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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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Boot, M., Invisible Armies, (Liveright: New York 2013).

Cavanagh, M., ‘Ministerial Decision-Making in the Run-up to the Helmand Deployment’, RUSI Journal, April/May 2012, Vol. 157, No.2, pp. 48-54.

von Clausewitz, C., On War, (Oxford University Press: New York 2007).

Cliffe, L., ‘Complexity of Conflict: Coping with Crises of State Collapse’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 20, No.1,

Dando, M., Bee, A.,  ‘Operational Research for Complex Conflicts’, Operational Research Quarterly, Vol. 28, No.4 1977, pp.853-864.

Freedman, L., ‘Ukraine and the Art of Limited War’, Survival, vol. 56 no. 6, December 2014–January 2015, pp. 7–38

Goodhand, J., Hume, D., ‘From Wars to Complex Political Emergencies’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 20, No.1, Feb. 1999.

Greenhill, K., ‘Better than the Truth – Extra Factual Sources of threat conception and proliferation’, Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm, May 2014.

Guehenno, J-M, ‘The World’s Fragmenting Conflicts’, ICG, 26 Oct. 2015.

Guterres, A., Press Release, ‘ExCom: Increasingly complex conflicts imperil humanitarian action, UNHCR chief tells annual meeting’, UNHCR, 28 Sep. 2009.

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Lone Wolf Terrorism

June 21, 2016


Lone wolf attacks – the threat or actual violence from a radicalised individual (or small) group largely independent of external direction – are likely to form an increasing part of the world’s experience of terrorism.  This is not just about Al Qaeda and Islamic State, although they are likely to feature prominently in future attacks.  Extremist ideologies (predominantly right wing and extremist Islam) together with “home-made” combinations of grievance against society, government or the world are interacting with readily accessible modern global communications platforms to proliferate ideas of violence.  Tactics and typologies will inevitably vary considerably.  The Orlando, Florida attack on a gay club by a self-identified IS supporter and the murder of a UK Member of Parliament by a British far right sympathiser occurred within the same week.  This makes the lone wolf attacker very hard to identify – although alienated males with criminal records and mental health problems form a large part of the lone wolf community.  The internet acts as accelerant, tutor and surrogate social group for those vulnerable and angry that seek to leave their mark on societies that they see as having failed them.  


The world is becoming more complex: conflict, war and forms of political violence are no exception.  In the 21st century, shifting balances of power, evolving interdependencies and identities, technologies and the pace of change are exacerbating the complexity of existing conflicts and creating new ones. The local, the national and the international are interacting in myriad combinations.

“…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…[bringing] the growing temptation of retrenchment, based on the perception that the world is just too complicated for any effective human intervention.” (Guehenno: 2015):

Terrorism is no exception to this rapid evolution in conflict.  “Lone Wolf Terrorism” is not a new phenomenon.   However, new forms of communications technology are enabling the spread and impact of extremist ideologies, creating increasing potential for violent politically-motivated acts of terror acts to be inspired and undertaken without the need for any significant central controlling organisation.  The term has been given additional prominence recently with its new associations with Islamic extremism.  RUSI has a highly useful and interesting literature review of over 50 papers looking at lone wolf terrorism which I recommend.  Ironically, I was compiling some thoughts on lone wolf terrorism after the Orlando mass murder, only to be confronted days later with another example of lone wolf terrorism – albeit of a very different nature – with the murder of UK Member of Parliament, Jo Cox.  A key point the literature seems to return to is the diversity of profile and agenda of the lone wolf: we should avoid cramming this into an “ISIS only” analytical process.

These forms of independent terrorism are gaining in prominence and are posing new forms of security challenge.  The Global Terrorism Index of 2015 notes the:

“…striking prevalence of lone wolf attacks in the West. Lone wolf attacks account for 70 per cent of all terrorist deaths in the West since 2006. Additionally, Islamic fundamentalism was not the primary driver of lone wolf attacks, with 80 per cent of deaths in the West from lone wolf attacks being attributed to a mixture of right wing extremists, nationalists, anti-government elements, other types of political extremism and supremacism…Lone wolf attackers are the main perpetrators of terrorist activity in the West”

This shift may be due in part to advancements in counter-terrorist work.

