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Afghanistan, Russia and Dostum

October 8, 2015

Summary: Dostum in Chechnya seeking Russian help against terrorism in Afghanistan…

Dostum and Kadyrov

I just saw this brief news article from the Interpreter Magazine:

Yesterday, October 5, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov received Gen. Abdul Rashid Dustum, the first vice president of Afghanistan, he reported on his Instagram page (translation by The Interpreter):“We discussed questions of economic, trade and cultural cooperation. We devoted particular attention to the struggle with terrorism in general and the Ibliss state [ISIS] in particular. Dostum noted that ISIS is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead. In order to prevent this threat, Kabul needs Russia’s support, as in Syria. We expressed confidence that the leadership of Russia will make a positive decision in response to this request.”

LifeNews and reported that Dostum also noted Chechnya’s real experience in battling terrorism.“Both Ramzan Kadyrov and I have been waging the struggle with international terrorism. And in this field we can make a substantive coalition. We can learn from each other. We don’t have concrete projects of cooperation yet, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any in the future.”
Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, was once a general in the Afghan army during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, then later became an independent warlord who took part in battles against the mujahideen fighters in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. He spent some time in exile in Turkey in 2009 before being allowed to return to Afghanistan by then-president Hammid Karzaai.

It will likely be unclear for some while whether the trip serves Afghanistan’s government or Dostum’s own agenda.  Dostum has regularly talked about forming his own army to fight the Taliban if the central government was not up to the job.  Russia is aggressively and pro-actively expanding its military reach, most recently in Syria.  Where next?  The idea of an independently funded and armed Dostum is not a pleasant one.

Bombing a hospital: how and why..?

October 5, 2015

Summary: A US airstrike levelled a Kunduz hospital, killed civilians and aid workers. Information does not yet allow a full judgement on the “how and why” but it seems less likely the Taliban were a prime cause. Human errors and the stresses of battle in various forms may have fatally complicated the communication between Afghan security forces on the ground and US air controllers.

For some days and weeks now, a battle for control of Kunduz city, in north-eastern Afghanistan, has ebbed and flowed, with the population stuck in the middle, fleeing when they can, or hunkering down in shelter where they must.  Taliban and government forces have grappled inconclusively, plant flags and taking selfies in the various squares and roundabouts of the city’s centre.

In the small hours of last Saturday morning, a US flown and controlled aircraft – likely an AC-130 “Spectre” gunship of some variety – opened fired on the southern-western suburbs of Kunduz city over the period of an hour.  The action appears to have been at the request of embattled Afghan security forces engaged in combat against Taliban fighters in the area.

NYT, General Campbell said that Afghan forces had come under fire near the hospital and then called for help.

The gunship’s fire power probably included a couple of 25-40mm chain guns and a rapid firing 105mm howitzer. These are designed to fire from the same side of the aircraft while it slowly circles its target. The impact of the strike on the target was devastating. And in the wrong place.

hospital, kunduz, msf, fire damage

Final casualty figures will likely become clearer in the days to come, but it seems as if something in the vicinity of 22 hospital workers and patients, including children died in the attacks and subsequent fires that destroyed many of the buildings. Medecin Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) lost a number of their own staff in the attack. The NGO’s Director has since gone on to explicitly describe the event as a war crime, noting that the hospital’s GPS coordinates had been transmitted to all parties of the conflict.  US official military sources seemed to acknowledge some level of culpability by stating that an air strike had gone astray.

NPR, 4 Oct: MSF’s General Director Christopher Stokes, saying in a statement that the group operates “[under] the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed,” insisted that anything less than a fully independent probe of the incident would be unacceptable.

“Relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient,” Stokes said.

“We reiterate that the main hospital building, where medical personnel were caring for patients, was repeatedly and very precisely hit during each aerial raid, while the rest of the compound was left mostly untouched. We condemn this attack, which constitutes a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” he said.

In an interview on Sunday’s Weekend All Things Considered, MSF Executive Director Jason Cone said it has been the “darkest couple of days in our organization’s history.”

Speaking with WATC host Michel Martin, Cone reiterated Stokes’ description of the attack as “a war crime.”

MSF have called for an independent and transparent investigation. The Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, has called for an investigation. US President, Barack Obama has said the same.

The Taliban have been quick to capitalise, highlighting “Barbaric American forces bomb civilian hospital in Kunduz” on their website, declaring that no Taliban fighters were in the hospital, something that the slightly more reliable MSF have also stated. The Russian government, recently pursuing its own bombing campaign against various anti-Assad forces in Syria, is also condemning the US attack – and greatly tempting fate in so doing.

There have been many civilian casualty incidents since the conflict began in 2001. Suicide bombings are perhaps the most indiscriminate of all but a misdirected air strike can be more devastating.

But it is a war crime to deliberately target hospitals, schools or places of worship.

There seem to be a handful of plausible explanations for this tragedy:

  1. The US aircraft hit the hospital in error when they were aiming at Taliban forces in the area – very possible.
  2. The Taliban were firing from the hospital and US/Afghan forces collaborated to neutralise this target – seems less likely.
  3. Targeting error on the Afghan side – they transmitted bad or misleading information to US tactical controllers who relayed this flawed targeting information to the aircraft. Possible.
  4. Targeting error on the US side – failure to distribute, circulate or otherwise accurately employ GPS coordinates given to them, or otherwise mismanaging targeting information and procedures. Possible.
  5. Different form of attack entirely – an Afghan security force artillery strike or a Taliban suicide or rocket attack coincident with US air activity. Much less likely – and certainly no evidence.

Every once in a while I find myself believing the Taliban. With the help of MSF, who were operating in the hospital at the time, it seems unlikely that the Taliban were activity deployed inside the hospital grounds, despite the protestations of the acting provincial governor that they were “100 per cent used by Taliban”.  The incident looks to have been an almighty mistake somewhere in the chain of command and control between Afghan security forces making the request and US forces, several thousands of feet above, attempting to respond.

The action of sending GPS coordinates to the US (and Taliban and Afghan government) forces, as MSF appears sensibly to have done, makes the action seem more deliberate but does not guarantee safety.  Human error when under duress in a confused “fog of war” can corrode or overrule all manner of safeguards and procedures. In 1999, the US managed to bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade totally unintentionally during the Kosovo bombing campaign because they had out of date maps. And even more pertinent to the Kunduz incident, in late 2001 at the battle of Qala-i Jangi prison near Mazar-e Sharif, US Forward Air Controllers called in a strike on top of soldiers – and a tank – belonging to General Dostum, whose forces were besieging the Taliban.

T-55 tank knocked out by “friendly fire”, November 2001, Mazar-e Sharif

In this incident, the error occured because the US soldier on the ground had had to change the battery on his GPS device, erasing the most recent stored data and defaulting to the coordinates of his own location when he powered it back on.

Alternately, it is perhaps significant that some Afghan political and military sources appeared initially to have been arguing that, as the Taliban were clearly in the hospital grounds (this is disputed and may well be incorrect), it was therefore acceptable to target the hospital. The Americans are known to be saying that the air strike was conducted at the request of the Afghans. To be fair to the Americans, they have made strong efforts to learn from their “collateral damage” mistakes. I suspect they have a better understanding of the legal and moral implications of knowingly striking a hospital.  We might see a parting of the ways between US and Afghan explanations as investigations proceed.

Is it possible that a crucial “oh, by the way, the Taliban target we are giving you is actually in a hospital” piece of information did not clearly make its way from poorly trained and disciplined Afghan security forces to US personnel and aircraft in the area?

If the Afghan security forces are found to have deemed it acceptable to attack a hospital purely because it was believed to have Taliban in, they may yet be facing a war crimes charge that the Americans will be scramblling to avoid. Interestingly, the Washington Post is suggesting that Afghans are almost sympathetic to the dilemma of Taliban fighting from hospitals and the necessity of attacking them regardless.

