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Karzai critical over Ghani’s reach-out to Pakistan

March 10, 2015

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

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

The Guardian, 9 March 2015: Afghanistan’s historic struggles against British imperialism and Soviet invasion will have been in vain if the country succumbs to pressure from neighbouring Pakistan, Hamid Karzai, has warned in an interview with the Guardian.  The former president of Afghanistan made his remarks at a time when his successor, Ashraf Ghani, has overturned the country’s traditionally hostile relationship with Pakistan in the hope of enlisting its help in brokering a peace deal with the Taliban.

Several once-unthinkable concessions made to Pakistan in recent months have horrified Karzai and many of the men who helped him rule for more than a decade.

“We want a friendly relationship but not to be under Pakistan’s thumb,” he said.

It is a view many think Ghani cannot afford to ignore, given how many people agree with Karzai, a familiar and charismatic figure who remains in the thick of Afghan politics.

The Taliban have long had a “safe haven” inside the southern Baluchistan (Quetta) and north western regions of Pakistan and many analysts, Western politicians and former ISAF commanders have argued convincingly that Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence) have had, and continue to retain, strong links and influence within the Taliban’s Pakistan-based leadership.

In truth, Hamid Karzai’s relationship with Pakistan was mixed.  He and his family were based there during the Soviet occupation and the Taliban period.  He also reached out to Pakistan when he was President, recognising the need to engage.  He once said that he and Pakistan would fight against the US in the event of war:

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has said he would side with Pakistan in the event of war with the US in a surprising political twist that is likely to disconcert his western allies.

“If there is war between Pakistan and America, we will stand by Pakistan,” Karzai said in a television interview. He put his hand on his heart and described Pakistan as a “brother” country.

The statement was widely interpreted as a rhetorical flourish rather than a significant offer of defence co-operation. Despite recent tension between Pakistan and the US, open warfare is a remote possibility.

Ashraf Ghani is trying to get dialogue going with the Taliban, much as Karzai did, and should be applauded for that.  It will need close engagement with Pakistan, simple as that.  Pakistan can act as a “spoiler” very easily, if it perceives that its views are not being taken into consideration.  Treading the very thin line between standing up to Pakistan and taking Pakistani strategic concerns into account will likely always be a thankless task, open to very vocal criticism.  It will need careful handling by any Afghan president when reporting back to the government and the people in Afghanistan.

From his mini-palace in the centre of Kabul, Mr Karzai expresses support for Ghani’s presidency generally and I think this is genuine and actually quite encouraging that a) a peaceful Presidential transition has taken place and b) the former President has regular private and informal access to the current post-holder.  I think that Ghani has a pretty clear-eyed and rational approach to most of his challenges, perhaps more so than his predecessor.  Karzai had some pretty emotional ups and downs during his difficult tenure, not least involving his relationship with Pakistan.  He is probably still vexed by his experience and is using his priviledged position to unload.  Mr Ghani is probably benefiting from some of the lessons identified during Karzai’s tenure.

Russia blames Sweden for Ukraine crisis

March 9, 2015

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

wallsKind of.  I couldn’t resist this one.  The political ripples of the Russia/Ukraine crisis spread even to Sweden as the Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, described the Russian annexation of the Crimea as the greatest threat to European peace since 1989.  A war of words (only, fortunately) between the Russian embassy in Stockholm and various feisty Swedes, has broken out:

Writing on Facebook, the [Russian] embassy lambasted the “honoured minister” for the “one-sided” view of the Ukraine conflict she put forward in an opinion piece published on Friday in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.

In the article, Wallström said Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine posed the greatest threat to peace in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

In its response, the Russian embassy suggested Sweden and others had provoked Russia into seizing part of its neighbour’s territory by offering Ukraine a pathway to membership of the European Union.

“The main tool turned out to be a state coup, a violent power takeover, which pushed Ukraine into the abyss of civil war,” the embassy wrote.

Carl Bergqvist, a Swedish air force major who tweets under the name Wiseman, likened the Russian embassy’s rhetoric to blaming a rape victim for her choice of clothing.

