Ghazni: a wake-up call for the United States in Afghanistan

Ghazni and what's next; China's military modernization; Mahathir's maneuvers

The Big One.

Ghazni and the future of the Afghan battlefield.

The Ghazni battle: A need for serious answersIn August, the Afghan Taliban staged a devastating offensive against the Afghan city of Ghazni, which is located on the strategic highway connecting the country's capital, Kabul, and second-largest city, Kandahar. The offensive was not only a massive intelligence failure on the part of Afghan government authorities, but underlined just how much of a threat the Taliban continue to pose. For observers tracking the development of Afghan security since the end of U.S. combat operations officially in 2014, the sights coming out of Ghazni were familiar. In 2015 and 2016, the cities of Kunduz and Lashkar Gah respectively faced similar threats.

Today, the Taliban control more than half of Afghan territory as the U.S.-backed government struggles to maintain its position. For the United States, the Trump administration's August 2017 strategy to simply keep killing terrorists until a solution appears from the ether is doomed to failure. The best-case outcome appears to be a stalemate today. 

Ghazni leaves us with a few key takeaways about the future security environment in Afghanistan: 

  • The Taliban don't actually intend to exercise control over Afghan cities just yet; these offensives since 2015 are designed to overstretch and demoralize Afghan forces.

  • Even with an expanded U.S. presence in Afghanistan spurred by the Trump administration, repeated Afghan intelligence failures will keep causing these kinds of crises in the field.

  • That said, the United States continues to make a difference on the battlefield, with close air support in particular.

  • The Taliban continue to be a potent force. If there was any doubt that the so-called leadership crisis of 2015 after Mullah Omar's death became apparent would lead to the group's downfall, that should be done away with now.

  • The Afghan government's latest ceasefire proposal for the Taliban is likely to fall flat in the aftermath of Ghazni.

  • Bottom Line: Afghanistan continues to remain precarious as a recent Taliban assault on Ghazni underlines. The Trump administration's recalibration of Obama-era strategy does not appear to have made a difference on the ground.

Northeast Asia. 

Taiwan's had a rough couple of years. August 2018 has been particularly tough. Despite President Tsai Ing-wen's positive trip to the United States—a visit that resulted in her becoming the first sitting Taiwnese president in the post-1979 era to enter a U.S. federal building—China has continued its campaign to isolate Taipei.

Shortly after Tsai departed NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas, El Salvadar announced that it had decided to recognize the People's Republic of China, ending its decades-long diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. El Salvador became the third country this year to break off ties after Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic. (Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, and the Dominican Republic also recently broke ties with Taiwan.) 

Taiwan has refused to submit quietly, with the presidential office declaring China "out of control" with the recent move to pluck El Salvador out of Taipei's orbit. But, aside from the continued support of the United States, Taiwan has no real ace up its sleeve to counter China's attempts at isolating it.

Bottom Line: The so-called "diplomatic truce" that was in place across the Taiwan strait during the presidency of the Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou has been completely done away with since the 2016 election in Taiwan. Taiwan's isolation continues to grow. (Also, keep an eye on eSwatini, Taiwan’s last African ally and possibly the next country to abandon it; China is working to flip them before the Africa-focused summit in China this year.)

Don't Miss It: The longstanding governor of Okinawa prefecture in Japan passed away this month. The Diplomat's Mina Pollmann takes a closer look at the future of Okinawa politics and, in particular, the role of U.S. bases on the island in local politics.

South Asia.

In August 2018, the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, has been besieged by widespread student protests demanding road safety regulations even as the government cracks down on the political opposition. Aparupa Bhattacherjee takes a closer look at the drivers of the protests, including long-lingering frustrations in the country. 

…the August student protest was not just like any other student protest that Dhaka has witnessed over the years. The protesters were comprised of high school and college students, parents of school-age students, and also some teachers and principals. Youth are known to be fearless, but when school students join a protest alongside their parents and members of their school administration it speaks volumes about the protest. Parents and school administrators allowing their children and students to participate in a protest knowing the danger and its consequences says a lot about society. The protest might have been triggered by a tragic accident but the real cause is the frustration and lack of hope that society, in general, has regarding the government and its institutions. Therefore, the Dhaka protest is a perfect example of what a society can do when the state fails them.

The protests have died down as of this writing, but they're a reminder for the Bangladeshi government that the country's urban youth are seeking development, change, and, above all, policymaker attention. Bangladeshi lawmakers have turned their attention to a new Road Transport Act in the wake of the protests, but there's few are betting on change. 

Bottom Line: Bangladesh's urban youth are demanding change.

Don’t Miss It: Prashanth Parameswaran and I discuss new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's priorities and challenges in the latest edition of the podcast. Listen here.

Southeast Asia.

I'd discussed Mahathir Mohamad's return a few issues ago and it's worth taking stock of where Malaysia has come under his guidance this summer. The 93-year-old, back as prime minister after leading Malaysia for a little more than two decades, is the world's oldest sitting head of government and has moved to prosecute his predecessor, Najib Razak.

