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Key Taliban talks representative disappears…?

April 16, 2014

Summary: An Afghan Taliban representative, known for talks with Afghan and international interlocuters, appears to have gone missing.

Mutasim Agha Jan: missing in action?

Mutasim Agha Jan: missing in action?

I have just seen this in the Wall Street Journal today.  Depending upon who you believe, Agha Jan Mutasim, is an important member of the Taliban and a genuine and useful interlocuter between the Taliban, the Afghan government and the international community.  And he now appears to have vanished.  Difficut to know what, of the range of possible options (from assassination, through arrest, or hiding in fear of his life, to some extra “deep cover” sets of negotiations), was the cause.

The Afghan Taliban apppear divided, crudely, into two factions: pro-talks and pro-fighting, so Agha Jan and his actions are unlikely to appeal to all Taliban groups.  In terms of media, they have officially been at pains to keep considerable distance from him, but not not denounce him outright.  This might in itself give a clue to his possible position as a “deniable” asset who can engage in talks with Afghan “puppets” and nternational “infidels”.

Wall Street Journal, 15 April 2014: A prominent Afghan Taliban figure who recently launched a peace overture with the government in Kabul has disappeared in the United Arab Emirates, Afghan officials and Pakistani-based militants said.

Confirming rumors that have circulated for weeks, Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Shekib Mostaghni said Agha Jan Mutasim, the head of a breakaway faction of the Afghan Taliban, had gone missing. His disappearance cast new doubt over the prospects for peace amid Afghanistan’s delicate political transition.

The Afghan government was seeking information from the U.A.E. government on his whereabouts, Mr. Mostaghni said. A leader of the Afghan Taliban, who said he had spoken to Mr. Mutasim’s family, and a former Taliban official said there was concern he had been taken into custody by U.A.E. authorities.

“Mutasim is an important figure in the peace process,” Mr. Mostaghni said. “Unfortunately we don’t have any more information on how he disappeared.”

Mr. Mutasim, a finance minister in Afghanistan’s pre-2001 Taliban regime, became a senior figure in the insurgency’s leadership, known as the Quetta Shura, after the U.S.-led invasion.

He moved to Turkey in 2010 following an assassination attempt.

In February, he hosted high-profile meetings in the U.A.E. with the aim of advancing what he called a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict in Afghanistan.

Individuals familiar with the encounters earlier this year said 16 Taliban leaders took part in a first meeting. It was followed by a second meeting between four members of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council, the body charged with outreach to the Taliban, and four members of Mr. Mutasim’s group.

The Taliban’s central leadership disavowed Mr. Mutasim’s efforts in a recent statement, describing them as “detrimental to both the principles of the Islamic Emirate as well as to the goals of the sacred jihad, while being beneficial for both the invading Americans and their stooges.”

But it is worth stressing that the situation remains unclear and there are several possibilities to explain the situation.  The Afghan newsagency, Pajhwok, thinks he is under some form of house arrest:

KABUL (Pajhwok): Veteran Taliban leader Agha Jan Mutasim has been put under house-arrest by the authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a close aide confided to Pajhwok Afghan News on Saturday.

Mutasim, who held peace talks with the High Peace Council members in Dubai last month, had been under investigation since last week by officials in the UAE, a friend of the Taliban’s former minister said.

A media report on Friday said Mutasim’s family had confirmed they had not been able to contact him since last week. Another former Taliban leader also confirmed all contacts with Agha Jan had been lost.

Although the Taliban remain as defiant as ever on their website, the large and broadly succssful Afghan elections must be giving them cause to ponder future directions for the movement – but this does not neccessarily mean growing reconciliation and dialogue initiatives any time soon.  Lets see what emerges…

Eastern Ukraine: increasing tension and power struggles

April 8, 2014

Donetsk-Ukraine-map

Summary: possible increasing tensions in eastern Ukraine – pro Russian crowds are attempting to declare a “Peoples Republic of Donetsk”.  Ukrainian government in emergency session.  Not clear if this is Putin-driven or genuine (but over-ambitious) locals getting ahead of themselves…

Always difficult to tell the difference between genuine social protest and cynical stage-management with the intention of annexing someone’s country these days.  Some interesting/concerning reporting coming in from the Eastern Ukraine – suggestions that someone is attempting to generate support for an independence movement and secession, including calls for a referendum, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.

