Afghanistan in an amorphous war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 June 2008

An incident causing major loss of life in Iraq, and an enduring pattern of low-level violence in north Africa, have created concern that the cautious sense of progress in the campaign against al-Qaida in recent months may prove more apparent than real. Even these serious events, however, are overshadowed by evidence of a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. At the same time, all these theatres of the global "war on terror" share underlying affinities that United States strategy in this war is tending to reinforce.

The Iraqi incident was a car-bomb attack on a crowded Baghdad market on 17 June 2008 which killed sixty-three people and wounded seventy-eight. This, the most destructive explosion in the city since 6 March, was all the more painful for coming at a time when a certain optimism about Iraq's security and wider prospects was achieving traction (see "Iraq starts to fix itself", Economist, 12 June 2008). A further aspect of this was the declining number of victims, both American (in May 2008, nineteen soldiers died, the lowest monthly total than in any month since the war began in March 2003) and Iraqi (civilian casualties were also at a relatively low level in May - although still in the hundreds).

These signs of improvements had done much to support the view - expressed most vocally on the American right, but shared by others too - that the war in Iraq was, or was becoming, winnable. Those sympathetic to John McCain in the presidential campaign suggest that he should make this theme (and his broader support for the war and the US's military "surge" strategy) a centrepiece of his contest with Barack Obama (see Charles Krauthammer, "McCain must make case for Iraq", Newsday, 19 Jun 2008). The implication here is that Iraq is and will remain what it has been - the pivot of the entire "war on terror", where the now-expected destruction of what is termed "al-Qaida in Iraq" is a sign of decisive progress in the war as a whole.

The Afghan landscape

The progress that has been made in increasing security for many Iraqi citizens - partly through the social division of much of the population by repeated bouts of fighting and expulsion, partly through the deals made with elements of the Sunni community against al-Qaida forces, partly though the exhaustions of war - is given as justification of this optimistic view. This approach, however, tends to ignore other, more uncomfortable pointers to the al-Qaida movement's condition - including the attack on 2 June on the Danish embassy in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad; and a series of bombings on 4-8 June in Algeria that killed a number of people (the precise total is in dispute). The most important of these trends is the upsurge in violence in Afghanistan. In May 2008, the deaths among coalition troops in that country exceeded those in Iraq for the first time; June has also been marked by numerous hits against British troops, which took the total killed in the war to 106.

There had earlier been a widespread anticipation that the summer months would see a renewed Taliban offensive in southern Afghanistan, although there was also some caution about the prospect of major attacks (see "Al-Qaida's afterlife", 29 May 2008). The fact that overwhelming firepower is available to Nato forces has made it all the more likely that Taliban and other militias would opt to diversify and "miniaturise" its tactics, including the use of roadside- and suicide-bombs.

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 war in Afghanistan has been attracting less media attention in the United States than that in Iraq, and the evolving reportage of the presidential campaign may accentuate the contrast (see Jim Malone, "Iraq: The Defining Difference Between McCain, Obama", VOA, 13 June 2008). But inside the Pentagon it was becoming clear that the security problem there was rapidly developing, in part because many districts in western Pakistan had become safe havens for Taliban, al-Qaida and other militias.

The US response to this increased threat has been threefold:

* increase troop levels in Afghanistan and seek to take overall responsibility for the counterinsurgency war, at least in the southern and southeastern parts of the country

* pressurise Pakistan to limit militia operations in its own western districts

* make a determined effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

An announcement by Britain's ministry of defence series of incidents in which British troops were killed led the country's Britain's ministry of defence to announce a further increase of 230 in troop numbers, taking the total to around 8,030 by spring 2009 - though this was linked to a claim that the Taliban were in retreat rather than making gains. This bullish assessment contrasted with a more cautious measure of the condition of security in Afghanistan from the senior US army commander in the country, General Dan K McNeill, at the end of his sixteen-month posting on 3 June (see Ann Scott Tyson, "A Sober Assessment of Afghanistan", Washington Post, 15 June 2008).

McNeill emphasised that the last three years had seen a gradual resurgence of Taliban activity. At the same time, the number of troops operating under Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) had risen over a three-year period to 53,000 from forty countries. But this was not enough, McNeill contended: a much larger troop deployment would be required if the Taliban militias were to be defeated.

