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ICG Report: The Future of the Afghan Local Police

June 4, 2015

Summary: The international Crisis Group launches a pessimistic and critical report on the progress of the Afghan Local Police

Afghan Local Police

“Our fieldwork in eight Afghan provinces confirms unpublished U.S. findings that the ALP actually damages security more often than not. Among grisly reports of abuses, a local doctor told us that an ALP commander executed 45 prisoners, including a suspected Taliban militant who was blindfolded and used as target practice for rocket-propelled grenades. In short, the ALP are often bandits who prey upon the people they are supposed to be protecting”.

Graeme Smith, Afghanistan Senior Analyst

I have just seen this come across my desk.  Without time yet to read it, the International Crisis Group looks to be helpfully continuing the debate about the pros and cons of employing often very poorly equipped and trained militias (also think Iraq and Ukraine) to fill security gaps.

The Taliban’s opium poppy ban in 2000/2001 – lessons from history

May 23, 2015

Summary: The Taliban decision in 2000 to eradicate poppy was framed internally as a simple issue of religion. The real drivers probably owed more to a complex relationship with the international community, specifically the need for recognition and revenue.  An unhelpful mix of superficially bold pronouncements, behind-the-scenes pragmatism, poor strategic planning and confusion in roughly equal doses made this is a difficult process for the international community to follow.  At best they were treating a short-term symptom and not the long-term cause. The Taliban were able to communicate and coordinate an effective enforcement of their ban. But there were no indications that the Taliban had any understanding of the humanitarian problems being created by their actions or of any medium- to long-term planning for alternatives to the destruction of the livelihoods of thousands of Afghans.

Taliban poppy ban messageThis a short paper that I wrote at the end of 2013 about the Taliban’s approach to poppy eradication.  I had forgotten about it until I found myself discussing Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation in the Wikistrat community in some way a couple of weeks ago and it came back to me.  When discussing the issue of counter-narcotics, people still throw in comments to the effect that “well, the Taliban managed to ban it, so why can’t we?”.  Like most conflicted related issues, I found that it was not quite as simple as that…

During the end of their 1990s “reign” and when they wanted to, the Taliban could show impressive ability to make decisions and enforce them through harsh, blunt but effective measures. They had – and still have – an ability to frame issues in ways that resonate with key parts of the population.  Their use of Islam can be a flexible tool. But their approach to a poppy ban was highly spontaneous, leaving related issues unaddressed and other interlocutors wrong-footed.

In terms of “governance”, the Taliban demonstrated a very poor ability to plan for the medium- and the long-term or anticipate problems. They either missed the point of poppy eradication, were indifferent to (or uncomprehending of) any potential hardships or were not expecting the ban to last long – perhaps seeing it as a “tap” for turning on and off dependent on progress on other issues, particularly in relation to the international community.

From the Taliban`s perspective their engagement with the international community had not been rewarded: they saw a lack of bona fides and a failure to deliver on promises.


poppy production


In November 2013, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced that poppy cultivation across Afghanistan had increased for the third year running and that 2013’s increase of 49% in potential opium production compared to 2012 took Afghanistan’s production of poppy to yet another record level. Cultivation reportedly increased by 34% in Helmand province and 16% in Kandahar.

In all charts tracking opium cultivation in Afghanistan, amidst the broadly upward trend from the early 1990s to the present, one year is an anomaly – the plummeting production of 2001. This is attributed to a ban on opium poppy that Taliban leader Mullah Omar announced in 2000 and that the Taliban began to enforce later in that year.

The Taliban will still be a significant (and perhaps increasingly) political presence in the country, even if scale and scope remains unclear. However, we still struggle fully to understand the political, military, social and religious drivers underpinning the Taliban leadership. This paper offers some analysis on the issue of the Taliban and narcotics in order to see how this might inform our understanding of the Taliban’s future approach to local and national governance and engagement at the international level. The paper will look at the Taliban’s policy on narcotics in 2000, the context shaping the decision to ban cultivation, the manner and effectiveness of implementation and any potential lessons.

The Taliban in 2000: foreign and narcotics policy intertwined…

In the late 1990s, the Taliban were precariously in control of most of Afghanistan, including the capital, Kabul, but still in the midst of a swirling civil war. William Maley noted that the Taliban’s domestic policy and internal actions determined many of the foreign policy problems they would have (e.g. women’s rights, drugs, relationship with Bin Laden). He summarised the two main foreign policy goals of the Taliban at this time as the quest for international recognition and securing international funding, suggesting that the search for funding had three main components: engagement with international energy companies; developing transit trade (and smuggling) across Afghanistan and raising revenue from opium.

The narcotics issue created a tension between the Taliban’s foreign policy objectives of international recognition and fund-raising. During the mid- and late- 1990s, the Taliban had turned a blind eye – if not tacitly encouraged – the cultivation of poppy for the purposes of narcotics production. Although officially opposed to it, opium provided a valuable source of revenue – as it did for their military opponents in the Northern Alliance. The United Nations had been engaging with the Taliban, seeking limitations and reductions to opium production. Millions of dollars were offered for a range of development projects inside Afghanistan as an inducement but with limited results. Although the Taliban were superficially showing willing – announcing a ban on cultivation, use or trading of opium on 10 September 1997 and undertaking eradication in some districts under the gaze of the international community – the UNODC noted in 1999 commented that:

“…Taliban authorities have continued to make the actual enforcement of the ban on opium cultivation contingent on the provision of sufficient funds from the international development community to assist households in the transition from livelihoods dependent on opium poppy cultivation, to those based on legal sources of on-farm, off-farm and non-farm income.”

