Entries in security (3)


Thoughts on the Attack on the Intercontinental in Kabul

Another spectacular attack in Kabul.  And as usual media is running in the same circles.  As I've often said, I'm bored of Afghanistan and I recommend people get their analysis from people with a genuine passion for the place like Joshua Foust, Gilles Dorronsoro, and the Afghanistan Analysts Network.  But let me correct a few obvious things I don't see anyone else mentioning:

  • The Intercon was popular with foreigners?  No it was not.  They stay their because of a lot of lacklustre security thinking (see below), but don't socialise there.  It's boring, there's no booze, and the general purpose of an expat going is a very dull meeting with an usually corrupt offical/businessman/both.  The Intercon is of key significance for the Afghan élite however and is regarded as the key place to have a wedding, reception, etc. by that set.  A major reason I didn't hang out there was the shameful and robust display of corruption by said élite. (I could go on about foreigners but that's a different piece.) The average Taliban member might not distinguish this so well, but a lot of planning goes into an operation like this, so for me it is conceivable that the Taliban will say publically that "50 high-ranking foreigners were killed" while still sending a very unnerving signal to the Afghan élite.
  • The targeting of the hotel was therefore much nuanced than what's presented.  It's a strike at the Afghan élite (with a major political event in the form of a governors' conference scheduled to happen the next day no less), and embarrassment of the Afghan security forces, and by proxy an embarrassment of NATO, foreigners, and the political strategies they're using.  This strategy has been apparent before in the instance of a 2010 attack on a PSC guesthouse in Taimani.  The PSC was a legitimate military target but it's location in a neighbourhood where many NGOs and contractors are based sent a clear message about the dangers of co-mingling.
  • The fact that the Intercon was cleared by so many security advisors is further evidence for my contention that the security industry is a scam.  It's a high-profile location that is not only a likely target itself, but also likely to host any number of high-value targets on a given occasion.
  • I have a hard time understanding what "heavily guarded" means.  True, there were a lot of checkpoints, but bad management and lack of enthusiasm typically dent the efficacy of such measures in Afghanistan.  I'm not in a position to know the specifics of the security arrangement at the Intercon, but we could use more reporting on what they were.
  • I'm intrigued that the Taliban claimed responsibility but the attack might have been perpetrated by the Haqqani Network (it did bear resemblance to earlier HN attacks on the Serena and Indian Embassy).  The two groups have often worked at cross purposes before and it would be interesting to see if this were genuine coordination or if it's one trying to trump the other for leadership of the Taliban movement.  Again, I'm not on the ground and am taking a break from Afghanistan so I'll not pretend to have the answer.

Giving Weapons to the Libyan Rebels

Yesterday France confirmed that it supplied the Libyan weapons with arms.  So much we already new through numerous witness reports on the ground in Nafusa, many of which noted that the newly-built runway near Jadu had been used.  Rumours in Benghazi have long held that Italy has supplied arms.  Here are my reflections on the situation:

  • What exactly constitutes application of humanitarian principles is contentious.  The reality remains that this war is absurdly one-sided in that Qaddafi's chief tactic is violating humanitarian principles or using them against the international community.  I got to eavesdrop on a UN meeting where humanitarian concerns were completely divorced from there political reality.  Let's say we're dealing with food instead of weapons:  The more food given to non-combatants is more that's available to feed régime armed forces.  The worthy humanitarian principle of feeding people is at odds with the anti-humanitarian principles of the régime.  Luckily there's no dilemma because starving people are easier to cow and therefore in no one's interest but Qaddafi's.
  • Once again, "boots on the ground" doesn't matter in the way most people think it does.  Soldiers and trainers can do the same work not as part of national institutions such as armies, but as paid contractors for private security companies.  This is a problem of widening accountability gaps for state actors, but to the extent that it allows us to work around inefficiencies in the state system, such as awarding sovereignty to one régime over another, I'll accept it as doing something rather than nothing.
  • The confirmation of support could be a figment of convenience, since the rebels are now calling on NATO to do more.  In some ways NATO has, it's just been impolitic to say it.  The rebels kept insisting they can do it themselves and there's a real benefit to everyone, Libyans included, with the sense of empowerment that comes from winning one's own victory.
  • Again, I don't support any of the state actors doing this, nor do I think their intentions are genuine or that they even know what they're doing for that matter.  Hopefully by keeping up the technical fiction that boots are not on the ground we'll also pre-empt the need for Libyan issues to enter into the domestic politics of NATO members after the war is over.  What these air drops do support is the intent of UNSCR 1973, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, and again the only way of doing that has become the removal of a certain dictator.



