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Afghan elections update: nothing significant to report…

July 7, 2014

Summary: no useful signs of progress over electoral fraud.

abdullah and ghaniVoice of America reports today on further scrambles and delays to resolve the presidential election allegations of fraud.  There is no firm date as yet for an announcement of initial results of the second (and hopefully final) round of the ballot:

VoA 7th July 2014: Rival Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani on Monday held last-minute talks to try to resolve a standoff over the outcome of a troubled election, as officials once again delayed the announcement of preliminary results.  The deadlock over the June 14 second round runoff has quashed hopes for a smooth transition of power in Afghanistan, a headache for the West as most U.S.-led forces continue to withdraw from the country this year.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission had been due to announce results of the June 14 run-off vote at 2 p.m. (0930 GMT) but officials said it would be put off by a few hours.  It was unclear what caused the delay, which came as rival camps struggled to find a last-minute compromise to keep Afghanistan from sliding into a protracted period of uncertainty without a clear leader accepted by all sides…Fraud allegations

Both rounds of the vote have been plagued by accusations of mass fraud, and the refusal by either candidate to accept the outcome could split the fragile country along ethnic lines.  Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban fighter, and Ashraf Ghani, an ex-World Bank official, have locked horns over the election, with both effectively declaring victory in the contest to succeed President Hamid Karzai.

Abdullah, previously seen as the election front-runner, alleged he was the victim of “industrial-scale” ballot-box stuffing on June 14 and has vowed not to recognize the vote count, according to the French news agency AFP.  Ghani, who was reported to be at least 1 million votes ahead, said the result is fair and must be released on Monday.

On Monday, both camps said they were holding renewed discussions to find ways to defuse the crisis, possibly about how many additional polling stations need to be audited in order to satisfy both candidates that the vote was free of fraud.

“Our meetings continued until midnight and there were some improvements but we haven’t reached final agreement,” said Mujibul Rahman Rahimi, a spokesman for Abdullah, adding that the ball was now in Ghani’s court.

Ghani’s team said further delays were unacceptable.

“This is a red line for us,” Azita Rafhat, a Ghani spokeswoman, told AFP. “People want to know the result of their votes.”

Rafhat said they would announce their position on the talks later on Monday.

So no immediate sign of a breakthrough and difficult to get a sense of how the final outcome might look like, given the seemingly huge scale of the fraud problem.   A “deal” between the two candidates might on the one hand be sensible, but it might risk invalidating the point of the election if, say, the two worked out a power-sharing deal in some way.   A large recount – which still seems to be a realistic possibility – would be expensive, controversial and likely a very protracted process.

Afghan presidential election result: signs of crisis?

June 19, 2014

Summary: accusations of fraud between the two run-off presidential candidates hold up the real possibility of damaging a crucial peaceful transition of power

abdullah and ghaniAfter no candidate secured a sufficient majority (more than 50%) in the first round in April, the second round of the Afghan presidential election went ahead on 14th June. Like the first round, despite violence and killings from the Taliban, the second round seemingly went off without major security problems. The run-off is between Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik close to the Northern Alliance and a former Foreign Minister and Ashraf Ghani, a Pushtun technocrat and former Finance Minister. In the first round, Dr Abdullah won 45% of the vote and Ashraf Ghani won 32%.

The votes are still being counted, with results due in July, but both sides have been accusing the other of widespread fraud, particularly ballot stuffing. This is inevitable, to some degree, given the widespread frailty of the still fledgling Afghan electoral process and the corruption, fraud and violence that surrounds the ballot.

But the language is getting quite intense.

Allegations seems to focus on ballot stuffing and unusually high levels of turnout in particular districts.  The Abdullah camp sees a Karzai hand in rigging in favour of a fellow Pushtun:

Less than 48 hours after a runoff election to choose the next president of Afghanistan, the first signs of a looming political crisis emerged on Monday, with the campaign of Abdullah Abdullah claiming there had been widespread ballot stuffing and suggesting he was being set up for a defeat he would not accept.

