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NightWatch 20120518

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NightWatch

For the night of 18 May 2012

Japan-Australia: Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba on May 18 signed an intelligence-sharing agreement in Tokyo, Japan Today reported. The two nations are strategic partners and need to increase the strength of their security relationship, Gemba said.

Comment: This agreement could not take place without the tacit encouragement of the US, which has intelligence sharing relations with both nations. The larger implication is that the Asia-Pacific countries are taking back from the US responsibility for their own security affairs, as they should. This is tonight's good news.

The next steps are to link up with South Korea and then persuade India to cooperate more forthrightly. Then all the great and powerful democracies and the finest armed forces of Asia and the Pacific region will be linked.


Afghanistan: Special comment. The NightWatch analysis of the monthly fighting trends for the past two years shows that the Taliban peaked in July 2011, when Afghanistan experienced more than 2,900 security incidents in a single month. The Taliban continued to fight at roughly the same level as in 2010, namely over 2,000 incidents a month, until the end of September 2011.

The first big decline to over 1,000 incidents per month occurred in October. That plateau lasted three months. The second big drop to below 1,000 incidents started in January 2012 and has continued, except for a spike to about 1,160 in March.

February 2012 experienced the lowest number of incidents since the Taliban resurgence in the mid-2000's, with just over 580 security incidents. With the proclamation of the spring offensive in May, the number of security incidents is already over 1,000 at mid-month, but shows no prospect of reaching the 2,900 benchmark of July 2011.

The Taliban peaked in another sense. The summer of 2011 also was the high water mark for Taliban's expansion north of the Hindu Kush. Every major city in the north has a Pashtun enclave, the result of internal transmigration policies under prior governments. The high numbers of incidents last summer corresponded to the activation and spread of fighting cells in the Pashtun communities in the north.

In 2012, the cumulative decline in security incidents in the key towns of the north has become stark. For example, Badakhshan, Konduz and Baghlan Provinces, which cover a large swath of mountainous territory, experienced just over one security incident per day in April 2012 and one fourth of them proved to be criminal activity. At long last the German-led NATO contingent appears to have succeeded in reducing the fight in these provinces to a police problem.

The Taliban expansion in the north was supported primarily from Pakistan, meaning money and strategic plans were conveyed by couriers from Pakistan who occasionally got caught. The data in 2012 indicates the expansion proved beyond the capabilities of the Pakistan-based organizers to sustain. Attacks and clashes continue in the north, but most are roadside bombs or drive-by small arms fire that do less damage than in prior years.

The Taliban also appeared to have lowered their profile around Herat and the western provinces. The number of incidents is down, but remains higher and more lethal than in the northern provinces.

The news in the 13 Pashtun provinces is less positive. Within the overall trend of decline, the clashes and incidents have become more concentrated in the south, southeast and east and account for a large majority of all incidents across the nation.

Explanations

Explanations for the decline are many and intertwined. It is simplistic to attribute it to a single one. The surge of forces in the South in 2011 shifted the territorial patterns of the fighting and almost certainly contributed to the start of the decline in August 2011. It also exerted systemic pressure in that it stressed the supply operations from Pakistan as well as Pashtun kinship relations as fighters fled to safety among the Pashtun clans. Generally, the Taliban just moved to other districts and provinces to continue the fight.

NATO operations plus the loss of the NATO supply line from Karachi to Afghanistan also seem to be significant factors. The months of deepest decline occurred after surge forces began to leave, but while the NATO supply line remained blocked. Any anti-government supply providers who relied on leakage in the NATO supply chain for steady supplies came up empty.

The loss of the NATO supply channel seems to be a large factor in the decline in Taliban operations since last November.

The reaffirmation of an end of active combat operations by the NATO forces in 2014 also seems to have contributed significantly to the reduction. This has two parts. NATO forces seem to have reduced their operations and the Taliban appears to be husbanding its manpower. Actions by fighters associated with Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis prove that the anti-government forces remain a significant threat.

Other analysts will no doubt have additional explanations.

Two hard points

First, the data indicates that the death of bin Laden appears to have had little to no impact on the fighting in Afghanistan. The Taliban surge continued through July 2011. The number of security incidents remained above 2,000 per month through September.

Second, throughout the period of decline, the Taliban and other anti-government fighters continued to receive steady supplies for roadside and suicide bomb materials, even in northern Afghanistan. All of these supplies - explosives, batteries, wire and plastic -- are trucked from Pakistan. After more than a decade, little to nothing has been done to stop the killing and maiming of NATO personnel and Afghans that is possible only because the materials are trucked in from Pakistan.

The failure to neutralize the strategic supply system from Pakistan stands as the single greatest policy failure of the Afghan war. Without supplies and support from Pakistan, the Taliban would have collapsed into criminal lawlessness permanently ten years ago. It means that all lessons of the Vietnam War have been forgotten.

Closing thoughts

The decline in fighting is consistent with several prognoses, each of which depends on the diagnosis of the behavior. For example, a decline in clashes would portend an improved security situation if the diagnosis is the Taliban has been defeated. However, sensational attacks in Kabul and the sustained fighting in the Pashtun south and east indicates the anti-government fighters are not defeated.

The decline also is consistent with Mullah Omar's grand strategy of outlasting the foreigners. In this scenario, the Taliban would husband manpower, avoid costly battles and wait for supplies to build up and fatigue to dissipate. They are doing enough to encourage the foreign forces to leave, but not so much as to risk reversing any departure decisions made in foreign capitals.

A variation of the second scenario is that the Taliban deliberately are making it easier to transfer security responsibilities to Afghans because of private deals being struck and Taliban expectations that this generation of Afghan soldiers will join the Taliban just as an earlier generation did.

The evidence indicates the Taliban and other anti-government movements are not beaten and are waiting. The Karzai government will not last more than a few months without NATO tactical air support.

Afghanistan-France: For the record. During the election campaign, President Hollande promised to withdraw French combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. French press indicates he intends to keep to that pledge in NATO talks this weekend. France will provide other support to Afghanistan instead.

Bahrain: Update. Tens of thousands of Shiite Bahrainis protested near Manama on 18 May against the Saudi proposal for a union of the two states.

End of NightWatch for 18 May.

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