 Conference (a major conference in the IT world) debated the value of machine learning versus domain expertise. Not terribly surprising, an audience full of computer scientists and engineers sided with machine learning over domain expertise. Similarly, there are articles that point to the end of theory, as well as the all-predictive power of big data.

Unfortunately, these arguments mask the limitations of big data, which must be addressed given the high stakes involved in the national security community. Too often, many of the computational analytic solutions within the national security community lack domain expertise –in the choice of data, the theories underlying the models, and the results interpretation. This does not mean that big data analytics cannot be useful, but that they must be married with domain expertise. The national security community – given the diverse threats and high stakes – should in fact take the seemingly bold move and integrate domain experts with the big data solutions. Given the broad array of threats, as well as the inherent limitations in big data, domain expertise should be viewed as a necessary condition for any technological solutions aimed at augmenting the analytic tradecraft.

Shifting Environment

For the national security community, domain expertise broadly refers to the wide range of analysts – found in the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, think tanks, academia and industry – who possess subject matter expertise in areas ranging from security studies to regional studies to foreign policy. Unlike during the Cold War where there was a significant emphasis on Kremlinologists, today’s domain experts cross a broad range of social sciences and regional expertise. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper notes in the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment to the US Intelligence Community, “Threats are more diverse, interconnected, and viral than at any time in history.” He reinforces the perspectives previously put forth in other strategic doctrine, such as the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Joint Operating Environment. Each document describes the dynamic and multifaceted environment, which contains a multi-polar distribution of power coupled with challenges of weapons of mass destruction, cyber, the persistence of violent extremist organizations (VEOs), as well as demographic shifts, natural resource tensions, and the effects of climate change. These challenges all converge within an era of globalization wherein technological advances are reshaping the status quo across the globe. The information technology revolution brings with it new challenges, empowering non-state actors to exploit vulnerabilities with very limited resource requirements, while also introducing the cyber sphere as a new domain for warfare. The diverse range of challenges in the global environment renders domain expertise even more pertinent, especially given the necessity to interweave and prioritize strategies and programs across the defense, development, and diplomatic spheres. As Dan McCauley recently noted in Small Wars Journal, “Given today’s dynamic and information-laden strategic environment, senior leaders cannot possibly possess the depth and breadth of information essential for informed decision making.”

Big Data and National Security

Not only is the national security community juggling a range of threats, it also is drowning in a sea of disparate data. From the White House’s overarching Big Data Initiative to the DoD’s Data to Decisions, the national security community is increasing the focus on technological solutions to analysts’, policymakers’, and warfighters’ overwhelming data challenges.  Solutions often range from cloud-based architectures to machine learning to data mining efforts, and highlight the success of big data analytics in other domains. For instance, in the sports world, Billy Beane’s team of quants out-performed the domain experts, while Nate Silver stuck to his data and proved the political pundits wrong this past election. President Obama’s interdisciplinary analytic team certainly was a contributing factor in his election success. And most pertinent to the national security community, a 2011 Nature article notes, “News Mining Might Have Predicted the Arab Spring.”

Preparing the Environment

Unfortunately, too often these technological solutions occur in a vacuum from domain expertise, and can go terrible astray if in the wrong hands. From being used to justify biases, to producing theoretically incorrect or nonsensical models, to simply ignoring the validity of data, computational analytics should not be viewed as a silver bullet. In complex systems – such as those we are seeing the global environment – the information and data are so noisy that there must be some means to parsimoniously identify the signals. And that is the realm of domain expertise. For instance, social science insights and models can help inform thinking by weeding out irrelevant information, and prioritizing those driving factors behind many of the key challenges in the environment. In this regard, domain expertise can also help make big data relevant, informing computational models with the inclusion of theoretically sound and operationally relevant variables instead of the variable soup that too often populates these complex models that fail to become operationally informative. In addition, with enough data, there will simply be an overwhelming amount of correlations. Domain expertise can weed out the nonsensical correlations, but also enables the exploration of causal mechanisms, while providing context to the findings and interpretation of results. Given the big data environment, the national security community should look for ways to integrate domain experts with the computer scientists and engineers. Computational analytic models and other advanced analytics will not succeed without a domain expert in the loop to help validate the models and vet the data, and ultimately help operationalize the new capabilities.

