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Afghanistan: the evolving war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 September 2002

A draft United Nations report has confirmed what had been suspected by a number of analysts, that it was proving very difficult to control the al-Qaida network’s movement of funds and that it was successfully gaining access to substantial additional funds, sufficient to finance further attacks. In the months immediately following 11 September 2001, $112 million was blocked. But barely $10 million more has been intercepted over the past eight months.

Al-Qaida and its associated groups have been able to use a wide range of banking systems, increasingly augmented by the use of the halawa informal money-lending networks. They have also made extensive use of gold and gems as means of transferring resources between countries.

As the first anniversary of the attacks approaches, there has been a predictably strong reaction from the Bush administration. According to officials, the war on terror is going well: al-Qaida is crippled and operations in Afghanistan amount to little more than a process of ‘mopping up’.

Hotfoot on this announcement, however, came an attempted hi-jacking of a Ryanair jet in Stockholm. The details remain unclear, especially as to whether the putative hi-jacker was acting alone or was part of a larger group. At the very least there appears to have been an informal connection with other incidents. In any case, if there was no direct connection with al-Qaida, it may well illustrate one problem that is facing the United States and its associates – that there is a more general capacity for anti-US groups and individuals to engage in attacks.

The early focus on Osama bin Laden as the central figure of power, and the view of al-Qaida as a rigorously organised hierarchical group, was always a dangerous simplification, dangerous because it underestimated the particular nature of the problem. A single rigid organisation, even one operating in a number of countries, is relatively vulnerable to counter-action. A much more loose network of groups and even individuals, sharing a common purpose directed against the United States, is a much more difficult phenomenon to counter.

The al-Qaida group and its Taliban associates nevertheless remain the most significant part of this orientation. Amid the conflicting reports on its current status, is it possible to get a reasonably accurate idea of the position of the organisation and of the security position in Afghanistan?

Insecurity in Afghanistan

In the past three weeks, a certain amount of information has entered the public domain that helps us to do this, much of it building on trends that have become apparent over the past three months (see an earlier article). Taken together, they support the view that Afghanistan is deeply unstable and that there is a considerable risk that it will slip back into civil war and wholesale disorder.

This is at a time when more than a million refugees have returned home, and some semblance of civil society is developing, especially in Kabul. It would be tragic if, primarily because of a fundamental lack of international commitment to support for post-conflict peace-building, this progress were lost.

The evidence for developing problems comes from many sources and covers a range of factors. As I wrote in August, it is proving very difficult to create an effective Afghan national army. There are wide-ranging problems of warlordism, and opium production has increased.

There have been a number of incidents of bombings and attempted bombings in Kabul, including a massive car bomb that was intercepted by accident after a minor traffic incident. In recent weeks there have been further bomb attacks, one of them injuring a British soldier serving with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul at the weekend.

This week alone, a bomb exploded outside the old Soviet Embassy, killing one person and injuring three, and two landmines exploded near the Bagram base, killing four and injuring 18.

There remains an enduring power struggle between the president, Hamid Karzai, and the ambitious defence minister, Mohammed Fahim, who maintains what is effectively a private army of several thousand Tajik militia fighters drawn mainly from the Panjshir valley in northeastern Afghanistan. This struggle persists, following the assassination of a cabinet minister and of vice-president Abdul Kazir earlier in the year.

The US military presence

If these factors illustrate the instability at the heart of Afghan politics, what is more worrying for the United States is the increase in tensions involving its own troops in the country, numbering some 10,000. There is, furthermore, a suspicion that only a small proportion of attacks on US forces are being reported.

Here and there, some information seeps out. Two weeks ago, some 2,000 US and coalition troops conducted one of the largest search operations of the war in south-eastern Afghanistan. Operation Mountain Sweep was intended to kill or capture numerous Taliban and al-Qaida guerrilla units operating in a range of villages and towns.

The eight-day operation was a failure. The entire process yielded a van-load of weapons, two caches of documents and ten prisoners, with every indication that the entire operation had been thoroughly compromised. There is a suspicion that guerrilla forces had indeed been present in the area, but had had ample warning of the operation and had moved on to other locations.

