At 6am on Friday, recruits at the Frontier Corps military academy in Pakistan were hit by twin suicide bombers in an attack that has killed at least 80 and wounded over a hundred, with the death toll expected to rise. The Pakistan Taliban have claimed responsibility, telling CNN explicitly that the attack was in retaliation for the killing of Al Qaida chief Osama Bin Laden by US special forces on the 2nd May.
The military academy is located in the town of Charsadda, some 35 km north of Peshawar, close to the Mohmand tribal agency, which has seen major offensives by the Pakistan military in recent weeks aiming to dislodge the Taliban from the restive border region. The Frontier Corps is a paramilitary force, drawn predominantly from the Pashtun tribes of the region. It has been targeted repeatedly by the Taliban, which draws its support from the same ethnic group.
The attack comes during an increasingly contentious dispute between the UK’s political and military leaderships over force levels in Afghanistan. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has already stated that the British commitment must end by 2014, in time for the next general election. In addition, however, he is pushing for a draw down on troop deployments to begin immediately.
The Ministry of Defence had fixed on the low figure of 200 troops, mainly in supporting roles, to be withdrawn this summer. Under pressure from the Prime Minister, this target figure has increased to 450. Chief of the UK Defence Staff General Sir David Richards is reported to be strongly resisting such inclinations. General Richards told the House of Commons defence committee on Tuesday that ‘at my level, we are very clear that the strategy is sound and we must give it the opportunity to succeed.’
The openSecurity verdict: The successful assassination of Osama Bin Laden has triggered a debate, on both sides of the Atlantic, on whether the best course of action in Afghanistan is, in the words of Vietnam-era US senator George Aiken, to ‘declare victory and withdraw’. The decade of combat in Afghanistan has left 364 British troops dead and 1,500 of their American counterparts. In the UK, 2014 is a fixed date for complete withdrawal and, despite the objections of military chiefs, it seems likely the Prime Minister will be able to markedly reduce the British contingent well before then.
US President Obama has ordered a far reaching review of the US position, against a background of calls to withdraw from both democrats and republicans. His stated timetable for withdrawal calls for reducing the US commitment from July 2011, with no concrete date for complete withdrawal. Military sources report that the US drawdown this year, thought to comprise a few hundred non-combat troops prior to the 2nd May, could comprise as many as two full brigades or 10,000 soliders.
In military terms, this commitment by the two Atlantic allies is not new; both Obama and Cameron recognised that the conflict could not be resolved through force of arms alone. At the same time, the fears of senior military figures are that a rapid drawdown, driven by political imperatives after Bin Laden’s death, could lead to gaps appearing in the front line; a fraying of ‘force density’ that could make combat troops more vulnerable to Taliban counter-attacks. A rapid drawdown may also jeopardise the key plank in the coalition’s strategy to end the war; peace talks with the Taliban.
Arguably, the killing of Bin Laden already represents an irritant to such discussions. The central problem, however, is strategic. The rationale for an Afghan ‘surge’ of troops was to challenge the Taliban’s dominance in its southern strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar, thus making the diplomacy track viable. Only from a position of military weakness, it was argued, will the Taliban be willing to come to the table.
The sight of a rapid drawdown in coalition forces, potential military successes from exploiting the resulting reduction in ‘force density’ and an overall sense of the coalition’s flagging political will may easily lead the Taliban conclude that the better option is to ignore peace overtures. Their calculation will be that when coalition troops withdraw, they will be able to win any subsequent civil war against the Karzai regime’s Afghanistan National Army with ease.
Regardless of the soundness of this calculation, the fact is that the ANA recruits disproportionately from the north, west and east of the country, and its forces comprise largely Dari and Uzbek speaking non-Pashtuns. Any civil war will thus quickly come to resemble the bitter communitarian conflict of the nineties, pitting the Pashtun south against the other ethnic groups of the country.
With the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence agency still reportedly providing support to the Afghan Taliban, it is not difficult to envisage how such a conflict might quickly draw in neighbouring states, including Iran, Russia and India. If the diplomatic track fails, the likely outcome is nothing less than a resumption of the Afghanistan civil war, with all the catastrophic consequences for the Afghan people that this entails.
Libyan rebel leaders seek US recognition
On Friday, Mahmoud Jibril, the Foreign Minister of the National Transition Council (NTC) of Libya, was reported to be meeting with the US national security advisor, Tom Donilon, to discuss ‘recognition’ of the rebel group. The meeting on Friday comes one day after the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office allowed the NTC to establish its first foreign mission in London.
Jibril has stated that the United States should follow Italy, France, Qatar and Gambia in recognising the NTC as the ‘sole legitimate interlocutor of the Libyan people’. The NTC’s Foreign Minister is also seeking financial support; by his own admission the rebels are facing ‘a very acute financial problem’. The United State government controls some $30 billion of Libyan assets frozen after the imposition of economic sanctions; Jibril argues that such assets should be released to the rebels, to help ‘the Libyan people’.
The NTC’s diplomatic offensive comes as the Russian Minister, Sergei Lavrov, calls for negotiations with Gaddafi. In a statement on Friday Lavrov, speaking in Kazakhstan, said that talks with the Libyan dictator were inevitable. Saying that the outcome of any dialogue should be a new political system in Libya, he also stated that it is necessary to seek agreement also with those upon whom the prospects for calming the situation depends.”
FARC implicated in assassination of Chavez rivals
A recent report by the British Institute of International and Strategic Studies has suggested that members of the Colombian guerrilla force FARC may have attempted to assassinate rivals of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and have trained his partisans in urban warfare. The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) are also implicated in channelling some $400,000 to Rafael Correa to assist his campaign to be elected as President of Ecuador.
The Venezuelan embassy in London has derided the report as a ‘dodgy dossier’ designed to undermine ties between Venezuela and Colombia. Correa has denied the report’s allegations, calling them ‘absolutely false’. The IISS report is based on electronic documents seized from an FARC camp in 2008; the documents were stored on hard drives owned by FARC leader Raul Reyes and their capture by Colombian authorities followed Reyes’ death in an air raid.