Summary: US to extend the 10,000-soldier post-ISAF deployment to the end of 2015.
The US government has announced a long-anticipated decision to extend the deployment timeframe of the 9,800 US troops still in Afghanistan (USA Today, Washington Post, Tolo). Instead of downsizing by half this year, they will stay in entirety to the end of 2015. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani lobbied the US to achieve this (“deadlines should not be dogmas”). The fate of the residual presence (we can I think call it that – at the peak of ISAF there were something like 110,000 troops, predominantly American, inside Afghanistan) into 2016 is unclear but President Obama seems clear that he will withdraw American forces by the end of 2016 and his presidency.
I am not clear what the impact this slight deadline extension of only a few thousand troops will be. It is another gesture of support to the Afghan regime – a mending of the fences that were broken during the last period of President Hamid Karzai’s tenure. It seems sensible to have a shallow “glidepath” to the process, given so much uncertainty over the security situation inside Afghanistan. There is a high likelihood of a (soon-to-be-announced) Taliban “Spring Offensive” and concerns over the number of Afghan National Security Force casualties.
On 17 March, the analyst Max Boot tweeted
But this was also where the international community was in 2009, when Obama announced that the 2010 surge would be followed by the 2011 withdrawal. Admittedly talks came to nothing, but we did at least see several attempts to talk with the Taliban, including establishing a Taliban office in Qatar.
But does a small US military presence make things better or worse? I guess there are at least two schools of thought about the US presence now. The US boots on the ground act as inflammable materiel to the Taliban’s cause – the Jihad continues as long as one American remains. That is certainly their official line. Alternately, a small continuing US presence does not pose so much risk or cost to the US government and is more or less sustainable indefinitely, depending on the wishes of the Afghan president of the day. In the meantime, the Taliban will simply be killing Muslims. This also presents the Taliban with a harsh reality of a further 10+ years of Jihad in front of them. Might this actually guide the Taliban towards a realisation that a stalemate is inevitable and talks are the only way ahead?
A key consideration should be the issue of “humiliation”. In order for talks to become more plausible, no party should be pushed into a position where they are demonstrated to have “lost”. In this respect, it could be very constructive to have a point in time where US boots are no longer present on Afghan soil in order for the Taliban to be satisfied that they have achieved what they set out to do. Never mind the rights and wrongs of this, as long as it presents a breathing space for Afghans to talk to each other.
Perhaps, by the time we get to mid-2016, we could see a clear signal from the US and Afghan presidents jointly to the effect that: the US forces are now leaving but the Afghan government reserves the right to call again for military assistance in the future if the security situation requires it. In the meantime, international development expertise – economics, finance, reconstruction, etc – is welcome. The Taliban are welcome to take part in this.
A breathing space for all?
Summary: US DoD release statistics for their air strikes against ISIS. Caution needed.
There are lies, damned lies and air campaign battle damage assessments…
Can a war by won by airpower alone? Many people have suggested “yes”, many of them airmen, I think. This has been a big debate since offensive airpower was introduced to the world in the course of the First World War. The US Department of Defense has released US Central Command (CENTCOM) statistics purporting to provide an update on the amount of damage done by US air attacks against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. The list is impressive:
During a daily briefing, Warren said that through yesterday, the international coalition had struck 5,314 targets since operations began Aug. 8. The coalition has conducted 2,893 airstrikes – 1,631 in Iraq and 1,262 in Syria. Total U.S. airstrikes numbered 2,320 – 1,151 in Iraq and 1,169 in Syria.
Several of the line items here are open to definitional query. And ironic, I guess, that they have to have a specific line item for the ISIS-owned but US designed and built High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle – the “Humvee”, much beloved of the US Army, the armed forces of at least 70 other countries and, er, rap stars.
