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Afghanistan’s twisting path

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Paul Rogers
9 July 2009

In the first week of July 2009, seven British soldiers were killed and over fifty injured (many of them seriously) in intensive combat in Afghanistan's Helmand province. The accumulation of casualties has had considerable media attention, though the rising death-toll has yet to cause major political controversy.Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford's peace-studies department produces frequent podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch here

The main political parties in Britain support the current military operations in Afghanistan; to a degree the withdrawal of British forces from Basra on 30 April 2009 makes it easier to do so, since the end of direct involvement in Iraq deflects the argument around the six-year war there. This has become focused on a public inquiry about Britain's involvement, originally intended to be held in secret but (after criticism from senior military and political figures) now to be held largely in the open.

But if the Afghanistan war is still less controversial than Iraq always was, there are still arguments about the reasons for British forces being in the country. Their presence and combat have a comparatively greater impact on Muslim communities in the country, not least as Britain is so closely linked to US military policy and tactics - including the persistent use of air-strikes by pilot less "drones" (see "Drone wars", 16 April 2009).

There have been several more of the latter in the past week, not least in western Pakistan where at least fifty people have been killed. They are all typically listed as "militants", but there is little effort at casualty counting or admittance of civilians being killed, in spite of the ubiquitous presence of numerous reconnaissance systems (including drones, aircraft and satellites).

The recent British losses stem from extensive operations in the Helmand river valley. This is part of a coordinated military operation involving thousands of US marines, which itself is loosely linked to Pakistani operations in the Swat valley and other parts of western Pakistan.

The impression is being given, especially from Pakistani army sources, that these operations are "taking the war to the enemy" and that Taliban and other militias are in retreat. The US and British military emphasise that the current operations are part of a process that will ensure the stabilisation of southern and eastern Afghanistan in the run-up to the presidential election on 20 August 2009.

The Taliban's advance

The scale of the United States and British effort in Helmand notwithstanding, there is little indication that Taliban militias are seeking to engage in open conflict. Instead, they tend to melt away in the face of intensive firepower, while inflicting most casualties on their western adversaries (as well as Afghan civilians) by roadside-bombs. More significant, however, is that local Taliban commanders are quite prepared to engage foreign forces directly when circumstances favour them.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 books include 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. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming

A striking example of this came on 4 July 2009. It coincided with the intensive American and British operations in Helmand; but it unfolded some hundreds of kilometres away in Paktika province, close to the Pakistan border. There, a small US outpost was subject to a sudden and intensive attack by scores of Taliban paramilitaries firing rockets and mortars as well as light arms, and even using artillery that projected white phosphorus (see M Karim Fayez & Laura King, "Attack on US Base in Eastern Afghanistan Kills Two Soldiers", Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2009).

The assault lasted several hours: two US soldiers were killed and a number injured, and the Taliban were only prevented from overrunning the post when air-strikes were used to disperse them. The incident demonstrates the ability of the paramilitaries to fight where they choose, as well as (in the Los Angeles Times's words) "militant groups' continuing capability to stage sophisticated, multipronged attacks in Afghanistan's eastern border zone, despite the Pakistani army's efforts in recent weeks to rein in insurgents who use the tribal areas in Pakistan as a staging ground."

The Delhi-Kabul express

This assessment raises the broader issue of the extent of support that Pakistan is actually offering. There are clear indications that United States-Pakistani cooperation in the key border areas is actually far more limited than is usually assumed (see Greg Jaffe, "Afghan-Pakistani Hostility Impedes U.S. Troops", Washington Post, 5 July 2009).

Such cooperation depends very much on good relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but these cannot be assumed. Instead, it appears that relations may actually be deteriorating at precisely the time - with the US operations in Helmand underway - when the opposite is most needed (see "The AfPak war: Washington's three options", 23 February 2009).

In an unfortunate piece of timing, there are signs of a considerable increase in collaboration between the Afghan and Indian governments - precisely the trend most likely to upset Islamabad and make cooperation with the US more difficult. An official press release by the government of India reports that the chief-of-staff of the Afghan national army, General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, is making a three-day visit to New Delhi on 6-9 July 2009.

An Indian defence-ministry source says: "During his visit he is likely to interact with senior officials in the military and civilian defence hierarchy to discuss various contemporary issues." India is already involved in training Afghan army staff in defence establishments but the current visit is likely to see cooperation extended to include training and support for the Afghan Army's force of Russian-made helicopter gunships (see Vivek Raghuvanshi, "India, Afghanistan To Discuss Closer Cooperation", Defense News, 6 July 2009).

The Indian leapfrog

The significance of the timing is difficult to exaggerate. Much of Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan, even dating to its support for the anti-Soviet insurgents in the 1980s, is predicated on a deep and persistent mistrust of India - its strategic rival and possessor of far greater economic and military power (see Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure", 11 July 2008). Afghanistan has been seen to provide a degree of strength in depth for Pakistan; the specific influence over the Taliban in the 1990s also meant that Pakistan had influence right through to central Asia.

This was, and is, made even more important by the singular accident of political geography that allows a narrow finger of Afghan territory to point towards and touch China. Pakistan may have no direct border with the central Asian states to the north, but close relations with Afghanistan have at least been something of a mitigating factor.

The last thing that Islamabad wants is any increase in Indian influence in Afghanistan. There has been considerable concern at the extent of the Indian diplomatic presence in Kabul and elsewhere, and the amount of financial assistance that New Delhi has offered. What is now happening is that India is leapfrogging into a relationship with that particular agency of the Afghan state that is the most significant of all in terms of security - the Afghan national army.

The fact that the Afghan chief-of-staff's visit to India should be taking place in the very week that the American and British military campaigns in Helmand are being accelerated is telling. The effect of these campaigns depends partly on high levels of cross-border cooperation with the Pakistani army. In this respect, General Mohammadi's discussions in New Delhi could hardly have come at a worse time.

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