Summary: Book reviews of post-modern Russia – oligarchs, political facades, media, manipulation, exploitation, history, Presidents, authoritarianism, ideology – its all there...
OK, so now I am doing book reviews of book reviews.
In Foreign Affairs I have come across a very interesting and thoughtful review of two new books on modern Russia, one of which is on my bed-side table ready for reading. Joshua Yoffa contemplates the conclusions of Bill Browder’s “Red Notice” and “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” from Peter Pomerantzev. These two authors describe their own close up and painful experiences in the financial and media whirl of early 21st century Putin-era Russia.
Browder, an American investor, was happy to amass millions in the rule-less wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, only to have the hand that was feeding him turn against him, leading to the death of Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in police custody.
In the vacuum created by the Soviet collapse, unabashed opportunism and a limitless sense of the possible became the closest thing the wounded country had to a collective ideology. There were few consequences and everything was pretend—except, of course, for the massive sums of money. And as long as Russia, after Vladimir Putin took power in 2000, kept up its winking nod toward modernization and democracy, it was easy enough to play along without too much of a drag on your conscience.
Pomerantsev was a UK-born television producer observing at close hand the co-option of the media in the Putin recreation of reality:
Soviet-era doublethink, whereby people had no qualms about saying one thing and believing another, was updated for the twenty-first century, fueled by high production values and slick PR. In such a climate, to believe in anything with sincerity was to be naive…
Yoffa distinguishes different phases of the “Putin-era”. The first phase – the one experienced by Browder and Pomerantsev was very open and slightly crazy – money was sloshing around and little care was paid to the darker political machinations behind the scenes. From around 2011/2012, Yoffa suggests, the climate was different. Money was drying up and the Putin “ideology” was taking on stronger anti-Western, socially conservative and orthodox postures. In this atmosphere Russia is happily rushing to embrace isolation.
Whereas for the first decade of Putin’s rule, the state preferred a passive and disengaged population, over the last year, it has sought to keep society antsy and militarized, on something approaching a war footing—even if the war itself remains technically undeclared. The faction in the Kremlin that long wished for more control, over everything from the newspaper business to the agricultural sector, has found its excuse in the arguments of geopolitics and national security.
Finding – or creating – an external enemy is a classic from the playbook. Russia is no longer bothering to pretend to be democratic. “If anything, it prides itself on its pariah status”. And the anti-Western ideology being created by nationalist “academics” and shaped by Russia Today can actually be quite potent, as it finds favour with a lot of the world (including in Europe and the West) for a lot of different reasons. But cracks in the facade are appearing now as the money dries up and Putin has to juggle resources, priorities and interests – frozen conflicts are costly.
Yoffa helpfully flags up and explores two misconceptions that the West has about Russia today (sorry), both originating from a short-termist rush to deal with the crisis over the Ukraine while failing to consider Russia’s history, culture and experiences.
- It is not all about financial gain and media control for the powerbrokers in Russia. Western responses to, for example the conflict in Ukraine, should not simply be about raising the financial cost for Putin
- It is not all about understanding and dealing with one man and a correctly-applied “Putin policy” will remove the problem.
Putin perhaps as symptom rather than cause.
Summary: Neither war nor ceasefire. But many reports that Russia is looking to push the separatists further west in some way, over the coming months
BBC, 20 May: Can I be absolutely clear with you this is not a fight with Russian-backed separatists, this is a real war with Russia.” Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko
The security situation does not look particularly encouraging in the Ukraine at present or for the rest of the year. The conflict continues in a slow-burn but unpleasant fashion. There is a “back and forth” exchange of metal over uneasy frontlines as hundreds of artillery rounds continue to impact in sporadic but regular exchanges of fire. This from the most recent OSCE Special Monitoring Mission’s daily update:
OSCE Special Monitoring Mission report of 20 May: “The SMM observed continuing ceasefire violations in the area of “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”)-controlled Donetsk. From two observation points, the SMM heard over 300 explosions caused by incoming and outgoing heavy weapons fire, including artillery, and mortar during the night period from 20:48 hours on 18 May to 02:02 hours on 19 May and during the daytime period of 09:10 until 17:25 hours on 19 May. The SMM observed that the explosions occurred at locations to the west, north, north-east, and south of its Donetsk city centre and Donetsk central railway station positions at distances ranging from 2km to 8km from its positions. The SMM concluded that the explosions had occurred in or around the “DPR”-controlled Donetsk airport (10km north-west of Donetsk), Spartak (10km north-north-west of Donetsk), and the southerly part of Donetsk city, as well as government controlled Pisky (7km west of Donetsk) and Opytne (12km north-west of Donetsk).”
So the clearly misnamed “ceasefire” seems to be dealing with thousands of rounds a week, presumably with military and civilian casualties to match.
Neither war nor peace.
Earlier this week, the government of Ukraine announced that its military had captured two wounded Russian soldiers inside Ukraine territory. These were reportedly Russian Special Forces, who are filmed in hospital being questioned, which, in turn raises questions over the Geneva Convention’s position on exposing and humiliating Prisoners of War in public. Both sides have been guilty of less than compassionate readings of treatment of prisoners over the months as they scramble for media advantage.
Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, has stated that the capture demonstrates that Ukraine is in a “real” war with Russia, not merely the Russian-backed separatists. Poroshenko also believes that Russia will launch a further offensive in the summer.
The Independent, 20th May: The Ukrainian president has warned that Russia could soon attempt to stage an invasion, as the two nations are in the midst of a “real war”.
Petro Poroshenko made the worrying suggestion after four Ukrainian servicemen were killed when fighting erupted between Russian-backed separatists on Tuesday.
The president told BBC News that he believes Russia will attempt an “offensive” in the summer months.
“I think we should be ready and I think that we do not give them any tiny chance for provocation. That will totally be their responsibility,” he said.
“Can I be absolutely clear with you this is not a fight with Russian-backed separatists, this is a real war with Russia.
