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Sangin, bloody Sangin

March 24, 2017

Summary: The Afghan government appear to have lost control of Sangin district in Helmand, retreating in some disarray.  The failure of the Afghan security forces is matched only by the failure of the international military force’s media spin: scorched earth does not equal victory…

sangin map

Reports coming in that the Afghan Army – doubtless with stand-off support and advice from the US and other international military personnel – have had to withdraw from the district centre of Sangin, a key strategic piece of Helmand province that was bitterly fought over by US and UK troops before the ISAF drawdown in 2014.  Nearly 1,000 international soldiers died fighting in Helmand.  Or rather, in a slightly bizarre twist, they have simply relocated the district centre.  The successor to ISAF, Resolute Support, has made a statement which makes pessimistic reading.  The media team appear to have intentionally selected and highlighted the last two sentences from this press release as some kind of positive:

RS statement on Sangin

“The ANDSF defended the district center for two months and left on their own terms.  The only thing they left to the Taliban is rubble and dirt”

Analysis and Outlook

Judging “who controls what” is a hazardous art form.  Some reports say that the Afghan government effectively now only controls 60% of Afghan territory, with the Taliban controlling 10% and 30% contested. This New York Times report, from December 2016, draws on senior US military sources and summarises the difficult situation at the end of 2016:

“Afghanistan’s security crisis is fueling new opportunities for Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other extremist groups, Afghan and American officials say, voicing concerns that the original American mission in the country — removing its use as a terrorist haven — is at risk.

As intense Taliban offensives have taken large portions of territory out of the Afghan government’s hands, those spaces have become the stage for a resurgence of regional and international militant groups…Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the chief of the United States Central Command, said the Afghan government now controls only about 60 percent of the country, the Taliban hold sway over about 10 percent, and the remainder is contested. Which group or groups fill those voids of increasing ungoverned territory in Afghanistan ‘is something we’ll have to contend with’, he said… Over all, Western and Afghan officials estimate that 40,000 to 45,000 militants are active across Afghanistan. The Taliban are estimated at 30,000 fighters, some of them seasonal. But the rest are foreign militants of different — and often fluid — allegiances, at times competing but mostly on the same side against the Afghan government and its American allies… The immediate existential threat to the Afghan government has been a resurgent Taliban, who officials say have been killing 30 to 50 members of the security forces each day in recent months. The insurgents are directly threatening important provincial capitals and have again made important roadways hazardous or impassable to government forces.”[1]

The Afghan army is suffering many casualties and struggles with morale and capability. But it is likely to broadly remain in the field and in control of key cities and communication routes.  There was increasing concern that the Afghan security forces were now contributing to a high proportion of civilian casualties: they are significantly less well-trained than the Western ISAF forces, who largely departed at the end of 2014.  The emergence of IS is likely to continue to complicate matters, as disgruntled local Taliban fighters weigh old loyalties against a new and potentially better resourced form of jihad.  Even by the low benchmarks of Afghanistan, genuine progress on any form of peace dialogue looks unlikely in 2017.

The arrival in the White House of Donald Trump – known to be opposed to an interventionist American role in the world – may well herald a new period of declining US military support and dis-engagement in 2017. There is much uncertainty as to what the US policy will now be in the coming years.  A significant reduction of US political, military and financial support could cause the country to collapse.

The security situation is quite fluid and we should be careful about attempting to judge who controls what at any given point in time: both the government and the Taliban are prone to giving out inaccurate information. Taliban group can dominate particular routes, towns and villages over prolonged periods, simply by setting up a few checkpoints or mobile Sharia courts, without necessarily formally controlling a district.  Conversely, government forces often define “control” of a village or district simply by the fact that they having their flag planted on the roof of the police or local government headquarters.

But, after sixteen years of international military engagement, making a virtue out of “scorched earth” just doesn’t cut it, somehow…

[1] Mashal, M., and Schmitt, E., ‘Afghan Security Crisis Sets Stage for Terrorists’ Resurgence’, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2016,




Hurting stalemate? Are the Taliban weary and ready for peace?

February 2, 2017

Summary: Very interesting RUSI report based on interviews with seven key current and former Taliban figures suggesting significant fragmentation and low morale amongst the Taliban as they attempt to prosecute a costly war against fellow Muslims.  Military gains cannot be built upon and commanders are serving their own interests, eroding the pure values of Mullah Omar.  The writers suggest this opens up opportunities for new peace initiatives with the Taliban.  I am not yet convinced.



There was a time, certainly embracing a ten-year period of the post-2001 period of Afghanistan’s troubled history, when you couldn’t move for new Afghan papers being launched.  Political, military, thinktanks, government, NGOs were clamouring to push their old and new solutions.  Some of these ideas were attempted “in the field”.  Occasionally (and sometimes unwittingly) they were attempted two or three times.  It is much quieter these days.  I attended a very useful RUSI presentation from Michael Semple and Theo Farrell earlier this week.  They have a new paper out based on interviews with key Taliban commanders.  The meeting was well attended – particularly given we only had an hour.  What they came up with was very interesting.  In essence they give the clear sense that the Taliban leadership is weakening, morale is flagging and there are many indicators of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war.  Lets go through some of the key points from the presentation:

Interviews based on long-standing contacts.  Seven quality one-to-one interviews with well-connected current or former members.

  • The conflict has dragged on and is very costly for all sides.
  • What is going on inside the internal Taliban political arena is a key and greatly neglected variable
  • Although the Taliban are officially united, there are concerns over the quality of the current leadership which is poor – no Mullah Omar “magic touch”
  • Current leader, Haibatullah, is struggling to stamp his authority – this is a leadership crisis
  • The Taliban have had some “spectacular” military wins (Kunduz fell twice). But the gains come at great cost and have limited utility – they can overrun towns but cannot hold them
  • Taliban morale affected by clampdowns in Pakistan, refugee movements: the Pakistan sanctuary is looking vulnerable and the military campaign has lost direction and purity of vision/values and purpose
  • Discontent amongst mid and low level fighters – leadership is pursuing its own interests: “the Emirate no longer exists”, “the Emirate has become a mafia”…


  • Role of regional players? Iran and Russia happy to have their roles talked up but they lack the strategic clout as yet.  And progress should not have to wait for Pakistan to take the first step
  • Why is the war still being fought – poor Afghan Muslims being killed on both sides? Farrell – Taliban need a process that does not undermine or defeat them
  • What kind of “defection model”? The Taliban still want to be able to assert their identity as “Taliban” – they will only come over if they can retain that credibility
  • Haven’t we heard this all before? Why now? Semple: The Taliban interviewees are now saying the same thing – and more strongly – and this was very striking
  • What does success look like? A trend of violence decreasing slowly over a period of 2,3 years to create the expectation of a political agreement.  Socially the Taliban will continue to be an important force – only not a military one

Analysis and Outlook

This is all very tempting.  It is very encouraging that there are such channels open between key Taliban members and Western analysts.  At one point Michael Semple (rightly) cautioned us that local actors are very good at pretending to do and say what other groups want, eg, UK, Russia, Pakistan etc.  Perhaps there is an element of this in the interviews he presents.   But Christina Lamb’s “why now” question gets to the heart of it.  Many of us have heard a lot of this before.  The paper is mainly about the problems of a fragmenting Taliban and poor morale.  This is very useful in itself.  But there is much less about specific reach outs and evidence of a desire for peace talks.  The concept of “insurgent peace-making” offered by the authors is attractive, but becomes quickly full of “ifs, woulds, coulds and shoulds”.  The solutions are loose and quite optimistic.

