Is U.S. underestimating Terrorists’ Strength and Malign Intent in Afghanistan?

At a time when the US is contemplating military withdrawal from Afghanistan it appears that the US military is underestimating the strength of its opponent.

In a recent piece, noted analyst Bill Roggio argues that the US military is “grossly underestimating” the size and scope of the Afghan Taliban. “In its latest quarterly report, US Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) approximated the Taliban’s strength as between 28,000 and 40,000 fighters.” Roggio terms this as “wildly unrealistic given the level and intensity of fighting in Afghanistan, as well as the number of Taliban casualties claimed by Afghan security forces.” Instead he states that the Taliban’s strength “is likely to number well over 100,000 fighters.” This is because the Taliban “could not possibly do what it has done with merely 40,000 fighters.”

Roggio also argues that there is a need to end the distinction that is made between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Haqqani Network as it “is one without difference; Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network, has been the deputy to Taliban emir Mullah Habiatullah and military commander of the group since 2015. The two groups stopped denying that they are separate entities in 2008.”

The Long War Journal article argues that “the lowball estimate of Taliban strength may reflect a fundamental problem that the US military and intelligence community have had in attempting to estimate the strength of insurgent and terrorist groups throughout the world. To find an example of this inherent problem, look no further than Afghanistan and the US military’s faulty estimate of al Qaeda’s strength. Between 2010 and 2015, the US military and intelligence agencies claimed that al Qaeda maintained 50 to 100 fighters in the country. FDD’s Long War Journal, using the US military’s own press releases that documented raids against al Qaeda, disputed this static estimate. That delusory estimate of al Qaeda strength was used by the Obama administration to claim that al Qaeda was “decimated” and rendered ineffective. The military’s estimate of al Qaeda manpower did not change for six years, up until the US military raided two al Qaeda camps in Shorabak district in Kandahar. More than 150 al Qaeda fighters were killed during that raid alone. This forced the US military to revise its estimate of al Qaeda strength from 50-100 to 100-300. LWJ has maintained that the revised number is still far too low. Ironically, the US military’s current estimate of al Qaeda strength of 200 fighters is the average of the revised estimate from 2015.”

Further, “The US military and intelligence community have failed spectacularly in estimating the strength of terrorist groups in other theaters. For instance, the strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in 2013 was first estimated to be about 10,000 fighters. Then it was revised upward to between 20,000 to 32,000. The US military has since claimed to have killed that many ISIS fighters since then. In Yemen, the number of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was estimated at several hundred when the group overran large areas of the south. Today, the number is said to be 6,000 to 7,000. If the US military’s claim that the Taliban has 28,000 to 40,000 fighters in its rank and file are to be believed, then it reflects quite badly on the Afghan security forces. Additionally, it does not explain how the Taliban has had the initiative throughout the country and magically regenerates its battlefield losses. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) “numbered 312,328 personnel in July 2018, including 194,017 ANA [Afghan National Army] personnel and 118,311 ANP [Afghan National Police] personnel,” according to the Inspector General’s report. Additionally, there are more than 16,000 NATO troops operating under Resolute Support’s mission, and another 8,000 US troops operating under the command of USFOR-A. If USFOR-A’s current estimate is correct, then the coalition is getting hammered by a force one-tenth its size.”

Finally, “The Taliban, despite US Department of Defense claims to the contrary, has the initiative in Afghanistan. It is fighting in nearly all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. If the Taliban evenly distributed its forces through the 34 provinces (it does not), it would have an estimated 1,100 fighters in each. Of course, the Taliban does not operate this way, instead it distributes its fighters based on need. Provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, and Ghazni draw a large number of Taliban fighters. In these provinces, the Taliban controls and contests large numbers of districts. To accomplish this, logic dictates that the Taliban must deploy tens of thousands to these five provinces alone. But the Taliban’s strength nationwide is significant. It is a powerful force in the eastern provinces of Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Logar, Wardak, and Laghman. In the northeast, it controls or contests a significant amount of terrain in Kunar, Nuristan, and Badakhshan. The same is true in the north in the provinces of Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar, Balkh, Jawzjan, Sar-i-Pul, and Faryab, and the western provinces of Herat, Farah, Badghis, and Nimruz. Even in the central provinces of Bayman, Ghor, and Daykundi, the Taliban has made significant inroads. Even the high-end estimate of 40,000 Taliban fighters does not hold up to scrutiny if you factor in the average of daily Taliban casualties given by Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior. Based on press releases, the Defense and Interior Ministries claim that between 30 to 50 Taliban fighters are killed daily. If this is averaged out over the course of a year, the Taliban would incur 11,000 to 18,000 fighters killed each year. This would mean the Taliban is regenerating losses of between 28 and 45 percent each year. These numbers do not include wounded, many of which would be unfit to return to the fight.”

