A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 March 2009

The Iraq war was launched six years ago, with an intensive aerial assault on key installations of Saddam Hussein's regime on 19-20 March 2003. Almost from the start - amid many expectations of a quick and decisive victory - there were signs that the war would be prolonged and bitter.

At the time, a column in this series reported:

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 2001 "The first indication of the unexpected nature of the war with Iraq came just a few hours into the ground invasion. At about 05.30 (London time) on 21 March, the BBC's 24-hour news channel called up one of its correspondents, Adam Mynott, who was with a group of US soldiers as they crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq.

Whereas other reports had indicated rapid progress of US and British troops, Mynott came on air breathless from having to take cover as the convoy he was with faced up to small arms and rocket attack from Iraqi forces. It was clearly unexpected, and gave the first indication that the Iraqi resistance to the invasion would be fierce" (see "The quicksand of war", 24 March 2003).

This was the second time in eighteen months that a war had not gone according to plan. The termination of the Taliban regime in November 2001 appeared overwhelming; but by March 2002, the United States's efforts were going badly wrong. Its Operation Anaconda faced the determined opposition of Taliban and other paramilitaries near Gardez, forcing the military to call up reinforcements in a conflict in which eight US soldiers were killed and thirty wounded (see "The spiral of war", 6 March 2002).

As 2002 progressed, and as US forces were starting the build-up for the Iraq war, there were even more ominous signs that the al-Qaida movement and Taliban militias were subverting US counterinsurgency operations. Again, a column of the time reported:

"Al-Qaida claims that it has penetrated the major coalition operating bases such as Bagram air-base north of Kabul, and that it has support in much of the country, but especially in the Pashtun areas. These claims are quietly accepted by senior US military in the country, as is the fact that guerrilla units have active supply-lines and ample logistical support; both are made easier by the fact that they are operating in parts of Afghanistan where there is a deep-seated antagonism to US forces" (see "Afghanistan's evolving war", 4 September 2002).

This assessment was paralleled by an analysis from the independent, Houston-based security company Stratfor:

"Sources say that there are nightly attacks on U.S. troops, which is confirmed by non-governmental organizations in the country, who add that increased restrictions have been placed on the movement of off-duty U.S. forces. U.S. troops reportedly control only the towns where they have bases, and then only in daylight, while Karzai's government reportedly controls only parts of Kabul" (see "Situation Deteriorating Rapidly in Afghanistan", Stratfor, 28 August 2002).

The politics of forgetting

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, then, the belief that a short and intense military operation using overwhelming force would be enough to terminate the regime and ensure a clear victory foundered. Instead, in each case the initial phase of spectacular advance turned into a protracted war - now entering its seventh year in Iraq, and approaching its ninth year in Afghanistan.

This longer perspective on the two wars might caution against over-confidence in recommending new variants of earlier military solutions (see "Afghanistan: a misread war", 26 February 2009). Yet it is striking that some commentators in the United States persist in the view that Iraq has - after all - turned into a success-story, largely because of the George W Bush administration's military "surge" policy in 2007-08; and that a modified version of this policy could bring victory in Afghanistan (see Max Boot et al, "Yes We Can", Weekly Standard, 23 March 2009).

This assessment - an extension of the Republican "narrative of victory" promoted during the presidential-election campaign, which entails an excessively positive slant on trends in Iraq - ignores or underplays both the continuing violence and some of the many harsh effects of the entire war.

A direct measurement of civilian deaths in Iraq since 2003, for example, suggests a figure of over 95,000 killed (see Iraq Body Count). The indirect survey work done by the World Health Organisation (WHO) finds even higher figures. In addition, more than 200,000 people may have suffered serious injuries. The precise figures are subject to debate, but their enormity is beyond dispute (see Michel Thieren, "Deaths in Iraq: how many, and why it matters" [18 October 2006] and "Deaths in Iraq: the numbers game, revisited" [11 January 2008])

Behind these raw statistics is a huge landscape of loss, pain and grief. Four million Iraqis (out of a population of 27 million) have been displaced or been made refugees; 2.7 million within Iraq, a million in Syria and 200,000 in Jordan. There has also been systematic ethnic cleansing and forced separation of peoples, not least in Baghdad where the confessional balance has shifted from a roughly equal Sunni-Shi'a split in 2003 to an 85%-90% Shi'a majority today (see Juan Cole, "Cheney's Mission Accomplished", Informed Comment, 17 March 2009).

