Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Russia’s Syrian Gamble

Posted by butalidnl on 6 November 2015

On 30 September 2015, Russia started air strikes in Syria to fight ISIS and ‘other terrorist groups’. After weeks  of bombing, it turns out that the Russians are mainly targetting, not ISIS, but other rebels fighting the Assad government. (Note that the Assad government calls all those fighting it as ‘terrorists’)

The Russians’ aim is to ensure its continued use of a naval base at Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. They see Assad as the only one who would allow them to stay there and have decided to directly support him initially with air power. This is clearly a gamble. They could have chosen instead to further develop their  lines of communication with the armed opposition (which had gone to Moscow for consultations in the past) in order to ensure that if the rebels win, they will retain their base. Now, by directly fighting for Assad, the chance for a future accomodation with Syrian rebels has been significantly reduced.
In response, a broad alliance of rebel groups (including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army) have denounced what it called the ‘Russian-Iranian Occupation of Syria’, and promised to attack the Russians.

Afghanistan Revisited
The Russian intervention in Syria calls up memories of the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union  started by providing military advisers to its Afghan allies who were struggling to retain control of the country. This gradually led to the full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. Soviet forces eventually withdrew in 1991 after suffering 15,000 casualties.

Syria is not Afghanistan. For one thing, it is not geographically close to Russia. Russian troops could not drive into Syria as they did in Afghanistan; they have to  either go by ship, or be flown in.There are also no ethnic connections in Afghanistan, the Soviets had Turkmen, Uzbek and Tadhzik soldiers who spoke the same language as some Afghans; they don’t have something equivalent for Syria.

But there are similarities enough. The Russian military have been called in to prevent the collapse of an ally. The Syrian government army, like the Afghan communists, could not hold on to large parts of the country. Assad’s loyalist troops are tired, demoralized and increasingly being cut off. It is only a matter of time  before Russia escalates; first bringing in military advisers, then special forces troops and later regular units.
The rebels are also divided into many factions. This makes it difficult to hit one in order to win the war; other groups will simply take their place. And, like in Afghanistan, the Russian intervention will force the various rebel groups to unite.
Another similarity is that the Sovet Union then, and Russia now, suffer under Western economic sanctions.

The ‘green men’ (Russian special forces troops pretending to be Russian volunteers) that Russia will be deploying to Syria used to operate in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Their deployment to Syria would have some effect on the balance of power in the Eastern Ukraine. Russia would effectively be fighting two wars. This is why Putin has worked hard to make the war in Eastern Ukraine into a ‘frozen conflict’. But this will not be that easy – the Ukrainian rebel areas could not remain stable if there was no war. The economy there is in shambles, and there will be no jobs for thousands of demobilized troops. Also, there are many different militia groups there who would cause trouble if they would no longer be fighting the Ukrainian army. The Russian military was quite stretched at the peak of the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014.
When the Russians will get more involved in the Syrian war, its forces will gradually become overstretched.

Russian fighter planes violating Turkish airspace have been met by howls of protest from the Turks and NATO. Russia will probably do its best to avoid angering the Turks, because the Turks can severely damage their Syrian operations. First, Turkey could prevent Russian ships from crossing the Bosporus strait (which allows ships from Russian ports in the Black Sea to go out to the Mediterranean Sea); effectively locking in the Russians in the Black Sea. Second, the new Russian military airbase in Latakia is within artillery range of Turkish batteries. If Russian bombs land in Turkey, the Turks could respond by firing on the base. They did something similar when Syrian planes dropped bombs inside Turkey.
And third, Turkey could tacitly allow Syrian rebels to transit through its territory on their way to attacking the Russians

Peace Talks
The Russians are trying to promote international talks on Syria in an attempt to achieve its aims without getting mired in a quagmire. There will be talks, but unless Russia agrees to dump Assad as part of the deal, nothing will happen to them. Worse, the Syrian government will not be inclined to make any compromise to attain peace, because it thinks that Russian support will ensure its eventual victory. The rebels, on their part, will reckon that they would gain more by continuing the fight; since, after all, the Syrian army is quite weak. They will no longer trust the Russians in pushing for a peace agreement, since Russia is already a party to the conflict.

The Russians are painting themselves in a corner. When the new Syrian ground offensive falters, Russia will be forced to deploy its own elite troops in order to counter rebel advances..
The problem that Russia will have, in a few months is that the rebels will continue to gain ground in Latakia province, where their naval base is. When Russia finally decides to dump Assad, the rebels may not be willing to make a deal with the Russians.

Assad will not be safe from the Russians either. The Soviets replaced their Afghan clients repeatedly during its intervention in Afghanistan. More recently, the Russians have been constantly changing the leadership of the Donetsk Peoples Republic (the main rebel entity in Eastern Ukraine). So, when Assad’s troops start to lose again (even with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) he will  be replaced by the Russians.