Annika Nordgren Christensen, a member of the Swedish Academy of War Sciences, agreed:

“Russia’s attitude towards Ukraine’s right to self-determination cannot be illustrated more clearly, and this is straight from the horse’s mouth.”

“It’s the ‘will of the West’ that has caused the war, ‘not least Sweden’,” wrote Christensen, who linked to the embassy’s Facebook post.

The Russian embassy said in its post that the Ukraine crisis was caused by “the will of the West, not least Sweden as an instigator of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, to do everything to push Kiev into the European Union.”

sweden-russia-sub.pngSweden has not avoided the fallout (bad pun) from the Ukraine conflict and the equally disturbing increase of Russian military muscle flexing in and around eastern Europe in recent months.  I think the Swedish defence establishment is still smarting from their failure to find an alleged Russian submarine, recalling Cold War days of the 1980s, reported in October last year in the Swedish territorial waters off Stockholm.

Aggresssive Russian use of aircraft has also increased diplomatic tensions:

The Guardian, 13 December 2014: For the second time this year, a Russian military aircraft turned off its transponders to avoid commercial radar and nearly collided with a passenger jet over Sweden, officials have said.

Swedish authorities said that on Friday, a Russian military aircraft nearly collided above southern Sweden with a commercial passenger jet that had taken off from Copenhagen in Denmark.

Sweden’s air force chief, Major General Micael Bydén, said the aircraft’s transponders, which make the plane visible to commercial radar, were shut off. Swedish fighter jets were sent up to identify the aircraft, and Hultqvist later identified it as a Russian intelligence plane.

“This is serious. This is inappropriate. This is outright dangerous when you turn off the transponder,” Swedish defence minister Peter Hultqvist said on Swedish radio.

Officials at Russia’s ministry of defence in Moscow were not available to comment on Saturday.

In the 2013 incident, Swedish fighters were unable to respond to the simulated attack (luckily the Danes were), causing great debate within Sweden that the nation’s defence cuts had gone too far, critically undermining the country’s ability.

ISIS in Afghanistan

March 6, 2015

Summary: ISIS reported activity inside Afghanistan

Talking of maps and ISIS.  This very interesting report from The Long War Journal highlights their understanding of ISIS activities inside Afghanistan to date.

20150305, Long War Joournal, ISIS in AfghanistanI remember when the map of Taliban activity in Afghanistan looked as sparse as this like (circa March 2002).  As yet there is not much to go on, making patterns weak and analysis tricky.  The clusters in the south and east are perhaps unsurprising, suggesting they are based around extant groups of Taliban and other insurgent-held territory.  These areas might form the most obvious potential support bases, particularly amongst disgruntled “soon-to-be former” Taliban fighters, wearying of the lack of tangible progress in the now 14 year-old war, but still ready for jihad against infidels. We should also start considering the extent to which the ISIS brand might be penetrating into neighbouring Pakistan.

The northern areas might be responsible for the triggering of reports of anti-ISIS militia – “Marg” – emerging in Afghanistan.  But militia forces that are beyond government control should be at least as worrying as the Taliban themselves as the country attempts to move forward in 2015, given their potential to destabilise and disrupt development and governance efforts.

The most interesting aspect for me are the areas marked “Islamic State and Taliban clashes”.  Although they are likely at present to be little more  than inter-Taliban turf squabbles, it could still suggest in the longer term that the ISIS advances to expand into “Khurosan” might be unwelcome and resisted and also that a fragmentation of the Taliban in the medium term should be at least considered as plausible.

ISIS: five-year plan

March 5, 2015

Summary: ISIS appear to have an expansion plan for where they want to be in five years, looking back to previous caliphates, to encorporate Spain and the greater Balkans.

