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An elusive enemy

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 October 2001

The spreading US air attacks are likely to impact increasingly on civilians. With winter looming, and refugee and humanitarian crises pending, both sides seem ready for a lengthy conflict.From early in the third week of the war, the United States was able to operate strike aircraft such as the F-15 out of Uzbekistan. This has enabled the US to mount more air raids and has partially overcome the previous limitations of using carrier-based aircraft and long-range bombers. Even so, press reports of up to 100 aircraft involved in air strikes in any one day are misleading, as the number actually dropping bombs is much smaller. Aircraft involved include tankers, electronic counter-measures planes, “back-up” strike aircraft, interceptors engaged in combat air patrols, and reconnaissance aircraft. These can make up 70% of the total aircraft used.

Even so, the US now has a greater ability for airborne intervention, although Gulf and Pakistani bases still do not appear to be available for bombing. The movement of a fourth aircraft carrier into the region appears to indicate an acceptance of the need to use carrier air-power into the winter.

Widening the targets

Use of area-impact munitions such as cluster bombs has been confirmed, and the AC-130 gunship is also designed to have an area-impact effect. The use of such munitions against possible Taliban military concentrations is highly likely to lead to much larger civilian casualties. In the past two weeks there have been at least six cases of mis-targeting, including UN and Red Cross facilities.

Kandahar has clearly experienced widespread damage that goes beyond the targeting of military sites. This does fit in with patterns of US air attacks in previous wars such as the Gulf War and Serbia, where the definition of “military” is capable of being greatly stretched to include targets that serve a primarily civil function (transport nodes, power stations, administration offices, radio stations).

An effect of this is to degrade the capability of a city or other urban area to provide electricity, drinking water and other facilities for its population, making refugee flows more likely. These, in turn, make civilian casualties more likely, especially as Taliban military movements become mixed in with refugees. Even so, US bombing strategy is still not as harsh as the out-and-out destruction carried out by the Russians in Chechnya. At the same time, US forces may yet use fuel-air explosives (sometimes called thermobaric weapons) against underground bunkers and trenches. These were used against Iraqi positions in the Kuwaiti desert and are particularly destructive. The Russians have used them in urban areas in Chechnya.

The Northern Alliance

There are credible reports that the Northern Alliance is starting to receive substantial quantities of arms from Russia, possibly financed by the US. In return for this, and other aid, the United States is unlikely to criticise Russian suppression in Chechnya, and improving US relations with China may give Beijing more of a free reign against Islamic rebels in western regions. Both moves will further inflate antagonism to the United States in a number of Islamic countries.

While the Northern Alliance is being strengthened, there remains unwillingness on the part of Washington to see it move on Kabul, not least because it does not carry support in Afghanistan as a whole. Thus, if the immediate aim is to cause the collapse of the Taliban regime, an acceptable alternative regime is not readily available.

The Media

There is a dearth of reliable information coming out of Afghanistan, and direct media access to US forces is under remarkably strict control. As a consequence, media manipulation is easy and a noteworthy feature of the first two weeks has been a careful “feeding” of stories, day by day, with an emphasis on items that produce good graphics. The AC-130 gunship was one example, as was the news that Special Forces were now operating in Afghanistan (when most informed analysts believed this had started some four weeks ago).

The US Rangers attack near Kandahar on 19-20 October was initially represented as the successful clearing of a previously impregnable Taliban stronghold, but further information indicated that the target area had few troops there, and the operation was essentially a “dry run” for further attacks, ensuring that the complicated logistics for this kind of operation could work in practice.

One of the problems for media handlers is that the media itself expects a constant “feed” of stories, made more necessary because it cannot get its own people into the war zone. Yet Bush, Rumsfeld and others have constantly emphasised that they are engaged in a potentially long war. To avoid a rise in media criticism of the war, we should therefore expect a continual string of “hardware” stories in the coming weeks and months.

Iraq and Israel

In the past week there have been no significant developments in relation to Iraq. US hard-line defence advisers still want the war to be taken to Iraq but are not yet succeeding, and may not do so. Iraq, meanwhile, is not providing any provocation, but has successfully rebuilt the command and control systems that were damaged in extensive US air attacks last February.

US and EU efforts to encourage an Israeli/Palestinian cease-fire have been hugely damaged by the Zee’vi assassination and the consequent Israeli military response. The al-Qaida network has not focused much attention on the Palestinian cause, being mainly concerned with US “occupation” of the Gulf and the illegitimacy of the Saudi regime, but any harsh Israeli military action strengthens the network’s support in the region (and that for Iraq, too).

US and al-Qaida Strategy

The US strategy is one of hugely damaging the Taliban regime, causing its collapse and making anti-al-Qaida interventions much more feasible. Given the massive military capabilities of the United States, it ought to be possible to overthrow the Taliban regime, but there are two doubts. The first is that more bombing may actually increase support for the regime. Previous large-scale bombings by the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, some of them killing 5,000 or more people in individual cities, tended to increase opposition to their intervention. This could happen again, even if the Taliban has limited popular support. The second is that there really is a huge humanitarian crisis developing, and this is almost certain to rise up the political agenda in the coming weeks.

The more difficult part of the analysis is understanding the al-Qaida strategy. Given that it appears to form part of a loose coalition of networks spread over a number of countries, and that this coalition has been developing and has been involved in paramilitary action for ten years, it is best to assume that it is currently operating on a 5-10 year strategy.

As such, many of its elements may well have dispersed, not just throughout Afghanistan but into a number of other countries, and it may be intending to remain in a dispersed form for many months if not two or three years. As such, when US ground forces progressively seek to destroy the network before and after the coming winter, it may simply not be around to be destroyed. Meanwhile, a destructive conflict will further damage Afghanistan, already suffering the effects of a three-year drought and twenty years of war.

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