The formation of a government in Baghdad under prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has been hailed by George W Bush and Tony Blair as a breakthrough. Their reaction leaves out of account the circumstances of the government's birth: that it has taken five months to complete, left key ministries still unfilled, and made it likely that many ministries already occupied will remain the fiefdoms of political factions.
The persistence of the insurgency in Iraq, coupled with the increasing problems being faced by the British in Basra, further suggests that any optimism the new government raises may prove shortlived. At the same time it creates at least a window of opportunity that, on the most positive outlook, might allow levels of violence to subside during the summer.
Whatever happens in Iraq, however, the United States and British leaders will not be able to avert their attention from Afghanistan too. There, an upsurge in the conflict involving Taliban and other militias is now heading towards its sixth year. After months of neglect, the intensity of the struggle has forced the attention of the establishment media in the west. The reporting of the US air assault on the village of Azizi, Kandahar province on 22 May is the latest example. According to a number of reports, US planes attacked a religious school in which a number of guerrillas had taken shelter and later bombed houses when some of the guerrillas escaped from the school.
In a series of air attacks lasting several hours, US sources initially cited up to eighty Taliban killed; this was later reduced to twenty killed and up to sixty others unconfirmed dead. One villager said he saw between thirty-five and forty dead Taliban fighters and around fifty dead or injured civilians, and the local governor confirmed sixteen civilians dead and a further sixteen injured. A US colonel later said "We targeted a Taliban compound and we're certain we hit the right target", but there is abundant evidence of many civilian casualties (see Noor Khan, "Up to 80 Taliban Dead in US-Led Strike", Associated Press, 22 May 2006).
Paul Rogers writes on the continuing struggle for Afghanistan:
"The Pakistan frontier" (26 February 2004)
"Afghanistans forgotten war" (4 August 2004)
"Afghanistan from Taliban to heroin"
(17 March 2005)
"Afghanistan bleeds" (23 June 2005)
The attack at Azizi brought the total casualties in a five-day period, including Taliban, government and coalition forces and civilians, to 285, and was followed on 23 May by another action in Oruzgan province in which twenty-four Taliban and five Afghan security personnel were killed. These actions and many other incidents support the view that a major Taliban revival is now under way. Many columns in this series over the past four and a half years have pointed to the continuing instability in Afghanistan and the probability of a long-term war, and the events of the past few weeks confirm that this is now what is happening.
An earlier column ("The next Afghan war", 26 January 2006) pointed to the experience of the past three years, with Taliban activity more prevalent during the summer months, and it also noted that the recent winter was the first since 2001-02 when anti-government and anti-coalition actions continued at a significant level throughout the winter months. As another column noted more recently "2006 is expected to be the first year since their withdrawal from Kabul in November 2001 when Taliban units take the offensive on a large scale" ("The Pakistan risk", 9 March 2006). That offensive is now under way and there are a number of reasons stretching over several years why it is happening.
The long-term factors
What is now evolving in Afghanistan relates to conditions surrounding and following the termination of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Four factors are relevant to this assessment.
First, the United States managed to enforce the fall of the regime with apparent ease, partly by employing air power and special forces but primarily by boosting the Northern Alliance after a period when it had been losing the Afghan civil war of the late 1990s. In the process, and in most parts of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the Taliban groups simply melted away to their towns and villages on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. They often kept their weapons intact, yet the militants and their supplies were so dispersed that there was little possibility of identifying either.
Second, after the Taliban's fall the United States and its coalition allies failed conspicuously to provide sufficient security assistance to the then new Afghan government of Hamid Karzai. Some of the most experienced United Nations specialists and other analysts at the time called for an international stabilisation force of around 30,000 troops to create a degree of stability so that development programmes could take hold.
In the event, barely a third of this number was provided and the development assistance was hopelessly insufficient. There may have been an illusion of progress in Kabul and a few other urban centres such as Herat; but central government remained absent across much of Afghanistan, and a combination of warlords, militias and criminal gangs (often linked to opium supply and distribution) took control.