 

Abdullah said preliminary figures and other evidence collected by his team showed mass fraud had undermined the process and he would no longer work with the organisers.

“The counting process should stop immediately and if that continues, it will have no legitimacy,” he told reporters. “From now on, today, we announce that we have no confidence or trust in the election bodies.”

Ashraf Ghani seems to be less strident. Yesterday he tweeted:

Ashraf Ghani ‏@ashrafghani 17h: We’ll wait until the Independent Election Commission announces final result. V won’t predict the result or create confusions amongst people.

Comment

Seen from an internationalist perspective it probably doesn’t matter too much whether Abdullah or Ghani is elected. Both look broadly acceptable – no major war crimes or corruption allegations chasing them, both intelligent, urbane and pro-West. Both have experience in government and have vital skills for the multi-decade task of rebuilding the country.  But, after thirteen years of a Pushtun President there is a sense amongst the other main ethnic groups – Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras – that it is now the turn of a non-Pushtun. For Abdullah Abdullah personally, having, by many accounts, narrowly missed the presidency in 2009, amidst even greater fraud, he should not be denied what he unfairly missed last time.  During the elections in 2009 there was talk of civil war because of the level of fraud and disputes between the Karzai and Abdullah teams.  Many felt Karzai and his supporters had rigged the result against Abdullah, who, like now, had performed well in the vote. Abdullah demonstrated maturity and statesmanship by stepping back and refusing to give in to the temptation to turn to mass demonstrations and protest – with the high likelihood of violence.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

I am not sure if this is a “looming political crisis”.  But we should not take it for granted as merely a last flurry from candidates from whom so much is at stake.  As Ghani rightly states and as Abdullah likely recognises, the electoral process needs to be seen to run its course and all allegations must be investigated. We should hope for a result that clearly indicates one winner and one loser: a closely-placed result – say with a difference of 1 – 3 percentage points – leaves open a real likelihood that the protagonists can claim they have been cheated and refuse to accept the results.

Now is not the time for wobbles and tantrums and a quick and peaceful transition is crucial.  Although Abdullah might be reasonably sensible and aware of the risks of his accusations, other supporters might be less easily controllable and placated.  The country can survive some political tantrums and Abdullah can perhaps be forgiven for being highly sensitive.  But turning it (or having it turn) into a wider, deeper and more damaging Tajik vs Pushtun spat would be very unconstructive.  Most of the presidential candidates in the first round were Pushtun and so we might genuinely be seeing a re-coalescing of the Pushtun vote where it was previous scattered amongst many.  The country is on the brink of a vital peaceful transition of power and has held two elections in the space of three months that the Taliban have been unable to prevent.  Rumour and accusation make it all too easy – and a genuine disaster for the country – for this to be thrown away and the country’s governance were plunged into stagnation, chaos, fragmentation or conflict. The country cannot afford a protracted transition – or worse.

One of my favourite themes is the risk that political and military forces other than the Taliban can fragment the country while all attention is on the insurgency.  Doing the Taliban’s work for them at this stage would be foolish.

Russia/Ukraine: NATO satellite analysis suggest “little green tanks” came over the border from Russia

June 16, 2014

Summary: NATO satellite analysis suggest that the “little green tanks” did in fact recently come over the border from Russia

Some interesting unclassified imagery analysis from NATO suggesting very strongly that the three T-64 tanks that appeared in eastern Ukraine just before the weekend might indeed have originated from a Russian military staging area.