Why is Pakistan continuing to Slide?

Whither Pakistan and does anyone care where we are going today?

In his latest piece, veteran journalist Irfan Hussain tries to answer the question about “Our Missing Mojo.”

According to Hussain, “Older readers will recall that there was a time when Pakistan punched above its weight, and was taken seriously in international forums. Now, our green passport is listed at fifth from the bottom by the Henley Passport Index that ranks the acceptability of passports by other countries that permit their holders entry on arrival. Thus, Japanese passports, at the top of the index, are accepted at the airports of 190 countries, while 33 nations extend a similar courtesy to Pakistani passports. Even this number seems a bit high, considering the hoops Pakistanis are made to jump through when applying for a visa to most countries.”

Hussain traces the “slide to the bottom” to a number of factors: “So why have things got so bad? Wars have consequences, and this is something past generals did not manage to grasp. The 1965 war over Kashmir under Ayub Khan, the 1971 war under Yahya Khan, and the absurd Kargil conflict unleashed by Musharraf all had one thing in common: they were led by generals who had seized power through coups. Out of the three wars, the 1971 conflict with India has left the deepest scars, and not just because we lost on the battlefield. The bloody civil war and the widespread killing of Bengalis tarnished Pakistan’s image around the globe.”

Further, 1971 “was followed by decades of increasing levels of extremism that led to terrorism on a huge scale. Minorities and foreigners have been targeted, and the state and security personnel challenged as never before. As a result, the abiding image of Pakistan abroad has been that of a breeding and training centre for jihadis. Although the security environment has improved considerably over the last year, many still see the country as ground zero for the global jihad. Every now and then, televised images of ferocious, bearded men holding the country to ransom are beamed around the world.”

Also, “Constant political upheavals have not helped in changing this perception. Elected governments have either been turfed out by the military establishment, or destabilised by ambitious rivals. A hyperactive judiciary has added to the political uncertainty.”

Also, according to Hussain, “the rest of the world is tired of the 70-year-old Kashmir problem, and even our closest friends no longer talk about implementing the old UN resolutions on the Valley. This may seem unfair, but who said life was fair? The reality is that India is a huge market, and its soft power gives it a clout few countries can match. And our two-faced posture towards the Taliban in Afghanistan has served to lose us friends in the West, with Nato soldiers being killed and wounded by fighters who allegedly found shelter in our tribal areas. Small wonder our stock in Washington is the lowest it has been in decades.”

Military courts are undemocratic, says HRCP

We at New Pakistan are concerned about the recent decision by the Government of Pakistan to table a bill seeking to extend the tenure of military courts beyond end January 2019.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) too has released astatement expressing “grave concern” because “the institution of military courts is an anomaly in any democratic order that claims to uphold the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens. It is the state’s duty to uphold the rule of law in a manner that ensures that every citizen is entitled to due process and a fair trial. Equally, it is the state’s duty to uphold the rule of law to ensure the security of its citizens. These are not mutually exclusive obligations. Moreover, there is little evidence to show that military courts have succeeded in increasing respect for the rule of law. The perception of ‘speedy justice’ is no substitute for rooting out the militant extremism that led to the institution of these courts in the first instance or indeed for taking the time to train and equip domestic judicial and police mechanisms that are, and ought to remain, responsible for maintaining civilian law and order under a civilian mandate.”

Further, “To argue against military courts is not to undermine the horrific circumstances under which they were set up, but the incidence of terrorism cases has decreased since the Army Public School massacre in 2015 – this implies there is no justification for allowing military courts to continue. HRCP also remains troubled by the secrecy surrounding military court proceedings, the extremely high conviction rate of these courts and the possible means used to achieve such rates. All these are against the norms of justice. The recent Peshawar High Court judgment, which set aside the convictions of over 70 persons tried in military courts, underscores these concerns.”

Finally, “Should the government succeed in extending the life of military courts, it will run the serious risk of undermining attempts to reform the criminal justice system – measures that are sorely needed, especially among the lower courts. Extending the life of military courts also contravenes Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is signatory. In the long term, outsourcing justice is not the answer.”

No Parks, No Libraries, No Cinema, No Music Events: Sorry State of Pakistan’s Youth

Physical activity and sports are critical to the growth and development of youth. The 2017 United Nations Human Development Report for Pakistan, however, portrays a sad story about the Pakistani youth and their involvement in social and civic activities.