Third, there has been a broad increase in anti-Americanism in some sectors of Afghan society, especially where US combat forces have used large-scale firepower to subdue militias. This has been the case across much of southwest and central Asia, but especially in Pakistan in districts bordering Afghanistan, where American use of armed drones against targets in towns and villages has added to the antagonism.
In substantial parts of the border regions, a quasi-Taliban writ now holds sway. Pervez Musharraf's forces are not easily able to concentrate regular Pakistani army forces on the militias, partly because of question-marks over army loyalty but also because of the appearance of being too pro-American in the process. The value of this situation to the Taliban is considerable, as it gives them secure areas for recruitment, training, storage and, if need be, temporary retreat from Afghan territory into Pakistan.
Fourth, the revival of the opium trade in Afghanistan has provided substantial additional sources of revenue, not least as there has been a move in the last couple of years towards processing the raw opium into heroin and morphine (see "The new opium war", 4 May 2006). A recent analysis suggests that ten years ago about 75% of Afghanistan's opium production was exported as raw opium and 25% was processed within the country into high value-added heroin and morphine. Now, the proportions are reversed, with 75% going out in refined form. The value added is considerable, and there is also a lucrative smuggling trade into Afghanistan of the precursor chemicals used in the refining (see Joanna Wright, "Afghanistan's opiate economy and terrorist financing", Jane's Intelligence Review, March 2006 [subscription only]).
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
The short-term factors
In addition to these longer-term elements, there are three immediate issues that help make the renewed Taliban insurgency more effective.
The first is the Iraq connection: the fact that some hundreds of young jihadis, some from Afghanistan itself, are involved with the Taliban and other groups, bringing their experience and weapons knowledge with them.
The second is that the current upsurge has not come out of the blue: it is pre-planned and stems directly from an intense recruitment drive that has been underway for more than a year. In other words, one of the main reasons why a major spring offensive did not materialise in 2005 was because it was not planned to do so another year of preparation was intended.
The third is the question of leadership, where there have been in turn a pair of developments. For one thing, the main Taliban leader of pre-2001 days, Mullah Omar, is still very much in control of the Taliban as a whole. Although the Taliban is more of a movement than a narrowly hierarchical organisation, Mullah Omar is acknowledged as the key figure of authority, with his evading capture over the past four and a half years doing nothing to diminish his status.
The other development is that one of the key mujahideen military leaders of the early 1990s, Jalaluddin Haqqani, has been appointed by Mullah Omar to be the overall military commander, coordinating insurgent actions by Taliban and other groups across large swathes of Afghanistan (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Taliban's new commander ready for a fight", Asia Times, 19 May 2006). Haqqani was reportedly an ally of the United States in the anti-Soviet fighting of the 1990s, as indeed was Osama bin Laden, and even in the 1990s he was not a key figure in the Taliban movement.
What Haqqani did have, and maintains, are paramilitary capabilities combined with a reputation that inspires followers. This, alongside new resources being made available through Mullah Omar and the benefits of Afghanistan's opium trade, means that the Taliban is in a far more powerful position than at any time since the end of 2001. In addition to the large numbers of guerrilla groups now active in Afghanistan itself, there are reported to be around 40,000 paramilitaries across the border in Pakistan, including a hundred suicide squads.
Whether the spring 2006 offensive will translate into the control of substantial parts of Afghanistan remains to be seen, but it is certainly possible. The almost inevitable reaction from the United States will be the substantially increased use of military force, especially air power, not just in Afghanistan but quite probably in the border districts of Pakistan as well.
On past experience such a strategy will make matters worse. The last thing George W Bush wants as the mid-term elections approach in November is a major conflict in Afghanistan, but given the way the US military is likely to respond to a resurgent Taliban, that may well be exactly what he gets.