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Cabinet wobbles…

January 19, 2015

Summary: A weak and fragmented government is more dangerous than the Taliban.  Early reports that all may not be well in the new government line up…

ghani and Abdullah reach transition agreementI was about to congratulate Ashraf Ghani for constructing a new cabinet – with the help of Dr Abdullah Abdullah – in a relatively short space of time.  It had taken three months but last week the new line up was announced.  Hamid Karzai’s last attempt to piece something together took over a year, I seem to recall.  But there already appear to be some difficulties with the line-up according to RFE:

RFE/RL, 19 Jan 2015: It took months to piece together, but Afghanistan’s proposed cabinet is at risk of falling apart quickly, as nominees come under scrutiny for dual citizenship, alleged criminal activities, and being underage.

Just a week after President Ashraf Ghani and election rival Abdullah Abdullah proposed their new cabinet, the names of about half the 27 nominees could be thrown out.

Such a result would be a blow to President Ghani, whose efforts to forge a “unity” government with Abdullah took more than three months.

Negotiations with Abdullah, who in his role as government chief executive was given a share of nominees, were reportedly tense. But when the names were announced on January 13, the list appeared to meet Ghani’s promises to form a cabinet full of new faces chosen on merit and free of Kabul’s strong patronage system.

Lets not get worked up just yet.  Some of these individual issues might resolve themselves and this does not yet seem to a major fracture, just some early wobbles as the candidates naturally come under public and media scrutiny.  But an agreed – and even more importantly, a well-functioning – set of government ministers in place is crucial to the country’s future.  Too many of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban years have been in some form of unintentional (or intentional) hiatus.  Vital time and resources have been frittered away failing to agree political, military and economic plans.  Compromises do not seem to come easy to Afghan senior political hierarchies.  I believe that a fractured government, self-absorbed with internal rivalries will be much more likely to open the door to insurgents and wider instability than the actions of the insurgents themselves.


China – a possibility of brokering between Afghanistan, Taliban and Pakistan

January 14, 2015

Summary: signs of a growing and constructive engagement from China

China, Afghanistan and troublesome Xinjiang province...

China, Afghanistan and troublesome Xinjiang province…

This is certainly one to watch, albeit without getting your hopes up.  China might be looking to step up its involvement in Afghanistan, specifically with a view towards guiding the Taliban into a peace dialogue with the Afghan government.

“…China’s diplomatic corps has in recent months been trying on a new role: talking with the Afghan Taliban in an effort to play peacemaker.

Late last year, two Afghan Taliban officials traveled with Pakistani officials to Beijing to discuss a potential peace process among Afghanistan’s warring parties, according to three current and former Afghan officials. And that may not have been the first such meeting…one Pakistani journalist said that China’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi, had traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, to meet with Afghan Taliban representatives weeks earlier.

Despite years of war and turmoil in Afghanistan, China had long seemed reluctant to become directly involved. So what has changed to move it to try to mediate with Islamist militants now? According to Chinese and foreign analysts, the answer lies in three factors: China’s growing worries about a Uighur uprising on its own frontier; concern about more instability on its western border after the main American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; and urgency to secure access to Afghan mineral and oil deposits where Chinese companies have already made large investments.”

Talks between the Taliban, Afghanistan and Pakistan at separate times appear to have been taking place, although the report suggests that the China are – sensibly – being very cagey about making anything other than the most general of statements at present.  China and Pakistan do have some kind of “special relationship”, so a genuine and tactful effort by China to guide Pakistan away from its confused and schizophrenic approach to sponsorship of terrorism might yield better results than the US’s efforts.

Chinese has kept itself clear of the Afghan political and military dramas afflicting the country, most recently as the international community and Afghan government battled the Taliban and other insurgent groups in the country.  Its interest in Afghanistan is very understandably and self-interestedly driven by raw economic and security issues.  They need the mineral resources inside the country (the copper mine at Aynak is classically representative of this).  But secure trade, resource and communications routes westwards into Central Asia certainly wouldn’t hurt, either.  Finally, remembering that there is actually a tiny land border between China and Afghanistan, unstable Muslim insurgents in Afghanistan risk triggering/provoking/inspiring the emergence of unstable Muslim insurgents in the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang (the home of the Muslim Uighur ethnic group).

ISIS and Afghanistan

January 13, 2015

Summary: Reports that some Taliban groups might be joining a new local Islamic State force within Afghanistan, while other Taliban groups might be resisting them.  Is the Taliban at risk of fragmenting?

