24 March 2015

Afghanistan: new entente in place?

Anand Arni, Pranay Kotasthane
March 24, 2015

Pushed by Pakistan-China initiatives, talks look likely between the Taliban and Afghanistan. This could block India’s economic interests in the region

Negotiations between the Afghan unity government and the Taliban appear likely, with the Pakistan military prodding the Taliban to agree to talks. This comes in the wake of unprecedented concessions by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Pakistan. He has, over the last few months, acted against Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) militants operating from Afghan soil, provided Pakistan access to TTP prisoners, agreed to send army cadets to Pakistan for training, and engaged directly with Pakistan’s military. All these concessions have come at great political risk with some Afghan leaders expressing disappointment with the overtures.

This is not the first time that efforts have been made to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Under PresidentHamid Karzai, too, several efforts were made, but the Taliban refused to participate, claiming it would talk only to the Americans “who have occupied Afghanistan and are the real power.”

The relevant question to ask then is what differentiates the current efforts from previous ones? And what are the chances that these talks will even begin, leave alone succeed?

China’s initiative

One factor is China’s attitude. It is increasingly wary of terrorism entering into Xinjiang via Afghanistan and wants Pakistan to calm the borders. It is with this aim that China took a lead in the Heart of Asia conference, institutionalised the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral dialogue, and played host to a two-member delegation from the Taliban’s Qatar office that visited Beijing in November 2014. The Chinese government is also comfortable working with President Ghani.

Second, the Taliban position has shifted, a change evident after the U.S. helped establish a Taliban presence in Qatar in January 2012. The U.S. also gave in to some of the Taliban’s demands and the UN sanctions regime was recast. In return, the Taliban made some pronouncements, distancing itself from al-Qaeda, and indicated that it is open to a negotiated settlement.

Banking on China

Mar 24, 2015

Despite misgivings about the risks posed by a muscle-flexing, militaristic China, Asian countries are open-minded about the benefits of China as a regional economic dynamo

China’s government and state-owned media are on cloud nine. “Welcome Germany! Welcome France! Welcome Italy!” screams a joyful Xinhua news agency to celebrate the latest decision of these continental European nations to follow Britain in joining the Chinese-conceived Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

G-7 member countries turning into shareholders and endorsing China’s leadership of an upstart multilateral financial institution are no mean achievements. What particularly gives the Chinese, who are nationalistic anti-American, is that the AIIB, with an authorised capital of $100 billion, is soaring in spite of a negative campaign by the United States to scuttle it. China’s establishment is revelling in its diplomatic coup of effecting a “decisive crack in the anti-AIIB front forged by America” and exposing what the Chinese press holds as Washington’s “isolation and hypocrisy.”

The US’ policy of opposing the formation and growth of AIIB, which challenges the America- and Japan-led Asian Development Bank (ADB), is now reaping a bitter harvest. European cosying up to China is a slap on the face for Washington from its own Western allies. It is another signal that America’s declining capacity to keep the entire “West” under its control is waning.

Just as the crisis in Ukraine bared geopolitical incongruence between the US and the European Union (EU) on tackling Russia, the fallout over the AIIB conveys that Washington is facing a transformed world marked by multiplicity of choices for countries that hitherto had no option but to shelter under an overwhelming American tent.

The European states, which are hitching their wagons to the AIIB, are justifying their defiance of American wishes by citing practical motives of chasing investment opportunities for their corporations in the gargantuan $11 trillion market for infrastructure funding in fast-growing Asia. The hunger with which European governments and firms have been eyeing China as an export destination and a source of inward FDI also factor into their calculation to hop on to the AIIB gravy train.

American obstruction of AIIB and European accession to the same are also reflective of the power differentials involving China, the US and EU member countries. No single European nation or even a collective group of EU members can imagine competing with China or fighting its rise because these former colonialists no longer have the material strength to assert themselves as big players in Asia.

Her peace

By: Meenakshi Gopinath
March 24, 2015

The conjuncture of the Beijing Plus 20 consultations, the 15-year anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1,325 and the deliberations around the post-2015 development goals presents a historic opportunity. It is an invitation to re-envision a global compact that foregrounds the link between sustainable development, security, peace, environment, democracy and gender justice.

Women all over the world, and in South Asia in particular, have, from the turn of the century, entered the arena of peacebuilding. They have interrogated militarist and state-centric notions of security and questioned the practices of war-making as well as the mindsets that legitimise the stockpiling of weapons. They have questioned their exclusion from the negotiating tables where formal peace is often “brokered”.

Many women have highlighted the imperative to “craft” peace that is both just and inclusive, addressing the structural causes of conflicts and their compounded impact on women. They have spoken out about how systemic violence impacts their access to livelihood as well as economic and political rights. They have mobilised around these issues, transcending borders and boundaries, to establish regional and global networks.

The fillip for this was provided by the watershed UNSC Resolution 1,325, which mandated moving away from a discourse of victimhood towards action to foreground the agency of women in peacekeeping operations and peacebuilding initiatives.

