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Airstrikes: hitting the wrong target as standard

May 17, 2019

Summary: Many Afghan police reported dead in a failed airstrike in southern Afghanistan.

Image result for mi-24 afghanistan afghan air force

Al Jazeera report that as many as 17 Afghan police have been killed, with 14 injured, in an airstrike that went awry in Helmand province near the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.  The international “Resolute Support” mission say that they carried out the attack mission.

An air attack has killed 17 policemen by mistake during a battle with the Taliban just outside the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, officials said.  Attaullah Afghan, the head of the provincial council, said the attack took place on Thursday while Afghan police were fighting the Taliban near the city.  Fourteen policemen were wounded in the attack, he added.  A spokesperson for the provincial governor said the strike was carried out by NATO Resolute Support mission force in the Nahr-e-Seraj area of the Helmand-Kandahar highway.  There was no immediate response to a query to the US military in Kabul. American forces regularly back Afghan troops when asked to.  Helmand’s Governor Mohammad Yasin said the air raid is being investigated. A Taliban statement claimed US forces were behind it.

Airstrikes on a fast evolving battlefield where the enemy is hard to identify, reliable intelligence is limited and civilians and friendly forces pop up in the most inconvenient of locations mean failures are inevitable.  It is a highly demanding, impossible-to get-perfect, process.  The history of the use of airpower in Afghanistan once 2001 is littered with examples of disastrous failures of airpower:  wedding parties, hospitals, funerals, schools, mosques, civilians, friendly forces, have all been wrongly targeted.  But the use of airpower by the US (who I think is the only international military force currently employing ground attack aircraft over Afghanistan) appears to have significantly increased in the last two years.

Not only that, the Afghan airforce is having its strike capability increased (and is also making the same mistakes).  It seems highly likely that the Afghan airforce will, for years to come, be less capable of accurate airstrikes than their international colleagues.  But airpower – such as ground attack aircraft and attack helicopters will always be a symbol of national power and prestige.  India is reportedly providing two ground attack helicopters.    With this sort of capability now available, my sense is that the increased employment of airstrikes is inevitable.  The old adage still applies – if all you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail.

Airpower generally economises on military lives but jeopardises the civilian population.  One thing that is sure to turn a friendly civilian into a neutral one or a neutral one into a enemy is if you keep dropping bombs on their children.  The Americans are training much of the Afghan air force (although less so now, as Afghan pilots seem to regularly claim asylum as soon as they get to America).  Perhaps the Afghan airforce might benefit from an emphasis on funding for training – a culture of firepower restraint, surveillance, reconnaissance, target identification, ground to air coordination – instead of receiving exciting (and lethal) new toys.  Perhaps the Afghan National Army and Air Force should be aiming to bake in a culture that emphasis a range of other options and the role of airpower as the absolute last resort.  It is highly counter-productive simply to gift propaganda victories to the Taliban.

 

Taliban targeting aid groups and NGOs

May 15, 2019

Summary: Taliban claim attack on US aid agencies in central Kabul

Afghan security forces guard the site of an explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 8, 2019. The Taliban attacked the offices of an international NGO in the Afghan capital, setting off a huge explosion and battling Afghan security forces in an assault that killed at least five people, interior ministry said in a statement. (Rahmat Gul / AP)

The New York Times has an article out by Rod Nordland, examining the Taliban’s recent targeted attacks on aid agencies.

Two American aid groups – CARE and Counterpart International were struck by one large attack in Kabul claimed by the Taliban, with as many as 13 reported killed.  The attack was initiated by a common Taliban tactic of suicide bombers blasting gates open to allow other gunmen and bombers to penetrate into the compound or building itself.

Taliban fighters attacked the offices of a U.S.-based aid organization in the Afghan capital on Wednesday, setting off a huge explosion and battling security forces in an assault that lasted more than six hours and killed at least five people, the Interior Ministry said. Dozens of civilian vehicles and shops were either destroyed or damaged, and several buildings were also damaged. A large plume of smoke rose from the area and the sound of sporadic gunfire could be heard…The ministry’s statement said the attack ended after all five insurgents were killed by Afghan forces. “Around 200 people were rescued from both buildings within the compound,” it said.

The attack targeted U.S.-based aid organization Counterpart International, which has offices near those of the Afghan attorney general, said Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi. The group’s offices are in a compound with two five-story buildings…Johan Bass, U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, strongly condemned the attack on the NGO. He said the targeted organization helps local communities, trains journalists and supports the Afghan people.

Map locating an attack in the Shar-e-Naw area in Kabul.The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in a statement also condemned the insurgents for deliberately targeting a civilian aid organization.

