An image taken from a video distributed by ISIS on July 31, 2018 purportedly shows the militants who the terror group claims attacked a group of international cyclists in Tajikistan on July 29.
On 29 July 2018, Tajikistan experienced its worst terrorist attack in the 17 years since it gained independence from the Soviet Union. In that attack, five militants, who had sworn allegiance in a video to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), struck a group of international cyclists with a car and then proceeded to stab the survivors with knives, before local police arrived on the scene, killing four of the militants and arresting one. As a result of the attack, two Americans, one Swiss citizen, and one Dutch citizen were killed, while three others – one Swiss, one Dutch, and one French – were injured. The attack was carried out in Danghara District, near the hometown of Emomali Rahmon, who has been President of Tajikistan since 1992.
Whether the location was important to the planners of the attack is not known, though the authorities have been quick to blame the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) for this targeting of tourists, portraying it as an effort to undermine President Rahmon’s international credibility. The IRPT was one of the parties which formed the United Tajik Opposition during the Tajik Civil War, a conflict waged between 1992 and 1997 amid regional and ethnic rivalries and in protest against the perceived authoritarianism of President Rahmon. The conflict resulted in the deaths of 25,000 to 100,000 people, mainly from Tajikistan but also Taliban fighters from neighbouring Afghanistan, before peace talks in Moscow led to the cessation of hostilities and the legalization of the IRPT, which soon came to be the second largest political party in the country. The IRPT continued to participate in Tajikistan’s democratic process until, amid a campaign of harassment from the authorities, the party was abruptly banned in 2015 from all future elections and was designated as a terrorist organization.
In this context, it is doubtful that the IRPT was somehow involved in the attack and so the claim of responsibility by ISIS should be accepted as the most plausible explanation for the targeting of these cyclists. This presents some concerns for the integrity of the Tajik state, as the Afghan affiliate of ISIS, which refers to itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP), has come under increased pressure from both the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the Taliban. A rash of bombings and other attacks across northern Afghanistan indicate that ISIS-KP is worried about potential peace talks amid the other Afghan factions and the resulting isolation this would create for the terrorist organization. Were ISIS to find itself locked out of a political solution to the more than 17-year conflict in Afghanistan, its few thousand fighters could be displaced to Tajikistan, from where it could launch further attacks or attempt to seize power in that country.
A Soldier from the 183rd Regiment, 1st Battalion, Virginia National Guard instructs Tajik service members about self-aid buddy care procedures during a field training exercise part of multinational exercise Regional Cooperation 2017, July 17, 2017, in Fakhrabad, Tajikistan. Hosted by Tajikistan’s Ministry of Defense, RC 17 affords participants the opportunity to exercise a United Nations directive to focus counterterrorism, border security and peacekeeping operations (Photo: Staff Sgt. Michael Battles / U.S. Air Force).
This is surprising as China shares a 414-kilometre border with the Central Asian state, and the collapse of state institutions in Tajikistan would inevitably have a destabilizing effect on China’s Xinjiang province. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which seeks to establish an independent Islamic state concentrated on Xinjiang, would have greater maneuverability in its operations were it to find sanctuary in a Tajik state governed by a like-minded party, though it might not find much in terms of shared resources with ISIS-KP, given that ETIM’s focus would be on Tajikistan’s eastern border with China while ISIS-KP would remain concentrated on the southern border with Afghanistan. But there is certainly a precedent for such a “live and let live” partnership, such as the Taliban’s decision to host and offer sanctuary in Afghanistan to al-Qaeda in the mid-1990s.
China’s relative lack of engagement in Tajikistan may simply be due to suspicion of President Rahmon’s strategic intentions. In 2011, Tajikistan ratified a deal, originally negotiated in 1999, which ceded 1,000 square kilometres of territory in the Pamir mountain range to China and demarcated much of the border. With a competently trained and well-equipped military, perhaps China worries, President Rahmon could just as well attempt to reclaim this ceded territory and fuel instability in nearby Xinjiang as he could combat ISIS and drug traffickers. The Chinese leadership may have assessed the current situation and determined that the least risk would be in allowing other regional partners to bolster Tajikistan’s security and then only intervene militarily if ISIS-KP does in fact establish sufficient presence to formally seize Tajik territory.
Regardless, the brazen attack on foreign tourists in Danghara is a worrying development in a volatile region. More will need to be done by the international community to ensure that the ISIS threat is contained as that group seeks purchase elsewhere.
by Lt. Col. Chad M. Pillai. He is is a military strategist who has served in assignments in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Lt. Col. Pillai was assigned to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from 2012-2013 where he worked on U.S. and NATO policy. He is a published author in a variety of journals and received his Master of International Public Policy (MIPP) degree from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The opinion in this article reflect the author’s personal views and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government.
While the United States spends close to 4% of its GDP on defense that figured its spread across the world to support alliances in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As Europe and the United States face growing competition and threats from Russia, China, and rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea along with transnational terrorism, it is time for Europe to grow its teeth again.
While the European Union as an integrated economic union is rich, it remains militarily impotent compared to its latent potential. In fact, as George Friedman, author of the book “Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe” wrote, “Hannah Arendt, a postwar philosopher, once said that the most dangerous thing in the world is to be rich and weak. Wealth can only be protected by strength, as unlike the poor, the wealthy are envied and have things others want, and unlike the strong they are subject to power.” (Friedman, Flashpoints, p. 157).
While Europe remains scarred by the catastrophic period of war between 1914-1945 where over a 100 million perished, the period after World War I and II under the protective umbrella of U.S. military might have given Europe the space needed to rebuild. This allowed European nations to rebuild their societies and economies, and eventually worked towards the project of European integration that hadn’t truly existed since the Holy Roman Empire brought some form of resemblance to the former Greco-Roman world. After the end of the Cold War, the Europeans sped ahead with integration of their economies while cashing in their “peace dividend” by dramatically reducing their military capability.
The fractures between the United States and Europe materialized in the 1990s during the Balkan conflicts of Bosnia and Kosovo, where the European nations, the European Union as a collective body, failed to stop a bloody conflict in its backyard until it became a NATO operation when the United States took lead to end the bloodshed.
The European Union proposed the European Security and Defense Policy as an alternative security force to NATO (meaning when the U.S. and Canada were not involved) when it was not needed to lead an operation. While it has evolved since 1998, it never grew into an actual military force capable of deterring aggression from the likes of Russia. As Friedman points out regarding the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008, “[w]hen…no one came to Georgia’s aid, a founding premise of the European Unification – that the European Union would take care of the economy while NATO would take care of security – became more uncertain.” (Friedman, Flashpoints, p. 119).
The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country. Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference. — U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates cited in Ian Traynor, “US Defence Chief Blasts Europe over Nato“, The Guardian, 10.06.2011.
In 2011, this weakness was displayed again during the intervention in Libya, where elements that constituted the core of NATO and the EU force, primarily the British and French, relied heavily on U.S enabler support.
The Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 with irregular forces and then annexation further demonstrated the EU’s and by default NATO’s impotence. The European Union could not muster a significant military force to deter conventional Russian aggression and Russia presents an uncomfortable reality as Friedman once again points out that “[t]he problem of the EU was that the Europeans had nothing to offer but peace and prosperity – an Ode to Joy. But what would happen if the joy failed, if either peace or prosperity evaporated? Then what would hold men together in brotherhood, and what would hold the European Union together?” (Friedman, Flashpoints, p. 119).
Some would counter argue by rightly pointing out that neither Georgia nor Ukraine is a NATO member. Therefore, there was no justification for the NATO alliance to invoke an Article 5 response. At the same time, NATO has stepped up its military presence in eastern Europe to include its Air Policing Mission over the Baltics, and forward stationed troops ranging in eastern Europe, and establishing a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VHJTF) to respond to Russian aggression. These steps are designed to serve as both a tripwire and as means to initially inflict punishment on any Russian aggression; however, RAND war games conducted between the summer of 2014 and spring 2015 highlighted NATO’s vulnerabilities to stop a full-scale Russian ground assault near the Baltics in large part due to NATO’s inability to project sufficient power from western Europe as major seaports, airports, road and rail networks would be targeted by Russian advanced systems such the Iskandar missile and NATO airpower would be under threat from Russian S-300/S-400 air defense systems (see also Patrick Truffer, “Zapad 2017 demonstrates the modernisation of the Russian armed forces“, offiziere.ch, 16.02.2018). Right now, the European Union, and NATO with U.S. assistance can provide some deterrence against Russian aggression; but without the U.S., the EU and NATO do not have a credible conventional military force capable of defending its interests against Russia without risking nuclear escalation (the UK and France maintain a small yet credible nuclear deterrence to Russian adventurism).