The Economist, June 2016

“Once spooks had to hunt terrorist gangs.  Then they had to adapt to a search for members of loose terrorist franchises.  Now the threat comes from individuals who act like fans following favourite sociopaths on social media”

I have taken a brief look through some of the recent literature.

Definition and study

A lone wolf terrorist is someone who uses violence or the threat of violence in support of a political goal.  The Hamm and Spaaij definition is a good working base:

“Lone wolf terrorism is political violence perpetrated by individuals who act alone; who do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network; who act without the direct influence of a leader or hierarchy; and whose tactics and methods are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or direction.”

But there are some issues of definition: this impacts on methodology, data and conclusions.  What are the analytical boundaries?  Should it be purely the number of the people involved or the level of independence from any external command?  The term “lone wolf” might suggest a single individual, but some studies argue that two or even three individuals working together could also qualify.  The extent to which this individual or small group has contact with an external control organisation is also open to debate: some feel that a “true” lone wolf has no contact whatsoever.  Others hold that a lone wolf might have contact at some point in the pathway towards violent action- are they simply inspired by, or have some contact be it inspirational or enabling – with, extremist groups?  RUSI makes three helpful recommendations about future study of lone wolf terrorism:

  1. Increased methodological rigour in empirical research;
  2. Focus on process as well as perpetrators;
  3. Specific examination of the confluence between returning foreign fighters, domestic Islamic State supporters, and the lone-actor threat


Social alienation, grievances and mental health issues recur as causes of lone wolf attacks.  But reporting suggests perhaps three main subsets of ideological motivation behind someone driven to act in this way:

  1. Right wing (e.g. US anti-government, racist, neo-Nazi). Hamm and Spaaj suggest over half lone wolf attacks in the US were right-wing or anti-government
  2. Extreme Islamist (e.g. AQ, ISIS)
  3. Self-developed/hybrid, based on some elements of external ideology combined with personal issues and grievances

Profile and characteristics of a lone wolf terrorist   

Much of the literature stresses the difficulty of coming up with precise profiles of lone wolf terrorists.  There is considerable variety in individual ideologies, social backgrounds and personality types, but some themes keep recurring (from RUSI):

  1. Higher average age to “normal” terrorists
  2. Few female lone wolves
  3. Criminal convictions
  4. Relatively well-educated but socially disadvantaged?
  5. Military experience (such as those returning from combat in Syria/Iraq)
  6. Greater degrees of mental illness (perhaps 40% from one survey) – but doesn’t mean they cannot plan or implement an effective attack – social problems and alienation
  7. Grievance/personal frustrations with society or government – but it is unclear what triggers the move from anger to violence/terrorism
  8. Lone actors often combine personal grievances with terror ideologies (FOI 2012), blending religious, society, political – can therefore come in all shapes and sizes – Spaaij “recommends caution in developing typologies”
  9. But possible to identify different categories of lone wolf based on ideology/religious background

A report by McCauley, Moskalenko and Van Son compared lone wolf terrorists with school shooters and came up with four common characteristics:

  1. Grievance
  2. Depression
  3. Unfreezing (a particular event in their personal life unlocks the potential for them to take violent action)
  4. Experience with weapons

They also suggested two profile types:

“disconnected-disordered are individuals with a grievance and weapons experience who are social loners and often show signs of psychological disorder;

caring-compelled are individuals who strongly feel the suffering of others and feel a personal responsibility to reduce or avenge this suffering.”

An ICIT report looking at the Orlando attacker, Omar Mateen, pointed at Mateen’s mental issues:

“The ISIS recruitment profile is a carbon copy of Omar Mateen…ISIS relies on isolated, psychologically unstable and angry individuals.”


