The Taliban Attack in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Devolution: Michael Kugelman, Wall Street Journal, Apr. 19, 2016— The consequences of a stalled Afghan peace process were violently illustrated Tuesday morning when the Taliban detonated a truck bomb outside a government facility in Kabul less than a mile from the presidential palace.
The Taliban Three Years After Mullah Omar: Catherine Hirst, Real Clear World, Apr. 28, 2016 — This month marks the three year anniversary of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the infamous, one-eyed cleric who led the Taliban for more than sixteen years.
We Wasted $113B in Afghanistan, no Wonder ‘America First’ Resonates: Paul Sperry, New York Post, May 15, 2016— While Donald Trump took a lot of heat for his recent “America First” speech, which foreign-policy experts rejected as “isolationist,” a scathing new Pentagon report on Afghan reconstruction backs his stance against nation-building.
For Obama, an Unexpected Legacy of Two Full Terms at War: Mark Landler, New York Times, May 14, 2016 — President Obama came into office seven years ago pledging to end the wars of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Taliban Cut Off Afghan Highway Linking Kabul to Northern Gateways: Rod Nordland, New York Times, May 14, 2016
Taliban Suicide Attack in Kabul Renews Debate on Afghanistan Troop Cuts: Carlo Munoz, Washington Times, Apr. 19, 2016
John Kerry: Afghanistan One of 'Proudest Achievements of the Obama Administration': Jeryl Bier, Weekly Standard, May 16, 2016
Spring on the Afghan Front Lines: Danielle Moylan, New York Times, May 6, 2016
Wall Street Journal, Apr. 19, 2016
The consequences of a stalled Afghan peace process were violently illustrated Tuesday morning when the Taliban detonated a truck bomb outside a government facility in Kabul less than a mile from the presidential palace. The 9 a.m. blast, the terrorist organization’s way of signaling the start of its new fighting season, killed at least 30 people and injured more than 300 others.
An Afghan police commander on the scene said, “First it felt like an earthquake, and then came the powerful sound of the explosion,” the Guardian reported. A wounded witness quoted in the New York Times that he saw “people lying on the road hopelessly—some screaming, other silently giving out their last breath, and some already dead.”
The rush-hour assault came two days after the United Nations said that civilian casualties in Afghanistan for the first three months of 2016 were 2% higher than in the same period of 2015. There were more than 11,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan last year—the highest number since 2001. And the Taliban holds more territory than it has at any time since 2001.
Beleaguered Afghan security forces, no longer assisted by foreign combat forces, have struggled to suppress a relentless insurgency. Despite improvements in war-fighting capacity and sustained efforts, the overall trend is not in their favor. In many far-flung regions the Afghan government has outsourced security responsibilities to undisciplined anti-Taliban militias. Meanwhile, the national government in Kabul is united only in name; constant infighting has bred dysfunction and hampered efforts to address the insurgency.
Afghanistan is likely to be in for a long and bloody year, a prospect that has implications for regional and global stability, especially if Afghanistan’s destabilization enables al Qaeda to establish new sanctuaries. Al Qaeda remains a force to be reckoned with not only in the Middle East and North Africa but also in Afghanistan. In October U.S. forces destroyed what Gen. John F. Campbell, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, described as “probably the largest” al Qaeda training camp found since U.S. troops arrived in 2001. For Afghans, the growing instability has direct and immediate consequences. In the hours after the attack on Tuesday, hundreds descended on hospitals to donate blood; social media posts of their efforts, some noted, are proof of the resilience of Afghan society.
But resilience alone cannot defeat the Taliban. Nor can it resolve Afghanistan’s economic crisis or rein in widespread corruption. This is partly why many Afghans are leaving their country; more than 200,000 were among the refugees flowing into Europe last year, according to the U.N., and others have fled elsewhere. Many are young, educated, and middle class—a demographic that would otherwise make vital contributions to Afghanistan’s struggling economy. This exodus—as understandable as it is unfortunate—makes the Afghan government’s job tougher while further strengthening an emboldened Taliban.
Real Clear World, Apr. 28, 2016
This month marks the three year anniversary of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the infamous, one-eyed cleric who led the Taliban for more than sixteen years. Omar was a fascinating figure on many fronts. Famously reclusive and enigmatic, no Western journalist ever met him and he wasn't seen in public after 2001. Under his rule, a stringent formulation of Shariah Law was implemented in Afghanistan, including amputation for theft and stoning for adultery. A veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, Omar and Osama bin Laden were close colleagues and this was an important factor in the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, Omar managed to evade capture for twelve years, despite an intensive US-led manhunt and a $US10 million bounty. He died of natural causes in 2013.
