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Ruttig on Afghanistan’s prospects

October 25, 2014

Summary: Thomas Ruttig sees little optimism for the next 2-3 decades in Afghanistan.
Thomas RuttigI was lucky enough to have the internationally renowned Afghanistan expert, Thomas Ruttig, from the Afghanistan Analysts Network drop in on my little part of the world the week before last as a host of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan and the Association of Foreign Affairs in Malmö. Given that the venue was a mere 10 minutes away by bicycle, it seemed ill-advised and impolite not to take the opportunity to hear him speak on the situation in Afghanistan. So here are a few notes from his talk.

As ever, he mixed pessimism and pragmatism in a user-friendly way. Although the election crisis was now as resolved as it was perhaps ever going to be, there remained other crises to confront – social, economic and, of course, military.

•Because of the extensive fraud, controversy and confusion, there was no official “result” announced, although it is generally accepted that Ashraf Ghani is likely to have had the majority of the votes, with Dr Abdullah Abdullah in second place in approximately a 55% to 45% finish.
• The Government of National Unity (with Ghani as President and Abdullah as some form of Prime Minster/CEO/Second in Command is now slowly being formed. Actually forming a government in this way, although it was perhaps the best way to resolve the impasse may have undermined the democratic process.
• Command over the army, police and intelligence institutions will be important: these bodies are still not really “state” institutions, more loyal to specific factions.
• Ashraf Ghani appears to have reopened the Kabul Bank court case (a massive fraud and embezzlement scam in which highly placed senior officials were allowed to borrow money which then disappeared). Ruttig saw this as a good sign that Ghani will not be afraid to tackle fraud and impunity amongst senior individuals.

IMG_0781Ongoing conflict
• The Taliban are resilient, with their morale strengthened. They have new tactics involving larger-scale operations as they are more confident and have to be less concerned about the impact of American airpower as ISAF pulls out. But the Taliban unable to administer and control areas.
• As an interesting aside (for me at least), Ruttig mentioned the myth that “Chechen” fighters had ever been involved in fighting in Afghanistan (presumably either with the Taliban, HIG, Haqqani or Al Qaeda). He said he had researched every lead and suggestion and found them wanting. As far as he was concerned, the Chechens had never fought in Afghanistan.
• Regarding attempts at a political solution, this “hasn’t really made much progress”. Ghani and the government need to make up their mind what to do with the Taliban – fight or talk. The conditions for enabling talks have deteriorated – there are no concepts concerning what to do.
• In terms of overall international military assistance after 2015, Ruttig suggested that it might not be a bad idea for German troops (amongst others) to remain in Afghanistan after 2016.
• As a result of the conflict the mood for investment overall in the country is negative – Afghans are taking their money out of the country.


• Ruttig favoured the Ghani approach of having “national dialogues” involving the country in debates about its direction, noting that the structural problems in the country – social, political, economic – were bigger problems than the Taliban.
• Overall the prospects are pessimistic. There are still a lot of risks for Afghanistan. The prospects are for 2-3 decades of a “very hard situation” for the country. Everyone is looking at Ghani now to see what he does and how successful he is.
• In response to a direct question about with it was fair to repatriate Afghan asylum seekers in other countries, e.g. Europe, Ruttig gave an emphatic “no”, adding, “You are not sending them back to a good future”.

Two large scale Afghan Taliban attacks reported in Logar and Ghowr provinces

October 19, 2014

Summary: larger scale Taliban ground operations reported

Photos of Afghan maps 006Reports of some larger scale operations from the Taliban :

BBC News, 19 Oct 2014:

Hundreds of Taliban fighters have launched two deadly attacks in Afghanistan, local officials say.

In Logar province, in the east, at least four soldiers were killed when militants attacked security posts.

In the central province of Ghor, up to 500 Taliban attacked two villages, a senior official told the BBC. The number of casualties is still unclear.