ISIS have adapted AQ manual “Safety and Security Guidelines for Lone Wolf Mujahideen“, emphasising blending in with Western culture: shaving off a beard, being polite.  They recommend attacks on night clubs, where there is maximum noise to distract and a large group of people packed into a small area (presumably all engaging in “non-Islamic” activity).

Weapons employed (or planned to be used) look quite diverse (aircraft, biological weapons, knives and construction tools) but gravitated around firearms and explosive devices.  Hamm and Spaaij highlight the destructive power and ease of access of high velocity assault weapons in the US.  In an attack in South London in May 2013, knives and a car were used, killing one person (British soldier Lee Rigby), contrasting starkly with the 49 dead in Orlando, Florida in June 2016 at the hands of one person armed with an AR-15 military assault rifle.

The Internet

The internet gives people with grievance, frustration and mental health problems the opportunity to nurse and nurture these issues with writers, groups and ideas that fit their own situation.  It can be empowering to find that they are not alone.  Building “walls” to control trade or migration might have some impact (as Donald Trump will tell you), but ideas are less readily corralled.  The Internet is cited as key to the process of radicalisation and action in two ways.  It works as an “accelerant”, helping someone to access extreme ideologies and communities.  It provides support as an enabler, by providing instructions and guidance on operations and tactics.  But the internet also offers opportunities to detect and interdict lone wolves.

The “Tell” – signature activity and behaviour of lone wolves

Many cite the nature of their engagement on the internet as a potentially key indicator.  RUSI notes that lone wolves are prone to detection in the reconnaissance and planning phases, due to lack of professional deception skills and that people who knew the attacker generally had some idea that something was going on: a “detectable and observable range of behaviours”.  Hamm and Spaaj highlight the lone operator’s “broadcasting of intent: the announcement of planned action as part of a need to be recognised, acknowledged and understood in some way.

FOI suggest a “typology of warning behaviours, including:

  1. Leakage – the would-be terrorist gives away his or her intention to someone
  2. Fixation – extreme preoccupation with target
  3. Identification – fantasies – hero/warrior, an interest in weapons and military issues


There is a mixture of old and new in this branch of terrorism analysis.  Historical examples show the clear dangers of lone operators, however they are defined: John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and Timothy McVeigh.  The evidence points to a range of different ideologies.  The literature appears to be a little backwards in catching up with the new manifestations that we can now see.  There are struggles with definition and methodology that might hamper database collation and identification of clear typologies.  There are many different types of lone wolf, but people with problems (or combination of problems) be it mental health, alienation from society, grievances against government and similar can now readily access ideologies that suit their issues and instruction and inspiration for action.  But new technologies in communication and media propaganda are being exploited by Islamic extremist groups and lone wolf attacks look currently to be “the crest of the terrorist wave”.  Do-it-yourself operations that could take place anywhere at any time are harder to track and interdict.  They may be less effective but the element of surprise can still generate fear within civil society.  As counter-terrorist organisations hone their skill at disrupting tangible and traceable networks, it makes sense for dynamic organisations like ISIS to seek yet more creative ways of disrupting Western society by harnessing the raw human material of often vulnerable and susceptible people.  This is here to stay for a while and may spread beyond what we currently see as “conventional” forms of terrorist agenda.


Never say never: British combat troops to return to Afghanistan?

June 3, 2016

Summary: Small numbers of new UK combat troops might deploy to Afghanistan in efforts to support the Afghan army’s battle with the Taliban.Photos of Afghan maps 006

Reports in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere suggesting UK Ministry of Defence are looking at options for sending 50 – 100 British troops back to Afghanistan.

Daily Telegraph, 2 June 2016: Britain is in talks with Nato allies to send up to 100 more soldiers back to Afghanistan amid concern that a resurgent Taliban are retaking large parts of the country.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, on Thursday met Afghan leaders on a surprise visit to Kabul as heavy fighting has again swept areas of Helmand where British troops spent years building local security forces.

