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Russian convoys into Ukraine – at least 30 and counting

June 26, 2015

Summary: as ever, Russian activity inside Ukraine may not be all that it seems

hiding in plain sight...

hiding in plain sight…

I am working through two very interesting papers at present:

Both papers expose in very clear, compelling, authoritative and evidence-based style the extent of covert/accidentally overt Russian political and military involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Last year there was a lot of excitement and speculation about a Russian convoy of trucks that were to enter Ukraine ostensibly to provide food, blankets, tents and other civilian humanitarian supplies for displaced people in the combat areas.  There was confusion – much of this deliberate, I suspect – over the real intentions and whether this was an official Red Cross event or an operation controlled by the Russian government.  The story sucked up lot of media interest in the aftermath of the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner Flight MH17.  There were a range of possible explanations for the convoy, stretching from genuine neutral assistance, through a timely media distraction after MH17 to support for military operations.  Casting around for explanations for the convoy at the time, I suggested, (amongst 6 possible scenarios) that simply establishing the principle of entry – that Russian vehicles could come and go across Ukraine’s border at will – could be helpful to the Russian cause.

Exciting media stories can quickly become routine, normalised and less valuable for copy.  Sometimes they may be even deliberately designed that way.  Either that or shame on me for not keeping better track of this issue.  Establishing the normality of large numbers of Russian vehicles passing into Ukraine seems to have become routine.  I see from the OSCE spot reports that the 30th Russian convoy crossed into Ukrainian territory yesterday, the 25th June 2015:

Spot Report by OSCE OM: A thirtieth Russian convoy of 47 vehicles crossed into Ukraine and returned back through the Donetsk Border Crossing Point


On 25 June 2015 at 06:50hrs (Moscow time), a Russian convoy arrived at the Donetsk Border Crossing Point (BCP). A total of 47 vehicles were checked by the Russian border guard and customs services. All the vehicles had crossed back into the Russian Federation by 16:31hrs on 25 June.



Leaving the Russian Federation

On 25 June 2015 at 06:50hrs, the Observer Mission observed the arrival of a Russian convoy at the gate of the Donetsk BCP. The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations team led the process of the convoy movement. The convoy consisted of 40 cargo trucks and 7 support vehicles. With the exception of one vehicle (refrigerated truck), all the 40 cargo trucks displayed the Russian national flag and bore the inscription “Humanitarian help from the Russian Federation”.

All the vehicles stopped at the customs control area and lined up in three lines, the backdoors of all of the cargo trucks were opened and visually checked from outside by Russian border guards and customs officers. One service dog was used by Russian border guards to check most of the cargo trucks. Ukrainian officers –­ three border guards and one customs officer – were present during the check. They performed visual observation of the opened trucks from the outside with Russian border guards. By 07:40hrs all vehicles had left the BCP towards Ukraine.

Returning to the Russian Federation

At 14:15hrs on 25 June, the convoy arrived and lined up at the customs area. The backdoors of the trucks were opened and Russian border guards and customs officers visually checked the returning convoy. Ukrainian officers – three border guards and one customs officer ­– visually checked the returning convoy. One service dog was used to check some of the cargo trucks. The returning convoy consisted of two waves: the first part, consisting of 42 vehicles, arrived at 14:15hrs and left the BCP at 14:37hrs; the second part, consisting of five vehicles, arrived at 16:22 and left at 16:31hrs. By 16:31 hrs, all 47 vehicles had returned and crossed back into the Russian Federation.

The Russian state-run media service “Sputnik” stated that yesterday saw the “31st” convoy entering the Donbass.  I am not sure why there is a discrepancy.  The OSCE provide daily situation reports from their Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) which give useful insights into the realities of the “ceasefire”.  I think it unlikely that routine transporting of Russian military equipment or similar is underway with these convoys – it seems that the Ukrainians are inspecting the contents of trucks in some way, according to their Observer Mission report.

