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Endless war

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The latest trends in the two principal theatres of George W Bush's "war on terror" offer a stark indication of the counterproductive nature of his administration's military policies.

In Afghanistan, there is widespread recognition that Taliban and other militias were more active in mid-2005 than in the previous two years. This is a contributing factor to the anxiety with which an overstretched United States is seeking to draw in its Nato allies to cooperate in counterinsurgency operations (see "A new struggle for Afghanistan", 22 December 2005).

There has also been concern that insurgents in Afghanistan are already targeting Nato soldiers in the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), probably to discourage European members of Nato from too great an involvement in the country. Moreover, there are increasing indications that the insurgents are borrowing tactics used in Iraq, including suicide-bombing. This is hardly surprising, given the reports that young paramilitaries from Afghanistan are now travelling to Iraq, gaining experience there to use back in Afghanistan (see "The Iraq illusion", 1 December 2005).

Under fire in Afghanistan

The first two weeks of 2006 witnessed a relentless series of attacks that provide further evidence of these trends:

  • on 5 January, a bomb in Tirin Kowt, Oruzgan province killed ten people
  • on 15 January, an attack on a Canadian military convoy in Kandahar killed a senior diplomat, Glyn Berry, and three bystanders
  • on 16 January, another bomb in Kandahar targeting an army convoy killed an Afghan soldier and three civilians, and injured another sixteen people including six soldiers
  • also on 16 January, a suicide-bomber in Spin Boldak (near Kandahar, on the Pakistan border) killed twenty people and injured twenty more; local police officers may have been among the casualties (see Ruhullah Khapalwak & Carlotta Gall, "24 killed in bomb blasts in southern Afghanistan", International Herald Tribune, 17 January 2006)

The surge of violence came at a time of continued assassinations of former Taliban associates. The latest, and one of the most significant, was the murder on 14 January of Mohammed Khaksar, also in Kandahar. He had been the head of the Taliban intelligence network in the mid-1990s, before going over to the Americans at the end of the decade.

This combination of incidents confirms that the Afghan insurgency – although still overshadowed by the larger canvas of violence in Iraq – is a major problem for the United States military. The warning by the Taliban leader Mullah Omar of increased attacks on US forces promises even worse to come.

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This predicament helps to explain the willingness of the Americans to extend their operations into Pakistani territory. The most extraordinary example, and one that has caused deep controversy in Pakistan, was the strike on the remote village of Damadola in the early hours of 13 January (whether in a US air force raid or by a CIA armed drone is not yet clear). The target of the attack, which killed twenty-one people including women and children, was apparently the al-Qaida strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Egyptian-born militant, whose recent video broadcast interpreting President Bush's proposed withdraw of some US forces from Iraq as an indicator of defeat, seems to have escaped.

More generally, this and other recent US raids into Pakistan are also indicators of a much more significant trend, the loss of faith by the US authorities in President Musharraf's ability to aid their war on terror. Afghan politicians who blame Pakistan for the recent upsurge in violence in their country reinforce this development. After the Spin Boldak bombing, the provincial governor Asadullah Khalid blamed Pakistan for not stopping Taliban attackers from crossing the border: "It is obvious Pakistan is sending these people. They are training people in Pakistan and then they are sending them into Pakistan and killing our people. "

The United States's loss of faith in the Pakistan army and therefore in Pervez Musharraf (since he depends on the army to stay in power) underlies its more aggressive incursions into Pakistan. Its original expectation in the aftermath of 9/11 that Musharraf and the army would be effective allies in the war against al-Qaida and its Pakistani associates has now been largely abandoned; one result is the kind of action taken in Damadola (see Syed Sallem Shahzad, "US Turns Against Musharraf", Asia Times, 11 January 2006)

Upping the ante in Iraq

If Damadola is one instance of "collateral damage", events in Iraq provide numerous parallels. On 3 January, US strike aircraft targeted what they believed (on the basis of intelligence from a reconnaissance drone) was an insurgent base at a farmhouse in Baiji, 240 kilometres north of Baghdad. There may have been insurgents in the house, but the casualties included a family of twelve, including women and children. This was only one in a series of incidents of civilian loss of life in US air strikes.

The Baiji attack came in the wake of a month-long attempt by the Bush administration to cast recent events in Iraq in a positive light. Four recent developments have shown how dubious these claims are.

First, on 9 January two bombers managed to infiltrate the tightly guarded interior ministry in Baghdad and detonate bombs that killed twenty-nine people and injured eighteen. What made this attack so extraordinary was that it coincided with a passing-out ceremony at a police academy in a neighbouring compound attended by the ministers of defence and the interior, and the US ambassador. The bombers were dressed as a police lieutenant colonel and a police major and both had the necessary passes to get through a number of security checks, getting into one of the most guarded sites in Baghdad at a time of heightened security (see Nelson Hernandez & Bassam Sebti, "Suicide bombers kill 29 at Iraqi Ministry", Washington Post, 10 January 2006).