Accurate information needs to emerge first, before judgement can be made, but I suspect a chain of human errors to be the most likely cause. As a final thought, I wonder how many buildings are described as “hospitals” or “clinics” in Kunduz? As part of the media reporting, I came across a snippet in several news agencies, including Indian Express, referring to the MSF hospital’s wrecked compound as lying in the east of the city (mapping suggests it is to the south west), with evidence of automatic weapons, including one machine gun, poking from the burnt windows.

Indian Express, 4 Oct: Afghan officials said helicopter gunships returned fire from Taliban fighters who were hiding in the hospital, and AP video footage of the burned out compound in the east of Kunduz city shows automatic weapons, including rifles and at least one machine gun, on windowsills. But Stegeman said there were no insurgents in the facility at the time of the bombing.

Maybe it is easy to get clinics confused.  US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter described the bombing occurring under “hazy circumstances”. In the stress and fog of war, in a night time battle against a shadowy, hard to identify enemy flitting through narrow streets, I can readily see how human error can trigger an unpredictable and undesired chain of events.

Ukraine: Far right on the Southern front

October 5, 2015

Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon*

Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog ( on topics related to ongoing conflicts. Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.

Summary: As the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine have solidified, extremist political groups – often ideologically confused – are arrayed in geographical clusters. This post will take a look at the far right groups which occupy the southern front of pro-Russian Donetsk, the ideologies which they follow and what significance such groups hold in Donetsk.

Inside eastern Ukraine, the disputed territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (“DPR” & “LPR” respectively) have become a melting pot for armed nationalist groups of various convictions. The “DPR” and “LPR” are the two pro-Russian de facto states which comprise the disputed eastern territories in Ukraine. Together they form a confederation known as “Novorossiya”, meaning “New Russia”. This confederation exists only on paper, and is as controversial as the de facto states that comprise it. Over the course of time nationalist groups have fallen into geographic clusters in which groups of different convictions are located. In Lugansk, historically a Cossack area, the Cossack identity is very strong. A “National Militia” has been formed in which Cossack battalions perform a task equivalent to that of the less impressive “DPR” Republican Guard – a type of territorial defense brigade. Militia groups in the Donetsk region, on the other hand, appear more diverse, including Soviet revivalist groups to the north and west of Donetsk and Rus’-centric nationalist groups lining the southern front.

Rusich, nationalist

Storm Group Rusich: perhaps a few dozen strong

Rus’-centric nationalism is nostalgic for the old Rus’ states of medieval times. They are considered to be the predecessors to modern Russia. This is often characterized by the use of Slavic pagan symbology and runes of that era and location. Such nationalism is not new, nor is it specific to Russia: nationalists of Scandinavian countries often look to Viking/Norse roots to strengthen and reinforce their own national identity. These fighters often arrive in theatre voluntarily through privately funded organizations similar to the Imperial Legion , a radically orthodox neo-monarchist organisation. Such organizations are often responsible for tasks such as preliminary training and transport to the “war zone”, at which point the local authorities will take over.

When talking about Rus’-centric nationalism, a prominent group is Storm Group Rusich (referred to simply as Rusich from now on) which is, curiously, a favourite all around. Although the Rusich group is only a few dozen strong, it has become quite popular with pro-Novorossiyan media and has caught a lot of attention from western social media sources . It is to be found within the 1st battalion “Viking” of the 1st brigade of the “DPR” army corps which embraces the same kind of ideology although to a much lesser extreme. Just south of the Viking battalion is the 5th Battalion Tactical Group of the Republican Guard commanded by Aleksander “Varyag” Matyushin, who was far more vocal with his nationalist ideas before the fighting started. The culture of this battalion is similar in many ways to “Viking”, although more geared towards a revival of the Russian monarchy rather than being infatuated with Rus’/Viking symbolism (although they are no strangers to such things). This rather odd mix of interests makes it one of the more ideologically confused groups in the conflict. But one thing all of these groups do have in common is a distaste towards the “DPR” leadership and the “communists, socialists and Chechens” which hold the front line in the capital region.

Viking Battalion, Russian nationalists of the

Viking Battalion, Russian nationalists of the “DPR”

Varyag group

“More enemies, more honour!”

Ironically, the infamous Azov battalion of Ukraine, to be found on the other side of the front lines, espouses similar views and symbology. Azov has taken criticism from western and Russian media alike for its strong nationalistic overtones and use of symbols rooted in the regional ancient culture long irrelevant to everyday life by now. Azov embraces symbology tied to Germanic neo-paganism. The most notable example being the unit logo which features the black sun – most commonly associated with Nazi symbology. Recently the logo has transitioned into something resembling the SS twin lightning flash symbol. Rusich, which in the past has engaged in battle with Azov, is more partial to Slavic neo-paganism as evidenced by their usage of the Kolovrat – the Slavic equivalent of the black sun, however they do at times use Germanic neo-pagan symbology. A qualified guess as to why both sides employ such symbology is used is that they consider the old Vikings, both Rus’ and Scandic/Germanic, to be the ultimate representations of whiteness and that they in turn believe that employing such symbology will make them culturally pure. On top of this, these symbols all tie in to the Rus’ state run by the Varangians back in medieval times, suggesting strong nostalgia for a “pure” Russian state.
The use of neo-paganism amongst these militia groups seems more for cultural and ideological purposes than religious ones, Rusich being the only known exception which actually carries out heathen rituals, footage of these rituals used to be publically available but were taken down due to negative attention. There is also a high presence of Russian imperial symbology. This is especially popular with the 5th Battalion Tactical Group of the Republican Guard, which finds inspiration from different times at which Russia and its predecessors were considered to be great on their own, in this way, neo-pagan symbology does not directly clash with the Orthodox Christian undertones of Imperial Russian symbolism.

Such strong symbology attracts many new outside fighters who recognise this symbology as an invitation to fight for their cause. These fighters often stem from various nationalist groups like Russian National Unity but also nationalist groups from countries outside Russia’s sphere of influence. In fact the most prominent fighters from Rusich are not even native to Russia. Rusich’s leader Alexey “Serb” Yurevich is a young Serb, with somewhat of a celebrity status in “Novorossiya” and Russia, even taking a trip to St. Petersburg with a Norwegian neo-nazi from his platoon last year to attend a conference with active duty Russian service members. These two fighters receive the majority of pro-Russian media attention in the form of interviews and airtime when they have announcements to make.

Although the most prolific groups with nationalistic ideals of this kind are mostly situated along the southern “DPR” front, small groups with similar views of neo-monarchism and Slavic neo-paganism are starting to pop up in Lugansk, both in Cossack units as well as independent brigades. This is no great surprise as Rusich began as a Lugansk militia group. But it does seem to be colliding with what seems to be an attempt by higher powers to concentrate that brand of nationalism in one place. This might address a fear that groups of opposing views could turn against each other in the absence of a tangible common enemy if ceasefires hold.

It is not uncommon for militia units to operate vigilante night patrols and enforce their own forms of localised martial law: the “DPR” leadership may have chosen one of the least densely populated regions for the least-disciplined of parts of their militia which they have less control over. The “DPR” in particular appears to be reacting to fears of infighting, effectively militarizing the political party “Donetsk Republic” which holds the majority of seats in the “People’s Council”, the legislature of “DPR”. This is being done by accepting large amounts of soldiers from the same units to join the party , .

Donetsk and Lugansk have been host to many lethal power plays between militia groups and the local governments. The assassination of Aleksey Mozgovoi, the former commander of the “LPR” Separate Mechanized Battalion “Prizrak”, is one of the better known examples. Mozgovoi was vocally critical of the “Novorossiyan” leaderships and survived one assassination attempt before being killed in the second. Other militia leaders have suffered the same fate, or have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

There are many different politically charged militia groups within “Novorossiya”. The ones this article focuses on are the most notable in the context of political ideology or because of the extreme nationalist nature of their beliefs.

