Afghanistan Conflict Update – January 2020

A sampling of curated news, commentary, and analysis about America’s longest war – or the Afghanistan quagmire . Topics include security, governance, Resolute Support, ANDSF, elections, peace negotiations, and more from the past month.

The usual frequency of the Afghanistan Conflict Update by SOF News is on a monthly basis. However, due to a short lapse in publishing (primary staff was away on a short-term contract) we are playing catch up. So you will see in this (very long article) references to events, articles, and reports covering the past few months (instead of just January).

U.S. Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan

Two service members were killed and two were wounded as a result of an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Kandahar province, Afghanistan on Saturday, January 11, 2020. They were members of the 82nd Airborne Division. On December 22, 2019 a Special Forces NCO of the 7th Special Forces Group was killed.

ANDSF

ANDSF Leadership Shakeup. One of Afghanistan’s promising young generals has been replaced at the Ministry of Interior. General Khushal Saadat was seen by Resolute Support senior leaders as a breath of fresh air – a young, trained, non-political, and non-corrupt senior security leader who could lead the effort to reform the MOI. The former Deputy Minister of Interior for Security was offered a lesser position at the Defense Ministry.

AAF Helicopter Crash. Two Afghan Air Force pilots were killed after their helicopter crashed in the western province of Farah. They were delivering supplies to Afghan security forces when it crashed on January 8, 2020. See “Two Afghan Pilots Killed in Military Helicopter Crash”, Gandhara, January 8, 2020.

SMW to Receive CH-47 Chinook Helicopters. The United States has approved a plan to provide large helicopters to the Special Mission Wing of the ANDSF. The Chinooks will eventually replace the Russian Mi-17 helicopters currently in use by the SMW. (Daily Outlook Afghanistan, Jan 26, 2020).

NATO / Resolute Support

Quiet Reduction in U.S. Forces. The U.S. has very quietly reduced its forces by a few thousand over the past several months. General Austin Miller has said this hasn’t affected the ability of the U.S. to conduct its ‘train, advise, and assist’ and counterterrorism missions. Hmmmm.

10th Mtn HQs to Afghanistan. The 10th Mountain Division Headquarters stationed at Fort Drum, New York will be heading to Afghanistan. The unit will replace the 1st Armored Division Headquarters as part of a regular rotation of forces. (Army.mil, Jan 17, 2020).

German Interpreter Accused of Spying for Iran. The trial will soon get underway for a German-Afghan national suspected of spying for Iranian intelligence. The former interpreter and advisor for the Bundeswehr is accused of working for Iran’s MOIS intelligence agency. He was employed as an interpreter in Afghanistan. Read “Ex-Army Interpreter Accused of Spying for Iran Goes on Trial in Germany”, Gandhara Blog, January 20, 2020.

Australia’s Bushmaster – a Life Saver. A veteran of the Afghan conflict writes about how the Australian-designed and -built Bushmaster helped Aussies travel safely along Afghan roads. Read “The Bushmaster: From Concept to Combat”, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), January 2, 2020.

Security

Conflict Continues Despite Peace Talks. The Taliban are busy conducting attacks against government forces and officials even as its representatives talk with U.S. negotiators about a ceasefire. Roadside bombings, ambushes, and attacks against small government checkpoints are the most frequent Taliban operations.

Iran, Quds Force, and Afghanistan. The new leader of Iran’s Quds Force has a lot of experience with Afghanistan. His involvement with Afghanistan spans several decades beginning in the late 1980s. Events he is associated with include support to the Northern Alliance, recent mysterious trips to Afghanistan under assumed names, providing support the Shia militia groups in Afghanistan, operations against Afghan drug cartels, and providing Afghan fighters to serve in the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria. Read more in “Iran’s New Quds Force Leader Has a Long, Shadowy History With Afghanistan”, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, January 15, 2020.

Terrorist Groups in Afghanistan. Saurav Sarkar has provided a short essay on the terrorist groups that are active in Afghanistan. He says that Al Qaeda and IS-K consider Afghanistan to be an important region to recuperate and plan their next phase of operations. Read more in “Dissecting the Larger Terror Threat from Afghanistan”, Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism, December 21, 2019. (4 pages, PDF).