Work, Vacation, and Beyond

After about two and a half months in Mazar, I can at last say I'm settled in--both to the place and my job.  I finally got to take a small vacation to a place other than India, and have even begun looking at the next step beyond Afghanistan.

My work is always fun and fascinating.  Anything that I accomplish in a given day is all subsidiary to one big bullet point: building and maintaing my own human intelligence network.  That, it turns out, isn't my notion of "work" at all in that work is something unpleasant which involves an Excel spreadsheet.  Here when something happens (unfortunately that means 'goes boom' for a security advisor), the resulting process is very akin to gossip collection at a party ("Sonali slept with whom?, okay you talk to Alex and I'll talk to Aziz")--we divide up who has the best contacts for the particular information sought, go to it, issue a report, maybe hash it out further with the boss in Kabul.  And it's all very intuitive.  Furthermore you get to interact with the plethora of NGOs (and other actors) roaming about in the north of country, which means there's always a parade of interesting people from different walks of life stopping by my office.  A while ago some food security people stopped by one of our meetings, so afterwards we went up to my office where I got a full Q&A session with them about how food security work is carried out, what it entails, what specific dangers they face and how they mitigate them; interesting for my own bank of personal knowledge and useful for me professionally in understanding their security profile.  An organisation doing food security faces completely different risks and threats than one involved in microfinance.  Likewise yesterday I got to learn about demining.  So the job is fun; always interesting, engaging, and different.  And the best part is I get to have all the fun of doing intel without having idiotic masters, the Americans (assholes) or Russians (clowns).

I've also come to discover that, as predicted, the security world is in great need of people who can put two and two together.  At the micro level that means being more interested in protecting people than shiny new weapons, but on the broader scale it also means that what sounds tough does necessarily work.  This all brings me back to the (unsuccessful) interview which firmed up my decision to quit DC a few years back...it was four days into the 2006 Lebanon War and the interviewers asked me what was going to happen, and were consequently very displeased at my answer that the IDF was going to get its ass kicked for a number of reasons starting from lack of defined strategic objectives.  My point is that these people (security consultants) had a pre-defined notion of how the world had to work and they weren't about to let reality intrude on it.   Basically people handling security matters need to know why Russia is a threat just like Israel is, even though neither gets their fair share of blame.

The city of Mazar is survivable, but being a quiet place I find it something of a din of iniquity.  I chill a lot more here and get a lot more reading done (thanks to the Kindle as well, which is awesome), and it's okay because I'm not missing out on things like I would be in Kabul and I have a really nice home/office to come back to here in Mazar.  In general, even though there are a lot of expats around, they are all pretty introverted and hard-working.  Plus there isn't a critical mass of people who like to party.  This is made tolerable by the work and the fact that I would feel like a tool if I keep hanging out in Kabul, with its cast of interesting (much better than DC or NY) yet repetative people (the meatheads, the glamour-seekers, the int'l men of mystery, the granola-munchers, and so on).  I will not be one of those people who just stays on here indefinitely without any direction...I will get out a some point next year and if not it will be because I found something in Afghanistan that is a damn good and clear alternative.  It would be nice to live in a Western country if it helps me in my career goals (not North America, which I've long since outgrown) and eventually if I do something development-related it would be nice to spend time in a country with more morality and decency (Georgia?! Turkey?!) rather than Afghanistan, which all too often seems like a bunch of Sarah Palins running around unwilling to acknowledge the realities necessary to achieve what it is they claim they want.

Finally there was the vacation; a quick tour of Toronto, DC, and London.  I also got a new passport and stopped in for MillerStock near Buffalo.  I've definitely learned never to go visit a big group of people...go stay with one friend or just bring one or two along and leave it at that.  Trying to fit everyone in in DC was insane, but the plus side was that everyone showed up.  Muhammad was there from Khurtum, Waise made an appearance from Manila.  I had great hosts (Lynn and Ann) and a generally good time.  DC has improved as well--two cheers for gentrification.  I spent a good a mount of time in what used to be an incredibly depressing Columbia Heights which is now full of nice house and appartments and fun things to do and shop at.  And of course I also got to have Ravi Kabab with Neda and Navid.  It was nice to leave DC in the end, and I definitely don't know when or if I'll be coming back though.  Been there done that.  On the way back to Dubai I had a day layover in London which did turn out to be an eye-opener.  The customs gods smiled on me getting to and from Heathrow and I got to spend the whole day with my lovely friend Jaya getting a tour of the city.  It's a huge and quite strange place (19 degrees in August...hmm) but I decided I might well give it a go post Afghanistan.  I also have some friends there and hence a potential roommate pool and place to start building a new network.  The real test will be to see if I can survive the winter there...the next step is to try spending vacation there in late January, do some informational interviews, and get a feel for the place.