There is cause for concern here.  Such a large collection of militia groups with more or less the same nationalist ideology in a small region with a power vacuum still being filled is dangerous. This could have serious internal political and security implications for the ruling governments of these de facto states, which have a history of less than ideal ways of dealing with opposition. In the long run, if these factors do lead to instability, it will mean more trouble for the Donbass region and its stakeholders.

At the international level, where people come from abroad to fight for a common nationalist cause, returning fighters could pose a security risk to their home nation.  The prospect of the pro-Russian nationalism in its different forms having a recent military experience is worrisome.

Afghanistan: Ground conflict intensifies

September 28, 2015

Summary: ground conflict flaring up in the north and east initiated by Taliban and “ISIS” groups.  Some reports suggest part of Kunduz now in Taliban hands

Embedded image permalink

Kunduz – officials fleeing to the airport…

Update, 28 September: BBC and others are reporting part of Kunduz has fallen into Taliban hands:

BBC, 28 September 2015: Hundreds of Taliban fighters have stormed the strategic northern Afghan city of Kunduz, seizing control of half of it, police say.

Militants have occupied some government buildings, including a prison, and heavy fighting is continuing.

One report said the Taliban had raised their flag in the city centre.

The government said at least 25 militants and two Afghan policemen had been killed and that reinforcements had been sent to the city.

Monday’s attack appears to be one of the most significant mounted on a provincial capital by the Taliban, correspondents say.

Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Husaini told the BBC’s Mahfouz Zubaide that militants had captured the jail in Kunduz and freed about 500 prisoners, including members of the Taliban.

The Taliban, for their part, are reporting their fighters are in the city centre:

Kunduz Update: Mujahideen reach the main square

The attacks launched on Kunduz city by Mujahideen early this morning are said to be still ongoing at the moment.

Officials reporting from the city say that Mujahideen have so far overrun a police station, 4 check posts; from direction of Kabul Bandar Zakhel village,  Se Darak area, 200 bed hospital, Amrullah Omar Khel compound and Bagh Zara’at area; from Imam Sahib Bandar directon Sheikh Zahir village, Zar Kharid area and 2 check posts.

So far 15 police are confirmed killed, dozens wounded, Commander Bashir detained, 7 vehicles, 2 motorbikes, 3 RPGs, 3 PKMS, 13 AK rifles and a sizable amount of other equipment seized.

Mujahideen have currently reached the main city intersection, are targeting the governors compound and clearing the small remaining pockets from enemy presence.

More details about the operation will be updated as information arrives.


There is a lot of activity going on in Afghanistan, most of it unhelpful.  It seems as if fighting has increased in the north and east of the country.  Reports suggest that the Taliban are making renewed and sustained efforts to pressurise and ultimately seize the north-eastern city of Kunduz.  Earlier this year, Kunduz was making the headlines for similar reasons.

Voice of America, 28 September 2015: Taliban militants have launched an assault from several directions on the strategic northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz.

Police say government forces are fighting the insurgents in at least three Kunduz locations. A police spokesman said “heavy fighting is ongoing in Khanabad, Chardara and at Imam Saheb, the main entrances to the city.”

The coordinated attacks began early Monday.

Insurgents have been involved in intense fighting in the once tranquil province of Kunduz since April.

On top of this, reports that large-scale attacks by ISIS have been made in the eastern province of Nangarhar against police outposts.

The fall of a significant city would be very bad for the government and a significant morale boost for the Taliban who are struggling with unity issues after the death of Mullah Omar in July.  But information (the battle progress, casualties, objectives on both side) is sketchy – a fairly constant problem in the conflict in Afganistan, particularly now that ISAF has pulled out.

Sunday in eastern Afghanistan, authorities said hundreds of Islamic State militants staged a coordinated pre-dawn attack against key security outposts in Nangarhar province. Afghan forces have forced the extremists to retreat.

Officials said it was the first major attack by Islamic State militants against Afghan forces, coming after months of reports that the extremist group is becoming more and more powerful in Afghanistan.

We should be careful about the use of the term “ISIS” but it is very possible – indeed likely – that some former Taliban and HIG groups are rebadging themselves in part as a reaction to internal Taliban problems and also due to the high profile and rise of ISIS – this is the group to be seen to be in.

IBN Live, 27 September 2015: The attacks in Achin were confirmed by the border police commander in eastern Afghanistan, Mohammad Ayoub Hussainkhail. They came a day after a UN report warned that IS was making inroads in Afghanistan, winning over a growing number of sympathisers and recruiting followers in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces.

Afghan security forces told UN sanctions monitors that about 10 per cent of the Taliban insurgency are IS sympathisers, according to the report by the UN’s al-Qaeda monitoring team.

The jihadist group has been trying to establish itself in Afghanistan and challenging the Taliban on their own turf.

Some Taliban insurgents, particularly in the restive eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, have adopted the IS flag to rebrand themselves as a more lethal force as NATO combat troops depart after 14 years of war.

Vice President, Dr Abduallh Abdullah has recently acknowledged government problems in meeting the popular expectations for progress:

Voice of America, 27 September 2015: He admitted that the National Unity Government has not clearly communicated to the Afghan people about what he called “harsh realities” — the challenges they face from poverty and the threat from Islamic terrorists.

Attacks from the Taliban have grown and Islamic State is starting to take advantage of the leadership dispute among the Taliban.

But Abdullah said the government has so far achieved mixed success. Despite a contested presidential election that put the country in political limbo for months last year, Abdullah said the Afghan people have a revived confidence in the political process and the government.

Both sides – government and insurgents – still have problems but both are still in the fight.  This is stalemate and nothing on the horizon resembling either constructive talks or something to tip the balance.  Small wonder why Afghans are still leaving the country in droves:

Al Jazeera, 16 September 2015: Afghanistan’s passport department has been inundated with applicants.

According to the passport agency’s employees, they are now issuing an average of 2,000 passports a day, a threefold increase from six months ago. Unofficial reports from one border crossing in Nimruz province claim that over 8,000 Afghans cross into Iran on a daily basis. The total number may be much higher, given Afghanistan’s porous borders and multiple crossing points.

Taliban Eid address – no surprises?

September 25, 2015

Summary: The new Taliban leader’s Eid address was probably produced by the same team that produced the old leader’s words. It unsurprisingly continues the themes of previous addresses: the nearness of the (now 14 year) jihad to victory, multiple calls for unity, the importance of avoiding civilian casualties and the removal of foreign forces as a precondition for talks. Mullah Mansour looks to be emphasising continuity as he attempts to placate and incorporate Taliban unhappy with his appointment.

Taliban flag

Mansour's Eid address, September 2015

Mansour’s Eid address, September 2015

The new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mansour, has given his first official address on the Taliban’s official website, congratulating Muslims on the occasion of Eid ul Adha.

A 2,950-word statement, twice as long as last year’s address, begins by sending condolences on the death of his predecessor, Mullah Omar.  It talks of the struggles of the fourteen year jihad under Omar and stresses that he, Mansour, will struggle with the burden of leadership unless he receives help and cooperation.

Mansour describes the Taliban’s “jihad” as “nearing its victory” but cautions that the enemy is trying to sow “dischord and

Taliban leader: Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour

Taliban leader: Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour

distrust among the Mujahideen by utilizing propaganda stratagems” by a variety of means. He warns of “baseless rumors”.
Mansour accuses the Kabul government of harassing the Afghan populace and reminds his own fighters not to cause civilian casualties and to show the population respect:

“Mujahideen are not allowed, under any circumstance, to resort to activities based on their own discretion that are contrary to sharia or you have in mind some goals which do not coincide with the pleasure of the Almighty Allah but which only pleases the intrinsic whims of your souls.”

The Taliban’s Political Office is described as “the only exclusive” means of engaging in talks and it is made clear that intra-Afghan talks, with the Afghan government renouncing treaties with “invaders” is the only way to achieve peace in Afghanistan.