Omar announces the ban

However, on 27 February 2000, a Taliban fatwa announced a ban on the cultivation of poppy. Enforcement commenced in July of that year. Taliban leader Mullah Omar gave a firm re-statement of the Taliban’s position, declaring the use, cultivation and trafficking of poppy as “haram” – forbidden by the Koran. The reality was almost certainly more complex: many saw the rapid about-face by the Taliban as an attempt to gain recognition or funding from the international community or even a ploy to push up opium prices while trading off stockpiles. Furthermore, previous Taliban efforts to reduce cultivation reportedly being rebuffed, there appeared to be an element of credibility at stake for the Taliban leadership.


The fatwa was disseminated through announcements on Radio Sharia. Reports describe a Taliban chain of command for this process based upon district-level monitoring shuras comprising the chief of police, the chief of the Vice and Virtue Department and local religious ulemas and tribal elders. The UNDCP noted that:

“The ban was implemented using a combination of persuasion, negotiation and enforcement, as required. The ban has been enforced in a relatively structured way with regional governors holding a series of meetings with tribal elder, provincial governors and district administrators to inform them of the ban. Religious scholars have also been enlisted to ensure the ban had the necessary religious sanction.”

The shuras were made directly responsible for ensuring local farmers complied with the fatwa and suffered identical punishment to those who transgressed. “Motivated by this threat, shuras complied with their mandate with swift, and often brutal, efficiency”.


poppyWith enforcement of the ban beginning from June 2000 and the next planting season meant for October/November 2000, it meant that the extent of the ban’s impact was only noticed in and around the Spring of 2001, when the next crop was due for harvesting. The Taliban’s dual approach, linking the ban to Islamic values while holding local enforcers to account appeared very successful, with broad compliance across all Taliban-held territory (parts of country held by the Northern Alliance continued production and trading). A UNDCP mission to Taliban-held Afghanistan in early 2001 concluded:

“Opium poppy is effectively eliminated in those parts of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where it has been cultivated in recent years. The cause of the dramatic reduction in cultivation this year is the Taliban prohibition.”

Farrell and Thorne suggest that this ban

“…may have been the most effective drug control action of modern times”.

But this is only half of the story. The long-term sustainability of the ban will remain unknown, given that the US-led coalition brought the regime down later that year. Key indicators of problems with the ban – protest, armed resistance, migration of cultivation, increasing poverty and debt – that would have emerged in due course were mainly avoided or else were only just starting to emerge. Existing stockpiles likely postponed the impact of the ban. But reporting suggests that the enforcement of the ban was beginning, directly and indirectly, to create conditions of extreme hardship for the farmers (and many other participants in this narcotics industry), in particular a rural cycle of indebtedness. Afghanistan narcotics expert, David Mansfield, observed, in mid-2001:

“…without considerable development inputs and a framework of governance in Afghanistan the current low level of opium poppy cultivation cannot be sustained…the conditions that have made opium poppy such an attractive crop to households across Afghanistan remain intact.”

In essence, the poverty and uncertainty created by the rapid implementation of the ban without alternatives and coping mechanisms in place was recreating the factors that caused poppy cultivation in the first place, arguably making a return to poppy cultivation inevitable. This showed weaknesses within the Taliban’s approaches to planning, understanding and implementation. Consideration of the consequences of their actions was limited to the short-term: medium- and longer-term issues were either not addressed (through ignorance or disinterest) or left with the expectation that the international community would alleviate any adverse impact. From the Taliban`s perspective, they maintained that a deal had been struck with UN for $250 million of aid once the ban had been implemented, which was subsequently reneged upon by the UN:

“The Taliban were understandably angry: ‘We have fulfilled our obligations…We have done what needed to be done, putting our people and our farmers through immense difficulties. We expected to be rewarded for our actions’…”.

Mansfield suggested that the Taliban`s actions were little more than “…a more comprehensive and organised attempt to obtain assistance from the international community”. Overall, the criticism regularly levelled at the international community regarding their inability to fully comprehend the need for a longer-term strategy based on alternative livelihoods seems equally valid when applied to the Taliban in 2000:

“There is certainly little sense that the Taliban have considered the full implications of the ban and what is required to address the resource gap that the population is currently enduring due to the loss of opium”.


Some observations can be made regarding the Taliban behaviour at international, national and local levels. The forceful and impetuous nature of the ban`s enforcement took the international community by surprise twice – by doing it in the first place and by doing it speedily and effectively. The use of Islam to frame the message for Afghan farmers showed an understanding of effective ways to frame an issue to given audiences, while also showing indifference to (or ignorance of) medium and long-term implications and the needs of their countrymen. The Taliban showed levels of pragmatism and opportunism in the decision-making – in late September 2001, the regime threatened to lift the ban if the US were to attack Afghanistan. But they also demonstrated lack of bureaucratic capacity, analytical ability and strategic planning. No alternatives or assistance were made available to the population. Interestingly, in a small scale reprise in May 2012, the Taliban repeated the destruction of some poppy fields in eastern Afghanistan, citing Islam as the justification. No mention of alternative livelihoods or wider enforcement was made by the Taliban spokesman and this might as easily have been an incidence of a dispute between rival cultivators or some other, local, tactical reason.

The popularity of the Taliban is much lower now and an uncertain future is pushing Afghans again towards the cultivation of opium as an “insurance policy” – as demonstrated by the most recent UNODC cultivation figures. With poppy growing more entrenched than ever before and under the control of warlords across the country, it seems unlikely that a similar attempt at enforcing a ban at anything beyond the very local level would receive the same uniform levels of initial compliance.

In 2000 and 2001, the Taliban were able to enact coordinated, swift, blunt, but effective, measures of enforcement nationwide. They may struggle to reach this level of capability in relation to an unpopular measure now – even if they were again the dominant force in government. But the instinct to compel the population through edicts and harsh enforcement likely remains: the Taliban have shown no patterns of leniency in the intervening years. The ability to plan beyond the short-term looks similarly questionable, but the Taliban may now recognise such an approach to poppy to be risky, difficult, unpopular and unsustainable, particularly without significant compensations from the international community – something that the Taliban currently have little faith in.