Taliban flagSome very interesting reports coming in on ISIS movements inside Afghanistan. Starting with the BBC’s David Loyn:

BBC, 12 Jan 2015 The first concrete evidence has emerged of attempts to recruit fighters in Afghanistan for the so-called Islamic State (IS). A former Taliban commander in Helmand province, Mullah Abdul Rauf, has declared his allegiance to IS…the new group had fought with the Taliban after replacing white Taliban flags with the black flags of IS. He said about 20 people from both sides had been killed and injured. The deputy commander of the Afghan army unit responsible for the area, General Mahmood, confirmed that he had received reports of the new group within the past few days. He said they were trying to win support for the IS cause, and they were “preparing to fight”. The leader of the new movement, Mullah Abdul Rauf, was a former senior Taliban commander who spent six years in Guantanamo Bay after being captured by US forces in 2001…There had been reports that he had fallen out with the leader of the movement Mullah Omar.

Rauf is a distant relative of the Governor of Nimruz province, Amir Mohammed, who said that the commander had lost a leg before being taken to Guantanamo. The governor said that IS had already attempted to recruit people in Farah, another south-western province, but had been driven out by local people with the help of the police. He said they were all the same: “Once they fought under al-Qaeda name, then as Taliban, and now IS, they are the same people with the same programmes.”

In another sign that the Taliban are facing internal challenges, a former spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban has appeared in a video online, saying that there were several IS commanders operating, and that the Pakistani Taliban were now allied to the movement. There is no independent verification of this claim, but the video had images of several commanders across Afghanistan who were also said to be now backing IS. In the video they claim to have shifted their allegiance from the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, to the IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This represents the first serious challenge to the coherence of the Taliban leadership for many years…There are also accounts that a group called Khorasan has been attempting to recruit fighters in Wardak province. Khorasan is an old name for Afghanistan, and is a word that carried mythical overtones for some Muslims after an ancient prophecy that black flags would once again fly in Khorasan before the end of the world. The US said that an air strike near Aleppo in Syria last September was on a base used by a previously unknown group also called Khorasan. This group was allied to Islamic State, but it is not clear if there is any connection with the attempts to win support for Khorasan in Afghanistan. This all appears to mean that the Afghan conflict is entering a new and unstable phase.”

This also:

News 24: An Afghan general has confirmed for the first time that the extremist Islamic State group is active in the country. General Mahmood Khan, the deputy commander of the 215 Corp, says that within the past week residents of a number of districts in the southern Helmand province have told him that a man called Mullah Abdul Rauf is recruiting fighters for the group, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq. He says Taliban insurgents are resisting the ISIS presence. Some parts of Helmand are not under government control and have seen fierce fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces since US troops pulled out more than six months ago. A video released online on Saturday purports to show militants from both Afghanistan and Pakistan pledging support to ISIS.”

And The Independent reporting here on additional BBC information:

The Independent, Sept 2014: Militant Islamic fighters in Afghanistan who are linked to the Taliban have said they would join forces with Isis, should it manage to create an Islamic caliphate.  Commander Mirwais, who belongs to the Afghani militant group Hezb-e-Islami, told the BBC that the group “will continue to fight until we establish an Islamic state”.

He called Isis by their Arabic name, Daish, stating this Hezb-e-Islami has links with some of its members. “We are waiting to see if they meet the requirements for an Islamic caliphate,” he said.

“If we find that they do, we are sure that our leadership will announce their allegiance to them. They are great mujahideen. We pray for them, and if we don’t see a problem in the way they operate, we will join them,” Mirwais added.”

Analysis and Outlook

ISIS logoA lot of information here and I don’t have a good sense yet of what it might mean. It smacks more of individual Taliban outbreaks of opportunism brought about by dissatisfaction with the lack of “victory” that should have fallen into place after the withdrawal of the Americans et al. Their website declared victory on 31st December last year. They also declared victory in January 2012, however.

The Economist suggests that:

“while the Taliban have very clearly not been defeated militarily, politically they have been routed. There was a good turnout in two rounds of the presidential election earlier this year—with nearly two-fifths of the votes cast by women—despite Taliban attempts at intimidation and disruption.”

I think it is a little strong to declare “rout”, but the Taliban have certainly been looking a little bankrupt in terms of ideas and actions.  They have made no major military progress, they are clinging to terrorist tactics ever fraught with the risk of popular backlash, and some pretty routine propaganda, particularly when compared the Islamic State’s frankly impressive PR profile.  Is it small wonder that some elements of the Taliban are looking enviously at the media profile, military successes and sheer global impact of Islamic State? An inter-Taliban civil war is at least one plausible outcome from this.

