Summary: Ashraf Ghani spoke at RUSI on the growing global challenges of political violence. Reform of Afghanistan governance was difficult and corruption in Afghanistan was a “national shame”. He was clearly frustrated by the lack of help from Pakistan with the Taliban: “our extended hand was not shaken”.
Ashraf Ghani was in London as part of the UK government-sponsored anti-corruption conference. The day before, the UK media was full of Prime Minister David Cameron’s televised gaffe, where he was heard explaining to the Queen that he was hosting some “fantastically corrupt” countries, before highlighting Nigeria and Afghanistan. Both the Afghan and Nigerian leaders appeared to have dealt gracefully with this broadly accurate critique.
Ashraf Ghani was at RUSI to give his thoughts on the “Fifth Wave of Political Violence”. His biography shows him as a scholar of Political Science and Anthropology, working at the World Bank, advisor to former President Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan’s finance minister up until December 2004. He was introduced by Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Ghani’s friend and former UK Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 – 2009. He was interrupted three times (although one was technically a question in the Q and A at the end) by very vocal hecklers from the Hazara diaspora, criticising Mr Ghani for the recent government decision to route electricity power lines through the Salang Pass, north of Kabul rather than through the less-economically developed Hazara region of Bamyan province. One heckler was escorted out, one got to pose her question and one had to be removed with a bit of force; one British Army officer I spoke to afterwards, closer than I was, reported seeing at least two sharp blows to the face by the Afghan presidential security detail.
Mr Ghani dealt with each interruption well, patiently and with good grace, particularly given that the decision over the electricity cables had not actually been made by him but by his predecessor. It was clearly an issue he had already discussed at length with various Hazara interlocutors but he went through the issue again for the benefit of the audience but, most importantly, the hecklers.
Mr Ghani’s main talk was therefore a little overshadowed. The presentation was mainly about the challenges of global terrorism, embodied by Islamic State: the fifth wave of political violence. We have seen several other forms of political violence in the last 100 years:
- “Anarchist waves” in the early/mid 20th century
- Post-WWII waves of national liberation movements
- 1960s terrorism movements in Europe and US – Red Brigade
- 1980s and 1990s rise of suicide bombings in the Middle East
- Criminality linked to political violence
New forms of networking produced a new and distinctive form of mobilisation: “Face to Facebook”. The violence is now global: Kabul, Brussels, Paris, London…
Political violence is well-financed with an absence of “rules of the game” and state actors sponsoring non-state actors, thriving on weak and failing states.
Counter insurgency literature shows us that Daesh/ISIS understand us better than we understand them – there is much innovation in communications, use of the media and networking. The freedom of movement of global citizens is being attacked – bombs on aeroplanes, in cities and in public spaces. European open borders are under threat and airport security procedures are increasing. ISIS continue to refine their terror techniques by focusing on the “spectacle” and “theatre” of violence.
There need to be four levels of action to counter this: global, regional, national and Islamic but our action is currently reaction and our responses sporadic.
Who fights in Afghanistan? Chinese, Chechens, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Pakistanis – all the rejects of the Arab world have been sent to Afghanistan. Now there is no combat role for NATO but the Afghan national Army (ANA) has managed to deal with these attacks. Mr Ghani recommended the book “Sleepwalkers” about the terrorist incident in Sarajevo in 1914 that led to the outbreak of the First World War.
Islam needs to regain the narrative – 70% of Afghans live below the poverty line and corruption is an enabler for terrorism. Corruption in Afghanistan is a national shame – as is the mortality rate for women in childbirth. The tragedy is made worse as Afghanistan is potentially one of the richest in the region – the “resource curse”.
But Daesh and security issues are taking up all the oxygen. Al Qaeda is still a worry – what comes next from them?
Global fates are interlinked – we need cooperation and flexibility in a shifting world.
The Q and A session touched on Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan in which Mr Ghani’s frustration seemed clear. He mentioned an ANA corps commander’s offer to visit Pakistan with a Pakistan army counterpart to point out the Taliban leadership house location in Quetta, his efforts to engage with Pakistan (“there is no good or bad terrorism”) and calling for mature state to state relations and “not teenage rage”. Mr Ghani said that there was “an undeclared was against us” and added “our extended hand was not shaken”.
Ghani spoke more generally about his efforts in Afghanistan: chairing 53 meetings of the procurement council to ensure that contracts are increasingly compliant and corruption-free. He had inherited the Kabul Bank scandal – but $250 million had now been recovered. As part of the National Security Council he had managed now to retire over 90 generals on the grounds of age. He was reviewing all donor-based projects. He had cancelled some (this was unheard of) and released the money for other work. He discussed the need to challenge and reform the culture of government ministries. Each was run as a personal fiefdom of the Minister and the attitude was “we exist because we exist”.
My sense is that Ashraf Ghani is about as good as you are going to get in an Afghan President for this generation. He seems broadly corruption-free (I know that isn’t much to go on), has good business, economic and financial skills and has a modernising attitude that takes account societal and cultural norms. He seems willing to challenge nepotism and corruption – although that road will be long.