“Today’s attack was particularly deplorable, hitting civilians helping Afghans,” the statement said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group attacked the organization because it was involved in “harmful Western activities” inside Afghanistan, without elaborating…The Taliban said they would continue their attacks during Ramadan, but would be “very careful of civilians during any operation.”

The insurgents have rejected past cease-fire proposals, saying U.S. and NATO troops must withdraw from the country first. The Taliban also refuse to negotiate directly with the government in Kabul, seeing it as a U.S. puppet.

Image result for taliban attack counterpart international mapThe Taliban gave an official statement explaining their rationale for the the attack.

“Amid the ongoing Al Fath Operations, an American network named “Counterpart” was brought under a martyrdom attack in Kabul city earlier today…

The said target was under the surveillance of Mujahideen for a very long time. Between 40 to 50 foreign advisors and tens of hirelings were based in the building where they groomed Kabul administration security and other personnel in implementing pro-western objectives.

Today’s attack resulted in tens of foreign invaders and their hirelings killed and wounded. Similarly, enemy reinforcements coming in from the outside were also engaged for 6-hours as a result dozens of other gunmen including high-ranking officers were killed and wounded…

This US network “Counterpart” began its operations in 2013 and was funded by satanic USAID with $70 million budget to implement 5 year pro-occupation projects.

The members of this group included stooges of all levels from Ashraf Ghani to lower-ranking individuals who implemented these projects and played an active role in the election process of the Kabul administration.

This network trained security personnel of the Kabul administration to supposedly strengthen and expand their “capabilities” so just like their foreign masters, they also embrace ruthlessness, murder, oppression and enmity towards Islamic values as well as abhor mosque, madrasa, Mullah and religious scholars.

The ruthless armed forces who know no Islamic and humanitarian limits such as Zero One, Zero Two and others are also a product of these institutions.

On the other hand, this network encouraged and promoted inter-mixing between men and women at the highest levels which has resulted in rampant moral corruption spreading in cities and areas under the control of Kabul administration over the past eighteen years, enmity towards Islamic values expanding and the job of students of this institution was to even challenge Islamic laws and regulations.

The said network funded by USAID was also implemented a program code named ‘Afghan Angel’ that promoted moral corruption and religious deviation in our country.”

 

Although generally recognised and respected across Afghanistan, the Red Cross itself has been the target of attacks by insurgents.[1] Most concerning of all, in August 2018, the Taliban declared that they would no longer give safe passage or protection for the Red Cross operating in Afghanistan.[2]  Although this was subsequently revoked, the Taliban reinstated this ban in April 2019.[3]

These are soft targets that are easy to hit and to garner media attention.  Terror attacks in crowded central Kabul inevitably generate a disproportionate amount of collateral casualties and damage.  The Taliban’s policy on targeting of such groups has been fluid over the years.  But these actions do not give any encouragement to the thoughts of peace talks which are currently supposed to be ongoing.

 

[1] Graham-Harrison, E., ‘Red Cross office in Afghanistan hit by suicide bombers’, The Guardian, 29 May 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/29/red-cross-afghanistan-suicide-bombers

[2] ’Afghanistan Taliban withdraws protection for Red Cross’, BBC News, 15 Aug. 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-45194774

[3] ‘Afghan Taliban bans WHO and Red Cross work amid vaccination drive’, Reuters, 11 Apr. 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-taliban-aid/afghan-taliban-bans-who-and-red-cross-work-amid-vaccination-drive-idUSKCN1RN257

 

 

Hollywood fantasy battle scenes – keeping it medieval…

May 13, 2019

Summary: Why does Hollywood routinely depict large scale fantasy battle scenes as one massed block of people charging straight at another massed block of people? 

A propos of the Avengers: Endgame film that I watched yesterday.  Why does Hollywood seemingly struggle to depict large scale fantasy battle scenes in anything other than one massed block of people charging straight ahead at another massed block of people in a very compressed battlespace?  As a secondary question: why do superheroes with an array of skills and superpowers always end up resolving a conflict purely based on punching each other repeatedly in the head?

The final battle in Avengers: Endgame – a mush of people rushing into each other at short range, hacking and bludgeoning in an unsophisticated pre-medieval slugfest.  Star Wars and Lord of the Rings have also been guilty.

Yes, I know that a typical 20th/21st century battlefield from the Somme to Helmand province is generally quite empty because of the pieces of metal flying around and this makes for poor cinema, but is it too much to ask for tactics, strategy and logistics to be reflected in an engaging and relevant way?  Even better, how about operational art, the bit that links tactics to strategy?  Even some basic flanking, reconnaissance, camouflage and concealment or use of intelligence?  Even medieval warfare had sophisticated and nuanced tactics and strategy.

