Afghanistan Conflict Update – Dec 2018

Afghanistan Update - Recent news, analysis, and commentary on the Afghan conflict.

The month of December 2018 has brought news of significant events in Afghanistan. Significant in the sense that they are developments worth noting in the course of 30 days; but not so noteworthy when considered the conflict has been in existence for 40 years. However, for the ‘follower’ of the Afghan conflict they are worth noting.

Why are We Still There?

The talking points from DoD about our purpose in Afghanistan remains the same . . . sort of. Things are not going great for the NATO mission in Afghanistan and there are many who say victory is NOT around the corner and there is NO light at the end of the tunnel. However General Dunford has recently said that the American military presence in Afghanistan is essential to contain terrorists who would attempt to strike the U.S. in a way similar to the events of 9/11. 

White House Explanation for Remaining in Afghanistan

The quote below is from a letter from the White House to Congress that informs the House and Senate about deployments of the U.S. Armed Forces to combat areas. (White House, Dec 7, 2018).

“Consistent with the strategy I announced publicly on August 21, 2017, United States Armed Forces remain in Afghanistan for the purposes of stopping the reemergence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten the United States, supporting the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field, and creating conditions to support a political process to achieve lasting peace.  United States forces in Afghanistan are training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces; conducting and supporting counterterrorism operations against al-Qa’ida and against ISIS; and taking appropriate measures against those who provide direct support to al-Qa’ida, threaten United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan, or threaten the viability of the Afghan government or the ability of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces to achieve campaign success.  Although reconciliation efforts are ongoing, the United States remains in an armed conflict, including in Afghanistan and against the Taliban, and active hostilities remain ongoing.”

Security

Security Deteriorating. The security situation, according to reports by SIGAR, DoDIG, UN, and other agencies, is slowly deteriorating. Afghanistan has overtaken Iraq as the country with the most deaths from terrorist attacks according to the Global Terrorism Index report issued by the Institute for Economics & Peace released just this month (Dec 2018). 

Stepping Up the Pressure on the Taliban. Resolute Support Mission commander General Scott Miller says that the Coalition is applying more pressure on the Taliban by hitting the leadership and opium production targets with increased special operations raids. The goal is to persuade the Taliban they can’t win on the battlefield and to convince them to take a seat at the negotiating table.

Ghazni Revisited. The August 2018 offensive by the Taliban proved to be the 3rd time that the Taliban took over (if only temporarily) a provincial capital in a two year time frame. Government sources state that the ANDSF (with a little help from U.S. air support and SF teams) routed the Taliban after five days. Critics say the Taliban never intended to ‘hold’ the city; but wanted to score an information operations victory by temporarily holding key areas of Ghazni city. The folks at Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) provide a detailed (and apparently balanced) account of the battle for Ghazni city. (AAN, December 16, 2018).

A Forgotten Province. Zabul province in southern Afghanistan is controlled or contested by the Taliban. The Afghan security forces hold firm on a number of bases, combat outposts, and some district center compounds. The population of Zabul seems to be supportive of the insurgents. Read more in “The Forgotten Afghan Province That Became Taliban Country”Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, December 16, 2018.

Suicide Attacks Continue. Ajit Kumar Singh, a research fellow at the Institute for Conflict Management, examines the prevalence of suicide bombings in Afghanistan. He provides details on the motives of suicide bombers and believes that these types of attacks will continue into the future. Read “Afghanistan: Suicide Offensive – Analysis”Eurasia Review, December 4, 2018.

Taliban, Death Threats, and Messaging. A young Afghan visits his home village in Wardak during a 3-day ceasefire and describes his encounter with Taliban members who want to behead him. Read “What one death threat says about Taliban’s campaign of fear”, The Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 2018.

ANDSF

Winter Operations. The Afghan Ministry of Defense says that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) will be conducting winter operations ‘with full force’. The ANDSF will attempt to recapture some of the district centers that have fallen to the Taliban over the past three years. (Tolo News, Dec 16, 2018).

An Unsustainable ANDSF. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces requires about $4.5 billion annually. This is fully funded by NATO member states. Unfortunately, the MoD and MoI is lacking good leadership that can turn the security ministries into a bureaucracy that is efficient, non-corrupt, and professional. Currently, the security ministries are entirely unsustainable given the economic and financial constraints of the Afghan government.

“Illiteracy, a lack of intrinsic motivation, a culture of nepotism and corruption that centered around family and tribal relations has been the primary impediment to the formation of an effective Afghan national security apparatus.”

For a detailed look at the financial woes of the security ministries and the ANDSF . . .  and some recommendations on establishing a framework for a fiscally sustainable force read “The Fiscally Unsustainable Path of the Afghan Military and Security Services”, by Tamin Asey, Global Security Review, December 17, 2018.