The talk itself was overshadowed by more immediate Afghan government decisions. Ashraf Ghani’s thoughts on political violence were interesting although perhaps nothing new. It was clear to Ashraf Ghani that the terrorism facing Afghanistan was not coming from Afghans but from neighbours and near neighbours. The insights into frustration with Pakistan and his efforts to reform government were interesting and note-worthy.
Summary: It seems very possible that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour, has been killed in Pakistan by a US drone strike. Does this lead to fragmentation of the Taliban and peace talks or an intensification of the summer fighting season under a new (and perhaps more popular) Taliban leadership?
Update, 23 May – US confirm that Mansour is dead
The media is awash with reports of the death of the current Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, reportedly by a US drone strike while he was travelling in a vehicle in Pakistan. The previous leader, Mullah Omar reportedly died in 2013 from natural causes after some twenty years at the helm. Mansour, effectively second in command, had apparently been running the show from 2013 until news of Omar’s death finally leaked out in 2015. In a controversial move, Mansour was made official leader, causing internal and violence between Taliban factions. It seemed as if Mansour was slowly tightening his grip on the leader, boosted by the brief Taliban
seizure, in September last year, of the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.
Words like “probably” are being used: it is, as usual in such situations, hard to sift through and gain an accurate sense at present of the likely outcome. Mullah Mansour was reported killed in an inter-Taliban shoot-out at the end of last year. Media reporting around Mansour’s supposed death last year was a lot less extensive and conclusive. This current flow of media reporting – including Afghan government and informed commentators – seems much more confident that, this time, Mansour is dead. But, of course, this is no reliable guide. US analysts will be scrutinising all available signals, human and imagery intelligence – the sight of the strike itself, but particularly any “chatter” amongst Taliban networks – before they “go firm” with an assessment, which will likely arrive in the next few days .
There is no word from the Taliban as yet, although, judging by precedent, we should expect a period of denial, denouncement and deflection: this is what they normally do following Taliban leadership deaths. But they cannot keep doing this and maintain credibility and morale. The official English-language Taliban website appears to be off-line (and has been since at least several days before this story broke).
If he is alive…
If Mansour is not dead, this will emerge in the days and weeks to come, probably from a recording of Mansour’s voice. The story will highlight the ongoing intelligence/drone strike nature of the search for Taliban commanders – both inside Afghanistan and in their, perhaps increasingly less “safe”, haven of Pakistan. The incident will demonstrate the pressures that senior Taliban members are always under and the challenges to their command and control. If a near miss, the Taliban leadership will start taking even more personal security measures. This may serve to slow Taliban command and control as they seek to evade similar strikes, hampering their conduct of operations and activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan and possibly disrupting some of their summer fighting season.
If he is dead…
If dead, Mansour would have been de facto Taliban leader for less than a year.
The Taliban face a range of unpalatable issues to address if Mansour is dead:
- Another difficult leadership contest at a time when the fall-out has not really settled from the last one. This is a high possibility of splintering factions and internal violence. Possible leadership contenders: Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob: Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network, senior Taliban leader, Mullah Zakir.
- Taliban fragmentation – arguments over leadership, arguments over whether to engage in talks.
- Could this lead to more support and opportunities for the Afghanistan Islamic State presence in Eastern Afghanistan?
- How, when and even whether to confirm the death? This will be a considerable blow to the morale of the foot-soldiers. This might be exacerbated if the rumours fly and Mansour’s death remains unconfirmed by the leadership. If the death is judged to be too damaging and destabilising at such a delicate stage, it might even be possible that the Taliban could seek to “delay” news of the death for months, even years, by continuing to issue statements in Mansour’s name until they had a plausible succession plan lined up. This is what they did when Mullah Omar died.
- Security measures for all leadership will need to be stepped up: this could well hampered command and control of this summer fighting season.
It is difficult to see any of this being turned into positives for the Taliban. But if the leadership succession were to be resolved quickly (there were stark lessons from the last leadership change-over), around someone that most Taliban could agree to rally round (a Mullah Omar relative might provide the important symbolism), there is no reason for the summer fighting season to be unduly disrupted.
Such a blow to the leadership may well cause some factions of the organisation to attempt to seek peace with the government on their own: perhaps emulating the reported reconciliation of insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
But Taliban fragmentation is not automatically good news for the Afghan government and the international community: who do you talk to for a lasting peace? Fragmented chunks of insurgent groups could continue a violent insurgency indefinitely and even open up the way to more extreme groups, such as Islamic State.
Maybe Hekmatyar came in at just the right time…
Breaking news – suggesting the Taliban are already confirming Mansour’s death:
BREAKING: Senior Taliban commander confirms death of leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in US drone strike.
Summary: Reports that marginalised war criminal and insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is to reconcile with the government might offer interesting possibilities for peace in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar is not to be trusted and the deal could fall through now or later. But the long-term goal of reconciling the Taliban in the same fashion is too tempting to pass up.
Militant guerrilla leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, looks closer than ever to accepting a peace agreement with the Afghan government on behalf of his rebel group of fighters, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG). Press reporting has noted a draft agreement that would give Hekmatyar some form of immunity from prosecution from previous actions (which would include an extensive range war crimes such as the shelling of Kabul in the 1990s, and a host of terrorist and suicide bomb attacks). HIG have been linked to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and, even as recently as last year, Hekmatyar was declaring his support for Islamic State. Hekmatyar appears to be prepared to give up one of the key tenets of his continued resistance: that international military forces must leave Afghanistan before he would enter talks. The deal would presumably involve removing HIG from terrorism black lists and recognition of HIG as a political party.
