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Afghanistan: victory or swamp?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
4 December 2001

By the end of the eighth week of the war, there was an expectation that, with the imminent occupation of Kunduz, the southern Taliban city of Kandahar would quickly fall. It was thought that this was made more likely by the establishment of a substantial forward operating base by the US Marines at an airstrip in the desert well to the south of Kandahar.

Latest developments

During the past week there have been two significant developments, both of which point to the future direction of the war. The first is that the United States has extended its policy of using local militia as ground troops with the US providing air power and special operations forces and substantial quantities of arms and other equipment.

The speed of the Taliban withdrawal from Northern Afghanistan was partly caused by the rapid arming of Northern Alliance forces, with arms coming from Russia but largely paid for by the US. In the south of the country there appeared to be little prospect of Northern Alliance militia moving into Pashtun areas, and, as a result, there has been a substantial arming of anti-Taliban Pashtun groups. It is these that have been advancing slowly towards Kandahar, with heavy US bombing aiming to kill Taliban troops and encourage others to defect.

In essence, the overall US policy has been to take sides in the long-lasting civil war, supporting any groups opposed to the Taliban, whatever their own record of violence and human rights abuses. One of the longer-term effects of this will be to leave a country that has been flooded with arms, with these likely to be disseminated among the population. The United Nations has some of its best career diplomats engaged in trying to establish an acceptable unified government, but even short term progress in this direction may quickly be undone in the coming months by local and regional violence

The second development of the past week has been the manner in which many Taliban units have been treated. There have now been repeated instances of prisoners being summarily executed, with, in addition, the killing of several hundred Taliban at the fort at Mazar-e-Sharif. While some kind of revolt may have taken place, it is also clear that the intensity of the counter-attack meant that there would be few survivors. Furthermore, many of those killed still had their hands tied behind their backs.

No one is pretending that the Taliban had any particular regard for human rights - their treatment of opponents over the past six years has frequently been brutal in the extreme. At the same time, though, the treatment meted out to them cannot be merely blamed on Northern Alliance militia seeking reprisals. The point is that the United States has formed a direct and close coalition with these groups rather than use its own ground troops. Furthermore, it was US firepower that was responsible for much of the killing at the fort.

A prolonged civil war?

A particulary significant aspect of this massacre is that it has been reported widely, and in detail, in the Middle East and South West Asia. Some television footage of the aftermath of the killings has been shown on European channels, but most viewers have been spared the worst examples. This is not the case in the region, where satellite channels are reported to have described and screened the full extent of the carnage. This is likely to harden opinion against the United States and its associates, as well as serving to radicalise relatives and friends of those killed. It also makes it likely that those hardline Taliban and al-Qaida supporters who do not change their allegiance will know that surrender is highly risky, motivating them to resist offensives by US forces and their associated local militia.

There has been an assumption, underlying much media analysis, that the fall of Kandahar would signal the impending end of the war. This is possible but unlikely. What seems more probable is that Taliban units will either melt away into villages, or take refuge in protected centres in the more mountainous regions. On this basis, there will be protracted operations in the coming weeks, and possible months, by US special forces and others, but these may not be able to isolate and attack all Taliban forces. Instead, there may be a tendency for these to avoid any encounters for many months, possibly entering into counter-movements against other Afghan forces next year.

Put bluntly, an apparent US victory achieved before the end of this year may, in reality, be just a further stage in a longer-term civil war in Afghanistan. This is supported by the likelihood that many Taliban and al-Qaida units have already crossed the border into north-west Pakistan, where there is substantial local support for their position, support no doubt fuelled by the recent treatment of Taliban prisoners.

Regional Changes

The two main regional beneficiaries of the war so far have been Russia and India, and the main loser has been Pakistan. Russia has seen its influence increased in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it now has a virtual free hand to pursue its war in Chechnya with little of no condemnation from the United States, it has opened a diplomatic mission in Kabul in association with its long-time allies in the Northern Alliance and it has even succeeded in putting military forces into Bagram Air Base. Their purported mission - humanitarian support - does not seem to fit in with the heavy equipment they have brought with them.

India, too, has been a real beneficiary, giving strong support to the Northern Alliance and receiving notable support from the US Ambassador in Delhi in relation to its opposition to Islamic militia in Kashmir. Pakistan, on the other hand, now sees a potentially hostile state on both sides of its own territory, an outcome that is unlikely to aid the position of the current military regime, whatever its (rather unwilling) support for US action against al-Qaida.

Hidden Developments

There have been some other significant developments that have largely escaped media attention.

Israel’s military budget will run to nearly one tenth of its gross domestic product next year, about three times that of the United States and four times the world average. A budget of $9.8 billion has been agreed for 2002, of which just over $2 billion is in accounted for by US military aid.

The UK Ministry of Defence is reported to be considering the purchase of large numbers of land-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles. Currently, Britain deploys Tomahawks on its nuclear-powered attack submarines. These are the Block IIIC missiles with a range of 1,000 miles and a 1,000 lb warhead, and another 48 of this are likely to be purchased, partly to replace missiles used recently. The new scheme would involved the purchase of up to 150 Block IV Tomahawks to equip the new Astute class of nuclear-powered submarines and possibly the new Type 45 destroyer. Tomahawks are considered to be particularly useful for fighting “small wars in far-off places”.

President Bush’s directive to allow people deemed as terrorists to be tried in military tribunals operating in secret and capable of ordering the death sentence has run into some opposition in Congress. One senator, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has said that the military order “sends a message to the world that it is acceptable to hold secret trials and summary executions without the possibility of judicial review, at least when the defendant is a foreign national.” Meanwhile, the planning for the tribunals is going ahead, including the possibility of holding them at secure locations such as the west Pacific base on Guam or even on ships at sea.

The CIA and its activities in Afghanistan have both been subject to considerable criticism by sectors on the US armed forces. The general criticism was over its failure to recognise the extent of the threat from al-Qaida. The specific concern is with current CIA operations in Afghanistan where “the Company” is said to be pursuing its own war, intent on making progress in order to counter the overall failure. As a result of this persistence, relations between the CIA and regional military commanders have come under stress, with the latter criticising the CIA for failing to share intelligence.

According to the well-informed journal Aviation Week, the CIA “is being very aggressive and acting independently in the Central Asian theatre, say US officials who produce or control some of the key intelligence-gathering technologies being brought into play in Afghanistan.” One official told the journal that the CIA “have decided not to be just information gatherers. Now they’re pulling the trigger on things - either directly or through special forces. But this is disruptive to any kind of co-ordination, it creates animosities between the CIA and the Defense Dept. because they’re now competing with one another. The chase (of Al Qaida and Taliban leadership) is absolutely not being co-ordinated.”

Given that this “chase” is central to the conduct of the entire US action in Afghanistan, it is remarkable that there are the makings of a war within a war between different parts of the US intelligence and military forces.

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