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.
Summary: Dostum in Chechnya seeking Russian help against terrorism in Afghanistan…
I just saw this brief news article from the Interpreter Magazine:
Yesterday, October 5, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov received Gen. Abdul Rashid Dustum, the first vice president of Afghanistan, he reported on his Instagram page (translation by The Interpreter):“We discussed questions of economic, trade and cultural cooperation. We devoted particular attention to the struggle with terrorism in general and the Ibliss state [ISIS] in particular. Dostum noted that ISIS is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead. In order to prevent this threat, Kabul needs Russia’s support, as in Syria. We expressed confidence that the leadership of Russia will make a positive decision in response to this request.”
LifeNews and Grozny-inform.ru reported that Dostum also noted Chechnya’s real experience in battling terrorism.“Both Ramzan Kadyrov and I have been waging the struggle with international terrorism. And in this field we can make a substantive coalition. We can learn from each other. We don’t have concrete projects of cooperation yet, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any in the future.”
Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, was once a general in the Afghan army during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, then later became an independent warlord who took part in battles against the mujahideen fighters in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. He spent some time in exile in Turkey in 2009 before being allowed to return to Afghanistan by then-president Hammid Karzaai.
It will likely be unclear for some while whether the trip serves Afghanistan’s government or Dostum’s own agenda. Dostum has regularly talked about forming his own army to fight the Taliban if the central government was not up to the job. Russia is aggressively and pro-actively expanding its military reach, most recently in Syria. Where next? The idea of an independently funded and armed Dostum is not a pleasant one.
Summary: A US airstrike levelled a Kunduz hospital, killed civilians and aid workers. Information does not yet allow a full judgement on the “how and why” but it seems less likely the Taliban were a prime cause. Human errors and the stresses of battle in various forms may have fatally complicated the communication between Afghan security forces on the ground and US air controllers.
For some days and weeks now, a battle for control of Kunduz city, in north-eastern Afghanistan, has ebbed and flowed, with the population stuck in the middle, fleeing when they can, or hunkering down in shelter where they must. Taliban and government forces have grappled inconclusively, plant flags and taking selfies in the various squares and roundabouts of the city’s centre.
In the small hours of last Saturday morning, a US flown and controlled aircraft – likely an AC-130 “Spectre” gunship of some variety – opened fired on the southern-western suburbs of Kunduz city over the period of an hour. The action appears to have been at the request of embattled Afghan security forces engaged in combat against Taliban fighters in the area.
NYT, General Campbell said that Afghan forces had come under fire near the hospital and then called for help.
The gunship’s fire power probably included a couple of 25-40mm chain guns and a rapid firing 105mm howitzer. These are designed to fire from the same side of the aircraft while it slowly circles its target. The impact of the strike on the target was devastating. And in the wrong place.
Final casualty figures will likely become clearer in the days to come, but it seems as if something in the vicinity of 22 hospital workers and patients, including children died in the attacks and subsequent fires that destroyed many of the buildings. Medecin Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) lost a number of their own staff in the attack. The NGO’s Director has since gone on to explicitly describe the event as a war crime, noting that the hospital’s GPS coordinates had been transmitted to all parties of the conflict. US official military sources seemed to acknowledge some level of culpability by stating that an air strike had gone astray.
NPR, 4 Oct: MSF’s General Director Christopher Stokes, saying in a statement that the group operates “[under] the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed,” insisted that anything less than a fully independent probe of the incident would be unacceptable.
“Relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient,” Stokes said.
“We reiterate that the main hospital building, where medical personnel were caring for patients, was repeatedly and very precisely hit during each aerial raid, while the rest of the compound was left mostly untouched. We condemn this attack, which constitutes a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” he said.
In an interview on Sunday’s Weekend All Things Considered, MSF Executive Director Jason Cone said it has been the “darkest couple of days in our organization’s history.”
Speaking with WATC host Michel Martin, Cone reiterated Stokes’ description of the attack as “a war crime.”
MSF have called for an independent and transparent investigation. The Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, has called for an investigation. US President, Barack Obama has said the same.
The Taliban have been quick to capitalise, highlighting “Barbaric American forces bomb civilian hospital in Kunduz” on their website, declaring that no Taliban fighters were in the hospital, something that the slightly more reliable MSF have also stated. The Russian government, recently pursuing its own bombing campaign against various anti-Assad forces in Syria, is also condemning the US attack – and greatly tempting fate in so doing.
There have been many civilian casualty incidents since the conflict began in 2001. Suicide bombings are perhaps the most indiscriminate of all but a misdirected air strike can be more devastating.
But it is a war crime to deliberately target hospitals, schools or places of worship.
There seem to be a handful of plausible explanations for this tragedy:
- The US aircraft hit the hospital in error when they were aiming at Taliban forces in the area – very possible.
- The Taliban were firing from the hospital and US/Afghan forces collaborated to neutralise this target – seems less likely.