Analysis and Outlook
A brief reminder…
[in 1992 and 1993]…As shown in this report, Hezb-e Islami forces committed grave violations of international humanitarian law by intentionally targeting civilians and civilian areas for attack, or indiscriminately attacking areas in Kabul without distinguishing between civilian areas and military targets. Accounts and information presented in sections III (A) and III (B) show regular and repeated artillery strikes on civilian areas. Accounts and information in those sections also show that Hezb-e Islami regularly and repeatedly fired rockets into Kabul. As shown in those sections, Hezb-e Islami forces repeatedly used artillery and rockets in a manner suggesting that they were either intentionally targeting civilian sites, failing to aim at military objectives (with respect to artillery guns), or treating the whole city as one unified military target—any and all of which can amount to war crimes.
Hezb-e Islami’s methods of attack and use of weapons systems demonstrate the abuses described above. With respect to artillery attacks, there was specific evidence in section III (A) above that Hezb-e Islami had the capacity to aim artillery at military targets, but purposefully or recklessly fired artillery at civilian objects instead, in violation of international humanitarian law. In numerous cases documented in this report, Hezb-e Islami forces fired artillery at civilian areas without clear military objectives, suggesting that they were either purposely targeting such areas, or recklessly aiming at Kabul as a whole.
As noted in Section III (A) above, Hekmatyar’s forces also often used BM-40, BM-22, BM-12 rocket launchers and Sakr Soviet-made rockets in their attacks on Kabul. Such rocket systems are not designed for accuracy in close combat: they cannot be adequately aimed within urban settings or made to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects. The very use of such rocket systems within Kabul may have been in violation of international humanitarian law prohibitions on the use of inherently indiscriminate weapons.
As noted above, there is testimony in sections III (A) and III (B) that suggests that Hezb-e Islami and Hekmatyar were deliberately targeting the city of Kabul as a whole entity, to terrorize and kill civilians.
In addition, Hezb-e Islami, along with the other factions discussed in this report, are implicated in murders, pillage, and looting in violation of international humanitarian law. Hekmatyar and his commanders’ failure to stop or prevent the abuses could make them responsible as a matter of command responsibility.
The head of Hezb-e Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is centrally implicated in all of the crimes noted above. Hekmatyar was unambiguously the sole military and political leader of Hezb-e Islami, the Firqa Sama, and the Lashkar-e Isar (Army of Sacrifice), and was in command of Hezb-e Islami forces during its attacks on Kabul. Hekmatyar was the leader of Hezb-e Islami through the 1980s, and met regularly with Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials, and even with American politicians who visited Pakistan in the 1980s. Several mediators negotiated with Hekmatyar on peace initiatives in 1992 and 1993, as the head of Hezb-e Islami, and journalists repeatedly met with Hekmatyer in his capacity as the leader of Hezb-e Islami forces in the same period…
Those of us who have been analysing Afghanistan for over ten years will be experiencing some very mixed emotions over this new twist in the story of this highly suspect, opportunist and fundamentalist warlord. Amply supplied with weapons by Pakistan (and the US) in the 1980s, when he wasn’t fighting the Soviets, he was attacking fellow Mujahideen groups to capture their weapons. Hekmatyar has flirted with a range of factions, including Osama Bin Laden, but seemingly interested only in his own personal quest for power. One minute he was cooperating with the Taliban, next he was fighting them. He has suggested peace talks in the past and then renounced them and promised continued and indefinite jihad. Last year he announced his support for Islamic State. HIG has been a marginal yet still violent and problematic part of the wider Taliban-led insurgency for many years, based primarily in eastern Afghanistan. A large part of Hezb-e Islami long ago rejected Hekmatyar and are now part of the political system.
And yet, if it is possible that HIG can be brought in, it offers a tantalising glimpse of what might conceivably happen in a few year’s time in relation to the Taliban and how a process might work. This is why Mr Ghani appears to be prepared to swallow an extremely bitter pill and seek, if not to work with Hekmatyar, at least to symbolically remove him from the fight and shine a light on the path for Taliban peace talks.
On balance, I think this is the right thing to try. Many things can go wrong. The deal could easily fall apart, before, during or after signing. Many factions, individuals and the population at large will be extremely displeased about an immunity deal offered to such a serial human rights violator. An attack on Hekmatyar could easily derail things. It is possible that, once Hekmatyar has achieved his symbolic “reconciliation” he might slip off to some retirement home for war criminals in the Gulf. It might not be so easy to simply remove him from the list of global terrorists. But we should watch carefully: Hekmatyar is not to be trusted and I struggle to see him upholding the Constitution, renouncing violence and tolerating foreigners for long (if at all). Also keep careful note of what the Taliban say and do – although they are like to denounce or ignore this new Hekmatyar development and claim “business as usual” for their own insurgency, this might be a very divisive issue behind the scenes for them at a time when the Taliban are not exactly united.
