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Volatile Caucasus

January 20, 2016

Summary: A worrying piece from Thomas de Waal, suggesting that Azerbaijan may have a difficult time in 2016 – with political, military and economic consequences for the Caucasus as a whole.

Well established Caucasus expert, Thomas de Waal, has written an interesting piece about the poor prospects for Azerbaijan’s stability and economy this year. He suggests that a few factors threaten to come together to produce a turbulent and toxic environment, based around a possible economic crisis, due in part to developments in Iran.

Rising prices, a collapsing currency, international turbulence, and a nervous elite. Azerbaijan is starting 2016 in the middle of what looks like a perfect storm…To make matters worse for the government, this began a week ago, even before sanctions on Iran were lifted and the oil price fell below $30 a barrel. (Around three quarters of Azerbaijan’s budget revenues come from oil sales.)… The currency collapse has hurt Azerbaijan’s middle class, who have taken out dollar-denominated loans and come to rely on imported goods.

It has also hit the population at large outside the capital Baku, who saw prices on staples, such as flour, shoot up. One Azerbaijani economist warns of the risk of the massive inflation experienced recently by Ukraine, the only post-Soviet country which has experienced a comparable currency crash.

At what point do economic protests become political? It is a blurry line.

Basically he suggests long-term over-reliance on oil for income and lack of diversification can lead to discontent from a growing economic crisis when oil prices plummet, leading to political unrest, leading to clumsy government reaction unused to dealing with political dissent, leading to bloody crackdown. All the factors are threatening to come together this year – disgruntled ex-KGB chief sacked as security minister, human rights violations, a dispute with the US, its all there.

Q: What do authoritarian regimes tend to do when they have domestic unrest?
A: They create an external threat.

De Waal is particularly and rightly concerned that the protracted and unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh might flare up again.
In the longer (and broader) perspective he suggests

It is a foretaste of the trouble that Russia may soon face for very similar reasons.

Definitely one to watch.

Worth reading this brief article in full.

Afghanistan’s prospects in 2016 – frustration and stalemate

December 26, 2015

Summary: Afghanistan will struggle through another year of political, military and economic turbulence. 

cropped-19thc-afghan-map-8.jpgIn 2016, Afghanistan will struggle through another year of political, military and economic turbulence. This will resemble frustrating stalemate, although President Ghani’s proactive approach to reform will generate piecemeal progressions in governance, society and the economy. Traditional and enduring problems – the insurgency, warlords, unhelpful neighbouring countries and corruption – will present significant obstacles. The government will remain dependent on international military and economic engagement, with Afghan refugees providing a stark judgement on the country’s progress.

The insurgency will continue to take on new but equally violent dimensions, ensuring civilian casualties will remain high. But the coming year will be a significant test for the Taliban. Perhaps for the first time since 2002, their position as the major insurgency force in Afghanistan will be under threat. The Taliban will be under pressure from three directions: from internationally-supported Afghan security forces; from internal power struggles and from a new rival, in the form of Islamic State (IS).

The Afghan army will suffer many casualties and is going to struggle with morale and capability. But it will remain in the field and in control of key cities and communication routes. Internally, the Taliban will continue to experience leadership credibility issues: it is debatable whether Mullah Mansour will still be leader at the end of 2016 or even if the Taliban will be recognisable as a single entity. The emergence of IS will continue to complicate matters, as disgruntled local Taliban fighters weigh old loyalties against a new and better resourced form of jihad. If the Taliban continue a process of fragmentation it could produce a more complex and unpleasant series of localised insurgencies that IS might look to capitalise on. Even by the low benchmarks of Afghanistan, genuine progress on any form of peace dialogue looks unlikely in 2016.

In terms of wildcards, the violent death of President Ghani or another prominent ethnic or government leader could cause government fragmentation and herald a return to some form of civil war. A rapid implosion of the Taliban might create a power vacuum for IS and local militias to fill. There are few positive wildcards. If the Taliban struggle to regain their former unity and find themselves squeezed by IS, it might better assist them to find common ground and foster a hastening of peace talks with the government and both sides in an uneasy alignment against IS.

RUSI conference: Military Influence

December 10, 2015

Notes from RUSI Conference: Military Influence

RUSI logoThe Royal United Services Institute hosted a one day conference on the subject of “Military Influence” in London on 29 October 2015 with a selection of speakers addressing different aspects of influence, propaganda, information operations and the media. This is a summary from the on the record part of the day’s presentations.