- Targeting error on the Afghan side – they transmitted bad or misleading information to US tactical controllers who relayed this flawed targeting information to the aircraft. Possible.
- Targeting error on the US side – failure to distribute, circulate or otherwise accurately employ GPS coordinates given to them, or otherwise mismanaging targeting information and procedures. Possible.
- Different form of attack entirely – an Afghan security force artillery strike or a Taliban suicide or rocket attack coincident with US air activity. Much less likely – and certainly no evidence.
Every once in a while I find myself believing the Taliban. With the help of MSF, who were operating in the hospital at the time, it seems unlikely that the Taliban were activity deployed inside the hospital grounds, despite the protestations of the acting provincial governor that they were “100 per cent used by Taliban”. The incident looks to have been an almighty mistake somewhere in the chain of command and control between Afghan security forces making the request and US forces, several thousands of feet above, attempting to respond.
The action of sending GPS coordinates to the US (and Taliban and Afghan government) forces, as MSF appears sensibly to have done, makes the action seem more deliberate but does not guarantee safety. Human error when under duress in a confused “fog of war” can corrode or overrule all manner of safeguards and procedures. In 1999, the US managed to bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade totally unintentionally during the Kosovo bombing campaign because they had out of date maps. And even more pertinent to the Kunduz incident, in late 2001 at the battle of Qala-i Jangi prison near Mazar-e Sharif, US Forward Air Controllers called in a strike on top of soldiers – and a tank – belonging to General Dostum, whose forces were besieging the Taliban.
In this incident, the error occured because the US soldier on the ground had had to change the battery on his GPS device, erasing the most recent stored data and defaulting to the coordinates of his own location when he powered it back on.
Alternately, it is perhaps significant that some Afghan political and military sources appeared initially to have been arguing that, as the Taliban were clearly in the hospital grounds (this is disputed and may well be incorrect), it was therefore acceptable to target the hospital. The Americans are known to be saying that the air strike was conducted at the request of the Afghans. To be fair to the Americans, they have made strong efforts to learn from their “collateral damage” mistakes. I suspect they have a better understanding of the legal and moral implications of knowingly striking a hospital. We might see a parting of the ways between US and Afghan explanations as investigations proceed.
Is it possible that a crucial “oh, by the way, the Taliban target we are giving you is actually in a hospital” piece of information did not clearly make its way from poorly trained and disciplined Afghan security forces to US personnel and aircraft in the area?
If the Afghan security forces are found to have deemed it acceptable to attack a hospital purely because it was believed to have Taliban in, they may yet be facing a war crimes charge that the Americans will be scramblling to avoid. Interestingly, the Washington Post is suggesting that Afghans are almost sympathetic to the dilemma of Taliban fighting from hospitals and the necessity of attacking them regardless.
Accurate information needs to emerge first, before judgement can be made, but I suspect a chain of human errors to be the most likely cause. As a final thought, I wonder how many buildings are described as “hospitals” or “clinics” in Kunduz? As part of the media reporting, I came across a snippet in several news agencies, including Indian Express, referring to the MSF hospital’s wrecked compound as lying in the east of the city (mapping suggests it is to the south west), with evidence of automatic weapons, including one machine gun, poking from the burnt windows.
Indian Express, 4 Oct: Afghan officials said helicopter gunships returned fire from Taliban fighters who were hiding in the hospital, and AP video footage of the burned out compound in the east of Kunduz city shows automatic weapons, including rifles and at least one machine gun, on windowsills. But Stegeman said there were no insurgents in the facility at the time of the bombing.
Maybe it is easy to get clinics confused. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter described the bombing occurring under “hazy circumstances”. In the stress and fog of war, in a night time battle against a shadowy, hard to identify enemy flitting through narrow streets, I can readily see how human error can trigger an unpredictable and undesired chain of events.
Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon*
Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog (www.dangerzoneblog.com) on topics related to ongoing conflicts. Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.
Summary: As the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine have solidified, extremist political groups – often ideologically confused – are arrayed in geographical clusters. This post will take a look at the far right groups which occupy the southern front of pro-Russian Donetsk, the ideologies which they follow and what significance such groups hold in Donetsk.
Inside eastern Ukraine, the disputed territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (“DPR” & “LPR” respectively) have become a melting pot for armed nationalist groups of various convictions. The “DPR” and “LPR” are the two pro-Russian de facto states which comprise the disputed eastern territories in Ukraine. Together they form a confederation known as “Novorossiya”, meaning “New Russia”. This confederation exists only on paper, and is as controversial as the de facto states that comprise it. Over the course of time nationalist groups have fallen into geographic clusters in which groups of different convictions are located. In Lugansk, historically a Cossack area, the Cossack identity is very strong. A “National Militia” has been formed in which Cossack battalions perform a task equivalent to that of the less impressive “DPR” Republican Guard – a type of territorial defense brigade. Militia groups in the Donetsk region, on the other hand, appear more diverse, including Soviet revivalist groups to the north and west of Donetsk and Rus’-centric nationalist groups lining the southern front.
