Summary: A media report describes convincingly a senior Afghan Taliban leadership meeting in which they discusses the weaknesses in their insurgency campaign and the likely need for peace talks. The Taliban themselves denouce this report as propaganda from intelligence agencies
A very interesting report from the Daily Beast, by Ron Moreau on 1st November, to be instantly and aggressively countered by the Taliban themselves. The article purported, through a “senior Taliban source” to describe a very significant Afghan Taliban leadership meeting in Pakistan which heatedly discussed the state of the insurgency (and its weaknesses) and approaches to peace talks.
Here is the gist, quoted from the report:
The Daily Beast: In a top-secret ruling council meeting in Pakistan’s capital, the Quetta Shura has agreed to pursue a political solution with Afghanistan rather than stepping up insurgent attacks.
The top-secret pow-wow, which was exclusively described to The Daily Beast by a senior Taliban who witnessed the gathering, was attended by the insurgency’s 10 most influential leaders, including Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, arguably the movement’s top military man; Maulvi Hassan Rahmani, a key southern commander; and Abdul Rauf Khadim and Mullah Gul Agha, who are believed to be close to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s leader and founder. Abdul Qayum Zakir was the only senior Shura member who was absent for unknown reasons…Some Shura members had been arguing that as the U.S. and its allies continue to wind down combat operations, which presumably will end at the end of next year, now is not the time for peace negotiations. Rather it is the time to increase the size and tempo of guerrilla attacks…
Others held that despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s abrupt and histrionic breaking-off of the peace talks even before they began in Qatar last summer—a move which the guerrilla leadership saw as a serious slap in the face—the pursuit of peace is the only realistic option for the insurgency. They argued that while the Taliban explored peace options the guerrillas in the field should not escalate but continue to wage the low-intensity insurgency as it is now, largely featuring roadside bombs and suicide attacks…
It was widely agreed that ramping up the pace of the armed struggle through this winter and into next spring would be fruitless, only leading to more casualties without scoring a breakthrough. “We know our strength,” says the senior Taliban official who was at the meeting and is not authorized to speak to the press. “Even the speeding up of attacks would not make much difference on the ground.” There was, the Shura concluded, no military solution. “Most agreed that after more than 12 years of war searching for a political solution would be the best option,” the senior Taliban official went on. “We can’t suddenly gain magical strength that can guarantee our takeover of Kabul.” “Even if we did somehow capture Kabul, it would not end the war,” he adds.
Analysis and Outlook
It is difficult, as with anything connected with the Taliban inner circle, to pass judgement on the credibility of the information – information which, if accurate, is very powerful, revealing and something that intelligence agencies of all colours would give a lot for.
The debate described here seems to plausibly echo previous reports of Taliban calculations and considerations. Unless there is some major strategic shift in power between factions and the international community (eg a collapse in international funding, the fragmentation of Afghan army and/or a re-emergence of powerful Afghan warlords contesting for power) that Taliban have little chance of recapturing Kabul. And neither would capturing Kabul necessarily indicate political or military “victory” of any measurable kind. Clearly these are deliberations, regardless of the outcome, that the Taliban would not like exposed. Even if these internal talks, as reported, are broadly accurate, seeing some of this pragmatic recognition that military victory is unlikely turn into a coherent strategy for political engagement (and, in the longer-term, “reintegration” into Afghan society), will be problematic. As an indication of the sensitivities with which the Taliban view discussion of such issues, the Taliban media apparatus rushed to deny, denounce and deflect the news article – coming out with an official media statement on their website, two days later, which I quote in full:
Yesterday, ‘The Daily Beast’ newspaper, which pursues a malicious intelligence agenda and is run by famous intelligence agents, published a far from reality, purely propaganda based and fabricated report regarding the Islamic Emirate which stated that some leaders of Islamic Emirate had met in the Pakistani city of Islamabad, showed their inclination towards peace and other such nonsense…….
We reject every aspect of this report. The assertions cited by ‘The Daily Beast’ are contrary to the policy and manifesto of the Islamic Emirate and similarly the talk about conflict between the leaders of Islamic Emirate in also propaganda and devilish scheme of the said newspaper which has no substance. We urge all media outlets to be cautious of such pure propaganda which has no reality to it and is the work of intelligence agencies.
We have designated spokesmen and a dedicated website for our activities from where anyone can contact us to attain access to information. Attributing false statements to the Islamic Emirate and associating unknown figures with us violates the basic principles of journalism. In our view these are vengeful attempts by certain identified persons who wish to spread their own personal agendas through these reports and we ask all independent media outlets to refrain from publishing these baseless reports. We would also like to point out that ‘The Daily Beast’ has on several occasions published such baseless reports to advance their agendas. They also regularly attribute their statements to ‘Zabiullah’ so as to portray it to be me, Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman of Islamic Emirate. The truth is that neither I have ever spoken with this media outlet nor has any other official within the Islamic Emirate ever corresponded with them.
