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

Monday, May 30, 2016

Special note for Monday, May 30, 2016

I want to commend to your attention The Tragedy of the American Military by James Fallows. This is a fairly lengthy magazine essay, which I won't attempt to summarize except to say that the spine of the argument is the disconnect between the U.S. military and the general public; and the diverse failures and waste this engenders. I'll give you an excerpt  so you get the flavor. Do read.

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.
Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.
Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Their many other tactical victories, from overthrowing Saddam Hussein to allying with Sunni tribal leaders to mounting a “surge” in Iraq, demonstrated great bravery and skill. But they brought no lasting stability to, nor advance of U.S. interests in, that part of the world. When ISIS troops overran much of Iraq last year, the forces that laid down their weapons and fled before them were members of the same Iraqi national army that U.S. advisers had so expensively yet ineffectively trained for more than five years.

Update for Monday, May 30, 2016

Twelve police are killed, 7 missing and apparently abducted, and 7 injured in a series of coordinated attacks on police checkpoints in Helmand province.

Update: Current reports are that more than 50 Afghan police have been killed in Helmand in the past two days as the Taliban overrun checkpoints in the vicinity of Lashkar Gah. 

Four Afghan border police are killed in an ambush in Herat.

NATO drone strike kills 6 in Kunar.

MoD says 18 militants killed by air strikes in Baghlan and 11 killed by air strikes in Kandahar province.

Afghan forces arrest a Taliban leader and 6 companions in Kunduz.

Fighting in Uruzgan claims many lives. As usual, an official spokesman claims very lopsided casualty totals, 25 Taliban killed and 2 Afghan police. There is no way to verify these claims.

Note: I have been surprised how little attention is paid in the media to casualties of the U.S. war in Afghanistan this memorial day. The best I can do is to link to Wikipedia. In the 15 year war (America's longest war, now barely noted in our politics and our national discourse), there have been 2,326 U.S. military deaths, 1,856 attributed to hostile action, and more than 20,000 wounded in action. Total coalition deaths are 3,407. Of course, the toll on Afghans, military, police, and civilian, is far higher. More than 26,000 civilians have died although we don't really have a good estimate and deaths from disease and malnutrition cannot be specifically attributed to the combat although they are related.

Turning to Iraq, having completed the envelopment of Fallujah, Iraqi forces and Shiite militias begin to advance toward the city center with Iraqi and U.S. air cover, facing what is so far said to be weak resistance.

Meanwhile, IS continues its bombing campaign in Baghdad with 24 killed and 50 injured in 3 separate attacks.

Again, not much attention seems to be paid this memorial day. At least Cormac Gordon in the Staten Island Advance has something to say. And again, I give you Wikipedia here trying to collate information about casualties among all categories of people affected. Casualties among civilians and even Iraqi security forces are not known with any precision. And it's hard to classify the irregular militias, or even know who is a combatant in many cases. Iraq Body Count uses a conservative method that only counts deaths which are publicly reported with corroboration. They report 242,000 deaths including both civilians and combatants.There have been a total of 4,502 U.S. military fatalities in the Iraq war, which are listed here. You can find comparable information about Afghanistan at the site. Not that iCasualties is a private, volunteer effort.

One of the strangest things that happens nowadays in the U.S. is that people will wish you a "happy memorial day." This was not originally seen as a happy occasion. It did evolve from a day of remembrance to a day of glorification of militarism. I was kicked out of my high school marching band for wearing a black armband in the memorial day parade. They used to have tanks roll down main street along with the Boy Scouts. Nowadays it just seems to be a day off with hot dogs.

As I have done on previous memorial days, I present a poem written by Archibald MacLeish on the occasion of visiting his brother's grave in Belgium. Kenneth MacLeish died in WWI, in which Archibald MacLeish also fought alongside my grandfather, Frank McCloskey.

Ambassador Puser the ambassador
Reminds himself in French, felicitous tongue,
What these (young men no longer) lie here for
In rows that once, and somewhere else, were young…
All night in Brussels the wind had tugged at my door:
I had heard the wind at my door and the trees strung
Taut, and to me who had never been before
In that country it was a strange wind, blowing
Steadily, stiffening the walls, the floor,
The roof of my room. I had not slept for knowing
He too, dead, was a stranger in that land
And felt beneath the earth in the wind’s flowing
A tightening of roots and would not understand,
Remembering lake winds in Illinois,
That strange wind. I had felt his bones in the sand

                    Reflects that these enjoy
Their country’s gratitude, that deep repose,
That peace no pain can break, no hurt destroy,
That rest, that sleep…
At Ghent the wind rose.
There was a smell of rain and a heavy drag
Of wind in the hedges but not as the wind blows
Over fresh water when the waves lag
Foaming and the willows huddle and it will rain:
I felt him waiting.
                    Indicates the flag
Which (may he say) enisles in Flanders plain
This little field these happy, happy dead
Have made America…
In the ripe grain
The wind coiled glistening, darted, fled,
Dragging its heavy body: at Waereghem
The wind coiled in the grass above his head:
                   Dedicates to them
This earth their bones have hallowed, this last gift
A grateful country…
 Under the dry grass stem
The words are blurred, are thickened, the words sift
Confused by the rasp of the wind, by the thin grating
Of ants under the grass, the minute shift
And tumble of dusty sand separating
From dusty sand. The roots of the grass strain,
Tighten, the earth is rigid, waits—he is waiting—
And suddenly, and all once, the rain!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Update for Sunday, May 29, 2016

Tim Arango in the NYT reports that U.S commanders are concerned about the involvement of Iran and Iranian backed Shiite militias in the coming assault on Fallujah. Militia leaders see the Sunni population of the city as the enemy, not people they are rescuing.