A-29 Capability Improves. For the first time the Afghan Air Force (AAF) conducted night time air strikes against insurgents using their A-29 Super Tucanos. The air strikes took place on Sunday, Dec 9th in central Uruzgan province. They have had the aircraft since February 2016 and Afghan pilot’s skills are slowly increasing. The A-29 carries a 12.7 mm machine gun under each wing. It can also be equipped with 20 mm cannons, air-to-ground rockets, and precision-guided bombs. See “Afghan Air Force conducts first nighttime airstrikes”, Stars and Stripes, December 11, 2018.

AAF Helicopter Fleet – Some Problems. The unrelenting OPTEMPO has pushed the Afghan Air Force’s helicopter fleet to the max. The choppers have been overused and the maintenance has suffered. Read more in “Overuse, Maintenance Problems Strain Afghan Army Helicopter Fleet”, U.S. News and World Report, December 6, 2018. See also “Technical Issues Behind Helicopter Crash Incidents”, Tolo News, December 14, 2018.

More ANDSF News. The ANA is getting 15,000 SILVERSHIELD systems which provide protection against radio controlled IEDs from the Department of Defense of Australia.

NATO and Resolute Support

Stopping Insider Attacks. The highest level of insider attacks against NATO service members took place in 2012. ISAF quickly instituted some processes and policies that mitigated the threat but some green on blue attacks are still taking place. The latest attack was by a member of the Ktah Khas that killed Major Brent Taylor at a location in Kabul. Tim Lynch explores this topic in detail in “Insider Attacks in Afghanistan: What Can We Do to Stop Them?”The FREq, November 20, 2018.

Stopping Corruption. NATO is becoming more engaged in the anti-corruption fight as it is becoming more aware of the relationship between corruption and conflict. “In Afghanistan, ISAF’s mission did not begin to address corruption issues until 2007. It took nine years – until 2012 – for mitigating the impact of corruption to become a line of engagement in the ISAF Operations Plan.” Dr. Karolina MacLachan writes on this topic in “Corruption and conflict: hand in glove”NATO Review, December 6, 2018.

‘Muddle Along’. Apparently retired General Stanley McChrystal was caught being candid during a presentation in NYC in November 2018 and now has helped coined what will likely be an iconic phrase for the Afghan conflict. He stated, in answer to a question, that he told Secretary of State Pompeo (in a private conversation) that the best course of action for Afghanistan would be to:

“If we put more troops in there and we fight forever, that’s not a good outcome either. I’m not sure what [is] the right answer. My best suggestion is to keep a limited number of forces there and just kind of muddle along and see what we can do.”

See “Former NATO Commander Told Pompeo to ‘Muddle Along’ in Afghanistan”National Review, December 6, 2018.

NATO Meeting on Afghanistan. On December 4-5 December 2018 there was a meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs. The event focused on a number of issues to include the recent activities of Russia in the Kerch Strait, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Iraq, western Balkans, and terrorism. The Ministerial concluded with a meeting of all nations contributing to the Resolute Support training mission in Afghanistan. No big changes noted but it is important to recognize NATO’s continued support to the Afghan government and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Read a press release on the meeting entitled Resolute Support Foreign Ministers Statement on Afghanistan, December 5, 2018.

New NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan. The NATO Secretary General appointed the current UK Ambassador to Afghanistan to be the next NATO representative in Kabul. Sir Nicholas Kay will take up his appointment in March 2019. Kay has previous experience in the region – he worked as UK Regional Coordinator for Southern Afghanistan in Helmand province in 2006-2007 and as Head of the Pakistan and Afghanistan Section in the South Asian Department of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office in 1995-1997. (NATO, Dec 5, 2018).

Green on Blue in TAAC – North. In July 2017 a U.S. Army Special Forces team came under attack by a member of the Afghan Commandos. A U.S. counterintelligence agent provides the story in “Green on Blue in Afghanistan: When The Enemy is Inside the Stronghold”, Coffee or Die Magazine, December 2018.

Insider Threat Training. Some 2,000 Soldiers of the 48th Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard are heading to Afghanistan in January 2019. In preparation some members of the BCT have undergone ‘Guardian Angel’ training. Read “Georgian Guardsmen Get Training to Counter Afghanistan Insider Threats”, Military.com, December 15, 2018.

U.S. Soldier Died at BAF. A soldier from the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, New York died in a noncombat-related incident on Thursday, December 13, 2018 at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. PFC Joshua Mikeasky, age 19, was from Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

SFA and TAA

“Win and keep the confidence of your leader. Strengthen his prestige at your expense before others when you can. Never refuse or quash schemes he may put forward;but ensure they are put forward in the first instance, privately, to you.Always approve them, and after praise modify them sensibly, causing the suggestions to come from him, until they are in accord with your own opinion.When you attain this point, hold him to it, keep a tight grip of his ideas, and push them forward as firmly as possible, but secretly, so no one but [him] (and he not too clearly) is aware of your pressure.”