Rus’-centric nationalism is nostalgic for the old Rus’ states of medieval times. They are considered to be the predecessors to modern Russia. This is often characterized by the use of Slavic pagan symbology and runes of that era and location. Such nationalism is not new, nor is it specific to Russia: nationalists of Scandinavian countries often look to Viking/Norse roots to strengthen and reinforce their own national identity. These fighters often arrive in theatre voluntarily through privately funded organizations similar to the Imperial Legion , a radically orthodox neo-monarchist organisation. Such organizations are often responsible for tasks such as preliminary training and transport to the “war zone”, at which point the local authorities will take over.
When talking about Rus’-centric nationalism, a prominent group is Storm Group Rusich (referred to simply as Rusich from now on) which is, curiously, a favourite all around. Although the Rusich group is only a few dozen strong, it has become quite popular with pro-Novorossiyan media and has caught a lot of attention from western social media sources . It is to be found within the 1st battalion “Viking” of the 1st brigade of the “DPR” army corps which embraces the same kind of ideology although to a much lesser extreme. Just south of the Viking battalion is the 5th Battalion Tactical Group of the Republican Guard commanded by Aleksander “Varyag” Matyushin, who was far more vocal with his nationalist ideas before the fighting started. The culture of this battalion is similar in many ways to “Viking”, although more geared towards a revival of the Russian monarchy rather than being infatuated with Rus’/Viking symbolism (although they are no strangers to such things). This rather odd mix of interests makes it one of the more ideologically confused groups in the conflict. But one thing all of these groups do have in common is a distaste towards the “DPR” leadership and the “communists, socialists and Chechens” which hold the front line in the capital region.
Ironically, the infamous Azov battalion of Ukraine, to be found on the other side of the front lines, espouses similar views and symbology. Azov has taken criticism from western and Russian media alike for its strong nationalistic overtones and use of symbols rooted in the regional ancient culture long irrelevant to everyday life by now. Azov embraces symbology tied to Germanic neo-paganism. The most notable example being the unit logo which features the black sun – most commonly associated with Nazi symbology. Recently the logo has transitioned into something resembling the SS twin lightning flash symbol. Rusich, which in the past has engaged in battle with Azov, is more partial to Slavic neo-paganism as evidenced by their usage of the Kolovrat – the Slavic equivalent of the black sun, however they do at times use Germanic neo-pagan symbology. A qualified guess as to why both sides employ such symbology is used is that they consider the old Vikings, both Rus’ and Scandic/Germanic, to be the ultimate representations of whiteness and that they in turn believe that employing such symbology will make them culturally pure. On top of this, these symbols all tie in to the Rus’ state run by the Varangians back in medieval times, suggesting strong nostalgia for a “pure” Russian state.
The use of neo-paganism amongst these militia groups seems more for cultural and ideological purposes than religious ones, Rusich being the only known exception which actually carries out heathen rituals, footage of these rituals used to be publically available but were taken down due to negative attention. There is also a high presence of Russian imperial symbology. This is especially popular with the 5th Battalion Tactical Group of the Republican Guard, which finds inspiration from different times at which Russia and its predecessors were considered to be great on their own, in this way, neo-pagan symbology does not directly clash with the Orthodox Christian undertones of Imperial Russian symbolism.
Such strong symbology attracts many new outside fighters who recognise this symbology as an invitation to fight for their cause. These fighters often stem from various nationalist groups like Russian National Unity but also nationalist groups from countries outside Russia’s sphere of influence. In fact the most prominent fighters from Rusich are not even native to Russia. Rusich’s leader Alexey “Serb” Yurevich is a young Serb, with somewhat of a celebrity status in “Novorossiya” and Russia, even taking a trip to St. Petersburg with a Norwegian neo-nazi from his platoon last year to attend a conference with active duty Russian service members. These two fighters receive the majority of pro-Russian media attention in the form of interviews and airtime when they have announcements to make.
Although the most prolific groups with nationalistic ideals of this kind are mostly situated along the southern “DPR” front, small groups with similar views of neo-monarchism and Slavic neo-paganism are starting to pop up in Lugansk, both in Cossack units as well as independent brigades. This is no great surprise as Rusich began as a Lugansk militia group. But it does seem to be colliding with what seems to be an attempt by higher powers to concentrate that brand of nationalism in one place. This might address a fear that groups of opposing views could turn against each other in the absence of a tangible common enemy if ceasefires hold.
It is not uncommon for militia units to operate vigilante night patrols and enforce their own forms of localised martial law: the “DPR” leadership may have chosen one of the least densely populated regions for the least-disciplined of parts of their militia which they have less control over. The “DPR” in particular appears to be reacting to fears of infighting, effectively militarizing the political party “Donetsk Republic” which holds the majority of seats in the “People’s Council”, the legislature of “DPR”. This is being done by accepting large amounts of soldiers from the same units to join the party , .