In countries like India, the entry of women into the professional and political worlds has empowered civil society initiatives to engage more productively in the arena of peacebuilding. From the all-women Indian UN peacekeeping force in Liberia to the band of women scientists that facilitated the recently successful Mars Mission, there are crucial areas where women have shattered glass ceilings and redefined notions of success at the workplace. With their legally mandated presence on boards of directors under the Companies Act, 2013, they are now also poised to alter the dynamics of corporate boardrooms and priorities.

The great railway scam: This is why you can never book a ticket at 8 am

March 19, 2015 


Your chances of securing confirmed train tickets on popular routes just went up. The Railways has zeroed in on the biggest reason behind the perennial complaint of passengers not being able to get confirmed tickets even after turning up at the ticket counters at 8 am, when they open across India.

An internal investigation revealed that every day, 4,000 confirmed berths would be hoarded by touts within one minute of the computer reservation system being thrown open to public.

The probe found that the touts, who sell tickets at a higher price to passengers in need, were exploiting a “facility” in the passenger reservation software. The facility allows someone who has already purchased a ticket to alter journey details and book another train within seconds at the last moment.

Touts would buy tickets for relatively less popular trains a day earlier, and then swap them for tickets on popular trains — Rajdhanis, Durontos and other long-distance trains — between 8 am and 8.01 am. This would take seconds since their booking details were already fed into the system.

“Touts would buy any ticket a day in advance and the next day, they would get ticket details changed. The booking clerk merely had to generate another PNR with the passenger details already fed into the system a day earlier. This took seconds,” Ajay Shukla, Member (Traffic), Railway Board, told The Indian Express. “We have now disabled this facility for the first hour after the system opens,” he added.

Deficiencies in Afghan Security Forces, Heavy Casualties in Afghan Army, And Taliban Resurgence Convince U.S. to Keep Troops in Country Longer

March 22, 2015

US exit from Afghanistan tied to developing security forces 

WASHINGTON (AP) — The pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan will headline Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Washington, yet America’s exit from the war remains tightly hinged to the abilities of the Afghan forces that face a tough fight against insurgents this spring.

President Barack Obama has promised to end the longest U.S. war — it began in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — and get the remaining troops out of Afghanistan by the end of his presidency. Deficiencies in the Afghan security forces, heavy casualties in the ranks of the army and police, a fragile new government and fears that Islamic State fighters could gain a foothold in Afghanistan have combined to persuade Obama to slow the withdrawal.

Instead of trimming the current U.S. force of 9,800 to 5,500 by the end of the year, U.S. military officials say the administration now might keep many of them there well into 2016. Obama had said that after that, the U.S. would only maintain an embassy-based security force in Kabul of perhaps 1,000 troops. But on Friday, Jeff Eggers of the White House’s National Security Council said that too could be changed. He said the post-2016 plan will be considered on an on-going basis.

At stake is the U.S. taxpayers’ more than $60 billion investment — so far — in the Afghan forces. The 327,000-member force performs much better than before, but still needs work.

While praising their ability to operate mostly independently and securing the nation during a protracted election, U.S. military officials say the Afghan forces still suffer from a host of problems: attrition, drug abuse, desertions, illiteracy, poor record-keeping, a lack of management and logistical skills, intelligence, a shortage of top-notch leaders and less-than-optimal cooperation between policemen and soldiers.

They also are suffering massive casualties as they ramp up operations.

More than 1,300 members of the Afghan army were killed in action and another 6,200 were wounded in action between October 2013 and September 2014, according to a report this month from the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction. Casualties in the ranks of policemen are even higher. In nearly 14 years of fighting, at least 2,200 U.S. military service men and women have been killed.

Afghan President Begins US Visit

March 23, 2015

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani began a state visit to the United States today amid widespread reports that the scheduled withdrawal of a majority of remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan may be delayed given concerns about Afghan forces’ capabilities.

The issue of the U.S. troop withdrawal schedule will be the most scrutinized issue during Ghani’s visit, but the Afghan president’s tour of Washington D.C. and New York is multifaceted.

Ghani, who recently marked sixth months in office after coming to power in a troubled national election, will be eager to discuss Afghanistan’s post-war development and reconciliation process, and prospects for private U.S. investment in his country.

Ghani’s U.S. visit will be his first since assuming the presidency. Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s Chief Executive, is also in the United States.

Ghani’s official delegation will spend four days in Washington and one day in New York City, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

On Sunday, Ghani met U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to discuss the flexibility of the U.S. troop withdrawal schedule from Afghanistan, concerns about the Iraq-based Islamic State making headway in Afghanistan, and the defense posture of Afghan forces.

Jeff Eggers, the U.S. National Security Council’s senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, notes that Ghani has requested that the Obama administration extend its current 9,800-troop levels beyond the end of 2015 and adjust to 5,500 in 2016.

The Obama administration, eager to stave off public criticism of what is the United States’ longest war, is considering the option.

America’s Warlords in Afghanistan


To fight the Taliban, the United States created a new generation of abusive strongmen that are now running rampant.

Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson and Maj. Gen. Abdul Raziq (Sgt. Antony S. Lee/Army)

Thanks to a tawdry investigation and controversial plea deal this month, David Petraeus will forever be known as the American general who gave over classified ‘black books’ to his mistress-biographer. But his real legacy appears to be playing out like a slow moving train wreck back in the provinces of Afghanistan.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released in early March, Afghanistan is under siege by a “new generation” of strongmen, warlords, and militias that are terrorizing local populations. Their menacing presence only effectively differs from the Taliban in that they have enjoyed the complicity and support of U.S. forces—including former General Petraeus—and major elements of Afghanistan’s government.

So while Petraeus is busy advising the White House on what to do with Iraq—another country whose reconstruction he left unfinished—unchecked corruption and violence threaten to undo every last good thing the West has tried to accomplish in Afghanistan since 2001.

“The Afghan government and its supporters should recognize that insecurity comes not only from the insurgency, but from corrupt and unaccountable forces having official backing,” Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a March 3 release.

Shifting Alliances: Afghan Shi’ites Now Linking Up With Taliban for Protection Against New ISIS Threat

March 22, 2015 

Fearing Islamic State, Some Afghan Shi’ites Seek Help From Old Enemies 

KABUL — Even by Afghanistan’s standards of often-shifting alliances, a recent meeting between ethnic Hazara elders and local commanders of the Taliban insurgents who have persecuted them for years was extraordinary. 

The Hazaras – a largely Shi’ite minority killed in the thousands during the Taliban’s hard-line Sunni Islamist rule of the 1990s – came to their old enemies seeking protection against what they deemed an even greater threat: masked men operating in the area calling themselves “Daish”, a term for Islamic State in the region. 

In a sign of changing times, the Taliban commanders agreed to help, said Abdul Khaliq Yaqubi, one of the elders at the meeting held in the eastern province of Ghazni. 

The unusual pact is a window into deepening anxiety in Afghanistan over reports of Islamic State (IS) radicals gaining a foothold in a country already weary of more than a decade of war with the Taliban. 

Back-to-back kidnappings within a month of two groups of Hazara travelers – by men widely rumored, though far from proven, to claim fealty to IS - have many spooked. 

The current threat IS poses in Afghanistan, observers say, is less about real military might than the opportunity for disparate insurgent groups, including defectors from an increasingly fractured Taliban, to band together under this global “brand” that controls swathes of Iraq and Syria. 

The fear is especially keen among religious minorities like the Hazaras, who worry the influence of the fiercely anti-Shi’ite IS could introduce a new dimension of sectarian strife to the war. 

“Whether Daish exists or not, the psychological impact of it is very dangerous in Ghazni, which is home to all ethnicities,” Ghazni’s deputy governor Mohammad Ali Ahmadi told Reuters. 

Why China Fears THAAD

March 21, 2015

Well it seems we might want to hold off on all the predictions of Seoul and Beijing joining hands and riding off into the sunset as Asia’s new power couple--at least for now.

China is quite upset at the prospect of South Korea acquiring America’s latest missile defense platform, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD for short. However, Xi Jinping might want to redirect his anger at the real problem and why President Park Geun-hye might be considering THAAD in the first place: North Korea.

But before we get to the heart of the matter, it seems appropriate to understand what THAAD is, what it can do, and why its important.

Back in November, I spoke to Dan Sauter of Business Development for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense at Lockheed Martin to get a better understanding of the system and its capabilities. Sauter explained that THAAD is “a key element of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) and is designed to defend U.S. troops, allied forces, population centers and critical infrastructure against short-thru-medium-range ballistic missiles.” He went on to explain that THAAD “has a unique capability to destroy threats in both the endo- and exo-atmosphere using proven hit-to-kill (kinetic energy) lethality. THAAD is effective against all types of ballistic-missile warheads, especially including Weapons of Mass Destruction (chemical, nuclear or biological) payloads. THAAD was specifically designed to counter mass raids with its high firepower (up to 72 Interceptors per battery), capable organic radar and powerful battle manager/fire control capability.”

THAAD also has one nice feature that is sure to get Beijing’s panties in a bunch--interoperability.

Sauter told The National Interest that THAAD is “interoperable with other BMDS elements, working in concert with Patriot/PAC-3, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, forward based sensors, and C2BMC (Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communications System) to maximize integrated air and missile defense capabilities. THAAD is mobile and rapidly deployable, which provides warfighters with greater flexibility to adapt to changing threat situations around the globe.”

How Do We Remember Lee Kuan Yew?

March 23, 2015

“The final verdict will not be in the obituaries. The final verdict will be when the PhD students dig out the archives,” Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew told The New York Times soberly when asked about his legacy in a September 2010 interview. On Monday morning, Lee passed away at 91 following weeks at the Singapore General Hospital and on the 50th year of the republic’s founding. Even if any true assessment at this time would be premature by his standards, how do we remember Lee Kuan Yew?

There are those who will cite his “strategic thinking.” Henry Kissinger himself once admitted that of all the world leaders he has met over the past half-century, none has taught him more than Lee. Richard Nixon famously said that had Lee lived in another time and another place, he may have “attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone.”

His powerful intellect and astute observations on global politics – which were praised by a long list of world leaders – certainly justify these compliments. Yet in truth, Lee himself was rather uncomfortable with them. He once quipped that anyone who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist. And if there was one thing consistent in his thinking, it was his firm belief in pragmatism rather than any theory, philosophy or grand idea.

