Aftermath: Afghan lessons, Iraqi futures

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Paul Rogers
10 April 2003

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In an assessment of the development of the Iraq war just under two weeks ago, an analysis of the problems faced by the US forces emphasized the unexpected resistance that they had met. Nonetheless, the overwhelming military capabilities of the US forces were highlighted and it was suggested that they had several options available, including waiting for reinforcements.

In the event, the US launched an immediate attack on Baghdad which (the earlier analysis concluded) “would be highly risky and could only be achieved by combining a ground offensive with a very heavy use of air power that would result in large numbers of civilian casualties, certainly measured in the thousands rather than the hundreds as at present. If this option was taken, it could start within a week…”.

The price of victory

Although information from the coalition forces is of variable reliability, it would seem that the attack on the international airport was achieved with the use of just such extraordinary firepower, so much so that the coalition claimed that 2-3,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed within 36 hours. This gives some indication of the fearsome capabilities of the US forces, but also highlights the dangers to civilian life of any use of such methods within Baghdad itself.

In practice, though, this is largely what happened earlier this week - the heavy use of firepower in an urban area, with an inevitable cost in lives of civilians and military. In one incident last Monday, within a few hours of the US advance into the centre of Baghdad, the International Herald Tribune reported one incident: “Caught in the crossfire, according to a chilling account by an Associated Press reported, were a number of pedestrians, including an old man with a cane, looking confused. When he failed to heed three warning shots by the Marines, they killed him. A red van and an orange-and-white taxi were also riddled with bullets after they failed to heed warning shorts.”

Similar incidents were repeated across the city. They stemmed both from the vigorous nature of the US offensive and the risk to its troops of fedayeen and other determined fighters, including possible suicide bombers. Such civilian losses were an almost inevitable result of a decision to move rapidly into the city with forces that were highly mobile but totally insufficient to pacify the whole city.

By going for the centre of the city, the US forces were hoping and intending to destroy the regime in the presumption that resistance would collapse. It did so, but only at a huge cost and with some immediate, and predictable, consequences.

A report from Reuters carried in a few western media outlets reported that most Baghdad hospitals were filled to beyond the point where they could cope, and were running short of anaesthetics, basic equipment and even clean water. The report concluded: “Iraq’s problems have been compounded by international sanctions against the government of President Saddam Hussein, which have made it difficult to stock analgesics and morphine. Aid agencies have long warned that Iraq and its 26 million people were in poor shape after two earlier wars and years of sanctions.”

A large part of that responsibility obviously lies with the regime itself, but the nature of the blunt sanctions is also relevant. In any case, by the onset of the recent war the Iraqi population had been severely weakened. In this light, the effects of any attack would be magnified, and urban warfare would be particularly destructive. This is precisely what happened.

A vacuum of power

The disorder and anarchy that has developed in Baghdad and elsewhere is a combination of several different factors. First, obviously, is that a brutal and repressive regime was very effective at maintaining order, right down to the use of a more or less conventional police force. Once the regime had collapsed, its forces of control disappeared within hours, leaving a near-total public order vacuum that has resulted in even hospitals and universities being looted.

A second factor is the paucity of US troops to even attempt to maintain public order, even if they were instructed to do so. The decision to use heavy firepower and relatively small numbers of ground troops means that forces now in Baghdad are actually thin on the ground and largely concerned with countering such armed resistance that continues. In any case, even if they were concerned with public order control, the possible presence of suicide bombers would make their task problematic.

More generally, there is the question of US military culture. US troops have very little experience of peacekeeping or even of post-conflict stabilisation. The common view is that this kind of work is “not proper soldiering” and should be left to the Scandinavians and others of a similar bent. The United States has had minimal engagement in UN peacekeeping operations in the past fifty years, and its activities in Kosovo and elsewhere have been characterised by the establishment of heavily protected encampments and the use of mobile patrols based on armoured vehicles with a minimal involvement of local populations.

In the chaos of post-war Iraq, it would be possible for the United States to invite the UN to put forces in to ensure stability, but the Bush administration is deeply reluctant to do this, as the clear intention is to secure Iraq under firm American control. The end result is that long-term political control is sought without the commitment to short-term peace-keeping.

In the Afghan mirror

The lessons from Afghanistan are only too relevant here, not least in what has happened there even while the war in Iraq has been waged. Almost every experienced political figure with knowledge of Afghanistan declared that it would be essential to have some kind of stabilisation force for the whole country to facilitate the development of stable government.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was indeed set up, but has been restricted to 5,000 troops operating in the Kabul area alone. UN insistence on the need for a 30,000-strong ISAF able to operate throughout the country has been repeatedly resisted by Washington.

As a consequence, the rest of Afghanistan has remained under the control of warlords or even factions allied to the Taliban. Recently, US and Afghan soldiers were involved in serious fighting with suspected Taliban militia that left eight dead and fifteen captured; and a week ago, Haji Gilani , one of the closest associates of President Hamid Karzai, was murdered outside his home in Oruzgan province. US action in Afghanistan has been focused on countering a resurgence of Taliban activity and has involved considerable military action largely unreported in the western media. One of the most substantial counter-attacks came three days ago after guerrilla forces had attacked an Afghan military checkpoint that had been providing security for local forces.

An immediate US response came from Marine Corps AV8B aircraft dropping laser-guided bombs on presumed guerrilla forces, but one bomb hit a family compound killing eleven of the twelve civilians in it. Afghan officials later admitted that this tragedy would further inflame anti-American feeling in the region, aiding the Taliban as they regroup for a summer campaign against the Afghan government and American forces.

In short, the war in Afghanistan is far from over, and up to 10,000 US troops are still involved in trying to maintain control of the country. In Iraq, a much larger problem is emerging as Washington remains adamant that it will be in charge after the war is finally over, but is extremely reluctant to counter the current disorder. What appears to be a sudden victory is already taking on a very different mantle, and one that may even cause the more hawkish elements of the Bush administration to restrain their rhetoric of success.

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