Staying on-message in Afghanistan

Major General Carsten Jacobson, former ISAF spokesperson, at the IISS.

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

Despite their objections to the proliferation of mobile phones and social media among the Afghan population, the Taliban are increasingly adept at using them, says former ISAF spokesperson Major General Carsten Jacobson (above). Afghan Taliban tweeting ‘is quite a challenge, one that we have tried to counter’, he said at the IISS this week, adding that this was obviously not an easy task for a military organisation. (This Washington Post article has more on the subject.)

A media-savvy Taliban was just one of the challenges facing ISAF during Major General Jacobson’s time as the organisation’s spokesperson from June 2011 to May 2012. Responsible for coordinating ISAF’s message on its activities in Afghanistan, he found that the subject of the security transition from NATO to Afghan forces defined his tenure. Very soon after Jacobson took up his post, then-ISAF commander General David Petraeus (who resigned as CIA head last week) announced that the US would begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with the goal of a full drawdown by the end of 2014.

Transition meant not just an effective transfer of administration in security and government but also in civilian matters, Jacobson said. ‘Transition is the key driver of everything that happens … [it should be] an Afghan process driven from the bottom to the top … from villages to provinces.’

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India’s foreign policy in a globalised world

By Mona Moussavi, Editorial Assistant

India’s foreign policy is an ‘enabler’ in the country’s transformation, Ranjan Mathai, the Indian foreign secretary, said at the IISS last week. At the Keynote Address to the Fifth IISS–Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Dialogue, the foreign secretary discussed Afghanistan’s ‘neighbourhood’ towards 2015 and beyond, emerging Arab developments and the ways in which the India-UK strategic relationship could grow.

Mathai said India is increasingly ‘plugged in’ to a globalised world, and that a peaceful periphery is essential. Almost half of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is now linked in one way or another to foreign trade, up from 20% in the 1990s. Specifically, India depends on ‘energy and critical raw materials from abroad’.

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Afghanistan – A bloody weekend, but not necessarily a tipping point

A soldier from the Mobility Recce Force of 1 Royal Welsh is pictured on patrol with colleagues from the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Nad-E' Ali, Helmand.

A soldier from the Mobility Recce Force of 1 Royal Welsh is pictured on patrol with colleagues from the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Nad-E’ Ali, Helmand. Photo Credit:UK Ministry of Defence

By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare

It has been a week of bad news from Afghanistan, after further ‘green-on-blue’ attacks, fallout from video protests sweeping the Middle East and NATO announcing a temporary retreat. But in reality, the picture is more nuanced and there are reasons to be optimistic – provided tensions arising from the video can be diffused.

The headlines have suggested setbacks to the joint NATO/Afghan strategy of transition to Afghan leadership of security and withdrawal of NATO combat forces by the end of 2015.  In addition to the violent protests against the provocative ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video, there was a well-planned and determined attack on the UK/US base at Camp Bastion in which six US and UK troops were killed by men in Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) uniform.

NATO’s announcement that ‘in response to elevated threat levels…ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks’ has resulted in a reduction of low-level tactical partnering with the Afghan forces below battalion level has caused a predictable flurry of commentary and speculation in Western media.

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Mullah Omar’s Eid message

Muslims from throughout the world gather at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 16, for the start of Eid al-Adha, a religious holiday beginning after Hajj.

Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Eid al-Adha 2010. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/isafmedia

By Hameed Hakimi, Research Assistant, Armed Conflict Database

A statement released by Taliban leader Mullah Omar to mark the end of Ramadan conveyed a tone of optimism for the Taliban’s tactical achievements, as well as a vision for the future and a statement of commitment to the Afghan people.  In the following weeks, facts on the ground have challenged both Mullah Omar’s assessment of Afghanistan and his claims about the Taliban’s intentions. But these realities should also serve as a reminder that ordinary citizens face conflicting messages and broken promises from both the Taliban insurgency and Afghanistan’s political leadership.

Mullah Omar’s Eid-ul-Fitr message was published on the Taliban’s website on16 August 2012.  In 34 points, it set out his vision for a post-2014 Afghanistan, and reiterated the movement’s criticisms about the presence of Western troops and the government in Kabul.  For those who lived under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a direct message from the reclusive Mullah Omar is a rarity. During its control of the country until 2001, the Taliban leadership’s communication with ordinary Afghans was restricted to public order commandments and moral judgments on points of Sharia law.

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Pakistan’s neighbourhood watch

By Mona Moussavi, Editorial Assistant

‘A country can choose its friends but not its neighbours’: that is the root of Pakistan’s security dilemma, according to Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN.