But it is Lee’s role as the founding father of Singapore that he will be most remembered for and which gave him that global status in the first place. His success in turning Singapore from a tiny third-world country – at the time of its independence separated from Malaysia and under threat from neighboring Indonesia – into a first-world city state is a feat to behold. While few expected Singapore to survive, it has thrived far beyond the wildest dreams of many, including Lee himself who once reportedly dismissed small island states as a political joke.

3 Years On, China, Japan, South Korea May Resume Leaders' Summit

March 23, 2015

Trilateralism is starting to yield diplomatic dividends in Northeast Asia. After meeting in Seoul, the foreign ministers of China, Japan, and South Korea agreed to work toward a broader trilateral summit involving their leaders. Such a summit has not taken place in over three years due to rising regional tensions stemming from, among other issues, differing interpretations of history and territorial disputes — the foreign ministers of these three countries last met in 2012, a time when each was led by a different leader. The meeting of the foreign ministers itself represented a level of regional diplomatic engagement that hadn’t been seen in years.

In Seoul this weekend, the foreign ministers of China, Japan, and South Korea issued a joint statement noting that ”Based on the accomplishments achieved through this meeting, [they] decided to continue their efforts to hold the trilateral summit at the earliest convenient time for the three countries.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, however, caveatted the statement by noting that the prognosis for a successful trilateral meeting would come down to Japan adequately recognizing its wartime past on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War this year. ”The war has been over for 70 years, but the problem with history remains a present issue, not an issue of the past,” he noted.

The summit referred to by the foreign ministers in their statement would be a resumption of the China-Japan-Korea (CJK) process, a trilateral leaders forum that began in 2008 and was canceled in 2013 after Japan’s decision to nationalize the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands drew protest from China. Indeed, even lower-level trilateral meetings were sidelined until last fall, when China and Japan finally managed to break the ice by way of a hard-negotiated “four point” consensus. Though that didn’t set into motion a complete normalization in Japan-China ties, it did pave the way for an awkward handshake between Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of last year’s APEC summit. Since then, China and Japan resumed diplomatic engagement at a high level. Also around that time, China, Japan, and South Korea began meetings at the deputy foreign minister level to discuss regional issues.

Could Taiwan Join AIIB?

March 21, 2015

Your weekly round-up of China news:

Taiwan is interested in joining the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – if it’s invited. As the Taiwanese China Post reports, Taiwan’s Finance Minister Chang Sheng-ford told legislators on Thursday that “Taiwan is willing to join [AIIB] upon invitation.” Joining AIIB “would open up a very good channel for investment,” he added. But Chang also noted that Taipei has not yet received an invitation. Chang’s remarks come after the Mainland Affairs Council, which handles cross-strait relations, said that Taiwan’s stance on the AIIB would be determined by the Finance Ministry.

Mainland China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, also reported on Chang’s comments. It’s unclear, however, if Beijing will allow Taiwan to join in. So far, AIIB membership has been limited to countries – a term Beijing resolutely refuses to apply to Taiwan. For example, Taiwan is not a member of the IMF or the World Bank due to Chinese objections, but it is included in APEC (because APEC is defined as a grouping of Pacific economiesrather than countries.) Unless the AIIB members are defined using similar language, Taiwan’s participation won’t get off the ground.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Australia is moving closer to joining AIIB, with a decision possible after a Monday cabinet meeting. And in a surprising twist, even Japan seems to be considering the possibility of joining, although Abe’s administration described its stance toward AIIB participation as “cautious.”

China, Russia and the Tussle for Influence in Kazakhstan

By Arthur Guschin
March 23, 2015

Until recently, Central Asia played only a modest role in world politics, a reflection of its economic weakness, domestic problems, and distrust of integration. Russia’s presence in the region as the primary political mediator and economic partner was incontestable. In the last few years, though, China’s growing economic interest in Central Asia has come to be seen in Moscow as a threat to its influence. Russia is watching closely the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, which would give Beijing the dominant role and could supplant the Eurasian Economic Union. With Kazakhstan the core state in any integration project in the region, it looks set to become the frontlines of the tussle between China and Russia for regional influence.

Russian Interests

Driving Russian policy in Kazakhstan are the activities of four major Russian energy companies: Gazprom, Lukoil, Transneft and Rosneft. These companies allow Moscow to keep Astana within the sphere of Russian interests and help prevent Beijing from dominating Kazakhstan’s economy. Their participation in local energy projects gives Russia access to oil and gas reserves, while binding the two countries in the energy, transport, space and agriculture sectors.

The basis of the partnership rests on agreements covering petroleum contracts and energy supplies transiting through Kazakhstani and Russian territory to European or Chinese markets. Currently, the leading Russian investor in Kazakhstan is Lukoil, which operates seven projects and has a stake in the cross-country pipelineCaspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC). In 2013, 32.7 million tons of oil was pumped through the pipeline, 28.7 million tons of it exported from Kazakhstan.

