On a visit to Baghdad this week, Gen. Frank McKenzie, chief of the Pentagon's Central Command, announced that US forces in Iraq will be reduced in the coming weeks from some 5,200 troops to about 3,000. McKenzie later told reporters that troop levels in Afghanistan will drop from the current 8,600 to 4,500. All of this is to happen by "late October," he said. How convenient. (AP, Politico) This all smells more of politics that strategy. There are still more than 10,000 ISIS fighters remaining across Iraq and Syria, according to a UN estimate from August. So, as Defense One comments, "any 'mission accomplished' moment remains elusive to clear-eyed observers of ISIS and the Middle East."
More than a year of US-Taliban negotiations bore formal fruit Feb. 29 with the signing in Doha of what is being called a "peace deal" by Washington's envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, named as leader of the Islamist group. The pact calls for the US to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan in 14 months if the Taliban fulfills its commitments under the agreement. Afghanistan's government must release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before March 10, after which the "intra-Afghan" talks are to start, with the aim of negotiating a permanent ceasefire. The signing of the pact follows a one-week "Reduction in Violence" by the Taliban. (Khaama Press, NPR, Al Jazeera)
Five months after Afghanistan's September presidential elections, a winner has finally been declared—the incumbent, Ashraf Ghani. But hours after the announcement, rival Abdullah Abdullah declared himself the victor, claiming irregularities in the vote and calling the results "national treason." Abdullah, who still serves as chief executive (a separate post from president) has issued a decree barring all election commission workers from leaving the country. The showdown portends a divided government just as US is attempting to broker a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, ostensibly to be followed by "intra-Afghan talks" between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. (The Guardian, Al Jazeera, CNN)
Donald Trump and the man he executed in a targeted assassination on Jan. 3, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, mirror each other as war criminals who treat the people of Iraq and the greater region as pawns in their power game. And, in fact, they were long de facto allies—Soleimani had been overseeing a "dirty war" in Iraq against Sunni militants and suspected ISIS sympathizers. His allied paramilitary forces have serially massacred anti-government protesters in Baghdad over the past months. In less explicit alignment with Washington, Soleimani also provided similar services on a far greater scale to the Bashar Assad dictatorship in Syria. As overall commander of Iranian forces in Syria backing up Assad's genocidal counter-insurgency campaign (and by no means just against ISIS and jihadists, but the secular opposition as well) Soleimani is probably responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives.
The utterly surreal news that Taliban leaders were invited to Camp David—a week before the 9-11 commemoration, no less!—will further fuel the perverse fantasy that Trump is a hippie pacifist. So it is almost comforting that the meeting was axed, and on the 9-11 commemoration in Washington, Trump was back to his blustering, bellicose self. "The last four days, we have hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before, and that will continue," he boasted. The Taliban responded in kind, releasing a statement saying that Trump "will soon regret" cancelling the peace talks. (Khaama Press, CBS)
Authorities in Ezidikhan, the self-declared Yazidi autonomous homeland in northern Iraq, appointed an Investigative Team on Genocide this week, pursuant to a law mandating establishment of the body passed by the Ezidikhan Governing Council last month. The team will primarily be looking at massacres and enslavement that targeted the Yazidi people when ISIS was in control of their territory from Augusr 2014 to November 2015. But the team will also examine possible crimes and complicity by the Iraqi national government, its allied paramilitary forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and foreign powers such as Turkey. The body is cooperating with the UN investigative team also working in the area, with an eye toward eventual establishment of an International Tribunal on Genocide for Yezidi and Neighboring Peoples (ITGYNP). But the Yazidi team's senior investigator, Abdul Qader al-Rawi, made clear: "Unlike the UN investigation, the Ezidikhan Investigative Team is not constrained by the Iraqi government’s claims for sovereign immunity." (Ezidikhan Public Information Bureau, Jan. 13)
In its latest quarterly report to Congress (PDF), the official US watchdog for Afghan reconstruction finds that the security situation is at an all-time low since monitoring began. Since the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) began tracking district control in 2015 Afghan government-controlled or "influenced" districts have declined 16% to 55.5%. In the same period, areas of insurgent control or influence rose 5.5% while "contested" districts increased 11%. As of late July, the US military assessed that the Kabul government controls or influences 226 of Afghanistan's 407 districts, while the Taliban controls/influences 49. The remaining 132 districts are identified as "contested." Since the prior quarterly report, Operation Resolute Support downgraded eight districts from "government influenced" to "contested." SIGAR said that Afghanistan's security forces "made minimal or no progress in pressuring the Taliban" from July 1 to Sept. 30 , the period covered in the report. (Long War Journal, Stars & Stripes, Nov. 1)
US forces in Afghanistan have dropped more munitions in the first three months of 2018 than during the same time period in 2011—a time widely considered the height of the war. The spike in bombing comes after years of drawing down US troops across the country's remote rural areas—and therefore relies increasingly on technical rather than human intelligence. Figures released by US Air Forces Central Command indicate 1,186 "munitions expended by aircraft" in January, February and March this year. In 2011, during those same months, the military documented 1,083 weapons released from both manned and unmanned aircraft. The increase in "kinetic air operations" is part of a strategy to degrade the Taliban’s finances by targeting drug labs, which the insurgents are believed to tax.