Afghanistan still burns

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 February 2003

The past week has seen intense activity and argument in Europe, the United States and the Gulf as the Iraq crisis intensifies. Much of the controversy has revolved around the differences between France and the United States, but there has also been a sustained effort by the US and UK governments to persuade their publics of the need to go to war with Iraq.

Unfortunately for both administrations, there has been, to put it politely, a certain lack of credibility. Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations (UN) Security Council included a much-vaunted display of photographs of an Ansar al-Islam training camp in northern Iraq that was apparently involved in the production of chemical weapons.

A few days later it was opened up to journalists who discovered a shabby collection of run-down buildings, no doubt supporting a limited militia capability but a very long way away from any kind of major threat.

The British government suffered an even greater embarrassment when its latest dossier on agencies of suppression and control in Iraq was shown to be a crude cut-and-paste effort culled from various sources, one of them six years old. Universities in Britain are suffering increasing problems of plagiarism and are tending to deal with them more firmly; if this dossier had been an undergraduate project or dissertation then it would have been awarded a zero mark and the student would have risked suspension.

Meanwhile the build-up of military forces continues in the Gulf, but there is still much to do before the Pentagon is ready to go to war. The development of Turkish bases is only just under way, some tens of thousands of troops have still to be moved to the region, and it is unlikely that the expected four aircraft carrier battle groups will be in position for some weeks.

Even now, in mid-February, it is probable that a war with Iraq is at least four to five weeks away. This, clearly, also allows more time for anti-war movements to build in Europe.

‘This is still a war, any way you cut it’

Yet alongside these high-profile events, it is necessary to remember the other developments that do not relate directly to Iraq but could hugely complicate the unfolding crisis. These are North Korea, Israel and – above all – Afghanistan and Pakistan.

North Korea

North Korea continues to present a considerable problem for the Bush administration. A modest build-up of strategic air power at the US base in the Pacific Ocean island of Guam is being accompanied by the probable deployment of an additional carrier battle group to the region.

North Korea has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while presenting mixed signals on its nuclear developments. It may well accentuate these as the Iraq crisis comes to a head next month, to the dismay of public opinion in South Korea where there is widespread feeling that the escalation of the crisis is partly the responsibility of US policies and statements.

At the time of the US presidential election in 2000, relations between the two Korean states had improved to the point where a victory for Al Gore might even have been followed by a presidential visit to the peninsula. The incoming Bush administration followed a harder line, and the opportunity for a further thawing of relations was lost. To a large extent, the administration is now reaping the harvest of that change in policy.

Israel and Lebanon

In Israel, there are fears that a US war with Iraq would present an opportunity for a sustained Israeli attack on the Hizbollah militia in southern Lebanon, especially as these have been recently re-equipped with a longer-range version of the Katyusha missile that can reach the city of Haifa.

A major Israeli move in southern Lebanon would be likely to involve Syrian forces and that alone would imply, to Arab opinion, that this was one part of a joint US/Israeli war on much of the Arab world.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

But even when set against these simmering crises, it is in Afghanistan that current developments are most significant. This week, on 10 February, a US special forces group was ambushed by Afghan guerrillas in a remote area in the south of the country. The US troops came under fire from light arms and rocket-propelled grenades; they responded by calling in Dutch F-16 strike aircraft dropping laser-guided bombs and US A-10 ground attack aircraft with rapid-fire guns.

Over the past few weeks there has been a pronounced increase in anti-US military actions, especially in the Pashtun districts of Afghanistan, with frequent movements across the border with Pakistan. Rockets are routinely fired at US military bases in eastern Afghanistan.

In another development, according to the New York Times, a recent ‘methodical sweep through the Adi Ghar mountain mass revealed that the rebels had set up a base in the mountain caves with livestock, furniture, food, blankets and first aid equipment, as if they were planning to spend a long period there.’ (Also in International Herald Tribune.)

Two weeks ago, a substantial confrontation took place between US and local forces on the one hand, and a group of around 80 guerrillas with Taliban sympathies believed to be aligned to the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Following an incident involving US troops, Apache helicopters were sent to investigate reports of a large guerrilla unit and came under small arms fire. The US military reacted immediately using AC-130 gun-ships and F-16 strike aircraft, and even went so far as to use B-1B heavy bombers.

Two days later, three men were arrested in Kabul, accused of plotting bomb attacks in the city aimed at US or coalition facilities. The following day, a powerful bomb exploded under a bridge near Kandahar, killing 18 people on a bus, although the target was believed to be Afghan soldiers. Late last year such an attack killed a number of soldiers in the same area. All this adds up to a continuing background environment of violence, which now appears to be escalating.

This increase in violence may partly be the result of an easing up of control of militant groups in Pakistan. According to the 8 February edition of the Washington Post, President Musharraf’s year-long ban on extremist groups is now being overturned. Many Islamist activists are being released. The Pakistani government is continuing to try and identify and arrest members of al-Qaida, but Kashmiri and other militants have either been released, or surviving leaderships have reconstituted themselves under other names.

In Afghanistan, part of the problem for the United States is that it has tended to withdraw some of its most experienced and competent soldiers for use in Iraq, replacing them with less capable troops. These are facing greater obstacles in maintaining control of the areas with a US presence. At the same time, the formation of a national Afghan army is proving difficult and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) remains at barely one-sixth of the size recommended by the UN.

Conditions may have improved greatly in Kabul and some other cities, and there have been many welcome developments in education and health provision. But Afghanistan as a whole remains a long way from peace, and local warlords have facilitated a substantial increase in opium production.

The amount of aid and depth of commitment needed for post-conflict peace building has simply not happened, even if several countries, including Britain and Germany, have sustained some effort in this direction.

In the light of these current circumstances in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan, it has to be recognised that a US attack on Iraq will further inflame tensions in the region, making it more than likely that attacks on US troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan will increase. As the United States embarks on a war to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad, so it and its allies stand the risk of losing the peace in Afghanistan.

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