“The fact that we captured…Russian regular special forces soldiers [is] strong evidence of that.”
There have been numerous suggestions that pro-Russian separatists are planning and preparing a further military push, possibly down the Black Sea coast road to Mariupol, which has loomed large as the frontline of main concern for the Ukraine government. NATO seem to echo strongly these concerns:
Wall Street Journal, 30 April: NATO’s military chief said that Russia-backed forces appear to be “preparing, training and equipping” for a potential new offensive in eastern Ukraine, even as European leaders said the conflict there was entering a “political phase.”
U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top commander, said Thursday that the separatist forces have been using the relative lull in fighting since a cease-fire was signed in February to regroup.
“These preparations are consistent with the possibility of an offensive,” Gen. Breedlove said at a Pentagon news conference. “And that is what we have seen through several of the previous pauses in eastern Ukraine.”
The US Embassy in Kiev claimed in April that Russia was building up forces, including sophisticated air defence missile systems:
“Combined Russian-separatist forces continue to violate the terms of the “Minsk 2” agreement signed in mid-February. Combined Russian-separatist forces maintain a sizable number of artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers within areas prohibited under the Minsk accords. The Russian military has deployed additional air defense systems into eastern Ukraine and moved several of these nearer the front lines. This is the highest amount of Russian air defense equipment in eastern Ukraine since August.
Russian and separatist forces also have a large concentration of command and control equipment in eastern Ukraine. Combined Russian-separatist forces have been conducting increasingly complex training in eastern Ukraine. The increasingly complex nature of this training leaves no doubt that Russia is involved in the training. The training has also incorporated Russian UAVs, an unmistakable sign of Russia’s presence.
Russia is also building up its forces along its border with Ukraine. After maintaining a relatively steady presence along the border, Russia is sending additional units there. These forces will give Russia its largest presence on the border since October 2014. Russia has also redeployed military elements near Belgorod, opposite Kharkiv.
Russia has continued to ship heavy weapons into eastern Ukraine since the “Minsk 2” ceasefire took effect on 15 February.”
Analysis and Outlook
You can only “cry wolf” so many times. NATO and the Ukraine are not the most reliable of witnesses: new Russia-sponsored operations have been declared “imminent” for a while, be it winter, spring or now summer offensives. But I find it very convincing that pro-Russian separatists are being rushed through training, with new tactics, equipment and direction all courtesy of the Russian military, which sticks to the story that any Russian military personnel inside Ukrainian borders is there independently of the Russian government. What else should they be expected to do?
I certainly would not rule out a new large-scale attack, but the new “hybrid/ambiguous/deniable” warfare forms offer so many more flexible and effective means of securing objectives. New forms of drip-drip, or “salami slicing” can be helpful. You can clear, hold and build in small, bite-sized pieces: artillery drives people out and separatists moving gradually in. The Ukrainian military still insufficiently resourced to push anyone back whence they came.
But if we were looking at a larger, strategic, picture, if a larger military-led action was being contemplated, there are perhaps four “fronts” that could be opened or developed in new offensive operations coming from the east:
Front 1: Black Sea coast road towards (and beyond Mariupol). A favourite theatre of operations. This holds out the prospect of narrow thrust to open a land link between Russia and the Crimea
Front 2: Central – Donetsk/Luhansk. Maintain pressure, seeking to expand and make these two regions more defensively, economically, administratively and politically “viable”. Alexander Motyl has an interesting angle that Putin has currently “lost” because he “owns” the economic “basket case” of the Donbas:
“…whoever ends up holding the Russian-controlled territories of the Donbas will actually be the loser.
The region, he noted, is an economic basket case. It’s industrial base is devastated. Infrastructure damage is estimated to be $227 million. Gas and water shortages are endemic. Only one-third of the population is receiving regular wages. Of the estimated 3 million people remaining there, 2 million are either children or pensioners who must be supported by 1 million working-age adults. Responsibility for rebuilding this mess will be a major financial albatross for either Kyiv or Moscow.”
Front 3: Kharkiv – A region that saw demonstrations, building seizures and violence in 2014 but has largely died down and certainly drifted out of the media. Some small-scale, non-attributable explosions have occurred this year
“A bomb has killed at least two people, including a police officer, and injured at least 10 more people at a rally in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv. The rally was one of several being held to mark a year since the Kiev uprising that led to the fall of pro-Russia leader Viktor Yanukovych. Security forces have detained four suspects in the attack, officials say. Kharkiv lies outside the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, where a ceasefire appears finally to be taking hold.”
Front 4: Kiev/behind the lines. Tension can be created. Explosions, demonstrations and the seizure – or attempts to seize – government buildings in Kiev or another major city (Odessa?). There are small contingents of UK and US soldiers in the country – a small explosion in their vicinity might generate a powerful political backblast…
Wild cards: Moldova, Crimea and Belarus – explosions, demonstrations and the seizure of government buildings from the direction of Belarus, the Crimea and/or in Moldova could open up new fronts or greatly distract and destabilise.
Nothing is clear in this unclear eastern war. The nature of the rhetoric between protagonists (Russia claims of about Ukrainian invitations of NATO troops, missiles and membership?), perhaps coupled with the trends of ceasefire violations and Russia military manoeuvres/training/posturing/sabre rattling on the other side of the border may give us clues in the coming months. But my admittedly evolving view of hybrid warfare is clear, at least, on one aspect: there are no bonus points for being transparent, obvious or predictable.
Summary: The past isn’t dead and it’s not even past. Thought-provoking geo-strategic analysis, drawing extensively and appropriately from history, from George Friedman. This is a very useful examination of risks of conflict in and around Europe in the future. The further east you go from the UK, the greater the risk…
With the European Games 2015 athletics event being held in Baku and Australia now joining the Eurovision song contest (which has had Israel as a member for years), one can perhaps be forgiven for wondering what “Europe” actually means. Is it a concept or a geographical expression? For the first half of my life, I was brought up to see “Europe” in reality as “Western Europe”, with only half of Germany allowed to play. More recently, we have talked of “old” and “new” Europe, roughly coinciding between East and West and most recently, evidenced in the post-2008, economic-depression, European downturn, we even talk of a north and south Europe (Germany vs Greece?).
