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.
Summary: Afghanistan will struggle through another year of political, military and economic turbulence.
In 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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Graeme Wood, March 2015 – What ISIS really wants
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
This 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?
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.
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.