1. Afghanistan Weekly Reader: Insurgent Attacks in Afghan Capital

    Published: January 24th, 2013

    Last week’s suicide bomb attack on Afghanistan’s intelligence agency was followed by an attack on the headquarters of the Kabul traffic department a few days later. The coordinated assaults have raised questions about Afghanistan’s security forces and intelligence capabilities, and whether the billions the U.S. has spent on security assistance has been effective.

    From ASG
    Report: U.S. spent $6.8 million on nonexistent equipment

    Afghanistan Study Group by Mary Kaszynski

    According to a new audit by the U.S. Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the U.S. spent $6.8 million on maintenance for vehicles that had not been seen in over a year, had never been seen, or had been destroyed.

    Taliban Stage Attack on Kabul

    Wall Street Journal by Maria Abi-Habib and Ziaulhaq Sultani

    Insurgents Monday stormed the traffic-department headquarters in Kabul, using the compound to target nearby Afghan police headquarters and setting off a gun battle that continued for hours.

    Sen. Claire McCaskill leaps hurdles to overhauling wartime contracting

    McClatchy by Lindsay Wise

    This month – after half a dozen years of hearings, reports, overseas fact-finding trips, painful compromises and some last-minute, round-the-clock negotiating – the first substantial overhaul of the federal government’s wartime contracting practices since World War II finally became law, with McCaskill as its chief architect.

    Time to Pull the Plug On Afghanistan War

    Wall Street Journal Letter to the Editor

    We’ve already paid a huge price in lives, misery and money, including multiple deployments and suicides…Does anyone really believe that keeping large numbers of our military there will lead to a long-term, satisfactory outcome?

    Afghanistan’s colossal intelligence failure

    Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel by Candace Rondeaux

    [Perhaps] NATO and U.S. officials will finally sit down to hash out what to do next with America’s top partner in the fight against terrorism in South and Central Asia. The White House in particular, might want to consider whether it can continue to tie America’s fortunes to intelligence outfits like NDS without first figuring out how (and whether it’s possible) to help governments like Karzai’s to clean these agencies up.

    Deconstructing Afghanistan

    Foreign Policy by John Arquilla

    After more than a decade of nation-building in Afghanistan, with at best mixed results, perhaps it is time to take an opposite tack…This would mean challenging the guiding notion of democratization that has, thus far, cost us and our allies several thousand casualties and about a trillion dollars — to little effect.

    Tags: , , ,

  2. Afghanistan Weekly Reader: Perspectives on the Peace Process

    Published: January 5th, 2012

    The announcement that the Taliban will open a political office in Qatar in exchange for the release of Taliban officials from Guantanamo Bay has been alternately hailed as a dramatic breakthough and criticized as a surrender. Whatever the spin, this development indicates that the process for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan is moving forward. Unfortunately, U.S. military involvement in the region is far from over and strong support still remains for maintaining troop levels through 2014 and after.  Although U.S. troops are expected to shift to an advisory role over the next year, peace negotiations are progressing slowly as the cost of war continues to increase.

    From ASG
    Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan But Stay Engaged
    Afghanistan Study Group by Mary Kaszynski

    Bringing the troops home is not retreat, and it is not abandonment. It is simply the first step towards a more effective Afghanistan policy and a smarter, more responsible defense budget.

    US army’s new Afghan nightmare – how to ship $30bn of kit
    The Guardian by Jon Boone
    The US army has begun the massive task of withdrawing $30bn (£19bn) worth of military equipment from Afghanistan three years before most Nato troops leave, with logisticians warning of complications from the lack of decent roads and the nightmarish geography of a landlocked country surrounded by states that are either fickle American allies or outright enemies.

    A long goodbye to Afghanistan
    LA Times by Doyle MacManus
    The Afghanistan withdrawal won’t be anywhere near as final as the one we just saw [in Iraq]. U.S. military leaders are working on a new slimmed-down strategy that would keep some American troops in combat against the Taliban for years to come, long after 2014.

    Military Advice and Policy Decisions
    National Interest by Paul Pillar
    If General Allen understands his mission to be stabilization of Afghanistan and the continuation in power of the Afghan government of the day, he should provide his best advice as to what forces are needed to accomplish that mission. And if whoever is the U.S. president in 2014 determines that accomplishing that mission is not sufficiently critical to U.S. interests to warrant extending a U.S. military expedition that would have already gone on for thirteen years, he should overrule the general’s advice.

