The bottom line is clear: Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them. On the contrary, waging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarreling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems. -- Afghanistan Study Group

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Update for Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Advance toward Mosul continues to be slowed by IS resistance. Iraqi forces to the south are currently fighting in the Shora region, 20 miles from the city. UN agencies say that so far 10,600 civilians have fled the fighting.

Shiite militia forces are expected to join the battle soon, specifically to take the Turkmen town of Tal Afar. Turkish Foreign Minister warns that Turkey will be watching the situation closely.

Pointing to the threat of Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella group of pro-government Shia militias, Cavusoglu said in addition to the expected attack on Mosul, the militia is also targeting largely Sunni areas. Cavusoglu underlined that Turkey will "take all precautionary measures allowed by international law" if anything in Tal Afar threatens Turkey’s security. Cavusoglu also warned that Turkey "will not be insensitive" if the Turkmens of Tal Afar are attacked.

Meanwhile, peshmerga forces are continuing to make slow progress in the Bashiqa area.

Xinhua reports on advances in various areas.

Reuters reports on the U.S. "high mobility artillery rocket system" in Qayyara, which has been attacking targets in Mosul continuously. The system has a range of 70 miles.

Tallha Abdulrazaq discusses the future of IS after it loses control of territory. Like many observers, he is concerned about the poor prospects for a political settlement that will deprive the group of oxygen.

In Afghanistan, 26 civilians are massacred in the remote province of Ghor,but there are conflicting accounts about who is responsible and the motive. Some stories have called the perpetrators Taliban, but most accounts now call them IS. The motive may have been revenge for the killing of an IS commander, or a dispute over stolen sheep. Some accounts portray this as an ethnic conflict.

This is one of those stories where the focus on a single individual draws attention to a much wider issue which has been ignored. Sharbat Gula, the subject of a famous National Geographic photograph is an Afghan refugee who has been living in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities have arrested her for obtaining a fake ID, and she is subject to prison time. (I expect they will just expel her.) Pakistan has been engaged in mass deportation of Afghan refugees, putting great stress on humanitarian agencies.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Update for Monday, Oct. 24, 2016

U.S. military spokespeople say U.S.-led coalition has launched more air strikes in the past week than at any time in the battle against IS, in support of the assault on Mosul. U.S. claims to have used 1,776 (sic) items of ordnance including bombs, rockets and artillery shells, and to have killed hundreds of IS fighters and destroyed large amounts of equipment and defenses.

Turkey insists on joining the offensive over the objections of Baghdad. This is really a question of Iraqi sovereignty in Kurdistan. Despite Ankara's conflict with the PKK and Kurdish parties in Syria, it has reached an accommodation with the Kurdish Regional Government in Irbil and appears ready to support the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. In return, the KRG has repudiated Kurdish parties that have designs on Turkish territory. Turkey of course wants to have influence in Kurdistan and allying with the peshmerga in the assault on Mosul helps to seal the relationship. Of course if the KRG honored Iraqi sovereignty in its territory, this could not happen.

Iraqi forces make gains in Christian towns southeast of Mosul.

Here's the story of two Christian towns recaptured by Iraqi forces.

Peshmerga repel a counterattack in Sinjar.

IS also counterattacks in Rutba in Anbar.

The Economist discusses IS ideology and looks toward potential positive outcomes from the collapse of the self-proclaimed Caliphate.

However, many observers argue that failure to achieve political resolution and stability in Iraq following the conquest of Mosul will allow the IS to continue to operate as a guerrilla organization and lead to continual turmoil.

Renad Mansour discusses these prospects for CNN.

Middle East Eye gives an overview of the state of battle. Iraqi forces are said to be within 5 km of the city.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Update for Saturday, October 22, 2016

IS assault on Kirkuk ends with 48 attackers dead. Fourteen civilians were also killed -- 13 workers at a power plant including 4 Iranians, and one reporter killed by a sniper. Twenty nine members of the Iraqi security forces were also killed. Some of the attackers may still be at large.

The attackers are said to have entered Kirkuk through a gap between Kurdish and Shiite militia lines.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is in Iraq, to meet with Iraqi officials and his commanders. This Time story discusses the current military situation in some detail.

Iraqi forces capture the center of Hamdaniyah, 20 kilometers from Mosul, though resistance continues in the area. The town is said to be largely deserted.

After meeting with Ashton Carter, PM Abadi declines an offer of Turkish help in the battle for Mosul.

IS blows up a sulphur plant near Qayyara. The resulting fumes kill 2 civilians and force U.S. personnel at the base to wear respiratory protection.

For unexplained reasons, IS has destroyed Mosul's largest hotel.

Also for unexplained reasons, IS is said to have murdered 284 of the civilians captured to serve as human shields.

AP blog reports on death of a journalist by sniper fire; unsuccessful attack on a convoy near Bartella, other recent developments.

U.S. fatality from Thursday is identified as Chief Petty Officer Jason C. Finan, 34, of Anaheim, California, assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit Three.