The insertion of another terrorist/insurgent force into the mix would be potentially very destabilising. And a fragmented Taliban would be much harder to reach out to in terms of political settlements. I don’t think this necessarily means new faces suddenly turning up. But with a “pendulum effect” I can see many insurgent groups “rebadging” themselves and joining a more plausible force to deliver victory, just as, in late 2001, many militia groups notionally aligned with the Taliban chose pragmatically to switch sides once it became clear that the Americans were coming in force. A former Taliban commander – Mullah Abdul Rauf – seems to be the main driver at present. It is also interesting that the insurgent group Hezb-e Islami might also be having problems with shifting allegiances as well.

We need to watch the Taliban reaction closely – does it drive them into some form of peace deal with Ashraf Ghani’s government in order to avoid marginalisation and irrelevance? That seems unlikely at the moment as they seem to have turned down such an option only a few days ago. Might they find some way of co-existing and collaborating with IS? This also seems less likely – the Taliban are a local force focused on internal Afghanistan issues. The last thing they appear to want to get involved in is someone else’s global jihad. Perhaps the Taliban might resist IS? The report of fighting between rival groups seems very plausible – I seem to recall sporadic outbreaks of fighting between the Taliban and Al Qaeda a few years back.
But, overall, a new layer of IS on top of a fragmenting Taliban would only be bad news.

Afghanhindsight on Afghan hindsight…

January 12, 2015

Summary: The joy of hindsight. A former UK Foreign Minister gives us a timely warning that the UK’s plan for deploying to Helmand might not be a good one…

Helmand: This my ground truth, tell me yours...

Helmand: I’m going where?!

You can’t really get more “Afghan hindsight” than this. A former UK Foreign Minister, Dr Kim Howells has declared at a House of Commons Defence Committee that the British strategy in Afghanistan – and specifically the British decision to move into Helmand province and their subsequent operations – was “completely bonkers”.

At the risk of being cynical, I guess that a mere five years after leaving Parliament and seven years after holding a ministerial position, it is a bit easier and less controversial to launch into an attack on the performance of the British Army in 2006.

In late November or early December 2001, my initial reaction on hearing that British troops were going to deploy into Afghanistan (as part of the initial and small ISAF deployment) was “We’re going to do WHAT??!!”.  It was a very confusing and demanding time.  As with many international crises, the speed and complexity of events made decision-making and prediction very difficult. The number of “moving parts” – actors, agendas, resources, goals – made the understanding of what was happening and, perhaps more crucially, what would happen in the weeks, months and years to come, highly challenging. Key strategic decisions made in the early stages tend to be made when least is known. In the period 2002 – 2005, the main concern was that the warlords would return to fighting each other.  In 2005, when the plans for the Helmand deployment were being drawn up, there was no large-scale Taliban insurgency, successful presidential and parliamentary elections were still a fresh and warm recent memory and the warlords – a major source of civil war risk – were mainly back in their box.

Here in early 2015, it is very difficult to declare that the ISAF operations from 2001 – 2014 were a success without being asked to perform on a stand-up comedy circuit. I spend quite a lot of time in the blog trying to explain and identify the problems that ISAF and the wider international community had in Afghanistan and the many, many errors that were made. But of course, conventional wisdom might change in ten or twenty years time if the current Afghan government system holds together.  Judgements should perhaps also consider what might have happened if no actions or different actions had been taken before criticising – inaction is a decision with its own consequences.

To be fair, Dr Howells was starting to voice concerns in 2009 – but a lot of people were by then. But a much deeper analysis of the decision-making processes will be more helpful for learning lessons than simply declaring things “bonkers” – unless of course, you were saying this very loudly and clearly at the time.

Dr Howells at the time appears to have been “in it for the long haul”, giving fully “on message” statements like this:

kim_1516033c“I have visited Afghanistan a number of times and there is no doubting the international community’s common view of the task ahead… Britain and its international partners are determined to ensure that the country does not slip back into being run by a regime that terrorises and intimidates its people… We are in Afghanistan as part of a multinational effort, under a United Nations mandate, at the invitation of the Afghan government and supported by a majority of the Afghan people…”

And he was also defending what many now might call an equally “bonkers” counter narcotics strategy:

“Tackling the poppy trade was never going to be simple. The Afghan government’s counter-narcotics strategy is not “stupid and counterproductive”. Nor is the policy “entrenched” – it is constantly kept under review with the Afghan government and our international partners. Recent UN figures indicate that in provinces in parts of the north and centre where there are effective institutions, where the rule of law is enforced and alternative livelihoods are available, real progress in reducing or stabilising cultivation has taken place. Last year out of 34 provinces six were poppy-free. This year we expect that to double. There is a long way to go, however, particularly in Helmand. That is why we have announced a new package of initiatives, including an additional £22.5m for the Afghan interdiction forces to help disrupt the operations of traffickers and weaken their links to the insurgency, more support for criminal justice, better eradication and $3.6m from the UK to provide extra incentives to governors to reduce cultivation in their provinces.”

