The bottom line is clear: Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them. On the contrary, waging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarreling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems. -- Afghanistan Study Group

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Second update for Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The U.S. military has released its explanation for the assault on the MSF hospital in Kunduz. Of course it was all just a big mistake. To summarize:

  • Afghan forces requested an airstrike, saying they were under fire. However, they did not provide map coordinates of the building they wanted to be attacked, they just "described its location."
  • U.S. special forces passed on the description to the crew of the AC-130.
  • The plane had been diverted from another mission and its crew was not familiar with Kunduz, and had not been briefed on the location of the hospital.
  • The location description was apparently vague or inaccurate (it referred to an open field), so the crew decided to attack the hospital building.
  • U.S. ground forces were not within visual range of the attack.
  • An on-board targeting computer that might have stored the coordinate of the hospital as off-limits wasn't working.

  • No explanation as to why the AC-130 attacked even though there was no evidence of a firefight. (They would have seen it with infrared surveillance if it was happening.)
  • No explanation of why the crew did not confirm the identity of the target when the information they had turned out to be incorrect.
  • No explanation of why the attack continued for an hour despite frantic calls by hospital personnel to U.S., Afghan, United Nations and Red Cross officials. 
Gen. Campbell says some individuals have been "suspended" from their duties.  I have no further comment on this right now.


Update for Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The shoot-down of a Russian jet by Turkey prompts me to review the complicated geopolitics of the Syria-Iraq battle space. Keith Bradsher of the NYT explains what's behind the shoot-down. I'll summarize what he has to say then build out to the bigger picture.

As Bradsher explains, Turkey has been committed to removal of the Assad regime in Syria. So they didn't like it when the Russians intervened on his behalf. They like it even less that the Russians have specifically attacked Turkmen in the north of Syria who are ethnically akin to the Anatolian Turks. Finally, there is a border dispute with Syria which the Russian jets have been irritating. So Erdogan decided to punch Putin.

What he doesn't mention is the situation between Turkey and the Kurds, which is not really related to the dispute with Russia. During most of the time while the U.S. occupied Iraq, Turkey was routinely bombing villages in Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by the PKK, an irredentist movement with designs on Turkish territory inhabited by Kurds. A couple of years ago, however, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) achieved a rapprochement with Ankara. The Kurds repudiated the PKK and suppressed its activities; Turkey granted cultural and political rights to its Kurdish population. Kurds were even elected to the Turkish parliament. This was of course an essential step toward the Kurds' ambition for autonomy, which Turkey would not previously have tolerated. Unfortunately, due largely to Turkish domestic politics, the accommodation between Turkey and the KRG has become rocky.

The Turks are more uncomfortable, however, with the Kurds in northern Syria, where the PKK continues to operate. They don't like NATO's assistance to the Syrian Kurds vs. the self-styled Islamic State, because it means a more capable Kurdish military force on its border, with which Turkey does not have a tolerant relationship. The Turks were very reluctant to allow support for the recapture of Kobani from their territory, and generally reluctant to take on IS. They do now allow the U.S. to operate against IS from their Incirlik airbase, however.

The Baghdad government is also disturbed by the enhancement of KRG military capabilities. Kurdistan long ago seized territory around Kirkuk which has previously been controlled by the Baghdad government, and has now seized Sinjar, and vowed to keep it. So Baghdad has blocked arms shipments to Kurdistan through its airport.

The U.S. and its NATO partners, however, find the Kurds much more reliable partners against IS than the Baghdad army, which is corrupt, ineffectual, and partnered with Shiite militias backed by Iran. The Kurds are also culturally more allied with the West. I should note, however, that the development of the Peshmerga from an insurgent militia to a national army is not complete. Units actually have allegiance to one of the two major political factions that govern Kurdistan. They will fight alongside each other, but rivalries have sometimes slowed military action.

So, while the IS manages to unify Baghdad, Iran, NATO (with some Turkish reluctance), the Kurds, and Russia in opposition, these players do not easily collaborate. Most important, there is no capable Sunni Arab force to take the territory now held by IS, and the relevant population within Iraq will not accede to Baghdad rule, nor will the Syrian population accede to Assad. So there isn't any alternative state to gain their loyalty.