    2011 Reflections: What happened to the US debate on Afghanistan?
    CS Monitor by Ben Arnoldy
    Should the war run for three more Christmases? That question can be answered in various ways. But as someone who has just returned to the US, I simply want it to be asked here.
    As I enjoy the peace of this holiday season, so removed from the conflict zone I recently experienced, I remind myself that we should spare a few thoughts for those who won’t be home for the holidays – and consider why exactly that is.

    Tags: , , , ,

  3. Notes From Afghanistan Part V: Understanding the Taliban. Are Our Assumptions Wrong?

    Published: September 21st, 2011
    Author: Edward Kennery

    Edward Kenney
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    If there is one thing this month in Afghanistan has taught me, it is that our common assumptions about the Afghan conflict are likely to be fundamentally wrong.  One assumption that is frequently made is that the war is basically political.  Empirical support for this argument comes mainly from work done examining the roots of the uprising.  For instance Anand Gopal’s excellent report examining Kandahar in the early 2000s suggested that the Taliban were willing to recognize the Afghan government at that time, and only resumed hostilities after being harshly repressed by the local government.

    Viewing the conflict as political has immense policy implications because it implies that a political process based on power sharing could potentially succeed.  Or to paraphrase that old Prussian Clausewitz: If conflict is an extension of politics, then politics can potentially resolve conflict.

    Viewing the war as political also implies that the insurgency has clear political objectives.  What are the objectives of the Taliban?  First and foremost, they demand that the U.S. removes the troops based in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately this seems less like a “political” objective and more a short-term aim to strengthen their military and strategic position.  I specifically asked a reporter contact from Wardak, whether the Taliban’s core demands would be met once the U.S. withdraws.  He was highly skeptical.

    The Taliban’s broader goal of re-establishing an Islamic Emirate is incompatible with the Afghan state.  A return to Taliban governance is understood by many Afghans to mean the destruction of the state. The government has justifiably shown little appetite for deal-making, a point highlighted by the recent revelations in AP detailing how the Afghan government scuttled the U.S.-Talib Berlin negotiations.

    Unfortunately, the forces driving this conflict run deeper than politics.  If there is one startlingly obvious feature of Taliban tactics, it is that their missions are increasingly suicidal.  The attacks on the British council and inter-continental in Kabul show a trend of increasing suicide attacks.  These do not suggest a movement that has any intention of compromise.  An individual doesn’t agree to blow himself up over a dispute that can be resolved by “talking about it”.

    The Taliban have a triple strategy to achieve their objective.

    1.      Intimidation through night letters, assassination attacks, and bombings.  Increasingly this intimidation includes allies of Karzai (see the Charikar attacks) as well as foreign aid workers whose projects are tied to the government.

    2.   Outreach through culturally conservative vision of Islam that appeals to young socially constrained Afghans across diverse sectors of society.

    3.  Exploitation of tribal rivalries.


    Propaganda is a fascinating, and I believe under-researched topic in Afghanistan.  Local Afghans point out, correctly I think, that in terms of actual numbers, the Taliban remain a relatively small force.  True, I argue, but the most salient feature of the Taliban’s strength is not there total numbers of support, but their seemingly infinite ability to recruit.  Understanding this phenomenon is of paramount importance to defeating the insurgency.

    Even in Kabul, propaganda and messaging seems to play an important role in shaping beliefs.  Two features you often hear are that the government is somehow un-Islamic (this sounds to me like Talib propaganda), and that the Taliban are a bunch of Pakistanis (government propaganda maybe?)  At the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the an editor felt so strongly about this Pakistani connection that he interrupted my interview.  An Afghan aid worker was equally emphatic on this point; as evidence, she pointed to the captured “foreign Talibs” paraded on state television news channels.  If that doesn’t convince you that this is government propaganda, I don’t know what will.

    To be fair, elements within Pakistan have played (and continue to play) a role in supporting the insurgency and they heavily influence the insurgency—particularly the Haqqanis.  For instance, much of the radicalization of Afghans reportedly occurs in Pakistani madrasahs.  It should be re-emphasized, however, that the insurgency remains overwhelmingly local.

    My engineer host (mentioned last post) put it most accurately when he said, emotion in his voice: “I know my people have a lot to do with what happened, but the Pakistanis played a role too.”

