The widening possibility of war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 April 2002

As Tony Blair prepares for his meeting with George Bush, the war in Afghanistan remains unresolved and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict worsens. Even so, the Bush administration remains intent on widening the “war on terror” to Iraq, although the stresses being felt by the US armed forces are becoming more apparent.

It now seems possible that the British Prime Minister will counsel a degree of caution, but, while this might delay a US attack on Iraq, the more immediate crisis in Israel and the West Bank could rapidly extend to a wider war involving Lebanon and possibly Syria. Before addressing the logic of the momentous escalation in Palestine, we should consider the US engagement in Afghanistan which is currently slipping from the headlines.

Further conflict in Afghanistan?

As more information comes out of the Operation Anaconda episode in the mountains near Gardez, it becomes clear that few guerrillas were killed and most escaped to other parts of the country or across the border into Pakistan. Anaconda was intended to surround, and kill or capture a force of several hundred guerrillas, using over two thousand elite US troops and Afghan allies supported by extensive use of air power. Even so, the guerrillas were able to inflict unexpectedly high numbers of casualties in the face of a carefully planned operation.

More recently, the Pentagon has made much of the capture of a senior al-Qaida operative, Abu Zubaida, in Pakistan. But he was not on the original list of “most wanted” and may have been rather less significant than initially indicated.

Meanwhile, there are credible reports that Taliban militia are moving with impunity in the more remote parts of Pakistan. Many of the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan are quite out of the control of the interim administration in Kabul, and US and other western forces are anticipating a drawn-out conflict, especially as spring comes. The official line of “mopping up” Taliban remnants is strictly for public consumption. The reality is an expectation of a sporadic yet long-term guerrilla war.

This comes at a time when those few western reporters who have travelled outside of Kabul report a persistent anti-American mood, especially in the Pashtun areas.

Most indicative of this expectation is the decision by the US Air Force to base some of its A-10 ground attack aircraft at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan itself. This is the first time that fixed-wing strike aircraft have been based in the country and indicates an acceptance that there will be substantial further military engagement. The A-10 is the most robust and heavily armoured strike aircraft in the US inventory, and its basing at Bagram is a reflection of the difficulties US forces have had in using attack helicopters, several of their Apaches having been severely damaged in earlier fighting.

Military overstretch

There has been surprise that the United States requested help from Britain in the form of one thousand seven hundred troops, but this is in line with indications that US special forces are already under pressure. The essential reason for this is the heavy commitments that these forces have taken on in addition to their previous activities in many parts of the world.

Prior to 11 September, the US had counter-insurgency training and support missions in some fifty-five countries, with many of these drawn from the special forces. Since then, there has been intense activity in Afghanistan coupled with deployments across Central Asia, and in Pakistan, the Philippines, Yemen and Colombia.

Few reports of the effect of this activity are getting into the press. But there are indications that some of the limited numbers of specially modified helicopters and aircraft that are essential to special operations are becoming depleted through breakdowns or damage in combat. For example, two MH-47E modified Chinook helicopters were badly damaged at the start of Operation Anaconda and another crashed in the Philippines killing all ten people on board.

A key part of the special operations inventory is a heavy lift helicopter, the MH-53 Pave Low, with specialised equipment fitting it for this role. Three of the limited number of this aircraft have sustained considerable damage, others have received some damage and there is now a shortage of this type. Other versions of the MH-53 can be converted to the special operations configuration, but this takes time.

Overall, the US armed forces may be by far the strongest in the world, but they are becoming engaged in counter-guerrilla operations on such a wide scale that their more specialised forces are not available in the numbers required. Large numbers of reserves have been called up, and a feature of US newspapers is the placing of full-page advertisements for the US Navy and Marine Corps, seeking new recruits.

This does not add up to a long-term limitation, because there is ample evidence that the Bush administration is fundamentally committed to regaining and maintaining control, wherever US interests are considered to be threatened. Furthermore, the defence budget increases that are now envisaged, will eventually deliver the forces required. In the short term, though, there are serious limitations and this is one practical reason why British troops are being sent to Afghanistan.