Summary: It is hard to agree on key issues regarding the conflict in eastern Ukraine: what Russia wants, how powerful is Russia, what to prioritise: the conflict or political reform. The large flaws in Minsk II and failures to resolve the conflict point to a risk of the conflict becoming the “new normal”. The frozen conflict can exacerbate the current poor prospects for political and economic reform in Ukraine. On the positive side, civil society has mobilised and may even be setting an example to the politicians.
I took part in a SIPRI discussion in Stockholm at the end of last month
In the chair was Dr Ian Anthony, with speakers as follows:
Dr Arkady Moshes – Finnish Inst of International Affairs
Dr Neil Melvin – SIPRI
Henrik Hallgren – International Council of Swedish Industry
Tim Foxley – pol/mil analyst
Very interesting discussion, looking at aspects of the conflict in Ukraine: political overview, international dimensions, conflict update and the Ukraine regions. The overarching theme was of pessimism – political reform in Ukraine was very slow, with corruption and oligarchs still dominating. The conflict was seeing thousands of individual ceasefire violations – particularly on the rise since March, according to the OSCE – although the direction of the conflict was not clear.
There was no clear agreement on several key issues:
Is resolving the conflict the priority or should the focus be on the economic and political reconstruction of Ukraine?
What does Russia want?
How much of Russia’s 2014 actions were planned vice reacted to?
How strong is Russia’s position?
- Minsk not tenable? The conflict and the paralysis of Minsk II may simply become the “new normal” – no one has the capability of desire to resolve it.
- Further expansion of the conflict by accident (local commander overreaches himself) or design (Russian or separatist effort to grab more land)
- Further expansion of Russian overt/covert activity in Eastern Europe
- Failure of significant political/economic reform in Ukraine (ad resultant Western European impatience)
- The mobilisation of civil society in Ukraine – in some ways the population is more mature than the political system
- Large scale offensives in Easteren Ukraine look less likely – neither party has will or resources
- “Separatist” type interventions do not look likely to occur elsewhere (eg Kharkiv, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk) – Ukraine developing resilience
Summary: It’s that time of year again. Naming the offensive this time after their deceased leader, Mullah Omar, the Taliban renew annual promises of a surge in attacks intend to conquer territory, attack the Afghan government and eject the international military presence. No mention of peace talks or dialogue, just fighting.
The Taliban have announced the initiation of their regular annual event, the “Spring Offensive”. In practical terms, this means that some complex attacks might strike Kabul or a major city. There might also be an attempt at other forms of “spectacular”, such as a prison break, attempts to overrun army and police bases or even a larger town. A major boost to Taliban morale was the brief seizure of the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in September 2015: a similar success would be highly desirable for the Taliban leadership.
The format for this announcement is quite standardised by now. The Taliban reference their ongoing jihad, the successes of last year’s Spring Offensive and promise a range of attacks including martyrdom (ie suicide bombings) and targeted killings. There are no significant divergences in style, length, content or format when compared to similar announcements over the past few years other than the linkage to Mullah Omar and the repetition of the Spring Offensive announcement from 2015 last year that made a historic link to the anniversary of the battle of Yarmouk in 636 AD. Last year, the announcement paid attention to avoidance of causing civilian casualties – a theme which is not repeated this year.
The announcement again calls upon Afghans working for the government to desert and warns the population not to fall victim to enemy propaganda or to fear the Taliban. Each year, the offensive is given a name and often a linkage to early Islamic history: tempting fate by calling operations “Victory” (2009) or “Success” (2010) seem to have been long dropped as a bad idea. Last year, the Spring Offensive was called “Azm”, or resolve. This year, the operations are titled “Omari”, as tribute to the former Taliban leader Mullah Omar who, the majority of the Taliban only found out in 2015, died of illness in 2013. Although naming the operation after Mullah Omar is logical in its right, this may alos represent an attempt by the current Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour, to reinforce his possition as the natural successor. Mansour has struggled to exert his authority: many Taliban leaders have resented his accession and resisted by force.
Translation: “O Prophet, strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them. And their refuge is Hell, and wretched is the destination” 66:9
The Islamic Emirate’s armed Jihad against the American invasion has completed fourteen years and is now in its fifteenth year. Jihad against the aggressive and usurping infidel army is a holy obligation upon our necks and our only recourse for reestablishing an Islamic system and regaining our independence.
With the advent of spring it is again time for us to renew our Jihadi determination and operations. Hence the Islamic Emirate’s leadership eagerly announces this year’s Jihadi Operation in honor of the movement’s founder and first leader, the late Amir ul Mu’mineen Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid (May Allah have mercy upon him).
Under the leadership of the late Amir ul Mu’mineen Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid (May Allah have mercy upon him) Mujahideen pacified 95 percent of our nation’s territory from wickedness, corruption and oppression, and vanquished the maligned and wicked. Then following the invasion, through holy Jihad, they defeated the vast multinational coalition arrayed against them, forcing their retreat and inter alia filling the annals of Islamic history with deeds of valor and bravado. So we pray to Allah Almighty that through the deceased’s blessed name, Operation Omari, He Almighty will consecrate this Operation with strategic victories and cleanse our beloved country from the presence of the remaining foreign invaders and their malignant and corrupt rebel servants.
