War after war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 February 2002

This series of articles has argued in recent weeks that the nature of the United States’s bombing campaign will inevitably have caused substantial civilian casualties, and that media reporting has been so restricted that accurate details of the development of the war are slow to emerge.

In the light of current reports, both points are being shown to be uncomfortably accurate. This indicates substantial problems for the US in Afghanistan.

On the question of casualties, one of the most cautious estimates from a US source is from the Boston-based Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA). The project draws on western media reports to conclude that over 1,000 civilians have been killed by the bombing and several thousand more have died from hunger, disease or exposure as an indirect result of the war.

Other estimates of casualties are much higher – over 3,000 killed by the bombing. But it is probable that many of the deaths remain unreported because of the remote locations of many air raids and special forces operations.

What is clear is that there have been some serious errors by US forces leading to specific instances of substantial civilian deaths. These have been compounded by the severe winter weather which makes it difficult for them even to determine the effects of some of the attacks.

What is becoming clear is that Hamid Karzai’s interim administration in Kabul is coming under internal pressure to rein in the US activities, although this is highly unlikely to have much effect.

Other indications, from both US and Afghan sources, suggest that the manner in which the Taliban militia withdrew from areas of conflict and returned to their own home areas means that they have the capability to regroup. It appears that this is already happening, even during the winter months. In some areas, former Taliban have integrated into local ruling groups, and there are also indications that they are reforming units outside Afghanistan.

A key area is eastern Afghanistan, where local Pashtun militia are refusing to co-operate with US special forces as they attempt to uncover Taliban and al-Qaida facilities and units. Given the risk of ambush, and the weather conditions, the US is reluctant to put special forces into the area and so relies on aerial reconnaissance and attack, with all the risks of mistakes and further civilian casualties.

To make matters worse, lawlessness and disorder are affecting much of the country. The UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, has urged a major expansion of peacekeeping operations. Brahimi is widely regarded as one of the most able diplomats in UN service, with a long record of work in Afghanistan. His confirmation of the need for a level of peacekeeping that far exceeds the work of the small ISAF force in Kabul indicates the extent of the problem facing Karzai’s administration.

While further US military action in Afghanistan is inevitable, the pace may be slower for the time being, partly because of the weather and partly as a result of the evident errors that are being made. More generally, though, it is increasingly clear that the war itself has disrupted rather than destroyed the al-Qaida network.

Recent warnings of further attacks come on top of an FBI assessment at the end of last year that the network had had its capabilities diminished by no more than thirty per cent. Even by the beginning of February, it was reported that sixteen of the top twenty-two al-Qaida leaders were still free.

Iraq – the next target?

Meanwhile, there are indications that the US war on terror is starting to move towards an attack on Iraq at some time in the next few months. A long-time feature of the rhetoric from the more hard-line security advisers in Washington has been the concern with Iraq and the determination to ‘finish the job’ by ending the Saddam Hussein regime. For the past five months the US has been preoccupied with Afghanistan, but Iraq was never far from the agenda and there have been signs of a preparation for action for several weeks.

One indication was the establishment of a US Army headquarters in Kuwait, this being part of the army’s commitment to US Central Command (Centcom). There were also reports that elements of five army divisions, including some with recent desert training experience, were being deployed to the Gulf.

Centcom is the unified military command that covers the whole of southwest Asia, the middle east and northeast Africa, and is the command responsible for the war in Afghanistan. If an attack on Iraq was planned, then it would be the responsibility of Centcom to carry it out.

These indicators of a potential conflict are countered by a report from the CIA last week that there was no evidence that Iraq has been engaged in direct terrorist attacks against the United States. At the same time, the CIA maintains the high level of US concern that Iraq has continued to develop biological and chemical weapons and long-range missiles since the ending of the UN inspection process nearly four years ago.

Two other factors need to be taken into account. The first is that the US armed forces have used very large quantities of specialised munitions in the war against Afghanistan, running down stocks to the point where supplies had to be transferred from stocks in the Gulf where they were intended for possible use against Iraq. The past three months have seen intense activity among US armaments companies as the stocks are replaced and further supplies produced. This means that any kind of attack on Iraq would not be very likely until March or April at the earliest.

Second, the Saddam Hussein regime has recently made overtures to the United Nations, primarily on the issue of sanctions, but with indications that some kind of modest inspection regime might be possible. This could either be an attempt simply to ease the effects of the sanctions, or it could be a more calculated move to make it less easy for the United States to take any action against the regime.

What is more significant is the US response to this, especially as it came from a relative moderate in the Bush administration, secretary of state Colin Powell. His immediate reaction was that the only issue was the necessity for an immediate resumption of inspections – nothing else was relevant in the short term.