Donetsk and Lugansk have been host to many lethal power plays between militia groups and the local governments. The assassination of Aleksey Mozgovoi, the former commander of the “LPR” Separate Mechanized Battalion “Prizrak”, is one of the better known examples. Mozgovoi was vocally critical of the “Novorossiyan” leaderships and survived one assassination attempt before being killed in the second. Other militia leaders have suffered the same fate, or have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
There are many different politically charged militia groups within “Novorossiya”. The ones this article focuses on are the most notable in the context of political ideology or because of the extreme nationalist nature of their beliefs.
There is cause for concern here. Such a large collection of militia groups with more or less the same nationalist ideology in a small region with a power vacuum still being filled is dangerous. This could have serious internal political and security implications for the ruling governments of these de facto states, which have a history of less than ideal ways of dealing with opposition. In the long run, if these factors do lead to instability, it will mean more trouble for the Donbass region and its stakeholders.
At the international level, where people come from abroad to fight for a common nationalist cause, returning fighters could pose a security risk to their home nation. The prospect of the pro-Russian nationalism in its different forms having a recent military experience is worrisome.
Summary: ground conflict flaring up in the north and east initiated by Taliban and “ISIS” groups. Some reports suggest part of Kunduz now in Taliban hands
Update, 28 September: BBC and others are reporting part of Kunduz has fallen into Taliban hands:
BBC, 28 September 2015: Hundreds of Taliban fighters have stormed the strategic northern Afghan city of Kunduz, seizing control of half of it, police say.
Militants have occupied some government buildings, including a prison, and heavy fighting is continuing.
One report said the Taliban had raised their flag in the city centre.
The government said at least 25 militants and two Afghan policemen had been killed and that reinforcements had been sent to the city.
Monday’s attack appears to be one of the most significant mounted on a provincial capital by the Taliban, correspondents say.
Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Husaini told the BBC’s Mahfouz Zubaide that militants had captured the jail in Kunduz and freed about 500 prisoners, including members of the Taliban.
The Taliban, for their part, are reporting their fighters are in the city centre:
The attacks launched on Kunduz city by Mujahideen early this morning are said to be still ongoing at the moment.
Officials reporting from the city say that Mujahideen have so far overrun a police station, 4 check posts; from direction of Kabul Bandar Zakhel village, Se Darak area, 200 bed hospital, Amrullah Omar Khel compound and Bagh Zara’at area; from Imam Sahib Bandar directon Sheikh Zahir village, Zar Kharid area and 2 check posts.
So far 15 police are confirmed killed, dozens wounded, Commander Bashir detained, 7 vehicles, 2 motorbikes, 3 RPGs, 3 PKMS, 13 AK rifles and a sizable amount of other equipment seized.
Mujahideen have currently reached the main city intersection, are targeting the governors compound and clearing the small remaining pockets from enemy presence.
More details about the operation will be updated as information arrives.
There is a lot of activity going on in Afghanistan, most of it unhelpful. It seems as if fighting has increased in the north and east of the country. Reports suggest that the Taliban are making renewed and sustained efforts to pressurise and ultimately seize the north-eastern city of Kunduz. Earlier this year, Kunduz was making the headlines for similar reasons.
Voice of America, 28 September 2015: Taliban militants have launched an assault from several directions on the strategic northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz.
Police say government forces are fighting the insurgents in at least three Kunduz locations. A police spokesman said “heavy fighting is ongoing in Khanabad, Chardara and at Imam Saheb, the main entrances to the city.”
The coordinated attacks began early Monday.
Insurgents have been involved in intense fighting in the once tranquil province of Kunduz since April.
On top of this, reports that large-scale attacks by ISIS have been made in the eastern province of Nangarhar against police outposts.
The fall of a significant city would be very bad for the government and a significant morale boost for the Taliban who are struggling with unity issues after the death of Mullah Omar in July. But information (the battle progress, casualties, objectives on both side) is sketchy – a fairly constant problem in the conflict in Afganistan, particularly now that ISAF has pulled out.
Sunday in eastern Afghanistan, authorities said hundreds of Islamic State militants staged a coordinated pre-dawn attack against key security outposts in Nangarhar province. Afghan forces have forced the extremists to retreat.
Officials said it was the first major attack by Islamic State militants against Afghan forces, coming after months of reports that the extremist group is becoming more and more powerful in Afghanistan.
We should be careful about the use of the term “ISIS” but it is very possible – indeed likely – that some former Taliban and HIG groups are rebadging themselves in part as a reaction to internal Taliban problems and also due to the high profile and rise of ISIS – this is the group to be seen to be in.
IBN Live, 27 September 2015: The attacks in Achin were confirmed by the border police commander in eastern Afghanistan, Mohammad Ayoub Hussainkhail. They came a day after a UN report warned that IS was making inroads in Afghanistan, winning over a growing number of sympathisers and recruiting followers in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces.
