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Waiting for Omar: anticipating the Taliban Spring Offensive…

April 18, 2015

Summary: The Taliban are likely to announce the commencement of Spring operations in a couple of weeks time.

Taliban flagIf the Taliban are true to their behaviour, they will announcement the beginning of a Spring Offensive to take place in Afghanistan.  This generally heralds the onset of the “fighting season” which lasts somewhere into October/November.

It is useful to note the timing and content of their official statement.  Any significant deviation or variation from previous notifications could well be of interest.  If previous years are adhered to, we should expect:

  • An official announcement in the last week of April or first week of May
  • The operation will be given a name, sometimes after a historic battle or event from early Islamic history, perhaps including the prophet Mohammed took part (eg “Badr”), or a statement of intent (eg “victory).  I think names like “victory” and “success” are less likely now – they are slight hostages to fortune when they declare victory to be imminent and do so each year…
  • The text will specify targets – foreign forces (although there are much less of those now). government officials and security forces and any Afghan who supports the work of either of these.
  • The text will specify tactics generally, but martyrdom attacks (ie suicide bombers) will likely be mentioned
  • It will call upon Afghans supporting the regime to defect and promises fair treatment if they do so.
  • It may refer to Taliban efforts to limit civilian casualties

There are usually two or three significant “complex attacks” that come in the days and weeks after the announcement, in order to demonstrate capability and credibility.  I would expect some combination of suicide attacks and targeting of Afghan government or US military/political buildings – a barracks, an embassy.  Kabul is a favoured area in which to operate as it guarantees good media coverage.  It may be that these targets are now harder to penetrate inside the capital, however and other regional targets (Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Kandahar, Nangarhar…) and personalities might form viable alternatives to be struck.

I shall await with interest.  This is the first year after ISAF has closed down and there are no foreign forces on the ground in combat operations.  It would be significant if they:

  • did not annnouce an offensive
  • shifted the tone and content significantly – eg towards new tactics or towards a more politicised statement

lets see what happens.

Fänge on Taliban and prospects for talks

April 14, 2015

Summary: Veteran Afghanistan expert, Anders Fänge, gives some thoughts and some words of caution on the current prospects for dialogue with the Taliban.

Anders FängeAn interview with Anders Fänge has appeared via RFE.  It is worth reading in full as Mr Fänge has some genuine and long-term experience with working in Afghanistan, particularly with the Swedish Afghan Committee.  He cautions against assumptions that talks are now likely, worries that other powerbrokers may not have an interest in peace and warns that the act of talking does not mean that anything productive will come of it.  He senses that the Taliban themselves are divided on talks and their long-term objectives.  Although President Ashraf Ghani and second in command Abdullah Abdullah are both capable and competent, Fänge is worried that the government will not perform effectively and that friction between the two camps will become a problem.

RFE/RL: The Afghan national unity government’s leaders have made some optimistic statements about holding peace talks with the Taliban. Are they going to begin anytime soon?

Anders Fange: There has been some talk — official statements and stuff — for quite some time, but I still haven’t seen someone sitting down at the table and starting a discussion. So it is obvious there are some problems. You don’t enter into negotiations on a banana peel.

Both the Afghan government and the mainstream Taliban have problems. Within the Taliban, the questions is to what extent the leaders who are in favor of talks represent the movement and to what extent they represent the leadership. These are the questions that should be asked.

We can also presume that within the Afghan political elite there are people who aren’t necessarily interested in peace because any peace — the end of armed conflict in Afghanistan — would mean a big step in the direction of a better functioning state and that would diminish these people’s prospects. The opportunities for the narcotics trade and corruption would certainly be diminished.

RFE/RL: Even if the Taliban talks with the Afghan government, what is it actually that the two sides will be haggling over?

Fange: I doubt the Taliban itself even has a single view on these things. I can imagine that if the talks become a reality it will start with things like the exchange of prisoners and other trust-building measures. The other question is that it is difficult to know what is going on among the Taliban leadership, but I can imagine that some people who are in favor of talks won’t abandon their strategic objective of reestablishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the formal name of the Afghan Taliban regime).

