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

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Update for Saturday, August 1, 2015

Views differ on the likely consequences of the public acknowledgment of the death of Omar. White House press secretary Josh Earnest says it is an opportunity to stabilize Afghanistan and calls on the Taliban to make peace.

However, Dr. Hussain Yasa understands that the conflict was never between the U.S. backed government and Mullah Omar. [Note: This "bad guy" view of politics is a common habit of shallow thinking in U.S. political discourse. It's why President Cheney thought that all he had to do was take out Saddam Hussein and ponies for everyone. Omar, after all, has in fact been dead for years. -- C] Yasa sees the Quetta Shura, which has been representing itself as the Taliban leadership under the long-fictitious figurehead of Omar, as losing control of a fractioning movement in which the DAESH brand is increasingly prominent. Even members of the Shura are contesting the election of Mansour. Yasa also sees the Afghan government as losing control of the battlefield. He summarizes:

The death
• This is the third time in five years that there has been news of Mullah Omar's death
• This time the Taliban have confirmed the news. Some of them have declared Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as the successor to Mullah Omar, precipitating a leadership crisis and intense factional politics in the movement.
• The acceptance of Mullah Omar's death will have a significant impact on Afghanistan and the region as a whole
The timing
• This comes at a time when the Afghanistan government is in the process of negotiating with the Taliban
• Daesh is also on the rise in Afghanistan
The impact
• Mullah Omar was a unifying factor for Taliban. If he is dead, the group could break into factions, competing to prove which is more hard line
• Daesh could also end up absorbing Taliban militants
• Negotiations will become even more difficult with multiple factions to deal with and perhaps the main Taliban faction opposed to real negotiations
Meanwhile, the competence of Afghan security forces continues to be questionable, as a quarrel among police in Kandarhar leaves 2 dead and 3 injured, while police mistakenly kill 2 civilians in HeratInsurgents burn 5 mosques in BaghlanTaliban kill 4 police in Uruzgan, and 4 civilians are killed and 4 injured by a grenade attack in Herat. A police spokesman says 2 Taliban commanders are killed in Takhar, as usual with a very lopsided casualty total including 25 other militants killed and 2 police. [I never give these reports credence. -- C]

Newly elected Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour (who has in fact been the leader for at least 2 years) vows to continue the insurgency. He vows to establish an Islamic state and it is not clear whether he supports the peace talks.The government says it has launched a major military operation in 3 districts of Nangarhar.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, we don't seem to be hearing anything lately about the supposed operation to retake cities in Anbar province. Instead, the news is dominated by Turkey's air campaign against the Kurdish irredendist movement the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has killed  more than 260 people. It appears the Turks have not been targeting Kurdish fighters in Syria who are confronting the Islamic state, but they have not been doing much against IS either, contrary to earlier promises. [This is unfortunate as there were previously indications that an accommodation between Kurdistan and Turkey was occurring. -- C] Kurdish president Masoud Barzani says the air strikes have killed civilians, but asks the PKK to leave Iraqi Kurdistan. [Suggesting that Barzani still hopes to reach an accord with Turkey -- C]

However, the big news elsewhere in Iraq is a heatwave which has brought all commerce to a halt wth temperatures reaching 126 degrees Fahrenheit, or 52 Celsius. For the 3 million internally displaced people living in tents, abandoned buildings, or the streets, there is no relief. As Iraq lacks an adequate public health infrastructure, there is no telling how many have died.

In an open door crashed through moment, Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, says that:

Iraq “may indeed be irreparably fractured and may not come back as an intact state,” he said. Current U.S. policy, which is to treat Iraq as a unitary state and avoid formal diplomatic recognition of de facto separate entities such as the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, would have to change if that occurred.
Wow, what a profound insight.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Update for Thursday, July 30, 2015

Matters are getting clearer and murkier at the same time. The Taliban confirm that Mullah Omar is dead, but they don't say when he died. They also claim he died in Afghanistan and not, as has been widely believed, in Pakistan under the protection of the Pakistani government. [There is no particular reason to believe them on this point, obviously. -- C]

Although they have not announced it officially, the Taliban Shura in Quetta is reported to have appointed Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as his successor. Well okay, but Mansour has been effectively running the organization for a while now, it appears, and if Omar really has been dead for more than two years, this would be a formality. I would also note that since the Taliban leadership is based in Quetta, Pakistan, it would have been odd for their leader not to have been there, as the Taliban claim. And there's this:

Afghanistan had said Omar died in April, 2013 in a Pakistani hospital, but Pakistani officials could not confirm that. "We are aware of the reports and trying to ascertain the details," Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Qazi Khalilullah said.
That is ridiculous. Of course the Pakistani government knows whether Omar died in a hospital in Karachi or not. In any case, the peace talks in Pakistan have been suspended, while the Taliban office in Doha says it has never heard of them.

So, Michael Kugelman in Foreign Affairs thinks it odd that the Afghan government would make the announcement at this time, when the Pakistanis and the Taliban were still sitting on it, since it appears to have scuttled the peace talks, which supposedly the Afghan government wanted.  He doesn't really have an answer, except that it may have been a miscalculation -- maybe they thought it would help unite the Taliban movement and create a more credible interlocutor. Or maybe they knew it was about to come out anyway so they preempted it.

I really don't know what to make of all this, but we'll continue to watch it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Update for Wednesday, July 29, 2015

There is more to the story of the apparent death of Mullah Omar than we yet know. Afghan intelligence officials say he died in a Karachi hospital in April, 2013. It has been generally suspected that Pakistan was harboring him, which contributed to the tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But if the Pakistanis conspired to conceal his death for more than 2 years, that will not sit well at all.