Afghan security forces told UN sanctions monitors that about 10 per cent of the Taliban insurgency are IS sympathisers, according to the report by the UN’s al-Qaeda monitoring team.
The jihadist group has been trying to establish itself in Afghanistan and challenging the Taliban on their own turf.
Some Taliban insurgents, particularly in the restive eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, have adopted the IS flag to rebrand themselves as a more lethal force as NATO combat troops depart after 14 years of war.
Vice President, Dr Abduallh Abdullah has recently acknowledged government problems in meeting the popular expectations for progress:
Voice of America, 27 September 2015: He admitted that the National Unity Government has not clearly communicated to the Afghan people about what he called “harsh realities” — the challenges they face from poverty and the threat from Islamic terrorists.
Attacks from the Taliban have grown and Islamic State is starting to take advantage of the leadership dispute among the Taliban.
But Abdullah said the government has so far achieved mixed success. Despite a contested presidential election that put the country in political limbo for months last year, Abdullah said the Afghan people have a revived confidence in the political process and the government.
Both sides – government and insurgents – still have problems but both are still in the fight. This is stalemate and nothing on the horizon resembling either constructive talks or something to tip the balance. Small wonder why Afghans are still leaving the country in droves:
Al Jazeera, 16 September 2015: Afghanistan’s passport department has been inundated with applicants.
According to the passport agency’s employees, they are now issuing an average of 2,000 passports a day, a threefold increase from six months ago. Unofficial reports from one border crossing in Nimruz province claim that over 8,000 Afghans cross into Iran on a daily basis. The total number may be much higher, given Afghanistan’s porous borders and multiple crossing points.
Summary: The new Taliban leader’s Eid address was probably produced by the same team that produced the old leader’s words. It unsurprisingly continues the themes of previous addresses: the nearness of the (now 14 year) jihad to victory, multiple calls for unity, the importance of avoiding civilian casualties and the removal of foreign forces as a precondition for talks. Mullah Mansour looks to be emphasising continuity as he attempts to placate and incorporate Taliban unhappy with his appointment.
The new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mansour, has given his first official address on the Taliban’s official website, congratulating Muslims on the occasion of Eid ul Adha.
A 2,950-word statement, twice as long as last year’s address, begins by sending condolences on the death of his predecessor, Mullah Omar. It talks of the struggles of the fourteen year jihad under Omar and stresses that he, Mansour, will struggle with the burden of leadership unless he receives help and cooperation.
Mansour describes the Taliban’s “jihad” as “nearing its victory” but cautions that the enemy is trying to sow “dischord and
distrust among the Mujahideen by utilizing propaganda stratagems” by a variety of means. He warns of “baseless rumors”.
Mansour accuses the Kabul government of harassing the Afghan populace and reminds his own fighters not to cause civilian casualties and to show the population respect:
“Mujahideen are not allowed, under any circumstance, to resort to activities based on their own discretion that are contrary to sharia or you have in mind some goals which do not coincide with the pleasure of the Almighty Allah but which only pleases the intrinsic whims of your souls.”
The Taliban’s Political Office is described as “the only exclusive” means of engaging in talks and it is made clear that intra-Afghan talks, with the Afghan government renouncing treaties with “invaders” is the only way to achieve peace in Afghanistan.
The address dismisses international construction work in Afghanistan as “short-terms and are of low quality and spurious” and warns of the rise of militias, warlords and ethnic clashes.
The style, tone and themes employed here are not significantly different to previous Eid addresses attributed to Mullah Omar and we should not expect them to be. Earlier statements had been produced under Mullah Omar’s name when he was – we have now established – already dead. It is likely that the statements are joint efforts from within a group inside the Taliban’s core “Quetta Shura” Leadership Council. It may well be that Mullah Mansour played a key role in directing previous statements.
Mansour seemingly acknowledges the struggles he still has to convince all Taliban supporters that he is now the legitimate head of the Taliban. He refers to the need for support for him and unity for the movement. Beyond the calls for unity – which we noted with increasing regularity in earlier “Mullah Omar” addresses – come other familiar themes:
- the Jihad is very close to victory
- beware the enemy attempts to create divisions in the Taliban through propaganda and the spreading of rumours
- The population are being mistreated by the Afghan regime – the Taliban must treat the people well and do all that is possible to avoid civilian casualties
- The only way ahead for talks is for the Afghan regime to renounce all treaties and engagement with the international community and settle the conflict Afghan to Afghan
- Warnings of inter-ethnic tensions and the rise of militias and warlords
The Islamic Emirate believes if the country is not under occupation, the problem of the Afghans can be resolved through intra-Afghan understanding. Any foreign pressure under the pretext of resolving the Afghan problem, is not going to resolve the problem but will rather create other problems.
If the Kabul Administration wants to end the war and establish peace in the country, it is possible through ending the occupation and revoking all military and security treaties with the invaders.