My main point is to urge caution over such statistics. Final confirmation of the level of destruction is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, without “boots on the ground” available to climb over the destroyed equipment. Furthermore, it does not necessarily offer any guarantee that an enemy is necessarily being “defeated”. The NATO Kosovo bombing campaign in 1999 offers a salient lesson here, where targets reported by NATO as Serb Army military hardware destroyed turned out to be nothing of the kind:
The bombing, they discovered, was highly accurate against fixed targets, like bunkers and bridges. “But we were spoofed a lot,” said one team member. The Serbs protected one bridge from the high-flying NATO bombers by constructing, 300 yards upstream, a fake bridge made of polyethylene sheeting stretched over the river. NATO “destroyed” the phony bridge many times. Artillery pieces were faked out of long black logs stuck on old truck wheels. A two-thirds scale SA-9 antiaircraft missile launcher was fabricated from the metal-lined paper used to make European milk cartons. “It would have looked perfect from three miles up,” said a MEAT analyst.
The team found dozens of burnt-out cars, buses and trucks but very few tanks. When General Clark heard this unwelcome news, he ordered the team out of their helicopters: “Goddammit, drive to each one of those places. Walk the terrain.” The team grubbed about in bomb craters, where more than once they were showered with garbage the local villagers were throwing into these impromptu rubbish pits. At the beginning of August, MEAT returned to Air Force headquarters at Ramstein air base in Germany with 2,600 photographs. They briefed Gen. Walter Begert, the Air Force deputy commander in Europe. “What do you mean we didn’t hit tanks?” Begert demanded. Clark had the same reaction. “This can’t be,” he said. “I don’t believe it.” Clark insisted that the Serbs had hidden their damaged equipment and that the team hadn’t looked hard enough. Not so, he was told. A 50-ton tank can’t be dragged away without leaving raw gouges in the earth, which the team had not seen.
This process was known by NATO as Camouflage, Concealment and Deception (CCD). The Russians might recognise it as maskirovka. Major problems with generic “US/NATO/Western” bombing campaigns in the post-WWII past might include:
- Avoidance of risk to pilots. Aircraft will fly at high altitude wherever possible, reducing the risk of being shot down and limiting the chance that a target can be a) accurately identified b) struck.
- Over-reliance on “statistics” as a measure of effectiveness – the more numbers that can be thrown out, the more an artificial impression of “victory” will be achieved.
- Enemy forces evolve their tactics – camouflage, concealment and deception. A pram, two logs and a drain pipe can make for a convincing anti-tank gun to a pilot who is one, two or three miles high…
- Battle Damage Assessment – working out what you actually hit in the aftermath – is difficult without experts physically on the ground to check what has been hit.
- “Dig for Victory” – for every one potential target (ISIS tank, gun, checkpoint…) ISIS can minimise the risk by digging 10 fake positions in and around the area, making the decision-making process of a very fast moving US pilot even harder.
- The bombing campaign’s effectiveness is greatly at risk to media and popular opinion – it just needs one bomb to land on a school or one pilot to be captured and brutally executed. In the first instance, pilots will be required to be much more cautious before releasing weapons. In the second, pilots may fly higher to avoid being shot down, or missions will be limited by the number of rescue teams available to extract downed pilots.
- Human nature. Aside from the high level political drivers, other groups are under strong pressures to declare “success”. Air attacks mean medals and promotion for pilots and commanders. Combat also proves the value of very expensive bits of military hardware, including rockets, missiles, bombs. Billions of dollars are at stake for defence contractors if they can show how good their weapons are in real combat.
Analysis of ISIS’ goals by Graeme Wood earlier this month points to ISIS being very inflexible in their strategic approach – they know what is supposed to happen, who is good, who is bad and how the final conflict is supposed to come about. This rigidity makes them highly predictable and is potentially a significant weakness to be exploited by opponents of ISIS. At the tactical/battlefield level, this will not be the case – I am sure they are already learning from their mistakes and evolving.
I am not arguing against airpower per se – it paralyses, channels, demoralises, pins down and, yes, destroys enemy forces. ISIS’s fighting capability is currently a loose but broadly “conventional” army, occupying terrain and deploying troops and tanks. It is probably easier to strike this sort of force than an enemy operating as small insurgent bands like the Taliban. Inexperienced fighters and those untrained or without the resources to resist air attack will likely find US bombing runs highly stressful. Other information, such as radio intercepts, and reports from the ground (eg social media) will provide vital clues as the status, problems and morale of ISIS forces.
