Urban Terrorism in Afghanistan

A post that’s been sitting in my drafts folder for [looks at watch] 15 months. Dated, but worth publishing.

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The recent suicide truck bombing in Kabul was the deadliest in a long series of attacks targeting Afghanistan’s capital and highlights an important component of the insurgency’s strategy against the Afghan regime and supporting coalition forces. Kabul was the target of an extensive urban terrorism before, during the communist era, and an examination of this earlier campaign yields insights into the strategy of the current insurgency, its assessment of the political situation within Afghanistan, and the identity of the forces who orchestrated the attack.

Throughout history, all of Afghanistan’s would-be conquerors have identified Kabul as the natural seat of power: the one city capable of exerting a degree of influence over the entirety of a country fractured by geography and ethnicity. Located at the confluence of several large valleys, Kabul is the central node for transportation and communication in eastern Afghanistan, and has been home to the few government institutions that Afghanistan managed to develop.

Naturally then, the Soviet-supported communist government of the 1980s was centered on Kabul, and it thus became a primary target for the Mujahideen resistance, orchestrated by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence and supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency. Mohammad Yousaf, the ISI general who coordinated the Afghan campaign from 1983 to 1987, described in his memoir the centrality of Kabul in the anti-communist campaign:

Kabul has great strategic importance. As we at ISI appreciated, so long as a communist government controlled Kabul it controlled the nerve centre of the country. To win the war we had not only to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but also to eject the Afghan communists from Kabul. Only with the Mujahideen ensconced in the capital would the world recognize our victory. Such was General Akhtar’s belief, such was our objective. In order to achieve it Kabul had to burn. (p.144-5)

It was impossible for the guerrilla Mujahideen to take Kabul by direct assault, but the ISIS assigned such importance to the city that they attempted a short-cut to victory by collapsing the city from within. There were 3 components of this strategy: (1) isolate the city from supplies and facilities by attacking lines of communication and infrastructure supporting the city; (2) bombardment of regime facilities with long-range artillery rockets; and (3) an extensive campaign of urban terrorism, which Yousaf politely described as “sabotage and assassination from within,” and illustrated with some vivid anecdotes:

These attacks could range from a knife between the shoulder blades of a Soviet soldier shopping in the bazaar to the placing of a briefcase bomb in a senior official’s office … The latter included placing a bomb under the dining-room table of Kabul university in late 1983. The explosion, in the middle of their meal, killed nine Soviets, including a woman professor. Educational institutions were considered fair game, as the staff were all communists indoctrinating their students with Marxist dogma. To the Mujahideen this was corrupting the youth of the country, turning them away from the true faith of Islam. (p. 146)

Unsurprisingly, this campaign was not enough to seriously threaten the regime’s hold on Kabul, and with Soviet assistance the security cordon around the capital was expanded and the Mujahideen were pushed further away from the city. The very idea that guerrillas could somehow conquer an enemy capital without a military victory borders on fantasy, but that apparently did not discourage the ISI. When the Soviet Union began to wind down its direct military involvement in Afghanistan, the ISI tried to revive the plan to topple the Najibullah regime, thought to be weakened by the absence of Soviet forces. This plan failed when the Mujahideen directed their energies to and ill-advised on Jalalabad in 1989, much to the chagrin of their ISI handlers, who remained fixated on Kabul:

General Akhtar had an obsession with Kabul. He was adamant that attacks on Kabul should have priority over all others. If a Commander made known to the general that he wanted heavy weapons to hit the city, then he was well on the way to getting them, even if I was opposed. Keeping the pressure on the capital was the fundamental theme of our strategy. If Kabul fell we had won the war – it was as simple as that. (p. 151)

The current terrorism campaign in 2017 has the same objective of overthrowing the capital, and though its targeting is more indiscriminate, the strategy guiding it is more sophisticated and effective. Whereas the campaign in the 1980s targeted the regime and its security services directly, the bombings in recent months are undermining the regime’s legitimacy by attacking the population’s sense of security.