I was very struck by this map that has emerged, purporting to show the area that ISIS feels it should have conquered by 2020.  Areas and states have been renamed.  I have no idea if this is genuine although I am reasonably confident that it is unattainable.  There seem to be many variants, both historic and aspirational, if you Google on “Map muslim caliphate

Map ISIS expansionismI wonder how it makes the various Talibans in Afghanistan and Pakistan feel when they see this – a mixture of worry and envy, I guess.  I remember Gulbuddin Hekmatyar making a comment in or around 2006 to the effect he had hoped that, as in the 1980s, the Afghan mujahideen would have been at the forefront of the anti-Imperialist jihad but that it seemed to be that Al Qaeda in Iraq were way ahead.  The low levels of reporting of an ISIS presence in Afghanistan might seem to suggest that, if an ISIS presence became significantly entrenched – largely through existing insurgent groups “re-badging” themselves – the Taliban are at risk of fracturing as some look to become associated and others fight against them.

There is a really excellent article by Graeme Wood, looking at who ISIS are and what they want.  He highlights strongly that we, the West, do not yet really understand what ISIS is, but notes that:

…the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world…much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse

Too rigid to survive?  And the direction of ISIS is not merely pointed at Westerners and non-Muslims:

Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election—even for a Muslim candidate—and being lax about calling other people apostates. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection. (The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet.) That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.

Ashraf Ghani clamping down on poor quality officials

March 4, 2015

Summary: The Afghan President continues a purge against poor quality officials.  He should be careful to avoid being too enthusiastic, for fear of causing more chaos and resentment than he resolves.  A pragmatic and slower approach might be more rewarding in the long-term…

Good news for Afghanistan

Good news for Afghanistan

I see that Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, is continuing his purge against Afghan officials and commmanders who he judges incompetent, corrupt, resistant to change or permutations of all three.

BBC News, 2 March 2015: Twenty-seven senior Afghan police officers have been sacked as part of what the government calls a drive towards good governance.  The move involves 17 district police chiefs in the capital Kabul, along with officers involved in counter-narcotics.  The changes were ordered by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has said many officers had links to warlords.  Since taking office last September, Mr Ghani has repeatedly sacked officials accused of corruption.  Recently he sacked dozens of officials just hours into a snap inspection.

He has already undertaken several such “clear-outs” across the country since coming to office last year:

The Guardian, 1 December 2014: Facing an intensified Taliban insurgency, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, plans to fire senior civilian and military leaders in the country’s most volatile provinces to reinvigorate the battle against militants, officials have said.

Already, Kabul police chief General Mohammad Zahir has resigned following a string of attacks in the capital over three days that killed four foreigners — including an employee of the British embassy — and several Afghan civilians. Officials and diplomats say Ghani will next remove governors and generals in five provinces where the Taliban have held territory for years.

It remains an encouraging indicator that Mr Ghani – intelligent, progressive, Western-leaning and financially astute – proceeds apace with reforms and change.  The Karzai era preserved much that was wrong with Afghanistan.  Institutionalised nepotism, corruption and incompetence was holding the country back.  Many Ministers and officials held their posts because they were good “Jihadis” who had bravely fought the Soviets and/or the Taliban.   The sense of “entitlement” has dragged the country down.

But I have a slight concern that implementing too much radical change in a short time frame might be counter-productive and provoke a backlash.  Powerful regional players – warlords – do not take kindly to the niceties of Western-style interpretations of competence and capability.  Positions in national and local government, rightly or wrongly, are seen as important indications of individual and ethnic status.  Removal from said positions, without public reward or compensation is humiliating.

Shaun Snow, in The Diplomat, puts it well:

The Diplomat, 13 Jan 2015: Ghani has sworn to elect individuals based on merit and not tribal and clan affiliation, a promise he made to rid the Afghan government of its corrupt patronage system, a system that pits the various ethnic groups and tribes against each other and undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the government. Whether this is a feasible goal is still unclear. Ghani may have to learn to be a pragmatic politician instead of the all-knowing professor…Ghani will also have to balance the needs and worries of various provincial governors throughout the country, including Attah Mohammed Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province who threatened an uprising against Ghani over the summer election, and who is a strong supporter of Abdullah…Ashraf Ghani will have to learn to balance the tiny fiefdoms in Afghanistan and become a pragmatic politician, a skill mastered by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. His fight to end corruption will not come with one mighty blow, but with a series of small steps…A meritocracy may someday come to Afghanistan but not under the current administration. For now, security and stability should be the priority.