Afghan Security and Its Borders. Adrian Morel writes an essay about life, trade, and security on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Read “Afghanistan’s Borderlands: Unruly, Unruled, and Central to Peace”, The Asia Foundation, January 22, 2020.

ISIK Diminished? Various news reports and government statements indicate that the Islamic State in Khorasan Province has been severely hurt by U.S., Afghan government, and Taliban forces.

Highway Extortion. The Taliban insurgents and government security forces are equally to blame for the bribes needed to use the road system across Afghanistan. Read “Highway Extortion Frustrates Afghan Drivers”, The Khamma Press News Agency, January 18, 2020.

Peace Talks

The peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban continue to be in the news almost every single day. The U.S. appears (at least officially) to be hopeful of some sort of peace deal soon. However, progress appears to be very slow. In addition, the Afghan government has been shut out of the process. Some observers believe that the Taliban are in the talks to facilitate a departure of foreign forces from Afghanistan setting the stage for a military defeat of the Afghan government in Kabul.

Peace Deal by End Jan? The Taliban, according to a Taliban spokesman, are hoping to reach an Afghan peace deal with U.S. negotiators by the end of January. This comment came after the negotiators for the U.S. and the Taliban met for two days of talks in Qatar. See “Taliban Hopes for Afghan Peace Deal by End of January”, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, January 18, 2020.

Survey: 50% of Afghans Want U.S. Departure. Nearly half of all Afghans want the U.S. and NATO troops to leave Afghanistan once a peace deal to end the country’s 18-year war is signed with the Taliban. 33% want them to stay. 80% say that a political solution was the only way to end the conflict. The poll was conducted in late November and early December by the Institute of War and Peace Studies. (Marine Corps Times, Jan 24, 2020).

Afghan Govt Shut Out of Talks. Thus far the Afghan government has been on the sidelines looking in on the talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. Mirwais Wardak, the Managing Director with the Peace Training and Research Organization, believes that greater involvement by Afghan civil society could put the negotiations back on the path to peace. Read “The Long Road to Peace in Afghanistan: Civil Society’s Role“, Just Security, January 21, 2020.

What Would a Peace Deal Look Like? Laurel Miller and Jonathan Blake present a possible solution in this 199-page report. Read “Envisioning a Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Afghanistan”, RAND Corporation, December 2019.

Governance

Ghani at World Economic Forum. The rich, famous, and powerful gathered at Davos, Switzerland attending the annual WEF conference. The president of Afghanistan made an appearance as well. He indicated that his country was ready for a reduction of 4,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, spoke about the possible ceasefire with the Taliban, and claimed that Pakistan still harbors the Haqqani network and the Taliban. He said that the talks between the United States and the Taliban has showed few signs of progress. The president conducted a number of sideline meetings with world leaders including Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, and others.

Afghanistan – One of Top Ten Corrupt Countries in the World. The yearly Corruption Perception Index 2019 by Transparency International indicates that Afghanistan has not made any progress in reducing corruption. Afghanistan ranked 173 out of 180. Only Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen had worse scores. Afghanistan tied with Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea, and Sudan. Nothing like hanging out with good company.
https://www.transparency.org/cpi2019?/news/feature/cpi-2019

Can Afghan Government Govern If Peace Arrives? Afghanistan has made some progress, but without a well-functioning government at the helm all those gains risk being lost. Thus far, the Afghan political elite have failed to establish a functional government that could sustain itself and effectively lead and manage its government institutions and processes. Read “Ending the War Won’t Solve Afghanistan’s Governance Problem”, The Diplomat, January 23, 2020.

Elections

No Results Thus Far. It has been a couple of months since the presidential elections were held. There has been no clear winner to emerge in this highly-contested election. Although President Ghani seems to enjoy a slight lead in votes many of the ballots are disputed.

Election Analysis. S. Binodkumar Singh, a Research Associate for the Institute for Conflict Management (India), provides his perspective of the recent presidential election in “Afghanistan: Fractious Vote”, Eurasia Review, December 30, 2019.

