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The Pakistan-Afghanistan abyss

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The last days of 2007 were marked by major concerns by western military forces over the growing influence of Taliban militias in much of Afghanistan, as well as the continued activities of the al-Qaida movement on both sides of the border with Pakistan. These worries predated the assassination of the Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007, and have been intensified by its circumstances and its messy aftermath.

There are now 51,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, but they are still unable to cope with the resurgence. Of these troops, 40,000 are under Nato command in the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf): 15,000 from the United States, 25,000 from other Nato countries. The remaining 11,000 troops are almost all from the United States, with some special forces from other Nato states; together they are engaged under US command in intensive counterinsurgency operations in the southeast of the country.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 200Although Isaf is a stabilisation force, as the security situation has deteriorated some of the units have been involved in major combat operations, notably the British and Canadians, in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Many others located elsewhere in Afghanistan are under orders to limit their combat operations.

A harder terrain

The French, for example, have 1,600 troops in the country, but mainly around Kabul and primarily engaged in training (see Arnaud De La Grange, "Afghanistan: France Thinks Military Action is Not the Sole Solution", Le Figaro, 24 December 2007). They do also have Mirage ground-attack aircraft based at Kandahar that are directly involved in combat operations, but it is the shortage of ground troops that concerns the Pentagon.

A particular worry for the Americans is the changing mood in Canada, whose deployment of a substantial number of troops in combat operations is now a major domestic political issue. Seventy-three Canadians have been killed so far, opposition to the war is up to 70% in Quebec and rising elsewhere, and there is a real possibility that the Ottawa government - its relative closeness to the Bush administration notwithstanding - will change its policy (see Mario Roy, "Afghanistan Fatigue", La Presse, 22 December 2007).

These limitations have been a source of dismay bordering on anger for the Pentagon. At a Nato meeting in Scotland in December 2007 the US defence secretary Robert Gates unsuccessfully tried to pressurise other member states into increasing their commitments (see Jim Mannion, "Gates Heads To Scotland For Talks on Afghan Force", AFP, 13 December 2007). Gates wanted changes in the rules of engagement for countries such as France and Germany that were restricting their operations to stabilisation and training; he also sought more material support, especially helicopters and an increase in troop numbers.

At the time, the George W Bush administration was coming under pressure to increase America's own commitments (see Michael Abramowitz & Peter Baker, "Bush Faces Pressure to Shift War Priorities", Washington Post, 17 December 2007) - there was even some talk of a need to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

All this is against a background of changing tactics by Taliban militias in response to increased use of firepower by coalition troops. The last weeks of 2007 witnessed one of the largest paramilitary attacks for several of months when fifteen Afghan security guards were killed in an assault on a convoy of fuel-tankers in western Afghanistan, away from what had previously been the most significant areas of Taliban activity in the south and east (see Amir Shah, "15 Afghan guards killed in attack", AP, 18 December 2007).

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 most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 and why a new security paradigm is needed
More generally, Isaf commanders have reported an evolution of Taliban tactics to counter Isaf forces, especially the increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs/roadside bombs), suicide-bombings and heavier infantry weapons. In 2007, suicide-attacks increased by 17% and IEDs by 24% (see Brooks Tigner, "Taliban evolves to counter ISAF", International Defence Review, January 2008). The IEDs have become more sophisticated in their design and use, probably reflecting experience in Iraq; there have been clear indications that some paramilitaries from Afghanistan have gone to Iraq to gain combat experience and then returned to Afghanistan to apply their knowledge (see Antonio Giustozzi, "The resurgence of the neo-Taliban", 14 December 2007).

A thwarted calculation

The overall picture, therefore, was bleak even before Benazir Bhutto's murder, and the Pentagon was already worried that instability in Pakistan would affect its operations in Afghanistan. By mid-November 2007 - with Bhutto under house-arrest, a state of emergency declared and the lawyers rebelling - one of Washington's main concerns was that the Pervez Musharraf regime was facing such pressure that it would have to limit its support for Bush's war on terror.

The fact that 75% of all supplies for United States forces in Afghanistan passed through Pakistan (including around 40% of their fuel) meant fear that any interruptions would have a huge impact on US and Nato forces across the border (see "A Pakistani dilemma", 15 November 2007).

By mid-December, the concerns had eased with the lifting of the state of emergency and the prospect of an election in early January 2008. From a US perspective, its policy for Pakistan was back on course - working towards a Bhutto/Musharraf coalition, with Bhutto winning the election and then working with Musharraf as president (see Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy", 29 October 2007).

On the surface, this might appear almost democratic; but the power of the presidency under the constitution is such that the major influence in relation to the war on terror would in any case have lain with Musharraf not Bhutto (see Irfan Husain, "Benazir Bhutto: the politics of murder", 28 December 2007). Moreover, the expectation was that Musharraf would at least informally retain his army influence, giving the United States as much leverage as it needed.

Indeed, the day before Benazir Bhutto was killed, William M Arkin's well-informed "Early Warning" blog in the Washington Post confirmed earlier reports that the US army's special-operations command was planning to greatly expand its activities in western Pakistan (see "U.S. Troops to Head to Pakistan", 26 December 2007).

This was a matter of some urgency from a US perspective, because of growing indications that the al-Qaida movement was increasingly active in the border districts. What was really worrying was that the movement's success in recruiting young Pakistanis to its cause was making it less dependent on foreign paramilitaries.

This was not entirely new - though in the past, such paramilitaries have operated mainly across the border in Afghanistan, clashing with Nato and US troops. Now, they have increased in numbers and are directing their efforts more against the Pakistani army and government, intent on destabilising the latter (see Carlotta Gall, "Qaeda network expands base in Pakistan", International Herald Tribune, 29 December 2007).

A nearer ambition

Indeed, Pakistan may now be coming to exceed Iraq and Afghanistan as the main target for regime termination by the al-Qaida movement. One of the movement's main ideologues, Sheikh Essa, is central to such a vision (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Al-Qaeda aims at Pakistan's Heart", Asia Times, 31 December 2007); the Egyptian cleric is reported to have survived an attack by a US Predator drone a few hours after Benazir Bhutto's assassination.

The new al-Qaida stance is one of the main reasons why Benazir Bhutto's murder is so disastrous for the United States - perhaps indeed the worst development (the decision to occupy Iraq apart) since the 9/11 attacks themselves. At the very time the Bush administration seemed to be in a position to reinforce Pakistan as a key actor in its war, the country's politics have been thrown into disarray (see Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto", 28 December 2007). Whoever was responsible for the assassination, the major beneficiaries are likely to be Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sheikh Essa and the wider al-Qaida movement.

In the United States, Iraq has (at least for the time being) receded from the headlines, and Afghanistan has never loomed large. The early stages of the presidential campaign are now underway; in the wake of the Iowa caucus, personality politics and domestic issues increasingly dominate the media's and candidates' energies. The Bhutto murder was a headline for a couple of days, but Pakistan again is receiving little attention. In more informed circles, however, there are deep concerns.

An earlier column in this series ("A Pakistani dilemma", 15 November 2007) cast doubt on the assumption of Taliban and al-Qaida inactivity during the winter; and suggested that "there is every chance that this aspect of Bush's 'war on terror' will begin to acquire as great a significance as the Iraq war around the time the US presidential election campaign is approaching full gear". In light of Benazir Bhutto's murder, evidence to support that assessment may well arrive in weeks rather than months.

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