The May 31 bombing on the edge of Kabul’s Green Zone is illustrative of the strategy. A truck bomb was detonated near the German embassy during morning rush hour, killing 150 people and making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Kabul history. The objective of this attack was revealed in the days following the attack, when on 2 June violent protests at the government’s failure to provide security resulted in 5 dead at the hands of Afghan security forces. So in the eyes of the populace, not only had the government failed to protect them from terrorists, they killed them when they dared protest that fact. Days later, 3 suicide bombers struck a funeral for Salim Izadyar, a prominent victim of the protests, killing another 18 people.

The object of the entire attack cycle was revealed by a very clever tweet by Abdulqahar Balkhi, a Taliban spokesman and a wily social media operator, that appealed directly to the natural inclinations of President Trump and his political base:

#Kabul imploding, warlords about to launch turf wars, great opportunity for @realDonaldTrump to throw in towel & let savages to [sic] own devices

To recap: first, a devastating truck bomb targets civilians in morning rush hour, in an attack designed to generate the maximum body count. Days later, ethnic-nationalist rhetoric is used to gin up violent protests against the government’s failure to prevent the attack, resulting in the security forces killing additional citizens, and the funeral of one is subsequently attacked by suicide bombers. Chaos threatens to envelop the Afghan capital, and a Taliban representative invites the American President to quit the mire. A well-orchestrated series of events that strongly suggests that the tentacles of the ISI still reach deep into Afghanistan, and its old strategy of chaos and mayhem remains active.

kabul2-superJumbo

Return address: ISI?

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The Unmasking of Thucydides

Thoughts on Thucydides – Book II, Part I

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A reader finishing Thucydides’ History for the first time is probably most impressed by the 2 following points: (1) that such a lengthy and detailed record has survived intact for almost 25 centuries; and (2) the extent to which Thucydides removed himself from the narrative and composed a neutral and objective history of the war. As a result, very little is known of Thucydides himself, but it requires only a mildly discerning reader to make informed judgments about his political persuasions. The relevant sections occur early in the history – the first half of Book II – and the key evidence is Thucydides’ treatment of Pericles, a phenomenal leader and politician, but arguably a lackluster strategist. The disconnect between the sub-optimal outcomes produced by Pericles and the glowing praise showered upon him by Thucydides provides strong hints of the latter’s political ideology.

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America is a slowly boiling frog

Last year, in a post discussing the United States’ non-response to Chinese aggression in waters off Alaska and the South China Sea, I closed with the frustrated lament that “America is like the proverbial frog that does not realize it’s slowly being boiled to death.”

Two days ago, in an article in the Wall Street Journal about China’s recent deployment of weapons to occupied islands in the Spratlys, an unnamed US military official was quoted as follows:

It’s certainly part of what we have seen as the continuum of the progress of what the Chinese are doing there … This is a classic case of the frog slowly boiling.

You read it here first, folks.

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Athens, Sparta, and Strategic Miscalculation

Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part III

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Nearly a century before the onset of the Peloponnesian War, on the other side of the planet, Sun Tzu wrote the scripts for The Art of War, including the famous admonishment to “know thy enemy, know thyself.” Unfortunately for the Athenians, the lesson had not yet transmitted very far from ancient China. At the very outset of the war, Athens committed three critical strategic miscalculations that would cripple the effective prosecution of the war.

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Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part II: Bipolar Disorder

On the eve of the Peloponnesian War, the Hellenic world was divided between the respective alliance systems of Athens and Sparta, a geopolitical remnant of the wars against the Persian Empire. The system was bipolar, but it was not “balanced” owing to the vastly different characters of the predominant powers. Athens had acquired a maritime empire that provided revenue and external sources of food, while Sparta remained an agrarian society centered on the Peloponnesus. And though Sparta was a famously martial society, in terms of policy it was surprisingly unwarlike, with no expansionist tendencies and an almost lethargic attitude toward external affairs. Sparta’s legendary warrior tradition was a means by which to organize society rather than an instrument of policy and conquest. In contrast, Athens was aggressive and enterprising, attributes probably reinforced by its reliance on its empire for tribute and provisions. The speech of the Corinthian envoys to the Spartan assembly succinctly compare the natures of the two city-states:

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release (1.70).

In the language of neorealism, Sparta was a “status quo” power and Athens was an “aspiring hegemon.” However, a fragile peace endured thanks to the independence of a lesser power, Corcyra, from either of the two alliance systems.