Yes, perhaps the plan was sound but it still didn’t work for lots of reasons only available in hindsight. I mean, you get the point, I’m sure and I don’t intend to turn this article into an attack on Dr Howells.  This is about hindsight and how you can (mis)use it.  I personally do not recall, in early 2006, thinking the Helmand inkspots strategy, such as I understood it, was “bonkers”.  There had been several years of success and progress in Afghanistan, following the surprising (and surprisingly speedy) ejection of the Taliban in 2001. But in October 2001, analysts were worrying that the bombing campaign, based on previous experiences of NATO bombing campaigns, might end up a messy and protracted stalemate. And in November 2001 analysts were stressing about last-ditch redoubts and “final stands” of the Taliban in their home province of Kandahar. Didn’t happen. Full disclosure: I was made a member of the Afghanistan analystical team in early November 2001 from a basis of zero knowledge of Afghanistan and due at least in part to previous (again from zero knowledge) background of analysing the NATO Kosovo bombing campaign.  Collapse of the Taliban, reconstruction efforts, two popular elections and the disarming of the warlords led many to conclude that progress – albeit slow, messy and complex – was a plausible long-term result. Issues like counter-narcotics and reconstruction could therefore be focused on in places like, say, Helmand.  There was only a limited understanding and marginal information on the Taliban’s status in Helmand.
Understanding decision-making is important and needs to focus on what was known at the time and how institutions and individuals come together and interact in order to produce and implement decisions – with all the biases, flaws and systems that shape what we do and why as human beings.

So in (perhaps obvious) conclusion:

a) it is painfully easy to be clever and wise after the event.  But it can look self-serving and generally it adds little to the sum of our understanding
b) fast-moving and complex events will almost certainly produce decisions that are flawed in some way(s) with outcomes that are hard to predict
c) it is instructive – critical, even – to understand how institutions and individuals are flawed and how their decisions are shaped by these flaws
d) politicians, like all of us, are more likely to give a different version of what is going on when they are no longer a responsible part of the process and, ideally, a few years away from it
e) when people give their explanations of a situation, they often present themselves as the lone island of rationality and reason surrounded by the ill-informed, the incoherent and the “bonkers”
f) you are allowed to change your mind about the effectiveness of plans and progress, but if you think an idea is genuinely “bonkers” – and in a case like the UK deployment to Helmand, an idea that is likely to lead to loss of lives and great expense – you should be prepared to say so at the time, explaining why and directly to the person or people who are advocating the plan. It is perhaps not the best defence to say that “the Army told me it was ok, so I went along with it.  You are a senior politician.  You have a powerful tool called the “Armed Forces”.  It is your responsibility to understand how your tool works, its strengths and its weaknesses

Being wise after the event doesn’t mean that we do not make the same mistakes again and again.  But, of course, I’m just being wise after the event.

Afghanistan in 2015

January 5, 2015

Summary: In 2015, Afghan government forces and the Taliban will continue to do battle, dialogue between protagonists will be limited.  There will be be no significant strategic shift in power.


A tricky year

A tricky year

After some fairly low-key downsizing and closing of numerous bases across Afghanistan through 2014, the international military force levels have now receded to around 10,000 predominantly US soldiers. Perhaps another 2,000 or so will come from other nations such as the UK – which has established an officer training school – and Germany. At its peak, in 2011, ISAF comprised 140,000 soldiers. Activities for these now residual forces will revolve around supporting the Afghan National Army to continue to develop its capabilities and take the fight to the Taliban: force protection of US bases, training, advice, air support, intelligence another military capability “enablers”. For the moment we are highly unlikely to see US ground operations of the sort we have become used to from Helmand COIN “heyday”, although of course, US political, diplomatic and military targets will still be popular with the Taliban.
At the risk of tempting fate, I don’t expect any significant strategic shift in the balance of power between the Taliban-led insurgency on one hand and the international community-supported Afghan government on the other through 2015. This doesn’t mean that nothing will happen however. I expect the combat between ANA and Taliban to continue, as both sides appear willing and able to contest the battle for the periphery – the provinces and districts where government control is weak. The Taliban will be unlikely to take and hold significant territory – and certainly not any major cities. This will put a lot of stresses and strains of the Afghan government and its security forces.  The Economist suggests that the Taliban have not secured much political capital in the last year. The insurgency certainly seems to have done little in the way of advancing any political agenda that might weaken the regime or bring them a sympathetic ear from international or neighbouring parties. I expect this blunt and unimaginative approach – terrorist and assassination attacks together with opportunist assaults on the periphery – to continue in 2015.  I still feel that activities to engage the Taliban in credible dialogue will be weak and unlikely to bring much reward in 2015.
An interview with the new president, Ashraf Ghani, suggests he is keen to pursue the idea of retaining US military support beyond 2016, the date at which President Barack Obama is currently expected to pull out the remaining US military presence. Two years will give a plausible guide as to the prospects for the country. Barack Obama is likely to remain attracted to the idea of pulling out the last of the fighting forces as a parting legacy shot as he leaves office in 2016. But, even if the US withdrew combat troops, a host of political, financial and military advisors and trainers, together with the all-important financial backing, can continue to support President Ghani indefinitely.
All change but no change?