We might need to wait and see what other information comes in, particularly regarding the scale and outcome of these reported engagements. Its harder to get accurate reporting on fighting in the provinces now, as international (and international military) engagement dwindles.  We should be particularly cautious about the numbers reported to be involved.  However, larger insurgent attacks seem to be an increasing trend, with the Taliban more confident and willing to take on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in pitched battles.  Surrounding isolated outposts and quickly overwhelming by force of numbers was a standard tactic employed by the Mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s, has been employed by the Taliban in the last ten years and may have been employed here.  Although a larger force in terms of numbers, the ANSF have less firepower, such as artillery and air power, than ISAF had at its peak.  This makes it much harder for the ANSF to be able to repel attacks and take and hold ground, lacking effective “force multipliers” such as intelligence, transport and logistical support.

ISIS and propaganda…

October 8, 2014

Interesting article in The Guardian about ISIS and their use of propaganda:

The Isis propaganda war: a hi-tech media jihad

Isis is ISIS logousing techniques plundered from movies, video games and news channels to spread its message. Who is masterminding the operation – and what is the best way to counter it?

Seem to be many parallels with the Taliban’s increasing ventures into high tech media activity and perhaps even significantly improving on this.  But, as the article notes, you can make a slick TV programme but you can more than undermine any propaganda victory you seek by beheading people.

The West has not done well countering Taliban propaganda, often because it tries too hard and plays the Taliban’s game.  A clearer distinction perhaps between the battle of images and the battle of ideas might help…

Afghanistan stumbles pragmatically forward…

September 22, 2014

Summary:  Ghani, Abdullah and numerous international brokers resolve the election by agreeing on a power-sharing transition of power.  Is this durable?  Was this even an election? 

Now the battle for cabinet posts can begin...

Now the battle for cabinet posts can begin…

It seems as if a minor step of progress (NYT; A shaky step forward”) has been made in the political fortunes of Afghanistan with the announcement that the two presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani, the Pushtun former finance minister and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Tajik former foreign minister, have “resolved” the issue of who got the most votes to become President.   Brushing aside the vote count itself, the two candidates, after intensive behind–he scenes brokering by John Kerry, the United Nations and many others I am sure, agreed a power division formula whereby Ghani is President and Abdullah is a sort of chief executive/prime minister/details TBA…

With every passing day of delay Afghanistan had become more shaky and the Taliban more emboldened.  On the plus side, many, (most even), are happy to see this as a successful resolution to the flawed election process.  It is a relief that they have finally reached a decision of any sort.  It is good that a transition of presidential power doesn’t involve the previous encumbant being carried out in a wooden box or removed at gunpoint.  As long as the two men – extremely capable in their own right, but clearly prone to friction – can focus their energies on the country’s pressing needs of every kind, does it really matter how they came to power?

Given the significant problems in the country, we perhaps shouldn’t expect the electoral process to be much better than “barely adequate” in 2014.  In 2004 I thought that once Afghanistan had got five such presidential elections out of the way, then we would know which way the country was tipping.  But this recent “process” does matter for the future, and the future might not be that far away.  The solution does beg many questions, starting with “what was the election for in the first place?”.  I don’t think we yet have a sense of the views of the population, but many literally risked their lives to take part in a democratic electoral process.  This will not be a rhetorical question for them.  Somewhat ironically, one of the conditions of the Ghani/Abdullah merger was that all mention of the final voting scores be dropped, at least for a while.

I am sure various warlords and local power-brokers will be lining themselves up for positions within the cabinet as reward for support/favours/funding given.  What happens to the two vice Presidents of each candidate?  How fat and flabby will the government be, once all official positions have been dished out?  Will there be months of in-fighting as senior members are pushed out and new faces push in?  But the bigger issue is this.  If significant figures and power-brokers, faced with the difficulties of a faulty election process, can simply tear up the electoral and constitutional plans and carve up power, what prospects will there be for the next election?  If there is another one.  Perhaps the US, UN et al are currently too exhausted from this recent crisis to give it a thought.

And if Ghani and Abdullah or their lieutenants do start squabbling, their talents – and Afghanistan’s prospects – will be thrown away.

Amidst all the official breaths of relief, I am not convinced that anything more than fighting the most pressing fire has been achieved.  I look forward to hearing government discussion – and perhaps even some action – on the issues facing Afghanistan.  I guess their first task will be to start the European and international tours to restate the case for financial aid – starting with the money that was wasted merely marking time over the last few months…

One of the most realistic observations I read from a western goverment official came at the end of the 2009 electoral process: “A crisis averted is not progress”.

