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Problems faced by USA in Afghanistan- By Brig(Retd) Asif Haroon Raja

Problems faced by USA in Afghanistan


Asif Haroon Raja



While 2013 is at its fag end, so far there is no light at the end of the tunnel as far as breakthrough in US-Taliban peace talks is concerned. Stalemate has made the US position rickety. Although the US officials including Obama are repeatedly mentioning that Pakistan is a key country in the Afghan endgame, however, the American commentators gave the twirl that Pakistan has had a real change of heart and is now prepared to play a constructive role in negotiating an Afghan settlement. They tried to sell the thesis that Islamabad has eventually realized that so long as the Afghan war continues, Pakistan too will remain unstable and, therefore, only an Afghan settlement can resolve its own conflict with TTP insurgents. Secondly, an enduring Afghan settlement needs to be riveted to a broad-based power sharing arrangement that accommodates all Afghan groups. Thirdly, peace dividends are more to Pakistan’s strategic advantage than a continued


pursuit of the military option of supporting the Taliban.


Apart from the tension of stalled peace talks with Taliban since last June because of Karzai’s misdoings, Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) has cropped up as yet another big issue for USA because of Karzai’s refusal to sign it. Karzai is insisting that the BSA will be signed by next elected President after the elections in April 2014. He is acting tough since he wants to extract personal favors from USA. Addicted to regular pocket money from CIA, he wants the same to continue even after he is out of power. Suffering from paranoia, BSA is the last card he holds. Once he signs it, he will have no leverage left to get things done his way.




Besides failure on political front and lingering problem of BSA, the US is beset with host of other problems in Afghanistan. Large number of seriously injured war veterans, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) cases and suicide cases are worrying the US military command. The rate at which troops are being hospitalized for mental health illness has risen by 87% since 2000. Every one in five who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffers from PTSD.  266,810 service members received traumatic brain injuries between 2000 and 2012. Suicide cases in the three military services started to surge up from 2006 and soared to 310 in 2009, 301 in 2011 and to a record 349 in 2012, far exceeding combat deaths in Afghanistan. There were 109 cases in first four months of 2013. One suicide has taken place every 18 hours. Attempted suicide cases are much higher.   

Another perturbing factor is the IEDs which has caused much more fatalities and injuries upon the occupation forces and ANSF than combats. IED technology is continuously improved and changed to prevent detection. Even specially designed and thickly armor-plated armored vehicles are not safe from IEDs. NATO fatalities in Afghanistan have crossed the figure of 3300 which include 2500 American soldiers. Injured are well over 50,000. During the Vietnam War, fatality rate of US soldiers was very high and body bags streaming into USA disturbed the American people. Body bags became a major factor for the US administration to quit Vietnam hastily. The US is not much bothered about financial pressure, fatigue of troops, home pressure or fatalities; what concerns it the most is the seriously injured as a result of IEDs, PTSD cases, suicides and in-house attacks. These factors together with meltdown of economy, having suffered a loss of $ 6 trillion in war on terror, impelled Obama to announce drawdown of troops from Afghanistan. 

Insiders’ attacks are another menace which is giving shudders to US military leaders. From January 01 to March 31, 2013, 172 attacks took place resulting in 140 fatalities and injuries to 208 ISAF soldiers. Attacks increased by 120% between 2011 and 2012. 2012 was the deadliest for ISAF in which NATO lost 63 soldiers and injury to 85 at the hands of insiders, mostly belonging to Afghan Local Police (ALP), in 48 attacks. In every combat death was on account of green-over-blue attacks. This trend scaled down in 2013 due to tough measures taken and reduction in interaction between ANSF and foreign troops. This was however at the cost of erosion of trust between 12-year old allies.


Defections from 350,000 strong ANSF are another source of worry for the US as well as Kabul government. The latest defection took place on October 20, 2013 in which Afghan Special Forces Commander joined Hizb-Islami taking with him guns and high-tech equipment. Desertion rate is very high and so is casualty rate. The US has so far invested $54 billion to arm, train and sustain ANSF but overall results are far from satisfactory.   


Poor performance of ANSF upon which colossal amount has been spent by USA to make it an effective and efficient force is yet another cause of exasperation for the US. Majority of soldiers and policemen are addicted to drugs, they accept graft and other gratifications and are involved in discipline cases. Opium trade called Tariab is flourishing in Afghanistan because of involvement of higher ups in Kabul regime including present Karzai as well as Afghan warlords, CIA and other intelligence agencies. There was a high upsurge in drug trade in 2012/13 and it touched the figure of $3 trillion.