The Taliban vision

Three major developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan that took place within days of McNeill's departure from the country both underpinned his judgment and gave an indication of the likely course of events in summer 2008.

The first was the killing on 10 June of eleven members of Pakistan's official Frontier Corps as a result of a US air-strike. Some reports say that the Pakistani troops were actually aiding a Taliban group under attack by US and Afghan troops close to the border. This has not been confirmed, but it would not be entirely surprising, given local sympathies for fellow-Pushtun Pakistani paramilitaries in some parts of the Pakistani army (see Anna Mulrine, "Pakistan's Border Badlands Are a Challenge for the Next President", US News & World Report, 13 June 2008.

More important, though, is the reaction within Pakistan to this event. The loss of life has intensified a deep-seated public antipathy to the United States and its conduct of its "war on terror". The killing of the Frontier Corps soldiers will make it difficult for a Pakistani government of any persuasion to work with Washington. Moreover, the incident comes at a time when the Pentagon's closest ally in Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf - still the country's president, though weakened after the elections of February 2008 - is facing severe political challenges to his authority, and may even be obliged to resign in the next few weeks (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "US strike hits Pakistan's raw nerve", Asia Times, 12 June 2008).

The second development was the extraordinary break-out from Sarpoza prison in Kandahar, in an operation planned and executed by Taliban elements. In a coordinated assault where the explosion of a bomb hidden in a road-tanker was followed by a direct paramilitary invasion of the city's main prison, several hundred Taliban prisoners were released. The incident is all the more serious because (as is perhaps not fully appreciated in the western media) Kandahar is one of the main centres of coalition military resources in Afghanistan, host (for example) to its second-largest air base.

The third development compounded the Taliban attack on the jail. This was the deployment of at least 500 paramilitaries to overrun a number of villages close to Kandahar. At the same time, the combination of the jail attack and the subsequent offensive is unlikely to mark the start of a Taliban operation to take control of Kandahar, since Nato with all its firepower will not allow that to happen. What is more probable is that this operation is a show of strength, and the prelude to a Nato counter-offensive which the Taliban forces will respond to by melting away until the next opportunity is chosen.

The two actions show is that the Taliban militias do not have to limit their operations to small-scale guerrilla attacks; the level of their support means that they are well beyond that and can engage in large-scale offensives too, at a time of their own choosing.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy here.

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed.

More generally, the Taliban strategists will see this as one part of the early stage of a decades-long war; they do not have to win in the conventional military sense, they merely have to outlast those foreign forces seen as the occupiers, especially in the face of divisions within Nato (see Anna Mulrine, "A Struggling Coalition of the Willing and the Not-So-Willing", US News & World Report, 16 June 2008).

The global horizon

These recent developments in Afghanistan confirm that the focus of the US "war on terror" may really be shifting eastwards. At the very moment when neo-conservative elements in Washington speak of winning the Iraq war, that very war is becoming less relevant in the context of the larger picture. The US insistence on maintaining a very large military presence there indicates that the Iraq war is far from reaching its endgame, but in one sense it has already served its purpose (see Tom Englehardt, "The Greatest Story Never Told: Finally, the US Mega-Bases in Iraq Make the News", TomDispatch.com, 15 June 2008).

More than five years of fighting in Iraq have given the wider al-Qaida / jihadist movement a new generation of paramilitaries trained against well-armed and equipped US soldiers and marines. Many of the tactics honed in Iraq are now being applied in Afghanistan, not least in the form of roadside bombs and the tactical nous employed to avoid Nato's air power (see Caroline Gammell & Tom Coghlan, "The increasing sophistication of Afghanistan's roadside bombs", Daily Telegraph, 18 June 2008). All this, combined with the persistent uncertainties in Iraq, and the significant and under-reported currents in north Africa, means that the "war on terror" has moved on.

Whether they are right or wrong, those who claim that Iraq is or is becoming a success fail to realise that the country's importance in the global arena of conflict is diminishing. This has been the recurrent story of the George W Bush administration's "war on terror". It is a further reason to argue that, in the absence of fundamental changes of approach, the world is still in the early stages of a decades-long confrontation.


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