On Dec. 18, the U.S. State Department's Accountability Review Board released an unclassified version of its investigation into the Sept. 12 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack, so the report was widely anticipated by the public and by government officials alike.
Four senior State Department officials have been reassigned to other duties since the report's release. Among them were the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security; two of his deputy assistant secretaries, including the director of the Diplomatic Security Service, the department's most senior special agent; and the deputy assistant secretary responsible for Libya in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
The highly critical report and the subsequent personnel reassignments are not simply a low watermark for the State Department; rather, the events following the attack signify another phase in the diplomatic security funding cycle. The new phase will bring about a financial windfall for the State Department security budgets, but increased funding alone will not prevent future attacks from occurring. After all, plenty of attacks have occurred following similar State Department budgetary allocations in the past. Other important factors therefore must be addressed.
The cycle by which diplomatic security is funded begins as officials gradually cut spending on diplomatic security programs. Then, when major security failures inevitably beset those programs, resultant public outrage compels officials to create a panel to investigate those failures.
The first of these panels dates back to the mid-1980s, following attacks against U.S. facilities in Beirut and Kuwait and the systematic bugging of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. These security lapses led to the formation of the Secretary of State's Advisory Panel on Overseas Security, chaired by former Deputy CIA Director Adm. Bobby Inman. The law that passed in the wake of the Inman Commission came to be known as the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986, which requires that an accountability review board be convened following major security incidents.
There are a few subsequent examples of these panels. Former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William Crowe chaired an Accountability Review Board following the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. And after the Benghazi attacks, an Accountability Review Board was chaired by former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering. The Dec. 18 report was the findings of the Pickering board.
Predictably, the review boards, including Pickering's, always conclude that inadequate funding and insufficient security personnel are partly to blame for the security breaches. In response to the reports, Congress appropriates more money to diplomatic security programs to remedy the problem. Over time, funds are cut, and the cycle begins anew.
Funding can be cut for several reasons. In times of financial austerity, Congress can more easily cut the relatively small foreign affairs budget than it can entitlement benefits budgets. Cuts to the overall State Department budget generally result in cuts for security programs.
Moreover, rivalries among the various State Department entities can affect spending cuts. The Diplomatic Security Service's budget falls under the main State Department budget, so senior diplomats, rather than Diplomatic Security Service agents, represent the agency's interests on Capitol Hill. Some within the security service do not believe that senior diplomats have their best interests at heart when making the case for their budgets -- at least until a tragedy occurs and Congressional hearings are held to air these problems. For their part, others in the department resent the Diplomatic Security Service for the large budgetary allocations it receives after a security failure.
More than a Matter of Funding
With Congress and the presumed next Secretary of State John Kerry now calling for increased spending on diplomatic security, the financial floodgates are about to reopen. But merely throwing money at the problems uncovered by the accountability review boards will not be enough to solve those problems. Were that the case, the billions of dollars allocated to diplomatic security in the wake of the Inman and Crowe commission reports would have sufficed.
Of course, money can be useful, but injecting large sums of it into the system can create problems if the money provided is too much for the bureaucracy to efficiently metabolize. Government managers tend to spend all the money allocated to them -- sometimes at the expense of efficiency -- under a "use it or lose it" mentality. Since there is no real incentive for them to perform under budget, managers in a variety of U.S. government departments spend massive amounts of money at the end of each fiscal year. The same is true of diplomatic security programs when they are flush with cash. But the inevitable reports of financial waste and mismanagement lead to calls for spending cuts in these programs.
If the U.S. government is ever going to break the cycle of funding cuts and security disasters, the Diplomatic Security Service will need to demonstrate wisdom and prudence in how it spends the funds allocated to them. It will also be necessary for Congress to provide funding in a consistent manner and with an initial appropriation that is not too big to be spent efficiently.
Beyond money management and a consistent level of funding, the State Department will also need to take a hard look at how it currently conducts diplomacy and how it can reduce the demands placed on the Diplomatic Security Service. This will require asking many difficult questions: Is it necessary to maintain large embassies to conduct diplomacy in the information age? Does the United States need to maintain thousands of employees in high-threat places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the expense of smaller missions, or can the critical work be done by hundreds or even dozens? Is a permanent U.S. presence even required in a place like Benghazi, or can the missions in such locations be accomplished by a combination of visiting diplomats, covert operatives and local employees?
At the very least, the State Department will need to review its policy of designating a facility as a "special mission" -- Benghazi was designated as such -- to exempt it from meeting established physical security standards. If the questions above are answered affirmatively, and if it is deemed necessary to keep a permanent presence in a place like Benghazi, then security standards need to be followed, especially when a facility is in place for several months. Temporary facilities with substandard security cannot be allowed to persist for months and years.
As they consider these issues, officials need to bear in mind that the real key to the security of diplomatic facilities is the protection provided by the host country's security forces as dictated by the Vienna Convention. If the host country will not or cannot protect foreign diplomats, then the physical security measures mandated by security standards can do little more than provide slight delay -- which is what they are designed to do. No physical security measures can stand up to a prolonged assault. If a militant group armed with heavy weaponry is permitted to attack a diplomatic facility for hours with no host government response -- as was the case in Benghazi -- the attack will cause considerable damage and likely cause fatalities despite the security measures in place.
The same is true of a large mob, which given enough time can damage and breach U.S. embassies that meet current department security standards. The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, a state-of-the-art facility completed in 2009, washeavily damaged by a mob of pro-Gadhafi supporters in May 2011 and rendered unserviceable.
