The situation in Afghanistan is becoming steadily more problematic. Regional warlords compete for power and influence, and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is very much limited to Kabul. Hamid Karzais interim administration is doing its best to bring a degree of stability to the county, and he has recently visited both Pakistan and Iran, but the problems facing him are immense.
There is continuing violence, especially in the south and east of the country, and there have been further movements of refugees across the border into Pakistan. The aid agencies had been hoping the opposite that existing refugees would feel sufficiently secure to return to their homes.
One effect of the descent into warlordism has been, as some analysts predicted, a sudden upsurge in the growing of opium poppies. They provide a ready source of income for impoverished farmers but, more significantly, opium production is seen as an essential resource by local warlords.
Ironically, the last year of the Taliban regime saw a ban on opium production, and the area planted with poppies fell by over 90%. This is now being rapidly reversed. The street price of heroin in Western Europe is expected to fall within a few months.
Until recently, the United States was reluctant to get involved in post-conflict stabilisation in Afghanistan, leaving it to Britain and other ISAF contributors. Now, though, it is even being recognised in Washington that a deeply unstable and fragmented country will provide precisely the right environment for the Taliban to reappear and even allow some al-Qaida presence as well. For the time being, US actions may be limited largely to training a new central army for Afghanistan, but there are early indications that it might have to accept that large numbers of troops will need to be based there.
Of particular significance was the use of air power against warring militia groups last week. The bombing was not used against Taliban or al-Qaida units but against factions that opposed the Karzai administration, and took place near the south-eastern city of Khost. This was the first time, as far as is known, that the United States had taken sides in the latest phase of the fighting in Afghanistan. It suggests that a heavier involvement is already starting.
A slower build-up to the wider war
As the war on the paramilitaries expands, and the US defence budget grows, there is an assumption that the worlds sole superpower has the ability to maintain and even enhance its military activity, with Iraq a likely target in the near future. Two particular features of military activity suggest otherwise, indicating that if Washington does intend to defeat the Saddam Hussein regime rather than just engage in further bombing attacks, this is unlikely to happen for several months.
The first factor is that the war in Afghanistan has taken a heavy, if largely unreported, toll on military equipment. A range of aircraft is being used at far above their expected utilisation rates. They include F/A-18 strike aircraft, F-14 interceptors and specialised intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft.
The requirements for airlifting large quantities of equipment and thousands of troops are putting a huge strain on transport aircraft, particularly the relatively new C-17. The sheer pressure of activities has resulted in a doubling of the accident rates compared with a year ago, with the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all facing significant problems.
The situation is compounded by the need to maintain air patrols over US cities, even though NATO is providing AWACs airborne surveillance aircraft. It has also proved necessary to have aircraft on standby for domestic emergencies the US Air Force is currently keeping some 35 C-130 Hercules transport aircraft on alert, draining resources from other tasks.
The second problem is that the US has been using a range of specialised weapons, especially satellite-guided bombs, at a rate far faster than they could be produced, substantially depleting stocks and making it very difficult to envisage a further major war in the next three months.
Armaments companies have readily moved into surge production, some setting up 24-hour production lines, but it will take up to six months before stocks of some weapons are considered adequate. So-called smart bombs were being used at a rate of around 2,000 a month earlier in the war in Afghanistan. Yet even with the current expansion, production will not reach that level for many months.
At the same time, there are plenty of indications that the forces are starting to be built up for a confrontation with Iraq, with armaments companies reaping the benefits of substantial new contracts. Boeing, for example, is currently getting $30 million a month for producing the Joint Direct Attack Munition, a kit that converts so-called dumb bombs into satellite-guided munitions.
The point is that the US military are feeling the strain of the Afghan War and the other elements of the escalating attempts to control paramilitaries. It will take time to develop and deploy the means to attack Iraq. This does not mean that it will not happen, far from it. It is just that the time-scale is longer rather than shorter.
A possible timetable involves a tour of the Middle East by the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, next month, followed by consultations between Tony Blair and George Bush in April. Some kind of ultimatum to Iraq on dismantling its weapons of mass destruction might be delivered in May or June, leading to a crisis and possible war later in the year.
The Iraqi regime could, of course, take a different view and some kind of conflict could develop much sooner. Furthermore, the situation is compounded by regional opposition to a new conflict. But this does not diminish its likelihood.
As George Bush has made clear, the war on terror now extends to ensuring that states that are potentially hostile to US interests are not permitted to develop weapons of mass destruction. That is the bottom line both in the short and long term, and it has clear implications for the Iraqi regime.
If all the indications are that the United States is determined to destroy the regime, but is not ready to do so, then one response is for the regime itself to provoke a confrontation soon. This would involve engineering a war at a time of its own choosing rather than waiting six months for the US to be fully prepared
A global spread
Recent events in five other countries relate to wider aspects of the developing conflict. In the Philippines, the United States lost a helicopter and ten soldiers to unknown causes as it started its programme of putting in 600 special forces and support personnel to aid the Philippine government in its counter-insurgency action against Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.
80 of the 660 US troops are already in the Philippines. The helicopter was en route to Mactan Air Base, apparently returning from a deployment on the island of Basilan where the guerrillas operate. The United States has recently commenced intelligence-gathering flights over the southern Philippines, operating out of bases such as Okinawa.