Notwithstanding that poppy cultivation is done in Afghanistan, the chemical and processing plant without which raw opium cannot be processed come from western countries. Poppy cultivation had been banned by the Taliban when they were in power and had brought the drug trade to almost zero level. Taliban are now also involved in drug trade especially in poppy rich Helmand to supplement their war effort. The US wants CIA and others to continue with this illegal trade but doesn’t tolerate Taliban to indulge in this trade. It was not an unwanted but a deliberate miscalculation, rather a blunder for which the world is paying a heavy price.


Creation of ALP called Arbaque under the Afghan Ministry of Interior was the brainchild of Gen David Petraeus. Every incumbent draws a monthly salary of 8-10,000 Afghanis. The force funded by the US had been drawn up on the pattern of tribal peace lashkars in tribal belt and settled areas to guard against militant threat in villages. The inductees are imparted just 2-3 weeks training and handed over a weapon. Over the years, this private force has been extensively armed over which the Interior Ministry or ANSF or NATO has little control. It has become a nuisance for Afghan regime and the creators since it is highly undisciplined and has become a huge security risk because it has been extensively infiltrated by Taliban.


In case of a political settlement with the Taliban in which Pakistan will be one of the major guarantors, the US will have to agree to exercise ‘zero option’ and also modify election rules in consultation with the Taliban, expedite releasing all prisoners and grant general amnesty.  In case the left over 87000 troops of ISAF minus 10,000 depart by December 2014 without arriving at a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban, by mid-2015 the Taliban would establish their government in eastern and southern Afghanistan where they already enjoy complete sway, with Kandahar as capital of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Kabul will fall sometime in 2016 making Bagram base untenable. Although Afghanistan will split into two distinct parts on ethnic basis however, 2017 will see insurrectional war shifting entirely into northern Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance devoid of leadership will find it difficult to stop Taliban offensive and may once again get confined to Panjsher Valley, which had once become the unassailable den of Ahmad Shah Masood.  


India which at present is in a domineering position in Afghanistan will find it exceedingly difficult to retain its heavy presence in all departments and strong influence after 2014 and is likely to wind up its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad and bulk of intelligence units deployed in major cities. Pakistan’s presence and influence on the other hand is likely to increase particularly in Pashtun inhabited regions. Pakistan will continue to play a constructive role in patching up differences and in forming a broad based government as it had done in the 1990s. China and Iran are also likely to play a productive role.      


Apparently some thaw has occurred in Pak-US relations but the US reservations against Pakistan still exist. It refuses to cease drone attacks and continues to host Baloch absconding leaders in USA and espouses their separatist agenda. Sustained vile propaganda aimed at discrediting Pak Army and ISI, Raymond Davis incident, independent intelligence collection networks, Black Water, Abbottabad operation and unceasing intelligence operations crowned by Salala massacre without subsequent remorse, provocative attempts to get Dr. Shakil Afridi released, coercing Pakistan to cancel Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, refusing to stop drone war, deliberately killing Hakimullah Mehsud to scuttle peace process and withholding CSF cannot be termed as friendly acts by any score. Pakistan will have to tread its steps in 2014 with great amount of watchfulness, tact and discretion.  


The writer is a retired Brig and a defence analystasifharoonraja@gmail.com

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USA refuses to give up drone employment

USA refuses to give up drone employment


Asif Haroon Raja


images-188The US has a long history of violating international law. Overthrowing elected governments, invading and occupying sovereign States, stoking and aiding insurgencies covertly, assassinating opponents, interning and torturing suspects in torture chambers, applying political, diplomatic, economic and military pressures are justified under the pretext of serving foreign policy objectives. Likewise drones are also validated on the plea of combating terrorism. Among the coercive techniques, drone is the latest instrument of persecution applied by USA under President Obama who has declared it as a choice weapon. Obama holds weekly meetings to decide which one to kill and which to spare from among the list put up to him by Pentagon and CIA. Once decision is taken, he signs the death warrants and CIA carries out the executions with joystick operated drones fitted with Hellfire missiles. In the calculation of Obama, all military-age males within the combat zone killed by drones are militants.


Major argument made by the proponents of drone war is that it helps in making the US troops stationed in Afghanistan safer. They say that drones are accurate and precise and hit militants only without putting the lives of American soldiers in jeopardy. They claim that dozens of high profile al-Qaeda militants were struck by drones. They also aver that common people in Waziristan do not dread drones but feel good to see militants dying. Opponents of drones challenge these contentions saying that strikes are neither accurate as claimed, nor the ISAF have become safe from Taliban attacks. They say that people of North Waziristan (NW) in particular which has borne the major brunt of drones have become nervous wrecks. They shoot down the US claims that drones are used in self-defence and are precise in targeting intended targets saying the wonky rationale lack logic and sagacity and hence unacceptable. They maintain that employment of drones is immoral and illegal, it endanger the lives of innocent civilians, violates sovereignty of independent country and also compromise international security as a whole.