BBC News: Pro-Russian protesters who seized the regional government building in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk are reported to have declared a “people’s republic”.  The rebels have called for a referendum on secession from Ukraine by 11 May.  Ukrainian security officials are being sent to the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv after pro-Russia groups occupied government buildings.  Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called the unrest an attempt by Russia to “dismember” Ukraine.

Also:

Ukraine’s Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk lashes out at Russia for stoking unrest in the east as pro-Russia protestors occupy government buildings in Donetsk and declare the region a sovereign “people’s republic” independent of Kiev.  Hundreds of pro-Russia demonstrators who took over government buildings in Donetsk on Monday and who have called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to send troops to their aid are declaring the eastern region a “people’s republic” that is independent of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

The announcement, posted in a video on YouTube, was also delivered outside a building being occupied by protestors, the Guardian reports. “Seeking to create a popular, legitimate, sovereign state, I proclaim the creation for the sovereign state of the People’s Republic of Donetsk,” a spokesperson for the protestors told the crowd.

1023px-Flag_of_Donetsk_Oblast.svgThis looks to be a smaller “budget” version of the Crimean takeover, with the new rule book being followed and appeals being sent out to Putin for assistance.  As a great example of how propaganda can now be employed, there is a highly contested entry for the “Donetsk People’s Republic” already up on Wikipedia – check it out before it gets deleted – alternately watch it expand, depending on who wins control over the narrarative – the entry has already doubled in size from when I looked at it a few hours ago…

Are we seeing the precursor for a new move on the Russo-Ukraine chessboard?  I have lost track slightly of the story “Russian army still deployed on the eastern border with Ukraine” for a few days now, but I think it safe to assume that the Russians still possess the military capability to move swiftly into the eastern Ukraine, more or less at will, although Ukrainian armed military resistance becomes more of a likelihood if this does happen.  A confrontation between the armed forces of both would be very bad.  Lets face it, (and judging by Afghan, Chechen and Georgian precedents), the Russian army is probably a much less brutal, confused and indiscriminate bludgeon when it doesn’t actually have to fight to take and hold ground…

In addition, it seems a Russian soldier shot dead a Ukrainian officer in the Crimea

 

 

The Taliban deny the election: “…the absolute majority of our countrymen boycotted these forged and illusive elections…”

April 7, 2014

Summary: An official Taliban statement regarding the elections is aggressively in denial, claiming that the Afghan people largely ignored the poll.  Denial and denouncement have served the Taliban for so long now that they might actually believe their own propaganda.  However, behind closed doors, a debate is likely to begin between pro-dialogue and pro-jihad factions concerning the way forward for the movement.  This does not necessarily mean peace breaking out, talks commencing or even a slowing of the violence any time soon.

The Taliban have issued a characteristically aggressive denouncement of last Saturday’s presidential election in Afghanistan. It is probably worth reading in full as it gives the flavourelection queue of current Taliban messaging although. But it is not particularly enlightening – full of sound and fury but not much really going on. The Taliban’s key points were to note:

  • The election is a fake and the Afghan population largely ignored it
  • A list of all the brutalities visited upon the population by the international forces
  • The Taliban managed to launch 1088 attacks on the day – international forces tried to compel Afghans to vote
  • Intensive propaganda efforts presented the elections as a success

This is classic Taliban communication – very aggressive, filled with denials, claims, accusations, denouncements and deflections.

Taliban flagThe Saturday’s elections which were largely boycotted by the masses were completely an ostentatious and deceiving process, though the western media, pro-western analysts and the officials of the stooge regime called it a successful, Afghan-inclusive and unparalleled one; but in reality the elections were held in a very limited areas and even there, they were overshadowed by wide range fraudulence, mismanagement and public boycott.

