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A new struggle for Afghanistan

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Paul Rogers
22 December 2005

The Bush administration’s loss of domestic political support over the past six months has led it to respond with a vigorous programme of telling the good news. In addition to the series of speeches from President Bush himself, this has involved positive statements from defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and visits by vice-president Dick Cheney to Iraq and Afghanistan and by Rumsfeld to Pakistan.

Rumsfeld considers that Osama bin Laden is so much on the run that he has little or no influence on the wider al-Qaida movement: "I have trouble believing he is able to operate sufficiently to be in a position of major command over a worldwide al-Qaida operation, but I could be wrong". This follows a statement by the United States ambassador in Islamabad, Ryan C Crocker, that the movement was in serious trouble.

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Rumsfeld's comments were part of a renewed US emphasis on developments in Afghanistan. Dick Cheney was present to mark the first sitting of the new parliament, hailing this as a major step to what some describe as "normalisation". The impression is being given that progress is now evident across much of the country, even to the extent that US troop levels can be decreased. This coincides with the view that al-Qaida is in retreat and that Osama bin Laden is a leader without influence.

These developments, reinforced by the elections in Iraq, all serve to deliver the message that the “war on terror” is being won, Iraq is on a path to peace, and that although Bush has been through a difficult period the worst is now over. The problem for this optimistic view is that too many realities are intruding, with the sudden emphasis on al-Qaida and Afghanistan being particularly unfortunate when exposed to even a modest level of analysis.

It may well be that Osama bin Laden has little direct influence over the al-Qaida network, but this has probably been true for most of the last three years and has done little to stop the movement's activities. In the past few months alone, there have been the London, Bali, Sinai and Amman bombings as well as the Aqaba attack on US warships – quite apart from the al-Qaida-linked actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, bin Laden's role is far less of a major command function in al-Qaida than as a figurehead – and a figurehead who has produced a wide range of carefully thought-out statements and speeches that show a depth that is far beyond the normal representation of him as a thoughtless fanatic. Whatever the brutality of many al-Qaida actions, they are coming from a worldview that is both sophisticated and consistent (see Faisal Devji, “Osama bin Laden’s message to the world”, 21 December 2005). Rumsfeld's representation of bin Laden simply misses the point.

Afghanistan’s insecurity

Within Afghanistan, there is no doubt that the elections and the inauguration of the new parliament represent real political progress, even if this week's decision to elect one of President Karzai's most notable rivals, Younis Qanooni, to the position of speaker makes it likely that the bitter divisions that have been below the surface will now come to the fore (see Griff Witte, "Afghan Assembly Picks Opponent of President as Leader", Washington Post, 22 December 2005).

The wider problem is that beyond Kabul there are just too many indications of developing security problems, just at a time when US forces are likely to be decreased. The United States currently has some 19,000 troops in Afghanistan, most of them engaged in fighting an entrenched insurgency stemming mainly from Taliban elements. The US is desperate to decrease its commitment, not least because of the overstretch caused by the much larger Iraq commitments, and wants to see other Nato partners increase their deployments and areas of operation.

The Nato forces are part of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) which operates a peace-enforcing role in Kabul and a number of other cities rather than a counter-insurgency role; but the plan is to change Isaf’s focus, with a greater deployment of soldiers to a number of southern and southeastern provinces.

The problem is that this is coming at a time of increased insurgency, with numerous attacks on US and Nato troops coupled with the more widespread use of suicide-bombs, a relatively new phenomenon for Afghanistan. Much of what is happening across the country is scarcely being covered in the western press, although an exception is the recent series of reports from the BBC's Andrew North (see "Doubts grow over US Afghan Strategy", 23 November 2005 and "Losing the War on Afghan drugs" 4 December 2005).

Perhaps the most careful coverage comes from the monthly reviews of the British Agencies Afghanistan Group, a coalition of British aid charities working in the country. Its November report catalogues a remarkable range of attacks of four types against a variety of targets.

The first is the use of suicide-bombs and other tactics to hit United States and Nato forces, with a recent particular emphasis on Isaf units. A second is the assaults on aid workers and expatriates engaged in reconstruction projects. A third type of attack is operations against the Afghan police, with November alone seeing seven major attacks across the country leaving twenty-six officers killed and many injured.

A fourth is the persistent targeting of government officials and facilities. To take just three examples: the deputy governor of Nimroz province, Haji Namatullah, was assassinated on 10 November; the following day a former district chief in Helmand was murdered as he prayed in a mosque; and on 26 November, twenty rockets hit government offices in Sharana, the administrative centre of Paktika province, killing an intelligence officer.

Across Afghanistan as a whole, at least 1,400 people have been killed so far in 2006, according to the BBC’s Andrew North; he quotes the view of Paul Barker, country director for Care International, that the security situation is slowly deteriorating. Given that Barker has worked in the country for seven years, he perhaps has a better perspective than Dick Cheney.

The prospect for 2006

There are significant indications that Afghan insurgents are adopting the tactic of directly targeting Isaf troops – most likely aimed at undercutting European support for Isaf’s expansion. In a number of Nato states there is support for Isaf's peace-support operations but far less commitment to mixing this up with a larger counterinsurgency role, so targeting Isaf forces before this transition occurs is a sophisticated tactic by the insurgents.

There is wider recognition that Taliban and other elements were far more active in summer 2005 than in the previous two years, and the combined activities of many thousands of US troops in Afghanistan and Pakistani army operations in the border areas have failed to bring this under control. Given that winter conditions limit operations on both sides, the concern now is with what happens in spring 2006.

It is here that the situation is particularly worrying, with indications that the Taliban in particular are developing new tactics and sources of arms (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Armed and Dangerous: Taliban Gear Up", Asia Times, 22 December 2005). A persistent problem for the insurgents has been the lack of modern armaments. The Taliban dispersed after its regime was eliminated in November 2001 with relatively few modern weapons – in contrast to Iraq opponents of the United States-led invasion in 2003, who had access to the numerous arms caches that the Saddam Hussein regime had established. The result is that most of Afghanistan’s current insurgency has been waged with locally produced weapons as well as traditional tactics.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers’s Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)

This is changing rapidly in two respects. The first is the increasing link between jihadists in Iraq and their counterparts in Afghanistan, seen in the increasing use of suicide bombings together with more sophisticated explosive and detonation systems for roadside bombs. The second is the opening up of new smuggling routes, some of them resulting from links with the Tamil Tigers and using their long-established sources of supply. This means that as the next summer of fighting approaches, the Taliban and its al-Qaida associates will have more equipment and it will be more reliable.

Perhaps most worrying is the report that these will include shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. These were widely used against the Soviets in the 1980s, but they are weapons that do not store well, particularly in Afghanistan's climatic conditions, and any stock still around are almost all useless. If the reported availability of entirely new supplies is accurate, then that could have considerable political significance.

Just as United States forces start a partial withdrawal in 2006, in the run-up to the congressional mid-term elections, there could be a major upsurge in Afghanistan, with the insurgents having access to far more effective weapons systems. That could do much to limit European willingness to increase their security commitments to the country, and would certainly counter recent American claims of progress across Afghanistan.

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