The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on 7 June 2006 created the routine expectation among coalition representatives of a decline of al-Qaida influence in Iraq. This reaction was echoed in the view of neo-conservative commentators in Washington that the loss of the network's Jordanian figurehead would be a major turning-point in the war. The United States forces in Iraq sought to capitalise on the event by intensifying counterinsurgency operations, especially around Baghdad.
As so often before, the appearance of a breakthrough proved to be a mirage. Within a few days a new "head" of al-Qaida in Iraq was announced (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, two captured American soldiers were executed in a manner intended to provoke their comrades, and it was evident that insurgent activity was as intense as ever.
For much of the western media, this pace of events has resulted in unusually heavy coverage of the conflict in Iraq. Since many media outlets find it difficult to concentrate on more than one story at a time, this has meant a diminished focus on an equally active arena of war: Afghanistan.
A number of recent columns in this series have pointed to the escalating insurgency there, with emphasis on three factors: the availability of many thousands of Taliban supporters across the border in Pakistan; the manner in which the drugs trade has expanded to provide additional sources of finance for the insurgents; and the increasing levels of violence directed both against US and International Security Assistance Forces (Isaf and against Afghan government personnel, especially those in the police and army.
It remains the case that sheer extent of the escalation in the violence in Afghanistan in recent months, and the manner in which the United States forces have markedly stepped up their counterinsurgency operations, has not been reported with the detail and attention it deserves.
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The dimensions of war
At the time of the original American operation to terminate the Taliban regime, in October-November 2001, the United States military deployed a combination of special forces, a rearming of the Northern Alliance and extensive use of airpower. The approach proved capable of ending the regime in a matter of weeks, but also allowed most of the militias to melt away without surrendering.
At that time, one of the most striking television images was of the B-52 strategic bombers engaged in carpet-bombing of Taliban positions. Such tactics were used in combination with the extensive use of smaller strike aircraft, some of them carrying bunker-busting munitions targeting caves; the military planners defended their effectiveness, even though they frequently caused civilian casualties.
Most commentators thought those days were past, and that the recent upsurge in Taliban activity was on a much smaller scale. There have even been comments that the current offensive is a last-ditch operation before the Isaf forces are strengthened, but the evidence of the past month suggests otherwise.
One indicator is that Taliban units are now operating in much larger groups. In early 2005, these units were regularly composed of groups of up to a hundred. That alone suggested a much greater degree of organisation and logistic support than would be expected from a sporadic insurgency; but in 2006, the Taliban are fighting in groups of around 400 (see Thomas E Ricks, "U.S. Airstrikes Rise In Afghanistan as Fighting Intensifies", Washington Post, 18 June 2006). Such a capability means that they have plenty of local support, effective supply lines, weapons and munitions caches and all the other materials that are required to operate at this level.
It also reveals a level of organisation that has been a long time in the planning. This supports the argument that the lower level of the insurgency in summer 2005 was less a matter of the Taliban being in retreat but much more a case of their being engaged in planning for the much longer term. This may, in turn, be connected with the new military leadership, with Mullah Omah's recent appointment of the highly skilled Jalaluddin Haqqani now having its effect on the war (see "Afghanistan's endemic war", 25 May 2006).
The very use of the term "war" may seem an exaggeration, but the tactics now being used by the Americans really do suggest that it is appropriate. Three factors are relevant here. First, there are now 22,000 US troops in the country, apparently the result of a build-up from around 18,000 in recent months. Second, there has been a substantial escalation in the use of airpower, with B-52s being employed on a regular basis, along with the US air force's other heavy bomber, the B-1B.
Over the past three months, US forces have carried out 340 air strikes on Taliban positions. While most have been in rural areas in southern Afghanistan and in the mountains close to the Pakistan border in the east, they have also been directed at sites close to Kabul, the city of Jalalabad and even near the large US air base at Bagram.
Third, the intensity of the opposition provided by the Taliban has resulted in military innovations by the US forces. One is to have the heavily-armed B-1B strategic bombers loitering above central Afghanistan for hours at a time; their supersonic speed makes them ready to respond in minutes to requests from US army units almost anywhere in the country. Another tactic is to use the F15E Strike Eagle aircraft equipped with a glide bomb that can be used to attack the entrances to caves at a shallow angle.
None of this resembles a small-scale guerrilla war, and it is coming at a time when the separate Isaf forces under Nato control are preparing to take over many of the operations from the United States, focusing much more on post-conflict security, civil reconstruction, and a "hearts-and-minds" approach. Since much of Afghanistan is simply not in a "post-conflict" environment, it is now doubtful whether this is a viable strategy, let alone whether US forces will actually withdraw many of their personnel as originally planned.
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
A long campaign
A small but significant indicator of the changing dynamics of the conflict in Afghanistan relates to the British deployments in Helmand province. These were intended to be very much a part of a process of stabilisation, in which possible engagements with Taliban militias were anticipated as being limited to self-defence rather than offensive counterinsurgency. The UK troops number around 3,300, mostly drawn from 16 Air Assault Brigade based at Colchester, Essex; in what would normally be a routine rotation, they will be replaced in the autumn by a similar number of troops from 45 Commando, Royal Marines.
Among this new group will be contingents of mountain-warfare trained troops currently based at Arbroath, northeast Scotland, whence 600 soldiers are due to deploy to Helmand. The aim will be to have troops experienced in high-altitude warfare available for operations against Taliban units through the winter of 2006-07. This alone means that the Isaf military planners are now recognising that there is unlikely to be the usual lull in Taliban activity in the coming winter (see Tim Ripley & Gethin Chamberlain, "Scottish-based commandos to bring mountain expertise to Taleban fight", The Scotsman, 13 June 2006 ).
The news of the deaths of four American soldiers in Nuristan, northeastern Afghanistan on 21 June is a further indication of the spreading challenge to United States and Isaf forces, although the scale is minor compared with the hundreds of Afghans dying each week. Hamid Karzai is so concerned as to echo the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, in openly criticising the way the US military is fighting the war.
The Afghan president is well aware that the high level of civilian casualties, and the ready recourse to intense use of airpower, is counterproductive. It is significant that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaida strategist and deputy to Osama bin Laden, has chosen this moment to call for a wider anti-occupation response from Afghans to the "infidel forces that are invading Muslim lands" (see "Al-Zawahiri urges Afghans to fight", al-Jazeera, 22 June 2006).
For more than a year, military planners and observers have envisaged an upsurge in the Afghanistan insurgency in summer 2006. The extensive US deployment of air power and the kinds of deployments the British are planning both make clear that the approaching sixth year of the war in Afghanistan lasting through next winter and the following summer may be the most violent and extensive since 2002. The human and political consequences will be large.