But who knows what might turn up one day, now the principle of large cross-border Russian vehicular movements (they seem to be once a week on average) has been established?  Although it appears that Ukrainian border officials were on hand to inspect in some way the contents of convoy 30, according to the OSCE, the 29th convoy crossed into Ukraine without the presence of Ukrainian officials.  Ukrainians were reportedly present for convoy 28 and 27.

But perhaps the contents of the convoy is a distraction?  It might be more about the personnel associated with the convoy and not the convoy per se.  “Putin. War”, at page 27, in chapter 5 “Volunteers or Mercenaries?”, points quite clearly to the use of the convoys for military purposes at least on some occasions:

Yefimov [director of a veterans’ foundation and a Special Forces soldier in the Sverdlovsk Region] confirmed that one of the means used to send Russian [citizen] fighters to Ukrainian territory is the so-called “humanitarian operations.” Essentially he is saying that the military invasion is carried out under the guise of humanitarian deliveries.

“The first time they went under the guise of the Red Cross. They received papers from the local department explaining that we were the escort. When we arrived, those people then remained. They were given weapons and combat assignments. Now we are also loading guys into the humanitarian aid trucks and sending them,”

Well, whatever may or may not be going on, the trips are now “normalised”.

Snyder, Gessen and Jampol: The War in Ukraine: Propaganda and Reality

June 23, 2015

I was just listening to this podcast – thoughtfulness and wisdom in spades here.  Listen in full (maybe while you are doing exercise?).  This also from Synder.

ukraine-russia-631Literally amidst all the cacophony of propaganda some analytical clarity:

10 March 2015, Episode Summary

A year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, destroying a peaceful order in Europe and placing its own regime at risk.  We in the West have experienced this historical turning point through a haze of propaganda.  According to Snyder, the Kremlin was perhaps wrong about the political weakness of Ukraine, but likely right about some intellectual weaknesses of Americans and Europeans.  When will the war end? This rare pairing of two essential thinkers on Eastern European politics offers a revelatory look at why what happens in Ukraine is of significant international importance.

Self(ie)-incriminating: Russians posing in Ukraine

June 18, 2015

Summary: pictures of serving Russian soldiers posing in Ukraine on supposedly secret missions are common.  But why is it happening?  Poor security or indifference?

There has been a lot of evidence pointing to a Russian military invasion of Ukraine since last year’s, er, Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Funerals of Russian soldiers, satellite imagery, social media all play their part in developing the picture.

But I genuinely do not understand why there is such a flow of incriminating “selfies” emerging regularly from eastern Ukraine. They seem to represent in large part the ego-trips of young Russian serving members of the Russian army on supposedly secret missions inside Ukraine. Some open source analytical bodies – Bellingcat, The Interpreter, the Atlantic Council – are having a fine time tracking and exposing multiple cases of foolish soldiers giving away the more cynical aspects of Russian foreign policy.  Social media is ushering in the birth of a new era of open source intelligence gathering.

This came in from Vice News. Journalist Simon Ostrovsky (who probably ought to watch his back out there now) literally traces the footsteps of a known serving Russian soldier, including to the exact spot in Ukraine where the Russian army absolutely most definitely do not have any officially presence.

I am reasonably confident that it is happening. But why? Of course security breaches can be a regular feature of military operations. But I cannot picture the British Special Air Service, or even British regular forces, falling into such regular malpractice on operations. I could see a security breach taking place once or twice but then draconian punishments and new procedures being issued immediately, including a total ban on smart phones (and laptops, and mobiles, etc, etc) and no contact with Russia other than through official military channels. Why do these faux pas continue to occur with such regularity? Why has the combined disciplinary might of the Russian military disciplinary and intelligence communities failed to stamp it out?

