Obama’s Afghanistan war strategy: Do ‘just enough to lose slowly’

The Washington Post reports from Camp Shorab: Earlier this month, a small district center just south of this desolate U.S. base came under attack from Taliban militants who threatened to overrun the local police. Frantic calls arrived from Afghan officials: They needed air support.

In a U.S. command center, a steel hut of plywood walls and a dozen video monitors piping in drone feeds and satellite imagery, soldiers began directing aircraft to the area. Redhanded 53, the call sign for a gun-metal-gray twin-engine propeller plane loaded with sensors, arrived overhead just in time to watch a truck loaded with explosives slam into the main police station.

Within an hour, the Americans had marshaled an armed Predator drone in the skies over the battle in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. But the commanding officer, Col. D.A. Sims, and his troops were unable to determine whether the men with guns on the ground were Taliban or Afghan soldiers. So Sims directed the Predator to fire one of its two hellfire missiles into an adjacent field — a $70,000 dollar warning shot just to let the militants know that the Americans had arrived.

The Oct. 3 battle is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan: Taliban fighters that show enormous resilience despite being on the wrong side of a 15-year, $800 billion war; an Afghan army that still struggles with leadership, equipment, tactics and, in some units, an unwillingness to fight; and the world’s most sophisticated military reduced at times to pounding fields with its feared armaments.

The future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan after a decade and a half of war has received little attention in the presidential campaign and debates. But the next administration will be bequeathed a strategy that is doing “just enough to lose slowly,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior national-security-studies fellow at the New America Foundation. [Continue reading…]

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15 years in the Afghan crucible

Carlotta Gall writes from Kabul: There is an end-of-an-era feel here these days. Military helicopters rattle overhead, ferrying American and Afghan officials by air rather than risk cars bombs in the streets. The concrete barriers, guarding against suicide attacks, have grown taller and stronger around every embassy and government building, and whole streets are blocked off from the public.

It has been 15 years since American forces began their bombing campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on Oct. 7, 2001, and sometimes it feels as if we are back to square one, that there is nothing to show for it.

The recent American military drawdown has been drastic — from over 100,000 troops a few years ago to a force of 8,500 today. Thousands of Afghans have been made jobless as bases and assistance programs have closed. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Taliban are on the offensive in the countryside, threatening to overrun several provincial towns and staging huge bombings here in the capital.

Afghan forces have been bearing the brunt, suffering unsustainable casualties. Communities talk of hundreds of coffins returning from the front line. Civilians have suffered no less — thousands of families have been displaced anew by fighting, and aid workers warn that their access is deteriorating. Business executives have been leaving, selling off their property, and whole families have swelled the refugee columns heading to Europe.

The political mood is shifting, too, as Afghans sense the declining American influence and start casting around for new patrons or renewing old alliances. The politicking is intense: “Hot, very hot,” as a former minister described the political climate.

For Afghans, and for many of us who have followed Afghanistan for decades — I have been visiting the country since the early 1990s — the times are reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989 after a 10-year occupation. The Communist government and army that the Soviets left behind survived only three years before they were overthrown by the mujahedeen in 1992. [Continue reading…]

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Is the killing of militant leaders counterproductive?

The Wall Street Journal reports: Killing leaders of Islamist militant groups, such as the Saturday strike on Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour, has long been a signature strategy of the Obama administration—an alternative to massive troop deployments overseas.

But how effective are those “decapitations” in the long run? The verdict is far from clear and, to an extent, depends on the size and cohesion of the targeted group.

Both the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and the targeting of Mullah Mansour on a Pakistani road were major successes for U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon.

Al Qaeda’s central command, a relatively tight international terror network now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been in decline since bin Laden’s death. It has been unable to fully recover from the blow or to mount major attacks against the West.

But the experience is less encouraging for wide-scale insurgencies such as the Afghan Taliban. While such decapitations can provide a short-term gain, they rarely change the course of the conflict — and frequently backfire if not accompanied by a much broader, resource-intensive involvement of a kind the White House has been loath to pursue.

Unlike al Qaeda, the Taliban enjoy support from a significant swath of the Afghan population. The group’s military advances in 2013-15 weren’t impeded by the fact that its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was secretly dead at the time, or by the assassinations of scores of commanders.

In announcing Mullah Mansour’s death, President Barack Obama said his killing “gives the people of Afghanistan and the region a chance at a different, better future.”

That optimistic assessment isn’t shared by many, in the region or in the U.S., who closely follow the Taliban.

“I don’t think it will weaken the Taliban, and it may strengthen them,” said Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on peace negotiations with the Taliban and who is now associate director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

It is also far from certain that removing Mullah Mansour would make such peace talks — an avowed U.S. goal — any easier to resume.