T.E. Lawrence, August 1917

Strategic Advising. John M. Gillette, a former infantry officer with lots of experience ‘on the ground’, recently completed a two year tour as an advisor to an Afghan Major General. He has penned an article entitled “Strategic Advising: Should it be Transactional or Transformative?”Small Wars Journal, December 12, 2018.

1st SFAB and a New COP in Afghanistan. The uplift of a couple of thousand troops (as part of the South Asia Strategy) and placing of advisor teams at brigade and kandak level required a few new bases to be established in Afghanistan. One of these ‘new’ bases is Camp Dahlke West on the old FOB Shank in Logar province. The 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade was one of the principle tenants of the new base. Read “An austere base in Afghanistan rapidly expands for more US troops”, Stars and Stripes, December 16, 2018.

SFA and Fragile States. The Peace Research Institute Olso held a three-day workshop on security force assistance in early December. (PRIO, Dec 13, 2018).

Governance and Elections

UN Security Council Meeting. The Afghan Ambassador addressed a United Nations meeting (see transcript) on the situation in Afghanistan on December 17, 2018. He cited the recently held parliamentary elections, the results of the Geneva Ministerial Conference, progress in moving towards peace talks, and the sustained progress by the Afghan security forces in the fight against ‘regional and global terrorist groups’. 

Visit by European Parliament. A delegate spent time in Kabul in mid-December visiting senior officials and leaders. Topics on the agenda were bilateral cooperation, peace process, elections, and long-term European Union assistance to Afghanistan.

Results of Parliamentary Elections. The Independent Election Commission has been slowly reporting the preliminary parliamentary election results for the 34 provinces of Afghanistan through the month of December.

Peace Talks

Peace Talks. There are a number of initiatives that have transpired or that are currently taking place to get the parties to the Afghan conflict negotiating towards a political settlement. Among these are the efforts of U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. He has been flying all over South Asian and the Middle East trying to generate support for the peace process. Despite all the glowing optimism . . . the chances of success . . .  are somewhat dim.

Talks Hosted by UAE. The United Arab Emirates have been quietly hosting a series of meetings between Afghanistan, UAE, USA, and Saudi Arabia in Abu Dhabi. In attendance are representatives of the Taliban; although the word is they won’t talk to “Kabul administration” representatives. President Ghani’s road map for peace presented at in Geneva have been discussed at the quadrilateral meetings.

High Advisory Board for Peace. The Afghan government announced on December 10, 2018 the establishment of the ‘High Advisory Board for Peace’. The intent of the new agency is to create a national consensus for brokering peace talks with the Taliban. Read more in “Govt Announces High Advisory Board for Peace”, Tolo News, December 11, 2018.

UNAMA on Peace. The United Nation’s top envoy to Afghanistan said that the possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict in Afghanistan has never been more real in the past 17 years than it is now. The head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Taamichi Yamamoto, struck a positive note on peace prospects while addressing the UN. (UNAMA, Dec 17, 2018).

Don’t Rush to Peace. Mohammad Shoaib Haidary, a researcher with the Asia Foundation Afghanistan, says that Afghans remain divided on the possibility of peace and are strongly fearful of the Taliban. See “In Afghanistan, a Rushed Peace Will be a Short Peace”, The Diplomat, December 13, 2018.

Commentary

Reflections of a U.S. Former Ambassador. Ronald E. Newmann was U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2005-2007. He has kept pace with the developments in Afghanistan and visits regularly. Newmman has recently returned from another trip to that country and provides his thoughts on security, reform of governance, elections, and peace negotiations. Read “A U.S. Ambassador Reflects on Afghanistan”The National Interest, December 5, 2018.

Explaining Afghanistan’s Foreign Policy. Tamin Asey, a former Afghan senior government official, explains the factors that determine “Afghanistan’s Enigmatic Foreign Policy”Small Wars Journal, December 14, 2018.

Good Tactics vs Great Technology. Tim Lynch, a ‘real’ Afghan Hand, explains how pseudo ops could turn the tide. The article is in two parts – the more interesting part is the second half. Read “Tactical Solutions for Tactical Problems”, The FREq, December 11, 2018.

Geneva Conference – Good and Bad. The international community held another one of its conferences on Afghanistan. The November 2018 event covered many topics during the presentations, discussions, and ‘side bars’. William Byrd, a close observer of all things Afghanistan, provides a detailed summary of the important two-day event in How to Secure Afghanistan’s Future, U.S. Institute for Peace, December 10, 2018.

