The next frontier

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
17 December 2001

The bombing campaign and its implications

Until last Wednesday, local anti-Taliban militia had spent the best part of two weeks attempting to overcome a substantial force of al-Qaida and Taliban militia in the White Mountains area of south-east Afghanistan. Towards the end of that period, US area bombing had been used to considerable effect, although it had also killed a number of anti-Taliban militia in “friendly fire” incidents. US and UK special forces had operated alongside the militia, but largely in a target acquisition role.

By early last week, the effect of the bombing had been sufficient for anti-Taliban commanders to be able to negotiate a surrender deal with the Taliban/al-Qaida, an arrangement that was valuable to the former, not least in the context of their own casualties. However, the surrender would have involved a degree of safe passage for many of the militia and was firmly blocked by the United States. Instead, the bombing continued, on the basis of US and UK troops taking a much more active role in further fighting.

The extent of the bombing was remarkable. Prior to the air attacks around Tora Bora, US strategic air attacks throughout Afghanistan had used a range of carpet bombing techniques, together with the use of cluster bombs and, on three occasions, the dropping of the massive BLU-82 slurry bombs (erroneously termed “daisy cutters” which refers to a type of fuse used on these and other bombs). According to the Washington Post, seven more of these bombs were dropped on Taliban/al-Qaida positions in rapid succession, along with repeated area bombing with conventional and cluster bombs, an intensity of bombardment that greatly exceeds anything seen elsewhere in Afghanistan in the past ten weeks.

Two things have become clear with these developments – one is the US war aim of minimising the possibilities of surrender of al-Qaida units, and the other is the extent to which air bombardment has underpinned so much of the war. Both of these are proving very effective in destroying those parts of the al-Qaida network still in Afghanistan, but the longer-term effects on the organisation, its wider coalitions and their widespread regional support are less clear. That there are concerns about the thrust of the overall campaign has become clear from a somewhat unexpected source.

A view from the centre

One of the most surprising events of the last week received far less attention than it deserved. This was the remarkably candid speech by Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, Britain’s Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), on the current war and its possible long-term effects. The speech was given to an influential audience at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall, across the road from the War Office and Downing Street. In it, Boyce warned against the idea that a war on terrorism could be won by intensive military action while failing to recognise the root causes of the problem. More than that, he warned that the use of excessive force could even tend to radicalise Islamic opinion.

These views may be shared by many, but they are far more significant coming from Boyce, who is regarded as a highly professional CDS who is less political than his predecessor, General (now Lord) Guthrie. Guthrie was also held in high regard, not least in Downing Street circles, but was criticised from the right for being too close to Tony Blair. In many ways it was an unfair criticism as Guthrie, whose earlier experience included a period in the SAS, was one of the few top-ranking western military officers who was willing to think long-term and to recognise issues such as the wealth-poverty divide and environmental constraints as future causes of conflict.

In some ways, the views expressed by Boyce last week would be those expected of his predecessor, which is what makes them so interesting. Here is a well-respected professional CDS saying, in very clear language, that “the war on terror” will not be won unless the circumstances in which al-Qaida and other groups can draw so much support can be understood and changed. That he would express these views in public is a surprise; that he should do so just as the US was intensifying its bombing in south-east Afghanistan, is something that any British politician should ponder.

The war in wider context

As was suggested in last week’s report, as the war in Afghanistan is concentrated in a smaller area, it may be developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have wider implications. After the atrocities in Jerusalem and Haifa at the beginning of the month, the Sharon government responded with considerable force, with Washington effectively agreeing to the action. The response, inevitably, was further action by Palestinian militia, with an even stronger counter-reaction from the Israelis.

The occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank are now effectively parcelled up into numerous smaller areas under strict Israeli military control. Per capita GNP for the Palestinians has plummeted in recent years and is now about one-tenth of that of the Israelis; there is mass unemployment and even reports of malnutrition. Arafat’s position is increasingly weakened, both by the Israelis and by the further radicalisation of Palestinian opinion in the face of what, from their perception, is seen as continued Israeli repression backed by the United States.

In many respects, the occupied territories have been turned into huge open prisons for close to two million people, with little scope for movement even between towns and cities within the territories. Even so, most Israelis still feel deeply insecure and are ready to accept the Sharon government’s characterisation of Arafat as the promoter of terrorism.

In such a context, the killing of ten Jewish settlers last week in the ambush of a bus on the West Bank is much more significant than most analysts appreciate. An underpinning of Sharon’s approach has been the maintenance and even expansion of the settlements, as part of ensuring long-term control of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), and this requires security for the settlers. Such security is essential because a large proportion of the settlers are not ideologically committed people, but rather those seeking good quality low-cost housing.

The development of the settlements has gone hand in hand with substantial security measures, including numerous new strategic roads often bisecting Palestinian areas enabling settlers to move safely between the settlements and Israeli territory where many of them work. All loss of life is a tragedy, but in the Israeli security context, the killing of a large group of settlers by armed Palestinians is actually worse than suicide bombings in Jerusalem or Haifa, as it presages a vulnerability that strikes at the heart of Sharon’s policy for the territories.

It is for this reason, especially, that the Sharon administration has been taking such hard action against Palestinians in general and Arafat’s people in particular. It is, in effect, being supported by the United States, but the end result will be a further pronounced radicalisation of young Palestinians and a view, through much of the Arab world, that the United States and Israel are together engaged in an anti-Arab campaign in the guise of a war on terror. Whether or not you accept such a view, that is the perception, and it is increasingly widespread in the region.

Indicators - lasers and space weapons

As the war in Afghanistan continued, two small indicators of short and long-term trends were reported last week. One concerns US/Israeli military relations. An off-shoot of recent intensive efforts to develop directed energy weapons (such as high-power lasers) was an experimental tactical high-energy laser (THEL) that has been used to shoot down a number of Katyusha unguided artillery rockets in firing trials. This was of considerable interest to the Israeli military, who are now negotiating with the US Army to develop an operational variant as a joint project.

The aim would be to deploy, before the end of the decade, a mobile THEL (MTHEL) that would be far less unwieldy than the current experimental form, and would be able to be transported by C-130 transport aircraft and to be moved around rapidly on the back of military trucks. Most of the $250 million so far spent on the THEL has come from the United States but, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly, the MTHEL project would involve very close US-Israeli co-operation, with each state bearing half of the estimated $350 million development costs. The MTHEL project indicates both the considerable interest in directed energy weapons and the extent of US/Israeli collaboration in leading edge technologies.

In another development, almost coincident with President Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, it was reported that the US Air Force is planning to develop what is being called a military space plane. Rather like a smaller militarised version of the space shuttle, it would be re-usable and could serve multiple functions. These would include being able to respond rapidly to crises by placing military payloads in space, and could even be used as a weapons platform for delivering munitions at targets on earth from space.

It comes at a time of increased interest in space-based directed energy systems, especially the space-based laser (SBL). While the SBL is being developed primarily to destroy ballistic missiles soon after they have been launched, Pentagon studies have already been undertaken to see whether it could be further developed to attack targets on the ground.

Taken together, these developments are both aspects of a potential militarisation of space, with US Space Command seeing it as essential for the United States to control this “high frontier”. The Afghanistan War has been fought using persistent high altitude bombing. By 2020, such wars may be fought, at least in part, directly from space itself.

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