Monday, November 12, 2007

Battle Front Afghanistan: General Overview

Cross Posted At the Castle

As Iraq cools down, Afghanistan heats up. Al Qaeda and it's Islamic terrorist affiliates are being pushed back on many fronts including the destruction of Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, MILF and Abu Sayaf in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines among the many places. It has sought to expand into the contested territories in the Caucuses including places like Ingushetia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and the like.

Al Qaeda has begun to concentrate foreign fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan as this represents their last, best hopes for establishing a long term and protected base from where they can launch attacks and, hopefully, from where they can establish and expand the planned for caliphate. Their current plan is focusing on controlling the area referred to as "Pashtunistan": the traditional tribal lands of the ethnic Pashtun that spans both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The foreign fighters account for the increase in suicide bombers and IED attacks against civilian and security forces alike. Their offensive is best seen as their "Tet" which everyone was expecting would happen in Iraq, but the situation for Al Qaeda had become untenable.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, has a number of ongoing issues that allows the Taliban and Al Qaeda to continue to use it for a base, not the least of which is the protected base it has established in Waziristan, Pakistan. From there, the highest echelon of the Taliban and Al Qaida issue orders, train forces, obtain money and arms. They easily transit the area through the Paktika and Paktia provinces on the Afghan/Pakistan border.

Afghanistan, like Iraq, has both rural and urban populations. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan's populations, though still close to urban areas, are more rural in situation and tradition. Kandahar, Jalalabad, Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-sharif do not hold a quarter or more of the population of the nation as Baghdad, Fallujah, Basrah, Mosul, Tall Afar, Najaf and other notable cities do in Iraq. This means that the problem areas and reconstruction efforts are spread out into the countryside, making security for the population difficult to manage. It also means that reconstruction efforts, such as new hydro-electric dams or irrigation canals, will have a more localized and limited effect, are difficult to manage and secure over the long distances between the capitol and main security forces.

In Iraq, US forces using the new established COIN strategy, identified tribal shiehks and power structures outside of urban or suburban political power structures to develop alliances, manage projects and generally route the insurgents or turn the indigent insurgents against the foreign. The area and conditions in Iraq are different than in Afghanistan. Iraq is largely flat and already had established roads and other infrastructure that connected far flung members of tribes from rural to suburban and urban areas. This gave the tribal sheiks a greater power to relate to and manage their distant tribal connections, even if some of the tribe lived in the cities.

It also provided them with the ability to easily contact and work with associated tribes on areas of interest. Those areas more closely overlapped and had shared impact. Even the simplest aspects of security are shared since unrest and subjugation of one tribe in Iraq could and would bleed over to other tribes in the area. The more open terrain also meant that infrastructure projects like roads, electricity and water could be more easily connected and would also share impact across tribal areas. Finally, the open terrain allowed a much quicker response to attacks on the varied populations, rural to town to city.

In Afghanistan, the tribes are much more isolated from each other by geography and equally isolated by lack of infrastructure and shared interests with other tribes. It is much more ethnically diverse. While Iraq had two main ethnicities, Kurds and Arabs, though complicated by religious and political affiliation, language is not a barrier. Afghanistan has at least eleven ethnicities with diverging ethno-politico-religious affiliations, separated by language, customs, and economic interests.

These ethno-politico-religious affiliations do not simply or easily breakdown into "Sunni/Shia" or "Fundamentalist/Moderate" or even "Democrats/Royalists/Kalahfistas". The needs and beliefs of these tribes are more likely to be insular and limited. It is one reason that the centralized government in Kabul does not easily translate into projected power or control in these areas. Additionally, it is one of the reasons that the centralized government is hard pressed to respond to the needs of the people in these areas, leaving them exposed to the mercies of either the resurgent Taliban or the established warlords.

As far as the tribes are concerned, even though many of the leaders and elders were invited into the central government, Karzai's government is the government of Kabul and Kandahar. That government has little capacity to shape politics or provide necessities within these regions, much less project military or other authoritative power. While many coalition forces praise the fearlessness and drive of the ANA, they are far from capable of managing the security situation. Most significant economic improvement has occurred within the two main cities where aid and security are easily accessible. This does not translate to economic or security success within other provinces.

One of the projects that have long been underway is the creation of a national road system. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has little infrastructure from which to build. The road system will connect parts of the country, north, south, east and west. It will allow the government to be more connected to the tribal regions, respond to security threats, deliver services and increase economic possibilities.