Unstoppable: China's Secret Plan to Subvert Taiwan

March 23, 2015

Mao Zedong reportedly once said that warfare is 70 percent political. Arguably, no conflict in recent times has adhered to this concept more faithfully than China’s ongoing campaign to “reunite” Taiwan with the “Mainland.” While analysts have tended to focus on the threat which an increasingly powerful People’s Liberation Army (PLA) poses to the democratic island-nation, the political warfare component of Beijing’s “reunification” strategy has received much less attention, perhaps because cross-strait symposia on tea and culture are far less “newsworthy” than the latest missile boat or combat aircraft.

Given Beijing’s preference for “nonkinetic” solutions to the impasse (war would be costly and unpredictable), it makes perfect sense that its leadership would explore alternative means by which to win the war in the Taiwan Strait.Political warfare (or the “Three Warfares,” 三战), targeting both Taiwan and its supporters in the international community, is a favored instrument. There has been a growing number of interactions between Taiwan and China since 2008. And what with rapidly expanding cross-strait travel, academic exchanges and investment, the opportunities for China to engage in political warfare have increased exponentially.

Art and culture, benign as they may sound, are at the heart of China’s political-warfare strategy against Taiwan. But don’t be fooled by the innocuous façade provided by the cushy conference halls and beaming university students: Behind all this lies the PLA’s General Political Department Liaison Department (GPD/LD), “an interlocking directorate that operates at the nexus of politics, finance, military operations, and intelligence.”

Although the GPD/LD’s remit extends well beyond Taiwan, a large share of its resources is nevertheless committed to resolving the Taiwan “question” on terms that are favorable to Beijing.

China Declares War on Pollution

March 23, 2015 

The air in China is so bad that it is impossible to ignore. It is the first thing one notices upon landing in most Chinese cities when arriving from abroad. It determines whether or not people are willing to go outside. It is something that is monitored within the country as closely as the weather is in most other parts of the world. As a result, it is always on the minds of most people living in China. However, in recent days it has once more attracted an international audience due to two specific events.

First, an expose on the issue made by Chai Jing, a well-known Chinese reporter, went viral within the country. 

The film condemned the government for failing to protect the lives of its citizens, and generated a great deal of online discussion within China, so much so that it began to attract international media attention as well. It was titled “Under the Dome” in reference to Stephen King’s novel in which a small Maine town is entrapped by a mysterious, invisible structure that seals everyone and everything inside it. 

Such a name rather explicitly suggests then that China’s own “dome” is much less supernatural, and much more of a man-made creation, but is equally imprisoning to those who live under it. Not surprisingly, given the critical nature of the film, it was, after approximately one week, censored on China’s major Internet portals.

Second, at the end of this year’s just concluded National People’s Congress (China’s parliament) meetings, Premier Li Keqiang announced that his government would redouble its efforts to tackle the country’s environmental problems. Li’s statement contained an apology for not doing more, and a resolution to improve the situation in China. He want so far as to “declare war” on pollution.

How a Nice Kid From Minneapolis Ended Up a Jihadi ISIS Fighter in Syria

Scott Shane
March 22, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS — Reading back over Abdi Nur’s Twitter feed, his chilling progression from the basketball courts of South Minneapolis to the battlefields ofSyria is clear.

Early last year, he began posting stern religious pronouncements and snippets of scripture. By April 2, a day after turning 20, he hailed Islamic fighters: “If the sky would be proud of the existence of the stars, the land should be proud of the existence of the Mujahideen.”

On May 29, the day he disappeared, he posted, “I Thank Allah For Everything No Matter What!” Soon he was in Turkey, rebuffing his mother’s and sister’s anguished pleas to come home. In late July, he declared, “What A Beautiful Day in Raqqa,” the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria. Last Aug. 7, he posted a picture of himself online with his finger on the trigger of a Kalashnikov

Mr. Nur had become one of a small number of Americans enticed by the apocalyptic religious promise of the self-described Islamic State, which has seized large sections of Syria and Iraq and claims to be building a caliphate.

A slightly built man with an easy smile, he is a rare example of an American fighting for the terror group whose story can be pieced together from online postings, interviews and public records. His case suggests that the Islamic State may rely on recruiters inside the United States and shows how hard it is to predict who will be swept away by ideological fervor.

Mr. Nur was enrolled in community college outside Minneapolis and spoke of becoming a lawyer. Then he started visiting a new mosque and dressing in more traditional garb. He plotted his getaway with a friend, Abdullahi Yusuf, 18, but their fates starkly diverged. Mr. Yusuf was stopped as he tried to leave the country and is now in a Minneapolis halfway house, part of a closely watched experiment to spare him a long prison term and give him a role dissuading others attracted to terrorism.

Shifting Alliances: Afghan Shi’ites Now Linking Up With Taliban for Protection Against New ISIS Threat

March 22, 2015

Fearing Islamic State, Some Afghan Shi’ites Seek Help From Old Enemies

KABUL — Even by Afghanistan’s standards of often-shifting alliances, a recent meeting between ethnic Hazara elders and local commanders of the Taliban insurgents who have persecuted them for years was extraordinary.

