Friday, May 27, 2016


"US 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. While the Taliban have yet to confirm the death of their leader Saturday in a remote area in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, senior members of the insurgency's leadership council met to begin choosing Mansour's successor. Two senior members of the movement also said Pakistani authorities had delivered Mansour's badly burned remains for burial in the western city of Quetta. Pakistani officials, however, denied handing over a body. U.S. forces targeted Mansour because he was plotting attacks that posed "specific imminent threats" to U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, later specified that the Taliban were planning new attacks against "our interests and our people in Kabul." He did not elaborate. But the administration hopes Mansour's death will have a long-term impact by pushing the Taliban to end its refusal to engage in peace negotiations with Kabul and "choose the path to reconciliation," the official said".
Jibran Ahmad & Jonathan Landay, "U.S. says late Taliban leader was planning attacks on Americans". Reuters. 23 May 2016 in
"Afghanistan’s rebel Taliban group has moved quickly to replace its leader who was killed by a US drone strike at the weekend, as it widens a 15-year-old insurgency against the government in Kabul and its western military allies. The Taliban confirmed on Wednesday that Mullah Akhtar Mansour had been killed on Saturday in a missile attack on his car in Baluchistan, Pakistan. It announced that he had been replaced by Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, previously one of his deputies.... Washington appears to have decided that it has nothing to lose by targeting Taliban leaders such as Mansour — who had proved unwilling to join a quadrilateral peace process involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China — even at the expense of offending Pakistan by operating drones uninvited in its airspace. On Monday, US President Barack Obama said Mansour’s death would send a “clear signal” to extremists that America would protect its personnel. Peter Cook, Pentagon spokesman, said that since Mansour had become leader of the Taliban, the group had conducted attacks resulting in tens of thousands of deaths while Mansour himself had been “an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban”. Officials in Pakistan who follow events in neighbouring Afghanistan said Mullah Akhundzada was unlikely to show interest in the peace process either. “He is as conservative as they come and has had very little exposure to the outside world,” said one. “For the foreseeable future, I doubt if the Taliban would want to negotiate.”
Victor Mallet & Farhan Bokhari, "Taliban names new leader after death of Mansour in drone strike". The Financial Times. 25 May 2016, in
The assassination of the head of the Taliban while a needed measure has au fond changed nothing, absolutely nothing on the ground in Afghanistan. As the appointment of his successor indicates. The 'peace talks' option so beloved of commentators and analysts a few years ago, appears to be completely played-out and have reached a cul de sac diplomatically speaking. The policy of the American Administration and its allies is currently in a holding pattern. With the one-time hoped-for withdrawal of all American fighting forces by the end of 2016 (originally 2014) now a completely forgotten promise. However, such reversals are part and parcel of a consistent policy and indeed strategy of failure and myopia by the American Administration since January 2009. As perhaps the leading American military commentator, Anthony Cordesman recently noted:
"The Administration has already had to accept the fact that its poorly planned and poorly executed efforts to first surge U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009, to withdraw them at the end of 2014, and finally to virtually eliminate a U.S. advisory mission by the end of this year, has been a total failure. This withdrawal plan has never taken account of the real world conditions on the ground, or the limits of the Afghan forces that were rushed into being ready for such a mission. These are troops who were forced into their mission only a decade after the United States first intervened in 2001, and were only given the proper funds and trainers as recently as 2011-2012. The Administration never took full account of the support Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were giving al Qaida and the rebels. It never looked realistically at what would happen if U.S. airpower was not available, and it failed to provide enough U.S. or NATO advisors after 2014 to support Afghan forces at the combat unit level. It became all too clear during the brief “surge” of U.S. forces that they were concentrated in the wrong place, and were unable to produce anything like the decline in enemy attacks that resulted from the “surge” in Iraq. It became equally clear in 2014 that the Taliban and Haqqani Network were major resurgent threats, and it has become brutally clear since U.S. combat forces formally left at the end of 2014 that the Afghan Army cannot hold all the major population centers and key lines of communication—much less the Afghan country side—without U.S. advisors, the quiet, direct U.S. combat support of critical elite Afghan forces, and U.S. air support. It is even more clear that the Afghan police lack the paramilitary capability to survive on their own, and that the Afghan government cannot protect its local governments, or even sometimes its provincial governments. The end result is that the United States has been forced to keep committing air power and Special Forces on the ground in spite of plans to end active U.S. participation in combat at the end of 2014" 1.
In short, the war in Afghanistan is something which will more than linger on. The only question is what will occur in the next two to four years, as conditions are stabilize (or more likely) deteriorate further. Will the Americans and their allies increase their numbers of troops and aircraft support or conversely prepare for a Kissingerian 'decent interval' strategy of negotiating a fig leaf withdrawal of Western troops and support for the regime in Kabul. That scenario would be the very worst of all possible worlds.
1. Anthony Cordesman, "Afghanistan: Deciding the Future of the Not Quite “Forgotten War”. The Center for Strategic and International Studies. 23 May 2016, in

