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Don't Hold Your Breath for a Ceasefire in Ukraine

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Afghanistan: On 8 December, the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command (IJC) ceremonially ended its combat mission in Afghanistan. A military ceremony in Kabul marked the end of the 13-year NATO and Allied forces war against the Taliban and other anti-government groups.


During the ceremony, ISAF Commander US General John F. Campbell said, "Today, IJC will be subsumed into a coalition that is soon downsizing to about 13,000 personnel….This is a historic transformation and reflects the progress that our coalition has made with our Afghan partners.."

As approved by NATO foreign ministers and representatives of allied nations in Brussels last week, the new mission -- Operation Resolute Support -- will begin from 1 January 2015.

Comment: As of 1 December, 13,300 Coalition soldiers remain in Afghanistan. A US general said in an interview just before his departure that America's war here could not go on forever.

Taliban attack. A Taliban suicide bomber, who was dressed in a police uniform, detonated a car filled with explosives at the main gate of a police compound in Maiwand District of Kandahar Province. A policeman and four civilians died from the explosion. Four heavily armed gunmen then forced their way inside. The fighting lasted for two hours, before security forces killed the attackers.

Comment: In 2010 and 2011 Maiwand District was the third most violent district in Kandahar Province. Allied surge forces eventually cleared it and other districts around Kandahar, but Afghan forces have been unable to keep the Taliban out. The attack indicates the Taiban have returned and have a sufficient local support base for conducting bomb making and bomb attacks.


An Afghan political analyst remarked, "I don't think the war will slow or stop during the winter, as attacks on cities are not contingent on the weather…I believe attacks in the cities will increase -- they attract media attention." They also demoralize city dwellers and weaken their support for the government because of its inability to guarantee their safety.

Historically, the Taliban reduced operations in winter, producing a lull. At no time did attacks cease, but they declined, depending on the severity of the winter weather in different parts of the country. A steady number of attacks in the cities this winter would be an important measure of the resilience of Afghan forces and of Taliban progress in shifting their operations out of the countryside.

Iran-Iraq: On 7 December the Iraqi Air Forces Command denied that Iranian fighter jets violated Iraqi airspace and struck positions inside Iraq. On the 7th, an unidentified source in the Iranian Foreign Ministry denied that Iranian aircraft had targeted positions in the "Islamic State."

Comment: The two supposed denials do not contradict the statement by the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister who said Iran and Iranian combat aircraft responded to requests from Iraq. Additionally, the targets Iranian aircraft are believed to have attacked are located in eastern Iraq, rather than in the area claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).


Ukraine: Policy. The leadership of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) said today that it welcomes the Ukrainian law that confers a special status for Donbass (the Donbass Basis is the coal mining and industrial region of eastern Ukraine) but does not see prospects for a political union with Ukraine.

"Of course, if Kyiv returns to discussing the issue of a special status of Donbass, we will certainly welcome this, a step of this kind would be perceived as a call for a dialogue. However, there could be no talk about a political union with Ukraine in a federative or any other form," the chairman of the People's Council of the DPR, Andriy Purhin (Andrey Purgin, in Russian), told the press on 8 December.

Comment: Purhin/Purgin's remark exposes the diverging goals of talks between the Ukrainian government and the breakaway regions. In talks, Ukrainian negotiators are trying to prevent a permanent rupture with Donetsk and Luhansk. The Kyiv government also refuses to accept the loss of Crimea.

The Donetsk separatists are adamant that political union with Kyiv is in the past. The Luhansk separatists appear to be somewhat vaguer about future political ties to Kyiv with whom they have held recent talks. On the other hand, relations with Russia seem much clearer. They recently announced their intention to restore rail connections with Russia.

Fighting. Shelling continued at the Donetsk airport, but Ukraine's Defense Minister announced that 9 December would be a day of silence for Ukrainian forces.


Negotiations. A meeting between Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatist leaders scheduled to take place in Minsk will not take place because separatist leaders said they needed more time.

The so-called tripartite talks include Ukrainian, Russian and separatists representatives. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are also expected to be present, though the OSCE does not sponsor this initiative. The parties previously agreed to a cease fire on 5 September, but it has failed to hold. A new cease fire was intended to cover the Luhansk Oblast as well as the Donetsk airport and to start on 5 December, but it also has failed to take hold.

Comment: Even with the best intentions it is not clear that the parties are able to control all the armed groups sufficiently to enforce a cease fire. Moreover, cease fire and peace settlement talks appear to be temporizing interludes during which all sides rebuild military capabilities for another test of strength.

Shown below is the Ukrainian government's latest situation map. The separatist area has the red border.

Israel-Syria: Update. Al Arabiyah reported today that two Hizballah operatives died in the Israeli airstrikes on Sunday. Syrian opposition sources said that the airstrikes destroyed a storage facility housing anti-aircraft missiles and drones belonging to Hizballah and cut off the power supply from Damascus International Airport.


Comment: One analyst said that "the Israeli action was intended to preserve the rules of the game." These weapons are considered to be "capable of tilting the strategic balance," by increasing the threat to Israel's near total control of the airspace over Lebanon.

Egypt: Canada closed its embassy in Cairo until further notice as a prudent precaution against terrorist attacks threatened by ISIL. A statement on the Canadian government's travel advice website warns that despite Egypt's strong security, "a high threat of terrorist activities remains and could affect foreigners… While attacks have mainly been aimed at security forces, their facilities and other government buildings, attacks targeting foreigners cannot be ruled out."

On 7 December, the United Kingdom's embassy was the first to close. On the 8ththe UK also posted a travel and threat warning statement.

The US Embassy, located in the same neighborhood, remained open on the 8th.

On Saturday, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade stated on its website, "Reports in early December 2014 indicate that terrorists may be planning attacks against tourist sites, government ministries and embassies in Cairo."

Comment: In mid-September ISIL threatened indiscriminate terrorist attacks against members of the US-led Coalition fighting ISIL. The embassy closures are prudent.

One of the most important lessons from the history of intelligence warning in the US is that safety comes at a steep price, but there is no option to not pay it if you want to try to be safe. Otherwise, you are trying to manage risk in the face of threat, which is also known as gambling or guessing, in other settings.


End of NightWatch


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