On the outskirts of Falluja, tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police officers and Shiite militiamen backed by Iran are preparing for an assault on the Sunni city, raising fears of a sectarian blood bath. Iran has placed advisers, including its top spymaster, Qassim Suleimani, on the ground to assist in the operation.

The battle over Falluja has evolved into yet another example of how United States and Iranian interests seemingly converge and clash at the same time in Iraq. Both want to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But the United States has long believed that Iran’s role, which relies on militias accused of sectarian abuses, can make matters worse by angering Sunnis and making them more sympathetic to the militants.
Sunni members of Parliament are not happy about Suleimani's presence.

Meanwhile, Kurdish forces have made advances near Mosul. U.S. forces have been observed near the battle front but the U.S. is not saying much about their involvement.

As he awaits release of the Chilcot report on the British role in the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair continues to defend the 2003 invasion and says he will not necessarily accept the report's conclusions. The long-delayed inquiry is now set for release after the British referendum on continued membership in the European Union.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Update for Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Afghan Taliban shura elects a successor to Mullah Mansour. Haibatullah Akhundzada is a long-time leader who headed the sharia justice system when the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan. Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Omar's son Mohammed Yaqoob were designated as deputies. This move appears to be aimed at achieving stability and unity in the movement.

Akhundzada is an extremist religious leader whose views are seen as hawkish and the appointment does not seem likely to lead to a renewed peace process.

Indeed, the Taliban issue a recording of him vowing not to engage in peace talks.

Update: Jibran Ahmad for Reuters has some inside baseball on the Taliban leadership election.

And the fighting continues as the MoD announces 8 Afghan soldiers have died in battle in the past 24 hours, without specifying the circumstances. Although they do not consistently report on casualties, there are estimates that combat deaths average 4 per day.

Suicide bomber targeting court employees in Kabul kills 10.

In Iraq, IS is preventing civilians from fleeing Fallujah as Iraqi government and allied forces make slow advances on the city. While civilians attempting to escape have reason to fear being killed by IS forces, they also fear the Shiite militias participating in the assault. Civilians are reportedly being killed by indiscriminate shelling by the militias.

Kurdistan president Barzani says a referendum on independence will be held before the end of this year.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Update for Monday, May 23, 2016

The assault on Fallujah begins with Iraqi forces advancing through rural territory toward the city. The operation commander, Lt Gen Abdul Wahab Al Saadi, declines to predict how long the operation will take given the usual problems of booby traps and large civilian presence. Although civilians have fled toward the relatively safer north side of the city, they are unable to leave.

U.S. forces are not expected to enter Fallujah, but the U.S. has conducted air strikes in support of the offensive, and may provide air support from Apache helicopter if asked, and U.S. artillery can reach Fallujah from Taqaddum air base. Lest we forget, 100 U.S. troops died in Fallujah in 2014.

Turning to Afghanistan, president Obama says the death of Mullah Mansour is confirmed .

Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif says the assassination was a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty, and that Pakistan has protested. The Pakistani's also claim that the person purported to be Mansour carried a valid Pakistani ID under a different name, and had recently entered the country from Iran. The driver worked for a commercial service which he had hired. [That turned out to be a really bad assignment. -- C]

The Taliban leadership meets in Pakistan to consider a successor. A likely possibility is Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose election would put an end for now to prospects for peace talks. The U.S. has placed a $5 million bounty on his head and would presumably kill him also if it gets the chance. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Update for Sunday, May 22, 2016

U.S. and Afghan governments say a U.S. drone strike in Ahmad Wal, Balochistan, Pakistan, kills Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who had consolidated power as leader of the Afghan Taliban following the death of founding leader Mullah Omar. Mansour's driver was also killed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says that Mansour was an obstacle to peace, although it is clear that peace talks cannot proceed in the near future as the Taliban will be engaged in a succession struggle. The decision to assassinate a specific individual in Pakistani territory was reportedly authorized by president Obama.

Pakistani reaction so far is muted, with a demand for "clarification."

Pakistan's relationship with Mansour had deteriorated  and it is possible that the Pakistanis agreed to the action (although they certainly will not say so publicly).

A report from the area says that a destroyed car and 2 charred bodies were found, but identifies the bodies as people other than Mansour and his driver.

One civilian is killed and 7 injured in a rocket attack in Herat.

NATO airstrikes in Kunduz said to kill 13 militants.

A tribal elder is shot dead in Kunduz  by persons unknown.

The Iraqi army advises civilians to leave Fallujah as an offensive against the city is imminent. However, although the army has promised to create safe corridors, at present civilians are not permitted to leave by IS and are suffering from severe shortages of necessities.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Update for Friday, May 20, 2016

Thousands of Sadrist protesters storm the Green Zone, briefly occupying the parliament and entering the Prime Minister's office before they are driven off by security forces using live ammunition. Dozens are reported wounding and there are also reports of an unspecified number of fatalities.

Even as the Iraqi state is in turmoil, slow military gains against IS continue, with the capture of the town of Rutba, opening the road from Amman to Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the grinding violence continues in Afghanistan, as a UN security guard is killed and another UN staffer injured in a shooting in Kabul.

Roadside bomb kills 11 civilians in Baghlan.

Government claims offensive in Helmand kills 13 militants, does not mention any government casualties. Also reports air strikes in Ghazni killing 29, and the deaths of an ANA general and a district police chief in Kandahar and Ghor, respectively.

NATO votes to continue the mission in Afghanistan past 2016. U.S. will maintain troop level of 9,800 this year.