Iraq’s gift to Afghanistan

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 November 2008

In mid-November 2001, a little over seven years ago, the war to terminate the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was nearing its end. The Taliban militias had vacated Kabul almost overnight and most of them were dispersing across the south and east of the country, as well as across the border into western Pakistan.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The George W Bush administration was, only two months after the 9/11 atrocities, on the brink of claiming its first scalp in the "war on terror". Even at that stage, as a number of columns in this series noted, attention was already turning to the regime that had really been in the sights since Bush came to office: Saddam Hussein's Iraq (see "From Afghanistan to Iraq?", 14 October 2001). 

But if the Afghan campaign witnessed what seemed to be a lightning victory, the failure to kill or capture al-Qaida's leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban figurehead Mullah Mohammad Omar left a bitter taste. It is worth recalling that these were "public enemies one and two", meaning that Mullah Omar at the time far exceeded bin Laden's own deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in importance. It may be largely forgotten today, when the Egyptian ideologist offers the western media rich pickings for his propaganda statements, but in late 2001 and for some time after Mullah Omar was the person most wanted for leading the Taliban and sheltering al-Qaida.

This is especially relevant in the week that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has offered Mullah Omar safe conduct and protection if he agrees to engage in negotiations to help bring the bitter war to an end (see Candace Rondeaux, "Karzai Makes Offer to Taliban", Washington Post, 17 November 2008). The suggestion of dialogue with Taliban elements is not in itself radical: some talks are reported already to be underway on both sides of the border with (it is assumed) what are termed "moderates" in the broad and dispersed coalition of militias and paramilitaries. Indeed, such initiatives have been a regular backdrop to difficult times in the Afghan campaign (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Time to talk: US engages the Taliban", Asia Times, 22 November 2005).

The most remarkable thing about Karzai's outreach, though, is that it should have been made to Mullah Omar himself. The president's fragile position as the head of an increasingly unpopular administration that is mired in corruption and mismanagement helps explain it. But it is also a sign of wider Afghan concern at the increasing levels of insecurity, especially the upsurge in attacks on Nato's supply-routes from Pakistan which bring in three-quarters of all the supplies for the 67,000 foreign troops in the country.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed

Several columns in this series have already noted this neglected aspect of the war (see "The global economic war", 14 August 2008). In March 2008, for example, more than forty Nato tankers were destroyed in a Taliban attack; soon afterwards, military-helicopter engines valued at around $13 million were taken in another raid. More recently, the situation has become even more critical. There has been a backlog of over 1,000 trucks waiting on the Pakistani side of the border, following a series of well-planned attacks on convoys (see Candace Rondeaux & Walter Pincus, "U.S. Seeks New Supply Routes into Afghanistan", Washington Post, 19 November 2008).

The incoming Barack Obama administration is well-nigh certain to maintain current forces in Afghanistan, and indeed will probably increase them by more than 10,000. Britain is planning to put another 2,000 troops into the country and is also intending to redeploy its Merlin helicopters from southern Iraq to reinforce the limited numbers of helicopters currently in Afghanistan.

A slow entrapment

The implication of these trends is that the war in Afghanistan looks set to escalate, in ways that are already putting pressure on leading politicians and military strategists to seek fresh ideas. Iraq still has significance, however, in the overall thinking and direction of the al-Qaida movement.

Iraq's key role can be explained by reference to the attacks of 11 September 2001, which were to have such devastating consequences for the country. The motives of the 9/11 operation included attempting to lure the United States, the "far enemy", into Afghanistan. The idea was that the US would experience the same fate in the country as had the Soviet Union in the 1980s - embroiled in a long, unwinnable war that exerted a heavy toll of casualties and end in the humiliating retreat of a superpower. The war would also provide a new cadre of jihadist paramilitaries with valuable combat experience against modern armed forces.

The United States did not immediately fall into the trap. Instead, it used a combination of overwhelming airpower, special forces and the comprehensive rearming of the Northern Alliance warlords to oust the Taliban. Yet since the appearance of early and quick success, the US and its allies have indeed been gradually inveigled into a costly war against an elusive enemy. Along the way, Iraq has provided an astonishingly destructive diversion - in three respects:

* it has forced the US military into a huge refocusing that has both drawn attention away from Afghanistan and made it easier for the Taliban/al-Qaida nexus to re-establish itself

* the massive civilian casualties and destruction in Iraq galvanised support for al-Qaida, not least with the assault on Fallujah (the "city of mosques") in November 2004 - which was seen in much of the Muslim world as akin to an Islamic 9/11 (see Scilla Elworthy, "Learning from Fallujah's agony", 7 November 2005)

* the five years of war in Iraq have given rise to a cohort of young combat-trained jihadist paramilitaries. There are now some thousands of them spread across north Africa, the middle east and west Asia. They represent a new generation, the equivalent of the sons of those who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s. But they have the added advantage of having trained themselves not against disillusioned Soviet conscripts in a scratchy rural Afghan environment, but against the world's best-equipped professional armed forces, the US army and marine corps, in a primarily urban milieu (see John F Burns, "As Iraq cools, rebels go to Afghanistan", International Herald Tribune, 14 October 2008).

A new generation

It now looks, pending a vote in the Iraqi parliament, as though the status-of-forces agreement (Sofa) signed on 17 November 2008 will be completed between the United States military in Iraq and the Nouri al-Maliki administration. If implemented, this could lead to the withdrawal of all US combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 (though other elements could remain). A degree of conflict in Iraq might in any event persist, but such an outcome would involve the focus of the war on terror moving nearly 1,500 kilometres eastwards to Afghanistan.

That, to the al-Qaida strategists, is eminently satisfying. Their original expectation was of a slow and steady build-up to a guerrilla war in Afghanistan that would stretch over at least a decade. What they got instead was a diversion into a long war in the heart of the middle east that increased worldwide support for their movement and infused them with thousands of dedicated paramilitaries (see "Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge", 28 August 2008).

How that will play out over the next two decades is impossible to say. It is clear that many of the insurgency methods developed in Iraq have been introduced into Afghanistan and Pakistan to considerable effect. There is also evidence that paramilitaries from a number of countries are now aiding the rapid Islamist resurgence in Somalia, which may see the collapse of the current weak government in Mogadishu in weeks rather than months.

Beyond that, all is speculation at this stage. All that can be concluded for now is that Iraq has already served its purpose. Even if Iraq does achieve the near impossible and make some sort of transition to a more peaceful country, the war has already had its value for the al-Qaida movement.

In January 2000, during an early phase of the campaign for the presidential election in November that year, George W Bush described the post-cold-war environment in his inimitable style:

"...it was a dangerous world and we knew exactly who they 'they' were. It was us versus them and we knew exactly who them was. Today we're not so sure who the 'they' are, but we know they're there."

One of the enduring achievements of his presidency is that there are now a lot more of "them" there.

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