The address dismisses international construction work in Afghanistan as “short-terms and are of low quality and spurious” and warns of the rise of militias, warlords and ethnic clashes.

The style, tone and themes employed here are not significantly different to previous Eid addresses attributed to Mullah Omar and we should not expect them to be. Earlier statements had been produced under Mullah Omar’s name when he was – we have now established – already dead. It is likely that the statements are joint efforts from within a group inside the Taliban’s core “Quetta Shura” Leadership Council. It may well be that Mullah Mansour played a key role in directing previous statements.

Eid address attributed to Mullah Omar, October 2014

Eid address attributed to Mullah Omar, October 2014

Mansour seemingly acknowledges the struggles he still has to convince all Taliban supporters that he is now the legitimate head of the Taliban. He refers to the need for support for him and unity for the movement. Beyond the calls for unity – which we noted with increasing regularity in earlier “Mullah Omar” addresses – come other familiar themes:

  •  the Jihad is very close to victory
  • beware the enemy attempts to create divisions in the Taliban through propaganda and the spreading of rumours
  • The population are being mistreated by the Afghan regime – the Taliban must treat the people well and do all that is possible to avoid civilian casualties
  • The only way ahead for talks is for the Afghan regime to renounce all treaties and engagement with the international community and settle the conflict Afghan to Afghan
  • Warnings of inter-ethnic tensions and the rise of militias and warlords

The Islamic Emirate believes if the country is not under occupation, the problem of the Afghans can be resolved through intra-Afghan understanding. Any foreign pressure under the pretext of resolving the Afghan problem, is not going to resolve the problem but will rather create other problems.

If the Kabul Administration wants to end the war and establish peace in the country, it is possible through ending the occupation and revoking all military and security treaties with the invaders.

Analysis and Outlook

The sense from this address is that the new Mullah Mansour era wants to present a united front and “business as usual” vice any new ideas or initiatives. This is perhaps unsurprising given the power struggles and challenges to his legitimacy that have been revealed through the late summer and autumn.  Mansour has, in the past, been seen more as a political and pro-talks animal than an out and out fighting jihadi.  However, while Mansour is attempting to consolidate, he is unlikely to want to lurch in any new directions, even if he does have new ideas.

Perhaps Mansour wants to make it through the winter. Fighting will inevitably subside as the weather worsens. This might allow a breathing space in which he can develop support, plans and consider any new strategies. We might have to wait until the Spring of 2016 to see the fruits of these deliberations.  However, there is no guarantee that new ideas will be forthcoming.  The twin messages “the fight continues” and “no talks until the last foreign invader has left Afghan soil” remain difficult-to-shift dead weights around the neck of the leadership, throttling flexibility, regardless of who is in charge.

Afghanistan and the sexual abuse of children

September 22, 2015

Summary: Sexual abuse and grooming of young children (mainly boys) for sexual abuse remains a repugnant, so-called “cultural” practice in Afghanistan.  Whether, when and how to challenge it remains a significant dilemma for international forces keen to keep anti-Taliban forces cooperative and effectively fighting the Taliban

A disturbing report in the New York Times highlights a problem too often swept under the carpet:

WASHINGTON — A report describing how American forces looked the other way as powerful Afghans raped boys with impunity — an issue that long plagued the war effort in Afghanistan — prompted declarations of outrage in Washington on Monday, but officials said the problem was ultimately for Afghans to solve.

The Pentagon insisted that it never ordered troops to ignore any kind of rights abuse. But among American military personnel and civilians who served in Afghanistan, it was well-known that many wealthy and prominent Afghans rape boys, often making them dress up as women and dance at gatherings during which they are assaulted — and that Western officials often turned a blind eye to the practice for fear of alienating allies.

With the bulk of American troops now gone from Afghanistan, the resignation among American officials over a practice that many described as “abhorrent” was evident on Monday. It seemed to reflect the fact that while the rape of boys may shock foreigners and infuriate Afghans, it is only one of the many problems in Afghanistan.

Western forces in Afghanistan have struggled to reconcile the need to defeat the Taliban with the corruption, nepotism, and a host of other abuses conducted by those anti-Taliban forces with which they must cooperate in order to achieve that goal.

Looking the other way when some petrol goes missing is moderately straightforward. Photos of ISAF troops walking through fields of poppy brought some controversy but could just about be sold on the basis that local livelihoods are being destroyed with nothing to replace it.  British troops (amongst others, I am sure), reported situations where Afghan police in Helmand were revealing British fighting positions by the simple process of standing by them long enough to enable Taliban fighters to get a fix.  The sexual abuse of young children – mainly boys (see Bacha Bazi)- by warlords is way over on the other end of the scale and begs the question: when is “local cultural values” insufficient as a defence and should be challenged?  There is a to and fro debate in the US regarding whether US forces have been instructed to ignore abuses.  The Pentagon argues that it is not official policy, nor have instructions been issued, that US personnel in Afghanistan should ignore reporting sexual crimes.

Military Times, dated 21 September 2015: A Florida congressman demanded the Pentagon make clear its opposition to child sexual abuse and offer some protection for troops who tried to stop the heinous crime while serving in Afghanistan. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., called the revelations in the Times report disgraceful and disturbing.

“Protecting child predators is abhorrent and inconsistent with our values as a nation,” he wrote in a letter Monday to Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “It is bad enough if the Pentagon is telling our soldiers to ignore this type of barbaric and savage behavior, but it’s even worse if we are punishing those who try to stop it.”

Also on Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif, fired off a letter asking the Pentagon to provide “any and all existing Department of Defense legal guidance regarding the reporting of child abuse.” Hunter also recently asked the Defense Department’s inspector general to review the Army’s handling of a soldier who was punished for his aggressive response to the child sexual abuse in Afghanistan.

Top military officials said Monday that there is no written regulation requiring troops to turn a blind eye.

“There is no such policy that U.S. troops should not report or intervene in situations where children are being sexually abused,” said Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

I sincerely hope that that is the case.  But of course “official policy” can mean different things.  I am guessing that a US officer on the ground might face a few administrative, bureaucratic and even career-threatening hurdles if he attempt to press home an official complaint that undermined a key anti-Taliban warlord whose forces were holding together the security of a wobbly province.

Definitely need to watch this issue…

DIIS conference: NATO after Ukraine – back to basics?

September 10, 2015

Summary: There are many evolving and complex global challenges facing the NATO Alliance. Russian fears and vulnerabilities have pushed it into overt and heavy-handed military adventures. But the military threat to NATO posed by this activity is more about accident and miscalculation than about an existential threat to the NATO Alliance, despite the concerns of Eastern European member nations. For NATO to design its future expenditure, planning and training solely around the notion that “it is just about Russia” would be misguided.

NATO symbol, flags and HQThe North Atlantic treaty Organisation (NATO) was established in 1949, shortly after the massive power shift in Europe brought about by the conclusion of the Second World War. Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” saw the expansion of Soviet military power right into the heart of central Europe. Western powers wanted security agreements: “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down”.

Its prime raison d’etre was Article V of the Treaty which declared that an attack on one member was an attack on all. It was written at a time when there could be only one enemy: the Soviet Union.

NATO expansion through the agesThe official line now: “It is often said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union. This is only partially true. In fact, the Alliance’s creation was part of a broader effort to serve three purposes: deterring Soviet expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent, and encouraging European political integration.”

NATO remained in existence after the demise of its former foe, the Soviet Union. It was involved militarily in the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s, notably the bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, there has been much debate about what NATO’s role could and should be. Many saw it as a natural progression for NATO to develop an expeditionary capability that could allow it to operate “out of area”. Article V has thus far been invoked only once: in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 suicide attacks on the US mainland by the international Islamic terrorist group, Al Qaeda. NATO forces, as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 and remained there formally until December 2014, engaging in a complex and costly counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban.

With the return of a seemingly more obvious threat from Russia, following its annexation of the Crimea and its sponsorship of a conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region, there is a sense amongst many commentators that, after a deeply unpleasant “out of areas” experience, NATO should perhaps get back to basics and concentrate on European security.