I have brainstormed it down to a few explanations:

  1. Quality of Russian soldier’s (many of whom are still young conscripts) training and morale is still very poor – they still don’t get the need for security in covert operations
  2. People do not yet fully understand the potential, implications and, crucially, the technology of the smart tools they now possess – photos have often been taken and then automatically (and unintentionally) geo-tagged and posted online
  3. The soldiers do not care – better to show off to your mates and family when you are doing something exciting
  4. Russian military authorities are poor at this sort of thing – inadequate security procedures are a factor of Russian military life
  5. Russian military authorities do not care so much – just one of those things. The embarrassment factor has worn off
  6. Russian militaries/politicos do not mind this happening so much – the world knows they are there but is too scared to do much about it. It is not really a covert operations anymore. And anyway, NATO satellite imagery is already identifying Russian military build-ups and activity.
  7. The unofficial low-level revelations of Russian servicemen in Ukraine serves to demonstrate Russian military resolve to the international community and to the would-be separatists in eastern Ukraine

Is it as simple as that – a recognition that the fig leaf has long since withered and died?

Oscillate wildly: the Taliban world is changing…

June 17, 2015

Summary: Things are changing for the Taliban.  Talks with internationals and a potential confrontation with Islamic State can make things stressful and unpredictable.

You have to feel slightly sorry for the Taliban. Their environment seems to be changing in ways that they are struggling to understand and control. They are now having to refute, dispute or “clarify” any meetings they have outside of Afghanistan in which Westerners and other Afghans are present. But the process of engaging in any forms of dialogue in the margins is helpful. It develops understanding between protagonists – a training session warm up before the tough issues are tackled. The Taliban’s exposure to the wider world has been limited over the years and they could certainly benefit from a little dose of political and international norms of behaviour and human rights. Ahmed Rashid gave a talk a couple of years ago in Copenhagen, in which he said: “lets open the minds of the Taliban”.

The period of an insurgency before talks start is a more fluid and potentially more nasty one. The pressure to secure military advantage and other bargaining points is high, as is the risk of fragmentation of the insurgents. Some groups inevitably will want to fight while others are weary.

IS mapBut an external dimension is emerging to complicate things. The Islamic State (IS) flag is being waved with increasing vigour over Afghanistan. This part of central and southern Asia is known as “Khorasan” to Islamic State, whose influence, once “virtual”, is picking up groups of disgruntled former Taliban, likely concerned over the lack of tangible battlefield success against the Afghan army.

ISIS logoThere have been reports of clashes between IS and Taliban in Afghanistan. Most recently an IS group are believed to have captured and beheaded a Taliban member. The Taliban have issued a letter to IS essentially (the translation I have seems to be a crude Google Translate) telling them to keep out of Afghanistan

I once asked Ahmed Rashid what would happen if the international community killed Mullah Omar. He said this would not be helpful, as the lack of a leader to talk to would put the Taliban at risk of fracture and the emergence of more extreme groups.The strengthening of an IS presence in Afghanistan could cause a similar outcome.

More Afghan police casualties

June 16, 2015

Summary: Bunker mentality.  Afghan police suffer large casualties in one night attack in Helmand.

More bad news for the Afghan National Police (ANP). On Saturday they reportedly lost 17 police officers killed in one night time confrontation with the Taliban. A base was surrounded and attacked in Helmand province in Musa Qala district. The base itself only held 19 personnel, the remaining two being wounded in the battle.

musa qala location mapPolice casualties have increased dramatically since the international forces withdrew.  A couple things to consider. Here we see the police once again being used as a second rate army. Poor command and control seems to have been a problem, with the Helmand provincial spokesman complaining that reinforcements were not sent to assist. But the Afghan security forces seem to have adopted a very static, defensive form of warfare, reliant on sitting in protected bunkers and checkpoints and allowing themselves to be surrounded.

Counter Insurgency warfare, where it has worked, seems to be a lot more about getting out on the ground – dominating it – engaging with the local populace and building up a good intelligence picture: understanding of who is who and what the dynamics are. Sitting inactive in a bunker yields the battlefield to the enemy. It is what the Soviets and the Najibullah army did. The reports suggest that the Taliban seemed to have plenty of time to take control of the area, planting IEDs and mines.

The other complaint is interesting:

“We do not have modern weapons to fight the Taliban and have no aircraft to target them”.

If you removed the word “Taliban” and inserted government”, this could easily substitute for a comment from the Taliban. Motivation and training are perhaps more important than modern weapons in this sort of conflict.  Seems like the Taliban have exactly the same problem but are still able to get an aggressive and pro-active attack going. Have the departing Europeans left a culture of technology-dependency behind?

