Archive for June, 2009

In yet another symbolic move designed to foster the idea that things are “looking up”, American forces will today scale down their visible presence in major Iraqi cities.

Don’t believe what you read — U.S. troops will not “withdraw”, but rather will relocate to larger bases within city limits. In Mosul, this means FOB Marez, which is located a stone’s throw away from the city centre; in Baghdad, Iraqis will take control of the smaller Joint Security Stations while the Americans pull back to the fringes of the central districts.

This may be a big deal politically to both Obama and Maliki, but on the ground little will change for the Americans. They have already adopted a largely passive posture; “unilateral” patrols have been a no-no for months, and the MNF-I claim that the remaining troops will have an advisory role is a bit of a joke, since that is how American soldiers have seen themselves in Baghdad for at least a year. Let’s just say there’ll be a hell of a lot of foreign “advisors” armed to the teeth in the Iraqi capital come tomorrow.

For the Iraqi security forces, however, it will be a huge change. They’re now forced to “stand up”, whether they like it or not, or more importantly, whether they’re able to do it or not. They will be killed in ever larger numbers. Their mentors — the guys who gave them the Dodges and the Humvees and the MREs — will not be there to help them out, at least not on a daily basis.

Their adversaries, too, will face a do-or-die moment. For Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the various insurgent groups still active, this is the last chance to reinvigorate their campaign to cripple the Iraqi state. Bad news is, even if they fail, violence will continue. Sunni militants will keep killing civilians in the hope of setting off a tit-for-tat sectarian war. You can call the bloodshed “residual” or whatever the hell you want, but the fact is, it will be a tragedy.

And then, of course, there will be the next Big One. Like always, when the dust settles — and that will take a long time — the Kurds will be the losers. Whatever Iraq will look like after the war is over, it will not be a democracy. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if next January’s parliamentary election would be the last of its kind for at least a couple of decades.

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For reasons beyond me, Atlantic-Community.org asked me to take part in their expert survey on EU policy towards Pakistan. I hardly qualify as an “international expert”, but in case you’re interested, here’s what I wrote them:

How does Pakistan’s instability impact EU security concerns?

I believe the extent of Pakistan’s political instability is somewhat exaggerated. The Pakistani state is generally more robust and popular opinion in the country more anti-extremist than we in the West think. That being said, even if a sudden collapse of the state is unlikely, prolonged armed conflict in the tribal areas will have a slowly destabilising effect on the fragile Pakistani democracy. If the democratic institutions prove unable to withstand the pressures and Pakistan once again reverts to military rule, it will have an immediate effect on EU security concerns, as Pakistan’s generals have a history of supporting extremists to further their own agenda.

What should be the guiding principles of the European Union’s foreign policy in the region?

Bolstering democracy, good governance, economic development and human rights. War fighting — including counterinsurgency and counterterrorism — is already being taken care of by our partner across the Atlantic.

How could/should the EU’s policy vis-à-vis Pakistan complement US policy in the region?

According to President Barack Obama, the core U.S. goal in the region is “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” The recent change of American ISAF commanders in Kabul also points to a change in strategy from classic counterinsurgency / nation building to a more narrowly focused and kinetic approach. While a simultanious “civilian surge” has been promised, it is doubtful whether the U.S. at this time is capable or even willing to invest more in building the Afghan state. This is clearly where the EU should step up its efforts. Also, as the future of a non-Taliban Afghanistan hinges on fully capable security forces, the shortcomings in police training need to be taken seriously and addressed without delay. (The same applies to Pakistan — as the police there are on the frontlines in the fight against the militants, help is urgently needed.)

[Click here for the whole shebang. Péter’s answers are here.]

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At home with the boys (ages 6 and 1). Posting will be sporadic.

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Finnish ISAF soldiers heading for Northern Afghanistan can no longer be photographed or identified by name in the media because of potential extremist threats to their families, according to a Finnish commander interviewed by my hometown newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. Does anyone else find this rather unlikely? Josh? Christian?

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“Al-Qaida was involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan from the very beginning in 2002”, Anne Stenersen argues in a new FFI conference paper that will be a nice eye-opener to anyone under the illusion that the West is fighting a monolithic enemy in Afghanistan. Also:

“When looking at biographies of militants who died in the area in this period, we see that a majority of these fighters seem to have been involved in guerrilla warfare at a local level, such as ambushes and rocket attacks, but not so much in spectacular suicide operations, or terrorist attacks in the West, that we traditionally associate with al-Qaida.”