Russia’s Syrian gamble will fail. More jihadists will target Russians in Syria, within Russia, or in the rest of the world. Russia will increasingly be isolated internationally, and it will be hated in large parts of the Arab and Muslim world. And, since a post-Assad government will most likely kick out the Russians, Russia will be forced to stick it out even when the toll grows worse.
Mounting Russian military and civilian casualties will increase the Russian public’s opposition to the war, as well as intensify the military operation in Syria.The trend toward miitary escalation is quite irreversible; the only unknown is how fast it will escalate. For example, if it is proven that ISIS caused the recent crash of the Metrojet plane over the Sinai (killing 224 people, most of whom were Russians); it will only result in increased military involvement in Syria, not less.

When the Russians will eventually leave, it will not only have to pull out its newly deployed troops, but all its military bases in Syria, when the Syrian government falls.


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Of Potatoes and Toothpaste

Posted by butalidnl on 27 July 2014

The conflict in Ukraine today seems complicated, with Russia occupying Crimea and instigating rebellion in parts of Ukraine’s east. Actually, it is quite simple: Russia is wasting its efforts and resources in a futile war.  It is sure to lose in both Crimea and Ukraine’s east. Why am I saying so? Because while arms may be the  spectacular components of this struggle; the decisive, long-term, factor would be the availability of less obvious items like potatoes and toothpaste. Russia will fail because of its failure to provide adequate food and consumer goods; and not because of anything in their political and military strategy.

The Russian rebels concentrate mostly on the military and political aspects of their operation. But they fail miserably in terms of public administration and the economy. While they occupy areas of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in Ukraine, economic activity there is crawling to a halt. The rebels operations are financed by Russian ‘help’ and by looting stores and banks. Agricultural production is slowing down; meaning that food shortages would start to be felt soon. The people will literally be running short of potatoes and toothpaste.

Even Crimea, which Russia has occupied, will have a similar problem at a later date. Crimea is a peninsula conencted by land to Ukraine, and separated by a narrow sea strait from Russia. The EU has prohibited the importation of goods from Crimea; and Ukraine has cut its trade with it. While Crimea produces enough wheat, it has to import its potatoes – this time from Turkey. And its supermarkets are running short of toiletries, including toothpaste and deodorant. Crimea’s link to Russia is not really suited to large-scale importations: shipments are mainly by ferry boat or air. And to add to Crimea’s problems: it is completely dependent on Ukraine for its gas, water and electricity.
Russia’s failure to annex southeast Ukraine has meant that Crimea will remain isolated, and that supplies of many consumer products will continue to be scarce and expensive.

ISIS faces a similar problem – it controls a wide area in Syria and Iraq that is landlocked. Its neighbours are not trading with it. Money is not really that useful if others do not want to sell you anything. This ‘Islamic State’ is destined to dry up and fade away with time. (But ISIS could survive as a terrorist guerilla organization for some time, though.)

Unfortunately for Gaza, Israel is adequately supplied with enough potatoes and toothpaste. Gaza, on the other hand, is completely blockaded and depends on Israel for many basic commodities. Thus, Israel can do very much what it wants to do to Gaza. The future of Gaza is bleak.

Afghanistan (which is also landlocked) under the Taliban lasted for decades, one would say. True, but the Afghan economy was never really cut off. Trade went on with its neighbours: Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan during the whole time that the Taliban was in charge of Aghanistan. When Pakistan joined the US fight against the Taliban, it meant that the end was near, since Pakistan was its main trading partner. The arrival of the US military simply hastened the fall of the Taliban.

Politics is not as complicated or unpredictable as it seems. A simple analysis of the economy would predict the outcome most of the time.

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Wrong to Send More Troops to Afghanistan

Posted by butalidnl on 30 January 2011

The Dutch government just approved the sending of 545 police and soldiers to Afghanistan. They will be stationed in the province of Kunduz, and will concentrate on training local police. This seems to be rather innocent, and is safer than the previous Dutch mission in Uruzgan province, where they were constantly fighting the Taliban.

WHY? After all, the Dutch have already done their part, having sent that previous mission to a volatile province. So, nobody could say that the Dutch are simply standing idly by while other countries are sending soldiers into harm’s way.  The Dutch could easily say to others: “we’re done, it’s your turn”.

There are those that argue that Afghanistan is everybody’s responsibility. The world had left Afghanistan to itself before, and as a result, Al Qaida used it as its base from which to launch the “9/11” attack. Even if we grant the logic of this line of reasoning, I think the Dutch should still not send more troops there now. Because if it is indeed everybody’s responsibility, then why isn’t it the United Nations  that  is in charge of Afghanistan? I think it should, actually. But it happens that America would rather do the Afghanistan operation on its own; and when they found this too difficult, it asked NATO to help it out, but the US is still calling the shots there.