They might go into talks to make the Americans and the government relax into thinking everything is going in a positive direction. You might have people in the Taliban leadership who are genuinely wanting peace to stop the suffering of their people.

RFE/RL: But do you see these pragmatic Taliban leaders abandoning their main objective of reestablishing their regime?

Fange: The Taliban is more fragmented now compared with the 1990s, when it ruled Afghanistan and was a very organized and coordinated movement. I am quite convinced that within the Taliban, possibly among the leadership and definitely out among the field commanders, there are people who are not in favor of any peace talks. They want to continue the struggle until they have reestablished their Islamic emirate.

RFE/RL: How would you characterize this fragmentation within the Taliban? Is it a friction between the fugitive Taliban leadership in exile in Pakistan and the field commanders and foot soldiers operating inside Afghanistan?

Fange: With their leadership in exile and foot soldiers and field commanders inside the country, the commanders have more authority now than they had before. There is also more room for expressing different opinions. Previously, and I suppose now, Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) is moving in, and [it] is trying to create links with commanders who oppose the leadership for whatever purpose of trying to control the Taliban movement in a better way.

RFE/RL: You have known the Afghan government leaders President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah personally. I think Abdullah even worked for you in the Swedish Committee in the Panjshir Valley in the 1980s. How different are they, and what is your assessment of their working relationship so far?

Fange: If you listen to these two individuals and what they express publicly, it indicates they have a good cooperation. If you listen to their teams and followers, there are signs of differences and even quarrels. There is reason for hope; there is reason for optimism. Although I must say I was more optimistic in November than I am now. The absolute pre-condition for any success of the national unity government is that this cooperation between Ghani and Abdullah lasts and functions.

In many ways, they complement each other as political figures. Ashraf is the person who wrote the book “Fixing Failed States,” and he obviously has ideas on what to do. Both of them are highly intelligent people. They are knowledgeable.

Of course, they have weaknesses, too. Ashraf is slightly impatient and wants to do things fast, and wants to see quick results. Perhaps Abdullah is a product of the old [anti-Soviet] mujahedin elite, which means he will have to do a lot to fend off criticism from that old elite.

RFE/RL: Since taking office, Ghani has made extraordinary overtures to Pakistan. He is trying to transform the Durand Line border between the two countries into an arena of friendship and cooperation instead of hostility. Is he likely to succeed?

Fange: It is too early to make a conclusive assessment. Some things are happening, obviously. Whether they will result in actual talks or even peace talks, it’s too early to say. What one can say is that Ghani – and, to quite an extent, Abdullah — has jointly gone into this new diplomatic approach toward Pakistan, and there is a growing impatience among Afghan political observers and ordinary people. They want to see results. So I would say the unity government is playing cards with very high stakes, and it is still uncertain what kind of cards they will finally throw on the table.

RFE/RL: Finally, after working in Afghanistan for decades, how optimistic are you about the future of the country?

Fange: I was very optimistic after the emergence of the national unity government. I said that cooperation between the two leaders is an absolute must. If that can work, then I am more optimistic. If it doesn’t, then I will be less optimistic. These two individuals have the potential of lying the foundation and creating the possibilities for a new Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar biography – a media “fail” from the Taliban

April 9, 2015

Summary: For no particularly convincing reason, a short, bland and uninformative “biography” of the Taliban leader has now emerged from Taliban official sources. This looks like a failed attempt to regain dwindling relevance and boost profile. The ability to blow up a tank appears to be his highest qualification for running a country. This is a media “fail” by the Taliban.

mullah-omar

Mullah Omar. Possibly

From official Taliban sources comes a “biography” of Mullah Mohammad Umar (aka Omar). Yes, I have had to use inverted commas almost immediately to describe this 5,366 word document, posted up on the official Taliban website. The apparent trigger for this is “for the prevention of false propaganda” and to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the appointment of Mullah Omar as the “Amir ul Momineem” (Leader of the Faithful) in Kandahar on 4 April 1996. The basic information we are offered here can be summarised:

  • Mullah Omar was born in 1960 in Kandahar province, part of the Hotak tribe. His family “comprises scholars and teachers of religious studies”. Omar follows the Hanafi school of religious thought.
  • In 1965 the family moved to neighbouring Oruzgan province.
  • In 1968 he started religious education. In 1978, at eighteen years of age, he abandoned his religious education during the communist coup and the subsequent Soviet occupation in order to conduct jihad.
  • From 1983 to 1991 he fought the Soviets in Oruzgan and Kandahar provinces with the Harakat-e Inquilab-e Islami faction as a local commander of a “front”. In the process he became proficient at using the RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launcher and was wounded three or four times, losing his right eye.
  • In 1992, after the withdrawal of the Soviets he returned to his religious studies, setting up a madrassa in Kandahar province.
  • With the rise of local warlord groups he became concerned – along with other like-minded former jihadists – at the increasing levels of looting, corruption and exploitation of the local population.
  • In 1994 Mullah Omar became the leader of the Islamic Movement, liberating Kandahar and then larger areas of Afghanistan.
  • On 4 April 1996, Mullah Omar was confirmed as leader and the title of Amir ul Momineem conferred upon him.
  • Mullah Omar has a simple and plain life, without personal wealth or property. Omar “even now does not own an ordinary residence neither has he any cash deposits in any foreign bank accounts”. He supports the claims of Palestinian Muslims “and obligation of every Muslim to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque”.
  • He apparently has a “special sense of humour” and “in most of his meetings, he usually speaks about Jihad”. In his free time he studies the Koran and his favourite weapon is the RPG-7.
  • He is “still the leader in the present hierarchy of the Islami Emirate of Afghanistan”

Analysis and Outlook Taliban flagIf you want to read a good solid biography about a senior Taliban leader, then you should still stick with Mullah Zaeef’s ghost-written work: “My life with the Taliban”. The Omar biography here is significant, but not, I suspect, for the reasons the Taliban might have hoped. What fascinates me is the number of levels on which this fails and I shall try and suggest a few here.

Fail 1: Uninformative The surprising thing is how short, uninformative and lacking the piece is. I cannot think of anything significant that is newly offered here although perhaps there have been a few interpretations of his early origins floating around so we now at least have it officially from the Taliban where and when he was born, underwent religious education and fought. No mention of Al Qaeda or 9/11. The international community “including the United Nations” simply could not tolerate Sharia-based peace and stability in Afghanistan and therefore invaded.

Fail 2: Weird and unexplained timing It is intriguing to contemplate why the Taliban have taken years before they felt it necessary to release what you might consider a basic staple of organisation information. Equally fascinating is the “19th anniversary” justification. I could understand a 5th anniversary, or a 10th and a 15th. A 19th anniversary suggests they feel they need to rush something out. I suspect very strongly that other factors are causing problems for the Taliban. First and foremost that they might be worrying they are drifting off the radar and losing relevance and media profile. The steady flow of references to Islamic State in Afghanistan – from the Afghan government, the media, the UN and analysts point strongly to the idea that the Taliban might be nudged aside.

Fail 3: Mullah Omar comes over very poorly indeed There is no attempt to present Mullah Omar as relevant, capable or even actually doing anything at present. We learn nothing of his skills and competences, leadership or future vision for Afghanistan. He has one international area he seems slightly aware of – the Palestinian issue. Do the people of Afghanistan really want someone who feels it necessary to list his favourite weapon in his biography as a leader of their country? Perhaps better to stick with Ashraf Ghani, who has at least worked for the World Bank. Even the limited anecdotes of his time fighting against the Soviets fail to impress on a military level, emphasising little more than an ability to knock out a few armoured vehicles. Leadership ability? Planning? Strategy? Tactics?