The spokesman of Islamic Emirate
A very real sense of the Taliban protesting too much here – either because they are wrong-footed by this level of very personal information emerging without their consent, or because – equally plausible and not necessarily an exclusive explanation – their media machine is still quite crude and old-fashioned. This was quite an immature response (and one they have repeated over the years) where perhaps silence as a demonstration of refusal to be drawn in might have been a more sensible response. My personal sense is that, with both main military sides (a US-backed Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban) still in the field and willing and able to fight, a form of military stalemate over the next few years is very plausible unless key players energise this slight recognition that perhaps no-one is able to “win” and push for coherent talks.
Summary: The British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand will close in March 2014. The fragmented and inconsistent international efforts in and around PRTs remains easy to criticise although the UK’s effort was probably more coherent than most. Valuable lessons should be identifiable and the PRT experience in Afghanistan is something that is likely to offer much for future stabilisation efforts across the world. But President Karzai’s criticism of PRTs as “parallel structures” hampering the development of Afghan local government was damning. Final judgement on PRTs might need to wait until the sustainability of the projects, plans and systems upon which so much money was spent can be assessed in the longer-term, after the internationals have handed over to the Afghans themselves.
I attended an interesting but unfortunately short discussion about the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province at Copenhagen University. There was a good selection of hands-on PRT expertise in attendance.
By way of background, the Provincial Reconstruction Team concept was developed after a request by President Hamid Karzai in 2002 for ISAF to expand its presence beyond Kabul and into the provinces, where the influence of central governance was generally between weak and non-existent. According to the ISAF Provincial Reconstruction Team handbook of October 2006, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) were intended to “assist the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to extend its authority, in order to facilitate the development of a stable and secure environment in the identified area of operations, and enable Security Sector Reform and reconstruction efforts”.
Although the characteristics and activities of individual PRTs were quite variable (and, indeed, this was a particular criticism), the concept revolved around mixed international civilian and military teams operating from local bases and facilitating reconstruction, security, aid and development projects.
The PRTs provide a good, specific, example of the dilemmas created by the militarisation of development. At the peak of the PRT experiment in Afghanistan, there were 26 such outposts across the country, commanded by many different nations. (See my report from my two week “embed” with the Norwegian PRT in Faryab province in 2008). Western governmental aid agencies (DIFD, CIDA, USAID) generally operated from them. Some of the PRTs performed well in difficult circumstances—they ensured that at least some development work was undertaken in even the most difficult parts of the country. But many criticisms were soon levelled at them:
- There was a great variety of capabilities and resources
- The command structure was military
- There was significant “micro-management” from national capitals
- There was often a significant lack of coordination with other aid agencies and even internally between civilian and military components.
- Much of the work initiated was ultimately not sustainable or well thought through due to pressure to be seen to be doing something by national capitals.
The British PRT was established in Helmand in 2006, after the US initially set it up in 2004. The British (working closely with Danes and Americans) operated the PRT through three distinct phases of security, namely: “kinetic” combat (2006 – 2008), COIN (2008 – 2011) and transition (2011 to 2014). The PRT will close in March 2014 and hand over to the UN. I don’t know if there is a general consensus here, but my sense is that the UK-led PRT in Helmand was probably one of the better ones, in terms of concept and execution.
From the discussions on Thursday, some interesting claims, points, thoughts and ideas came out:
The concept of PRTs was good, but the execution quite flawed.
- A sustained period of stability of at least 18 to 24 months was necessary before plausible development could start to take root.
- Afghans – population, local and national government – were not involved early enough in the process.
- Even though opinion polls clearly have flaws, in terms of measuring progress, a survey baseline looking at popular perceptions should ideally be established as soon as possible to generate a plausible database of what the population feel.
- The multinational nature of the PRTs – individual nations running their own PRTs more or less their own way – did not ensure a coherent set of working practises. Perhaps more coordination at the ISAF HQ level would have reduced the strategic incoherence.
- A civilian lead for the PRTs was preferable as soon as possible – and civilians with a rank equivalent of senior military commanders, e.g. 1 or 2 star generals, to enable them to get things done. (I think only the British and Germans had civilian PRT chiefs).
- The “political economy” of the poppy was not really understood. Eradication was a bad idea in the absence of alternative livelihoods for poor farmers living in an uncertain and unstable environment.
- The Afghan National Security Forces appear to have performed well against the Taliban in Helmand this 2013 “fighting season” – they “held the ground”.
