The horizon of war lengthens

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 November 2001

There have been bombing raids on targets in Afghanistan for 29 days, and the past week has seen two significant changes – a move to area bombing and to economic targeting. The first has involved the use of small numbers of B-52 strategic bombers engaged in area attacks on presumed Taliban military concentrations close to areas of Northern Alliance activity. The B-52 is the largest bomber in service anywhere in the world, and was used extensively in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq for area bombing.

The aim in the current conflict appears to be to weaken Taliban positions, allowing a more successful advance by Northern Alliance forces. These have been strengthened by new arms supplies coming from Russia (reportedly paid for by the US), with further supplies on the way. There are also reported to be more US forces working with the Northern Alliance, and the probable availability of bases in Tajikistan will enhance these deployments.

At the same time, the use of the B-52s remains on a small scale, partly because of the distances involved in flying from Diego Garcia, and partly because of the limited deployment space at that base. Furthermore, there are almost certainly only a few areas in which Taliban forces are at all concentrated. Also, some of the areas involved are honeycombed with underground irrigation tunnels – not mapped, not visible to satellites, but known to local people. These provide shelter and transit routes to Taliban forces that are, in any case, widely dispersed. These “front lines” are themselves fluid and intermingled with small farms and villages, so that any kind of area bombing is likely to cause civilian casualties.

In any case, it seems unlikely that the Northern Alliance is in a position to make any significant advance on Kabul before winter sets in, unless it gets immediate and very substantial additional aid from the United States. What is more likely is that an effort is made to dislodge Taliban forces from their more isolated location in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Even this is not very likely without the close involvement of US forces, either as large numbers of advisers or as combat troops. The recent Northern Alliance attempt to advance on the city was repulsed with serious casualties. Taking the city would provide a base within Afghanistan for military operations and for relief convoys, although the mixing of these two very different activities is, at best, a dubious process.

A reprise of economic targeting

The second development, hardly reported in the media, has been the attacks on power supplies, especially a hydro-electric power station near Kandahar. While such targeting has been predicted, and may well have some effect on Taliban capabilities, its main effect will be on the well-being of civilians, especially as winter approaches. It certainly fits a pattern common to recent US use of air power. The war on Iraq involved sustained economic targeting, and this was also employed against Serbia when military targets proved so difficult to find (from 15,000 feet). In that case, US economic targeting did some $60billion worth of damage to the Serbian economy in a few weeks. Such tactics against Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, will not have that economic effect, but will certainly exact a human cost, whatever its effects on the Taliban.

Much of the action in Afghanistan is currently involving attempts to increase support for opposition groups in a number of parts of the country, although success is so far limited. There are also a number of special operations units being employed, some of them inserted and extracted by helicopter. There are only a few sketchy reports of these activities, but some suggest an unexpectedly high level of opposition when these units actually engage with Taliban forces. Reports circulating in the Gulf States suggest that there have been casualties among some special force units, but these remain completely unconfirmed.

Overall, more than four weeks of bombing appears to have had very little effect in diminishing the power of the Taliban regime, and there are some indications of increasing support for the regime within Afghanistan, or at least for opposition to US action. There appears to have been almost no effective action taken against al-Qaida forces, and it is not clear whether these remain in any coherent form in Afghanistan. There is every probability that they are already well dispersed, both inside and outside the country.

Winter conditions make normal transport and communications difficult for the highland areas of Afghanistan, and existing food shortages make major humanitarian problems highly likely. The situation remains very fluid, and might just involve sudden and rapid change, but it looks probable that the most significant “advance” by the US will be the very limited objective of securing Mazar-e- Sharif, and attempting to move on from there to limit and ultimately overthrow the Taliban regime.

No early resolution

Apart from many uncertainties, there are two problems with this. The first is that the Northern Alliance remains, at best, unstable, and also unrepresentative of Afghanistan as a whole. The second is that arms are now flooding into Northern Alliance areas, and will cascade through the country in the coming months and years, making further conflict more costly.

In the wider region, opposition to the war is growing, and is complicated by the increasing intransigence of the Sharon government in Israel, including his refusal to travel to Washington this week. Mr Blair, to his credit, has recognised the crucial importance of improving Israeli-Palestinian relations, but the reaction to his recent visit has shown how far the divisions go.

In the United States, Mr Bush’s standing has taken a knock with the anthrax problems but domestic support for the war is remarkably solid, and looks likely to remain so. Outside of the few quality broadsheets, some magazines and a few specialist broadcasting outlets, there is little coverage of the more problematic aspects of the war.

Looked at overall, threats against the Taliban delivered before the bombing commenced had been expected to encourage them to give up Bin Laden and key parts of the al-Qaida network. That did not happen. Then the bombing was expected to cause a Taliban collapse. That has not yet happened. It would appear that the most that might be expected before winter will be the taking of one Afghan city and the establishment of forward bases for further military action. Perhaps there will be a sudden Taliban collapse, but it seems unlikely. A long war is in prospect, with all the human costs involved.

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