More significantly, Powell gave evidence to the House of Representatives international-relations committee on 6 February in which he confirmed that strategies to oust Hussein were under consideration and that the US “might have to go it alone”. He went on: “The president is determined to keep this on the front burner and is looking for options that are available to him to deal with this in a decisive way”.

This does not mean that an attack is imminent, certainly not one involving an open attempt to destroy the regime. That would take a massive build-up of military force in the region and there would be clear signs of this in advance. There is one option, though, that is certainly possible and would most likely play out in the next three months.

The first step would be a categorical insistence by the United States that the Iraqi regime accept a full process of UN weapons inspection pitched particularly at the biological, chemical and missile programmes.

If there was no response, an ultimatum of some kind might be given, with a fixed date for a response, in the near certain knowledge that the regime would not comply. There would then follow a major air assault on all the known Iraqi weapons sites and on the key special republican guard and security units that ensure the maintenance of the regime.

While of a fixed duration, such an assault would be followed by a longer-term aggressive war of containment, aiming primarily at the core of the regime, and intended to last for months, certainly through until the mid-term congressional elections.

The Bush administration would make it clear that this was a process of constraining part of the “axis of evil”, so as not to heighten expectations of the early fall of Saddam Hussein. It could certainly be represented as a further major battle in the “war on terror”, and proof positive that the United States is determined to maintain control. Its possible effect on the mid-term elections in November would, of course, be purely co-incidental.

A major attack on Iraq is fraught with danger. The one issue that transcends everything else for Saddam Hussein is regime survival, and his military were prepared to use biological and chemical weapons in 1991 if an attempt had been made to destroy the regime. The same applies now, and any substantial attack on the regime has hugely worrying implications, not least because of the uncertain factor of the notably hardline Sharon government in Israel.

The new military budget

Meanwhile, the new military budget has been announced for the fiscal year 2003 (ie. October 2002 to September 2003), and is expected to have an easy ride through congress. The increases are staggering, and match the kinds of increases more common during the Reagan years of the early 1990s.

The 2001 budget was originally pitched at 298 billion dollars – nearly ten times the size of Britain’s defence budget – but eventually ended up at 315 billion dollars. The 2002 budget started at 328 billion dollars but was hiked up after 11 September by another 3.5 billion dollars and will now rise by an estimated 20 billion dollars to give an eventual figure of 351 billion dollars. The 2003 request shoots that up to 379 billion dollars. This means that the original figure for 2001 has gone up by 64 billion dollars in two years – almost double the size of Britain’s entire defence budget.

There will be many gainers, some of them stemming directly from the Afghanistan War. One obvious example is a rapid increase in funding to 141 million dollars for unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) – the pilot-less drones that can now carry missiles, together with 300 million dollars to counter biological attacks and a substantial 9.2 billion dollars for missile defence research.

In a true sign of the post-Cold War era, four Trident ballistic missile submarines will have their nuclear-armed missiles stripped out and replaced with one hundred and fifty conventionally-armed Tomahawk missiles for fighting “small wars in far-off places”.

Some crude initial statistics on the extent of the war are coming out. It is currently costing about 1.8 billion dollars a month. There are four thousand US troops actually in Afghanistan and sixty thousand in Centcom’s overall area of responsibility, which stretches from Kenya across the Middle East to Pakistan. US aircraft have been dropping an average of three hundred bombs a day since the war started.

A small but significant item in the defence budget is $98 million earmarked for increased support for the Colombian army in its war with left-wing insurgents. This will train and equip a “Critical Infrastructure Brigade” to help protect a 480-mile oil pipeline running from fields in north-eastern Colombia to the Caribbean coast. It may be a pure coincidence that the oil is owned by Occidental Petroleum, a US company based in Los Angeles.

A global war on terrorism

Perhaps the most significant indicator of an expanding war is the report that the CIA has extended its list of terrorist groups well beyond al-Qaida and its associates. As US action is stepped up in the Philippines, and there are indications of possible future action in Somalia and even Yemen, groups in Turkey, Lebanon and Colombia are now listed as posing a potential threat to the US.

The CIA director, George Tenet, has identified Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Hamas as terrorist groups, even though they have focused their actions on Israel. According to Tenet, “If these groups feel that US actions are threatening their existence, they may begin targeting Americans directly” (Washington Post, 10 February, 2002).

Tenet also lists the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as another threat, even though it has not so far targeted the United States or even Americans abroad. The reason is that it “poses a serious threat to US interests in Latin America because it associates us with the government it is fighting against”. Given the support that the United States is now providing for the Colombian government, that is a reasonable conclusion. But it does illustrate the manner in which the war on terror is becoming a global phenomenon.

Putting all of these elements together, we have a substantially increased defence budget, warnings of further attacks, a widening war against perceived terrorist groups and the prospect of a confrontation with Iraq. Afghanistan may have receded from the headlines but the reality is of a situation that is slowly but surely developing into a widening conflict with global implications.

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