Without a road, goods and foods cannot be delivered to national markets or even international markets. Without a road, resources cannot be delivered to manufacturing centers that create textiles and other products. Without a road, security forces cannot provide the cover necessary to secure the population. However, roads also make it easier for enemy forces to travel to areas of concentration as well as warlords to extend their control over their areas. Proliferation of opium and its export can also be tied to the new roads.

Even the coalition, with limited forces, are unable to manage the security situation necessary to institute the rule of law [video] over the entire land. It is concentrated in urban areas while the rural, tribal areas are still subject to warlord type feudal subjugation. Some warlords in the north have attempted to go "legitimate" by becoming part of the government, whether in Kabul or in the provinces. However, this is largely in name only as most of these warlords are only interested in protecting their interests, redeveloping their criminal enterprises and influencing the central government from acting against their own. They are also concerned that their disarmament and reliance on government security leaves them vulnerable to a resurgent Taliban.

While their tribal affiliations and association with the Northern Alliance made the warlords of the north and west natural allies of the coalition, the warlords had been finally routed by the Taliban in 1996. The Taliban was able to do so because it had brought some form of rule of law, all be it fairly repressive and nearly as arbitrary as any under the warlords. It was largely unified, though not codified, applied with equal brutality. Warlord's were territorial, isolated and routinely committed fairly atrocious crimes against people with very little, if any, appearance of justice.

Six years after the invasion by the coalition, similar problems are most likely allowing the Taliban to re-infiltrate these areas. With the increase of opium production, crime is rampant and the warlords and their criminal gangs are likely abetting and committing it. The coalition has been slowly working at creating a judicial system and police force to mitigate this crime. However, the judicial system is dominated by judges who owe their allegiances to warlords or are in fear of their lives. As in Iraq, the police are corrupt or intimidated by militias and insurgents.

While the rule of law and economic improvements are necessary, as in Iraq, the lack of security capable of managing security for a greater portion of the population and against encroachment of insurgents is a problem. The call by US commanders from the area and many politicians to increase troop deployments to Afghanistan is not completely out of line. Particularly, as the new offensive by the Taliban and Al Qaeda is underway.

Some reports indicate that the Taliban and Al Qaida are planning one of their first "winter" campaigns. They expect that the winter months will keep US and coalition forces from using their larger air mobilization and attack assets. This would leave ground forces vulnerable to over run. Others have questioned whether the Taliban could sustain such a winter offensive since their original "Summer Offensive" did go as it had planned. However, reports of suicide attacks and IEDs, now their favored weapons, into November (the start of the winter months) may be indicating the "winter offensive" is underway.

In six years, some progress as been made, but geography, tribal independence and a desire to allow as much autonomy as possible hinders progress in the security, political and economic arenas. Other issues, including NATO and other nation commitments leave a majority of the heavy lifting to US, Canadian, British and Netherland forces. South Korea has announced that it will withdraw a large portion of its troops from Afghanistan per an agreement with the Taliban after the release of their Korean national hostages held earlier this year. Although, ostensibly as part of this agreement, the issue of Korean troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has been a political minefield in South Korea.

Norway has indicated it will boost its troops temporarily to over 700 with an additional 150 special forces, but that number will decrease in early 2008 as it withdraws over 200 rapid response troops. The additional special forces will be placed around Kandahar where the Taliban and Al Qaeda backed forces attempted to retake a town within miles of the provincial capital.

Germany is maintaining its 3,000 strong forces in the north, resisting placing them in close contact to Taliban infiltrated areas and actual combat. However, Germany continues to pledge continued financial aid to the nation. France has stepped up with additional close air support missions after the US Air Force grounded its F-15 fleet following a crash in Missouri. Dutch forces continue to assist with combat operations in the south, coming into regular contact with Taliban forces and have suffered a number of casualties.

Other commanders are noting that their commitment to train and improve Afghan National Army forces is difficult because they lack at least "50%" of the trainers they need to make it happen. Some commanders insist that this is "quality" over quantity slow approach to building an army. Afghan officers are being sent to training facilities in the United States, Germany and other nations for formal training. Yet, the impending security situation would seem to call for an increase of troops to assist in all areas including security, training, reconstruction and reconciliation operations.

Logistics is still a major problem six years in. Many of the coalition forces do not have enough or any of the necessary equipment to contribute to this need. Helicopters are the main source of transportation for people and goods, particularly due to the lack of other infrastructure. Many coalition partners have to use US helicopters to transport or take action to the enemy. There are not enough in Afghanistan and fatigue to Coalitions, particularly US, equipment and people are causing serious strains on this capability.