Operation Omari began across Afghanistan at 5 am today (local time) on the 5th of Rajab ul Murajab 1437 (Lunar Hijri) which corresponds to 24th of Haml 1395 (Solar Hijri) and 12th of April 2016 (Gregorian). The fact that the 5th of Rajab ul Murajab year 15 (Hijri Lunar) was the day on which – under the leadership of Khalif Omar al Farooq – the Muslim armies fought and annihilated the vast infidel western army in the Battle of Yarmouk, so we pray to Allah Almighty that He bless our Operation Omari in a similar fashion and ordain it with great Islamic victories on the battlefield and the unconditional defeat and withdrawal of the foreign invaders and their internal servants.
Operation Omari – which was initiated and planned by the Islamic Emirate’s leadership, the leaders of the Military Commission as well as the Emirate’s military planners – focuses, with hope of divine assistance, on clearing the remaining areas from enemy control and presence. Similarly the Operation will employ large scale attacks on enemy positions across the country, martyrdom-seeking and tactical attacks against enemy strongholds, and assassination of enemy commanders in urban centers. The present Operation will also employ all means at our disposal to bog the enemy down in a war of attrition that lowers the morale of the foreign invaders and their internal armed militias.
By employing such a multifaceted strategy it is hoped that the foreign enemy will be demoralized and forced to evict our nation. In areas under the control of Mujahideen, mechanisms for good governance will be established so that our people can live a life of security and normalcy.
Simultaneously with the present Operation the scholars, elders and leaders of the Islamic Emirate will open a dialogue with our countrymen in the enemy ranks to give up their opposition to the establishment of an Islamic government and join the ranks of the Mujahideen so as to safeguard them from the shame and failure of this World and the Hereafter. During the planning of this Operation, the Mujahideen have been unequivocally instructed to implement their operations in such a manner that takes pains to protect civilians and civil infrastructure.
During the span of Operation Omari, in areas including villages and cities where the Islamic Emirate has established its rule, the lives and property of the dwellers will be safeguarded as is its duty. Therefore we call upon the dwellers of these areas, be they the professional classes or businessmen, not to fall prey to enemy propaganda and not to feel threatened by the Mujahideen. As it is our duty to protect and assist the wronged and helpless, so we will pay particular attention to the freedom of prisoners.
The Islamic Emirate calls upon all the people of Afghanistan and the Mujahideen, that in similar vein to last year’s successful Operation Azm, they should fully and in high spirits participate in this year’s operations as well so that with the help and mercy of Allah Almighty this present Jihadi Operation serves as the killing blow to the invading foreign forces and their allies and thus our nation is freed from the present invasion.
And nothing is hard for the Almighty Allah
Leadership Council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
5th Rajab ul Murajab 1437 Lunar Hijri
24th Haml 1395 Solar Hijri
12th April 2016 Gregorian
The Taliban give three dates: Islamic Lunar Hijri (the “standard” Islamic calendar), Islamic Solar Hijri (used by Afghanistan and Iran) and the Gregorian (“aka Western”) calender. The month of Rajab is the 7th month of the Islamic calendar and means “respect”. According to Wikipedia, it:
is regarded as one of the four sacred months in Islam in which battles are prohibited.
The 5th Rajab is the anniversary of the Battle of Yarmouk, which the Taliban link to their new offensive. At Yarmouk in Year 15 (or 636 AD), an Islamic army inflicted a major defeat on Byzantine forces in and around the modern border between Syria and Jordan. Interestingly, this same date and anniversary reference to Yarmouk was used by the Taliban last year in their 2015 Spring Offensive announcement, suggestng either forgetfulness on the part of the Taliban leadership, or perhaps a lack of useful battle-related reference points in this supposed “non-fighting” month.
Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon, edited by Tim Foxley
Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog (www.dangerzoneblog.com) on topics related to ongoing conflicts. Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.
Summary: Increased fighting in the area between Avdiivka and Yasynuvata has observers concerned about the future stability of the region. Although fighting is unlikely to decrease in a meaningful way until either side concedes, the likelihood of this reigniting the conflict to past levels is slim.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has remained relatively calm up until early March this year. Although in the past occasional skirmishes were no occurrence out of the ordinary, recent flare ups in violence between Ukrainian armed forces and the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) have stakeholders in the conflict worried about what the future holds for the conflict.
There are two main areas of heightened intensity; the area between Avdiivka and Yasynuvata and the area referred to as the “Mariupol direction” by DPR rebels, which describes the southernmost area of the frontlines, Shyrokyne in particular. The incident began in March 7th, with rebels accusing Ukrainian forces of moving into the Yasynuvata industrial zone, an area previously uninhabited. The rebels supposedly responded to this by moving into and fortifying the area by the large intersection located between the two cities. Since then, rebel forces have moved into the suburb north of the intersection where they currently hold the easternmost industrial complex and a couple of blocks of what are now destroyed buildings due to heavy artillery fire, . According to the OSCE, rebel and Ukrainian forces are just 70 meters apart in some areas, a situation reminiscent of the battle for Donetsk airport which featured intense close proximity fighting over a prolonged amount of time.
The zone of battle is shown below, with rebel territory prior to the fighting being marked with red stripes. The suburban area between the two southernmost arrows are where most of the fighting is taking place, along with the industrial complexes north of it.
