According to the United Nations, civilian causalities from fighting in 2016 in Afghanistan hit their highest level since the organization began systematically gathering such information eight years ago.
A report released on 6 February by the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan reported that civilian causalities in the conflict between government forces and insurgents went up by 3% from 2015 and included 3,498 dead and 7,920 wounded. The report disclosed that the increase of causalities amongst children was 24%, with 923 deaths and 2,589 wounded. The report went on to say that antigovernment elements, mainly the Taliban, were responsible of 61% of the civilian causalities in 2016, while government forces were to blame for 20% and pro-government armed groups and international military forces, 2% each. According to the report, the remainder could not be attributed to any side or were caused by unexploded ordnance. The Taliban, which has been fighting the central government since 2001, called the UN findings biased, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid stating “the Kabul government and the invading forces are the cause of the civilian causalities. Javid Faisal, an Afghan government spokesman, meanwhile blamed the militants for most of the causalities, adding that the government has taken many measures to avoid civilian causalities.
Most foreign troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ended its combat mission in support of the Kabul government at the end of 2014. However since then, the security situation in the country has deteriorated significantly, particularly in provinces where the country’s largest insurgency, the Taliban, have attacked more densely populated communities.
On 23 November 2016, NATO announced that it has ended Operation Ocean Shield after a sharp decline in attacks by Somali pirates. While there has been no vessel hijacked off Somalia since May 2012, the threat of piracy remains high despite no major incidents reported. This is due to the fact that pirate action group’s (PAGs) operating in the region continue to maintain the capability and drive to launch attacks in a bid to successfully hijack a merchant vessel.
MS Risk advises all vessels transiting this region to remain aware that while NATO has ended its operations in the area, the threat remains high and continued vigilance and compliance with BMP4 procedures is necessary. The threat remains high in waters off the southern Red Sea/Bab el Mandeb, Gulf of Aden – including Yemen and the northern Somali Coast – Arabian Sea/Off Oman, the Gulf of Oman and off the eastern and southern Somali coast. In the past, incidents of vessels being attacked have been recorded in waters off Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Seychelles and Tanzania, as well as in the Indian Ocean and off the western and southern coasts of India and western Maldives. We advise that all vessels continue to maintain a 24-hour visual and radar watch. We further remind all Masters that fishermen operating in this region may try to protect their nets by attempting to aggressively approach merchant ships. Some fishermen may be armed and should no be confused with pirates.
MS Risk further advise merchant vessels transiting the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden to also operate under a heightened state of alert due to increasing tensions in the region, which can escalate the potential for direct or collateral damage to ships transiting this area. We advise that all vessels transiting this region should report any incidents or suspicious activity immediately. The threat may come from a number of different sources including missiles, projectiles or waterborne improvised explosive devices. Houthi rebels have claimed responsibly for the 1 October 2016 attack on a UAE vessel.
All ships and patrol aircraft under NATO Operation Ocean Shield have now left the area off the Horn of Africa. The Royal Danish Air Force carried out the last Indian Ocean surveillance missions for NATO, with the commander of the Danish air force detachment disclosing that NATO can resume its anti-piracy efforts at any time – whether in the Somali basin or the Atlantic Ocean.
Ships and patrol aircraft operating under the mission had been patrolling waters in this region since 2009 as part of a broader international effort to crackdown on Somali-based pirates who were impacting world shipping. The Ocean Shield operation, as well as European Union (EU) counter-piracy mission, have significantly reduced attacks, with the last reported vessel hijacking off Somalia occurring in May 2012 – down from more than thirty ships at the peak in 2010 – 2011.
NATO is now shifting its resources towards deterring Russia in the Black Sea and people smugglers in the Mediterranean. Earlier this month, NATO broadened its operations in the Mediterranean Sea in a bid to help the EU stop criminals trafficking refugees from North Africa.
This year, American air strikes in Afghanistan have already significantly surpassed the total number of strikes that were carried out last year, in what is a stark indicator of the United States’ struggle to extricate itself from the conflict and to stick to its declared “non-combat” mission.
According to US military officials, between 1 January and 20 October this year, American warplanes conducted around 700 air strikes compared to about 500 in total carried out last year. Furthermore, about 240 were under rules that were approved by President Barack Obama in June, which effectively allowed US forces to more actively support Afghan troops during strategic combat operations. Also a similar number were conducted against “counter terrorism” targets, including about fifty against al-Qaeda and 190 against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. Other air strikes can be conducted in defense of US and international military advisors, as well as some Afghan troops. American air strikes have been credited with helping to prevent Taliban forces from completely overrunning cities like Lashkar Gah, the capital of embattled Helmand province. However despite the air strikes, militants continue to contest or control as much as a third of the country.
This rise in strikes signals a deeper role for American forces that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. While ending US involvement in Afghanistan was one of President Obama’s signature promises, with him going on to declare the combat mission over at the end of 2014, in the last year of his presidency, however, rising violence has led President Obama to keep more US forces in the fight, both to target a growing IS presence, but also to back up Afghan troops who have been struggling to combat IS and Taliban militants. This year, top American military commanders in Afghanistan successfully pressed the president to reverse an earlier restriction on the use of air strikes, therefore clearing the way for a rise in attacks on IS and Taliban targets.
In a statement, US military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland disclosed that “the increase in strikes is due to the additional authorities US forces received and due to the Afghan change in strategy to offensive operations.” The statement goes on to say that “the new authorities have allowed the US to be more proactive and deliberate in supporting this year’s Afghan offensive operations and in aggressively targeting (Islamic State).”