For insurgent peace-making to work it would require a mechanism to assemble a broad Taliban pro-peace coalition…while participating in the peace process, [the Taliban] will necessarily have to assert their loyalty to the spirit of the movement and avoid any appearance of capitulation to government.  This will require careful accommodation among Afghan stakeholders.

Well, absolutely.  And good luck with that.  Afghan stakeholders.  Remember that, in the end this means handing the process to a disparate group of fractious actors: Afghans (and Pakistanis), with government, parliament, a host of factions, and even the population, all demanding input, including, I suspect,  accountability for war crimes.  Many of these actors are having their strings pulled by other actors.  The question I wanted to ask but was thwarted by the time was whether there were any lessons from the – I hesitate to use the use the word – reconciliation of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.  His name did not crop up, although it has been seen as a possible model for future deals with some or all of the Taliban.  But the term “defection model” was used in the discussions, i.e. what kind of process do we use in order to get the Taliban to lay down their arms.  It struck me that this is precisely the type of terminology (victory, defeat, surrender, defection) that has unhelpfully been employed in the past.  With a thick layer of shame and humiliation dripping over these words, this accidental thoughtlessness surely  works against encouraging those Taliban wanting to come back in.

I think it more likely that, with both government and Taliban forces still in the field and ready and able to fight, the fighting will continue. The ideas in the report are certainly valid, but my sense is that we could still be waiting for a breakthrough in 5-10 years time.  And in many ways, the report suggests not that there is now a growing opportunity for peace, but, quite the reverse.  Splintering and fragmentation of an insurgency doesn’t necessarily mean readiness – or even desire – for peace talks.  Multiple competing factions can also point to new and more complex forms of warlordism, insurgency and civil war.  I once asked Ahmed Rashid what would happen if Mullah Omar was killed in a drone strike.  He replied “then who do you talk to?”  If the Haibatullah leadership is on the way to decapitation and disintegration (albeit for different reasons of inability, factionalism and disobedient sub-commanders), maybe the problem is the same.

Afghanistan: Prospects for 2017

January 25, 2017

Photos of Afghan maps 006

Summary: Whichever way you look at it, 2017 will be like any other of the last ten years for Afghanistan: bloody, volatile, costly and uncertain.  The prospects for viable negotiations between insurgents and government look slim and the government will struggle to hold itself together.  A significant risk to the Afghan regime’s stability would be a precipitate removal of American support by a Trump administration.

I realise that, since around 2002, I have annually been attempting to assess and summarise the prospects for Afghanistan in some way.  When I first started professional analysis of Afghanistan, in November 2001, I did not have any concept whatsoever that I could still be doing this – and outside of government – a decade and a half later.

But this analytical exercise does not get any easier in the repetition.  Often, the default setting has been to take refuge behind a metaphor.  One of the most commonly deployed is “glass half full, glass half empty”, perhaps less a coherent analysis and more an expression of optimism or pessimism.  Negatively-minded wags would add riders to compound a pessimistic vision: “… but the glass is cracked.  And on a wobbly table.  On the deck of the Titanic…”

When making these judgements within government analytical bodies, the order of well-worn phrasing couplets could play a part.  “Challenges remain, but progress has been made” was often used to hint at optimism without overly committing.  Alternatively, “progress has been made, but challenges remain”, generally meant “it has got a bit worse”…

Internally and externally, the 2001 post-Taliban optimism has been slowly eroded.  The presidential and parliamentary elections, over 2004 and 2005 probably represented the high point of popular mood.  After this, the Taliban began to gain in strength and confidence, ramping up a violent campaign that sucked more international troops into an extensive and complex insurgency campaign.  Government corruption and international military mistakes brought many recruits for the Taliban.  Neighbours interfered.  Pakistan seemed unable to fully reject the Taliban, which had been its favoured proxy for some years.  The casualties, cost and political discomfort increased.  Many contradictory policies and practices aimed at fighting, reconstructing (or both) were debated and employed: “Another year, another Afghan strategy” indeed.

Although Afghanistan remains intact as a functioning and endorsed member of the international community, multiple and fundamental challenges do still remain.  International military and financial support remains a critical life-support system to keep the country functioning and stabilised.  This year looks likely to be at least as fragile, destructive and costly as any other year in the last decade.

Many analysts judged that the violence would increase as the country moved beyond 2014.[1]  Although, with the gradual reduction in Western forces, intelligence sources and information about the Taliban are starting to dwindle, terror attacks and civilian casualties are both on the rise.[2]  The withdrawal of ISAF forces and Afghan government internal tensions ensured that 2015 and 2016 were turbulent.  The Afghan armed forces struggled to resist Taliban military operations, suffering reverses and many casualties.[3]  In March 2015, The Economist, while recognising the possibilities for talks with the Taliban, gave a pessimistic assessment:

“…prospects for lasting peace in Afghanistan look as bleak as at any time in the 13 years since NATO-led forces ousted the Taliban—only for them to regroup in a long, bloody insurgency. Last year a record 3,700 civilians died in the fighting. As America and other NATO countries pull out their troops, Afghanistan’s own army, less well trained and equipped, is being hammered. It has struggled to find enough recruits to replace those who die or desert. And now the Taliban and other insurgents are preparing for a spring offensive.”[4]

Fighting in Afghanistan remains at high levels.  The state is weak and struggles to achieve economic growth, government stability or deal with extensive security and corruption problems.  Internal displacement and external flight of Afghan civilians remain significant.[5]  Despite 15 years of international and Afghan military effort, the Taliban have an extensive presence and capability in Afghanistan.

A United Nations report released in December 2015, made the following statements about the situation in the country which emphasise the increasing levels of violence (my emphasis in bold):

“The taking of Kunduz City by the Taliban over the period from 28 September to 13 October 2015 and the deterioration of security across the north constituted a major setback for the Government…The military setback in Kunduz City and attacks elsewhere in the country emboldened critics of the Government and saw the emergence of nascent opposition groupingsThe overall level of security incidents increased and intensified during the period, as compared with the same period in 2014… From 1 August to 31 October 2015, 6,601 incidents were recorded by the United Nations in the monitoring of security-related developments related to the work, mobility and safety of civilian actors, with the potential to affect the delivery of mandated activities and programmes. The number of incidents represented a 19 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2014, when 5,516 incidents were recorded. The majority of these incidents (62 per cent) were reported in the southern, south-eastern and eastern regions… According to current assessments, control of approximately 25 per cent of districts remains contested throughout the country. The fall of Kunduz City provided the Taliban with significant material gains and had propaganda value. The development highlighted critical deficiencies in the capabilities of the Afghan security forces, including in the areas of logistics and planning, intelligence and air support, and also the need in some cases to strengthen the working relationships between security institutions and civilian authorities…The presence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-affiliated groups remained a concern, particularly in Nangarhar Province, where their presence is the most significant relative to the country as a whole.” [6]

In the course of intensive fighting in September 2015, the Taliban managed to capture Kunduz city, the sixth largest city in the country.  This was a highly public embarrassment for the Afghan government and points to serious flaws in the capabilities of the Afghan army.

“The sudden loss of Kunduz, the first major Afghan city to fall to the Taliban since 2001, says more about the weakness of the U.S.-trained government forces than the strength of the Taliban.

‘All those whispers we’ve heard in recent years about low morale and deep incapacities within the armed forces will now become very loud questions,’ said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. ‘Why couldn’t, or why didn’t, Afghan troops do more earlier to forestall this offensive?’

The Taliban’s surprise, early morning offensive followed months of infiltration, leading critics to blame the government and security forces for failing to grasp the threat and respond effectively to it.