In Afghanistan, as low-level fighting continues around the country, a Taliban delegation is in Pakistan to discuss possible resumption of peace talks, following previously undisclosed talks with Afghan and U.S. diplomats in Qatar.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Update for Thursday, October 20, 2016

Iraqi and Kurdish forces launch separate offensives, with Iraqi special forces advancing from the south to Bartella and peshmerga forces advancing from the northeast near Bashiqa. Booby traps, suicide car bomb attacks, and dug in IS troops continue to slow progress but PM Abadi says progress is faster than expected.

Conditions in the city of Mosul are growing desperate and it is impossible for civilians to flee.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on the phone from inside Mosul, Abu Yazan, 36, who didn't want his real name used fearing reprisals from the group also known as ISIS, said fleeing the city was "not possible" at this stage. "There is no way out for us as families. Even if we think about fleeing the city, that is not possible at the time being. We are being held hostages; ISIL took the whole city of Mosul as hostage," said the father of three children.
IS commanders are reported to be fleeing the city.

French president Hollande appears to confirm this  and is concerned that IS fighters are escaping to Raqqa. He makes his remarks at a meeting in Paris of members of the U.S.-led coalition to discuss plans for stabilization after Mosul is recaptured.

However IS claims that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will remain in Mosul after a failed coup attempt. There are conflicting reports that he has already fled, but Iraqi deputy PM Hoshyar Zebari says he is indeed still there.

Enslaved Yazidi women are said to have been moved from Mosul to Raqqa.

Update: U.S. service member killed by roadside bomb in northern Iraq "near Mosul." No further information as of now.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Update for Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Some 5,000 people have fled from the Mosul area to al-Hol camp in Syria in recent days, where Save the Children says conditions are appalling and the facility is unprepared to receive more refugees. The camp is "littered with waste and faeces, with a looming risk of outbreaks of disease". It said there are just 16 toilets shared by more than 9,000 people, many of whom only have access to dirty, untreated water.

Iraqi and Kurdish authorities set up a camp with 5,000 tents near Mosul. This will not be enough to receive the expected number of refugees, however.

The advance on Mosul is slowed by harrying tactics by IS defenders using suicide truck bombs. Often, as in the battle described here, they are destroyed by tank fire before they can be effective. However, defenders hang on with mortar and rifle fire.

Tribune News Services describes the military situation more generally. Despite the resistance, the far superior weaponry of the attacking forces, notably tanks, along with air support, makes slow but continual progress inevitable. This report also notes that Shiite militias have pledged only to capture Tal Afar, and not to enter Mosul.

Nevertheless Dexter Filkins is very concerned about the participation of Shiite militias in the operation,

Peshmerga forces have stopped their advance to consolidate their positions. They fight off a counterattack near Sinjar.

Here is a description of a battle in Bojwana village to the south of the city.

Iraqi armor is now said to be 3 or 4 miles from the city. This CNN story mentions several engagements.

Ibrahim al-Marashi looks forward to the aftermath of the fight for Mosul.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will face the daunting challenges of governing a post-ISIL Iraq and post-conflict security issues: first, the reintegration of territory and populations that were under ISIL control; second, agreeing to Iraq's internal borders with the Kurds; and third, presiding over a fragmented, sectarian state to deal with the aforementioned issues. This is one of the few occasions where I find myself arguing for American interference in domestic Iraqi affairs.

Update: An assailant wearing an Afghan army uniform kills a U.S. service member and a U.S. civilian at a U.S. base in Kabul. An additional service member and 2 additional civilians were injured. The assailant was killed. More information when it becomes available.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Update for Monday, October 17, 2016

Iraqi PM Haider Al-Abadi announces the beginning of the offensive to retake Mosul. Thirty-thousand Iraqi government and allied forces, including Kurdish peshmerga and Arab militias, are taking part in the offensive to re-take the city from an estimated 4-8,000 IS fighters. Up to 1.5 million civilians are believed still to be in the city.

The U.S. Department of Defense announces U.S. participation through Operation Inherent Resolve. The OIR coalition will provide "air support, artillery, intelligence, advisors and forward air controllers," Townsend said in the statement, adding that the supporting forces "will continue to use precision to accurately attack the enemy and to minimize any impact on innocent civilians."

Peshmerga forces are advancing from the northeast and claim to have taken 5 villages.

Washington Post reporters dispatch from Khazir, from which the Kurdish offensive has been launched.

DPA reports on the Iraqi push from Qayyara to the south as well as giving some details on peshmerga progress.

The UN lacks resources to adequately deal with the expected flood of displaced people. Civilians lack safe escape routes. (The second link is to an AP blog, which has frequent updates.)

BBC coverage includes some helpful maps and tactical discussion.

Time provides background coverage on the city and its significance.

(I will provide frequent updates as developments warrant.)

Update: The Guardian discusses the role of U.S. special forces acting as "Joint terminal air controllers," that is troops near the front lines who act as spotters for air strikes. The article discusses some specific targets hit by U.S. aircraft as the offensive began.