In this report on the British Ghurkas
efforts to take the fight to the Taliban, the reporter notes that the British have to cancel an operation due to the lack of helicopters and some nations' policies. Due to the type of equipment and danger the terrain presents, the Dutch do not fly their helicopters at night and the British helicopters were over taxed. They had to go on foot if they wanted to do the mission at all. Reports have indicated that many coalition forces do not have the type of equipment necessary to fly "high and hot".

In the meantime, the Czech Republic is boosting its assistance and the ANA's own rotor capability by donating fifteen transport and combat helicopters to Afghanistan military. This is unlikely to make a significant difference to the current logistical problems due to the amount of training and support that will be required to make a rotor wing capable and self sustaining. Due to the lack of infrastructure and security, most supplies, arms and men are transported via helicopter for both the Coalition and Afghan forces.

Kyrgyzstan has recently recommitted itself to providing a resupply and transit base to US forces for security in Afghanistan. Despite US problems with Iran and accusations that it is supplying arms to Afghan insurgents, Iran and Afghanistan are going ahead on a border post plan that has been discussed for the last two years. It's effectiveness will be dependent on Iran's cooperation and commitment since its well known that the IRGC is controlling the smuggling rings to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the meantime, Marine Commandant Conway has suggested removing a bulk of his forces from Iraq and sending them to Afghanistan to quell the increasing violence. While there are no indications that this plan is seriously being considered by the DoD, it does make sense in the long run to improve security forces to the now "hot" front. Marines also have the added benefit of having worked with largely tribal organizations in Anbar that would give them a leg up on many deploying forces. Conway is likely eager to see if his forces can pull off the same program. US forces in the south are seeing a distinct uptick in operation tempo.

The two drawbacks are that most of Afghanis do not speak Arabic, which the Marines would now be fluent in and, while some tribal customs are similar, they would need to come up to speed very quickly to make an immediate difference. However, like in Iraq, building networks and relations are often about overcoming suspicion and having enough time. Time may not be available if suicide and other attacks along ethnic lines, as seen in Iraq, causes the warlords in the north to completely re-arm and restart a civil war.

According to this report from NEFA, the divisions between ethnicities is much deeper than in Iraq due to the distance, history and geography. Like in Iraq, the majority Pashtun population (68%) expect a greater share of the say in government and in resources. For several years, Karzai has been attempting to balance the demands and show that the government is for everyone. But, slow progress in Helmand and other Pashtun dominated areas have lent to the general distrust and disillusionment with the central government.

This report from 2007, while generally lamenting the unorganized, slow process of developing a project and funding it, also notes the general issue underlying the entire endeavor and proved correct in Iraq: security trumps reconstruction and, without reconstruction their can be no security.

The problems in Pakistan are severely complicating matters for Afghanistan. Pakistan's inability (or lack of desire) to rein in Taliban in the Waziristan tribal areas as well as political unrest has given the Taliban and Al Qaeda breathing room to advance control of the area. Musharraf has recently pledged to re-instate elections in February 2008, thirty days after its original schedule, possibly in response to President Bush' direct call for democracy to continue. It's unclear what impact that will have in Islamabad, but it certainly has done nothing for the military issue in the tribal areas where the military is increasingly routed.

Some caution putting too much emphasis on democracy efforts in Pakistan since many of the so-called "democracy protesters" are part of known terrorist supporting Islamist groups. Musharraf's moves may have given these groups and their political wings new found legitimacy. US military commanders are understandably concerned about the security of Pakistani nukes. But, there are no calls at this time for military intervention. Further, discussions regarding withholding US aid to Pakistan were hampered since the government is seriously concerned about damaging Pakistan's assistance on the border.

What may give Pakistan some breathing room is to send additional forces to Afghanistan, stepping up combat operations that might draw in fighters away from Pakistan. Thus, giving Musharraf breathing room to get his security forces set back up off their heels and capable of dealing with the expanding threat from the tribal lands.

Economically, Afghanistan is a train wreck that will take many years to improve. It needs an influx of forces to reduce Taliban re-appearance in key areas, beef up over all security, assist with developing better and more representative governance at the local level and improve the economic connectivity and future of Afghanistan. Until Afghanis feel they have an ability to seek and obtain redress for corruption and crimes, Warlords will continue their behavior which is contrary to the US mission. Afghanis will continue to fluctuate between supporting the Taliban, thus al Qaida, as some sort of force against crime. Poppy money will still fuel the insurgency and keep all other legitimate business from making any significant difference or leading people away from criminal, Taliban or Al Qaida related enterprises.