There are many ethnic, political and security groupings to placate and keep onside.  Furthermore, finding officials with the high standards of ability that modern governance demands will be tricky – not much point in sacking people if you cannnot replace them.

Why did we lose the war in Afghanistan?

February 25, 2015

Summary: Some US analysts are addressing themselves to this question.  My view is that the war has not yet been lost 

US troops in AfgOver at Foreign Policy, the writer Thomas Ricks is hosting on his blog the challenge to write 500 words or less (I guess it could be much less) on the issue of why the US lost the war in Afghanistan.  Just in case they do not post my contribution, I post it here.  Shame to waste it.

Why did we lose the war in Afghanistan?

The question is flawed. The original phrasing made it too specifically about US Army tactics and COIN doctrine. Aside from the definitional issues of who is “we” and what does “lose” mean, I am not sure I accept the premise of the question. The battle has not been lost yet. This fact (I really think it is a fact) has been due in large part to the efforts of the US, however confused and ill-informed these actions were. It is now being fought in a different way – yes, possibly in the way it should have been fought in the first place – but it is not over.

If Afghanistan did not, in 2015, have a functioning government and had imploded back into civil war, or the Taliban had returned to conquer, 1990s-style, major cities and provinces, including the capital, then you could perhaps be making the judgement that the war had been lost. Losing a war is surely not the same as prosecuting it in a very clumsy, protracted and costly fashion.

We now live in the era of globalisation, Al Qaeda, ISIS, information and cyber warfare, highly interwoven conflict causes (narco, ethnic, religious, political, criminal, etc). Conflict is more complex and fast-moving than ever before. We are now adding “hybrid” into the lexicon, although most of the tactics contained within are very old. Maybe “winning” wars in this century is just a really old-fashioned way of looking at things, inevitably replaced by a variety of other terms: solving, resolving, limiting, managing, containing. No fun for the army that wants to stick a flag on a hill, but perhaps many of the wars this century will now offer will be complex, multi-actor, multi-decade, multi-informational, low-intensity, affairs. There will be no real victors and the only time politicians and soldiers can pat themselves on the back is when a country is judged merely to have avoided implosion.

Maybe Afghanistan was always going to be this messy and complex and costly. Almost by definition, this is what will happen when the international community rapidly responds to crises in parts of the world it knows little about. But think how the conflict might be judged by historians in twenty years time. I am still pessimistic in many ways, but there has to be at least a 50/50 chance that Afghanistan will make forward progress, politically and economically, however slow and painful. The war is not lost and the US is still playing a key role.

Reappraise the definitions of winning and losing. But, if you insist on looking at it in black and white terms, George Friedman’s “The Next Hundred Years” puts it nicely:

“The United States doesn’t need to win wars. It needs to simply disrupt things so the other side can’t build up sufficient strength to challenge it…The United States has a huge margin of error…Its not stupid. It simply doesn’t need to be more careful…”.

Maybe the US did win? Maybe the Taliban are asking themselves the same question?

Taliban – planning to talk?

February 24, 2015

Summary: More suggestions that the Taliban might be open for talks with the Afghan government should be treated with caution but some form of “peace with honour” could now appeal to many fighters

Taliban and Afghan government at the same table, Kyoto 2012

Once again some indications that the Taliban might be open to the possibility of talks with the Afghan government. The LA Times points to comments made by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s “chief executive” and, by all standards, a very senior and credible player:

LA Times, 23 Feb 2015: “The government of Afghanistan is close to beginning direct peace talks with Taliban insurgents for the first time, according to senior Afghan officials.  Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive in Afghanistan’s unity government, said at a Cabinet meeting Monday that Taliban leaders were willing to negotiate directly with Kabul, raising hope for a settlement to hostilities that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.  Abdullah said he had received assurances from Pakistan, where senior Taliban leaders are based, that the insurgent group was ready to hold face-to-face talks for the first time since a multinational diplomatic effort to engage the Taliban collapsed in 2013. The difference this time, officials say, is the peace process would be directed completely by Afghans.”