Afghanistan: snatching defeat from victory?

September 9, 2014

Summary: Surely the risk of internal conflict is increasing as both presidential candidates continue to claim victory.

The election saga continues but threatens to move from farce to tragedy.  Both candidates are still claiming victory and failing to reach plausible compromise despite the complex and costly vote recount.  The Washington Post is highlighting some worrying information that surely boosts the risk of a civil war:

Washington Post, 8 Sept 2014: The prospect of two candidates declaring themselves the elected successor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai grew significantly Monday, threatening the Obama’s administration’s efforts to prevent the country from erupting in political unrest.  After weeks of recriminations over the disputed results of a June runoff election and negotiations on forming a unity government, Abdullah

Not smiling now...

Not smiling now…

Abdullah declared victory on national television and pledged to block his rival from taking power through “fraudulent results.” The defiant statement heightened tensions days before the announcement of audited election results, which are expected to deliver the presidency to former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.  ‘“We are the winner of the election based on the clean votes of the people,” said Abdullah, claiming that the vote was plagued by widespread fraud. “Fraud, fraudulent results and the announcement of the fraudulent results are not acceptable.”

In response, Daoud Sultanzoy, a top aide to Ghani, said Ghani is prepared to assume power unilaterally should Abdullah fail to return to the bargaining table.

“This is not about a spoiled group that wants to keep a grip on power,” said Sultanzoy, noting the stalemate is hurting the economy. “This is about the people of this country, and we are cognizant about this and won’t be reckless.”

I wasn’t entirely sure whether a “government of national unity” wasn’t simply a fudge that would more or less guarantee internal argument and strife in the months to come.  Now, however, it seems that the country might not even get to that stage.  The highly respected American analyst Seth Jones:

Wall Street Journal, 8 Sept 2014: Afghanistan faces its most serious crisis in a decade. This time, however, it is not caused by an emboldened Taliban but by growing friction between the two contenders for president. Only a determined effort by the United States and other NATO allies can prevent an escalation into violence…The stakes are high. So is the tension in Kabul, where there are rumors that some of Mr. Abdullah’s supporters are considering violence if Mr. Ghani is declared the winner in coming days…

An outbreak of violence could have serious consequences. It could trigger a coup attempt or in-fighting among government security forces allied with the respective camps. There are growing concerns that key military, police and intelligence officials in Kabul and out in the field would support different sides in an insurrection.

Such a split would weaken the government and the fragile Afghan National Security Forces, which could rupture along ethnic lines. That could allow pro-Abdullah forces to consolidate control of the capital and other primarily Tajik and Hazara provinces in central and northern Afghanistan, while pro-Ghani forces could control Pashtun areas in the east and south of the country.

There are already indications that segments of the Afghan National Army, such as the 205th Corps headquartered in Kandahar, could face significant divisions if the losing candidate broke with Kabul. Its subordinate units—which consist of four brigades, a commando battalion and three garrisons—might fracture because of the divided political loyalties of its commanders.

This is key – the Taliban can remain a broadly manageable threat only if the ANSF is unified and controlled by a coherent central government.  With violent fractures in the Kabul regime, the ANSF becomes worse than ineffective – it will split into pro-warlord factions and become a part of the problem.

My thesis from last year looked at directions in which the Afghan conflict could go after 2014.  It highlighted the risks that other political/military factions beyond the Taliban might get drawn in to contest control of the state and suggested that a struggle for army loyalty is plausible and could become a further danger to the stability of the country.

Russia planning another convoy into Ukraine

August 25, 2014

Summary: Suggestions that the Russians are planning to send in another “aid” convoy in a few days

Here we go…

BBC, 25 Aug 2014: Russia plans to send another humanitarian convoy into eastern Ukraine “in the next few days”, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.  Mr Lavrov said the humanitarian situation there was “deteriorating”.  Ukraine did not authorise the first convoy, which returned to Russia at the weekend, fearing it carried military equipment for pro-Russia separatists.  Ukrainian officials said a column of armoured vehicles crossed from Russia on Monday, sparking heavy clashes.

