The killing of Afghanistan’s former president Burhanuddin Rabbani in a suicide bomb-attack at his home in Kabul on 20 September 2011 removes a senior player who for decades was at the centre of the country’s political scene. A major incident in itself, which led the current Afghan president Hamid Karzai to return home from New York to attend the funeral, Rabbani’s death follows the concerted assault on key targets in central Kabul on 13-14 September that lasted twenty hours.
The exact responsibility for Rabbani's death is still to be established. But this and similar operations - such as attacks on Kabul hotels, and on the offices of the British Council in the city on 19 August - reflect the ability of the Taliban to hone tactics in recent months in response to the "surge" in United States troops into Afghanistan.
There is a specific and two-sided context here. First, the Taliban and other armed opposition groups have been seeking to maintain control of rural districts in parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, using both subtle and violent means. The endemic government corruption and maladministration creates a base of support for these groups, many of whom can build on their pre-existing links with the same communities; such support can be supplemented by often ruthless intimidation.
Second, the paramilitaries face substantial dangers in engaging openly with the increasing numbers of US troops that can be deployed to suppress any large-scale insurgent activity. Such more open confrontation has worked in the past (especially against some of the more remote US outposts), but the Americans’ huge manpower and firepower superiority underpins a shift to assassinations and suicide-martyr missions.
The impact of the Taliban’s refocus may be less important militarily than in psychological and political terms. The death of Rabbani, who was involved in negotiation with the Taliban, makes any talks process less likely to produce results. The broader Kabul attacks, embarrassing as they are, don't of themselves constrain greatly US and other Nato troops; but they confirm that these forces do not control the country, and make it harder for them to contemplate an early withdrawal.
A spreading conflict
It is not clear how this strategic conundrum will be resolved. To clarify what is at stake, it makes sense to look at current Pentagon options from a wider perspective - one that stretches well beyond Afghanistan-Pakistan, and even Iraq.
The reason is that the war itself is no longer confined to these regions. The bombing of the United Nations offices in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, on 26 August 2011 symbolises its expansion. There is now a growing conviction among US security analysts that three groups across northern Africa - Somalia's al-Shabaab, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in the north (possibly including Libya), and Boko Haram in Nigeria - are beginning to coordinate their actions and knowledge (see Thom Shanker & Eric Schmitt, “U.S. sees big threat in 3 African groups”, New York Times, 16 September 2011).
The interconnections between these groups are believed to be hardening; and Pentagon sources highlight the proliferation of paramilitary technologies (such as improvised explosive devices [IEDs] across south Asia, the middle east and north Africa - often via the transfer of technical experience gained in one conflict to another (see Zachary Fryer-Biggs, “IED Cat and Mouse”, Defense News, 12 September 2011).
There has been much talk of al-Qaida being reduced to little more than a rump. The reality is that this applies only to the original entity, already quite limited in reach. What has evolved is a very much more diffuse network, one that the Pentagon seeks to defeat without wanting to commit ground-troops in any significant numbers (see "America's military: failures of success", 12 May 2011).
There is an exception here: the use of special forces to carry out night-raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These continue, even though there is ample evidence that they lead to more opposition to US forces (see “Study: NATO night raids cause Afghan backlash”, AFP/Defense News, 19 September 2011).
More significant, however, is the notable increase in the reliance on armed-drones, especially in Yemen and Somalia. Drones now fly from a facility in the Seychelles (following a series of trials there), while a new CIA airstrip in Saudi Arabia supplements existing drone-operations based in Djibouti and directed mainly at Yemen. A further base is being established in Ethiopia, intended mainly for operations in Somalia (see Craig Whitlock & Greg Miller, “U.S. assembling secret drone bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, officials say”, Washington Post, 21 September 2011).
The possession of bases in four countries has two advantages. The first is the degree of geographical overlap; this allows more detailed and extensive surveillance and attack operations. The second is the availability of back-up; if one of the countries involved undergoes a political change of heart, then others are available to take up the strain.
Beyond the legacy
This rapid expansion of drone capabilities is provoking a debate within the White House over how extensively the drones can be used. The core question is: should the targeting be restricted to more senior paramilitary leaders, or should it seek out many more - hundreds, or even thousands - of low-level militants? (see Charlie Savage, "At White House, Weighing Limits of Terror Fight", New York Times, 15 September 2011).
For the moment, the practice leans towards the former option; but this already raises a host of legal issues around what is essentially targeted assassination with not even the pretense of an attempt at capture and legal process (see "Drone warfare: cost and challenge", 23 June 2011).
The context of the debate is that the Barack Obama administration is facing sustained problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and a growing threat in Yemen and northern Africa. The availability of armed-drones presents a tempting military option that combines apparent effectiveness with (in terms of American casualties) zero cost.
Yet even leaving aside the considerable legal and moral questions, there are strategic perils. For if radical Islamist groups continue to spread their influence (as seems likely) this will invite the routine application of armed-drones in what amounts to generalised warfare, quite possibly far beyond Yemen and Somalia. Drones have already been used in Libya against Gaddafi's forces, and - now that Nato has extended its air operations by three months - could be again (either if the former leader’s supporters remain active, or if jihadists form a new challenge). Even Nigeria might offer convenient targets (see "Al-Qaida franchise: the Nigerian case", 25 August 2011).
The prospect of such escalation is very far from the original hope of many of Obama's advisers that the “war on terror” could be greatly reduced in scope (if not ended altogether) before 2012 and the end of his first term. That increasingly looks vain - and even worse, there is a real chance that this administration’s last year will see a steady expansion of the war. Such an outcome would be the direct opposite of the promise of 2008, and yet more evidence of the toxic legacy that George W Bush bequeathed to his successor.