Damned if you do…

June 15, 2015

Summary: …damned if you don’t.  Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to engage with Pakistan over the Taliban are criticised from all sides.

You have to feel sorry for Ashraf Ghani. His genuine efforts to reach out to Pakistan, recognising the key role they can play in helping to resolve his own security issues with the Afghan Taliban, are proving difficult.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (R) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) speak as they watch a cricket match between teams from Pakistan and Afghanistan at the Prime Minister's house in Islamabad on November 15, 2014. Pakistan and Afghanistan pledged to begin a new era of economic cooperation, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani saying three days of talks had ended 13 years of differences. AFP PHOTO/Farooq NAEEM

The Guardian, November 2014: The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has arrived for his first visit to neighbouring Pakistan, seeking to improve ties crucial to his hopes of reviving Taliban peace talk as US and allied troops end their 13-year war.  Ghani will hold talks with the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the pair are expected to watch a cricket match between the two countries on Saturday in a public demonstration of better relations despite fraught cross-border tensions. Both countries accuse each other of allowing militants to shelter in the border regions and launch bloody attacks that threaten regional stability. The former Afghan president Hamid Karzai routinely accused Pakistan of continuing to fuel the Taliban insurgency to destabilise his country as a hedge against Indian influence there.

A stable – and, even better, friendly – relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan will be of great social, economic, political and security benefit to the two countries and the region as a whole.  But neither side trusts the other.  Afghanistan refuses to recognises the current border between the two countries, it (the Durand Line) being a line on a map drawn by the British at the height of their imperial powers in the late 19th century.  It bisects Pushtun tribes than Afghanistan believes are rightfully Afghan.  Pakistan cannot get over its deep-seated fear of “encirclement” by India, requiring it to seek strong control over its western neighbour, lest India does so.  This led it to nurture and support the Afghan Taliban as a potential “client” regime during the 1990s and, more controversially, after the international military defeat of the Taliban in 2001.  Afghanistan cannot forgive or forget this.  Many Afghan political groups are convinced that Pakistani assurances they do not support the Afghan Taliban any longer are worthless.  Cross-border artillery exchanges are not uncommon. The Afghan Taliban use north-western Pakistan as a safe haven in which to rest, regroup and train.  A key dilemma revolves around Ghani’s need to seek Pakistan’s help to direct the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating.  Most of the Afghan Taliban leadership are based in Pakistan and the Pakistani regime certainly has the ability to contact them.  But the Afghan Taliban – to many analysts and Afghans – remain a useful tool of the Pakistan army and intelligence services and the Pakistani/Taliban relationship is highly suspect.

Ashraf Ghani will be required to reach out to Pakistan and simultaneously take a tough line on any suggestions that Pakistan is not genuine in their efforts to push the Taliban to the peace table.

BBC, January 2015: Now that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has unveiled a new cabinet he needs to urgently talk to the Taliban – and Pakistan’s generals, on whom he has staked his political future, must do more to help than they have publicly admitted to, writes guest columnist Ahmed Rashid.

Former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, whose own relationship with Pakistan was something of a roller coaster ride, has criticised Ghani’s reach-out

Al Jazeera, May 2015: The inking of an intelligence cooperation accord between Afghanistan and Pakistan has raised growing voices of concern at all levels in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have signed a memorandum of understanding which – according to the Afghan Presidential Palace – is aimed “mostly [at] jointly fighting terrorism”.

Expressing his deep concerns about the signing of the agreement, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a statement called on the government to “immediately cancel” the MoU. It is said that the current and former presidents had a “very tense” telephone conversation on this issue on Wednesday.

The inking of an intelligence cooperation accord between Afghanistan and Pakistan has raised growing voices of concern at all levels in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have signed a memorandum of understanding which – according to the Afghan Presidential Palace – is aimed “mostly [at] jointly fighting terrorism”.