While it is difficult to ascertain the exact reason for this flare up, it is possible that the contemporary trial and imprisonment of Nadiya Savchenko in Russia might have provoked a Ukrainian probe. Part of what makes this flashpoint so significant is that it is an area which has usually been relatively calm, most clashes between Ukrainian forces in Avdiivka and the rebels has usually been directed at Spartak, a Donetsk suburb just north of the city center. Other areas of intense fighting are often considered to be stagnant, but the fate of this area is still undetermined. Yasynuvata, which the rebels hold, is home to a large railyard connecting several strategic cities, notably Donetsk and Horlivka and Makiyivka. The increase in hostilities has seen some rebel influencers so worried that they have been openly calling for the creation of a third army corps, to be jointly controlled by the DPR and LPR in order to repel what they perceive to be an imminent Ukrainian “invasion”. Assuming that the area between Avdiivka and Yasynuvata is no different from every other similar skirmish/battle, fighting is unlikely to stop until one side has primacy over the area. It Is also unlikely that this flare up will trigger a resumption of all-out fighting, seeing as more intense battles have not done so in the past. All-in-all this seems like a classic case of mutual escalation, both sides had ample chance to de-escalate
Summary: A surprisingly hard line from President Ghani on the issue of Afghan refugees going to Europe.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has taken a tough and somewhat unexpectedly blunt stance on the tens of thousands of his citizens who are fleeing the country to make the dangerous journey to Europe.
“I have no sympathy,” the Afghan leader told me in his palace in Kabul. He is calling on his countrymen to remain in the war-ravaged nation and join in the effort to rebuild it.
But do his words carry the weight they should, in a country that is increasingly feeling frustrated with the political elite, and a sense of hopelessness about their future?
Convincing people to stay feels like an impossible task for what is perhaps one of the toughest jobs in the world, being Afghanistan’s president. Ashraf Ghani was sworn in in September 2014 after controversial elections…
In answer to a qustion on why European countries are sending Afghan refugees back, on the basis they were economic migrants only, Ghani said the people of the country need to make a commitment and to not leave under the current situation.
He said migrants make the journey voluntarily, “they are paying $10,000 to $30,000 USD – they are impoverishing their families in order to make that journey because that journey was made on false assumptions”.
“We are under attack. Do we stand up for our right to breathe, for our right to live or do we pack up and go?” he asked.
“This is an existential choice. Countries do not survive by their best attempting to flee. So I have no sympathy.”
“My goal is to make sure my people live with dignity, with hope and with determination,” he said implying that people need to stand up in the face of threats.
According to UN statistics, in the last 12 months, over 250,000 Afghans fled the country and that of the refugees arriving in Greece, Afghans made up 28 per cent in January and 25 per cent in February.
We should try to bar in mind that many of the refugees/migrants are young boys, often with (or acquiring) mental health issues as a result of their Afghan and trafficking experiences, with little or no say in what is happening to them. In June 2015, President Ashraf Ghani strongly echoed Minister Balkhi’s sentiments that Afghanistan was not able to take returnees back for resource and security reasons. In a speech made on World Refugee Day, the 20th, he noted the difficulties for those Afghans returning to the country from illegally seized properties, deprivation of rights and the lack of basic amenities available. In closing, he specifically mentioned the plight of Afghan asylum seekers in Europe:
“It is also worth mentioning that thousands of Afghans live as refugees in Europe, Australia, Canada, United States and other countries and have benefited from their hospitality and services. But recently an increasing number of Afghan refugees have faced the risk of getting expelled because of lack of documentation.
My request to those countries is to take into account our problems this year and stop expelling Afghan asylum seekers. The story of our refugees is a sad part of our modern history.”
Summary: The plight of refugees attempting to return to Afghanistan is exacerbated by highy flawed legal processes hindering the fair reclamation of property and land
That the plight of Syrian refugees has bumped the 35 year tragedy of Afghan refugees momentarily off the front pages is much more an indictment of the appalling situation in of Syria than an indication of optimism for Afghanistan. A useful report from The Diplomat that highlights – with some good references and links – the ongoing difficulties for those Afghan refugees attempting to return to their home country. Not only is the trauma and worry of return to a war-torn country a significant barrier, but the legal process to enable individuals to reclaim land and property is flawed and corrupt:
Afghan refugees have returned to the headlines as European countries pursue avenues to send many of those waiting for asylum back to Afghanistan. A larger number reside in Pakistan and Iran, where they are stuck in the limbo of refugee camps. Meanwhile, many of those who have already returned remain in a difficult situation, left landless despite laws a decade old geared to helping returnees reclaim their land and schemes designed to allocate land to those who return…Unfortunately, those that return to Afghanistan are still in for considerable uncertainty…many Afghan returnees remain landless, despite several laws and initiatives that aim to provide or return land to them. There has never been a calm moment in the past several decades to sort out ownership of land and during that time laws and norms have changed, resulting in a confused mess.
Jelena Bjelica has produced a very useful and in-depth review of the Afghanistan refugee situation for the Afghanistan Analyst Network:
More than 5.8 million Afghans, about 20 per cent of Afghanistan’s population, are refugees who have returned home since the fall of the Taleban according to UNHCR figures. Many found their houses destroyed or occupied, or discovered that a new set of laws had scrapped their tenancy rights. The government plan for distributing land to them, and to IDPs, is now a decade old, but has been one of the most corrupt and ineffective government schemes.
