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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief

Hong Kong

  • Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, finally formally withdrew the controversial extradition bill that started these protests months ago, but she declined to address the other four core points that demonstrators have been clinging to (e.g. greater democracy for Hong Kong, and an investigation into police excesses against protesters). That suggests that at least the hardliners will continue to protest.
  • I haven’t yet seen any big stories about Beijing’s role in approving the bill’s withdrawal.

Afghanistan

  • Now that U.S. envoy Khalilzad revealed details of a draft U.S.-Afghan deal on the table, opponents to it are coming out of the woodwork.
  • A group of nine (of 13) recent top U.S. envoys to Afghanistan signed a letter published on the Atlantic Council’s website that criticized the draft deal, saying it could spark a civil war (Khalilzad and the current U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan were two of the four who didn’t sign).
  • The letter (pasted below) advocated for continued U.S. support for the Afghan government, rather than withdrawal, and—in typical State Department fashion—said that “withdrawal [will] come only after a real peace.”
  • Pres. Ghani’s spokesman chimed in: “The Afghan government is also concerned and we, therefore, would like further clarity on this document to completely analyze its dangers and negative consequences and avoid the dangers” (Ghani’s administration saw the draft document before Khalilzad showed it to ToloNews, so this seems like blustering).
  • The NYT also criticize the deal, citing Afghan social media posts that said a U.S. withdrawal could trigger reprisal attacks—that article is pasted below, too.

Iran

  • The U.S. sanctioned Iran’s civilian space agency and two research organizations involved in the failed launch last week, under the suspicion that Iranian space research was being used as an excuse for ballistic weapon development. Those guys are probably already pretty embarrassed this week, so this seems like salt on their wounds.
  • The J-Post says that Iran-linked Hezbollah is setting up a missile-building site in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley—but it appears the IDF is keenly aware of it, and tracking construction progress closely.

Venezuela

  • Pres. Maduro put the Venezuelan military on alert at the border with Colombia after he accused Colombia’s Pres. Duque of plotting an attack against him…again.

Mexico

  • During his daily press conference, Pres. AMLO brandished a camera that he says was used to spy on him, but he diffused the meeting by saying he’s not even going to look for more cameras, since he has nothing to hide. Either that’s true, or leaked videos will soon disprove it…

Brexit

  • A majority of UK lawmakers voted to wrest control from PM Johnson—which could let them pass a law to prevent a no-deal Brexit. That could then lead to new elections before the Brexit deadline, which would be a mess.

As Afghanistan Seeks Peace, Social Media Raises Fear of Reprisals (NYT)

In recent months, an increasing number of graphic images of atrocities in the Afghan war have circulated on social media — raising alarm that hatred sown deep into local communities would be difficult to resolve even if a peace agreement can be reached with the Taliban.

In one video, disheveled Taliban fighters line up a local judge in front of their guns as they repeat a question: who is rightful, the insurgents or the government? As the judge pleads “I serve the people,” the fighters open fire. The man collapses, and they fire more.

In a second video, Afghan Army soldiers have tied a couple Taliban fighters to the hood of a military vehicle, driving them back and forth in a desert as they take turns beating them bloody. The Taliban wail as the soldiers curse at them and their families. One soldier repeatedly slashes a fighter with a knife.

“Slaves of Pakistan that fell to our hands,” the soldier filming the torture wrote on his Facebook account, referring to the neighboring country’s support for the Afghan insurgency. “Dear friends, please share.”

As the prospect of a peace deal nears, with the United States and Taliban signaling that they are close on a preliminary agreement, the violence has only intensified. Graphic videos and images of the bloodshed circulate freely, and the rhetoric on both sides appears to be hardening.

The videos and images seem like a deliberate escalation, opening another battlefield online. A recent survey showed that at least 90 percent of households have at least one mobile phone, and about 40 percent access to the internet.

The graphic content is often posted by accounts related to, or sharing sympathies with, one side of the war. Such flooding of images of blood and gore has raised fears of lasting hatred that only complicates chances of a deal on paper translating to peace for local communities.

