Afghanistan-Iraq, and America's fix

The Taliban assault on key sites in central Kabul highlights the strategic predicament of the United States and its Nato allies in Afghanistan. The forewarnings were present a decade ago, in ways that still cast a shadow on the present and future.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
19 April 2012

The war in Afghanistan again reached the heart of Kabul on 15-16 April 2012 with a series of coordinated Taliban assaults on western and Afghan targets, including embassies and Nato's headquarters, in the city. The three distinct operations in the capital, which disrupted its central area for eighteen hours, were complemented by two more in Jalalabad, one in Gardez and another in the eastern city of Pul-e-Alam.

The Afghan National Army and the Afghan police were in the forefront of handling the emergency, in accordance with the west's strategy of attempting to devolve more responsibility to these agencies; though to bring the attacks to an end the United States eventually had to bring in helicopter-gunships.

Three features of the Kabul incidents are notable: how few Taliban were directly involved (barely forty, though with many more in back-up support), how sophisticated they were (involving considerable planning and advance intelligence), and how far both Nato and Afghan government forces were taken by surprise (even though there were precedents, using similar tactics, in August-September 2011) (see "America's wars: the logic of escalation", 22 September 2011).

These attacks come at a tough time for the western coalition: the Australian government has announced an accelerated timetable for its withdrawal of troops, while in the US opinion-polls estimate domestic support for the war at around 30% and Afghan opposition to the US presence at 62% (see Jim Lobe, "Taliban Attacks Weaken U.S., NATO Position", IPS/TerraViva, 18 April 2012).

It is then understandable that, amid Nato's insistence that the war is still worthwhile, serious criticism is growing by the week (see "Afghanistan: the new endgame", 16 March 2012). Some of the most pointed accounts are emerging from informed insiders (such as Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Davis) who expose the hollowness of official, inflated claims of progress (see "Afghan war whistleblower Daniel Davis: "I had to speak out - lives are at stake", Observer, 14 April 2012).

Such critiques feed into an intense debate in Washington over the fate of the entire operation, which will extend to the forthcoming Nato summit in Chicago (on 20-21 May 2012) - though most of the contributions will be kept private.

The early signals

As the full extent of the Afghan failure becomes more and more apparent, some thoughtful explanations are being offered. The former diplomat Carne Ross - who resigned over the policy Britain was pursuing at the United Nations towards Iraq - the strategy was flawed from the start by the fact that that western forces were essentially siding with one faction in a domestic war, drawn mainly from the Northern Alliance:

"The truth was that we had joined one side in a civil war that had raged for decades, has not ceased despite the allied presence, and will resume with full force once the western forces depart". The Taliban were to be excluded from any role in the reordering of the country, and "(it) was simply assumed that they would disappear" (see Carne Ross, "An illusion exposed", Guardian, 17 April 2012).

Nonetheless, in the two years following the launch of the war in Afghanistan in October 2001 - and in a pattern familiar both from earlier and later wars - a military strategy based on a fundamental misunderstanding was pursued with vigour. The result would have profound implications for the "war on terror".

The military morass

By November 2001, a combination of United States airpower, special forces and (in particular) the rapid arming and reinforcing of the Northern Alliance militias ensured the relatively easy overthrow of the Taliban regime. By December, the Taliban seemed to have disappeared, though in fact most had withdrawn undefeated from Kabul. The mood in Washington turned from the shock and anger of the post-9/11 days towards triumphalism, and in the process the focus of core figures in the George W Bush administration was already shifting towards Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Its removal was at the heart of the influential programme for revitalising the United States's global power, the Project for a New American Century.

What was at the time scarcely registered outside of a few military journals - and is largely forgotten even today - is that in significant parts of southeast Afghanistan, the war continued after the phantom victory of late 2001. Several early columns in this series chronicled this aspect, and informed an early assessment of the war as a whole (see A War on Terror: Afghanistan and After [Pluto, 2004]).

These columns reported, for example, extensive fighting in March 2002, especially around Gardez (see "The spiral of war" [7 March 2002] and "No end in sight" [20 March 2002]); and a wave of guerrilla attacks (see "An arc of conflict", 23 May 2002).

These instances of combat led the Pentagon to deploy more troops to Afghanistan's southeast. By September, it had 10,000 troops there:

"Here and there, some information seeps out. Two weeks ago, some 2,000 US and coalition troops conducted one of the largest search operations of the war in south-eastern Afghanistan. Operation Mountain Sweep was intended to kill or capture numerous Taliban and al-Qaida guerrilla units operating in a range of villages and towns.

"The eight-day operation was a failure. The entire process yielded a van-load of weapons, two caches of documents and ten prisoners, with every indication that the entire operation had been thoroughly compromised" (see "Afghanistan: the evolving war", 4 September 2002).

The US commercial intelligence group Stratfor was rare among proponents of the war in providing a sobering and blunt overview:

"U.S. troops reportedly control only the towns where they have bases, and then only in daylight, while the Karzai government reportedly controls only part of Kabul" (see "Situation deteriorating rapidly in Afghanistan", Stratfor, 28 August 2002).

This bitter low-level warfare was a severe reality-check to the the Pentagon, and helps explain why in the course of 2002 the Pentagon was far more cautious than the George W Bush administration over the security situation in Afghanistan and the potential for the Taliban to re-emerge as a potent insurgent force.

The ideological fix

This return to the early (2002-03) stages of Afghanistan's war raises the obvious question: why were these obvious signs of continuing trouble and resistance on the ground ignored? The answer lies in a single word: Iraq.

Even by March 2002, the White House was almost exclusively concerned with preparing the way for regime termination in Baghdad. This fixation offered the welcome additional prospect of the containment of Washington’s real enemy - Iran - through the establishment of American military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the US fifth fleet's securing of control of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

Even the sustained attacks in Afghanistan throughout 2002 did nothing to alter the US's unbending focus on Iraq. A mindset was operating that could or would not face the implications of what was happening more than a thousand miles to Iraq's east.

The results of the misjudgments made then were to be felt across the ensuing decade. They include the eight-year war in Iraq, whose devastating consequences are still active (see "Iraq: No better with no Uncle Sam", Economist, 14 April 2012), and in what will be at least twelve years of foreign occupation and war in Afghanistan. In the latter case, the grim prospect is of further conflict when the western forces finally withdraw. The chronicle of a war foretold continues.

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