The government decision to retreat quickly to the airport, 6.5 miles south of town, rather than stand and fight was distressingly similar to the collapse of Iraq’s U.S.-backed troops in Ramadi this summer. In both countries, the U.S. spent billions of dollars to stand up military forces which are struggling against less well-equipped and trained insurgents.”[7]

In a bleak statement to the UN Security Council in September 2015, the UN’s Special Representative, Nicholas Haysom noted (with my highlights in bold):

“Afghanistan’s path to stability and self-reliance cannot be taken for granted.  The current refugee exodus reflects the despondency of many Afghans. Afghans have clear memories of their recent but violent past, face an opaque future and now keenly monitor their environment for signs of international disengagement or, hopefully, of domestic stabilisation. A clear signal of continued international support will mitigate the uncertainty fuelling this exodus…The conflict continues to take a horrid toll on Afghan civilians. In the first eight months of 2015, UNAMA documented the highest level of civilian casualties since it began records…This year’s conflict has been one of the most intense faced by the Afghan National Security Forces. However, while they are, once again, proving their mettle and resilience, as a number of analysts have observed, insurgents have demonstrated a capacity to mass large numbers of fighters in isolated areas. This has challenged the ANSF’s ability to maintain the ground that they occupy or hold on to it once they have retaken contested sites. As predicated in earlier briefings, we anticipate the intensification of the violence in the country to continue through 2015.”

The emergence of small groups of Islamic State supporters within Afghanistan.  This has been noted by many, including President Ghani and the United Nations, and is a new concern, although the threat level is as yet difficult to quantify.[8]

In 2016, the political, military and economic turbulence continued.  Although President Ghani’s efforts are generating some piecemeal progressions in governance, society and the economy, there are traditional and enduring problems: insurgency, warlords, unhelpful neighbouring countries and corruption.  The government remains dependent on international military and economic engagement.  A UN Security Council report in February 2016 described the security situation in the country as “dire”.[9]

In a statement delivered on 9 February 2016 to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community”, Afghanistan received its own section.  The American Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, gave a highly pessimistic (and, ultimately, highly accurate) judgement, which I record in full here (my highlights in bold):

“The Kabul Government will continue to face persistent hurdles to political stability in 2016, including eroding political cohesion, assertions of authority by local powerbrokers, recurring financial shortfalls, and countrywide, sustained attacks by the TalibanPolitical cohesion will remain a challenge for Kabul as the National Unity Government will confront larger and more divisive issues later in 2016, including the implementation of election reforms, long-delayed parliamentary elections, and a potential change by a Loya Jirga that might fundamentally alter Afghanistan’s constitutional order.  Kabul will be unable to effectively address its dire economic situation or begin to curb its dependence on foreign aid until it first contains the insurgency, which is steadily chipping away at Afghanistan’s security.  In this environment, international financial aid will remain the most important external determinant of the Kabul government’s strength.  We assess that fighting in 2016 will be more intense than 2015, continuing a decade-long trend of deteriorating security that will compound these challenges.  The fighting will continue to threaten US personnel, our Allies, and international partners—including Afghans—particularly in Kabul and other urban population centers.  The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), with the help of anti-Taliban powerbrokers and international funding, will probably maintain control of most major population centers.  However, the forces will very likely cede control of some rural areas.  Without international funding, the ANSF will probably not remain a cohesive or viable force.

The Taliban has largely coalesced and is relatively cohesive…The Taliban will continue to test the overstretched ANSF faced with problematic logistics, low morale, and weak leadership.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) announced in January 2015 the formation of its Khorasan branch in South Asia, an amalgamation of primarily disaffected and rebranded former Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members.  Despite quick early growth in 2015, ISIL’s Khorasan branch will probably remain a low-level threat to Afghan stability as well as to US and Western interests in the region in 2016.”[10]

In April 2016, the Taliban announced the launch of their annual “spring offensive”, promising and bringing a spring and summer of suicide and guerrilla attacks.[11]  On Tuesday 19th April, perhaps the biggest Taliban terrorist explosion yet struck the capital, killing over 60 and injuring hundreds.[12]  In July, suicide bomb attacks claimed by Islamic State targeted a peaceful demonstration of the Hazara ethnic community, killing around 80.[13]  The insurgency is likely to continue to prosecute its campaign of violence.  This will ensure civilian casualties and internal displacement will remain high.

In the summer of 2016, UN and US assessments concurred that the Taliban were holding more territory than at any time since 2001.[14]  Highlighting the fluidity of the security situation and the capabilities of the Taliban, in autumn 2016, the Taliban once again managed to break into Kunduz city, briefly seizing control of the city centre.[15]

Civilian casualties continue to rise, according to UNAMA.[16]

In July 2016, the United Nations reported that 5,166 civilians had been either killed or maimed at the halfway mark of 2016 – a record since counting began in 2009.[17]  The 2016 third quarter figures were released in October 2016, confirming that casualties were still increasing.

“…latest figures released today by UNAMA for the first three quarters of 2016 show continuing high numbers of civilian casualties from the armed conflict.

Between 1 January and 30 September, UNAMA documented 8,397 conflict-related civilian casualties (2,562 deaths and 5,835 injured) representing a one per cent decrease compared to the same period in 2015. Ground engagements remained the leading cause of civilian casualties, followed by suicide and complex attacks, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

‘Increased fighting in densely populated areas makes it imperative for parties to take immediate steps to ensure all feasible precautions are being taken to spare civilians from harm,’ said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan…”[18]

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, commented in July 2016 on the reasons for Afghans to seek asylum and refuge in other countries:

“This report once again lays bare the suffering inflicted on civilians by parties to the conflict in Afghanistan and shows how the conflict deprives them of basic human rights protection, displacing Afghans within their own country and forcing many to seek refuge abroad. As recent events have shown, this sets in motion a cascade of potential human rights abuses and violations that stretch from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean and beyond.  The violations documented by UNAMA and my staff must be used by the authorities to hold perpetrators to account if we are to see improvements in human rights protection for Afghans at home and to change the calculus that compels Afghan men, women and children to take enormous risks to flee their country.”[19]

Furthermore, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime announced in October 2016 that opium production in Afghanistan had surged, facilitated in large part by continued security problems in the country:

“Opium production in Afghanistan rose by 43 per cent to 4,800 metric tons in 2016 compared with 2015 levels, according to the latest Afghanistan Opium Survey figures released today by the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the UNODC. The area under opium poppy cultivation also increased to 201,000 hectares (ha) in 2016, a rise of 10 per cent compared with 183,000 ha in 2015.

In a statement timed to coincide with the survey’s launch, UNODC Executive Director, Yury Fedotov, said that the new report shows a worrying reversal in efforts to combat the persistent problem of illicit drugs and their impact on development, health and security. Consequently, he urged the international community to lend their support to achieving the sustainable development goals in Afghanistan – including vital work on a peaceful and inclusive society, health, poverty, peace, and gender, among many others.”[20]

Some analysis suggests that the Afghan government effectively now only controls 60% of Afghan territory, with the Taliban controlling 10% and 30% is contested.  This New York Times report, from December 2016, draws on senior US military sources and summarises the difficult situation at the end of 2016:

“Afghanistan’s security crisis is fueling new opportunities for Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other extremist groups, Afghan and American officials say, voicing concerns that the original American mission in the country — removing its use as a terrorist haven — is at risk.