Moreover, at least 120,000 people have been detained without trial in Iraq since 2003, some of them for years. The United States's overall standing across the middle east has been further tarnished by widespread prisoner abuse, renditions and outright torture. A stark analysis of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) investigations examines the latest evidence of many of these violations (see Mark Danner, "Tales from torture's dark world" [International Herald Tribune, 16 March 2009] and "US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites" [New York Review of Books, 9 April 2009]).

A wilful forgetting of this enormous violence is part of the armoury of commentators intent on declaring the Iraq war a triumph and arguing that its instruments need to be applied in Afghanistan. Indeed, behind the neo-conservative drumbeat is a raw political calculation: that if Barack Obama does not approve a major escalation in Afghanistan (exceeding even the planned increase of 17,000 troops) he can be damned as the leader of a weak and incompetent administration, responsible for throwing away success in Iraq and the prospect of victory in Afghanistan.

The drone deal

The political shadow-war that seeks to extend Iraq lessons to Afghanistan has less to offer on Pakistan, where the United States military predicament is becoming both graver and more focused as "AfPak" comes to be seen as a single theatre of war (see "The AfPak war: Washington's three options", 23 February 2009).

The US is intent on extending the war more fully to Pakistan, even as that country is in the midst of a number of interlocking political and security crises (see "Pakistan: the new frontline", 18 September 2008). The prime means of its escalating intervention is the use of armed drones such as the Predator and the more heavily armed Reaper. The deployment of these drones has risen by a factor of twenty since 2001. The US air-force now has 195 Predators and twenty-eight Reapers, which are typically "flown" by technicians operating consoles at air-bases in Arizona and Nevada; the pressure of the workload in recent months is such that the air-force is trying to persuade retired personnel to return (see Christopher Drew, "Drones: the weapon of choice in fighting Al Qaeda", International Herald Tribune, 18 March 2009).

The use of these armed drones is militarily attractive, both because they do not involve any risk to aircrew and because they are relatively cheap (a Predator costs $4.5 million, against what can be $140 million for a strike-aircraft). At the same time they are notorious for inflicting large numbers of civilian casualties, which has provoked outrage in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Pakistani choice

This is where matters could come to a head in April-June 2009. Until now, Predator and special-forces operations in Pakistan have been very largely restricted to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the country's northwest; but Barack Obama and his team are coming under pressure to extend these operations further south, to the unsettled province of Balochistan (Baluchistan). This region borders several Afghan provinces, including Helmand and Kandahar, where Taliban and other militia activity has markedly expanded since 2006 (see David Sanger & Eric Schmitt, "U.S. may widen strikes in Pakistan", International Herald Tribune, 18 March 2009).

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 most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed Indeed the use by the Taliban, al-Qaida and other paramilitary groups of these Balochistan frontier areas as "safe havens" is in part a response to the increase of US drone activity in the FATA. A strictly military calculation would see an extension of US operations into Balochistan as an essential part of any strategy aiming at victory in its war (or anything approximating to this). But there are three great risks for Washington.

The first is that most Pakistanis see Balochistan as closer to the heartland of Pakistan than the FATA. Any persistent US military operations there would be viewed as even more serious a trespass on Pakistani sovereignty; and at the very time when the current mobilisation of Pakistani citizens has heightened sensitivity on this issue (see Mohsin Hamid, "Pakistan is being shaped by popular will as never before", Guardian, 17 March 2009).

The second is that Balochistan itself has been torn by an anti-government insurgency for several years (see Maruf Khwaja, "The Baluchi battlefront", 1 February 2006). Successive regimes in Islamabad have used the Pakistani army to try and maintain control; this has been greatly unpopular, and US involvement in the same province could prove an additional huge complication to a central government already facing great problems.

The third risk is the largest. The militias' safe havens in Balochistan are centred not on small villages, hamlets or even remote individual dwellings but in some of the most densely packed urban areas and Afghan refugee camps in and around the provincial capital of Quetta. It would be difficult to have much effect on the Afghan insurgents living there by conventional military means; the only way might then appear to be the use of drones against targets in these areas or of special forces in direct ground operations.

In both cases, the dangers of substantial civilian casualties would be much greater even than in the FATA. Moreover, from a Pakistani perspective there is a qualitative difference between foreign military forces operating in remote rural areas and fighting in a Pakistani city. The public's reaction to the former is already antagonistic; its reaction to the latter would be ballistic. Again, the political uncertainties surrounding the Pakistani government and polity multiply the perils here.

This amounts to a tough situation for the Barack Obama administration - at the very time when it faces mounting domestic economic problems. Much will be decided in the next two to three months. It is in this context that the resurgence of calls among some of the new president's rightwing opponents to extend the "AfPak" war is so significant. How Washington responds will determine what happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the next phase of this long war.

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