Finally, Afghanistan will remain a battle front long after Iraq is completely pacified and becomes a once a week or less blip in the media. Sadly, what may be the only way that Afghanistan completely turns on its head is if a civil war does break out and the war models Iraq more completely including horrific, mass attacks against civilians that will serve as a reminder of why the Taliban and its Al Qaida cohorts were rejected in the first place. Let's hope that we do not repeat the same mistakes in Afghanistan as we did in Iraq when we failed to place "security" at the top of the list for nation building.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Al Qaida Threats: It's the Economy Stupid!

Cross Posted At the Castle

Update: John Bolton discusses the terror alert on video

The FBI released declassified memo warning of a possible Al Qaida attack on US malls though they also caution against it's credibility. This type of threat has been made almost annually. The purpose is very apparent. The US economy is strong because consumers spend. If Al Qaida can damage the US economy, it believes it can damage our ability to project military and political power. Damaging our economy has been a primary objective of Al Qaida and like minded terrorists for almost two decades or more.

In 1993, ideological affiliates first attempted to destroy the WTC. They finally succeeded in 2001. The focus on these buildings were not simply symbolic. In 1993, though computer network systems were becoming more prevalent, financial information was either in physical files or on servers that were on the premises. After the 1993 attacks, with new technology and expanded computer network use, many companies had transferred their data management to large, off-site servers with back up tapes, building a dependable redundancy within the system.

It is unclear whether the planners of 9/11 knew that this kind of change had occurred or if it was considered important when any attack on the financial district could cause a panic. More so because the US economy had been in a slight recession for at least two years following the internet bust of 1999. Even without this recession, the attack would have and did have an impact on our economy. Over 1.4 million people lost their jobs within 30-60 days of the attack. While many have questioned whether the appropriate direction from President Bush was to "go shopping" in the aftermath of the attacks, it was explicitly meant to jump start the economy and stave off possible worsening recession or even depression in a post panic withdrawal.

Since then, Al Qaida has either threatened to attack, had their attacks interrupted or been successful against what are largely financially connected targets or represented a "strategic convergence". These strategic convergences are noted here:

Because carrying out these attacks are dangerous and operationally laborious, Al Qaida picks targets with three main objectives in mind: political, financial and psychological. The more spectacular attacks outside of Iraq usually represent an intersection or combination of the three goals in order to get the most "bang" for their buck.

Previous successful attacks included the attacks on Bali night clubs, the 3/11 Madrid bombings of the trains and the 7/7 London bombings of the trains. Further evidence of this fairly normal pattern can be seen in the attacks carried out in Iraq. Besides police, coalition and other government targets, Al Qaida operatives in Iraq targeted markets, gas stations, banks, business, electrical plants and lines, major transportation routes and other targets that represented a "strategic convergence" outside of military targets. Markets in Iraq became one of their favorite high density targets. Not only due to the number of people that frequent them, but because it damaged the economy and up the misery of the people, limiting their ability to exist.

Al Qaida has planned to use US dependency on foreign oil since the beginning of the "hot" war in 2001. In 2006, Saudi Arabia interrupted a plan to attack their largest oil refinery, arresting 172, capturing money and a large arms cache. In February 2007, Al Qaida issued another direct threat against US oil resources, prompting several countries to beef up security at their facilities. The threat to the US economy and military capabilities abroad posed by our dependence on foreign oil imports and threats to that resource continues to be very real.

Other financial targets have included the resorts in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt as well as various tourist attractions in Morocco and other destinations.

While the FBI is quick to point out they do not have "credible" evidence that an attack is imminent and that the threats were posted on open, known, Islamist web sites that are "hit or miss" on their viability, the threats stay within the basic strategic paradigm targeting important financial points of American economy. More importantly because the threats come at a time of financial importance.

This is the holiday season when "shopping" and the money generated sustains many businesses and the economy as a whole for several months after the season has ended. It also comes at a time when the economy is starting to wobble at a precarious pinnacle. Oil prices continue to soar, the prime lending market has crashed and the stock market is showing signs of a real down turn while the fed continues to bolster it with inflow of cash.

Al Qaida has also suffered a major set back in Iraq where it's loss there represents a serious blow to their image and strategic interests. Even internationally, the Al Qaida network continues to be rolled up across Europe and the Middle East. Al Qaida has turned its sites on Afghanistan and Pakistan where they are now cornered in the last possible nation that offers protection and acceptance. It's the last front. If Al Qaida loses acceptance and bases there, they will have few, if any, destinations where they could set up such a large and centralized base for training, rest, refitting and planning.

Any other location would expose them to attack and probable destruction at the hands of the US or coalition partner (North Africa), Russia (Caucuses), India (Kashmir) or other nation as those states have very specific relations. The latest unrest in Pakistan provides them with an opportunity to gain ground and work towards possible domination of a nuclear, Islamic state. The unrest also causes a serious political conundrum for the US and continues to be a factor in the rising price of oil on speculation of regional explosions.