Despite the European Union total population exceeding that of the United States, the current force structure of various European allies is appalling compared to the U.S. When comparing forces in the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Military Balance 2018, one sees that the U.S. Marine Corps with its three active divisions and three active air wings is larger than the entire British Military establishment. The U.S. Special Operations Command total force structure is about equal – and if further UK cuts are made – will be larger than the entire British Army. The once vaunted Royal Navy has less personal than the U.S. Coast Guard. However, the British do field very capable forces, especially its Special Forces, that continue to serve alongside the United States in various conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
As the chart above illustrates, NATO without the U.S. spends only about one-third of the U.S. defense spending. For comparison: Russia’s small military spending is almost five times lesser than the one of NATO without the U.S. If NATO without the U.S. were to meet its 2% pledge, it would equal roughly 50% of the U.S. defense expenditures and would not reach parity until it would reach 4% of GDP.
Increased spending will not solve all of NATO’s problems. NATO’s spending must address the gaps in operational capability, material stocks, transportation networks (air, sea, road, and rail networks sufficiently hardened and standardized), etc. Germany has recently been the target of criticism when stories leaked that only a small portion of its Eurofighters are operational, significant problems with its naval assets, and army helicopter pilots have to train on civilian ones because of chronic maintenance issues (George Allison, “Less than a Third of German Military Assets Are Operational Says Report“, UK Defence Journal, 21.06.2018). If the Europeans want the United States, and by extension Russia, to take them seriously, they need to rectify their chronic military shortfalls.
To effectively deter Russian aggression, considering Russia’s formidable A2/AD systems that could challenge the rapid introduction of U.S. forces, European forces need to have the capability to deter and at a minimum buy time for U.S. reinforcements to arrive (and more than likely will have to fight their way from western Europe again if key air and sea ports are disrupted in eastern Europe). If the U.S. walks away into isolation, all that free education and healthcare in Europe will not defend them from others who are more powerful (a U.S. critique without the proper context since Europeans pay for those benefits with higher taxation).
In addition to military shortfalls in Europe, Europe states need to reduce or eliminate the caveats they place on their forces when deployed to operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The joke that the acronym for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan really meant “I Saw Americans Fight” was partly due to the maddening frustration with caveats from nations on if and when their militaries would conduct actual combat operations. Of course, some were better than others, but after watching the torturous process of getting force commitments from European partners for ISAF, it became clear that things needed to change. Again, it should not be a struggle to get combat ready brigades (plural for a reason since one brigade is about 3-5,000 Soldiers) from a nation(s) whose population is more than 60 million.
The relationship between the United States and Europe is not only challenged by the current Russian threat, but in the long-term will be increasingly challenged by China’s global ambitions. The growing Chinese influence as a result of its “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR) initiative along the routes of the famed “Silk and Spice Road” traveled by Marco Polo, the geography that separated Europe from Asia continues to shrink while the challenges increase. This astute observation is made by famed geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan in his recent book, when he wrote:
As Europe disappears, Eurasia coheres. I do not mean to say that Eurasia is becoming unified, or even stable in the manner that Europe was during the Cold War and the Post Cold War — only that the interactions of globalization, technology, and geopolitics, with each reinforcing the other, are leading the Eurasian supercontinent to be come analytically speaking, one fluid and comprehensible unit. Eurasian simply has meaning in a way that it didn’t used to. Morever, because of the reunification of the Mediterranean Basin, evinced by refugees from North Africa and the Levant flooding Europe, and because of dramatically increased interactions across the Indian Ocean from Indochina to East Africa, we may not speak of Afro-Eurasia in one breath. The term “World Island,” early-twentieth-century British geographer Halford Mackinder’s phrase Eurasia jointed with Africa, is no longer premature. — Robert D. Kaplan, “The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century“, Random House, 2018, p. 7.
In light of these challenges, Europe must regrow its teeth – actual military capability to match its economic status. If it wants to be taken seriously by competitors and threats ranging from Russia, China, and/or Iran, it needs to demonstrate it has the capability to back its “soft power” with credible “hard power”. Finally, if Europe wants to regain the respect and trust of a frustrated U.S.-America, it must prove it has the means to be an equal partner. The famous quote by Winston Churchill: “There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is to fight without them” still applies. However, the current situation lies somewhere in the middle where the United States is frustrated with its allies who lack the capacity to fight alongside it – a worrying reality if the United States finds itself in a major conflict with a near-peer competitor such as Russia and/or China. Europe needs to recall its martial ghost of Sparta, Alexander, Rome, and Charlemagne once again if it wants to be taken seriously upon a growing multipolar world.
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Note (August 9, 2018): This is a revised version of the original article. Due to a mistake in the transmission of the final draft, the original article had several grammatical errors. We apologize for the inconveniences.
Despite the fact that they are banned, chemical weapons are still being used today. According to a French analysis, chemical weapons were used in at least 130 instances in Syria between October 2012 and April 2017 (Rebecca Hersman, “Resisting Impunity for Chemical-Weapons Attacks“, Survival 60, no. 2, p. 75). The two U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have reacted differently to major chemical weapons attacks in Syria. One made threats, did not consistently implement the threats and therefore lost his credibility; the other seized the opportunity, did not hesitate to take action, and used his “nice, new and smart” missiles. Neither of the presidents made an impression on the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian medical staff take part in a training exercise to learn how to treat victims of chemical weapons attacks, in a course organized by the World Health Organisation in Gaziantep, Turkey (Photo: Murad Sezer).
The situation got worse at the end of July 2012, when Damascus threatened to use chemical weapons in the event of an “external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic“. In response to a question posed by the journalist Chuck Todd, U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed during a press briefing in August 2012 that he did not intend to begin a military intervention in Syria, but that a movement or the use of large quantities of chemical weapons could change this, and far-reaching consequences would follow. The use or proliferation of chemical weapons was not only concerning for the USA: it was also worrying for their allies in the Middle East.
We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. […] We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly. — Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President to the White House Press Corps“, 20.08.2012.
Obama had been rather naive in his hope of intimidating Assad and offering a deterrent against the use and proliferation of chemical weapons to non-governmental groups, such as Hezbollah . As far as the use of chemical weapons was concerned, Obama’s threats were in vain. The Syrian Armed Forces most likely deployed sarin on 19 March 2013 in Khan al-Asal (20 dead, 124 injured), 29 April 2013 in Saraqueb (1 dead, 10 injured) and on 21 August 2013 in Ghouta (355 dead, 3,600 injured) .
The attack on Ghouta could not be ignored by the U.S. government, especially because an early U.S. estimate was rather high, talking of over 1,400 dead (of which 426 were children). About a week after the attack, the U.S. government announced that it had solid evidence that the Syrian government had carried out the chemical weapons attack (Jeffrey Lewis and Bruno Tertrais, “The Thick Red Line: Implications of the 2013 Chemical-Weapons Crisis for Deterrence and Transatlantic Relations“, Survival 59, no. 6, p. 85). The “red line” drawn by Obama around a year earlier had therefore apparently been clearly crossed, in anyone’s view. However, Obama was hesitant to implement the threatened consequences — the massive military attack by the U.S. Armed Forces which was anticipated never took place.
In the hope of intimidating Assad and by drawing the “red line”, Obama had backed himself into a corner because the unilateral use of military force without the approval of the UN Security Council was utterly contrary to his fundamental convictions. When the British parliamentrejected a motion by British Prime Minister David Cameron at the end of August 2013, which had been intended to pave the way for British military involvement to punish the Assad regime, Obama’s concerns about falling into a trap by unilaterally taking military action were particularly pressing (Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine“, The Atlantic, April 2016). At the same time, this also opened up new scope for Obama: new, the U.S. Congress should decide about military retaliation in Syria. The corresponding bill was introduced to the U.S. Senate on 6 September 2013.