As intense Taliban offensives have taken large portions of territory out of the Afghan government’s hands, those spaces have become the stage for a resurgence of regional and international militant groups… Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the chief of the United States Central Command, said the Afghan government now controls only about 60 percent of the country, the Taliban hold sway over about 10 percent, and the remainder is contested. Which group or groups fill those voids of increasing ungoverned territory in Afghanistan “is something we’ll have to contend with,” he said… Over all, Western and Afghan officials estimate that 40,000 to 45,000 militants are active across Afghanistan. The Taliban are estimated at 30,000 fighters, some of them seasonal. But the rest are foreign militants of different — and often fluid — allegiances, at times competing but mostly on the same side against the Afghan government and its American allies… The immediate existential threat to the Afghan government has been a resurgent Taliban, who officials say have been killing 30 to 50 members of the security forces each day in recent months. The insurgents are directly threatening important provincial capitals and have again made important roadways hazardous or impassable to government forces.”[21]

The Afghan army is suffering many casualties and struggles with poor morale and low capability.  But it is likely to broadly remain in the field and in control of key cities and communication routes.  There was increasing concern that the Afghan security forces were now contributing to a high proportion of civilian casualties: they are significantly less well-trained than the Western ISAF forces, who largely departed at the end of 2014.  The emergence of IS continues to complicate matters, as disgruntled local Taliban fighters weigh old loyalties against a new and potentially better resourced form of jihad.  Even by the low benchmarks of Afghanistan, genuine progress on any form of peace dialogue looks unlikely in 2017.

It is difficult to give categoric and confident assessments of the security situation – particularly whether it has decreased or improved.  Data is poor and sporadic: the international community – journalists and intelligence – has reduced its focus on the country.  Terminology that might help us define “improving” or “deteriorating”(for example, the distinction between “controlled” or contested” districts) and criteria pertaining to fighting levels, casualties and level of “control” one side or another has is also debatable.

Nevertheless, despite some dispute over statistics, I believe the security situation has deteriorated overall since the international forces withdrew at the end of 2014 – and the situation was not good then.  I would highlight the following as key indicators:

  • “A state of continual emergency”: A significant increase in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a result of conflict – three times that of 2014 and six times that of 2012.[22] Over 600,000 Afghanistan were internally displaced in 2016 and the UN predicts another 450,000 on top of this in 2017.
  • Increasing civilian casualty levels between 2009 and 2016.[23]
  • A major downturn in Afghan public optimism according to opinion polls.[24]
  • Increasing casualties amongst Afghan security forces.[25]
  • Significant increase in drug production (by 43% between 2015-2016).[26]
  • Increase in level of Taliban control across districts in Afghanistan:

“…the ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] has not yet been capable of securing all of Afghanistan and has lost territory to the insurgency. As of August 28, 2016, USFOR-A reported that only 63.4% of the country’s districts were under Afghan government control or influence a reduction from the 72% as of November 27, 2015.”[27].

Some Afghan officials have claimed that the key province of Helmand is now 85% controlled by the Taliban.[28]

Russia, legitimately concerned about this instability on its southern flank and likely emboldened by its diplomatic and military successes at the expense of the US in Syria, appears to be attempting to re-insert itself politically into Afghan security debates.  Recent tri-lateral meetings between Russia, China and Pakistan have declared concern over the deteriorating situation and an interest in assisting with the reconciliation between the Afghan government and the insurgency.  All well and good, but this looks like a competition to provide an “alternative” solution: the US, India, and even the official Afghan government, appear to be sidelined by these initiatives.

But perhaps the biggest concern is the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump.  Mr Trump has made it clear that he intends to re-evaluate and radically downsize costly American international commitments – may well herald a new period of declining US military support and dis-engagement in 2017.  The only thing that is clear is that we have very little real sense of how this American political realignment might play out in the context of Afghanistan.  Mr Trump has expressed extensive frustration at the amount of money the US is spending on military commitments across the world, including scathing attacks on NATO members who fail to pay their way.  The US is still spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan.  Much of this, according to very credible reporting from SIGAR, is still be wasted through inefficiency and corruption:

History often repeats.  The obvious historical parallel that would be thrown up by a rapid reversal of US political, military and financial support for Afghanistan is the abrupt 1992 Soviet termination of money and equipment provided to the Najibullah regime.  Najibullah’s government, propped by the Soviets from a distance, managed to survive for three years, from 1989-1992, after the withdrawal of the Soviets (despite multiple predictions to the contrary at the time).  Nature hates a vacuum:  Russia, Pakistan, Iran, India and multiple insurgent and warlord groups would compete to fill it.  This would be highly destabilising for Afghanistan and the entire regime.

[1] ‘Taliban aggression will increase as US withdrawal nears’, RT, 25 June 2013,,  ‘Afghanistan: Escalating violence brings increased suffering to war-weary Afghans’, ICRC, 9 Feb. 2015,, Global Conflict Tracker, ‘Increased Violence and Instability in Afghanistan, Council on Foreign Relations,!/?marker=3 , UNAMA, ‘Press release: Latest UNAMA figures show continuing record high civilian casualties,’ Reliefweb, 12 Apr. 2015,

[2] ‘The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security’, Report of the Secretary General A/69/801 – S/2015/151, 27 Feb 2015,; Donati, J., ‘Afghan civilian deaths up in 2013 as war intensifies: U.N.’, Reuters, 8 Feb. 2014,

[3] Gady, F-S, ‘Afghan Forces are Suffering Record Losses’, The Diplomat, 5 May 2015,

[4] ‘Seize the day’, The Economist, 7 Mar. 2015,

[5] Ayres, S., ‘”Everyone is leaving Afghanistan”: Refugees flee increasing violence’, Al Jazeera America, 3 October 2015,

[6] ‘The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security’, Report of the Secretary General A/70/601 – S/2015/942, 10 Dec 2015,

[7] Smith, J., ‘Kunduz collapse biggest test yet for Afghan forces’, Stars and Stripes, 29 Sep. 2015,

[8] Associated Press, ‘Suicide bombing kills at least 33 in Afghanistan; Ghani says Islamic State responsible’, The Washington Times, 18 Apr. 2015,

[9] ‘March 2016 Monthly forecast – Afghanistan’, Security Council Report, 29 Feb. 2016,

[10] Clapper, J., ’Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US intelligence Community’, Director of National Intelligence to Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 9 Feb. 2016.

[11] Foxley, T., ‘Taliban Announce 2016 Spring Offensive’, Afghanhindsight blog, 12 Apr. 2016,

[12] ‘Afghanistan attack: Kabul suicide blast deaths rise to 64’, BBC News, 20 April 2016,

[13] Harooni, M., ‘Islamic State claims responsibility for Kabul attack, 80 dead’, Reuters, 24 July 2016,

[14] O’Donnell, L., ‘The Taliban now hold more ground in Afghanistan than at any point since 2001’, Military Times, 16 June 2016,

[15] ‘Questions over Afghan defenses as troops clear Kunduz city’, Reuters, 4 Oct. 2016,

[16] Press Release, ‘Civilian casualties hit new high in 2015’, UNAMA, 14 Feb. 2016,

[17] ‘Afghan civilian casualties hit half-year record, with 5,166 dead or maimed- UN’, UN News Centre, 25 July 2016,

[18] ‘UNAMA releases civilian casualty data for third quarter of 2016’, UNAMA press release, 19 Oct. 2016,

[19] ‘Afghanistan: mid-year report 2016, Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict’, UNAMA, July 2016.

[20] ‘Afghan opium production up 43 per cent: Survey’, UNODC, 23 Oct. 2016,

[21] Mashal, M., and Schmitt, E., ‘Afghan Security Crisis Sets Stage for Terrorists’ Resurgence’, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2016,


[23] ‘Afghan civilian casualties hit half-year record, with 5,166 dead or maimed- UN’, UN News Centre, 25 July 2016,




[27] ‘High Risk List’, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Jan. 2017.


The Asia Foundation survey of Afghanistan: not as optimistic as last year…

December 14, 2016

Summary: a large poll of the mood of ordinary Afghans finds increasing pessimism over security, governance, unemployment and the economy

The Asia Foundation released in December their annual survey of the mood of the people of Afghanistan.  The report interviewed over 12,000 Afghans from all ethnicities, checking their views on the progress in the country over a range of themes: security, governance, the economic and society.