A new and, as ever, highly intelligent and thought-provoking book has come from the geo-strategic analyst and founder of STRATFOR, George Friedman. Here, Friedman attempts to pull apart “Europe” with three core questions:
- How did Europe achieve political, military, economic and intellectual domination of the globe?
- What flaw caused this domination to be thrown away in the course of 31 years, from 1914 to 1945?
- Is the post-1945 peace in Europe now the natural state of affairs or can the continent slip back to old ways?
To which latter question, I suggest we already know the answer…
Friedman takes us through Europe’s history and highlights the nature and causes of its expansionism – the “sheer barbaric will and nearly insane courage” of Spanish and Portugese explorations and conquest of the Americas and the role of religion and intellectual development in this process – “the fragmentation of the mind”.
“Such an enterprise as conquering the world and inventing humanity carried with it a price. No one is certain how many died through the direct impact of European imperialism, from military action, starvation, disease and other causes. Some experts estimate 100 million dead over the course of four centuries of empire building, but no one really knows.”
The destruction of Europe and its empires that began in 1914 and ended in 1945 was unprecedented in human history in terms of the speed, scale and savagery that overtook the continent:
“As in all great tragedies, the virtues responsible for Europe’s greatness were precisely those that destroyed it…the right to national self-determination celebrated by the Enlightenment evolved into rage at the stranger…The technologies that transformed the world created systems of killing previously unimaginable. The domination of the world led to constant conflict with it and for it.”
The Cold War broadly held an exhausted Europe frozen in place for 45 years. It was the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992 that heralded – largely unseen and unpredicted – sweeping new and destabilising consequences, including conflict, across the European peninsula in the decades to come. The fighting in the Balkans during the 1990s was one of the first indicators that things were changing and showed that the darker and more brutal side of Europe’s history past was neither dead nor past.
Mainland and Peninsula
Much of the book is about this continual and continuing tension in the “borderlands” between Germany and Russia – Germany’s capacity for economic (and sometimes military) expansion and Russia’s fear of invasion and need for buffer zones. Sometimes this tension is concealed, sometimes not. This region (a historically fluid line up of countries, including the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus and the Ukraine) is historically the contested meeting space between the Eurasian landmass (read “Russia”) and the small, crowded and increasingly fragmented European peninsula. Friedman’s working reference to differentiate between mainland and peninsula is a line drawn between St Petersburg and Rostov-on-Don. Snyder has perhaps more aptly called this geographically open and difficult-to-defend North European plain the “Bloodlands” in his study of totalitarian brutality in the 1930s and 1940s. Friedman is remarkably well-placed to bring personal family experience into play. As a family of Hungarian Jews living in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries they had direct experience of the blood-letting, strife and displacement of the “31 years” (1914 – 1945). This included a perilous and precarious existence under both Nazi and Soviet regimes Their family lived in a city which changed its name three times in two generations – Bratislava, aka Pozsony, aka Pressburg.
Bringing us up to date, Friedman highlights the year 2008 as critical to our understanding of what has gone wrong and what the risks are for conflict in Europe – the financial crisis and the Russian invasion of Georgia.
Russia does not want to overtly dominate the region. But it does want to limit the power of NATO in the east. It also wishes to limit European integration, which could evolve into a strategic threat, by offering Eastern Europe economic alternatives…The Russians had two tools at their disposal. One I would call commercial geopolitics…Second, and as important, the Russians had their intelligence service, and they had developed powerful relationships and sources in all these countries both during and after their occupation
Every step of the way, Friedman reminds us clearly that Europe can be at risk of conflict particularly at its north-eastern (read Baltics), eastern (read Ukraine) and south-eastern (read Balkans and Causcasus) peripheries. He warns against ignoring historic lessons and how the prejudice and resentment of generations (and even centuries) are only a little bit below the easily scratchable surface of Europe. Unchangeable geographic factors, centuries-old historic grievances and modern economic and technological factors are all at play, whether we recognise them and heed them or not.
No solutions offered here, just an important identification of the issues and a suggestions of the lessons, should we want to learn any.
Summary: Vehicle-borne suicide bomb strikes international forces by Kabul airport as a part of the standard Taliban Sping offensive…
Reports coming in of an explosion by Kabul International Airport, probably a vehicle borne suicide attack. Many civilian casualties reported and several killed, including two Afghan girls. The EUPOL mission has said they believe that their vehicles were targeted.
A Eupol spokeswoman, Sari Haukka-Konu, said one non-mission member who was travelling in a Eupol vehicle had been killed. She had no details on the nationality or identity of the deceased.
Police spokesman Ebadullah Karimi said a suicide bomber in a Toyota Corolla rammed a convoy of foreign troops on the road from Kabul`s main airport to a NATO military installation nearby.
One report suggests that the attacker was “inside” a checkpoint
Deputy interior ministry spokesperson, Najib Danish said the bombing occurred inside the major checkpoint leading into the capital’s main airport.
Difficult to entirely guard against and a favoured area to attack over the years, this seems to be one more of the standard package of attacks from the Taliban during their Spring operations, although their website is currently down and they do not yet seem to have claimed it yet. The Taliban generally seem to prefer to wait until they can see that a viable target was struck, with a minimum of civilian casualties before announcing their responsibility. The attack might have been a “target of opportunity” in which the driver was sent to cruise down the main airport approach roads in the hope of spotting a column of foreign military vehicles. There is likely still a large component of ISAF/Resolute Support installations in and around the airport with military vehicles going to and from the airport probably several times a day. The roads are always busy around here, with little driving discipline – it is very easy to get slowed down or brought to a halt in the traffic and present a target. I never enjoyed doing that route – I remember on one trip from city to airport a British soldier screaming himself hoarse from the turret of the vehicle we were travelling in as he tried to get the Afghan traffic to back off, keep a distance and allow our vehicle to at least keep moving – with minimal success.