In a formal sense, the U.S. President, as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, would not have required the approval of Congress to take such a limited action (Barack Obama, “Text of President Obama’s Remarks on Syria”, The New York Times, 31.08.2013). With the involvement of Congress, however, Obama was not only playing for time (and as time passed military retaliation became less likely): he was also able to shift responsibility to Congress, while at the same time taking himself out of the line of fire (Lewis and Tertrais, p. 79). As early as 4 September 2013, he qualified his statements about the “red line”. He defined and clearly showed whose credibility was at stake: “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. […] My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’s credibility’s on the line.” (Jonathan Allen, “Obama Reframes ‘Red Line’ Rhetoric“, Politico, 04.09.2013).
[Bashar al-Assad] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously. — John Kerry, “Press Conference by Kerry, British Foreign Secretary Hague“, U.S. Departement of State, 19.12.2013.
This was not a well-thought out strategy, but a slip by Kerry, which incorrectly spread over the media as an U.S. ultimatum to Assad. This assessment is also underscored by a U.S. State Department statement that Kerry’s remark was merely rhetorical in nature.
However, Obama’s publicly flaunted inconsistent behaviour was fatal for the credibility of the USA and its influence in the Middle East. Finally dropped by the West, this sealed the fate of the “moderate rebels” in Syria and strengthened radical Islamist groups. In the medium term, the USA lost their influence in the Middle East to Russia. Russia was not only able to expand its armaments business in the Middle East: since then they have again been regarded as an influential player in this region. On the international stage, the impression spread that the USA was no longer prepared to intervene decisively on a military level when fundamental international norms were breached. This gave Russia additional room for manoeuvre, which Putin skilfully exploited in the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine in March/April 2014 and the Russian military operation in Syria from the end of September 2015 onwards (Lewis and Tertrais, p. 96f).
Screenshot from a video posted to YouTube on April 11, 2014 shows substantial yellow coloration at base of the cloud over Keferzita, Syria, drifting with main cloud, and color intensity appears to quickly dissipate over next 20 seconds.
Russia was informed in advance of the imminent air strike, which enabled the Syrian Armed Forces to bring some of their aircraft to safety. Although Shayrat is the second largest Syrian air force base, the U.S. air strike had no strategic consequences. Around 10 Syrian aircraft were destroyed, which were presumably mostly defective planes. In addition, 13 toughened aircraft protection structures, 10 weapon depots, 7 fuel tanks, 5 workshops and parts of 5 SA-6 anti-aircraft missile batteries were destroyed. Shayrat was defined as a target because it was from here that the chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun took place. Nevertheless, no installations were destroyed that would have prevented a new chemical weapons attack from the air force base. According to National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster, the Sarin storage areas still on the air force base were deliberately not fired upon by Tomahawks to avoid the risk of poisoning civilians near the air force base (“Why Was Syria’s Shayrat Airbase Bombed?“, BBC News, 07.04.2017). The runway also remained intact, enabling the Syrian Armed Forces to land and take off from the base with their remaining Su-22s hours later.
Striking Syrian military bases is little punishment for the perpetrators, nor much justice or restitution for the victims. — Rebecca Hersman, p. 79.
The U.S. retaliation was basically ineffective as a deterrent. A good year later, the Syrian Armed Forces used chemical weapons in Douma (probably chlorine possibly in combination with Sarin, with 43 dead) (“Russia, Syria Trying To ‘Sanitize’ Chemical Attack Site, U.S. Says“, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 19.04.2018). This time, the US, together with France and Great Britain (hereinafter referred to as the “coalition”) bombed the Barzah scientific research centre, along with the Him Shinshar chemical weapons depot and its bunker with 105 cruise missiles. In order to exclude Russian victims, Russia was once again warned of this attack. According to the coalition, chemical weapons were being developed and manufactured in Barzah, but it seems unclear whether chemical weapons were also neutralised during the destruction of the three targets. Satellite photos showing the fire brigade in the immediate vicinity of the Barzah scientific research centre shortly after the air strike, and the absence of victims caused by the agents released make this rather doubtful, however.
Imagery taken on April 14, 2018 shortly after the destruction of the Barzah scientific research centre by 76 missiles shows two fire engines — click on the image to enlarge.
The Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) is one of the world’s largest military exercises, held biannually by the United States Navy (USN) since 1971 in its Hawaiian and southern Californian training areas, usually with participation from several Pacific partner countries. On June 27th, the latest edition was underway and the exercise is expected to end today, on August 2nd, 2018. With more than 50 naval vessels deployed this year, RIMPAC 2018 is one of the largest and most ambitious yet in this long-standing series of exercises.
RIMPAC 2018 also heavily emphasized the multi-domain capabilities of the U.S. and its allies. A “Sinking Exercise” (SINKEX) held on July 12 saw U.S., Japanese, and Australian forces sink a decommissioned amphibious ship with air- and submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missiles, ground-launched cruise missiles, land-based artillery and rocket systems, and a submarine-launched torpedo. Of particular note, the hulk was hit with a Naval Strike Missile (NSM), a land-based anti-ship weapon jointly developed by the Norwegian company Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace (KDA) with a range of over 500 kilometres. Showcasing this weapon and others at the SINKEX may have been intended to demonstrate to China that it does not have the monopoly on Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. For example, China has touted its Dongfeng-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) as a potential means to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea, with several of these missiles stationed at a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base in northern Guangdong province, leaving many contest islands within range. The DF-21D has a far greater range than the NSM, however, and so SINKEX also demonstrates the need for the U.S. and its allies to catch-up to China’s progress in asymmetric maritime warfare.
In any case, RIMPAC 2018 (and the politics surrounding it) will be the subject of much discussion and analysis in the months to come. As the first such exercise to be held since the introduction of the “Indo-Pacific” concept by the Trump Administration, it has highlighted some of the challenges facing its implementation. On the one hand, disinviting China showed the US’ willingness to pursue this concept of Indo-Pacific security and take a harder position on China’s activities in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the Indian Navy’sdeployment of a lone frigate, INS Sahyadri, might represent India’s scepticism about the concept or simply the Indian Navy’s lack of preparedness to undertake such sustained, long-range operations.
by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Taliban’s political office is seen on June 19, 2013 in Doha, Qatar.
Given that neither the Taliban nor the United States appears any closer to lasting victory in 2018 than in 2001, a consensus has emerged in the international community that a political settlement to the War in Afghanistan remains the only way to end it. Some U.S.-politicians and pundits have argued that the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan, others that it can defeat the Taliban once and for all by deploying more soldiers. Neither option, however, looks realistic. Unless the Taliban and the U.S. plan to stay at war forever, peace talks seem the only viable alternative if either side wants to effect some kind of change.
Despite the gradual consensus on the need for a political settlement to end the War in Afghanistan, the roadblocks to peace talks have only increased since the start of the conflict. The Taliban has more money and support now than ever before. The insurgents have grown more hostile to the Western world and the U.S. in particular, and their most anti-peace faction has a hold on the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s waning leadership. None of these factors preclude peace talks on their own, but they represent obstacles that the U.S. must navigate if it hopes to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table and learn from past failures.
When the War in Afghanistan began, the U.S. missed an early opportunity to negotiate with the Taliban. In December 2001, Taliban leaders proposed surrendering in exchange for amnesty, but the Afghan government and the U.S. ignored their offer in anticipation of defeating the insurgents on the battlefield (Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014, p. 47). Some observers hypothesized that the Taliban only resorted to insurgency in the first place because the U.S. refused to negotiate with the insurgents once it had overthrown the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Anand Gopal, “The Taliban in Kandahar”, in Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders between Terror, Politics, and Religion, ed. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, Oxford University Press, 2013, 1f). After defeating the Taliban in a show of force, the U.S. enjoyed temporary leverage over its demoralized leaders. Seventeen years later, though, the superpower has found itself struggling to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, a significant turn of events for a country used to influence and victory.
Former Taliban fighters at a jail complex in Shebargan, Afghanistan (Photo: Yuri Kozyrev).