I would certainly not presume to tell you that the US DoD statistics are wrong – or what the level of “wrongness” might be – but I would urge caution and consideration of some of the factors here that might be at play.
The Economist notes that cracks are appearing in ISIS. Beyond noting the damage done to oil revenue from air attacks against oil refinery targets, the air campaign does not get a mention. I wonder how many “Fighting Positions” were simply empty holes on the ground. We will never know. But bombing campaigns may not be as effective as they first look. The NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 offers a stark reminder.
Summary: Mr Putin’s love of a good chess competition…?
I am a bit late into this “where is the President” story, but I just found this on Twitter. Apparently Mr Putin has opened the Women’s World Chess Championship in Sochi today. If the President’s spokesmen and media machine think this is going to dispell the excitement, I think they will be mistaken. This photograph looks, er, slightly unconvincing, and devoid of any date, time, locational clues, chess logos etc. Breath-taking in its blandness!
Summary: More talks about talks and denials of talks about talks…
The Taliban seem to be in full denial mode:
The media has been publishing false reports periodically over the past week asserting the heating up of negotiations and even fabrications about visits by the delegations of Islamic Emirate.
We reject all such claims. There is no such process taking place and neither can such matters shape up behind closed doors or be kept hidden.
If there was anything taking place in this regard, the Islamic Emirate would have informed the media and its countrymen through its official channels.
But there have been and are still continued hints that they might yet be looking at the possibility of talks in relation to Afghanistan:
ISLAMABAD: Mystery shrouds the much-anticipated talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban as the insurgents have once again dismissed all media reports of dialogue as part of ‘war propaganda’ against the group.
The Taliban have never officially indicated their willingness to join the intra-Afghan dialogue ever since the issue cropped up in the news in Afghanistan over the past few weeks.
Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah was the first one to officially confirm last month that talks would begin soon. However, Taliban insurgents are adamant in denying all such claims, casting further doubts on the peace process.
The Taliban have been quick in issuing a denial whenever the Afghan and foreign media talk about the process. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued yet another denial late Thursday amid indications that some of the Qatar-based Taliban negotiators had visited Pakistan for consultations. Mujahid insisted none of their leaders from the political office have been to any country.
Also this, which developes the plausible idea that China might be involved in some aspect of the deal brokering:
(Reuters) – China has held rounds of talks with the Taliban and asked the Islamist militants to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, the head of Afghanistan’s power sharing government said on Friday.
The Chinese have held “one, two or three” rounds of talks with the Taliban in the past few months, Abdullah Abdullah said at a conference organised by an Indian media group.
“They asked the Taliban to have talks directly with the Afghan government, that’s a good message,” Abdullah said, adding that he did not know what the outcome would be of China’s efforts. China’s foreign minister last month said during a visit to Islamabad that Beijing was willing to help mediate talks to end the Afghan war, but Chinese officials have not provided many details.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said this week that reports its diplomats in Islamabad met last month with Taliban representatives “do not accord with reality”.
Abdullah, speaking at the India Today Conclave 2015 in New Delhi, did not say where the meetings took place.
He said Afghanistan had begun to improve relations with China under the previous president, Hamid Karzai, with the idea that Beijing could use its influence over Pakistan to help broker peace talks.
China has close ties with Afghanistan’s neighbour Pakistan, which is widely believed to harbour the Taliban’s top leaders and exert considerable control over the group.
In February, a Pakistani army delegation brought word to Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani that Taliban leaders had signalled they were willing to open talks, according to senior Pakistani and Afghan officials.
Since then, senior representatives of the militant group have visited Islamabad where they were told to end a rift between two leaders that could undermine a peace process, two Taliban sources said.
Abdullah’s backing of the nascent process to negotiate an end to the 13-year insurgency is crucial because many of his supporters represent the vehement anti-Taliban wing that fought against the hardline Islamists when they held power until 2001.
As ever it remains difficult to penetrate the smokescreens of this particularly sensitive issue and much of this recent flurry of rumour seems tp come from one source – Abdullah himself. The Taliban blame “secret agencies with sinister goals” for spreading baseless rumours. They will not want to give out any signs of weakness or compromise, particularly as it seems likely that their own ranks are divided as to what should be done – talk or fight. But, with the international forces gone, a new Afghan government, the apparent inability of the Taliban to take and hold viable slices of land and potentially even ISIS tapping them on the shoulder, 2015 might be a good time to at least develop contacts with the Afghan regime in a more coherent and constructive fashion.
Summary: A former President marking the current incumbent’s work.
The Guardian, 9 March 2015: Afghanistan’s historic struggles against British imperialism and Soviet invasion will have been in vain if the country succumbs to pressure from neighbouring Pakistan, Hamid Karzai, has warned in an interview with the Guardian. The former president of Afghanistan made his remarks at a time when his successor, Ashraf Ghani, has overturned the country’s traditionally hostile relationship with Pakistan in the hope of enlisting its help in brokering a peace deal with the Taliban.
Several once-unthinkable concessions made to Pakistan in recent months have horrified Karzai and many of the men who helped him rule for more than a decade.
“We want a friendly relationship but not to be under Pakistan’s thumb,” he said.
It is a view many think Ghani cannot afford to ignore, given how many people agree with Karzai, a familiar and charismatic figure who remains in the thick of Afghan politics.
The Taliban have long had a “safe haven” inside the southern Baluchistan (Quetta) and north western regions of Pakistan and many analysts, Western politicians and former ISAF commanders have argued convincingly that Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence) have had, and continue to retain, strong links and influence within the Taliban’s Pakistan-based leadership.
In truth, Hamid Karzai’s relationship with Pakistan was mixed. He and his family were based there during the Soviet occupation and the Taliban period. He also reached out to Pakistan when he was President, recognising the need to engage. He once said that he and Pakistan would fight against the US in the event of war:
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has said he would side with Pakistan in the event of war with the US in a surprising political twist that is likely to disconcert his western allies.
“If there is war between Pakistan and America, we will stand by Pakistan,” Karzai said in a television interview. He put his hand on his heart and described Pakistan as a “brother” country.
The statement was widely interpreted as a rhetorical flourish rather than a significant offer of defence co-operation. Despite recent tension between Pakistan and the US, open warfare is a remote possibility.
Ashraf Ghani is trying to get dialogue going with the Taliban, much as Karzai did, and should be applauded for that. It will need close engagement with Pakistan, simple as that. Pakistan can act as a “spoiler” very easily, if it perceives that its views are not being taken into consideration. Treading the very thin line between standing up to Pakistan and taking Pakistani strategic concerns into account will likely always be a thankless task, open to very vocal criticism. It will need careful handling by any Afghan president when reporting back to the government and the people in Afghanistan.
From his mini-palace in the centre of Kabul, Mr Karzai expresses support for Ghani’s presidency generally and I think this is genuine and actually quite encouraging that a) a peaceful Presidential transition has taken place and b) the former President has regular private and informal access to the current post-holder. I think that Ghani has a pretty clear-eyed and rational approach to most of his challenges, perhaps more so than his predecessor. Karzai had some pretty emotional ups and downs during his difficult tenure, not least involving his relationship with Pakistan. He is probably still vexed by his experience and is using his priviledged position to unload. Mr Ghani is probably benefiting from some of the lessons identified during Karzai’s tenure.
Summary: Russian embassy angrily points the finger of blame for Ukraine towards Sweden (amongst others)
Kind of. I couldn’t resist this one. The political ripples of the Russia/Ukraine crisis spread even to Sweden as the Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, described the Russian annexation of the Crimea as the greatest threat to European peace since 1989. A war of words (only, fortunately) between the Russian embassy in Stockholm and various feisty Swedes, has broken out:
Writing on Facebook, the [Russian] embassy lambasted the “honoured minister” for the “one-sided” view of the Ukraine conflict she put forward in an opinion piece published on Friday in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.