The Hazaras – a largely Shi’ite minority killed in the thousands during the Taliban’s hard-line Sunni Islamist rule of the 1990s – came to their old enemies seeking protection against what they deemed an even greater threat: masked men operating in the area calling themselves “Daish”, a term for Islamic State in the region.

In a sign of changing times, the Taliban commanders agreed to help, said Abdul Khaliq Yaqubi, one of the elders at the meeting held in the eastern province of Ghazni.

The unusual pact is a window into deepening anxiety in Afghanistan over reports of Islamic State (IS) radicals gaining a foothold in a country already weary of more than a decade of war with the Taliban.

Back-to-back kidnappings within a month of two groups of Hazara travelers – by men widely rumored, though far from proven, to claim fealty to IS - have many spooked.

The current threat IS poses in Afghanistan, observers say, is less about real military might than the opportunity for disparate insurgent groups, including defectors from an increasingly fractured Taliban, to band together under this global “brand” that controls swathes of Iraq and Syria.

The fear is especially keen among religious minorities like the Hazaras, who worry the influence of the fiercely anti-Shi’ite IS could introduce a new dimension of sectarian strife to the war.

“Whether Daish exists or not, the psychological impact of it is very dangerous in Ghazni, which is home to all ethnicities,” Ghazni’s deputy governor Mohammad Ali Ahmadi told Reuters.

Boko Haram's Allegiance to ISIS Isn't Nearly as Scary As It Sounds


The Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram’s recent pledge of allegiance to ISIS has generated a wave of speculation about its significance.

ISIS’s response was to release an audio tape purporting to welcome the pledge. In the rest of the world, one dominant view is that ISIS and the jihadi front is spreading and becoming more organized, which, in turn, has spurred the U.S. government to consider expanding its military actions to include ISIS affiliates.

There are, however, good reasons not to read too much into the Boko Haram pledge. It is probable that it will have little or no real practical significance, beyond the initial public relations bump.
Boko Haram under pressure

The pledge of allegiance (Arabic: bayat) by Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau on March 7 was made in an audio message, in which the organization expresses its support for ISIS.

The announcement was hardly surprising; Boko Haram had been for some time praising ISIS’s actions. Also, the pledge comes at the time when Boko Haram is under much pressure. The recent coordinated offensive by the Chadian, Cameroonian, and Nigerian armies has taken its toll on the organization. The pledge could possibly be seen as an act of desperation.

It is, however, doubtful if the pledge will turn any tide, and it is unlikely that the announced cooperation between Boko Haram and ISIS would mean much—in practical terms—to either party.

‘Islamic State Hacking Division’ Posts Kill List With Purported Addresses of U.S. Military Members

Mar. 21, 2015

Calling for their beheadings, a self-proclaimed arm of the Islamic State published a list of addresses purportedly belonging to approximately 100 members of the U.S. military late Friday night.

Identifying themselves as the “Islamic State Hacking Division,” the group claimed to have obtained the personal information of military personnel from compromised military servers, databases and emails.



“[W]e have decided to leak 100 addresses so that our brothers residing in America can deal with you,” the group warned.

Rebels’ defiance could tip Yemen into civil war

By Ali al-Mujahed and Loveday Morris 
March 22 

Anti-Houthi demonstrations erupted in Taiz on Sunday, shortly after Houthi militants seized parts of Yemen’s third-largest city. (Facebook/Abdul Aziz Al Samie)

SANAA, Yemen — Shiite rebel forces captured new territory in Yemen on Sunday after a call to arms from their leaders, pressing south toward the headquarters of the country’s embattled president and pitching the country further toward sectarian war. 

Local officials said Houthi forces had seized the airport in the central city of Taiz, sparking concerns that they were planning a push toward Aden, the port city 120 miles further southwest, where President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has set up a rival governing authority after being driven out of the capital. 

After a week of escalating conflict, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting Sunday to address the crisis, which has resulted in the United States withdrawing its remaining military personnel from the impoverished country. 

The U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Jamal Benomar, warned at the meeting that events appear to be leading the country “to the edge of civil war” and urged all parties to step back from the brink and resolve the conflict peacefully, the Associated Press reported. 

Benomar stressed in a video briefing from Qatar that neither the Houthis nor their opponent, Yemen’s president, could realistically expect to establish control over the whole country. 

A militant loyal to Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi mans an anti-aircraft machine gun in al-Habilin, Yemen, on March 22. (Reuters) 

The Real Iran Threat (Hint: It's Not Nukes)

March 23, 2015 


Why is the national debate now swirling around a prospective nuclear deal with Iran entirely missing a key point? Because it is all but ignoring a huge proverbial elephant that is not in the room but should be: Iran’s nuclear missile programs. These are part and parcel of what makes the Islamic Republic’s growing nuclear weapons infrastructure so menacing. Ignoring Iranian missiles is nothing less than an original sin of omission in the Obama administration approach to trying to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions by negotiating a comprehensive grand bargain. Far from being a peripheral problem, this lapse represents a fundamental flaw that is likely to bedevil the viability of any agreement that emerges from these negotiations.

