Category Archives: Taliban

Against Afghan forces, Taliban may be deadlier than the anti-Soviet Mujahideen were

There was a time when some pundits liked to call Afghanistan “America’s next Vietnam.” The thought was that the superpower was going to be bogged down for years in a foreign land, suffering mounting casualties and mission creep with no end in sight. Now that the US combat mission in Afghanistan has officially ended, it is the Afghans who are doing the fighting.

How are they doing? The Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been looking into that question recently. The answers are contained in a report (PDF) that talks about an alarming loss of territory and men (Reuters coverage here).

NATO’s military mission in Afghanistan stopped publishing Afghan troops’ casualty figures in 2013. The Afghan ministry of defense followed suit soon after, citing troop morale. Implicit in these decisions was the idea that the casualty figures were too high for comfort, a point that was sometimes even conceded publicly.

NATO’s decision not to publish the figures didn’t mean it would also stop compiling them. This was how SIGAR dug into the statistics and found that in the first 10 months of 2016, Afghan forces lost a staggering 6,785 soldiers (army and police), with another 11,777 wounded. These fatalities are about three times the number of American troop deaths in Afghanistan throughout the entire war (2,392, according to iCasualties.org tracking website).

The figures are alarming for the human tragedy that they represent. But they’re also concerning in another way. The last time an Afghan government fought an insurgency and suffered similarly high casualties, it ultimately faced defeat. Reliable figures are lost in the mist of history, but various sources cite the number of Afghan communist soldier deaths to be at about 18,000 in the fighting between 1979-89 when the Soviets withdrew. In other words, the current government’s fatalities in 10 months are one-third of what the Afghan communist regime suffered in ten years. And these figures don’t include the casualties suffered by the irregular pro-government forces such as the Afghan Local Police, citizen defense forces and local uprising forces.

Does this mean that the anti-American Taliban are deadlier on the battlefield than their anti-Soviet Mujahideen predecessors were?

Of course, this comparison of raw numbers is crude on many levels. Some of the deadliest fighting between the Mujahideen and the communist forces actually happened after the Soviet withdrawal of ’89. The Mujahideen became better organized, better trained and better equipped in the subsequent years, enjoying the support and camaraderie of a greater contingent of Arab fellow holy warriors flocking from across the Middle East.

Compared to their Mujahideen predecessors, however, Taliban insurgents have built upon the old guerilla tactics with their decades of additional experience, employing more modern tools and tactics such as IEDs and suicide attacks against an army that, unlike the communist army, doesn’t even have a proper air force.

But the comparison, however crude, does offer a valuable insight. The last time government forces suffered such high casualty levels, desertions rose, defections became legendary and the government lost — and that was a government with universal conscription. (Gen. Dostum, former communist general and current vice president; Shahnawaz Tanai, former army chief; and Juma Achak, former general, were some of the renowned defectors who helped tilt the balance of the war).

This is not to say that the Taliban, who are suffering casualties and political problems of their own, will necessarily prevail. But the current Afghan casualty levels are difficult to sustain, with or without conscription.

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This Kabul attack is more sinister; it’s also a turning point – initial thoughts

A team of Taliban suicide attackers is holding dozens of women and children hostage at a hotel on the popular Qargha Lake in Kabul. The Taliban have accepted responsibility for the attack, saying the hotel is “a center of debauchery” and the attack is an “attempt at morally reforming society.” While some reports suggest the hotel was hosting a marriage ceremony, most people in the area are just out for a Friday picnic.

Here are my initial thoughts about this developing story.

This attack is a horrifying turning point.

It’s horrifying because:

  • The attackers are suicide bombers, they’re holding civilians hostage, and they have not articulated any demands. That means they’re not interested in negotiating with the security forces, making this attack potentially very, very deadly for the civlians.
  • Brave and patriotic as the Afghan special forces are, they’re new to hostage situations – they can’t simply walk in, fight hard and save the day like they did two months ago. They’ll need ISAF backup in this complicated operation, but the hostage takers aren’t interested in negotiating.