Afghan Taliban on Pakistan Taliban atrocities

December 17, 2014

Summary: The Afghan Taliban attempt to distance themselves from Pakistani atrocities without mentioning them by name. Amidst rising numbers of attacks, no sign of Afghan government or Afghan Taliban political ideas regarding resolving the insurgency.
Yesterday the Pakistani Taliban launched an attack on an Army public school in Peshawar, killing at least 132 children and 9 staff, according to the BBC. The Pakistani Taliban appear to have claimed responsibility for the attack, as part of a retaliation for the Pakistani army’s operation in north west Pakistan against the Pakistani Taliban. Interestingly, the Afghan Taliban have already posted a statement on their own website:

Taliban flag“An attack has occurred on a school in the city of Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan this morning at around 10:00 am local time. Information from the area suggests that so far some 200 people have been killed and wounded in the incident most of whom are said to be children.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan expresses its condolences over the incident and mourns with the families of killed children.
The intentional killing of innocent people, women and children goes against the principles of Islam and every Islamic government and movement must adhere to this fundamental essence.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has always condemned the killing of children and innocent people at every juncture. Messages of condolences were also released a while back regarding the blasts at a playground in Yahya Khel district of Paktika province and a mosque in Nangarhar province and those acts were considered against the principles of Islam.”

The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have a loosely collaborative relationship but broadly fight their own battles within the respective states.  This statement rings very hollow.  To avoid pointing at fellow insurgents, it does not mention the Pakistani Taliban by name but perhaps suggests the recognition by the Afghan Taliban that it is likely to generate a highly unhelpful popular backlash. The “blasts at a playground” the Taliban also mention relate to a suicide attack at a volleyball game in eastern Afghanistan which killed at least 50 people and injured 63 and was not claimed by any organisation. The Afghan Taliban continue to organise, conduct and claim regular suicide attacks inside Afghanistan, seemingly claiming the ones that suit their purposes and remaining silent when the number of civilians dead start to outweigh the number of military and political dead.

The Afghan Taliban have ramped up the number of attacks in the last few weeks. There seems little in the way of political engagement, messaging or reach out from them nor coherent dialogue plans from Ashraf Ghani’s government. Very much a sense of “sleepwalking” along a route of continued violence. I think this is because of the uncertainty generated by the ISAF withdrawal, with both insurgents and government willing and able to continue the fight but neither having the resources to achieve a decisive result.

Snyder at CSIS: “Russia’s War, Ukraine’s History and the West’s Options

December 12, 2014

Summary: An interesting presentation from the academic Timothy Snyder on the Russia/Ukraine conflict that attracts trolling unintentionally designed to prove his point.

Snyder talk at CSISAn interesting and thought-provoking presentation from the Eastern Europe historian Timothy Snyder here on Youtube which is worth watching.  Half of it is the presentation and the rest Q&A.  He gives his assessment of Russian strategy, tactics and the underpinning ideology behind Russia’s actions in relation to Ukraine, which he see as part of a wider attack on the unity of Western Europe.  With presumably unintentional irony, his thoughts on the aggressive use of the media and propaganda during this conflict are more or less proved straight away by the comments posted on the Youtube site hosting this talk, in which his considered and articulately presented argument (whether you agree with it or not) is vilified as:

“pro-Western propaganda”…”pile of horseshit”…”waste of time.  State propaganda paid for by Pentagon”.

Most tragic-comic of all, given Mr Snyder’s recent academically acclaimed work “Bloodlands” (full disclosure: I have only read the preface so far, but I know that Daniel Lazare hates it) that looked at the atrocities by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe during the 1930s and 1940s was the critique:

“zionazi drivel of the worst kind…”.

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