Defence sources confirmed the Government is considering increasing its deployment to Afghanistan for the first time since 2010, after American calls for allies to shoulder more of the burden propping up Kabul’s forces.

Previously, I thought about the conditions under which NATO might return to Afghanistan.

This looks to be at the request of (and will be carefully coordinated with) the United States which is attempting to prop up the Afghan army in its battles against the Taliban.  There are several ways this could develop: 100 soldiers is not much for combat operations.  The Telegraph suggests this might be part of a reinforcement of the UK presence in Kabul to enable other US troops to deploy to southern Afghanistan where the Taliban are strong.   Alternately, a collection of British special forces, forward air controllers, intelligence personnel, drone operators or similar “force multipliers” might increase the capacity to take on the Taliban in cooperation with US troops.

Although theoretically, ISAF and the international military effort finished at the end of 2014, there is still an “ISAF II”  mission based in Kabul under NATO Operation RESOLUTE SUPPORT.  Approximately 10,000 US troops and 2,000 other international troops (including British and Germans) remain in Afghanistan, primarily in Kabul and the military airbase at Bagram, to the north of the capital.   The Afghan National Army is in the lead almost all the time in combat operations – and suffering high numbers of casualties – but has asked for help from US forces (particularly airpower) when the going gets difficult.  The US Department of Defence are believed to be presenting options to President Obama for combat troop levels in the coming year.  In theory, the US force levels are to be cut in half next year.  But a relatively small amount of specialist combat capability (including special forces, air power, intelligence, trainers, advisors, drone operators, engineers and elite troops) could make a significant contribution to the Afghan military effort.


Ashraf Ghani talk at RUSI, 12 May 2016

May 23, 2016

Summary: Ashraf Ghani spoke at RUSI on the growing global challenges of political violence.  Reform of Afghanistan governance was difficult and corruption in Afghanistan was a “national shame”.  He was clearly frustrated by the lack of help from Pakistan with the Taliban: “our extended hand was not shaken”. 


Ashraf Ghani centre stage, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles to the right

Ashraf Ghani was in London as part of the UK government-sponsored anti-corruption conference.  The day before, the UK media was full of Prime Minister David Cameron’s televised gaffe, where he was heard explaining to the Queen that he was hosting some “fantastically corrupt” countries, before highlighting Nigeria and Afghanistan.  Both the Afghan and Nigerian leaders appeared to have dealt gracefully with this broadly accurate critique.

Ashraf Ghani was at RUSI to give his thoughts on the “Fifth Wave of Political Violence”.  His biography shows him as a scholar of Political Science and Anthropology, working at the World Bank, advisor to former President Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan’s finance minister up until December 2004.  He was introduced by Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Ghani’s friend and former UK Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 – 2009.  He was interrupted three times (although one was technically a question in the Q and A at the end) by very vocal hecklers from the Hazara diaspora, criticising Mr Ghani for the recent government decision to route electricity power lines through the Salang Pass, north of Kabul rather than through the less-economically developed Hazara region of Bamyan province.  One heckler was escorted out, one got to pose her question and one had to be removed with a bit of force; one British Army officer I spoke to afterwards, closer than I was, reported seeing at least two sharp blows to the face by the Afghan presidential security detail.

Mr Ghani dealt with each interruption well, patiently and with good grace, particularly given that the decision over the electricity cables had not actually been made by him but by his predecessor.  It was clearly an issue he had already discussed at length with various Hazara interlocutors but he went through the issue again for the benefit of the audience but, most importantly, the hecklers.

Mr Ghani’s main talk was therefore a little overshadowed.  The presentation was mainly about the challenges of global terrorism, embodied by Islamic State: the fifth wave of political violence.  We have seen several other forms of political violence in the last 100 years:

  1. “Anarchist waves” in the early/mid 20th century
  2. Post-WWII waves of national liberation movements
  3. 1960s terrorism movements in Europe and US – Red Brigade
  4. 1980s and 1990s rise of suicide bombings in the Middle East
  5. Criminality linked to political violence

New forms of networking produced a new and distinctive form of mobilisation: “Face to Facebook”.  The violence is now global: Kabul, Brussels, Paris, London…

Political violence is well-financed with an absence of “rules of the game” and state actors sponsoring non-state actors, thriving on weak and failing states.