That is why many people are now arguing that a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war is necessary, that will leave the Assad regime in place in control of its rump territory, but create a federal arrangement that gives non-Allawite ethnic groups autonomy, as the Iraqi Kurds have now. There would probably need to be a similar arrangement for the Iraqi Sunni Arabs, and perhaps this even means that the Iraq-Syria border goes away in what is now IS territory. The point is, IS occupies precisely the Sunni Arab territory that will not be governed by the existing recognized nations. Perhaps Iraqi Kurdistan would also expand into what is now Syria, although the Turks probably won't like that. The Iranians aren't happy about increased Kurdish autonomy and power either, as they have their own restive Kurdish population.

But the bottom line is, we aren't getting rid of IS without a political agreement that gets past these fault lines. In the past, we were very reluctant to give up on the vision of a secular, unified Iraq. But that's long gone. Syria and Iraq don't work as states any longer.  

Also, and very important, see Gaius Publicus summarizing David Stockman on how the U.S. is principally responsible for bringing about this state of affairs.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Update for Sunday, November 21, 2015

Sorry I haven't posted for a week -- been busy, also no huge developments, but the usual slog of war.

However, a classified report prepared for upcoming talks of NATO ministers apparently calls for increased involvement in Afghanistan, including more forward deployment of "trainers" in conflict areas. It also calls for sharing intelligence with Afghan forces, to "help prevent incidents such as recent Taliban attacks for which local authorities were unprepared." Really? NATO up till now has not been warning Afghan forces when it knows of impending attacks?  Hmm.

Militants have recently been targeting the Hazara minority. Taliban have taken 8 Hazara prisoner, in this case accusing them of stealing sheep. While this may be a personal dispute, recently 7 other Hazara were murdered by unknown assailants. The Hazara are Shiites, considered apostates by Sunni extremists.

A kidnapping on the Kandabar-Zabul highway also appears to have targeted Hazara.

An eleven year old child is arrested in Kunduz province who is said to have been preparing for a suicide attack. Police say he was kidnapped years ago and trained as a suicide bomber, and that the Taliban are preparing other children for the role. (Could be true, could be propaganda. -- C)

A report commissioned by president Ghani finds failures of leadership behind Taliban capture of Kunduz.

Thousands of families are displaced by violence in Nangarhar by militants using the IS brand name. (Again, the real nature of their association with the IS in Syria and Iraq is unclear. These are former Taliban.)

Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai find that political divisions following the recent national election have created governmental paralysis and allowed insurgent gains. More and more Afghans are fleeing the country as chaos seems to loom.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Update for Saturday, November 14, 2015

I expect that most people contemplating the massacre in Paris last night are puzzled by the motive. The Islamic State can hardly expect to strengthen its grip on territory, or to expand, by provoking a militarily powerful nation to counterattack, as France almost surely will. I commend to your attention this article in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood. It's fairly long, but go ahead and read the whole thing.

He actually makes a mistake at one point by predicting that IS won't carry out attacks on foreign soil (the Charlie Hebdo attack was sponsored by al Qaeda). But the events last night actually do make sense in terms of his analysis. The most important thing we need to understand is IS adherents really do believe that they are fulfilling apocalyptic prophecies, which in fact include their near-destruction at the hands of "Rome," which today mean essentially what we all the West, the European Christendom as it has expanded to North America and elsewhere. They want to provoke conflict, in other words. Here is a key pull from Wood's essay:

In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” . . .

Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
 So do read it. This is not an enemy that behaves according to the logic of others.  Its actions make no sense in most people's terms. It is essential to understand its internal logic.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Update for Friday, November 13, 2015

Kurdistan president Massud Barzani says Peshmerga fighters have taken the town of Sinjar. As you may recall, this was the Yazidi town whose capture by IS precipitated a humanitarian crisis that led to the U.S. led air campaign against IS. The Yazidi speak a Kurdish language. The Kurdistan government made a substantial effort to rescue thousands of Yazidi who were stranded on a mountain after fleeing the IS advance, and the recapture of the town is viewed as redemptive. Note there are now Yazidi fighters among the peshmerga. IS put up no resistance -- it is possible they are grouping for a counterattack. The U.S. is more cautious about the situation.

Two separate bomb attacks aimed at Shiites in Baghdad kill 18.

