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The war at home

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There has been a subtle but significant change in the coverage of Iraq by the establishment press in the United States and Britain over the past year: the description of the conflict in the country as a "war" has become routine. For a long time, the media followed leading politicians on both sides of the Atlantic in depicting what was happening in Iraq as an intense three-week war in March-April 2003 followed by a period of unexpectedly persistent and annoying instability. That view has become less and less tenable, for two reasons: the political stagnation in Iraq since the January 2005 elections, and the insurgency's intensity and adaptability.

In comparing the current situation with that of a year ago, the level of insurgency against United States forces is at least as high; US casualties are slightly lower (decreased reliance on ground patrols and more recourse to air strikes have played a part here); and the insurgent targeting of Iraqi police and security forces has increased, as has its consistent ability to damage Iraq's oil production and thus postpone any economic recovery (see " Abqaiq's warning", 2 March 2006).

There has also been a marked rise in sectarian violence, especially since the attack on the al-Askari mosque in Samarra on 22 February. Overall, the condition is one of markedly increased insecurity as a part of a long-term war. The very fact that President Bush can aim to hand over responsibility for half of Iraq to Iraqi government forces by the end of 2006 is itself an admission of severe problems, given that US authorities have long claimed that the insurgency operates in barely a quarter of Iraq's eighteen provinces (see "Iran: the real focus", 16 March 2006).

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Three events in the last week illustrate the nature of the war. First, the launch on 16 March of what was described as the largest set of air operations since April 2003, as US and Iraqi troops attempted to dislodge insurgents embedded in towns and villages close to Samarra. This led to claims of detentions and discoveries of arms caches, though it is probable that few insurgents remained in the war zone; intelligence sources within the Iraqi security forces would most likely have given ample warning of the impending action. The larger point is, however, that this major military operation was being mounted three years after the start of the war.

Second, the Samarra offensive was followed on 21 March with a major insurgent operation against a prison at Miqdadiya, near Baquba. More than a hundred assailants entered the town in civilian vehicles, using mortars, assault rifles, machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades to attack and eventually overrun the prison complex; sixteen police officers were killed, and thirty or so prisoners (most of them believed to be insurgents) were freed.

Third, in planning the Miqdadiya raid the insurgents laid roadside bombs on the approaches to the target, one of which was detonated when police officers went to the aid of their colleagues, killing two more of them. US helicopter gunships and Iraqi army and police commando units then rushed to the scene, but the insurgents had seized police radios, making communications insecure.

The significance of Miqdadiya – followed on 22 March by a similar raid (this time repulsed) on a prison at Madain, southeast of Baghdad – lies partly in the willingness of insurgents to engage in open conflict against a heavily-protected target, and partly in the fact that they are capable of planning and implementing it at the very time that a major counterinsurgency operation is being conducted only 100 kilometres away.

Bush, Rumsfeld and the "long war"

In his press conference on 21 March, President Bush conceded that American troops will be involved in conflict in Iraq until at least 2009, in effect admitting that the military campaign now constitutes a long-term war. His defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in reflecting that guerrilla wars last a dozen or more years, underlines his own view that the cold war has been replaced by the "long war" (see "The world as a battlefield", 9 February 2006).

A tacit acknowledgement that Afghanistan too conforms to this model is probably only a matter of time. Two incidents on 18 March indicate the trend of events there: Mullah Taj Mohammad, former governor of Ghazni province and a strong supporter of the Afghan government, was killed near his home by suspected Taliban militants; and Haji Sher Alam, the current governor, survived an assassination attempt. Several sources believe that a key tactic of the reviving Taliban is to target significant pro-government figures.

The rise in military assaults in Afghanistan is accompanied by a virtual takeover by quasi-Taliban militias of large areas of the "tribal agencies" of western Pakistan (see Declan Walsh, "Pakistani Taliban takes control of unruly tribal belt", Guardian, 21 March 2006). Pakistani army activity over the past three years has singularly failed to dislodge the militant elements which now control much of North Waziristan and South Waziristan, and are reported to have killed around a hundred pro-government politicians.