Although all such large-scale opinion surveys have faults and flaws – accessing difficult and dangerous districts hamper understanding an accurate sense in key areas – this highly detailed report is generally very helpful in giving a sense of Afghanistan’s overall mood, particularly as it has now been going for over a decade.

asia-foundation-annual-moodThe key messages appear to be that of increasing pessimism when compared to last year and longer:

  1. An ongoing downward trend in overall optimism from the highpoint in 2013: only 29% of the population think the country is going in the right direction.
  2. 70% fear for their own personal safety – the highest level in ten years – the main problem areas remain in the south, but concerns in the north are also creeping up.
  3. The Afghan government security forces do not inspire widespread confidence – 20% say the Afghan National Army’s performance is getting worse, 30% think the police are getting worse.
  4. 93% fear an encounter with the Taliban – but 45% of the population fear meeting the Afghan police.
  5. Corruption and unemployment are major concerns beyond the security situation – the belief that Afghans can influence their local government is the lowest (44%) for ten years.

This looks an accurate but depressing indicator of the state of play.  The lurch downwards from 58% in 2013 to 29% in 2016 in those thinking the country is wrongly headed is a very stark warning.  But there do not appear to be any early signs of improvement in 2017: a strengthened Taliban, a wobbling government and potential disengagement from a Trump-led America present worrying signs for the new year.


See also my comments on the 2011 and 2012 Asia Foundation surveys


Afghanistan: Taliban employing drones

October 28, 2016

Summary: footage of the Taliban employing drones to film a suicide attack highlight a new security dimension and also some poor defensive procedures by the Afghan police.

Some interesting information from Reuters.  The footage they offer purports to be of an Afghanistan Taliban vehicle-borne suicide attack against an Afghan police base in Helmand.  Nothing unusual in itself, but this time the footage appears to come from a Taliban-piloted drone, bringing crystal clear film of the devastation of the attack.  Apparently a police district chief and several others were killed.  Incidentally, having spent a certain amount of time living in ISAF protected bases and negotiating lengthy blast walls, all manner of protective systems and having to slow down to a crawl while trying to get in and out, I thought the police base seemed to have been spectacularly badly protected, particularly given the route taken by the attacker.

Image result for taliban use of drones

Taiban VBIED against Afghan police base, Helmand, October 2016

Learning from ISIS?

The Afghan government believe the film is genuine.  Islamic State have used such systems in Syria and Iraq, but I have not seen the Taliban using this capability before.


IS drone Fallujah, Iraq, May 2016

This represents a new, interesting but ultimately perhaps unsurprising development in the military capabilities of the Taliban – using remote-piloted vehicles for observation and reconnaissance purposes.  These are likely commercial off-the-shelf drones of the sort available from hobby shops.  It will not be long before such “hobby drones” will be “weaponised” by Taliban insurgents with small improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  Perhaps small payloads, initially, but a significant step forward in their ability to target military, government and foreign locations and personnel.  I can see ISAF and Afghan security personnel scratching their heads over this one.

Clipped wings – on the “DPR” Republican Guard and reforms in the separatist militia

October 25, 2016

Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon, edited by Tim Foxley

Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog ( on topics related to ongoing conflicts.  Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.

Summary: Change is the only constant in the “DPR” armed forces organizational structure. An ever solidifying Republican Guard is developing an identity reminiscent of the Soviet roots of the region which serves as both a morale boost as well as a nation building tool.

Note: Sources, unless explicitly stated as otherwise, are all grabbed from social media accounts, as such I have decided not to include them in the article out of privacy concerns.

The Republican Guard, after a great deal of reform has been mostly reorganized into the 100th Separate Mechanized Brigade (100-й ОМСБр), save for some individual units which have stayed under the direct command of the Republican Guard, but still have undergone significant reform.



The colors of the 100th Separate Mechanized Brigade, RG, 1st AC, MoD DPR

The 100th Mechanized Brigade is neither an airborne brigade in name or in reality, but its appearance oozes VDV (Воздушно-Десантные Войска), the Russian/Soviet airborne forces. The dress uniforms of soldiers in this brigade consists of the sky-blue berets with the “DPR” flag on one side with a soaring eagle perched on its top, soldiers also wear blue and white striped undershirts and parachute insignia on their collars, all signature traits of the VDV. The Colours (unit flag) of the Republican Guard (pictured above) is the seal of Donetsk with wings and a parachute, evoking a notion that this would be an airborne unit. But the troops do not appear to have undergone any jump training.

But why would a mechanized brigade have the appearance of an airborne force? The answer most likely lies in the concept of nation-building rather than any military line of reasoning. The VDV holds a special place in the hearts of people in the post-Soviet space, and in Russia especially. Most post-Soviet countries still have some sort of airborne force, even if only by name as is the case in some Central Asian states. The VDV are generally seen as an “elite” force, perhaps comparable to the US Marine Corps or the British Parachute Regiment, in terms of how it is celebrated in popular culture, with a reputation for extraordinary toughness.  Use of designations such as “airborne” and “Spetsnaz” looks for the moment more about aspiration and capability by association: a question of morale and nation-building.

When the 100th Mechanized Brigade celebrated its one-year anniversary recently, much had changed in the Republican Guard since its inception, and indeed much has changed in the “DPR Armed Forces”. Changes to the Republican Guard have not simply been internal restructuring, but also transferals of units to outside the guard and even some outside the 1st Army Corps. On a very basic level, the Republican Guard used to be split up into nine known ‘Battalion Tactical Groups’ (BTGr) and other, smaller units which were scattered throughout the territory held by “DPR”, now the Republican Guard is split up into three ‘unit numbers’; the 100th Mechanized Brigade, an assault battalion and a ‘Special Forces’ battalion.

In this restructure, the 6th and 7th Battalion Tactical Groups were transferred to the 9th Mechanized Regiment by Novoazovsk, on the southern front of the crisis in Donbass. The 8th BTGr “International Brigade Pyatnashka”, led by “Abkhaz” and containing many fighters from the Caucasus, has been completely removed from the 1st Army Corps entirely, but appears to still somehow exist, although their place defending Marynka has been replaced by remaining fighters from the Republican Guard. The former 5th BTGr has been reorganized into a 3rd Separate Mechanized Battalion, presumably within the 1st Army Corps. The 4th Battalion / BTGr “Cheburashka”, named after the beloved Soviet cartoon character, was also disbanded this spring, and its remaining members sent to the 11th Regiment “Vostok” – stationed up by the Capital of the de-facto republic.


