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A triple front: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon

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While most western media attention has been focusing on the Lebanon war that erupted on 12 July 2006, there has been a marked escalation in violence in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of the key events in the recent phase of conflict in these countries was reported in earlier columns in this series (see, for example, "Haditha: a question of responsibility" [8 June 2006] and "Afghanistan's war season" [22 June 2006]). In both countries, however, the cost to civilians has risen to even higher levels in the past few weeks, even as the position of occupying United States, British and other coalition troops has become more precarious.

Afghanistan: the Taliban campaign

United States sources claim that on 25-26 July their forces' operations killed as many as twenty-two suspected Taliban paramilitaries in southern Helmand province. This is just the latest in the escalation of violence that has cost 1,700 lives in the first seven months of 2006. Most have been civilians, but many have been Afghan police as well as seventy foreign troops, including another American soldier killed on 26 July.

US sources have suggested that as many as 600 Taliban have been killed in the past month alone, a dubious figure given other official reports that speak of a total of only 1,000-2,000 Taliban in Afghanistan as a whole (see Richard Norton-Taylor, "600 Taliban killed in bloodiest month for 5 years", Guardian, 26 July 2006).

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 October 2001

Paul Rogers tracks the July 2006 war in a series of daily columns:

Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation"
(17 July 2006)

"War defeats diplomacy" (18 July 2006)

"A proxy war"
(19 July 2006)

"Israel: losing control" (20 July 2006)

"Hit Beirut, target Tehran" (21 July 2006)

"Lebanon in the wider war" (25 July 2006)

"Lebanon: no quick fix" (26 July 2006)

It is certainly the case that the past few weeks have been the most violent period in Afghanistan for nearly five years. At the same time, the claims for Taliban deaths have to be put alongside other accounts stating that some tens of thousands of paramilitaries are available in safe districts across the border in Pakistan, with easy movement over that border.

There has been a particular problem for the 3,000 British troops operating in Helmand province, where their original expectation of an operation focused on a "hearts-and-minds" approach has changed into something more akin to "search-and-destroy", or at least force-protection. The soldiers have turned out to be operating in an adverse security environment that has a direct impact on their ability to engage with local communities.

Under conditions of low levels of violence, a substantial proportion of a given troop contingent, perhaps as much as 60%, can be involved in reconstruction, with the remainder in a support role. An adverse environment changes this entirely – base-protection becomes a priority, with guards being mounted twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Patrols have to go out heavily armed and with substantial numbers held in reserve in the base in case a particular patrol needs emergency help. The end result is that few if any of the troops can be involved in reconstruction and the nature of the operation changes out of all recognition.

This is what has happened to the British forces in Helmand, with levels of violence so high that further armoured vehicles and helicopters are having to be supplied as a matter of urgency. For the much larger US forces, aggressive operations against Taliban and other militia have been underway for several years, although with an increased intensity over the past three months. US forces have been prone to use their immense firepower advantage, including the recent use of B-1B and B-52 heavy bombers, but the resulting collateral damage and civilian casualties have tended to turn ordinary opinion in the country against the United States and other foreign troops. The nature of current US military attitudes, though, make any substantive change in tactics unlikely.

The deterioration in security in Afghanistan has only attracted attention in the British media when British soldiers have been killed, and there has been a marked tendency for ministers to claim that these were isolated incidents. In one of the most surprising indicators of the true state of affairs, such views were contradicted on 21 July by the head of Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), Lieutenant-General David Richards; he described the situation as "close to anarchy", and spoke of feuding between agencies, extensive government corruption, poorly regulated private-security companies and shortages of equipment for Isaf (see Richard Norton-Taylor, "Afghanistan close to anarchy, warns general", Guardian, 22 July 2006 – and the letter on 25 July from Isaf's chief information officer, Chris Borneman, clarifying the remarks).

Iraq: the insurgency defiant

In Iraq, the security situation is far worse and shows no signs of any improvement. The level of violence is much higher than at any time in the past three years, with Iraq Body Count (one of the independent sources) recording a major upsurge in civilian deaths in the past six months, to a total of around 45,000. These are very much baseline figures drawn from press reports, and recent UN figures suggest a much higher toll, with 14,338 killed in the first six months of 2006 alone, the highest figure being 3,149 in June.

What is so disturbing is the contrast between the current levels of violence and the very public predictions from the Bush administration that the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at the end of May, followed by a rigorous clampdown on insurgents in Baghdad, would lead to a wholesale decline in the insurgency. Far from that happening, the reverse is true, with the Nouri al-Maliki government quite unable to exercise any overall control.

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)

Lebanon: the next war

It is an extraordinary fact that in a matter of days, these developments have been sidelined by the war in Lebanon. The influential policy circles in Washington now regard the Lebanon war as central to the whole global war on terror, and have relegated Afghanistan and Iraq with barely a mention.

This consignment to oblivion of two countries that have been central to US military strategy for almost five years promotes a subtle but definite message. In its essence, this is that the real problem is not the Taliban, or the various insurgent groups in Iraq, or even Hizbollah in Lebanon: it is Iran. An extraordinary example of displacement behaviour now sees the regime in Tehran as the central enemy in the whole war on terror. In this mindset, Tehran is the world's leading sponsor of terrorism, Tehran is responsible for many of the problems in Iraq, and Tehran has even been giving shelter to significant al-Qaida figures from Afghanistan.

The bizarre logic loops back to southern Lebanon, where Hizbollah becomes a key player because it is a manifestation of an Iranian state that is directly and comprehensively threatening Israel. Defeat Hizbollah and Tehran will be chastened, the argument runs. The implication is clear: Israel is on the frontline of the global war and must be supported to the hilt by being vigorously rearmed and having its policies endorsed from Washington.

This interpretation of events is also a reflection of the strength of the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, one that has been hugely boosted in recent years by the rise in influence of the Christian Zionist movement (see "Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage", 3 February 2005).

In its most extreme form, there is a developing view in Washington that a defeat for Hizbollah will be the start of a new era in middle-east politics, with the dangerously rising influence of Iran dealt a blow from which it will not recover. For this reason alone, it becomes obvious that there is no commitment whatsoever in Washington to an early ceasefire. Indeed, from this perspective such a development would be intensely undesirable. For reasons of wider regional geopolitics and because of the remarkably deep United States-Israel relationship, this is a war that is still in its early stages.

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