Analysis and Outlook
The sense from this address is that the new Mullah Mansour era wants to present a united front and “business as usual” vice any new ideas or initiatives. This is perhaps unsurprising given the power struggles and challenges to his legitimacy that have been revealed through the late summer and autumn. Mansour has, in the past, been seen more as a political and pro-talks animal than an out and out fighting jihadi. However, while Mansour is attempting to consolidate, he is unlikely to want to lurch in any new directions, even if he does have new ideas.
Perhaps Mansour wants to make it through the winter. Fighting will inevitably subside as the weather worsens. This might allow a breathing space in which he can develop support, plans and consider any new strategies. We might have to wait until the Spring of 2016 to see the fruits of these deliberations. However, there is no guarantee that new ideas will be forthcoming. The twin messages “the fight continues” and “no talks until the last foreign invader has left Afghan soil” remain difficult-to-shift dead weights around the neck of the leadership, throttling flexibility, regardless of who is in charge.
Summary: Sexual abuse and grooming of young children (mainly boys) for sexual abuse remains a repugnant, so-called “cultural” practice in Afghanistan. Whether, when and how to challenge it remains a significant dilemma for international forces keen to keep anti-Taliban forces cooperative and effectively fighting the Taliban
A disturbing report in the New York Times highlights a problem too often swept under the carpet:
WASHINGTON — A report describing how American forces looked the other way as powerful Afghans raped boys with impunity — an issue that long plagued the war effort in Afghanistan — prompted declarations of outrage in Washington on Monday, but officials said the problem was ultimately for Afghans to solve.
The Pentagon insisted that it never ordered troops to ignore any kind of rights abuse. But among American military personnel and civilians who served in Afghanistan, it was well-known that many wealthy and prominent Afghans rape boys, often making them dress up as women and dance at gatherings during which they are assaulted — and that Western officials often turned a blind eye to the practice for fear of alienating allies.
With the bulk of American troops now gone from Afghanistan, the resignation among American officials over a practice that many described as “abhorrent” was evident on Monday. It seemed to reflect the fact that while the rape of boys may shock foreigners and infuriate Afghans, it is only one of the many problems in Afghanistan.
Western forces in Afghanistan have struggled to reconcile the need to defeat the Taliban with the corruption, nepotism, and a host of other abuses conducted by those anti-Taliban forces with which they must cooperate in order to achieve that goal.
Looking the other way when some petrol goes missing is moderately straightforward. Photos of ISAF troops walking through fields of poppy brought some controversy but could just about be sold on the basis that local livelihoods are being destroyed with nothing to replace it. British troops (amongst others, I am sure), reported situations where Afghan police in Helmand were revealing British fighting positions by the simple process of standing by them long enough to enable Taliban fighters to get a fix. The sexual abuse of young children – mainly boys (see Bacha Bazi)- by warlords is way over on the other end of the scale and begs the question: when is “local cultural values” insufficient as a defence and should be challenged? There is a to and fro debate in the US regarding whether US forces have been instructed to ignore abuses. The Pentagon argues that it is not official policy, nor have instructions been issued, that US personnel in Afghanistan should ignore reporting sexual crimes.
Military Times, dated 21 September 2015: A Florida congressman demanded the Pentagon make clear its opposition to child sexual abuse and offer some protection for troops who tried to stop the heinous crime while serving in Afghanistan. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., called the revelations in the Times report disgraceful and disturbing.
“Protecting child predators is abhorrent and inconsistent with our values as a nation,” he wrote in a letter Monday to Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “It is bad enough if the Pentagon is telling our soldiers to ignore this type of barbaric and savage behavior, but it’s even worse if we are punishing those who try to stop it.”
Also on Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif, fired off a letter asking the Pentagon to provide “any and all existing Department of Defense legal guidance regarding the reporting of child abuse.” Hunter also recently asked the Defense Department’s inspector general to review the Army’s handling of a soldier who was punished for his aggressive response to the child sexual abuse in Afghanistan.
Top military officials said Monday that there is no written regulation requiring troops to turn a blind eye.
“There is no such policy that U.S. troops should not report or intervene in situations where children are being sexually abused,” said Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
I sincerely hope that that is the case. But of course “official policy” can mean different things. I am guessing that a US officer on the ground might face a few administrative, bureaucratic and even career-threatening hurdles if he attempt to press home an official complaint that undermined a key anti-Taliban warlord whose forces were holding together the security of a wobbly province.
Definitely need to watch this issue…
Summary: There are many evolving and complex global challenges facing the NATO Alliance. Russian fears and vulnerabilities have pushed it into overt and heavy-handed military adventures. But the military threat to NATO posed by this activity is more about accident and miscalculation than about an existential threat to the NATO Alliance, despite the concerns of Eastern European member nations. For NATO to design its future expenditure, planning and training solely around the notion that “it is just about Russia” would be misguided.