20140616, Ukraine Map, MBT movements

SHAPE, ACOThe imagery shows that on 30 May in Rostov-na-Donu, a Russian unit was deployed, but no tanks were present at the time the image was taken.  Imagery from the 6th of June shows the Russian unit departing, which we believe was part of a Russian announcement to pull troops back from the border region.  In the context of this overall withdrawal, 8 main battle tanks are shown to have arrived.  On the 11th of June, 10 main battle tanks can be seen at the site.  3 of these are parked, 4 are in the training area, and 3 are loaded heavy equipment transport trucks that are normally used to move tanks, likely indicating imminent movement by road.
On the 12th of June, Ukrainian officials report that 3 main battle tanks and several armoured vehicles crossed the border at the Dovzhanskyy border crossing, which was under the control of pro-Russian elements of the so-called “People’s Republic of Luhansk.”  Sightings of these tanks were later reported in open sources in Snizhne and then Makiivka, near Donetsk.  The tanks do not bear markings or camouflage paint like those used by the Ukrainian military.  In fact, they do not have markings at all, which is reminiscent of tactics used by Russian elements that were involved in destabilising Crimea…If these latest reports are confirmed, this would mark a grave escalation of the crisis in eastern Ukraine in violation of Russia’s Geneva commitments.

Rostov Military Staging Area, 11 June 2014, MBT activities

Comment:

The NATO report highlights the absence of nationality, camouflage (Ukrainian T-64 main battle tanks have a distinctive pattern) and unit markings on the vehicles.   This was a “signature” of Russian operations associated with the Crimea.   Although Russia no longer officially operates T-64 tanks as they are quite out of date, they likely possess several thousand, of which many will still be workable.  No indication as to who has been operating the vehicles but three options suggest themselves: they are manned by Russian crews, separatists were trained in the staging area or they were handed over somewhere near the border to separatists who know how to use them.  The benefit of mass conscription means thousands of men in Ukraine know how to work them to a basic degree.  Handing over weapons systems that are instantly understood by separatists makes perfect sense.

But it is perhaps ironic that the goal of appearing anonymous should slowly start to work against “alleged” Russian activities.  The act of painting yourself a simple green colour, not communicating in any way and having no markings of any sort is slowly become a clearly recognisable “symbol” for Russia, more so than any flag.

Pondering Russian and Ukrainian military capability…

June 13, 2014

Summary: what if Russia had had to fight for the Crimea? Are the bulk of their armed forces still a paper tiger, suitable only for sabre-rattling?

I am pretty certain I took Anna Politkovskaya’s book out before the Crimean “liberation”.   But a question that has been playing around in my mind since the actually quite brilliant tactical success of the Russian approach to returning the Crimea to Mother Russia.  What would have happened if the Russia Army had actually had to fight for the Crimea, or now (of particular relevance since the “three Russian tanks enter Ukraine” story) for eastern parts of Ukraine.  The poorly equipped, poorly treated, unmotivated, under-resourced, confused and scared conscripts, as per Politkovskaya, do not make a good defensive force, let alone an aggressive force capable of taking and holding ground.

Russian armour on motorwaycrop crop

Modern day sabre-rattling…

But is the Russian Army that bad now? My thus far very light skim over the subject suggests that President Putin has put a lot more resources, money and equipment into his armed forces, particularly after the small-scale Georgia conflict in 2008 seemed to confirm embarrassingly that no improvements had been made since Chechnya. This has arrested, and, in some cases, reversed, the decline of some parts of the military machine. Many aspects of the Special Forces, intelligence and information operations seen in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine look evidential of advanced capabilities in many ways. But these are the “special” elements. The impact of reforms across the wider Army look more ambiguous. New brigade structures and shiny equipment may not alone solve many of the personnel, institutional and infrastructural problems that it had at the start of this century, particularly under the stresses of a fast moving and complex “war within the people”. As we ought to know by now, invading and occupying a country can be relatively quick and easy. The social, political, military and insurgent problems generally tend arise, diversify and multiply only after someone has raised a “mission accomplished” banner.

But the question also applies in reverse – what would happen if the Ukrainian Army really had to fight against a bigger version of itself? My crude reckoning at present puts the Ukrainian Army a decade behind the Russians in terms of capability. Days – weeks at best – of resistance and then collapse into a piecemeal and protracted partisan (to use the local historical term for an insurgent) and anti-partisan morass?

This doesn’t bear thinking about.