From Minneapolis to ISIS: An American’s Path to Jihad


MARCH 21, 2015 

Abdi Nur, right, posted a photo online from Syria. A friend, Abdullahi Yusuf, left, was stopped as he tried to depart. Top, an image of Western passports put up by a Twitter user who says she is an American with the Islamic State.

MINNEAPOLIS — Reading back over Abdi Nur’s Twitter feed, his chilling progression from the basketball courts of South Minneapolis to the battlefields of Syria is clear.

Early last year, he began posting stern religious pronouncements and snippets of scripture. By April 2, a day after turning 20, he hailed Islamic fighters: “If the sky would be proud of the existence of the stars, the land should be proud of the existence of the Mujahideen.”

On May 29, the day he disappeared, he posted, “I Thank Allah For Everything No Matter What!” Soon he was in Turkey, rebuffing his mother’s and sister’s anguished pleas to come home. In late July, he declared, “What A Beautiful Day in Raqqa,” the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria. Last Aug. 7, he posted a picture of himself online with his finger on the trigger of a Kalashnikov.

Mr. Nur had become one of a small number of Americans enticed by the apocalyptic religious promise of the self-described Islamic State, which has seized large sections of Syria and Iraq and claims to be building a caliphate.


A 50-page guide for Islamic State volunteers was distributed online in February, offering practical travel advice on what to pack, and more tailored counsel on how to avoid detection by the authorities.

Rebels’ defiance could tip Yemen into civil war

By Ali al-Mujahed and Loveday Morris 
March 22 

SANAA, Yemen — Shiite rebel forces captured new territory in Yemen on Sunday after a call to arms from their leaders, pressing south toward the headquarters of the country’s embattled president and pitching the country further toward sectarian war. 

Local officials said Houthi forces had seized the airport in the central city of Taiz, sparking concerns that they were planning a push toward Aden, the port city 120 miles further southwest, where President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has set up a rival governing authority after being driven out of the capital. 

After a week of escalating conflict, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting Sunday to address the crisis, which has resulted in the United States withdrawing its remaining military personnel from the impoverished country. 

The U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Jamal Benomar, warned at the meeting that events appear to be leading the country “to the edge of civil war” and urged all parties to step back from the brink and resolve the conflict peacefully, the Associated Press reported. 


Benomar stressed in a video briefing from Qatar that neither the Houthis nor their opponent, Yemen’s president, could realistically expect to establish control over the whole country. 

JORDANIAN SALAFISM AND THE JIHAD IN SYRIA – ANALYSIS

By Kirk H. Sowell

The conflict which erupted in Syria in 2011 began as an opening for Jordanian Salafists, but it has morphed into a challenging dilemma: caught between two competing Salafist-Jihadist movements in Syria and an increasingly tough crackdown at home, Jordanian Salafists wanting to support the jihad in Syria have been forced to weigh their words and actions carefully. In fact, due to geographical proximity and historical ties, Jordanian Salafists have made one of the largest manpower contributions to Syria’s sectarian war. Yet the Jordanian government’s increasingly tight rein on both the movement’s leaders and its rank-and-file has forced Salafists to trade rhetorical restraint for operational freedom. In turn, these rhetorical concessions threaten to alienate the Salafist youth from its leadership. Moreover, from the government’s point of view, the tacit entente by which Salafists are granted a margin of freedom in exchange for a guarantee of peace at home has always carried within it the danger of the pro-jihadist current growing.

Salafism is an Islamic movement whose contemporary form stems from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious establishment. Like Saudi Arabia, Jordan developed a pro-government Salafism referred to as “traditionalist Salafism.” In response, there arose in the 1990s a “Salafi-Jihadist current” (the Saudi equivalent became al-Qaeda and emigrated from the Gulf). The godfather of this current is a Palestinian known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who by the 1990s had emerged as a key intellectual architect of global jihadism. But even this radical wing split between Maqdisi and a faction led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who post-2003 transformed the faction into al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Maqdisi was Zarqawi’s mentor in the 1990s; the split within this wing continues, and was on global display during the drama over the captivity and filmed immolation of Jordanian airman Moaz al-Kassasbeh in early 2015.1

This study focuses on the impact of the “Arab Spring” – or “Salafi Spring” – and the subsequent rise of Salafi-Jihadism in Syria on Jordanian Salafi-Jihadism. The repression of Syria’s protest movement in 2011 gave birth to an armed insurgency which became ever more Islamist and Salafist over time. Simultaneously, Jordanian Salafists in 2011 focused their efforts at home on demands for Islamic law and the freeing of Salafist prisoners.

Northcom: Russian Cruise Missile Threat to U.S. Grows


March 20, 2015

Russia's KH-101 long-range cruise missile / National Air and Space Intelligence Center

Russia is developing a long-range cruise missile that poses a new threat to the United States, the commander of the U.S. Northern Command warned this week.

“Russia is progressing toward its goal of deploying long-range, conventionally-armed cruise missiles with ever increasing stand-off launch distances on its heavy bombers, submarines, and surface combatants, augmenting the Kremlin’s toolkit of flexible deterrent options short of the nuclear threshold,” Adm. William Gortney, Northcom chief who heads the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said Thursday.

