Afghanistan under siege

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
23 November 2006

Afghanistan in 2006 was not supposed to be like this. The period around the fifth anniversary of the Taliban's evacuation of Kabul on 12 November 2001 has been a time of renewed worry rather than celebration for the government of Hamid Karzai and the 41,000 western troops (under two separate missions) deployed in the country.

The predicament of United States, British and Canadian forces facing a resurgent Taliban in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar is particularly severe. The expectation of the large contingent of British troops that started operations in Helmand province in May-June 2006 was engagement in reconstruction and development work designed to "win Afghan hearts and minds" - and with scarcely a shot being fired.

The reality - as outlined in an earlier column in this series ("Afghanistan's war season", 22 June 2006) - was that the soldiers were being pitched into a violent environment where Taliban activity was escalating. The result was a focus not on reconstruction but on counterinsurgency operations.

Three months later, it was being widely recognised that a full-scale Taliban revival was underway across much of southern Afghanistan; another column - "Al-Qaida's new terrain", 14 September 2006 - highlighted the extent of the military operations being conducted by the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and by separate formations of US troops.

On 20 November, Tony Blair followed his discussions in Pakistan with a quick visit to Afghanistan (both described as being in the "Middle East" on the British prime minister's official website). There, he made much of the need to regain control of security, especially in the southern provinces where the British contingent of Isaf is based. Much of the emphasis in his comments was on the need for Nato reinforcements, both in terms of additional personnel and tougher rules of engagement.

At the Nato summit in Riga, Latvia (28-29 November 2006), Britain is expected to make a double call on its allies: for more troops, and for the troops already there to be allowed to engage much more directly in combat with Taliban and other paramilitary groups.

The anticipation of a relatively quiet period during the 2006-07 winter has apparently influenced British strategists to consider that this will be an opportunity to insert new troops and equipment, and give them a wider remit for responding to a renewed and possibly increased Taliban insurgency in spring 2007.

The key point is that this is yet one more example of the "control" paradigm that has been such a feature of the entire war on terror, including the disastrous regime termination and subsequent occupation of Iraq. There is to be no other way; little thought seems to have been given to the possibility that increasing the intensity of military action in Afghanistan might be just what the Taliban and their al-Qaida associates actually want.

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 futility of force

Two points are particularly relevant here: the sheer extent of Taliban activity over the past few months, five years after the movement's supposed destruction; and the intensity of the military tactics currently being used by Isaf and the United States forces.

The first point was a feature of the testimony issue of the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, General Michael Maples, to the Senate armed services committee on 15 November. He said that violence in Afghanistan in 2006 was likely to be at twice the level of 2005, and that Taliban forces could maintain this through to 2007.

Moreover, the massive use of firepower by Isaf and US forces had made little difference. General Maples said: "Despite having absorbed heavy combat losses in 2006, the insurgency has strengthened its capabilities and influence with its core base of Pashtun communities".

Other official sources estimate that the level of insurgent activity may actually have been much higher than General Maples estimated. The Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board in Afghanistan (the implementation mechanism of the Afghanistan Compact) calculates that there have been 3,700 deaths so far in 2006 and the number of attacks has increased markedly; 600 people are currently being killed each month.

During 2005 there were around 130 insurgent attacks a month; by March 2006, this had risen sharply to 300. There was then a surge during the summer months to 600 attacks a month by September.

The CIA has reached a broadly similar conclusion, with the additional factor that it singles out al-Qaida for special mention; the CIA's director, General Michael V Hayden, reported to the Senate that "the lessons learned in Iraq are being applied in Afghanistan", and cited the manner in which roadside bombs and suicide attacks are becoming more common.

The second point relates to the nature of the response to this renewed violence. Here, the use of the western forces' (and especially the US air force's) overwhelming advantage in military firepower is particularly significant.

From a military perspective this may be understandable. Young men and women have been deployed to provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar with relatively light weapons and lightly-armoured vehicles. Instead of ensuring security with what would have amounted to fairly robust policing methods, they have become engaged in a full-scale guerrilla war and have taken significant casualties.

For their own protection, if for nothing else, they have frequently been forced to call for the substantial use of airpower to try and suppress the forces attacking them. Yet the frequency with which this has become necessary is remarkable. In the past six months alone, US planes have conducted more than 2,000 air-strikes, made up either of bombing raids or strafing runs. Many of the bombing raids have been conducted by the US air force's B-1B strategic bombers which were originally operating from Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean (see David S Cloud, "US Airstrikes Climb Sharply in Afghanistan", International Herald Tribune, 17 November 2006).

The demands on the planes and the long flight times from Diego Garcia to Afghanistan mean that the entire force of B-1Bs previously based at Diego Garcia has been relocated to an air base in the middle east. In view of political sensitivities, the US air force prefers to keep this deployment secret; but analysts suspect it is one of the large bases in the interior of Oman, possibly Thumrait. This installation has been used by western air forces over a number of years, with B-1 bombers being routed there more than two years ago (see "The American military: all stressed out", 8 April 2004)

The increased use of air power is also shown by the sheer quantity of ordnance fired. This has amounted to 987 bombs dropped in the first ten months of 2006, and 146,000 cannon-rounds and bullets used in strafing runs. These figures exceed the ordnance used from the onset of the war in Afghanistan in October 2001 through to the end of 2004.

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 new book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, November 2006)

The prospect is more

What this all means is that insurgent activity has increased substantially during 2006 and the response from the United States and its coalition partners has been to massively increase the use of firepower. An inevitable result, as reported frequently in this series of columns, has been the large numbers of civilian casualties. There is abundant evidence that such casualties are making people across much of southern Afghanistan increasingly anti-American and even pro-Taliban. Moreover, as General Maples pointed out to the Senate committee, the end result has actually been a stronger and more influential insurgency.

Western military strategy seems to take no account of this, and it is likely that the coming months will be used to reinforce the military capabilities available to Nato, making it possible to use much tougher measures by summer 2007.

In all probability this would serve mainly to increase antagonism to what could come to be seen as a violent foreign military occupation, a veritable gift to the Taliban militias and even to the more shadowy al-Qaida presence, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It is just possible that wider counsel might prevail, with much more emphasis being put on engaging the dissidents in dialogue, even to the extent of incorporating some of the more moderate Taliban elements into political negotiations. Many astute observers now believe that this may be the only way forward, given the public support that Taliban groups have now gained across considerable parts of southern Afghanistan.

For the moment, though, the military approach predominates, opening the way to a potentially even more intense conflict by summer 2007. If the strategy persists, many more thousands of people may have to die next year before the United States and its Nato partners finally begin to look for another way.

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