Summary: An attack in Kabul against a hotel targeting foreigners kills 9. The Taliban claim it.
Many reports this morning about a terrorist attacker by two gunmen into a hotel – the Palace Park Hotel – in Kabul. The attack took place in an area of the city where many UN staff live. It was five hours before the Afghan security forces were able to declare the area safe. Information is still a little unclear regarding number of attackers and casualties. Reportedly between five to eleven were killed (the UN say 14 civilians), including one American and one Italian citizen, and a similar amount wounded.
This attack follows a well-established Taliban pattern of attacks into the city to kill Westerners, although the attackers appear to have been more “suicidal” than “suicide” attackers – not bombs strapped to bodies, just small arms and grenades. The five-hour timeframe highlights the difficulties of securing and clearing buildings in an urban area while ensuring the safety of dozens, if not hundreds of civilians. Buildings and rooms have to be carefully checked as the final number of assailants is rarely certain until near the end of the incident.
I am not yet clear that the attack was due to the Taliban, although some media carry claims of responsibility from the Taliban and I would judge it highly likely that they were behind it, given their modus operandi, their ability to reach into the city and their extensive track record of similar attacks. Kabul will remain a target of choice for insurgents – it secures maximum media publicity even as the world’s media are drifting away to other more pressing war zones and stories.
The Afghan security forces get a lot of criticism, most of it justified. The forces based in Kabul, however, are getting regular experience in dealing with these incidents and do not seem to be doing too badly in particularly difficult combat environments. If you study photographs from recent Kabul incidents, you rarely see Western troops alongside the Afghan forces these days.
The target location is to the west of the main concentrations of government, embassy and military buildings – the Wazir Akhbar Khan district. This could suggest some difficulty for the insurgents in penetrating the security cordons in this area. Softer targets hitting weaponless foreigners beyond the “Green Zone” may become the preferred option.
Summary: The Taliban launch ground operations in Kunduz province. The capital may be surrounded, but Kunduz will not be allowed to fall. An inconclusive stalemate may ultimately favour the government in the long-term
Since the 24th April, Taliban fighters have been engaged in large-scale ground operations in Kunduz (aka Konduz) province, reportedly surrounding the province capital (also called Kunduz). The action is part of the Taliban-announced and anticipated commencement of “Spring Operations”, which they declare every year and came a few days after this declaration.
Fighting looks to have taken the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by surprise, certainly according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network. The Taliban are broadly pushing in towards the Kunduz city, in the centre of the province, from the north and south, with some early gains outside the capital being made in the districts of Chahara Dara, Imam Sahib and Aliabad.
New York Times, 28 April 2015: The Afghan government has rushed thousands of troops to the northern province of Kunduz in recent days as a fierce Taliban offensive has surrounded the regional capital city, officials said. An entire battalion of the Afghan National Army was reported to be surrounded by the insurgents, and the authorities stripped troops from other provinces to reinforce Kunduz.
There have been many reports of the limited capabilities of the ANSF – local forces being ill-equipped, under-supplied and un-supported.
New York Times, 28 April 2015: Of the other districts under fire, Imam Sahib, to the north, has been the worst hit. Large numbers of insurgents, including Uzbek, Tajik and Chechen militants, advanced on the district center from three directions, according to Amanuddin Qureshi, the district governor, who has fled the government center there.
At a military base in Imam Sahib, the insurgents have cut roads and supply routes, and one battalion of about 400 Afghan National Army soldiers is surrounded, with resupply possible only by air, according to Mr. Qureshi and two other local officials. But Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Kabul, insisted that the battalion had not been stranded. “If we don’t get reinforcements, the town will fall into the hands of the Taliban,” Mr. Qureshi warned in a telephone interview.
In response, the BBC reported on 7th May noted that the ANSF had “launched a major offensive”against the Taliban. At this stage the city appears to be cut off and many thousands of the civilian population have been displaced.
Analysis and Outlook
This is a large and reasonably bold Taliban offensive, the scale of which I do not think I have seen in the north-east of the country for many years. Weaknesses within the ANSF – morale, training, logistical failings, planning – have been well-documented. ISAF pulled out last year and only a residual force of US troops remain, seemingly determined to avoid getting sucked in. BBC reporting on 7 May 2015 stated currently that the only safe way into the provincial capital is by flying. Much of the local populace has been displaced by the fighting, with international agencies attempting to assist.
Reports also suggest the fighters loyal to Islamic State (IS) might also be operating alongside the Taliban.
This apparent emergence of IS in Afghanistan is a new and worrying development, but we should treat this with some caution at present. It is difficult to give an accurate assessment on the extent of this IS presence. This may be little more than disgruntled local insurgent fighters attempting to find a more successful “brand” to attach themselves to reinvigorate morale and resources. It is plausible that some Taliban and local insurgent groups are shifting their allegiance to a force considered more powerful and more fundamentalist. But does this mean the Taliban are going to benefit from this, or face a fragmentation of their forces and perhaps even an inter-insurgent civil war?
But it does also highlight a wider problem of getting access to reliable reporting. Since ISAF withdrew its provincial and district outposts and media interest in Afghanistan has declined, we are now dependent on less reliable Afghan government and local security force claims. Are there thousands of Taliban fighters or hundreds? Local government officials are prone to exaggerate problems (“we are surrounded”, “IS and Chechens are here”, “we need reinforcements”, etc) in the hope of gaining more resources.
Ruttig mentioned the myth that “Chechen” fighters had ever been involved in fighting in Afghanistan (presumably either with the Taliban, HIG, Haqqani or Al Qaeda). He said he had researched every lead and suggestion and found them wanting. As far as he was concerned, the Chechens had never fought in Afghanistan.