Foreign Affairs: book reviews for Russia today

May 22, 2015

Summary: Book reviews of post-modern Russia – oligarchs, political facades, media, manipulation, exploitation, history, Presidents, authoritarianism, ideology – its all there...

OK, so now I am doing book reviews of book reviews.

In Foreign Affairs I have come across a very interesting and thoughtful review of two new books on modern Russia, one of which is on my bed-side table ready for reading.  Joshua Yoffa contemplates the conclusions of Bill Browder’s “Red Notice” and “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” from Peter Pomerantzev.  These two authors describe their own close up and painful experiences in the financial and media whirl of early 21st century Putin-era Russia.

Surely a Millwall supporter: "No one likes us,  We don't care"

Surely a Millwall supporter: “No one likes us, We don’t care”

Browder, an American investor, was happy to amass millions in the rule-less wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, only to have the hand that was feeding him turn against him, leading to the death of Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in police custody.

In the vacuum created by the Soviet collapse, unabashed opportunism and a limitless sense of the possible became the closest thing the wounded country had to a collective ideology. There were few consequences and everything was pretend—except, of course, for the massive sums of money. And as long as Russia, after Vladimir Putin took power in 2000, kept up its winking nod toward modernization and democracy, it was easy enough to play along without too much of a drag on your conscience.

Pomerantsev was a UK-born television producer observing at close hand the co-option of the media in the Putin recreation of reality:

Soviet-era doublethink, whereby people had no qualms about saying one thing and believing another, was updated for the twenty-first century, fueled by high production values and slick PR. In such a climate, to believe in anything with sincerity was to be naive…

Yoffa distinguishes different phases of the “Putin-era”.  The first phase – the one experienced by Browder and Pomerantsev was very open and slightly crazy – money was sloshing around and little care was paid to the darker political machinations behind the scenes.   From around 2011/2012, Yoffa suggests, the climate was different.  Money was drying up and the Putin “ideology” was taking on stronger anti-Western, socially conservative and orthodox postures.  In this atmosphere Russia is happily rushing to embrace isolation.

Whereas for the first decade of Putin’s rule, the state preferred a passive and disengaged population, over the last year, it has sought to keep society antsy and militarized, on something approaching a war footing—even if the war itself remains technically undeclared. The faction in the Kremlin that long wished for more control, over everything from the newspaper business to the agricultural sector, has found its excuse in the arguments of geopolitics and national security.

Finding – or creating – an external enemy is a classic from the playbook.  Russia is no longer bothering to pretend to be democratic.  “If anything, it prides itself on its pariah status”.  And the anti-Western ideology being created by nationalist “academics” and shaped by Russia Today can actually be quite potent, as it finds favour with a lot of the world (including in Europe and the West) for a lot of different reasons. But cracks in the facade are appearing now as the money dries up and Putin has to juggle resources, priorities and interests – frozen conflicts are costly.

Yoffa helpfully flags up and explores two misconceptions that the West has about Russia today (sorry), both originating from a short-termist rush to deal with the crisis over the Ukraine while failing to consider Russia’s history, culture and experiences.

  1. It is not all about financial gain and media control for the powerbrokers in Russia.  Western responses to, for example the conflict in Ukraine, should not simply be about raising the financial cost for Putin
  2. It is not all about understanding and dealing with one man and a correctly-applied “Putin policy” will remove the problem.

Putin perhaps as symptom rather than cause.

Ukraine: “…this is a real war with Russia…”. A hot summer on the Black Sea?

May 21, 2015

Summary: Neither war nor ceasefire. But many reports that Russia is looking to push the separatists further west in some way, over the coming months

BBC, 20 May: Can I be absolutely clear with you this is not a fight with Russian-backed separatists, this is a real war with Russia.”  Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko

ukraine-russia-631The security situation does not look particularly encouraging in the Ukraine at present or for the rest of the year. The conflict continues in a slow-burn but unpleasant fashion.  There is a “back and forth” exchange of metal over uneasy frontlines as hundreds of artillery rounds continue to impact in sporadic but regular exchanges of fire. This from the most recent OSCE Special Monitoring Mission’s daily update:

OSCE Special Monitoring Mission report of 20 May: “The SMM observed continuing ceasefire violations in the area of “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”)-controlled Donetsk. From two observation points, the SMM heard over 300 explosions caused by incoming and outgoing heavy weapons fire, including artillery, and mortar during the night period from 20:48 hours on 18 May to 02:02 hours on 19 May and during the daytime period of 09:10 until 17:25 hours on 19 May.[1] The SMM observed that the explosions occurred at locations to the west, north, north-east, and south of its Donetsk city centre and Donetsk central railway station positions at distances ranging from 2km to 8km from its positions. The SMM concluded that the explosions had occurred in or around the “DPR”-controlled Donetsk airport (10km north-west of Donetsk), Spartak (10km north-north-west of Donetsk), and the southerly part of Donetsk city, as well as government controlled Pisky (7km west of Donetsk) and Opytne (12km north-west of Donetsk).”

So the clearly misnamed “ceasefire” seems to be dealing with thousands of rounds a week, presumably with military and civilian casualties to match.

Neither war nor peace.

Earlier this week, the government of Ukraine announced that its military had captured two wounded Russian soldiers inside Ukraine territory. These were reportedly Russian Special Forces, who are filmed in hospital being questioned, which, in turn raises questions over the Geneva Convention’s position on exposing and humiliating Prisoners of War in public. Both sides have been guilty of less than compassionate readings of treatment of prisoners over the months as they scramble for media advantage.

Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, has stated that the capture demonstrates that Ukraine is in a “real” war with Russia, not merely the Russian-backed separatists. Poroshenko also believes that Russia will launch a further offensive in the summer.

The Independent, 20th May: The Ukrainian president has warned that Russia could soon attempt to stage an invasion, as the two nations are in the midst of a “real war”.

Petro Poroshenko made the worrying suggestion after four Ukrainian servicemen were killed when fighting erupted between Russian-backed separatists on Tuesday.