Suggestions that the Afghan parliament feel similarly:

VOA, May 2015: Former president Karzai said he has serious concerns about last week’s agreement signed by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Karzai is urging President Ghani to withdraw from the memorandum of understanding, on the grounds that it is against Afghanistan’s national interests.

A majority of lawmakers in the lower house of the parliament are taking a similar stand. During Wednesday’s session in Kabul they demanded that the intelligence agreement be scrapped immediately, and they summoned top officials of the NDS and Ghani’s national security adviser to appear before the House next week.

Media reports said that NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil declined to sign the accord with Pakistan’s ISI, leaving it instead for his deputy to initial.

The Wall Street Times notes the fluidity of the issue:

Wall Street Journal, 1 June 2105: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani warned Pakistan he would reverse a diplomatic outreach unless Islamabad clamps down on Taliban activities and puts its leaders under house arrest, venting frustration as Kabul faces an onslaught of attacks by the insurgents.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said it was committed to peace and bettering relations with neighbor Afghanistan, adding that they share a common enemy.
Mr. Ghani’s office said in an official communication to Pakistani political and military leaders that if Islamabad is serious about helping bring peace to Afghanistan, it should quickly rein in the Taliban.
“Regardless of his firm commitment to peace, President Ghani has no choice but to become a war president to ensure the survival of his country and the safety of Afghan women and children,” the letter said.
The tone of the letter, sent in recent days and viewed by The Wall Street Journal, suggests Kabul’s patience is wearing thin with Pakistan’s military and foreign-policy establishment.
Mr. Ghani spent his first months in power courting Pakistan’s leadership to end years of mutual hostility, with the ultimate goal of getting Islamabad to facilitate a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

It will be a fraught and generally thankless juggling act for the president, with no guarantee of tangible success during his term.

Transnistria as another Russia/Ukraine flashpoint?

June 4, 2015

Summary: “One to watch” – Transnistria as another Russia/Ukraine flashpoint?  But who is provoking what?

transnistria ukraine mapI was just listening to Anthony Beevor plugging his new book on the Battle of the Bulge, warning against the risks of learning the wrong lessons from history.  The climate warms and favours military operations in Ukraine.  The OSCE reports increasing conflict in what is still, thus far, called Eastern Ukraine.  But should we assume that Donetsk/Luhansk would be the natural site for a new dose of hybrid warfare?  The Financial Times has a useful item to remind us of an area ripe for provocation in Ukraine’s west.  Inevitably, whether Russia is trying to provoke a confrontation over Transnistria to justify further military operations or Ukraine is doing similar (I would tend to favour the former over the latter explanation) the media language and political exchanges would be similar:

Financial Times, 4 June 2015:

Keep an eye on Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway state in Moldova. On Monday, Dmitri Trenin, one of Russia’s best-known foreign policy analysts and a man with good Kremlin antennae, tweeted: “Growing concern in Moscow that Ukraine and Moldova will seek to squeeze Transnistria hard, provoking conflict with Russia.” On Tuesday, a columnist in the pro-Kremlin Izvestia warned that that Russia “seriously faces the prospect of a repeat of the [2008] situation” – when it went to war with Georgia – “this time around Transnistria”.

What sparked the tensions was a May 21 vote in Ukraine’s parliament to suspend military co-operation with Russia. That included a 1995 agreement giving Russia military transit rights across Ukraine to reach Transnistria, which borders Ukraine’s Odessa region.

Russian peacekeepers have been deployed in the unrecognised statelet since its brief war for independence from ex-Soviet Moldova in 1992, and Russia has a base there with about 1,350 soldiers and heavy weapons. Losing access via Ukraine means Russia must resupply its base by air through Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, and across Moldovan territory.

But Moscow complains Moldova has recently detained and deported several Russian soldiers. Mr Trenin alleged to the FT, moreover, that Ukraine had deployed S-300 air defence systems near the border.

Cue claims by Russian and Transnistrian officials that Ukraine and Moldova are imposing an economc blockade; civic leaders in Transnistria last week appealed to Russian president Vladimir Putin to protect them “in case of emergency”. On Monday, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s hard-line deputy premier, assured Transnistria’s leadership that “Russia will always be there” to ensure regional security.