- Infrastructure – too much was built: money thrown at problems and buildings went up with too little consideration of how they would be sustained and maintained in future years.
I am not sure how hindsight will view the PRTs of Iraq and Afghanistan but it is certainly an important area to work through and worthy of further study during and after this final phase of the PRT life cycle. This is a concept that is probably applicable across other parts of the world. A lot of time, effort, money and lives were put into this project, but it is still quite a straightforward matter to line up a long list of criticisms. The large doses of arrogance and naiveté that the international community demonstrated seem to have restricted the impact of what could have been a good idea. It does seem that the UK PRT was heading in the right direction – but only time will tell whether the achievements and efforts can be demonstrated as “self-sustaining” once Afghans (or other internationals) pick up the reins. But Karzai’s regular railing against PRT “parallel structures” that were doing lots of things in the short-term but little to enable the longer-term development of home-grown Afghan capacity still seem to be the most potent assessment of the PRT performance.
Further PRT reading:
Master’s Thesis: The Afghanistan conflict after 2014 – civil war, stalemate, insurgents and warlords
Summary: The Afghan conflict does not suddenly end after 2014 even if the media and international community interest levels start to wane. Predictions for the country seem to gravitate to two extremes: implosion into brutal civil war or slow recovery based on peace talks. Civil war theory appears of limited use when considering Afghanistan’s condition. But, with both the ANSF and the Taliban-led insurgency still in the field and ready to fight, and prospects for talks still looking very weak, perhaps a protracted military stalemate is the most likely outcome for the next five (or even ten) years? The international commmunity might not allow Afghanistan to “fail”, but neither is it likely to intervene once again as decisively as it did in 2001. Moreover, continued instability, corruption and incapacity within central government may yet see the re-emergence of impatient and intolerant regional warlords willing and able to contest – alongside the Talban – for control of the state. This could then push the country beyond a painful but broadly manageable conflict into a re-run of the 1990s maelstrom of internal conflict in which political control of the new powerful Afghan National Army would be crucial…
I attach my Master’s thesis paper here: Revolutionary Outcomes: How the Afghanistan Conflict might evolve after 2014
I very much welcome any comments.
Here’s the abstract:
Afghanistan’s complex conflict shows little sign of abating. This paper looks at the nature of the conflict and factors that might influence its post-2014 direction. It treats Afghanistan as a qualitative case study, using a hybrid of approaches and positions itself in the middle of historical context, civil war theory and the post-2001 political and military situation. Although disagreements within broader civil war theory make analysis of Afghanistan challenging (how to address complex conflicts and concepts of stalemate might benefit from further exploration), Charles Tilly’s work provides a fresh perspective and a flexible platform from which to view the conflict. The paper identifies areas analytically “less-travelled”: the idea that a military stalemate might be a long-term result after 2014 and that other political/military factions might also get drawn in to contest for control of the state. It found that a struggle for army loyalty is plausible and could become a further danger to the stability of the country. The international community and the Afghan population could perhaps give thought to three issues: the implications of the term “civil war”, how to consider and address the notion of stalemate after 2014 and, finally, that the Taliban might not be the only group contesting state control.
Thoughts and tentative conclusions:
Perhaps characteristic of many theses, I found my initial intention and research for the paper migrated during writing, sometimes because of analytical difficulties, other times because new approaches suggested themselves.
Analytically, Afghanistan is a very complex subject where solutions are slippery beasts that seem to generate two more problems for every “answer”. Many theorists will point to the need to resolve “popular grievances” as a means of ending an insurgency. This is hard to disagree with but, with four decades of ever-shifting grievance and violently contested politics in Afghanistan, it becomes hard to sift through and identify exactly what the relevant “causes” might be, let alone resolving them. It was a struggle to avoid diverting down a multitude of avenues of analysis. Initially I thought I would produce a paper looking at all aspects of Afghanistan post-2014 – security, political, economic and social – to, in effect, “solve” the problem. Early on it became clear that this was neither viable nor desirable and would dissipate my analytical resources.
Instead, I looked at some analytically “less-travelled” but relevant issues. These themes were interwoven and combined well to create, not only an important analytical and narrative thread (a civil war stalemate could ultimately fracture central government, making army loyalty crucial), but a constructive exploration from a new perspective. Here, I found the Taliban still to be important, but less decisive and for different reasons.