Also here:

Business Standard, 23 Feb 2015: “A former top Taliban commander has said that Afghan Taliban’s senior leadership has agreed to start “preliminary peace talks” with the Afghanistan government.  A Taliban leader said that the representatives, who met Pakistani and Chinese officials earlier, had sought time to consult the senior leadership, which has now given a “green signal,” reported The Express Tribune.

He added that Pakistani officials had urged Taliban leaders to sit “face-to-face” with Afghan authorities and put their demands before them to find a political solution to the problem, reported The Express Tribune.  Another Taliban leader said that a small delegation of Taliban leaders from its political office in Qatar are expected to visit Pakistan soon for further discussions to explore ways for the proposed peace talks and the re-opening of the Taliban office in Qatar.  He said that senior representatives, Qari Din Muhammad and Abbas Stanakzai, will be among the team.

Taliban had long been opposing any dialogue with former president Karzai’s government by arguing that he had no powers to take decisions. They had the same approach towards the government of incumbent President Ashraf Ghani but they now seem willing to initiate dialogue with Afghan authorities.”

In addition, the reported potential Chinese role in brokering talks that I have mentioned before has resurfaced:

LA Times, 23 Feb 2015: “Ghani has urged Pakistan in a series of meetings to put pressure on the Taliban and enlisted the support of China, a key ally of Islamabad.  One Afghan official with knowledge of the negotiations described the involvement of China as a ‘big, important new development.’  There are also suggestions that a senior former Taliban Minister with still strong connections to the Taliban, Motassim Agha Jan, is being considered for a senior post within government, such as leader of the High Peace Council.”

This type of reach-out has been made several times before, but it is at least encouraging that President Ashraf Ghani seems to be moving quickly on this, after the long hiatus of election and government team-building. The Taliban themselves, via their website, have issued strong denials, something they are always quick to do when flurries of talks about talks emerge in the press:

Taliban flagTaliban website, 24 Feb 2015: “It is a crystal clear fact that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not only a promoter of peace and security rather it sprung up for this exact purpose and salvaged its nation from insecurity, displacement and the disintegration of the country. The esteemed Commander of the Faithful, may Allah protect him, has repeatedly declared in his Eid statements (twice annually) that the central goals of the Islamic Emirate are ending the occupation, attaining independence, establishing an all Afghan-inclusive Islamic government and peace for our countrymen.

For attaining this purpose the Islamic Emirate, with the help of its believing Mujahid nation, has utilized both military and political mechanisms and will continue to do so in the future. Establishing contacts with world countries, visits, meetings, participation of Islamic Emirate in international conferences and opening a political office in Qatar, which was opposed by anti-peace parties, are clear examples of this.

There have been many rumors swirling around in the media lately about the latest developments in Afghanistan and negotiations with the Kabul administration, these are nothing more than the views and assumptions of these outlets. We have repeatedly declared that every report which is not published or confirmed by the official channels of Islamic Emirate are false and hold no value.

It must be mentioned that if the Islamic Emirate ever takes a step in its Islamic and national interests and towards attaining the above mentioned goals then it will surely announce it to its beloved nation and the world through its official channels.”

This generally doesn’t mean anything either way – they likely remain keen to keep all their sub-commanders and fighters as on-side as possible – even the idea of talks can be very divisive for an insurgency group. Albeit weak, the notion that ISIS might be attempting to push in to Taliban areas in Afghanistan, may be an additional factor that is helping to focus the mind of the Taliban leadership.