Monday, May 23, 2016


"The feeling that the future of whole states is in doubt is growing across the Middle East – for the first time since Britain and France carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. ‘It is the end of Sykes-Picot,’ I was told repeatedly in Iraq; the reference was to the agreement of 1916 which divided up the spoils between Britain and France and was the basis for later treaties. Some are jubilant at the collapse of the old order, notably the thirty million Kurds who were left without a state of their own after the Ottoman collapse and are now spread across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. They feel their moment has come: they are close to independence in Iraq and are striking a deal with the Turkish government for political rights and civil equality. In March, the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK declared an end to their thirty-year war with the Turkish government and started withdrawing into the mountains of northern Iraq. The 2.5 million Kurds in northern Syria, 10 per cent of the population, have assumed control of their towns and villages and are likely to demand a high degree of autonomy from any postwar Syrian government.... When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it changed the overall balance of power and destabilised every country in the region. The same thing is happening again, except that the impact of the Syrian war is likely to be less easily contained. Already the frontier dividing the western deserts of Iraq from the eastern deserts of Syria is ceasing to have any physical reality. In April, al-Qaida in Iraq embarrassed the rebels’ Western supporters by revealing that it had founded, reinforced with experienced fighters and devoted half its budget to supporting al-Nusra, militarily the most effective rebel group. When Syrian soldiers fled into Iraq in March they were ambushed by al-Qaida and 48 of them were killed before they could return to Syrian territory".
Patrick Cockburn, "Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?" The London Review of Books. 6 June 2013, in
"When I was growing up in Lebanon, there were two or three designated culprits for everything that went wrong, whether it was the latest battle in the 1975-1990 civil war, a plunging currency or torrential rains. One was Henry Kissinger, even when he was no longer involved in American foreign policy. Another was the Central Intelligence Agency, preferred master of all conspiracies. The third was Sykes-Picot, which to a child sounded more like the name of a cheese than the 1916 secret agreement that drew the borders of the modern Middle East in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Mr. Kissinger is still closely read today, his words dissected and his arguments discussed. The CIA is still a target of widespread resentment and, quite probably, involved in all sorts of Middle Eastern shenanigans. But as sectarian fires blaze through the nation states of the Arab world, the focus of blame has shifted towards the conservative British politician and the young French diplomat who carved the region into spheres of influence.... But pinning blame for the Middle East cauldron on a plan hatched decades ago is misleading. For all the damage that colonialism has inflicted on the region, the borders are not responsible for the states’ failures to unite the people behind a national project. Many other countries outside the region have artificial boundaries too and, in any case, the broad lines drawn by Sykes and Picot were not dreamt up — often they largely corresponded to Ottoman administrative borders."
Roula Khalaf, "An inconvenient truth for the Middle East and a line in the sand". The Financial Times. 19 May 2016, in
The prominence that the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 is as Roula Kalaf of the Financial Times correctly notes, more a result of the ignorant denunciations made of the agreement by the terrorist thugs of ISIS than anything else. And whatever the manifold weaknesses of the current state structures in the region, with the exception of Iraq, it is difficult to imagine that any existing states will be either absorbed into another one (`a la Russia and the Crimea) or that there will be a process of voluntary amalgamation akin to the failed Egyptian-Syrian & Iraq-Jordan experiments along those lines circa 1958-1961. Indeed it is precisely such failure in the immediate post-colonial era which demonstrates (to my mind anyway) that while the existing state structures in the Near and Middle East are hardily what one may describe as 'sturdy', they are also not about to collapse. With even close to five-years of ultra-violent civil war in Syria not (yet) resulting in the complete collapse of the Baathist state apparatus. Unless and until we see something akin to that in Syria and elsewhere in the region, expect to see the same (or virtually the same) state structures which the period of 1916-1921 left the region with, for a long time to come. Per contra to the wishful prognosis offer up Patrick Cockburn. As the American academic expert on the region, Steven Cook recently noted:
"Nor are the Middle East’s modern borders completely without precedent. Yes, they are the work of European diplomats and colonial officers — but these boundaries were not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map. They were based, for the most part, on pre-existing political, social, and economic realities of the region, including Ottoman administrative divisions and practices. The actual source of the boundaries of the present Middle East can be traced to the San Remo conference, which produced the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920" 1.
1. Steven Cook, "Don’t Blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s Mess". Foreign Policy. 13 May 2016 in

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


"Less than 10 miles from the front lines in the push toward the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the U.S. outpost, known as Firebase Bell, is manned by about 200 Marines. “Having them here has raised the morale of our fighters,” said Lt. Col. Helan Mahmood, the head of a commando regiment in the Iraqi army, as his truck bumped along the dirt track that divides his base from the American encampment, ringed by razor wire and berms. “If there’s any movement from the enemy, they bomb immediately,” he said. The new firebase is part of a creeping U.S. buildup in Iraq since troops first returned to the country with a contingent of 275 advisers, described at the time by the Pentagon as a temporary measure to help get “eyes on the ground.” Now, nearly two years later, the official troop count has mushroomed to 4,087, not including those on temporary rotations, a number that has not been disclosed. The troops are moving outside the confines of more established bases to give closer support to the Iraqi army as it prepares for an assault on the northern city of Mosul — putting them closer to danger.... But the battle for Nasr was a faltering first step for the 5,000 freshly trained Iraqi troops in Makhmour, and an indication of the level of hand-holding by U.S. forces that will be required as these forces move toward Mosul. The Iraqi troops have recaptured a cluster of hamlets and villages in the vicinity of Makhmour, though reports were mixed on how heavy the Islamic State presence was there before the Iraqi advance".
Loveday Morris, "Third U.S. combat death comes as American troops edge closer to the front lines in Iraq". The Washington Post. 3 May in
"The power of the Islamic State is waning. With its loss of Ramadi and Palmyra over the past several months, and the steady advance of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria and Iraq, the group is shedding territory. It is also losing recruits to casualties and desertions, as its finances are being squeezed by coalition strikes on bulk cash storage sites and oil refineries. Meanwhile, the coalition campaign to eliminate high-value battlefield targets is succeeding. Yet, defeat does not appear imminent. The Islamic State still controls key territory, including Raqqa, the capital of its caliphate; the Iraqi city of Mosul and large swaths of territory in the surrounding Nineveh province; and hardscrabble Sunni enclaves in Anbar province, such as Fallujah, Hit, and Haditha. Furthermore, though the coalition has deprived the Islamic State of hundreds of millions of dollars, it is likely to find new, creative ways to replenish its diminishing war chest. For Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, surrender is out of the question. And given the Islamic State leadership's horrific behavior and stated objective of establishing a caliphate governed by sharia, a negotiated settlement is a non-starter. In the past, insurgencies that have come to an end in this way featured moderate leaders, insurgents open to compromise, and governments willing to accept insurgents as legitimate negotiating partners. The Islamic State and its opponents share none of these attributes".
Brian Michael Jenkins and Colin P. Clarke. "In the Event of the Islamic State's Untimely Demise...". The Rand Corporation. 11 May 2016, in
The situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq currently is not as dire as at it appeared at one time. Nor has the situation improved as much as one would like. The hideous and monstrous ISIS is still in existence. Still shadowing, if not necessarily in actual control of large areas of both countries. Unfortunately, as can readily be seen from the above referenced reports the Americans and their allies have not yet gone beyond 'baby steps' in destroying ISIS. Especially, in Syria. Indeed if one were to employ the 'progress' seen so far in Iraq, it will be years and years before ISIS is destroyed in Syria proper. Allowing this organization of terrorist thugs to commit more crimes and (more importantly) act as a clarion call for Islamic and Muslim extremists worldwide. Make no mistake: the defeat and utter destruction of ISIS will be the very greatest defeat that the West can inflict upon Muslim extremism. Just as Hitlerism and Fascism were dealt blows that neither movements has yet to recover from by the unmitigated defeat inflicted by the Allies in the Second World War on respectively Germany and Italy; so if we wish to extirpate ISIS and its various clones, the destruction of the movement in its current base in Syria and Iraq is a necessary first step. And as the American military analyst Anthony Cordesman, has recently noted, this will involve going beyond the hesitant and two steps forward and one step back tactics that have so far been employed by the current American Administration:
"The Obama Administration did not act decisively at the points in the conflict when it might have prevented a long war of attrition, and its real world “strategy” in both Syria and Iraq has been one of slowly escalating U.S. involvement in what amounts to creeping incrementalism. It has been far too slow to provide an adequate train and assist mission to rebuild the half-finished Iraqi Army that Iraq’s former Prime Minister—Maliki—effectively corrupted and destroyed in his search for power and control after U.S. forces left at the end of 2011.... This raises a far more critical issue about the future. The United States now faces least bad options that are almost certainly far worse than when the Obama Administration began its military interventions in Syria and Iraq. Acting incrementally and indecisively has its costs—just as acting too quickly and decisively, and without proper analysis and planning, did in the case of the previous administration. The question remains, however, does the Obama Administration have any real strategy to deal with the least bad options it still has, the challenges raised by DNI Clapper, and the issues outlined in this analysis? Or, is it still largely reacting to events and riding out its time in the office? 1
In short, if the West is to continue with its half-hearted strategy that it has been employing so far in both Syria and Iraq, look for ISIS to remain in control of x amount of territory in both countries for quite some time to come. Regardless of the fact that it is being forced to give-up territory and losing men and materials to the American air campaign. Unfortunately, by prolonging ISIS existence, the current American administration is allowing ISIS to spread its poisonous ideology throughout the region and indeed further afield. With consequences which no one can predict, but which surely are none to the good.
1. Anthony Cordesman, "U.S. Strategy and the War in Iraq and Syria". The Center for Strategic and International Studies. 13 May 2016 in