The president told BBC News that he believes Russia will attempt an “offensive” in the summer months.
“I think we should be ready and I think that we do not give them any tiny chance for provocation. That will totally be their responsibility,” he said.

“Can I be absolutely clear with you this is not a fight with Russian-backed separatists, this is a real war with Russia.
“The fact that we captured…Russian regular special forces soldiers [is] strong evidence of that.”

There have been numerous suggestions that pro-Russian separatists are planning and preparing a further military push, possibly down the Black Sea coast road to Mariupol, which has loomed large as the frontline of main concern for the Ukraine government.  NATO seem to echo strongly these concerns:

Wall Street Journal, 30 April: NATO’s military chief said that Russia-backed forces appear to be “preparing, training and equipping” for a potential new offensive in eastern Ukraine, even as European leaders said the conflict there was entering a “political phase.”

U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top commander, said Thursday that the separatist forces have been using the relative lull in fighting since a cease-fire was signed in February to regroup.

“These preparations are consistent with the possibility of an offensive,” Gen. Breedlove said at a Pentagon news conference. “And that is what we have seen through several of the previous pauses in eastern Ukraine.”

The US Embassy in Kiev claimed in April that Russia was building up forces, including sophisticated air defence missile systems:

“Combined Russian-separatist forces continue to violate the terms of the “Minsk 2” agreement signed in mid-February.  Combined Russian-separatist forces maintain a sizable number of artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers within areas prohibited under the Minsk accords.  The Russian military has deployed additional air defense systems into eastern Ukraine and moved several of these nearer the front lines. This is the highest amount of Russian air defense equipment in eastern Ukraine since August.

Russian and separatist forces also have a large concentration of command and control equipment in eastern Ukraine.  Combined Russian-separatist forces have been conducting increasingly complex training in eastern Ukraine. The increasingly complex nature of this training leaves no doubt that Russia is involved in the training. The training has also incorporated Russian UAVs, an unmistakable sign of Russia’s presence.

Russia is also building up its forces along its border with Ukraine. After maintaining a relatively steady presence along the border, Russia is sending additional units there. These forces will give Russia its largest presence on the border since October 2014. Russia has also redeployed military elements near Belgorod, opposite Kharkiv.

Russia has continued to ship heavy weapons into eastern Ukraine since the “Minsk 2” ceasefire took effect on 15 February.”

Analysis and Outlook

You can only “cry wolf” so many times.  NATO and the Ukraine are not the most reliable of witnesses: new Russia-sponsored operations have been declared “imminent” for a while, be it winter, spring or now summer offensives. But I find it very convincing that pro-Russian separatists are being rushed through training, with new tactics, equipment and direction all courtesy of the Russian military, which sticks to the story that any Russian military personnel inside Ukrainian borders is there independently of the Russian government. What else should they be expected to do?

I certainly would not rule out a new large-scale attack, but the new “hybrid/ambiguous/deniable” warfare forms offer so many more flexible and effective means of securing objectives.  New forms of drip-drip, or “salami slicing” can be helpful. You can clear, hold and build in small, bite-sized pieces: artillery drives people out and separatists moving gradually in.  The Ukrainian military still insufficiently resourced to push anyone back whence they came.

But if we were looking at a larger, strategic, picture, if a larger military-led action was being contemplated, there are perhaps four “fronts” that could be opened or developed in new offensive operations coming from the east:

Front 1: Black Sea coast road towards (and beyond Mariupol). A favourite theatre of operations. This holds out the prospect of narrow thrust to open a land link between Russia and the Crimea

Ukr, Map Donbas mariupol

Front 2: Central – Donetsk/Luhansk. Maintain pressure, seeking to expand and make these two regions more defensively, economically, administratively and politically “viable”. Alexander Motyl has an interesting angle that Putin has currently “lost” because he “owns” the economic “basket case” of the Donbas:

“…whoever ends up holding the Russian-controlled territories of the Donbas will actually be the loser.
The region, he noted, is an economic basket case. It’s industrial base is devastated. Infrastructure damage is estimated to be $227 million. Gas and water shortages are endemic. Only one-third of the population is receiving regular wages.  Of the estimated 3 million people remaining there, 2 million are either children or pensioners who must be supported by 1 million working-age adults.  Responsibility for rebuilding this mess will be a major financial albatross for either Kyiv or Moscow.”

Front 3: Kharkiv – A region that saw demonstrations, building seizures and violence in 2014 but has largely died down and certainly drifted out of the media. Some small-scale, non-attributable explosions have occurred this year

ukraine map unrest“A bomb has killed at least two people, including a police officer, and injured at least 10 more people at a rally in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv.  The rally was one of several being held to mark a year since the Kiev uprising that led to the fall of pro-Russia leader Viktor Yanukovych.  Security forces have detained four suspects in the attack, officials say.  Kharkiv lies outside the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, where a ceasefire appears finally to be taking hold.”

Front 4: Kiev/behind the lines. Tension can be created. Explosions, demonstrations and the seizure – or attempts to seize – government buildings in Kiev or another major city (Odessa?). There are small contingents of UK and US soldiers in the country – a small explosion in their vicinity might generate a powerful political backblast…

Wild cards: Moldova, Crimea and Belarus – explosions, demonstrations and the seizure of government buildings from the direction of Belarus, the Crimea and/or in Moldova could open up new fronts or greatly distract and destabilise.

Nothing is clear in this unclear eastern war.  The nature of the rhetoric between protagonists (Russia claims of about Ukrainian invitations of NATO troops, missiles and membership?), perhaps coupled with the trends of ceasefire violations and Russia military manoeuvres/training/posturing/sabre rattling on the other side of the border may give us clues in the coming months.  But my admittedly evolving view of hybrid warfare is clear, at least, on one aspect: there are no bonus points for being transparent, obvious or predictable.