Once it became clear that a military victory was unlikely for either side, the war became increasingly localized — down to villages, pitting cousin against cousin, in some cases even father against son, the conflict often blurring to suspicion and revenge.

After a strike force mentored by the C.I.A. raided an eastern village earlier this month, killing at least 11 civilians — many of whom were shot from close range after being held — about two dozen elders and relatives brought their complaint to the country’s defense minister.

“I don’t know who is killing us like this — is this really Afghan forces, or is this a tribal rivalry using the forces?” one relative told the minister. “We will have to find our enemy.”

The fear of local vengeance was palpable last month in the first informal talks on peace to include representatives both from the Afghan government and the insurgents. The declaration urged both sides to “not fuel the conflict and revenge” with their language and messages.

Habibullah Rafi, an Afghan academic and historian, said that through 40 years of violence and war in Afghanistan, there have been many cycles of reprisal. But the sheer ubiquity of social media now has seemed to widen the circle of outrage over acts of violence, and to stoke calls for revenge over and over.

In the comments section of the video where Afghan soldiers were beating Taliban fighters, one Facebook user wrote that the leaders of the Taliban would watch this video. “After that, it’s on you how they treat arrested soldiers.”

Other Facebook users sympathetic to the Taliban retaliated by posting pictures of Afghan women being searched by forces of the American-led coalition, saying the Afghan Army facilitated of such dishonor. In Afghanistan’s conservative society, women are often kept away from even the gaze of friends, let alone from the touch of strangers.

“Such videos will open the path for revenge-taking and personal enmity after peace,” Mr. Rafi said. “If the government keeps reminding of violence committed by the Taliban, and if the Taliban keeps sharing videos of violence by government forces, even if there is a peace deal the fighting could continue in the country because those fighting men will go after their revenge.”

In the 1980s, the Soviet-backed communists disappeared thousands of Afghans affiliated with, or seen as sympathetic to, the American-backed Islamist guerrillas. When the guerrillas swept into Kabul, they not only went after the affiliates and the property of those associated with the former government, they also started fighting each other over the vacuum of power, sending the country into anarchy.

The most recent wave of reprisals involved the Taliban and the small pocket of Northern Alliance fighters that resisted the Taliban’s sweep of the country in late 1990s.

Whenever the Taliban advanced after strong resistance, particularly in the north, they would resort to brutal tactics of killings and indiscriminate destruction. When their regime fell after the American invasion in 2001, many of those who had been on the receiving end allied with the United States military and came after the Taliban.

Rahima Jami, a member of the Afghan Parliament, is among Afghan politicians who urge caution in a peace deal, and see the road ahead as extremely difficult. The Taliban’s desire for the return of the power they lost has now been wrapped in a sense of vengeance, she says.

“I personally don’t believe that there will be peace after a deal with the Taliban,” Ms. Jami said. “The group will try to get the whole government, and as all the other political parties are armed they will not agree and then fighting will start — a civil war, with fighting on each street, and it will continue for many years.”

In recent years, the war has largely become one fought by Afghans on both sides, with tens of thousands dead. Except for rare occasions, the United States presence has mostly been reduced to air support. As the war has spread, most of the bloodiest fighting happens between groups from the local community, leaving a legacy of blood feuds.

Abdul Baqi Samandar, an Afghan activist, urged the leadership on both sides to tread carefully. He said the foot soldiers showed a capacity for acceptance during the brief cease-fire last year, when the Taliban and Afghan fighters mingled and posed for photos. But the leadership needs to be careful, he added, with what kind of ideas they drill into their fighters during the final sprint.

“Our leaders, including the government, should create the literature of peace,” Mr. Samandar said. “They should convince fighting men on their side that they cannot clean blood with blood.”

US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure (Atlantic Council)

BY JAMES DOBBINS, ROBERT P. FINN, RONALD E. NEUMANN, WILLIAM WOOD, JOHN NEGROPONTE, EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, RYAN CROCKER, JAMES CUNNINGHAM, AND HUGO LLORENS (see bios below)

US envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad talks with Afghans after a debate at Tolo TV channel in Kabul, Afghanistan April 28, 2019. (REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)

This is a collaborative product of former US diplomatic officials who have worked on Afghanistan.

