America's theatre is the world

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 December 2001

By the end of the eleventh week of the war, there was a media perception that the conflict in Afghanistan was effectively over and that issues of international terrorism were of less concern. It was a perception that was ended by the concern over a merchant ship intercepted off the south coast of England, en route to London, and by an apparent attempt to explode a bomb on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami.

Whether or not either incident had connections to the al-Qaida group, perhaps the more significant issues related to developments in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, where there was evidence that the war was far from over and that the next stages of what has been called “Phase Two” were beginning to develop.

As has so often been the case with the war in Afghanistan, early news reports have been of dubious validity, and evidence available a week or more after particular events frequently casts a different light. There was a widely held view two weeks ago that the core of the al-Qaida network was isolated in the Tora Bora region and that its destruction was imminent. Moreover, the Taliban as a whole was comprehensively defeated, its leaders were likely to be captured and, with this defeat, Afghanistan would return to peace for the first time in more than two decades. Furthermore, all this had been achieved with a minimum of civilian casualties.

The fate of al-Qaida

There is reasonably accurate evidence of substantial al-Qaida casualties in the Tora Bora region, with possibly as many as 200 people being killed, partly through the intensive area bombing by the US, and partly through the action of anti-Taliban militia, working with US and UK special forces. At the same time, though, up to 1,500, or possibly more, have escaped the immediate area, many moving into Pakistan. Osama bin Laden has, at the time of writing, escaped capture, and there remains a persistent fear that much of the key leadership of al-Qaida had left Afghanistan around 11 September, with many others leaving in late October as the intensity of the US military action became apparent.

With much support for al-Qaida and the Taliban in north-west Pakistan, it would therefore be possible for the network to retain much of its structure. In any case, it is worth recalling the early reports, shortly after 11 September, that the network was effectively a loose coalition of groups that was fully internationalised, both drawing support from, and operating in, many countries across the world.

In a sense, the US action against the Taliban and those elements of al-Qaida in Afghanistan was actually the most feasible part of a much wider range of actions. Moreover it served a substantial domestic purpose, being likely to prove popular in a country that, even three months after the event, remained deeply affected by the aftermath of the 11 September attacks.

Effects of the bombing

With the scaling down of the air campaign, it has proved possible to get some indications of its effects. As far as can be established, around 10,000 tons of munitions were used in the first eleven weeks, much of it unguided “dumb” bombs used in area bombing by B-52 and B-1B strategic bombers operating from the US base on the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Repeated early reports indicated substantial civilian casualties but many were discounted as Taliban propaganda. More careful analysis by one US academic, using a wide range of press reports, suggests that over 3,000 civilians have been killed by the bombing – rather more than died in New York and Washington. Other analysts suggest that Taliban militia casualties may number around 5,000, together with several hundred al-Qaida militia.

Overall, the death toll since 11 September may be around 12,000, with one-quarter of those dying in the original attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Furthermore, in Afghanistan itself, there is a degree of stability in Kabul and some of the larger towns, but this has been accompanied by a rapid revival of warlordism and banditry in much of the country. The small UN-backed stabilisation force now being assembled in Kabul may eventually extend its work to a few other centres of population, but it would require many tens of thousands of troops to bring order to the country as a whole. There is no international commitment to such a programme.

In any case, this would be unacceptable to the Pentagon, which is concerned primarily to continue the search for the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership, insofar as it is still in Afghanistan. This determination even extends to having ensured that the international force, ostensibly led by the UK, is under the final command of the Pentagon.

Since the easing of large-scale fighting, it has been possible for aid agencies to move food supplies into some of the larger cities, but it has proved much more difficult to transport them into areas in real need. Given that Afghanistan is essentially a country of towns, villages and small farms, what happens in the cities is not indicative of realities across the country. This potentially false picture is strengthened by the lack of reporting by western journalists, an understandable reaction given that eight journalists have already been killed during this war.

Where are the Taliban?

At the end of twelve weeks, it is possible to account for, at the most 12,000 members of the Taliban militia, including those in captivity, and perhaps 1-2,000 al-Qaida members, very few of the latter being in captivity. What has been surprising is that very few people, either from the Taliban or al-Qaida, have been taken into custody by the United States, either in the hastily constructed prison near Kandahar or on warships in the Arabia Sea.

Given that the Taliban could call on at least 50,000 armed militia and a fairly dispersed leadership, the key question arises – where have they gone? In that connection, it is worth recalling, once again, that many of the apparent battles in the war were actually rapid occupations of particular towns and cities by diverse anti-Taliban militia following the effective retreat of Taliban forces. This supports the view that, for the most part, Taliban militia have simply melted back into local communities, with their arms and munitions largely intact.