Colours of Separate Assault Battalion


Colours of Separate Spetsnaz Bn “Patriot”

What we are left with is a separate mechanized brigade within the Republican Guard which consist of three mechanized battalions, a tank battalion, a self-propelled howitzer battalion and a medical company, it is also possible, but unlikely that a battery of the SA-8 Gecko radar guided air defense missiles that reside within Donetsk are subordinate to the 100th brigade, especially considering that the Republican Guard originated as a “territorial defense” force[i]. Starting with the mechanized battalions, it is likely that they each consist of two or three mechanized companies with BMP-2s as well as a mortar company with self-propelled (truck mounted) 2B9 Vasilek 82 mm mortars. The tank battalion seems to be sparsely populated, consisting of perhaps the least uniform collection of tanks in the 1st Army Corps, with both T-72s and T-64s sporting a wide variety of ERA generations and configurations. The tank battalion also has a shortage in manpower, a common theme in specialized units where trained crew can be difficult to come by, and the recently established military academy (Дон ВОКУ) evidently being unable to train enough crew to fill these positions at this time. The 2nd self-propelled howitzer battalion consists of at least three batteries of 2s1 Gvozdika 122 mm howitzers, seemingly being somewhat adequately staffed. Most, if not all of the artillery pieces in the 2nd self-propelled howitzer battalion come from the artillery brigade “Kalimus”, lending to the theories that either it was an existing Kalimus battalion that has been transferred to the 100th Brigade, that only the artillery pieces have been transferred, or that it is simply a “Kalimus” battalion attached to the 100th Brigade. There is also a medical company in the 100th Brigade and presumably also a staff company and other combat support units, but these are the ones identified at this point. Remaining within the Republican Guard are two other battalions; the Separate Assault Battalion and the Separate Special Tasks (Spetsnaz) Battalion “Patriot”. The Separate Assault Battalion was supposedly created out of the former military intelligence unit (GRU) of the Republican Guard. This battalion has an infantry role but also performs more asymmetric tasks like crafting and placing Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), while still performing tasks such as front line defense and checkpoint duty. The Separate Spetsnaz Battalion “Patriot” was once the 9th Battalion of the Republican Guard, and is the special operations force of the Republican Guard. The assault battalion wears parachute insignia much like the 100th brigade, while “Patriot” gives off little indication that it may be in the Republican Guard.

The structure of the Republican Guard as described above has been visualized in the graphic below, the assault battalion marked as an infantry battalion, and “Patriot” marked as a reconnaissance battalion:


Armored vehicles in the Republican Guard can ostensibly be identified by the mark “РГ” (RG) in a diamond, and more specifically, the 100th brigade would have “100” in a diamond also (pictured below). In reality however, many Republican Guard vehicles appear to be unmarked, or marked as being from other units, presumably as a result of reshuffling and scarcity of materiel.


The leaderships of the Republican Guard have also undergone some rough times, with the commander of the 100th Brigade replaced less than a year after it was created. Initially the 100th Separate Mechanized Brigade (Unit Number 08826) was commanded by an S. Belov, but currently the brigade is under the command of colonel S. Svirskiy. Furthermore, some figures in the Republican Guard leadership have suffered some unfortunate fates. The second in command of the 100th Separate Mechanized Brigade, colonel Evgeniy “Kot” (cat) Kononov was killed[ii] by “Ukrainian snipers” in his office in Donetsk shortly after the formation of the brigade. The commander of the 3rd Battalion, major Nikolaevich went missing [iii]without a trace this spring, presumably never to be found.

In conclusion the Republican Guard is slowly coalescing into a set of more standardised military units. The appearance of the Republican Guard (Patriot excluded) serves as a morale boost to troops as well as a tool for nation building. With increased normalization, and a switch to a brigade structure should come an increased capacity to act as a capable homogenous fighting force.  However, the Republican Guard will need to resolve personnel and euipment shortages.




MH-17: official Dutch investigation blames Russia and Russians

September 28, 2016

Summary: The official Dutch investigation into the shootdown of MH17 builds on earlier conclusions that a Buk missile caused MH17’s destruction and now finds that the missile launcher system that shot down the civilian airliner entered Ukraine from Russia and returned the next day.  Russia denies this and accuses the Dutch of a biased and politically motivated fabrication. 

Well, what did you expect them to say?

Image result for mh17

This is big news:

BBC News, 28 September 2016:

International prosecutors say Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed over eastern Ukraine in 2014 by a Buk missile that had come from Russia.

They also narrowed down the area it was fired from to a field in territory controlled by Russian-backed rebels.

All 298 people on board the Boeing 777 died when it broke apart in mid-air flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Russia says it cannot accept the findings as the final truth, saying no Russian weapons were taken to Ukraine.

Based on the criminal investigation, we have concluded that flight MH17 was downed by a Buk missile of the series 9M83 that came from the territory of the Russian Federation,” chief Dutch police investigator Wilbert Paulissen told a news conference on Wednesday.

Reuters: Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a missile fired from a launcher brought into Ukraine from Russia and located in a village held by pro-Russian rebels, international prosecutors said on Wednesday.

The findings counter Moscow’s suggestion that the passenger plane, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014, was brought down by Ukraine’s military rather than the separatists. All 298 people on board, most of them Dutch, were killed.

The conclusions were based on thousands of wiretaps, photographs, witness statements and forensic tests during more than two years of inquiries into an incident which led to a sharp rise in tensions between Russia and the West.

Among the key findings were: the plane was hit by a Russian-made Buk-9M38 missile; the missile was fired from the rebel-held village of Pervomaysk in eastern Ukraine; and the launcher was transported into Ukraine from Russia.

“This Buk trailer came from the territory of the Russian Federation, and after the launch it was returned again to the territory of the Russian Federation,” said Wilbert Paulissen, chief investigator with the Dutch national police.

The Ukrainian government said the findings pointed to Russia’s “direct involvement”. Russia – which has always denied Moscow or pro-Russian rebels were responsible – rejected the prosecutors’ conclusions, saying they were not supported by technical evidence and the inquiry was biased.

Image result for mh17 buk

What next?  I expect the Russian government to deny, denounce and deflect any conclusions.  Funny enough, a couple of days it seemed as if they had suddenly and conveniently “found” key radar data that supposedly proved Russia could not have destroyed MH17.  Cynics, analysts and cynical analysts have noted that the Russian government has changed its explanation regarding what happpened three times: the current explanation they offer appears to completely undermine their claims in 2014 that a Ukrainian jet fighter shot down MH-17.

Russia will continue to deny its blame, will refuse to cooperate with the findings (and this might include refusing to allow named suspects to be extradited or questioned) and will comtinue to launch new explanations and other informational distractions.  Russia may even find or initiate new media stories to divert the attention of the world’s media (perhaps another hospital or aid convoy bombing in Syria – or is that too cynical?), on the principle that if they can stonewall long enough and throw enough hostile trollers into the mix, they might convince the world to become bored with the story.

Interestingly, a Donetsk separatist leader said yesterday that the separatists did not have such a weapon system (the Buk surface to air missile system) not did they have the expertise to launch one.

“We never had such air defence systems, nor the people who could operate them,” Eduard Basurin, military deputy operational commander at the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, told the Interfax news agency.

“Therefore we could not have shot down the Boeing [flight MH17].”

I think this is a reasonably accurate statement.  Are the separatists now starting to distance themselves from the fall-out engulfing their Moscow puppet masters??

To what extent do the Taliban “control” Afghanistan…?

August 30, 2016

Summary: maps are helpful guides for highlighting the continued struggle that the Afghan government has with the Taliban.  However caution is needed in trying to understand a fluid situation.  There is minimal prospect of peace dialogue.  Neither are there any signs of critical stresses in the government.  The war continues.

Al Jazeera, who controls what


I have seen versions of this map for some years.  Unfortunately this map does not give particularly good granularity, lacking province and district details.  It gives no methodology.  Although the standard recurrent theme is the difficulty that Helmand and Kandahar are under, I was a little surprised that the south east and east – Nangarhar, for example, do not show up more strongly as “contested” areas.  It does highlight the significant pressure that Konduz in the north is under (and has been for the last year).  But it is probably best to be cautious with the use of terminology when it comes to “control” of a province or district.  Generally government forces have control over the major population centres and the main highways, while having to yield to Taliban influence in farther flung, more rural, areas – the bottom halves of Kandahar and Helmand do not have much in the way of population, towns or commerce.

control  taliban-map-0929-Artboard_13

2015: More alarmist?  Source: New York Times/Institute for the Study of War

The insurgents have appointed “shadow” governors to all Afghan provinces and attempt to exert their own rule of law and instructions where they can.  But the security situation is quite fluid: Taliban group can dominate particular routes, towns and villages over prolonged periods, simply by setting up a few checkpoints or mobile Sharia courts, without necessarily formally controlling a district.

