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Afghanistan-Pakistan: zone of insecurity

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 October 2007

A notable speech by Britain's defence minister Des Browne on 24 September 2007 accepting the need to negotiate with Taliban groups in Afghanistan appeared to be a signal a change of policy by the British government (see "Afghanistan: six years of war", 4 October 2007). In one respect, however, this was also an echo of actual practice on the ground, where British soldiers deployed to Helmand province have frequently dealt with local leaders known to have links to the Taliban.

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 2001But the formal authority and public platform of Browne's speech lends it the character of a policy departure; if this proves to be reflected in a fresh approach over the coming winter in Afghanistan (routinely a period of diminished violence in any case) then it could create some prospect of progress, at least in the areas where British troops are deployed.

At the same time, this small sign of hope comes at a time when violence across the border in Pakistan has escalated rapidly, particularly in border districts such as North Waziristan. A series of incidents gives an indication of this trend:

* on 4 September, a bus carrying workers to Pakistan's powerful Inter-Service Intelligence headquarters was bombed in Rawalpindi, killing twenty-two people

* on 13 September, a suicide-bomber penetrated the officer's mess of a key commando training centre, killing seventeen

* on 1 October, a bombing in Bannu in northwest Pakistan killed four policemen among a total of fifteen killed; and in a separate incident, twenty troops went missing in the same area

* on 10 October, bombs exploded in six music shops in North West Frontier Province, and a policeman was killed in the gun-battle that resulted

* around 250 troops remain in Taliban hands after being taken hostage in September, contributing to a situation where Pakistan's army is reported to be experiencing severe problems of poor morale (see Carlotta Gall, "Militants exploit disarray in Pakistan's tribal region", International Herald Tribune, 11 October 2007).

A political vice

An incident on on 6 October 2007 and its aftermath in Pakistan's unsettled North Waziristan province represent an escalation of this pattern in a way that is also significant politically. That day saw a militia attack on an army convoy that was followed by repeated bombing raids by Pakistani air-force planes. Around 600 people were killed in four days of assaults and fighting between the Pakistan army and Taliban and other militias; most of them are reported to be civilians, but at least forty-seven Pakistani soldiers are among the dead (see "Civilians killed in Pakistan battle", al-Jazeera, 10 October 2007)

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 latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament

Informed sources believe that President-elect Musharraf's decision to use heavy airpower is because of United States concerns that Taliban elements have been grouping in western Pakistan for major actions against coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "From Washington to war in Waziristan", Asia Times, 10 October 2007). Washington, after concentrating almost exclusively on Iraq for many months, appears belatedly to have recognised the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The George W Bush administration favours (and indeed has promoted) the "deal" agreed by Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf in which the former would return to the prime ministership and the latter be confirmed as president; but its real concern is to encourage a much higher level of anti-Taliban actions in the border districts.

For Musharraf, and potentially for Benazir Bhutto, there are dangers here - especially given the deep-seated opposition to the United States in many sectors of Pakistani society. There is a clear possibility that the high levels of civilian casualties that will inevitably result from sustained air assaults could threaten the stability of any new Musharraf-Bhutto political regime almost before it has begun. But for the United States, this is a risk that must be taken (see Najam Sethi, "Musharraf in the Middle", Wall Street Journal, 11 October 2007).

A quiet escalation

This calculation comes in parallel with reports of a remarkable reinforcement of US forces across the border in Afghanistan. Although many of the US forces are committed to Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), many thousands of them operate in a more overt counterinsurgency role that is not under NATO auspices. There are a number of bases from which the US forces operate, but two constitute the main focus - Kandahar in the southeast and Bagram, which is close to Kabul.

US military sources are cautious about indicating the level of their forces now in Afghanistan; Associated Press reports that the figure is around 25,000 US military personnel, with other Nato countries deploying similar numbers. This, if correct, suggests that there are around 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, over 10,000 more than was indicated by earlier reports. AP quotes one US source that an additional brigade of US troops (probably around 4,000 soldiers) has been deployed to Bagram, and this will account for nearly half of the addition (see Jason Straziuso, "Six Years Later, US Expands Afgan Base", AP, 7 October 2007).

Overall, this means that coalition forces are now at by far their highest level since the war began in October 2001. Moreover, Bagram itself is now the site of a major expansion programme that is highly revealing of US plans for the future.

A troubled axis

After the defeat of the Taliban in November 2001, Bagram was expected to be a temporary base for around 3,000 troops, but it later expanded to 7,000 and now houses 13,000. It is the heart of a huge military-construction programme - a new runway can take heavy-lift aircraft such as the C-5 Galaxy and the Boeing 747, permanent barrack blocks are being built and the local workforce has increased from 1,500 two years ago to 5,000 now.

The US build-up is paralleled by a substantial increase in the British deployments. From spring 2008, all three regular battalions of the Parachute Regiment, backed up by soldiers from the Territorial Army's 4 Para, will deploy to Helmand. These will be joined by nearly half the Scottish infantry forces, and include a substantial contingent from the SAS - altogether, the British contribution will increase to 8,000, the largest since the start of the war.

Moreover, these contingents will be supported by Tornado ground-attack and Typhoon multi-role aircraft that are augmenting the current Harrier aircraft operating from Kandahar air-base, as well as some of the RAF's new Merlin helicopters.

Why the build-up? It may well be that this is part of a deal with Washington to enable the Gordon Brown government to speed up the British withdrawal from Iraq. In a carefully crafted speech delivered to parliament on 8 October (following a press conference earlier that day), Brown confirmed that British forces in southern Iraq would be reduced from the recent total of 5,500 to 2,500, and this remainder be involved in "overwatch" of the security environment rather than direct involvement.

The British prime minister - who had visited Iraq for a day on 2 October - stated that there would be an additional phase of "overwatch" in spring 2008 which could involve further withdrawals. But political observers and commentators largely missed a key part of his statement: "in both stages of overwatch around 500 logistics and support personnel will be based outside Iraq elsewhere in the region". The location will almost certainly be just across the border in Kuwait, with the probability that this substantial force will prepare the way for all of the British forces to relocate to Kuwait by the middle of 2008.

For the Bush administration, which is used to regarding the London government as a reliable ally, such a complete withdrawal in a presidential election year is not good news. In this light, the willingness of the British government to expand its forces in Afghanistan may be regarded as modest compensation.

A narrowing space

The combination of these two processes - the increased military action in western Pakistan, and the US and British build-ups in Afghanistan - means that the Afghan/Pakistan border region is likely to become an area of intense confrontation. Des Browne may talk of negotiations, but the military escalation suggests otherwise. It could even be that Afghanistan will begin to match Iraq in 2008 as a focal-point for George W Bush's war on terror. Moreover, if there were also to be a confrontation with Iran in the new year, that could all too easily spread into Afghanistan and begin to involve British troops stationed there. What happens in southwest Asia could have major reverberations in domestic British and American politics in 2008, as much as in the region itself.

As the political crisis over Pervez Musharraf's future plays out, Pakistan is entering a particularly unstable phase. If some real improvements cannot be made in Afghanistan in the next six months, then the prospects for the longer term in this contested zone really will be bleak.

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