The minister of aviation in the pre-2001 Taliban government, Mullah Mansour belonged to the original generation of Taliban leaders, was involved in the political outreach, and could influence field commanders. His successor named on Wednesday, Maulavi Haibatullah, is believed to represent a more uncompromising cast.

“After this killing, the Taliban will be more hard-line and the people who think that the war will solve all the problems will be more powerful. This is a blow to peace,” said Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul political analyst who served in the Taliban regime’s foreign ministry before 2001.

U.S. officials have argued that, with Mr. Mansour, there wasn’t any peace process to derail anyway.

“It’s not as if he was going to open negotiations and this is going to stop that effort. He was not,” said James Cunningham, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who served as U.S. ambassador in Kabul in 2012-14.

Social scientists who examined the effect of such decapitations on militant groups have found little empirical evidence that the killings advance U.S. goals. [Continue reading…]

Vanda Felbab-Brown writes: Commenting on the death of Mullah Mansour during his visit to Vietnam this week, President Obama said, “Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children.”

So runs the official line from the White House: Because Mullah Mansour became opposed to negotiations, removing him became necessary for new peace talks. Yet the notion that the United States can drone-strike its way through the leadership of the Afghan Taliban until it finds an acceptable interlocutor seems optimistic, at best.

The revelation, last July, of the 2013 death in Pakistan of the Afghan Taliban’s previous leader and founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, led to a competition for the succession that hurt the group’s willingness and capacity to negotiate. The Taliban’s subsequent military push has been its strongest in a decade, causing thousands of civilian casualties. In particular, suicide bombings by the Taliban’s most dangerous and violent faction, the Haqqani network, have struck at the heart of the nation’s capital.

Facing this onslaught, the whole country has been plunged into insecurity. The struggling Afghan National Security Forces have been hanging on, but the military momentum is on the Taliban’s side.

In quickly announcing on Wednesday that Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a deputy to Mullah Mansour, would be their new leader, the Taliban is trying to avoid the chaos that surrounded Mr. Omar’s succession and to keep their military momentum. It’s likely the violence will continue. [Continue reading…]

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‘My grandsons’ fight to avenge their father’: Child soldiers in Afghanistan

The Guardian reports: When Firoza handed her two grandsons Kalashnikovs and enlisted them in her militia, it was, she says, to give them a chance to avenge their father who was killed by the Taliban.

Known in Helmand by her nom de guerre – Hajani – 54-year-old Firoza fought for years to repel the militants from Sistani, in Marjah district, commanding a unit of the US-backed government militia called the Afghan Local Police (ALP). During the war, in which she lost three of her six adult sons, she armed most of her male family members, including two children.

The eldest, Nabi*, a shy boy with bags under his eyes, echoes his grandmother. “The enemy killed my father so I am also fighting,” he says.

According to Firoza, the government pays Nabi the standard 9,500 afghanis (£100) local police salary; his younger brother, Habib, is not paid.

Firoza says Nabi is 18. Many Afghans don’t know their age, but that claim seems improbable. Face smooth, voice unbroken, he looks perhaps 14. Firoza says she gave her grandsons weapons five years ago.

Despite government pledges to rid its armed forces of children, a growing number of minors are recruited to fight in the intensifying war, according to experts. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban leader was made to ‘face the consequences’ of refusing to negotiate

The Wall Street Journal reports: President Barack Obama secretly ordered the strike on Mullah Mansour after first trying to bring him to the negotiating table. Initially, there was hope in Washington that Mullah Mansour would be more open to negotiations than his predecessor, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Obama administration officials were divided over whether the Pakistanis were capable or willing to deliver Mullah Mansour for the negotiations.

U.S. officials said the Pakistanis tried and grew frustrated in February by Mullah Mansour’s refusal to send representatives to meet with the Afghan government.

Around the same time, people who maintain contacts with the Taliban began to report that Mullah Mansour had left Pakistan and was spending time in Iran.

U.S. intelligence agencies received information that allowed them to track Mullah Mansour’s movements, including details about devices he used for communications, U.S. officials said.

That allowed the spy agencies to present policy makers with a choice: If and when Mullah Mansour were located in Pakistan, should the U.S. strike?

Mullah Mansour’s travels made it easier to find him. In contrast, the Central Intelligence Agency spent years looking in vain for an opportunity to kill the reclusive cleric he replaced, Mullah Omar.

An April 19 Taliban attack in Kabul targeted Afghanistan’s secret service, killing more than 60 people and underlining for the Americans the extent to which Mullah Mansour had chosen a military course. A decision was made that he should “face the consequences” of his refusal to negotiate, a senior administration official said. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban name new leader after confirming predecessor died in U.S. strike

The New York Times reports: The Taliban broke their silence early Wednesday over the death of their leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, confirming in a statement that he had been killed in an American drone strike.

Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a deputy to Mullah Mansour, was selected as the new leader of the Taliban, and Sarajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub were chosen as his deputies, the movement’s leadership council said in the statement. Mullah Yaqoub is the son of the previous Taliban chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar, whose death was acknowledged in July 2015.

President Obama said Monday that Mullah Mansour had been killed in a drone strike Saturday in a restive province of Pakistan.

The Taliban’s spokesmen, who publish regular updates from battlefields across Afghanistan, had remained silent since Mullah Mansour’s killing, as the movement’s leaders convened in the Pakistani city of Quetta to discuss his burial, as well as his successor.

One of their first meetings was at the home of Mawlawi Haibatullah, a figure with deep religious credentials who had been a lesser-known deputy to Mullah Mansour. Over the past year, more attention had focused on another deputy, Mr. Haqqani, who increasingly had been running the day-to-day war for the Taliban as Mullah Mansour was occupied with a campaign of quashing internal dissent and with travel abroad.

Taliban commanders who were aware of the conversations in Quetta had described Mawlawi Haibatullah as a voice guiding the discussions of succession, but not as a front-runner for the leadership.

Many of the movement’s leaders had pushed for a relatively obscure figure to succeed Mullah Mansour — to avoid a divisive personality and for purposes of enhanced security, keeping in mind that Mullah Omar’s reclusive ways long protected him and even concealed his death for years. It appeared Wednesday that such criteria had served Mawlawi Haibatullah well. [Continue reading…]

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Did Obama just carry out an experimental execution?

Reuters reports: U.S. President Barack Obama approved the drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour because the Taliban leader was overseeing plans for new attacks on American targets in Kabul, the Afghan capital, U.S. officials said on Monday. [Continue reading…]

Drone strikes are always carried out in the name of necessity. From the president on down, everyone wants to be able to claim that the decision to launch a deadly attack was driven by an imminent threat, there being no legal basis for indiscriminate killing or vengeance.

In the case of the assassination of the Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in Pakistan over the weekend, Obama’s comments on the killing suggest that this actually had less to do with preventing an imminent attack, than it was a kind of experiment.

No one knows what the consequence of killing Mansour will be, but Obama apparently thought that the potential benefits outweighed the risks.

An otherwise risk-averse president always seems confident about the bets he places when they involve Hellfire missiles.

The Wall Street Journal reports: Mr. Obama, speaking Monday during a visit to Hanoi, said the drone strike against Mr. Mansour did not constitute a “shift” in the U.S. mission. “We are not re-entering the day-to-day combat operations that are currently being conducted by Afghan forces,” he said.

He stressed Saturday’s airstrike was an opportunity for the Taliban to shift direction in favor of reconciliation talks, because Mr. Mansour for months has been against those talks.

Whether Mr. Mansour’s death changes things remains to be seen, according to those who track the group. Some believe his death could lead to a power struggle, accelerating the Taliban’s breakup. A main breakaway group already is being funded by the Afghan government as part of an effort to splinter the movement, The Wall Street Journal reported.

It was disclosed last year that the former Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died two years earlier.

However, the infighting is unlikely to encourage the group to negotiate with the Afghan government, according to those familiar with its operations. Mr. Mansour’s death actually may make it difficult for moderates among the Taliban to negotiate. [Continue reading…]

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Death of Mullah Mansoor highlights Taliban’s links with Iran

The Guardian reports: The killing of the Taliban chief on the main highway leading from the Iranian border shines new light on the movement’s complicated relationship with Tehran.

Although it is Pakistan that has traditionally been condemned for secretly supporting Afghan insurgents, analysts say Iran also provides weapons, cash and sanctuary to the Taliban. Despite the deep ideological antipathy between a hardline Sunni group and cleric-run Shia state the two sides have proved themselves quite willing to cooperate where necessary against mutual enemies and in the pursuit of shared interests.

Mullah Mansoor first entered Iran almost two months ago, according to immigration stamps in a Pakistani passport found in a bag near the wreckage of the taxi he was travelling in when he was killed by a US drone strike.

The passport, in the name of Wali Muhammad, also showed he had only just returned to Pakistan from the border crossing of Taftan, some 280 miles (450km) away from the site where he was killed, an area called Ahmed Wal, where he had stopped for lunch. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan government secretly fosters Taliban splinter groups

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Afghan government is giving financial and military support to a breakaway Taliban faction, according to some Afghan and U.S. coalition officials, in an effort to sow rifts within the insurgency and nudge some of its leaders toward peace talks.

The effort comes as the U.S. military conducted an airstrike inside Pakistan that American officials said likely killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, potentially setting the stage for another leadership struggle that could fragment the group further in the coming days. The Taliban, which usually respond promptly to requests for comment, hadn’t issued a statement by late Sunday.