Determining whether an area has been “captured” amidst the claims and counter-claims is problematic – particularly when the definition is often based simply on whose flag may or may not be flying from the district police station.
It seems like an initial shock for the ANSF is turning into a stalemate. One analyst at least thinks Kunduz might be a decoy and that Taliban operations in the south – Helmand and Kandahar – might be the next step for the Taliban. I do not think that Kunduz will “fall” as such, but this a larger operation from the insurgents. It goes beyond the more “traditional” Spring operations of complex urban attacks and suicide bombings.
There are light echoes of 1989 here. Then, the victorious Mujahideen, buoyed and over-confident following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, flung themselves into an ill-considered, poorly planned and ultimately very costly, ground assault against Jalalabad. The government forces were predicted to collapse but, dug-in and well-resourced, courtesy of the departing Russians, inflicted thousands of casualties on the Mujahideen in an embarrassing defeat. The US is avoiding involvement at present but if the situation deteriorated further, I am sure the ANSF would not be allowed to fail. An unresolved stalemate might weaken Taliban morale at a time when they are trying to demonstrate power while engaging in tentative talks with the Afghan government in Qatar.
Summary: The Taliban and the Afghan government will meet in Qatar in a carefully choreographed non meeting. Gently does it.
Days after the commencement of their Spring offensive, the Taliban appear to have confirmed that they are to take part in two days of discussion and engagement in Qatar at the same time and the same event as an Afghan government delegation. The coming together, which both sides seem at pains to downplay, is under the auspices of the Pughwash Group, an organisation of scientists and experts with a mission as follows:
Through meetings and projects that bring together scientists, experts, and policy makers, Pugwash focuses on those problems that lie at the intersection of science and world affairs. Pugwash’s main goals remain to seek the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, to reduce the risk of war especially in areas where weapons of mass destruction are present and may be used, and to discuss new scientific and technological developments that may bring more instability and heighten the risk of conflicts.
The Taliban have issued a statement on their website as follows:
A two-day research conference is scheduled to take place in the country Qatar on Sunday, 2nd May 2015.
This research conference is prepared by Pughwash International Organization where individuals from various countries are invited to participate. Pugwash is an impartial international organization based in Canada with branches in London, Switzerland and a few other countries. The said organization routinely convenes conferences concerning world affairs in various parts of the globe, bringing together experts from different places.
It is worth mentioning that all participants of this conference attend in an individual capacity, no one participates as representatives for any government or party. Since this is a research conference therefore every participant gives their opinion on a range of issues.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will also be sending an eight-man delegation headed by Mr. Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai to this conference in order to personally deliver the message of its oppressed nation and other such issues to the world just like it previously sent delegations to conferences in France and Japan. A statement for participation in the conference has also been prepared which will be shared with our respected readers at an appropriate time.
It must be stressed that participation in this conference by a delegation from the Political Office of Islamic Emirate should not be misconstrued as peace or negotiation talks. This issue has already been discussed with and accepted by the organizers of Pughwash and an understanding has been reached that every attendee will participate in an individual capacity and not as representatives of a side or government.
The participants of Islamic Emirate in this conference are as listed below:
1. Mr. Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai
2. Mr. Maulawi Jan Muhammad Madani
3. Mr. Maulawi Sayed Rasoul Haleem
4. Mr. Maulawi Shahabuddin Delawar
5. Mr. Qari Deen Muhammad Haneef
6. Mr. Maulawi Abdul Salam Haneefi
7. Mr. Sohail Shaheen
8. Mr. Hafiz Aziz Rahman
Perhaps understandably, you can sense the carefully treading on eggshells. The Taliban do not want to give any sense that they are in any way conceding and taking part in peace talks. Their own organisation is likely highly divided on the issue of any engagement with Westerners. They are at pains to “clarify” that this is simply a conference to discuss “world affairs” and that no one is officially representing the Taliban. The rough model for this slight encounter between Afghan government and Taliban seems to be the Kyoto (Japan, June 2012) and Chantilly (France, December 2012) meetings in which similar “not talks” events took place under the guise of discussing more general matters.
But it is possible to present the current conflict as a stalemate – both sides in the field and willing and able to contest the battleground, but no one in a position to land a decisive blow. Although we should not, of course, see developments in Qatar as an indicator that anything like “talks” will take place anytime soon, this does seem to be a slight, but potentially significant, shift in the Taliban’s approach: making a clear and defined statement, uncluttered by vitriol and denouncement.
We should see some feedback from Qatar in the coming week, although confidentially is to be expected and should be respected: let no one be humiliated or pushed either too far or into a corner. As for the fighting inside Afghanistan, I would expect it to continue. In many conflicts, the period before talks is often the point at which both sides attempt to grab as much bargaining power as possible but I do not think we are at that stage yet.
Forget formal talks for the moment, but these sort of general discussions are to be encouraged – and the frequency increased – as they could well represent the necessary throat-clearing and confidence-building precursors to a proper exchange in months and, more likely, years, to come. The paper I produced earlier this year suggested these type of meetings as but one of a basket of confidence building and communication measures that could assist in bringing the two parties slowly together.
Do not get expectations up. Do not shout too loudly about it.
Easy does it.
Summary: US forces continue to run Special Forces, drones and other “force protection” activities inside Afghanistan. How and why might a large scale return of an ISAF II take place?
The New York Times has an article out which strongly suggests that US forces are still engaging with the Taliban and that operations might even be scaling up:
“Months after President Obama formally declared that the United States’ long war against the Taliban was over in Afghanistan, the American military is regularly conducting airstrikes against low-level insurgent forces and sending Special Operations troops directly into harm’s way under the guise of “training and advising”… Western and military officials said that American and NATO forces conducted 52 airstrikes in March, months after the official end of the combat mission. Many of these air assaults, which totalled 128 in the first three months of this year, targeted low- to midlevel Taliban commanders in the most remote reaches of Afghanistan.
