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Afghanistan: low level, high impact

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The violence in Iraq and a renewed call for attacks on Iran continues to take most of the space in the western media's coverage of George W Bush's war on terror. These priorities mean that the persistent problems in Afghanistan tend to be neglected. The higher profile of Iraq can even, as if by default, tempt reporting of Afghanistan into a wary optimism; this is reinforced by the apparent failure of the expected Taliban spring offensive to materialise, giving some hope of an easing of the insurgency.

Three events on consecutive days in the past week have punctured such hopes. The first is the latest assassination attempt against Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. This took place on 10 June 2007, in the form of a rocket fired when Karzai was making a speech in Ghazni province, southwest of Kabul.

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 2001The second is the killing of seven police officers by United States forces in a "friendly-fire" incident in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar on 11 June. This follows a series of attacks by American or other foreign forces in which many innocent Afghan civilians have lost their lives; more than 230 civilians have been killed or injured in April-May 2007.

The level of civilian casualties caused by US military air-strikes is a particular cause of anguish to Afghans and of increased anti-American sentiment. In early May alone, eighty-three civilians were reported killed in a number of such strikes (see British Agencies Afghanistan Group [BAAG] monthly review, May 2007). True, the figures could not be independently confirmed, but most reports originated from Afghan government departments not insurgent sources.

The third event, and a particularly sobering one for those inclined to optimism about the prospects in Afghanistan, is the publication of a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on 12 June. Its assessment, headed "Afghanistan: three decades of war and no end in sight", could not be blunter: "the conflict has both intensified and spread to the north and west of Afghanistan since 2006."

The ICRC has assisted war victims in Afghanistan for nearly thirty years and has maintained a permanent presence for twenty years; thus the organisation has worked through the periods of Soviet occupation, warlordism and Taliban rule. Yet their conclusion is that they are facing more acute restrictions in their work than at any time since 1987. This alone is enough to suggest that the security situation in the country is getting worse. Why, even in advance of a possible all-out Taliban offensive in summer 2007, should this be?

A tactical shift

An initial point to make is that the present situation echoes that of 2006, when the Taliban insurgency intensified later than expected. This was partially explained by the urgency of harvesting the opium-poppy crop. This is again a priority, and means that at least some supporters of the Taliban and their associates are simply taking time off from paramilitary actions (see "The new opium war", 4 May 2006).

But the very lack of an overt offensive is deceptive, in three senses. The first is that Taliban militia are well aware that the Nato's International Security and Assistance Force (Isaf) reinforcements able to deploy substantial air power mean that any frontal assaults on Nato troops are frequently ineffective. They may lead to Nato retaliation involving civilian losses (thus generating more support for the insurgents), but in crude military terms any overall gains are meagre.

The second area where signals are being misread relates to the way that Iranian policy in relation to Afghanistan is making unexpected difficulties for Nato. Here, some of the more hawkish elements in Washington have been suggesting that the Iranian authorities are supplying arms to insurgents in Afghanistan, a claim backed by defence secretary Robert Gates on 13 June. The backing for this claim, part of the wider process of preparing domestic US opinion for a hardline approach to Iran, is contested at least; and Nato sources themselves have confessed that there is little evidence for any such Iranian actions.

But what Tehran certainly is doing is deporting many thousands of Afghan refugees back across the border. Many of these long-term residents in Iran have previous Taliban connections dating to the American termination of the regime in November 2001. Once in Afghanistan again, a considerable number choose or are persuaded to join the insurgency. Washington had previously criticised Iran for giving sanctuary to these Afghans, so it can hardly scold the country now for expelling them.

The third misunderstood element is a significant, twofold change in tactics by the insurgents. One aspect of this is connected directly to the Iranian move: the relocation of some of the militia groups away from areas of Nato strength towards the northwest of Afghanistan. This part of the country has witnessed the greatest escalation in insurgent activity, perhaps involving a link-up with some returnees from Iran. This upsurge in a previously more peaceful part of the country in turn helps explain the reason for the ICRC's bleak judgment.

The other change in Taliban tactics is a much greater concentration on small-scale actions, especially the use of suicide-bombers. There were at least ten suicide-attacks in May, mostly aimed at Isaf and Afghan army and police units. At least fifteen more assaults used rocket-propelled grenades or light arms; eleven of these were directed specifically at Afghan police units, and form part of an emerging effort to undermine the Afghan government's policing capabilities.

Alongside these actions, small groups of insurgents have been conducting more operations against food-aid convoys and NGO personnel.
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

The Afghan script

If these factors are put together, it looks very much as if Taliban strategists have assessed the extent and nature of Nato power and decided to be far more asymmetric in their approach. As so often in the past, they have responded quickly to changed circumstances in ways that present a real dilemma for Nato.

To counter the insurgents' change to frequent small-scale operations, Nato has no choice but to engage in a much more extensive programme of patrols and reconnaissance activities. The problem is that this will allow the insurgents to copy more closely the tactics of their Iraqi counterparts, using roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as well as suicide-bombs to attack the more exposed patrols.

The net result is to shift the standard picture of recent developments in Afghanistan, which implies a diminution in the level of the insurgency; the truer story is more of a sophisticated and calculated response by the insurgents to Nato's misconceived counterinsurgency. The military, civilian and humanitarian fallout (as in the Red Cross assessment) suggests that the modest optimism in some Nato circles is misplaced. Even more seriously, it suggests that once again the year's agenda is being set neither by western forces nor the Karzai government, but by the Afghan insurgents themselves.

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