There does seem to be a large element of protesting too much. If we do accept that the election took place contrary to the Taliban’s description, ie there was a large turnout and, for all its undoubted flaws, a key feature was a pointed rejection of the Taliban’s vision for the country, it will be very interesting to see, in the coming months whether there is any evidence that:

a) The Taliban actually understand this and
b) What plans, steps, ideas and actions they may turn to address this

If we follow Michael Semple’s argument, that, for all their public and violent rejection, the Taliban have actually been following the electoral process with close interest, my sense is that there will at least be some very heated debate behind closed doors about the future direction of the Taliban leadership.

We should not assume that this means we will see the Taliban engaging in conciliation and dialogue any time soon, but we should look out for indications of the state of the debate between the (putting it crudely) pro-dialogue and pro-jihad lobbies. And while splits within the insurgents might point the way to more cautious optimism for the country’s long-term future, the short term might see more extremist violence as the pro-jihadists attempt to reassert themselves to the population and to their own movement.

———————————

The Taliban’s statement in full:

Taliban flagBesides the previous hundreds of American conspiracies, the recent forged process of election was also a foreign imposed and deceptive process with the sole objective of providing false legitimacy to the illegal system under the direct American occupation.

Holding election in the presence of tens of thousands of American and other occupying forces while both the land and space of our beloved homeland is under the direct control of foreign invaders; the whole nation is divested of its freedom and sovereignty; our villages and towns are brought under indiscriminate and brutal bombardment and attacks; hundreds of thousands of our countrymen have been compelled to migrate due to their miseries and afflictions; thousands of Afghans are incarcerated by the foreign occupiers and their corrupt stooges; our individual and social values have been violated; our Islamic rules and regulation have been ignored; the masses are being largely invited towards heresy and infidelity; there is no security inside the country; the lives, honors and properties of ordinary people are under aggression and threat; the enslaving agreement of our country to foreign occupiers is forcefully imposed upon the nation; applying external formulas under the disguise of election in this kind of untoward and worst condition from historical point of view and then calling this process a success by the instigation of a few stooge and puppets is never acceptable for any Muslim and vigilant Afghan.

Therefore, the absolute majority of our countrymen boycotted these forged and illusive elections and welcomed the call of the Islamic Emirate which had demanded the people not to be deceived by the enemy and to refrain from becoming the part of this malicious game of the enemy of Islam and our beloved homeland.

Though in most parts of the country, the armed personnel of the enemy tried to forcefully take the people out of their homes and compel them to vote in these forge elections but the people resisted and kept themselves away from this abortive process.

Calling it a successful process and giving it thorough coverage is also the part of wide range American propaganda for deceiving the nations. In this way they want to obscure the prevailing realities and the malicious whims of the foreign invaders are imposed upon the masses by force and fraud.

The Saturday’s elections which were largely boycotted by the masses were completely an ostentatious and deceiving process, though the western media, pro-western analysts and the officials of the stooge regime called it a successful, Afghan-inclusive and unparalleled one; but in reality the elections were held in a very limited areas and even there, they were overshadowed by wide range fraudulence, mismanagement and public boycott.

All main transportation routes were closed in most suburban areas, villages and districts on the so called election day, therefore, no elections could take place in these areas and if something was under planning, it was confronted with thereat and attack after a short delay and was abolished.

On this day, Mujahidin carried out nearly 1088 attacks on the enemy with the extensive support of the masses in which heavy corporeal and financial losses were inflicted on them, but the media under the deep influence of the foreign occupiers remained quiet and announced nothing.

According to our assessment, these elections were a fraudulent, baseless and ostentatious process, contrary to the widespread propaganda which can never be called genuine and fair elections. The outcome of these illusive and abortive games will never be acceptable for our masses as the vigilant Afghans can never be deceived by the malicious schemes and conspiracies of the foreign occupiers.