As early as January, when officials in Washington were hailing the end of the combat mission, about 40 American Special Operations troops were deployed to Kunar Province to advise Afghan forces that were engaged with the Taliban over a handful of villages along the border with Pakistan.”
The US government response is that this is for counter-terrorism and force protection purposes only.
I was idly brainstorming myself with the question: “Under what circumstances would NATO (aka US Military, aka ISAF) return in force to Afghanistan. I was looking ahead the next four or five years and would welcome anyone’s thoughts – this is where I got to thus far:
The first and cynical/pragmatic response to the question should be “If they ever actually leave…”. Is it unreasonable to work on the assumption that a “presence” of US forces will be in Afghanistan for years – Special Forces, intelligence operators, drones, advisors, trainers, etc? Even being beyond the supposed 2016 deadline? I don’t think so. Propping up a regime in this way is much cheaper than the previous solution, aka the surge. It also retains crucial influence and oversight on Afghan developments, while allowing useful training and experience to be maintained and the options for taking the war to AQ and ISIS, without a major rebalancing of logistics.
But broadening this to an ISAF/NATO-type mission I came up with this:
• A gradual deterioration of the security situation, perhaps over years. This would presumably be as a result of Taliban victories but might be fuelled and exacerbated by divisions within the government forces – perhaps warlords forming their own militias and provinces becoming “no go” areas to central government influence. An increase in Taliban victories would be a more plausible trigger for a renewed Western military intervention – for the purposes of this piece, lets call it ISAF II. Tis might start with a battlegroup deployed for enhanced base protection and then expand to a brigade, etc. Something that looked more like a civil war – Ismail Khan vs, Dostum, vs Atta, vs central government vs Taliban vs HIG would be less likely to draw in Western forces this time. Too messy and no obvious legitimate focal point to support.
• A major shift in the balance of power – the Taliban make some major advances – a collapse of an Afghan Army Corps, for example. This is a straightforward “propping up” at the request of a hard-pressed Afghan government.
• Fragmentation of collapse of the Afghan government. This would look more like another civil war scenario. Any ISAF II commitment would need a very clear understanding and a clear centre of gravity to focus on – do we back Ghani/Abdullah?
• An AQ/ISIS “event”. I am thinking here f a 9/11 or similar – outside of Afghanistan. If the US mainland got hit again by an AQ/ISIS mass-casualty attack and the originators were traced to a region of Afghanistan it is very plausible that US ground forces (plus a small coalition of the willing?) would find themselves on the ground with or without Afghan government support.
• Military intervention in Afghanistan from a neighbour. In 1998, Iran apparently came very close to military invasion in response to the Taliban’s execution of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif. This is a little bit more outside the box, but a military incursion by Pakistan or Iran might well trigger a (very careful) deployment from Western forces.
• Humanitarian. Famine, genocide, earthquake, flood, take your pick. These have all been visited on Afghanistan. A heartfelt appeal from the Afghan regime could well bring back large numbers of international forces
In what capacity?
• Boots on the ground – for COIN work, military confrontations and humanitarian relief. Conventional military operations
• Air power and base protection
• Enhanced mentoring and training of various Afghan force components: army, air force, police, CN, border police, Afghan Local Police (I think they still need it), ANCOP
• Political, military, diplomatic advisors
• Additional “force multipliers” for the ANSF – logistics, intelligence, transport, airpower
• Special Forces
• Drones, intelligence gathering – AQ, Taliban, ISIS…
• Peace-keeping missions
2015 is going to be a tough year for the country. Although the Taliban are not taking and holding significant amounts of territory, they are still in the field, capable and confident. The Taliban have recently announced their annual Spring operations – promising a summer of suicide bombings and ground attacks. The UN has noted in its March report that casualties amongst the civilian population were increasing. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are similarly still in the field and resisting. In fact they are doing more than merely resisting, they are in some areas taking the fight to the Taliban. I feel we should consider a multiple year stalemate a very real possibility.
I think we should see drone strikes and Special Forces activities the bare minimum now of what America is willing and capable of doing in Afghanistan – it greatly reduces the “blood and treasure” aspect but allows for direct support of a regime that still very much wants an American military presence. A new and large scale commitment looks inconceivable from the vantage point of 2015 – the 2001 – 2014 experience was too costly, too painful and too lacking in a flag-waving victory moment. But times change, memories fade, mistakes are forgotten by new presidents and Prime Ministers. Lessons remain merely “identified”. Never say “never again”.
Summary: The Taliban concede that some of their fighters committed what amounts to war crimes, blaming Afghan forces for doing similar as justification
An interesting admission has emerged on the official Taliban website, acknowledging that some of their fighters were responsible for the beheading of seven Afghan soldiers in Badakhshan province this month (10th of April). The statement calls the actions of their fighters “irresponsible” but claimed that this had been under provocation – Afghan government forces had apparently mutilated Mujahideen soldiers by shooting them repeatedly in the face after they were already dead.
This was apparently part of a clash between Taliban and government forces in which somewhere between 18 – 33 Afghan soldiers were killed and some beheaded – a BBC report says 8.
“A few days earlier reports were published about the beheading of soldiers after fighting took place between Mujahideen and the Kabul administration in Badakhshan province. Following the incident, the Islamic Emirate launched its usual investigation as part of its Islamic and humanitarian responsibility. During this process the following information was obtained which we want to share with the world and our countrymen:
On 2nd of Wrai of the ongoing solar calendar (20/03/2015), a clash took place between Mujahideen and soldiers of the stooge regime in Badakhshan province’s Warduj district during which the enemy suffered heavy losses while a few Mujahideen were also martyred. The invader nurtured mercenaries brutally shot the martyrs in the face to the point they were unrecognizable in violation of all principles of Islam and humanity as well as all established rules of war. The incident infuriated both the Mujahideen and the local people.