In the article, Wallström said Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine posed the greatest threat to peace in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
In its response, the Russian embassy suggested Sweden and others had provoked Russia into seizing part of its neighbour’s territory by offering Ukraine a pathway to membership of the European Union.
“The main tool turned out to be a state coup, a violent power takeover, which pushed Ukraine into the abyss of civil war,” the embassy wrote.
Carl Bergqvist, a Swedish air force major who tweets under the name Wiseman, likened the Russian embassy’s rhetoric to blaming a rape victim for her choice of clothing.
Annika Nordgren Christensen, a member of the Swedish Academy of War Sciences, agreed:
“Russia’s attitude towards Ukraine’s right to self-determination cannot be illustrated more clearly, and this is straight from the horse’s mouth.”
“It’s the ‘will of the West’ that has caused the war, ‘not least Sweden’,” wrote Christensen, who linked to the embassy’s Facebook post.
The Russian embassy said in its post that the Ukraine crisis was caused by “the will of the West, not least Sweden as an instigator of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, to do everything to push Kiev into the European Union.”
Sweden has not avoided the fallout (bad pun) from the Ukraine conflict and the equally disturbing increase of Russian military muscle flexing in and around eastern Europe in recent months. I think the Swedish defence establishment is still smarting from their failure to find an alleged Russian submarine, recalling Cold War days of the 1980s, reported in October last year in the Swedish territorial waters off Stockholm.
Aggresssive Russian use of aircraft has also increased diplomatic tensions:
The Guardian, 13 December 2014: For the second time this year, a Russian military aircraft turned off its transponders to avoid commercial radar and nearly collided with a passenger jet over Sweden, officials have said.
Swedish authorities said that on Friday, a Russian military aircraft nearly collided above southern Sweden with a commercial passenger jet that had taken off from Copenhagen in Denmark.
Sweden’s air force chief, Major General Micael Bydén, said the aircraft’s transponders, which make the plane visible to commercial radar, were shut off. Swedish fighter jets were sent up to identify the aircraft, and Hultqvist later identified it as a Russian intelligence plane.
“This is serious. This is inappropriate. This is outright dangerous when you turn off the transponder,” Swedish defence minister Peter Hultqvist said on Swedish radio.
Officials at Russia’s ministry of defence in Moscow were not available to comment on Saturday.
In the 2013 incident, Swedish fighters were unable to respond to the simulated attack (luckily the Danes were), causing great debate within Sweden that the nation’s defence cuts had gone too far, critically undermining the country’s ability.
Summary: ISIS reported activity inside Afghanistan
I remember when the map of Taliban activity in Afghanistan looked as sparse as this like (circa March 2002). As yet there is not much to go on, making patterns weak and analysis tricky. The clusters in the south and east are perhaps unsurprising, suggesting they are based around extant groups of Taliban and other insurgent-held territory. These areas might form the most obvious potential support bases, particularly amongst disgruntled “soon-to-be former” Taliban fighters, wearying of the lack of tangible progress in the now 14 year-old war, but still ready for jihad against infidels. We should also start considering the extent to which the ISIS brand might be penetrating into neighbouring Pakistan.
The northern areas might be responsible for the triggering of reports of anti-ISIS militia – “Marg” – emerging in Afghanistan. But militia forces that are beyond government control should be at least as worrying as the Taliban themselves as the country attempts to move forward in 2015, given their potential to destabilise and disrupt development and governance efforts.
The most interesting aspect for me are the areas marked “Islamic State and Taliban clashes”. Although they are likely at present to be little more than inter-Taliban turf squabbles, it could still suggest in the longer term that the ISIS advances to expand into “Khurosan” might be unwelcome and resisted and also that a fragmentation of the Taliban in the medium term should be at least considered as plausible.