Conversely, government forces often define “control” of a village or district simply by the fact that they having their flag planted on the roof of the police or local government headquarters. If we stacked these maps together in date order, it is perhaps even possible to argue that the situation is improving.  Caution is needed as there are very different terminologies and defintions.

There remains minimal prospect of peace dialogue between Taliban and government any time soon.  But neither are there any signs of critical stresses in the government.  The stalemate continues.

“Complex” attack on American University of Afghanistan

August 25, 2016

Summary: two gunmen attacked a university campus “soft target” in Kabul yesterday evening containing hundreds of students and staff.  A swift Afghan security response may have helped to limit the death toll.

uni attackOn Wednesday 24th August, two gunmen attacked the American University of Afghanistan, in the southern part of Kabul city.  Reportedly around 12 people died (and a few dozen injured) in an extended gun battle that began around mid-evening and lasted into the small hours of Thursday morning as Afghan government security forces attempted to neutralise the attackers, secure the area and rescue the hundreds of students who were on campus at the time.   The fate of the attackers themselves is unclear.

Analysis and Outlook

The American University of Afghanistan was opened in 2006 as a partnership between the US and Afghan governments.  Even “soft” targets in Kabul are relatively well protected – the university had high walls topped with barbed wire.  It is perhaps a surprise that the casualties amongst the students were so low.  But the Afghan military response teams in the capital have had much hard experience in responding to siunimilar events and may account for this.  It remains unclear who perpetrated the attack and it remains unclaimed at time of writing.  The Taliban are by far and away the most likely suspects, although Islamic State have recently been launching attacks into the capital as well.  Earlier this month, two members of the university staff were reported to have been kidnapped.

The attack was described as “complex”, which I would query slightly.  This is usually a military term for a multiple, simultaneous and multi-locational, attack.  In the case of Afghanistan, this usually involves use of IEDs and/or suicide bomb attack.  A good example of this was the 13 September 2011 attack in Kabul.  The university attack seems to have been conducted by two gunmen only, although their fate and the ultimate scale and scope of the terrorist attack is still unclear.  It is perhaps inevitable that the term is slowly being devalued and used to described complicated situations: securing the safety of several hundred students and staff would certainly fall into this category.  ISAF had this to offer by way of definition back in 2011:

Complex Attack is an attack conducted by multiple hostile elements which employ at least two distinct classes of weapon systems (i.e. indirect fire and direct fire, IED and surface to air fire) against one or more targets. Complex attacks differ from coordinated attacks due to the lack of any indication of a long term planning process or prior preparation. Coordinated Attack is an attack that exhibits deliberate planning conducted by multiple hostile elements, against one or more targets from multiple locations. A coordinated attack may involve any number of weapon systems. Key difference between complex and coordinated is that a coordinated attack requires the indication of insurgent long term planning. High-profile Attacks are defined as Explosive Hazard event types, where only IED explosions were taken into account. We do not consider IED found & cleared or premature detonations. Only IEDs that actually exploded in an attack are taken into account. The primary method of attack for high profile attacks are Person-borne IED (PBIED), Suicide-borne IED (SVBIED) and Vehicle-borne IED (VBIED).”

However it is classed, a soft target on the edge of town might be a more preferable target for insurgents – now including IS – as they contemplate some now relatively well-experienced Afghan special forces.  The Afghan forces are probably still mentored by US and other international special forces troops and are now becoming accustomed to dealing with these forms of assault.  But central Kabul will continue to offer a wider range of attractive and high profile political, NGO and military targeting opportunities – it is an insurgent “no-brainer”.  In the absence of a signifcant breakthrough in Government/Taliban dialogue – which I judge highly unlikely this year – attacks into Kabul will continue.


August 19, 2016

By Tim Foxley.


Complexity as a weapon?  Is it all just too difficult now?  It is becoming harder to resolve conflicts, according to Ban Ki Moon.  Increasing speed and complexity in modern conventional, asymmetric and hybrid warfare types are negatively impacting on analysis, decision-making and resolution in diplomatic and conflict situations.  Of particular interest is the idea that complexity itself can and is being deliberately induced or exploited to influence or achieve political or military objectives.

Too complicated…?


PPT slide briefed to Gen. Stanley McCrystal in Afghanistan.  His response: “When we can understand that, we’ve won the war…”

Globalisation seems an irresistible force.  In the first two decades of the 21st century, social, economic and technological change is of an unprecedented nature.  This is increasing the tempo and complexity of almost every aspect of human existence.  It is weaving together peoples, places, transactions and values across the world community in a myriad of shifting shapes and patterns, the implications and impact of which are yet to be understood and may not be fully grasped for decades.

The practices of situational awareness, analysis, decision-making, prosecuting conflict and conflict resolution are struggling to keep up.  In 2009, the UNHCR gave warning, highlighting social, economic and technological aspects of globalisation and the blurring of the lines between soldiers and civilians (Guterres: 2009).  The message from the International Crisis Group in October 2015 was similarly bleak (Guehenno: 2015):

In a world that is as much multi-layered as it is multipolar, conflict is also multilayered: most conflicts still have very local roots, but they are often manipulated by external powers or hijacked by transnational ideologies…

…in a more fragmented and more complex world, the prevention and resolution of conflict, like the new wars themselves, has to be multilayered…Our world has become less intelligible…[there is] the growing temptation of retrenchment, based on the perception that the world is just too complicated for any effective human intervention.”

In November 2015, United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, stressed the problems caused by the increasing complexity of modern conflicts:

“We are finding it harder to end conflicts and to sustain peace” (Ki-Moon: 2015).

Conflict (and conflict resolution) is subject to multiple and fluid agents of change, affecting from the grand strategic domain of the politicians and generals, down to the individual soldier’s “boots on the ground”.  Fundamental concepts are now open to challenge.  When does peace become war?  What is the scope of the battlefield?[1]  Who is a solder and who a civilian?  What rules of war apply?

Age-old problems…

Conflict has never been straightforward.  Carl von Clausewitz was at least a thousand years behind historic military experience when he coined the expression “fog of war” to try to capture the dilemma of military commanders everywhere: the difficulty of knowing what is going on and what decisions to make in a stressful 20151116, Ukraine trip (24)and fluid situation:

“…the general unreliability of all information presents a special problem in war: all action takes place, so to speak, in a kind of twilight, which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.  Whatever is hidden from full view in this feeble light has to be guessed at…for lack of objective knowledge one has to trust to talent or to luck.”[2]

Some forms of complexity in conflict have remained constant for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Recent reports from soldiers of all ranks of their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st century confirmed that closing with, and killing, an irregular soldier poses challenges and stresses that soldiers in the armies of Alexander the Great and the 19th century British Empire would recognise.  (Boot: 2013)

military equipment

So these problems have not arrived overnight.  A review of security literature over the last decades shows the new layers of complexity emerging and evolving while older forms – the “fog of war” – have remained.  The post-World War II period saw a significant reduction in the number of conventional wars but the emergence of multiple, smaller insurgencies, intrastate wars and increasing forms of asymmetric conflicts.

The 1960s saw anti-colonial waves of insurgencies (Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland) challenging conventional armies to operate in ways for which they were not trained.  The 1970s saw growing interest in peace-keeping responsibilities, the economic and aid aspects of conflict, the growing problems of protracted intra-state conflicts and human rights and arms control issues.

