Trouble in Afghanistan, Mexico and Canada make a deal, plus China’s new toy.
Despite claims of rapprochement and peace talks between belligerents in Afghanistan as recently as August, the reality is that fighting has actually intensified in 2018. The UN Assistance Mission’s (UNAMA) October report made for bleak reading, with air strikes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) sending civilian casualty figures soaring.
IED attacks by anti-government forces were the number one threat, causing 3,634 civilian casualties. According to UNAMA, those results appear to be intentional, with anti-government forces “increasingly directing such attacks against the civilian population”. UNAMA tracked 649 civilian casualties as a result of aerial attacks in the first nine months of 2018. That is a 39 per cent increase on last year and more than the total figure for every full year since the mission began reporting on casualties in 2009.
Yet 51 per cent of the casualties have been blamed on international aircraft and 38 per cent on the Afghan Air Force. Those figures are perplexing for a number of reasons. Nato enforces strict rules of engagement governing air strikes and has deployed increasingly accurate weapons in Afghanistan over the past 17 years. For its part, the nascent Afghan Air Force followed a similar path and began dropping its own laser-guided bombs at the beginning of 2018.
US and Nato forces also developed unprecedented expertise at calling in air strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, developing new technology and procedures to find and hit targets. They have also trained up hundreds of Afghan tactical air controllers to do the job but, for some reason, these latest casualty figures show that something is still very wrong.
When asked about the report, Debra Richardson from Nato’s Resolute Support mission headquarters in Kabul pointed to the far greater incidences of civilian casualties caused by IEDs and suicide bombings from opposition forces such as the Taliban. “Regarding non-combatant casualties, we take more care to avoid them than anyone else, ever. As secretary Mattis has said, ‘We do everything humanly possible consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties at all costs. We’re not perfect guys, but we are the good guys.’”
Serbia and Nato’s relationship status? It’s complicated. The cliché is to describe Belgrade as “Moscow’s traditional ally”. But not only does Serbia have a policy of military neutrality, stretching back to Yugoslavia’s leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement, it also engages in exercises with both Russia and Nato.
Its relationship with the latter moved to a new level in October, when Serbia hosted a Nato disaster relief exercise. It was a non-military affair but for a country where anti-Nato graffiti is a regular sight, it felt like a significant step. Membership is a distant prospect but perhaps no longer unthinkable.
It has taken China a while to call the Xian Hong-20 what it is but the pretence has now been dropped: state media has begun referring to the still unseen aircraft as a “long-range strategic bomber”.
Reports of the Hong-20 project have circulated since around the beginning of the century – the aircraft is expected to be the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s similar-looking equivalent to the US’s wing-shaped B-2 stealth bomber, capable of delivering nuclear as well as conventional weapons. The nuclear aspect will get the headlines; the conventional option may be the more important.
“If you’re staying sub-nuclear,” says Justin Bronk, research fellow in Airpower and Technology at RUSI, “an aircraft like this has far more destructive power than a missile, particularly for a target like Guam, for example, where you might want to precisely knock out aircraft hangars and shelters. It would certainly change the strategic picture in the region, giving China the capability of getting beyond its home islands without being interceptable.”
Canada and Mexico signed a defence agreement on 9 October, cementing further ties between the two countries after their resurrection of the North American Free Trade Agreement with their reluctant neighbour, the US, just a few days earlier. It is unlikely that the US feels threatened as the meat in this new North American sandwich, however, as the bilateral Defence Cooperation Arrangement focuses on training, peace support operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Given the Trump administration’s fractious relations with Mexico, Canada’s defence partnership is useful not just in the interests of wider cooperation in North America, but as a bridge to Mexico’s alignment with Nato doctrine and standards.