Counter insurgency literature shows us that Daesh/ISIS understand us better than we understand them – there is much innovation in communications, use of the media and networking.  The freedom of movement of global citizens is being attacked – bombs on aeroplanes, in cities and in public spaces.  European open borders are under threat and airport security procedures are increasing.  ISIS continue to refine their terror techniques by focusing on the “spectacle” and “theatre” of violence.

There need to be four levels of action to counter this: global, regional, national and Islamic but our action is currently reaction and our responses sporadic.

Who fights in Afghanistan?  Chinese, Chechens, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Pakistanis – all the rejects of the Arab world have been sent to Afghanistan.  Now there is no combat role for NATO but the Afghan national Army (ANA) has managed to deal with these attacks.  Mr Ghani recommended the book “Sleepwalkers” about the terrorist incident in Sarajevo in 1914 that led to the outbreak of the First World War.

Islam needs to regain the narrative – 70% of Afghans live below the poverty line and corruption is an enabler for terrorism.  Corruption in Afghanistan is a national shame – as is the mortality rate for women in childbirth.  The tragedy is made worse as Afghanistan is potentially one of the richest in the region – the “resource curse”.

But Daesh and security issues are taking up all the oxygen.  Al Qaeda is still a worry – what comes next from them?

Global fates are interlinked – we need cooperation and flexibility in a shifting world.

The Q and A session touched on Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan in which Mr Ghani’s frustration seemed clear.  He mentioned an ANA corps commander’s offer to visit Pakistan with a Pakistan army counterpart to point out the Taliban leadership house location in Quetta, his efforts to engage with Pakistan (“there is no good or bad terrorism”) and calling for mature state to state relations and “not teenage rage”.  Mr Ghani said that there was “an undeclared was against us” and added “our extended hand was not shaken”.

Ghani spoke more generally about his efforts in Afghanistan: chairing 53 meetings of the procurement council to ensure that contracts are increasingly compliant and corruption-free.  He had inherited the Kabul Bank scandal – but $250 million had now been recovered.  As part of the National Security Council he had managed now to retire over 90 generals on the grounds of age.  He was reviewing all donor-based projects.  He had cancelled some (this was unheard of) and released the money for other work.  He discussed the need to challenge and reform the culture of government ministries.  Each was run as a personal fiefdom of the Minister and the attitude was “we exist because we exist”.


My sense is that Ashraf Ghani is about as good as you are going to get in an Afghan President for this generation.  He seems broadly corruption-free (I know that isn’t much to go on), has good business, economic and financial skills and has a modernising attitude that takes account societal and cultural norms.  He seems willing to challenge nepotism and corruption – although that road will be long.

The talk itself was overshadowed by more immediate Afghan government decisions.  Ashraf Ghani’s thoughts on political violence were interesting although perhaps nothing new.  It was clear to Ashraf Ghani that the terrorism facing Afghanistan was not coming from Afghans but from neighbours and near neighbours.  The insights into frustration with Pakistan and his efforts to reform government were interesting and note-worthy.


Mullah Mansour “probably” killed in airstrike

May 22, 2016

Summary: It seems very possible that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour, has been killed in Pakistan by a US drone strike.  Does this lead to fragmentation of the Taliban and peace talks or an intensification of the summer fighting season under a new (and perhaps more popular) Taliban leadership?