I attended a conference organised by the Danish Institute for International Studies on Tuesday 8th September to hear a discussion addressing precisely this point.
“NATO after Ukraine: Time to go back to basics?”

The speakers were:

Karsten Jakob Möller (General Rtd., DIIS senior analyst)
Flemming Spidsboel (DIIS Senior Researcher)
Trine Flockhart (Prof. International Relations, University of Kent)
John Deni (Research Professor, US Army War College)

How things change. The introduction noted that the 60th anniversary of NATO, in 2009, had been a very different world. NATO was heavily engaged in Afghanistan and many NATO members were also operating in Iraq. There was a global financial crisis unfolding and the talk was of NATO expanding and finding/developing new roles.
It was also pointed out that, even relatively recently, in 2002, a DIIS paper had considered the possibility (under the title “Thinking the Unthinkable”) that Russia might even end up joining NATO.

How serious is the Russian threat?

Karsten Jakob Möller

• Important to consider the perspective from Moscow – it feels threatened – an extension of Russia’s historical insecurity of the “enemy at the gate”.
• Putin has been warning about the West’s arrogance. In 2007 he spoke of Western exceptionalism, bending the rules of world order to suit Western agendas. He warned NATO not to expand any further.
• Ukraine as an “open wound” – Russia cannot understand why Ukraine wants independence and sees the Ukraine revolution as a Western/CIA-orchestrated plot. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine will keep a certain level of instability to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.
• Military muscle-flexing is being applied by Russia towards Sweden and Finland, to prevent them entertaining ideas about joining NATO.
• But the Russian Army still has problems – it has poorly educated conscripts but is trying to field increasingly high-tech weapons systems.
• The Baltic states and Poland are very concerned – Russia has a habit of delivering very heavy-handed warnings.
• There is not so much that is new about “Hybrid Warfare” but it does raise the question of how NATO addresses Article V when it is increasingly difficult to define an attack.
• Russian military doctrine has not changed so much from 2010.
• Despite the Russian budget increases and investment in new hardware, they will never catch up with the US and are currently doing no more than trying to make up for the lack of investment in the 1990s.
• The real risk comes from a war by accident.

russian soldiers on paradeFlemming Spidsboel

• Russia’s perspective – the West/US monopolising international systems to intervene as it wishes.
• The 2008 war with Georgia possibly intended as a warning to the West. Russia’s “quasi-ideology” of political competitiveness – a state goes to the wall if it cannot adapt and change.
• NATO only started to crop in Russian military doctrines as “the threat” by 2000. It is becoming the excuse – the threat to distract Russians from all their internal problems.
• Military threat from Russia: it does not pose a threat t NTO – not even in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and not into the long-term. The Russian defence budget is mainly “catch up” and corruption, kickbacks and other inefficient use of the budget will hamper its full impact.
• The non-military threat – increasingly sophisticated propaganda – Sputnik radio station. But Lithuania was short-sighted when it closed down access to Russian media. It is difficult to find evidence that Russia is a threat to NATO’s internal cohesion.
• But we do have another Cold War and need to revise training and expenditure.


What did NATO get wrong? We didn’t consult enough with the Russians and we under-estimated the extent to which NATO was being made the culprit for a range of Russian problems. The West has been “extremely arrogant” – a large part of the world no longer wants to accept this.

Back to Basics in a changing strategic environment

Trine Flockhart

• The “back to basics” narrative has arisen in the aftermath of Crimea/East Ukraine – the idea that NATO should return to its core value of a defensive alliance. But this is flawed.
• The Ukraine crisis did not come out of nowhere – there are huge global changes underway of a greater impact even than the end of the Cold War.
• The NATO Summit in Wales in 2014 approved, amongst other things: Readiness Action Plan, 2% spending goal, collective defence (and training for it) and an enhanced ability to counter hybrid warfare.
• The problems with “Back to Basics”:

o It implies that going back is possible
o It emphasises only one aspect of a changing environment
o It defines what is politically possible but ignores what is strategically necessary
o It is effectively “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” when what is really needed is a dry dock overhaul…

• The B2B narrative is therefore flawed: NATO was always a defensive alliance, it was always about collective defence (Art V) and collective security (Art II). Since the Balkans, NATO has been an expeditionary security organisation engaged in crisis management: “Out of Area or Out of Business”!
• If NATO was purely about defence it would have disbanded in 1992, but it has three legs that allow it flex – defence, cooperation and crisis management.
• B2B hearkens back to a mythical era that was not there.
• There are other symptoms of bigger changes/challenges:

o Changing global power relations – decline of Europe and US
o New forms of international actors – eg ISIS
o Challenges to Western liberal principle and practice
o Lack of legitimate global institutions, eg UN, World Bank
o Changes in demographics/migration
o Changes in technology and access to it
o Environmental change
o New and emerging threats
o New practices in war – cyber and hybrid

• Julianne Smith talks of an “era of compounding complexity” – challenges grow exponentially rather than by addition. Complex trends interact with one another and new security challenges emerge.
• Ironically, NATO has a lot of good, forward-looking, horizon-scanning, planning capability (Allied Command Transformation, Comprehensive Strategy Guidance, Defence Planning, Division for Emerging Security Challenges, Policy Planning Unit…). But still the B2B narrative dominates.
• The international order is going through a period of major transformative change: from multi-polar (pre-WWII), through bi-polar (Cold War, 1945 – 1990), though uni-polar (US dominance from 1991 to present) to multi-order.
• In this coming multi-order world there will be major challenges for NATO. B2B gives a politically convenient framework to make it look as if something is being done…
• NATO should:

o Implement the agreements made in Wales but do not see that then as “job done”, but rather the bare minimum.
o Understand the new transatlantic bargain – Europe must take more responsibility for itself as the US pivots to the Pacific – new division of labour and political willingness to get hands dirty.
o Understand the importance of partnerships as a diplomatic tool – values-based partnerships as an alternative to membership – eg Georgia and Ukraine?

John Deni

• NATO is rebalancing after a long time of imbalance – COIN, reconstruction, Afghanistan…
• Many allies want the Capacity to undertake Out Of Area operations as well.
• How can NATO effectively do all three of its legs – collective defence, crisis management and defence cooperation?
o Collective defence: there is a credibility gap. NATO has problems projecting its power around Europe – high readiness forces often found wanting (failure to be able to deploy in response to Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968). NATO’s ability to undertake combined manoeuvre warfare has atrophied.
o Crisis Management: NATO needs to maintain a security horizon beyond Europe and be able to undertake expeditionary and stability operations.
o Cooperative security: NATO can spread itself too thinly – too many initiatives coming out of Wales summit (establishing 21 “Centres of Excellence”?) particularly as manpower and budgets shrink.
• It is clear the Russia is not interested in partnership with NATO and pursues a zero-sum game. Geography is driving Russia’s foreign policy – Russia’s lack of defensible borders.


The most interesting engagement at the end came from a representative from the Russian Embassy asked two questions:
Q1: Why at this sort of conference, have Russian speakers not been invited – it is much better, surely to have a dialogue? KJM answered – we have tried so many times to engage with Russian speakers. Often they are booked and simply do not turn up.
Q2: It is clear that NATO intends to have as many members as possible – what is the assessment of the readiness of Ukraine and Georgia? JD answered – it is entirely inaccurate that NATO wants as many as possible. And, in any case, NATO has a rule that a country may not join NATO if it has an ongoing armed conflict. Mr Putin has very effectively exploited this by ensuring, with slow-burn conflicts in both Ukraine and Georgia, that it is not possible for either to join.


A very useful set of complimentary and clear-eyed presentations. It was perhaps a little surprising to hear the military threat from Russia downplayed quite as much as it was – small comfort to tiny Baltic states that could be swallowed in a gulp by even a quarter-way competent Russian military force. I can see some analytical divisions on this between Western and Eastern European member nations (the next NATO summit is due to be in Warsaw in 2016, if there is a clue there as to likely agenda).