Book Review – George Friedman – “Flashpoints”

May 20, 2015

Summary: The past isn’t dead and it’s not even past. Thought-provoking geo-strategic analysis, drawing extensively and appropriately from history, from George Friedman. This is a very useful examination of risks of conflict in and around Europe in the future. The further east you go from the UK, the greater the risk…

Friedman book flashpoinsWith the European Games 2015 athletics event being held in Baku and Australia now joining the Eurovision song contest (which has had Israel as a member for years), one can perhaps be forgiven for wondering what “Europe” actually means. Is it a concept or a geographical expression? For the first half of my life, I was brought up to see “Europe” in reality as “Western Europe”, with only half of Germany allowed to play. More recently, we have talked of “old” and “new” Europe, roughly coinciding between East and West and most recently, evidenced in the post-2008, economic-depression, European downturn, we even talk of a north and south Europe (Germany vs Greece?).

A new and, as ever, highly intelligent and thought-provoking book has come from the geo-strategic analyst and founder of STRATFOR, George Friedman. Here, Friedman attempts to pull apart “Europe” with three core questions:

  1. How did Europe achieve political, military, economic and intellectual domination of the globe?
  2. What flaw caused this domination to be thrown away in the course of 31 years, from 1914 to 1945?
  3. Is the post-1945 peace in Europe now the natural state of affairs or can the continent slip back to old ways?

To which latter question, I suggest we already know the answer…

Friedman takes us through Europe’s history and highlights the nature and causes of its expansionism – the “sheer barbaric will and nearly insane courage” of Spanish and Portugese explorations and conquest of the Americas and the role of religion and intellectual development in this process – “the fragmentation of the mind”.

“Such an enterprise as conquering the world and inventing humanity carried with it a price. No one is certain how many died through the direct impact of European imperialism, from military action, starvation, disease and other causes. Some experts estimate 100 million dead over the course of four centuries of empire building, but no one really knows.”

The destruction of Europe and its empires that began in 1914 and ended in 1945 was unprecedented in human history in terms of the speed, scale and savagery that overtook the continent:

“As in all great tragedies, the virtues responsible for Europe’s greatness were precisely those that destroyed it…the right to national self-determination celebrated by the Enlightenment evolved into rage at the stranger…The technologies that transformed the world created systems of killing previously unimaginable. The domination of the world led to constant conflict with it and for it.”

The Cold War broadly held an exhausted Europe frozen in place for 45 years. It was the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992 that heralded – largely unseen and unpredicted – sweeping new and destabilising consequences, including conflict, across the European peninsula in the decades to come. The fighting in the Balkans during the 1990s was one of the first indicators that things were changing and showed that the darker and more brutal side of Europe’s history past was neither dead nor past.

Mainland and Peninsula

Much of the book is about this continual and continuing tension in the “borderlands” between Germany and Russia – Germany’s capacity for economic (and sometimes military) expansion and Russia’s fear of invasion and need for buffer zones. Sometimes this tension is concealed, sometimes not.  This region (a historically fluid line up of countries, including the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus and the Ukraine) is historically the contested meeting space between the Eurasian landmass (read “Russia”) and the small, crowded and increasingly fragmented European peninsula. Friedman’s working reference to differentiate between mainland and peninsula is a line drawn between St Petersburg and Rostov-on-Don. Snyder has perhaps more aptly called this geographically open and difficult-to-defend North European plain the “Bloodlands” in his study of totalitarian brutality in the 1930s and 1940s. Friedman is remarkably well-placed to bring personal family experience into play. As a family of Hungarian Jews living in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries they had direct experience of the blood-letting, strife and displacement of the “31 years” (1914 – 1945). This included a perilous and precarious existence under both Nazi and Soviet regimes Their family lived in a city which changed its name three times in two generations – Bratislava, aka Pozsony, aka Pressburg.

Bringing us up to date, Friedman highlights the year 2008 as critical to our understanding of what has gone wrong and what the risks are for conflict in Europe – the financial crisis and the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Russia does not want to overtly dominate the region.  But it does want to limit the power of NATO in the east.  It also wishes to limit European integration, which could evolve into a strategic threat, by offering Eastern Europe economic alternatives…The Russians had two tools at their disposal.  One I would call commercial geopolitics…Second, and as important, the Russians had their intelligence service, and they had developed powerful relationships and sources in all these countries both during and after their occupation

Every step of the way, Friedman reminds us clearly that Europe can be at risk of conflict particularly at its north-eastern (read Baltics), eastern (read Ukraine) and south-eastern (read Balkans and Causcasus) peripheries. He warns against ignoring historic lessons and how the prejudice and resentment of generations (and even centuries) are only a little bit below the easily scratchable surface of Europe. Unchangeable geographic factors, centuries-old historic grievances and modern economic and technological factors are all at play, whether we recognise them and heed them or not.

No solutions offered here, just an important identification of the issues and a suggestions of the lessons, should we want to learn any.

I review Friedman’s other ambitious and excellent work “The Next 100 Years” here

Kabul airport: suicide attack

May 17, 2015

Summary: Vehicle-borne suicide bomb strikes international forces by Kabul airport as a part of the standard Taliban Spring offensive…

Afghan and foreign security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack in Kabul on Sunday.

Reports coming in of an explosion by Kabul International Airport, probably a vehicle borne suicide attack.  Many civilian casualties reported and several killed, including two Afghan girls.  The EUPOL mission has said they believe that their vehicles were targeted.

A Eupol spokeswoman, Sari Haukka-Konu, said one non-mission member who was travelling in a Eupol vehicle had been killed. She had no details on the nationality or identity of the deceased.

Police spokesman Ebadullah Karimi said a suicide bomber in a Toyota Corolla rammed a convoy of foreign troops on the road from Kabul`s main airport to a NATO military installation nearby.

One report suggests that the attacker was “inside” a checkpoint

Deputy interior ministry spokesperson, Najib Danish said the bombing occurred inside the major checkpoint leading into the capital’s main airport.