If political dialogue is unsuccessful, a military contest remains indecisive and international support remains cautious, a form of stalemate is highly plausible for Afghanistan after 2014. This could last for many years. With reference to Tilly, I concluded that a threat to Afghanistan’s future beyond the Taliban’s insurgency could be the emergence of multiple sovereignties, where other political groupings develop the capability, intent and support to contest state control. This could come from ethnic, religious or political factions already in existence or from coalitions yet to form. It could certainly involve “pro-government” factions aligning with “pro-insurgent” groups. In this scenario, the Taliban could become relegated – important, but not necessarily directly decisive. Control of a powerful but fledgling army, whose loyalty is untested but justifiably questionable, would be crucial in a violent contestation for power. Combining an extant insurgency with other contesting factions and a struggle for the army would produce a much more devastating civil conflict than would the current civil war stalemate.
After comparing “theory” to “Afghanistan”, I tend to sympathise with Nathan’s criticism (cited by Tilly) that quantitative analysis is undertaken without sufficient grounding in the peculiarities of the specific conflict. The lack of consensus (Sambanis, Nathan, etc.) on the specific nature and causes of civil war was compounded, I felt, by the “hyper-complex” nature of the Afghan conflict. On top of multiple layers of historic, ethnic, geographic and societal challenges, we must overlay four decades of swirling, destructive, conflict and a bewildering array of grievances, opponents, causes and external interventions. For this reason it is possible to find many shades of civil war theory, however contradictory, present in Afghanistan.
Charles Tilly’s broad and flexible ideas enabled me to step out of the complexity and take a less cluttered perspective of the conflict and to stimulate thinking that took me beyond standard assumptions. Exploring the potential for a stalemate in Afghanistan – which I conclude is a very plausible option after 2014 – was difficult to develop as I could find little detailed writing on this phenomenon, with significant disagreement on how and when a conflict finally concludes. Theory perhaps could reflect further upon how “hyper-complex” conflicts can best be studied and how concepts of “stalemate” could be refined.
The international community and the Afghan population could give thought to three areas: the wider implications of an Afghan “civil war”, how to consider and address the idea of a long-term stalemate after 2014 and, finally, whether the Taliban are the only alternative contenders to government and, if not, how and why others might emerge. The international community has frequently taken a short-term approach to Afghanistan: consideration of the themes I have explored here, and how they might be engaged with, could encourage a more practical, constructive and longer-term perspective on the country.
Although theory is less than consensual on nature, cause and course, it helped me to conclude that Afghanistan is in a state of civil war. This was in spite of the fact that the term is barely used to describe the current conflict and only deployed when discussing past history and possible futures. This is probably because – as theory also noted – the subjective nature of the term itself makes it an important political and propaganda tool, with significant implications for particular behaviours within the Afghan and international communities.
Although civil war theory does not offer a “solution” to the conflict as such, the work of Charles Tilly was particularly instructive as a prism through which to view the conflict. Afghanistan’s unique history lends itself well to an examination of the role of fluid multiple sovereignties vying for power. Tilly’s work on the control over the coercive means also points to the importance of understanding the strength and loyalty of the new Afghan army and to consider the implications of its “failure”.
Summary: Taliban second in command, Mullah Barader, still seems to be a guest of the Pakistani government, according to the Taliban themselves.
“Afghan Taliban Wednesday claimed for the first time that their former second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, has not been freed by Pakistan despite its official announcements.
Pakistan had announced on September 21st that Mullah Baradar was released to help in the peace process. Baradar was arrested in Karachi in February 2010.
Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani, claimed last week that Baradar was released, and this claim was angrily rejected by the Taliban who had been silent about his release until now.
“It is very sad that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is still spending days and nights in detention in Pakistan and we are deeply concerned at his deteriorated health condition,” the Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid said.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Baradar’s family and his sympathizers consider freedom as Baradar’s right and we want his immediate release on Islamic and humanitarian grounds,” the Taliban spokesman said in a statement in Pashto to The Express Tribune.
The Taliban spokesman regretted that senior Pakistani government officials had formally announced Baradar’s release claiming “he has not yet been set free.”
“As senior Pakistani government officials have repeatedly announced his (Baradar’s) release, we seriously demand that Pakistani officials clarify what they mean by release. They (Pakistani officials) should honour their commitment of Baradar’s release,” the Taliban spokesman said.”
Mullah Barader is seen as a key co-founder of the Afghan Taliban movement and a deputy of Mullah Omar. He was captured in Pakistan in 2010. He has become an important negotiating chip in the efforts of the international community, the Afghan government, the Taliban and the Pakistani government to secure some form (as yet, very unspecified) of negotiation and deal wth the Taliban. Berader’s release has been presented as crucial to securing a peace deal with the Taliban. In late September, Berader’s release was reported by many news outlets:
BBC, 21 Sept: Pakistan has freed its highest-ranking Taliban captive, Mullah Baradar – but where does he go from here?