Based on the 2015 Youth Perception Survey, “of 7,000 odd youth surveyed, when asked about access to recreational facilities and events, 78.6 per cent said they had no access to parks, 94.5pc had no access to a library, 97.2pc had not been to a live music event, 93.9pc had not been to a sports event, 93pc did not have access to any sports facilities, 97pc had not been to a cinema — and 71.7pc reported that they did not have access to or attend any of the above activities or events.”

According to a column in Dawn, it appears that Pakistan has gone backwards in this arena as well. During the 1980s, “more than three decades ago, we had regular physical education sessions and had sports in our school: cricket, hockey and football in particular, but also table tennis and a couple of other sports. There were regular inter-class tournaments, and the school teams participated in inter-school tournaments. More than the school though, our neighbourhood had lots of children, and we used to have teams for almost everything. Some of the teams were even organised as clubs. We attended different schools, were part of different social and economic groups, but we played together and played almost any sport we could get excited about. When the Pakistan team played cricket, we all played cricket. When Pakistan used to win hockey tournaments, we would all catch hockey fever. We used to play cricket or hockey almost every evening, and matches were played on the weekends. The experiences of my friends, of around the same age group, is also similar.”

Further, “even elite schools do not seem to give the same importance to sports that they once did. We hardly ever hear of inter-school tournaments now. Even at the college and university level, sports have lost some of their importance. When Government College used to play Islamia College at cricket, it used to be quite an event in Lahore. We do not hear about such matches anymore. At a recent public event, Najam Sethi also lamented the demise of school-based sports activities. He also linked Pakistan’s poor performance in sporting events at different levels to the demise of school and college level sporting activity. Schools used to be nurseries for cultivating cricket talent. They are no longer so. Colleges and universities, at one point, were producing players who would go on to make their name on the international stage. This does not happen anymore.”

Finally, “the issue is not just about sporting performance. It is much deeper and broader. Sports are activities that not only shape the body, they shape the mind as well as the community. People learn to work, play and interact with each other through communal activities. They learn how to perform individually as well as collectively, as members of a team. They learn how to cooperate and how to compete. A lot of this is about citizenship. Sports can be an important element of education, and an effective and meaningful way for engaging our youth. But, for this to happen, we have to start thinking locally again. Schools have to become the hub for supporting sporting activities. Local governments and communities have to step forward to provide the needed support. Resources are important, but, the willingness and ability to organise is even more essential than money. Local governments have to create spaces (grounds, tracks, courts, etc) but these need to be managed by schools and/or local groups.”

Pakistan Dissident Unsafe Even in Exile?

The Pakistani deep state’s tentacles extend beyond the shores of Pakistan as they try to suppress dissent around the world.

In a recent piece, journalist Taha Siddiqui, who is living in exile in France after surviving an assassination attempt in January 2018, describes in detail how he and his family face threats even in exile.

According to his piece in The Washington Post, “On Jan. 10, 2018, I survived an abduction and possible assassination attempt by armed men who stopped my taxi in the middle of an highway in Islamabad, Pakistan, when I was on my way to the airport. Luckily, I escaped. I believe the attack was orchestrated by the Pakistani army, which has been threatening me for years over my journalistic work on military abuses in Pakistan.Since the brazen assault, I have fled Pakistan with my wife and five-year-old son, and we now live in self-imposed exile in France. After the attack, several well-wishers told me that if I did not stop speaking about the Pakistani military, I would be shot dead the next time they came for me. So I decided to speak up from the safety of exile. But now, even in exile, I feel unsafe.”

According to Siddiqui, “I was in Washington last month for a conference organized by Pakistani dissidents in exile like me, when I received a call from U.S. authorities. I met with the officials, who told me they had intelligence about an assassination plot against me if I were to ever return to Pakistan. I was further advised to stay away from Pakistani embassies around the world and also Pakistan-friendly countries. Other Pakistani dissidents in exile have received similar warnings. The U.S. intelligence officials told me they believe that, after Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, repressive regimes such as the one in Pakistan have been emboldened to silence critics, not only at home but also abroad. It certainly seems that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who may have ordered the hit on Khashoggi, is going to get away with this murder, as the Saudi royals’ global relations remain unscathed.”

Further, “every time I leave my apartment, enter public places or simply walk on the streets in Paris, I am paranoid about being followed. Every time I stand on the subway platform, I fear that someone may push me on the tracks at the last moment. One year after my attack, the harassment, intimidation and threats have followed me abroad, too, and have forced me to think whether it is all worth it. As someone recently told me: If they are obsessed with silencing a journalist and his ideas, it probably means that his ideas are powerful and worth listening to.”