There is an assumption that the war in Afghanistan is over and that all that remains to be done is to conduct mopping up operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida. This view has been rudely shattered by reports that there is considerable frustration in US defence circles with progress in Afghanistan and that substantial additional special forces are to be used there, and in other regions where al-Qaida or its associates may be operating.
The forces are likely to include US Navy Seals, US Army Delta Force troops and members of the CIA Special Activities Division. While the emphasis will be on Afghanistan, it is likely that Pakistan and possibly some Central Asian republics will also be involved.
There are many reasons for this renewed activity with most of these relating to continued problems in Afghanistan itself. These stem, in part, from the evident continued activity of the al-Qaida network, including attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and arrests in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The attack this week on a Christian school in Pakistan is the latest of a number of actions, not all of which directly involve al-Qaida. But the more worrying incident was the attempt last week to explode a massive car bomb in Kabul itself.
The car was intercepted after a minor traffic incident and it was found to be packed with over 500 kilograms of explosive material, sufficient to demolish a large building or kill people over a 500-metre radius. This is akin to the bomb that killed over 200 people at the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. There are unconfirmed reports that the target may have been the US Embassy in Kabul or possibly President Karzais palace.
This latest incident comes after the assassination of Vice President and Minister of Public Works, Haji Abdul Kazir, and of Abdul Rahman, Minister of Tourism. It also comes at a time when President Karzai himself is to be guarded by a detachment of 45 US troops, the belief being that current security arrangements are frankly inadequate.
Expanding war or creating peace?
Away from Kabul, US forces on the ground are experiencing further security problems. Ten days ago, a US patrol became involved in a bitter battle, lasting for four and a half hours, with guerrilla forces near the border with Pakistan, seven miles to the east of one of the main US bases at Khost. Apache helicopters, A-10 ground attack aircraft and F-16 strike aircraft were all called in to support the US troops, but two Afghan auxiliaries were killed and five US troops injured. The attack on the US patrol was the fifth in four weeks, all since the accidental bombing of the wedding party in Oruzgan Province.
A United Nations (UN) report suggests that the death toll there was substantially higher than the 48 reported, and this comes at a time when some careful and systematic studies are being published of civilian casualties resulting from actions earlier in the war. Although many areas remain to be visited, there already seems to be reliable evidence of close to 1,000 non-combatants being killed by US air attacks, mostly through mis-targeting and faulty intelligence. The total figure may be much higher, especially if it takes into account civilians killed by Northern Alliance forces.
One effect of the recent mistakes has been to decrease support for US military activities in Afghanistan. It is probable that one reason for increasing the involvement of special forces is to cut down on the use of air power, with its obvious consequent risk of civilian casualties.
There are other, wider issues. One is that the operations to kill or capture senior Taliban and al-Qaida leaders have been remarkably limited in their effect. Only a handful of senior Taliban members have been killed or are in custody, together with perhaps a dozen al-Qaida leaders. As a few analysts have believed all along, it seems likely that few of the al-Qaida leaders have even been in Afghanistan for many months. Furthermore, most of the Taliban have melted away inside Afghanistan or across the border into Pakistan, mostly with their weapons intact.
Meanwhile, warlordism is rampant in many parts of Afghanistan and opium poppy production is buoyant, not least as a provider of income for the warlords. Hamid Karzais administration is having considerable difficulties in gaining effective control of the country and of providing some semblance of law and order.
In one sense, this has to be put in perspective. Life in Kabul is certainly more stable and positive than at any time for many years, with the university re-opening, businesses functioning and human rights abuses much reduced. It is also true to say that a full-scale guerrilla war has not so far developed, and there has been some return of refugees.
Against this, there remain bitter divisions in the country, exemplified by the assassinations, and US forces have failed to control the guerrilla forces. Experienced UN staff have long taken the view that Afghanistan has to have a much greater degree of external security assistance if it is to make the transition to a stable state. For now, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), at a strength of 4,600, remains almost entirely confined to Kabul. UN specialists want an expansion to around 30,000, enabling ISAF to cover the major provincial centres of Jalalabad, Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif, along with the main roads connecting them.
The thinking behind this kind of proposal is that an expanded ISAF would do two things. One is that it would limit the power of regional warlords who have shown no sign whatsoever of dismantling their forces. The second effect would be to end the frequent road blocks, to make the roads safe and to give commerce a real stimulus.
While there has been some support for expanding the ISAF, this has been limited to a few countries, including Britain, and the proposal is hindered by the attitude of the US authorities. Their concern is almost entirely with the war on terror, with little or no interest in post-conflict peace building.
Moreover, they appear to maintain specific opposition to an expansion of the ISAF outside Kabul, seeing the operations in Afghanistan as a whole much more in the light of counter-guerrilla action than peace building. The idea that effective security coupled with a high degree of public order would undermine support for the Taliban seems entirely absent from the thinking in Washington.
The dangers of vacuum
The US view is that the new Afghan National Army (ANA) should be developed rapidly to handle the internal security problems. But, as the current issue of Janes Defence Weekly reports, this has already encountered severe problems of two kinds. One is that it is proving very difficult even to retain newly trained troops. There is currently a limited training programme for new infantry battalions of the ANA, with this now being provided by US and French staff, following Britains completion of its ISAF commitments.
The first ANA battalion was trained by British staff earlier this year, and some 550 recruits graduated from the first course. The British are unusually well experienced in such training and are reported to have been competent in their work. But nearly 200 of the recruits simply left the army in the first three months. The first of the new US-trained battalion graduated two weeks ago but there is no pretence that this will be an effective unit without substantial further support and training.
The other much larger problem facing the ANA relates to national issues it has few recruits from the Pashtun areas and there is a notable lack of support from Afghanistans own Ministry of Defence where the cabinet minister, Qasim Fahin, retains his own private army.
On the most favourable prognosis, it might be possible to develop an effective army that can support a police force within two years, whereas some kind of peacekeeping process is required now. There is therefore little alternative to temporary support from overseas, under UN control, but the US authorities are not prepared to allow this to happen.
Meanwhile, their renewed concentration on counter-guerrilla actions will take centre stage and state building will be hindered. As the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and others have begun to appreciate in their frustration, the al-Qaida network and even the Taliban have not gone away. Even so, they seem unable to see that the unstable vacuum existing in many parts of Afghanistan makes it easier for such groups to survive and possibly even re-group.
Afghanistan may be relatively more peaceful than six months or a year ago, but it is a desperately precarious peace that could be made much more long lasting if there was a much greater international commitment to support its further development.