Beyond his notorious exploits, influence, and the mysteries that surround him, Omar's life and death provide fascinating insights into the role of individual leaders in the Jihadi system. Omar commanded almost mythic status as the spiritual and political leader of the Taliban. He was referred to by his followers as Amir al-Mu'minin (Leader of the faithful), the prestigious title used by Islamic Caliphs throughout history. His authority extended beyond the Taliban; Al-Qaeda and other regional Islamist groups were also loyal.
The legitimacy vested in Omar as leader of the Taliban was such that his death was (rather successfully) concealed for more than two years by a small group of high-ranking Taliban members. When the news of Omar's death broke in July 2015, some commentators asserted that the Taliban was facing a ‘legitimacy crisis', that the Taliban and other Afghan and Pakistani Jihadi factions could fracture, and that his death had broken the back of the Taliban.
This has not been the case. Contesting or in control of at least one-fifth of Afghanistan, the Taliban currently holds more territory than at any point since the 2001 invasion. It has even made significant inroads into the opium-rich Helmand province, now controlling seven of the thirteen districts, and threatening the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Last week heralded the deadliest suicide attack since 2011, with the Taliban killing 30 and wounding more than 300 people in the Afghan capital Kabul.
There are many reasons for the recent resurgence of the Taliban, and Omar is not one of them. Although a significant amount of prestige, legitimacy and power were indeed concentrated in the former Taliban leader, the degree of this concentration and its long-term impact on the organisation has been overstated. Recent gains made by the Taliban show that experienced deputies (such as Mullah Mansour), a breadth of strategic expertise (as represented in the 21-man Rabari Shura or leadership council), multiple revenue streams, the support of foreign fighters (largely Uzbeks and Pakistanis), and a local support base are all important reasons why Jihadist groups can remain resilient despite leadership change.
The experience of the Taliban resonates with other Jihadi organisations and their leadership. Al-Qaeda has been making gains in Afghanistan in spite of Osama bin Laden's death in 2011, defying predictions this would be a crippling blow. Similarly, al-Shabab is faring surprisingly well despite the assassination of its charismatic leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in September 2014. Predictions that his death would mark the beginning of the end for the group have not been borne out. Al-Shabab has ramped up its attacks over the last 12 months, and has shown remarkable resilience and adaptability in the face of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), Somali Government and US assaults.
Despite the mythic status of many Jihadi leaders, heads are rarely indispensable to their organisations. Leaders are important, but they can be replaced. Ironically, the fact the Taliban has prospered after Omar's death is a testament to how formidable a leader he was.
New York Post, May 15, 2016
While Donald Trump took a lot of heat for his recent “America First” speech, which foreign-policy experts rejected as “isolationist,” a scathing new Pentagon report on Afghan reconstruction backs his stance against nation-building. In virtually every category — from infrastructure to education to security — our virtual adoption of that nation has been a costly fiasco. In a report to Congress, the Defense Department reveals that Washington so far has spent an eye-popping $113.2 billion to rebuild Afghanistan — an amount that, adjusted for inflation, tops by $10 billion the total we committed to rebuilding post-WWII Europe under the Marshall Plan. Yet in this case, taxpayers have almost nothing to show for it.
Much of the Afghan reconstruction funds have been lost to waste, fraud, abuse and rampant corruption. And unlike Western Europe, where we today enjoy profitable export markets, benighted Afghanistan (formally renamed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) offers virtually zero return on our massive investment. After 15 years, “The reconstruction effort in Afghanistan is in a perilous state,” Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko concludes in his 236-page report.
The reconstruction mishaps in Iraq are legion and legendary. But less is known about the rebuilding of Afghanistan, where the screw-ups are just as bad, if not worse. Take security projects and programs, which account for roughly 60% of the $113 billion in Afghan reconstruction funding. Despite spending some $5 billion a year to stand up a national army and police force, “neither the United States nor its Afghan allies know how many Afghan soldiers and police actually exist,” the report says. A large share are AWOL. In fact, Afghan military and police rolls contain potentially tens of thousands of “ghost” personnel, whose cost we still pay and whose absence distorts the security picture. Without US combat troops, the capital of Kabul is now relying almost exclusively on unreliable forces to defend itself from sacking.
A large chunk of the country remains unprotected and unstable. Almost a third of provincial districts are effectively under Taliban control, and the insurgency is intensifying. In the space of just a few days in late March, for example, the Taliban assassinated an Afghan army general in Kandahar and a judge in Ghazni, while bombarding the new Afghan parliament building in Kabul with rockets. The security situation is so bad that American personnel are generally confined to the US Embassy fortress, and have to take a helicopter to get to the airport because the roads are so unsafe. Bombings, raids, ambushes and hit-and-run assaults are common along major highways, even at police checkpoints.
