What the Defense Community Is—and Should be—Talking About

The international defense community called out Syria, Afghanistan, and the use of drones as some of the most important issues facing global national security.

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Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

I'm just back from a weekend at the Halifax Security Forum. As its name implies, the "Davos of the North" is a meeting of senior defense officials, scholars, journalists, and others from NATO countries and their global democratic partners. And many, many Nova Scotia lobsters making the ultimate sacrifice. 

These sorts of meetings don't necessarily break a lot of news, but you come away with a good sense of what is global elite conventional wisdom, and what is hotly debated—which can be a useful tool in predicting what's to come in the next six to 12 months. Here are my takeaways on three hot issues, and one that's not hot… but should be.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Drones and Cyber: Tactics vs. Strategy

The shared worry that had military leaders, civilian first-responders, and human rights types nodding in agreement in a discussion of new frontiers in warfare was this: remote warfare, robots, cyber are all terrific tactics. But with any new technology, one faces the risk that the fascination of the new tactic overwhelms good old-fashioned thinking about strategy—to what end are they being employed? And whether it's civilian deaths caused by or terrorist recruitment inspired by drones, viruses invading networks that weren't the target, or a hacker's collective like Anonymous declaring (cyber-)war on Israel, do we have a clear strategy that mitigates—and is worth—unanticipated effects? And can we explain it?  

Syria as Bosnia

This strikes a chord with your correspondent, who lived through Bosnia at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna and Helsinki, negotiating cease-fires all night and learning of new atrocities in the morning (before Twitter and iPhones, kids), and then at the State Department. It was a Syrian opposition member who noted that the 35,000 dead in Syria has not yet approached the 200,000 killed in Bosnia before Western intervention ramped up enough to make a difference. A conference participant recycled the cliché that the Northern Ireland conflict ended "when the people got tired of killing each other." Well, no. It ended a good while after that, when the people and their political leaders had something better to look to, in the form of the European Union, and some decent mediation from Washington. Bosnia, ditto. But where can the "something better" for Syria come from?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Afghanistan

The two senior no-shows at Halifax were Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States… and David Petraeus. Draw your own conclusions. The Afghans present agreed that Afghanistan had been changed beyond recognition, and for the better, by developments since 2001. They disagreed, though, on whether the introduction of communications technology, media, and openness had decisively favored the forces of liberalization—or whether the Taliban and its allies were able to use media more effectively to promote reaction. They also agreed that Afghanistan was not ready to stand on its own, and were eager to make the argument—which we can expect to hear more of as 2014 approaches—that an Afghan failure will be an American loss, and an extremist gain. Understandably, perhaps, they were not eager to discuss the question of whether the United States can insulate its interests, and return an Afghan win or loss to the Afghans, as it should be.

Gender, Again

It's not every day that you see three influential women—a Syrian opposition representative, a leading journalist, and an NGO executive—debating strategies for women's inclusion while defense ministers and generals look on, helplessly. Should social change leaders, revolutionaries, and their friends abroad put gender representation, gender equality, and gender rights quarrels with your partners aside "for the good of the movement?" Or should you never stop pushing (as the senior female participant counseled). Yes, that happened. By the next day, the hole in the time-space continuum had healed, almost, and when CNN's Elise Labott put the parallel question to a panel of former and future Afghan officials, she got the brush-off, rather like what has happened to Afghan women trying to participate in peace talks. But guess what: Whether it's the courage of women in Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Burma—in and out of hijab, miniskirt, government—or us lucky ones with great jobs and opportunities who just have to use our hard heads to dent the glass ceiling, we're not going away.

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