An attack on an external target in the west, particularly a financial or resource target, could be in the works in order for Al Qaida to gain some face after so many set backs. Including the slow destruction of their media wing through capture of their first and second tier operatives. They need a real media victory. It's likely this understanding that has Gen. Fils both projecting victory in Iraq and warning of a possible Al Qaida "come back".

On the other hand, an attack by Al Qaida during the upcoming campaigning season in the US could be a failure on their part. If they attack, they will boost the credentials of any candidate who is running strong on defense. This could damage the possibility of any candidate who is advocating a less robust approach to taking on Al Qaida and terrorism in general. At this point, Al Qaida needs the US to disengage if it is going to survive the next year or two as any cohesive operation with a centralized planning committee and large, open training camps to produce the fighters necessary to take on the US in Afghanistan or work against other allies in the region.

However, it would be inappropriate to dismiss these threats against the malls because they have not happened in the past when other similar threats were made. At least on two occasions, planned attacks on malls in the US and Britain have been thwarted. Many point to the seeming disconnect and "self starter" apparent franchising of these individuals and groups, placing them outside of Al Qaida central control or planning. However, most of the individuals have turned out to have attended terror training camps in Pakistan or associating with others that have.

While each attack or threat on these financially important structures is not necessarily centrally planned or directed, they all follow a similar pattern. Pointing to the probability that terror training camp includes instruction on choosing appropriate targets to make the best impact. Thus, adhering to the central strategy of Al Qaida, even if the plan doesn't come straight from Zawahiri or Bin Laden.

The big attack in Afghanistan was certainly a media making moment and included an attack on a manufacturing plant (economic structure) that provided a huge number of casualties for a psychological effect. For nations such as Canada and Germany where involvement in a "hot war" instead of peace keeping is a hot topic of public debate, it can have a serious impact on national decisions. For the US, it simply re-states the necessity to maintain force and redouble efforts in the midst of this strategic shift.

Yet, the attack also had negative connotations for Al Qaida which is why it and the Taliban are trying to distance themselves from the event by denying involvement. Al Qaida has a strong history of evaluating past mistakes and trying to correct them in future strategies and tactics. Zawahiri had written in "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner" that one of the things that precipitated the fall of armed resistance from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was an attack on a government official that resulted in the death of a young Muslim school girl. This had turned public opinion against them.

The experience in Iraq must also be evaluated from their point of view since the repeated attacks on civilians, the oppression, torture and rape, among the many problems for Al Qaida, is what eventually saw their acceptance among the population of Iraq destroyed and their fighters driven out of various previously protected enclaves. The death of 59 school aged children at the hands of Al Qaida or the Taliban could end up being the event that makes them personas non gratis.

This doesn't preclude any attack on the west. Our current situation and Al Qaida's precarious situation may make an attack on the west at this time a strategic must for Al Qaida.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Our SOB in Pakistan

Cross Posted At The Castle

What do we do about Pakistan? Musharraf has put us in a bad position. A calculation on his part that was probably a foregone conclusion after the Pakistan Supreme Court ruling that said he had to resign as head of the military forces if he wanted to continue campaigning for president. Bhutto decided to take the opportunity to press for her return. Musharraf was being pressured politically and militarily as his forces continued to take beatings in the Tribal areas of Waziristan. He may have felt he had no other recourse, but to declare martial law.

Then again, Musharraf is either supported by the US or his government collapses which means either an Islamic government comes to power or even a "moderate" government, taking in consideration other internal issues, that would force the government to reduce cooperation with the US against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan. Thus, giving Al Qaeda and the Taliban the truly protected space they require to refit and re-organize.

Leaving us with the prospect of a deposed Musharef in a truly unstable state with nuclear weapons or backing Musharraf after disbanding Democracy and hope we can pressure him into re-establishing it and allowing elections. Even then, the damage may be too extreme since the electoral backlash (or military coup) is likely to be Musharraf's demise.

Are we forced to re-track to "realist" politics and simply back Musharraf as a long term, oppressive dictator, for-going any moral stand on democracy?

Or, do we stand on democracy and hope Bhutto can pull something together to maintain a government that can bring the non-Al Qaeda fundamentalist, Islamists and the more "liberal" urban democrats into a government that can share power?

Or, are we prepared for a total chaotic state where the nuclear weapons may be up for grabs?

This possibility was probably what has had Adm. Fallon talking about re-deployments of troops to counter "other" threats.