But Trine Flockhart’s wider contextual thoughts on the growing complexity of global challenges in the multi-order world – and how NATO should throw off the naivety of a back to basics approach – were particularly compelling.

From my own local perspective, it was also interesting that Sweden and Finland waere mentioned at several points – albeit briefly – as a) potential NATO members and, therefore, b) possible targets for Russian “heavy-handed” demonstrations.

The “vicious circle” nature of the problem is stark:

Country a feels threatened by Russian posturing
Country a joins alliance to improve security prospects
Russia feels threatened by country a joining a security alliance and resorts to more military posturing
Country b then feels threatened…

With the risk of accident or miscalculation ever present at every stage…

“The younger generation is leaving the country”: migration from Afghanistan increasing?

September 8, 2015

Summary: Instability and uncertainty remain major problems for Afghanistan.  More evidence of migration of young Afghans away from their country.

Afghan map outlineAn interesting and worrying report from NBC News, highlighting what seems to be a surge in young Afghans leaving the country to escape the violence and to seek new life opportunities. Kabul bus station is witnessing a dramatic increase in the demand for seats on buses for border provinces (eg Nimruz in the country’s south west) as a springboard out.

NBC News, 5 September 2015: Business has never been better for Mohammad Nassir, a manager in the Afghan capital’s main bus station. And it fills him with grief.

“The young generation is leaving the country,” said Nassir, who works for Tolo Bus Services. “I see families saying goodbye to their loved ones for the last time and it breaks my heart.”
“I should be happy because for me business is booming — it has gone up by four times — but I am not happy at all,” he said.

Nassir is witnessing an Afghan exodus as civilians across the country flee spiraling violence and uncertainty. Until two months ago, between 15 and 20 buses, each carrying up to 55 passengers, set off for the border province of Nimruz every day. That number has jumped to between 70 and 80 buses, Nassir said.”

The report also quotes UN figures that support this:

“NBC News, 5 September 2015: While many are settling in neighboring countries, a growing number are making the arduous trip to Europe. According to the United Nation’s refugee agency UNHCR, 77,731 Afghans applied for asylum in Europe in the first six months of 2015 — up from 24,154 who did so in the same period in 2014. Afghans are second only to Syrians in claiming asylum in Europe, the UNHCR numbers show.
And on Thursday, the government’s Afghan government’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations said it had witnessed “unprecedented” levels of migration toward European countries.”

As a barometer for the country’s current and future prospects, this kind of information is valuable and alarming. It is caused by several interwoven factors:

Afghans are voting with their feet where, a few years ago, they were voluntarily electing to return.

And from the other persective, Afghans are resisiting returning to the country.  The issue of forced repatriation of Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan remains controversial for a country which is still experiencing great difficulties in providing resources and security for the existing population. The new Afghan Minister for Repatriation and Refugees, Mr. Hossein Alami Balkhi, issued an urgent appeal, in February 2015, for all countries to stop forced returns of Afghans. Mr Balkhi was particularly concerned about the plight of women and children, those with mental and physical problems, those who are particularly vulnerable and those being sent back to provinces still considered dangerous. Your client is likely to fall within these categories given his mental health and documented vulnerabilities along with coming from Kunar province which is dangerous as it remains a centre of significant activity for the Taliban.

In an interview with a Norwegian journalist on 21 February, the Minister explained himself thus (with my emphasis in bold, I have also lightly edited it for typos):

“Considering the current situation of Afghanistan we sent a letter through the foreign ministry to all those countries with whom the MOUs were signed to revise the MOUs and do not return anyone back to Afghanistan. whether they are single or with family, until we make new agreements. They shouldn’t deport anyone because we can’t take care of them here…I have long term plans, but we have to wait until we can execute those plans. I am sure if there are opportunities in Afghanistan, the Afghans will return back to their country voluntarily. We have requested the deporting countries through letters not to deport anyone, because we cannot take care of them here. Literally if they deport anyone back to Afghanistan we would not accept them in the airport and they will have to take them back. The reason behind doing this is that in the MOUs that were signed with receiving countries it was clearly stated that only those will be returned back to Afghanistan whose provinces are safe and they are able to live in those provinces. But most of the people who have been deported since now are from the provinces that are very dangerous to live in and it is impossible for the deportees to go and live in those provinces…It is not sensible to say that all these people should be returned back to Kabul. Norwegian authorities argue that if the provinces that the deportees come from are dangerous then they can be returned back to Kabul, because Kabul is safe. There is no logic behind this kind of statement. It is not possible to re-settle 7 million returnees who are living in exile only in Kabul. Kabul does not have the capacity to take care of this many returnees. It will also be insensible to say that only those who have been returned from Norway should be re-settled in Kabul. It is clearly stated in the MOUs that they should be re-settled back to the provinces they have come from, not Kabul.”

The Minister’s statements do not appear to have been converted into official government policy. But in June 2015, President Ashraf Ghani strongly echoed Minister Balkhi’s sentiments in a speech made on World Refugee Day, the 20th June. 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.” [1]

The European migration “crisis” is unlikely to end any time soon.

Mullah Mansour biography

September 2, 2015

Summary: In the context of Taliban unity difficulties, the bland biography of new leader of the Taliban trips over itself to show him as a worthy – and totally legitimate – successor to Mullah Omar. While offering nothing on the new leader’s likely political and military directions, it gives interesting clues as to past, present and future Taliban concerns.

Taliban leader: Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour

Taliban leader: Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour

Well you certainly cannot accuse the Taliban of not trying to learn from their media mistakes. Mullah Omar’s biography was launched twenty years after it would have been timely and two years after his death. The Taliban leadership have been slightly more pro-active this time. Within a few weeks of his appointment as Taliban leader, their media machine has launched the biography of their new Amir ul Momineem (Leader of the Faithful), Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour on their official website.
Mullah Mansour was the official deputy head of the Taliban and was appointed the replacement to Omar shortly after news of Omar’s death (which the Taliban now give as 23 April 2013) broke in late July 2015. He was appointed with, according to some commentators and Taliban members, with unseemly haste. The validity of the confirmation process appears to be in dispute and official Taliban media have tried their best to deflect accusations that Mullah Mansour is not the legitimate heir.
This biography – it’s content and timing – should be seen in this context. The two previous statements on the Talban official website at the time of the biography’s release were both strong calls for unity.

The biography

The biog itself is 4,700 words long and, after a preamble that pays respects to the late Mullah Omar and emphasises the key mentoring and ideological importance of the leader, is comprised several distinct headed and chronological sections:

a) His birth (1968, Maiwand district, Kandahar province)
b) Early Education (religious madrassas and limited, failed to complete secondary education)
c) His Jihadi and political struggle (Fought the Soviets from 1985 in the Kandahar area. Wounded in 1987. Injured in 1997 in Mazar-e Sharif area)
d) His foundational role in the Islamic Movement of Taliban (in the Taliban from 1994 “crucial role”. Commanded Kandahar air and air defence systems. In 1996 became Minister of Aviation and Tourism and headed defence ministry air and air defence. Responsible for repairing and developing military and civil aviation)
e) Armed resistance against the American invasion (Member of Taliban’s supreme leadership council, responsible for Kandahar region)
f) As the Deputy Head of the Islamic Emirate (Appointed second deputy to Omar in 2007, became the only deputy to Omar in 2010 with the capture of Mullah Obaidullah and Mullah Berader)
g) After the passing away of Amir-ul-Momineen Mohammad Umar Mujahid (Appointed as Omar’s successor)
h) As the new selected Amir (leader) of the Islamic Emirate (leaders, intellectuals, political and culture figures all pledge allegiance to Mansour)
i) His appointment as new leader from Shariah point of view (Mansour’s appointment was fully compliant with Sharia law)
j) His leading and charismatic personality (“unique leading and guiding capabilities…Piety, sincerity, Jihadi vison…”)
k) His vision and ideological perspectives (Fully aware of regional and international political issues…gravity and dignity…keenly follows the media”)
l) His routine life and some of his characteristics (Likes “marksmanship”…”speaks less and tries to listen more…dislikes extravagance”)

The structure and style is very similar to the Mullah Omar biography. It is bland, uninspiring (at least to a Western reader), largely uninformative and rather predictable).  There are no clues as to Mansour’s likely political and military directions although the loose impressions given suggest more of the same to come.