Development and Economy

Economy Grows. Afghanistan’s economy grew by an estimated 2.9 percent in 2019. The agricultural sector had a rebound after suffering the last few years from drought. However, insecurity and political uncertainty is holding back the Afghan economy. It is anticipated that the Afghan economy will grow by 3.3 percent in 2020. Read more in a 46-page report by the World Bank Group entitled Afghanistan Development Update: Navigating a Sea of Uncertainty, January 2020.
https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/33210

Hijabs Needed in Herat. Billboards have gone up in the Afghan city of Herat saying a woman without a hijab is a “disgrace to her man”. See “Billboards Harangue Women to Wear Hijabs in Herat”, Gandahar Blog, January 24, 2020.

Gwadar Port – Now Handling Afghan Cargo. Goods shipped through a Pakistan seaport are now arriving in Afghanistan. The port has been in a long development phase beginning in 2013 to connect the port with inland markets. This will certainly help Afghanistan’s economy in the long-run. Read “After Seven Years in Development, Gwadar Handles First Afghan Cargo”, Maritime-Executive Magazine, January 23, 2020.

Polio Still a Threat. Afghanistan has witnessed a spike in reported polio cases. Parents are refusing to immunize their children because of fear of being targeted by the Taliban. The insurgents view medical teams as a threat to its control of rural areas. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria are the only countries where polio has not been eliminated. See “Polio Remains Threat in Militant-hit Areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Voice of America, January 24, 2020.

Commentary

The Road Ahead in Afghanistan. Douglas London, a retired CIA Clandestine Service officer and former chief of counterterrorism for South and Southwest Asia, provides a roadmap for the way ahead in Afghanistan for the United States. See “US policy in Afghanistan: Smoke and mirrors, but not yet hopeless”, Middle East Institute (MEI), January 16, 2020.

History

Great Britain’s Misadventures in Afghanistan. Franz-Stefan Gady, a Senior Editor with The Diplomat, recounts the disastrous end of Great Britain’s first invasion of Afghanistan (1839-1842). Read “Great Britain’s World Military Blunder in South Asia”, The Diplomat, January 18, 2020.

Airpower in Afghanistan 1979-2001. A small military force with potent anti-aircraft capabilities denied the Soviets air superiority. This article takes a detailed look at the Soviet aircraft used during the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. In addition, it presents a picture of the Afghan air force in the timeframe leading up to the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States in the fall of 2001. (The Fulda Gap, Dec 28, 2019).

Myth of the “Afghan Trap”. Conor Tobin, a researcher and lecturer, writes about the misrepresentation of Soviet-Afghan history by some historians and academics. There are some that believe the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency lured the Soviets into an invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Tobin asserts that this is not true – that it is wrong to “. . . conclude that the CIA plan was designed to provoke a Soviet intervention when we were, in fact, trying to discourage one.” Read his long essay entitled “The Myth of the ‘Afghan Trap’: Zbigniew Brzezinski and Afghanistan, 1978-1979”, Oxford Academic, January 9, 2020.

Soviet COIN in Afghanistan. Daniel J. O’Connor, a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer (48D), wrote about the Russian counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. O’Connor believes there were three fundamental mistakes made by the Soviets. Misunderstanding the type of fight, failure to recognize and address the root causes of the insurgency, and deploying the wrong types of forces to Afghanistan. He says that the Soviet Union mistakes in Afghanistan provides a useful road map of what to avoid in the search of conflict resolution in Afghanistan in the present times. Read “The Three Misunderstandings of Soviet Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan”, Small Wars Journal, January 16, 2020.

40 Years Ago. On December 25, 1979 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. It was a turning point in world history. Thomas Ruttig details the event in this article. (Afghanistan Analysts Network, Dec 25, 2019).

U.S. Bombing Raid Gone Wrong. Brett Murphy traveled to Afghanistan to research a disastrous CIVCAS event that happened a decade ago involving a MARSOF team that claimed numerous civilian lives. Read “Inside the U.S. Military’s Raid Against Its Own Security Guards That Left Dozens of Afghan Children Dead”, USA Today, January 10, 2020.

A Reporter in Afghanistan. Brett Murphy describes how he travels through Afghanistan as a journalist in search of facts and a story. Read “Reporting on a deadly airstrike in Afghanistan”, USA Today, January 10, 2020.