American taxpayers are losing huge amounts of money thanks to corrupt and incompetent Afghan military contractors, who have misappropriated Pentagon funds. Here are just a few examples: More than $200 million to buy fuel for army vehicles has gone missing. Another half-billion dollars was wasted buying a fleet of second-hand Air Force cargo planes that were deemed too dangerous to fly. More than $1 million was spent building and rebuilding army buildings that “melted” in the rain and crumbled because of substandard bricks and other materials. About $32 million to install steel bars in culverts to prevent the Taliban from placing bombs under roads was also largely wasted. Many of the bars were installed incorrectly or never installed at all, likely resulting in US troop deaths or injuries, according to the report.
Efforts at drug interdiction have also failed. Despite spending $8.4 billion on counter-narcotics programs, the poppy fields of Helmand province have largely been reclaimed by the Taliban, which sells opium to finance terrorism. The opium trade, in fact, is flourishing. Here’s a stomach-turning stat: The 3,300 tons of opium the United Nations figured Afghanistan produced last year is the same number the UN calculated for the country’s opium production in 2000. So literally nothing has changed.
And despite spending $1 billion promoting Western-style democracy and human rights, harsh religious mandates still dominate Afghanistan, where Islamic law is still considered the supreme law. Girls are still forced into marriage with older men, women are still jailed for “moral crimes,” and both remain wrapped up in the oppressive burka. Despite spending $760 million improving Afghan education, moreover, 3.5 million primary-school-age children — 75% of them girls — remain out of school. Recently, some 714 schools were closed. “Nonexistent or ghost teachers have been a long-standing problem and, in most cases, attendance sheets are not filled out or are frequently forged,” the report said. The inspector general also found fully-staffed schools attended by only a handful of students…
Washington nation-builders had projected they’d add $1.3 billion in growth to the Afghan economy in 2015. But no such boost has occurred. In fact, Afghan GDP actually fell to $19.7 billion in 2015 from $20.4 billion in 2014. Nation-building in Afghanistan has been a boondoggle for US taxpayers. Yet in his fiscal year 2017 budget, President Obama calls for an additional $4.8 billion for major reconstruction funds there. Why throw good money after bad? Trump’s right: let’s stop nation-building overseas and start rebuilding the US.
New York Times, May 14, 2016
President Obama came into office seven years ago pledging to end the wars of his predecessor, George W. Bush. On May 6, with eight months left before he vacates the White House, Mr. Obama passed a somber, little-noticed milestone: He has now been at war longer than Mr. Bush, or any other American president.
If the United States remains in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria until the end of Mr. Obama’s term — a near-certainty given the president’s recent announcement that he will send 250 additional Special Operations forces to Syria — he will leave behind an improbable legacy as the only president in American history to serve two complete terms with the nation at war. Mr. Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and spent his years in the White House trying to fulfill the promises he made as an antiwar candidate, would have a longer tour of duty as a wartime president than Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon or his hero Abraham Lincoln.
Granted, Mr. Obama is leaving far fewer soldiers in harm’s way — at least 4,087 in Iraq and 9,800 in Afghanistan — than the 200,000 troops he inherited from Mr. Bush in the two countries. But Mr. Obama has also approved strikes against terrorist groups in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, for a total of seven countries where his administration has taken military action. “No president wants to be a war president,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a military historian at Johns Hopkins University who backed the war in Iraq and whose son served there twice. “Obama thinks of war as an instrument he has to use very reluctantly. But we’re waging these long, rather strange wars. We’re killing lots of people. We’re taking casualties.”
Mr. Obama has wrestled with this immutable reality from his first year in the White House, when he went for a walk among the tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery before giving the order to send 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan. His closest advisers say he has relied so heavily on limited covert operations and drone strikes because he is mindful of the dangers of escalation and has long been skeptical that American military interventions work.
Publicly, Mr. Obama acknowledged early on the contradiction between his campaign message and the realities of governing. When he accepted the Nobel in December 2009, he declared that humanity needed to reconcile “two seemingly irreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.” The president has tried to reconcile these truths by approaching his wars in narrow terms, as a chronic but manageable security challenge rather than as an all-consuming national campaign, in the tradition of World War II or, to a lesser degree, Vietnam. The longevity of his war record, military historians say, also reflects the changing definition of war.
“It’s the difference between being a war president and a president at war,” said Derek Chollet, who served in the State Department and the White House during Mr. Obama’s first term and as the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 2012 to 2015. “Being a war president means that all elements of American power and foreign policy are subservient to fighting the war,” Mr. Chollet said. “What Obama has tried to do, which is why he’s careful about ratcheting up the number of forces, is not to have it overwhelm other priorities.”