Once the U.S. had reevaluated its position on peace talks, it ran into the obstacle of determining how to initiate negotiations with Taliban leaders who had made their own reassessment about the benefits of peace. U.S. President George W. Bush’s foreign policy had emphasized fighting the Taliban, but U.S. President Barack Obama had campaigned on the goal of extricating U.S.-soldiers from Afghanistan. Afghan and U.S.-diplomats thus had to lean on their allies in the Persian Gulf to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. In 2008, Saudi Arabia organized meetings between representatives of the Afghan government and the insurgents (Thomas Ruttig, “Negotiations with the Taliban”, in Talibanistan, p. 441). The U.S. would complain only a year later, however, that Saudi Arabia was doing too little to stop the insurgents from fundraising on its territory (Declan Walsh, “Wikileaks Cables Portray Saudi Arabia as a Cash Machine for Terrorists“, The Guardian, December 5, 2010). For its part, the United Arab Emirate funded a meeting between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Kabul in 2010 (Ruttig, p. 442). These conversations failed to prevent hiccups in the peace process: the same year, the Afghan government discovered that it was negotiating with an impostor who had introduced himself as Mullah Akhtar Mansour, then Mullah Muhammad Omar’s second in command (Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall, “Taliban Leader in Secret Talks Was an Imposto“, The New York Times, November 22, 2010). Some observers expected that the death of Osama bin Laden would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but those hopes too never came to fruition. The insurgents opened a diplomatic mission in Qatar for the purpose of peace talks in 2013 only for the Afghan government to complain that the Taliban was billing itself as a government in exile (Reza Sayah, “At Their Office in Doha, Taliban Make Changes“, CNN, June 20, 2013). It would take a prisoner swap to bring the insurgents and the U.S. from these frequent episodes of miscommunication into concrete, productive negotiations that might lay the groundwork for peace talks.
Discussions over the fate of Bowe Bergdahl, an U.S.-prisoner of war held by the Taliban for several years, forced the U.S. to negotiate with the Haqqani network, considered the most anti-peace Taliban faction. From Bergdahl’s 2009 capture to his 2014 release, the Haqqanis insisted on exchanging him for the “Taliban Five“, prominent insurgents incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. After five years of back and forth, the U.S. agreed to the Haqqanis’ initial conditions (“Negotiation Analysis: The US, Taliban, and the Bergdahl Exchange“, Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, December 5, 2017). U.S.-diplomats hoped that the release of the “Taliban Five” would act as a building block to peace talks, considering that the prisoner swap amounted to the most substantive negotiations with the Taliban in the history of the War in Afghanistan (Michael Semple, “Why Did the Negotiations to Free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Take Years?“, Interview by Marco Werman, Public Radio International, June 6, 2014). The U.S. had proved that it could negotiate with even the Haqqanis, the Taliban faction described as the most hostile to peace talks. If the U.S. could conduct a prisoner exchange with them, perhaps it could conclude a political settlement with all the insurgents.
The wreckage of a vehicle that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour was said to be traveling in near the Afghan border in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
To U.S.-diplomats’ surprise, the momentum built by the prisoner exchange would disappear only two years later. In 2016, the U.S. killed Mansour — then the Taliban’s leader — in an airstrike, eliminating an insurgent whom some had considered the U.S.’s best chance of getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. The move angered even some of Obama’s own aides, who anticipated that it would backfire and hinder peace talks (Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan, “A Dubai Shopping Trip and a Missed Chance to Capture the Head of the Taliban“, The Washington Post, March 24, 2018). For their part, the Haqqanis were also simmering over the 2014 arrest of Anas Haqqani, the brother and son of the faction’s top two leaders, while he was traveling to the Gulf (Declan Walsh, “Two Haqqani Militant Leaders Are Captured, Afghan Officials Say“, The New York Times, October 18, 2014). Several months after Mansour’s death, the Taliban threatened reprisals against the Afghan government if it moved to execute Anas (Bill Roggio, “‘Blood Will Be Spilled’ If Anas Haqqani Is Executed, Taliban Threatens“, The Long War Journal, September 6, 2016). According to U.S.-journalist Jere Van Dyke, himself a former Taliban hostage, the Haqqanis had thought that the U.S. agreed to allow Haqqani operatives to travel to the Middle East after Bergdahl’s release. The U.S. detention of Anas surprised them (Jere van Dyk, “The Trade: My Journey into the Labyrinth of Political Kidnapping“, PublicAffairs, 2017, p. 318). The Taliban and the U.S. no longer seemed on the same page, nor did the War in Afghanistan appear any closer to ending in 2016 than it did in 2001. Only after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump did the Taliban signal that it might participate in peace talks after all.
The questions of how the U.S. should approach peace talks or whether it should even entertain the possibility have inspired diverse suggestions. A report by the RAND Corporation proposed organizing a ceasefire in conjunction with offering Taliban leaders amnesty and power-sharing. Diplomats Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas R. Pickering, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of maintaining a military stalemate (Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas R. Pickering, “Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace“, Century Foundation Press, 2011, p. 2). Others have proved less optimistic. Jack Fairweather, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University, argued that the U.S. would need to address Afghanistan’s history of ethnic conflict if it wanted a true end to the war (Jack Fairweather, “The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan“, Basic Books, 2014, p, 328). David Cortright, Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute of Peace Studies, advocated for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling the war “unwinnable” (David Cortright, “Ending Obama’s War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan“, Paradigm Publishers, 2011, p. 35). Thomas Ruttig, who directs the Afghanistan Analysts Network, noted that the Taliban believes in its ability to outlast the U.S. in the conflict, an expectation that the U.S. has reaffirmed by wavering on whether and how long it will stay in Afghanistan (Ruttig, p. 454). In the face of these disagreements, the possibility of a political settlement to the conflict or even an U.S. withdrawal will require deep introspection from the U.S., which has spent seventeen years fighting an enemy that remains a powerful foe on the battlefield.
While the War in Afghanistan has convinced the U.S. that only a political settlement can bring the conflict to an end, no one knows for sure whether the Taliban has reached the same conclusion. The insurgents have economic, ideological, and political incentives to continue the war. The chaos within their leadership, meanwhile, would present many challenges before and during peace talks. The insurgents’ ideology emphasizes hostility to the U.S.; their support from Iran, Pakistan, and Russia ensures that they can fight Afghan- and U.S.-soldiers for as long as they need to; the illegal drug trade remains as lucrative as ever; and the Haqqanis, with whom the U.S. has experience negotiating but who rarely make concessions, now hold primary sway over the Quetta Shura while other insurgents have started to chart their own path. These obstacles, some recent but others decades in the making, will keep the insurgents from the negotiating table until the U.S. determines how to overcome or at least accommodate them. While U.S.-diplomats, generals, and politicians have spoken of negotiations’ importance, policymakers have spent far less time assessing their own ability to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, a task at which none have succeeded for long. Nothing guarantees that what the U.S. does can change the Taliban’s calculus. However, U.S.-policymakers can dedicate more resources to mitigating the obstacles to peace talks noted here and fewer to a war that, as many have argued, may never reach a conclusion on the battlefield.
General John W. Nicholson, center, with Afghan officials in Farah Province in May, 2018. As commander of United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan, he was instrumental in initiating a rare cease-fire in June 2018.
The anti-Americanism inherent to the Taliban’s ideology represents the problem that dealmakers will find the hardest to assuage in the short term but the easiest to overcome in the long term. Numerous insurgencies have negotiated with opponents whom they once described as existential enemies, and the Taliban’s anti-Americanism seems to derive less from the U.S. itself than from the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, which would likely decrease or disappear after a peace treaty. In the meantime, the U.S. could offer to withdraw from Afghanistan if the Taliban agrees to a ceasefire — as well as to participate in negotiations. Despite this proposal’s apparent risks, the U.S. has the ability to deploy forces to Afghanistan at a moment’s notice. The U.S. could continue to protect Afghanistan without U.S.-soldiers there, and this superficial withdrawal would go a long way toward building goodwill with the Taliban. Refraining from calling Taliban leaders “terrorists” and removing sanctions on them could also contribute to a reduction in tensions between the insurgents and their U.S. counterparts.