But there seems to be a difference in approach between historical accounts and fantasy film.  The American film industry has produced some incredibly intelligent and realistic battle scenes (and many less so!) including Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers… based on WWII and onwards – Vietnam , Gulf Wars, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Fantasy battles seem to trigger a default “let’s do it like Lord of the Rings and have them all charging and hacking at short range”…  If everyone in that fantasy world is at a “medieval” level of technology, then this is perhaps fair enough.  But with high tech weapons, space ships and super powers perhaps there might have been a bit more nuance.

In this respect, my particular gripe with the Avengers film was that there was clearly a lavish, in depth, level of detail put into the spectacle of the final battle scene, but we are never allowed to dwell on this for more than a few seconds before we are jammed back into the bash, crash and thump of medieval melee, split second scene flashing by to another split second scene.  It was a three hour film so a few minutes to develop our understanding of the final battle could have helped.

It was a good enough film, though. I guess.

 

Unhelpful statistics: US stop monitoring level of Taliban control across Afghanistan

May 6, 2019

…but the data is likely being collected anyway and look for the data to return publicly if it starts to show more positive news…

The US military are apparently no longer tracking the ebb and flow of the conflict in terms of Taliban/government control of districts and provinces.

SIGAR says the NATO-led mission, Resolute Support, “formally notified SIGAR that it is no longer assessing district-level insurgent or government control or influence.”

A copy of the communication from the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, which was provided in the report, stated that district stability data “was of limited decision-making value to the Commander.

It is difficult to be sure of the motives for this but easy to suspect that the data is not demonstrating sufficient US military success.  Measuring “stuff” is difficult – what should you measure? how do you measure it? what do the measurements show? how confident can you be that you are measuring all the things you need?  There was a similar debate and reversal of policy regarding “bodycount”, the counting of insurgents killed.  The process was confused.  In the post-2001 Afghanistan conflict, the US began announcing Taliban deaths, then stopped doing so in around 2011, then started again and then stopped once more in 2018.  Counting bodies was unhelpful when it clashed with the harsh reality: military and independent analysts were still assessing that the number of Taliban still fighting in Afghanistan was the same or growing (see my early report here, which now urgently needs updating), regardless of the number of deaths reported.  I seem to recall that some deployed US units kept their own bodycount separately anyway during the “no body count” years.

Monitoring the amount of Taliban control of the country has been controversial.  Data – and definitions of the data – have always made caution necessary.  It can be a very stark indicator that things are not going well, even when the situation is more nuanced, so the charts are politically sensitive and open to claims and counter claims.  It seems very plausible to conclude that, because the data is going away, it is no longer helpful to the US/Afghan government cause to publicise it – i.e. the outlook is proving gloomy and therefore bad news is being suppressed.  I suspect that the data will still be collected – perhaps in a different format – but only for internal use.  Look for this data to return as soon as the number of districts under Afghan government control starts to go up…https://screenshotscdn.firefoxusercontent.com/images/5d6d28be-e82d-4e92-90bb-7c1a5ee71110.png

UNAMA quarterly report on conflict levels, Afghanistan, Jan – Mar 2019

April 24, 2019

Summary: UNAMA civilian casualty statistics for Jan-Mar 2019 show a noticeable drop compared to the same period in 2018 and highlights an increase in civilian deaths at the hands of pro-government forces

The United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has released its latest data concerning civilian casualty levels in Afghanistan for the first quarter of this year.  In comparison to first quarter statistics over ten years, from 2009 to 2019, casualty and death levels appear noticeably lower this year – 581 recorded civilian deaths over January to March 2019 compared to 799 deaths over the same period in 2018.  UNAMA judge this to be due primarily to a decrease in civilian casualties from suicide IED attacks.  The harsh winter conditions may also have played a part.  Ground engagements were noted as the leading cause of civilian casualties, and air operations were the leading cause of civilian deaths.

UNAMA also notes with concern that pro-government forces (including Afghan National Security Forces, international forces and pro-government armed groups) have in this quarter caused more civilian deaths than the Taliban and Islamic State – 305 killed versus 227 killed.

Comment

It remains to be seen whether this dip becomes a trend: the Taliban have announced and launched their Spring Offensive recently.  They – and Islamic State – appear unlikely to stop or even moderate their military operations.  The ANSF have become more empowered with heavy weapon systems, such as artillery and air power.  They appear to have less of the tactical and operations skills and training to employ them.  This, for the time being, makes it likely that the ANSF may contribute to a greater proportion of the civilian casualties recorded, even if they are not specifically targeting civilians.

Taliban announce 2019 Spring Offensive

April 13, 2019

Summary: Reprising the theme of “victory”, the Taliban announce the commencement of their Spring Offensive.  The obligation for jihad is restated, as is the need for avoiding civilian casualties.  There is no mention of peace talks or concessions of any sort.  A key objective is to gain the defection of Afghan military personnel.

Background

On 12 April the Taliban announced the commencement of their Spring offensive for 2019.  The operation is called “Al-Fath”, meaning victory or success.  In a 771 word document posted on the Taliban website praises their eighteen-year struggle which they present in the tradition of the fight against the British Empire and the Soviet Union.  The statement emphasises that the “jihadi obligation” has not finished: large areas of the country “have been freed from the enemy” but foreign forces still exert much military and political control.  The Afghan government’s own “Spring Offensive” – “Khalid military operations”, which was announced a couple of weeks prior to the Taliban’s announcement is referenced.

The statement makes some specific points:

  • The coordinated offensive is intended to eradicate occupation, “cleanse” the homeland and establish an “Islamic system”
  • Taliban fighters “Mujahideen” must be obedient, follow the jihadi rulebook and the orders of superiors
  • The Mujahideen have experience, new tactics, public support, “influence inside enemy ranks” and “advanced weapons”
  • Protecting the lives of fellow country and “welfare projects” is important
  • A key goal is “peeling away of countrymen serving in the military ranks of army, police and militias”

Analysis and Outlook

There are some interesting points here.

The title of this year’s operation is a repeat from 2010: according to my translations, in 2009 the operations were titled “Nasrat” (Victory) and in 2010 it was “Al-Faath” (Success).  But it was clearly not going to be a successful long-term media/propaganda gambit to call every year’s operation some version of “Mission Accomplished”.  Subsequent annual operations were named after battles from early Islamic history or, more recently, after Taliban leaders.  It is certainly possible that the Taliban now genuinely believe that some form of victory is achievable this year.  Might this year see attempts at larger, bolder operations to “clinch the deal”, with the inherent risks of over-reach?  It begs the question of where to go for the title of the 2020 operations.

There are no references to peace talks and no hint of a concession or gesture.  But peace talks between governments and insurgents are common periods to see an upsurge in fighting as each side strives to gain additional bargaining chips.  The need to avoid civilian casualties is an annual theme – the Taliban are clearly stung by, for example, UN attributions of civilian deaths to the Taliban.  The stressed need for obedience and “sincerity and pure intentions” might suggest fear of Taliban foot soldiers fraternising after last year’s brief ceasefire.

There are two expressions which caught my eye.  “Islamic system” in the context of what is to be established after the occupation has been removed.  This expression occurs five times in this statement.  It has occurred only once in only four or five previous statements of the eleven that I have analysed.  This might be an effort to tie in with their concept of negotiations with the US and the Afghan government.  Conversely, I may be over-analysing.  The second expression was “cleansed” or “cleansing”, as in “cleansing our Muslim homeland from invasion and corruption.”  It occurs three times here.  It occurred three times in the 2017 statement in the same sort of context.  It occurs only once in three other statements.  I don’t know if this means anything.

Finally, the statement explicitly notes the importance of encouraging defections from within the ranks of the Afghan army, police and militias, which the statement describes as “peeling away”.

We should expect a noticeable uptick in the tempo of violence as a result of the announcement: likely there will be a “spectacular” or two – suicide-bomb driven coordinated mass casualty events.  The Taliban may attempt to shy away from civilian casualties – perhaps focusing on military and political targets – and they have had some recent success in inflicting large casualties against the army and the police.

A Rand study “How insurgencies end” some years back suggested that a key indicator of “winning” or “losing” was an increase in the rate of defections from one side to the other.  We shall see how the Taliban fare in their efforts to tip the balance, but they, like the Afghan government and people are likely very aware that a new and probably volatile period is being reached.

My previous thoughts as follows:

Taliban announce 2018 Spring Offensive

Taliban announce 2017 Spring Offensive

Taliban announce 2016 Spring Offensive

Taliban announce 2015 Spring Offensive

 

