Category Archives: NATO

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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What is the Camp Bastion attack really about?

The September 14 attack on the heavily fortified Camp Bastion complex that houses more than 20,000 US, British and other coalition troops was repelled with minimal coalition casualties. The “well-coordinated attack” involving 15 “well equipped, trained” insurgents resulted in the deaths of two US Marines.

The Bastion attack would seem like a terrible bargain for the Taliban, who lost 14 of the attackers (the 15th is injured). But like much of the war in Afghanistan, if we focus on the wrong metric, we lose sight of the bigger picture.

From the Taliban perspective, the Camp Bastion attack was not about producing coalition casualties, taking over the base or regaining ground lost in the 2009 Marja offensive. It was, however, about producing maximum hardware damage.

Take, for example, the ISAF press release, which explains the attack thus:

Dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers and suicide vests, the insurgents attacked Coalition fixed and rotary wing aircraft parked on the flight line, aircraft hangars and other buildings. [Emphasis mine]

When they breached the base, they didn’t go for human targets, just straight at the airplanes. What was the result?

Six Coalition AV-8B Harrier jets were destroyed and two were significantly damaged.  Three Coalition refueling stations were also destroyed.  Six soft-skin aircraft hangars were damaged to some degree.

I’m not an aviation hardware expert, but it’s reasonable to conclude the damage was significant if not cripplingly extensive. It is also reasonable to conclude that the damage will significantly affect the activities at Camp Bastion — one of the busiest military airbases in the world — that sustains tens of thousands of coalition troops by transporting soldiers, food, military equipment, medical supplies, etc.

CNN’s Barbara Starr asks an interesting question that helps put into perspective the extent of the Camp Bastion damage:

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Another important aspect of the attack is the 15 insurgents wearing US military uniforms: All previous “insider attacks” have soldiers in Afghan army or police uniforms.  That a group of 15 insurgents used US military uniforms to attack the base will certainly add to the complexity surrounding “insider attacks.” It will also take a psychological toll on coalition soldiers. My friend and US Air Force veteran Fred Wellman of ScoutCommsUSA puts it succinctly:

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Also disturbing is that the insurgents are using tactics that have been used by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistani militants have launched similar attacks on sensitive Pakistani bases on at least two occasions, the latest being this last August. Let’s compare the attacks’ anatomy. First the PNS Mehran attack last year:

On Sunday evening at 2230 (1730 GMT), militants stormed three hangars housing aircraft at the Mehran naval aviation base, according to officials.

However, eyewitnesses say the attackers were dressed as naval officials and were aware of the security protocol at the base and carried themselves like soldiers.

Their first targets were aircraft parked on the tarmac and equipment in nearby hangers, says the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan at the scene.

The militants used rocket-propelled grenades to damage and destroy several warplanes, witnesses said. These included the Pakistan navy’s premier anti-submarine and marine surveillance aircraft – the US-made P-3C Orion.

Now, the attack from August:

One security official was killed and a plane damaged in the pre-dawn assault at PAF Base Minhas.

The Air Force said seven to eight attackers with rocket propelled-grenades and suicide vests attacked the base, home to to the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex that assembles Mirage and JF-17 fighter jets, at 2:00 am (2100 GMT Wednesday).

That gunmen disguised themselves in uniforms and got inside the facility just 60 kilometres (37 miles) northwest of Islamabad will renew questions about security, particularly at a base which has been attacked twice before.

Heavily armed militants dressed in military uniforms attack a base, directly targeting military hardware instead of military personnel — the signature of these three attacks is similar enough to indicate a cross-pollination of ideas between both countries’ militants. The groups are highly adaptable and the osmosis of fighters, literature and propaganda material among them is strong enough to indicate the Afghan insurgents are learning from the TTP’s attacks. But the coordination might be stronger than just Afghan insurgents copying Pakistani militants; it might also involve Pakistanis training Afghans, but we have not direct evidence in this case.

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For the Afghan insurgents, this attack represents a qualitative leap, a significant change in tactics. Like most large coalition bases, Camp Bastion routinely comes under random, haphazard rocket attacks that usually does little to no damage. This is the first highly sophisticated attack of its kind on an airbase that has strategically steered clear of producing casualties, instead focusing on inflicting hardware damage. In a sense, that’s very uncharacteristic of the Afghan Taliban, who have mostly focused on IED attacks and ambushes designed to kill coalition troops.

The Bastion attack, then, represents the latest step in the Taliban’s tactical evolution — from IED attacks to Afghan ‘infiltrators’ to American ‘infiltrators’ destroying military hardware. Deaths from IED attacks are down, signifying their reduced utility for the Taliban. And just as serious efforts are underway to contain green-on-blue attacks, the Taliban introduce this new tactic.

Ultimately, that’s what it’s about — a highly adaptable insurgency, trying to be a step ahead of ISAF and always keeping the latter on its toes.

LA Times photos: the world is still getting it wrong

For the UN Dispatch, I write about the latest controversy involving US soldiers in Afghanistan: a series of photos published by the Los Angeles Times depicting US (and Afghan) soldiers taking pictures with the dead body of a Taliban bomber.

Here is the gist:

The photos are, more than anything, about the United States, its (rightful) concerns about the troops’ professional conduct and its obsession, as it would appear to Afghans, with trivial moral matters.

The bigger question that no one seems to focus on is the mentoring faux pas of US forces, who started the photo session as Afghan soldiers watched nearby. The Afghan soldiers were later included in the shoot. [Addendum: The US soldiers set a pretty bad example of professional soldierly behavior in a war zone. The only silver lining is that most Afghan troops don’t have digital cameras and/or access to the internet.]