The Iraqi military says the long-delayed advance on Ramadi has begun, but nearby observers say it has not. We shall see if the Iraqi army has any meaningful capacity.

I was asked to review Language of War, Language of Peace, by Raja Shehadeh. You can read another review here. I have not had much to say about Palestine here, not because I'm not interested but because it has been largely off topic. At one time Palestine was a major irritant to U.S. relations with the Arab countries, because the U.S. is seen, quite correctly, as enabling the Israeli occupation and creeping dispossession through the settlement process. As you may remember, a sub-rationale for the U.S. invasion of Iraq was that the successor government to Saddam Hussein would be friendly to Israel. I have no idea what the basis was for such a belief, which has turned out to be completely absurd. However, the Arab countries now have more pressing concerns, including both IS and the rivalry with Iran, and they have largely abandoned Palestine.

Shehadeh's book is based on lectures given in memory of Edward Said, and I have to say that it isn't a very good way in to the Israel-Palestine problem for people who aren't already deeply familiar with it. There isn't much language of peace in it either. Shehadeh still hopes for an eventual two-state solution, but the book is just about his despair and anger over the current situation. It's a recitation of injustices, abuses and betrayals, with little to point to in the way of hope. And it assumes the reader knows the background of history, through which the chapters flit with no clear narrative thread or temporal coherence. So, read it if you want to know how the man feels.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Update for Saturday, November 7, 2015

There has been a bit of news in the past week but I've saved it up.

MSF releases report from its internal review of the assault on the Kunduz hospital, reiterating that "there were no weapons, armed combatants or fighting inside the compound in Kunduz before the bombing started. It said the GPS coordinates for the hospital provided to all armed groups were accurate." The report brings the death toll to 30, with additional people maimed, and states that individuals were shot as they attempted to flee.

The various investigations of the perpetrators by themselves continue to be delayed. However, we are starting to see the justifications leaked to right-wing web sites, e.g. that there were senior Taliban commanders being treated (as MSF freely states), that the hospital had discharged civilians against medical advice to make room for wounded Taliban (no comment on that from MSF but no idea where they would have gotten such information) and that the flag on the roof was not among the internationally recognized symbols for a medical facility. We shall see.

Relief has arrived to earthquake-stricken northwest Afghanistan, but now people will have to survive the winter in temporary structures. Relief efforts continue to be slowed by fighting and the reluctance of relief agencies to enter Taliban-controlled areas.

Aid organizations are having difficulty recruiting staff in Afghanistan as the security situation deteriorates.

You have probably heard about the 19 year old girl who was stoned to death in Ghor province for refusing to marry the younger brother of a Taliban commander. Note, however, that the Wolesi Jirga has called for the arrest of the perpetrators and called upon Mullahs to speak out against forced marriage.

A religious scholar who preached against the Taliban is murdered in Ghazni.

Afganistan to obtain Russian-made attack helicopters from India, a move which is likely to annoy Pakistan.

Khalilullah Ferozi, who was convicted of embezzlement in the Kabul bank scandal, has been released from prison and now has a contract with the government as part of a $900 million project.

"Release of a criminal from prison is against the law," law professor Nasrullah Stanekzai said. "Mitigating the charges of a criminal or signing a contract with him is against the law." The shocking news led to mounting criticism of government – whose main slogan was to eradicate corruption and begin it with addressing the Kabul Bank case.
Fighting continues in Helmand with back and forth territorial gains.

Various body count claims by government forces with, as usual, zero mention of government casualties.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A link

Ahmed Rashid, writing for al Jazeera, provides a good overview of the current state of the Afghan insurgency. As I have noted many times, the so-called "Islamic State" in Afghanistan is really a breakaway faction of Taliban that has adopted the brand name. Afghan islamists have absolutely no interest in pledging allegiance to Arab leaders. And the dispute is not really ideological in any case, it's a struggle over resources such as the heroin trade. Another faction is the reconstituted al Qaeda, again more of a brand name than representing any particular ideological faction or association with leadership in the Middle East.

While these rivalries might be seen as weakening the insurgency, they also make any prospect for a negotiated end to the conflict far more difficult. But the important thing for us to remember is that the Taliban have no ambitions beyond Afghanistan. They aren't interested in global jihad or a restored caliphate or any of that. They want an Islamic regime in Afghanistan.