Unconfirmed report of three Russian tanks on Ukrainian territory

June 12, 2014

Summary: BBC, quoting Ukrainian government sources, report three Russian tanks moving into Ukraine.

astern_ukraine_624The BBC, quoting the Urainian interior ministry, have reported something odd – three Russian tanks have apparently moved into Ukraine from Russia:

BBC, 12 June 2014, 16.01pm: Ukraine’s interior minister has said that three tanks have crossed the border from Russia into rebel areas of the east and fighting is under way.  The tanks entered Ukraine along with other armour through a checkpoint controlled by rebels in the Luhansk region, Arsen Avakov said.  The army engaged two of them and destroyed part of the column, he said…Mr Avakov said the tanks had crossed the border from Russia along with armoured personnel carriers and artillery pieces in the Dyakove area of Luhansk region before moving into the neighbouring Donetsk region.

There, Ukraine’s interior minister said, the tanks headed for the town of Snizhne on Thursday morning. Two then proceeded to the town of Horlivka and were attacked by government forces.

“The fight is under way,” Mr Avakov said. “I cannot say about its final outcome, but part of this column has been destroyed.”

Unverified video has been posted on Youtube of a battle tank rolling down a street said to be in Snizhne. The footage was shot from a flat overlooking the street.

The report needs be flagged up but at the same time must be treated as highly suspect and unconfirmed.  The Youtube video may be totally unrelated and the bulk of Russian and Ukrainian army equipment is more or less the same.  There are many reasons – from accident through incompetence to design – why such a report could emerge and be at the same time wholly inaccurate.  “Little Green Tanks” would be a lot harder for the Russians to deny and a more conventional armed incursion would be fraught with risk.  Although several other news agencies have picked up the story they all seem to be running the same Kiev statement.  We need to see what other sources emerge.  If Russia decided to “trickle” its intervention, it might make sense to send in equipment that looked identical to the Ukrainian order of battle.

Update:  the video footage linked above identifies the battle tank as a T-72.  I believe it is much more likely to be a variant of the T-64 – small wheels with gaps between the wheels.  T-72 wheels are closer together and bigger.  Both Russia and Ukraine have both.

A T-64, not a T-72 as claimed

A T-64, not a T-72 as claimed

Politkovskaya – “A Dirty War: a Russian reporter in Chechnya”

June 12, 2014

Summary: Anna Politkovskaya’s grim book on the Chechen conflicts of the 1990s exposed all sorts of flaws within the Russian government and military.

“The destruction of Grozny was both terrible and strange. Terrible because of the wantonness and scale of the damage. Strange, because this destruction was ordered from Moscow with the stated aim of preserving Chechnya within the Russian Federation…In 1999-2000 even more devastation was inflicted on the city by artillery and bombers. Chechnya has now lost almost everything we associate with a modern state…” Thomas de Waal

Grozny destroyed

Stalingrad or Grozny?

As a result of a chance encounter with a bookshelf in Malmö library earlier this year I stumbled across the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s “A Dirty War”. This is essentially a compilation of the Novaya Gazeta articles written by during the course of the fighting in Chechnya in the late 1990s and early 21st century – the two “Chechen Wars” of 1994 – 96 and 1998 to…well I’m not really sure it has finished. It depends which history book you read. I understand the Russians swapped Defence Ministry Army soldiers for Interior Ministry police (although weapons and equipment may have remained the same) which was intended to signify the return to “normality” in 2009. But an insurgency is still continuing today.

Politkovskaya died of gunshots to the head in the stairwell of her apartment block in Moscow in 2006. Although five men were convicted, with two given life sentences, it is still unclear who ordered the killing. Reading the book, with her aggressively compassionate championing of the ordinary civilian and condemnation of the waste, incompetence, indifference and brutality of the Russian government and security ministries, it is easy to see that she almost certainly made dozens of enemies through naming and shaming.