    Tribal Exploitation:

    The relationship between the tribes and the insurgents also remains ambiguous.  On the one hand, the insurgent movement is seen correctly as an attempt to usurp power from tribal structures.  On the other hand Afghan tribes have been an insurgent’s best friends: Since the movement’s inception, the Taliban have continually exploited tribal rivalries.

    It should be noted that the tribal governance as a root cause of the insurgency contradicts the common explanation that state or warlord abuses are the main drivers of the conflict.  For instance, in Uruzgan longstanding blood feuds between the Popolzai (Karzai’s tribe) and Nurzai as well as inter-tribal rivalries seem to have played a larger role in the Taliban’s resurgence than the admittedly heavy-handed policies of former governor and warlord Jan Muhammad.  Even Jan Mohammad’s replacement with a more conciliatory governor, the security situation has continued to deteriorate (see The Liaison Office Report on Uruzgan).

    As for the central government, they continue to have a very limited presence in rural districts.  For instance 80 to 90% of disputes in non-Talib areas are settled in the tribal judicial system; to the extent that Talib resurgence represents a rejection of predatory governance, its predatory governance at the tribal level.

    That’s all for now. Next post I will conclude with the pros and cons of various policy options.

    Tags: , , ,

  4. Reconciling the Afghan Analyst Network

    Published: July 2nd, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    How confident should we be that the supposed reconciliation talks are going to succeed?  Why don’t we check with the folks from the Afghan Analysts Network?

    Thomas Ruttig is not too optimistic:

    It is even not clear whether every actor involved in the [Taliban peace talks] really wants peace: The US military continues to try crushing the Taliban militarily and possibly to avoid substantial talks. The Taliban have started their own kill campaign of key Afghan security forces leaders, particularly of Northern provenience.

    This analysis comes after a recent Karzai speech in which the president declared ongoing peace talks for the first time between the U.S. and Taliban, a move that was widely portrayed positively in western media.  In Afghanistan, as Ruttig’s observations epitomize, things are seldom what they seem:  Karzai’s emphasis on American led negotiations directly contradicts the State Department’s repeated assurances that any peace deal will be Afghan led.  Then there is a little matter of the Tayyab Agha talks in Berlin, which were allegedly leaked to journalists from the presidential palace.

    Ruttig concludes:  Every day on which they do not seriously work towards genuine and inclusive talks, with the Taliban and those who oppose them, armed or not, diminishes the chances for a peaceful solution.

    Compared to Ruttig, Ahmad Shuja, a guest blogger for the Afghan Analysts Network, is slightly more optimistic.  Shuja has been following former Northern Alliance intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, at one point going so far as to lead protests against prospective peace talks.   Shuja sees Saleh changing his tune in a recent op-ed, and opening the door a crack for prospective talks:

    In this new language, Saleh is indicating a shift from his previous position of adamantly opposing any kind of talks with the Taliban… Saleh has been one of the leaders of a movement against talks with the Taliban and is thought to have lost his job as NDS chief because of a disagreement on this subject with President Karzai.

    This new rhetoric is an improvement, albeit a marginal one.  Many of Saleh’s demands seem a little far fetched, such as his insistence that the Taliban disarm or pushing for investigations into human rights abuses over the past twenty years (a timeframe which includes the Afghan Civil War in the 1990s).   Sounds like a good idea, except that virtually all of the perpetrators remain in key positions of power.   I’m not sure that either the Afghan government or the Taliban will ever embrace Saleh’s views.

    But not to worry, if reconciliation doesn’t work out, at least we still have a successful “reintegration program” to fall back on.  Just listen to this glowing endorsement from a recently reintegrated Taliban fighter:

    “In the last five months I have received none of what they promised me: no salary, no good accommodations. Those who are fighting now say: ‘Your men are jobless. What have you achieved?’ ”

    God save us.

    I’ll leave former British Ambassador Sherard Cowper- Coles with the last word on reconciliation from his brilliant interview with LA Times:  When asked whether a reduction of forces will improve chances at a peace deal, here was the Ambassador’s response:

    It’s a question of showing the Taliban you’re serious about wanting an honorable peace for all the internal parties to the Afghan conflict [and] also all the regional parties…. The Taliban know that they’re not going to win total victory; they know they’re never again going to rule the whole of Afghanistan.”

    Right now, there is a surplus of rhetoric (most of it self-serving crazy talk) and a deficit of trust.  As Ambassador Cowper-Coles correctly illustrates, for any peace deal to have a remote chance of success, this dynamic has to change.