The likelihood of this becoming a more general – and, dare I say it “official” – armed clash seems greater.  The Ukrainians did not allow the Russians in last time and the unilateral decision by Russia to send the convoy in anyway, without ICRC accompaniment, was roundly condemned by everyone apart from, well, Russia, really.  I suggested previously that one tactic might be to establish the principle of entry and use it to slowly increase presence and influence inside eastern Ukraine.  But an article in Time thinks this is but part of a wider Russian effort to challenge the US seeming monopoly over aid distribution.

Not sure if this is accurate, but I agree with this sentiment, expressed here in American Thinker:

No nation in world history has destroyed its relationships with the outside world as rapidly or decisively as Vladimir Putin’s Russia has done in 2014.

The solution to Putin is not military but essentially political and economic and will take several years.  People will simply stop wanting to work with his version of Russia.

“The Russian side has decided to act”. Convoy pushes into Ukraine regardless…

August 22, 2014

Summary: Developments on the aid convoy – Russia decides to run the convoy into Ukraine anyway.  Ukraine calls it “invasion”.

Carry On Regardless...

Carry On Regardless…

Russia takes the next logical step in the art of provocation and moves part of the aid convoy into Ukraine without the permission of the Ukrainian government.  Russia says it has met all the requirements and that Ukraine is delaying.  An official, but angry, provocative and accusatory defence of this move comes in the form of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement:


The endless delays hampering the initial deliveries of the Russian humanitarian relief aid to southeastern Ukraine have become intolerable.
A lorry convoy with many hundreds of tonnes of humanitarian relief aid, urgently needed by the people in these regions, has been standing idle for a week now on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Over this period, the Russian side has made unprecedented efforts in all areas and at all levels in order to complete the required formalities. We have met all conceivable and inconceivable demands of the Ukrainian side and have submitted to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) exhaustive lists of food, drinking water, medications, essential items and diesel generators due to be delivered to Lugansk, where they are urgently needed by women, children and the elderly. These people are experiencing the horrors of daily artillery attacks and air strikes that have resulted in an increasing number of killed and wounded and destroyed the entire vital infrastructure in the area. Time and again, we met requests to check and recheck the shipment route, to coordinate procedures for the shipment’s delivery, and have signed the required documents with the ICRC. We have provided all essential security guarantees and have ensured similar guarantees on the part of the self-defense forces. These guarantees apply to the Russian convoy as well as other humanitarian relief aid being sent to Lugansk by the Kiev authorities.
At the same time, Kiev has delayed granting its formal consent required by the ICRC for several days, while repeatedly inventing new pretexts and stepping up attacks on Lugansk and Donetsk that involve military aircraft and heavy-duty armored vehicles, targeting residential areas and other civilian facilities. Over the past few days, the Ukrainian side has been launching ballistic missiles, including the deadly Tochka-U missiles, ever more frequently.
On 21 August, the situation appeared to have been resolved when the Ukrainian authorities finally informed the ICRC of their readiness to start clearing humanitarian shipments for prompt delivery to Lugansk. The Ukrainian side officially confirmed its unconditional consent for the convoy to start moving during a phone conversation between the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Russia and Ukraine. On 20 August, customs clearance and border control procedures were launched at the Donetsk checkpoint. On 21 August, however, this process was stopped, with officials citing much more intensive bombardment of Lugansk. In other words, the Ukrainian authorities are bombing the destination and are using this as a pretext to stop the delivery of humanitarian relief aid.
It appears that Kiev has set out to complete its “cleansing” of Lugansk and Donetsk in time for the 24 August Independence Day celebrations. It seems increasingly credible that the incumbent Ukrainian leadership is deliberately delaying the delivery of the humanitarian relief aid until there is nobody left to deliver this aid to. Quite possibly, they hope to achieve this result prior to the planned 26 August meetings in Minsk.
Russia is outraged by the blatant external manipulation of the international experts involved in preparing this operation. An endless succession of contradictory and mutually exclusive signals and messages we have been receiving is a true indication of behind the scenes games for purposes that have nothing to do with accomplishing a set humanitarian objective. Those who are holding the reins and hampering efforts to save human lives, to mitigate the suffering of sick and wounded people neglect the basic principles of society. We have called on the UN Security Council to promptly declare a humanitarian armistice, but these proposals are being invariably blocked by those who pay lip service to universal human values. Last time, this happened on 20 August, when the United States and some Western members of the UNSC declined to issue a statement in support of a ceasefire during the delivery of humanitarian relief aid to Lugansk by Russian and Ukrainian convoys.
We hereby state once again: All the required security guarantees regarding the passage of the humanitarian convoy have been provided. The ICRC has officially recognised these guarantees. The delivery routes are known, and they have been checked by an ICRC mission. The documents have been drawn up. The shipments have long been ready for inspection by Ukrainian border guards and customs officers who have been waiting at the Donetsk checkpoint in the Rostov Region for a week now. The capitals that display heightened concern for the situation in southeastern Ukraine are well aware of this. The endless artificial demands and pretexts have become unconscionable.
It is no longer possible to tolerate this lawlessness, outright lies and inability to reach agreements. All pretexts for delaying the delivery of aid to people in the humanitarian disaster zone have been depleted. The Russian side has decided to act. Our humanitarian relief convoy is setting out towards Lugansk. Naturally, we are ready to allow ICRC officials to escort the convoy and to take part in distributing aid. We hope that representatives of the Russian Red Cross Society will also be able to take part in this mission.
We are warning against any attempts to thwart this purely humanitarian mission which took a long time to prepare in conditions of complete transparency and cooperation with the Ukrainian side and the ICRC. Those who are ready to continue sacrificing human lives to their own ambitions and geopolitical designs and who are rudely trampling on the norms and principles of international humanitarian law will assume complete responsibility for the possible consequences of provocations against the humanitarian relief convoy.
We are once again calling on the Ukrainian leadership, as well as the United States and the European Union, which are exerting their influence on Kiev, to promptly launch negotiations in southeastern Ukraine and start complying with the accords formalised in the 17 April 2014 Geneva Statement by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU on stopping the use of force, mitigating the humanitarian situation and immediately launching nationwide dialogue that would involve all Ukrainian regions.

