The Pentagon’s overstretch

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
28 September 2005

The parliamentary and provincial elections in Afghanistan on 18 September were held amidst less violence than feared, after a summer when Taliban and other guerrilla activities had exceeded that of the previous two years. An average turnout of 50% reflects even lower figures across many parts of the country, although the proportion of women voting was substantially higher than expected (see Bonnie Erbe, "Afghan Women Risk Their Lives to Vote", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 21 September 2005).

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The three-week post-election period before the results are announced has seen two political surprises. The first was the resignation of interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali on 27 September, ostensibly over a desire to return to scholarly research but perhaps motivated by concern with the spread of the drugs trade in the country (see “Afghanistan from Taliban to heroin”, March 2005).

The second was President Hamid Karzai's statement calling on the United States to rethink its offensive military strategy in Afghanistan. This may have been intended primarily for internal consumption, especially among the Pashtun community where an anti-American mood is strong, but it also highlights the problems facing the US military nearly four years after the termination of the Taliban regime (see “Afghanistan bleeds”, 23 June 2005).

These problems are both immediate and longer-term. Fifty-one of the eighty-two United States military killed in Afghanistan in 2005 have died in combat. On 25 September, a twin rotor CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed during combat support operations, killing all five crew members, while two other soldiers were killed in separate incidents the following day.

Losses among Afghan civilians have also been high throughout the year, with as many as 1,000 people killed since January. On 28 September, twelve people died and thirty-six were injured in a suicide-bomb attack on Afghan national army soldiers in Kabul, the worst incident in the city for thirteen months.

The US military in Afghanistan leads a force of about 20,000 troops in counter-insurgency operations – around 90% from the US itself, and mostly operating in southern and eastern Afghanistan; Australia and Britain are among the countries with smaller contingents.

A separate command is the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), consisting of 12,000 troops and centred on Kabul. This is run by Nato and conducts what are often described as peace-enforcing or stabilisation operations. These are quite distinct from US actions elsewhere in the country and involve far less use of force, though are not without risks – seventeen Spanish soldiers were killed on 16 August in a helicopter crash near the Herat in western Afghanistan.

A long game

How do these operations fit the US’s long-term strategic ambitions in Afghanistan and the region? The operations in Afghanistan have contributed greatly to the overstretch now being felt by combat units in the US army and marine corps, and the Pentagon would dearly like to reduce its commitments there while ensuring a major long-term presence in the country. The original intention – formed in the expectation that there would be no Taliban resurgence – was to maintain large air bases at Bagram and Kandahar, which would also house regular troop concentrations.

The development of the two bases, north and south of Kabul, has continued. But the enduring insurgency has presented unforeseen problems, and the Pentagon is now keen to involve Nato forces in a formal manner. This would entail incorporating Isaf into a broader field of operations and thereby easing the pressures on the US military.

The large-scale construction activities at the Bagram and Kandahar bases are evidence of the US’s determination to remain in Afghanistan for many years. The US air force has agreed contracts for the construction of a second runway at the larger, Bagram base over the next six months; this will counter the deterioration of the existing, Soviet-era runway following intensive use. Bagram will also see a new six-story control tower, hard standing for strike aircraft and helicopters, and a series of ammunition storage bunkers. The total cost of the works will be over $96 million (see Bradley Graham, "Iraq, Afghan Commitments Fuel US Air Base construction", Washington Post, 17 September 2005).

At Kandahar, similar problems of over-use have led to a $36.2 million contract to extend the existing runway. The expansion of Bagram and Kandahar, alongside work on an air base near Herat, comes at a delicate time for US forces in the region. The US is consolidating at a few major centres in countries regarded as friendly, while withdrawing from some of its other central Asian facilities; its acceptance of the request of Islam Karimov’s repressive Uzbek regime to evacuate its forces from Khanabad air base – following relatively mild criticism of the Andijan massacre in May – is the latest example.

These developments in central Asia are accompanied by further major regional changes in US force dispositions, including two huge projects in Iraq and Qatar.

The Iraqi development is at Balad, north of Baghdad; there the US air force is spending $124 million in a comprehensive re-equipment and expansion programme that will include tarmac space for 138 US army helicopters. As Balad develops into a hub for the US military, including branches of Pizza Hut and Burger King, denials that a long-term presence is planned become more difficult to sustain; perhaps the prize statement in this regard is a comment from Brigadier General Allen G Peck of the US air force, that Balad was no more than "a pretty rustic, expeditionary operation" (see Eric Schmitt, “ Pentagon Construction Boom Beefs Up Mideast Air Bases”, New York Times, 18 September 2005).

But a $500 million air-operations centre being built in Qatar dwarfs even the installations at Bagram, Kandahar and Balad. This will handle US air operations across the middle east, central Asia and Africa. Since the decision to abandon its major bases in Saudi Arabia – long one of the key demands of al-Qaida – Qatar has become much more important to the United States, and is now seen as a key component in maintaining US security interests in the Persian Gulf.

A short answer

None of these plans can disguise the issue of overstretch facing US ground forces as combat demands and resource requirements expand, and here a recent rebuff from some of its Nato partners is significant. The US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been particularly keen to change the relationship of forces in Afghanistan in order to combine the Isaf’s peace-enforcing operation with the US counter-insurgency "Operation Enduring Freedom" into a single command structure.

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

The precise command system that would result is not clear, but US intentions appear to be to retain overall control while deploying Nato forces they consider most reliable to lead much of the counter-insurgency activity in southeast Afghanistan. This would free most of the US combat forces in the country for transfer elsewhere, leaving the bitter fight against the Taliban and other guerrilla elements largely to the Isaf.

The Pentagon’s convenient notion, however, has provoked unexpected and quite strong opposition – from Turkey and the Netherlands as well as Spain, France and Germany. An informal meeting of Nato defence ministers on 14-15 September in Berlin heard vehement criticism – including public French and German statements – of Rumsfeld’s ideas.

Rumsfeld subsequently backtracked, describing the proposal as still in its early stages. It may return to prominence, but recent violence in key areas of Afghanistan makes it less rather than more likely that important Nato member-states will support it.

If this is indeed the outcome, the United States will be left to handle most of the counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, just as it remains the major player in Iraq. Apart from Britain, only a handful of states are now prepared to assist with US military operations in either country. That is a measure of the isolation the Bush administration's policies in both countries have achieved.

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