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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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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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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While Obama portrays their combat role as over, American forces are increasingly being called on to fight

The New York Times reports: The Taliban attacked the Afghan police compound at first light, coming from all sides at the American Green Berets holed up inside. The insurgents fired assault rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They came in what a soldier called “human waves.”

Not even strafing runs by American F-16 fighters stopped the assault. The elite American soldiers — whose mission was only to train and advise Afghan troops — had never seen a firefight as intense.

Holding the compound, another soldier said, took an “Alamo defense.”

On the morning of Oct. 1, about 30 soldiers were in close-quarters combat against Taliban fighters — even though White House and Pentagon officials have repeatedly insisted that American troops no longer play that role.

The Americans were not ambushed while advising local forces behind the front lines or struck by rocket fire while manning a fortified base. Nine months after President Obama declared an end to the American combat mission in Afghanistan, these Green Berets were at the leading edge of an offensive to retake Kunduz, where Afghan forces had melted away as insurgents attacked, leaving an entire city in the Taliban’s grip for the first time since 2001.

The fight for the police compound proved crucial in rallying Afghan forces to retake the city.

It also offered the starkest example to date of a blurry line in Afghanistan and Iraq between the missions that American forces are supposed to be fulfilling — military training and advising — and combat. Mr. Obama has portrayed that combat role as over. But as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq have threatened the delicate stability he hoped to leave behind, American forces are increasingly being called on to fight. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. troops confused about their mission in Afghanistan

Reuters reports: Amid fierce fighting after the Taliban captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz last year, U.S. special forces advisers repeatedly asked their commanders how far they were allowed to go to help local troops retake the city.

They got no answer, according to witnesses interviewed in a recently declassified, heavily redacted Pentagon report that lays bare the confusion over rules of engagement governing the mission in Afghanistan.

As the Taliban insurgency gathers strength, avoiding enemy fire has become increasingly difficult for advisers, who have been acting as consultants rather than combatants since NATO forces formally ceased fighting at the end of 2014.

In the heat of the battle, lines can be blurred, and the problem is not exclusive to Afghanistan: questions have arisen over the role of U.S. troops in Iraq after a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed by Islamic State this month.

“‘How far do you want to go?’ is not a proper response to ‘How far do you want us to go?'” one special forces member told investigators in a report into the U.S. air strikes on a hospital in Kunduz that killed 42 medical staff, patients and caretakers. [Continue reading…]

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A moral debt for bombing the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz

In an editorial, the New York Times says: The torrent of mistakes that led an American military gunship to obliterate a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last October, killing 42 innocent people and wounding dozens, resulted from gross negligence, judging from the findings of a report the Pentagon released on Friday.

And yet, military officials have refused to identify the individuals responsible for the disaster and to explain what type of punishment each will face. The Pentagon also appears to have ruled out the possibility of holding them accountable in a court of law for one of the most egregious war zone blunders in recent history.

Those decisions are deeply troubling. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of the military’s Central Command, or Centcom, told journalists on Friday that the service members who made the mistakes would not face criminal prosecution because investigators determined that their errors were unintentional.

According to the report, the gunship crew failed to locate the intended target and fired on the Doctors Without Borders hospital assuming that it was a building occupied by Taliban fighters. Senior officers approved the strike despite having the coordinates of the hospital. Equipment and communication failures that night contributed to the catastrophe, and the airstrike did not stop immediately after Doctors Without Borders alerted the United States government of the error.

Gen. John Campbell, the commander of American troops in Afghanistan at the time, concluded that some service members had flouted the rules of engagement and violated the law of armed conflict, Centcom said in a statement. However, Pentagon officials determined that they would not face criminal charges because of their lack of intent.

Human rights advocates and Doctors Without Borders rightly point out that under the American military code and international laws of war, fatal mistakes that result from recklessness and gross negligence can constitute crimes. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t abandon America’s Afghan helpers

An editorial in the New York Times says: The House Armed Services Committee approved a version of the 2017 defense spending bill on Thursday that would leave thousands of Afghan interpreters who worked for the American government in Afghanistan in the lurch.

More than 10,000 applicants, many of whom submitted petitions years ago and are now under threat in their country, are waiting for visas to get to the United States. However, the State Department can approve only about 4,000 applications, given the number of visas currently authorized by Congress.

The committee’s bill provides no additional visas and imposes unreasonable eligibility criteria for applications made after next month. Under the bill, only interpreters who worked with military personnel in the field would be eligible for resettlement. That is senseless, since many interpreters who worked on military bases or in government offices are in similar danger. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s last chance to end the ‘forever war’

Jennifer Daskal writes: The United States is fighting an unauthorized war. Over the past 19 months, American forces have launched more than 8,800 strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and hit the group’s affiliate in Libya. The United States continues aerial assaults against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, is going after militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and killed more than 150 suspected Shabab fighters in Somalia just last month.

This war isn’t limited to drone strikes or aerial bombings. It includes Special Operations forces in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — and possibly elsewhere. This past weekend, President Obama announced that he would send an additional 250 such troops to Syria.

The primary legal authority for these strikes and deployments comes from the 60-word Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed almost a decade and a half ago. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush asked for an open-ended authorization to fight all future acts of terrorism. Wisely, Congress rejected that request, though it did give the president authority to use force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda, and those that harbored them, the Taliban.