The dynamic and complex operational environment requires equally dynamic and rigorous capabilities to best inform strategy and operations, add rigor to assessments, and synchronize planning efforts across the globe. In a time of budgetary austerity, great efficiencies can be gained by marrying domain expertise with big data solutions. Big data analytics, when coupled with the insights and context that domain expertise provides, can greatly enhance the national security community’s ability to not only understand the dynamics of the global environment from strategic to tactical levels, but also can help make big data solutions relevant. Given the growing complexities and interdependencies within the operating environment, a smart integration of qualitative expertise and computational models could go a long way in making the big data revolution operationally relevant for the national security community.


Dr. Andrea Little Limbago is the Chief Social Scientist at Berico Technologies. She has taught courses on international relations, political economy, and development, and spent almost five years as a quantitative social scientist at the Joint Warfare Analysis Center.

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What You Need to Know about the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).

July 1, 2013


Since the beginning of this year, but primarily immediately and after President Obama’s speech about the administration’s planned shift of trajectory with regards to its counterterrorism strategy, the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has been of great debate as a basis of not only the counterterrorism strategy but the basis in HOW that strategy will be implemented[i]. Essentially, this, among other laws and world events, is starting to change how the United States looks at threats, insinuating a difference between now and the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.

For background, the AUMF is a joint resolution passed by Congress three days after September 11, 2001, which has served as the legal foundation for U.S. counterterrorism operations against those within al-Qaida who aided and abetted the terrorist attacks and those who continue to plan attacks against the U.S.  This too has been the underpinning of the drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, which have essentially come under great scrutiny as many argue that the current targets[ii].

However, of concern, is that as the War on Terror has evolved, so has the shape and the threat of al-Qaeda.  Al-Qaeda as we knew it in 2001 is somewhat different now—the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks have been either captured or killed and the core of al-Qaeda has also changed drastically.  Yet, the core of al-Qaeda has expanded drastically to the point to where there are different franchises throughout the world, to include al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and al-Shabaab[iii]. Other affiliated organizations such as Boko Haram in West Africa and the al-Nusrah Front based in Syria all stem from the same philosophy of the al-Qaeda we understood more than a decade ago[iv].

Yet, a very good debate is necessary to determine whether the AUMF is still needed and should be the basis for how we address countering further expansion of al-Qaeda.  For one, if the point of the AUMF was to go specifically after the perpetrators of 9/11, has that not already been accomplished?  This question is posed by many who believe that it is time to repeal or revise the AUMF as it currently stands. Particularly as the U.S. is drawing down its forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the AUMF as well should go away as Operation Enduring Freedom was one of the reasons for having AUMF in the first place.

Proponents of the AUMF, primarily that of the national security team within the Obama Administration, believe that the AUMF is applicable to its efforts to mitigate the threats brought by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.  Considering the fact that the AUMF authorizes the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the Sept. 11 attacks, the remnants of this particular organization still remain and thus must be prevented from future attacks.

Considering the points made by each side, the question remains as to what should happen to the AUMF itself.  Should it be repealed, revised or should something entirely take its place?

To be sure, the AUMF is not the only way in which the Administration is able to prevent imminent terrorist attacks against U.S. interests abroad or on the Homeland.  Thus, this discussion is not to determine whether the Administration is allowed to protect US interests from terrorists actions, but a matter of what legal basis the US can actively pursue terrorists.

One primary basis in which to decide what to do with this current basis is to evaluate the nature of the terrorist threat that emanates from al-Qaeda and how it will be projected.  As mentioned above, it has expanded and the transnational threat itself has in some ways decreased but the localized threats are just as meaningful. If the group is to continue this trajectory, particularly as it continues to threat U.S. interests abroad, the AUMF should be modified.