Summary of Taliban Spring Offensive announcements, 2008 – 2019

Year Date Title of operation Word Count Comments/significant changes
2019 12 April “Al-Faath” (Success) 771 Repetition of 2010 operation title.  Emphasis on getting defections from government troops.  Afghan govt launched own Spring Offensive, “Khalid” in March.  No mention of peace talks
2018 25 April “Al Khandaq” (“Trench”, after Mohammed’s defence of Medina from an Arab coalition army in the 7th c.) 1275 Primary target are US (increasing troops and Trump strategy referenced), “internal supporters” secondary. Anti-Islamic behaviour – alcohol, obscenity, “licentious movies”. Avoid civilian casualties. Pure military talk, nothing on peace talks
2017 28 April “Mansouri” (after deceased leader, died 2016) 610 No significant change – presents the idea of the Taliban controlling much of the country- Political and military spheres of Taliban activity referenced. Need to avoid civilian casualties
2016 12 April “Omari” (after deceased leader, Mullah Omar) 772 No significant change in style or content from 2015 but less detail.  Repeats date anniversary link to battle of Yarmouk
2015 24 April “Azm” (Resolve) 1060 No significant changes, linked to anniversary of battle of Yarmouk
2014 12 May “Khaibar” (Battle of Khaibar, year 629) 933 Jihad “extra efforts” even if only small numbers of US troops remain
2013 27 April “Khalid bin Waleed” (military commander of Mohammad) 814 Very similar to 2012 statement
2012 2 May “Al-Farooq” (He who knows truth from falsehood) 806 Establishes “Recruitment Commission” to encourage government defections
2011 30 April “Badar” (Battle of Badar) 737 Reference to High Peace Council as a legitimate target
2010 8 May “Al-Faath” (Success) 996 Detailed announcement: reference to minimising civilian casualties
2009 29 April “Nasrat” (Victory) 307 Issued by Islamic Emirate
2008 25 March “Ibrat” (Lesson) 321 Issued by Mullah Berader

SIGAR report: Afghanistan High Risks List 2019 – a powerful warning for the near future

March 29, 2019

Summary: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction gives powerful and credible warnings about Afghanistan’s future – corruption, economic, women’s rights and the risks of integrating thousands of Taliban insurgents if a peace settlement is reached.

John Sopko and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction have been speaking truth to power about the failings of the US and international community’s use of resources – financial, military, political, economic – in Afghanistan for a long time.  They routinely produce hard hitting critique – based on extensive fieldwork and rigorous collection and analysis of data – that undermine US and Afghan government assertions that all is going well.  Frankly, in the era of Trump, I am slightly surprised that they are still being allowed to do this.

The SIGAR report was briefed at CSIS. L to R: Sopko, Cordesman and Jones

The new SIGAR report is no exception.  It contains powerful and credible warnings about the near future.

I shall just executively summarise their executive summary thus:

WIDESPREAD INSECURITY

  • With or without a peace settlement, Afghanistan will likely continue to grapple with multiple violent-extremist organizations, who threaten Afghanistan and the international community.
  • The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are constrained by capability challenges and depend on donor support of $4billion to $5billion per year to fund their sustainment, equipment, infrastructure, and training costs.
  • According to the NATO Resolute Support (RS) mission, control of Afghanistan’s districts, population, and territory has become more contested over the last two years, resulting in a stalemated battlefield environment

THREATS TO WOMEN’S RIGHTS

  • The United States has spent more than $1billion since 2002 to advance the status of women in Afghanistan.
  • Despite this investment, gains by women in Afghanistan remain fragile even with a constitution that nominally protects women’s rights.
  • During their 1996–2001 regime, the Taliban oppressed women brutally, leading to concerns that women’s rights will not be protected in the event of a peace settlement
    with the group.

NARCOTICS

  • The illicit drug trade funds the Taliban insurgency as well as corrupt members of the Afghan government, military, and police, and also employs nearly 600,000 Afghans.
  • A truce or peace settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government may not necessarily lead to a decline in the illicit narcotics trade.

THE CHALLENGE OF REINTEGRATION

  • The social, economic, and political reintegration of tens of thousands of former fighters into Afghan society will be critical for the country to achieve lasting peace and stability.
  • Failure to successfully reintegrate an estimated 60,000 Taliban fighters and their families, and other illegal armed groups, could undermine the successful implementation of any peace agreement.
  • Ex-combatants will face the challenges of a weak economy with few livelihood options, political uncertainty, ongoing insecurity, and distrust among a populace traumatized by war.

 

“Too soon to say”. DIIS conference: Prospects of a settlement – the Taliban perspective

February 15, 2019

Summary. At a DIIS conference on prospects for a settlement with the Taliban there were many questions but few answers.  Have the Taliban changed?  Does a US/Taliban agreement to withdraw US troops bring stability or instability?

With apologies for a delay in posting this up, I attended a Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) seminar launching a DIIS paper “Prospects of a settlement with the Afghan Taliban” based on a new DIIS report including recent DIIS interviews with Taliban leaders and foot soldiers.  Here are my notes and a few concluding thoughts of my own.

Introduction – Mona Kanwal Sheikh, Senior Researcher DIIS

  • What might be the timeline for a US withdrawal – should we assume the US is no longer that interested in Afghanistan?
  • Many questions – how many troops would stay, will the Taliban talk to an Afg govt they see as illegitimate?
  • There is also resistance within the govt to talking with the Taliban
  • What do we know about the Taliban’s views on power-sharing, democracy and women’s rights?
  • What will be the role of the IC – how to support a peace process, what conflict resolution mechanisms to use?

