America vs al-Qaida: the widening war

The signals of growing turbulence in a range of military environments - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and beyond - send a worrying message to Washington.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 November 2010

The month of October 2010 saw a notable change in the Pentagon’s mood in three of its areas of central strategic concern: the conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the pursuit of the al-Qaida leadership in western Pakistan, and the progressive military disengagement from Iraq. In all these areas, there was at the beginning of the month a certain cautious optimism. Now, in the second week of November, things look very different.

In Afghanistan, the surge in United States troop numbers had by October long reached its peak, bringing the total contingent of foreign soldiers in the country to over 140,000. The senior commander General David H Petraeus was deploying many of them in Kandahar province, especially in night-raids led by special forces. These operations were having some impact on the Taliban and other armed groups, allowing in turn for planned reintegration programmes to take their course. It could plausibly be argued that the core US tactical objective of negotiating from a position of military superiority was starting to work, thus holding out the promise of an eventual withdrawal of most foreign forces from the country (see The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar, New America Foundation, 1 November 2010).

In western Pakistan there had been a huge increase in unmanned armed-drone attacks, so that they had become an almost daily occurrence. There was mounting evidence that these had killed or at least dispersed much of the al-Qaida movement’s middle leadership and some key Taliban personnel.

In Iraq, the US military withdrawal was proceeding more or less as planned, alongside some continuing special-forces operations. There was also limited progress towards the formation of a government after nearly eight months of post-election stalemate.

The dark side

The Barack Obama administration was prepared to give these already hopeful trends an even more optimistic spin as the mid-term congressional elections on 2 November 2010 approached. In the event this was barely needed, as the elections were fought exclusively on local issues (see Helene Cooper, “In 2010 Campaign, War is Rarely Mentioned", International Herald Tribune, 28 October 2010). That political neglect may not long survive the Democrats’ reversal in the vote; for there are indications that international-security issues are poised to emerge as a major factor in a changed domestic scene.

In Afghanistan, the night-raids may have reached the limit of their utility as Taliban paramilitaries use their own intelligence and communications systems to deflect their impact (see Jon Boone, “Taliban claims success against Nato night raids”, Guardian, 1 November 2010). A series of attacks across the country on 10 November in which both Nato and Afghan service personnel were killed shows the vigour of current Taliban operations. 

Moreover, the flaws in the reintegration policy are exposed by recent incidents where local Taliban groups have integrated police into their movement rather than the other way round; for example, nineteen on-duty police officers abandoned their police station in Khomeini, southwest of Kabul, and defected - along with their vehicles and weapons - to the Taliban (see Dexter Filkins & Sharifullah Sahak, “Afghan Police Unit Defects to Taliban...”, New York Times, 3 November 2010).

There are persistent reports of negotiations with Taliban elements, but without evidence of real progress (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Taliban peace talks come to a halt”, Asia Times, 3 November 2010). The Saudi decision to withdraw from a mediating role in talks between Hamid Karzai's government and the Taliban, announced on 7 November, is a further setback to such efforts.

The US is in parallel preparing the ground for $2 billion worth of military assistance to the Pakistani army, designed to aid the latter’s destruction of al-Qaida units in western Pakistan. At the same time, President Obama’s implied concerns about Pakistan during his high-profile tour of India reveals the tensions in his administration’s policy towards Islamabad.

In Iraq, the breaking of the post-election deadlock is likely to be followed by a Shi'a-dominated government in Baghdad that is heavily influenced by Iran (see Patrick Cockburn, "Sun sets on US influence in Iraq as deal on new government looms", Independent, 11 November 2010). The marginalisation of the Sunni minority will provoke more radical groups to launch operations; a fresh bombing campaign, and a wave of attacks on Christians (including the bloody siege of a church in Baghdad and the personalised targeting of known Christian families), may in part reflect this.

A worsening security situation in Iraq makes it more likely that US regular forces will once again become involved in consolidating the state. The US defence secretary Robert Gates stated on 9 November that these forces could stay in Iraq past the agreed date of final withdrawal in 2011. Such developments would arouse great concern in Washington as the new Congress takes shape.

The long view

These trends in the long-term heartlands of the “war on terror” have tended to be overshadowed by the drama surrounding the discovery in Dubai and England of explosives primed by a Yemen-based group to detonate on US-bound cargo and passenger planes. But there is also a connection between the various theatres: al-Qaida’s response to proposed Pakistani army assaults is reported to include encouraging units elsewhere in the world (not least Yemen) to ignite local actions, and the group’s leadership appears to have put in charge of international operations a figure (the Egyptian, Saiful Adil [Saif al-Adel]) who favours numerous small operations rather than spectacular atrocities such as 9/11 (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Parcel bombs point to al-Qaeda switch”, Asia Times, 3 November 2010).

The Yemeni-sourced bomb plot failed, but the sophisticated technologies involved demonstrate the way in which paramilitary groups have adapted their skills over a decade of war almost as fast as coalition forces, with their hugely more expensive military machines, are able to do.

These advances coincide with the accumulated experience of many thousands of young paramilitaries from across the region who have gained combat experience against well-trained and heavily armed US troops in the urban environment of the Iraq war. This experience is far more relevant to the second decade of the 21st century than was the training environment of their predecessors, namely the war against Soviet conscripts in Afghanistan in the 1980s. This new generation is now dispersed across the middle east and southwest Asia; it may turn out to be the most potent legacy of the Iraq war.

To this hardened group must be added the radicalisation of young British Muslim men and women such as Roshonara Choudhry. This intelligent student was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to kill a British politician, Stephen Timms, an act by her own account prompted by the parliamentarian’s support for the Iraq war but also linked to her online viewing of radical Islamist preachers.

The case, unusual as it may be, is a useful reminder that non-western media outlets such as the al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya news-channels continue widely to report civilian suffering in the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (especially via drone attacks), and that this can have a profound impact on people such as Roshonara Choudhry.

This combination of circumstances - setbacks in “AfPak”, dispersal of the al-Qaida threat, near-miss mid-air operations, individual radicalisation, the spreading out of young paramilitaries trained in Iraq - again points to a long war (see “The thirty-year war” [4 April 2003] and "The thirty-year war, revisited" [30 July 2008]). Afghanistan and Iraq played little part in the United States’s mid-term elections, but they may have a much greater influence on the presidential election in 2012. Indeed, as George W Bush returns to the stage with his political memoir, it is appropriate to suggest that these wars could still turn out to be the most toxic of all the legacies left by this former US president to his successor. 


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