This leads to the key questions as to whether the Taliban retains any cohesion and whether some units are still present as coherent fighting groups in some more remote areas. If so, and it is at least likely, then efforts may be made next spring to resume control of parts of the Pashtun areas, especially if the new government fails to bring stability to the country.

This is an uncomfortable analysis for those who have assumed the war to be at an end, but it is supported by three factors. One, already stated, is that so little of the Taliban and al-Qaida forces have been destroyed, and a second is that there is accumulating evidence that many have moved into Pakistan. The final factor, mentioned in last week’s analysis, is that the one group that is not claiming that the war in Afghanistan is over is the Pentagon itself. More US troops have been moved into the country, two secure bases have now been established in the South, and there is every sign that longer-term operations are planned.

Somalia and Iraq – extending the war?

If substantial elements of the al-Qaida network are now in north-west Pakistan, it is possible that the US will put considerable pressure on the Pakistani government to facilitate military operations in the region. This will not be easy, not least because of enduring support for the Taliban and because of the huge complications occasioned by the current tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

In addition to an extension into Pakistan, there would appear to be a developing US interest in operations in Somalia and Yemen, although the Yemeni government may have sought to pre-empt US action there by recent military action against dissidents. Action in Somalia would almost certainly involve the use of Kenya as a base, raising awkward political issues.

The Kenyan government of Daniel Arap Moi has had a formidable reputation for corruption, losing a number of aid programmes as a result. It is therefore particularly keen to aid the United States, but this would be unpopular internally for two quite different reasons. One is that there remains resentment in Kenya over the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, mainly because the US rescue squads were seen to have concentrated on the small number of American casualties whereas Kenya lost 250 of its citizens. The other problem is that intervention in Somalia would add to the flow of refugees from that country leading to further difficulties both in north-east Kenya and in Nairobi itself where many past refugees have settled.

Meanwhile, there is some evidence of a build-up of US forces in the Gulf, indicating preparations for action against Iraq. Any such military intervention is unlikely for many weeks, not least because of the time it takes to move forces into the region, a continuing preoccupation with Afghanistan, and the need to manufacture large quantities of munitions to replace those used in Afghanistan.

One indication of possible action is the establishment of a US Army Headquarters in Kuwait, the HQ concerned being a key component of the army’s commitment to US Central Command, the unified military command that covers the Middle East and south-west Asia, including both Afghanistan and Iraq. There are further reports that elements of five different army divisions are preparing for possible deployment to the Gulf early in the New Year, including units that have recently undergone extensive desert warfare training.

What will be indicative in the coming weeks will be whether there are credible reports of CIA/Special Forces units in the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq, as it is likely that any US action would involve an intensive air assault, some limited ground action and substantial help for internal Iraqi opposition forces, especially in the Kurdish areas. Also of note will be any substantial build-up of aircraft carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in January and February, especially if Saudi Arabia prevents the United States using bases in its own country.

Very well – alone

One anticipated effect of the atrocities of 11 September would be that the Bush administration would give up its unilateralist leanings and work more closely on multilateral co-operation. Such hopes seem less and less plausible, not least with the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and the opposition to the strengthening of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Treaty. Two more indicators have now emerged indicating longer-term attitudes.

On 18 December, the Albuquerque Journal reported that proposals have been presented to Congress to research and develop a specialised 5-kiloton nuclear warhead designed specifically to burrow deep underground and destroy hardened bunkers containing chemical and biological weapons stores. The current US nuclear “bunker buster”, the B61-11, is a larger and more crude weapon, and conventional weapons are not powerful enough to destroy deeply-buried facilities. The Journal has a record of accuracy in nuclear matters, not least because it is, in effect, the local newspaper for an area that includes the Los Alamos National Laboratory where nuclear weapons were first developed in the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s.

Critics point out that producing such a “usable” bomb would make it more likely that a future conflict could mean a greater risk of breaching the nuclear threshold for the first time since 1945. It might also involve the resumption of nuclear testing as this would be a new type of warhead, whereas the recently deployed B61-11 uses a standard tactical nuclear warhead of “physics package” with heavily modified casing and fusing.

The other indicators was the astonishing decision to conduct a large-scale battle exercise of the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile system on 9 December. This exercise, not reported outside of a few specialist defence journals such as Aviation Week, involved “ripple-firing” four missiles in quick succession from the USS Ohio.

Test firing of single missiles is a fairly frequent procedure but ripple firing is much rarer, and is about the nearest thing that the US Navy ever gets to war-time simulations. The 9 December exercise was the second in six months, itself quite remarkable, but the real significance lies in the timing - undertaking it virtually in parallel with the decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. As one critic has remarked, it was a classic “in your face” statement to the Chinese - that the US now intends to develop missile defences while maintaining the world’s most powerful arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons.

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