But notice that the Taliban do not rule things out in their statement (“…if the Islamic Emirate ever takes a step…) and also what the core Taliban demand is – “the central goals of the Islamic Emirate are ending the occupation, attaining independence, establishing an all Afghan-inclusive Islamic government and peace for our countrymen”.  Three out of four demands here are easy and uncontroversial – in fact they are almost completely unnecessary and designed only to surround the “occupation issue”.  This sort of general demand can surely be smoothed and moulded into something that all parties could accept – all Afghans want independence, an all Afghan-inclusive Islamic government and peace”.  The concept of “occupation” is certainly the tricky bit.  But again, with some intelligent and sensitive wording, perhaps bolstered with some confidence-building actions and statements from the US,  an international military presence could be something that is “managed out” in a timetable.  The down-sizing and ultimate departure of US troops (economic, development and investment advisors – in Afghanistan only to spend money and rebuild – could remain?) could be sold as lightly conditional on a demonstrable reduction in violence.  Even as early as 2004, there were points where I felt that all it needed was some intelligent wording to give something that everyone could sign up to.  The key to talks now – as it always has been – is to remove all suggestions of humiliation from all sides: no winners or losers, no handing in weapons, no treating ex-fighters like prisoners.  Perhaps the “arrival” of ISIS and the existence of a new, external, security challenge actually gives the Taliban and the Afghan government some common security ground to talk about?

It is more complicated than this, but if the Taliban were able to look through and beyond their own propaganda (which has really been looking tired, unimaginative and repetitive lately) and make a clear-eyed appraisal of where they are and where they might be going, they would perhaps note:

a) Major political/military gains by the Taliban – taking and holding provinces and cities – are still beyond them
b) The risks of launching their own large-scale conventional military attacks are great
c) The Afghan security forces are powerful, still in the fight and, for the present at least, loyal to the central government
d) Most Afghans still do not support them and are slowly moving on, politically, culturally and economically, without them
e) An international military presence of 10 – 12,000 in a training and advisory role (with airpower and intelligence support as necessary) could be sustained more or less indefinitely, should the US decide to do so. The US is publicly considering an extension of its 2016 withdrawal deadline at present

I have suggested before that, with both the Afghan National Army and the Taliban still very much in the fight and willing and able to contest the key  battlefields of the outlying provinces, 2015 is more likely to see continued fighting than a peace deal.  A peace deal that maintained honour for the Taliban and supported their inclusion in aspects of government will be difficult to achieve and painful for many.  But there is a real possibility that talks could re-emerge, develop and take root. Issues of “defeat” – who won or lost – ought quickly to be abandoned, in order to facilitate this.

Because of my personal age, experience and background, I am slightly minded of the UK miner’s strike in 1984/85. It is not a perfect analogy, but with the miners as the “insurgents”, by the end of their “campaign”, they hadn’t strictly speaking lost, but were really struggling to keep morale up and strike activity sustained.  There was, by early 2005, little prospect of a realistic and decisive victory. In the end, many (most?) of them wanted nothing more than to be able to march back into their towns and villages with heads held high, banners waving and to be able to claim, then, and in the years to come, that they had been “undefeated”, that they had stood up and been counted when faced with an external threat. The practical realities of politics and economics would kick in later.  There was (and still is) much bitter resentment about who was on which side, but, in the end, time smoothed much of this over.

UN on Ukraine: “Any further escalation will prove catastrophic”

February 3, 2015

Summary: As separatists consider large scale mobilisation and US ponder arming Ukraine, the UN warns of possible Ukrainian “catastrophe”.

_80750151_ukraine_rebel_forces_debaltseve_624_v3There seems to be nothing good coming out of the Ukraine at present, with casualties now well in advance of 5,000.  Talks are being abandoned, spurned and generally ignored.  Some observations from the UN as a result of the latest surge of fighting in the central (Debaltseve) and southern (Mariupol) contested areas of eastern Ukraine are bleak.  Debaltseve – with a population of around 26,000 in 2013, appears to be virtually cut off, raising prospects of more humanitarian trauma.  The UN highlights the rise in civilian casualties recently:

GENEVA (3 February 2015) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Tuesday urged all sides to halt the dangerous escalation in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. He called on States and all those with influence in the region to take measures to ensure full compliance with the Minsk accords, which have a direct bearing on the human rights situation in the east of the country.