As the Taliban has been fracturing, many have wondered why Omar did not make any public appearances, although statements have been issued in his name. The Taliban are continuing to deny that he is dead.

It is unclear what this will mean for the peace process. If he has indeed died, it is not clear whether the Taliban can present as a reasonably unified entity capable of negotiating. We will continue to follow this and update as there is news.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Update for Sunday, July 26, 2015

Taliban capture a police base in Wardoj, Badakhshan after 110 police surrender. The government had failed to resupply the base after roads washed out. After disarming them, the Taliban released the captives, as they continue to control the base.

A U.S. drone strike kills 5 people riding in a car in Nangarhar, near the Pakistan border. The dead are said to be insurgents.

Gunmen kidnap 14 civilians from a bus in Pul-e-Khumri, Baghlan, releasing 6 women who were among the 20 passengers. The motive is not yet known.

Two rockets strike Kabul International Airport on Saturday, but cause no significant damage.

Mia Hassan Adil, former head of the Kunar provincial council, is found beheaded in Nangarhar after being abducted on Friday.

Three hundred fifty airmen from Ellsworth AFB start 6 month deployment to "southwest Asia" in support of Afghan operations. The squad apparently operates B-1 bombers. Southwest Asia means the Middle East. The Persian Gulf countries are reluctant to admit to hosting U.S. air bases. The three major bases that launch operations in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State are al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Ali al Salem Air Base in Kuwait and al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. This deployment is likely to al Udeid which is the main hub for Afghan operations.

A bomb in Takhar province injures 9 people, while a second bomb in Jalalabad injures 4, on Saturday.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Update for Monday, July 20, 2015

Today the news is from Afghanistan. Yes, U.S. troops are still subject to enemy fire and no, they don't always respond accurately. The reported death toll of Afghan troops varies from 7 to 10 as 2 U.S. helicopters attack an Afghan army post in Baraki Barak district of Logar province. An unnamed U.S. military official says the "incident is under investigation."

Note that the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan purportedly ended at the end of last year. If this isn't "combat," what is it?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Update for Sunday, July 19, 2015

It's early, but the offensive to retake Ramadi is off to a slow start as an estimated fewer than 350 IS defenders hold out against 10,000 government and allied militia forces. The U.S.-led coalition has slowed the pace of air strikes due to a lack of targets. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who made an unusual unannounced visit to Baghdad on Saturday, said that he asked commanders if it was time for U.S. troops to become involved in ground combat and they said "No, not at this point." [This is obviously political theater aimed at John McCain and other Republicans who are calling for an increased U.S. combat role. -- C]

Reported death toll from the Friday truck bomb attack at a market in the Shiite town Khan Bani Saad varies somewhat -- later stories tend to have it at 90 vs the 115 reported here by AP. In any event, the attack was explicitly aimed at civilians and intended to kill and injure as many as possible. This is a reminder that Sunni extremists' view of Shiite Muslims as heretics really is a primal motive for violence.

British PM David Cameron says he wants Britain to take an expanded role in the war with IS. It was recently revealed that although Parliament has authorized British action only in Iraq, Cameron has gotten around this restriction by allowing British pilots to attack targets in Syria under U.S. command. And, ex-U.K. army chief Lord Richards says the UK will have to send armored forces into combat to defeat IS.

It has gone virtually unreported in the U.S., but the Iraqi government continues to imprison members of an Iranian opposition force in a location called "Camp Liberty" where they are deprived of food and fuel and many have apparently died. According to an agreement, the 2,500 or so members of the Mujahedin-el-Kalqh were to have been processed and sent abroad as refugees, but four years later, this has not occurred.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Update for Thursday, July 16, 2015


As the Iraqi army and allied Shiite militias prepare the assault on Anbar province, tens of thousands of civilians are trapped in Fallujah and Ramadi. When those forces entered Tikrit in April, the city was largely deserted, but this time, IS is making sure the population cannot leave. As the cities are now besieged, food is in short supply. The U.S.-led coalition is not bombing the Fallujah area because most of the attacking forces there are Shiite militias, which the U.S. does not want to appear to be supporting. However, air strikes happening in the vicinity of Ramadi.

But even those who safely make it out of Iraq's Sunni heartland, where Islamic State has in part been able to tap into long-standing resentment of the Shi'ite-led authorities in Baghdad, complain that they are met with suspicion in the capital. "All roads were closed off, as if we are enemies of the government," said Saad Jaber, a 41-year-old who said he had been forced to stay with his brother in a town south of Falluja because he could not get to Baghdad. "The government was supposed to reward us and help us because we managed to escape from Daesh (Islamic State)," he said. "It's not our fault that the government is weak and unable to defend us."

 The U.S. has intensified its air campaign in Afghanistan, launching twice as many strikes in June as in recent months. The targets include former Taliban who have adopted the IS brand name, but most are focused on the Taliban.

And, the violence in general continues. Four children are killed by a bomb in Maidan Wardak. Five Afghan police are killed in an ambush in Laghman, while 6 Taliban are killed by a drone strike in Nangarhar. Another drone strike kills 10 Haqqani network fighters, also in Maidan Wardak, while a senior police officer, along with two others, is killed in Kandahar. Six police are killed by a suicide attack in Lashkargah.

Faryab province is under sustained assault, with militants controlling 40 villages and resident fleeing to Balkh. 

Afghanistan remained the world's most dangerous country for aid workers in 2014.

Mullah Omar is heard from for the first time in quite a while, endorsing peace talks with the Afghan government. However, with the Taliban increasingly fragmented, it is unclear whether he can deliver on any agreement.