Dealing with the list of regional and world powers backing the Taliban has a more obvious solution. The U.S. should make a greater effort to ensure that the peace process includes not only Pakistan but also China, Iran, and Russia, which have their own national interests in Afghanistan as well as varying degrees of sway over the Taliban. While the insurgents’ alliances with several countries have saved them from dependence on any one, the U.S. could turn the tables by getting all the Taliban’s sponsors to pressure the insurgents to participate in negotiations at once. How or even whether the U.S. could achieve such a feat remains a mystery to even the best diplomats at the State Department, but the U.S.’s current hostility toward China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia is doing nothing to support the prospects for peace. Engaging with these countries can only help the U.S. bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
The Taliban’s participation in the illegal drug trade offers a more complex diplomatic issue. On the one hand, international law prohibits narcotrafficking, and the spread of opium’s derivatives has ruined countless lives in Afghanistan and the rest of the world. On the other, the extent to which the illegal drug trade has become intertwined with the Taliban and the Afghan economy likely precludes enforcing a ban on the production of opium — as the insurgents themselves did almost twenty years ago. The most practical solution also seems the least palatable: turning a blind eye to the Taliban’s current and future participation in the illegal drug trade in the name of bringing peace to Afghanistan. To an extent, the U.S. has already adopted this strategy with regard to officials in the Afghan government, many of whom participate in narcotrafficking. Whether and how much the illegal drug trade will factor into peace talks falls to the U.S., which spearheads not only the War on Terror but also the War on Drugs. Maybe narcotrafficking will stop mattering to the insurgents if they no longer need to fund their war against the U.S., but the U.S. should refrain from making that assumption.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during a visit to Kabul in early July 2018.
The decentralization of the Taliban could cause the most harm to peace talks, for the Quetta Shura may lack the authority to enforce any peace treaty to which the Taliban agrees. This problem requires a more targeted approach, forcing the U.S. to conduct outreach to several factions of the Taliban as the U.S. devises a political settlement that satisfies most or all of them. Though some pundits have proposed that the U.S. negotiate with moderate Taliban factions but fight radical ones, such a strategy sounds more divisive than productive, having the potential to divide and prolong the insurgency. Instead, the U.S. should adopt an approach that appeals to a spectrum of insurgents, from the Haqqanis to Taliban defectors with their own objectives. While never a monolithic insurgency, the Taliban today seems far more diverse than the self-described resistance movement founded twenty-four years ago.
As the U.S. ponders these obstacles to peace talks and their potential solutions, it should reflect on what it hopes to achieve in Afghanistan and whether a political settlement can produce that result. Seventeen years after the U.S. invaded the country, its goals for Afghanistan remain far from clear. The U.S. has long insisted that Afghans — the Afghan government and the Taliban — must conduct peace talks with the U.S. as a guarantor, but the continued dependence of the Afghan Armed Forces on U.S.-military aid belies this argument. Trump must decide whether to take the Taliban at its word. Assuming that he, like the the international community, judges that only negotiations can end the War in Afghanistan, the U.S. still has a long way to go before it can conduct peace talks with its oldest opponent on the battlefield.
Today, the Taliban represents a challenge far different from the insurgents whom the U.S. confronted and defeated in 2001. They no longer fear the U.S. as they did in the 1990s, nor does the Taliban show the same wariness that the U.S. does. To conduct peace talks with the insurgents and reach a political settlement to the War in Afghanistan, U.S.-policymakers must understand their enemy as well as the Taliban has come to know the U.S.
M1A1M Abrams vs T-90S/SK: Which is the better tank?
Russian government-controlled news agency Sputnikrecently argued that the Iraqi Army’s 9th Division’s 35th Brigade replaced its M1A1Ms with T-90S/SK not just because of the unreliability of maintaining the Abrams compared to the T-90S/SK but overall because the T-90S/SK is a better tank and much better suited to Iraq’s needs. While the latter is likely true in many respects analysts consulted by offiziere.ch argue that the M1A1M Abrams remains in a different league than the T-90S/SK and is a superior tank in many ways.
“In general, I think the T-90A or T-90S model tank would be badly outgunned by the M1 in a head to head fight,” Sébastien Roblin, a freelance journalist who specializes in international affairs and military history, told offiziere.ch. “Russia has built better versions (T-90AM, and T-90MS), and is developing a much improved T-90M model. Generally the M1 has way better optics and thermal imagers than the T-90, and historically the side which spots, shoots and hits first wins in tank battles,” he elaborated. “The M1’s human loader is also qualitatively better than autoloaders, and its ammunition is stowed much more safely in separate compartments, rather than a carousel in the center of the tank – in which crew members are literally surrounded by shells!”
The video above shows dock workers loading the first batch of T-90S’ for Iraq onto a ship in February 2018.
Joseph Trevithick, a writer on military-related matters for The War Zone, argued that “whatever the Russians might say” their “46-ton T-90 is simply not in the same class as the 70-ton M1. They never really intended it to be either. Different design philosophies influenced by different doctrines. The Russians are still building ‘command tank’ sub-variants with more radios and navigation aids than they’re willing to give the average conscript tank crew that ‘tethers’ even small units together in a way that has gone in many ways unchanged since World War II.”
Roblin also noted that one selling point the “Russians often talk up” about is the fact that the T-90 can engage enemy targets from a longer range than the M1 since its cannon can fire guided anti-tank missiles, something the M1 is incapable of doing. “While a cannon is generally a better anti-tank weapon — since it has a faster rate of fire and it is generally harder to defend against kinetic shells — the missiles are potentially useful for very, very long range shots and also hitting helicopters,” he went on to note. “However, I cannot think of a single account of a main battle tank firing a missile in combat –- which doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever happened, but if so, only very rarely -– so I think the ability is pretty niche if nobody is actually using it in the conflicts that have occurred so far.”
Which tank is better suited to Iraq’s needs?
Of course none of this necessarily means that the T-90S/SK is not overall better suited for Iraq’s requirements. Trevithick reckons the Russians are “not necessarily wrong” when they argue that the T-90S/SK may “be better suited to the Iraqi Army’s own capacity to operate and maintain equipment. At the same time, their ability to do things on their own is a much more pressing issue if they lost access or were having a harder time getting US-funded or facilitated contractor assistance,” he elaborated. “If the Iraqis were to completely break with the United States for whatever reason, their M1s would become unsupportable very quickly.”
Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council think tank, told offiziere.ch that the T-90’s “show good performance in Iraqi conditions” since its “easy to change spare parts” and the tanks engine parts are less sensitive to dust and other grit common across Iraq’s harsh landscape. T-90s are also good for the conflicts the Iraqi army fights in since it has good protections against old and modern ATMs [anti-tank missiles] and can fire missiles through its standard tank barrel, which is perfect for desert skirmishes where the tank has to be far away from its targets,” he added, referring to the capability Roblin mentioned. Another crucial point is that T-90s are cheap if bought in large quantities,” he added. “Russia is ready to provide further services, help improving active and passive protection systems, and provide other kinds of weapons that can work together with T-90, like BMPTs Terminator.”
Tank and maintenance crews with 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, install M1A2SepV2 Abrams reactive armor tiles (ARAT) at the 7th Army Training Command’s Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Feb. 28, 2017. The installation of the ARAT will enhance the tank’s defensive capabilities, providing a greater deterrent against aggression as the 3rd ABCT maintains a persistent presence in central and eastern Europe as the rotational ABCT for Atlantic Resolve. The Iraqi M1A1s do not seem to have any active protection systems by default. (Photo: Ch. (Capt.) Malcolm Rios).
One other factor important to evaluate is the difference between the versions of the M1 and T-90s serving in the US and Russian armies compared to the export variants – since exported military hardware and equipment often have less capabilities than the ones supplied to the militaries of their respective countries of origin. Trevithick says “information is limited” when it comes to the precise capabilities of Iraq’s M1s and T-90s. What is for sure is that the T-90s “definitely don’t have the Shtora passive active protection systems and do not appear to have a hard-kill active protection system either.” They do, on the other hand, “appear to have the side skirts and rear slat armor associated with Russia’s own T-90MS, as well as extensive ERA [explosive reactive armor] suite. So its hard to tell exactly how this configuration stacks up even against other T-90s.” He went on to point out that the US Army’s own M1s “don’t yet have hard kill active protection systems either and it’s hard to see how Iraq’s Abrams would have a more limited passive armor package than at least the base variants, which is more robust than that on the T-90. Iraqi Abrams of course don’t have the depleted uranium armor package,” he concluded. “It is almost certain that they have less capable sensors and network connectivity than their American counterparts.”
