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The spiral of war

Paul Rogers
7 March 2002

In this update, I will deal with the tremendous escalation of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the regrouping of the Taliban. A number of recent aspects of both the Middle East and Afghanistan conflicts are both hugely costly in human terms, and also contain important pointers to the future.

Some of the most significant aspects have been political. However, it is the military dimensions that may give us better clues as to the future.

In political terms, there are just the beginnings of a break in the bipartisan approach to the war on terror that has held so firmly in Washington. The Senate Minority Leader, Tom Daschle, has questioned aspects of its conduct. Admittedly, this is at a time when the public is starting to be prepared for an assault on Iraq which could come later in the year, as I described last week.

Yet even the modest breaking-away of Democrat support is significant. It may arise partly from a perception that President Bush’s extraordinary popularity, which made criticism of the war so pointless, is starting to be affected by the corrosive nature of the Enron scandal.

The Middle East: escalation

In the Middle East, the Saudi peace proposal seems to have little chance of making progress, either in Israel or with some Arab states. Even so, it is an approach which focuses on one of the core issues, the occupied territories, while appearing to present the Saudis as more supportive of the Palestinian cause than has been apparent in recent years.

Within Israel, support for Sharon has declined. Most significantly, the “refusenik” movement – of conscripts refusing to serve in Gaza and the West Bank – has grown in strength.

These limited political developments in Israel and Palestine come at a time of desperate violence, with the death toll rising in a series of bitter attacks by elements from both sides. Furthermore, there have been three developments that have caused real concern within the Israeli Army.

The first was the destruction of a Merkava main battle tank last month. Tanks have been a core component of the army’s posture since the 1950s, and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) regard the Merkava as one of the most effective in the world. Yet, on this occasion, the tank was lured into a trap and destroyed, with its crew killed, by a crude explosive charge.

The second development has been the response of Palestinian militia to substantial Israeli incursions into refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank. These were intended to clear parts of the camps believed to be used as home bases for militia, and the intention was to enforce the evacuation of sections of the camps prior to searching and destroying those buildings.

In the event, residents refused to obey Israeli orders to evacuate. Intense fighting ensued between Israeli troops and Palestinian militia.

The immediate effects of such actions were that militia, civilians and some Israeli soldiers were killed. But it is actually significant that the Israeli troops failed to take over the areas they had intended to occupy.

The development is deeply reminiscent of the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982 that led to a heavy loss of life, especially among civilians, when Palestinian resistance proved far more effective than expected.

The third development, and probably the most serious, was the attack over the weekend on an isolated Israeli check-point by a sniper, who killed and wounded a number of soldiers and civilians in a carefully calculated attack before escaping.

It is possible that elements of the IDF will start to recognise that they are becoming steadily enmeshed in a war in the occupied territories they cannot win. Palestinian determination is strong, and every attack against Israeli forces is reported almost instantly on radio and TV throughout the West Bank and Gaza, as well as across the whole region.

The various militia have a high degree of community support and the IDF is having to operate in refugee camps or across stretches of land with substantial Palestinian populations. While many parts of the West Bank are rural, the majority is urban or semi-urban, and the potential for guerrilla warfare is high.

More particularly, there has been a long-term Israeli policy of locating settlements throughout the West Bank, not least as a means of ensuring that there cannot be the development of a viable Palestinian state. One result is that there is a huge network of roads that have to be patrolled in order to maintain the security of the settlements, with frequent checkpoints maintained in order to control movements of Palestinians.

In short, Israel has developed a system of close occupation of the territories that it regards as essential to maintaining control, yet this very system is being shown to be vulnerable to asymmetric warfare by Palestinian militia. Thus, the developments of recent weeks – the destruction of the tank, the sniper attack and the resistance to refugee camp incursions – may be more significant than the suicide bombings.

Furthermore, while the loss of life among Israelis, military and civilian alike, is increasing, the consequences for the Palestinians are far worse, with an economy in collapse, malnutrition in evidence, and a constant toll of killings.

Perhaps the core element in these terrible developments is that the resilience of the Palestinian communities shows no sign of diminishing, whereas there is a palpable concern in Israel over prospects for the future, demonstrated not least by the refuseniks.

It is possible that influential members of the IDF military command will be communicating to the government their concern over recent developments and may even be advocating renewed negotiations. It has to be said, though, that the nature of the Sharon government, and the pressure it is under from right-wing elements within Likud and in the wider coalition, means that the reverse is more probable – that even greater force will be used.

For the moment, too, Washington remains on the sidelines, with its characterisation of Palestinian militia as terrorists providing the Israeli government with a degree of support that makes a further escalation probable.

Afghanistan: unfinished war

For the past two months, the view in most of the mass media has been that the war in Afghanistan was over – that the Taliban had been defeated and the al-Qaida network disrupted. The leadership of both groups may have largely escaped, but all that was required was a crude “mopping up” of small pockets of resistance.

Along with a few other analysts and media outlets, I have taken a different view, and it is worth repeating that the Pentagon has always indicated that the war is far from over.