Today, the Taliban no longer rules Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden has been killed and the other key participants in the Sept. 11 attacks are either locked up or dead. But the old authorization lives on. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan president puts aside peace bids and vows harsher fight against Taliban

The Washington Post reports: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stepped back Monday from attempts to engage Taliban insurgents in peace talks, vowing that Afghanistan will instead “execute” enemies of the state and undertake preparations for an extended war.

In a speech that signaled a significant shift in policies, Ghani left open the prospect of dialogue with Taliban fighters who put down their weapons. But he labeled the broader Taliban organization and its Pakistan-based offshoot, the Haqqani network, as “terrorists” and promised expanded attacks by the Afghan military.

Ghani’s remarks are a setback for the Obama administration’s hopes that the 14-year Taliban insurgency could be ended through a negotiated settlement. Back-channel discussions have been held for the past three years to try to establish a framework for such talks. [Continue reading…]

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Kabul car bomb reminds us this bloody conflict is no nearer an ending

The Guardian reports: The complex attack by the Taliban on an elite military unit at the heart of the Afghan capital on Tuesday morning was a bloody reminder of how the war there is spiralling to new levels of violence, and spilling into urban areas that were once deemed relatively safe.

For years Afghans fled to the capital, and other major cities, to escape the daily brutality of a war fought mostly in their rural home districts. But as the conflict has intensified nationwide, following the departure of western forces, both fear and bloodshed has spilled over into urban areas.

The promise of the government and its western backers that their authority would stand firm in towns and cities, even if insurgents took the countryside, are ringing increasingly hollow.

Kabul’s streets are now deemed so dangerous that the US embassy ferries its staff from airport to bunkered embassy by helicopter, to avoid a five-minute drive down a broad, straight road. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban starts spring offensive with Kabul truck bomb

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Taliban claimed responsibility for a bombing outside a Kabul government building that Afghan officials said killed at least 28 people and wounded more than 300 others, the deadliest attack in the capital in months.

The Islamist militant group said it had detonated a truck laden with explosives, though the report couldn’t be immediately confirmed by Afghan officials. It announced the start of its annual spring offensive last week and has since intensified attacks across the country.

Tuesday’s bombing targeted a compound used by Afghanistan’s Secret Service, flattening part of its perimeter wall. Taliban gunmen disguised in military uniform stormed it shortly after the explosion and continued to battle Afghan security forces for a few hours. The fighting ended in the early afternoon when Afghan government officials said two gunmen had been shot dead. [Continue reading…]

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Civilian casualties in Afghan war are unabated in 2016

The New York Times reports: With nearly 2,000 civilians killed or wounded and more than 80,000 people displaced this year already, the Afghan conflict continues to affect lives in record numbers, the United Nations said on Sunday.

The report came as fighting raged across several provinces. For a third day, government forces repelled Taliban attacks across several districts of Kunduz and were trying to prevent the insurgents from taking the provincial capital, as they did in the fall.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan documented 600 civilian deaths and 1,343 wounded in the first three months of 2016, which by most accounts is expected to be a bloody year as the Taliban rejected the latest efforts to bring them to peace talks. While the death toll fell 13 percent from the same period last year, the number of wounded increased 11 percent, the report said, with a high rise among children. [Continue reading…]

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America’s habit of winning wars then losing the peace

Dominic Tierney writes: In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Washington toppled regimes and then failed to plan for a new government or construct effective local forces — with the net result being over 7,000 dead U.S. soldiers, tens of thousands of injured troops, trillions of dollars expended, untold thousands of civilian fatalities, and three Islamic countries in various states of disorder. We might be able to explain a one-off failure in terms of allies screwing up. But three times in a decade suggests a deeper pattern in the American way of war.

In the American mind, there are good wars: campaigns to overthrow a despot, with the model being World War II. And there are bad wars: nation-building missions to stabilize a foreign country, including peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. For example, the U.S. military has traditionally seen its core mission as fighting conventional wars against foreign dictators, and dismissed stabilization missions as “military operations other than war,” or Mootwa. Back in the 1990s, the chairman of the joint chiefs reportedly said, “Real men don’t do Mootwa.” At the public level, wars against foreign dictators are consistently far more popular than nation-building operations.

The American way of war encourages officials to fixate on removing the bad guys and neglect the post-war stabilization phase. When I researched my book How We Fight, I found that Americans embraced wars for regime change but hated dealing with the messy consequences going back as far as the Civil War and southern reconstruction. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan soldiers desert as Taliban threaten key Helmand capital

CNN reports: Sometimes you know a war’s going badly when your enemy is right in front of you.

About 3 miles outside the southern city of Lashkar Gah, Afghan soldiers can see a white flag. It’s not one of surrender — quite the opposite.

The flag belongs to the Taliban, and shows exactly how close the militant group is to the capital of Helmand province.

Despite Afghan government assurances that the army can hold and retake ground, the strategic province that hundreds of NATO troops — who have been in the country for the last 15 years — died fighting for is closer than ever to falling to the Taliban.

Those inside Lashkar Gah are understandably nervous.

A Helmand police official, who did not want to be named for his own safety, told CNN on Sunday that the army had not made any recent advances, and at least five full districts in the province were already under full Taliban control. [Continue reading…]

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