Opening address – Lord Howell “Power and Persuasion – The New Military Role”

At the heart of Lord Powell’s opening comments, he stressed the interwoven nature of elements commonly seen as independent disciplines. Military capability, diplomacy, capacity building and intelligence gathering are now very “blurred at the edges”. The UK government has not fully recognised this yet and has no strategy for it. But none of this is new – for over three decades it has been clear that power has been shifting and that there is a need to reconfigure defence and diplomacy. Lord Powell highlighted a House of Lords “Soft Power” Report.

Small organisations – thinking of terrorist cells – can cause destruction, including through the use of drones and technology. Look at the sheer lack of success of US foreign policy despite US military might. The battle is no longer on the battlefield – trust becomes a winning weapon.

Christopher Paul – RAND “Assessing and Evaluating Influence Activities”

Assessing IIP (Inform, Influence and Persuade) activities is a significant challenge – much ambiguity over causation, multiple stakeholders, long timeframes. Social marketing gives good insight and benchmarks – and not just on profit as the measure of success. Assessment starts in the planning – needs to be Smart (Specific, Measurable, Achievable…). Behavioural objectives are preferable to attitudinal objectives. Need a sense of what success and failure looks like. A pilot effort first is good.

Neville Bolt – “Propaganda of the Deed”

Propaganda of the Deed is an aesthetic/symbolic form of violence with a political marketing message: “violence blends kinetic action with communicative intent”. The violent act is the main tool of the terrorist groups now – pictures can be captured, copied and repeated millions of times. The intention is to energise and mobilise – the more it can be reduced to a single icon, the more flexible it becomes.

In the 19th century it was about using the weight of the state against itself, in the 21st century it is about using the weight of the media against the state. Rupert Smith (British former general, author of The Utility of Force) said that media is an inevitable feature in the battlespace. There are significant advantages to the modern image – it is unmediated, instantaneous, is faster than the response, it can seize the initiative and can multiply exponentially. The image does not exist in a vacuum – the viewer brings constructed meaning to it – a discourse environment is necessary to set the context.

Milton Friedman observed that:

“only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

Revolutionaries legitimise the past to justify what they are doing in the present. Landmarks in the historical narrative are used – eg rise of ISIS and its “Caliphate” or Russia’s historic relationship with the Crimea to justify its annexation.

The Russian General Gerasimov addressed “hybrid“or “non-linear” warfare. He saw strategic communication as a prime tool of war – it offers non-military means to achieve military objectives. In example of Russian media – for example Russia Today – there is no objectivity, only approximations of the truth with many voices – the media is flooded with thousands of conflicting ideas

Thomas Nissen – “The Weaponisation of Social Media”

The strategic context of the 21st century is of a global operations environment – an “overflow” of social media use. Citizen journalists “netizens” and 24/7 news. This presents a challenge for all actors. Remote warfare and social media warfare are causing multiple state and non-state actors are being empowered in a redistribution of power in the international system, challenging traditional notions of “battlespace”. This will increase in future conflicts. The three “Rs” of terrorism – revenge, renown and reaction – shock appeal (“Shockvertising”)

Stefan Halper – “Chinese Information Warfare”

The Chinese government still very much adhere to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”…

“to subdue the enemy without fighting is the very acme of skill”

From a Chinese perspective, kinetic weapons “are proving essentially unusable”, leaving three preferred types of warfare:

o Intimidation/psychological
o Media
o “Lawfare”

Warfare in the 21st century is shaped by the idea that whose story wins may be more important than whose army wins. This may involve longer timeframes and different criteria.

• Psychological warfare – to influence and disrupt the enemy’s decision-making process. This makes extensive use of diplomacy, the press, false narratives, economic pressure, use of the markets and business companies
• Media (public opinion) – Use of films, TV, books, internet, etc. The Chinese media is used by the PLA against home opinion and targeted nations
• Legal/lawfare – A prominent role – conjuring up false laws to bolster claims to territory – bogus maps, distortion of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, domestic legislation, legal pronouncements that are made ad hoc without real validity

The South China Sea dispute is an example – manipulation of UNCLOS, freedom of navigation is being challenged

Dina Matar – “ISIS”

Islamic State and Hezbollah are using communications to reach out and it is important to pay careful attention to what is being said – not just when and how, but also the historical, social and political context. IS have a political communications strategy. ISIS and Hezbollah both represent themselves as an oppressed group, but Hezbollah is using traditional media and IS is using social media. IS actively use women for propaganda as they know it attracts the attention of the West. The same principle applies with on-line executions.

IS is very specific about what it promotes and how – each district under its control has its own twitter account and is used to promote the stories regarding the number of schools it is completing, advertising the services it is providing for Muslims, etc. The language IS uses contains elements of truth. It declares journalists as the enemy and controls the flow of information, including through its own professional propaganda techniques. It has a media centre “Life”, with a similar logo to Al Jazeera. IS desires to control the narrative, through information centres and its magazine which produces a romanticised image of IS life.