As I have frequently stressed, despite public perceptions of an overwhelming Taliban defeat, the great majority of its militia withdrew from northern Afghanistan and from cities elsewhere in the face of US bombing and the re-arming and support for anti-Taliban forces.

Moreover, Taliban militia withdrew with their weapons largely intact. With further supplies hidden throughout much of the country, they retained the ability to regroup in Pakistan. New leaders are likely to come forward.

Such an assessment also points to the probability that the al-Qaida network anticipated a strong US response to 11 September, and had few of its key forces even in Afghanistan. This, together with the escape of most of the Taliban leadership, is supported by what is known of the people currently imprisoned at Camp X-ray in Cuba. They appear to be almost entirely made up of low-level militia and fighters, unable to yield much information and hardly representing any significant elements of leadership.

How does all this relate to the recent intensive fighting near Gardez in eastern Afghanistan, 100 miles south of Kabul and a long way from the traditional centre of Taliban power in Kandahar?

There are several elements to take into account. The first is the very straightforward one – that the US military have found it necessary to mount a very substantial operation, in very difficult high altitude conditions and in the middle of winter. They have committed at least 1,000 of their own troops, together with a number from other states, backed up by locally-recruited fighters.

The Pentagon would only have even considered such an operation if there was firm evidence of a major regrouping of Taliban militia, sufficient to threaten US control at the end of the winter. This alone indicates that within Afghanistan itself, the Taliban have not just melted away into small groups spread throughout the country. They have been able to re-assemble sizeable forces in the face of intensive US surveillance coupled with a constant capability to conduct bombing raids.

The second point is that the US has deployed regular troops in substantial numbers in direct combat roles, rather than the small groups of special forces used in the field up until now.

Moreover, these are army units rather than the more lightly equipped marines so often used in the early stages of a war, implying that a longer-term involvement is now recognised as highly likely.

This is in marked contrast to the widespread political assumption that the United States would be “in and out” of Afghanistan rapidly – destroying the Taliban and al-Qaida while leaving others to rebuild the state.

A third element is that the US is still endeavouring to rely heavily on locally-recruited forces. In the current fighting, up to 1,000 such militia have been used, most of them receiving rapid military training and mostly paid directly by the US armed forces, the “wages” being far in excess of what is available from the local economy.

In effect, the US is now using local mercenaries for as much of the fighting as possible, and is even avoiding putting finances into the hands of local warlords in return for the use of their militia. One obvious effect of this is to produce more people within Afghan communities who are heavily armed and have military training. A further possible effect is that they will embrace the mercenary role, being prepared to sell their services to others in the future.

Perhaps the most significant point stems from two related aspects of the operation near Gardez – that a significant proportion of the US force is actually being used to block exit routes for Taliban militia, yet that proportion engaged in direct combat has taken quite serious casualties.

In trying to analyse the events of recent days, we have to remember that information from the Pentagon, and from US forces in the region, is subject to extraordinarily strict controls. There is an almost complete absence of any independent verification of events, although some of the quality US newspapers are providing some relevant information.

What is clear, though, is that the US forces have had two helicopters subject to serious damage, have had some 40 troops killed or injured and have experienced a degree of resistance that was frankly unexpected. A report in the Washington Post (6 March) gives some indication:

“An opening advance on Saturday by Afghan and US Special Forces, intended to flush out suspected al Qaeda fighters in the town of Sirkanel, was thwarted when enemy gunfire kept coalition troops pinned down for hours. Elements of the 10th Mountain Division also were reported stopped in their tracks Saturday in a 12-hour battle outside the town of Marzak. Mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades landed as close as 15 yards to their position, and 13 American soldiers were wounded.

‘I don’t think we knew what we were getting into this time, but I think we’re beginning to adjust,’ said Sgt. Maj. Mark Neilsen, 48, from Indianapolis.”

As the conflict developed, US capabilities had to be reinforced by five Cobra attack helicopters and two UH-53 transport helicopters flown in from an amphibious support ship, the Bon Homme Richard, in the Arabian Sea.

An unconfirmed report from the BBC suggested that the five helicopters were to replace a similar number damaged during the fighting. The fighting has involved intensive use of bombers, AC-130 gunships and thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) weapons, with 450 bombs dropped by US and French aircraft in the first four days alone.

There are now indications that few if any senior Taliban or al-Qaida leaders are in the area, and there may be very few members of al-Qaida even active at this time. What is clear is that a substantial force managed to regroup during winter, and that this has offered serious resistance to US efforts to maintain control.

What is not known is whether there are other such groups of a similar size and capability, or whether there are many much smaller groups spread throughout the country. This latter is at least possible, and knowledge of the original strength of the Taliban and its manner of dispersal suggests that there could be well over 20,000 militia available when spring comes.

The extent to which they try to regain control of parts of Afghanistan may depend on whether the interim government in Kabul can bring stability to the country. There are few indications that it will be able to do so.

Further extensive US military operations in the coming months may be more likely. Whatever else the past week demonstrates, it seems to confirm that the war in Afghanistan is far from over.

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