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Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part I: The First Navalist

In the first 23 chapters of Book I (“The Archaeology”) Thucydides details the historical backdrop of the Hellas, against which the great Peloponnesian War occurred. Even at this early stage of the book Thucydides key themes are apparent, along with the titles they bestow upon the author.

As the “Father of History” he constructs the backdrop layer by layer, starting with the most elemental – soil quality (1.2.3) – in the same manner as a 20th century Annales work. His skepticism for traditional historical sources, such as the poets, is explicit (1.20). In a lament that remains just as valid today as it was 25 centuries ago, Thucydides bemoans the fact that so many of the narratives that inform and dominate our understanding of the world are demonstrably false:

There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history which have not been obscured by times … So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand (1.20.3).

Thucydides seemed to be aware of the magnitude of his own accomplishment, and that his work had value not for his contemporaries, but for the reader of the far distant future. At various remarkable points, he seems to be addressing that reader specifically, such as when he cautions against judging the glory of Athens and Sparta by the quality of their ruins (1.10.2), and his famous passage that presciently describes his own work:

…if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work not, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time (1.22.4).

Thucydides as a political realist is a theme that will be emphasized throughout the discussion; however, even within The Archaeology we find one of his most important passages, which encapsulates the central argument that is threaded throughout the work:

The real cause, however, I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable (1.23.6).

Largely unappreciated is Thucydides’ quality as perhaps the first navalist. In the initial chapters of Book I he identifies the maritime domain and the advent of naval power as the key factor that brought the scattered and divided Hellenic peoples into regular contact with one another, enabling diplomacy, trade, the accumulation of capital, war and conquest. According to Thucydides, it was Minos who first assembled a powerful navy, expelling pirates from the Cyclades and allowing the Hellenic peoples to venture upon the sea in relative safety (1.4). This allowed each seafaring polity to gain wealth with which to secure its cities upon the land and project power abroad, escaping the confines of a fractured physical and political landscape.

The navies, then, of the Hellenes during the period we have traversed were what I described. All their insignificance did not prevent their being an element of the greatest power to those who cultivated them, alike in revenue and dominion … Wars by land there were none, none at least by which power was acquired; we have the usual border contests, but of distant expeditions with conquest the object we hear nothing among the Hellenes. There was no union of subject cities around a great state, no spontaneous combinations of equals for confederate expeditions; what fighting there was consisted merely of local warfare between rival neighbors (1.15).

Thucydides understood that it was by fleets that the sinews of war were carried; it followed that the geography of certain cities, such as Corinth, would benefit them greatly. And like any navalist, Thucydides recognized that at the level of grand strategy, there was a distinction between “continental” (1.9.4) or “military” powers like Sparta, and “naval” powers like Athens (1.18.2). The contrasting natures of continental and naval power would bedevil both Athens and Sparta through the entirety of the war, for each would struggle to project decisive power against the other.

 

 

Thoughts on Thucydides: Introduction

A few months ago I completed my first read of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian war with Robert Strassler’s Landmark edition. Only a couple of weeks ago, I learned of Zenpundit’s Thucydides roundtable and its impressive list of contributors. Two weeks is not much time to compose meaningful essay material on such a timeless work, and I would not want my own dilettantish observations to intrude on such an illustrious panel.

Still, the timing seemed auspicious, and all those hours spent reading, underlining and annotating would be wasted if I did not take this opportunity to regurgitate some of it. Thus, I will make my own spiritual contribution to the Roundtable on this blog, though I will probably not be able to keep up with Zenpundit’s ambitious schedule.

Writing about Thucydides is an intimidating prospect: when the topic is the Father of History himself, whose work grasps at truths in nearly every facet of human existence, how can one hope to add anything of value or poignancy?

And when you manage to start writing, a new challenge arises: where to stop? Thucydides is almost Biblical as a source of literary commentary, with a density that approaches singularity: peel back one theme only to find infinite layers beneath. To make any progress I had to delineate a limit, select a lens and focus primarily on the narrative of strategic and military events, which is the most accessible narrative within Thucydides and the most relevant to the traditional subject of this website.

I start my observations with Book I in the following posts.

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thucydides

Thucydides, son of Olorus