Igor Sutyagin – “Russian Information Warfare”

Russian information operations (IO) are “not ambiguous and not that new…”. There are three core principles:

o Voice one opinion – ignore or minimise alternative opinions
o Do not be afraid of losing connection with reality
o Subject the audience to a massive volume of information

The Russian approach is close to George Orwell’s “1984”- the meanings of words are changed – in the Ukraine, “fascists” are those who fight against a kleptocratic government. The population loses the ability to critically confront information. MH-17 disinformation created a “complete mess in the brains”
In Russia, pension funds are being confiscated by the government: the Russian propaganda system responds by equipping protest rallies with banners that declare “Obama, hands off our pensions”as a means of subverting and distorting. Key tactics are to ridicule the opponent (eg the Syrian opposition).

A propaganda attempt in eastern Ukraine was to plant a Polish rocket launcher in the battle area as “proof” of Western involvement. The West needs to take this Russian approach seriously – if it is a war, take it seriously – and regain its knowledge of Russia.

How do you confront Russia IO? The West should not reply in kind, this is dangerous, as Russia hopes to pull the West down to their level. Although Russia learns from its mistakes and adapts it is still making errors – over MH-17, Russia still insists a Ukrainian aircraft shot down MH-17 and presents faked satellite images. In some areas this does not matter for Russia – the “uncontested area” is the home media environment, where the Russian population do not challenge information

Richard Dobbs – “Future Opportunities”

There is a problem relying on intuition when assessing the world’s future – it can often be wrong. There are four major disruptive forces at work globally requiring us to reset our intuition and reconsider:

o Technology: speed and scale is accelerating
o Emerging markets/urbanisation: the UK double its GDP in the 150 years following the industrial revolution. China doubled its GDP in 10 years
o Aging population: China will have 150m fewer workers, Russia will have 38m fewer. This will lead to much lower growth rates
o The connectivity of things: trade, money, urbanisation, migration. The recent shocks in the Middle East have a much greater impact – 1m migrants into Europe, Greek debt defaults…

Inequality has so far been not too much of a problem – 95% of the world’s population are growing up richer than their parents. But soon we will see a group of people who are not advancing. The comfort of the old systems will disappear – there will be a rise of new political parties – they will be non-traditional, not necessarily of the left or right but “different”. Can they appeal to the “non-advancers”? This applies, eg, to ISIS – they are offering a new system.

The role of the company/corporation is also changing – more from emerging markets and small to medium organisations becoming more competitive.
There are implications for leadership: the change is coming, need to spend more time looking beyond your own national issues and be more externally focused, learning new ways of responding and how to view the world. The change cannot be stopped or denied…

Vaughan Smith (journalist) – “Future Opportunities”

West also does “smear campaigns” – it is not just the Russians. As a journalist it is also distressing to hear about the vulnerabilities of the press and how it can be subverted. Not much money is spent on critical journalism. VS has created a Frontline Freelance Register for freelance journalists who “fill the gap”. The quality of freelancers is very variable. It is dangerous to lie: “the truth builds trust, little else does”. There is a dilemma in fooling the public
Journalism is changing – it is becoming more diverse, harder to control. Many new journalists are not very good. There is an inevitability that truth has to suffer – but if you get it wrong it will catch up on you and erode trust. It is hard to deal with a “firehose” of information – the West should not use the same tactics as Russia – Russia Today is good at explaining Western flaws – need more journalism based on truth and trust

Taliban leader Mansour reported dead in intra-Taliban shootout

December 4, 2015

Summary: Taliban leader Mullah Mansour is reportedly killed or wounded in a shootout during a Taliban leadership meeting in Pakistan.  Never mind the media, the Taliban themselves are a confused mix of confirmations and denials of the report.  If true, this points to a likely fragmentation of the Taliban.  Islamic State in Afghanistan may benefit as Taliban fighters choose a new and hgher profile jihadist brand

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Taliban militants' new leader, is seen in this undated handout photograph

Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, reported killed in a shootout at a Taliban leadership meeting in Quetta

A lot of confused media and social media reporting to sort through, with the main thrust being that the current leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, has been killed in a shootout during a meeting of Taliban leaders in Quetta, Pakistan on Tuesday. The New York Times carries some useful detail on the story. Some Taliban members have claimed Mansour has been killed, others that he has been wounded and yet others that he is alive and was nowhere near the area of the alleged incident.