It is naturally very keen to position Mansour as the natural and legitimate successor to Mullah Omar. The fact that so much time is devoted to demonstrating his jihadi credentials and the legitimacy of the electoral process perhaps shows Taliban sensitivity – and even vulnerability – to this issue.

Curiously, a lot of wordage (dwarfing descriptions of his military prowess are devoted to Mansours administrative and organisation skills in organising and developing all manner of civilian and military air assets – to the extent of providing an itemised list of damaged transport planes, fighter jets and helicopters for which Mansour was responsible for arranging the repair.

Where Mansour’s recent military activities are referred to, they are generally bland and uninformative. Kandahar prison breakouts are referred to in 2003 and 2008. These were spectacular Taliban propaganda victories at the time. Mansour is not lauded as the architect of these operations, which are less powerfully described as taking place while Mansour was in charge of the Kandahar.

The biography acknowledges the “huge military pressure” the Taliban were under in and around 2010. They appear to offer this as the reason for Omar’s lack of visibility and a reason for the importance of Mullah Mansour as the key deputy in pushing things forward.  The word “vacuum” – ie lack of Taliban control occurs twice. Hinting that command and control was a real problem for the Taliban, the biog notes:

Respected Mansur Sahib, with the divine help of Almighty Allah and aid of the leading council of the Islamic Emirate, successfully managed to control and lead the ongoing armed resistance in such an admirable way that no leadership vacuum was ever felt by the Mujahidin.

Interestingly, during the course of this description of the battles of 2010, the Taliban, describing the casualties of ISAF at this time, use the figure of 770 ISAF personnel killed and describe this as the peak.

It was the year 2010 which would prove to be the most fatal and costly year for foreign crusading forces inside Afghanistan. Mujahidin managed to carry out their most fatal campaign against the enemy during the span of that year, forcing them to confess to the deaths of 770 foreign soldiers.

Icasualties give a broadly similar figure of 711. It seems unusual that the Taliban have avoided distortion. My experience of crunching the data of Taliban battlefield claims is now way out of date now, but they are generally highly exaggerated – they must have claimed thousands each year. Have the Taliban accidentally reduced their claims?

There is still something strange about the manner and timing of the release of the information of Omar’s death. My speculation would be that someone (rival insurgent group? internal Taliban faction? Pakistani intelligence? Afghan government? Afghan intelligence?) was attempting to force the Taliban’s hand in an attempt to achieve something (Mansour’s succession? Taliban to engage in talks? Taliban to refrain from talks?). The reason given for concealing Omar’s death (which is given twice in the same paragraph in the biography) is that 2013 was considered by the Taliban to be the critical conflict year

Since 2013 was considered the last year of resistance and struggle for Mujahidin against the foreign invading crusaders therefore several key members of the supreme leading council of the Islamic Emirate and authentic religious scholars together decided on concealing the tragic news of passing away of His Excellency… One of the main reasons behind this decision was due to the fact that 2013 was considered the final year of power testing between the Mujahidin and foreign invaders who in turn had announced that at the end of 2014, all military operations by foreign troops would be concluded.

ISAF had been very publically clear that December 2014 would be the date of departure for the bulk of ISAF troops. It is unclear why 2013 and not the 12 months of 2014 is described here as the “the final year of power testing” by the Taliban. Neither is it clear why Omar’s death was revealed in July 2015 – there is no suggestion that the Taliban themselves took the decision to release it, they merely note that “this depressing news was concealed in an extraordinary way up until 30th July 2015”.

The process accession of Mansour to replace Omar is ambiguous. The biography suggests that “some members” of the supreme council declared allegiance to him [Mansour] on the day Omar died, back in April 2013. But the biog trips over itself to demonstrate the full legitimacy of the process in accordance with Sharia law. Mansour is described as not wanting the job and not putting himself forwards – he “preferred to serve the Emirate as an ordinary worker”. This looks like a formulaic concoction – a true leader is humble and does not want the job.

The biography, having dealt with the weightiest issue of establishing Mansour’s postionas the true leader of the Taliban, concludes with some lines about his personality. This is done in similarly formulaic fashion and emphasises Mansour’s piety and simplicity. His particular interest is “marksmanship” (Omar’s was the RPG-7).

This biography very closely parallels the Mullah Omar biography in style structure and format. In other words it is bland, old fashioned, clunky and out of touch with the modern world. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.The biography doesn’t really tell us that much but we shouldn’t really expect it to.  But still, what it does (and doesn’t) say can give a few significant leads regarding current Taliban concerns, difficulties and weaknesses. They have tried, this time at least, to get some quick information out on their new leader. But this seems mainly designed to bolster his claim to the throne.  This in itself points to a major question of legitimacy.

The Taliban still have a long way to go in the fast-moving world of 21st century propaganda – something that is clearly demonstrated every time you glance over and consider the works of Russia and Islamic State.

Russia/Ukraine: painful history as ugly propaganda…

August 31, 2015

Summary: History isn’t past. It seems the favoured insult in the Russia/Ukraine propaganda war is to accuse the other of being in the SS…

Russia and Ukraine have been provoking each other with accusations and insults coming from the 1940s.

The Russo-German war of 1941-45 was surely the most brutal part of a brutal world war. It seems still to be under-analysed by Western historians, who focus on Mediterranean, Pacific and north-west European campaigns which are presumably easier-to-research.

On the Russian front it was not just the millions of soldiers, employing tens of thousands of tanks, artillery and aircraft, to wage unrestrained warfare over a vast area, it was the appalling range of atrocities, committed on both sides.

A central aspect of this latter history of atrocity was the role of Hitler’s elite formations, the Schutzstaffeln (“defence echelon”, or “protection wing”) – most notoriously known as the SS.

I do not intend to do a detailed study of the SS here, or the Russian Front, for that matter, but just to sketch in the important background. The force expanded from an initial role as a series of Nazi bodyguards and ceremonial troops in the 1930s to a fighting role, in the vanguard as shock troops, known as the Waffen (ie armed or weapon)-SS. These forces combined the cream of Germany’s indoctrinated youth with the best military hardware.

Russia and Ukraine, both parts of the Soviet Union at the time, fought against the Nazi invasion and suffered casualties on a horrific scale.  As the war progressed, so the size and role of SS increased. It surged from a pre-war force of three regiments (approximately 9,000 soldiers) to 38 divisions (around, say, 380,000 soldiers).  Casualties rose as well – the inevitable fate awaiting shock troops – and new fronts opened.  SS troops were engaged in ethnic and political “cleansing” of rear areas and the quality control of recruits was relaxed for these operations which relied more on policing and terror tactics than any military skills.  Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia were particularly subject to Nazi policies of imprisonment, looting, torture and extermination.

Other ethnicities, often from territories newly occupied by the German Army, were brought in to do these less-savoury tasks. Wikipedia suggests a very plausible list of the countries that were represented in the SS and it makes surprising reading for those who may not have travelled this historical area before (UK, France, Sweden, US, India…). It includes soldiers numbering in the thousands from both Russia and Ukraine.

Wikipedia: Foreign SS units were made up from recruits in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium (both Wallonia and Flanders), Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Galicia, Georgia, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia (including Cossack and Tatar, Turkic SSR Republics), Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, Independent State of Croatia, Asian Regiment, Arab Regiment, USA (15-20 volunteers) and a small number of British troops.

