Tag Archives: Taliban

5 things about the Taliban’s 2018 spring offensive

The Taliban’s long-anticipated spring offensive announcement just came off the presses in five languages – Pashto, Dari, Arabic, Urdu and English. The announcement is as notable for things it does not mention as for things it does. Here are the five things about the Al Khandaq Operation that jump out:

  1. It is silent on President Ghani’s peace offer: The Taliban’s long-awaited response to President Ghani’s peace offer, made last month, is still not out. The statement does not directly address the peace offer but implicit in the launch of this year’s hostilities is the decision to forge ahead with the fight. Not only did the statement fail to respond to the Afghan government’s peace offer, it also dismisses any American overtures: “The Americans have no serious or sincere intentions of bringing the war to an end.” That line is significant because the US supported President Ghani’s peace offer.
  2. It won’t say explicitly if they want to disrupt the parliamentary elections: The biggest political event of the Afghan calendar this year is going to be the parliamentary and district council elections. The timeline was announced earlier this week — the same day when a bomb at a voter registration center killed and injured about 150 — but the Taliban leave it untouched. In years past, they have targeted election workers, candidates, campaigners and voters. This year, too, they have targeted election-related activity. But disrupting the elections is not an explicit part of their offensive priorities this year. Nobody should hold their breath on this, though.
  3. There’s literally no mention of the Afghan forces. It’s as if they never fired a shot at men in Afghan military uniforms, never blew up a base or never called anyone a hireling solder (they did). There’s mention of the “internal backers” of US troops, but no mention of Afghan forces — not even in the traditionally derisive Taliban language. This is significant because the Taliban are trying to cast this war as between them — the true defenders of Afghanistan and Afghan values — and foreign forces.
  4. Civilians continue to be targets: The Taliban make a big deal out of their noble intentions to protect civilian life and property, but their deliberate and indiscriminate attacks has ensured that civilian casualties have increased every year since the UN started compiling statistics in 2009. This year’s statement ends with instructions to their fighters to take “all precautionary measures should be taken while attacking a target.” But they continue to kill the vast majority of civilians killed in Afghanistan, according to the UN. Unfortunately, this year’s battle plan continues to conflate legitimate military objectives with civilian ones:

    “[The operation’s] primary target will be the American invaders and their intelligence agents. Their internal supporters will be dealt with as a secondary target.”

    The “internal supporters” is a catch-all phrase that could include the Afghan security forces, civil servants, teachers, aid workers, humanitarian workers and regular people who happen to be where the Taliban decide to set off a bomb.

  5. Their response to Trump’s South Asia strategy: continued defiance: The Taliban were pretty blunt about how they feel about Trump’s South Asia strategy when it was announced last August. Now they use their spring offensive as peg to rail against it again:

…the newly adopted war strategy of Trump has been ruthlessly implemented in the villages and rural areas against our oppressed Afghan people for the past nine months. Thousands of additional foreign forces are being deployed inside Afghanistan and they are supplied with new devastating weapons and vast military authorities.

If anyone was under the illusion that the precipitous drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan would take the wind out of the sails of Taliban casus belli, they are proven wrong. For one, Trump has amped up the tempo of air campaigns even as the number of US troops remains modest. Secondly, the Taliban are clinging to their anti-foreigner rhetoric, so their self-righteous continues with on end in sight.

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.

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.

Marine urination video: is the world missing the point?

I just got off the set at the BBC’s Washington studio where I spoke with Tim Wilcox on the BBC World News Today about the video allegedly showing four U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Video of the segment is forthcoming, but here are some of the points I tried to get across in the fast-paced news segment: Update: See video of the segment here.

  • The incident, which is the latest in a string of unfortunate events involving U.S. troops, is not likely to impact the negotiation efforts. The Taliban and President Karzai both said so.
  • It is unlikely that this incident will lead to mass demonstrations in Afghanistan involving burning of American flags, etc. This is not the Terry Jones case.
  • The incident will further damage America’s public perception in Afghanistan, but not uniformly across the country — the effect is going to be graver in parts already holding a stronger negative perception of the U.S.
  • But here’s the main point: The U.S. and the rest of the world seem more outraged about the acts per se and about the unprofessional conduct. But the less appreciated fact is that in Afghanistan, desecration/defiling of dead bodies and urinating on people are culturally very significant offenses. This is an important point to understand because it is central to the efforts of winning hearts and minds.

And here are a couple of points I didn’t get to make on the segment, and that no one seems to be talking about either:

  • After Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Bagram (here and here), the ‘kill team‘ and other incidents, the U.S. will need to seriously take notice of what is becoming a culture of gross abuse and misconduct in the military. Not everyone in the world shares the American perception that these are isolated acts from individual soldiers. The command and control structure seems to be failing, causing not only PR disasters for the U.S. but also human rights violations. All of this begs the question: Apart from ordering an investigation into this latest incident, what is the U.S. going to do to address what seems to be a larger scale institutional issue?
  • This incident gives the Taliban more PR ammo, but not in the way you might think: The Taliban like to circulate videos of their fighters ambushing foreign troops and blowing up their convoys; advertising the humiliation of Taliban jihadists doesn’t make great cell phone viral video. And it just doesn’t help with the recruitment drives. Having said that, the incident does give the Taliban more PR salvo in their attempts to portray U.S. troops in a bad light.

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.

Lessons for Pakistan

Pakistan’s former foreign secretary and ambassador to Iran and the US, Najmuddin Shaikh, has published an important article about what Pakistan should expect in Afghanistan. His conclusions, drawn in the last paragraph of his article, take an admirably realistic and clear-headed look at the Afghan situation and propose interesting policy changes. His conclusions, reproduced below, are almost the exact opposite of what the Pakistani establishment has been pursuing — wrongly — in Afghanistan for the last few decades.

This necessarily selective recollection of Afghanistan’s political history has lessons to offer for determining what Pakistan can and should want in Afghanistan. First and perhaps most important, no Afghan leader is prepared to endorse or countenance the break-up of the country on ethnic lines but the days of Pashtun let alone Taliban domination cannot be resurrected. Second, a power-sharing arrangement will come only when the Afghans can sit together and be sure that there will be no external interference. Third, no Taliban or other Pashtun leader will easily give ground on the irredentist claims against Pakistan. The Taliban limit their ambitions to Afghanistan but their definition of Afghanistan includes large parts of Pakistan. Fourth a dominant Taliban presence on our borders will be an ideological threat. Today we may believe there is a distance between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban. We may be right in suggesting that the TTP largely comprises criminal elements and derives support from inimical external agencies. But let us not forget that most of them proudly proclaim their sworn loyalty to Mullah Omar and profess to want the imposition of the same Taliban ideology in Pakistan.

 

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…

Mullah Omar’s Eid message (Audio and text)

The Taliban’s elusive leader, Mullah Omar, has released a statement on the occasion of the Eid holiday. In a nutshell, he calls Afghanistan home to all of its ethnic groups, instructs the Taliban to minimize civilian casualties, and bans night letters and threatening phone calls.

It’s text has been released in Urdu, Pashto, Dari and English. They have also released what they claim to be the voice of “Mullah Omar Mujahid” reading his message. The audio below is from the Taliban, helpfully made available to me by Sharifullah Sahak of the New York Times.

http://www.box.net/embed/kra0cjegtjqy088.swf

More on this message later.