This is major news, probably overshadowed by bombing campaigns against Islamic State in Syria.  Mullah Mansour was the previous Taliban chief, Mullah Omar’s right-hand man. Earlier this year, the Taliban leadership revealed that Omar had died of poor health in 2013. Mansour is believed to have masterminded the concealment of Omar’s demise and manipulated his closeness to Omar in order to ensure he replaced him. Mansour’s appointment as Amir ul Momineem (“Leader of the Faithful”) was highly controversial within the Taliban. Many refused to recognise him and there have been reported armed stand-offs between rival groups of supporters. A breakaway group loyal to Mullah Dadullah (himself reportedly killed by another Taliban group that were possibly loyal to Mullah Mansour) have announced that Mansour had died of wounds during the Quetta shootout.

It is a complex set of reports and counter-reports and we should not rule out a garbled report, or even a malicious attempt to destabilise the Taliban by some form of intelligence agency. But from the spread of information sources, to me it still looks very plausible that Mansour is now out of the game. To have to announce the death of one leader is bad luck for an insurgency, but to have to announce two in the same year is starting to look likely carelessness. The Taliban website is in a state of unsophisticated denial, denouncement and deflection:

Taliban website, 3 December 2015: “Today once again Pajhwok and other media outlets fraudulently misused the name of the former Minister of Information and Culture of the Islamic Emirate, the respected Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqqi, to falsely claim that Mr. Mansur Sahib has been injured and even killed.

We consider this the failed attempts of intelligence agencies who want to confuse the ordinary people with such fabricated reports despite repeated denials by us.

We encourage media outlets to consider their reputations and be very careful when releasing reports about such sensitive matters. Do not become part of the wider malicious intelligence plans with the publication of such reports.

Amir Khan Muttaqqi has not been in contact with any media outlet over the course of the past 14 years and neither are rumors about injury of Mr. Mansur Sahib true.”

The Taliban used to impress many in the international community for the capability of their media machine. This was mainly because the Taliban used the internet and Twitter and could therefore say lots of things very quickly. This was particularly handy if they wanted, for example, to claim a bomb attack or assassination. But the content is routinely quite weak. Their credibility will not look good if, fresh from two years of publishing Mullah Omar’s statements after he has died, they categorically deny Mansour is dead but fail to produce him in any convincing way.

If Mansour is dead or incapacitated this will pose major problems of capability, credibility and future direction for the Taliban. They will struggle to find a figurehead to replace Mullah Omar. Efforts to re-engage in peace dialogue between the Afghan government and the insurgents will, once again, go on the back burner. We may see a fragmentation of the Taliban, with rival groups operating in their own local areas and vying for support and resources. Internal fighting is likely to intensify. This might provide a boost in recruitment for Islamic State, who have been slowly increasing their presence and reach inside Afghanistan, offering funds, resources and a more energised jihadi brand to disgruntled Taliban. The security situation in Afghanistan just became more messy and complex.

What is Islamic State?

November 19, 2015

Summary: Islamic State (IS) is an extreme military, political and religious organisation, with its origins in an Iraqi-based Al Qaeda movement and aspirations to create its own state, or “Caliphate” across the Mediterranean Basin, the Greater Middle East and Central Asia.  Islamic State is no simple terrorist organisation, but an unprecedented hybrid of convictions.  Its motivations are underpinned by very specific interpretations of Islamic history, the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed.  Ultimately, IS appears to wish to bring about the “apocalypse” and the end of the world.

Islamic State (IS) is an extreme military, political and religious organisation, with its origins in an Iraqi-based Al Qaeda movement and aspirations to create its own state, or “Caliphate”.  It is also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or Daesh (the Arabic equivalent of ISIL).

November 2015: Paris Attacks article here

March 2015: ISIS in Afghanistan article here

March 2015: US bombing campaign against ISIS article here

March 2015: ISIS Five Year Plan article here

January 2015: ISIS emerging in Afghanistan article here

October 2014: ISIS and propaganda article here

ISIS logo

The brand

Its motivations are underpinned by very specific interpretations of Islamic history, the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed. Islamic State seeks to carve its own territories out of the Iraq and Syria and aspires, ultimately, to extend these conquests much further, into North Africa, Southern Europe, the Greater Middle East and Central Asia. These territories are described by IS as the “Caliphate”, a deliberate reference to historic Islamic conquests.

Map ISIS expansionism

The aspiration

If its writings and statements are correctly understood, IS wants to create specific religious prophecies: to engineer or provoke a large military confrontation in the Middle East with non-believers (including Western infidels and Muslims of different persuasions). Ultimately, IS appears to wish to bring about the “apocalypse”, whatever this actually means, and to bring about the end of the world.

 

Al Qaeda 2.0?  New generation jihadis

Islamic State is no simple terrorist organisation, but an unprecedented hybrid of extreme religious, political, governmental, legal and military convictions. There are parallels with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, in terms of religious perspective. It is currently engaged in ground combat, with thousands of fighters under its control, for control and control and consolidation of Iraq and Syria as a stepping stone to further military conquests. Unlike Al Qaeda, which remains a series of franchised terrorist groups, IS is already in the process of setting itself up with a full and recognisable state structure: an economy, a currency, a legal system, social, educational and medical services. Some Islamist terrorist organisations in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia are choosing to declare loyalty to IS – perhaps recognising the power and momentum IS has achieved in a relatively short period of time.

IS progress in Syria and Iraq, March 2015

Islamic State is hard to penetrate and to understand: journalists, politicians, NGOs, diplomats are all at extreme risk of death if they engage directly with IS. Even something simple as how to describe the organisation (IS? ISIS? ISIL? Daesh?).  The world struggles to understand what IS is, what its appeal is and what it really wants (and therefore how to deal with it).  At least Russia and President Putin are playing on the same chessboard as the West with the same broadly recognisable rulebook.  Will there ever be the equivalent of IS ambassadors or diplomats, with whom discussion and negotiation could take place?

With its rigid interpretation of Islam – rejected by millions of fellow Muslims – and its excessive willingness to employ butal and indiscriminate violence, torture and terror, it does not seek dialogue or compromise.  While IS continues to exist and even occasionally thrive in the ungoverned spaces of Syria and Iraq, attacks such as in Paris in November 2015 – and worse – look likely to continue.

Further reading:
Graeme Wood, March 2015 – What ISIS really wants

Islamic State attacks Paris

November 14, 2015

Summary: The terror attacks in Paris were almost certainly conducted by Islamic State and killed or wounded nearly 500 civilians. It seems possible that some of the attackers came to Europe as recent refugees through Greece. A backlash against Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers looks inevitable. The incident may not yet be over: suspects on the run and “sleeper” attackers may contribute to further violent acts in the days to come. The attack could have been worse: a terrorist group with light mortars or RPGs, dug-in and prepared to fight from defensive positions, could bring a modern city to a standstill for days, not hours.

No easy solution: troops on the streets can be counter-productive and unsustainable

Thus far it appears that the well-coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris last night have killed nearly 130 and wounded around 350 innocent civilians. The assault has been claimed by Islamic State and there seem to be no reasons to dispute this claim. These were well-timed assaults by a handful of seemingly highly trained and motivated individuals armed only with small arms and suicide vests.

French President, Francois Hollande, has declared the attacks an “act of war” by Islamic State although prosecuting such an asymmetric conflict as a “war” is, from the historic experience of many European nations, generally complex, painful, unrewarding and long-drawn out. Terrorist groups operating in urban areas employing atrocity and fear as their main weapons of choice are extremely difficult to eradicate unless some form of political shift takes place. Islamic State does not appear to function as a “traditional” terrorist group in this respect.

Options for Mr Hollande and Europe as a whole are uninviting: increasing the bombing of distant IS desert bases and flooding the streets of Paris (or London, Brussels, Stockholm, Madrid…) with police, gendarmeries or even soldiers on high alert are both counter-productive and unsustainable.  It should therefore come as no surprise that these weapons and tactics are highly favoured by Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Taliban. The action resembled nothing less than the “complex” attacks frequently conducted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They can bring cities to a standstill. But it could get a lot worse. The difference between Taliban complex attacks and the one that hit Paris last night is the preference on several occasions for the Taliban to attempt to “dig in” to a building and force the security forces to fight to get them out. In this approach they create or scout out suitable buildings as defensible positions. They then either fortifying them in advance or bringing additional supplies of food, water and ammunition with them into the building once the fighting starts. The aim is to continue the fight for as long as possible – every hour of resistance creates more terror, more TV and social media coverage and more propaganda.

The attack may not yet be over: intelligence leads are taking security forces to Belgium attempting to trace suspects. IS seem to claim they despatched eight suicide vests and only seven have thus far been accounted for. It is certainly not impossible that other attacks may emerge, either as a result of the hunt for perpetrators and facilitators on the run or even from new attackers waiting to build on the chaos and confusion in a “double blow”.

I sat in the ISAF headquarters for 24 hours over two days in September in 2011 under Taliban attack. A 12-storey building site with a good view and line of site to ISAF and the US Embassy had been reconnoitred and prepared in advance as a fighting position. There were only five or six fighters with small arms. But their trump card was an 82mm ex-Soviet recoilless rifle, which operates more or less like a light artillery piece in that you point it directly at the target. It was not particularly accurate in untrained hands. But a city in which there is the continual crack and crump of gunfire over a period of hours – or even days – is a strong propaganda victory for asymmetric attackers. It was the case in Kabul, which has a certain weary expectancy of these things. But the impact of such an event in a modern Western European city, if small terrorist groups have the capability to project shells over distance – RPGs, recoilless rifles (as the Taliban used in the 13th September attack) or light mortars – would be a devastating escalation of terror. If a financial district or transport and communications centres (think railway stations or airports) could be brought under even just sporadic shellfire over hours or days, large parts of the city would close and the authorities would be rushed in to assaulting buildings that the terrorists groups had already prepared for defence – casualties could be very high. This approach is certainly something that should be worried over by Western security and intelligence groups – if IS had had a couple of small mortars, an RPG and a slightly different plan, the fight in Paris could still have be ongoing tonight.

The Taliban were able to defend this building for hours - storming it was costly and difficult

The Taliban were able to defend this building for hours – storming it was costly and difficult

Looking wider, inevitably we should expect and fear a backlash against Muslim communities and refugee/asylum groups. Reports from Paris point to at least two of the attackers having had passports that had been processed by the Greek authorities as refugees or migrants in the last few months. It is likely that much intelligence work will be trained on this angle in the coming months.

I note now that the Swedish police are now boarding trains to check IDs in an attempt to identify refugees and migrants. This was before the news from Paris. But a largely unregulated flow of migrants has been on my mind for some time as a possible route for terrorist groups to infiltrate (or re-infiltrate, in the case of some) into Europe. It is likely that border controls will be further tightened on and within the perimeters of Europe. It is also likely that this initiative is largely too late. Furthermore, “self-radicalisation” of young men in Muslim communities will likely carry on, regardless.

Kiev and hybrid war…

November 10, 2015

IMG_0716

One of my favoured excuses for failing to produce blog articles regularly is that I am not in the comfort of my office.  I am actually in Kiev at the moment trying to better understand “hybrid warfare” (aka ambiguous warfare, new generation warfare, etc, etc).  I shall report in once I have absorbed sights, sounds and ideas…

IMG_0722

Syria: Does Russia have it all its own way? What can go wrong for Russia?

October 20, 2015

Summary: The West should be cautious not to overstate the effectiveness of Russian military actions in and around Syria. A lot of things can go wrong in anti-terror operations as the US can testify…

Russia is certainly benefitting from the seizing of strategic initiative and its media is making much of its highly pro-active role. Russia is inserting itself into the US-shaped hole in the Middle East and the West is being made to look and feel wrong-footed. But the focus is perhaps too much on the powerful impact that Russia is having at the moment and less aboout the mid- and long-term problems that can emerge.

Russian airstrikes in SyriaThis colonial flag (and fast-jet) waving Russian venture has many weaknesses that will likely emerge with time. Russia is enjoying the same form of “honeymoon”period that US forces enjoyed in Afghanistan – and, yes, even in Iraq – with initial military engagement and some swift superficial success.

But Russia will drop bombs in the wrong place. Russian aircraft will crash. Russian military personnel will suffer casualties. If Russians fall into the hands of ISIS, they can expect a highly public and unpleasant death that even Russia Today will not be able to conceal or spin. Surface to Air Missiles and anti-tank weapons will emerge in the hands of terrorist groups. A collection of asymmetric attacks from ill-defined militia/terrorist/fundamentalist groups will inevitably land rockets, mortars, IEDs and suicide bombs on Russian political, military and economic targets – and not just those Russian targets inside Syria. It is happening already:

13 October 2015: Two shells hit the Russian embassy Tuesday in the Syrian capital of Damascus as hundreds took part in a rally to thank Moscow for its intervention in the civil war. A report by the Associated Press (AP) said that it was not clear if there were any casualties, but another report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) confirmed that there were no casualties.

There can be no clever use of “Little Green Men” here – no close cultural, linguistic and popular ties to help special forces to operate and gather intelligence or to enable friendly and obedient militia groups to spring up. Russia will likely experience the same insurgency frustrations that the US has done since 2001 – trying to shoot mosquitos with a cannon, or eat soup with a knife. Whichever metaphor we choose, there is little evidence that Russia has the skills for this.

While Mr Putin congratulates himself for his vigorous new venture, he might consider that there are very good reasons why the US has struggled here and backed away. Just a matter of time?

US Troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2016

October 16, 2015

Summary: Barack Obama grudgingly but rightly decides to retain a small military presence in Afghanistan for a small amount of time.  The airpower component will ensure the presence is not purely symbolic. 

Staying for a little bit longer

Staying for a little bit longer

Many news outlets are reporting the long-anticipated decision by US President Barack Obama to retain a US military presence inside Afghanistan:

BBC News, 15 October 2015: President Barack Obama has confirmed plans to extend the US military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016, in a shift in policy.  Speaking at the White House, he said the US would keep 5,500 troops in the country when he leaves office in 2017.  Originally all but a small embassy-based force were due to leave by the end of next year.  But the US military says more troops will be needed to help Afghan forces counter a growing Taliban threat.  There are currently 9,800 US troops stationed in Afghanistan.  The US forces will be stationed in four locations – Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.”

Although Mr Obama looks to have had his heart set on ending the American wars he promised to end when he became president, the decision is not entirely a surprise. One of Afghan President Ghani’s first missions on becoming president was to travel to Washington to ask for precisely such an extension, on grounds that the security situation was still very unstable. Since Ghani’s request, fighting between Afghan government and insurgency forces (primarily the Taliban) has only increased. The Taliban seem to have been able to shrug off the July shock revelation that their leader, Mullah Omar, had in fact succumbed to illness in 2013. They have sustained offensive operations through the spring, summer and now autumn. In a worrying demonstration of the distance the Afghan army’s independent capability still has to travel, Kunduz was briefly captured in September. It was only recaptured with the help of active US military intervention.

But what does this small extension of relatively small numbers of forces actually allow the US to do? At the peak of the multi-national International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) deployment, in 2011, some 140,000 soldiers, primarily American, had their boots on the ground. I wrote about the complex, convoluted and unsatisfactory Obama decision-making process for the 2011 “surge” of 30,000 extra troops here. Doubtless, a smaller scale version of this debate was had in the White House and the Pentagon in the last few months.

We should probably expect the 5,000 troops to be allocated against some of these core functions:

  • Securing the US Embassy in Kabul (1,000 troops?)
  • Base protection of US-controlled installations in Afghanistan: Kabul, Bagram (a large former-Soviet airbase 50km north of Kabul), Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan and Kandahar to the south.
  • Training, liaison and advisor programmes for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)
  • Special Forces capacity to target Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS targets of opportunity in the region
  • Airpower – to support these four missions and to be able to support the ANSF in extremis

It is not a lot of fighting force but will likely allow the ANSF to hold the line. We should expect some other European troops to remain committed as well, particularly the UK, perhaps picking up additional training and Special Forces duties. The airpower component will be crucial and certainly takes it a little bit further than pure symbolism.  But the symbolism is also at play, operating in two ways. It demonstrates that the US will remain committed but it makes it that little bit harder for the Taliban – who have not had a bad year, given the loss of their leader – to sit down for talks. Their consistent assertion has been that there should be no official (note I am saying “official” here) talks until the infidels have left.

Dutch MH-17 report findings: who would have thought it?

October 14, 2015

Summary: The Dutch report finds, unsurprisingly, that a Buk-launched surface-to-air missile brought down flight MH-17. The Russian media machine twists and flails as it tries to find a credible response – most favoured appears to be the “not our kind of missile” approach.  Next step is the criminal report, due in December.  It will likely conclude the missile was fired from rebel territory by rebels, possibly with Russian support.  Expect more Russian media convolutions.

Apparently not...

Apparently not…

The much-anticipated Dutch investigation report into the technical cause of the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 was released yesterday. The aircraft exploded over the fields of Eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014 as a conflict between Ukraine government troops and Russian-backed separatists was underway.

With the necessary but stark language that you would expect from a technical investigation, the report explains the horrific death of 298 human beings thus:

“On 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines operated flight MH17, an airworthy Boeing 777-200 with the registration 9M-MRD, in cruise flight near the Ukrainian/Russian border at 33,000, under the control of Ukrainian Air Traffic Control and was operated by a competent and qualified crew.
At 13.20:03 hours (15.20:03 CET) a warhead detonated outside and above the left hand side of the cockpit of flight MH17. It was a 9N314M warhead carried on the 9M38-series of missiles as installed on the Buk surface-to-air missile system.
Other scenarios that could have led to the disintegration of the aeroplane were considered, analysed and excluded based on the evidence available.
The impact killed the three persons in the cockpit and caused structural damage to the forward part of the aeroplane leading to an in-flight break-up. The break-up resulted in a wreckage area of 50 square kilometres between the village of Petropavlivka and the town of Hrabove, Ukraine. All 298 occupants lost their lives.”

It should be stressed that this is the technical report only. The criminal investigation – who was to blame for the missile launch and why – is still be produced.  An unpleasant detail that I had not considered was that some of the evidence (fragments of the missile) were taken from the bodies of the three crew inside the cockpit, which bore the brunt of the explosion.

With the possible exception of the Russian population, for whom these findings probably came as a complete surprise, this report comes as something of an anti-climax. This straightforward conclusion was reached by most impartial analysts within days of the event. It was a simple military cock-up by ill-trained and poorly disciplined rebels.  This happened in the heat of battle, with rebels (possibly with Russian military personnel in support) flushed with the success of similar shoot downs of Ukrainian military high- and low-altitude aircraft only days before.