22 August 2014

Ukraine has termed this an “invasion” but says that it will not act militarily to intervene.  I am very sceptical of the Russian position, having started all this in the first place.  Lets watch this very closely.  All the preconditions for a violent provocation by some party or other are all in place…
Update: This is what the Ukrainian government have said:

ukraine flagOn August 22 Russia, ignoring established international rules, procedures, and agreements reached, without the consent and accompaniment of the International Committee of the Red Cross began to smuggle humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Even though the border and customs control services of Ukraine started clearing the Russian convoy, this morning Ukrainian officials had been blocked by Russian forces and prevented from finishing inspecting the remaining vehicles of the convoy, despite previous agreements and having been invited to Russian territory by the Russian side. We are worried about the safety of our employees. Moreover, so far neither the Ukrainian side nor the ICRC knows about the content of the abovementioned vehicles, which causes particular concern.

The fact that Russian cars entered the territory of Ukraine without proper border and customs clearance and that their cargo was not submitted to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross by established procedures testifies to the deliberate and aggressive actions of the Russian side.

As we have previously emphasized full responsibility for the safety of the cargo is the Russian side. Please note that the Ukrainian side has taken all necessary measures to ensure the security of cargo.

In order to prevent provocations we gave all the necessary instructions for the safe crossing of the convoy. However, attempts to establish contact between the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Russia, which is critical to ensure security for the convoy’s route, have failed, despite all attempts from the Ukrainian. Please note that terrorists are shelling the convoy’s possible route with mortars.

We also do not know about agreements made by the Russian side with the Luhansk militants, and we do not exclude the possibility of any planned provocation.

We consider that in this act the Russian Federation once again flagrantly violated the key principles of international law, including inviolability of borders, non-interference in the internal affairs of another state, and conscientious fulfillment of international obligations.

We call on all international partners to join the strong condemnation of illegal and aggressive acts of the Russian Federation.

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