About three weeks later on 23rd of Wrai of the ongoing solar calendar (10/04/2015), another clash took place between Mujahideen and soldiers of the stooge regime in Jurm district of the same province, once again causing the enemy heavy corporeal and material losses. But since the stooge regime troops had mutilated Mujahideen in the previous engagement in violation of all Islamic and human norms therefore a few Mujahideen in revenge beheaded 7 regime soldiers on their own.
While the Islamic Emirate considers both of the incidents contradictory to rules of engagement however it places the blame of both grisly incidents squarely on the invaders and their hirelings because they were the first ones to commit such an act. Everybody is aware that the invaders have previously set fire to bodies of martyrs and in violation of all principles of humanity, have even urinated on bodies of others, provoking reactions worldwide.
Even this time if the mercenaries of the invaders had not mutilated bodies of the martyrs by shooting them in the faces then the Mujahideen would not have retaliated in such an irresponsible manner.
The Islamic Emirate once again asks its Mujahideen to strictly follow Islamic rules of engagement and booklet of military code of conduct issued by the Islamic Emirate. Article no. 21 this military code of conduct booklet of the Islamic Emirate states: (21 – If the blood of a criminal becomes lawful Shariah wise, and the death penalty is handed, be it to a spy or other criminal, he must be shot with a rifle, and its filming is prohibited).
The Mujahideen must be vigilant that our Jihad is for attaining the pleasure of Allah Almighty and the establishment of an Islamic government. Therefore we must never act in a way which becomes a cause of displeasure of Allah Almighty, contradicting rules of the Islamic Emirate and disobedience of the Emir (leader).
No matter how many boundaries of Islam and humanity the invaders and their mercenaries cross against the Mujahideen, we however must act in the framework of Islam. The transgressions of the invaders and their lackeys must never provoke us into crossing our principles.
In the end, all the Mujahideen must remember that even the smallest breach of Islamic principles withholds divine help and great victories. And all the Mujahideen must remember that after this if anyone acts contradictory to the military code of conduct of the Islamic Emirate, they will definitely be punished in light of sublime Shariah law.”
The Taliban emphasised the need for restraint and control by their fighters according to Sharia. It is most unusual for the Taliban to admit any battlefield wrong-doing – I cannot recall many situations off-hand where this has taken place. They have certainly denied involvement in situations where numerous civilians were killed and have been very defensive. The Taliban regularly emphasise the importance of Taliban fighters respecting the population and trying where possible to avoid civilian casualties. Human rights and civilian casualty allegations by organisations such as the UN seem tp have had a cumulative impact as they attempt to retain relevance and credibility. Nevertheless, it is still common practice for them to deny, denounce or deflect any criticism or suggestion that they have been guilty of causing the deaths of civilians.
Summary: The Taliban’s official announcement that the annual Spring operations will commence on Friday 24th April. In a routine and predictable statement, the Taliban urge additional efforts against Western and Afghan government military and official personnel while promising to avoid causing civilian casualties and never to target religious and educational institutions.
The Taliban website has just started to carry the Leadership Council’s official announcement that Spring Operations will commence on Friday 24th April.
The Spring offensive – a resumption of more sustained military activities – generally heralds the start of the annual “fighting season” stretching from April/May to October/November in which operations are not hampered by the cold weather.
The title of this year’s operations is “Azm” or “Resolve” and the Taliban also link the choice of date for the announcement to the battle of Yarmouk, a decisive “victory for early Muslims”, in the year 636.
Treading a well-worn path (official announcements began in 2008), the Taliban declaration highlights the need to continue the Jihad and singles out Western forces (“their permanent bases, their intelligence and diplomatic centers”) and Afghan security and government personnel (“especially their intelligence, interior ministry and defense ministry officials”) as their primary targets. Tactics offered are similarly a repeat of previous years: “martyrdom” (ie suicide) attacks, “infiltration” (ie “Green on Blue”, “insider” or dressing as Afghan security members), “heavy and long-range missiles” and “guerrilla attacks in all major cities”.
A paragraph is dedicated to explaining that the Taliban will not target civilians, neither will they target mosques or schools, Any mujahideen transgressor will be punished according to Sharia.
There is a small suggestion that NGOs, perhaps the Red Cross, might be permitted to operate in Taliban-controlled areas “…if some welfare organisations or individuals want to help the masses, we will support their activities according to our procedures in the light of Islamic rules…”.
Afghan government and security personnel are again exhorted to desert and promised “secure and peaceful living conditions for all the officials and individuals who quit the enemy ranks”.
Statement by the Leading Council of the Islamic Emirate regarding the inauguration of Spring Operations called ‘Azm’ (Resolve)
In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.
Allah Almighty says in the Holy Quran:
And fight them until there is no persecution and religion is wholly to Allah. But if they desist, then surely ALLAH is Watchful of what they do.)
O our devout countrymen and Mujahidin!
Due to your previous thirteen years of pious Jihad, the crusader invaders led by America were compelled to withdraw a major part of their invading forces from Afghanistan.
Though the occupying forces have announced the termination of their military operations inside Afghanistan but in reality they have preserved the control of our land and air-space under the spiteful ‘Bilateral Security Agreement’ and similarly, their occupation in political, cultural, educational, propaganda and other spheres has not ceased. The foreign occupiers are still carrying out drone strikes and night operations against the civilian people and have absolute control over the military and fighting command and control system of the heterogeneous regime under the so called ‘Bilateral Security Agreement’.
Since our vigilant people have been expert in detecting the occupation and they can easily discern it in all its visible and invisible forms therefore the foreign occupiers cannot divert the devout Afghan nation from their mission of Jihadi struggle by merely changing their fighting tactics. If the foreign occupiers really want to relieve themselves from this nuisance of fighting, they should immediately withdraw all their remaining forces and military, intelligence and special operation units from Afghanistan and should abandon both the illegitimate occupation and interference in the affairs of our country.
For the complete liberation of our beloved homeland from the yoke of foreign occupation and for the implementation of Islamic rule throughout the country, the Islamic Emirate is determined to prolong the ongoing Jihad against the foreign invaders as well as their internal stooges.