ICG Report: The Future of the Afghan Local Police

June 4, 2015

Summary: The international Crisis Group launches a pessimistic and critical report on the progress of the Afghan Local Police

Afghan Local Police

“Our fieldwork in eight Afghan provinces confirms unpublished U.S. findings that the ALP actually damages security more often than not. Among grisly reports of abuses, a local doctor told us that an ALP commander executed 45 prisoners, including a suspected Taliban militant who was blindfolded and used as target practice for rocket-propelled grenades. In short, the ALP are often bandits who prey upon the people they are supposed to be protecting”.

Graeme Smith, Afghanistan Senior Analyst

I have just seen this come across my desk.  Without time yet to read it, the International Crisis Group looks to be helpfully continuing the debate about the pros and cons of employing often very poorly equipped and trained militias (also think Iraq and Ukraine) to fill security gaps.

The Taliban’s opium poppy ban in 2000/2001 – lessons from history

May 23, 2015

Summary: The Taliban decision in 2000 to eradicate poppy was framed internally as a simple issue of religion. The real drivers probably owed more to a complex relationship with the international community, specifically the need for recognition and revenue.  An unhelpful mix of superficially bold pronouncements, behind-the-scenes pragmatism, poor strategic planning and confusion in roughly equal doses made this is a difficult process for the international community to follow.  At best they were treating a short-term symptom and not the long-term cause. The Taliban were able to communicate and coordinate an effective enforcement of their ban. But there were no indications that the Taliban had any understanding of the humanitarian problems being created by their actions or of any medium- to long-term planning for alternatives to the destruction of the livelihoods of thousands of Afghans.

Taliban poppy ban messageThis a short paper that I wrote at the end of 2013 about the Taliban’s approach to poppy eradication.  I had forgotten about it until I found myself discussing Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation in the Wikistrat community in some way a couple of weeks ago and it came back to me.  When discussing the issue of counter-narcotics, people still throw in comments to the effect that “well, the Taliban managed to ban it, so why can’t we?”.  Like most conflicted related issues, I found that it was not quite as simple as that…

During the end of their 1990s “reign” and when they wanted to, the Taliban could show impressive ability to make decisions and enforce them through harsh, blunt but effective measures. They had – and still have – an ability to frame issues in ways that resonate with key parts of the population.  Their use of Islam can be a flexible tool. But their approach to a poppy ban was highly spontaneous, leaving related issues unaddressed and other interlocutors wrong-footed.

In terms of “governance”, the Taliban demonstrated a very poor ability to plan for the medium- and the long-term or anticipate problems. They either missed the point of poppy eradication, were indifferent to (or uncomprehending of) any potential hardships or were not expecting the ban to last long – perhaps seeing it as a “tap” for turning on and off dependent on progress on other issues, particularly in relation to the international community.

From the Taliban`s perspective their engagement with the international community had not been rewarded: they saw a lack of bona fides and a failure to deliver on promises.


poppy production


In November 2013, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced that poppy cultivation across Afghanistan had increased for the third year running and that 2013’s increase of 49% in potential opium production compared to 2012 took Afghanistan’s production of poppy to yet another record level. Cultivation reportedly increased by 34% in Helmand province and 16% in Kandahar.

In all charts tracking opium cultivation in Afghanistan, amidst the broadly upward trend from the early 1990s to the present, one year is an anomaly – the plummeting production of 2001. This is attributed to a ban on opium poppy that Taliban leader Mullah Omar announced in 2000 and that the Taliban began to enforce later in that year.

The Taliban will still be a significant (and perhaps increasingly) political presence in the country, even if scale and scope remains unclear. However, we still struggle fully to understand the political, military, social and religious drivers underpinning the Taliban leadership. This paper offers some analysis on the issue of the Taliban and narcotics in order to see how this might inform our understanding of the Taliban’s future approach to local and national governance and engagement at the international level. The paper will look at the Taliban’s policy on narcotics in 2000, the context shaping the decision to ban cultivation, the manner and effectiveness of implementation and any potential lessons.