Daily Telegraph, 21 Sept : Taliban leader Mullah Baradar freed by Pakistan – Mullah Baradar, founder of the Afghan Taliban and its former military commander, was released today to improve the prospects of peace talks, Pakistan’s foreign ministry has confirmed.
CNN, 21 Sept: Pakistan has released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founding members of the Afghan Taliban, foreign ministry spokesman Aizaz Chaudhry told CNN on Saturday.
It seems that the definition of “released” needs to be tightened up. Difficult to know exactly what the situation is (is Berader in a safe house, a hospital, an ISI-guarded compound, in transit…???), other than to note that while Pakistan ‘s intentions and actions will remain opaque their goal will be to secure as much influence (still perhaps best known as “strategic depth”?) as possible in the internal politics of their Afghan neighbour. If Berader is fully released into Taliban arms, Pakistan stand to lose some of this control, although I find it hard to believe that the Pakistan government will lose touch of his location as long as he remains inside Pakistan. Optimistic press specualtion that Berader’s release will automatically trigger peace deals should also be treated as the optimistic press speculation that it is, given the major difficulties in getting any kind of talks underway thus far. “Talks about talks” still sums it up, with little clarity on who talks to who, about what, when, how and why. What might or might not be on the table is highly uncertain – let alone who is empowered to agree, monitor or enforce anything.
The Afghan Taliban’s relationship with their Pakistani safe haven providers still looks to be the fractious partnering highlighted in Mullah Zaeef’s book…
Update: The Taliban statement in full:
New statement from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: “Clarification Regarding Rumors About the Release of the Honorable Mullah Baradar Akhond”
A hot subject spread by media outlets in the recent past has been rumors regarding the release of the honorable Mullah Baradar Akhond (may Allah hasten his release) which say that he has been released from prison and is living with his family and some media outlets have gone as far as claiming that he is busy in political activities. However and with great regret!! he is still spending days and nights locked up behind bars in worrisome health conditions which are deteriorating by the day. The Islamic Emirate and his family believe it to be his legitimate right to be freed under humanitarian and Islamic sympathy from his wrongful imprisonment and due to his deteriorating health condition and also calls for his immediate release. Since high ranking Pakistani officials have repeatedly made statements about his release despite him being in detention therefore we earnestly ask the Pakistani government and officials to give clarification and just as they have announced, he should be released and the subject cleared up.
Spokesman of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
Summary: Don’t get your hopes up too high. The Afghan election preparations thus far suggest that it will be greatly flawed and more about realpolitik shufflings of power between the usual suspects than expressing and meeting the needs of the population…
The Afghanistan Analysts Network have an important and worrying piece out that highlights the likely problems of the coming Afghan presidential election by reminding us of all the previous electoral problems since 2004 and the fact that none of them really appear to have been fixed yet:
Afghanistan is readying itself for its fifth election in ten years. For those who have gone through the previous rounds there is an immense sense of déjà vu: the preparations and technical discussions, the excitement surrounding the politicking, the questions asked too early (who are the frontrunners?), the attempts of international policymakers to make sense of it all. And, most wearyingly, the ever-recurring myopic sense of optimism that this election will somehow be better than the previous ones. It will not. To illustrate this, it is useful to return to what has been written in the past – the warnings, the documented fraud, the reports from the provinces – in the hope that finally we may learn from past experience, even at this late stage.
I think this gets right to the heart of the problem. I am increasingly shifting uneasily these days when I hear people pinning too many hopes and expectations on this election – this is not an “End Game” and should not be considered as “win or lose”. If it is viewed in this very short term perpective, then only disappointment will result – and this will negatively impact on the way the international community (funding, media, engagement), Afghanistan’s neighbours, the Taliban and the Afghan populace itself sees the future prospects for the country. If I have ever said anything wise about Afghanistan, it was to note in 2003, during the preparations for the 2004 presidential elections, that Afghanistan surely needs at least five of these presidential electoral cycles – ie 25 years – before we can pass judgement and slowly let our breath out. I know that is boring for today’s 24 hour media cycle/circus, but this will be about painfully slow and incremental advancement, in which often the only discernible movement will be of the “one step forwards, two steps back” variety.
Lets keep this cautious and expectations in perspective.
These are my notes taken at a thought-provoking conference on military, strategic, ethical and humanitarian dimensions surrounding the use of new and emerging “remote” technologies of current and future warfare. The presentations helpfully reminded us that this is not merely about the use of drones (although use and accountability are major issues). Robotics that take humans out of decision processes, cyber-attacks and propaganda must all be considered and addressed in relation to International Humanitarian Law.
