Rewriting the script

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 October 2001

Sourcing the Analysis

The aim of these weekly reports is to attempt to analyse the development of the conflict with as much accuracy as possible, with the intention of helping to predict its future course. The war in Afghanistan is one of the most difficult to assess because information from the United States is strictly controlled, reports from Taliban-controlled areas are not considered credible (not always correctly) and almost all western reporters are operating from Northern Alliance territory or Pakistan. There is, as would be expected, considerable media manipulation from Washington, and a prevailing reluctance to support independent analysis.

These reports rely partly on a number of sources: the writings of the more thoughtful and experienced journalists covering the war; some military and international security websites (though these have to be treated with caution); an appreciation of US military strategy, especially as it has been applied in the Gulf, former-Yugoslavia and Somalia; and reports in a few reliable military journals.

Reasonably accurate information is tending to appear about one week after particular events, and this makes it possible to check the accuracy of earlier analysis. It is also the case that sources from within Afghanistan are becoming more reliable. Refugees are bringing details of their experiences into Pakistan; bombing has extended to the city of Herat with its communications links with Iran; the UN and Red Cross are able to report bomb damage to their compounds; and some western agencies, especially Associated Press, are beginning to file from within the country.

The basic elements

Having said all this, a number of the points made in the reports of the first two weeks remain pertinent:

  • Following the destruction of the Taliban’s concentrations of conventional military capabilities, it has indeed proved difficult to target their main forces, these being dispersed into small units, often moving into urban areas or distributed through villages.
  • The US bombing campaign therefore moved rapidly over to attempting to target such groups, making ready use of cluster bombs and other “area impact munitions”.
  • As expected, this has resulted in a growing number of civilian casualties, made worse by the breakdown of the limited public services (including hospital facilities) that were previously available.
  • Northern Alliance forces are starting to receive copious amounts of Russian military equipment.
  • The Special Forces raid near Kandahar, two weeks into the war, was primarily a training mission.
  • US military action appears so far to be strengthening Taliban and Afghan resistance, not weakening it.
  • The al-Qaida network appears thoroughly dispersed, as previously anticipated – if ground forces are inserted to disrupt the network, they may find little to disrupt.

Other aspects of earlier analysis have been less accurate:

  • It was thought probable that intensive US pressure on Israel and the Palestinians would reduce the level of conflict, but the Ze’eve assassination and the intensive and violent Israeli incursions of the past few days indicate otherwise. These have been comprehensively reported across the Middle East, further heightening opposition to Israel and, by association, to US military action in the region.
  • So far, there has been little indication of an escalation involving Iraq. The Washington hawks are less prominent, possibly as the war in Afghanistan proves difficult, the Saudi government remains intensely nervous about any escalation, and the Iraqi regime has not provided any provocation beyond graphic warnings of the consequences of US attacks.

Revision of War Aims

US officials now tend to emphasise the weakening of the Taliban regime as the prime war aim, while raising the prospect of a war stretching over some years that might not succeed in destroying or detaining all (or indeed any) of the al-Qaida leadership. Public opinion is certainly being prepared for a conflict going on through the coming winter and into next spring and summer.

There is likely to be a further subtle development of this, with an emphasis on removing Afghanistan as a base for transnational paramilitary actions. Indeed, it may be that this will be seen as the prime purpose of the conflict, with one or two secure bases being established in the country and periodic Special Forces actions over the coming months combining to “pin down” al-Qaida capabilities. This will make it possible, eventually, to declare the war “won” especially if the Northern Alliance ultimately makes some territorial gains and the Taliban regime is demonstrably weakened.


The US has fairly large numbers of Special Forces and regular troops in the area, and a small and largely symbolic UK contingent has been provided. Further special force operations are likely, but one of the major questions is whether an attempt is made to establish a base within Afghanistan before winter sets in.

Meanwhile, the bombing continues. It is clear that there has been a whole series of remarkable errors, as bombs have hit UN and Red Cross compounds, villages, and residential parts of towns. In addition, there is not a traditional front line occupied solely by Taliban forces. They are intermingled with villages and hamlets, with many of the inhabitants of these areas reluctant to leave their land, which constitutes their only resource. Dwellings are flimsy in the extreme, air raid shelters are non-existent, so the poorest people get killed and maimed.

US air power conduct in recent wars suggests that such attacks against presumed areas of Taliban concentration will continue and intensify, and will also extend to the destruction of any part of the state infrastructure that supports Taliban military capabilities. This will include not just the remaining barracks, but public buildings, warehouses, repair workshops, bridges, power generators and fuel dumps. While these may have some effect on the Taliban, the much greater effect will be on the civilian population.

Direct civilian deaths are probably measured in the many hundreds so far, but may go into the thousands. Indirect casualties through disease and malnutrition consequent on wartime disruption could ultimately be much higher, and these will be made much worse because of food shortages stemming from the effects of the 3-year drought, and lack of transport due to the war.

So far, three weeks of bombing has had little impact on Taliban resistance, and there are some indications of increasing support for them within Afghanistan, The Northern Alliance appears to be something of a contradiction in terms, being made up of disparate groups, and the killing of Abdul Haq has made the development of a united opposition even less likely.

Domestic support for the war in the United States remains high, and defence companies report booming order books, especially as the rush to restore depleted stocks of cruise missiles and other ordnance gets under way. The anthrax incidents continue to be unnerving, and if there was any proof that external agencies were involved, then an immediate escalation of the war would be probable.

Support for the war in Europe (apart from Britain) is very much weaker, and opposition is growing throughout the Middle East and South West Asia.

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