Senior Afghan and U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence officials, including several who had roles in creating the program, described its details and said that resources provided by the U.S. were used to support it.

The Afghan intelligence agency is leading the drive to recruit new Taliban assets, Afghan and U.S. officials said. The agency relies on the U.S. for most of its funding and is still mentored by the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA declined to comment for this article.

Despite billions invested in reconstruction, Afghanistan still relies on aid for most of its funding and the U.S. pays more than $4 billion a year for its security forces.

The program’s goal, Afghan and U.S. officials said, is to exploit divisions that emerged after the Taliban’s longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was revealed last July to have been dead for years, a disclosure that stunned local Taliban leaders and threw the group into disarray.

It targets southern Zabul, Helmand, eastern Paktika and western Farah and Herat provinces, where groups of insurgents and their commanders, unhappy with the Taliban’s leadership, have defected to a commander named Mullah Mohammad Rasool.

Afghan and U.S. officials said Mullah Rasool’s faction and other fractious Taliban groups have been receiving cash, ammunition and weapons from the Afghan government. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. takes war back to Pakistan with drone strike aimed at Taliban leader

The Washington Post reports: The U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban chief Akhtar ­Mo­hammad Mansour represents another escalation of U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan by trying to cripple an insurgent group that has for years found refuge on Pakistani soil.

The strike early Saturday marks the most aggressive U.S. military action in Pakistan since the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It is also thought to be the first time that the U.S. military has directly targeted the top leader of the Afghan Taliban, a potentially destabilizing action that could leave the group violently lashing out as it seeks to find a new leader.

President Obama called Mansour’s death “an important milestone.”

“We have a high-profile leader who has been consistently part of operations and plans to potentially harm U.S. personnel and has been resistant to the kinds of peace talks and reconciliation that could ultimately bring an end to decades of war in Afghanistan,” he said during a visit to Vietnam.

While Obama denied that the attack represented a shift in the U.S. approach, analysts see it as an escalation.

“This is an unprecedented move to decapitate the Taliban leadership in its safe haven of Pakistan,” said Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution. “It exposes Pakistan’s role in promoting and protecting the Taliban, and will provoke a crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations.”

But unlike the bin Laden raid, which prompted outrage in Pakistan, the reported strike on Mansour drew a fairly muted reaction Sunday from Pakistani government and military leaders, even as Afghan officials cheered and described the attack as proof of the Afghan Taliban’s deep presence in Pakistan. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The killing of Mansoor represents a remarkable expansion of the programme because it happened well outside the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan where nearly all known strikes have taken place, usually focusing on al-Qaida and allied groups.

US officials said the attack took place near Ahmad Wal, suggesting it was the first ever known strike in the vast southern province of Balochistan, where the insurgency’s “Quetta Shura” leadership council is thought to be based, and one of very few to target a senior member of the Afghan Taliban.

The drones were described as having been piloted by US special forces – suggesting it was not a CIA operation, as is usually the case with attacks inside Pakistan. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan denounces U.S. strike believed to have killed Afghan Taliban chief

Express Tribune reports: Pakistan on Sunday denounced the US drone strike believed to have killed the Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour as a violation of its air space and said only negotiations could bring a lasting peace to Afghanistan.

The statement, issued by the Foreign Office late Sunday, said one of the victims of the attack was a driver named Muhammad Azam while the identity of the second “is being verified”.

“On late Saturday 21st May, 2016, the United States shared information that a drone strike was carried out in Pakistan near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area,” in which Mansour was targeted, it said.

“This information was shared with the Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff after the drone strike.”

The statement denounced the drone attack as a “violation of [Pakistan’s] sovereignty, an issue which has been raised with the United States in the past as well.”

It said that a four-country group comprising the United States, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan last met on Wednesday to discuss ways to restart stalled peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban and that the group had collectively decided “a politically negotiated settlement was the only viable option for lasting peace in Afghanistan”. [Continue reading…]

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Afghanistan paid 11,000 militants to lay down their arms. Now the money has run out

The Washington Post reports: Faridoon Hanafi says he probably killed American soldiers as a Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan from 2009 through 2014. And he’s certainly killed some Afghan troops.

But since then, Hanafi has joined a rare demographic here: reformed, de-radicalized Islamist militants.

After he handed over his assault rifles and grenade launchers to intelligence agents, Hanafi settled into a safe house and started collecting $200 a month. In return for those payments, funded with foreign aid, Hanafi worked with local officials in Nangahar province to try to lure other militants away from the fight.

Now, the money is drying up, and a central goal of the U.S.-led effort to rebuild Afghanistan — that Islamist militants can be rehabilitated or paid to reintegrate into the law-abiding public — is at a crossroads as the war drags into its 15th year.

“If the government stops paying, these people will find another way to get money, and negotiations will fail,” Hanafi said in an interview. [Continue reading…]

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