Roblin also points out that while the M1 would likely prove a much more advantageous tank on a battlefield against enemy armor that isn’t necessarily Iraq’s priority. In the post-2003 era Iraq’s major fights have been with non-state actors which have had a limited capability to capture and field modern armor (the best the likes of Islamic State have usually managed to deploy on the battlefield have been some antiquated T-55 and T-62s). This coupled with the fact Iraq historically has more familiarity and experience working with Russian tech, which is invariably cheaper to purchase and easier to maintain, makes the T-90 a logical choice. He also pointed out that the T-90s “potentially better defenses against missiles and RPGs, thanks to its reactive armor and soft-kill active protection systems” also weights into the equation. More importantly, the T-90 is cheaper, cheaper to maintain, and weighs a lot less at just under 50 tons than the M1’s 70 tons, and there are a lot of bridges that can’t take that weight,” Roblin added. “The M1 also uses a gas-guzzling turbine engine, while the T-90 uses diesel – though T-90A/T-90S model are slower. From Iraq’s perspective, the sticker price, operating costs, and political tensions are probably the biggest issue, in any event.”
by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She was formerly a policy advisor in the New Zealand public service and now primarily works in the development sector. You can connect with and follow her updates on Twitter.
A Papuan woman wearing atribute the Morning Star flag as mark the 51st anniversary of West Papua on December 1, 2012 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti).
Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia – All of these countries have had internationally recognised events of genocide take place in their history which has, in turn, shaped the way the world deals with the horrors of mass casualties and the difficult, but vital task of post-conflict reconstruction. But genocide is not a thing of the past, it is occurring right now in the Asia-Pacific. West Papua, a region which occupies half of the island of New Guinea is under Indonesian government authority, with most of the 2 million indigenous inhabitants living in remote areas across mountainous and forested territory. The people have been subject to systematic oppression, human rights violations, degrading indigenous culture and exploitation of resources. With restricted access of foreign media into the region, it is critical that there is continual attention given to an obscured case of government abuse.
History: the confiscated freedom of a people
The on-going conflict in West Papua has many facets, however, the main reason for the violence has been the denial of the right for self-governance and autonomy. Under the conditions of colonialism, the people of West Papua have rebelled against the rule of the Dutch East Indies – since 1867, a desire for liberation was expressed, and continued prominently in 1906, 1921, 1926, and 1935. The granting of Indonesian independence in 1949 began a process of decolonisation for the Dutch in the 1950s – Indonesia wished to obtain West Papua as part of the independence deal, claiming it was part of their territory, but the Dutch refused.
Map of the Dutch East India Isles in 1818.
In 1961, the Dutch prepared for the self-determination of West Papua by setting up a council of mostly indigenous Papuans to create a national anthem and a flag, in which the Morning Star flag was flown for the first time on December 1st 1961 – West Papua’s full independence was aimed to be established in 1970. But Indonesia would not stand for this. On December 19th 1961, Indonesia launched a campaign to return West Papua as part of Indonesia’s rightful territory, and violence between the Dutch Empire and the newly established nation-state ignited. The West Papuans who pursued their right to autonomy were dismissed by Indonesia as they believed the act of independence was a cover up for creating a new Dutch puppet state.
The brute military force of Indonesia attracted international attention where the Cold War superpowers poked their heads in to figure out where their strategic goals fitted into this predicament. The United States stepped in, in 1962 to broker a deal which would be called the New York Agreement – a plan to win over Indonesia and quell the lingering Soviet influence in the country. With Indonesian interests in mind, the agreement negotiations contained no indigenous representation of West Papuans. The decision was made to place West Papua under United Nations control while preparations were made to transfer ownership to Indonesia in 1963.
The New York Agreement involved holding an “Act of Free Choice“, which would give the Papuan people a chance to decide their future. However, this is now more popularly known as the “Act of No Choice”, as the representatives chosen to speak for the West Papuans were picked by Indonesian officials and were gathered under Indonesian military supervision while they made their verdict on integration into the territory. Not surprisingly, the result was unanimously in favour of integration. The West Papuans desired a referendum, a “one-person-one-vote2 system, instead, formal control was handed to Indonesia, beginning a period of military control and human rights abuses.
In a demonstration in the UK, protesters denounce alleged torture by Indonesia in West Papua in 2012.
Enduring human rights abuses and claims to genocide
Once the “Act of Free Choice” concluded, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the results, and West Papua became part of Indonesia. The Under Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1969, Chakravarthi V. Narasimhan, confessed many years later that the Act “was just a whitewash. The mood at the United Nations was to get rid of this problem as quickly as possible. Nobody gave a thought to the fact that there were a million people there who had their fundamental human rights trampled. Suharto was a terrible dictator. How could anyone have seriously believed that all voters unanimously decided to join his regime? Unanimity like that is unknown in democracies” (Clinton Fernandes, “Hot Spot: Asia and Oceania (Hot Spot Histories)“, 2008), p. 106).
Other acts include the use of napalm and chemical weapons against villagers in 1981, and the massacre of 32 West Papuans in Wamena in October 2000. The area of Wamena was targeted once again in 2003 when police raids resulted in killing 9 people, torturing 38, arresting 15, and leaving thousands displaced from their homes to refugee camps where at least 42 people died from hunger and exhaustion.
Benny Wenda, a West Papuan independence leader and Chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.
Even in the last few years, non-violent action has been targeted by authorities. In 2016, the Legal Aid Institute Jakarta reported that over a period of 6 months, government authorities arrested more than 2,280 Papuans for non-violent demonstrations, and in December 2016, a series of pro-independence demonstrations in many locations across the country resulted in 500 arrests and multiple charges of treason. In 2017, Freedom House reported that more than 2,000 people were arrested for participating in non-violent demonstrations supporting independence (“Indonesia“, Freedom House, 2017).
Academic analysis has demonstrated that there is evidence to claim genocide of West Papuans through the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. A paper published through the Yale Law School outlines examples of the crimes committed in West Papua, against the articles in the Genocide Convention. It concludes that acts such as torture, disappearance, rape, systematic resource exploitation, labour transmigration schemes, and forced relocation taken as a whole appear to bring about the destruction of West Papuans. These acts “individually and collectively, clearly constitute crimes against humanity under international law”. The International Lawyers for West Papua, a non-government body of legal professionals, also support the findings of intent of genocide against the people of West Papua.
The movement of solidarity
It was not until the end of Suharto’s rule of Indonesia in 1998 that the stories of West Papuans could be told and reported. During a period of significant democratisation of Indonesia, space was made for Papuans to express their concerns, and political movements were reinvigorated. However, over the decades different rulers of Indonesia had different stances and policies towards the freedom of exercising speech and political assembly. The ability of ordinary Papuans to voice their concerns has therefore been irregular and disconnected.
The Indonesian regime is well known for blocking international access to the West Papua region, including foreign media, international observers and United Nations experts. This makes it difficult for international watchdogs, organisations, and researchers to get objective and reliable information of what is occurring in the region. Those outside of West Papua rely on information from local interpretation and opinions of events, and due to the lack of official reporting on these events, empirical evidence and figures cannot always be collected. History and experiences of people are a valid form of evidence, but each anecdote must be read with an open-mind to understanding other viewpoints and perspectives.
There are also armed groups fighting for the independence of West Papua; for example the West Papua National Liberation Army.
But with the rise of technology and social media, West Papuans have been using creative methods to spread their messages so that the international community are aware of their situation. Their activities have mainly involved non-violent actions through flag raisings, demonstrations, and self-declared national congress meetings to form political manifestos for an independent Papua.
Using Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and with access to smartphones, West Papuan activists have uploaded violent acts towards people in the region, as well as showing the exploitation of natural resources such as mining and deforestation. The most common form of non-violent action has been the raising the Morning Star flag on December 1st to support an independent Papua. This action has been occurring for over thirty years, but at a cost of potentially receiving a severe 15 year prison sentence if raised within the Indonesian territory.