With no end in sight for one of America’s longest wars, any decisions on the future of the I strikes, and the nearly 9,000 US troops who will remain in Afghanistan, will be up to the winner of the 8 November American presidential election. In a report release in October outlining challenges for the next president, a dozen former US military commanders and ambassadors to Afghanistan wrote that “it will be important to ask if the relaxation of rules of engagement that President Obama provided to American/NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2016 should go further, allowing even more substantial use of their air power against the Taliban.”
On 13 July, French diplomatic missions in Turkey’s two main cities closed until further notice and cancelled planned events to mark France’s 14 July National Day due to security concerns.
The French consulate general in Istanbul had been due to hold a reception on Wednesday evening to mark national Day, while French mission in Ankara and the Aegean coastal city of Izmir had planned to hold events on Thursday. However on Wednesday, a statement issued by the French Embassy in Ankara disclosed that “for security reasons, July 14th receptions planned in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir are cancelled,” adding that it had informed the Turkish authorities of the decision and was in close contact with them. The statement also indicated that “the embassy of France in Ankara, as well as the consulate general in Istanbul will be closed from Wednesday July 13, 1 PM (1100 BST), until further notice.” Earlier in the day, the consulate general in Istanbul indicated that there was information suggesting a “serious threat against plans for the celebration of the July 14 national holiday in Turkey.”
Turkey is facing multiple threats, including from militants belonging to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, who have been blamed for a triple suicide bombing at Istanbul’s main airport several weeks ago, which killed 45 people and wounded hundreds. The attack was the deadliest in a series of bombings that have occurred this year in the NATO member state.
The last year certainly seen an increase of military activity in Eastern Europe. Both Russian military exercises, and joint NATO military exercises have been carried out in different places. On top of exercises, NATO continues to boost its military bases and troop presence in the eastern allies. The latest such addition is a new deployment of four battalions of 4,000 troops in Poland and the three Baltic States. From the Russian perspective the NATO build-up is an aggression in itself, something Moscow officials are not too happy about. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has explained that Russian manoeuvres are only close to NATO borders because NATO has let its border creep closer and closer to Russia. Previously Russia has accused NATO of using the situation in Ukraine as an excuse to move closer to Russian borders. From the US perspective, additional presence will increase US ability to conduct military exercises in the region. The Pentagon has announced plans to quadruple its budget for European defence in 2017. Russian aggression isn’t increasing in Easter Europe alone, but the Baltic Sea has seen a fair share of it as well. Russia’s more direct neighbours, the Nordic countries of Sweden and Finland, are concerned about what recent developments mean for their security. This has, among other things, led the Swedish military to revive an old military outpost on the Baltic island of Gotland, where a battlegroup is to be fully set up by the end of 2017. The Baltic Sea tension doesn’t necessarily mean a return to Cold War realities, but it causes a certain nervous atmosphere. Sweden and Finland are not member states of NATO, but debates have been going on in both countries, with Russia behaving in an increasingly aggressive and provocative manner. The Swedish defence minister is concerned with what is unknown. It is one thing to see what the Russians are doing, and quite another to know what it all means. An unprovoked attack on Sweden is certainly unlikely, but Moscow seems increasingly unpredictable. This has prompted a larger defence budget and a shift of focus to regional security after 20 year of focus on international operations. It has also fuelled the debate about NATO membership. According to polls, almost half the population favour a membership, with a slightly smaller number being opposed. The military’s ability to defend Swedish territory has been poor for a long time, but the Swedes have seemingly not cared too much about this, until recently. For Sweden it is a question of whether the long tradition of non-alliance can be set aside, and whether or not the alternative is better. It is the opinion of many that the country has been free-riding for too long, feeling safe because of its close cooperation with NATO, but feeling free without its obligations. If the Swedes are fed up of letting the security of Swedish territory depend on other states’ ability to deter the Russians, perhaps a NATO membership will be realised. Military chiefs are still embarrassed by the 2013 Easter incident, when Russian planes carried out a simulated attack on Stockholm, and the Swedish air force failed to scramble any of its jets, relying on jets from NATO’s quick reaction alert, deployed from Lithuania. In Finland, pressure to join NATO or find other ways of securing the nation’s borders has grown over the past several years, but recent polls show that roughly half the population would be opposed to the country joining NATO, with just 22 percent saying they would support it. Russia has made claims over the waters in the region, and last year they finalised the set-up of a military base in the Arctic. However, Finland has not been attacked by its neighbour since WWII, and both political and trade relations between the two have long been stable and prosperous. NATO has remained open to the idea of Finnish membership, but Helsinki has been reluctant, and has contented itself with close cooperation with the alliance, bearing in mind though that if Sweden was to join it would leave Finland even more exposed. However, the other way around – Finland alone joining, but Sweden staying out – would create an awkward situation, leaving Finland as a strategic outpost without territorial contact with NATO, experts have said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned Sweden in an interview with Swedish media, that technical-military measures will be deployed as a reaction, should any military infrastructure draw too close to Russia’s borders. Finland and Sweden must be ready to apply for NATO membership should it be absolutely necessary. For now there is a promise between the two to not surprise one another with a sudden membership. A membership would be a provocation. The question is whether the advantages of a membership could outweigh the negative aspects of such a risk.