The North Atlantic treaty Organisation (NATO) was established in 1949, shortly after the massive power shift in Europe brought about by the conclusion of the Second World War. Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” saw the expansion of Soviet military power right into the heart of central Europe. Western powers wanted security agreements: “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down”.
Its prime raison d’etre was Article V of the Treaty which declared that an attack on one member was an attack on all. It was written at a time when there could be only one enemy: the Soviet Union.
The official line now: “It is often said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union. This is only partially true. In fact, the Alliance’s creation was part of a broader effort to serve three purposes: deterring Soviet expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent, and encouraging European political integration.”
NATO remained in existence after the demise of its former foe, the Soviet Union. It was involved militarily in the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s, notably the bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, there has been much debate about what NATO’s role could and should be. Many saw it as a natural progression for NATO to develop an expeditionary capability that could allow it to operate “out of area”. Article V has thus far been invoked only once: in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 suicide attacks on the US mainland by the international Islamic terrorist group, Al Qaeda. NATO forces, as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 and remained there formally until December 2014, engaging in a complex and costly counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban.
With the return of a seemingly more obvious threat from Russia, following its annexation of the Crimea and its sponsorship of a conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region, there is a sense amongst many commentators that, after a deeply unpleasant “out of areas” experience, NATO should perhaps get back to basics and concentrate on European security.
I attended a conference organised by the Danish Institute for International Studies on Tuesday 8th September to hear a discussion addressing precisely this point.
“NATO after Ukraine: Time to go back to basics?”
The speakers were:
Karsten Jakob Möller (General Rtd., DIIS senior analyst)
Flemming Spidsboel (DIIS Senior Researcher)
Trine Flockhart (Prof. International Relations, University of Kent)
John Deni (Research Professor, US Army War College)
How things change. The introduction noted that the 60th anniversary of NATO, in 2009, had been a very different world. NATO was heavily engaged in Afghanistan and many NATO members were also operating in Iraq. There was a global financial crisis unfolding and the talk was of NATO expanding and finding/developing new roles.
It was also pointed out that, even relatively recently, in 2002, a DIIS paper had considered the possibility (under the title “Thinking the Unthinkable”) that Russia might even end up joining NATO.
How serious is the Russian threat?
Karsten Jakob Möller
• Important to consider the perspective from Moscow – it feels threatened – an extension of Russia’s historical insecurity of the “enemy at the gate”.
• Putin has been warning about the West’s arrogance. In 2007 he spoke of Western exceptionalism, bending the rules of world order to suit Western agendas. He warned NATO not to expand any further.
• Ukraine as an “open wound” – Russia cannot understand why Ukraine wants independence and sees the Ukraine revolution as a Western/CIA-orchestrated plot. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine will keep a certain level of instability to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.
• Military muscle-flexing is being applied by Russia towards Sweden and Finland, to prevent them entertaining ideas about joining NATO.
• But the Russian Army still has problems – it has poorly educated conscripts but is trying to field increasingly high-tech weapons systems.
• The Baltic states and Poland are very concerned – Russia has a habit of delivering very heavy-handed warnings.
• There is not so much that is new about “Hybrid Warfare” but it does raise the question of how NATO addresses Article V when it is increasingly difficult to define an attack.
• Russian military doctrine has not changed so much from 2010.
• Despite the Russian budget increases and investment in new hardware, they will never catch up with the US and are currently doing no more than trying to make up for the lack of investment in the 1990s.
• The real risk comes from a war by accident.
• Russia’s perspective – the West/US monopolising international systems to intervene as it wishes.
• The 2008 war with Georgia possibly intended as a warning to the West. Russia’s “quasi-ideology” of political competitiveness – a state goes to the wall if it cannot adapt and change.
• NATO only started to crop in Russian military doctrines as “the threat” by 2000. It is becoming the excuse – the threat to distract Russians from all their internal problems.
• Military threat from Russia: it does not pose a threat t NTO – not even in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and not into the long-term. The Russian defence budget is mainly “catch up” and corruption, kickbacks and other inefficient use of the budget will hamper its full impact.
• The non-military threat – increasingly sophisticated propaganda – Sputnik radio station. But Lithuania was short-sighted when it closed down access to Russian media. It is difficult to find evidence that Russia is a threat to NATO’s internal cohesion.
• But we do have another Cold War and need to revise training and expenditure.
What did NATO get wrong? We didn’t consult enough with the Russians and we under-estimated the extent to which NATO was being made the culprit for a range of Russian problems. The West has been “extremely arrogant” – a large part of the world no longer wants to accept this.
Back to Basics in a changing strategic environment
• The “back to basics” narrative has arisen in the aftermath of Crimea/East Ukraine – the idea that NATO should return to its core value of a defensive alliance. But this is flawed.
• The Ukraine crisis did not come out of nowhere – there are huge global changes underway of a greater impact even than the end of the Cold War.
• The NATO Summit in Wales in 2014 approved, amongst other things: Readiness Action Plan, 2% spending goal, collective defence (and training for it) and an enhanced ability to counter hybrid warfare.