It’s a turning point because:

  • The rationale from the Taliban sounds awfully like what they used for their notorious vice and virtue police during the glory says of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The only difference is, this attack is more sinister and has large-scale terrorist aims. The idea of a reformed, softer Taliban? This attack proves that a myth, once and for all.
  • Attacking a hotel at a popular picnic spot on Friday (weekend in Afghanistan) and holding women and children hostage is clearly an attempt at maximizing the civilian impact. In that sense, it’s different from the Finest Supermarket attack, and different from the “normal” spectaculars, such as the one involving the parliament building and embassies.
  • Attacking a public spot and holding civilians hostage demonstrates Taliban’s complete disregard for the lives of Muslims, Afghans, civilians, or anything they’ve thus far pretended to respect – so they’re not interested even in appearing to win over the public. They want to maximize the impact on the public by upgrading their deadly tactics from previous attacks such as the one on Finest Supermarket.
  • For the reasons above, this attack marks a turning point in Tailban attacks in Kabul, a possible new phase of their Al-Badr summer fighting season.

Two important things the world is ignoring about the Kandahar massacre

Immediately after the incident in Kandahar involving a US soldier that killed 16 unarmed Afghan civilians, we heard concerns about “Afghan anger” and “backlash.” This approach, emanating from an instinct fear, is precisely the wrong one because it ignores two things:

  • The grief and pain experienced by the Afghans who have lost, among others, 9 children, and;
  • The tremendous restraint exhibited by Afghans in the face of repeated incidents of civilian deaths, including the infamous Kill Team and other occasions of aerial strikes targeting the wrong people.

The fear-of-backlash approach dehumanizes the people who have been affected by this incident and paints them not as victims but as potential aggressors. This approach, coming from the ISAF troops sent in to protect the civilians, is regrettable at the least and prevents effective interaction with the population. Further, it ignores all historical precedent of how civilians have reacted to such incidents, which is with much restraint.

I am going to write more about this for the UN Dispatch, but for a more expanded version of the above, listen to my interview from earlier today on The Kojo Show.

Update (March 13): My post on UN Dispatch dealing with this subject in greater depth.

How best to ensure defeat in Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently made comments suggesting that U.S. combat role would end in Afghanistan by mid-2013. This came as a shocker to many. The U.S. had insisted – in fact, cajoled other NATO members – to contribute troops and resources to the Afghanistan war. Other U.S. officials tried to do damage control, but Panetta set the tone for the May Chicago conference, where  the final timetable of withdrawal will be decided.

These comments came just before the NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels, where discussions were supposed to be held on the future size of the Afghan national security forces (ANSF). NATO member countries are going through a tight financial squeeze, so the apatite for sustaining a a 350,000-strong security forces for Afghanistan – the current projection for Oct. 2012 – was not strong. France said it would be happy with a 230,000-strong force, while the U.S. preferred 227,000.

Either way, the cost factor was the most important in those calculations. It was less about how many troops would be necessary to defend Afghanistan against the insurgency, and more about how much money NATO can afford to give to sustain the Afghan forces. The discussion had shifted from a security policy perspective to a predominantly financial austerity perspective. To be sure, policymaking is always a balancing act between scarce resources and optimal policy outcomes, and mostly the outcomes are as important in final analysis as the money. But in this discussion, it was the other way around.

So, as the U.S. is cutting down its troops and further accelerating the drawdown, it is also pushing for a smaller ANSF. At the same time, American diplomats are trying hard to make the ongoing negotiation efforts with the Taliban work. If there is anything that screams “we’re negotiating from a position of weakness,” it would be this. ISAF is leaving Afghanistan and leaving behind a small and less capable force to fight the insurgency. Before they leave, they are attempting to dissuade the Taliban from violence and integrate them into the government — not as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan but as a smaller group that shares a fraction of power. That is impossible to do as long as the the Taliban remain more powerful vis-a-vis the ANSF.

This is a lose-lose proposition on many levels. First, U.S. negotiators will find it harder to argue for things that are not on the top of their national security agenda — important things like women’s rights, girl’s education, minority protection, human rights, etc. Second, the U.S. or its partner countries have not announced or debated any special increase in civilian aid as they have contemplated withdrawal and cutting ANSF funding. A funding shortfall in the face of a growing insurgent threat and a hostile neighborhood will inevitably force Afghanistan to prioritize defense over development. Third, the U.S. and its allies seem to be largely ignoring the concerns of the political opposition, which is growing increasingly paranoid as they see Afghanistan’s future direction being negotiated almost exclusively between the Taliban and the U.S. This does not bode well for any future negotiated settlement where the opposition’s demands are not factored in.