A conference jointly hosted by the Copenhagen University’s Centre for Military Studies and the Centre for International Law and Justice brought a selection of speakers together (including Christopher Coker at LSE, Micah Zenko from the Council on Foreign Relations and Louis Maresca from the ICRC) to look at the military, ethical and legal implications of developments in kinetic and non-kinetic weapons used remotely. The three panels considered: Strategy and Law, Ethics and the political implications for Denmark.
Conference opening remarks:
There is public concern that remote warfare (drones hooked to TV screens) is generating a desensitising “Playstation mentality” to warfare. There has been an element of war by remote for thousands of years: arrows, crossbows, gunpowder, rifles, snipers, artillery, aircraft, WWII (V1, V2), guided missiles…There may be a tendency to over—estimate the impact of remote technology. This conference is not just about drones. “Remote” technology is shifting in the “robotic” domain, including systems capable of evaluating situations and making complex decisions.
Panel 1 – Strategy and Law
Micah Zenko (Council of Foreign Relations): “Contemplating Future Wars”.
To understand the next 20-25 years of warfare it is necessary to understand the granularity of the way in which war has been conducted over the last 25 years, partly because the next 25 years will be broadly the same, but also to be aware and cautious of various “mythologies of intervention”, e.g.
- Bosnia 1995: Myth that US employment of air power in Bosnia in 1995 was the key factor that “worked” in resolving the conflict
- Kosovo 1999: same myth about US airpower
- Libya 2011: there was no enforced No Fly Zone in reality, rebel military capabilities are ignored
- Targeted killing by drones – mythologised by TV/Media
We are living in an unprecedented era of Great Power peace – minimal numbers of interstate wars. When wars occur, fewer die (90% fewer, compared to fifty years ago). Diminishing utility of nuclear weapons. It is more or less “unthinkable” for a state to use coercion and force to take control of another state. The increasing number of democratic states assists this and this progress will endure. Although threats to the US “have never been less”, the nature of the threat (i.e. terrorism) is not in previous classical conflict paradigms and leaves the US uncomfortable. The US official descriptions of its use of drones is at odds with their actual employment – they are not purely used to kill senior AQ chiefs: in many ways they are a “COIN” (counter-insurgency) air force for other countries, e.g. Yemen and Pakistan, killing individuals involve in local/internal conflicts with the state. Generally the CIA does not know who they killed in a given strike.
Often US drones are used to gather intelligence for other countries – Turkey, Honduras, France – so they can do the killing. France has killed 600 insurgents in Mali, through intelligence gathered from unarmed US “Reaper” drones”. This gets less media attention. US drone technology expanded exponentially in 1998/99 almost entirely as a result of the hunt for Bin Laden and the need to quickly strike. Real-time “eyes on” coupled with a weapon system (Hellfire missile fitted to a Predator drone) massively increased response time. It was an ad hoc tool for getting one person – now its use has expanded. Main impact of this capability is on civilian policy/decision makers – it lowers their threshold for authorising force. An additional impact of this sort of precision intelligence and strike technology has been the “mythologisation” and even “fetishisation” of Special Forces operations. Opinions are distorted – ignores the thousands of regular troops that need to prepare the way, provide support and clear up the mess.
Increasingly, although US might say that “all options are on the table”, “boots on the ground” (which can be highly effective) seems no longer to be part of the toolkit. Area of study that is greatly overlooked is the electromagnetic spectrum and the potential for it to be interfered with: loss of satellites can wipe out use of mobile phones, GPS, credit cards…There is not much thinking on how space can be used as an operational tool, but nothing in the world can happen without satellites.
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) seeks to:
- limit the effects of armed conflict
- achieve restrictions on war means and methods
Looking a bit more into the future and “autonomous weapons” – the ability of a weapon system to operate without human intervention or supervision (“Killer Robots!”). There is a sliding scale of autonomy: anti-missile/aircraft systems can identify targets and engage them but cannot adapt to changing circumstances. There are significant legal, ethical and social implications of “killer robot” artificial intelligence where humans are taken out of the decision loop. There is a need to assess the possible impacts of future weapons – new weapons must be used in accordance with IHL (e.g. 1995 prohibition on blinding laser weapons). With any new weapons, warring parties need to be able to:
- Distinguish between combatants and non-combatants
- Take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties
Human Rights Watch is campaigning for a moratorium on development of “killer robots”. ICRC is not involved in this. Will automated weapons of the future be able to distinguish between combatants, non-combatants, injured combatants, armed civilians, un-armed soldiers, prisoners, the act of surrendering and make military judgements based on proportionality? At the moment the most advanced systems cannot distinguish between an apple and a tomato.