We strongly support a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, a limited force drawdown as part of getting peace negotiations going, and the substantial force drawdown later that peace would allow.

Equally strongly, we believe that US security and values, including support for women, require that a full troop withdrawal come only after a real peace. How our troop presence is managed will have a critical influence on the chances for successful peace negotiations, the future of the fight against the Islamic State, and the chance for Afghans to pursue representative government.

A few critical guard rails stand out in order to avoid the risk of Afghanistan becoming a new center of terrorism harboring groups dedicated to attacking the United States and to avoid betraying our own values by depriving Afghans of the chance to determine their own future.

Much of the current debate has focused on the substance of US-Taliban negotiations, which will become clearer as more details of the agreement announced September 2 are revealed, and the effects of a substantial US troop withdrawal as part of a peace settlement. The devil is in the details, however.  Understanding which details matter requires considering a few points.

First, it is not clear whether peace is possible. The Taliban have made no clear statements about the conditions they would accept for a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans, nor do they have a track record of working with other political forces.

Secondly, there is an outcome far worse than the status quo, namely a return to the total civil war that consumed Afghanistan as badly as the war with the Russians and something that could follow a breakdown in negotiations if we remove too much support from the Afghan state. If the State totters, those with nasty memories of life under the Taliban will fight on. That disaffected group would include Afghanistan’s minorities, which together comprise a majority of the Afghan population. 

In a civil war, there would be large areas of the country in which the Islamic State (IS) presence could expand its already strong foothold. Regional and other players such as Iran, Pakistan, and Russia would all support Afghan allies, likely fueling the fighting. Under these circumstances it is likely that the Taliban would maintain their alliance with al-Qaeda. All of this could prove catastrophic for US national security as it relates to our fight against both al-Qaeda and IS, and it would underscore to potential enemies that the United States and its allies are not reliable. 

This gives rise to the first essential point: a major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace. The initial US drawdown should not go so far or so fast that the Taliban believe that they can achieve military victory. In that case, they will not make compromises for peace with other Afghan political forces.

The second point goes to core US values. Whether or not the United States wants or is willing to keep some forces engaged, we should not undercut the legitimate government in Afghanistan by keeping them out of negotiations. Giving way to the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with Afghan government would let the Taliban determine with whom it will negotiate. Afghans deserve to determine their government and who will represent them in peace negotiations.

For this to happen, there is a strong argument that presidential elections planned for September should go forward. Millions of Afghans have risked, and again are prepared to risk, death to vote. It is not up to the United States to deprive them of this opportunity to determine who speaks for the Afghan state.

One widely debated alternative to elections now calls for creating an interim government instead. The argument is based on two main ideas. One is that elections may require a runoff (required by the Afghan constitution if the winner of the first round has less than a 50 percent margin). This could take months, be disputed, and delay peace negotiations. The second is that a newly elected government will not be willing to negotiate new arrangements necessary for peace with the Taliban.

However, it is vital to recall that there is no consensus among non-Taliban Afghans now on who would form such an interim government. The internal division and the record of the last forty years suggest that the struggle to decide who would be in such an interim government and what positions they would have would be long, quite possibly as long as the delay over holding an election. As for the issue of a newly elected president’s willingness to negotiate needed institutional changes, all candidates could be pressed to make a clear statement that they are open to constitution changes that might be required by a peace accord.

The Taliban have spoken vaguely of a reduction of violence but have made it clear that the war will go on against the Afghan government. And, whatever the Taliban might agree, there will still be a war with IS. Hence, while we agree strongly that negotiations are essential, it is equally essential that the Afghan state have a government able to govern and fight while negotiations take place, as well as a chance to sustain itself if negotiations fail.

The Afghan military is already paying a heavy price, but morale and willingness to fight would be seriously undermined by the lack of a central government authority. A major risk is that the Afghan military would break apart with increased doubt about what it is fighting for, and the country would return to civil war leaving space for al-Qaeda and IS to grow, whether or not the Taliban is sincere about pledges to break its long-term alliance with al-Qaeda.