The US does not want to involve the UN in its Afghanistan operation, because it wants to have a direct hand on all decisions about Afghanistan.  If it passed the responsibility on to the UN, the US will still contribute a big part of the financing for the operation,  but it won’t have to send that many troops themselves.  A UN operation would mean that other countries get to participate in the effort – we would then perhaps see Swedish, Ecuadorian, Nigerian, Nepalese, even Filipino troops in Afghanistan.

With the present arrangement though, the US retains control of everything in Afghanistan, including NATO, and it prefers it that way. I don’t think it is wise for the Dutch, or any other NATO country, to agree to this. They should insist that the operation be turned over to the UN.

Not only is the general framework all wrong,  the details are also problematic.  The proposed Dutch mission is to train police in Kunduz province. This isn’t the most dangerous province in Afghanistan; it is a far cry from Uruzgan (where the previous Dutch mission was), which was a lot more violent.  The Dutch government is assuring the opposition that these trainees will not be used against the Taliban.  And the opposition bought it! I think this “assurance” is as leaky as a basket.  The Afghan government is sure to agree to it, but not really implement it.
Remember Srebrenica, in 1995? Then, the Dutch UN troops there received assurances from the Serbian military that no harm will come to the Muslim men that the Dutch were protecting, if they were turned over to the Serbs. The Dutch believed the Serb military! And about 8000 Muslims were killed by the Serbs as a result. Assurances are not written in stone, especially not in a war situation. The Dutch have not learned their lesson.

Another problem with the “assurances” that the Dutch want is that the training of Afghan police is done by forces from many countries together. It would be difficult to point out which trainees are being trained specifically by the Dutch.

Saying that the police will not engage the Taliban is quite impractical. If they are assigned to a specific village, they will have to respond to the whole spectrum of crimes and threats. It would be ridiculous to tell them to go after drug smugglers and other criminals, but not the Taliban.  What if the one doing the drug smuggling is a member of the Taliban? How will the police know if they are Taliban anyway? They don’t have uniforms identifying themselves as such.

The Afghan police trainees will be controlled by the local militia leader (read: warlord) and will effectively be part of his forces. The Dutch will then just be strengthening that local militia leader. And these people are unreliable at the least. So, the better the Dutch are in training these police, the worse things may turn out to be (of course, depending on whether the local militia leader remains loyal to the government, or not).

So, as things now are, it is indeed a very bad idea for the Dutch to send its newest mission to Afghanistan. Not only will it not help, but it may even make things worse.

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Dutch Government Falls

Posted by butalidnl on 20 February 2010

The Dutch government fell last night.  This is not as earth-shaking as it sounds.  The government composed of the CDA (Christian Democrats), PvdA (Social Democrats) and Christen Unie (“Christian Union”) fell apart last night (as in 2 am) on the issue of whether to extend the mission of Dutch troops in Afghanistan.

The Dutch have been in Afghanistan since 2007, originally for a two-year mission. Then, in 2008, they extended it for another two years, till the end of this year. Now, the CDA (with pressure exerted by the Americans) want to extend the mission AGAIN – though in a smaller form – and the PvdA said no. The PvdA said no, because that was the agreement of two years ago. The troops have been there long enough,  the resources of the military are already all used up, and the war is unpopular among the Dutch. Actually, the Parliament as a whole is against the troop mission, but since the Cabinet is the one to decide these matters, it was up to the PvdA to “put its foot down” on the issue.

The issue is complicated further by the fact that local elections are also about to be held – by 3 March. Because of the elections, the PvdA could not afford to have any flexibility on this matter.  Any sign of a compromise would reflect badly on their local candidates. But the CDA was under intense pressure from the US, which wanted the Dutch to stay on. So, the ruling parties met yesterday, met about it – and they met, and met, and met… 16 hours straight – from 10 am till 4 am. But, no solution was found. So, the PvdA “pulled the plug” on the government.

What happens next is still quite open. Now, the ball goes to the queen (Queen Beatrix). The prime minister will present her with his resignation; then, the Queen will consult with all party leaders on what to do next. Because the choice is either to try to form a new government from the present parliament, or to have elections. And if a new government is to be formed, who will form it.

For ordinary citizens, the falling of the government has no immediate effect. The government bureaucracy goes on with its work, and of course government services go on as usual. But the decisions for example on financial policies, especially with the economic crisis ongoing. The Cabinet was supposed to put together an economic plan for going out of the recession. Now, this goes to the caretaker cabinet, which has much less powers.

So, even if the effect is not immediate, the country should not go too long without a government.

Posted in politics, The Netherlands, World Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »