Afghanistan: No Viable Goals and No End in Sight

With confirmation from United States officials earlier this week that an additional 4,000 troops will be sent to buttress the training and advisory mission in Afghanistan, one is forced to consider what to make of the state of affairs in that country. Frankly, it’s time the public started asking the hard questions, especially in light of Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne’s pledge that “[Australia] will always consider requests from the United States — our most important ally — for assistance”.

So what long-term national security interests are likely to be achieved by the US and its allies in Afghanistan in the future. Is the task to “defeat the Taliban” an impossible mission guided by a skewed sense of what the military can realistically accomplish? Is the current training mission “a bandaid for a bullet wound”, as one US combat advisor described it? A boulder to be rolled uphill by the military for all eternity, with an ever-so-slightly different campaign plan every four years?

According to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, one of the chief architects of Donald Trump’s “new” strategy, the plan announced earlier this week draws on lessons learnt by the combat advisory teams who deployed alongside the Iraqi Army in the fight against Islamic State. The main takeaway, apparently, is that embedding Western military advisers with forward units is better than leaving them behind at base.

With a “frontline” emphasis for Trump’s campaign plan, you can see similarities to another “new” campaign plan recently outlined by Senator John McCain, who applauded Trump’s speech as a “big step in the right direction”. In his strategy, McCain argued that a “long-term, open-ended counter-terrorism partnership” with the Afghan government and the deployment of military adviser-trainers with the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces at the kandak (battalion) level instead of the higher corps level was the key to victory. What this means is that more troops are wanted to achieve a set of goals that a much larger force in 2011 could not achieve either.

To the uninitiated, a strategy that splits hairs over minutiae in mission structure instead of having a frank discussion about the mission’s fundamental problems might seem a little beside the point, especially when one considers that violence in Afghanistan derives less from non-desirable teacher-student ratios in US-Afghan training camps than it does from complex feuds over tribe and religion.

“There’s always more you can do — more advisers you can send, more capabilities you can develop for the Afghans,” says Dr Mike Martin, a Pashto-speaking former British army officer and research fellow at King’s College London.

“The Afghan government will take the support gladly because they would prefer that foreigners do the fighting for them. If you are an Afghan faction this is the game: get some foreigners to fight for you”.

Rather than being dragged into the conflict every time a new feud erupts between the Afghan government and its local enemies, Dr Martin argues, what is needed is simply a “minimum viable force” — the smallest possible training and support mission and a small counter-terrorism force — to keep the government afloat. This would prevent both mission creep and everybody’s worst case scenario — the fall of Kabul.

With such calls for minimalism seemingly sidelined in the President’s new strategy, however, the question that arises is what are an extra 4,000 troops going to do that the 100,000 deployed by President Obama in 2011 could not?

One begins to wonder if the emphasis on numbers and mission structure is a distraction from more basic problems looming in the background. Problems such as, say, the possibility that the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces might not be a viable fighting force without a permanent US military presence to buttress it.

The looming likelihood of a permanent war-footing for America in Afghanistan is worthy of consideration, not least because a core theme of Trump’s speech revolved around the idea that “conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy [from] now on”.

There’s a strong whiff of McMaster and Mattis in this phrasing because it’s indubitably correct that wars do not conform to neat timescales. It’s also true that this rhetoric can be interpreted as an attempt by Trump to distance himself from Mr Obama — a man strongly criticised for announcing his withdrawal timeline and giving the Taliban cause to “wait the US out”.

At the same time, even if Trump is right, that conditions instead of preferred timeframes should dictate decisions, it does nothing to allay the public’s concern that Afghanistan has become a case study in “endless war”.

But this is what makes the way Western governments formulate Afghanistan policy so frustrating. While a vague set of goals are well-known to the public — “disrupting and dismantling the neo-Taliban insurgency” or “denying sanctuary to jihadist groups” for example — never has a single campaign plan shown signs of permanently achieving any of these goals.

Preferred though they may be, they just don’t seem particularly achievable.

If jihadist ideology cannot be wholly eradicated on the Afghan-Pakistan border, is there a point at which we can call its outreach successfully contained? If “the Taliban” cannot be militarily defeated then at what point should other options be explored?

If Trump is good to his word that “perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban”, then what are the conditions in which this settlement could occur? At what point does the US President seek conflict termination over conflict perpetuation?

Trump needs to outline as clearly as possible by what quantifiable metrics his mission would be deemed a success. At present, we have none.

All in all, too many questions remain unanswered. With no tangible goals, no maximum spends and no body count cut-offs provided in Trump’s strategy-free strategy for Afghanistan, the public cannot but keep guessing how, when or even if Western military involvement in the country will come to an end. And that is exactly the problem.



Isolation and Deviance in the Military

Antipodean audiences are no doubt disturbed by a slew of recent allegations that members of the Australian and New Zealand special forces were responsible for the unlawful killing of civilians during operations in Afghanistan.

The shock delivered to the cultural landscape of these two, geographically-isolated island-nations cannot be understated.

In both countries, ANZAC Day – a day of commemorative remembrance for the soldiers of the “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps” of World War One – is marked as a sacrosanct ritual in the national calendar. For Australians especially, the mythology of “the Digger” – the garrulous but well-meaning Australian soldier – occupies an important role in the formation of the broader communal identity.

As a former Australian soldier myself, to think that my country’s most highly-trained Diggers would carry out atrocities while carrying a worn insignia of the Australian National Flag is to undermine a foundational myth about who “we” [Australians] are as a people – requiring an inward gaze that is at once too raw and atavistic for it to be comfortable.

And yet, as Erich Remarque once said of the horrors of the Western Front and as Churchill once said of “the truth” more broadly: “there it is” – and this is what has been done in our name.

Of course, given what anthropologists know about the propensity for violence in all human societies – national myths like that of “the spotless ANZAC” are begging to be dispelled.

Unpleasant as it may be to stew on, ANZAC forces were the guilty party in at least two notorious episodes during World War One – one, a drunken riot through Cairo’s Wazzir district which left the place half-burned to the ground; the other, the premeditated massacre of more than one hundred Bedouin males in the Arab village of Surafend.

Rather than getting bogged down in the obvious however (that barbaric violence is not exclusive to one’s enemy) the key to understanding any act of wartime misconduct is to examine the specific cultural context in which it occurred. At the meta-level, the use of the word “crime” in the term “war crime” naturally implies deviance. But since the incidents in Afghanistan do not seem to have occurred in isolation, it makes sense to look at this kind of individuating behavior as a socialization problem as well.

On the whole, the majority of the allegations levelled at Western forces in Afghanistan pertain to incidents involving so-called “special forces” – the hand-picked cadres of shock troops styled as elite fighters in modern Western militaries – so it also makes sense to focus on the cultural habits within these units themselves.

First and foremost, “special” forces derive their nominal adjective in that they are specially groomed for the most special and dangerous military tasks following a rigorous training process. This training process, often referred to as “selection” by members of these units, typically involves the completion of an arduous set of tasks designed to test a soldier’s physical and mental acumen.

Functioning as a rite of passage comparable to the agōgē curriculum in ancient Sparta – this selection process creates a closed-circle environment where credibility within the group is determined by a member’s “badged” status – proof that he is a graduate of the selection system. The consequences of the closed-circle environment that selection creates is two-fold. One the one hand, such units are able to break with the regimented methodologies of the conventional army – finding a space for lateral thinking and flexibility in the performance of military duties.

On the other hand however, by elevating and separating “special operators” from their regular counterparts, the end result is the creation of an effective “Army within an Army” which conducts its business at a distance, and sometimes in isolation of the rest of the force.

The word “isolation” is the operative word here, because in more ways than one, it is useful for describing the kinds of cultural and geographic spaces in which aberrant behavior like war crimes can occur.

From a geographic perspective, one of the whistleblowers in the ABC’s reporting, explicitly emphasized that Afghanistan’s “remote, isolated environment” provided a space in which the laws of war could be bent by “an influential minority” within special forces.

The imaginarium of “rural Afghanistan by night” also describes the kind of environment in which deviant behaviour might occur. Elementary human fears of the dark aside, the nighttime provides a domain in which potential witnesses are either asleep or numerically few – where the harsh detail of the light of day is hidden to prying eyes.

The specifically nocturnal aspect of some of the alleged incidents cannot be ignored, not least because night raids by Western special forces proved to be an ongoing sore point in the relationship between coalition forces and Afghans at the height of combat operations. After a spike in killings associated with HVT operations in August 2010, the tempo of night raids remained steady country-wide until the death of Hamid Karzai’s cousin, Yar Mohammad Karzai during a midnight attack in rural Kandahar. Although data collected by the Afghan Analyst’s Network suggests that ISAF began “taking more care” following this incident, night operations – especially those conducted by special forces – continued until Karzai himself (responding to pressure by local Afghans) issued a wholesale proscription on actions at night by ISAF in April 2012.

Karzai’s ban notwithstanding however, a number of former SOTG members have since recounted that raid planners simply took the proscription in stride. For the most part, night raids continued with H-hour timed for “nautical first light” – an hour when only those equipped with night-vision equipment would be able to effectively conduct operations.


Why the spike in August 2010? (Source: AAN)


Elsewhere, other factors are also at play in what Dr Megan McKenzie has described as special forces’ “culture of exceptionalism”. The structural isolation from the rest of the army, while it provides special forces units a degree of autonomy, can also provide a space where governance over an individual soldier’s actions (especially his actions on the battlefield) ceases to be vertically-defined. In such an environment, where “rank is nothing compared to talent”, the possible implications vis-à-vis a special operator’s “freedom of action” are many (and perhaps self-explanatory).

Referring specifically to the loose leash given to special forces in Afghanistan, Chris Green, a British Army intelligence officer who served in Helmand stated that “the troops I worked with, worked under very very strict rules of engagement… it seemed to me that special forces did not have to apply the same rules in quite the same way”.

On the same topic, the ABC’s whistleblower speaks of a “lack of accountability”, “protectionism” (as in, protecting one’s peers from facing repercussions for unlawful behavior), “self-glorification” and a “culture of emulation” where other soldiers’ and other units’ “kill counts” are trophies to be envied. Bed Wadham, a former military investigator and sociologist at Flinders University neatly describes the entire phenomenon as “violent elitism”, arguing that unlawful deviance can occur as a result of “team cohesion in elite groups… who operate with the belief that they are above the law”.

Certainly, none of this should be surprising to anyone who has properly digested the semiotics of the title “Rogue Warrior” – the autobiography of SEAL Team Six founder Richard Marcinko – whose unit now stands accused of a post-mortem practice called “canoeing” described as “a ritualised form of enemy mutilation”.

It’s important to point out that the autonomous and selective nature of special forces in and of itself, does not necessarily “cause” a war crime situation to occur. Special forces selection courses specifically seek to identify professional integrity in an individual – meaning that the ethical caliber of the average soldier may be higher than in a regular military unit.

Moreover, battle fatigue, as well as the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from over a decade-and-a-half of sustained combat operations surely plays a role here, especially when one considers that many of the soldiers in the reporting were involved in nightly raids six-days-a-week on up to eight back-to-back tours in heavily-contested parts of Afghanistan.

Indeed, “moral injury” – which social psychiatrist Brett Litz contends is caused by transgressions against deeply-held ethical and cultural norms – could be linked to the “un-truing” of a soldier’s moral compass in certain cases.

The connection between prior (traumatic) military service and violent crime has recently been discussed by Hugh Gusterson in his inquiries into mass shootings in the United States. Although, at first glance, Gusterson’s discussion seems to be compromised by its typecasting of veterans as crazed Rambos, the link between combat stress and deviance in the military should not be overlooked.

One need only look to the experiences of the American soldiers during the events immediately leading up to Mỹ Lai to observe a correlation (though not necessarily causation) between combat stress and the killing of civilians. The potential link between combat stress and war crimes situations is certainly one which requires more examination.

In any case, the causes of deviant behavior in wartime are complex and multifarious. Few of the mentioned causes, in isolation, seem sufficient to produce a war crime situation although “isolation” itself – both geographic and cultural – seem a necessary condition for a perpetrator to escape accountability and oversight.

Either way, a breakdown of discipline and a dearth in restraint is at fault here – two battlefield phenomena from which no one – least of all, a professionalised military with a reputation to maintain – stands to benefit. Ultimately, when the application of force – that is, killing – becomes not merely a means to an end but rather the end itself, a military force will tend to find itself increasingly less useful to the government it serves. If the allegations are telling of the larger state of affairs within the units in question, Australia and New Zealand’s special forces are heading that way.

‘Land, kill and leave’: On CIVCAS and HVT

The photographs, the documents, the whistleblower testimony are all there — the brutal details of our diggers’ conduct brought forward into the harsh light of day.

A blow has been dealt to the prestige of Australia’s special forces with in-kind damages likely to follow for the reputation of the Australian Army as a whole.

At first, it might seem tempting to think of these kinds of events as isolated incidents that do not speak to a more widespread problem within the Army’s special operations community. But misconduct on the battlefield also speaks to a wayward shift in a military force’s broader operating culture.

Along with the Maywand District murders and the Panjywai massacre, what these new allegations levelled against Australian soldiers in Uruzgan will come to symbolise is the ultimate failure of Western militaries to adapt to a fight where the decisive battle was the human terrain.

According to our military leaders, the reason for Australia’s presence in Uruzgan province between 2001 and 2014 was to “clear, hold and build” a Taliban-free Afghanistan. Per counterinsurgency doctrine, by providing an enduring sense of physical security to local Afghans, the “hearts and minds” as well as the rifles and trigger-fingers of fighting-aged males in Uruzgan would eventually be won over.

At some point it seems that this strategic guidance either failed or was wholly ignored.

While Special Operations soldiers had earlier played a kind of “guardian angel” role in support of their regular counterparts in the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force, as the Afghan war dragged on, that role became increasingly aggressive.

An upsurge in “direct action” operations began to distract from efforts to secure the population. By 2010, much of the task group was solely focused on so-called “high-value targeting” — the coalition’s effort to kill or capture an ever-growing list of local Taliban “commanders”.

As a former Special Operations Task Group member drily put it to me, the new penchant for fly-in fly-out missions conducted out the side of a Black Hawk saw the entire concept of operations switch from “clear, hold and build” to “land, kill and leave”.

Of course, operating in this manner was never going to defeat the Taliban. Insurgencies are complex adaptive systems capable of surviving the deaths of leaders. As David Kilcullen writes in Counterinsurgency: “decapitation has rarely succeeded [and] with good reason — efforts to kill or capture insurgent leaders inject energy into the system by generating grievances and causing disparate groups to coalesce”.

All this considered then, by channelling an apparent “shoot first, never ask questions at all” ethos, there’s a good argument to be made that much of SOTG’s work in the final years of the Afghan War was counter-productive.

In many ways, the sunset years of operations in Afghanistan marked a transitional moment in the Australian way of war — one which saw our special forces transformed into the hyper-conventional juggernaut it has become today.

In other Western forces, the over-emphasis on “conventionalised” operations — that is heavy-hitting operations which deviate from the subtle and indirect approach of yesteryear — has had similar results on the ground.

The Australian flag sowed onto the arm of a military uniform worn by a man

Courtesy: ABC News

The New Zealand SAS is currently reeling from allegations that its members carried out “revenge raids” against civilians. US Navy SEAL Teams have now been linked to extra-judicial killings and corpse desecration on the battlefield. In Britain too, the story is much the same. Reports of “rogue” SAS troopers and battlefield executions. Civilian casualties. A Ministry of Defence probe into war crimes allegations.

Incident by incident, this is how the war in Afghanistan was lost.

Despite more than a decade and a half of sustained military effort, today Taliban and other extremist groups cover as much as 40 per cent of the country.

Certainly, where our own efforts are concerned, the data is clear. Australia’s war in Afghanistan was a failure. According to the Institute for the Study of War, districts like Shah Wali Kot (where Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith’s VC-winning charge took place) are now categorised as “high confidence Taliban support zones”.

Elsewhere, the observable metrics on the ground speak for themselves. In 2002, US intelligence estimated the Taliban’s strength at 7,000 fighters. As of 2016, that number has increased to 25,000. As this year’s spring fighting season begins, the Taliban still control roughly a quarter of Afghanistan.

More than anything, what these new revelations demonstrate is that somewhere along the way our military, and our special forces in particular, simply lost the ability to effectively counter an insurgency.

Once upon a time, “the best of the best” were trained to operate like “phantoms” — treading lightly and prudently alongside their local partners.

Today, however, the legacy they will leave behind in the minds of Afghans will be a brutal one. The civilian cost of the Special Operations Task Group’s operations in Afghanistan is now apparent for all to see.

Escaping the Flood

In my car next to the trailhead, I switch on my headlamp and step out into the cold air. The night is dark but my tiny beam of light splits the heavy mist like a ship’s lantern through thick sea fog. In running tights and an ultra-lite shell, I am cold in the pre-dawn chill. For a moment, I consider throwing on another layer.

You should just get moving, I say to myself, because I know that when I’m moving I’ll become warmer. So that is what I do. By the time I’ve reached the first of the switchbacks I am warmer and I’ve found my stride. Below me, the creekbed boulders rumble, pushed along by a torrent of rushing snowmelt.

Rubble Creek. So no-named for the remnants of an ancient First Nations village that lies beneath. Sp’u7ets – meaning “boulders” – the Lil’wat people call this place. One day, a great rockslide washed it all away. Caused by the beating wings of the Thunderbird, they say.

My thoughts flit back to the trail. Planting the tips of my poles into the loamy ground – I move forward and upward. My pack is small – a daypack really with some water, a few energy gels, a down jacket and rain pants – although I’ve leashed a pair of snowshoes to the outside. It was a long, wet winter and there’s still a lot of snow up there.

At dawn I reach the lookout for the volcanic plug known as “the barrier”.

Behind that wall, I muse, lies Lake Garibaldi and a million years of pent-up energy. A natural dam created by a quick-cooling lava flow, geologists at UBC have assessed the barrier structure as “extremely unstable”. At its base, Rubble Creek flows from a breach in the moraine.

One day, the whole thing will go and Squamish will share the same fate as Sp’u7ets.

I keep moving. Half an hour later I’ve reached the lake-rim. An hour later, with snowshoes on now, I’ve passed Taylor Meadows and the snowline. The snow, though old and beginning to rot, crunches happily beneath my snowshoes.

Old White, my friend. It is good to see you again. I haven’t skied much this winter. “Obligations”. But now, here I am. By myself. Above it all. Escaped. At last.

In the distance, I catch a glimpse of Mount Garibaldi. Nch’kay – “muddy”. Garibaldi’s glacial névé forms the source of the muddy waters of the Cheekeye.  According to Squamish legend, during a time of great flooding, their ancestors sought sanctuary on the summit. Only on the highest peak in the area could they escape the Flood and the Mud.

Back in the post-diluvian era – in the world after the Flood – I keep moving. Then, I see it. My objective. The Black Tusk. T’k’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7en .  “Landing Place of the Thunderbird”. A jagged pinnacle of volcanic rock lancing into the sky. I remember climbing it a few summers ago. The feeling of the warm, cinder-rich rock beneath my hands – the mountain a pinnacle of debris – black and andesitic. Shattered, as though from the impact of some gigantic bird of prey.

As First Nations tell it, it was here where the Thunderbird landed to comfort the Flood’s survivors. He gave them food. He nurtured them – wrapping them in His wing.

It suddenly occurs to me that the apparent duality of the Thunderbird is important. Its wings can nurture or its can wings can flap. It can provide comfort or it can wreak havoc. A true creator-destroyer. Like the mountains themselves.

Starting up the approach slopes of the snow-covered Tusk, I look down at my watch. I see the numbers and suddenly, I stop. Six hours have lapsed since I left the car. Today is a work day for me – I’m moonlighting for a night shift tonight. I realise I’ve run out of time. A part of me of wants to push on – to sever ties with the world below. Ditch the clock. Forget my obligations. Linger in the sunshine. Keep in company with the snows. Escape entirely.

I mull over it. What would happen if I just stayed here?

But I can’t stay here. Our time in the mountains is only temporary – will always be temporary. The comfort the Thunderbird can provide only fleeting.  Sooner or later, we all must return to the Mud below.

Besides. The mountain – as they say – “isn’t going anywhere”. And I live here after all. The trailhead’s a twenty minute drive from my door step. I turn around. I make my way back down to Rubble Creek.

Wadi Boraq

Photo: Squamish-Lilw’at Cultural Centre/Squamish Public Library

Boko Haram’s Decline Will Reveal Nigeria’s Bigger Problems

A good news story, seemingly rare these days, came in Sunday’s announcement that Boko Haram — a jihadist group currently menacing Nigeria’s north — released 82 of the 276 schoolgirls they had previously abducted from the town of Chibok.

While it is too early to speculate about what this means for the group’s long-term political future, there should be no doubt that this deal was negotiated with the Nigerian Government in a position of strength.

Even as Boko Haram continues amassing fighters — recruiting over 2,000 children in 2016 alone — and spreading fear through its online propaganda campaign, since late last year structural weaknesses within the group have begun to show.

Following a leadership spill between Abubakar Shekau, the successor to the group’s spiritual founder Ustaz Mohammad Yussef, and the group’s spokesman Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, factional in-fighting between the two camps has led to deadly skirmishes on a number of occasions.

A reinvigorated campaign by the Nigerian military corresponding with the 2015 election of hardline former general Muhammadu Buhari has also enjoyed progress against Boko Haram.

So far at least, the changes implemented by Buhari and his newly-appointed commanders seem to have had a positive effect on the battlespace.

Shifting the location of the operational headquarters from Abuja to Maiduguri (the locus of the problem), overhauling military procurement by cracking down on budgetary mismanagement and adjusting the Army’s tactical focus to saturation patrolling throughout Borno state are among the positive measures which saw the number of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria decrease from 270 in 2015 to just 36 in 2016.

On the whole it seems, especially with Sunday’s news of the Chibok schoolgirls’ release, improvements on the ground in northern Nigeria appear to be increasingly and incrementally tangible — at least, when compared with the worsening situation in Mali.

Concurrently however, the UK Foreign Office, in updating its in-country travel advisory, reported the receipt of new information that Boko Haram was “actively planning to kidnap Western foreign workers along the Kumshe-Banki axis” near the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

Of course, the kidnapping of foreign aid workers and oil workers by jihadists is not a new phenomenon in West Africa. Neither is the emergence of a specific threat is not suggestive of the historical absence of the same threat.

If it’s true though, that Boko Haram is now searching for an explicitly Western kidnapping target to boost its global profile, then it would indicate that a crucial psychological tool and bargaining chip has been lost in the release of the Chibok schoolgirls.

Furthermore, if Boko Haram’s increasingly splintering membership is shifting the emphasis away from large-scale military operations towards low-level kidnappings then the group’s relative strategic position is perhaps in even worse shape than previously thought.

Just as the 2014 kidnapping and beheading of the French mountaineer Herve Gourdel by a group of Islamic State sympathisers in Algeria revealed the work of a peripheral subgroup vying for relevance, a transition away from mass abductions of entire girls’ schools in favour of bundling stray Westerners into people-mover vans would seem to show Boko Haram as a militant group in decline.

If we go by the number of attacks alone, Boko Haram’s “power” — that is, its ability to project military force over territory that it controls — does seem to be decreasing.

That said, if the last decade and a half spent “fighting terrorism” has shown us anything, it is that eliminating the threat posed by jihadist groups is a task which transcends success on the battlefield.

An individual kidnapping, while a comparatively miniscule event, can still have a profound psychological impact on a target population.

This is even more pronounced when the individuals being targeted are foreign aid workers whose reconstruction work, per the counterinsurgency theorist David Kilcullen, is crucial for “hardwiring” militants out of the local environment.

As such, while Mr Buhari is right to be proud of the fact that Boko Haram is no longer capable of “articulated conventional attacks on centres of communication and populations”, his attendant claim (articulated as early as December 2015) that Boko Haram is “technically defeated” continues to be, at best, a little optimistic.

As the International Crisis Group summarised of the situation in May last year: “Boko Haram is seemingly on a back foot … [but] it is unlikely to be eliminated in a decisive battle.”

Naturally, excessively focussing on one’s military successes also allows Mr Buhari to divert attention away from deeper structural problems in Nigeria which underlie the jihadist crisis.

Corruption in particular remains a persistent driver of local instability.

According to one study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, if the misappropriation of funds by key influencers is left unchecked by 2030 it could cost the Nigerian economy up to 37 per cent of the national GDP.

The Nigerian public’s trust in its own institutions, especially the police force, is also at an all-time low.

It’s not all depressing though. Culturally, at least, Mr Buhari does not have a difficult adversary to contend with in Boko Haram.

On a grand historical timescale, it is difficult to imagine that a group as bizarre as Boko Haram — which at one point introduced a tax “for breathing” on some residents in a suburb of Maiduguri — could actually impose what they wish to see imposed on the Nigerian people.

Certainly, the rise of anti-Boko vigilante groups since the Chibok kidnappings would seem to indicate that on some fundamental level the group’s use of child suicide bombers and its propensity for sexual slavery simply does not resonate with the locals.

Likewise, if Nigeria’s generals are to be believed and the territory now controlled by Boko Haram is confined to a few jungled pockets of the Sambisi Forest, then that, at the very least, is a sign of progress.

And yet, as much as the world would like to see Mr Buhari’s mission accomplished, positive trends do not a “technical defeat” make.

As Stephen Chan from SOAS-University of London glibly put it: “Something is rotten in Nigeria — and something peculiarly Nigerian at that.”

The rot, if the metaphor carries, continues to fester, unabated. And until that rot is excised, whole-bodily from the Nigerian system, it is likely that the extremist problem will persist.

MOABs win battles but they don’t win wars

Friday saw global audiences awaking to news the US military had dropped a GBU-43/B MOAB — the largest non-nuclear weapon in its arsenal — on a jihadist defensive position in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

The event marked the use of the weapon on the battlefield for the first time in history.

Nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs for its 11-tonne blast yield, the employment of the $16 million MOAB comes at a time of increasing violence in Nangarhar — in particular, the rise of a local affiliate of ISIS called Wilayah Khorasan, often referred to as ISIS-K.

Named for the historical region of Khorasan which features prominently in jihadist eschatology, ISIS-K’s recent activities in the Achin, Nazian, Dih Bala and Kot districts can be traced back to a steady flow of Pakistani Taliban (TTP) militants across the border into Nangarhar between 2010 and 2014.

Following a largely successful counterinsurgency offensive by the Pakistani military in early 2010, TTP fighters from the Orakzai Agency began moving across the Durand Line (the Afghan-Pakistan border) in large numbers.

An orange GBU-43 bomb in a large warehouse.

The US dropped a GBU-43B on a tunnel system housing IS fighters in a hillside on the western banks of the Mamand river just outside Achin district’s Asadkhal

While their initial presence in Nangarhar saw them arriving as ‘guests’ in the villages of their fellow Pashtuns, in early October 2014, six of these leaders declared the area to be an exclave province of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate, breaking with the TTP and giving bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

By mid-2015, after a violent campaign against community rivals, including skirmishes against local Afghan Taliban elements, the newly formed ISIS-K began to grow exponentially.

Achin District in particular, as one of the largest opium poppy districts in Eastern Afghanistan, provided a logical base of operations for ISIS-K activities near the Durand Line – affording the militants a sluice of commercial and strategic opportunities for further expansion in Nangarhar.

Thursday’s strike comes in the middle of an Afghan government-led operation to clear ISIS-K from Achin, and despite CENTCOM’s description of the MOAB as “the right munition” for the obstacles which Afghan security forces were facing (as if the bomb’s use was unexceptional) there should be little doubt the strike shows a new preference for large displays of force in US-partner-led operations in Afghanistan.

At the same time, while there was initial speculation the MOAB-drop was Donald Trump’s way of “sending a message” to Syria and North Korea, what this event shows, perhaps more than anything else, is the President’s willingness to delegate decision-making to commanders on the ground, including the relaxation of top-down control of airpower.

While some might be concerned about a situation where military commanders have “total authorisation” to do as they please on operations, the knowledge that America’s generals are implementing “the commander’s intent” as opposed to, say, “the executive orders of the commander-in-chief” should come as a relief to many.