The fundamental point, however, is that the United States should not be determining the answer to such an essential issue for the future of the Afghan people. That decision must be theirs.

We are not suggesting either that the United States must negotiate terms of peace or that the United States should fight on with the current level of forces until a peace agreement is reached. Nor do we believe that sunk costs in lives or money alone justify continuing the war.

We do believe that to protect our security interests we must not leave completely until peace is achieved. Further, we must not betray all those who have believed our promises or stepped forward with our encouragement to promote democracy and human rights including highly important progress in women’s rights. We must not yank so much support from our Afghan friends that they are unable to protect themselves or the chance to keep moving forward with a representative democracy.

What then are we advocating?

A major withdrawal of US forces should follow, not come in advance of real peace agreement. While some reduction of troop numbers is possible to start negotiations, counterterrorism forces and US/NATO airpower need to remain to deal with the terrorist threat of IS (and al-Qaeda) as much as the Taliban. Any troop withdrawal schedule should not go on to an automatic glide path determined by dates rather than conditions.

A fundamental mistake of the Obama administration was the constant repetition of dates for departure.  This encouraged the Taliban to fight on and undercut confidence among friendly Afghans. That this preference for dates was a serious mistake was recognized by US President Donald J. Trump’s original policy declaration of August 2017; it is still a correct approach.

Some may say that this is just a concealed way to keep the United States and its allies engaged in a major war. This is not so. In fact, our current involvement is no longer a major war for us. The Afghans are already doing almost all of the fighting and the dying. US fatalities are tragic, but the number of those killed in combat make up less than 20 percent of the US troops who died in non-combat training incidents last year. US direct military expenditures in Afghanistan are approximately 3 percent of annual US military spending, down by about 90 percent from the high point of the war. As the Afghan air force improves, something that is now happening, the costs and personnel can drop further. The lives and money being expended are serious, but the costs are ones we can sustain for negotiations to result in a sustainable peace, something that will only happen if the Taliban believe they too must make compromises.

If a peace agreement is going to succeed, we and others also need be committed to continued support for peace consolidation. This will require monitoring compliance, tamping down of those extremists opposed to peace, and supporting good governance and economic growth with international assistance. This promise of sustained US and international engagement would give space to see if the Taliban and Afghan government have significant common interests, such as avoiding civil war, maintaining international economic assistance for a very weak economy, defeating IS, and responding to widespread war fatigue among Afghans to serve as basis of successful talks, eventual agreement, and effective implementation.

It is critical that the United States make clear that full withdrawal will not occur on fixed dates but will, on the contrary, require conclusion of a real and clearly defined peace. Continued and unambiguous support for Afghan elections, should Afghans choose that course, allied with a determination to maintain residual counterterrorism forces, air support, and economic assistance, will give Afghans a chance to determine who negotiates for them without being undermined. The United States and our international partners should then vigorously support a new leadership’s serious engagement to negotiate the peace that the vast majority of Afghans desire.

Signatories:

  • Ambassador James Dobbins was the US special envoy for Afghanistan from 2001-2002 and US special representative for Afghanistan from 2013-2014.
  • Ambassador Robert P. Finn was the US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2002-2003.
  • Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann was the US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-2007.
  • Ambassador William Wood was the US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007-2009.
  • Ambassador John Negroponte was US deputy secretary of state from 2007-2009 and director of national intelligence from 2005-2007.
  • Ambassador E. Anthony Wayne, was US deputy ambassador to Afghanistan and coordinating director for development from 2009-2011. He is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program.
  • Ambassador Ryan Crocker was the US charge d’affairs in Afghanistan in 2002 and the US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011-2012.
  • Ambassador James Cunningham was US deputy ambassador to Afghanistan in 2011 and US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012-2014. He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.
  • Ambassador Hugo Llorens was US assistant chief of mission in Afghanistan from 2012-2013 and charge d’affairs from 2016-2017.