Felix Kuehn – Researcher and Taliban expert, Has the Taliban movement changed?

  • Has the Taliban movement changed? Is it still an insurgency – it is two decades older
  • With regard to the Taliban negotiations with Khalilzad, the offers to oppose Al Qaeda and Islamic State presence in Afghanistan is not really a big change. But this is the first time the US has reached out and sat down with the Taliban – previously it was just a list of US demands.  The international community has changed but not really the Taliban.

Background to origins of Taliban

  • Difficult to understand the Taliban – powerpoint wire diagrams do not work. Taliban hierarchies are mixed, with powerful sub-structures.  This complex organisation does not work “top down”.  The Taliban have never been one single group.  The Mullah Omar and origins of the Taliban is “myth” – it is more complex than that – the Taliban emerged from pre-existing networks which had been there for years.  The Kandahar 1994 emergence of the Taliban was the coming together of several groups simultaneously to take Kandahar.  Even in 1994 there were many different opinions in the Taliban.

Prospects

  • We should be careful of assuming that the Taliban have changed but there may be a window of opportunity – the June 2018 ceasefire doesn’t show Taliban internal coherence, it shows that there is war-weariness within the rank and file.
  • There is a growing threat from Islamic State – many IS are former Taliban fighters who have become dissatisfied with the Taliban leadership.
  • Taliban and Mullah Zaeef – everyone is talking to everyone, but the issue is whether to publicise this fact.
  • Insurance policy of Afghans – have one brother in the Taliban, one in the local police – this is a common occurrence. They can end up fighting each other.

Amina Khan – Qaid-i-Azam university, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, Prospects of a settlement in Afghanistan

  • Taliban recognise that they can no longer operate in the way they have done before. Now seeing Taliban “foreign policy” reachout – talks with Moscow and Tehran.  Possibly positive noises about the Hazaras?  The Taliban have evolved under Mullah Mansour’s leadership – recognising the need to reach out to other ethnic groups.  But fringe Taliban elements prefer war.
  • But there are immense divisions within the Afghan population – many government factions do not recognise the Taliban.
  • The Rand report is worth reading
  • There are a number of spoilers in and outside of Afghanistan
  • If the US withdraws, they will come back eventually in a different format – mil bases, CT, development, economic, embassy (and security for the embassy)…
  • Elephants in the room – US is not interested – withdrawing US mil forces an easy win for Trump and the Taliban. Need to think about the Afghan population – women’s rights, warlords, factions.  Mechanics of ending the Taliban war – DDR/DIAG?  Money/employment for disbanded fighters.  Taliban do not appear interested in learning the methods of running a modern government – lack of Taliban contemplation of governance

Cecilia Wiklund – Folke Bernadotte Academy, international support to the peace process

  • The peace process is not simply about US/Taliban talks or Taliban/Afghan govt talks
  • Many questions – what would future government look like?
  • How will Afghanistan modernise (e.g. with women’s issues)?
  • How does the Taliban transform into a political movement?
  • Broader issues – when will the population notice a change in their daily lives? What are the broader and long-term consequences?
  • Most Afghans do not have an understanding of what peace looks like

Q and A

Next elections – impact on Afghan security is too soon to tell.  But Felix was engaging with Jamiat leaders during the last election and there was nearly a government collapse -Jamiat were preparing for fighting in Kabul.

Significant risks from a hasty US withdrawal

How genuine are the Taliban’s intentions?

Future Afghan government models – federalism and decentralisation are two different things

Concluding thoughts

As befitting a situation such as the Taliban’s talks with the US – where little detail is known but there is much rumour, speculation and anticipation – we got a lot of questions but little conclusion.

Discussion seemed to throw up the idea that the Taliban had not changed that much but they had changed enough to recognise that they needed to change a bit.  The list of elephants in the room was long but perhaps best summarised by one question – if an impatient Trump and a victory-flushed Taliban rush to embrace a US withdrawal deal (presumably with “mission accomplished” flags on both sides), where does that leave the rest of the country and the region?  The risk of a civil war in a volatile power vacuum looks plausible.  Other concerns are the mechanics of disarming the Taliban – the Hezb-e Islami example seems to suggest fighters and commanders demand high positions, status and income in exchange for handing in their weapons.  This risks blossoming an already extremely expensive Afghan army – that the US are almost entirely paying for – and probably undermining a whole range of military, staff and training reforms.  This at a time when the government (and US) will presumably be looking to massively downsize the army.  This risks thousands of well trained, heavily armed and unemployed fighters spilling out into society.  Many factions and political groups (think former Northern Alliance) are opposed to the Taliban being allowed back into the social and political fold, after the violence they have inflicted on Afghan society.

