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Afghanistan: limits of military power

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Both the main western combatants are increasingly acknowledging the scale of their military problems in Afghanistan. In the United States, the chair of the joint chiefs-of-staff Admiral Mike Mullen told Congress on 15 September 2009 that more troops and much more time are needed to achieve success. In Britain, the defence secretary Bob Ainsworth's speech at King's College in London the same day conceded that "we are facing a resilient enemy which we are far from succeeding against yet".


In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming 
These statements follow an upsurge in Taliban activity across northern Afghanistan. The involvement of German forces in attacks in Kunduz province has catapulted the Afghanistan war into Germany's election debate, now approaching a climax as polls open on 27  September. The suicide-bombing near Kabul's diplomatic enclave on 17 September, which killed at least six Italian troops and ten civilians, is a further indication of the seriousness of the current situation.

Most surprising are credible reports that Taliban elements now have control of most of Afghanistan's second city of Kandahar. This has been achieved not by open fighting but by slow and steady encroachment of one district after another; the movement's advance being aided by disillusion of local populations that have no faith in the ability of the Afghan police or army, let alone foreign forces, to provide security.

It is difficult to overemphasise the importance of the takeover of Kandahar. Since 2006, Taliban groups have taken over more rural areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and proceeded to establish their own rule of law, tax systems and elements of local administration. They have had less impact in the major towns and cities, however. Afghanistan's mainly rural demography makes control of the countryside significant, but it could be argued that the balance of the war is not decisively in the Taliban's direction as long as the major urban areas are either under governmental control or are secured by foreign forces.

Kandahar was the centre of Taliban activity for crucial periods in the mid-1990s, and substantial efforts have gone into keeping it away from their control over the past three years. It now seems that these are failing. Moreover, it is simply not possible to withdraw foreign troops from Helmand and other provinces and relocate them in order to secure Kandahar without enabling Taliban militias to regain control of the other areas.

The military calculation

The controversy over Afghanistan's flawed presidential election, and the persistent casualties inflicted on American and coalition forces, make the United States's strategic task in the country even harder. In these circumstances, President Barack Obama is seeking to postpone key strategic decisions over the next stage of the campaign.

It still remains likely, however, that the administration's much anticipated response to General Stanley McChrystal's report will decide to send more troops to Afghanistan while recognising the limits of what can be achieved in the short term. The heart of the military advice the president is expected to act on is that the United States (and hopefully) its Nato allies should deploy more forces yet be more modest about their aims. In other words, "do less with more".

Much of the emphasis on the "less" will involve a far more urgent and extensive programme of training the Afghan national army to enable it to assume more of the security burden. In the interim, the emphasis will be on controlling rather more limited territory, but controlling it closely.

The depth of the current problems makes this look sensible in military terms; but the more thoughtful military observers of the current predicament in Afghanistan recognise that this is not a short-term process. To fully train an Afghan army of up to 250,000 troops will take many years and have to overcome many obstacles, the greatest of which is the difficulty of training an acceptably professional and competent officer-class. Meanwhile, the Taliban planners recognise the danger of such a development and will seek to respond with a range of tactics to limit its chances of success.

A principal effort on their part will be to target some of the smaller Nato military contingents more systematically, in part because they realise that the deaths of young soldiers from such countries will have an even greater effect than the recent impacts in Britain, Canada and now Germany (see Judy Dempsey & Ian Austen, "Many Allies of U.S. Share Pain of Afghan War's Toll", New York Times, 16 September 2009). Thus the 2009-2011 period will see a systematic effort further to undermine western public support for the war. Taliban strategists know well that time is on their side.

The drone march

This predicament has led to a rather different approach being more commonly advocated in Washington and other western capitals: to withdraw most of the troops and concentrate on curbing threats by persistent if indirect warfare. In other words, "bring on the drones".

The results are apparent in the second development of 2009: the rapid increase in the use of armed drones to attack paramilitary targets on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, and particularly in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The pattern is if anything accelerating: five foreign militants were reported killed in a drone attack in the FATA on 7 September 2009; two local leaders (Ilias Kashmiri and Mustafa al-Jaziri) were apparently eliminated along with five others the following day; eight more were killed in North Waziristan on 13 September; and four more the next day (see Haji Mujtabi, "Four killed in U.S. missile strike in Pakistan", Reuters, 14 September 2009). By mid-September 2009 there had been thirty-eight drone-attacks since the start of the year, compared with thirty-six for the whole of 2008.

The drone issue is itself part of a much wider development as numerous different types of drone are now being developed for all the major branches of the US military, including the navy and the marine corps. Indeed, the development and production of drones, along with urgent and rapid improvements in mine-resistant vehicles, represents the biggest change in US military technology of the past decade (see "Drone wars", 16 April 2009).

There is little doubt that the extensive use of drones has had an impact in western Pakistan, weakening elements of the insurgents' middle-level leadership; their use in therefore rather attractive to a US military that is mired in an increasingly difficult war. They may not represent a "silver bullet" - and there are major questions over their legality - but they seem to be one practical approach at a time of widespread setbacks.

What is rarely appreciated is that their increasing deployment has short-term and long-term consequences. In the short-term they may tend to remove experienced and knowledgeable leaders with whom it may be necessary to negotiate, replacing them with more radical younger paramilitaries who have no time whatsoever for any such compromise. They also have an impact on local support for insurgents because of the repeated instances of collateral damage. Furthermore, the more frequently that drones are relied upon, the more quickly the paramilitaries will change their behaviour to negate the impact, not least by merging even more closely into civilian populations (see "The Afghan dilemma", 4 September 2009).

The long-scale view

In the longer term there is a much more ominous consequence. As drones and other forms of indirect long-distance warfare are developed and deployed by the United States and its allies, many other states and sub-state groups will recognise their significance. A huge shock to the Israelis in the mid-2000s was when Hizbollah flew a TV-guided drone over northern Israel. It was of little direct military significance but had a deep psychological impact - and is likely to be only the start of a trend (see "Hizbollah's warning flight", 5 May 2005). Many of the technologies required for drone warfare are available on the open market, and drones could easily lend themselves to use against targets in western urban environments.

A wise western military analyst who is aware of all the technologies coming together in drone development would be careful to stand back and assess their current and future capabilities (as demonstrated by United States forces); analyse how skilled opponents would make a similar assessment; then proceed to develop and use such capabilities for his or her side's own purposes. There might always be a lag of several years in technical proficiency, but tactical use could be sufficiently innovative as to shorten the timescale of impact.

For such a western analyst, seeing the conflict through the opponent's eyes could well be a chastening experience. It might not make much difference to the use of drones - in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen or elsewhere - but it would be a salutary exercise. It might even inoculate against the grand illusion that drone warfare can provide a much-needed success for the strategists of a troubled "long war".


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