Afghanistan and Iraq: in search of stability

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
15 October 2003

The past week has seen a pronounced upturn in violence in Afghanistan, although much of it has been between rival warlord factions rather than Taliban militia engaging with United States troops. But rebel attacks against US forces are continuing; a US soldier was wounded near Kabul and a police station in Zabul province was attacked by up to eighty suspected Taliban militia, who killed seven people and set fire to a district office. In Kandahar, forty Taliban suspects escaped from a prison, including some significant leaders, in an operation that appears to have had substantial internal help.

The wider violence occurred near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where rival warlord-led groupings of Tajik and Uzbek origin had fought for two days, leaving nearly eighty people dead or wounded. A ceasefire was eventually agreed, but the combination of factional violence and rebel attacks goes much of the way to explain why so many parts of Afghanistan remain isolated from international assistance.

A more positive move was this week's UN Security Council resolution enabling the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to operate beyond Kabul, where its presence has certainly aided stability. ISAF currently numbers some 5,300 troops under Nato auspices; both Afghan and UN sources have repeatedly argued for a much larger force of as many as 30,000 troops spread across the country which could secure major urban settlements and key transport routes.

There is little sign of this scale of ISAF expansion; what is planned at present is just an additional 450 German soldiers forming a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kunduz. For now, the international political will is just not there. This is a continuing loss for Afghanistan, especially given that the necessary UN resolution is now in place.

A tense autumn in Iraq

The United States is continuing to pursue proposals for a new UN resolution on Iraq. There is near-universal acceptance that Washington’s lack of commitment to UN control of the democratic transition means that they will get little help with peace-enforcing or even civil reconstruction. This is hardly a problem for the neo-conservative elements who are always deeply suspicious of the UN, but it leaves the Bush administration exposed to increasing criticism within the US.

The administration’s immediate response has been a sustained campaign focused on its domestic political constituency. President Bush, vice-president Cheney and senior colleagues have travelled across the country to deliver a resolute message. Dick Cheney’s address to the Heritage Foundation is emblematic: he defended US policy in Iraq as a fundamental part of the worldwide “war on terror”, and made it clear that the administration was committed to a full and long-term engagement.

But what are the real prospects for US forces in Iraq? A significant element here is the expectation that as the excessive summer heat died down and power supplies began to improve, there would be an improvement in attitudes to the occupation in Baghdad and its environs, thus undercutting support for the rebel paramilitaries.

That has so far not happened; attacks are continuing relentlessly. Within the past week, there have been many more assaults on US troops, with even the heavily-protected Baghdad Hotel targeted. On 9 October, a Spanish intelligence official was murdered and an attack on a Baghdad police station by a suicide bomber killed and injured over forty-five people. This was followed by another suicide bombing at the Turkish diplomatic compound.

All these assaults are human tragedies, and come at a time of sustained lawlessness and criminality that is especially affecting the Sunni population across many parts of central Iraq. But a further serious development – although not widely reported outside the country – is a period of severe tension and violence late last week, involving US troops and Shi’a Muslims in the Sadr City slum district of the capital.

The problem culminated in a confrontation between an American patrol and a large group of people in which two US soldiers and an Iraqi were killed and a number of others injured. This incident comes at a time when radical Shi’a clerics are expressing more vocal opposition to the occupation; the Shi’a majority in the population of Iraq makes this trend particularly worrying for the US authorities.

A question of food security

How does this continuing violence relate to overall progress in reconstruction? There have certainly been improvements on the ground, in electricity supply, school reopening, and hospital and university equipment. Yet unemployment is still spectacularly high, disruption of oil supplies continues (with further attacks on pipelines), and the whole economy is burdened by private security expenditure as expatriates and Iraqi developers alike seek to protect themselves and their investments. Moreover, the US occupying powers are bringing in labourers from south Asia to work on major projects such as the construction of the US air base at Baghdad International Airport. The justification of security does nothing to lessen the bitter resentment of many thousands of Iraqis currently seeking any kind of employment.

Only one part of the economy is still functioning in a routine and almost unnoticed way: the food distribution system. This system was highly-centralised in the last years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, with much of the food coming via the UN food-for-oil programme. On the eve of the 2003 war, the regime released large stocks of food to sustain people for the period ahead; Iraqi bureaucrats have since been remarkably successful at keeping the supply system working.

Here, the Coalition Provisional Authority seems determined to move towards rapid privatisation of the food supply system, much as it is doing for other sectors of the economy. The logic of such privatisation is debatable; but it is clear that the rapid collapse of a centralised system, if there were not an immediate and efficient replacement, would inflict severe hardship on many people. In current circumstances, though, free-market ideology may well rule the day. Any consequent failures of food distribution could potentially heighten Iraqi opposition to US forces still further.

The Turkish conundrum

In the light of this difficult security situation, the decision of Turkey to commit troops to Iraq may appear welcome news for the Bush administration. Here, too, the situation is complicated.

From Washington’s perspective, a Turkish army division of around 10,000 troops (smaller than a standard US army division of nearly twice that size) would be based in central Iraq, thus relieving some of the pressure on US forces. It would add to the 130,000 American and about 20,000 other troops (mainly British and Polish) already in Iraq – though most of the latter are in the south of the country, away from the most significant areas of violence.

The United States is particularly sensitive to the risk of having Turkish troops stationed in the Kurdish north of Iraq, where they could engage with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) paramilitaries seeking freedom for the Kurdish region of south-east Turkey.

The problem is that the Turkish army (as opposed to its government) is quite prepared for armed combat with the PKK, and initially wants the US to be more robust in its control of the PKK in return for its own deployment of troops. But the US is simply not prepared to be diverted from its prime task of responding to the growing insurgency in central Iraq.

This delicate balance is further complicated by internal political problems in Turkey, with the possibility of a general election in early 2004. Recent opinion polls indicate that 70% of Turks are opposed to sending troops to Iraq; this issue could become a major and controversial one in any campaign.

The prospect

This combination of factors – internal security in Iraq, United States domestic politics, problems of reconstruction, and the difficulties faced by any government responding to US requests – means that effective international support for US troops in Iraq on the scale required prove either minimal or not sustainable.

In Afghanistan, for quite different reasons, the international political will to aid peace-building is absent. The pattern in both these fronts in the ‘war on terror’ may change in the coming months, but current indications make such a shift unlikely.

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