The Afghanistan Papers

In December 2019 The Washington Post released a series of articles detailing interviews conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) as part of the process to writing periodic reports to Congress about the Afghan conflict. The Post was able to obtain a court order forcing SIGAR to release almost 400 interview transcripts of military, state, and other personnel associated with the Afghan conflict. At least one of those interview transcripts was of a SIGAR interview of the editor of SOF News. For about a month, the series of articles generated lots of press and discussion. For the most part, the Post was criticized for ‘hyping’ information that had been readily available in the press, in official documents, and provided in periodic SIGAR reports.

“No Secret War”. Jonathan Schoden provides his thoughts on the so-called ‘Afghanistan Papers’. Read “There Was No Secret War on the Truth in Afghanistan”, War on the Rocks, December 16, 2019.

WaPo Gets It Wrong. Scott Smith, a senior technical advisor on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, writes “What the Afghanistan Papers Got Wrong”, in Small Wars Journal, December 20, 2019.

Telling the Story of Afghanistan. Read more in “Who Gets to Tell the Story of the Afghanistan War?”, Defense One, January 21, 2020.

Reports and Publications

SIGAR – Lessons Learned. The series by The Washington Post about lessons learned interviews conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) prompted Congress to call the head of SIGAR for testimony. John F. Sopko testified before the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives on January 15, 2020. A transcript of his testimony (prepared statement) has been published by SIGAR. Read U.S. Lessons Learned in Afghanistan, SIGAR, January 15, 2020, 48 pages, PDF.

DOD 1225 Report. The Department of Defense provided to Congress its latest report on the Afghan conflict. The semiannual report, Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan, covers events during the period of June 1 to November 30, 2019. The 93-page DOD 1225 report covers the topics of Strategy and Objectives, Threat Assessment, Overview of ANDSF, MOD and ANA, MOI and ANP, and Financing the ANDSF.

SIGAR Quarterly Report. On October 31, 2019 the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued its quarterly report to Congress. The 255-page report covered several topics to include reintegrating former fighters, reconstruction, lessons learned, security, governance, counternarcotics, economy, and social development.
https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2019-10-30qr.pdf

2019 Afghanistan Survey. Once a year The Asia Foundation releases the results of its annual Afghan survey. The end of year survey for 2019 presents a clear picture of the gains and gaps that Afghans perceive in a rapidly transforming nation. This fifteenth edition gathered the views of more than 129,000 Afghans on topics such as security, reconciliation with the Taliban, migration, the role of women, elections, and other key issues. Read the 333-page PDF entitled A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2019, The Asia Foundation, December 2, 2019.
https://asiafoundation.org/publication/afghanistan-in-2019-a-survey-of-the-afghan-people/

GAO Report on Security Forces Fund. The Government Accountability Office published a 25-page report on the process that the U.S. uses to identify training needs and maintaining visibility over contracts. (GAO, Nov 2019).
https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-99

OCHA Humanitarian Response Plan. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has published the 2020 update to the Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan (2018-2021). The 104-page document is a plan to address the most pressing humanitarian needs in Afghanistan.

Study on Helmand Food Zone – Fueling Corruption. This report documents how the Helmand Food Zone was developed with the intent of supporting stabilization and governance between 2008 and 2012. However the actual results of the expensive effort was counterproductive – resulting in the institutionalization of corruption among government officials and fueling the frustration and anger of the people against the government. Read the 100-page report entitled The Helmand Food Zone: The Illusion of Success, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), December 1, 2019.
https://areu.org.af/publication/1908/

Book Reviews

Book Review – Air Advisors in Afghanistan. Read a review of Flight Risk: The Coalition’s Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005-2015, by Forrest L. Marion, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018. “Reviewing Flight Risk”, The Strategy Bridge, December 20, 2019.

Book Review – Australia’s TAA Mission. A new book entitled The Long Road: Australia’s Train, Advise and Assist Missions analyzes the TAA mission and offers a comprehensive summary of the Australian experience. (The Cove, April 2017).

Book Review – Taliban from 2001 to 2018. Read a review of Antonio Giustozzi’s new book entitled The Taliban at War: 2001 – 2018, The Washington Times, December 10, 2019.

Book Review: Afghanistan History. Thomas Ruttig reviews Afghanistan: a history from 1260 to the Present, by Jonathan Lee. Read the review in “An Afghanistan history covering 750 years”, Afghanistan Analysts Network, January 2, 2020.

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