In the 1980s there was growing interesting in the role of computer and communication technologies to solve complex issues and enhance command and control. The fall of the Soviet Union saw myriad small wars erupt and a new analytical vocabulary emerging: ethno-nationalism, world order, failed states, complex political/humanitarian emergencies (Goodhand and Hume: 1999).  Bosnian_War_1200862Mary Kaldor’s understanding of “new and old wars”, particularly in the context of the Balkans, was a significant contribution to the debate around modern conflict’s evolution. (Kaldor: 1999).

21st Century: compounding the problems

After Al Qaeda’s attacks on mainland United States in September 2001, multiple new difficulties presented themselves to political decision-making and war-fighting, with the emergence of truly global terrorism, intertwined with religious fundamentalism, international intervention, post- and mid-conflict reconstruction, counter-terrorism, hearts and minds and counter insurgency.  Small wonder military, political and reconstruction doctrines have all struggled to keep up.  The Afghanistan (2001 – present) and Iraq (2003 – 2011) conflicts are both still unresolved, despite the departure of most of the original international coalition forces.  The two countries stand as by-words for the hubristic failure of the West to understand and act effectively in highly complex environments.

In the 21st century, the world order is increasingly multi-polar, with diverse, fast-moving, adaptable and vociferous sets of actors.  Analytically there seems increasing uncertainty about what solutions might work for resolving conflict.  MccGwire doubted the international community’s ability to handle the range of global and local problems (MccGwire: 2001).  Rogers warned of losing control in a “violent peace”, (Rogers: 2001).  Drone-BiggestGovernment militaries and security bodies are asked to undertake a wider range of tasks against a wider range of interlinked opponents: insurgents, criminals, terrorists, cyber-hackers, “lone wolves” operating independently beyond identifiable networks and even information itself.  There appears no limit to the scope of the combat area: The term ”battlefield” seems to have been abandoned long ago by NATO armies, in favour of the all-embracing “battlespace”.  The emergence of drones as a weapon of war is a stark example of the way in which the playing field is increasingly level as advanced technology proliferates.

Vietnam-War-Hub-AOver the decades since World War II, the sheer firepower of industrial nations has pushed asymmetric tactics to the fore, which seek to reduce the advantages of a large conventional force.  Beyond this, hybrid warfare (altlittle green men, Crimeahough many other descriptors exist) seeks deliberately to blur the distinction between war and peace by merging political, military, information, economic and criminal assets (Freedman: 2014).  Hostile operations are, with increasing imagination and creativity, being pitched intentionally just below the level of conventional conflict.  Russia used social media, Special Forces and proxy militias in a largely bloodless land grab of Crimea and to generate confusion, suspicion and violence in a largely bloody destabilization of the Donbas. China is building artificial islands in the South China Sea in a direct challenge to the UN Convention of the Law Of the Sea. ISIS logo The Islamic State occupies yet another pole, fusing global terrorism with pretensions to statehood. Senator John McCain recently accused Russia of bombing civilians in Syria deliberately to create a flood of refugees to cause stresses in Western serbians like trumpEuropean unity.[3]  Serbian right wing movements are marching in Belgrade in 2016 wearing Donald Trump T-shirts.[4]


Wicked problems

Star trek

Star Trek’s own “wicked problem”: Starfleet Academy’s Kobayashi Maru no-win training scenario…

In the 1970s, in a paper about the general theory of planning, Horst Rittel suggested the notion of “wicked problems”: situations for which there is no correct solution.  “Every wicked problem is a symptom of another one” (Rittel: 1973).[5]

Modern information and media technologies lend themselves to those seeking to confuse and complicate: deepening and spreading roots of conflict and undermining conflict resolution.  Kelly Greenhill recently considered the way disinformation can be exploited in stressful and uncertain situations (Greenhill: 2014).  Russian state-controlled media propagated multiple explanations for the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in an attempt to thwart investigations (Luhn: 2015).

How are we thinking about it?

Concepts and literature seeking to address and understand complexity and its relationship with conflict take us in a variety of directions and levels, including information management, technology, behavioural science, the functioning of business and administrative organisations, chaos theory, the workings of the human brain, decision-making theory and the evolution of modern warfare.

Antonovsky suggested that the greater the complexity (including the complexity of information), the greater the risk of conflict (Antonovsky: 1993). Complexity hinders understanding, decision-making and conflict resolution given the “…difficulties of effective action, in the face of complexity and uncertainty” (Dando and Bee: 1977).

Other work analyses the unique complexities of individual specific conflict situations, such as South Sudan (Pendle: 2014), the Baltic states and the Balkans (Clemens: 2010) and evolving terrorism forms (Toro: 2008).  Ledwidge highlights the self-inflicted structural complexity of UK government departments and military structures during its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (Ledwidge: 2010).

There have been efforts to fuse complexity theory with conflict analysis: globalisation is contributing to ever more complex and fast-moving systems and situations (Eoyang and Yellowthunder: 2010).  Progress toward some greater fusion of disciplines appears to be slow, although, to Sword, complexity science may enhance the ability to observe and interpret complex dynamics (Sword: 2008).  Hanson and Sword advocated the need for new approaches to addressing conflict through the better integration of the principles of complexity science with conflict management, given the increasing complexity of society (Hanson and Sword: 2008).

Other writings project human organisms (from individuals, through commercial organisations, ethnic groups, nations or international NGOs) as Complex Adaptive Systems, working against traditional understandings of conflict. Here, conflict is in fact the “fuel” that drives system growth (Andrade, Plowman, Duchon: 2008).

Complexity is revealing itself around a 360 degree spectrum. Here are but two possible “types”:

Organically complex;

US troops in Afg2

Afghanistan. The country’s path through history has given it layer upon layer of complex social, military, political, cultural and economic issues at local, national and international levels.  These “natural” forms of complexity present major challenges of comprehension to a fast-reacting, broadly well-intentioned, international community with a limited – and often contradictory – understanding of the region and consequently a simplistic and very “Western” view of how to “solve” the problem.

astern_ukraine_624 - CopyArtificially complex; Ukraine. Here, a conflict looks to have been deliberately engineered and made more complex by the intelligent and effective application of propaganda, information, nationalism, myths and history.[6]  False flags, new flags or even no flags have concealed some protagonists, masked the true identities of others and introduced new ones.  Interpretations of historical issues—from medieval to World War Two—have been twisted to suit 21st century political and military ambitions.  The manipulation of information has been one of the significant features of the conflict (Darczewska: 2014).

Some complexity is self-inflicted, through cumbersome decision-making processes, structures or lack of awareness of political, military, social, cultural and historic factors. Technological issues have an impact: such as the speed of weapons and communications systems and the need to absorb large amounts of information.  The requirement to interact with a wide array of diverse actors and stakeholders compounds these problems.

Is it possible to advance a hypothesis that complexity itself is becoming a weapon; to be deliberately induced in ways that disrupt, confuse and paralyse, to complement or replace the direct use of force in support of political goals?


[1] Some years ago, the British Army officially adopted the term “battlespace” in formal recognition that warfare is no longer purely conducted on air, sea and land: information operations, cyber space and beyond the earth’s atmosphere, are all considered viable battle areas.

[2] Von Clausewitz, C., On War, (Oxford University Press: New York 2007)

[3] Jones, S., ‘Russia accused of weaponizing’ Syria refugees’, CNBC, 15 Feb. 2016,

[4] Sekularac, I., and Grulovic, F., ‘Serbian ultra-nationalists chant “vote for Trump” as Biden visits’, Reuters, 16 Aug. 2016,

[5] Hollywood echoed this dilemma.  In the “Star Trek” film series, we learn that the Starfleet Academy  employed a no-win training scenario “Kobayashi Maru”,

[6] Author’s discussions in Kiev with East European Security Research Initiative, StopFake, Razumkov Center and NATO Information and Documentation Center, Nov. 2015.


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