More good stuff here.

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Touting the new CNAS paper on Iraq over at his handsomely renovated Abu Muqawama, Andrew Exum asks what he considers “the question in Iraq right now”:

I think Iraq stopped being a counterinsurgency campaign over a year ago, but even when we were fighting an insurgency, a lot of other stuff was going on. A civil war, for example. Do we think Iraq can’t go back to that?

No, Andrew, we do not, and we also find, somewhat to our surprise, that your buddy Rosen has misread the current situation in Iraq when he claims the recent bombings are basically pointless. As the inimitable John Robb put it in one of his brilliant “Standing Orders” (sadly overshadowed by the hoopla surrounding the more high-profile COIN celebs), “Repetition is more important than scale”:

The ability to repeat disruptions targeted on specific groups generates changes in behavior (economic, social, and psychological) akin to an excessive tax.  This is in contrast to large, one-off, attacks that cause massive disruption and then quickly dissipate as the targeted system returns to equilibrium.

In short, it doesn’t matter whether the attacks manage to re-ignite the sectarian war. Their goal is to keep the central government off balance by showing it is not in control of the situation. A definite plus to whoever is behind the violence — and this being Iraq, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions — is the fact that with the economy in nosedive, Maliki is heading for the parliamentary elections holding just one trump card — improved security. Take that away from him and who knows, the whole political landscape might change.

Everyone in Iraq understands the country is now in an inter-war period. Any talk of peace, let alone victory, is Western folly.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his deputy, Gen. David Rodriguez to proceed with a review of war strategy, McClatchy’s Nancy Youssef reports.

This is excellent news — it has been almost two months since the war was last reviewed.

[h/t Spencer Ackerman.]

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Mindful of their nationalist credentials in an election year, Iraqi politicians are pressing ahead with plans to hold a referendum on the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement, The New York Times reports. If the pact is voted down, U.S. troops will have to pack up and leave one year ahead of schedule, in 2010. Marc Lynch saw this coming already in January:

Should the SOFA/WA fail to pass, U.S. forces will need either to begin withdrawing at an uncomfortably rapid rate or else find some other formal authorization to remain. Neither will be an attractive proposition. The government wants the agreement to pass, and will likely establish rules and a format conducive to success. But opposition forces will attempt to mobilize outrage at every opportunity to portray the United States as violating the terms of the SOFA/WA and not actually intending to withdraw. The referendum will almost certainly become a major issue in intra-Shia (and to a lesser extent intra-Sunni) political competition. U.S. policy needs to be extremely careful to not feed these flames.

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In Triage, the new CNAS report on Afghanistan and Pakistan authored by Andrew Exum, Nathaniel Fick, Ahmed Humayun and David Kilcullen, the word ‘Taliban’ is used 69 times. For example:

The Taliban is pursuing a strategy of exhaustion designed to bleed away public support in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe for continued Western engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.


In Afghanistan, Taliban influence has displaced government control in large sections of the country, while the government and the coalition have been unable or unwilling to guarantee security for the people.


Taliban control is increasing along with civilian casualties. According to one estimate, the Taliban have a ‘heavy presence’ across approximately three-quarters of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts, up from one-half only one year ago.


Until the coalition and the Afghan government are able to do so, the Taliban will maintain and expand their control, compelling and persuading the people of Afghanistan to resist the government and the coalition.

My question is this: if these bad guys are so important as to warrant being mentioned 69 times, how come not one word in the 36-page report is devoted to defining who they actually are?

The answer, of course, is that such a definition would’ve exposed a fundamental flaw in the strategy the authors propose. While a group called ‘the Taliban’ does indeed exist, CNAS has chosen to use the term to denote all non-AQ opposition to the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition. This misidentifies a wide range of forces currently destabilising Afghanistan, and frankly, I’m at a loss as to why guys with this much combined brainpower didn’t bother to sort out the mess.

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At Jihadica, which to my great relief is going strong despite Will McCants’s departure, Thomas Hegghammer decodes bin Laden’s latest audiotape and concludes all may not be well at the house of al-Qaeda:

What we have here is a short, outdated tape delivered manually following a series of longer, up-to-date statements distributed online. This suggests to me that Bin Ladin’s personal situation has changed in the past few months. He may have moved to a new location, and/or he is taking much stricter security precautions than before.

Peter Bergen, speaking in an International Press Institute panel here in Helsinki earlier today, suggested Al Jazeera may actually have sat on the tape for some time, waiting for “a newsworthy moment”.

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