An even bigger question is the systemic issues in the US military that continue to allow for humiliating and dehumanizing incidents to occur. Incidents such as the Haditha massacre, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, theUS soldiers’ Kill Team, the Marine urination video, the Daniel Chen case, the Kandahar massacre of villagers, the Quran burning, etc. point to systemic loose ends. Unfortunately, the US looks into each incident individually and has not yet indicated that it is taking the whole-of-the-system approach to tackle these incidents, which continue to occur at great cost to the the US and the communities where they happen.

I have highlighted this last point a few times before (here and here – audio), but it bears repeating unfotunately. Read the full article here.

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 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.

2012: Things to keep an eye on in Afghanistan

This incomprehensive list is a repository of my initial thoughts and will evolve over the next few days. As this year wraps up, I thought I’d make a note of some of the important news items to look out for in 2012. Two of the first items are part of a larger listicle (list article) on the UN Dispatch.

  • Security transition/international troop withdrawal

More than a dozen members of the 49-country international coalition in Afghanistan are preparing to bring many or all of their soldiers home next year. The foreign military footprint is expected to shrink by around 40,000 troops by the end of 2012. The United States will pull approximately 29,000 troops, reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 97,000 to around 68,000. Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Denmark, New Zealand, Slovenia, Hungary, Finland and Italy will collectively withdraw thousands more.

Will the Afghan security forces be prepared to take over when they leave? The signs aren’t encouraging. Attrition, lack of discipline, disrespect for civilian lives and propertyinsurgent infiltration, ethnic and political fractures, corruption, and unsustainable recruitment continue to plague Afghanistan’s police and army.

Also worrisome is the fact that anti-Taliban militias nominally under government control will continue expanding in 2012 with the support of international forces. These groups have gained notoriety among ordinary Afghan civilians and civil society for their fluid loyalties, links to organized crime and involvement in human rights abuses.

The government in Kabul needs competent police and soldiers to survive the departure of foreign forces. If the international community, and especially the United States, fails to seriously address the Afghan security forces’ shortcomings in 2012, doing so in 2013 will be too late.

Una Moore

  • Food insecurity and hunger

Close to three million Afghans are facing starvation as a harsh winter descends upon the country. A drought affecting 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces has rendered many families that engage in subsistence farming incapable of feeding themselves. The affected provinces are mostly in the north and northeast, where the loss of 80% of the staple wheat crop has left many with little to eat – some families are already reportedly limiting their diets to one meal a day. Winters can last up to six months and supply routes become impassable much of that time due to the mountainous terrain and snowfall of up to 13 feet. The international community has so far only pledged about one-third of the $142 million requested by the U.N. That is likely to impede efforts to stockpile food in affected areas before they become inaccessible. Children and pregnant women face chronic malnutrition in some of the poverty-hit areas regardless of drought.

An estimated 80% of Afghanistan’s population is involved in farming and herding. Droughts are not uncommon in Afghanistan, but their effects on crops and livestock are especially severe because irrigation remains poorly developed and water preservation is largely nonexistent. In addition to these structural challenges, the mountainous terrain and the harsh winter, a limited road network makes it difficult to reach many remote villages.

Although this drought does not affect areas with the strongest insurgency presence, serious concern still remains for the millions of people who will be cold and hungry for six months.

  • Negotiations and reconciliation

President Karzai has agreed at last to accept an office for the Taliban in Qatar, provided Afghanistan plays a lead role in the negotiations. The US has been conducting secret preliminary talks with the Taliban as it looks for an “honorable” exit from Afghanistan. But there are a number of other variables that make negotiations a tough task, not the least of which is the Taliban’s strong public refusal, thus far, of any talks. Other variables are Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and even China, whose stakes in Afghanistan are growing in tandem with their investment in the natural resource extraction sector.  Domestic Afghan opposition to reconciliation and the question of justice — what to do with the Taliban leaders who have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity — are some of the other important dimensions to the reconciliation process. Then there is the all-important question of what to do if the reconciliation process fails, or if any potential peace deal resulting from this process falls apart, after the world has moved on from Afghanistan.

  • Afghan security forces and irregular militias

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have been rapidly growing in numbers, although desertion, the quality of recruits and infiltration by the Taliban remain as serious challenges. But ANSF is taking over the security of more areas in Afghanistan. A parliamentary committee recently evaluated their performance in the “phase 1” of the transition as unsatisfactory. The transition is a good early indicator of the quality and development of the ANSF as a fighting force, although they are expected to remain dependent on ISAF for air support, medevacs, intelligence/communication, operational help — and operating budget. On the other hand, the Afghans and Americans are arming ALP and a slew of other militia groups that have little formal accountability. The Afghan-initiated disbandment of CIP is also an important factor to watch.

  • The political process

The international community is preparing to leave Afghanistan but the Afghan political elite are reaching out to each other — instead of their guns — as political battle lines are drawn and the stakes increase. The formation of three major political parties in the past three months is a strong indicator that the Afghan elite are not giving up — yet — on democracy and politicking as a means to carve out a future for themselves in Afghanistan. They still believe that by being part of the system, they can gain more than they are expected to give — which is relinquishing violence and factional and inter-ethnic war. It’d be interesting to see how long they can hold their collective breath before they reach out for their guns, now that the US is withdrawing, the Taliban are increasingly assertive and Karzai is preparing his moves for his political future.

To be continued…