“Should these trends continue, over time NORAD will face increased risk in our ability to defend North America against Russian cruise missile threats,” he said in prepared testimony to the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces.

A defense official said the missile that concerns the Northcom commander is the Russian KH-101 cruise missile which Russia has developed as a weapon to attack critical infrastructure in the United States, such as the electrical grid.

The comments highlight what defense officials and military analysts say is the growing threat of long-range cruise missiles.

Cruise missiles pose unique threats because they can defeat defenses by flying at low altitudes, avoiding radars, and hiding behind terrain. Some newer cruise missiles have radar-evading stealth features making them even less visible to radar or infrared detectors.

Now the US Air Force Wants to Replace A-10s With F-16s

March 20, 2015

Eventually, the U.S. Air Force wants to replace the low and slow-flying A-10 Warthog with the fast-moving F-35 stealth fighter. But it’ll take years before the troubled jet fighters are ready for duty.

In the meantime, the Air Force still needs a plane for dedicated close air support missions — something the A-10 excels at. So what does the flying branch propose? Not keeping the Warthog.

Instead, the Air Force wants to replace the Warthog with a modified F-16 fighter jet — an old concept that failed to live up to expectations decades ago. The F-16s would fill in temporarily until the F-35s can take over.

We have a hard time believing it — but yes, this is a serious proposal.

Air Force leaders pitched the plan during a March summit focused on how close air support missions—the complex and often dangerous air strikes that help out troops on the ground—would work in a world without the A-10.

The conclusion? With the Joint Strike Fighter not yet ready, and saving the Warthogs completely off the table, the only option is to have existing fighter jets do the A-10’s job.

“We want to take those [A-10] aviators, and have designated, predominantly close air support squadrons in F-15s and F-16s,” Gen. Herbert Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, told reporters after the gathering. “We will always do close air support.”

Northcom: Russian Cruise Missile Threat to U.S. Grows


March 20, 2015

U.S. defenses ‘over-matched’ for missile threats

Russia is developing a long-range cruise missile that poses a new threat to the United States, the commander of the U.S. Northern Command warned this week.

“Russia is progressing toward its goal of deploying long-range, conventionally-armed cruise missiles with ever increasing stand-off launch distances on its heavy bombers, submarines, and surface combatants, augmenting the Kremlin’s toolkit of flexible deterrent options short of the nuclear threshold,” Adm. William Gortney, Northcom chief who heads the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said Thursday.

“Should these trends continue, over time NORAD will face increased risk in our ability to defend North America against Russian cruise missile threats,” he said in prepared testimony to the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces.

A defense official said the missile that concerns the Northcom commander is the Russian KH-101 cruise missile which Russia has developed as a weapon to attack critical infrastructure in the United States, such as the electrical grid.

The comments highlight what defense officials and military analysts say is the growing threat of long-range cruise missiles.

Cruise missiles pose unique threats because they can defeat defenses by flying at low altitudes, avoiding radars, and hiding behind terrain. Some newer cruise missiles have radar-evading stealth features making them even less visible to radar or infrared detectors.

The low-flying missiles also can overwhelm defenses by attacking with multiple missiles coming from different directions and defeating air defenses at their weakest points. They also can fly circuitous routes to reach targets, avoiding radar and air defenses.

Russia Targets NATO With Military Exercises

MARCH 19, 2015 

Russian military exercises, the latest in a series across the country, have taken on a threatening posture. While the most recent installment is not the largest exercise Russia has conducted, the areas involved and the forces included seem to have been deliberately chosen to send a warning to NATO; the exercise itself seems to simulate a full-scale confrontation with NATO through the forward deployment of nuclear armed submarines, theater ballistic missiles and strategic bomber aircraft. Strategic weapon systems, including assets that are part of Russia's nuclear capabilities, have also been deployed to locations near NATO's borders.
Analysis

According to Russian statements, the snap exercise, which was not announced before it began March 16, will last five days and will involve some 45,000 servicemen, around 3,000 vehicles, more than 40 surface vessels, 15 submarines and 110 aircraft. The more notable systems involved are the Iskander mobile theater ballistic missiles and fighter aircraft that are being deployed to Kaliningrad, Tu-22M3 long-range strategic bombers that are being deployed to Crimea, and ballistic missile submarines that have been sent to sea with protective escorts.

The initial statement on the exercise focused on the role of the Northern Fleet, saying the main purpose of the drill was to test deployment times to Russian positions in Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land. Russia has increased its military presence in the Arctic, and the exercise highlights Russia's plans for the Arctic region. This part of the drill seems to be playing out in a rather straightforward way: Russian forces are being airlifted to Russia's Arctic bases and several naval exercises are taking place, including anti-submarine operations and mine sweeping procedures that typically precede the snap sorties of nuclear armed submarines in times of crises.

However, though the stated focus of the exercises is in the Arctic, operations have expanded to include military activities along the Finnish border, the deployment of strategic weapons systems to Kaliningrad and Crimea, and positions across the Baltic Fleet, Black Sea Fleet, and in the western and southern military districts. This combination lifts the exercise beyond a simple deployment of ground forces and naval exercises in the Arctic and forms a nuclear narrative.