Summary: Vladimir Putin declares “victory” and withdraws from Syria after a brief and bombing-intensive military mission intended primarily to make Russia look like a plausible international power. By any serious set of benchmarks, Syria is not yet resolved. Neither has Russia actually left. Russia continues to try to make itself look tough and effective to distract its domestic audience from economic woes (caused in part by earlier Russian military ventures). It is making shrewd use of modern media towards this goal. Russia will further undermine its credibility on the international stage. How does this end?
When you are talking about Russia on the global stage, it seems just as easy to say “Putin”. The Russian president has a very direct hands-on approach and appears unencumbered by the requirement to argue his case to an unconvinced parliament, delegate key decisions or sway a complaining and critical population. The latter seem largely incurious, preferring to keep their heads down. A thriving, active and vocal political opposition never quite seems to get off the ground in Russia, whatever the era, be it Czarist, Soviet, post-Soviet or Putinist. An effectively-run state-controlled media is contributing here, probably aided by the occasional unexpected and unexplained death of an opposition leader or journalist. But others seem genuinely happy to bask in the warmth embers of some long-lost national pride. Just so long as there are no significant Russian casualties. Or at least, that they do not know that there are significant Russian casualties.
But Putin’s global quest for pseudo parity with the US counts for nothing if it is not strongly splashed over international and (more importantly) domestic media.
The latest Russia venture into Syria has achieved this. Both the coming and the going of the Russian political and military intervention wrong-footed the international community. If this alone was the benchmark for Russian “victory”, then certainly Mr Putin would be entitled to declare “mission accomplished”.
Oscar Wilde once declared: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about”. An impressive media profile is key to Mr Putin’s game plan to re-establish Russia as a global actor. A plan which also seeks the tacit agreement from Europe and the US that Russia has a backyard called the former Soviet Union into which no one can bring messy concepts like democracy.
But Russia also leaves Assad in a stronger position for the moment. The withdrawal from Syria last week has generated much opinion and debate. A skim through the analysis shows:
- Much praise for the clever manoeuvring of Putin
- A strong sense that, yet again, the international community has been tricked by a faster-moving Russian strategy
- That this is what happens when the US leaves the international stage – the gap is filled – but not in a good way
- Russia’s underlying goals have been achieved – prop up Assad, impose itself into the strategic calculations, demonstrate military successes and activity. Original stated goals have not been achieved (defeat of Islamic State?)
- Has Russia actually withdrawn? Answer: well, not really. Troops, aircraft and equipment are still there. Military operations can be re-activated in hours.
- Good use of media and propaganda by Russia
- Some now debating the question – where next for Russia?
And if we look wider, including Crimea and eastern Ukraine, there are several characteristics surrounding modern Russia interventions (apologies, some of this will be a bit obvious):
- Seizing the initiative and maximising the element of surprise – even at the expense of actually having a policy or a plan. Surprise – keeping everyone guessing, edgy and reacting to the Russian tempo – sometimes seems more valuable than almost anything else, excepting bodybags
- The need for a high and favourable media profile
- Actual goals will be radically different from stated goals
- Russia’s media profile will have separate and distinct international and domestic narratives
- The “mission” above all is Putin himself. Local and international power projections are in support of Putin and his own hand-crafted regime. Is Putting increasingly seeing and presenting himself as the embodiment of Russia’s “re-awakening”. Solving a war, defeating Islamic State, even propping up an “ally” like Assad are secondary. These targets can be shifted and flexed to suit.
- “Me, me, me”: Dashing in, thrashing around dropping bombs and dashing out again is a highly irresponsible, self-serving and immature stance. No coordination, no handover, no continuous engagement. This is rubbish. How reliable and trust-worthy does this make Russia?
- Usual rules of international conduct seem not to apply in Russia’s case. Use of dumb bombs, cluster bombs, Russia never really held to account over bombing of hospitals and schools, crude Russian denials or lies suffice and the game moves on. This even given that US military commanders and politicians have accused Russia of deliberately “weaponising” Syrian refugees. The key lesson Russia is learning is how effective a blunt denial or a simple lie can be.
Where next indeed? (Afghanistan, the Balkans, Moldova, Ukraine, any one of the Central Asian states, Iraq, the Baltic states…???) If the Russian population are still suffering economically without the likelihood of an early improvement, it may be that a new initiative will be necessary. Ought this to be done before Barrack Obama leaves? The Baltic states have been worried ever since the Crimea was annexed. But an attack on a NATO country seems too obvious – and also too risky – for Mr Putin.
The Putin performance does show an impressive use of the resources he has and perhaps an ability to learn lessons. He got bogged down in Eastern Ukraine – perhaps after a post-Crimea spate of over-confidence. Now he has gone the other way, quickly getting off the stage while the applause is still sounding and the reviews are still favourable. For the moment also, the darker art of “hybrid war” has been put on the back-burner in exchange for exciting images of fast jets bombing desert. Ambiguous operations with proxy and harder to control militias are more fraught with risk.