The Taliban in 2000: foreign and narcotics policy intertwined…

In the late 1990s, the Taliban were precariously in control of most of Afghanistan, including the capital, Kabul, but still in the midst of a swirling civil war. William Maley noted that the Taliban’s domestic policy and internal actions determined many of the foreign policy problems they would have (e.g. women’s rights, drugs, relationship with Bin Laden). He summarised the two main foreign policy goals of the Taliban at this time as the quest for international recognition and securing international funding, suggesting that the search for funding had three main components: engagement with international energy companies; developing transit trade (and smuggling) across Afghanistan and raising revenue from opium.

The narcotics issue created a tension between the Taliban’s foreign policy objectives of international recognition and fund-raising. During the mid- and late- 1990s, the Taliban had turned a blind eye – if not tacitly encouraged – the cultivation of poppy for the purposes of narcotics production. Although officially opposed to it, opium provided a valuable source of revenue – as it did for their military opponents in the Northern Alliance. The United Nations had been engaging with the Taliban, seeking limitations and reductions to opium production. Millions of dollars were offered for a range of development projects inside Afghanistan as an inducement but with limited results. Although the Taliban were superficially showing willing – announcing a ban on cultivation, use or trading of opium on 10 September 1997 and undertaking eradication in some districts under the gaze of the international community – the UNODC noted in 1999 commented that:

“…Taliban authorities have continued to make the actual enforcement of the ban on opium cultivation contingent on the provision of sufficient funds from the international development community to assist households in the transition from livelihoods dependent on opium poppy cultivation, to those based on legal sources of on-farm, off-farm and non-farm income.”

Omar announces the ban

However, on 27 February 2000, a Taliban fatwa announced a ban on the cultivation of poppy. Enforcement commenced in July of that year. Taliban leader Mullah Omar gave a firm re-statement of the Taliban’s position, declaring the use, cultivation and trafficking of poppy as “haram” – forbidden by the Koran. The reality was almost certainly more complex: many saw the rapid about-face by the Taliban as an attempt to gain recognition or funding from the international community or even a ploy to push up opium prices while trading off stockpiles. Furthermore, previous Taliban efforts to reduce cultivation reportedly being rebuffed, there appeared to be an element of credibility at stake for the Taliban leadership.


The fatwa was disseminated through announcements on Radio Sharia. Reports describe a Taliban chain of command for this process based upon district-level monitoring shuras comprising the chief of police, the chief of the Vice and Virtue Department and local religious ulemas and tribal elders. The UNDCP noted that:

“The ban was implemented using a combination of persuasion, negotiation and enforcement, as required. The ban has been enforced in a relatively structured way with regional governors holding a series of meetings with tribal elder, provincial governors and district administrators to inform them of the ban. Religious scholars have also been enlisted to ensure the ban had the necessary religious sanction.”

The shuras were made directly responsible for ensuring local farmers complied with the fatwa and suffered identical punishment to those who transgressed. “Motivated by this threat, shuras complied with their mandate with swift, and often brutal, efficiency”.


poppyWith enforcement of the ban beginning from June 2000 and the next planting season meant for October/November 2000, it meant that the extent of the ban’s impact was only noticed in and around the Spring of 2001, when the next crop was due for harvesting. The Taliban’s dual approach, linking the ban to Islamic values while holding local enforcers to account appeared very successful, with broad compliance across all Taliban-held territory (parts of country held by the Northern Alliance continued production and trading). A UNDCP mission to Taliban-held Afghanistan in early 2001 concluded:

“Opium poppy is effectively eliminated in those parts of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where it has been cultivated in recent years. The cause of the dramatic reduction in cultivation this year is the Taliban prohibition.”

Farrell and Thorne suggest that this ban

“…may have been the most effective drug control action of modern times”.