Difficult to entirely guard against and a favoured area to attack over the years, this seems to be one more of the standard package of attacks from the Taliban during their Spring operations, although their website is currently down and they do not yet seem to have claimed it yet.  The Taliban generally seem to prefer to wait until they can see that a viable target was struck, with a minimum of civilian casualties before announcing their responsibility.  The attack might have been a “target of opportunity” in which the driver was sent to cruise down the main airport approach roads in the hope of spotting a column of foreign military vehicles.  There is likely still a large component of ISAF/Resolute Support installations in and around the airport with military vehicles going to and from the airport probably several times a day.  The roads are always busy around here, with little driving discipline – it is very easy to get slowed down or brought to a halt in the traffic and present a target.   I never enjoyed doing that route – I remember on one trip from city to airport a British soldier screaming himself hoarse from the turret of the vehicle we were travelling in as he tried to get the Afghan traffic to back off, keep a distance and allow our vehicle to at least keep moving – with minimal success.

Attack in Kabul targets foreigners in a central hotel, killing and wounding many

May 14, 2015

Summary: An attack in Kabul against a hotel targeting foreigners kills 9.  The Taliban claim it.

Many reports this morning about a terrorist attacker by two gunmen into a hotel – the Palace Park Hotel – in Kabul.  The attack took place in an area of the city where many UN staff live.  It was five hours before the Afghan security forces were able to declare the area safe.  Information is still a little unclear regarding number of attackers and casualties.  Reportedly between five to eleven were killed (the UN say 14 civilians), including one American and one Italian citizen, and a similar amount wounded.

This attack follows a well-established Taliban pattern of attacks into the city to kill Westerners, although the attackers appear to have been more “suicidal” than “suicide” attackers – not bombs strapped to bodies, just small arms and grenades.  The five-hour timeframe highlights the difficulties of securing and clearing buildings in an urban area while ensuring the safety of dozens, if not hundreds of civilians.  Buildings and rooms have to be carefully checked as the final number of assailants is rarely certain until near the end of the incident.

crop crop

Palace Park Hotel marked with a black pin – soft target outside the ring of steel?

I am not yet clear that the attack was due to the Taliban, although some media carry claims of responsibility from the Taliban and I would judge it highly likely that they were behind it, given their modus operandi, their ability to reach into the city and their extensive track record of similar attacks.  Kabul will remain a target of choice for insurgents – it secures maximum media publicity even as the world’s media are drifting away to other more pressing war zones and stories.

The Afghan security forces get a lot of criticism, most of it justified.  The forces based in Kabul, however, are getting regular experience in dealing with these incidents and do not seem to be doing too badly in particularly difficult combat environments.  If you study photographs from recent Kabul incidents, you rarely see Western troops alongside the Afghan forces these days.

The target location is to the west of the main concentrations of government, embassy and military buildings – the Wazir Akhbar Khan district.  This could suggest some difficulty for the insurgents in penetrating the security cordons in this area.  Softer targets hitting weaponless foreigners beyond the “Green Zone” may become the preferred option.

The Battle for Kunduz

May 11, 2015

Summary: The Taliban launch ground operations in Kunduz province. The capital may be surrounded, but Kunduz will not be allowed to fall. An inconclusive stalemate may ultimately favour the government in the long-term

Since the 24th April, Taliban fighters have been engaged in large-scale ground operations in Kunduz (aka Konduz) province, reportedly surrounding the province capital (also called Kunduz). The action is part of the Taliban-announced and anticipated commencement of “Spring Operations”, which they declare every year and came a few days after this declaration.

Kunduz provinceFighting looks to have taken the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by surprise, certainly according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network. The Taliban are broadly pushing in towards the Kunduz city, in the centre of the province, from the north and south, with some early gains outside the capital being made in the districts of Chahara Dara, Imam Sahib and Aliabad.

New York Times, 28 April 2015: The Afghan government has rushed thousands of troops to the northern province of Kunduz in recent days as a fierce Taliban offensive has surrounded the regional capital city, officials said.  An entire battalion of the Afghan National Army was reported to be surrounded by the insurgents, and the authorities stripped troops from other provinces to reinforce Kunduz.

There have been many reports of the limited capabilities of the ANSF – local forces being ill-equipped, under-supplied and un-supported.

New York Times, 28 April 2015: Of the other districts under fire, Imam Sahib, to the north, has been the worst hit. Large numbers of insurgents, including Uzbek, Tajik and Chechen militants, advanced on the district center from three directions, according to Amanuddin Qureshi, the district governor, who has fled the government center there.

At a military base in Imam Sahib, the insurgents have cut roads and supply routes, and one battalion of about 400 Afghan National Army soldiers iMap, Konduz province districtss surrounded, with resupply possible only by air, according to Mr. Qureshi and two other local officials. But Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Kabul, insisted that the battalion had not been stranded.  “If we don’t get reinforcements, the town will fall into the hands of the Taliban,” Mr. Qureshi warned in a telephone interview.

In response, the BBC reported on 7th May noted that the ANSF had “launched a major offensive”against the Taliban. At this stage the city appears to be cut off and many thousands of the civilian population have been displaced.

Analysis and Outlook

This is a large and reasonably bold Taliban offensive, the scale of which I do not think I have seen in the north-east of the country for many years. Weaknesses within the ANSF – morale, training, logistical failings, planning – have been well-documented. ISAF pulled out last year and only a residual force of US troops remain, seemingly determined to avoid getting sucked in. BBC reporting on 7 May 2015 stated currently that the only safe way into the provincial capital is by flying. Much of the local populace has been displaced by the fighting, with international agencies attempting to assist.
Reports also suggest the fighters loyal to Islamic State (IS) might also be operating alongside the Taliban.