In another example, a large crowd caused extensive damage to the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and the adjacent American School just three days after the Benghazi attack. In that incident, Tunisian authorities responded and did not provide the attacking mob the opportunity to conduct a prolonged assault on the embassy. Though the mob caused millions of dollars worth of damage to the compound, it was unable to breach the main embassy office building. Without host country security support, there is little that can be done to assure the safety of U.S. diplomats, no matter what happens to security budgets.
Pakistani security forces came away from the incident looking very good. They prevented a large and seemingly coordinated team of militants from entering the confines of the base and thus from damaging civilian and military aircraft. Some of Pakistan's newly acquired Chinese-Pakistani made JF-17s, are stationed at the air base, and worth roughly $20 million each, they were probably the militants ultimate targets.
Another reason the militants may have chosen the base is its location. Peshawar Air Force Base is the closest base to the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan, where Pakistani and U.S. forces are clashing with Taliban militants who threaten Islamabad and Kabul. The air base is most likely a hub for Pakistan's air operations against those militants. The Dec. 15 attack killed one police officer and a few other civilians, but it did no damage to the air base, the adjacent civilian airport or their respective aircraft. Flights were postponed for only a couple of hours as security forces cleared the area.
Tactics and Previous Attacks
Major military bases in Pakistan have been attacked before. In May 2011, Pakistani Taliban militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and firearms destroyed two P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft and killed 10 soldiers during an attack on Mehran Naval Air Base in Karachi. The militants entered the base by cutting through the fence.
More recently, seven Pakistani Taliban militants scaled the walls of Minhas Air Force Base in Kamra before killing a soldier and damaging a Ukrainian transport aircraft. They were pushed back before they could damage the squadron of F-16 fighter aircraft stationed at the base.
The Dec. 15 attack was not nearly as destructive as these other attacks, probably because half the militants were killed immediately in the explosion at the perimeter. Their deaths suggest the device detonated earlier than expected or that they were not far enough from the device when it exploded. It is unclear why they died, but the device could have detonated prematurely for several reasons. There could have been a glitch in the construction or detonation of the device. Otherwise, it could have been the result of the security forces' countermeasures (something officials have not yet claimed). Had the militants survived the explosion and breached the perimeter, they might have been more successful against security.
The Dec. 15 attack also differs from the previous two attacks tactically. Whereas militants stealthily entered the bases in Kamra and Karachi, the militants who attacked the base in Peshawar used mortars and explosives because the wall -- roughly eight feet high and topped with barbed wire -- could not be cut or climbed easily. These tactics are much more aggressive than the two previous air base attacks, and therefore they immediately caught the attention of security forces. Indeed, security forces in the vicinity would have heard mortar shells and explosions. But just as important, mortar shells and explosions create flames that security forces can use to pinpoint the attack and respond quickly.
It is hard to say whether the combination and coordination of mortar fire, explosives and a direct ground assault with firearms would have resulted in a successful attack even if half the militants had not died in the initial explosion. They certainly would have been greatly outnumbered. The few mortar shells fired at the base may have suppressed forces momentarily, but the militants did not sustain their indirect cover fire, which eventually allowed security forces more mobility in responding. In any case, breaching the wall with an explosion sacrifices the element of surprise too early -- outside the base rather than inside -- reducing the amount of time the assailants have to find their targets before security could respond.
A final reason the attack failed may have been the fact that the threat was known about weeks earlier. In late November, authorities apprehended a would-be suicide bomber and his handler entering Peshawar on a motorcycle. The suspect later confessed that they were targeting the airport. Peshawar airport was already on high alert after the attack on the Kamra base in August. The November arrests heightened security, which lessened the militants' chance of surprise. Moreover, the arrests were made publicly available in open-source materials, so the militants should have known that security forces were on high alert.
As for the security forces, the protective intelligence available was obvious, and the attack came when they were most prepared to repel it. Yet they benefited greatly when the explosion did half their work for them. It appears that they just got lucky.
The Dec. 15 attack appears to have been carried out by militants who intended to replicate the damage caused by their comrades' attacks in Karachi and Kamra. Tactically, they failed.
But that does not mean the operation wasn't valuable. Like previous attacks on Pakistani military installations, the Peshawar attack grabs headlines because of its high profile. Put simply, the sensitivity of the target demands media attention.
As in the Karachi and Kamra attacks, the Dec. 15 attack involves the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. There are no indications that there are nuclear weapons stored at the Peshawar base, and there is no evidence that the nuclear weapons that may have been stored at the Karachi and Kamra bases were compromised. But the attack nonetheless raises questions about the security of Pakistan's military installations and by extension their nuclear arsenal. For the United States and India, such attacks compel lawmakers to revisit debates over whether the United States should intervene to protect the weapons.
These headlines and discussions benefit the Pakistani Taliban because they call into question Islamabad's ability to rule. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban will continue to try to destabilize the military, one of the strongest pillars of the state, and provoke fear of external involvement from the United States.
In fact, the Pakistani Taliban would benefit from U.S. involvement, which would create huge public backlash and chaotic conditions in which the militants could thrive. The Pakistani Taliban do not necessarily need to destroy aircraft or kill military personnel to raise these doubts in Pakistan and the wider world. From the perspective of the insurgents, all the coordination and firepower they brought to the attack was a strategic success if this attack nurtures that doubt, even if it wasn't as tactically successful as previous attacks.