A wave of international support and current developments
Activists in countries all over the world have formed groups in support of an independent West Papua, including international coalitions such as the International Lawyers for West Papua, and the International Parliamentarians for West Papua.
In addition to the declaration, a petition smuggled into West Papua was reportedly signed by 1.8 million Papuans in support of holding an internationally supervised vote on self-determination. In September 2017, it was presented to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation and rejected because West Papua is not part of the 17 states identified as “non-self-governing territories” by the United Nations. In a statement by the chairman, the committee confirmed that it could not receive “any request or document related to the situation of West Papua, territory which is an integral part of the Republic of Indonesia”, as well as additionally stating that “Indonesia is a good friend of ours“. Whilst the legitimacy of the petition has been questioned, the increasing evidence of the ongoing abuses of West Papuans by Indonesian security forces cannot be ignored.
The Grasberg Mine, located near Puncak Jaya in West Papua, is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world (Photo: Kadir Jaelani).
Investment over freedom and justice?
In a region where calls for international investigations over human rights abuses are not followed up, and with the United Nations bodies unable to act on the status of West Papuan independence, it becomes the duty of civil society, activists, journalists, non-government organisations and interest groups to continue lobbying governments and spreading the awareness about the conflict in West Papua.
Tied up in investments, governments are afraid to call out Indonesia for its abuse of West Papuans. Allies of Indonesia are benefiting from the resource rich areas in the West Papuan region where one of the largest copper and gold mines in the world is located. Digging up more than $40 billion worth of resources by U.S. mining company, Freeport-McMoran, the extraction of these resources is expected to continue satisfying investors until 2041 until the mines become of no value.
Yet even as mines are extracted, and forests are torn down, the battle of historical narratives and truths continue, and the people of West Papua have proven they will not rest until a declaration for independence becomes a reality. In the words of academic Nino Viartasiwi: “West Papua was the victim of a large political game played from the 1940s to the 1990s. In the political struggles between the world’s two political poles, the wishes of the Papuans did not matter. Nevertheless, the efforts of the Papuans to deliver their account of history in the 2000s proves that the narration of history no longer belongs solely to the powerful”.
Indian and Chinese officials sign files as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping look on after the two leaders held talks on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Qingdao on June 9, 2018.
However, in the maritime realm, the rivalry between China and India continues apace. As previously reported here, 2016 saw the establishment of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti, while China acquired a 99-year lease for the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota in 2017 and India riposted with its own modest base agreement in the Seychelles. Just a few months into 2018, the momentum has continued, with numerous more announcements of port agreements and base openings in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and the Western Pacific. These developments serve to demonstrate that, though there may have been some progress made in China-India relations at the Wuhan summit, there are very real geopolitical concerns that will continue to generate tensions between the two Asian powers.
In April 2018, the Australian media was rife with reports that China is establishing a naval base in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, less than 2,000 kilometres from the Australian coast. Both the authorities in China and Vanuatu have denied that there are any such plans, and it has been noted that China may simply be investigating the potential to establish a facility to monitor spacecraft and facilitate lunar rocket tests. Such a facility could also be used for intelligence gathering but would certainly not serve the same function in the Western Pacific as China’s naval base in Djibouti is meant to serve in the IOR.
However, India is poised to exert greater control over the western end of the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most vital shipping routes and a conduit between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Near the entrance to the Strait, a series of naval and airbases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands would allow India to severely limit China’s access to resources in the event of a large-scale military conflict. However, the Indonesian authorities announced in May 2018 their intention to grant the Indian Navy use of revamped port facilities in Sabang, an Indonesian island 710 kilometres southeast of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India has yet to seek a presence on the eastern end of the Strait of Malacca, but access to Sabang will allow India to further assert its influence in the IOR.
This follows the announcement in February 2018 that the Indian Navy had gained access to Duqm, a strategic port on the southern coast of Oman. Ostensibly, this agreement on logistics and the use of dry dock facilities at the port is intended to allow India to play an increased role in counter-piracy efforts near the Gulf of Aden. However, it is very likely that the outreach to Oman was motivated by a desire to counter what Indian defence planners and strategists frequently refer to as China’s “string of pearls” policy, a geopolitical strategy according to which China allegedly seeks to contain India and challenge Indian dominance in the IOR through a network of naval and airbases. In this context, China leasing the port of Hambantota is a provocative move, given that it is located less than 500 kilometres from the southern coast of India, but it is not the most ideal way to contain India: with an Indian presence in Duqm in the west and Sabang in the east, India has a strong hand at both the chokepoints to the IOR.
Regardless of whether China is pursuing an elaborate strategy of geopolitical containment or simply seeking privileged access to developing markets, Chinese officials have been just as busy as their Indian counterparts thus far this year. In May 2018, Chinese authorities reported that they had made good progress in negotiations with Tanzania regarding the latter’s proposed mega port at Bagamoyo. Expected to become one of the largest ports in Africa, access to the facilities for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would strengthen the Chinese presence in the western IOR. However, without more detail on the Tanzanian-Chinese negotiations, it is difficult to say whether Bagamoyo will upset the balance of power in the western IOR; as much as Duqm can balance the Chinese presence in Djibouti, the Indian military presence in the Seychelles is much more limited.
Evidently, there is some disconnect between the levels of “high politics” and “low politics” in China-India relations. Even as Xi and Modi are apparently building a good rapport in their high-level discussions in Wuhan and Qingdao, the race is on among Chinese and Indian officials to gain the upper hand in the IOR. This background tension presents a risk to peace and security between the two countries; for example, territorial disputes over India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as South Tibet, could escalate into another open confrontation as both sides seek to exploit rich deposits of mineral resources there. If the rivalry between China and India is to be set aside, much more must be done at the working level — and in haste — to improve mutual trust and build confidence in areas of security cooperation.
According to critics, mankind will be a huge step closer to self-extinction in the not-too-distant future. More specifically, this work could be carried out by lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) equipped with artificial intelligence (AI). But how realistic such apocalyptic future scenarios really are? What is the current status of LAWS and how likely is an international ban on such weapon systems?
More or less unnoticed by the public, systems with weak AI are evolving: they improve the results of search queries on the Internet, are used in speech recognition or machine translation, and such systems will also be used to control drones and vehicles, to increase efficiency in logistics, in medicine and in many other areas in the near future.
Through the use of “deep learningneural networks“, the progress in the field of AI has been remarkable in recent years. Put simply, this approach first extracts abstract solution strategies from an extensive data collection on a specific problem. The solution strategies are then supplemented, expanded and improved using data known and unknown to the system – comparable to training. Finally, the perfected solution strategies are applied to specific problems. 
Theoretically, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System CIWS could be operated autonomous whiteout a man in or on the loop.
Automatic weapons systems have been in use in the armed forces for decades, but with operators always involved in the detection, identification and selection of targets or in the final decision on the use of (lethal) force. In autonomous systems, on the other hand, these processes take place almost without human interference. Such systems do not have “free will”, but they are able to carry out certain tasks independently, without human interaction, under unforeseeable conditions, on the basis of their rules of engagement (Paul Scharre, “Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War“, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, 27ff). Theoretically, this is already the case with some defence systems, such as the Aegis Combat System, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System CIWS, and modern air defence systems . Currently, more than 30 states have such autonomous defence systems. However, this excludes drones that are still used operationally, because they are remote-controlled and not autonomous, at least in the decisive phase of the use of force (Scharre, “Army of None”, 4).
Loitering Munition also has a high degree of autonomy. It is a type of guided weapon that is initially launched without a specific target, can orbit over a target area for a long time, and then uses its sensors to attack the target. This includes, for example, the IAI Harop, which comes in the form of a stealth drone. It can autonomously eliminate radar sources from its waiting position above the target area, in which it can stay for 6 hours. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) had exported the Harop to Azerbaijan, where it was used in the Nagorno-Karabakh region for the first time – albeit not as originally planned. The device hit an Armenian bus with militia soldiers who were being transported to the contested region. Seven soldiers were killed (Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Israeli-Made Kamikaze Drone Spotted in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict“, Washington Post, 05.04.2016).