The valorous Afghan nation, being inspired by its true and righteous divine religion, deems the emancipation of its beloved homeland only and only in the persistence and amplification of the ongoing Holy Jihad and this kind of illusive games can never undermine the zeal and fervor of Jihad.
Insha-Allah!!
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

 

Showing the finger to the Taliban: Afghan election update…

April 5, 2014

Summary: Initial reports suggest the election is going well.

election, showing the finger to the Taliban

From my exceptionally quick and subjective trawl through of press and Twitter reports (and situations like this seem to be perfect for Twitter coverage) – and at the risk of tempting fate – the election process today seems to be going well – perhaps better than expected and better than 2009.  Some voting stations closed and others seem to have run out of ballot papers because the voting turnout was so high.  The usual problems – fraud, Taliban, low-level violence, administrative problems – are beng reported but, to my reading, not in any large degree.  Turnout apppears high – much popular confidence and much emphasis on how this shows the Taliban are clearly being rejected: expect a blog piece from me soon probably entitled “W(h)ither the Taliban?”.  Perhaps coincidentally, parts of the Taliban website went off-line from yesterday and the English language section is still unavailable.  Taliban tweets seem very out of touch, claiming minor violent successes in handfuls of districts.

No sense yet of who might have won – and the likely sticking points after all the positivity of turnout will probably gravitate towards whether fraud has influenced the result, to what extent, and whether candidates can broadly agree on the result.  It would be great if a candidate was declared winner in this first round (official results due in mid-May), but a second round is still likely, I guess (28 May).

I am genuinely looking to reading the Taliban’s official statement on this day…

Afghanistan: Good luck with the election

April 3, 2014

Summary: On Saturday, the Afghan people go to the polls to produce a new President. Popular engagement is encouraging and the Taliban look unlikely to halt (or even significantly damage) the process. There will be significant flaws in the process, particularly fraud and violence. But a broadly peaceful transition of power looks the most likely outcome and will be a positive pointer for a still very challenging Afghanistan future

Election rally, AbdullahTo move a country from the total devastation and fragmentation of a multi-decade conflict (arguably several different conflicts) takes time and often involves many backward steps and fewer forward ones. Afghanistan exemplifies this perfectly. It is now on the brink of its third electoral “cycle”, the beginning of a presidential (and provincial) elections, to be followed by a parliamentary election in 2015. The likely difficulties of the 5th April presidential election – fraud, corruption, complaints, violence and layers of confusion regarding the result – need to be seen in a longer-term context. If we assume that a broadly democratic process is ultimately in the longer term interest of the people of Afghanistan (and many amongst an array of neighbouring countries and armed groups think differently), it might take five or six such electoral cycles before it becomes clear whether the Afghan experiment is going to work in the direction that most of the Afghan population and international community appear to hope it will.

I am cautiously optimistic about the election. The level of popular engagement looks high and genuine, perhaps more so than 2009. Debate, all manner of media, discussion, posters, mass rallies are all encouragingly evident. Michal Semple reports that, although the Taliban remain violently and conceptually opposed, they are genuinely very interested in what is happening. But they are sinking to lower levels of soft targeting and demonstrating a real bankruptcy of ideas, vision and dialogue beyond killing. Even fellow insurgent leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, appears to be recognising the need to be seen to be engaging politically and has urged his supporters to back presidential candidate (and ex-HIG member) Qutbuddin Helal. March 2014 was the first time for years that no US soldier was killed in either Afghanistan or Iraq. The Taliban will increasingly have to kill Afghan citizens or members of the international aid community to make whatever point it is they are trying to make.

Sarah Chayes recently made the point that the next two years is the crucial period for Afghanistan and that the elections are not really as important as people think. I think she is correct in the first assertion but perhaps a little bit harsh concerning the second: the election is important, but we should certainly see it as part of a longer process.  A broadly successful election, giving a peaceful transition of power, will give a clear pointer as to what can be achieved in the future and a strong rejection of Taliban and other insurgent groups. This will be a valuable building block for her 2015-2016 period.