But how big a global power projection has the Russian adventure in Syria really been? It still does not offer the notion that Russia can even approach the scale of America’s military and diplomatic might. And a lot of fast, self-serving and unpredictable Russian initiatives is going to start irritating international actors who may have to pick up the pieces of a Russian “in and out” operation. The macho use of hard power is a little bit “last century” and holds out the ever present risk of public casualties – either Russian troops on the ground or new terrorist attacks coming back to Mother Russia. The longer Mr Putin juggles shiny military balls in the air to keep his people distracted from economic woes, the greater the risk one will drop.
Summary: If, indeed, it is anything at all. Much has been made of Russian’s swift annexation of the Crimea in 2014, which employed anonymous elite troops, local militias, intelligence and propaganda operations. Other tools for political and military gain are also emerging – cyber warfare, lawfare, social media. Some herald these “hybrid” combinations as a new era of warfare pioneered by Russia that will rarely actually resemble warfare and one that stands to leave western countries floundering. Others are deeply sceptical of the notion that this is anything other than old (even ancient) tactics of deception reinvented for a new century.
Complex place. The World…
The world order is becoming increasingly multi-polar, with more diverse, faster-moving, adaptable and vociferous actors. Militaries are being asked to undertake a wider range of tasks than ever before but “conventional” forms of military intervention are having increasingly diminishing returns. The sheer firepower of industrial nations has pushed asymmetric tactics to the fore, from Vietnam through Northern Ireland and the Balkans to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic State in Syria.
Beyond this, many actors seek deliberately to blur the distinction between war and peace. In Crimea, Russia used social media, special forces and proxy militias in a largely bloodless land grab. China is building artificial islands in the South China Sea. The Islamic State occupies yet another pole, fusing global terrorism with pretensions to statehood. US military and political figures have recently been accusing Russia of bombing civilians in Syria deliberately to create a flood of refugees to cause fragmentation in Western European unity.
“Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War
“The backbone of surprise is fusing speed with secrecy.”
— Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege
Hostile operations are, with increasing imagination and creativity, being pitched intentionally just below the level of conventional conflict, with intensive use of information. Kelly Greenhill recently considered the way disinformation can be exploited in stressful and uncertain situations. Russian state-controlled media created multiple explanations for the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in an attempt to thwart investigation into the cause. Modern information and media technologies seem to lend themselves well to confusing and complicating: deepening and spreading roots of conflict, undermining conflict resolution.
Hybrid or ambiguous?
In late February of 2014, well-equipped, highly disciplined and extremely polite soldiers of no easily identifiable origin (but wearing or carrying the most modern of Russian military uniforms, weapons and equipment) quickly and calmly took over key buildings in the capital of Crimea, Simferopol, including government facilities and the airport. This was the beginning of an almost entirely bloodless seizure of the Crimea and its de facto return to Russian control.
From a myriad of terms, and amidst much intense and ongoing debate, the expression “hybrid warfare” seems to have gained a certain amount of traction for describing the orchestrated fall of Crimea, the implosion of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and new Russian military practice in the 21st century. A multi-dimensional range of political, military, economic, social, informational and technological activities are employed to political and military goals. Much of the activity was covert and designed to be deniable or to deliberately subvert and confuse. The conventional military component became, in effect, the “tip of the iceberg” and was designed, where possible, to avoid overt combat.
In many low intensity conflicts, the causes, combatants and objectives involved are difficult to define. Some modern techniques of political and military activity deliberately set out to make the situation more confusing. Accurate information can be hard to come by and can be distorted to serve particular agendas. In the particular case of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, fascist taunts and nationalist flag-waving are routine, if highly inflammatory, tactics. The aggressive use of social and mainstream media in all its forms by local, national and international actors and protagonists has been striking and has served—generally by intent—to confuse the situation further.
False flags, new flags or even no flags have concealed some protagonists, masked the true identities of others and introduced new ones. Interpretations of historical issues—from medieval to World War Two—have been twisted to suit 21st century political ambitions, fanning dormant but dangerous forms of intense nationalism in the process. The concealment and manipulation of facts and the distortion and discrediting of information have been one of the significant features of the circumstances surrounding the conflict that has arisen in Ukraine, where the battlefields are as much on the internet as they are in the physical domain.
Terms such as “hybrid”, “indirect”, “new generation” and “ambiguous” are being employed to describe the concepts behind the varieties of political and military tactics being employed. Article V of the NATO North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Thus far, the 21st century does not seem inclined to allow NATO the luxury of such simple and precise divisions. Defining an attack and the source of the attack is becoming harder as potential adversaries adopt increasingly creative approaches to achieving political and military objectives. But the wide spectrum of phraseology on offer at present is perhaps more indicative of the problems being encountered in analysing and understanding what is going on than they are a helpful categorisation of strategy and tactics. Are we seeing a further blurring and stretching of formal conflict definitions, the emergence of an entirely new form of warfare or simply a repackaging of old techniques of deception realpolitik for the 21st century?
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, there was a surge of interest hailing this new form of “hybrid” warfare. After a few months, some of the more critical observers started to reflect that there perhaps was nothing really new here – deception and speed are lauded by pretty much any military commander. The Russia term “Maskirovka” covers much of this. The definitional debate s still raging. But something is going on – new techniques, aided by technology – are going to complicate the battle: wherever the battle may or may not be.
I shall return to this theme in due course.