    Tags: , ,

  5. Two days with Felix Kuehn

    Published: May 18th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    Felix Kuehn, a Kandahar-based researcher, came to Washington DC last week to discuss the state of the insurgency and the ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban.  You may recall that Kuehn co-authored with his colleague Alex Strick van Linschoten, a paper examining the history of the al Qaeda-Taliban connection in February.  (Here is ASG’s take).  It’s obviously very difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs the wealth of insights that Kuehn provides but here are some of the key points:

    The State of War

    On the security situation and the death of bin Laden
    Kuehn left Kandahar one day before the 40 hour siege last weekend, and expressed regret that he missed the beginning of what he expects will be a brutal summer season.  He dismissed DoD reports suggesting that the war is turning around.  In Kandahar, according to Kuehn, war wounded are up 60 % to 70 % in Jan and Feb from a year ago.

    He also believes that the death of bin Laden will have no effect on the insurgency and only a minimal impact on al Qaeda’s operational capabilities.  Bottom line, says Kuehn quoting an actual Taliban leader, is that the insurgents never fought for al Qaeda and so will be unaffected by his demise.

    Al Qaeda and the Taliban

    On the generational gap between Al Qaeda and the Taliban
    The first obvious difference between the two organizations, says Kuehn, is generational.  Al Qaeda leaders were graduating from madrasahs before the Taliban could even talk.  Al Qaeda’s roots are in the Muslim brotherhood.  Several foreign Islamic groups came to Afghanistan in the 1980s (after getting kicked out of Egypt and other Arab countries) and set up training camps.  Osama bin Laden was successful in uniting these groups under al Qaeda’s banner.

    In contrast to al Qaeda’s middle and upper-class Islamist roots, the Taliban leadership grew up in poor rural Afghanistan.  Most of the Taliban were members of the poorer, more warlike Ghilzai Pashto tribes.  Their parents typically did not have money for private education and so sent their children to madrasahs, which were free of tuition.

    On the religious divide between al Qaeda and the Taliban
    Al Qaeda and the Taliban also have fundamentally different religious ideologies.  Al Qaeda follow the strict Salafi movement from the Hanbali school, a very strict conservative interpretation of Islam.  The Taliban are mainly of the Deobandi Hanafi School which came out of India.  Kuehn points out that the Taliban often practice a form of Islamic Sufi mysticism, which al Qaeda fundamentally rejects.

    On political differences between al Qaeda and the Taliban
    The Taliban are not a global jihadist movement and have fundamentally different political aims, however both view the United States at present as an enemy.   The Taliban movement united against the lawlessness that pervaded Kandahar in the 1990s.  Fifty or sixty religious students took an oath at the White Mosque in Sangesar—an enormous risk according to Kuehn, but the movement soon gained popularity by bringing security and law and order to the country and was soon able to take over.  Even in this period al Qaeda was never close to the Taliban.  Mullah Omar believed strongly in the Umma—Islamic unity—for this reason he did not reject bin Laden, but neither did he choose bin Laden to lead foreign forces in 2001, a major blow to al Qaeda.

    U.S. Policy Going Forward

    On Kill Capture
    Kuehn’s discussion coincided nicely with the release of a report from Frontline documenting the limitations of the U.S. Kill-Capture campaign.  The news report chronicled several instances where the wrong person was targeted or even killed and the increasing radicalization of midlevel commanders.  One Taliban leader talked about following the U.S. troops back to the United States.  Kuehn is very worried about this increased radicalization among younger insurgents, who do not have the same perspectives as the older Talibs and act increasingly independent from the Talib leadership.  Last summer during the spike in violence, Kuehn describes reaching out to senior Talibs to ask whether he or van Linschoten were in any danger.  The Talib leader said the two Germans were not on any Taliban “hit list”, but he could not vouch for the new young insurgent leaders in Argandab.

    On Rapid Withdrawal
    Kuehn is most worried about the prospects of civil war in Afghanistan.  For this reason he did not advocate a rapid withdrawal of troops.  He did acknowledge that the surge forces in places like Marjah were costly and counterproductive.  The locals there just want to be left alone.  He seemed to advocate a managed withdrawal of international forces.