Al-Qaida claims that it has penetrated the major coalition operating bases such as Bagram air base north of Kabul, and that it has support in much of the country, but especially in the Pashtun areas. These claims are quietly accepted by senior US military in the country, as is the fact that guerrilla units have active supply lines and ample logistical support, both made easier through operating in parts of Afghanistan where there is deep-seated antagonism to US forces.

One of the major independent strategic analysis groups in the US is the Houston-based Stratfor. Stratfor works for a range of business clients and has a reasonable reputation for its analytical independence. In a recent and very sobering assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, it claimed that US forces on the ground are experiencing far greater security problems than is publicly acknowledged:

"Sources say that there are nightly attacks on U.S. troops, which is confirmed by non-governmental organizations in the country, who add that increased restrictions have been placed on the movements of off-duty U.S. forces. U.S. troops reportedly control only the towns where they have bases, and then only in daylight, while the Karzai government reportedly controls only parts of Kabul" (see Stratfor, 28 August 2002).

Stratfor’s assessment does fit in with other indications. Even the mainstream international press reported at least five significant attacks on US units during July. There have been a number of more recent bombing incidents before this week’s incidents, including one at the communications ministry in Kabul on 15 August and another intercepted 500 metres from the US embassy on 20 August.

One of the US special forces soldiers injured in an earlier attack has since died and there are reports from a number of sources that suggest that the US forces have suffered a significant number of casualties, including many soldiers killed. These reports persist but are denied by the Pentagon.

What is more widely recognised is that there has been an upsurge in popular opposition to the US military presence, exacerbated by the deaths of civilians in air strikes, with this spreading across most of the Pashtun provinces.

All of these aspects do not add up to the resurgence of major guerrilla warfare, at least not yet, but there are indications that the al-Qaida organisation now sees an opportunity to operate once more in Afghanistan, especially in those areas close to the Pakistan border.

A role for Britain? Three options: not two

There have been repeated calls from the UN and from Karzai himself for a substantial increase in support, not least with the aim of extending Isaf to a strength of 30,000, enabling it to operate in many more cities and towns and to aid transport and communications. While the Bush administration has been strongly opposed to this until recently, there is some recognition even in Washington that the situation is deteriorating.

British special forces and commandos were involved fairly substantially in Afghanistan, although the marine commando deployment in the spring resulted in few interceptions in spite of intensive operations. Where Britain has played a genuinely more constructive role has been in its support for Isaf and also in a range of civil-assistance programmes.

One option for Britain would be to substantially increase its commitment to post-conflict security and reconstruction, building on some reasonable efforts already underway. This might include a willingness to contribute up to two-thirds of the 30,000 troops that Isaf really needs, coupled with a substantial increase in aid for health, education, transport and other projects.

A major and sustained commitment to Isaf, it could be argued, would be a far more valuable role for Britain to play than to get involved in the US war against Iraq. Indeed, a large-scale commitment to Afghanistan would mean that the UK would not have the capacity to operate in Iraq as well, as that would over-stretch the limited forces Britain has available.

In facing up to the dilemma over the Bush plan for war against Iraq, the UK actually has three options, not two. The obvious ones are that it could back Washington to the hilt, with all the dangers that this involves, or it could oppose the war forcefully. The latter looks frankly unlikely, however widely that might be supported domestically.

The third approach, the "Afghanistan option", is to stay out of the war with Iraq but develop a greatly increased commitment to supporting a peaceful transition for Afghanistan. It is an approach that Washington refuses to take up, but there is no reason why that has to apply to the UK, especially if it works in coalition with European and regional associates.

Such an approach has two advantages. One is that it could be genuinely valuable in facilitating a transition to a much more peaceful and stable Afghanistan. The other is that it could mean that the UK can still have some influence with Washington without getting involved in a highly dangerous war in the middle east. The hardline nature of the Bush security advisers on this issue suggests that a moderating influence in Washington might not come amiss in the coming months.

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