FATA in Pakistan is the worst affected which has been hit by drones 330 times from 2004 to November 2013 incurring 2250 casualties. Majority of drone strikes took place in NW against Hafiz Gul Bahadar group, Haqqani network and late Waliur Rahman group followed by South Waziristan against late Maulvi Nazir group. Drones have not curbed but fuelled terrorism in Pakistan and have helped militant leaders to recruit larger number of fighters to fight Pak security forces, seen by them as mercenaries of USA. Above all, the militant groups like al-Qaeda and TTP have developed an inbuilt mechanism to quickly replace leaders killed in combat or by drones. Drones have also heightened anti-Americanism in the region.


The assassins carrying out extra judicial killings with the help of UAVs do not have any reliable means to distinguish between a militant and a civilian. Reliability of source providing intelligence remains in doubt. In most cases, reward money ($5000) lures and personal enmity propels the informers to get rich/settle old scores. This assumption draws strength from the prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay, where 92% were innocent. After years of internment, 600 were released uncharged. There has not been a single strike in which civilians were not killed along with suspected militants. Deaths of civilians are covered up as collateral damage or on the plea that they were either sympathizers or protectors of militants. There have been number of incidents wherein rescuers rushing to evacuate the injured and the dead after the drone strike were struck by another drone, or people were hit when they were burying the dead. Counter Terrorism Adviser John Brennan sometimes back made an absurd claim that there has not been a single civilian casualty from drone hits.         


There is growing international movement against drone war and with every passing day, the US credibility in international community is eroding. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter Terrorism Ben Emerson called for an independent investigation into each and every death that has resulted from drone strikes. Christophe Haynes submitted his study to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) raising concerns over the use of drones which he feels undermines international security and encourages more States and terrorist groups to acquire drones. He fears that drones may fall in wrong hands or may be hacked. His report was debated in UNGA on October 25, 2013, which called for respecting international laws. 17 out of 20 countries polled by PEW disapproved drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. 97% people in Pakistan, 63% in France, 59% in Germany, 89% in Egypt, 81% in Turkey consider drone strikes bad policy. 


While the drone war trudges on, opposition continues to balloon up. Amnesty International, International Committee of Red Cross, civil society groups and Human Rights Watch are all questioning the legal basis for targeted killings and urging Obama restraint on use of drone. Protest groups in USA and Europe continue to demonstrate against use of drone. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), activists of Imran Khan led PTI in protest against a drone strike on a seminary in Hangu on November 21, which is a town within settled area of the province, have blocked movement of NATO containers along Torkham route by staging sit-ins at five points in KP. The sit-ins started on November 23 and are still continuing. Imran is demanding stoppage of drone attacks which he strongly feels are impeding peace talks with TTP. His party joined by his coalition partner Jamaat-e-Islami is staging protests singly and is not supported by the federal government or any other party. The second supply route via Chaman is open and operational.


A case against CIA director John Brenan and station chief Craig Osth in Islamabad has been registered by Hangu police on charges of waging war against Pakistan and  killing innocent civilians. Imran nudged the government to order PAF to hit US drones. Indian Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel during his visit to Islamabad has cautioned that military aid to Pakistan will discontinue in case the supply route is not opened and reiterated the US stance that drone strikes would continue. No assurance has so far been given that the US has any intention of halting drone attacks in the near future. It is indeed surprising that the US ceded ground in Afghanistan, Syria and Iran, but gives no room to Pakistan on the issue of drones.    


Imran Khan and his party have taken a bold step to defy US unbridled belligerence. However, the time chosen to prolong blockade of supply route in my view is ill-timed. Forced by circumstances, the ISAF has now changed its posture from offensive to retrograde. Arms and ammunition are no more being pumped into Afghanistan to feed the ongoing war but military stores are being taken out of Afghanistan. While the troops will be flown out, defence equipment of 47 countries worth $7 billion lifted in 24000 containers and 20,000 vehicles is required to be transported by road in next 12 months. Undoubtedly, the two routes of Pakistan are the shortest and cheapest and hence preferred over longer and highly expensive northern network. Having nourished NATO’s war effort for 12 years, it will be folly to stop the outflow. Containers moving into Afghanistan mostly contain food and non-war items.