Their rise to prominence has involved a generational change from more than a decade ago when, in the absence of direct elections, "elders" of the main groups more or less dictated political developments. A gradual radicalisation of younger figures has marginalised the elders and ushered in a climate of doctrinal rigidity that nurtures aspirations of revolutionary change beyond the border agencies – towards Kabul, and even Islamabad (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Revolution in the Pakistani Mountains", Asia Times, 22 March 2006).

Meanwhile, indications of a Taliban "spring offensive" are gathering pace. It is not certain that this will develop into full-scale conflict, but if it does the prospect of what might yet have to be described as the "Afghan war" will enter its sixth year in October 2006.

Protecting the homeland

Both George W Bush and his chief ally Tony Blair have made much of the need to take the war to the enemy. Bush insists that fighting insurgents and al-Qaida supporters in Iraq and Afghanistan diminishes their potential for attacking the United States; Blair, in his 21 March speech to the Foreign Policy Centre in London, emphasised that operations in the two countries were core components of the war against extremism.

In the case of the Americans, such an activist policy has been accompanied by increasing concern for their own security that includes a largely unnoticed recasting of attempts to control their own borders.

This has had four key aspects. First, major reform of the US Coast Guard, the fifth and smallest element of the US armed forces (after the army, navy, air force, and marines) but now answerable to the department of homeland security.

An important development here is the establishment of a series of maritime safety and security teams (MSSTs), specifically charged with anti-terrorism operations. Thirteen have so far been established (seven on the east coast, five on the west coast, one in Hawaii), each with 100 personnel. The MSSTs are quick-response forces that can be shifted by land, sea or air to crisis-points; they are provided with high-powered semi-rigid boats and a range of equipment including armaments, underwater detection gear and nuclear, chemical and biological detection systems (see Scott Gourley, "Inside Job: US seeks solutions for its security jigsaw puzzle", Jane's International Defence Review, 3 March 2006).

Second, the marine corps has increased its involvement in port-security operations.

Third, the US navy has undergone significant changes, involving an expansion of its role in naval coastal warfare (NCW) requirements – protecting large warships, strategic shipping and critical infrastructure. To this end, two new naval coastal warfare squadrons are being established, one in San Diego and another probably based at an east-coast port. Each squadron has a specialist underwater warfare unit and numerous inshore units equipped with high-speed patrol craft. (These new units can be deployed either outside the United States or to supplement the Coast Guard forces).

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 has written a report for the Oxford Research Group on the likely effects of a military attack on Iran:

"Iran: Consequences of a War" (February 2006)

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)

Fourth, the post-9/11 environment has also resulted in major increases in land-border security, including a gamma-ray-based mobile inspection system for determining the contents of truck and vans. Border guards have even begun to deploy surveillance drones ("unmanned aerial vehicles"), the first of them based near Tucson, Arizona, along the Mexico border.

All this is in addition to the longstanding nuclear emergency search teams (NESTs) for dealing with nuclear accidents or paramilitary attack; after the 1995 sarin nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway, these were supplemented by a chemical-biological incident response force (CBIRF) within the US marine corps. This is based just outside Washington DC and now has almost 400 personnel, including a ninety-person immediate response force that can deploy at any time within an hour.

This systematic upgrading is extremely costly, and its range and scale demonstrates why so much of the federal budget increase for fiscal year 2007 is focused on the Pentagon and the department of homeland security.

It also suggests that the reach of Donald Rumsfeld's long war encompasses more than the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (and possibly Iran), the new deployments in central Asia and the Horn of Africa, and the new counter-terrorism training programmes in north Africa. For the notion of a long war is founded also on a firm belief that the continental United States is itself vulnerable to paramilitary attack and that secure borders must be established, whatever the cost.

How long the United States can handle the mounting federal-budget deficits resulting from the massive new defence and security expenditure is difficult to say. But it is clear that the long war takes precedence over almost anything else, and that there is no change in sight.

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