At The Diplomat, Ed Ratcliffe takes stock of Mahathir's first 100 days in his new term, noting that the ongoing corruption crackdown in Malaysia has challenges ahead. On foreign policy, Mahathir appears to be pursuing a rebalancing. He has chosen to review existing deals with China, engage neighbor Indonesia, and even recalibrated Kuala Lumpur’s association with extraregional partners, like Saudi Arabia.

Image result for mahathirIn a trip to China, Mahathir warned of a "new version of colonialism," taking what is perhaps the most pointed swipe at Chinese overseas investment practices by any Southeast Asian leader recently.

Bottom Line: Malaysia's bold foreign policy recalibration continues.

Don't Miss It: The United States and Brunei held their first-ever army exercise this month. The Diplomat's Prashanth Parameswaran dives deeper on the cooperation here. Note that Brunei is a claimant in the South China Sea disputes.

Central Asia.

There's big news in Central Asia as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are making up. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon paid a historic visit to Tashkent, where he was received by the country's reformist president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The Diplomat's Paolo Sorbello recounts the visit, including its limitations:

The meeting, however, failed to address some of the most thorny issues that still keep both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan at a crossroads. Water resources management, border delimitation, and the political feasibility of the Rogun dam and hydroelectric plant near Dushanbe are still open questions. Plans to lure Uzbekistan to partly pay for the construction of Rogun were not addressed at the meeting, thus leaving the question of the funding of this megaproject unanswered. The small-scale agreements on the joint construction of two hydroelectric stations along the Zarafshan River could be considered a timid hint that the parties are preparing for deeper cooperation on water management.

The Diplomat's Umida Hashimova reminds us that the visit succeeded Mirziyoyev's trip to Dushanbe earlier this year, when he underlined that he was “coming to Tajikistan with open borders and open heart.” In this context, Katie Putz's original preview of the prospects for Tajik-Uzbek rapprochement is worth revisiting:

It’s all part and parcel of Mirizyoyev’s larger regional vision. Mirziyoyev saved Tajikistan for last. The hurdles to reach Dushanbe and, importantly, be able to come away with the kinds of agreements the region is yearning for were higher than for any of the country’s other neighbors. 

Bottom Line: Rapprochement between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan appears to be sticking this time around. Both countries can be expected to reap the dividends.

Oceania.

Australia's Liberal Party just wrapped up an internal leadership spill—resulting in Malcolm Turnbull, the country’s now former prime minister, resolving to leave politics. Turnbull’s successor will be Scott Morrison, the country’s treasurer who took a Liberal Party internal ballot 45-40 over the more right-wing Peter Dutton. The Diplomat's Anthony Fensom offers context on what led to the remarkable tumult, which hearkens back to the dramatic leadership spill that outed former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in late-2015. Turnbull, in fact, is the fourth Australian prime minister to be ousted in this way in just a decade.

This all raises questions for Australia's foreign policy—particularly in its immediate region. 

Aaron Connelly@ConnellyAL

News of Turnbull’s departure will disappoint Southeast Asian leaders, who had come to appreciate his drive to engage the region through summitry and low-key diplomacy, and his principled stand on the South China Sea.

August 23, 2018
Bottom Line: A dramatic leadership spill in Australia has captured regional attention. Scott Morrison, the next prime minister, will have his work cut out in terms of ensuring continuity in Australia’s regional policies.

Asian Defense. 

After a few months delay, the U.S. Department of Defense's 2018 report on Chinese military power is out. I'd long awaited this release and it didn't disappoint. The bulk of the focus continues to be on the development of Chinese conventional forces and, in particular, Beijing's continued pursuit of an increasingly expeditionary navy. I take a closer look at the report over at The Diplomat, but a few top-level highlights below:  

  • The People's Liberation Army Air Force officially has a nuclear mission again. This hasn't been true for decades; the PLAAF's strategic bombers once operated nuclear gravity bombs, but now, they may have deployed again with nuclear-capable cruise missiles.

  • The DF-41, China's biggest and baddest intercontinental-range ballistic missile, is likely exploring new basing modes, including silo-basing and rail-mobile basing. (Bonus: Over at ArmsControlWonk.com, Catherine Dill finds a possible DF-41 test silo at the Wuzhai launch site.)

  • China continues to push ahead with indigenous hit-to-kill midcourse ballistic missile defense.

  • Chinese bombers—both with the Navy and the PLAAF—continue to increase their operational range toward the second island chain.

Bottom Line: Chinese military modernization continues in full-swing, with a few particularly interesting recent developments in the nuclear realm.

In Can You Missed It: Russia is readying up to recover a nuclear-powered cruise missile in the Barents Sea. Check out the details here

Extras.

North Korea is gearing up for a major military parade to celebrate its 70th founding anniversary. Our friends at NKNews have more.

Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at either ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.