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Afghanistan: six years of war

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Almost exactly six years ago, on 7 October 2001, the United States started the war to terminate the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. By mid-November the regime had disappeared from Kabul, and victory over an enemy which had harboured the al-Qaida movement responsible for the 11 September 2001 atrocities seemed complete.

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 2001At the time, the post-9/11 wave of sympathy in Europe (as well as elsewhere) for the US ensured general support for the anti-Taliban campaign in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities, but not all analysts believed that immediate military action against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan was the right response.

The first of this series of weekly columns was published on 26 September 2001. The second, published on 29 September, argued that "the extent of the devastation and human suffering inflicted in the [9/11] attacks means that support for the United States among its allies is far-reaching, and extends to a remarkable range of states. In this light, the immediate response should be to develop, extend and cement this coalition; base all actions on the rule of law; (and) put every effort into bringing the perpetrators to justice" (see "Afghanistan: the problem with military action", 29 September 2001).

This was at the time a minority view. The subsequent termination of the Taliban regime in a matter of weeks seemed to confirm that the George W Bush administration was right and critics were wrong.

A spreading insecurity

The euphoria and sense of vindication of the time seems far away, yet Afghanistan is still here and still bleeding as the war there is on the brink of entering its seventh year. On 29 September 2007, a suicide-bomber dressed in an Afghan army uniform killed twenty-eight troops and two civilians in Kabul, the worst attack since the death there of thirty-five police officers in June. The suicide-operation was only one of a series: on 2 October, an attack on a police bus (also in Kabul) took the lives of eleven police and civilians, and on 3 October two police were killed and five Dutch soldiers injured in separate incidents in Ghazni and Oruzgan provinces.

These operations reflect the way that the war has become much more urbanised in the past six months. Taliban militias are now avoiding open conflict with coalition forces and moving instead toward the more frequent use of roadside-bombs and suicide-attacks. The presence of 39,700 foreign troops notwithstanding, the situation in Afghanistan is now so difficult that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) faces more restrictions in its work than at any time since it established a permanent presence in the country in 1987 (see "Afghanistan: low level, high impact", 14 June 2007).

True, the situation is not uniformly grim across the whole of the country: there has been substantial success in clearing landmines, school enrolments have risen sharply, and the incidence of malaria and tuberculosis has shown a marked decline. A number of recent reports confirm that in other respects the situation is desperate.

Kabul University's Centre for Policy and Human Development (sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) human-development report) is one. It says that "the (people) worst affected are women and children. The facts are staggering: 60,000 children in Afghanistan are addicted to drugs, and another 100,000 are disabled and otherwise severely affected physically due to prolonged conflicts in the country" (see Thalif Deen, "Afghanistan in Dire Straits", IPS, 28 September 2007) There are around a million child labourers between 7 and 14 years old and even in Kabul, which has seen considerable investment, 37,000 children beg or work in the streets.

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 latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament

Afghanistan, the report continues, ranks 174 out of 178 countries on the UNDP's index of human development; most of what social progress has occurred since 2002 has been confined to the west and north of the country. The surge in the drug trade is such that opium-poppy production is now worth about $3.1 billion, almost half of the country's legal GDP, much of which is used to fuel the insurgency.

Across much of Afghanistan's south and east there has been a tangible worsening of the security situation. Even the claims of limited progress made by Nato forces in recent months must be balanced against strong warnings from commanders that the Afghan replacement troops which follow Nato in conducting "clearing" operations have great difficulty controlling the Taliban's forays. Indeed, there is a widespread and bleak consensus among Nato commanders: unless there is a significant change in policy, foreign forces will remain in the country for decades, tied down in bitter counter-guerrilla operations.

The context of such assessments is that insecurity in the country has spread measurably in the past year. The United Nations's department of safety and security office in Kabul finds that 2007 is turning out to be the worst year since 2001, with an average of 525 security incidents a month, compared with 425 a month in 2006 (Jonathan S. Landy, "UN: Violence in Afghanistan Up Almost 25 Percent in '07", McClatchy Newspapers, 1 October 2007)

The analysis of such statistics must include the caution that violence in Afghanistan to a degree has tended to fall during the winter months. A recurrence of this trend in winter 2007-08 could offer the space for Nato to rethink its policy. The fact that Nato operations in Afghanistan are dominated by the United States, which has by far the largest contingent of foreign forces in the country, means that without a change of heart in Washington there is little prospect of any such movement.

A moving signal

There are, however, three faint indications of a fresh wind. The first is that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has been consistent in his search for ways to bring Taliban elements into government (and that the indifference or hostility to this project is not quite as absolute as in the past).

The second is that there are unconfirmed reports of the making of informal links in Pakistan between the United States, Pakistani radicals and Taliban elements there. These contacts are very much "back-channel" and deniable by all, but the freedom of operation that Taliban and al-Qaida operatives enjoy in western Pakistan suggest that there is less myopia among American operatives on the ground than in Washington.

The third indication, and perhaps the most significant, is some comments made by Britain's defence minister Des Browne, at a fringe meeting at the 23-27 September conference of the governing Labour Party. Browne argued that the Taliban had to be involved if any kind of peace process was to succeed: "In Afghanistan, at some stage, the Taliban will need to be involved in the peace process because they are not going away, any more than I suspect Hamas are going away from Palestine" (see "Taliban must be involved in peace process", Yahoo News, 25 September 2007). quoted in Guardian Unlimited, 2 October) He then went on to say that there was no possibility of a western legal system being used in Afghanistan, where outside agencies would have to accept the likelihood of "some solution that has its roots in Islamic law".

The British minister's statement is quite remarkable. The choice of a military solution in late 2001 meant that the opportunity to take the "criminal law" route towards al-Qaida was missed, with all the consequences in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Now, at a high level of government in the United States's leading ally, there is recognition that the Taliban cannot be defeated or ignored.

It has taken six years of war to get to this point. The crucial question now is whether any winter lull can be accompanied by serious efforts to start a peace process that includes Taliban elements. If so, then there might at last be some prospect for progress across Afghanistan as a whole. If it does not happen, the next six years - and more - may prove as bloody as the last.

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