This apparent emergence of IS in Afghanistan is a new and worrying development, but we should treat this with some caution at present. It is difficult to give an accurate assessment on the extent of this IS presence. This may be little more than disgruntled local insurgent fighters attempting to find a more successful “brand” to attach themselves to reinvigorate morale and resources. It is plausible that some Taliban and local insurgent groups are shifting their allegiance to a force considered more powerful and more fundamentalist. But does this mean the Taliban are going to benefit from this, or face a fragmentation of their forces and perhaps even an inter-insurgent civil war?

But it does also highlight a wider problem of getting access to reliable reporting. Since ISAF withdrew its provincial and district outposts and media interest in Afghanistan has declined, we are now dependent on less reliable Afghan government and local security force claims. Are there thousands of Taliban fighters or hundreds? Local government officials are prone to exaggerate problems (“we are surrounded”, “IS and Chechens are here”, “we need reinforcements”, etc) in the hope of gaining more resources.

Ruttig mentioned the myth that “Chechen” fighters had ever been involved in fighting in Afghanistan (presumably either with the Taliban, HIG, Haqqani or Al Qaeda). He said he had researched every lead and suggestion and found them wanting. As far as he was concerned, the Chechens had never fought in Afghanistan.

Determining whether an area has been “captured” amidst the claims and counter-claims is problematic – particularly when the definition is often based simply on whose flag may or may not be flying from the district police station.

What next?

It seems like an initial shock for the ANSF is turning into a stalemate. One analyst at least thinks Kunduz might be a decoy and that Taliban operations in the south – Helmand and Kandahar – might be the next step for the Taliban. I do not think that Kunduz will “fall” as such, but this a larger operation from the insurgents. It goes beyond the more “traditional” Spring operations of complex urban attacks and suicide bombings.

There are light echoes of 1989 here. Then, the victorious Mujahideen, buoyed and over-confident following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, flung themselves into an ill-considered, poorly planned and ultimately very costly, ground assault against Jalalabad. The government forces were predicted to collapse but, dug-in and well-resourced, courtesy of the departing Russians, inflicted thousands of casualties on the Mujahideen in an embarrassing defeat. The US is avoiding involvement at present but if the situation deteriorated further, I am sure the ANSF would not be allowed to fail. An unresolved stalemate might weaken Taliban morale at a time when they are trying to demonstrate power while engaging in tentative talks with the Afghan government in Qatar.

Just don’t call it talks…

May 3, 2015

Summary: The Taliban and the Afghan government will meet in Qatar in a carefully choreographed non meeting.  Gently does it.

Days after the commencement of their Spring offensive, the Taliban appear to have confirmed that they are to take part in two days of discussion and engagement in Qatar at the same time and the same event as an Afghan government delegation.  The coming together, which both sides seem at pains to downplay, is under the auspices of the Pughwash Group, an organisation of scientists and experts with a mission as follows:

Through meetings and projects that bring together scientists, experts, and policy makers, Pugwash focuses on those problems that lie at the intersection of science and world affairs.  Pugwash’s main goals remain to seek  the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, to reduce the risk of war especially in areas where weapons of mass destruction are present and may be used, and to discuss new scientific and technological developments that may bring more instability and heighten the risk of conflicts.

The Taliban have issued a statement on their website as follows:

Taliban flagClarification regarding participation by delegation from Political Officer of Islamic Emirate at conference by Pugwash International Organization in Qatar

A two-day research conference is scheduled to take place in the country Qatar on Sunday, 2nd May 2015.
This research conference is prepared by Pughwash International Organization where individuals from various countries are invited to participate. Pugwash is an impartial international organization based in Canada with branches in London, Switzerland and a few other countries. The said organization routinely convenes conferences concerning world affairs in various parts of the globe, bringing together experts from different places.

It is worth mentioning that all participants of this conference attend in an individual capacity, no one participates as representatives for any government or party. Since this is a research conference therefore every participant gives their opinion on a range of issues.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will also be sending an eight-man delegation headed by Mr. Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai to this conference in order to personally deliver the message of its oppressed nation and other such issues to the world just like it previously sent delegations to conferences in France and Japan. A statement for participation in the conference has also been prepared which will be shared with our respected readers at an appropriate time.

It must be stressed that participation in this conference by a delegation from the Political Office of Islamic Emirate should not be misconstrued as peace or negotiation talks. This issue has already been discussed with and accepted by the organizers of Pughwash and an understanding has been reached that every attendee will participate in an individual capacity and not as representatives of a side or government.

The participants of Islamic Emirate in this conference are as listed below:
1. Mr. Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai
2. Mr. Maulawi Jan Muhammad Madani
3. Mr. Maulawi Sayed Rasoul Haleem
4. Mr. Maulawi Shahabuddin Delawar
5. Mr. Qari Deen Muhammad Haneef
6. Mr. Maulawi Abdul Salam Haneefi
7. Mr. Sohail Shaheen
8. Mr. Hafiz Aziz Rahman

Perhaps understandably, you can sense the carefully treading on eggshells.  The Taliban do not want to give any sense that they are in any way conceding and taking part in peace talks.  Their own organisation is likely highly divided on the issue of any engagement with Westerners.  They are at pains to “clarify” that this is simply a conference to discuss “world affairs” and that no one is officially representing the Taliban.  The rough model for this slight encounter between Afghan government and Taliban seems to be the Kyoto (Japan, June 2012) and Chantilly (France, December 2012) meetings in which similar “not talks” events took place under the guise of discussing more general matters.

But it is possible to present the current conflict as a stalemate – both sides in the field and willing and able to contest the battleground, but no one in a position to land a decisive blow.  Although we should not, of course, see developments in Qatar as an indicator that anything like “talks” will take place anytime soon, this does seem to be a slight, but potentially significant, shift in the Taliban’s approach: making a clear and defined statement, uncluttered by vitriol and denouncement.

We should see some feedback from Qatar in the coming week, although confidentially is to be expected and should be respected: let no one be humiliated or pushed either too far or into a corner.  As for the fighting inside Afghanistan, I would expect it to continue.  In many conflicts, the period before talks is often the point at which both sides attempt to grab as much bargaining power as possible but I do not think we are at that stage yet.