Amid fiscal belt tightening, growing war-weariness and election-year politics, the international community is pursuing the exact policy it should not. It is inevitable that Afghanistan’s security forces will have to be downsized, but that should only happen when the current heightened state of security threats has been addressed. It is also inevitable that the international community will stop funding Afghanistan’s forces, look for a solution other than protracted war and withdraw their own forces. But the current strategy – if it can be called that – doesn’t not constitute an optimal combination of these realities.

If anything, it seems like the best strategy for failure in Afghanistan.

Video: Afghanistan Analysis talks to the BBC on the Marine ‘urination’ story

I got the opportunity to speak with the BBC on this story yesterday. The interview was fairly soon after the story broke, so these are my initial thoughts. For more on this issue, see this earlier post.

Video: Afghanistan Analysis talks Taliban on Al Jazeera

AJ Stream recently invited me to appear on their show focused on the current attempts by the U.S. and its allies to negotiate with the Taliban. Along side me was Afghan journalist and writer Fariba Nawa, whose new book Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan is one of the best books written by Afghans on Afghanistan in the last decade.

Here’s the show in full.

Thoughts on talks with the Taliban

I wrote a piece for the UN Dispatch after the Taliban agreed to open an office in Qatar and negotiate with the United States. The complete article is located here, but I am also reproducing some of the excerpts in this post.

Taken as is, this momentum is a positive development. But…the biggest challenge to the effort is choosing the parties to the negotiation. The Taliban have so far completely sidelined the Afghan government and have indicated that they only want to talk with the United States. They are participating not as an insurgency, but as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the country’s legitimate government – attempting to negotiate the withdrawal of the occupying foreign forces.

And so Afghanistan’s High Peace Council is sitting idle as the Taliban initiate talks with the USA. Also excluded are Afghanistan’s civil society and political groups.

[Snip]

Given all of this, nobody should expect that negotiations can completely end the Afghan conflict because high-level talks cannot remedy smaller-scale, localized conflicts motivated by tribal competitions, personal rivalries and the opium trade.

[Snip]

…the international community and the Afghans must first harmonize the dissonance in their respective objectives. The international community’s main hope from the negotiations is a semblance of peace to allow them an honorable exit, while Afghans also want some form of reconciliation involving justice for the victims of the Taliban’s humanitarian and political crimes. Reconciliation would involve prosecution and punishment, and the Taliban are not negotiating to put themselves in jail or on trial.

[Snip]

Reconciliation has to be a process, and processes take time. This means that by the time negotiations turn into reconciliation, the international community will likely have moved on from Afghanistan. Reconciliation processes always carry the latent possibility of failure; that likelihood is even greater in non-inclusive processes such as this one. Given this, what are the contingencies for when peace and reconciliation don’t work and conflict erupts once again? What are the safeguards that can dis-incentivize the temptation to go violent? These questions are important because, while no one wants the Taliban to dominate the country, the insurgent group is not negotiating to obtain a status of secondary importance in the future of Afghanistan.

[Snip]

…surprisingly, Pakistan seems to have looked the other way as the Taliban negotiators and their families were flown out to Qatar. Could this be a tacit change in Pakistan’s strategy? If so, what are its new demands? And how do they square off against the interests of its arch-rival India and those of China, whose stakes in the country have been increasing?

Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbor, has its own reservations about the idea of Taliban returning to Afghanistan’s mainstream and about the American demand of keeping about 30-40,000 soldiers in Afghanistan…. The problem with Iran is not its reservations but the fact that nobody wants to make it party to the negotiations, essentially giving it license to pursue any and all means to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan.

[Snip]

A lot is at stake on this flawed, failure-prone initiative. Think of it this way: if the Taliban can produce a stalemate fighting NATO and Afghan forces, they can do a lot more when the Afghans are left on their own.