It must not be forgotten that Pakistan is bound by UNSC Resolution 1386 to provide logistic supply to ISAF in Afghanistan. US-Iran thaw has provided another avenue to US thereby considerably reducing dependence on Pakistan. Moreover, closure of Torkham route has deprived the truckers carrying NATO containers legitimate business, while the cash strapped government loses one million dollar daily. A loss of $20 million has already been incurred. Lastly, while analyzing pros and cons, it should be borne in mind that seven months closure of supply routes in the aftermath of Salala incident had brought no change in the attitude of USA. It managed to bear the extra cost. At this delicate stage when nothing is going in favor of Pakistan and Iran too has come in the loop of USA, prudence demands that conciliation rather than confrontation will fetch better results. At the same time, efforts on the diplomatic front should be doubled and rising anti-drone sentiments all over the world exploited.   


The writer is a retired Brig, a defence analyst and columnist. asifharoonraja@gmail.com



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Iran-US rancor melting into amity

Iran-US rancor melting into amity


Asif Haroon Raja


In the aftermath of 2nd World War and start of super power rivalry in the form of cold war, the US saw Iran as a counterweight against Soviet expansionism and a source of stability in oil-rich Persian Gulf. CIA and MI-6 jointly engineered a coup in 1953 to oust elected PM Mohammad Mossadegh since he had tried to nationalize Iran’s oil industry and brought US friendly Reza Shah Pahlavi to power. The US helped Shah in modernizing the country and its armed forces as well as in setting up dreaded intelligence agency known as Savaks in 1957. Iran’s military turned into a formidable force to reckon with in Middle East and Shah. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious leader was exiled to Turkey in 1964 after he criticized Shah’s relationship with USA. In 1978, turmoil swept Iran which allowed Imam Khomeini to return home and seize power in March 1979.


cartoon-axis-of-evil-meet-and-greet-2013-iran-usaIran-US antagonism started peaking in the aftermath of Islamic revolution in Iran, followed by seizure of American Embassy in Tehran by student militants in November 1979 and holding 52 Americans hostage for next 444 days. An American rescue operation ended in a disaster, which further bolstered Khomeini’s image in Iran and Islamic world. Hostages were released as a result of secret agreement under which the US secretly sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to bankroll a secret war in Central America against Contras. While Iran dubbed USA as the Great Satan, the US named Iran as evil. In order to punish Iran, Iraq under Saddam Hussain was instigated to declare war against its neighbor Iran in 1980. The dual hidden objective was to smother fledgling Islamic power as well as to rein-in ambitious Saddam wanting to emerge as the leader of the Arab world after Egypt signed peace treaty with Israel.


Besides the war with Iraq, Iran got involved in Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s where it supported its advance guard Hezbollah. The US military and CIA exited from Lebanon in 1983 as a consequence to two deadly bombing attacks on US Embassy and CIA HQ in Beirut, allegedly undertaken by Hezbollah. Throughout the 1990s, Iran and its creation Hezbollah were blamed for sponsoring terrorism around the world. Iran was also accused of providing critical support to Hamas suicide bombers against Israel. Bill Clinton imposed oil and trade sanctions on Iran in 1995. A slight improvement in Iran-US relations took place in 1997 after reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected president and he waved an olive branch. Some penalties were lifted. However, their relations dipped low after 9/11 when George W. Bush included Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his ‘axis of evil’ and rebuffed Khatami’s offer of ‘grand bargain’ after he learnt about Iran’s nuclear program.     


The US and Israeli leadership started breathing fire when Iran laid the foundation of its nuclear program in 2002 and procured as well as indigenously manufactured array of ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel. Iran was accused of arming Iraqi Shiites and tasking them to kill American troops occupying Iraq. Matters worsened when former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 and he questioned the authenticity of Holocaust saying that it was a myth. He further raised the blood pressure of Israeli leaders by threatening to wipe out Israel from the face of the world. Despite CIA’s full backup support to reformists and destabilization of Zahidan and Siestan provinces with the help of Jundullah group based in Balochistan, Ahmadinejad won the second term in 2009 and he became more rigid on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program.


The US in league with the UN and EU began applying diplomatic, political, economic and military pressures on Iran to isolate it and to force it to abandon its nuclear program allegedly geared towards making a nuclear bomb. Four-fold crippling penalties included freezing of foreign currency accounts in western banks to the tune of over $7 billion. These pressures were backed by propaganda and covert wars to affect regime change. CIA kept pumping in millions of dollars to discredit the ruling regime and to promote moderate Reformists. Efforts were made to win over Centrists as well. In 2012, Iran was blacklisted from international banking network and embargo was applied on oil exports. These steps radically brought down Iran’s oil production and severely hurt its economy and resulted in high inflation. Riyal dipped to 40,000 Riyal to a dollar.  