“Bus stops and public transport, marketplaces, schools and kindergartens, hospitals and residential areas have become battlegrounds in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine – in clear breach of international humanitarian law which governs the conduct of armed conflicts,” High Commissioner Zeid said.

“The death toll now exceeds 5,358 people, and another 12,235 have been wounded since mid-April last year. In just the three weeks up to February 1, at least 224 civilians have been killed and 545 wounded. Any further escalation will prove catastrophic for the 5.2 million people living in the midst of conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

In particular, there has been a high civilian death toll from the indiscriminate shelling of residential areas in both Government-controlled territory, such as the towns of Avdiivka, Debaltseve, Popasna and Shchastia and the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska, as well as the cities of Donetsk and Horlivka controlled by the armed groups. In the single most deadly incident involving civilians, at least 31 people were killed and 112 wounded in Mariupol, following two attacks by multiple launch rocket systems.

“The protection of civilians by all parties to the conflict must be of the utmost priority,” Zeid said. “All violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law must be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators must be promptly brought to justice.”

The High Commissioner also expressed concern about the implications of the harsh winter months on civilians in conflict-affected areas, with shortages of food and water and power cuts. The plight of these civilians has been compounded by Government decisions that have resulted in further restrictions on the freedom of movement and socio-economic isolation. The prolongation of the conflict would make the humanitarian situation untenable for millions of people, Zeid stressed.

“The public declarations by representatives of the armed groups, rejecting the ceasefire agreement and vowing to scale up the offensive are extremely dangerous and deeply worrying,” Zeid said. “They add to the terrifying predicament of the civilians who are trapped in the areas, and the total breakdown of law and order. I urge all States with influence to work together to ensure that parties to the conflict immediately cease hostilities and abide by earlier ceasefire decisions.”

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISISThe BBC have this report:

BBC, 3 Feb 2015: Up to 16 civilians have been killed and dozens more injured in the space of 24 hours in fighting in eastern Ukraine, as the UN warns that the fresh surge in violence is proving “catastrophic”.  Government and rebel representatives reported the latest deaths in locations across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  Ukraine’s army also said five soldiers had died fighting pro-Russian rebels near the strategic town of Debaltseve.  Civilian casualties have risen sharply in recent weeks amid a rebel offensive.

The latest deaths were in the city of Donetsk, Debaltseve and several villages under government control in the Luhansk region. The exact numbers could not be independently confirmed.

Meanwhile, the separatist rebels talk of a mobilisation of 100,000 troops (although where from is unclear) and there appears to be discussion in US government circles on providing weapons to the Ukrainian army:

Daily Telegraph, 2 Feb 2015: The spectre of a deepening proxy war in Ukraine involving both Russia and the United States has raised its head after reports that the White House is considering supplying weapons to Kiev.

Washington has so far refused to supply weapons to the pro-Western Ukrainian government but reports suggest that a growing number of President Barack Obama’s advisors are now warming to the idea.

According to the New York Times General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s military commander, supports providing arms and equipment to Ukraine’s hard-pressed forces, which are struggling to quell an uprising led by Russian-backed separatists.

Other senior officials including John Kerry, the US secretary of state, are also said to be open shifting American policy and beginning to send weapons to Kiev.

Summarising Afghanistan’s neighbours

February 2, 2015

Summary: constructive, pragmatic, but often unhelpfully self-interested – a summary of the possible impact of Afghanistan’s neighbours in the coming years.

Afghan map outlineI was asked this question by a Wikistrat colleague, on the issue of Afghanistan’s neighbours.

Do you see any regional players getting more involved in the rebuilding process and maintaining stability (i.e. Pakistan, India)? What kinds of roles would they play?