While the future of this particular law will without doubt go through Congressional scrutiny over the next year, one point that should be made is that the rate of terrorist attacks should not necessarily be tied to the ability to mitigate it.  The nature of the direct threat and U.S. capabilities should be considered when reviewing and potentially revising this particular law.  But, most would agree, considering the changes in the global landscape, there should be a very close review of the AUMF as it is.

[i] “A counterterrorism law in need of updating” by John B. Bellinger, III,  Washington Post, November 26, 2010.  Available at:

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Head Of US Africa Command Warns Of Islamic Threat”, Donna Cassata, Associated Press, 15 March 2013

[iv] “U.S. Places Militant Syrian Rebel Group on List of Terrorist Organizations”,  by Michael R. Gordon and Anne Bernanrd, New York Times, 10 December 2012

Kyrgyz Democracy is Undermining Kyrgyz Democracy

June 26, 2013

Ingrid Pederson

This article originally appeared in the Central Eurasia Standard on June 24, 2013. 

In March of 2011, democracy was progressing in Kyrgyzstan. Less than a year before, a bloody revolution and ethnic violence threatened the small state with civil war. Instead, a female head of state stepped down to allow an elected leader to take her place as President. It was seen internationally as a watershed moment in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia as a whole. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva detailed her country’s democratic chops in an editorial about the Arab Spring having its roots in the 2010 Kyrgyz revolution:

In Kyrgyzstan, we brought together all political parties and a wide array of civil society leaders to draft the new constitution. After several weeks of frequent televised debates and a thorough search for a national compromise, the Constitutional Council agreed to transform our country from a strong presidential system into a parliamentary republic. Within three months of the fall of the Bakiyev regime, the new constitution was put to a national referendum.

To really understand how shocking this was, compare this parliamentary republic in one of the poorest countries in the region to other governments in Central Asia: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are all run by autocrats who barely hide their negligence and disregard for the people they serve. Torture, religious oppression and the lack of a free press is the rule. Turkmenistan is second only to North Korea in isolation from the outside world. Kyrgyzstan was the exception to this relentless rule, and in October 2011 the entire world watched as elections were held and a peaceful transition of power took place in Kyrgyzstan, just 18 months after violence threatened to start a civil war. Democracy, Western-style democracy, appeared to be taking root.

Fast forward to just over two years later, on May 2nd, 2013 when RFE/RL reported that an analyst for a large think-tank, known for being critical of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy was denied entry back into Kyrgyzstan. It was the latest in a series of incidents where analysts, including foreign analysts, journalists and NGO workers felt threatened or harassed by the government. These accusations echo those leveled at former President Bakiyev prior to the 2010 revolution. The leader of one parliamentary faction in the Kyrgyz government stated that since 2010 there is still “an element of anarchy, some uncontrollability. Hence, distrust of people appears…The main thing is to win the trust of the people. But they [the authorities] have little success in it.”

So what is happening in Kyrgyzstan? Sadly – what’s happening is Kyrgyz democracy. A noxious cycle of corruption and revolution is confirming instability as the status quo. In 2005, the ‘Tulip Revolution’ ousted a corrupt leader and put a new champion into place – who turned out to be more of the same. The allegations, like the allegations leveled against his predecessor, accused then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of awarding key positions to his family members and increasing oppression of the press.  Journalists faced harassment and death threats while critical newspapers were forced to shut down. Current President Almazbek Atambayev now faces the same accusations from his critics.

Kyrgyzstan’s democracy is characterized by three principal ailments: a culture of corruption perpetrated by each successive Kyrgyz President; a culture of revolution; and a lack of political continuity. Without continuity, the Kyrgyz people do not see long-term initiatives come to fruition and no trust can be fostered between the people and government.  Since the election of a new administration in October 2011 (the third administration in three years) numerous international groups have accused the Kyrgyz government of torture, continued corruption and repression of civil society groups.