But Mr. Obama has found those conflicts maddeningly hard to end. On Oct. 21, 2011, he announced that the last combat soldier would leave Iraq by the end of that year, drawing that eight-year war to a close. “Our troops will definitely be home for the holidays,” Mr. Obama said at the White House. Less than three years later, he told a national television audience that he would send 475 military advisers back to Iraq to help in the battle against the Islamic State, the brutal terrorist group that swept into the security vacuum left by the absent Americans. By last month, more than 5,000 American troops were in Iraq. A furious firefight this month between Islamic State fighters and Navy SEALs in northern Iraq, in which Special Warfare Operator First Class Charles Keating IV became the third American to die since the campaign against the Islamic State began, harked back to the bloodiest days of the Iraq war. It also made the administration’s argument that the Americans were only advising and assisting Iraqi forces seem ever less plausible.
Afghanistan followed a similar cycle of hope and disappointment. In May 2014, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would withdraw the last combat soldier from the country by the end of 2016. “Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” the president said in the Rose Garden. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century.” Seventeen months later, Mr. Obama halted the withdrawal, telling Americans that he planned to leave more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan until early 2017, the end of his presidency. By then, the Taliban controlled more territory in the country than at any time since 2001.
Taliban fighters even briefly conquered the northern city of Kunduz. In the bitter battle for control, an American warplane mistakenly fired its missiles into a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 42 people and prompting accusations that the United States had committed a war crime. Critics of Mr. Obama have long said his clinical approach to wars weakened the ability of the nation to fight them. “He hasn’t tried to mobilize the country,” Dr. Cohen said. “He hasn’t even tried to explain to the country what the stakes are, why these wars have gone the way they have.” Mr. Bush was also criticized for failing to ask the American people to make any sacrifices during the Iraq war. But, Dr. Cohen said, “for all his faults, with Bush, there was this visceral desire to win.”
Vincent DeGeorge, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who collected the data on presidents at war, said Mr. Obama’s tone mattered less than the decisions he made. “Does the rhetoric a president uses at home matter to the soldiers who come back wounded or get caught in the crossfire?” he asked in an interview. Mr. DeGeorge acknowledged the complications in measuring Mr. Obama’s wars. The American-led phase of the Afghanistan war, for example, ended formally in December 2014, though thousands of troops remain there. For his analysis, he considered a state of war to exist when less than a month passed between either American casualties or an American airstrike.
More so than Mr. Bush or President Bill Clinton, Mr. Obama has fought a multifront war against militants. Officials at the Pentagon referred to the situation as “the new normal.” But for those who worked in the Obama administration, it made for an unrelenting experience. “As the Middle East coordinator, I certainly felt like it was a wartime pace,” said Philip H. Gordon, who worked in the White House from 2013 to 2015. Still, Mr. Gordon and other former officials drew a distinction between the wars of the 21st century and those of the 20th century. For one, Congress has not specifically authorized any of Mr. Obama’s military campaigns, let alone issued a declaration of war — something that it has not done since World War II. “War doesn’t exist anymore, in our official vocabulary,” Mr. Gordon said.
It is not clear that Mr. Obama’s successor will take the same approach. The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, has been more receptive to conventional military engagements than Mr. Obama. The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, has pledged to bomb the Islamic State into oblivion, though he has sent contradictory messages about his willingness to dispatch American ground troops into foreign conflicts.
Military historians said presidents would probably continue to shrink or stretch the definition of war to suit their political purposes. “Neither Clinton nor Obama identified themselves as war presidents, but Bush did,” said Richard H. Kohn, professor emeritus of history and peace, war and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “War goes back in human experience thousands of years,” he said. “We know that it has an enormous variation of definitions.”
Taliban Cut Off Afghan Highway Linking Kabul to Northern Gateways: Rod Nordland, New York Times, May 14, 2016—Taliban insurgents have cut the main highway that links the capital with northern Afghanistan and neighboring countries for the past three days, according to Afghan officials in the area.
Taliban Suicide Attack in Kabul Renews Debate on Afghanistan Troop Cuts: Carlo Munoz, Washington Times, Apr. 19, 2016—A devastating Taliban suicide attack that killed at least 28 people and wounded more than 300 others Tuesday in the heart of Kabul has sent concerns soaring that Afghanistan’s struggling security forces will be overmatched in the summer fighting season, which many believe will be among the bloodiest on record.
John Kerry: Afghanistan One of 'Proudest Achievements of the Obama Administration': Jeryl Bier, Weekly Standard, May 16, 2016—Secretary of State John Kerry recently spoke at the Oxford Union and addressed a range of issues from climate change to extremism to political corruption. During the question and answer after Kerry's remarks, one audience member asked the secretary of state to name the "proudest achievements of the Obama administration" now that President Obama's eight years in office are coming to an end.
Spring on the Afghan Front Lines: Danielle Moylan, New York Times, May 6, 2016 — Spring becomes Babaji, a rural suburb of Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern province of Helmand. Light-green wheat fields grow waist-high, and narrow irrigation canals run almost clear. “It’s beautiful,” I told Mohammad Sahi, 21, an officer in the Afghan national police, as we stood on a sagging thatched roof in the afternoon sun.