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Afghanistan: the wrong target

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The war in Afghanistan is intensifying and diversifying as the country's presidential election on 20 August 2009 approaches. Most western media coverage tends to focus on the Nato/Isaf military operations in Helmand province, and tends as a result to miss the extent of incidents across the country.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford's peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch here
These have included in the early days of August 2009 alone: rocket-attacks in Kabul, a sustained assault on government offices in Pul-i-Alam, an attack on a government base in the northern province of Kunduz, a remote-controlled bomb in the country's west (killing two police-officers), and the ambush of Korean road-engineers (killing one of their drivers).

The ability of the apparently dispersed paramilitary groups to coordinate actions in different parts of Afghanistan is as notable as their military sophistication. When, for example, United States troops moved into Helmand province in early July 2009 in the effort to control Taliban activity in the movement's heartland, there was a striking response: a frontal assault on an American base hundreds of kilometres away in eastern Afghanistan by scores of paramilitaries equipped with a range of weapons, including artillery firing white-phosphorus shells. There was combat lasting several hours in which two American soldiers were killed and others wounded; only extensive air-strikes saved the base from being overrun (see "Afghanistan's twisting path", 9 July 2009).

It remains a very unequal fight. The sheer scale of the current US (and to a lesser extent British) assaults in Helmand is extraordinary. The coalition forces are equipped with a range of helicopters, mine-resistant vehicles, strike-aircraft and drones. Even with all this, the early indications are of little more than some clearance of paramilitary elements along the Helmand river;  there is no indication of any significant leaders having been killed or detained. Moreover, the targeting of US forces by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), especially roadside-bombs, continues (see Ann Scott Tyson "Potent Bombs Slow Marine Offensive", Washington Post, 11 August 2009).

Beyond the election

The Taliban's intensifying military assaults suggest that the movement is looking to do far more than disrupt the presidential election. The incumbent Hamid Karzai is pursuing to renew the mandate he won in 2004 at the very time when allegations of the corruption and maladministration swirling around his regime are mounting (see Ben Farmer, "Karzai family's wealth ‘fuelling insurgency'", Daily Telegraph, 10 August 2009). The election may have something of a positive impact on Afghanistan if it ends with Karzai being obliged to incorporate the effective technocrat Ashraf Ghani - a key US priority, which indicates the power that Washington wields in Kabul (see Joshua Partlow, "U.S. Officials Looking at Karzai Rival for Key New Post", Washington Post, 11 August 2009); though Ghani would have a tough job to reverse the tides of corruption.

Whatever the result, the military front will remain a deep concern for Washington. General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in the country, is about to deliver to the Barack Obama administration his proposals for a revised military strategy in Afghanistan. There are reports from Washington suggesting that these will include a further increase in US troop levels as the Afghanistan campaign becomes the central feature of the Obama administration's international-security policy.

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

McChrystal played a significant role in charge of special forces in the Iraq war, where he was much concerned with the specific targeting of insurgent leaders (an approach seen too in the Israeli operations in Gaza of January 2009). Against critics who define this as a policy of targeted assassinations, the policy is justified in US military circles as a legitimate tactic in a bitter war. The same argument is used to justify the widespread (and equally deadly) use of armed drones in west Pakistan and southern Afghanistan (see "Drone wars", 16 April 2009).

In this respect a key decision has been taken, even in advance of McChrystal's report: to extend the scope of targeted killings beyond the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership to key figures in Afghanistan's illicit heroin industry.

A defining moment

The production of raw opium remains a huge problem for the western forces in Afghanistan, not least as much of the insurgency's fuelled by drug-money (amounting perhaps to $70 million per year). The country produces more than 90% of the world's illicit opium; much of the resulting revenue undoubtedly goes to the Taliban and other paramilitary groups, as well as fuelling corruption at every level of the Kabul government.

A significant trend in the post-2001 years has increased the coalition's difficulty in this area. A decade ago, most of the raw opium-paste was transported out of Afghanistan in that form - only a small proportion was refined within the country into heroin and morphine, which were worth far more and were much easier to transport. Today, most of the opium-paste is refined in the country, in large numbers of small facilities that are very difficult to spot.

The repeated military-led attempts to disrupt the trade have focused on destroying the poppies while encouraging Afghan farmers to grow other crops.  There has been some progress - Afghanistan may be self-sufficient in wheat production in 2009 for the first time in decades - but the overall results of the anti-poppy campaign are at best patchy. In part that is because this is a product that pays far better than other crops (such as wheat); in part because such crops frequently depend on irrigation, and Afghan rural areas lack the infrastructure to ensure reliable supplies of water during any periods of drought.

In addition, poppy-cultivation is very much a smallholder operation in which hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families depend on it for their livelihood. A common pattern is for farmers to be offered credit by drug- middlemen, ensuring that they continue to produce the raw opium.

The new US strategy is to pursue those important drug-operators who are believed to have links with the paramilitaries. So far, fifty traffickers have been so identified and placed on the "joint integrated prioritised target list". A report of the Senate's foreign-relations committee published on 10 August 2009 suggests that this will mean "the military places no restriction on the use of force against these targets" (see James Risen, "U.S. places Afghan drug traffickers on target list", International Herald Tribune, 10 August 2009).

This may prove to be a defining moment in the entire Afghan war, yet there has been almost no comment on its legality (a rare exception is the contribution by Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation; see his reference to "the fact that extrajudicial killings are illegal under international law", Guardian, 12 August 2009).

The rare combination of a relatively enlightened administration in the United States and a democratic election in Afghanistan might be expected to offer a way forward for the country beyond continued war and destruction. Yet at this very moment, a measure of dubious legality and dangerous effect is being introduced that will spread violence even more widely. Amid Afghanistan's existing sea of troubles, it is not a happy prospect.


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