But this is only half of the story. The long-term sustainability of the ban will remain unknown, given that the US-led coalition brought the regime down later that year. Key indicators of problems with the ban – protest, armed resistance, migration of cultivation, increasing poverty and debt – that would have emerged in due course were mainly avoided or else were only just starting to emerge. Existing stockpiles likely postponed the impact of the ban. But reporting suggests that the enforcement of the ban was beginning, directly and indirectly, to create conditions of extreme hardship for the farmers (and many other participants in this narcotics industry), in particular a rural cycle of indebtedness. Afghanistan narcotics expert, David Mansfield, observed, in mid-2001:

“…without considerable development inputs and a framework of governance in Afghanistan the current low level of opium poppy cultivation cannot be sustained…the conditions that have made opium poppy such an attractive crop to households across Afghanistan remain intact.”

In essence, the poverty and uncertainty created by the rapid implementation of the ban without alternatives and coping mechanisms in place was recreating the factors that caused poppy cultivation in the first place, arguably making a return to poppy cultivation inevitable. This showed weaknesses within the Taliban’s approaches to planning, understanding and implementation. Consideration of the consequences of their actions was limited to the short-term: medium- and longer-term issues were either not addressed (through ignorance or disinterest) or left with the expectation that the international community would alleviate any adverse impact. From the Taliban`s perspective, they maintained that a deal had been struck with UN for $250 million of aid once the ban had been implemented, which was subsequently reneged upon by the UN:

“The Taliban were understandably angry: ‘We have fulfilled our obligations…We have done what needed to be done, putting our people and our farmers through immense difficulties. We expected to be rewarded for our actions’…”.

Mansfield suggested that the Taliban`s actions were little more than “…a more comprehensive and organised attempt to obtain assistance from the international community”. Overall, the criticism regularly levelled at the international community regarding their inability to fully comprehend the need for a longer-term strategy based on alternative livelihoods seems equally valid when applied to the Taliban in 2000:

“There is certainly little sense that the Taliban have considered the full implications of the ban and what is required to address the resource gap that the population is currently enduring due to the loss of opium”.


Some observations can be made regarding the Taliban behaviour at international, national and local levels. The forceful and impetuous nature of the ban`s enforcement took the international community by surprise twice – by doing it in the first place and by doing it speedily and effectively. The use of Islam to frame the message for Afghan farmers showed an understanding of effective ways to frame an issue to given audiences, while also showing indifference to (or ignorance of) medium and long-term implications and the needs of their countrymen. The Taliban showed levels of pragmatism and opportunism in the decision-making – in late September 2001, the regime threatened to lift the ban if the US were to attack Afghanistan. But they also demonstrated lack of bureaucratic capacity, analytical ability and strategic planning. No alternatives or assistance were made available to the population. Interestingly, in a small scale reprise in May 2012, the Taliban repeated the destruction of some poppy fields in eastern Afghanistan, citing Islam as the justification. No mention of alternative livelihoods or wider enforcement was made by the Taliban spokesman and this might as easily have been an incidence of a dispute between rival cultivators or some other, local, tactical reason.

The popularity of the Taliban is much lower now and an uncertain future is pushing Afghans again towards the cultivation of opium as an “insurance policy” – as demonstrated by the most recent UNODC cultivation figures. With poppy growing more entrenched than ever before and under the control of warlords across the country, it seems unlikely that a similar attempt at enforcing a ban at anything beyond the very local level would receive the same uniform levels of initial compliance.

In 2000 and 2001, the Taliban were able to enact coordinated, swift, blunt, but effective, measures of enforcement nationwide. They may struggle to reach this level of capability in relation to an unpopular measure now – even if they were again the dominant force in government. But the instinct to compel the population through edicts and harsh enforcement likely remains: the Taliban have shown no patterns of leniency in the intervening years. The ability to plan beyond the short-term looks similarly questionable, but the Taliban may now recognise such an approach to poppy to be risky, difficult, unpopular and unsustainable, particularly without significant compensations from the international community – something that the Taliban currently have little faith in.

Foreign Affairs: book reviews for Russia today

May 22, 2015

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.

Surely a Millwall supporter: "No one likes us,  We don't care"

Surely a Millwall supporter: “No one likes us, We don’t care”

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.

  1. 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
  2. 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.

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