An Indian Perspective. Brigadier General (retd) Venkataraman Mahalingam, an analyst and writer on South Asia security issues, was interviewed on security challenges in Afghanistan. He addresses Pakistan’s support of the Taliban, reports of Russian support to the Taliban, the need for a democratic government in Afghanistan, Indian support to Afghanistan, the Chabahar port, and more. Read “An Indian Perspective on Afghan Security”, The Diplomat, December 4, 2018.

Proxy Wars. Tamim Asey, a former senior defense official with the Afghan government, says that proxy wars and great power politics is returning to the country. Some of the prominent players include Pakistan, Iran, China, and India. Read “A Game as Old as Empire: The Return of Proxy Wars in Afghanistan”Small Wars Journal, December 6, 2018.

Reinvigorated Approach Needed. Shazar Shafqat, a counterterrorism and security analyst who teaches at the National Defence University in Islamabad, Pakistan, provides his thoughts on defeating the Afghan insurgents. He believes the air strikes by the U.S. are counterproductive and ineffective, that the U.S. should increase use of the F3EAD process, and that the U.S. needs to address the larger geopolitical aspects of the conflict. Read “A renewed commitment to Afghanistan requires a reinvigorated approach”The Hill, December 4, 2018.

Assessment of Afghan Conflict. Five years ago Jonathan Schroden led a tem that conducted an independent assessment of the war in Afghanistan. The conclusions arrived at in 2014 ring true today – for the most part. Read “Five Years Ago, We Assessed the War in Afghanistan for Congress: How Did We Do?”, War on the Rocks, December 18, 2018.

Lack of Political Legitimacy. Thomas H. Johnson and Larry P. Goodson collaborate in an article about the presence of legitimacy in Afghanistan (or lack of). Read “Political Legitimacy: Why We Are Failing in Afghanistan”, Strategy Bridge, December 13, 2018.

Al-Qaeda – Taliban Relationship Examined. Tamin Asey, a former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council, says the al-Qaeda – Taliban relationship is still very strong. Read “Afghan Taliban’s Continued Symbiotic Relationship With Al Qaeda and International Terrorism – Analysis”, Eurasia Review, December 5, 2018.

Reports, Papers, and Publications

2018 Afghanistan Survey. The Asia Foundation has released its annual survey – Afghanistan in 2018: A Survey of the Afghan People. The 334 page report provides information about the views of more than 112,000 Afghans since 2004 on security, elections, governance, the economy, essential services, corruption, youth issues, reconciliation with the Taliban, access to media, migration, women, and politics.
https://asiafoundation.org/where-we-work/afghanistan/survey/

CRS Report on Afghanistan. The Congressional Research Service has updated an 18-page report entitled Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy, December 12, 2018.
https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45122

Attack on Education. The Global Coalition to Protect Education From Attack (GCPEA) based in New York has issued a briefing paper entitled Attacks on Education in Afghanistan, November 2018. Read the five-page PDF here.

ISK’s Network. An 83-page long report by Amira Jadoon of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point published this month (Dec 2018) provides detailed information about the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The report covers the ISK network, operational alliances, and provides a conclusion with the security implications for the future. Read Allied and Lethal: Islamic State Khorasan’s Network and Organizational Capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Development

Water Wars. In the future climate change and a growing world population will be spurring intense competition for increasingly scarce resources. In some parts of the world that competition is already taking place – as in along the Pakistan – Afghanistan border. An Afghan plan, aided by India, to build 12 dams along the Kabul River basin will provide significant economic benefits to many Afghan citizens. But Pakistan has some concerns. Read “Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Looming Water Conflict”, by Waleed Majidyar, The Diplomat, December 15, 2018.

Drought Update. The Afghanistan Ambassador to the United Nations said that Afghanistan is in the midst of the worst drought of the century. The drought has affected crops and livestock.

History

Russia Rewrite of History. Vladimir Kar-Murza tells us about attempts by the Putin regime to ‘correct’ the historical accounts of the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. Read “Defying history, Moscow moves to defend Soviet war in Afghanistan”, The Washington Post, December 5, 2018.

Afghan Interpreters of the British. There is a small group of Afghans (perhaps a few thousand) who risked their lives working for the British in Afghanistan. They were the means of communicating with the Afghan population and the Afghan security forces. Although they have received ‘warm words’ for their service many of them feel abandoned. Read “Away From You – The Story of the Afghan Interpreters”Forces Network, November 9, 2018.

Videos and Podcasts

FDD Podcast. Three members of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) chat in this podcast about the current conflict in Afghanistan for about 44 minutes. The talk is a bit gloomy. Listen to In Afghanistan, the Substitute for Victory is Defeat, FDD, December 4, 2018.


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