At the IISS recently, Akram said that his country’s security was shaped by its hostile geography – a legacy of disputes with neighbouring India and Afghanistan, internal Afghan instability, US-China relations and most recently, the Iranian nuclear problem.

Unless there was a ‘peaceful transition’ in Afghanistan, which could only come from dialogue with the opposition – the National Coalition of Afghanistan – Pakistan’s security would remain under threat.

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Is Tashkent clearing the decks for the US?

A crew chief guides in a C-17A Globemaster III at Khashi-Karanabad air base in Uzbekistan on Dec. 16 2005. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Steven Pearsall)

By Dr Nicholas Redman, Senior Fellow for Geopolitical Risk and Economic Security

Uzbekistan has once again suspended its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the alliance of former Soviet states that also includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tashkent is saying it took this step because it wishes to develop relations with Afghanistan bilaterally, rather than as part of the CSTO bloc, and because it opposes efforts to deepen military cooperation within the CSTO.

Yet Uzbekistan’s fellow CSTO members suspect the decision has more to do with a wish by President Islam Karimov to reopen the Karshi-Khanabad air base to US forces.

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Eikenberry: Lessons from Afghanistan

At the end of his Fullerton Lecture on the future of Afghanistan, former US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was asked to reflect on the lessons he had drawn from the US intervention. His first lesson was the importance of clear political goals for the use of force; he suggested these had been lacking before President Barack Obama’s review of Afghanistan policy in 2009. The second was the problem of unintended consequences of intervention and occupation. Finally, he told a story about how village elders in southern Afghanistan remembered USAID and Peace Corps volunteers from the 1950s and 1960s, and reflected on ‘those brave Marines who had fought so hard’, who ‘sadly would not be remembered’ so fondly.

Watch the complete Fullerton Lecture: The Future of Afghanistan

Lesson 1: Clear political goals

Lesson 2: Second- and third-order consequences

Lesson 3: Roger & Bob


Eikenberry on Afghanistan’s future

Those of us in the London office who missed the early-morning broadcast from Singapore this week have really enjoyed watching Karl Eikenberry’s recent Fullerton Lecture on video. Before he gets down to the very serious issues at hand, the former US Ambassador to Kabul tells an amusing anecdote that is also a helpful reminder about the potential for misunderstanding for Westerners working in this Central Asian nation.

Eikenberry takes a very measured view of the upcoming transition to Afghan control of security at the end of 2014. He lists four potential obstacles…

Four obstacles

… and four reasons to be positive about the future. You can read more about both the security challenges and the advances in education, infrastructure and other socio-economic factors in the IISS’s Adelphi Book Afghanistan to 2015 and beyond.

Four reasons for optimism


Numbers count in counter-insurgency

Ben Barry at CLAWS in India

By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare

How do British and Indian views of counter-insurgency (COIN) differ? How much are they the same? During a recent trip to India, I had the chance to contrast and compare experiences. Joining India’s Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) in a roundtable discussion with the faculty of the Indian Army War College and the students of their Higher Defence Orientation Course, I shared my analysis of the lessons from British stabilisation operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I pointed out that in Northern Ireland, the British had controlled the relevant state levers of power, whilst in Iraq and Afghanistan they were junior partners in US-led coalition and NATO operations. They also had to manage a sometimes difficult relationship with increasingly assertive and less malleable host-nation governments. The environment was extremely complex and subject to great friction and uncertainty. The strategic, operational and tactical levels overlapped with a political dimension. Both wars became increasingly unpopular at home.

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Rethinking the drugs war in Afghanistan

Operation Enduring Freedom: Marines operate near Combat Outpost Ouellette. Photo By United States Marine Corps Official Page

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate

For those studying Afghanistan, the drugs trade is such a pervasive feature of the nation’s economy, politics, security and society that separating it from counter-insurgency (COIN) and diplomatic efforts is simply unthinkable. Yet the subject of counter-narcotics (CN) was notably absent from the agenda of last month’s NATO Summit in Chicago.

The IISS has acknowledged the difficulties of conducting counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics operations simultaneously; in most situations, the latter usually take a back seat. Nonetheless, the security implications of the illicit market make it a good time to assess current strategies and the ‘Afghanisation’ of policy, as well as to discuss ongoing international cooperation and the future prospects for Afghan counter-narcotics policy. And these were exactly the sort of discussions that the IISS Transnational Threats and Political Risk research programme and Dr David Bewley-Taylor of Swansea University facilitated when they recently hosted an off-the-record ‘Colloquium on counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan: transition and beyond’.  (Dr Bewley-Taylor’s involvement was part of a project funded by the Open Society Foundations’  Global Drug Policy Program and the colloquium was supported by the International Drug Policy Consortium.)

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