Provoked by Ahmadinejad’s jingoistic and vitriolic statements and concerned by Iran’s fast growing military and nuclear prowess, together with Tehran’s support to its arch rivals Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Assad regime in Syria, Israel started ringing alarm bells and describing Iran as an existential threat to its security. It kept poisoning the ears of USA and western countries and asked them to stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear program or else nip the evil in the bud. When the US dithered due to its neck deep involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear sites unilaterally. While Netanyahu maintained that Israel reserved the right to protect itself from nuclear Iran, and claimed that nuclear armed Iran would dramatically increase terrorism by giving terrorists a nuclear umbrella, he didn’t specify as to what damage nuclear armed Israel posed to its neighbors. To exert pressure on Iran, Israel asked USA to approve sale of advanced refueling aircraft and GBU bunker busting bombs. Idea was to convey to Iran that its underground nuclear sites would not be safe from GBUs.


Despite heavy economic bleeding, Iran refused to cow down and stood its ground. It maintained its stance that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and it has the right to develop it. In the face of looming dangers, Ahmadinejad threatened that if attacked, Strait of Hormuz would be blocked. His aggressive policies were fully supported by people of Iran. Things came to a pass when the internal situation of Syria spun out of control in the wake of use of chemical weapons allegedly by Syrian forces and the US supported by France and UK deciding to intervene militarily. Iran and Russia stood behind Assad regime. With so many powerful actors involved in the Syrian muddle, a war of bigger dimension in the volatile region of Middle East seemed imminent.


While Syria became the battleground for proxy wars of Saudi Arabia and Iran, noted analysts opined that the US was paving its way to strike Iran after dismantling Syria. The explosive situation cooled down as a result of Russian President Putin’s wise counsel. An agreement was signed with USA in which Assad agreed to open its chemical weapons stocks for international inspection and subsequent destruction in return for US-NATO putting off strikes. Diplomacy prevailed upon use of force, thus adding a feather in Putin and Obama’s caps. While Assad breathed a sigh of relief, the military contractors in USA, France and Britain as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar that had extended full support to the NATO’s intended offensive plan felt thoroughly disappointed. Obama’s preference to Muslim Brotherhood over Hosni Mubarak in Egypt until Morsi was overthrown by Egyptian military on July 3, 2013 had already disconcerted King Abdullah. Obama’s volte face in Syria further angered him and he decided to forgo Saudi seat in the UNSC, terming it was a dead horse.


While the hawks were still trying to absorb the shock effects of US u-turn on Syria, interim nuclear agreement signed in Geneva between Iran and P5+1 on November 24, 2013 came as a bolt from the blue. The deal which came about as a result of secret talks between US and Iranian officials in Oman since last March has the potential to dramatically change the geo-strategic landscape of Middle East in particular and neighboring regions in general. Israel is incensed since it feels that temporary freeze may delay but will not block Iran’s resolve to manufacture a nuclear bomb. Israel with its over 200 nuclear warheads has the temerity to demand complete shutdown of Iran’s enrichment program, dismantlement of 19000 centrifuges and uprooting of heavy water reactor at Arak. Saudi Arabia is upset for not being kept informed. Some Gulf countries with Shia minorities and Bahrain with Shia majority are disconcerted over the development. They apprehend that the US patronage may enable Iran to not only regain its envied position in Middle East and in the process hinder growing Saudi-Qatari influence in the region, but also embolden it to export Shiaism. A Saudi analyst expressed his frustration saying that the US uses allies ‘like prostitutes’ and then dump them. The US Congress under the influence of Israel is unhappy and is still insisting on imposition of more sanctions.   


While retaining the right to uranium enrichment, Iran will cap its nuclear enrichment up to 5% for next six months and will allow IAEA to inspect nuclear sites. The US in return will defreeze Iran’s bank accounts in western countries and gradually remove sanctions. The deal can falter in case the US feels that Tehran is breaching the interim agreement, or Iran feels that the US is not giving sufficient relief. Spoilers however will continue to thwart the deal. In case the deal collapses, and Iran races ahead to manufacture the bomb, Obama will face the consequences of failure. But if the deal materializes into a final pact, it will add another feather in the hat of Obama. Whatever may be the outcome of the interim deal, what is satisfying is that the situation that had boiled to a bursting point has been cooled down and chances are that it will not trigger again.   


The writer is a retired Brig, defence analyst, columnist and researcher. asifharoonraja@gmail.com     


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