Forget formal talks for the moment, but these sort of general discussions are to be encouraged – and the frequency increased – as they could well represent the necessary throat-clearing and confidence-building precursors to a proper exchange in months and, more likely, years, to come.  The paper I produced earlier this year suggested these type of meetings as but one of a basket of confidence building and communication measures that could assist in bringing the two parties slowly together.

Do not get expectations up.  Do not shout too loudly about it.

Easy does it.

Under what circumstance would NATO return to Afghanistan?

April 30, 2015

Summary: US forces continue to run Special Forces, drones and other “force protection” activities inside Afghanistan.  How and why might a large scale return of an ISAF II take place?
US forces in AfgThe New York Times has an article out which strongly suggests that US forces are still engaging with the Taliban and that operations might even be scaling up:

New York Times, 29 April:

“Months after President Obama formally declared that the United States’ long war against the Taliban was over in Afghanistan, the American military is regularly conducting airstrikes against low-level insurgent forces and sending Special Operations troops directly into harm’s way under the guise of “training and advising”… Western and military officials said that American and NATO forces conducted 52 airstrikes in March, months after the official end of the combat mission. Many of these air assaults, which totalled 128 in the first three months of this year, targeted low- to midlevel Taliban commanders in the most remote reaches of Afghanistan.

As early as January, when officials in Washington were hailing the end of the combat mission, about 40 American Special Operations troops were deployed to Kunar Province to advise Afghan forces that were engaged with the Taliban over a handful of villages along the border with Pakistan.”

The US government response is that this is for counter-terrorism and force protection purposes only.

I was idly brainstorming myself with the question: “Under what circumstances would NATO (aka US Military, aka ISAF) return in force to Afghanistan. I was looking ahead the next four or five years and would welcome anyone’s thoughts – this is where I got to thus far:

The first and cynical/pragmatic response to the question should be “If they ever actually leave…”. Is it unreasonable to work on the assumption that a “presence” of US forces will be in Afghanistan for years – Special Forces, intelligence operators, drones, advisors, trainers, etc? Even being beyond the supposed 2016 deadline? I don’t think so. Propping up a regime in this way is much cheaper than the previous solution, aka the surge. It also retains crucial influence and oversight on Afghan developments, while allowing useful training and experience to be maintained and the options for taking the war to AQ and ISIS, without a major rebalancing of logistics.

But broadening this to an ISAF/NATO-type mission I came up with this:

What circumstances?

• A gradual deterioration of the security situation, perhaps over years. This would presumably be as a result of Taliban victories but might be fuelled and exacerbated by divisions within the government forces – perhaps warlords forming their own militias and provinces becoming “no go” areas to central government influence. An increase in Taliban victories would be a more plausible trigger for a renewed Western military intervention – for the purposes of this piece, lets call it ISAF II. Tis might start with a battlegroup deployed for enhanced base protection and then expand to a brigade, etc. Something that looked more like a civil war – Ismail Khan vs, Dostum, vs Atta, vs central government vs Taliban vs HIG would be less likely to draw in Western forces this time. Too messy and no obvious legitimate focal point to support.
• A major shift in the balance of power – the Taliban make some major advances – a collapse of an Afghan Army Corps, for example. This is a straightforward “propping up” at the request of a hard-pressed Afghan government.
• Fragmentation of collapse of the Afghan government. This would look more like another civil war scenario. Any ISAF II commitment would need a very clear understanding and a clear centre of gravity to focus on – do we back Ghani/Abdullah?
• An AQ/ISIS “event”. I am thinking here f a 9/11 or similar – outside of Afghanistan. If the US mainland got hit again by an AQ/ISIS mass-casualty attack and the originators were traced to a region of Afghanistan it is very plausible that US ground forces (plus a small coalition of the willing?) would find themselves on the ground with or without Afghan government support.
• Military intervention in Afghanistan from a neighbour. In 1998, Iran apparently came very close to military invasion in response to the Taliban’s execution of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif. This is a little bit more outside the box, but a military incursion by Pakistan or Iran might well trigger a (very careful) deployment from Western forces.
• Humanitarian. Famine, genocide, earthquake, flood, take your pick. These have all been visited on Afghanistan. A heartfelt appeal from the Afghan regime could well bring back large numbers of international forces

In what capacity?

• Boots on the ground – for COIN work, military confrontations and humanitarian relief. Conventional military operations
• Air power and base protection
• Enhanced mentoring and training of various Afghan force components: army, air force, police, CN, border police, Afghan Local Police (I think they still need it), ANCOP
• Political, military, diplomatic advisors
• Additional “force multipliers” for the ANSF – logistics, intelligence, transport, airpower
• Special Forces
• Drones, intelligence gathering – AQ, Taliban, ISIS…
• Peace-keeping missions

2015 is going to be a tough year for the country. Although the Taliban are not taking and holding significant amounts of territory, they are still in the field, capable and confident. The Taliban have recently announced their annual Spring operations – promising a summer of suicide bombings and ground attacks. The UN has noted in its March report that casualties amongst the civilian population were increasing. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are similarly still in the field and resisting. In fact they are doing more than merely resisting, they are in some areas taking the fight to the Taliban.  I feel we should consider a multiple year stalemate a very real possibility.

I think we should see drone strikes and Special Forces activities the bare minimum now of what America is willing and capable of doing in Afghanistan – it greatly reduces the “blood and treasure” aspect but allows for direct support of a regime that still very much wants an American military presence.  A new and large scale commitment looks inconceivable from the vantage point of 2015 – the 2001 – 2014 experience was too costly, too painful and too lacking in a flag-waving victory moment.  But times change, memories fade, mistakes are forgotten by new presidents and Prime Ministers.  Lessons remain merely “identified”.  Never say “never again”.

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