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Afghanistan: the last throw

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 April 2009

The combination of a revised United States strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, announced by President Barack Obama on 26 March 2009, and an international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague on 31 March have refocused attention on the prospects of resolving the conflict in the region. But the US and other forces of the Nato/International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) coalition are attempting to find a way forward by pursuing tactics that increase the problems they face. 

An example is context of the attack on a police academy in Lahore on 30 March 2009. This received far greater media attention in Pakistan and beyond than did another significant incident in the same week in Orakzai district, namely the launch of a missile by a United States drone. The connection is that the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, in claiming responsibility for the Lahore operation, cited the frequent US attacks within Pakistani territory as the main motive. st1\:* { BEHAVIOR: url(#ieooui) }


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

The Orakzai drone assault, one of at least thirty-five such since August 2008, is reported to have killed twelve people. This brings the total killed by drones to more than 340 people in seven months. These attacks have been responsible for much of the upsurge in anti-American feeling in Pakistan. They have also been widely reported across the world (if much less so in the west), including extensive coverage of the civilian casualties, especially on the round-the-clock satellite TV news channels based in the middle east.

The Lahore and Orakzai attacks reflect the increasing insecurity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has been tracked in a number of recent columns in this series (see "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington", 19 March 2009). 

The three options

In response, Barack Obama's administration has been obliged to reconsider its options (see "The AfPak war: Washington's three options", 23 February 2009). The first was sobering: to recognise that the war was unwinnable, yet believe that the Taliban / al-Qaida must be prevented from returning to power. The implication was that maintaining the status quo by keeping 60,000-plus troops in the country was the best that could be hoped for; even if this involved a decades-long commitment, it would at least minimise the risk of further 9/11s (see "Afghanistan: a misread war", 26 February 2009).  

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The second option was based the belief that the war could be won, al-Qaida dispersed and defeated and the Taliban forced to negotiate on US terms or even wither away. The implication was that western troop deployments should be increased to over 100,000.

The third option was to accept that the war was unwinnable and that moreover the western presence, seen as an occupation, was counterproductive. The implication was that a fairly rapid withdrawal was needed, perhaps accompanied by greater United Nations involvement (including stabilisation forces drawn primarily from Muslim countries).


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

Many analysts now accept the idea that the second option - a strategy of victory - is untenable. This is far from a universal view, however, with more optimistic assessments being expressed even beyond the neo-conservative currents. Peter Bergen, for example, argues that the current Afghan insurgency numbers no more than 20,000 people compared with ten times that number fighting the Soviets in the 1980s; moreover, "the Soviet Army employed a scorched-earth policy, killing more than a million Afghans, forcing five million more to flee the country and sowing land mines everywhere" (see Peter Bergen, "Graveyard Myths", International Herald Tribune, 30 March 2009). In this view, the function of foreign forces is to provide the Afghans with security to enable them and their country to develop, and there is every chance that the US and its coalition partners can do just this.

Such a view echoes the reasoning of the Obama administration, which announced its new strategy for AfPak on 26 March. The policy it embodies goes beyond the first option, without ahowever nticipating a traditional military victory. The build-up of force is considerable - 4,000 extra troops already deployed; 17,000 more to go within the next few months; and now a further 4,000 troops to provide additional training to the Afghan national army. The total, 25,000 troops, is close to a doubling of US forces in barely six months.

Moreover, the United Nations-backed conference of around eighty countries in the Hague on 31 March 2009 has at last seen some direct engagement between the United States and Iran. The focus there was on mutual assistance in Afghanistan, where Washington and Tehran have converging interests.  The Iranians have been very prominent in northwest Afghanistan, but they have two deep-rooted concerns: opposition to a Taliban revival, and a critical problem of heroin addiction in their own country which strenuous efforts to police the Afghan/Iranian border have failed to counter.

A long-standing issue in Tehran has been the refusal of most western countries, especially the United States, to acknowledge the drug-control resources that the Iranians have committed to the border region - losing many young soldiers and police officers in the process. The new government in Washington appears willing to recognise this commitment and even coordinate some of its own actions with Tehran - a major change from the George W Bush administration.

The three problems

Even with this shift, however, Washington faces three large problems that inhibit the chance of progress in its Afghanistan policy. The first is the continuing need for engagement in Iraq, where there are ominous signs of unexpected renewal in what had appeared to become a quiescent insurgency. The marked increase in suicide-bombings and assassination is an indication of this (see Alissa J Rubin, "Iraq Insurgents Show a New Boldness in Cities", New York Times, 31 March 2009). A continuation of this process could threaten the timetable for American troop withdrawals, in turn making problematic a further increase in forces in Afghanistan.

The second problem is the deterioration in security in Pakistan. The ferocious assault on a police academy in Lahore - so soon after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in the same city - confirms that instability has spread well beyond the provinces and federally-administered districts bordering Afghanistan.  This in turn draws Pakistani army units away from those regions in a way that highlights the security vacuum and creates more pressure on the US military to increase its military operations within Pakistan.

The third problem, and perhaps the most significant, is the development of what some regional analysts call the "neo-Taliban". The designation is used to convey a reinvigorated coalition that incorporates a number of elements: al-Qaida paramilitaries, Taliban elements from both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border, Kashmiris and fighters from outside the immediate region, including those with experience in Iraq (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "The rise and rise of the neo-Taliban" Asia Times, 1 April 2009).

This is accompanied by an important inner change. The horizons of the more traditional Taliban of Afghanistan in the 1990s - even at a time when Osman bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were active and influential - was no greater than the country; the movement in a sense was a nationalist one, with the idea of their war as part of a global phenomenon secondary. Today, the neo-Taliban are more likely to embrace the concept of a global struggle that may stretch over generations.

The core reality

These problems may become more apparent in the next few months, as a movement that has demonstrated its capacity to adapt and switch tactics poses fresh challenges to the expanded Nato forces in Afghanistan. Much of the Taliban's focus will be less on guerrilla attacks on western forces and much more on attacks on "prestige targets", including attempts to assassinate leading figures. 

The aim will be to put western forces on the defensive by forcing them to invest resources in protecting the security of the Afghan government and its leading figures. With Nato forces thus tied up in defensive operations, they will be even less able - so the calculation goes - to secure territory from Taliban elements and their associates. The paramilitaries will also undertake offensive operations, some conducted by militia groups moving for short periods from relatively safe areas in western Pakistan. 

The response of the US military and those of its Nato partners involved in direct combat-operations will be to use great force in Afghanistan, and for the CIA to increase its use of drone attacks - and perhaps even launch regular special-forces operations - in Pakistan. The effect of such tactics, if the pattern of previous such cycles is a guide, will - especially if more civilian casualties are inflicted, almost inevitable given the west's massive firepower advantage - be to consolidate support for the paramilitaries among the affected populations. 

The core reality is that the Barack Obama administration is in a serious predicament, which its new strategy can affect only at the margins. This predicament is most decidedly not of the new administration's own making; it goes right back to the response to 9/11 - namely, the termination of the Taliban regime in Kabul. The impact of the 9/11 atrocities and the nature of the George W Bush administration may have made that response inevitable; but it was still a grave error, ensuring as it did that the US and its coalition partners fell into a trap of al-Qaida's making.

Even today and even under more intelligent leadership, however, the voices in Washington arguing that victory is possible and retreat unthinkable are strong enough to ensure that the war will go on. It will not be too long before the war in Afghanistan moves to the end of its first decade. The logic of current events is that it will be the first of several.

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