Indeed, with highly regarded military doyens like HR McMaster and James Mattis now crafting the US’s national security policy, one can see in Washington not so much the emergence of a ‘deep state’ but rather a ‘shallow state’ — an America where public servants now function as tugboats guiding the President’s very leaky ship through the shallows and away from a potential shipwreck.

That said, even if the US military is able to insulate defence policy from Mr Trump’s temperament, there is little indication the current offensive against ISIS-K in Afghanistan will be able to improve the local security environment in any substantive way.

Althought, at least at first glance, it seems there were no civilian casualties in the MOAB strike, some local reports have suggested civilian infrastructure up to four kilometres away may have been damaged by the MOAB.

Certainly, it should go without saying America’s use of airpower can sometimes be counterproductive and when one considers the last time the US made headlines in this part of Nangarhar was after the bombing of a wedding party which killed 47 civilians, it is not difficult to imagine how a large air strike can be used as a recruiting tool by insurgents.

More broadly, wresting the border areas of Afghanistan from the hands of insurgents may simply not be possible.

In many respects, ISIS-K is just the latest insurgent group to make use of the “friction of distance” offered by the remoteness of these areas — a symptom of the rocky and inhospitable terrain of Nangarhar as much as anything else.

Once a Mujahedin stronghold during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, in recent years the townships in the foothills of Nangarhar’s Spin Ghar mountains have also been ports of call for insurgents affiliated with the networks of Taliban leaders Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

One thing these districts have never seen, however, is long-term control from a centralised government.

Home to Shinwari Pashtuns, a people who regard nation-states and the cities they spawn as habitats of “gund” (a Pashto term which describes inequality, disorder and the end of filial tribal bonds), the permanent incorporation of Nangarhar into any state seems to be, at the very least, historically unlikely.

Furthermore, that the ISIS-K tunnel complex might also have been a commandeered tunnel mine once used by locals to extract soapstone, should tell policymakers everything they need to know about insurgencies generally — they can only thrive in places where an accommodating environment — both infrastructural and cultural — for mounting a resistance already exists.

By now, one thing should be clear to everyone. Even if ISIS-K — America’s latest adversary in Nangarhar — is defeated, it seems unlikely Kabul, with or without the help of the US, will be able to permanently tame the borderlands of Nangarhar.

As coalition forces have surely learned after 16 years in Afghanistan — fighting in the Spin Ghar mountains is always uphill.


With sandaled feet upon the sand,

He calls his land “bayn al-nahrayn“:

“The land between two rivers”.


Overhead, the Sun sneers,

Though east, he swears, there lies a river

Of green banks and gentle flow

Where there! a fish shimmers, a boar lurks,

Shoulder-deep in cupric-coloured water.


And north, a dam, a mighty span,

Of earthly fill with core of clay.

Half-submerged in failing karst,

Betwixt two banks and shoulder-deep

In cupric-coloured water.


Heavy weighs the lake behind and for’ard lies the city,

And he swears to me they’ll take it soon.

Flinching in the glare of sneering Sun,

I see the city and see he’s right:


Smoke in the distance.

Hyper-local cacophanies of empyreal fury.

For weeks, he swears, it’s lingered there

The smoke, that terrible noise.


Thus, with sandaled feet, he walks on

– weeping –

His son’s blood curdling in the sand.

There’ll be no rain to wash away,

This gory blemish amongst this nothing.


Meanwhile the sneering Sun over this empty scape,

Beats out the heat of day,

And yonder in those city limits, the tracks of rolling tanks,

Have marked the road

Like tyre marks in clay.


They’ll take it soon,

Now that the bridge is theirs.

They’ve crossed the river with momentum west.

They’ll win this fight.




Can the bridges there be fixed?

Like the dam – half-sunk, by weight.

The hate-filled calm in-situ waits,

The bridge suspended

Above the cupric-coloured water.


As for the dam,

The walls are there,

Only as long as they can hold.

If they do not, then all is lost,

Hark the post-diluvian ode.


And still.


Those tanks will cross those banks,

Seizing what they have staked.

And like the surly tide, half-ebbed but sure to flow

When it rolls, it takes, all washed away

By cupric-coloured water.