“An armoured personnel carrier races through the maize fields along the road that borders the cordon sanitaire. It is full of soldiers. An officer leaps out…The colonel is in a highly nervous state. Restlessly he struts back and forth, twitching and sometimes breaking into a run; he gives an odd and unbalanced impression. At his command the soldiers point their weapons at everyone who isn’t in uniform or riding in an army vehicle. No one trusts anyone else here and they’re all afraid of each other. That’s how we now behave, yet the land around is part of our country, it’s not a fascist, gangster-run republic. We created this situation. Only officers who are daily shown how little they count could behave this way.” Anna Politkovskaya, “A Dirty War”, Harvill Press, London, 2002.

The reading is pretty gruelling.  If you take a look at some of the footage and photographs from the time as well, you are left with something that looks like the recreation of some of the grimmer scenes from the Russo-German war of 1941-45.  Most forms of excess are there.  The charges she levels the Russian government and military (providing numerous examples) include:

 

The Chechen fighters began to specialise in mass kidnappings – a packed theatre, a hospital full of patients and a school full of children. Russian counter-terrorist techniques were blunt, even crude. You could usually count on half of the captives (sometimes this went into the hundreds) being killed along with the kidnappers.

grozny, woman refugeePolitkovskaya was certainly not an impartial journalist or observer – more of a one-woman relief agency. She gave away her own money to refugees, harangued civil officials and military personnel into action and used her newspaper column (and her own phone number) to rally support, create awareness and raise funds to help those civilians (and sometimes soldiers) trapped in the middle of what was one long (and internationally over-looked) atrocity. On a smaller scale, it fore-warned of the sorts of conflict we are seeing in Syria and Iraq.

Very worth reading. Very unsettling.

Afghanistan: worrying reminders

June 11, 2014

Summary: A presidential candidate narrowly escaping assassination and a “friendly fire” incident underline the risks to Afghan progress.
Abdullah assasination attempt, June 2014Two recent events in Afghanistan have value as reminders that the country’s progress remains fragile. On 6th June an assassination attempt comprising two near simultaneous explosions targeted Dr Abdullah Abdullah and his convoy of election campaigners in Kabul, reportedly killing six, including an Abdullah body guard and injuring over twenty. Abdullah, highly likely to become Afghanistan’s next president, was unharmed and quick to broadcast his survival on TV. On 10th June, five US soldiers and two Afghans were killed by a “friendly fire” airstrike conducted by an American combat aircraft.

abdullahAbdullah has had a narrow miss and it may not be his last one. By the standards of 2009’s highly flawed presidential election process, this year’s election has been highly encouraging for Afghans and the internationals alike – neither violence nor fraud have been able to stop the process being deemed broadly acceptable. But the nation’s political “progress”, in all its myriad varieties of definition, should not be taken for granted. Although the Constitution is probably sufficiently robust enough (and respected) now to survive the deaths of major political figures, it is still very possible that fragile Afghanistan can come undone with a handful of well-placed bombs or bullets. The Taliban have issued a “final warning” to those Afghans participating in the presidential second round run-off, due to take place this Saturday, 14th June.

Taliban statement, 11th June 2014: We once again call upon the people not to participate, even inadvertently, in forthcoming election drama of 14th June. They should Taliban flagcompletely reject it as they have done in the past. If they do not follow the instructions and demands of the Islamic Emirate and do participate in the elections, they will be held responsible for all the unpleasant consequences come what might, because following the infidels’ plans is a kind of directly supporting them and participation in this untoward process is considered a felony according to the sacred religion of Islam.  The Islamic Emirate calls upon all the devoted Mujahidin throughout the country to carry out their assaults in a well-organized manner according to the prescribed planning. They should circumspectly detect all the polling stations and should bring them under decisive attacks

In reality, they are unlikely to be able to stop the process from taking place other than by killing one of the two candidates still in the running – Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani – or some similar major atrocity. I expect Dr Abdullah to be declared President in the next week or two.

I still sense that the biggest danger to the country is not so much the actions of the Taliban per se but the actions and reactions of the Afghan political elites in response to the political, military and economic stresses. The risk of “reverting to type” is still high: warlords and old guard “mujahideen” pulling away from the centre, political competition for control and allegiance of the army and police while the security services are under military pressure over 2015 – 2018, corruption and syphoning of precious assets and resources.

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