The most morbidly fascinating aspect of the aftermath of this tragic event has been to watch the full array of Russian governmental, diplomatic, military, intelligence, political, technical, industrial and informational (above all the use of Russian media) tools to thwart independent investigation and subvert this highly damaging and embarrassing conclusion over the months and years after the aircraft’s destruction.

Like a cloud of fast-moving metal objects, a cloud of alternative (often competing and frequently laughable) theories were flung into the airwaves with the willing collaboration of social media trolls based around the world. These ideas flickered and danced for a few moments and then were gone. At one point MH17’s demise was supposedly the result of a failed Ukrainian attempt to shoot down President Putin’s personal jet. The Russian government was careful not to come down in favour of any theory, but doubtless facilitating their exposure and watching carefully to see if any were “sticky” enough to remain attached to the wall of Western media and popular opinion.  Often these false explanations were debunked within minutes.

I steeled myself to follow the English language coverage on Russia Today TV live over a few hours yesterday as it attempted to identify and extract any crumbs of comfort.  Much airtime was dedicated to the Russian test explosion of a similar Buk missile against the side of a similar aircraft in order to demonstrate that the blast and impact would be very different if a Russian missile had been used.  The announcement of these “findings” came, not coincidentally, at the same time as the announcement of the Dutch report, suggesting intent to clutter and confuse rather than clarify and instruct.  I note that no test firings designed to simulate Ukrainian SU-25 ground attack aircraft cannon or missiles seem to have been undertaken, perhaps suggesting that this particular cluster of theories is being quietly dropped.

The culprits were not identified in this report and neither were they intended to be. That will wait until the criminal investigation report comes out around December 2015.  We should expect an even more intense and vitriolic rolling barrage of denial, denouncement and deflection from the Russian government/media nexus, growing in intensity, between now and then.  If the Russian government is very lucky, maybe the Dutch report will find it too difficult to conclude one way or the other who actually fired the missile and why.

But I am reasonably confident that this second, and more crucial, report will conclude that the missile was fired from a Buk surface-to-air missile launcher in rebel (ie Russian-backed) territory.  It will have been fired either by poorly trained rebels, poorly trained rebels with Russian personnel supporting or just by Russian weapons operators.  I do not believe that there was a deliberate attempt to knowingly shoot down a civilian airliner.  I also subscribe to the very credible theory that this Buk probably made its way in from Russia in the days before and made its way hastily back in a similar timeframe, minus one of its missiles.

The Russian government and its government media arm is functioning like a battered army on the retreat after losing ground on the battlefield. But it is not retreating in disarray.  It has had time to recognise the direction in which this battle is probably heading.  It is operating a sensibly flexible defence based on damage limitation. It will start retreating to a second defence line of pre-planned positions and arguments, looking for opportunities for quick counter-attacks as they arise. Third and fourth lines of trenches are likely already being dug. I suspect they will privately accept the Buk missile conclusion in the report and make this the next battleground – it would certainly be unwise simply to attack the report writers as incompetent and/or CIA-stooges.

They will move from throwing up the smokescreen of implausible theories to something like:

  • It was the Ukrainian’s fault for allowing civilian aircraft fly over a war zone – they are the ones really to blame.
  • It was the wrong kind of missile – we don’t use them but the Ukrainians do.

Finally, if the criminal findings – as they likely will – conclude that the missile was launched in a rebel area by rebels. The last-ditch defence will be:

  • Well, these things happen in war, it was a confused situation.
  • The rebels are untrained and clearly they messed up.  Nothing to do with us.
  • It was a highly fluid battle space – who knows who controlled what areas at what times?
  • What the hell were the Ukrainians doing sending civil aircraft into a war zone?
  • In any case, absolutely no Russian military personnel were involved.

And finally, as the last informational redoubt threatens to fall to the enemy:

  • It was a genuine accident, we have identified some of the rebels and will cooperate in attempting to apprehend and punish them.
  • It was clearly an accident in the heat of battle and therefore NOT a war crime.
  • The Russian government is not to blame and had no control over the rebel actions.
  • This is a CIA/Western media plot to smear Russia – as usual.

Essentially, in the worst case – missile found to have been fired by rebels – the Russian government might have to be prepared to hang some of the rebels out to dry and ensure they take the blame. Anyone involved in the shoot down will have plenty of time to disappear.

I did wonder whether, in all this intense propaganda twisting and turning from Russian state-controlled media we might see a resignation or two from journalists pushed too far to tread an increasingly stressed party line. Nothing yet. But the chances of this must surely increase when the criminal report findings come closer.

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