US Navy planes have also commenced similar flights over Somalia, where P-3 Orion aircraft have been flying missions from a base in Oman. One of their roles is apparently to track the level of activity in presumed al-Qaida camps, to see whether the al-Qaida members who have left Afghanistan are now based there. If so, military action from the United States would follow.
In Colombia, where the government is due to receive increased US military aid, the cease-fire with the FARC guerrillas has been ended and there has been heavy bombing of rebel areas and attacks on the large enclave currently held by the rebels. The breakdown in the ceasefire follows the abduction of a government senator following the hijacking of a civilian aircraft last week.
The Colombian President, Andres Pastrana, is supported by the United States, which has now listed FARC as a terrorist organisation likely to threaten US interests. He has recently requested that US military aid provided to control drug production be diverted to counter-insurgency operations, and the new US defence budget includes substantial assistance in ensuring the security of a key oil pipeline. There are currently about 400 US personnel assisting the government in Colombia. The majority of them are military, but they include 100 civilian military contractors.
In Nepal, the Maoist rebellion has suddenly escalated, with substantial attacks in the western district of Achham, where 120 people have died, including police and soldiers. The insurgency is into its sixth year and has already claimed over 2,000 lives. Until recently, the Nepalese government has been receiving only limited help from the United States. It has requested much more assistance, given that the rebels have influence in some 40% of the country.
Although links are claimed between al-Qaida and the Philippine rebels, there are no connections with FARC in Colombia or the Maoist insurgents in Nepal. Much more directly related to Afghanistan and the 11 September attacks is the movement of US forces into the unstable Caucasian state of Georgia. Last Wednesday, two US military aircraft arrived in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, carrying around 40 US military personnel including special forces troops and logistic specialists.
The political background to this is significant. The Pankisi Gorge region of eastern Georgia has not been under government control for some years and has been used by Chechen rebels in their war against Russia. Georgia has been reluctant to co-operate with Russia in operations against these rebels, seeing it as a potential cause of greatly increased Russian influence.
Indeed, President Eduard Shevardnadze has been more interested in developing links with NATO. In the past couple of months, there have been indications that some al-Qaida forces have moved into the Pankisi Gorge region, and this has given Georgia the opportunity to develop closer military links with the United States.
For the US this presents a remarkable opportunity to extend its influence more firmly into the Caucasus and Central Asia. In addition to its deployments in Pakistan, it now has, or is establishing, bases in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan itself. None of this will be readily accepted by Moscow, where the Putin administration has seen its influence in the region decline rapidly, even if it has been able to maintain close links with Northern Alliance members of the interim government in Kabul.
Pointers and postures
Some other pointers to longer-term developments are contained in the small print of the new US Defence Budget and elsewhere. During the Afghanistan War, the United States has made use of the AC-130 gun-ship first developed at the time of the Vietnam War. This version of the Hercules transport uses two cannon and a hugely destructive rapid-fire Gatling gun but the planes are getting old and the armed forces are now seeking a replacement. One possible device to be used in a replacement plane would be a directed energy weapon based on the development of the Advanced Tactical Laser.
Given the extensive use of the AC-130 in Afghanistan, such a replacement would be welcomed by US special forces, who are themselves getting a substantial boost in the new budget. The US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is getting a 21% increase in its funding for the next financial year, taking it to $4.9 billion. Much of the addition will be spent on upgrading equipment that is being used in Afghanistan.
A further indicator is the Pentagons plan to build up a force of some 45,000 guards and sentries to secure US bases overseas. This is in response to concerns over the security of such bases, arising not least from experience in the Middle East. There is a ready recognition that the US military presence may be singularly unpopular, and there have even been cases where bases have been re-located because of security concerns.
After the bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks block in Dhahran in 1996, the US moved its key air forces in the country to the Prince Sultan Air Force Base at a cost of $500 million. Although this base is in a remote part of the country, 10% of the base personnel of 4,000 are concerned solely with perimeter security.
Finally, in the United States itself, more information is becoming available about the development of new types of nuclear weapon. The main interest is in so-called earthquake nukes, earth-penetrating warheads that can be used to attack deeply buried targets such as biological weapons stores that are too well protected to be destroyed by conventional weapons.
The Nuclear Weapons Council has ordered a three-year study into such systems. According to The Washington Post, the administration has also established advanced warhead concept teams at the three nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia.
Following the closure of many nuclear weapon production facilities in the 1990s, partly on grounds of safety, the Bush Administrations Nuclear Posture Review now recommends accelerating development of a new plant to manufacture the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons. An additional $15 million has been allocated to enable the Nevada Nuclear Test Site to be readied for further tests. These could be conducted within a year, although the administration remains committed, at present, to the current moratorium on nuclear tests.
It is now clear that the much-vaunted cutbacks in nuclear arsenals involve little in the way of irreversible dismantling of nuclear weapons. Most will be put into store and could be re-activated later. Furthermore, the Posture Review calls for initial work on a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and a new Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile. Any idea that the nuclear age is a receding memory is evidently fanciful.
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