Where the controversy arises – and where the propaganda appears to really bite, is the documented role that some Ukrainian and Russian individuals, commanders and larger military bodies played as members of the SS during the 1940s.

My enemy’s enemy…

When the German Army invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 they were invariably welcomed by Ukrainian peasants who had been through various Soviet purges and famines for the previous ten years. This turned into active anti-Nazi partisan resistance once the German intention to subjugate rather than liberate became clear.  In the latter stages of the war, these partisans, empowered by arms, combat experience and nationalist spirit, then turned against Soviet Army as it started to reoccupy Ukraine.  Until a couple of years ago I had not realised that a counter-insurgency between the Ukrainian nationalist partisans and the Soviet Union went on well after the World War Two had finished – even up to 1959.

The Waffen-SS division No. 14 “Galicia” division comprised largely Ukrainian volunteers who fought the Soviet Army. In the dying hours of World War Two, the division was renamed 1st Division of the Ukrainian National Army. Many Ukrainians see the division’s history, including its role in the SS, as part of the birth of modern Ukraine and celebrate the leaders and soldiers as nationalist heroes for fighting against the Soviets.

Let’s balance this out a little. Several hundred thousand of Russian soldiers, of those captured in the big encirclement battles of 1941-42, served in the Wehrmacht. The Russian Liberation Army, under ex-Soviet General Andrey Vlasov, was organised from such Russian prisoners. This seems to have been largely a propaganda force with only a few thousand troops actually fighting in combat. In addition to these forces, a Cossack cavalry division was formed in 1943. The two Cossack cavalry divisions that ultimately emerged were known as the XV Cavalry Corps. They were later (in February 1945) transferred to command of the SS and became the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps.

Waffen SS and Cossacks in Warsaw 1944

Waffen SS and Cossacks on operations in Warsaw, 1944

SS Chief Heinrich Himmler inspects troops of the 14

SS Chief Heinrich Himmler inspects troops of the 14 “Galicia” SS Division in 1944

As part of the Russian response to Ukraine’s Maidan series of protests, Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea and the Russian-sponsored conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian propaganda machine has consistently hurled “Nazi” and “fascist” insults at Ukraine, building on a small germ of truth that can be blown up and distorted.

crimea swastika

Ukraine’s role in World War Two is historically complex. It is also still politically sensitive, particularly to a country that is still weak and vulnerable after a period of revolutionary turmoil and with an ongoing conflict in its east regions. There are still right wing movements (the Right Sector) in the country who celebrate key anniversaries associated with the Galicia division and sport associated logos and beliefs from that period. Some of these groups were involved in the violence associated with the Maidan square demonstrations. However, amidst a fog of provocateurs from all sides, there is still a lack of clarity regarding “who did what to whom”. Unofficial militia battalions (the Azov Battalion is a good example) fighting in the east appear to have connections to right wing organisations and make unconvincing denials when pressed on less savoury ideologies.

So this has been a routine, straightforward and effective Russian propaganda angle. It might be relatively simple for independent analysts, academics and journalists to highlight the crude, clumsy and distorted nature of these attacks, but in the end, much of this sticks – and not just in the local area. I was discussing Ukraine and the Crimea with an intelligent and informed friend of mine in London last year to be asked “But why are we bothering about the Ukraine government? Aren’t they just a bunch of fascists?”.

To bring this up to date, the Ukrainian government has, in the last few days, issued a statement warning that a new Russian offensive inside Eastern Ukraine is imminent.  Nothing new in itself, but Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, Olexander Turchynov, seems to be attempting to replay the Nazi slur straight back to the Russians. It is helpful to read the entire statement to get the context (my bold highlights the Waffen-SS references).

27 August 2015:

Oleksandr Turchynov: In Donbas we confront the military units of the regular army of the Russian Federation, formed by the model of “Waffen-SS”

During the summer of 2015 there were radical changes in the character of Russian engagement in military actions in the East of Ukraine. Now Armed Forces of Ukraine are confronted not by mixed Russian-terrorist groupings, as it was from the beginning of the occupation, but by structured military units of Russian regular army.

At the occupied territory of Donbas the military leadership of Russia has completed the creation of a powerful ground formation, based on two army corps, ready to conduct active offensive operations. Control and supplying of 1st and 2nd army corps are performed by the specially created 12th command of reserve of Southern District of Russia’s Armed Forces (headquarters located in town Novocherkassk, Rostov region of Russia). Key command and staff positions in these army corps are occupied by Russian permanent officers. Enlisted personnel of these corps consists up to 40% of residents of the occupied territory of Donetsk and Lugansk regions, as well as contract soldiers and mercenaries from Russia, who have gained combat experience during the hostilities in the East of Ukraine and in flash points of Russia. The authorized strength of these two army corps is up to 35 thousand men. In addition, at the occupied territory there is a military reserve consisting of 21 tactical groups of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (15 battalion, 6 company groups), numbering more than 9 thousand people. On the eastern border of our country another 53 tactical groups of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are concentrated (39 battalion, 14 company groups) numbering 50,5 thousand people.

The features of forming and functioning of the 1st and 2nd army corps indicate that the Russians for their creation have chosen the model, approbated by the leadership of Germany during World War II and known as the “Waffen SS”.

“Waffen SS” is the military units of “SS” which participated in the combat actions at the front during the World War II. Due to the limitation of their own mobilization resource the leadership of Germany has decided to enlist volunteers, who were citizens of occupied countries. In accordance with the official policy of that time exclusively German nationals could serve in the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces).

There were no such restrictions for the “SS”, so as a part of it special “Waffen-divisions” were created, which consisted of foreign volunteers and were formed usually on ethnic or religious grounds. German permanent officers of “SS” served as commanders of these “Waffen-divisions” and volunteers from occupied countries were taken to serve as cannon fodder on positions of privates or other lowest military posts. Exactly this experience of forming military units for conducting hostilities in the East of Ukraine was added by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia to its armory. We obtain fundamental data on generals and officers of the Russian army, who are included to the commanding level of Russia’s occupation forces. Materials concerning them are being transferred to the Office of Prosecutor General of Ukraine for launching criminal investigations. The command of all the grouping of Russian occupation forces is being carried out by Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov, Chief of Staff – First Deputy to Commander of the Southern Military District (cover identification document on a surname Sedov).

In particular, the command of the 1st army corps before the beginning of August 2015 was carried out by Major-General of the Russian Army Alexey Zavizyon, seconded from the post of Chief of Staff of the 41st Army of Central Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, who have used cover identification document on a surname Pilevin. The commander of the 2nd army corps is Major-General of Russian Army Evgeniy Nikiforov (cover identification document on a surname Morgun), seconded from the post of Deputy to Commander of 58th Army of Southern Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. A rotation was held here. Down to recent times this army corps was under command of Lieutenant-General Sergey Yudin, who headed the Staff of the 20th Army of Western Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. I would like to stress once again that we are confronted by fully functional military units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

At the occupied territories a large number of heavy armament and military equipment is concentrated, a staggered accumulation of large amounts of fuel and ammunition is being carried out, which are to ensure the conduct of active offensive operations and, according to the plan of Russian General Staff, will be supported by the intrusion of additional units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to the territory of Ukraine.

So the battle for control of history – and the playing with fire – continues. The statement here by Mr Turchynov looks crude and, where the Waffen-SS references are concerned, essentially irrelevant. It invites a predictable Russian propaganda reprise highlighting the role of Ukrainian forces in the SS. It is a distraction from any legitimate concerns the Ukrainian government has over Russian military activity inside its borders. There is no valid military or political point to be made, other than a blatant attempt to play the Russians at their own ugly and immature media game by throwing the term “Waffen-SS” out as many times as possible.

It is a poor decision. It doesn’t help anybody and certainly will not contribute to conflict resolution. No additional credibility with the West will be gained.  Better for all to demonstrate a willingness to set some the uglier periods of history to one side for the historians and rise above it.

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