For this purpose, the Islamic Emirate is going to launch the spring operations under the inspirational name of ‘Azm’ (i.e. Resolve, Perseverance or Determination) with the chants of ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ (Allah is the Greatest) at 5 a.m. on the following Friday, 5th Rajab 1436 A.H (lunar), 4th Taurus 1394 A.H. (solar), 24th April 2015.
The name ‘Azm’ and the date 5th Rajab are adopted for good omen as ‘Azm’ means resolve or determination and those messengers of Allah Almighty who showed perseverance against His enemies have been celebrated as ‘Determined Messengers’
(Have patience, then, as the Messengers, possessed of high resolve.)
Similarly, Allah Almighty has advised perseverance and trust in Him after consultation regarding virtuous deeds.
(And when thou art resolved, then put thy trust in ALLAH. Surely, ALLAH loves those who put their trust in Him.)
Hope that Allah Almighty will bestow our Muslim masses with an even stronger Jihadi ‘Azm’ and fervor in these operations against the infidels and their debaucheries. As 5th of Rajab (seventh lunar month of Islamic calendar) has been decided the inaugural date for these operations as this was the date of a historic victory for the early Muslims and an admonitory defeat for the western infidel forces on fifteenth year of Hijra (i.e. migration) in the battle of ‘Yarmouk’. We trust in Allah Almighty that these spring operations will be a fatal blow for all western infidel forces who invaded our country.
The main targets of these operations called ‘Azm’ which have been planned by the Leadership of the Islamic Emirate and the professional and skilled specialists of our ‘Military Commission’ will be the foreign occupiers especially their permanent military bases, their intelligence and diplomatic centers, officials of the stooge regime, their military constellations, especially their intelligence, interior ministry and defense ministry officials and other pernicious individuals. As usual, advanced fighting techniques will be exercised in these military operations of ‘Azm’. Martyrdom seeking attacks for the devastation of infidels, infiltration attacks among the enemy ranks, attacking the huge and relatively fortified centers of the enemy with heavy and long-range missiles, confrontational attacks against the already demoralized mercenary forces of the enemy and guerrilla attacks in all major cities are among the main tactics of these operations.
Mujahidin will execute their plans with great care and deliberation in all parts of the country during these spring operations called ‘Azm’ in which top priority will be given to safeguarding and protecting the lives and properties of the civilian people. And those Mujahidin who are negligent and careless in preserving the lives and properties of the civilian people and their operations result in the civilian losses or casualties, will be panelized according to Jihadi and Sharia rules and regulations. Similarly, consistent with its policies, the Islamic Emirate has never and will never target religious and other educational institutions like mosques, madrassas, schools, universities, health centers like clinics and hospitals, public buildings and other projects of public welfare.
The Islamic Emirate reverently anticipates from the whole Muslim nation to even more inclusively support Mujahidin for the success of these virtuous operations as they have done in the past. Similarly they are advised to remain at a considerable distance from the military constellations and centers so that they are not hurt while operations are executed. The Islamic Emirate is quite considerate in resolving your issues in the light of Islamic Sharia system and in the prevailing circumstances, if some welfare organizations or individuals want to help the masses, we will support their activities according to our procedures in the light of Islamic rules and regulations.
Similarly, we once again call upon all the military and civilian officials and workers of the stooge regime to depart the invaders for fulfilling their Islamic and Afghani obligation and to unite with their own Muslim people. Mujahidin are ready as ever to provide secure and peaceful living conditions for all the officials and individuals who quit the enemy ranks.
In the end, we want to remind our courageous Mujahidin that Jihad is a type of worship and the purity of intention plays a crucial role in it. Instead of status, fame, boon or any other mean worldly benefits, the objective of your Jihad should be wholly and solely the elevation of the Word of Allah. Religious obligations, the training rules and regulations of Jihad and its procedures should be strictly observed. You should obey your elders and leaders. You should deal with and respect your masses just like a part of your own body. Live like brothers among yourselves. Do not be deceived by the enemy propaganda. Remain steadfast and consistent in adversities. Only trust in Allah and rely upon people’s support as the Holy Quran says:
(But if you show patience and fortitude and act righteously, that indeed is a matter of high resolve.)
The Taliban seem to be stuck with this formula now – to significantly change timing, style, content or intent would be unusual and would likely fuel speculation that something was amiss. I have analysed previous annoucements here, and here. The announcement is a little earlier than usual (the earliest since the 2008 beginning of these statements) and, with a word count of just over 1,000, is the longest thus far, although I would be wary of assigning any real significance to this. The choice of the title for the year, “Resolve”, seems more conservative and less ambitious than previous years – perhaps a recognition that 2009’s “Victory” and 2010’s “Success” might be a little open to the critique of hindsight. In fact, perhaps the reverse is occurring: words like “patience”, “resolve”, “determined”, “determination” and “perseverance” have crept into the statement this year. Is there a sense amongst the Taliban that an ISAF withdrawal does not guarantee government collapse or that there is some understandable war-weariness amongst the ranks and leadership?
I have a simple table here, compiling a list of all previous official announcements:
There is no reference to politics or diplomacy – and certainly no hint of new rivals (Islamic State). The security dynamics remain unremarked other than to reiterate that a small number of US soldiers in Afghanistan is as bad as a large number, in terms of Jihad. This is a straightforward declaration that the fight continues. If the format remains the same, we should expect to see some “complex attacks” – multiple suicide and guerrilla attacks, particularly in population centres, on or around the 24th and the days and weeks afterwards. Attacks into Kabul will remain a strong Taliban goal – the media profile of an assault into the capital is still prized – but the Afghan security forces have had quite a lot of experience in dealing with incidents here. Other population centres – Kandahar, Mazar, Jalalabad, Herat, for example, might provide a more fruitful way of expending Taliban martyrs. But Taliban operations over a given year of operations generally resemble a gradual rising tide through the summer, rather than a torrent, with occasional “spikes” of activity.