In formation (from right to left): Dassault’s nEUROn, Rafale et Falcon 7X.
The military use of autonomous systems and the proliferation of the corresponding technologies are associated with some risks. At the strategic level, it should not be underestimated that the autonomous systems lack the ability to understand own actions in the overall context. LAWS will be used with a set of rules, which will define their actions. However, the context of a conflict can change rapidly. In such cases, the stubborn observance of preassigned rules, the lack of anticipation, empathy and gut feeling can lead to unforeseen or unwanted escalations. Every soldier knows that, in the course of a mission, the command received at the beginning may not coincide anymore with the original intention of the superior. A soldier must be able to adapt himself to the situation, so that the intention of the superior can be implemented at all times and all unforeseeable circumstances. The absence of this consideration of the overall context can lead to instability at the international level. If LAWS had already existed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a U.S. policy might have ensured that Soviet ships (including submarines) would have been forcibly prevented from crossing the blockade line if necessary. A Soviet rule of engagement would probably have meant that the sinking of a strategic submarine would have to be answered with a regionally limited nuclear retaliation. If both systems would have begun to interact with each other uncontrollably with the respective guidelines, for example because the U.S. system detects a violation of the blockade line (whether rightfully or not), this would have lead to a catastrophe at a breakneck speed. 
Interestingly, such considerations do not play a decisive role in the discussion on an international ban on LAWS. The reason for this is that the efforts to ban LAWS are being driven almost exclusively by NGOs active in the field of human rights and international humanitarian law. This creates two different camps which demand a ban for different reasons:
Consequentialists fear negative effects on the use of LAWS because these systems will not be able to comply with the principles of international humanitarian law. These include, for example, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the principle of proportionality and the prevention of unnecessary suffering. The problem with this argumentation is that if LAWS were to violate the principles of international humanitarian law, their use would already be prohibited today – an additional ban is not necessary. On the contrary, such a ban would benefit those states which do not recognise international law and would therefore not comply with this ban either. Also unanswered is the question of how to proceed from the point of view of the consequentialists, if the progressive technology would enable a much more precise use of force through the use of LAWS, which could incapacitate the opponent in a much more targeted and selective way.  Wouldn’t LAWS have to be used as an outright priority in such a case?
Deontologists argue that the use of LAWS is unethical regardless of its effects, as is the case with torture, for example. Decisions on life and death would have to be made exclusively by people, for only they are in a position to morally weigh up such a decision in its full scope. Even if LAWS could reduce the number of deaths in wars, their use would violate human dignity (Scharre, “Army of None”, 285ff). The problem with this argument is that it is completely unrealistic – the days of a fight in which one human soldier faces another are long gone. Where is the dignity in being mowed down by a machine gun, shredded by a bomb, or killed by an infection? In wars, there is no right to a dignified death. In this way, deontologists do not criticize LAWS, but wars per se.
In early April, the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) formed by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) addressed the topic for the second time. However, it would be premature to conclude on the success of the campaign – the GGE is nothing more than a discussion forum without a negotiating mandate. A first decisive hurdle will be whether a generally accepted definition of LAWS can be formulated. Although 26 countries currently support a ban, with the exception of China, these countries are not technological pioneers in the field of LAWS. With few exceptions, these states seem to be more interested in restricting the capacity of more powerful states to act than in humanitarian or even ethical factors. This will make it difficult to get the USA, Russia, UK and France, all of which explicitly opposed such a ban, on board.
Even if, in the long term, the international community of states could impose such a ban, the genie can hardly be pushed back into the bottle. The developments that form the basis for LAWS are not military but civilian. The key to this is the software development, which is largely independent of future use and the eventually chosen hardware platform. The ability of an autonomous system to move around in an unknown building, to sketch and identify rooms, equipment and people inside, can be used positively in the hands of rescue forces, but negatively in the hands of terrorists (Scharre, “Army of None”, 121ff).
According to Frank Kendall, former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, the main threat posed by LAWS is not the application by armed forces, but the uncontrollable proliferation in which virtually anyone can access the corresponding technologies and use them for their ends (Scharre, “Army of None”, 120).  What a future with killer drones in the wrong hands could look like was impressively demonstrated last November in the video “Slaughterbots”, which caused quite a stir.
Automatic weapon systems have been a reality in the armed forces for decades, although always reserving the ultimate power of decision to humans. LAWS go one step further in this respect: they have the ability to carry out certain tasks independently and without human interaction under unforeseeable conditions. This is not a very distant vision of the future – simple autonomous systems in clearly defined fields of application, for example in air defence, theoretically already exist today. But progressive development and use of LAWS do not necessarily have to end in an apocalypse, although the challenges of such weapon systems in terms of ethics, international stability and proliferation are also considerable. A ban on LAWS not only tries to push the genie back into the bottle, which will hardly be possible, but also prevents the benefit of potential opportunities. It cannot be ruled out that LAWS could make a much more targeted and precise use of force possible. Taking into account the development efforts for the underlying technology, not driven primarily by the military field, and the interests of the states involved in the discussion on a LAWS ban, a comprehensive international ban on LAWS seems rather unlikely.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with his Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 17, 2018.
In his May 31 interview with Russia Today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that his regime will soon focus on dealing with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), outlining two options it has to do so in his view: negotiations or force. He claims that he has already “started opening doors for negotiations”, reasoning the fact that “the majority of them are Syrians”, that “supposedly they like their country” and may prove receptive to this option. However, he added that, if negotiations fail, the Syrian Army will be forced to liberate areas occupied by the SDF — “with the Americans, or without the Americans”.
SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel also told Reuters that such a move “is not a solution that can lead to any result. […] Any military solution, as far as the SDF is concerned, will lead to more losses and destruction and difficulties for the Syrian people.”
Several past examples all conclusively show how swiftly the US can bring force to bear when either its troops or the SDF were threatened by Assad or his Iranian-backed militia allies.
Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, February 2, 2018. (Photo: Sgt. Colton Elliott / Air National Guard).
Taking these precedents into account even a large-scale regime attack against U.S./SDF positions is unlikely to afflict any significant defeat against the U.S. forces in Syria. Aside from the al-Tanf base all the areas in Syria the US has a military presence in are on the east bank of the Euphrates. The way the Euphrates separates northeastern Syrian Kurdish territories and large swathes of Deir ez-Zor from the rest of the country resembles a large moat. While the regime has demonstrated its capability to use Russian-made pontoons — similar to what the Egyptian Army used to cross the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War — to cross the Euphrates in the past (see video below), its forces are unlikely capable of moving large numbers of tanks nor mechanized infantry across the river via pontoons or bridges without being interdicted and destroyed by U.S. aircraft. Even if it does manage to target, or even kill, U.S. troops anywhere in Syria, Washington could — and more likely than not would — promptly retaliate by destroying several regime targets across Syria using large numbers of Tomahawk cruise missiles — which neither Russian nor Syrian forces in the country have the capability to shoot down.
Also, it is highly unlikely Damascus could get Moscow’s backing in any attack against the SDF, never mind U.S. troops. Russia has shown on numerous occasions that it seeks to wrap up the conflict in Syria through negotiations now that the regime is no longer directly threatened. Taking on the SDF and risking a wider war against the U.S. could completely compromise this goal.
Damascus’s empty threats against the Israelis and Turks for their respective attacks on Syrian soil also show why this is a likely outcome. The regime has failed to deter Turkey’s significant ground incursions in the northwest, mostly because Russia never seriously opposed them.
Assad’s veiled threat against the SDF and its U.S. backer is clearly a bluff since he demonstrably possesses no capability to actually challenge the U.S. military in Syria. The likelihood of Moscow giving tacit support to a Syrian offensive against the SDF and the U.S. military is extremely unlikely for aforementioned reasons. Even if Moscow acquiesces to any regime offensive, Damascus would most likely suffer a swift battlefield defeat at the hands of the U.S. military. Ultimately, so long as the U.S. remains in northeast Syria, Damascus will not be able to send in its army and subdue the Kurds once again. With this being the case, Assad only really has one option: to try and compel the U.S. to leave Syria, and regain some form of control over its northeast, and that is his first one, negotiating with the SDF in good faith.