I produced a paper in 2010 entitled “Afghanistan’s Neighbours: Great Game, Regional Approach or Limited Liability Opportunism?”:

I really need to redevelop some proper thoughts since this paper, but I think the key themes are still broadly where we are now, so thought I would race through a few lightly updated “headlines” for the key neighbours. A recurring theme has been the unexploited but massive economic potential in and around Afghanistan. “New Silk Road” studies regularly point at trillions of dollars of minerals, gem, natural resources, transport and trade opportunities. Every time this gets publicity, it seems to come to nothing as a result of security and corruption issues…

Pakistan: a confused and conflicted relationship with their Afghan brothers. The assertion by many analysts is that Pakistan is engaged in a “double game”. Pakistan seeks a passive “client” state in Afghanistan that has polices favourable to Pakistan. To preserve all options, Pakistan is covertly retaining links with, and providing support to, the Taliban. There has been some small scale economic and political reach-out, but the border between the two countries is fluid allowing insurgents of all sorts to come and go and smuggling to bypass regular trade, tax and economic process. Until the two countries sort out their security issues – their relationship will be fraught. Development and stability opportunities will underachieve for the next few years.

Iran: Iran remains concerned about instability in Afghanistan leading to more refugees coming to Iran. Its engagement with Afghanistan has been a mix of constructive – yes to investment and reconstruction, including a railway, in western Afghanistan – but also unhelpful. NATO has certainly complained quite bluntly about weapons and IED technology coming in from Iran and ending up in the hands of insurgents, although this might slacken now NATO has more or less gone.

China: China has managed to stay out of the conflict (although worried about the risk that insurgencies might spill across) but snap up investment opportunities where it can, desiring the trade and natural resources that Afghanistan (and Central Asia) offer. China has invested heavily (the Afghan government received around $3Bn for the Aynak copper mine). This month China seemed to be trying to broker talks between the Taliban, Pakistan and Afghanistan, suggesting new interest in the security side.

Crudely summarising the others: the Central Asian States will have limited impact. India will continue to invest heavily and will enjoy provoking Pakistan as it does so.

NATO hindsight…

February 1, 2015

Summary: What lessons learned for NATO from Afghanistan?

I was asked this question as part of my work at wikistrat:

One of the main obstacles for NATO in Afghanistan was the continued subordination of military forces to national political leaders despite the Alliance’s unified command structure (e.g. caveats about use of force, where they can deploy).  What, if anything, has been learned from NATO’s time in Afghanistan that may help us avoid the pitfalls of these sometimes contradictory chains-of-command in the future?

NATO symbol, flags and HQ

lessons are “identified”, but less frequently “learned”…

Of course, this was a very significant problem for the international operations across Afghanistan.  When I worked inside the Ministry of Defence over 2001 – 2006, in my part of the department we tried to avoid the term “lessons learned”, preferring, instead, to talk of “lessons identified”.  I feel that the nature of NATO is such that it will always have a significant element of these command and control problems in a large-scale or complex combat environment such as Afghanistan.

The members of NATO are quite diverse, more so than in the 1980s, with different historic, cultural and military experiences. Some, such as the (UK and US) have quite extensive combat experience (albeit in specific types of operation).  Others, perhaps more recently NATO members, have a less extensive range of military assets, financial resources or competences.

I am currently working on a study of “hybrid warfare”, in the context of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea by Russia.  The options for initiating and maintaining conflicts are now incredibly diverse: for example the use of cyber-attacks, propaganda, Special Forces, intelligence groups, local militias, etc.  An “obvious” war, in which the conflict is formally declared, protagonists are clearly defined and goals and objectives delimited (the Second World War, in effect) looks less likely than ever before.

As conflicts become more complex – and deniable – I suspect national governments are more likely to wish to exert a tighter control over the nature of the deployment of their national forces and whether they get involved in the first place.  This will likely be exacerbated by a couple of factors:

a) The decreasing “tolerance” for casualties within the populations of NATO countries
b) Advances of information technology which give a much more immediate picture to national audiences and government decision-makers alike

My sense, therefore, is that if there is any lesson learned at all from the Afghanistan experience, it is that national caveats and other forms of direct national control that bypass official NATO command structures are almost inevitable.  NATO force commanders may have to get used to the idea that a certain amount of tactful negotiation will be necessary.  The price of having an extra national flag flying in the “coalition of the willing” will be the acceptance that some not all members are the same.


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