Prospects – in the near future, humans will remain in the loop. The UK policy is (thus far) not to develop weapons of this type. But conflict in the future may become much faster and more complex – humans will not be able to keep up. There is a concern over the willingness of society to accept such weapons systems, regardless of their legal acceptability under IHL. ICRC issued a report last year: “New technologies and warfare”.
Q&A Session 1
- Vulnerability of drones – unnamed US General “the day drones are employed in a contested air space and a real enemy they will all fall from the sky”. Post-Abbottabad killing of Bin Laden saw a Pak Air Force enquiry: unnamed Pak commander – I could shoot down all the US drones over Pakistan tomorrow if I was told to.
- “Mission creep” – drones end up being normalised into other roles – monitoring US/Canada border, tracking cattle rustlers in North Dakota
- Legality of targeting “combatants” when they are outside the battle area – e.g. moving in a different country. Defining the Theatre of Operations becomes difficult: “Turns the whole world into a battlefield”…
Panel 2 – Ethics
Christopher Coker (LSE):
Six years after the Wright brothers first flew, the British government was having a debate about the airpower of airpower. At Waterloo, Wellington declined to allow his artillery to fire upon Napoleon when he moved into range. Plans to target German commanders in the 1994 invasion of Normandy were dismissed. But we find that conventions, laws and ethical norms quickly adjust. The risks of political decapitation include killing the one person who can authorise surrender – drone strikes undermine control in the tribal areas. Behavioural profiling has been used in British society since the 1980s – as a means of policy. CCTV, face recognition – soon to come will be body language recognition. We are merely bringing this technology of “risk management” to the battlefield. Increasing Western preference for keeping troops as far away from battlefield risks as possible. Now facing “disassociation” risks – no empathy/understanding of the enemy (i.e. “know your enemy”) as we sub-contract work to machines. “Machine ethnics” – might machines actually be more ethical as they are more consistent in their application of decisions. The future of conflict: there is no “New Order” of states and power, merely a never-ending series of risks to be managed…
Michael Gross (Haifa University): “Ethics and non-Kinetic warfare – cyber warfare and public diplomacy”
There are some key trends in non-kinetic warfare – at the state level:
- Cyber warfare
- Public diplomacy (aka propaganda)
- Sanctions – e.g. financial
At the non-state level:
- Non-violent resistance
- Economic warfare
- Non-kinetic warfare has several advantages over kinetic: cheaper, human costs lower, it doesn’t provoke counter-attacks or condemnation on the same scale, “soft power” – public diplomacy (has received little public attention).
Cyber warfare: civ and mil targets are harder to distinguish between. Examples – denial of services (Estonia ’07, Georgia ’08), destroying data (Saudi Aramco ’12), destroying equipment (Stuxnet ’10). There can be a knock on effect onto infrastructure (dams, water purification…) and a mix of physical and psychological damage – communications nets, financial nets, water, medical/fire/police services, transport nets. Cyber warfare attacks military targets for military advantage, cyber terrorism “targeting the innocent” – causing anxiety, stress (PTSD?), depression – is this terrorism (and therefore outlawed by ICRC)? How should a state respond?
“The Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare, written at the invitation of the Centre by an independent ‘International Group of Experts’, is the result of a three-year effort to examine how extant international law norms apply to this ‘new’ form of warfare”
Public Diplomacy – aims to intensify favourable opinions, reverse hostile, attract the indifferent (or minimise, prevent indifferent becoming hostile). Propaganda types: White (tell the truth), Black (tell lies), Grey (a mix). A certain amount of “spin” is legitimate. ISAF in Afghanistan “constrained by legal, political and ethical considerations” – unable to rebut or counter Taliban propaganda. The media as a force-multiplier – ethical dilemma, is it permissible to manipulate the truth? If so, under what conditions? There is no injunction against lying in war.
- Coker: why does “war” have to be kinetic/have killing? Why not soft power instead of hard power to win a war?
- Gross: his thinking shifted from seeing a drone-strike killing as extra-judicial execution to that of a military strike against a legitimate military target. Human Rights organisations focus on the collateral damage aspect of a drone strike, not on whether the target was correctly identified as a legitimate military target.
Panel 3 – Remote war on the Danish political perspective: New threats but nothing new”
- Paulsen: yes, new threats, but they have been around for ten years or so. Is a cyber-attack a genuine, Article V NATO-response invoking attack? Yes – if we want it to be!
- Probably no need for a significant shift in laws as long as we retain civilian control on their use and don’t forget about the “old” weapons systems that are still mainly used.
- Petersen: These new weapons systems do not really change the basic rules of war – we should apply the same rules as we do for aircraft and rifles. Opposed to use of assassination as a political tool, but in favour of use of drones for Peace Keeping Operations.
