Afghanistan – the hidden war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 May 2002

In the past four weeks, two military operations involving British Marines have been undertaken in Eastern Afghanistan. Code-named Ptarmigan and Snipe, they have been part of a much more substantial level of military activity involving US ground troops together with special forces drawn from several nations, with operations continuing on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Reporting has been limited to a few carefully staged media opportunities, together with some limited accounts from a handful of journalists trying to probe the extent of this continuing war.

It is probably more difficult than at any time in the past eight months to get a clear idea of what is happening in Afghanistan away from Kabul, but it certainly looks as though the official line coming from the Pentagon and elsewhere is far from the truth. Terms such as “mopping up” and “remnants” have been used repeatedly to suggest that the conflict in Afghanistan is more or less at an end, but the extent of the troop dispositions, and the determined attempts to operate on the Pakistani side of the border suggest otherwise.

Evidence of guerrilla resistance

Several aspects of the current situation are relevant as we try to get an accurate assessment of what is happening. The first is that the last substantial military exchange, Operation Anaconda, involved guerrilla forces that were well-equipped and competent, capable of causing significant casualties among the US troops and their Afghan allies, and then of escaping across the border into Pakistan.

Even so, it is clear that the Taliban and other forces recognised that large-scale face-to-face fighting was not advantageous to them, given the massive airborne and ground-based firepower that the United States could deploy in such circumstances. As a consequence, there has been a substantial change in tactics involving the wholesale dispersal of their forces, combined with the repeated use of safe areas in Pakistan.

The British troops have had virtually no contact, so far, with guerrilla forces, with suspected areas of concentration turning out to be deserted. There is reasonably good evidence to suggest that there is substantial local support for the guerrilla forces, so it is relatively easy for small groups to lose themselves in villages and towns in Afghanistan itself.

A further factor is the manner in which the guerrilla forces have been able to adapt their tactics, developing methods that have impressed some of the American forces. The fighters now operate in small groups, rarely more than twenty-five in number and sometimes down to only a handful. They merge in with local populations, are virtually indistinguishable from them, and are able to stage surprise attacks on US and coalition units.

There have been a number of these in recent weeks resulting in injuries but no deaths, but the key point is that the guerrillas have often been taking the initiative. According to a reliable US source, some US Special Force and Ranger units have even been deliberately revealing their positions to try to incite attacks so that US air-power can be called in to counter the guerrillas. This is a reversal of normal counterinsurgency methods and indicates the difficulties being faced.

In a revealing statement to The Washington Post, one US source conceded that the guerrillas had sophisticated communications equipment and even had better survival gear than the US forces. Some of them are using US equipment captured in last month’s fighting and there is some admiration for the military skills of the fighters, especially in the way in which they are adjusting to US techniques.

Perhaps most indicative is the fact that the guerrillas are able to organise co-ordinated attacks on US forces despite more than seven months of offensives against them. That this should come as a surprise is itself rather odd, as a number of analysts have pointed out repeatedly that in many parts of Afghanistan the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters were not defeated by the US and the Northern Alliance forces. Instead, they withdrew and melted away, with much of their leadership intact, ready to continue the conflict on terms more favourable to themselves.

Response of the allies

For the United States and its coalition allies, there have been three responses to the new circumstances. The first is that substantial additional resources have been moved into those parts of Afghanistan closest to the fighting. This includes more than a thousand troops, mainly from the 101st Airborne Division, and the basing of Apache helicopters at a special forces facility near the city of Khost.

Khost itself is a difficult location because of fighting between local Afghan factions, and it is also in a region in which there is little support for US actions. As a consequence, the second aspect of the US response has been to rely far less on local forces. In the earlier stages of the war, US and Northern Alliance forces worked in very close alliance, but in the current phase, the US and its coalition allies are working much more on their own.

The final aspect has been the decision to locate special force units in Pakistan itself, apparently working alongside Pakistani army units in parts of north-west Pakistan that have been outside of government control for many years. This is part of a substantial US presence at four different bases in Pakistan, but is considered necessary because of the ability of Afghan guerrillas to operate with impunity across the border.

The tactic is logical from a military point of view but the impact of Pakistan itself is far less certain. Convinced opposition to western involvement remains in the country, especially in the areas close to the Afghan border. This, in turn, is part of a wider radicalism that has expressed itself in this week’s bombing of the bus in Karachi carrying French workers to a navy base.

Two views at odds

In overall terms, there remain two contrasting views of what is happening in the more unstable parts of Afghanistan. On the one hand, there is the view that the war is winding down and that western forces are engaged in a difficult but reasonably certain process of completing the defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaida within a few months.

The other is the view that it is slowly transforming into a guerrilla war that could extend well into the future, pinning down not just small numbers of special forces, but larger groups of regular army and marine units. On balance, the evidence suggests the latter, and this is supported by recent reinforcements of US troops, the extensive basing of helicopters and ground attack aircraft in the country, and the acceptance that the guerrilla forces are responding to US and coalition operations by developing appropriate tactical responses.

Beyond this lie two further factors. One is that the spring and early summer snow melt is now starting, opening up passes and allowing more routes to become available through the mountains. If the guerrilla war is likely to be a long term matter, then that will become more clear in the period between now and September.

The Palestine factor

The other factor appears far removed from Afghanistan but has a direct connection. This is the conflict in the Palestinian territories. The Israeli tactics over the past five weeks have cost many lives and have resulted, according to a UNDP assessment, in three hundred million dollars of property and infrastructure damage. These actions have been widely reported across the Middle East, far more than in the West, and are likely to produce further recruits to radical factions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

This week’s suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion appears to have been a Hamas operation and was clearly organised to disrupt Sharon’s meeting in Washington and to incite him to further military action, quite probably in Gaza. It was almost certainly designed with this latter aim, anticipating a further radicalisation in the wake of a forceful Israeli military response into the refugee camps in Gaza.

What tends to be forgotten in the West is that such radicalisation is not restricted to the Palestinians. Across south-west Asia, Israel is widely perceived as a client state of the United States, and Sharon’s actions are even seen as an extension of US policy. The radicalisation effect of this process certainly extends to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and should be expected, in the coming months, to further enhance resistance to coalition forces there.

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