As ever, there are many things that could go wrong, either on the days around the election or in the months and years to follow. The Taliban killing a key candidate remains an outside chance but could easily derail the process, sparking more violence. A “stolen” election, or one that is perceived as such, would have a similar result.

My main concern is that, having achieved a broadly peaceful transition of power, a nagging insurgency, although not necessarily powerful in its own right, combined with political and economic stagnation, causes friction and fracture within the government. A revival of warlord power blocs all squabbling for control of government (and, critically, the military) from their regional powerbases would see a slide backwards, perhaps even as far as a 1990s civil war. Meddling neighbours – Pakistan, Iran, India – could still disrupt political economic and security processes that are still fledgling, should internal Afghan developments not go the way they want.

But none of the main candidates – Abdullah, Ghani, Rassoul – look to be a bad bet for the country (although some vice presidents and associated followers are slightly more suspect). For the moment, therefore, I just wanted to wish Afghanistan the very best of luck with the election. I think it will work.

Serena attack: Taliban apologise (I think) for death of children in the Serena hotel

March 31, 2014

Summary:  A Taliban statement, while blaming government and international forces, appears to be regretting the death of two children during a Taliban suicide attack on the Serena hotel.  Taliban media discourse spares minimal time for political engagement and obsesses with the worthiness of jihadic body count.  While is aware of the difficulties of selling the deaths of civilians, the Taliban can only unconvincingly deny, denounce or deflect when an operation goes wrong.  

 

The Taliban issued a statement on their English language website yesterday addressing the deaths of two children (and of their mother and AFP journalist father) killed by shots from Taliban assailants in the course of a Taliban suicide attack into the Serena hotel on Thursday evening of 20th March. Posing as diners, the four young (in their teens or Serena hotel aftermathearly twenties) attackers managed to get past various security checks with small pistols hidden in their socks and in an action lasting around three hours, managed to kill nine people, including two children and four foreign nationals.
The Taliban statement addresses the deaths of the children and their mother and father who appear to have been gunned down at close range:

Taliban flagWe say with regret that during this attack reports were published that a journalist along with his wife and two children were also killed.

explaining how it couldn’t possibly be their fault because:

Taliban flagThe blessed religion of Islam prohibits the killing of women and children even in times of war. So on what basis would the Islamic Emirate condone, let along perpetuate the killing of women and children.

And that therefore:

Taliban flagThe truth is the foreign invaders and their puppets have themselves perpetuated this vile act so they can libel the Mujahideen.

 

 

The statement concludes:

Taliban flagThe Islamic Emirate is saddened by the killing of the journalist and his family while attributing these incriminate actions to the cowardly foreigner invaders and their puppets, mourns with the family of the deceased and prays for their patience and steadfastness in this difficult time.

“Deny, denounce and deflect”…

The Taliban clearly didn’t feel the need to address the deaths of two Canadian women in the attack.  The Taliban have frequently had to confront the media challenge of claiming attacks that have very clearly and publically led to the deaths of Afghan civilians.  But they appear to recognise that the Serena killings are a very high profile and therefore, particularly difficult, action to “sell”.  Claims of high profile (read: military and political) foreigners killed in large numbers at key meetings in carefully planned attacks are the stock in trade of the Taliban spokesmen but it is clear, at the very least, that they do recognise that they have a PR problem here.  Hence the resort to the other default media setting of blaming the government and international forces for the killings.  But this is the nearest to an apology that you are going to get from the Taliban.
The Taliban have been painting themselves into a political and military corner for some years now. Their desire for genuine talks and other credible forms of engagement still appears minimal, fractured and incoherent. A large and still dominant chunk of the movement still seems capable of only uttering one word: “Jihad”.
But, in the meantime, the country is getting on with its third electoral cycle – with (admittedly small) improvements each time. The Taliban language remains that of violence – take a moment, if you want, to dip into their English language website. The crudeness of the daily “look, we’ve killed lots more people again” tone and the absence of in-depth political thinking does not show any understanding or debate regarding where they are going next. Even Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has urged his supporters to back a presidential candidate (his former colleague, Qutbuddin Helal) in the election, arguing that the enemy has to be confronted on political battlefields as well as military. Not turning up to fight in the political arena is to give up.
For once – and however suspicious I remain of his motives – Hekmatyar might actually be right. The Afghan people are slowly and painfully evolving in one broadly positive direction. The Taliban are increasingly out of touch. Evolving, yes, but in a different direction and at a slower speed.