- Pind: “We” use weapons – who is “we”, who is the “West?”. We should be waging war as a war of ideas and in accordance with our fundamental values. Cyber systems – still only a weapon, this is more about the way it is used than the type of weapon per se. If war was costless, we might love it too much – target killing is a very serious issue. Denmark should acquire drones – open civilian accountability in their use
Summary: a low level government official declares he has joined the Taliban. Local issues might turn out to be a significant factor. Broader defections probably unlikely. Lets wait and see.
There is an interesting story developing from Afghanistan. The BBC report that a district governor in Sar-e Pol province has reportedly defected, leaving the government to join the Taliban:
A former Afghan senator and district governor has defected to the Taliban in the northern province of Sar-e-Pol, officials have told the BBC. Qazi Abdul Hai served as a senator between 2004 and 2008 and was later made a district governor in Sar-e-Pol. Correspondents say he is thought to be the highest-ranking civilian official to have joined the Taliban…Officials say it is unclear why he decided to join the Taliban and played down the impact of his decision. “His defection does not have any impact on his people in the district, because he was not a very influential person,” Abdul Ghafore Dastyaar, deputy governor of Sar-e-Pol, told the BBC’s Jafar Haand in Kabul. He added that Mr Hai had left Afghanistan and was believed to be over the border in Pakistan. The Taliban welcomed the move, describing it as an achievement that supports their cause and said that it was partly due to their efforts in the area. Mr Hai also appears in a video posted on the Taliban website in which he describes himself as a former mujahideen fighter and says that in his four years in Kabul he saw what he describes as “the corrupt face of the government”. Correspondents say the video is being used as an opportunity to bolster their propaganda effort as well.
In civil war and counter-insurgency theory, defections one way or another can provide an indication as to who may be “winning” the conflict. The Rand Study “How Insurgencies End” highlights defections as a key indicator of this:
The rate at which these phenomena [desertions, defections and infiltrations] occur, as well as changes in these rates, often indicate significant trends and occasionally, tipping points…
I wrote on defections just over a year ago, here and here as well. We have still not seen significant movements of numbers either way – a handful of Afghan (often local) police one way, similar number of “reconciled” insurgents the other way. Nothing that leaps out as a “tipping point”. This is billed as the highest-ranking defection to the Taliban but it would perhaps have been more significant if Qazi Abdul had jumped ship with a large group of fighters, some weapons or money (or all three). Its still quite low level and, as ever, it is a little early to make a confident assessment on what has really taken, but I suspect the intricacies of local political power rivalries may be at the root of it. Sar-e Pol is in northern Afghanistan, just below Balkh province It is not known for a significant level of Taliban insurgent activity. There is a brief biographic snippet of Qazi Abdul Hai thus:
Senator Qazi Abdul Hai Khadem, son of Murtaza, was born in 1956 in the village of Deh Surkh in Kohistanat district of Sar-e Pul province. He completed his primary education at the Hemat Primary School of Kohistanat in 1971, and his secondary education at Abu Hanifa School in Kabul in 1977. He was admitted to the Islamic law Faculty of Kabul University in 1978. Following the Communist coup in 1979, he fled to Pakistan where lived until 1981. As part of his religious duties, he re-entered Afghanistan in 1981 to join the armed resistance against the Soviets. He was subsequently captured by the Soviet puppet government and spent a year in the Sherpur Temporary Jail and at the Directorate of National Security. He was released in 1982, and again headed to the front lines in Jawzjan and Saripul provinces. He served in the Kohistanat front line until 1992. From 1992 to 1994, he served as the chief of staff in the 26th Jihadi Division in Saripul. In 1994, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general by then-President Ustad Rabbani. In 2006, President Karzai awarded him with a Medal of Honor for Jihad and Resistance. Sen. Qazi Khadem speaks Dari and Pashto and some Arabic. He traveled to Pakistan in 1978 and 1981, Saudi Arabia in 1981 and 1982, and Iran in 2004. He was indirectly elected to the Meshrano Jirga as a temporary senator. He is married and has twelve children.
Did he jump or was he pushed?
Which to be honest, doesn’t really advance our thinking much: he is a good Sar-e Pol jihadi, did his bit fighting the Soviets, spent some time in government. It may be significant that this has happened as the election manoeuvring hots up – perhaps Qazi Abdul is a casualty of preliminary electoral posturing. It may be that his reported concerns with corruption are genuine or simply that he is about to be removed – possibly for some kind of corruption/collusion with insurgents activities. We need to wait a little and see what additional snippets of information fall out of the next week or so, but I would definitely shy away from seeing this as any kind of insurgency “tipping point”.