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Taliban militants' new leader, is seen in this undated handout photograph

Ex-Taliban leader? Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour

Update, 23 May – US confirm that Mansour is dead

The media is awash with reports of the death of the current Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, reportedly by a US drone strike while he was travelling in a vehicle in Pakistan.  The previous leader, Mullah Omar reportedly died in 2013 from natural causes after some twenty years at the helm.  Mansour, effectively second in command, had apparently been running the show from 2013 until news of Omar’s death finally leaked out in 2015.  In a controversial move, Mansour was made official leader, causing internal and violence between Taliban factions.  It seemed as if Mansour was slowly tightening his grip on the leader, boosted by the brief Taliban

seizure, in September last year, of the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.

mansourmap1 - CopyWords like “probably” are being used: it is, as usual in such situations, hard to sift through and gain an accurate sense at present of the likely outcome.  Mullah Mansour was reported killed in an inter-Taliban shoot-out at the end of last year.  Media reporting around Mansour’s supposed death last year was a lot less extensive and conclusive.  This current flow of media reporting – including Afghan government and informed commentators – seems much more confident that, this time,  Mansour is dead.  But, of course, this is no reliable guide.  US analysts will be scrutinising all available signals, human and imagery intelligence – the sight of the strike itself, but particularly any “chatter” amongst Taliban networks – before they “go firm” with an assessment, which will likely arrive in the next few days .

There is no word from the Taliban as yet, although, judging by precedent, we should expect a period of denial, denouncement and deflection: this is what they normally do following Taliban leadership deaths.  But they cannot keep doing this and maintain credibility and morale.  The official English-language Taliban website appears to be off-line (and has been since at least several days before this story broke).

If he is alive…

If Mansour is not dead, this will emerge in the days and weeks to come, probably from a recording of Mansour’s voice.  The story will highlight the ongoing intelligence/drone strike nature of the search for Taliban commanders – both inside Afghanistan and in their, perhaps increasingly less “safe”, haven of Pakistan.  The incident will demonstrate the pressures that senior Taliban members are always under and the challenges to their command and control.  If a near miss, the Taliban leadership will start taking even more personal security measures.  This may serve to slow Taliban command and control as they seek to evade similar strikes, hampering their conduct of operations and activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan and possibly disrupting some of their summer fighting season.

If he is dead…

If dead, Mansour would have been de facto Taliban leader for less than a year.

The Taliban face a range of unpalatable issues to address if Mansour is dead:

  • Another difficult leadership contest at a time when the fall-out has not really settled from the last one.  This is a high possibility of splintering factions and internal violence.   Possible leadership contenders: Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob: Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network, senior Taliban leader, Mullah Zakir.
  • Taliban fragmentation – arguments over leadership, arguments over whether to engage in talks.
  • Could this lead to more support and opportunities for the Afghanistan Islamic State presence in Eastern Afghanistan?
  • How, when and even whether to confirm the death? This will be a considerable blow to the morale of the foot-soldiers.  This might be exacerbated if the rumours fly and Mansour’s death remains unconfirmed by the leadership. If the death is judged to be too damaging and destabilising at such a delicate stage, it might even be possible that the Taliban could seek to “delay” news of the death for months, even years, by continuing to issue statements in Mansour’s name until they had a plausible succession plan lined up.  This is what they did when Mullah Omar died.
  • Security measures for all leadership will need to be stepped up: this could well hampered command and control of this summer fighting season.

It is difficult to see any  of this being turned into positives for the Taliban.  But if the leadership succession were to be resolved quickly (there were stark lessons from the last leadership change-over), around someone that most Taliban could agree to rally round (a Mullah Omar relative might provide the important symbolism), there is no reason for the summer fighting season to be unduly disrupted.

Such a blow to the leadership may well cause some factions of the organisation to attempt to seek peace with the government on their own: perhaps emulating the reported reconciliation of insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

But Taliban fragmentation is not automatically good news for the Afghan government and the international community: who do you talk to for a lasting peace?  Fragmented chunks of insurgent groups could continue a violent insurgency indefinitely and even open up the way to more extreme groups, such as Islamic State.

Maybe Hekmatyar came in at just the right time…

Breaking news – suggesting the Taliban are already confirming Mansour’s death:

BREAKING: Senior Taliban commander confirms death of leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in US drone strike.



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