Second, on 16 January a heavily armed and protected AH-64 Apache helicopter was destroyed while on combat patrol in an area of insurgent activity forty kilometres north of Baghdad, with the loss of the two-man crew. This was the third helicopter to crash within ten days, at the cost of the lives of sixteen US personnel. The armoured capabilities of the Apache makes it unlikely to have been the victim of small-arms fire alone; more probably, a shoulder-launched heat-seeking missile shot it down.

Third, in the second week of December 2005 one of Saddam Hussein’s largest palace compounds – in the former dictator’s home town of Tikrit – was handed over by US forces to their Iraqi counterparts. The elaborate ceremony of this richly symbolic event included the arrival by helicopter of the American ambassador and the commander of US forces in Iraq, in order to demonstrate the success of Iraqi forces in taking on more and more security functions. Within days, however, the very Iraqi security forces that had taken charge had systematically looted the 2,000-hectare compound; truckloads of its furnishings later were found on sale up at local markets (see Ellen Knickmeyer, "After Handover, Hussein Palaces Looted", Washington Post, 13 January 2006).

Fourth, on 2 January the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) invited contractors to bid for ten projects valued at $1.32 billion in Iraqi cities across the country over the period 2006-08. In requesting the tenders – for projects concerned principally with issues such as job creation and community development – the agency was obliged to brief contractors on how the security situation might affect their work.

The strong language it used, emphasising that a multifaceted and enduring insurgency is creating huge problems for reconstruction and development programmes, is particularly revealing (see Walter Pincus, "USAID Paper Details Security Crisis in Iraq", Washington Post, 17 January 2006). It also cites "the absence of state control and an effective police force" as letting "criminal elements within Iraqi society have almost free rein", and describes Baghdad as "divided into zones controlled by organized criminal groups-clans".

All these developments cast a very different light on the situation in Iraq presented in the Bush administrations's vigorous media offensive of November-December 2005, especially following the publication of the Pentagon's new Iraq document on 30 November, the National Strategy for Victory (see "Victory in Iraq", 15 December 2005).

The air war

These Iraqi realities may be radically different from George W Bush and Dick Cheney's picture of progress, but they help explain the expansion of the strategy of enhanced counter-insurgency actions through airpower. The use of air strikes has increased at least six-fold in the past six months, with an average of five strikes a day in December (see Michael Schwartz, "A Formula for Slaughter: The American Rules of Engagement from the Air", Tom.Dispatch.com, 10 January 2006).

The use of the US' overwhelming firepower advantage via air strikes is a seductive policy in light of two key US military aims: killing insurgents while protecting American troops from death or injury. The alternative of using ground troops in close combat in urban warfare guarantees a high rate of US casualties. The problem with the increasing use of airpower is that however precise the targeting, the complex multi-occupancy and densely-packed neighbourhoods typical of many Iraqi towns and cities make numerous civilian deaths and injuries inevitable. The Baiji attack is only one recent example.

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

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)

Moreover – and this is the real issue for the future – the employment of airpower will escalate even further as the United States seeks to replace its own ground patrols with those by Iraqi security forces. The US will not allow the Iraqis to be equipped with heavy weaponry, not least because of the risk they could fall into insurgent hands and be turned on US troops; in these circumstances, there will be even more of a temptation to call on air power in difficult situations.

The shift in the coming months and years to "remote war" as a core US tactic will inflict more casualties on ordinary Iraqis, with the likely result of greater support for the insurgency. But there is an even wider consequence. The expanded use of airpower in the counterinsurgency is scarcely acknowledged in western media, and conditions on the ground mean that hardly any western journalists are able to report the many attacks. But the wide dissemination of their effects by al-Jazeera and other satellite channels, and by skillfully-packaged videos, DVDs and websites of militant groups and sympathisers, ensure that millions of people across the middle east and the Muslim world are aware of them. This alone is just one more "gift" to a grateful al-Qaida from the Bush administration.

In Afghanistan, a three-month conflict terminated the Taliban regime; in Iraq, it took just three weeks before the Saddam Hussein regime collapsed. Conventional wisdom says that these two brief wars have been followed by an uneasy peace. A more realistic way of looking at the situation is that the Afghanistan war is now in its fifth year and the Iraq war is heading towards its fourth year. Almost 250,000 foreign troops are directly or indirectly involved in the two conflicts – more than 25,000 in Afghanistan, around 175,000 in Iraq, and at least 30,000 in support in Kuwait and other Gulf states. In either conflict, no end is in sight.


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