Finally, is there any evidence that the Taliban think about governance – how it might work, what their responsibilities might need to be?  I can’t see much.  Even now, a cursory glance at their English-language Twitter feed show breathless lists of stuff they have blown up and people they have killed.  Little in the way of short, medium or long-term political discussion, disputes they have resolved or local development initiatives they have put in place.  Felix Kuehn knows much more than most.  He says the Taliban haven’t changed that much.

Prospects for peace

January 29, 2019

Summary: A US-Taliban peace agreement and a US departure, in the absence of a wider Afghan discussion, may actually increase the risk of civil war.

 

The US government has been engaged with elements of the Taliban leadership for many years in “talks about talks”, with seemingly little to show for it.  The current US administration appears frustrated and erratic with regard to its policy on Afghanistan.  The approval to send 4,000 more troops was made in 2017.[1]  At the end of 2018, President Trump spontaneously threatened to pull out as many as half of the total number (from approximately 14,000 down to 7,000).  This could be undermining what looks to be a delicately balanced peace process.[2]  The Taliban refuse to engage directly with the Afghan government, choosing only to talk to the United States and demanding the complete withdrawal of US forces before they will talk about anything else.[3]  The United States and the Taliban appear to be drawing closer to a deal in which the US pulls out its forces in return to Taliban commitments to oppose an Al Qaeda return to Afghanistan and fight the Islamic State presence in the country.[4]  This is currently a highly public but small segment of the overall peace process that will need to engage with many factions of society.  It is unclear how the Taliban envisage their future role in society and government – and how they are likely to be seen by the population.  A wider dialogue and reconciliation between the Taliban on one hand and the Afghan government and the Afghan people on the other will pose a much greater challenge.

“…two key sticking points were not resolved during the talks, which did not include representatives of Afghanistan’s legally elected government.  These include direct talks with the Afghan government and the Taliban agreeing to a ceasefire.  Khalilzad has been leading a months-long diplomatic push to convince the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government, but the militants have steadfastly refused, dismissing authorities in Kabul as ‘puppets’.  On Monday, Ghani assured Afghans that no deals would be made without Kabul’s awareness and participation in negotiations.

‘I call on the Taliban to…show their Afghan will, and accept Afghans’ demand for peace, and enter serious talks with the Afghan government,’ said Ghani.

The Afghan government has periodically complained about being excluded from the peace talks. The latest push for peace talks come as US President Donald Trump has made no secret of his eagerness to end America’s longest war.  Afghan officials however fear a hasty US pullout could risk a re-run of the brutal civil war that gripped the country following the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops.”[5]

A US-Taliban peace agreement and a US departure, in the absence of a wider Afghan discussion, may actually increase the risk of civil war.

 

[1] ‘US to send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan’, Deutsche Welle, 16 June 2017, https://www.dw.com/en/us-to-send-4000-more-troops-to-afghanistan/a-39271721

[2] Jackson, A., ‘Trump Leaves Behind Mess for Afghans to Clean Up’, Foreign Policy, 21 Dec. 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/12/21/afghanistan-trump-united-states-taliban-conflict/

[3] ‘Afghan Taliban, US to hold peace talks on Wednesday’, The Week, 8 Jan. 2019, https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2019/01/08/afghan-taliban-us-to-sit-down-to-peace-talks-on-wednesday.html

[4] Nordland, R., and Mashal M., ‘U.S. and Taliban Make Headway in Talks for Withdrawal From Afghanistan’, The New York Times, 24 January 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/24/world/asia/usa-taliban-afghanistan-deal.html

[5] ‘Ghani reassures Afghans as US envoy reports progress on Taliban talks’, France 24, 28 Jan. 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190128-afghanistan-taliban-talks-ghani-assurances-usa

Incoherence and uncertainty. Trump spontaneously plans to withdraw thousands of US troops.

December 21, 2018

Summary: Donald Trump may have announced a large downsizing of US troops in Afghanistan.  The fact that we do not know what he may intend causes great uncertainty, which is damaging in itself.  A spontaneous withdrawal would be the worst kind of strategic decision, potentially impacting peace talks with the Taliban (who will be emboldened) and relationships of trust with Afghanistan and US allies.  “Mission Accomplished” declarations often end badly.  A deterioration of the conflict in 2019 is a real possibility.     