Ukraine – Russian military options…?

March 24, 2014

Summary: Vladimir Putin retains the military initiative, but this will not last.  Several options present themselves, from staying put and absorbing the Crimea to a quick “lightning war” all the way to the Transdniester.

Map, Ukraine, north, south, east and west divisionsIt is difficult to know if Russia is on the brink of further military incursions into Ukraine.  The Ukraine government certainly seems to think it highly possible.  NATO has growing concernsUnited States intelligence gathering assets seemed to have struggled to spot Russia military activities thus far and are now attempting to increase the resources available.  But while this might perhaps give an early tip-off regarding Russian next steps, it will probably add little else that might halt or deflect Russian actions.

President Putin’s calculations remain intentionally opaque but the array of military, special forces, training and propaganda activities currently gathered would appear to give him considerable scope, while keeping everybody guessing.  In this way Vladimir Putin likely calculates that the initiative remains his.  Through seizure or massive long-term disruption of large parts of eastern Ukraine (where a large number of ethnic or pro-Russian populace live) Putin’s goal appears to be to prevent any viable Ukrainian nation moving into a Western European (aka EU, aka NATO, aka non-Putin) orbit.  A jealous and murderous lover might express it thus: “Well, if I can’t have her, nobody else can”.

Four Russian military options – presented in order of increasing difficulty – suggest themselves at present:

1)      Do Nothing/Defensive – begin the process of absorbing the Crimea into Russia, possibly using military/special forces in raids to seize key infrastructure and installations in and around the edges of the Crimea – gas, transport, fuel, communications, military – before the geographic borders become too clearly defined.

2)      Move into East Ukraine – including the oblasts (administrative divisions) of Kharkhov, Donetsk, Luhansk with the intention of securing more “Russian-rich” population centres while the population is still simmering.

3)      Move into South and East Ukraine – securing a firm land link to where the Crimean peninsula joins the mainland.  The oblasts of Kherson, Zaporizhiya and Donetsk would all be critical components here.

4)      As option three but going further west to link to Transnistria (also called Trans-Dniestr or Transdniestria).  Another casualty of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this slice of land between the river Dniester and the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine is an independent government but unrecognised as an independent nation.  The nationalities within are Moldovan, Ukrainian and Russian (roughly a third of each), with Transnistrian Russians apparently, “post-Crimean”, calling to be reunited with Russia.  I think this would give the only guaranteed Russian-controlled land gas pipeline through Ukraine.

Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb…?

One expert, however, highlights the problems of Russian military action:

Ukraine administrative divisions

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military expert, said he did not expect to see long columns of Russian tanks rolling across the black earth border regions into eastern Ukraine.

“The time of year for serious warfare is totally wrong,” he said. “This is black soil area and at this time of year it’s wet, wet, wet. The Germans found that. They’ll have to wait until June for it to dry up or they won’t be able to move off the roads.”

“Russia does not have the will or capability for mass invasion of Ukraine. It can bite off some pieces and the government in Kiev would not likely survive. But I’m anticipating a long drawn out stand-off.”

 

Although timeframes are difficult to predict, Russia’s strategic initiative can only last for so long.  The Ukraine government will presumably be doing its utmost to get itself together after the simultaneous upheavals of revolution and surprise attack.  International diplomatic and economic sanctions are being brought to bear and Western intelligence assets will provide a clearer picture of Russia deployments and intentions.   It seems to suggest that Russian military actions might need to be taken sooner rather than later – while the engine is still switched on and warmed up…

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