• The problems with “Back to Basics”:
o It implies that going back is possible
o It emphasises only one aspect of a changing environment
o It defines what is politically possible but ignores what is strategically necessary
o It is effectively “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” when what is really needed is a dry dock overhaul…
• The B2B narrative is therefore flawed: NATO was always a defensive alliance, it was always about collective defence (Art V) and collective security (Art II). Since the Balkans, NATO has been an expeditionary security organisation engaged in crisis management: “Out of Area or Out of Business”!
• If NATO was purely about defence it would have disbanded in 1992, but it has three legs that allow it flex – defence, cooperation and crisis management.
• B2B hearkens back to a mythical era that was not there.
• There are other symptoms of bigger changes/challenges:
o Changing global power relations – decline of Europe and US
o New forms of international actors – eg ISIS
o Challenges to Western liberal principle and practice
o Lack of legitimate global institutions, eg UN, World Bank
o Changes in demographics/migration
o Changes in technology and access to it
o Environmental change
o New and emerging threats
o New practices in war – cyber and hybrid
• Julianne Smith talks of an “era of compounding complexity” – challenges grow exponentially rather than by addition. Complex trends interact with one another and new security challenges emerge.
• Ironically, NATO has a lot of good, forward-looking, horizon-scanning, planning capability (Allied Command Transformation, Comprehensive Strategy Guidance, Defence Planning, Division for Emerging Security Challenges, Policy Planning Unit…). But still the B2B narrative dominates.
• The international order is going through a period of major transformative change: from multi-polar (pre-WWII), through bi-polar (Cold War, 1945 – 1990), though uni-polar (US dominance from 1991 to present) to multi-order.
• In this coming multi-order world there will be major challenges for NATO. B2B gives a politically convenient framework to make it look as if something is being done…
• NATO should:
o Implement the agreements made in Wales but do not see that then as “job done”, but rather the bare minimum.
o Understand the new transatlantic bargain – Europe must take more responsibility for itself as the US pivots to the Pacific – new division of labour and political willingness to get hands dirty.
o Understand the importance of partnerships as a diplomatic tool – values-based partnerships as an alternative to membership – eg Georgia and Ukraine?
• NATO is rebalancing after a long time of imbalance – COIN, reconstruction, Afghanistan…
• Many allies want the Capacity to undertake Out Of Area operations as well.
• How can NATO effectively do all three of its legs – collective defence, crisis management and defence cooperation?
o Collective defence: there is a credibility gap. NATO has problems projecting its power around Europe – high readiness forces often found wanting (failure to be able to deploy in response to Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968). NATO’s ability to undertake combined manoeuvre warfare has atrophied.
o Crisis Management: NATO needs to maintain a security horizon beyond Europe and be able to undertake expeditionary and stability operations.
o Cooperative security: NATO can spread itself too thinly – too many initiatives coming out of Wales summit (establishing 21 “Centres of Excellence”?) particularly as manpower and budgets shrink.
• It is clear the Russia is not interested in partnership with NATO and pursues a zero-sum game. Geography is driving Russia’s foreign policy – Russia’s lack of defensible borders.
The most interesting engagement at the end came from a representative from the Russian Embassy asked two questions:
Q1: Why at this sort of conference, have Russian speakers not been invited – it is much better, surely to have a dialogue? KJM answered – we have tried so many times to engage with Russian speakers. Often they are booked and simply do not turn up.
Q2: It is clear that NATO intends to have as many members as possible – what is the assessment of the readiness of Ukraine and Georgia? JD answered – it is entirely inaccurate that NATO wants as many as possible. And, in any case, NATO has a rule that a country may not join NATO if it has an ongoing armed conflict. Mr Putin has very effectively exploited this by ensuring, with slow-burn conflicts in both Ukraine and Georgia, that it is not possible for either to join.
A very useful set of complimentary and clear-eyed presentations. It was perhaps a little surprising to hear the military threat from Russia downplayed quite as much as it was – small comfort to tiny Baltic states that could be swallowed in a gulp by even a quarter-way competent Russian military force. I can see some analytical divisions on this between Western and Eastern European member nations (the next NATO summit is due to be in Warsaw in 2016, if there is a clue there as to likely agenda).
But Trine Flockhart’s wider contextual thoughts on the growing complexity of global challenges in the multi-order world – and how NATO should throw off the naivety of a back to basics approach – were particularly compelling.
From my own local perspective, it was also interesting that Sweden and Finland waere mentioned at several points – albeit briefly – as a) potential NATO members and, therefore, b) possible targets for Russian “heavy-handed” demonstrations.
The “vicious circle” nature of the problem is stark:
Country a feels threatened by Russian posturing
Country a joins alliance to improve security prospects
Russia feels threatened by country a joining a security alliance and resorts to more military posturing
Country b then feels threatened…
With the risk of accident or miscalculation ever present at every stage…