    On Reconciliation
    Kuehn supported reconciliation as outlined by Pickering and Brahimi, but he cautioned against some potential risks and obstacles:

    1. The lack of trust between Afghans and Americans has grown significantly.  A majority of Afghans in Kandahar believe that the U.S. was behind the Sarposa prison break.  Apparently, Afghans believe we want the violence to continue as an excuse to occupy the country.  This lack of trust that we will someday leave is the opposite of what one hears here in Washington, where “experts” claim the Afghans don’t trust us because we might leave.

    2.  The Northern Alliance opposes reconciliation and is, according to Kuehn, openly preparing for civil war.  There is some indication that members such as Sarwari, who was intel chief under Ahmad Shah Massoud are amenable to the notion of Talib governors in the South.   On the insurgent’s side, Kuehn believes they will not give up ties to al Qaeda for free, but their fear of Civil War may force them to compromise on this point.  If the U.S. and Afghan government can appeal to the insurgents’ pragmatism, an agreement might be possible.

    On Governance and Corruption
    Kuehn advocates a devolution of power from the Central Government to local regions.  Everything in Afghanistan happens on the local level, says Kuehn, and the U.S. correspondingly spends far too much time worrying about things like the Constitution, which have no bearing on anything that actually happens in Kandahar and elsewhere.

    He noted that the Taliban are far more tech literate than the Afghan government.  The Taliban have both a website and twitter feed in multiple languages, including English.  The reason for the Taliban’s tech advantage, according to Kuehn, is that most of the best qualified IT people are hired by NGOs, leaving the Government of Afghanistan with the dregs of the talent pool.  The proliferation of government contractors, NGOs and military dollars has also led to an increasingly unequal society in Kandahar which exacerbates the conflict.  Kuehn points out that there are over a thousand millionaires living in the impoverished province.

    Kuehn and van Linschoten have a book coming out this summer which covers their research into al Qaeda and the Taliban.  If his presentation is anything to go by, it will be very good.

    Tags: ,

  6. The Afghanistan Weekly Reader

    Published: February 11th, 2011

    Here are the top stories about Afghanistan that we were reading this week.

    New Gallup Poll Echoes Our Tea Party Survey: 72% of Americans Want Congress to Reduce Afghan Troop Presence Faster

    Afghanistan Study Group by Will Thomas
    A USA Today / Gallup poll from January found that 72% of Americans favor Congressional action this year to speed up the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The party breakdown of the poll showed that 86% of Democrats, 72% of independents, and 61% of Republicans would support a move by Congress to speed the withdrawal.

    These results echo the findings of the Afghanistan Study Group’s poll, which found that 66% of conservatives overall and 64% of self-identified Tea Party supporters believed that the US could dramatically lower the number of troops and funds spent in Afghanistan without putting America at risk.

    John Kerry Seeks a “Tweak” In Current Afghan War Strategy

    Huffington Post by Amanda Terkel
    WASHINGTON — One of the Obama administration’s key allies in Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), is calling for a “tweak” in the current Afghanistan war strategy, including a reduction in the number of U.S. troops. The development, coming from someone who was once a strong backer of Obama’s decision to increase troops in Afghanistan, could shift the administration’s strategy in the war.

    Afghanistan War: What is it Good For?

    The Nation by Katrina Vanden Heuvel
    The War in Afghanistan is the longest in US history and the most expensive, at $1 million per soldier and over $100 billion annually. There have been over 2,300 US and coalition casualties, and tens of thousands of Afghan civilian deaths. Nearly 600 US troops are wounded every month. So it comes as little surprise that opposition to the war is growing: 51 percent of Americans now think the US should not be involved in Afghanistan; a stunning 72 percent—including 61 percent of Republicans—favor Congressional action this year to speed up the withdrawal of troops.

    N.Y.U. Report Casts Doubt on Taliban’s Ties With Al Qaeda

    The New York Times by Carlotta Gall
    KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan Taliban have been wrongly perceived as close ideological allies of Al Qaeda, and they could be persuaded to renounce the global terrorist group, according to a report to be published Monday by New York University.  The report goes on to say that there was substantial friction between the groups’ leaders before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that hostility has only intensified.

    Petraeus Warns of Bloody Spring in Afghanistan

    CBS News by Mandy Clark
    General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, says he is excepting a brutal fight in the spring when Taliban insurgents try to return from their winter safe havens to areas already cleared by the international forces. “When you have 110,000 more of us than we had a year ago, we’re obviously in many, many more places,” he said in an interview with NATO TV. “We have taken away areas that matter to the Taliban and they have to fight back.”

    Tags: , , ,