Fail 4: This is weak propaganda The Taliban do not seem to recognise that they have produced something that is limp, uninteresting and highly unlikely to advance any aspect of their cause. The world has greeted this announcement with resounding indifference and perhaps a hint of mild confusion. If you want to see a modern, creative and potent use of traditional and social medias for aggressive propaganda purposes, you should go to Al Qaeda, Islamic State and Russia for examples but probably not the Taliban. The Taliban made significant advances in the field of propaganda since 2001. This was only because their baseline was exceptionally limited, caused by their suspicion, lack of understanding, antipathy and active hostility to media, TV, radio and all forms of communication (barring hand-delivered notes) in the 1990s. But looking back on such progress there was, I sense they probably “plateaued” somewhere around 2008 and haven’t really gone anywhere since with a media strategy. How excited we all got when the Taliban started tweeting. But take a look at their website now for evidence of a continual stream of bland and repetitive nothingness. List upon list of minor combat actions and bodycount. No coherent reach out to anyone, no expansion or development of plans for the country. No political agenda or flexibility of any form (and, believe me, I really have searched over the years for signs of ideas, engagement and a political stance). No recognition that anything has changed in Afghanistan with the withdrawal of ISAF from the battlefield other than to repeat the claim that they have made several times over the years – that victory (however they actually define this) is imminent.

Fail 5: Afghanistan is moving on However slowly and painfully, the Afghan people are moving on – reconstruction, technology, culture, politics, interaction with the world community. The Taliban are showing no evidence here that they recognise this. They are getting left behind. If they do sense anything is wrong, they either have no strategy or, as I suspect more likely, they simply do not care and expect that the virtues of Mullah Omar to speak for themselves and the principles and practice of their previous (mis)rule during the 1990s will suffice.

Fail 6: No proof of life… Is he alive? More information about the role of his second in command is offered than Omar’s command activities.  No new photo?

Tbilisi calling…

April 5, 2015

Right now I am in Georgia on a small introductory visit to get a better sense of the country and get a feel for the regional geo-politics. Georgia is extremely keen to join NATO and the EU and is making much progress in these directions.   

 You perhaps cannot blame them after a trip to the “Soviet occupation of Georgia, 1921 – 1991″ exhibition at the National history museum. A recent (5 day) conflict with Russia in 2008 and recent Russia land grabs in Ukraine spur on this ambition.  More reports later – just thought I’d check in to let you know I wasn’t slacking off.

US extend troop deployment in Afghanistan – a little bit

March 25, 2015

Summary:  US to extend the 10,000-soldier post-ISAF deployment to the end of 2015.

obama and ghaniThe 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.

US Army, Afghanistan 2015: Training mission, not combat mission

US Army, Afghanistan 2015: Training mission, not combat mission

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?

Bombing campaigns – what are they good for? US vs ISIS…

March 23, 2015

Summary:   US DoD release statistics for their air strikes against ISIS.  Caution needed.

There are lies, damned lies and air campaign battle damage assessments…

Count the damage, count the cost...

Count the damage, count the cost…

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.

20150301, US air campaign bombing ISISSeveral 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.

 

Serb decoy gunSerb decoy SAM launcher Serb decoys used to fool Nato warplanes in Kosovo

Putin: mystery solved… :)

March 16, 2015

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!

Vladimir Putin welcomed the participants and guests of WWCC 2015 Print
Monday, 16 March 2015 08:35

Putin sochi chess

The President of Russia Vladimir Putin welcomed the participants and guests of the Women’s World Chess Championship 2015 in Sochi.

The Championship will be held from March 16 to April 7 2015 in Krasnaya Polyana.

“Our country is deservedly famous for its chess school and has a long experience in holding such prestigious tournaments. We’ll do all the best to hold this event on the highest level”, the press service of the Kremlin informs.

The head of Russian Federation expressed his confidence that the tournament will be remembered by its beautiful fights over the chessboard and will contribute to the growth of chess popularity both in Russia and in the whole world. President Putin wished all participants success and all fans good and unforgettable memories.

Source gazeta.ru

OFFICIAL TOURNAMENT WEBSITE

Taliban deny talks (again)

March 14, 2015

Summary: More talks about talks and denials of talks about talks…

The Taliban seem to be in full denial mode:

Taliban flagThe 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.

 

Karzai critical over Ghani’s reach-out to Pakistan

March 10, 2015

Summary: A former President marking the current incumbent’s work. 

ghani and KarzaiHamid Karzai has recently expressed concern that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is leaning over too far to accommodate Pakistan as he attempts to secure peace talks with the Taliban.

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.

Russia blames Sweden for Ukraine crisis

March 9, 2015

Summary: Russian embassy angrily points the finger of blame for Ukraine towards Sweden (amongst others)

wallsKind 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-russia-sub.pngSweden 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.

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