Over 20 and 21 December US government officials began announcing that President Donald Trump had authorised planning for a rapid and large-scale withdrawal of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan.  This caused concern and speculation in Afghanistan, the US and worldwide over the precipitate nature of the announcement.    The US has around 14,000 troops inside Afghanistan, conducting a range of missions in support of the Afghan government and its armed forces: training, advice, air support, intelligence gathering.  They are rarely involved in ground combat operations themselves unless something has gone wrong or they are after a specific high value target.

Time to go?

Reports suggest a downsizing of 5,000 to 7,000 troops – more or less half the force – might be planned.  The timing is unclear but weeks or months have been floated.  More or less simultaneously, US Defence Secretary General Jim Mattis has resigned in what appears to have been a major disagreement with President Trump’s foreign policy decision over US troop withdrawals from Syria – and likely compounded by this new Afghanistan confusion.  Trump’s political supporters appear disconcerted.  Republican politician Lindsey Graham responded: “we are setting in motion the loss of all our gains and paving the way toward a second 9/11”

Analysis and Outlook

The over-arching impression is utter uncertainty about what is happening and what might actually happen in the end.  Is this an official policy announcement or not?  Were allies and the Afghan government consulted?  Was the Pentagon consulted?  Trump’s predilection for spontaneous outbursts and statements, usually via social media, is characterised by reversals of mind, changes of direction or simply nothing happening at all.  His foreign policy decisions often appear merely as supporting props to his multiple domestic political and personal crises.

Perhaps scrambling generals, experts, officials and his own political party can pull Trump back from the ledge.  But the uncertainty and speculation triggered by this flurry of leaks, unofficial comments, resignations and announcements is damage enough.  Coming while peace talks with the Taliban were taking place, the Taliban will certainly have taken note and be emboldened by such an incoherent demonstration of anger, weakness and frustration from their superpower adversary.

Trump’s frustration at the lack of progress in the 17-year bloody and expensive engagement in Afghanistan is understandable – as it was for Presidents Obama and Bush.  But clear, simple and quick solutions to a complex guerrilla insurgency halfway around the world are demonstrably few and far between.  Impatiently spinning the tiller and lurching to one side is rarely an advisable move, particularly when it seems unlikely that Trump has troubled to learn much about the region and the issues, or coherently consult with advisors and experts, of which he has an abundance.

Given that all we have to go on thus far is a possible announcement of possible action, it is difficult to judge the range of impacts.  How many troops are leaving?  When?  What type of troops will be leaving?  What type of capability will remain?  How much US diplomatic and financial support will remain?

The international military forces downsized from 140,000 to around 12,000 over 2011 to 2014. Under a different (read: any other) US Presidency, downsizing by 6,000 troops could well be achievable if managed in a coordinated and planned manner, minimising uncertainty and ensuring the buy-in of the Afghan government, neighbouring countries (read: Pakistan) and the international military allies deployed.  The United Kingdom has 650 troops in-country and this number is to double to 1,100 in 2019.

But if the US pulls out half of its troops in a timeframe of weeks, these are the possible impacts to be considered:

  • Trust. No consultation – breakdown of trust between US and Afghanistan, US and allies
  • Strategic incoherence. Incoherence in US military and diplomatic strategic planning heightened by the loss of the Secretary of Defense.  How to cobble together a new diplomatic, economic and military plan for Afghanistan?
  • Western disengagement? The US is the lead coalition partner for the international community in Afghanistan.  Other countries may follow their example, reducing troops, advice, financial and other forms of support.
  • Uncertainty in the country and the neighbouring region – impact on business, investment, people migration and asylum seekers?
  • ANA losses. A struggling Afghan army will struggle further – 28,000 dead since 2015.  What and where might the breaking point be?
  • Peace talks and an emboldened Taliban – what incentive do the Taliban have to talk to anyone when they may now believe, rightly or wrongly, that they can wait out the US?
  • Playing to an audience of one – an increase in violence in the short-term? If the Taliban sense that the US is on the “tipping point” of a collapse in resolve, they may judge that a few well-placed hammer blows might push the US over the edge – a handful of co-ordinated suicide bombers, the death of a couple of US soldiers, the overrunning of an Afghan provincial capital, a complex attack in Kabul, a helicopter shoot down.  In short, any US reverse that will make it onto Fox News…
  • Wobbly government, conspiring warlords – part of the uncertainty. Warlords, religious and political figures may see this as a sign of international disengagement and begin again to make their own political and military arrangements, looking for other less-reputable backers and support.  Dostum has frequently stated that he should have his own army and take the fight to the Taliban.  We might see added instability for a central government not known for its resilience.
  • Meddling neighbours into the strategic power vacuum? – The usual suspects: Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, central Asia, China.

As Trump regularly says when he doesn’t really know what’s going on: “we’ll see what happens”…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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