Like much of Central Asia, societal and political institutions are eroded by the narcotics trade. Kyrgyzstan is a transit route for opiates from Afghanistan, and while the government does work to combat the narcotics trade, a steady stream of government officials stand accused of or arrested for involvement in drug-related corruption. In 2010, the Drug Control Agency was disbanded by then-President Bakiyev, reducing transparency in a bid by the President to gain more control and influence in the drug trade. The President’s brother was accused of controlling the flow of most of the drugs through southern Kyrgyzstan at the time. In some parts of Kyrgyzstan, the government itself operates the drug trade or willfully turns a blind eye to it, preventing effective governance for and by the people. This feeds into the broader cycle of short-term governments with no ability to enact long-term positive political change.

Corruption goes hand in hand with the cycle and culture of revolution in Kyrgyzstan.  Major issues within the country turn people to cries for revolution as a first resort, instead of the last option. For example, while Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary democracy is exemplary in the region, the rising tide of nationalism poses a serious threat to Kyrgyzstan’s unity and undermines a unified state, fueling conflict internally. Nationalism was blamed for deadly riots in 2010, and there are regular calls for coup d’état by nationalist groups if their demands are not met. While these demands are not considered a major threat right now, they indicate that revolution is always an option for political change in Kyrgyzstan, and a common tactic to get attention. How can Kyrgyzstan stabilize when revolution has been the guarantor of political change over the past ten years? Dialogue between the street and the elite, recent history suggests, does not pack a substantial punch in Kyrgyzstan. Revolution, and the threat of revolution, has taken the place of dialogue in Kyrgyz democracy.

Despite all of this, Kyrgyzstan is seen as the best hope, and perhaps the only hope in Central Asia, for democracy and its attendant values such as human rights, transparency, and accountability. Its democracy is faltering at best. A recent article by Joshua Kucera in the Wilson Quarterly makes the case that post-Soviet countries see democracy as a source of instabilityand populations have little incentive to buy into this political system, preferring a strong leader to democratic ideals. The larger concern for the democracy-promoting West (in contrast with the preference for strong leaders in the former Soviet Union) is that Kyrgyzstan moves closer towards Ukraine on the democratic spectrum, a country with a shallow veneer of democracy where graft is rampant and political opposition is often a representation of competing business interests.

The regional rejection of democracy weakens the influence of Western countries in Central Asia, as their political values (a stated source of moral authority) are brushed aside and autocratic strength is rewarded with influence. The US is already played off Russia and China by Central Asian countries, as these smaller states attempt to leverage their strategic value to win favors from the geopolitical giants. The promise of democracy and freedom, the ‘beacon’ of Western ideals in the former Soviet Union from three years ago stands in stark contrast with a country who harasses analysts from internationally known think tanks and blocks regional news networks for over a year.

Corruption and revolution preclude any political continuity. After three different governments in the last three years, the population has not yet seen any government capable of translating democratic principles into lasting action. The current government has held power for less than two years. The two previous presidents’ tenures were accompanied by slides towards corruption and authoritarian practice. Recent events, demonstrating the current administration’s growing intolerance for dissent, may be harbingers that little has actually changed since the 2005 revolution. International humanitarian groups, most recently Reporters Without Borders, point out the contradictions of these actions with Kyrgyzstan’s democratic goals.

Kyrgyzstan’s democracy is characterized by instability, and two revolutions in ten years may have undermined Kyrgyz democracy by contributing to a constant state of instability. The social contract between leadership and population cannot grow organically when the authorities are perceived as corrupt, kick-starting the cycle of revolution over again. This is of course, not to say that corrupt leaders should have been left in power. Kyrgyzstan is still the best hope for democracy in the region. The civil society and foreign aid presence is widely touted as robust, and the people have shown that they will push back against autocracy. However, if the reports of human rights violations and corruption continue, Kyrgyzstan will slide further from the democratic ideals they want so badly to claim.


Ingrid Pederson co-founded Central Eurasia Standard in June 2012 to bring news and analysis of Central Asia and the Caucasus to foreign policy watchers trying to learn more about the region. She has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Nottingham, where she focused on conflict related to energy security.