Israel, Palestine and Iraq

In any case, the sheer pace of the escalation in violence in Israel and the occupied territories is transcending immediate concerns about Iraq, although it may well have a profound effect on any such conflict later in the year. Vice-President Cheney’s extensive visit to the region yielded little in the way of open co-operation. It is significant that US Central Command is moving some of its key command and control facilities out of Saudi Arabia and into the huge new base at al Udeid in Qatar, partly because greater co-operation might be expected from the Emir of Qatar than from the House of Saud.

What was impressed on Cheney repeatedly was the connection between Persian Gulf security and the necessity of controlling the excesses of the Sharon government in Israel. Although several key Arab leaders stayed away from the recent Beirut summit, it did herald the promotion of the Saudi peace proposals and also saw the partial return of Iraq into the Arab fold. Both of these are significant in the context of Arab attitudes towards Israel and the increasing, bitter anti-American mood in the Arab “street”.

In Israel itself, the past two weeks have been traumatic, illustrating in a devastating manner the vulnerability of Israeli society to dedicated attackers who are prepared to die for their beliefs. In response to the attacks, the Sharon government has now embarked on a military campaign that is claimed to be designed to limit such suicide attacks but, in reality, has far more substantial aims.

As far as can be ascertained, there is no single central organisation responsible for the suicide bombings, but a dispersed coalition of units that may even operate independently. Such an entity cannot be dealt with by rigorous military operations – indeed the effect of such operations is much more likely to be to further radicalise Palestinian opinion. Moreover, the Israeli military and the security/intelligence agencies are aware of this and do not expect the current use of force to have such an effect.

What is actually happening is much more fundamental, and involves the systematic destruction of the Palestine National Authority’s security apparatus, including the civil police force, and much of the infrastructure of the PNA itself. Many hundreds of officials have been taken into custody, offices are being destroyed, and the whole running of the PNA is being curtailed if not eliminated. If the aim of the operation was to pressurise the PNA into curbing its own militants, then it would require the PNA to be able to do so. But the very forces that would be required to do just that are themselves being killed or taken into custody.

At some stage in the reasonably near future, the Sharon government may come under sufficiently heavy pressure for it to have to withdraw its forces. It will do so, under duress, but it will leave behind such a weakened PNA that Sharon’s longer term requirement to have a series of isolated Palestinian communities with little central leadership will be easier to achieve.

We need to remember that the Sharon administration remains firmly opposed to the Oslo accords and to the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. In this context, the current military operation seems specifically designed to destroy the short-term prospects for such a state. While that may be the intention, there is every sign that it is already proving to be deeply counter-productive. In recent days, Palestinian resolve appears to have strengthened greatly, and one effect of this is likely to be a further increase in bomb attacks within Israel itself.

That is unlikely to make much difference to Sharon’s strategy, at least in the short term. The vulnerability felt within Israeli, especially after the Passover attack, is such that Sharon retains sufficient support and Washington remains reluctant to intervene to urge restraint. The mood in the US remains broadly pro-Israeli and Sharon’s actions against the Palestinians are seen as part of a process of homeland defence against terrorism. The idea of Palestinians defending their homeland gets little support.

Conflict in the North

There is one issue that may change the mood in Washington, and this is the prospect of a sudden extension of the conflict into Lebanon. From the perspective of the Sharon government, Jordan and Egypt present no threat to Israel – the two problems are the Palestinians and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the latter assumed to be backed by Syria and Iran.

There has been an increase in tension in southern Lebanon in recent days and it is possible that elements of Hezbollah militia may stage more substantial attacks on Israeli forces, not least as the impact of Israel’s action in Ramallah, Bethlehem and elsewhere becomes apparent throughout the Middle East.

This, in turn, could be used by the Sharon government as a reason for engaging in substantial military action in Lebanon, including sustained air attacks in the Beka’a Valley. Such action would explain the otherwise puzzling decision to call up twenty thousand reservists, and it would also fit in very closely with what is known about Sharon’s own attitude to Israeli security. The implications for Washington would be profound.

If Israel were to end up engaged in a substantial war in Lebanon as well as within the occupied territories, then it would be far more difficult for the United States to consider taking action against Iraq. The regional reaction would be formidable – so much so that it might even lead to a degree of caution among those advisers in Washington who are so keen to see the end of the Saddam Hussein regime.

For many months now, the Bush administration has sought to separate the Israel/Palestine confrontation from its own intentions to extend the “war on terror” to Iraq. That is now an impossible task and Tony Blair will do well if he can impress that on George Bush in his forthcoming meeting.

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